HARRIET, a Biopic Presented With Large, Bold Strokes, and a Performance too self-conscious to take seriously.

[image from the New York Post]

I had high hopes for Harriet since I saw the trailer first pop up during the summer at the Angelika. Actually, let me go a step farther: I was moved to tears by its rousing trailer where this woman, bound by slavery, defied it to its core and became the historical icon that she now is short of being the face on a 20-dollar bill, which she rightfully deserves.

So imagine my surprise which quickly became disappointment when, once Harriet the movie proper started, that I saw none of the passion, the urgency, the need to be free, and instead I was regaled by a color-by-number rendition so mawkish and clumsy in its depiction of Harriet Tubman that it felt at times as though I was navigating through a docudrama of the cheapest sort, the kind you could see in the 70s and 80s (and 90s, if you knew where to look) in which stock actors reenacted historical events in bad wigs, overwrought dialog, and music so shrill and derivative it could easily belong in any exercise in schmaltz starring Tom Hanks during his 90s heyday.

Harriet begins proper on a shot that looks like it was borrowed from Richard Linklater’s establishing shot of Boyhood, in which we see Minty (Cynthia Eriyo) who’s lying on the grass gazing dreamily at the sky thinking of happy thoughts when her husband John Tubman (Zackary Momoh) comes and whisks her away, only to have us realize that while the two of them are married, only he is a free person of color, while she works as a slave on the Brodess plantation. Not only that, when Minty and her mother Rit Ross (Vanessa Bell Calloway) attempt to assert their freedom based on contract, the Brodess’ family will not honor it.

Something clicks in Minty, a mix of the visions she gets — a residual from a nasty blow she received from her master when she was a girl of 12 — plus her own gumption, and she sets off away from the plantation, leaving her husband behind and taking off into the unknown. Now, you would think that Kasi Lemmons would focus on her journey, which must have been frought with peril and extreme uncertainty — remember, this is a woman blindly fleeing for her life and her freedom, in enormous peril where every white face could bring her back to slavery. Lemmons instead goes for broad emotions using Eriyo’s singing voice to signal portent and this Dramatic Moment, which falls flat on its face. It gets worse. The moment Eriyo, cornered, makes that fateful decision “to be free or die”, the movie cuts away from her peril and into the aftermath. A woman in the river fighting for her life would have been a showcase for incredible, nail-biting tension as well as supreme acting. Lemmons squanders that chance. Finally, when Minty finally realizes she’s standing on land that will make her a free woman, her reaction is… off to say the least. She just doesn’t convey the enormity of her action in such small a body. I would have loved to see that.

I thought, probably budget constraints, maybe stunts weren’t available, perhaps logistics just didn’t make her plight seem more memorable than the fairly uneventful trek from Maryland to safe haven in Pennsylvania. But the movie then continues to somewhat not know what to do with Minty’s story. Yes, once in Philadelphia, she contacts William Still (Leslie Odom, underused) and he allows herself to re-christen herself Harriet Tubman. Checklist. But she has a moment when she is re-telling/reliving the horror of what she experienced to Still. The camera kept breaking away to these blue-washed scenes that are supposed to be her own visions and I was furious. I don’t need that. I need to see a performance, the camera dead on Erivo’s face, as she tells her story, exhausted but free and still not quite knowing what comes next. The movie brushes over Harriet’s own reaction to her new life as a free woman, but then punctuates her visions with the blunt force of an exclamation point to establish the urgency the she must go back to get her husband.

The husband part misfires, and again, that singing, please, make that stop, it takes me out of the movie (even if it was a way of her communicating). Lemmons goes down the list of Tubman’s achievements in bringing her first batch of people to the North, but again, colors her own actions with too much self-awareness of her own future greatness, as if all this was somehow preordained. That preternatural confidence, historically, came much later. Her first trip back, again, happens with so much ease that in one shot they’ve crossed the river, the next shot they’re in Philly. We never sense that Harriet the slave who freed herself is even in real and present danger, with bounties on her life and Lemmons’s movie plays it way too safe. We only see the marks on her skin, not the horror that produced them. It goes for the movie as a whole. We only get glimpses of slavery, but never more than a lot of white actors having to say unspeakable words and hamming it up to maximize how evil they are.

I don’t want to say Harriet is a bad movie because it is not: it’s closer to a necessary movie to watch to see for historical purposes but that is it. I didn’t find it compelling at all. The picture is flat. The music score by Terrence Blanchard is so intrusive and so derivative of the likes of Thomas Newman and Hans Zimmer circa Hidden Figures I almost barfed at its repetitiveness. Erivo does a solid performance and will almost certainly glean Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, but I still would have preferred to have seen a character study of a woman who gradually grew into her own by defying a system that would have diminished her as a person instead of a biopic that was too self-conscious for its own good. Perhaps a longer form narrative may be the thing, although it has been done with Cicely Tyson at the helm and it’s kind of hard to top Tyson.

THE LIGHTHOUSE is the movie event of the year.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in Robert Eggers The Lighthouse, now in theaters. [Image from KDSK]

I’m usually a bit jittery about movies that bring a lot of anticipation bolstering their US premiere because the more the promotion, the less likely it’s warrant to deliver on its premise or be watchable past opening night. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case with Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse. Knowing next to nothing other than its bare-bones synopsis of two men stranded on a remote location tending to a lighthouse, I walked in, and let his story unfold.

The Lighthouse stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, two actors who have been involved in back to back projects that have only managed to cement their status as two of the best working actors in cinema today. Both star as a pair of lighthouse keepers who must take care of the building for a total of five weeks. It’s a task that sounds simple enough — do your duties, rinse and repeat — but soon enough, isolation starts to sink in, and the need for the men, who already don’t like each other, to relate to something human while asserting their own presence starts to play mind games… or does it? Pattinson’s character one night walks out into the dark open to see what looks like a mermaid swimming in the waters beyond. DaFoe stands in front of the huge beaming light of the lighthouse in complete ecstasy, but what is that tentacle quickly seen and that disappears? A sea gull turns out to be more menacing than just bothersome.

Could the night and the fog and the lighthouse itself hold some dark secret?

Robert Eggers never reveals what, in fact, might be the ghost that haunts the grounds where the fabled lighthouse stands, and that is perfect for me. Exposition and backstory are kept to a minimum, only enhancing the entire movie’s mystery and whatever it is that haunts the twosome. All we get is that the previous lighthouse keeper went insane and killed himself. Pattinson’s character longs for some peace and quiet far into the Canadian country and thought this could be a next step into achieving the goal. DaFoe has been chained to the island and the sea for 13 years, a thing that took a toll on his marriage. Meanwhile, in the present, the men go through their daily chores, making irritating small talk (well, technically, DaFoe is the one who talks the most while Pattinson, who starts out as silent as a moonless night, let’s him take center stage), engaging in petty banter over who does what.

Still from the Angelika Film Center, NYC.

The more they engage in the mundane, the farther away they creep from reality. Soon, even a simple dinner sequence becomes a nightmare of repetition in hell with two men aching companionship devolving from mates to enemies to back in a furious kaleidoscopic whirlwind. Eggers movie becomes a ferocious battle of wills to see who will remain the last madman standing, all the while the looming, sinister figure of this lighthouse, the all-knowing sentient spirit, observes without pity or passion.

This is the most cinematically gorgeous movie I have seen this entire year — or this decade, as a matter of fact. It is rare to see black and white, treated with such care that even seeing it at a two-dimensional ratio one can almost see depth in the style of deep focus, and have that morph seamlessly into German Expressionism, only to do a fade out like David Lynch’s Eraserhead towards the ambiguous end. Eggers’ movie seems as though it came out of the lens of someone living and making movies 100 years ago: it is dense, exotic to a letter, alien, mythical, and yes, haunted. Two actors helm the entire production and carry it to next-level narration, something strange and sinister, with fart-jokes and base-level humor to pepper it through as if reminding you these are two uncouth men sharing tight quarters together while the endless storm rages on and they lose their minds. I firmly believe this will a film that will be studied well past tomorrow, and a template for future directors wanting to get behind a camera to make a story come alive.

Unless anything comes along the road that can surpass this movie, I will call The Lighthouse the movie of 2019. Done.

SEVEN FROM THE 57TH NYFF: FROM THE TRAITOR TO PARASITE

Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece Parasite, a 57th New York Film Festival Main Slate. [image from Comingsoon.net]

And just like that, the New York Film Festival has come to a close. While it does end on its usual high note of offering an entire day’s worth of selected movies to watch on encore presentations for anyone who missed their official premiere, yours truly has seen more than enough from both established and rising directors to take it as a day to rest, mull his thoughts about the cornucopia of cinema he just experienced, and give his eyes and brain a one-week rest before attempting to write anything. You see, in a compressed time-frame of four days, I was able to sit and digest a total of seven movies from the festival’s Main Slate not counting whatever I saw at home on Netflix or Prime, and also not counting the sneak premiere of Robert Eggers’ head trip The Lighthouse which is now in theaters.

Friends ask me over and over why is it that I do this. The answer is simple: love of cinema, open, unabashed, and passionate. I don’t get paid a dime to come see these movies, many which will only see US Premieres in niche cinemas like Film Forum, Angelika, Landmark, Quad, or IFC (or at the nearest art-house theater if you live elsewhere). Even worse, a handful of them might just not (I’m still waiting for Lian Ying’s A Family Tour (56NYFF, China/Taiwan) to read our shores, but I doubt that will happen. So if it remains a festival-only presentation, at least I got first dibs, saw someone else’s vision, and walked away completely satisfied. So, in a nutshell, this is pure love for the medium, experiencing storytelling that is new, not mainstream, even challenging.

The Traitor, a new film by Marco Bellocchio, due January, 2020. [image from HeyuGuys]

This year, for example, Italy was present not once but twice with Martin Eden and The Traitor (Il Traditore). I missed the first, which will come out anyway, but saw the second, due to premiere in US theaters January 31, 2020. Marco Bellocchio’s film presents a mafia drama unlike many we’ve seen here. It serves as a means to re-tell a Italy’s colored history with the Cosa Nostra, without the romance and ideation of Mario Puzo. Bellocchio’s version is grittier, and an extended portion of the narrative takes place inside a courtroom where confrontations between capos are electric and pregnant with tension while Mafia kingpins eagerly wait behind bars to have at it with the man they call their enemy.

That enemy, the traitor of the movie, is Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favina in a strong, solid performance), who starts the movie proper in 1980 during a frosty gathering between two rival families, his own and Toto Riina’s (Nicola Cali), convening for a truce. The entire sequence is all polite gestures and posing for pictures while rival members stare daggers at each other. You expect violence to explode at any minute among the extravagant decor. Bellocchio, however, saves the violence for after Buscetta has moved to Brazil with his wife and six of his eight children (leaving Benedetto and Antonio behind, a fatal mistake he comes to regret later on). The systematic gunning down of Buscetta’s extended family in Sicily is brutal and unrelenting. It is that, plus Buscetta’s own arrest in Rio as well a torture sequence in which he witnesses his own wife being dangled from a plane, that prompts him to become a pentito, an informer for the Italian court seeking to bring Mafia bosses to justice. As a pentito, Buscetta gets the velvet gloves treatment precisely because he has so much information to share, and from a frosty first meeting with Judge Falcone (Fausto Augusto Alesi), a somewhat tentative agreement that may resemble friendship in its earliest stages forms.

The Traitor is, by far, one of Italy’s strongest entries following 2013’s The Great Beauty — compelling from start to finish, when we learn the fates of everyone. If anything, the one thing I could see in both men — one fictitious and one who died a little under 20 years ago — is the haunting sensation of regret. The biggest difference is that while Jep Gambardella’s one regret is that the could never find the essence of beauty, Buscetta laments not having been there for his sons, and their absence from his life haunts him throughout the entire film. It is an anguish that Favina’s eyes alone register once all is said and done, and everyone has met their fates behind bars.

Gong Li in Saturday Fiction. [image from TMD]

From a clear-cut story to one muddled with double crosses, triple crosses, and a narrative as clear as sludge, comes Saturday Fiction, directed by Lou Ye, and starring Gong Li as an actress who is also a spy, and who may be playing Mata Hari to more than one side of the war. Or maybe she’s not. I walked out not quite sure what I had seen, other than Li played an actress named Jean You who returns to Shanghai to appear in a play titled Saturday Fiction. She’s also there to be present for the release of her ex-husband from the Japanese. She’s also there because she has a relationship going on with the director of the play Tan Na (Mark Chao), but also seems to have some sort of daughter-father relationship with Frederic Hubert (Pascal Greggory) who is also a spy. Her hotel room is bugged, and she initiates a friendship that quickly becomes intense with a young admirer named Bai Mei (Wang Chuanjun). To note, the plot of Saturday Fiction takes place six days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, so it’s no secret where the is leading to… but the movie itself takes so many twists and turns and no one seems to be trustworthy, it’s only when the guns come out that masks also come off and Gong Li becomes a relentless shooting machine. Who knew she was a gunslinger? It might take more than one view to completely grasp the entirety of Lou Ye’s murky vision, but as a recreation of the days leading up to December 7, 1941, and by virtue of Gong Li herself essaying an impenetrable woman marked by fate and duty and her own allegiances, Saturday Fiction is a watchable head-scratcher.

A still from Beanpole [image from The Music Hall]

A punch in the gut as it navigates the depths of an impossible situation, is Kantemir Balagov’s remarkable Beanpole, which will premiere in US theaters at the end of January, 2020. Before we see her, we hear her, apparently choking on her own breath. Her name is Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a nurse working in a Leningrad hospital in the summer of 1945, and she is the caretaker of her friend Masha’s (Vasilisa Perelygina) little boy Pashka while Masha is away at war. Masha. Iya brings the little boy to liven things up in the hospital from the specter of death. Iya also suffers from moments of inexplicable, crippling stiffness and gets lost in a fugue, making choking noises in what would only be a reaction to the horrors of war. It’s a condition that will come to haunt her in the most inappropriate of times as she plays with Masha’s boy one evening with devastating consequences.

When Masha returns from the front, and learns her son is gone, her reaction is equal parts devastation and disassociation. It’s as if something inside her cannot accept the fact that her only son is gone, a fact that becomes even more terrible when we learn she has had her reproductive organs removed, Beanpole here takes a slight turn to the left and presents both women, completely codependent on each other, moving from love to hate and back again. Masha starts seeing another young man; Iya gets jealous, not wanting to share her only friend with anyone else. And then, Masha hatches up a cruel plan to get back at Iya for having allowed her Pashka to die.

If only Iya could see the reality around her (and there are often times when I wanted to scream at her but that is the type of person I am). Iya’s PTSD, compounded with her own broken self — she often states how empty she feels — have left her next to unable to function on her own and so she needs Masha to conduct the strings for her. But then, let’s take a look at Masha herself. Masha, who often seems to be the aggressor, has even less of a chance at happiness than Iya because she can’t be a mother. One scene has Masha dancing in an emerald green dress, and she starts rather okay, girlish, before devolving into a beast trapped in her own poverty because even something as simple as this would never be hers.

Balagov is less interested in constructing a path towards hope than to take a moment to observe a universe where no one ever had anything to begin with, and the war has left everyone desensitized, broken, and at the mercy of fate. It’s a striking piece of cinema, suffused in deep reds and greens with a perpetual gold light about it, and that is about as warm as he will allow it to be. After that, Beanpole is another slice of despair and nihilism and the inability to take matters into ones’ hand to find anything resembling happiness.

Atlantiques, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes, by Matt Diop, coming to Netflix in November, 2019. [image from Jezebel]

We don’t get many African movies in the area so I felt intrigued by Senegal’s entry Atlantics. What starts as a movie steeped in social realism quickly (and quite deftly) morphs into something else entirely. Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) is going out with Souleiman (Traore), a construction worker who, alongside his colleagues, has not been paid for three months. Facing a brick wall of resistance the men set out to sea to start life anew in Spain. Ada on the other hand is in an arranged marriage to a rather wealthy man, and on their wedding night someone sets fire to their bed, effectively ruining their honeymoon, Reports soon abound that Souleiman has returned, but Ada thinks it impossible since by now he would be in Spain. Adding to that, some of the local girls (and one detective working the arson case) are falling into delirious fevers and suddenly waking up, asking for their payments owed. Could it be that perhaps Souleiman and the rest who left have returned but in spirit? Diop doesn’t provide a tidy answer past what she presents, but her debut movie (which won the Grand Prix at Cannes, no easy feat) is a strong sequence of visuals verging into the magical that could fit in any coastal town, where men who have gone to sea may not be at rest. Atlantics arrives to Netflix November 29, 2019.

Over the years Federico Veiroj has been a presence in the Lincoln Center. I became aware of his movies when I saw, first hand, The Apostate, a quirky little comedy about a man wanting to part ways with Catholicism and I still remember it to this day. His follow up, The Moneychanger (Asi hablo el cambista) seems to have larger ambitions in recreating a period piece navigating the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and I felt a tenuous link to Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street at least thematically and in its use of rather dry humor. It tells the story of Humberto Brause (Daniel Hendler), an accountant who got sucked in (with little resistance) into the world of money laundering. Starting small, Brause soon takes a penchant for handling larger and larger clients until one of his dealings comes to bite him in the rear. Seeing Hendler go from one situation to the other with a bland, sort of deer-in-the-headlights look is funny enough, but Veiroj imbues his rather short movie with enough doses of wit to keep the story moving even when it starts to get a bit over its head. Dolores Fonzi has a blast with her take on the brittle wife who’s pretty clear of her place in the world and has no intention of relinquishing it.

Pedro Costa’s haunting Vitalina Varela, image from Chicago Film Festival

If Virginia Woolf had been born in Cape Verde then Vitalina Varela would have been something she would have created on a lark. A film that itself is a spin-off of other past films that Pedro Costa has made about his marginalized characters who live rich interior lives, Vitalina starts proper where Horse Money ends. Arriving late to her husband’s funeral, she is introduced emerging from the plane in nothing but her bare feet. It’s a striking introduction because it leads to defining who she is: a woman that has nothing, who simply exists. She arrives to the slum where she used to live, a place of no electricity it seems, all pools of shadows. Memories of the past emerge into the present seamlessly as she reminisces, bringing to us, the audience, heartfelt confessions of a life she once had but one that has long disappeared. Vitalina the actress holds the entire picture together with her fiercely and mostly silent performance.

What makes a parasite? For one, we do know that a parasite is an organism that can’t produce its own food (or lacks the means to do so) so it latches onto another larger organism in order to secure its own existence. We can also even state that a parasite may live in the upper echelons of society, but managed to get there through unsavory means and the exploitation of others. Bong Joon Ho’s movie Parasite is the exploration of symbiotic relationships between the haves and have nots (willingly or by circumstance) in ways I would have never anticipated. The trailer reveals not a thing of the events that start to unfold, which is perfect because I walked in knowing next to nothing about what I was about to witness. The story of an insidious takeover of a rich household by people from a lower income unfolds with an ease that is essentially frightening, but shows just how disassociated from reality many of the nouveau riche have become. Needless to say, from the moment this begins to happen we a) root for the family and b) laugh at the sheer audacity of what they are able to get away with and c) wonder, where will all this end?

I don’t want to reveal anything else and this is why I am both ending this rather long article of movies seen at the New York Film Festival at that, because precisely that is the pivot to where the entire story hangs. Suffice it is to say, Bong Joon Ho is in complete command of his razor sharp farce. Every action, every line, every gesture is uttered with complete attention to a precise vision of story telling. Watching the escalation of craziness that unfolds is like the moments before the roller coaster has reached the top: you know at one point the entire car has to careen down and take some twists and turns, but boy, does he let that car take its time to reach its highest point.

JOKER: A Special Presentation at the 57th New York Film Festival

Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker. [image from CNET]

JOKER: Country: US / Canada. Director: Todd Phillips. Screenwriters: Todd Phillips and Scott Silver. Language: English. Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Marc Maron, Hannah Gross. A 57th New York Film Festival Special Presentation. Release Date: October 4, 2019. Runtime: 122 minutes.

Mostly Indies rating: A+

This review contains spoilers.

There’s been much publicity about Joker, now playing in theaters. Some of it is good (all involving Joaquin Phoenix’s performance where he slowly morphs from an ineffectual man disconnected from the world into a monster in clown attire). Some of it, however, delves into the truly ridiculous, and I refuse to give into what the movie is not about — namely, the excessive depiction and/or ideation of violence, of which this picture has not one scene. It would be a waste of time, and Joker is too good a movie, too keen a character study to reduce it to a mess of gore and mayhem. Frankly, and I’ll say it, whoever saw Joker and walked out so horrified because it was disturbingly violent that they had to go on and write that this picture may lead to repeat incidents like the one in a certain theater in Colorado probably needed views on his or her page or wanted to stir up some trouble. This, dear reader, is what sensationalism is based on and it’s as old as time. Exaggeration sells. Tabloids have perfected embellishment to an art form. If I’m a rising movie blogger and I need to go viral I’m definitely going to make sure my posts are so out there, so filled with vitriol, that you have no chance but to see it and gape. That is what has happened with Joker, and to be fair. while there are some violent moments in its narrative, nothing in it approximates anything you won’t see in the news, Discovery ID, or any slasher / horror movie for that matter. Even Joker’s inspiration, Taxi Driver, blows it out of the water, and today, is considered a de facto classic.

Without further ado, here is what Joker is about. It depicts an alternative origin story of Batman’s arch nemesis, and that story centers on the sad spiral into darkness of one Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who, safe to say, probably never had a chance to co-exist peacefully in the modern world. His introduction is that of a victim of theft in the middle of Gotham City, a man with a disorder that makes him laugh inappropriately, as he tries to scrape a living as a party clown who wishes to make people laugh as a stand-up comic. If that isn’t pathetic enough, he still gets blamed by his boss for allowing the theft to happen. A meeting with his therapist sheds some light into his state of mind, which is very negative. Adding to that is his mother Penny (Frances Conroy), who seems immersed in her own world of fantasy, frail and unable to fend for herself. A coworker later gives Arthur a gun for self-defense, an act that will backfire badly later on once Arthur gets fired from his job for bringing that very same gun to a children’s hospital. Arthur, in short, has no friends, no social life, nothing to lighten up the burden. The sole glimmer of hope comes in the form of a neighbor, the beautiful Sophie (Zazie Beetz), who he meets fleetingly in the elevator as they exchange awkward pleasantries and whom he invites to watch him perform a comedy routine.

[image from the LA Times]

Sophie’s presence alone may have been a saving grace for Arthur, but he seems to be a magnet for events that seek to diminish him as a person. Funding for his medical therapy has ceased, leaving him a ticking time bomb. His dream at the start of the movie is to be a guest on Late Night with Murray Franklin; that dream will take a disastrous, defining turn when Franklin (Robert De Niro) openly mocks Arthur’s attempt to tell a joke during a failed comedy act (which has gone viral). It’s only when three corporate drones who happen to be from Thomas Wayne’s (Brett Cullen) firm show up on the subway one night to taunt a woman, when all of that inner rage that has been testing inside becomes unleashed in one fell swoop. Arthur’s laughing disorder kicks into overdrive, which attracts the attention of the three goons who decide to take matters into their own hands. Just when it seems as though once again, life and fate have descended on Arthur like a ton of bricks, he surprisingly reacts, injuring two fo the men in self-defense. The third man runs away, terrified, into the dark subway station, with Arthur in calm pursuit. Arthur then corners the third guy, and coldly executes him, vanishing into the night.

We now start to see a darker version of Arthur Fleck emerge as he starts to feel more “confident”. While Wayne condemns the shootings and makes light of those at the bottom of the social pile, calling them clowns, protests emerge from the woodwork with people now donning clown faces to resemble the mysterious killer. Arthur is starting to enjoy this newfound status. However, this sense of having some power, some control, comes to a crashing halt once Arthur intercepts a letter written by Penny to Wayne claiming Arthur is his long-lost son, the fruit of an illicit affair she had. Arthur attempts to visit the Wayne mansion and has an all-too-brief encounter with Bruce Wayne before Alfred comes between them. This leads Arthur to a confrontation with Wayne himself who reveals some unexpected information which Arthur confirms when he visits Arkham State Hospital. The information, alongside Wayne’s own rejection, is so crushing one can’t but wait for the inevitable. What little Arthur had tethering him to humanity has now been effectively severed. Arthur is less than the clown he projects; he is no one, nothing, and almost like a bookend to Joaquin Phoenix’s last movie, he was never really there to begin with. He never mattered.

Of all the origin stories, this one is the story that I have to say gets me the most. It is profoundly nihilistic, dripping in agony, a movie that dares you to feel sorry for this character (and you find that at times, you do). Superheroes often have traumatic entries into their new personas, but Joker, as a standalone origin story, is well apart from the rest because it almost makes his rebirth into something that was fated. However, this time, the man inside isn’t a courageous hero but an emasculated incel. Joker presents an origin story about pain disguised as a smile or an attempt at a laugh, and nothing can be more schizophrenic and pay more homage to the two masks of comedy and tragedy than Arthur Fleck’s descent. Throughout the entire movie Joaquin Phoenix moves around as if even movement itself causes him misery; there isn’t a moment when the character seems to be at ease. His world is deeply diseased and has no door to escape. His laughing disorder comes through as a gasp of pain and desperation. This is a man constantly crying out for help, and no one seems to be paying attention. No one comes to his aid.

Take away the superhero / comic book facade and you have a tragedy of epic proportions, plain and simple. I can see this character with eyes of compassion because how many of these lone, crazy killers have come forth after having somehow slipped through the cracks? How many of these walking wounded continue to fail to find any solace and live in constant fear and self-hatred and delusions? It even makes me wonder, can madness then not only be genetic but environmental? We now know Arthur Fleck has no family to speak of but an unstable mother; can lack of nurture, abuse, and manical delusions indeed be responsible for shaping a psyche like the man who slowly transforms into the Joker?

The answer, quite simply, is yes… and no. There are horror stories of horribly abused people who come out to the surface; this is clearly not that story. Arthur has made his choice because quite literally he has never been given a chance to be anything else but a failure. When he stands up on top of the vehicle towards the end of the movie and paints his Glasgow smile, I found it to be probably the most horrific moment in the entire film and I admit that this is where I wept, not in sadness, but in horror. It is the proverbial awakening of a monster in full force, aware, omnipresent, and capable of incredible savagery. This is, by far, Joaquin Phoenix’s best performance so far and one that elevates a pulp character based on a silent movie (The Man Who Laughs from 1924) into something terrifying. It’s a fitting entry for a character like Joker, and one that may divide audiences alike or bring people together to discuss. I personally think that Joker takes the concept of a man driven mad and completely runs with it, even hinting that perhaps he might be related to the Batman himself — a conceit I would have gladly accepted since it raises the question of the good within evil and evil within the good, split into two different people pushing against each other perpetually.

Now, onto the more technical aspects of Joker. I’m pretty happy with the way Todd Phillips presented his story. Period. I can’t fault him for having used Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy as templates to find a platform for Arthur Fleck’s story, and to be honest, I have to disagree with critics who accuse Joker of following both stories a bit too on the nose. Joker is its own story of despair told in vivid colors and gritty detail, one that will ask a second viewing to get the nuances of the character study. The use of music is truly a stand-out: Stephen Sondheim;s Send in the Clowns, and Jimmy Durante’s Smile get incredible mileage, and the use of a stairway (most likely the kind found in the 200s in uptown Manhattan) depicts the fall and rise of the Joker like nothing I’ve ever seen before. In the first scene, we see a defeated Arthur dwindled into nothing agsainst the looming apartment buildings that frame the stairway. He seems almost unable to climb one more step… and yet, he does. The next time we see Arthur, he’s almost channeling Gene Kelly, dancing and shimmying down like he were in his own musical as he goes for his grand entrance at Murray Franklin’s show.

I guess I could go on and on but I will leave it up to you to go see this incredible movie, and don’t read too much of what the media wants to instill: a fear of controversial, high quality motion pictures in which sometimes, a bad guy is born because he was born to be bad.

BRIGHTBURN: Good concept, but a bit too eager to go nuts.

[Image from IO9]

BRIGHTBURN. Country: USA. Director: David Yarovesky. Screenwriters: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn. Language: English. Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Matt Jones, Runtime, 90 minutes. Release, May 24, 2019. Home Release: August 20, 2019.

Mostly Indies rating: B–

Earlier in May, a little movie called Brightburn suddenly showed up in several multiplexes (mainly AMC) and with next to no promotion, no commercials, nothing. It went to score rather respectably in the box office, making back its budget in its opening weekend and emerging quite the winner despite a lack of back up of seasoned critics. I will admit that I sometimes tend to avoid pictures like these because there is a risk that they will either be truly terrible and go straight to video merely a month later, and who wants to waste even 90 minutes plus promos to sit back and watch an atrocity play in front of you? Yeah, me neither. [It’s why there will be a conspicuous lack of Fs and barely some D ratings here at Mostly Indies because… well… I just won’t.]

So I did the logical and decided to wait for its release. Now that I’ve seen it in the middle of an insane film festival I can say that this one’s not that bad, not even close. Brightburn tells the story of Superman — or at least, it uses the blueprint of the Superman mythos — and flips it like an omelette. Let me explain. So at the start of the movie we get Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elisabeth Banks and David Denman), a married couple living in rural Kansas. Right from the start their lives are upended when a meteor crashes onto their property. Curious to see what it is, they go out, and soon we learn through home video that they’ve become the parents of a baby boy named Brandon (Jackson A, Dunn). Brandon is whom they found in the ruins outside their house.

Flash forward a few years, however, and Brandon, who’s at the threshold of puberty, starts to sleepwalk around the house and is attracted by something locked behind closed doors in the shed. Elements of violence start to emerge from nowhere in his personality and he begins to display unusual feats of strength. A crush on a schoolgirl yields incredibly creepy results, found drawings underneath Brandon’s bed paint a picture of emerging, disturbing attractions, and before you know it, Brandon seems to be morphing into a rather scary psychopathic young boy bent on getting what he wants and at any cost and he has the nascent superpowers to use them at will.

Much of the success at Brightburn depends on the fact that it is extremely economical and makes use of its budget rather well, to the point that you would think a lot more money had gone into it. [It only cost a little north of 6 million to make.] Its pacing is on the faster side, but not too much that you miss any character development. Banks and Denman create a believable couple facing something straight out of a nightmare and their reaction, from denial even at the face of evidence to eventual recognition works because most parents often believe their children, monsters or not, are the best. [And if you don’t believe me, take a look into another couple facing a son they soon start to realize they don’t recognize anymore in the outstanding movie Luce (now on home video). And in that one, the mother, played by Naomi Watts, actually hinders an investigation by hiding crucial evidence, a thing that comes to haunt her in the end.]

I just wish that Yarovesky would have allowed his movie to create a little more suspense in its scenes involving Brandon, once he starts stalking his neighbors. Some of the scenes happen in a manner that look a bit too flat and don’t leave for much tension. An early confrontation in a diner between Brandon and the mother of a girl he’s attracted to feels rushed (despite some gore). Yet another sequence, while unbelievably gory, also fails to have any build up but just “happens”. See, to me, horror movies in general should invoke a creepy buildup that places its characters in an increasingly arena of danger. The deeper they wade in, the more we realize they are in for a nasty surprise. Here, much of what happens does so in a prompt, efficient manner, and it made me feel a bit flat.

Other than that, Brightburn is a slick little horror film that can stand on its own without the Superman lore. If you took that away you’d have The Bad Seed with the gender flipped to male. Its just a bit too eager to get to the gore and that is what may take from its impact of a boy gone wrong.

IN THE TALL GRASS: A Netflix Release

IN THE TALL GRASS. Country, Canada. Director: Vincenzo Natali. Screenwriter: Vincenzo Natali, based on the novella by Stephen King and Joe Hill. Cast: Laysla De Oliveira, Avery Whitted, Patrick Wilson, Will Buie, Jr. Harrison Gilbertson, Rachel Wilson. Runtime: 101 minuets. Release Date: October 4, 2019. On Netflix.

Mostly Indies Rating: C

With so much material on his hands it’s more often than not that a writer of the stature of King will in some ways repeat himself thematically, if not do outright re-writes of previous works. His novella In the Tall Grass, co-written with his son Joe Hill, seems to suggest yet another incursion into cult horror in the middle of nowhere.

From its opening sequence the film’s premise follows the same as the one in Children of the Corn in both story and original movie with the sole exception that while that one consisted of a forgotten little place overrun by children who worship some god of the underworld, this time, there are no people around but a strange expanse of impossibly tall grass in which a strange rock, possibly the remnants of a meteorite, stands still but gleams in malevolent energy eager to meet the unsuspecting for a little fun in blood sacrifice.

The unsuspecting are a set of two families. The first, a brother and sister duo, Cal and Becky (Avery Whitted and Laysla De Oliveira), who stop while on the way to San Diego because Becky, who is pregnant and needs to relieve herself, has just heard the cries of a boy lost in the middle of the tall grass. Against her better judgement, and because she also overhears what seems to be the boys mother (Rachel Wilson) telling the boy to not to call anyone in, she and Cal set into the grass to locate the boy, and soon realize that time and distance seems to be playing tricks on them. What seemed to be a few feet now seems to have stretched farther out, and soon, both she and Cal are hopelessly lost in this never ending sea of green. However, the movie doesn’t limit itself to people lost within grass: soon Becky encounters Ross (Patrick Wilson), who’s also searching for his family, while Cal meets the boy, Tobin (Will Bule, Jr., a young actor with a striking resemblance to Elijah Wood at the start of his career some 20 years ago). Tobin at first seems a bit shifty. Remember, this is the Stephen King universe. Kids in his stories can be either preternaturally self-reliant and thus, trustworthy, or basically the Devil himself and must be avoided at all costs. Tobin provides some insight into what might be happening behind the plates of grass, which then cranks the story up a notch into weirdness. It all comes to a head when Becky’s boyfriend Travis (Harrison Gilbertson) also finds his way into the endless meadows as he searches for her. Eventually, all the characters converge into one somewhat open area, and Ross reveals he’s not the nice man he once may have been before he entered the grassy field. Time bends, becomes elastic, and then all hell breaks loose once the power behind the stone jutting from the ground takes its hold on the hapless cast.

For the most, In the Tall Grass is pretty effective in establishing a streamlined version of common King tropes. You will have tragic, subservient wives meeting gruesome ends. You’ll have the plucky heroine who tries her best to manage her way into the nightmare she’s literally walked into. You have your couple of untrustworthy characters who seem to be prey to a larger power — in Cal, you have the brother who loves his sister a bit too much, and in Ross, the archetypical father-villain who in Patrick Wilson finds the perfect actor as a handsome man with the winning smile and a glint of crazy just behind the eyes. Some of the inclusion of multiple timelines seem to exist only in an arbitrary fashion, but if you don’t care about too much logic you should be able to enjoy the premise well. Where the story’s thin premise buckles at the seams is when it presents the creatures haunting the field, and the curious drawings on the rock. It’s a common trop In King’s work, to show the monster in the closet; on cinema, however, less is always more, and omitting this detail from the story would have made it a bit more chilling. As it stands, this is an above average piece of work, with handsome cinematography and solid acting, but not a tremendously compelling work of horror.

A Small Town Prepares for War in the Neo-Western BACURAU

[Image from Cinevue]

BACURAU. Country: Brazil / France. Director: Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles. Screenwriter: Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles. Language: Portuguese, English. Cast: Barbara Colen, Thomas Aquino, Silvero Pereira, Karine Teles, Antonio Saboia, Sonia Braga, Udo Kier. Runtime: 130 minutes. A 57th New York Film Festival Main Slate Selection. US Premiere: October 1, 2019. US Release Date: January 1, 2020.

Mostly Indies rating: B+

Bacurau will come to many as a welcome left turn for director Kleber Mendonça Filho who last hit the American theaters with his cry of outrage called Aquarius in which Sonia Braga bravely fought unscrupulous real estate developers from taking away her house. Thematically, the story of Bacurau is basically the same, but this time, the setting that both directors (Juliano Dornelles co-directs where before he served as production designer) place the setting in a forgotten little place in the middle of nowhere, where the land stretches forever, and people live in harmony together, celebrating life and loss with sensual bravado. It’s a place that more often than not won’t be found on the Google map, but one that developers — again, those pesky bad guys — are eyeballing for future development.

The place is Bacurau, and Teresa (Barbara Colen) arrives just in time to learn that the village’s oldest denizen, Carmelita (Lia de Itamarca) has passed away at 94. The town, far from mourning, is celebrating — all except Domingas (Sonia Braga), the town’s doctor who also serves as the town’s Earth mother. But that’s not the plot point… if anything, this only serves to introduce its quirky characters and their sense of extended family. What introduces the plot proper is the arrival of a shlubby mayor running for office who treats the villagers of Bacurau with incredible condescendence, and conveniently fails to supply the place with the necessary elements to allow the villagers a dignified life.

Once he leaves, the pressure starts to mount: two motorcyclists (Karine Teles and Antonio Saboia) arrive to town, seemingly just touring the land. However, they will bring a sinister plot just behind when it is revealed that they are part of a group of American renegades led by Udo Kier (who hams it up big time as if he were in a B-movie) looking to hunt people for bloodsport. Their arrival signifies a turn for the violent when some of them go rogue and in one chilling moment commit an act of murder so heinous, so horrifying, that I’m glad that the directors stuck to their guns and kept it, if in fact to punctuate that these aren’t your average killers and that Bacurau is set for an epic battle against pure, psychopathic evil.

If you can get past the clunky dialogue that was given to the actors playing the Americans — and it is truly, unequivocally awful; I’ve never seen such talk even in bargain basement grade F movies — Bacurau can be wicked fun. You will love how the village joins forces to combat these human invaders (the movie throws in some flying saucers as distraction, which add some comic relief). Let me just say, it gets messy in Bacurau. Very messy. There’s an approximation to the type of movies Tarantino or the Coen brothers tend to make, complete with a killer scene in which a two villagers creatively dispatch two Americans while in the nude. [That scene received a huge explosion of applause at the October 1 screening at the Alice Tully.] Sandwiched within the madness is a terrific showdown that takes place between Sonia Braga’s character and Udo Kier’s. You keep waiting to see what in the world will happen, since he’s come to lay his claim and anyone who saw Aquarius knows she’s not afraid of confrontation. It all reaches a critical pitch, and serves its story of the old, the traditional, the historic, preserving itself against the new, with a kind of zeal only seen in the craziest of Westerns.

Past and Present, Vodou and White Privilege, Clash in Bertrand Bonello’s ZOMBI CHILD

[Image from Cinevue]

ZOMBI CHILD. Country, France. Director, Bertrand Bonello. Screenwriter, Bertrand Bonello. Language, French, Creole. Cast: Louise Labecque, Wislanda Louimat, Katiana Milfort, Mackenson Bijou, Sayyid El-Alami. Runtime, 102 minutes. Part of the 57th New York Film Festival Main Slate. Venue: Alice Tully Hall. US Premiere, October 1, 2019. US Release date: TBA.

Mostly Indies: C+

After experiencing back-to-back disappointments with his 2014 film Saint Laurent and his 2016 Nocturama, I was a bit hesitant to approach Bertrand Bonello’s incursion into the horror genre with his current work Zombi Child, an incursion into art-horror that attempts to merge Haiti’s tradition of turning civilians into zombies to reinforce slavery, blended somehow with a sheltered all-girl’s school, because I wasn’t sure how well he would treat the subject matter of what is part of Haitian religion and its own culture without turning it into something a bit silly or fetishistic.

The result of Bonello’s movie is equal parts historic recreation mixed with elements that seem borrowed from Val Lewton’s own I Walked with a Zombie (1944) or Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1987), and in that is good in my book. From the start, Zombi Child kicks off rather eerily, with the depiction of an unknown bokor preparing the drug that will be used for nefarious purposes against an unfortunate. That unfortunate turns out to be Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou), who collapses in the middle of a street in an unknown Haitian town and gets buried soon after. Only that he is not dead, Bonello films a chilling shot from Narcisse’s point of view as he silently and passively listens to the dirt falling onto his grave, only to find himself enslaved in the fields working for a black master.

The film then cuts to the present and zooms into an all-girl boarding school, where (predictably) the girls are mostly ignorant of the outside world. Amongst them is a young Haitian girl, Melissa (Wislanda Louimat), who while accepted in a clique of girls who love to listen to trap music and discuss literature, is also seen as a bit of a freak, mostly because she has been heard making strange noises in the girl’s bathroom at odd hours. Another girl, Fanny (Louise Labecque), seems to be going through an existential crisis of love as she mourns the loss of a former boyfriend, Pablo (Sayyid El-Alami). Conversations between Fanny and the other girls of their clique lead Fanny to discover Melissa’s Haitian heritage and seek her aunt Katy (Katiana Milfort) out for something unspeakable.

For the most part, Zombi Child seems to be split down the middle with its two disparate storylines which merge into a final, satisfying third. Its Haitian scenario is truly an atmospheric nightmare in which Clairvius, drugged beyond his wits, works the fields and wanders aimlessly through streets, slowly piecing back his life together. The French story sags quite a bit, and serves as a (very) slow ascent up the rollercoaster, giving us bits and pieces of information about the two most salient girls, before revealing to us not just what one is about to engage in, but that the other may have been a product of some unholy union and carries that in her own veins. It’s an intriguing piece of cinema, not quite horror but close, in which the cultural and political heritage of one country informs and colors another, and its incursion into a fantastic and horrifying climax serves as both expungement of a trauma by one girl, and the reaffirmation of another girl’s own culture.