Allen Vs. Farrow

Let me state for the record. I have been a die-hard fan of Woody Allen’s body of work for almost 40 years. I’ve even continued to see his movies after the 1992 scandal broke out. When his Wonder Wheel premiered at the 2017 New York Film Festival, I was basically front and center along with all of New York, ready to view his latest, applause and praise at the ready. Never in my life did I ever expect that one day I would have to re-evaluate my admiration for a man’s body of work, and measure it against his conduct, his morals, and his overall betrayals.

[If this post ever goes viral, let me make it clear that first and foremost this is my view, as objective as I may give it, and I owe no one any apologies or allegiance. I only speak from my own self, after having viewed the HBO documentary — which it must be noted, I had no intentions to see in the first place. After all, I had read several op-eds on both sides of the case and Mia Farrow’s 1997 book. I’d seen the famous 60 Minutes interview well before Diane Keaton coyly suggested that the public do and make up their minds. However, because I am always on the side of the victim until their own actions prove inconsistent and unethical, I decided to listen to the other side of the story, without prejudice and separating the man from his work of art.]

Here is a question. Is it possible that wicked men can do great works of art? Of course, it is. If Alfred Hitchcock were alive today he’d probably be in some hot water following his conduct with Tippi Hedren (which is the only actress to have come out and spoken against his treatment of her during the filming of The Birds). Look at Johnny Depp and his work, and then place that side-by-side with his behavior towards Amber Heard (and the damning texts that, while done in a “jokey” manner, added more fuel to his fire). So many artists with behaviors that are frankly, damning, and downright criminal. Should I continue to support their work or should I close the doors and basically cancel them?

That is a difficult position for anyone to be in. I can’t speak for anyone who’s dead and let’s face it, whatever people engaged in 50, 60, 100 years ago, they were different times. [It’s still inexcusable.] These people are not under the microscope. They don’t have former colleagues of any gender claiming that they were sexually molested. It took Shirley Temple a long time to come forth with her story, and by then, whoever she could have and did name was probably dead a minute, which shielded her from any potential legal issue or attempts of character assassination. Even so, it is difficult — damn near impossible — to point the finger at someone when that same someone can afford the best legal defense money can buy and use their own influence to ruin your name and kill your career. On paper, the entire conflict can reach its satisfying ending in a quick, clean 120 minutes or less. In reality, this can take years and years and leave its participants in tatters If victory arrives at all — most accusers of a sexual crime actually get blamed for it even happening — it comes with a Pyrrhic taint. Resolution may never actually take place at all.

For Dylan, the person most hurt and at the heart of this devastating, unforgivable betrayal of trust, her situation may never be settled. It must have taken an enormous leap of faith just to agree to have outsiders like Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick enter her world and listen to her side of the story. As documentarians who have been on the side of the abused, Ziering and Dick knew this wasn’t just another case, but one that rocked the film world in 1992 and involved high-profile celebrities. 

Side note: I can only wonder what it must have taken for the women who accused Bill Cosby of the monstrosities he inflicted upon them. Or the boys who suffered under Michael Jackson. Corey Feldman has yet to present his own side of the story on Hollywood’s abuse of minors, and any attempt to discuss this topic has resulted in his interviewer (among them, Barbara Walters) victim-shaming him down. “You’re damaging an entire industry!” You can’t bite the apple that feeds you. Especially when the tree providing the apple is already rotten at the core, but never mind that, we have movies to produce and money to make. Youth and the vulnerable are expendable. Look at Judy Garland.

For almost 30 years, the Woody/Mia case has been a kind of restless ghost that just won’t let up. Allen has continued to make movies at a rate of one per year up to 2018 when his Rainy Day in New York was denied distribution over the same allegations stemming from the #Metoo movement and Dylan Farrow’s bold denouncement. Up to that time, Allen managed to successfully paint a picture — through movies and his own words — of an unstable, emotionally violent Mia. For every allegation came his own cold counter which made so much sense because of course, it did. Mia was a woman scorned, of course, she was livid with rage at the fact that her partner of 13 years had left her for another woman. Except, and this is where the entire scenario gets oh, so ugly.

Dylan tells her story in Allen Vs. Farrow.

As we all know, the other woman wasn’t a rising starlet — which probably would have made more sense and let him off the hook a lot easier had it been that. Many older men leave their partners and wives for younger women. It’s almost a rite of passage. John Derek left Linda Evans for the starlet who became Bo Derek, a woman with a striking similarity to Linda Evans. No, this time, the other woman was Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, and the story, told again with striking, damning details, suggests that Allen hadn’t started seeing/dating Soon-Yi when she was over 18 but potentially, and again, allegedly, before that.

I’m not sure in what universe does this sound normal, but Allen, with his already unconventional love stories, many featuring older men — thinly disguised versions of himself — becoming seduced by lolitas. These lolitas are smart as heck and unusually interested in topics that seem way beyond their understanding. [Not that a kid can’t be precocious, but focus in on Manhattan, the movie that seems to have started it all, and make your own assumptions.]

When Dylan’s story takes the center stage it only gets more and more disturbing. Mia’s videotaped recordings of Dylan, seven years old at the time, telling her that “he touched my privates… and I don’t like that,” are brutal. Slightly questionable, but they effectively hammer the final nail on the coffin. You try seeing those recorded videos and not feel anything but rage. No child should ever be this naked and unprotected in this world.

It’s for this reason that I’ve come to the conclusion I can no longer affiliate myself with any of the “New Yawk” sensibilities that Allen brought into cinema. I’ve come to terms with the artist and the man, a man who lives in solipsism, who has his own obsessions and will never admit responsibility. The artist presented his work; I saw it, I can throw it in the recycle, and move on. It’s a shame. The man virtually and on his own terms revolutionized the art of visual storytelling. He gave a voice to troubled masculinity, wrote great parts for women, yes. But then you see Dylan as a child. Nowhere is a picture of her happy. When a child runs away from an obsessive parent, it raises eyebrows and should be cause for alarm. However, it wasn’t, and here we are, a family shattered and the ghost of another conflict just around the corner.

As painful as Dylan’s story is, she needs to and must be heard. Too many victims are already bruised and battered beyond help and once they voice their cries to anyone who could listen, they get the ultimate humiliation, the last, final denial. When she first began speaking a few years back I didn’t want to hear it. However, times change, attitudes change, and if I could listen to Allen (and his defenders, of which there are many) proudly talk about the man’s work, I could take a moment and listen to someone who isn’t a part of the PR machine, who isn’t self-serving (no sex-abuse survivor is).

I am glad that I saw Allen Vs. Farrow, that I took the time to do my homework. I researched not the tabloids but the records themselves, the reports on how the investigation brought on by child healthcare workers was botched within every inch of its life, and notes by child psychologists were destroyed even after Dylan had been interviewed nine times, her story never changing one inch. I’m glad to now, even though his own writings, note Allen’s obsession over extremely young girls, and see the wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s never the man you think it is, who will come to blow your house down. Allen was and still is the perfect trap. His own work gives his true motives away: almost always, the perpetrator gets away. Justice is a fantasy. Accusers and naysayers find themselves silenced. In Mia’s own words, “A man with no allegiance to the truth… that man is to be feared.”

Allen Vs. Farrow is an eye-opening, and ultimately deeply unsettling documentary that never feels like it is riding on the anguish of a young woman who is still in many ways a bruised girl. We need more people like Ziering and Dick. We need more Dylans to come out and tell their story. Truth has a pesky way of letting itself seen, and sometimes it can take a minute longer than one would prefer. The final and most cathartic sequence of importance shows how the defense attorney, who had a solid case against Allen in 1992, chose not to let Dylan testify because it would have been just too cruel to expose her to the savaging by knowing adults at the ready-to-tear her story to shreds. Yes, it would have been poetic justice, but justice moves in mysterious ways. Allen may have been vindicated then — shallowly so — but time has proven otherwise.

A Harrowing Depiction of Life Among the Ruins: Gianfranco Rosi’s Notturno

Every so often a movie comes around that really messes you up. The last time I saw a documentary that kept me up at night was 2013’s The Act of Killing. Joshua Oppenheimer and Anonymous’s portrayal of the horrors committed on a populace in the name of ethnic cleansing left me so shaken I didn’t know what to do. Yes, a movie can do this to you.

Alain Resnais’ Nuit et Broulliard (Night and Fog) managed to open a glimpse into the abyss in his portrayal of Nazi atrocities in barely 30 minutes of running time. Now, Gianfranco Rosi, whose work should be commended for his bravery, presents Notturno. His documentary posits itself as an observer, much in the way of the works of Frederick Wiseman. We never get interviews; we only observe its subjects, some broken, some jailed, some haunted, some hopeful, as they move about through life while the distant sounds of armed conflict pepper the soundtrack.

Threads emerge. Women, entering the prison where their sons were tortured and killed by ISIS. One mother’s pain is so palpable: she mourns the loss of her son, and even attempts, it seems, to absorb her son’s final moments before an untimely death while wondering, “Where was God in all this?” Another boy, Fawaz, narrates to his teacher the atrocities committed by ISIS, his drawing an abstract composition of death and horror. As the camera continues to roll his speech will turn into a stutter as he attempts to vomit forth all that he has witnessed. Another thread depicts a fisherman hunting for food at night while the oil fields burn, lighting up the night as though it were sunset. Yet another shows the Peshmerga female soldiers as they go throughout their days and nights, guarding the fort, conducting night surveillance, or simply watching violent videos on their iPads while others drink tea. Another sequence, still, depicts a mother having to listen to frantic messages left by her daughter who has been captured by ISIS. Most notably, a teen imparts lessons to hunters, but one scene left me wondering if there was something vaguely sexual about the exchange.

One interesting sequence lasts only about five minutes. In it, we see what seems to be ISIS prisoners, all dressed in orange, moving about their cell yard. It is disconcerting, to say the least, knowing the horrors they have inflicted, and how now they’ve been reduced to mere orange figures moving in a manner not un-similar to the laborers of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), only to be clumped together into one giant cell in which barely any light filters through.

This is an extremely harrowing movie that I had to view in portions because at times it was a bit much to take in one sitting. Mind you, Notturno is a little over 90 minutes long in length not counting credits. It’s just that to see a nation attempting to live in a weird sense of bruised normalcy under an unforgiving sky while nursing so many scars, so much death and destruction left by a horrendous militant group, was almost a litmus test in endurance. My only complaint with the movie is that while Fawaz’s (and other children’s) stories were necessary to be told, in the long sequence where he is clearly stuttering and spitting his words out as his story becomes more and more frenzied, why did no one break the fourth wall and come to comfort him? It seemed a bit too exploitative.

Notturno won’t be for everyone’s taste and should be approached with a strong stomach and a sense of detachment in order to process it all. It is available on most streaming platforms.

Grade: A–

Far From The Agony and The Ecstasy: Andrei Konchalovsky’s Sin presents the Politics Behind the Art

I was hoping to compose this as one of three movies by Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky. Considering his most recent movie, Dear Comrades! is still out on virtual platforms and Paradise is also on Prime, I felt that it would be interesting to write an article based on all three and find common themes, etc. As it stands, I’ll make this one merely a capsule.

Forget the Hollywood-helmed, larger-than-life bio-pic starring Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison from 1965. Konchalovsky’s Sin (Il Peccato), which has just exited Film Forum, presents a messy period in Michaelangelo’s life during the time he had just finished the Sistine Chapel and was set to sculpt the tomb of Pope Julius II.

Pity anyone living in the time of the Renaissance. Cities were covered in filth and feces, life seemed only barely removed from a hellish nightmare of oblivion and meaninglessness. Meanwhile, competing families De Rovere and the Medicis fight (via heated arguments, and backhanded manipulation) to secure the hand of Michaelangelo as the artist to produce works of artistic immortality. Meanwhile, Michaelangelo (Alberto Testone, far removed from Heston), whom we never see inasmuch as draw a line, mopes, screams, tortures himself and all who surround him and walks around under a dirty cloak of genius. An extended sequence in which the while marble that will make the famous papal tomb marks the movie’s only moment of extreme suspense. The simple act of moving it from its place in the Carrara mountains gives the movie an edge-of-your-seat sense of dread. After that, Sin plods along, at times fascinating, and at times truly mired in misery, to a climactic scene that involves Dante Alighieri himself in what might be a vision of Heaven or Hell itself.

Konchalovsky’s movie often ventures into fevered dreams that meld seamlessly with reality. An early sequence sees Michaelangelo wander into town and see his David, derelict and lonely, in front of a gallows where an unfortunate man hangs. Never hagiographical, this Michaelangelo is narcissistic and selfish, abusive, and greedy. You can almost smell the filth that clings to him and wonder, “Could this hobo actually have produced what the world knows as the greatest works of art?” The answer, surprisingly, is yes.

Grade: B+

In Maya Da-Rin’s The Fever (O Febre), a Man is Caught Between two Incompatible Realities

I think it’s safe to say we never truly left the culture of colonialism. Ever since Europeans came to the New World to conquer and explore we’ve been conquering ever since. In Maya Da-Rin’s quiet little movie The Fever, the ever-expanding web of colonialism continues to spread over the landscape like an invisible wildfire that no rain will ever quench. Under the guise of industry, we see the center character, a taciturn man named Justino (Regis Myrupu). He stands, impassive like a British general, the faintest of smiles drawn on his otherwise blank slate of a face, as the cargo stop he works for continues to buzz around him, powered by its own mechanisms. We will get to know this man and even then, still remain a bit mystified by his unknowability, throughout the movie’s lean but rich 90-minute run.

Justino has two lives: the one at work as a supervisor for the aforementioned cargo stop, and the one at home. At work, he is casually referred to as The Indian, a nickname Justino seems to have accepted without a fight. At home, he is a kind, gentle husband and gives into tender moments of storytelling with his infant grandson, while occasionally making comments I as a Latino man heard my own father say one too many times. Those comments, which usually start with the ubiquitous “In my time…” only affirm the fact that Justino is a man probably caught in the past when “things were different.” Now, he simply supervises and has fallen to fainting spells that have not gone unnoticed by his employers. Needless to say, job security and unions are nonexistent in Manaus, and Justino gets a veiled threat that he may lose his job if his spells continue.

The reason for his spells is no spoiler. His daughter Vanessa (Rosa Peixoto) works in a hospital and is studying to become a doctor. Once she gets accepted to go to college, Justino reacts with incredible passive-aggressiveness (as any parent would do). As the events of the story move on we see Justino, caught between the impersonality of his job, which now also introduces a white Brazilian colleague who in every subsequent scene reveals himself as a racist and dreamy fugue at home where Justino allows himself to relax and live in relative comfort within the protection of the rainforest. A subplot of a creature set loose in the forest leads Justino to close encounters with it, and Da-Rin’s exploration of ambient sounds grants The Fever a tone of the otherworldly.

For a first movie, Maya Da-Rin’s movie is a small treasure that mostly sticks, and slightly doesn’t. Her narrative is organic, never rushed, never forced. Scenes flow in the way the jungle that surrounds Manaus does. An early sequence involving an old indigenous woman in the hospital where Vanessa works reveal Brazil’s mistreatment of those it would rather forget (a thing that actually seems to be a global attitude), and this short scene mirrors the events in Justino’s own life as a cog in the machinery that cares little for him as a person, more so because of his indigenous roots. Myrupu gives a meditative performance that seems effortless and lived-in. Whether this is due to his own experience — I can’t tell — I enjoyed seeing the actor on the scene simply telling me Da-Rin’s story as if he were confessing.

The Fever is still available via virtual cinema at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Grade: B

The Rise and Fall of Martin Eden

It’s an inevitable tragedy that whatever comes up must, by the sheer force of gravity, fall. When I saw Martin Eden last year (oh, my lost review!) and then recently, I couldn’t keep noticing how its (anti)hero, the eponymous Martin, bears an uncanny resemblance to the quintessential self-made Superman. Full of hubris, arrogance to a level that has to be experienced during the film’s two-hour running time, Martin is a trap encapsulated by the statuesque Luca Marinelli.

An unformed man who engages in simple pleasures, the life of an everyman, a seaman who beds loose women when he can, Martin has a brush with fate when he encounters a young boy getting beaten by a thug on the waterfront. Martin is only too eager to intercede — and this is something he will do again in the movie. What he ignores is that the boy happens to be the son of a wealthy man and brother to Elena Orsini (Jessica Cressey). When he meets Elena, a remote, Gallic beauty who shares with him the spark of knowledge through Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal, he finds his Purpose.

From here onwards, Martin Eden the movie takes off with Martin’s own journey of self-mastery. Pietro Marcello dives us as deep as he can into Martin’s quest. In his vision of Jack London’s novel, we see Martin evolve from simple peasant to cultured uber-mensch. Sequences upon sequences picture Martin composing feverish passages he attempts to sell as fiction, only to be rejected over and over. His story becomes the quintessential writer’s worst nightmare and ultimate challenge in one package.

In the interim, Martin courts Elena, who the movie portrays as equal parts aloof and pliable. Her parents, of course, disapprove. Martin, aware of this, barrels through, determined to become one of them, an equal among equals. He rejects his more humble friends, and as his ego grows, so does his ambition.

Luca Marinelli, Pietro Di Rauso star in ‘Martin Eden,’ a film set in Naples, during the 20th century.

It is when he makes the acquaintance of Russ Brisenden (Carlo Cecchi) that Martin moves from simply being a somewhat successful writer to a polarizing figure. Thrust into the spotlight of leftist politics, Martin becomes less the iconic figure of new literature and moves into a volatile character, a voice that ultimately, becomes lost in its own sermons. Brisenden, crucial to transforming Martin from simple writer to deep thinker, exits the picture after a few scenes, leaving Martin completely desolate and unable to relate to anyone outside his own (now deeply fertile) mind.

Martin Eden is a lush, often beautiful picture that transports you to an unspecified time in the Naples of yore. You easily move through decades as if Martin had existed in his own universe. One scene transpires through what seems to be the turn of the 20th century; the next deftly brings us to the 1970s disco period, and others still seem to transpire in the now, with the appearance of cell phones and modern technology (used to a bare minimum). Stitched through the narrative, Marcello inserts images of unknown documentaries and historical footage to great effect. An image of a sinking boat setting sail, then sinking, occurs throughout; elsewhere, a scene of a boy and a girl perpetually dancing to late 70s disco is less clear but seems to convey nostalgia and the loss of young love.

Anchored through the entire movie is Luca Marinelli’s riveting performance as Martin Eden, itself a character that seems to reflect Jack London at his most despairing. Marinelli, with his chiseled look, deep-set eyes, and commanding presence, starts unformed, peaks midway, even donning frosted hair at one point, and has one of the most heartbreaking exits I’ve seen in a long time. His performance seems to telegraph the dangers of succumbing to hubris and arrogance, of flying too high and untethered. Narcissism of this kind offers only glitter and no true rewards, a thing Martin learns only too late when it’s all over. The end results, often end in pain, loss, and the tragedy of a fire diminished by its own flames.

Grade: A

New French Extremity at its Most violent: Inside (A l’intérieur)

If ever there were a movie so drenched in graphic violence that it could basically reduce all others that came behind it in the New French Extremity genre it would be this one. Boy is this film nasty and unafraid to carry its premise to its unbelievable, horrifying conclusion. [Then again, most French movies in this vein jump straight into the abyss, but none — not even Martyrs — with this gusto.]

Inside (A l’intérieur) touches the topic of a home invasion in a scenario that is impossible to top. One night, a few months after the death of her husband in a freak accident, Sarah (Alysson Paradis), a young expectant mother about to give birth, receives a knock on the door. It is a woman whom she doesn’t know, who would like to make a cell phone call. Sarah, already a bit edgy, refuses, tells the woman to go to another house and make her call. However, the woman refuses. And when Sarah tells her that her husband is asleep in bed, the woman flatly informs her, “Your husband is dead, Sarah. Let me in.” [To that effect; I’m not translating the quote verbatim here.]

This “What the fuck?” moment is the one that arrives with a sense of horror and dread so dense my stomach curdled. Imagine, a woman, alone, everyone whom she knows, away or at least, out of reach. Now she has a potential intruder in her home. She does call the cops after taking a photograph of the weird woman. They assure her that she has nothing to fear and will be patrolling the area. Through a previous photo she had taken, Sarah comes to realize in a moment lifted right off of Antonioni’s Blow-Up that the woman has been stalking her. Partner directors Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo use the claustrophobic set of Sarah’s dimly lit apartment and the presence of an invisible menace to ratchet up the tension to eleven. Truly, even before the carnage starts, the set-up is edge-of-your-seat on steroids. You are literally frightened for Sarah and her unborn baby.

Once the movie takes flight, it is, like Beatrice Dalle’s banshee performance for the ages as the woman, virtually unstoppable, and I won’t discuss more of it because frankly, it has to be seen to be fully appreciated, or at least, acknowledged. Inside is every pregnant woman’s worst nightmare. The fact that fetal abduction is a horrific reality (and some of the real-life incidents make this fictitious one look like a bad acid trip) only enhances the movie’s conceit. As almost unwatchable as this movie can be, I give the directors their kudos for sticking to their guns and delivering a blood-drenched exercise in Giallo a la française and not allowing a drop of sunshine to glimmer through the darkness of their narrative. And while I’m at it, please avoid the American remake from 2015. While the remake got directed by Jaume Balagueró, and Spain is noted for its stylish horror films, it can’t hold a candle to this extremely visceral experience that is guaranteed to give you nightmares.

Grade: B+

When Horror fails: Cadaver, Bliss (2019), and The Rental

I guess you can’t win all of the time. Sometimes you’ll buy a ticket to see a movie that comes with loads of recommendations from film festivals and cinephiles who can usually be counted on for providing fair and good reviews of films. Maybe it’s a matter of taste and the movie you saw — which came to you showered in praise — turned out to be a cold, sickening mess no one should ever have to endure. Or maybe it’s just me and I wasn’t in the best of moods, and even when the movie came, delivering, I just didn’t get it, and mentally struck it with a slew of rotten tomatoes.

Fresh out of the viewing oven is the Norwegian movie Cadaver, which made its bow on Netflix last October. I’m truly baffled with this one because usually, Norway sends some pretty good films our way. This one… I don’t know where to begin with this one. I’m going to say (in defense of ) director Jarand Herdal that he seems to have a sharp cinematic eye for storytelling, and his debut picture comes with some rather on-the-nose allegory on the evils of consumerism.

However, that is as far as I can go with his movie. Cadaver starts rather well, giving us the family at the center of its dark plot. Former actress Leonora (Gitte Witt), Jacob (Thomas Gullestad), and their little daughter Alice (Tuva Olivia Remman) are trying to survive some global catastrophe that has essentially destroyed mankind (or mankind as we know it, the movie never delves deeper). They stumble onto an offer to stay at a hotel (conspicuously similar to the one in The Grand Budapest Hotel), in which its MC, Matthias (Thorbjøn Harr), reigns supreme and offers flights of theatrical fancy in exchange for a meal.

The problem starts rather immediately when we get a scenario not too far removed from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut in which everyone must wear a gold mask, and we, under the eyes of Leonora, become privy to scenes varying from deSadean debauchery to domestic dramas of the Ingmar Bergman variety (performed by Judith Andersen doppelgänger Trine Wiggen). Soon enough, everyone starts to get spooked out by either a painting of a lamb (they are everywhere) that seems to be looking at someone or sudden disappearances that make no sense. It’s not long before it becomes rather clear that there is some fuckery afoot, and guess who may be the next to be a lamb to the slaughter. Geddit? Lamb> Yeah.

Sometimes new directors have to create tripe like this in order to show more style than substance to make their mark and this is the case to a T here. Herbal oversaturated his film with blinding crimson colors to achieve his idea of dread in a way that nods to Giallo. A few other shots seemed to come with a hint of artistic tones (such as ominous handkerchiefs ballooning gracefully to the lobby). Other than that the drama that he delivered is dead on arrival. We were given next to nothing to relate to his nuclear family and the people they encounter at this sinister hotel. After a while everything started to feel irritating and shrill and even at 86 minutes, Cadaver seemed to have been stretched out to fulfill a quota. I kept squirming in my seat watching actors play characters too stupid to live and barreling ahead as if they were forced to, or else. I heard an actress utter the line, “Never!” after being asked to “Join us,” which I haven’t heard since the Silent Era, and yeah, sorry for the slight spoiler. Even a weird coda attached to the end didn’t do much but make me wonder what on Earth was anyone thinking with this film.

I’m going to give Cadaver a D for dreadful.

Even as bad as Cadaver is, nothing can really place a candle next to The Rental. Yet another movie that came with mostly glowing reviews, I’m sitting here slightly fuming because of how terrible it is. There’s just no justifying this type of movie, which is derivative of others and offers nothing new nothing stylistic, not even a slight sense of ambiance.

Again, I’m all for new directors and new cinema, but sometimes, when actors who have barely made it in the acting department start almost immediately taking the plunge and sitting behind the director’s wheel I cringe a little. That is not to say actors with limited creds can’t make it as directors: Emerald Fennell, with barely 10 years in, has made quite an entrance for herself with Promising Young Woman. Greta Gerwig clearly has been studying camera work to add to her repertoire as a movie maker and it shows in both Ladybird and Little Women, movies she penned herself (she is quite the screenwriter).

Franco and I don’t mean to say this disparagingly, may need to focus on what kind of picture he wants to make. His brand of horror — especially one that comes mixed with mumblecore sensibilities courtesy from Joe Swanberg, who wrote the film — falls flat on its face and never recovers. Had The Rental depicted a foursome closer to the characters in Drinking Buddies or The Overnight I probably would have enjoyed it. I would have seen four people, each with their own agendas and secrets, and a crisis transpiring somewhere halfway which would make or break filial bonds.

Instead, I get a stilted drama that arises when Mina (Sheila Vand) confronts the caretaker of the Air BnB home that she, her boyfriend, his brother, and his wife are renting for the weekend. Accusations of racism come out of the blue and feel forced, but so does the menace of the said caretaker (played by Toby Huss).

Huss’ character, as a matter of fact, doesn’t just linger on with huge shades of threat but keeps getting mentioned over and over again and in circumstances where there would be no way he would factor so much in the shenanigans that begin to happen in this rental. It’s almost as though through cardboard expository dialogue, we’re supposed to focus a bit too much on this character, and that defused any tension that would have taken place had the writer and director trusted their story more.

Instead we get entitled young people panicking over ill-earned paranoia and then acting upon their fears in ways that seem to lack logic. This decision plunges the story and its characters into a third act so rushed and haphazard that it seemed to come out of a necessity to finish the movies and hope that it worked. I didn’t buy it, and felt cheated upon throwing my hands up and screaming at the TV, but by then, my patience had gone out the window, and that says all I have to say about this film.

The Rental also gets a D from me.

Lastly, there is the worst of the lot. Bliss, directed by Joe Begos, is an incomprehensible mess of a film that explores the downward spiral of one Dezzy (Dora Madison). She is labeled a “brilliant visual artist who finds herself experiencing a creative block.” That’s cute. We never get to see anything of her art, no mention of her in art galleries, no interviews, nothing that can sustain this type of description. [Which begs the petition: screenwriters and directors should probably stop using the word “brilliant” to describe their characters. It went out about 30 years ago and hasn’t returned since.]

But not to digress: Dezzy is in a rut and boy does everyone around her feel it. From the second she gets introduced we see a Tasmanian devil of an obnoxious, petty character, so self absorbed in her own world she makes self-absorbed Angelenos seem positively delightful to be around in. She storms around the entire frame of the movie screaming insults at anyone and everyone she can, but that’s not the worst of it. When she gets her hand on some truly weird drug, boy do the sparks fly and not in a good way.

Bliss is a vanity project, plain and simple. “Look at me — I can direct a movie!” Fine with me, just make it interesting. Eighty minutes can’t happen like that, with so much nonsensical talking, screaming, swearing, and Madison in the middle, acting as if though this will enable her up the ladder into better performances. Sometimes I wonder if the Tribeca Film Festival even cares. Their Midnight section, where this played, has been littered with movies that don’t belong anywhere but in the trash. And that is what this movie is to me.

It’s safe to say I’m giving this one an F.

Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover

If there is a director whose work can’t be called repetitive, that would be Olivier Assayas. He’s been making movies since the mid-Eighties, but only become a cinematic force since the 2000s (purists will also include Irma Vep from 1996, but I haven’t yet seen it, and can’t opine). All of his more well-known films tend to dance a fine line between pop and art, intellect and trash, technology and the bucolic. Dropped in the midst of these narratives (well, many of them) are slices of East Asian glamor which can render an already murky plot even murkier or simply exist for auteur purposes.

Demonlover is, to date, Assayas’ only incursion into New French Intensity and it is a shame because his cinema, always a contrast between the cold and the warm, would be perfectly suited for the genre. You can see it splashed all over the 2002 film, restored to its former glamor and pristine, menacing visuals. He tells a rather Darwinian story of power-hungry execs with no moral compass and a taste for sadism with a coolness bordering on Cronenberg terrain that is fascinating as it is frustrating. There are moments when I knew (or thought I knew) where the plot of Demonlover was headed, and others where I just threw my hands in the air and went “Welp–here goes another one. Just watch the images, dude. Don’t start overthinking.”

So, let’s see. We have an opening sequence of Diana de Monx (frosty Danish actress Connie Nielsen, perfect for her part) coolly performing a company takeover right from under her own boss’ nose in a sequence of legerdemain that has to be seen to be believed. Soon after, once the lady-boss is dispatched and no longer a threat, Diana takes control of her software company, and soon is overseas in the Far East in a bidding war over a 3-D hentai company with another company run by Elaine Si Gibril (Gina Gershon). Floating in the middle is an internal power struggle between a male colleague (Charles Herling) and an assistant (Chloe Sevigny), both of who are not who they seem to be.

Midway through the movie, we realize that it is changing into something else entirely, and this is where Demonlover progresses from a thriller involving cyber-espionage into something even more perverse in which allegiances change at the drop of a hat, or let’s say convenience. Some of it is deserved — we get it — but others are perplexing. However, to disclose what it becomes would be a crime to a movie that is transgressive as it is bold and even repellent at times (and I can’t say that any other Assayas film has affected me this way). Suffice it be to say that power dynamics flip on a switch, and the movie that we were watching is no longer there. A neat hat trick is borne, performed partly to shock, and also to simply fuck up the viewer’s own mind as the viewer looks into an abyss of perversity.

Demonlover is still playing on virtual platforms. If you can, give it a look. Just be warned — the story is murky but ultra-sleek, and completely amoral.

Grade: B+

On Netflix: Pieces of a Woman

I’m sitting here, having finished viewing Kornél Mundruzcó’s ensemble movie Pieces of a Woman, numb as though I’d been splattered with ice-cold water and left outside to marinate in the unforgiving winter temperatures. That was my reaction to having viewed this movie, a picture that I kept putting off precisely because of the topic of a marriage imploding under the black light of a horrific tragedy and no one around to truly save them.

Nothing can prepare an expecting woman and her husband for the loss of a child. There may be therapists at the ready, and well-meaning people, but it’s simply too much pain to process correctly. And is there a “correct” way to even go by this? Vanessa Kirby’s Martha doesn’t know and doesn’t want anyone’s pity. After giving birth to a baby girl who dies soon after going into cardiac arrest, she moves from being what at first seemed to be a rather “in the moment” person to a hard, cold individual who lashes out and never bothers to care where the whip lands.

However, Martha’s family is all around, tip-toeing around her, trying to “be there” for her. Most insidious, for lack of a better world, is Elizabeth (a commanding, imperial Ellen Burstyn) who is aggressively pushing for a lawsuit against the midwife. You see, Martha and her husband Sean (Shia LeBeouf, for once acting and not posturing) were going for home-induced labor. They had their midwife at the ready. When the midwife called out, she sent her replacement Eva (Molly Parker), who arrived with all the bells and whistles of someone who knows her trade. Complications arose during the delivery, and it was never clear if Eva was to blame. Either/or, the result is a dead infant, and a marriage reeling in unimaginable pain.

Mundruzcó’s movie barrels ahead, giving us chapters in which we get to see a couple coming apart at the seams because they can’t move forward (though they do make an attempt of sorts). Every time Sean reaches out, Martha remains aloof and cold. It’s not a shock to see where the movie will go with this divide between husband and wife, but what is a revelation is Kirby’s performance. A walking wound, open and bleeding, she moves about, sometimes cagey, sometimes afraid of her own self, and increasingly angry at the way the cards were delivered to her. Sean has moments of anguish, but instead of letting the camera capture them he prefers to hide them. This may not be the actor’s fault, however. In not letting us completely into his own emotional state and then letting him behave in a less than loyal manner to Martha, we understand that perhaps this is too much for him to handle and whatever he may have had with Martha is over.

Pieces of a Woman is a very theatrical film that mostly takes place indoors, be it at Martha’s and Sean’s house or Elizabeth’s own residence. While family gatherings should be warm, here they get portrayed as battlegrounds for characters to continue to hurt one another. On one end there is Burstyn, who asserts her own self in a smothering manner as the movie progresses. On the other, and at the center, is Kirby, her hair never truly combed, obsessively grabbing apples and keeping the seeds, staring daggers, her at times growling voice choking on the rage she must feel. It is quite the performance that grounds a movie that is devastating to watch from the moment the title card appears until its final resolution.

Grade: A–

Netflix Discoveries: Saturday Church

Here we have a classic example of a movie made on a shoestring budget and featuring (then) mostly unknown players, a movie that made its debut at both the Tribeca and Montclair Film Festival. While I don’t doubt Saturday Church was well-received, movies like these tend to make next to no noise when officially premiering in an extremely tight, limited release, which if I am correct, was at the IFC Center sometime in 2018.

Damon Cardasis and producer Rebecca Miller have created a profound (albeit too brief) movie about a 14-year-old boy named Ulysses (Luka Kain) who is questioning his identity. When we meet him, it is through the death of his father. Luka’s father was considered to be a man of greatness, and his absence now lands Luka in the unwanted position of the man of the house.

His mother (Margot Bingham) works long hours and can’t manage the house, so she brings in Aunt Rose (Regina Taylor), an ultra-conservative woman who already seems to know Luka’s secret. She immediately begins to impose her rules in the house, rules that don’t sit well with Luka, who is merely trying to figure himself out as he transitions from boy to young adult.

Increased pressure at home finds Luka at Christopher Street through the subway, and it’s there that he (accidentally, while on the Piers) comes upon Saturday Church. Saturday Church is a non-profit outreach program for marginalized LHGBTQ+ children and young adults, run by Joan (trans activist Kate Bornstein). Ulysses meets a small group of trans-women and a young gay man (Marquis Rodriguez) who take him in openly as a new family member. Needless to say, Ulysses, who now knows there are more people like him, still can’t, for obvious reasons (Aunt Rose) express it at home.

Cardasis has constructed his movie like a musical, with snippets of what seem to be longer tunes taking center stage when characters begin to express thoughts and emotions that perhaps words just can’t. It might look a little jarring — and some numbers land gracefully, while others don’t — but they serve a purpose, which is to illustrate these people’s inner world, their loves, their losses, their pain, and their hopes for something better.

On the plus side, the casting of trans-women in trans parts is a major asset to Saturday Church. Far too often cis-women have been cast in these parts, so to use women like MJ Rodriguez, Alexia Garcia, Indya Moore, and Bornstein is a massive score for true diversity as opposed to diversity in intention, but not in execution.

Cardasis also navigates some rather queasy waters late in the movie when Ulysses finds himself at the mercy of a sexual predator. It is an uncomfortable scene to watch, but it is a sad reality that still exists for the homeless who need a meal and maybe some quick change to live. I almost didn’t want to see it but realized later, it had to be shown if at all partially and with enormous taste, to show the ugly reality trans-youth face.

Saturday Church is on Netflix and for free. It is a must-watch.

Grade: B+

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