Week One of the 58th New York Film Festival

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It never disappoints: one movie will somehow not make it through translation and will probably be seen as a director’s incursion into creating work only meant for a few instead of a larger audience. Cristi Puiu’s latest movie Malmkrog, which made its debut at the very beginning of the 58th New York Film Festival, is that movie. A 200-minute conversation, Malmkrog takes place mainly indoors and with the confines of an elegant manor house for which the movie is titled. In that manor, five upper crust individuals drag their thoughts and opinions on everything from Christianity’s stance on war to the Antichrist, all in the favor of some intellectual exercise. In this conversation, we see subtle animosities flare up, talkers attempting to one-up the other in order to dominate the table, and the possibility that the tea prepared for them might have been poisoned by an unknown servant. Progressively, as one conversation segues into another, and yet another, we do start to observe a pattern emerging. One of the women (there are three), Olga (Marina Palii), who comes across as the least intellectual of them all, tends to get prodded by her guests. Even her husband Nikolai (Frederic Schulz-Richard) at the movie’s climactic moment actively squares off with Olga, almost as if attempting to silence her simple rationale. What I was able to surmise is that in every party there is always a need to perform, to show one’s position on a topic, and that no matter how refined we may be as individuals, that need to demonstrate cultural superiority becomes unleashed at the face of a modest stance. Olga, in that respect, becomes a form of Saint Sebastian, or for the less religious, the Tess in Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. The verbal stoning she essentially buries her until she is barely in the background, merely accepting her fate and position amongst these pseudointellectuals. Still, Malmkrog will only be for strict admirers of Puiu’s work, or those familiar with the original source material… not anyone else. [C]

Fauna

Nicolas Pereda is a newcomer to me, and like most newcomers, to the art-house scene, his work announces a director who is willing to play with the very concept of narrative and what is real as opposed to what is performed. It’s an extremely short piece (although not by much; Hong Sang-too often makes 60-minute movies) but even in its brief running time, it manages to deliver some interesting scenes. Spit into two, Fauna concerns Luisa and Paco (Luisa Prado and Francisco Barreiro) en route to see her parents.

Not much happens along the way. Once there, Luisa has a conversation with her mother about a part she is rehearsing, leading to both women acting out the part in different, yet poignant ways. Paco gets invited by Luisa’s deadbeat brother Gabinio (Gabino Rodriguez) to Luisa’s father’s bar. Once there they ask Paco to reenact a scene from Narcos, a series where Paco plays out a small part. As it happens with people coming into contact with celebrities, they then ask him to pull out a part from thin air and act around it. It’s that scene that ends the sequence with a slight but plausible punchline.

The second part sees Gabino coming into the forefront the following day. He’s been reading a book, and his narration of that book builds the fantasy section of Fauna in which he, Luisa, and Paco play out the roles assigned to them in the book. Fauna, if it ever gets released in the US, might find its way into a small niche of arthouse movie lovers who upon giving Pereda’s movie a view will want to dissect it down to details. I personally see Fauna as an exercise in performance and role-play that somehow gets connected by a barely-there plot and a slight hint of sadness. [B]

Time

It’s not an ovrerreaching statement that prison has become a modern conceptualization of slavery and does not and will not ever benefit African Americans, Garrett Bradley’s documentary focuses on Sibyl Fox Richardson, a Louisiana native who, back when she started a hih-hop clothing line with her husband Rob, made the unfortunate mistake of staging a robbery in order to support her business. The reason is never revealed, but we get the idea that the Richardsons were struggling and just didn’t know another way out. Keep in mind that this is not a country made for the struggling poor, especially those of color or a “non-White ethnicity.”

While she Sibyl took the plea, Rob did not and was sentenced to a 60-year term. During that time we meet Sibyl, who now goes by Fox Rich (as a form of honoring Rob) we get to meet her as she raises her six children and slowly rebuilds her life back together, always waiting for that day that Rob would be let out. She is allotted two visits a month, which takes a toll on her and her growing sons. Through it all, it is her strength and her faith not in the system but in her own will that keep Fox on her feet, and Bradley’s film, beat by beat, starts to reveal that what’s needed here is social justice.

Time is available on Amazon Prime and is a must-see. [A-]

Smooth Talk

If there ever was an analogy to a snake coming into the garden (and mind you, I don’t read or care for the Bible), Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk, based on the Joyce Carol Oates short story “Where Are you Going, Where Have You Been?” is it. It tells the story of Connie (Laura Dern), a bored, privileged, and maybe mean girl living out her days in Small Town, California. Her interests are as simple as they are pedestrian: boys, and looking pretty. Her home life is a bit more problematic as she has a rather contentious relationship with her mother (Mary Kay Place) who constantly berates Connie. In a nutshell, Connie is anxious to grow up, and her mother would rather she not (and take care of their house).

Connie will get a chance at getting her first glimpse at the real world when a stranger, Arnold Friend (Treat Williams) crosses her path. His entrance in the film comes rather late although he can be seen at the fringes of the story early on, simply observing her. When he finally arrives, he oozes a menacing sexuality that is so pregnant with the personality of a psychopath that Smooth Talk morphs into something more Gothic — closer to David Lynch’s sensibilities as a matter of fact. Arnold’s dance of anti-seduction with Connie is as tense as anything I’ve ever seen and continues for a full half an hour before it fades into the distance with Connie in tow. I can see why both writer and director chose to leave it this way; when you see Williams and Dern, both about thirty feet apart with him at the door in a suggestive pose, you realize what will have to occur so Connie can wake up. It is a devastating reality only hinted at but never shown; however, that scene alone is enough. This is a deceptive little movie that will linger on with its bad aftertaste for days, but it is worth a view for its presentation and both Dern and Williams.

Smooth Talk will come back to virtual cinemas in November, 2020. [B+]

El tango del viudo y su espejo deformante (The Tango of the Widower and its Distorting Mirror)

Valeria Sarmiento’s restoration of her husband Raul Ruiz’s experimental movie The Tango of the Widower and its Distorting Mirror is one of the strangest films I have seen this festival. The backstory of this movie goes back to when it was completed as a short in 1967 but left without a soundtrack. An exhausting procedure of voice restoration that led to the transcription of the actors’ lines then led to the hiring of voice-over actors to play the parts out. Even then, Sarmiento was left with too short a movie. However, due to having been aware that Ruiz had often wanted to make a film in reverse in order to play with the fabric of time, she made the decision to, at the film’s exact center, unspool it shot by shot, adding snippets of voice over to the existing sound, and the result is this: a movie about a haunting that doubles in on itself and reflects its haunting back to the haunted person. Much like Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, we first encounter Clemente Iriarte, the widower in question, tormented by his spectral dead wife who seems to believe she is still alive and very much in his personal space. Her haunting reaches a fever pitch until Clemente commits an act of violence against himself… from which a second Clemente emerges, one who knows the ending, but has now come with the omniscient power of self-erase it. One could easily state that the wife who emerges from the mirror could be embodied by the ghost-Clemente, but the film doesn’t give you any concise answers. The Tango of the Widower, thus, remains an interesting, intriguing incursion into surrealism in which whatever was on the other side of the looking glass was always observing the observer, and that ghost could be death itself. [B-]

MLK/FBI

Prepare to be outraged. Sam Pollard’s blistering documentary MLK/FBI paints a vivid snapshot of where we were as a nation when Martin Luther King was then considered the nation’s prime enemy, one that the FBI, headed by then J. Edgar Hoover needed to be destroyed by any means necessary.

From the Freedom of Information Act we can now get a clearer glimpse at the tactics the FBI as an agency held up to a higher standard got involved in. [Of course, they as a whole practically had a file on anyone and everyone deemed an enemy or a Communist, and Dr. King is not the only victim here but he is one of the most salient.] From Dr. King’s association with Stanley Levinson, a known Communist, Hoover’s focus on King progresses into truly frightening and frankly, disturbing territories.

Perhaps because Hoover, born and raised in the South, had never experienced a Black man who was this verbose and eloquent, and it certainly didn’t matter that King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963. It speaks glaringly at the attitude of the times in which Blacks had still no rights other than to barely exist, so King as an icon of peace now became an icon of anarchy for the White majority who feared a revolution. This attitude was just the type of environment that Hoover and Wiliam Sullivan needed to exploit in order to disclose anything that could besmirch (assassinate) Dr. King’s character and reputation, and the lows that they stooped to will make anyone’s book boil.

Pollard’s documentary wisely treads some familiar terrain in keeping an objective point of view. It would be problematic to present Dr. King as a saint. Instead Pollard also dives into the ugly rape allegations that Dr. King participated in, but of course also adds that the agents conducting surveillance and listening in to Dr. King living his pwn life came with massive biases against blacks (a bias that still exists even today if you just turn on the news).

Suggestions are made by retired agent Charles Knox, who turns in late in the documentary, that nothing good would come of having access to these files, set to be released in seven years. I disagree: we are owed an explanation of what exactly a prestigious agency was up to. For a nation to heal it must look at its wound. To deny the infliction of such a wound — which incidentally, continued to be inflicted upon Coretta Scott King even after King’s murder in 1967, is to give in to the perpetuation of a culture that continues to glorify a police state that does nothing to protect its own and needlessly diminish those not deemed “white enough” (and by that I also include all other non-Anglo races, LGBTQ people, etc.). [A]

Damnation

Bela Tarr’s Damnation should have been a noir film. The movie’s esthetics, so drenched in noir sensibilities, practically demands it. Picture this: a man lives in the middle of nowhere. His view is of buckets of coal being pulled alongside a cable, the sound they make is purely industrial. This man, hopelessly in love with a woman that does not love him although she says she does. This man is so enamored by this woman that, when offered a smuggling job in which there is money, he would rather give that opportunity to the woman’s husband in order to get him out of the way. The woman, only because there is a promise of money (and a way out of this overwhelming desolation), offers to give the man a little bit of sex. The sex, mind you, is passionless. When the husband returns with cash in hand, things go back to where they were, and the man, now alone, realizes he’s been used in the worst imaginable way. Something has to give.

If Damnation were to get the Hollywood treatment it could possibly be something straight out of Jacques Tourneur or James Cain, with gritty femme fatales betraying the poor schmoes drawn to them. Damnation, however, goes well past the narrative limitations of noir and sends Tarr’s antihero Karrer (Miklós Székely) straight into the bowels of insanity. It is a powerful glimpse into a life wasted by alcohol and despair and the lack of love, magnified by the constant presence of rain and gloom that grabs onto the narrative and never lets anyone breathe. [A]

Snippets of Cinema: Host, The Sonata, Lizzie, and The Perfect Nanny

I had no idea what Zoom was before the pandemic so when I heard that everyone was using Zoom to keep in touch I felt a bit like a Luddite (and I’m reasonably well-off when it comes to modern technology). Of course, leave it to movie directors trying to score a hit to pitch a concept film based solely on this technology.

It has been done before, mind you: the found-footage horror movie presented a horror movie based solely on recorded video. Paranormal Activity used a stationary video-cam to record the day-to-day activity of a husband and wife suffering from an insidious, evil presence. Searching used screenshots and computer screens to piece together a rather clever story detailing the disappearance of a girl and the investigation led by her father to great effect.

Now we get the first Zoom movie, and the influence of Unfriended, an effective little chiller that popped up several in theaters years earlier, can’t be denied. Host, the second film by Rob Savage, tells the story of a group of female friends who get together via Zoom during the pandemic to be a part of a seance that one of them (Haley Bishop) is orchestrating via a medium friend (Seylan Baxter).

The first third of this very short movie goes on so-so. Nothing happens out of the ordinary. It’s after the seance begins, and one of them (Jemma Moore) feigns having been approached by something invisible that unexplainable things start happening. The medium informs the girls that they should not have done that because by doing so they may have opened a portal to something nefarious, but perhaps it might just go away on its own. [Yeah, right.] It’s not long before strange events start happening and soon, predictably, spiral out of control.

I’ll say it: Host is terrible. Even at an escapist level, some tension is needed to maintain a sense of dread. Host offers none of that, and because of this, it becomes flattened out by its bad video quality and the complete unlikeability of its characters. Furthermore, it offers nothing new to the horror genre: a light that turns on, things that go bump in the dark — leading a character to investigate –, check. Then we get people being dragged clear across the room and other horror tropes that have been done to boredom. Really?

If you don’t care to lose an hour of your life then by all means and give it a look-see on Shudder. I’ve seen worse, as I’m about to write about in my next paragraph.

The Sonata, despite its rather elegant title, is as silly as the concept it tries to posit to the audience. No amount of tuning your mind out can prepare you for this one. Violinist Rose Marlowe (Freya Tingley) has inherited the property of her father, the famed composer Richard Marlowe (Rutger Hauer), and decides to go stay there and “get away from it all — which means her suffocating manager Charles Vernais (Simon Abkarian) who seems to equally love Rose and hate her at the same time like the self-serving/self-hating narcissist that he is. Rose hasn’t even managed to drop her bags when she meets the movie’s first jumpscare in the form of the French housekeeper. However, the movie has more important things to touch, and soon Rose is pouring through her father’s last composition which comes with strange symbols drawn in red which also appear ominously throughout the grand house. Rose, who is a cipher with no personality, calls her suffocating manager, tells him they are all good, and asks him to come over, which he does because of course, he would do that. No sooner than Charles arrives does he start to control everything Rose sees and does and all buy shakes a sculptured mustache at both her and the audience. This gives Rose all the time in the world to go checking out the rest of the place which leads her to some unexpected territory.

Look, the movie looks gorgeous throughout so at least there was some care in the presentation. The problem arises in the fact that the plot moves at such a slow pace. Everything — even an innocuous scene — gets dressed in ominous, dramatic music, and almost always leads… nowhere. Abkarian plays his part as though he belonged in a high-powered drama, while Tingley merely looks vaguely scared and mousy. The Sonata is just not that interesting as a musical piece or a horror movie. It is a shame because the location is extremely lush, much like the setting for Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House.

Faring better is The Perfect Nanny (Chanson Douce). Directed by Lucie Borleteau, The Perfect Nanny is the adaptation of Leila Slimani’s novel of the same name which itself is based on a true story. It tells the tragic story of a young French couple, Myriam and Paul (played by Leila Bekhti and Antoine Reinartz), who decides to hire a nanny so the wife can go back to work. During the screening process, they interview Louise (Karin Viard), who fills every check-in their box of requirements to do the job. Louise gets hired on the spot and is soon ultra-efficient at her job — so much that soon Myriam and Paul are enjoying their time together and have next to nothing to worry about.

As it would happen, the cracks in Louise’s smooth veneer start to show, but barely. She’s grown attached — perhaps too attached — to the kids, and Myriam’s daughter caters to her more than herself. There is a trip to Formentera that reveals a shocking part of Louise’s psyche. Soon, Louise starts to harbor plans on her own in order to remain employed by Myriam and Paul… a thought that will carry devastating consequences for all involved.

Karin Viard as Louise is the driving force carrying her unsympathetic but tragic character on her shoulders. Her performance for the most part is extremely controlled — she is detail-oriented, yes, and attentive to a fault, but this is mostly because it serves her the purpose to get employed and continue to be employed. It is rare when Viard lets us see the chaos that lies just underneath like a pressure-cooker, but once we get a glimpse of it, Borleteau lets us into the depths of Louise’s psyche and you realize there is no going back. Aside from one sequence that borders on horror, The Perfect Nanny is essentially a psychodrama that manages to deliver much more than the simple (and boring) premise of the lonely nanny from hell.

The Story of Lizzie Borden has been done to death, and it never ceases to at least intrigue. From the savagery of her crime to the perversely funny rhyme that was born out of that day in August of 1892, Lizzie has gone down in history as both the obvious and a victim of patriarchy gone wrong.

Craig MacNeil presents Lizzie as a suffocating experience. From the start, we are drawn into the dysfunctional Borden family in which all the women shuffle about like broken ghosts in their own home, dominated as they are by corrupt patriarchy. At its center is a tense situation between Lizzie (Chloe Sevigny) and her father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan), who circle each other like predators at the ready for bloodshed. It is never in doubt that the two harbor a deep hatred for each other. MacNeil never offers a clear explanation as to why Lizzie and Andrew are so clearly adversaries (although Abby (Fiona Shaw) is the obvious candidate); he just lets them engage in increasing levels of poisonous exchanges until it becomes clear something must give. If only MacNeil had kept his focus on this twosome and not bumped up John Morse’s presence, and if only the story of Lizzie and Bridget Sullivan (a mousy Kristen Stewart) hadn’t felt so perfunctory, Lizzie would have been perfect. Denis O’Hare’s John Morse comes across too broadly, almost dastardly — he seems to still be in American Horror Story when in fact he’s essentially a red herring — and Stewart’s Sullivan seems a bit underwritten. All in all, Lizzie is what you would call correct, claustrophobic, but not the kind of movie I’d remember down the road.

On Netflix: The Social Dilemma

Late September usually manages to be rather hectic for me because I am so immersed in cinema via the New York Film Festival that whatever I manage to catch, be it new or restored classics usually get relegated to the sidelines.

However, a little thing called the novel coronavirus became a gigantic behemoth that practically redefined life as we know it. The Film Society of Lincoln Center, to my benefit, went virtual — a thing it had announced over the late spring / early summer — and I, cinephile and homebody at heart, felt that Christmas had indeed arrived well in advance. To be able to watch all these films from the comfort of my own home! To enjoy culture from all over the globe and not even have to get dressed appropriately? Who needs a physical seat and be surrounded by pop-corn chewing mumblers and cell-phone addicts either sneaking in a picture or a chat (a thing that ruins my viewing experience) when I can have my solitude and perhaps an interested friend who could come over and safely enjoy something different?

In the meantime, I’m going to talk quite a bit about a documentary I saw while in between premieres: The Social Dilemma.

The Social Dilemma is a documentary that snuck into Netflix without much fanfare. Only due to the recommendations of close friends and fellow moviegoers was I made aware of this incisive documentary that focuses on the manner social media has shaped how we interact with one another, and more disturbing, but how we have come to rely on the approval of strangers to feel validated.

This is something that I’ve seen creeping into the fabric of society since the late 00s when Facebook was new and YouTube, while less new, was the dominating platforms in which people spoke to each other over silly cat videos and Smosh antics. Right around the time Facebook was created people were getting progressively into texting. Of course, when all you had was the Samsung flip phone, you still had to press several keys in order to basically write a single sentence, hence emoticon language and leet speak was born.

With the arrival of Smartphones and iPhones, the floodgates were laid wide open. You could do anything on your own mini-computer, and it was all good. Facebook and YouTube became early kings of media (although YouTube wouldn’t create a phone all until early 2012 or so). Soon, Instagram, WhatsApp, Quora, Reddit, and Pinterest followed, and somewhere in 2010 or 2011, the like button arrived.

Who knew that a little thing as a like button would drastically shape everything we know about social media? To get likes on a comment, a threat, a picture, a video… these are validating things that our networks give us constantly. There are many who rely on likes to “generate content” based also on views. Following became not a term applied to stalkers but to an audience. The more followers, the more views you could generate, the more audience engagement you produce. You basically become not just the star of your own online show, but your own marketing guru, or as we now call it, influencer.

The downside of these aspects of social media is the insidious rise of a different type of troll. Back in the 90s and 00s, trolls were somewhat obvious from the get-go, blank accounts and sock puppets that often showed up to stir trouble if there was an overtly-sensitive YouTuber. The concept of trolling soon evolved into something darker — the rise of false accounts to impersonate real ones and deliver what we now know is “fake news”.

We’ve all fallen prey to it. And Facebook has frankly, benefitted from this rather well despite what it might want to say.

The other aspect that The Social Dilemma tackles is how Facebook and most social media sites and even your own browser engages in tracking in order to start throwing ad pitches at you. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that every movement we do on the net not just leaves prints but enables algorithms to shape a version of us in order to then tailor the Internet for our individual experience. What you may see on your feed may be completely different from what I may see. Hence we get, delivered right to our faces, a version of the news that will appeal to us most… and that ad sale for whatever — a house, a pair of jeans that we normally use, and a suggestion to see more of the same.

For those of you who remember a time when you could log onto both Facebook and YouTube and not see a sudden surge in, let’s say, recommendations to buy a specific product based on your own browsing/shopping history, those days have long disappeared. Every time you click like or take that test to see how your aura looks like, or share a news item, you are disclosing more and more about you and also potentially spreading false information that until proven true might create chaos and confusion, as it did during the 2016 elections when Russia, using our very own technology, influenced the elections and basically stuck us into this nightmare.

By using a blended family as an example we also begin to see how the very concept of being here and now is quickly eroding. We see how everyone seems to be at one point, on their phone, browsing, clicking on pictures, chatting, “hitting the like button”. The level of dependency that the two younger siblings, played by Skyler Gisondo and Sophia Hammons, is frankly, alarming, but part of how we act today. Hammons plays Isla, a teen obsessed by how she looks — which is normal. The problem arises when this obsession falls into the hands of her online presence in social media sites and soon you see her filtering her pictures, to the point where a simple commentary on how her ears look sends her into a downward spiral. Gisondo plays Ben, Isla’s stepbrother. Ben soon gets lured into the world of conspiracy theories and fake news and all but falls short of becoming radicalized just due to the way he gets addicted to his own phone.

Despite its good intentions, I don’t think that The Social Dilemma will change the way we see things. We are wired to connect. We must use browsers to browse. We get a dose of dopamine when we are acknowledged. It is perfectly normal to want to show your best image. I myself have deleted pictures that I deemed were less than flattering. The issue is, at one point do we allow this need for self-validation overrides everything that defines us? You see Instagram sensations become unmasked as flagrant liars who have fabricated their entire personas down to a science, often enabled by an irresponsible parent. You see people more separated than ever based solely on how news is delivered to us. Those on the right truly believe that the left — even the moderate left — will be the ruin of the world and vice versa. No one can talk without screaming. Unfriending is normal. And in the interim, we also become so enamored by this tool we have — and its lure of “suggested videos/products” that at the end of the day we ourselves turn into automatons unable to function without some form of online validation. The rise in human isolation and depression has become more and more pronounced today and you can see kids barely into their teens already contemplating suicide. All because of algorithms that are sculpting us into whatever it is that they think we should be.

The Social Dilemma makes its point clear in presenting unto us the dangers of buying too much into the online experience. I don’t think we need to abandon social media altogether, but at least, sit back and relax from all that digital overload. Question that article’s veracity. Do you really need hundreds, thousands of likes to feel okay? Must your body image conform to what a potentially altered image of an Instagram model shows? Is someone else’s reality something you wish to achieve?

If you don’t watch any other documentary — and there are some good ones coming up the block and in the New York Film Festival — I suggest you see this one, and then, see it again, with your family or loved ones. It is a total eye-opener.

Just for Laughs: Extra Ordinary and The Lovebirds

Still from Extra Ordinary, image courtesy from Movie Nation.

Here we have a movie that completely cracks me up. I almost don’t even know where to start because whenever I even think about it I just let loose and then I have to force myself to pipe down. If that’s saying anything, then you owe it to yourself to watch Extra Ordinary — yes, two words; no, I’ve no clue why.

Extra Ordinary is the first feature-length film by Mike Ahearn and Enda Loughman and it is a hoot right off the bat. It tells the stories of three disparate characters: Martin Martin (Barry Ward), who lives in a house that is dominated by the ghost of his former wife Bonnie. It is safe to say that Bonnie isn’t a benevolent presence. Actually, she’s kind of a bitch even in the afterlife and is, to put it mildly, making Martin’s life a living hell. With someone like Bonnie, you would probably prefer someone more nefarious like a nasty demon to really bring in the fun to your dreary existence because Bonnie is one bitter pill.

Fed the fuck up with her own ghost of a mother, Sarah, Martin’s daughter (played by Emma Coleman) comes across Rose Dooley (Maeve Higgins), a psychic, and hopes she can help send Bonnie wherever the heck she’s supposed to go. However, Rose has her own issues: she’s actually a retired psychic who now moonlights as a driving instructor. Rose left her past behind when she and her paranormal investigator father Vincent (Risteard Cooper) conducted an experiment that involved a dog, a magpie, and a possessed pothole which went terribly wrong. Since then, Rose can only really get along with her rather preggers Sailor (Terri Chandler).

In the midst of this, one-hit wonder pop star Christopher Winter (Will Forte) is trying to resurrect his career. For this, he has resorted to the dark arts and hopes to conduct a ritual involving the sacrifice of a virgin to the demon Astaroth (if his motormouth wife Claudia – played by Claudia O’Doherty) will let him.

Dear reader, this is a lot of setup that the directors have thrown upon the viewer to see, but Extra Ordinary handles it as if it were a neat card trick, always landing on a visual joke or something completely absurd. It doesn’t take much for these storylines to converge into one massive ball of insanity that just keeps on snowballing in on itself until at one point it would look like it may have given up all its tricks and comedic send-ups in lieu of a less than satisfying ending. However, Extra Ordinary just keeps delivering laughs like a possessed copy machine spewing out paper faster than it can duplicate, until the movie itself simply says, “Fuck it,” goes on overdrive and does the trick that Thelma and Louise weren’t able to do — drive not just off the cliff but clear to the other side. Everything that the story has been hinting at from the start gets thrown in complete with last-second revelations and one poor Chinese food delivery guy that looks like he’s just wandered in from… well, a Chinese restaurant, and now has all these strangers who look positively insane staring at him, wondering where’s the food.

It is safe to say that this is the funniest horror comedy of the year and it is available on Showtime and most online platforms. You must see it… and then see it again.

The Lovebirds is the perfect dumb-comedy date movie to watch on an evening night with a nice bottle of wine and a relaxed state of mind. From director Michael Showalter, who is 2018 brought The Big Sick, Showalter re-teams with Kumail Nanjiani and brings on Issa Rae for a story of a cute power couple who after meeting cute at a restaurant descends into a life of petty arguments and vicious put-downs only to find themselves running like hell throughout the town so that they don’t get their asses kicked. On the way to a party, Jibran (Nanjiani) and Leilani (Rae) make the unfortunate encounter with a cyclist who winds up under their car and very, very dead. Because they are aware of what happens to people of their ethnicities once the police get involved they go on the run, unaware that they also might be the target of whoever killed the cyclist and must find out how to solve this mystery… and their fragile relationship.

I personally loved this comedy. It doesn’t try to do anything new — the couple on the run has been done to death since It Happened One Night. However, Showalter has a strong knowledge of what makes funny work and bringing out the best of both Rae and Nanjiani who have incredible chemistry together they carry a rather nonsensical plot into its crazy conclusion while also inserting some mild commentary on race relations and law enforcement. There is probably one moment when the movie tries a bit too hard to go high-concept — a sequence that echoes Eyes Wide Shut — but for the most part, The Lovebirds comes out with flying colors because it knows what it is — a potboiler — and that it doesn’t need to go too concept to send its breezy story to the rafters. I just hope that Rae and Nanjiani get to work again. Their comic timing and scenes together, of which there are many, make this movie crackle with kinetic, comedic energy not seen. since Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas in Romancing the Stone.

Ballon is a Deflated Escape from Oppression

It’s a shame that a movie based on actual events in which a pair of families living in oppression in the German Democratic Republic who decide to make their escape via a balloon would wind up being so un-involving. Even the plight of the von Trapps in The Sound of Music, a musical so light and feathery you fear it might escape you at any time, feels more authentic, and their final scene singing Edelweiss resonates even now as a tribute to victory against oppression. Had this movie had a stronger hand — one well versed in the genre of suspense — perhaps Ballon would have fared better and not wind up deflated and forlorn.

As it is, the story of the Wetzels and the Strelzyk families, friends living near the border with West Germany evolves at a rather formulaic pace. We see them going through the motions while a neighbor, Erik Hausmann (Ronald Kukulies) keeps friendly tabs on the comings and goings of the Stryzeks. It’s never really seen as though the families are in great danger — yes, they live in a police state complete with ultra surveillance and the ever-present Stasi — but there isn’t enough to really send the message that they don’t really belong in such a state of repression. However, Herbig flips the pages almost in a perfunctory way, advancing the story of the German escape with detachment, never really giving into paranoia or real suspense. The first attempt which only involves the Strelzyzk family goes wrong, landing them barely within the border where Doris Strelzyk loses her prescription medication. It sets off an investigation led by Oberstleutnant Seidel (Thomas Krestchmann) to find out who exacly is attempting escape.

The stakes become higher, and a sense of urgency begins to permeate both families as an arrest is imminent. Even then, it seems that Herbig decides to keep the tension at bare minimum. Instead, Herbig creates some artificial (and sorely overdone) drama by having one of the younger Wetzels make a rather obvious disclosure and the Strelzyk son develop a romance with the Hausmann daughter, which begs the question, how careless could these people really be? At least, in the end, Ballon delivers, but it does so in a manner that really leaves you wishing for more, happy that the families are now safe, but wondering what was the fuss all about.

Clint Eastwood’s Ode to the Underdog: Richard Jewell

Image from Film Threat

Late in Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, Paul Walter Hauser as the eponymous character, in the only time that he manages to humbly and effectively defend himself against the stacks that have accrued against him because botched investigations must proceed even when botched and scapegoats must be demonized in service of the law, basically tells an FBI agent what amounts to be, “You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.” It’s a heartbreaking speech because even when he gets that out of his chest, even when he will walk away as a free man and clear his name (this is not a spoiler if you even bother to google Jewell’s name), Jewell would remain until the end of his life a haunted man, unable to comprehend what just happened to him.

All he was trying to do was do his job, and perhaps his own child-like demeanor, his wide-eyed view of the world, and his enamored devotion to the law worked against him. He got the short end of the stick and no amount of compensation would suffice in bringing that indignity back.

Eastwood may not be attempting to bring the most cinematic of ventures but he has a soft spot for those who’ve been trampled and forgotten by society. His last movie, The Mule, while not elevating the character he himself played on a pedestal, does manage to make you sympathize with him. Even more so, his Richard Jewell, an unfortunate victim of circumstance, a man who simply attempted to warn the public attending a concert of a bomb, paid the ultimate price and got stabbed by all the nails hidden inside. Eastwood brings Jewell’s story, warts and all, into the public consciousness, and it will want to make you angry. Yes, some characters manage to look a bit cartoonish but this is the intent, to bring an awareness of how there media, hungry reporters, and even hungrier law enforcement agents looking for a quick promotion may violate a person’s fundamental rights and not care one bit for the truth. Richard Jewell almost approaches levels of the Kafkaesque without turning into an absurdist film, and even after credits roll the character’s fate — and the ultimate apprehension of the real perpetrator — will still leave you fuming.

Opening Night at the 58th New York Film Festival, Lovers Rock

Image courtesy from Guardian

I’m not big on serials in film festivals (and almost avoided this one altogether), but this one warranted a view simply for its concept alone (and I will catch it again once it premieres on Amazon Prime). Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock is the second in a series of five episodes that form part of a limited series called Small Axe. In his series McQueen tells the Black experience in England — namely, London — during the late 60s to the early 80s, and while that to me is an excellent concept — it isn’t exactly a secret that England (well, Europe in general as well as the rest of the world not including Africa) has harbored a rather hushed version of racism towards African immigrants who have throughout the years come in search of a better life away from the limitations their native countries offered.

The episode is almost entirely silent except for snippets of conversation. The location is a townhome. People go in and out prepping for a house party, the kind that involved loads of turntables, deejays announcing the next hit and dedicating it to the revelers, and lots of cooking. It is, in fact, a wonderful opening, to see so much glow and music floating through the women who try their best to replicate Janet Kay’s Silly Games in unison. In the interim, we meet several unnamed women as they choose what dresses to wear and style each other’s hair. Progressively we get focused on Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and her friend as they get ready for a night out, make small talk and arrive at the house party.

McQueen brings out all the hits from the late 70s which would still have been largely played in these outings, and while the start of the party is largely disco-oriented, we start to see reggae of the time, particularly the lovers rock sub-genre, creeping in. Couples start forming, signaling the beginnings of romance, and the possibilities of sexual encounters that may take place after. Martha gets the lion share of attention, approached as she is by a smooth talker whom she wards off in favor of the less ostentatious Franklyn (Micheal Ward) with whom she strikes up a connection while the party goers revel to the thrumming beat of slow reggae, culminating in a wonderful choreographed moment in which Janet Kay’s Silly Games officially arrives, throwing the entire party into a state of bliss,

McQueen seems to eschew any traditional narrative — complete with dialog and exposition, entrances, exits, and cuts — to instead become a passive viewer of a gathering in a safe space where only those privy of it were allowed to go to. It is worthy to note that white faces are barely if ever, seen, and always bring with them a sense of latent racism and even danger hardly alluded to. This is in essence the running theme of Small Axe, shot neatly and without active conflict or resolution, but a simple observation. To wit: a trio of Anglo boys early in the episode check out the movers who are prepping for the event, unacknowledged. Later on, the same boys will cat-call Martha as she runs after the female friend she arrived at the party in and one even makes monkey-like sounds.

That in a nutshell is the most Lovers Rock delves into racial tensions, a short slice of life that brings its own set of internal conflicts within its partygoers. I only wish that McQueen had included subtitles in his episode because even though it is English, the accents are very thick, and I had a hard time making out what was being said. Hopefully, they will be included once Small Axe makes its bow on streaming platforms in November.

In Memoriam: Four by Chadwick Boseman

Chadwick Boseman (1976 – 2020), imager from Consequence of Sound

On the morning of August 28, 2020, I woke up to learn that Chadwick Boseman, an actor at the dawn of an illustrious career, had succumbed to colon cancer at the age of 43. It felt unreal. Forty-three is not an age that anyone simply turns only to find out one’s time is numbered; and yet there it was, mortality, taking away a performer like Boseman, reminding me that we have so little time on this chunk of rock called Earth and that whatever we have, we should give forward and at least leave a slight memory of who we were during our time here.

Boseman leaves behind a small but noticeable body of work that is still recent in the minds of moviegoers young and old alike. His breakthrough performance was 42, a film directed by Brian Helgeland which told the story of iconic baseball player Jackie Robinson. It is the only one in Boseman’s resume that tackles the topic of the Black experience as told by a White Savior, and while it is true that Robinson rose the ranks to become one of the nation’s most renowned baseball players, it didn’t happen by chance alone but by the presence of the influential Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford). Rickey was looking into breaking the color barrier and after spotting Robinson, hired him to play for the Dodgers.

Chadwick Boseman in 42 (2012).

As in many stories involving black men and women coming into a white environment, 42 also tackles the topic of the racism that Robinson faced at the time. There was no written law banning African American people into sports. If anything, the unspoken agreement was that they just couldn’t play, period. Once Rickey signs Robinson up, Robinson has to not only out-perform everyone (which he did) but also “keep his temper in check” in order to remain on the game. It seems a rather unfair disadvantage and an arbitrary rule, but as it is with White Savior films, it is the only way someone like Robinson can even hope to have a chance. In essence 42 is what you might call a “correct” and “respectful” homage to a player of the statute of Robinson, and through Boseman’s stoic and unflinching performance we manage to understand to a degree the hurdles placed on African Americans to make it in a world that would rather they remain in the shadows.

I didn’t see Get On Up so this is the sole entry that I won’t be able to write about, but after that, if Chadwick Boseman wasn’t already headed for greatness, he exploded all over the acting map with Black Panther. Now, I have stated numerous times I rarely tend to go see any superhero movie because I fail to see the importance of them in the world of cinema. Conflict is presented by a megalomaniac intent on ruling the world (or at least, a good chunk of it). In comes the hero, the man (or woman) who will oppose the megalomaniac using the powers of good, lightning-quick reactions, and copious amounts of martial arts and trickery (i. e. “power”) to subdue the enemy and thus, restore order.

Black Panther, image from CNET

Black Panther both continues in the same vein of storytelling, but it also stands apart. This has more to do with the way director Ryan Coogler presents his vision, which is to make an origin story rich in detail, incorporating elements from African culture (which have been up to now largely ignored because let’s face it, Hollywood), steeped in its own traditions and civilizations, and granting it a strong identity. It also begs to add that Black Panther as its own comic book rose at a critical point and time in American history. It’s no accident that T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) plays a superhero of this name. It wouldn’t surprise me that at a deep, sociological level, African Americans in the 60s were looking for something–someone–close to the divine, the untouchable, an emblem to fight their battle against the oppression that dragged them here from their native Africa to fates worst than death itself.

In this sense, I find that Black Panther as a commentary on Black identity stands on its own rather than just fulfills a role in filling up movie theaters and delivering yet another superhero movie complete with dazzling set pieces, costumes, and thrilling action. It is completely anchored by Boseman in an above-reproach performance of a man held to higher standards who must preserve the integrity of his nation and also avoid global conflict.

However, to every hero, there is a foil. That foil, prankster, wild card, or even enemy if you will, comes under the form of Michael B Jordan as Eric “Killmonger” Stevens. It is Stevens who opens the movie, who evolves from being the victim of violence in California to become T’Challa’s nemesis. His role is extremely complicated because you can see what having your innocence shattered can do to a person, how far it can push you, and how it turns you into something closet to a fallen angel who will lead the world into rebellion. Jordan plays the part to such intensity that he basically overshadows Boseman every second he is on screen.

Black Panther is an epic adventure that owes much to the time it took to get it on screen. Perhaps if it had been made with Wesley Snipes — he was at one point attached or interested in playing the part when his star was burning rather brightly and he could do no wrong — the cards may have played themselves out differently. Who can tell? However, largely because Hollywood is still playing catch-up in telling Black stories that can stand on their own and not anchor themselves on an Anglo performer, now is the time when we can see a movie made for Black audiences by a Black director. [Note: I shouldn’t have to type Black this much but the point must be made.] This is a gorgeous, pristine entry into the superhero canon, one that delivers the action as well as provides a sense of detail, of lush, of a product that needed to out-perform everyone else in order to rise above the rest and become a part of cinema history.

And when was the last time you saw a superhero movie that grants so many complex performances from almost its entire cast? You have Nakia (Lupita N’Yongo), T’Challa’s one-time girlfriend who serves as a spy for other nations; the Dora Miljae, led by Okoye (Danae Gurira); T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri (Laetitia Wright) who is a tech genius and anxious to get in on the action; M’Boku (Winston Duke) who has a few good fight scenes alongside Boseman and later will be of great help to his cause, and Daniel Kaluuya as W’Kabi, T’Challa’s friend. Angela Bassett, Forest Whittaker, French actor Isaac de Bankolé, Martin Freeman, and Andy Serkis round out the cast.

Somewhere inside 21 Bridges, there is a good, solid cop movie waiting to come out and reveal itself, a film of the caliber of Michael Mann, or early William Friedkin circa The French Connection. The premise itself seems to indicate something of an urban epic, with sweeping camera angles darting in and out of tunnels, in between buildings, crisscrossing the boroughs of New York, where its plot takes place in. There will be none of that in this rather rote feature film, so anyone expecting more will be disappointed.

At least the presence of Chadwick Boseman, this time playing not someone larger than life but still someone who is still held at a higher standard is the sole reason to view this generic crime movie. He plays Andrew Davis, a New York detective with a past. Davis arrives on the scene of a crime in which several NYPD officers, responding to a heist at a winery, have been gunned down by the perpetrators (Stephan James and Taylor Kisch, last seen in If Beale Street Could Talk), who are potentially within the city but may go on the lam soon. Davis orders that the city is placed on lockdown to prevent their escape with the condition that he will have the perps under his control before dawn. He gets the green light… and the chase is on.

Director Brian Kirk doesn’t really go for anything cinematic here. This is a work for hire directed by a man whose work has been largely on the small screen and it shows scene per scene. Even the action sequences of which there are quite a bit don’t quite build up to the intensity this story merits. No intent is made to imbue the movie with any modicum of suspense, ambiguity, or the gritty ambiance typical of crime pictures. Even the performances seem automatic — JK Simmons phones in his own, and Sienna Miller tries too hard to sound New York. Again, Boseman as Davis is the one reason to see this unremarkable movie, with Taylor Kisch a close second as a rookie criminal in over his head.

Chadwick Boseman might not be the lead in Spike Lee’s new movie Da 5 Bloods but he is the spiritual glue that holds the entire cast that plays his war buddies together. Call him Hamlet’s ghost, or a brother’s conscience, his presence, always presented with a sense of reverence, Boseman’s Norman represents an interesting evolution. No longer is he here someone larger than life like he was in 42 or Black Panther. In Da 5 Bloods Norman is simply, the unknown soldier who died in a crossfire in Vietnam, and whose body his war brothers have come to claim and bring back to Americal soil.

Along with some treasure that they found in the middle of combat and buried out in the middle of nowhere, where it resides, waiting to be claimed, hopefully by them. At least Spike Lee keeps them honest — yes, the mission. is noble; Much like the three haunted soldiers in Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying, they have a duty to secure the safe transportation of their dead friend. However, their trip is also a form of retribution for the sacrifices Black Americans made in Vietnam, a war that saw them getting sent out in droves while — Veronica Ngo’s radio deejay Hanoi Hannah recounts, often to the camera — the White man more often than not stayed behind. Call it a collection of securities, payment for a war that made them not heroes, but haunted men.

Spike Lee’s movie introduces the remaining four in grand gestures, and soon its almost like they never drifted apart. You have Melvin (Isaiah Whitlock), the funny one with a voice that sounds a bit like Cleveland Brown of Family Guy, Eddie (Norm Lewis), the mediator, Otis (Clarke Peters) a man who has become a pacifist and has some unresolved personal affairs in Vietnam to take care of. And, finally, you have Paul (Delroy Lindo). Paul has become a Trump supporter (in one of the movies incursions into irony), and remains the most haunted by the war. Lindo plays Paul like a pressure keg — he can still bullshit like the best of them, but he’s scarred, and those wounds have not healed.

Worse, Paul wounds are about to do an unwelcome flare-up.

Lee, however, doesn’t present Paul’s slow collapse too soon. Some necessary exposition with comedic overtones transpire, and once the friends, joined by Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors, last seen in The Last Black Man in San Francisco), arrive in Vietnam, the story takes a bit of a pause. Otis finds out he had a daughter he was unaware of, and David meets a group of activists headed by Hedy (Melanie Thierry), with whom he strikes up some flirtatious conversation steeped in the presence of the French in Vietnam ages ago.

It is a scene involving a local fisherman that brings forth Paul’s intense PTSD and hatred for the Vietnamese, which gradually begins to morph into something uglier. Once they arrive at their destination where Norman’s body lays, Paul’s paranoia, which has up to now been at the edges of the film, takes center stage. Compounding that with the real dangers the men face at the hands of un-detonated land mines, and the movie, up to now mainly a light affair speckled with some nostalgic overtones, takes a much darker uglier turn.

It turns, greed is, to say the least, the ultimate divider amongst men. Once the gold they buried so long ago makes an appearance you know stuff is about to go down. Here is where Delroy Lindo emerges in full force, disgusting, monstrous, but still afflicted by a war he continues to fight 50 years later, and like the archetypical father of any Langston Hughes story, he whips up a frenzy of pain and pent-up anger so intense it almost overtakes the entire film. What he does is absolutely reprehensible, but Spike Lee, instead of letting Lindo go, keeps the camera dead on his face while Lindo lets force a monologue of unrelenting force that manages to shatter any composure from anyone viewing. The remainder of the cast manages to somehow find their way back, but Lindo, so deep into the abyss he has become it, has no salvation. Or does he?

If Spike Lee decided that this was it, no more movies, he was done and done, he would bow out in a blaze of glory. This is how exceptional, how painful, his movie Da 5 Bloods is. It doesn’t linger too often on the issues of race in America, but instead, it opts to tell a story of men marked by racial tensions as well as war. The past informs the future, and Lee manages to link both Vietnam with Black Lives Matter seamlessly in a tour de force film, one that ends in a high note in ways that many of his others have avoided.

The Platform

Image from Polygon

A spiritual cousin to Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise, Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s movie The Platform takes the concept described in the previous movie and strips it to its bare bones. Here we have not a skyscraper in which the wealthy live near or at the top while the less fortunate live on or around the bottom but something else even more sinister. The Administration, which could very well be a stand-in for the government of an undisclosed country, has created what we come to realize is a tower dug into the ground. In that hole, called the “Vertical Self-Management Center”, criminals of all shapes and sizes are kept two per floor while a huge platform filled to the brim with delicious food travels from top to bottom and then back again, stopping for a few critical minutes on each floor. In that time inmates must be able to feed themselves or risk going that day without a meal, at least until the next round of delivery. The catch to this is that the lower you are in this hole, the less food you will get.

Goreng (Iván Massagué) awakens to find himself in such a predicament on the 48th floor, his neighbor Trimagasi (Zorion Egiuileor), an older and clearly insane man who is never seen without a knife. A tentative friendship starts, but of course, in an atmosphere of survival, this is tenuous: when Goreng and Trimagasi get changed to the 171st floor, Goreng realizes what that knife’s purpose is. A struggle ensues, someone winds up on the wrong end of the knife, and director Gaztelu-Urrutia’s movie starts to reveal a darker presence within its own hole, something unbelievably cold and merciless even when in the service of “the order”.

Within the heart of The Platform is an allegory of how society has continued to treat its citizens, even the ones who serve it with commitment and pride. One character, Imoguiri (Antonia San Juan, known here for her participation in Almodovar’s All About My Mother as Agrado), the administrative officer who processed Goreng upon his entry into the hole, talks about seeing with her own eyes the abuses committed by the administration, and deciding, against her own best interests, to be of greater assistance to those jailed in this concrete hell. Goreng might be the hole’s one survivor, but Imiguiri represents a fallen angel trying to bring light to those who have been forgotten by the natural light of the Sun.

For a movie this bleak, The Platform has a wealth of gallows humor. It often finds a way to sneak in moments of the ridiculous in ways you might not grasp unless you either knew Spanish humor or had a dark streak. Even so, The Platform‘s relentless concrete wasteland begins to reveal a gradual light at the end of its tunnel. It could be that despite the meaningless of this social experiment there is a chance those caught within the hole’s teeth may have a chance at redemption. However, this is a final assessment that the director only implies, leaving us only with a slight improvement to its characters’ predicament.

The Platform is available on Netflix streaming.

From Madeline’s Madeline to Shirley: How Josephine Decker Made Me An Admirer of Her Cinema

George and Martha, or shall I say Stanley and Shirley, in Josephine Decker’s Shirley.

Another late night at the laptop while the temperatures start to wind down and September brings in its first stirrings of Autumn, and here I mull over how to start a criticism of director Josephine Decker’s Shirley. I originally saw Shirley a little over a month ago but at the rate that I eat movies for breakfast as if though I was a voracious Pac Man devouring white dots and frightened blue men, it’s a miracle that I get to review them at all. [It is the sole reason why I somehow went on pause shortly after October of 2017 and didn’t even resume until sometime last year. Sometimes hiatuses happen because there is no other way to process information than to store it until a future, less hectic period arises and you can safely back-date your post to fill in the blanks.]

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014)

I first encountered Decker at the tail end of 2014 when she revealed her quiet experimental thriller Thou Wast Mild and Lovely at the Film Forum. I wasn’t actively writing (other than short stories which still remain unpublished), and her piece, while beautiful even though it ventured into slight ickiness reminiscent of Southern Gothic, didn’t quite leave a deep impression on me as to make me remember it in detail. [Again, there’s that blur from cinema overkill, turning everything I see into bokeh.]

It was only until the buzz from Madeline’s Madeline that I was reintroduced to her world of strange. A breakout hit from Sundance 2018, Madeline’s Madeline was hailed as the Next Big Thing. It wasn’t simply a movie — it had to be experienced. It didn’t just feature a breakout performance from Helena Howard — Howard was a true acting revelation, savage, vulnerable, and powerful. On and on the accolades came, and I was left intrigued, mainly because of its title and its somewhat obscure plot synopsis.

Still, a gut feeling kept nagging at me. I’ve been down this road before. Whenever I see the same art-movie critics lavishing mountains of praise I wonder, just how fat was the check they got in their bank account by their employer? Do they honestly, really, truly think this movie was that good? Because surely there are good, even exceptional movies, but this much praise? It better cure cancer. It better end all wars and poverty in one quick sitting.”

I think I finally went to see the movie a month and a half after its premiere. The Quad had it alongside The Miseducation of Cameron Post and a few repertoire films currently available at the Cohen Media site.

Helena Howard from Madeline’s Madeline (2018)

I will say, even now after a follow-up view through Prime Video just to see if the sentiment remained (it does), Madeline’s Madeline isn’t exactly terrible, but it comes at you with an entitled sense of pretentiousness that leaps out at the audience and announces itself as a work of savage art imitating life imitating art. I could glean its experimental roots from the late 60s and 70s seeping into the fabric, but the tormented girl Howard plays (rather well; she is the sole magnet drawing my eyes to the narrative) reveals nothing more than a cipher of inner anguish.

Adding to Madeline’s injury is that her teacher, played by the always reliable Molly Parker, seems hooked on some weird music that only she hears, and dammit if she isn’t going to get her way and exploit this poor girl only to see her vision come to life in a completely nonsensical dance sequence at the end of the movie’s climactic sequence.

This is, as I stated earlier, the type of movie that gets the intellectual few clicking. I’m probably at odds with this mannered style of film making, or perhaps I’m just not polished enough to enjoy a slice of the abstract coming of age of a girl who clearly has more problems than the movie is willing to tackle seriously. I can proudly state I gave it my shot, saw it three times, and still came out empty-handed.

Elizabeth Moss becomes Shirley Jackson.

So imagine me coming out of seeing Elizabeth Moss burning up the screen in both Her Smell (a film I must write about soon) and The Invisible Man (which should garner her an acting nom, come on, now, Academy), and seeing the poster of Decker’s new movie Shirley which made its debut on virtual cinema late this spring. Clearly, I had my misgivings. What if Decker botched this one, as well? You really can’t go wrong with a biopic of Shirley Jackson, not if you know her work and her criminally short life.

First of all, Shirley is not by any stretch a biopic. It may have Shirley Jackson as the main character but it is a work of fiction. Shirley, based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrel narrates the power games that occur between two intellectual couples: the younger Nemsers, Rose and Fred (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman), and the older Hymans, comprised of Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Shirley Jackson (Moss).

Already from the get-go, Rose, seen on a train en route to Bennington, Vermont as she follows her husband on a career-defining move, you can sense an imbalance as she glows over the pages of Jackson’s iconic short story The Lottery. It’s never a good sign when a fan becomes enamored of an author’s work, especially when they themselves are still unformed by experience. It leaves a giant, pregnant space for something unusual to happen. In this case, Jackson, a boiling cacophony of mannerisms, neuroses, and words used as knives, is already intent on her next work based on a real-life disappearance. It is a topic that has already strained her own marriage, and now she (and by proxy, Stanley) are to play host for a young couple.

However, the message is that while the Nemsers are attempting to establish themselves in Bennigton — Fred as Stanley’s assistant is the main motive — the unmentioned intent is to see if Rose can exert some form of influence on Shirley and perhaps help her with her latest book, or abandon it if it becomes too daunting a task.

Never trust writers. No outside influence is sacred when there is a creative process at hand and Shirley plays this to the hilt, often shifting aspects of her own personality to fit her needs. More often than not you will wonder who Shirley herself may be: is she a long-abused wife of an unfeeling, domineering man, or is she in fact the master pulling the strings? Moss and Stuhlbarg get the lion’s share of screen time and are at almost all times combatants in a war only they know. It is never in question that they clearly deserve each other, so much do they complement the other.

The problem is, Rose doesn’t know or see that, and becomes the clay. Odessa Young stands her own as a woman confronting people who are well out of her reach and who may not have the best interests in and for her. In the end, much like the heroine in Meg Worlitzer’s novel The Wife, she becomes “good material” to further on Shirley’s own agenda of being a story-teller.

If anything, Shirley the movie works because of the source material but also the way Decker translates Gubbins’ script into a compelling psycho-drama with elements of mystery, black humor, and horror just outside the frame. It is not perfect — Fred Nemser remains a bit in the background to be a fully realized character and Lerman plays him that way — but as a whole, the story draws you completely in, much in the way Madeline’s Madeline did not. While the latter repelled because of its pretentiousness and diversions into concepts, Shirley keeps the focus on two women who need each other as much as one devalues the other. It at times borders on an approximation into Ingmar Bergman’s own Persona, another story in which a famous person attaches herself into the frail psyche of another for a nebulous purpose.

Shirley is available on most on-demand platforms.