All posts by Zac Blake

NOTES WHILE READING: FREIDA MCFADDEN’S THE HOUSEMAID AND LIV CONSTANTINE’S THE LAST MRS. PARRISH

by Zac Blake

Recently, Kindle gave me a few recommendations for mystery and thrillers. Not one to say no to a good yarn, I gravitated to Freida McFadden’s The Housemaid (solely based on its cover, yes, I do that sometimes) and Liv Constantine’s The Last Mrs. Parrish. It should be noted that I was unaware of a link between the two, but I’ll get to that later. 

THE HOUSEMAID

I’m not gonna lie. McFadden’s book started with a bang and kept me entertained. I’ve never – except for Stephen King’s older work – been this glued to a book. As its story progressed I got all sorts of feelings of movies I’d seen before and wondered what the hell was going on. 

Of course, McFadden didn’t just deliver – she did so in spades. Yes, her reveal is a little too adjacent to Gone Girl, but hey – that is what a good potboiler is supposed to do. Does it all add up in the end? Not really. Even so, I was highlighting like a force of nature, trying to perhaps out-guess the thing.

I was wrong.

Fast-forward a few hours later. I was almost cross-eyed as I raced toward its ending. As The Housemaid‘s conclusion arrived I was relieved that McFadden did not go into Wait Until Dark territory. You know – the false ending that delivers one “final scare” before letting the audience breathe a sigh of relief. I thought it tied all loose ends beautifully, and even let in a wink to the audience that “not all is over.”

THE LAST MRS PARRISH

The following day I arrived at The Last Mrs. Parrish. The Constantine sisters’ story is a slow burn, and meatier. It almost forces you to be alert for any tiny detail that may seem innocuous at first. Characters’ reactions. What is said. What is not said. What’s in the periphery, waiting for the right moment to reveal itself? At times it almost works as a character study, albeit, of a predatory woman looking to claim ownership of a house that is not hers.

Here is where things get a bit muddy. Upon diving deeper into The Last Mrs. Parrish, I noticed some similarities between this novel and The Housemaid. It made me question that perhaps I should have read this one first, but I kept on reading. As I read, I perceived an overall tone that while Mrs. Parrish was less about the “twist” in the middle, The Housemaid hinges solely on that, but (allegedly, unintentionally) used branches from the former to build its ladder. [That in itself is not a problem, but when you’ve just read one book and the next one feels like a rehash… when in fact it came earlier… Do you see what I mean?

And then, the framing. Much like Gone Girl, Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith (which was turned into the arthouse South Korean movie The Handmaid in 2016), or The Housemaid, we get a switcheroo of perspectives much like the big twist of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo. This time around, it didn’t quite catch me by surprise – that gotcha moment went to McFadden’s novel – but I found myself getting equally engrossed not by how lurid the plot could be (it wasn’t) but by its natural development. 

From here on, any similarities with the more recent novel ended, and I let The Last Mrs. Parrish reach its also equally satisfying conclusion.

INTERNET CHATTER ABOUT HOW SIMILAR ONE BOOK IS TO THE OTHER

It’s hard not to see what I saw, and read. The problem is, yes, one book follows another in more than just one development. Closely. Even something as having the wife let the friend borrow her clothes, and having the wife gain weight – trivial, I know – seems a bit much for comfort. 

However, I’m not going to be the one to point the finger. It’s not the first time that stories, songs, or movies appear to be mirrors of each other without entering the dreaded P-zone. Authors have been constantly accused of borrowing elements of one story and creating their own narratives since the printed word. That in itself is not a crime. There’s only so much you can do in the creative pool. It’s easier to produce a reconfiguration of a well-known Shakespearean play or an Edgar Allan Poe story than to, consciously or not, write a story that happens to follow the same terrain as another story that is only a few years old (which also follows the whole plot-twist at the middle). As a matter of fact there is an entire genre of romance — Regency romances — that models itself after the works of Jane Austen and her contemporaries, but mainly her. Of course, no one can or will write the book to replace Pride and Prejudice, so perhaps, that is a sign of a genre that remains populated by writers performing workman duties because they must sell to the readers who buy.

The same thing happens with cinema and songs. Back in the late 70s, certain chord progressions and trademark sounds, were not just copied but pilfered flat-out to create new music. To wit: Chic’s Good Times had Nile Rodgers’ famous bassline that was later “borrowed” by Queen in Another One Bites the Dust. Phil Collins’ Sussudio has a sound that is nearly identical to Prince’s 1999. The film, A Hijacking, a Danish film about a hijacking of a cargo ship was overshadowed by its American counterpart Captain Philips in 2013. There have been movies about the same subject matter coming out almost simultaneously. Such things happen.

CONCLUSION

Both books are good yarns and will most likely be turned into movies or miniseries. What I like about both is how well each story tackles domestic abuse and malignant narcissism. It would have been easy for either woman to go the way of exploitation of their own sex to sell a book. Both books have difficult scenes, although the ones described in The Last Mrs. Parrish are much more triggering, and much more scarring. In many ways, both stories almost go too far in their depiction of violence against women… and at the same time, not far enough. Just take a look at the news and you will find cases so unbelievable, so horrifying, it will make these two books look like a walk in the park in comparison.

If I were to pick which one of the two I enjoyed more, I would be remiss to say I would have to say neither. You see, both of them have solid storylines and well-rounded characters that behave as you would expect in this genre. [A more outre, artsy/intellectual approach would have perhaps veered into Ingmar Bergman territory and we would have had a whiff of Persona. Or an absurdist plot that turns into a Moebius strip.] 

To expand, I found the women at the center of the stories – all four – to be compelling, but not ultra-invincible. The husbands were terrifying each in their own way, and again, if you read true crime, these two are peaches compared to their real-life counterparts. Both novels are easy reads, with swift, brief chapters, and always keep you on the edge of “what’s next.” If that doesn’t sell a book then I don’t know what else to do.

Happy reading.

ZB

Film Review: Memoria

For the life of me, I’ll never comprehend why auteur filmmakers today feel compelled to create stories packed with meta-messages and ersatz depth you wonder if there was a point to the entire thing at all. Not that I’m dissing auteur cinema or directors who delve into the deep, unknowable waters of the subconscious. I can kick back and enjoy some slow cinema and watch a story progress until it reaches its conclusion, or decides to give me a middle finger and go “Gotcha. No resolution. Thank you for your time. Go back to your puny little life.” Memoria is a strange beast that has the audacity to do both and emerge unscathed.

Apipatchong Weerasethakul makes a movie every five or so years. Always there is the concept of what lies beyond life as we know it. The dead and the living mix, characters may become Moebius strips of a fragmented, dreamed existence, and we sit back and take it all in, every last detail, and walk out in a daze. His latest movie, Memoria, fits into that category. And as much as it sounds like I’m typing with an annoyed emoji drawn wide across my visage, I feel like I have to admit that while I don’t pretend to say I got it all, I can stand back and call it “something esoteric.” Ish.

So let’s see. A woman wakes up in the middle of the night to a strange sound. The sound sets off some car alarms. The sound rattles her. Breaks her continuity. So far, so good. The woman, Jessica (Tilda Swinton in a rare lead) lives in Colombia and is tending to her sister (Agnes Brekke) as she recovers from dreams in a Bogota hospital. She continues to hear this noise until she meets a sound engineer, Hernan (Juan Pablo Urrego) who moonlights as a futuristic punk rocker. Hernan is able to pinpoint Jessica’s sound almost to a science. However, on the day they are supposed to go exploring a historical site, he goes missing.

Jessica then does the trek alone. It brings her to a place deep inside Colombian wildlife where she encounters a man also named Hernan (Elkin Diaz). This is a man who’s never left his mountainside and prefers to live in isolation for fear of the experience of the world. In short, he’s seen more than he cares to, and it’s enough. Jessica’s meeting with the older Hernan will be the point where the movie reveals more about itself while still leaving you, the audience, a bit confounded. Memories of dreams become entwined with real-life and past-life experiences, and in the end, that same sonic boom.

Much of Memoria lands squarely on two people: director Weerasethakul and Swinton. Swinton never gets a close-up proper, so she has to convey to us, the audience, that Jessica is a woman who seems to be kind but is also reserved and perhaps a bit aloof, while not glacial. In hearing these sounds and being the only person (as to her knowledge) capable of hearing this, she appears to be slowly emerging from a place of deep despair into something resembling enlightenment and acceptance.

Weerasethakul, on the other hand, presents a story that moves at its own deliberate pace. He isn’t interested in shocks and traditional narratives. His science fiction is closely bound to the land and its history, man’s relation to time and space, man’s relation to technology, and man’s apparent denial of spirit except in a chosen few. Even without the complicated puzzle that he presents Memoria comes bursting with quiet wonder. Scene after scene lingers on, forcing the attention to its universe. If it falls short of a masterpiece, it will depend on how you receive the last 30 or so minutes. Personally, on a second viewing, I felt that right up until then, it worked in the same way that Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey worked.

I believe that maybe a third viewing may glean some new light, but as it stands, Memoria is quite an achievement even when the overlapping timelines threaten to alienate viewers not used to this type of story.

For those of you interested, this movie will not be streaming in the foreseeable future in the US. For tickets and showtimes, go here. You do have an alternative to seeing it via MUBI Italy if seeing it in person is not an option.

After a Period of Inactivity…

It seems that writing, when one is a full-time employee, can be quite time-consuming. I recall having read a Nora Roberts interview in which she revealed that writing involves absolutely no magic whatsoever, but a committed discipline to bang out 4 – 8 hours of finger-numbing work onto a field of white, hope it sticks, and be prepared for the numerous, endless edits (or downright re-writes) that creating a good story requires. Of course, I am not a known author, at least, not yet. But like many a dreamer who takes charge of his own destiny and sits down in front of his MacBook Pro (or Google Pixel Slate, highly recommended!) to, fingers crossed, create a narrative that can one day get featured in a short story compilation or even part of an actual book with Yours Truly emblazoned over it like an emblem, Writing Takes Time. It has left me next to no time to also sit down and bang out yet another film review when all I want to do now is flesh out a character and bring him or her to life and see where that takes me.

So, I have decided that I have to balance out the two in harmony. I can still type up a quick 500 words that say yay or nay about this or that movie. Why not? I enjoy doing so, if not, this blog would not exist. The output might not be as prolific (and again, I wish, I wish, I wish I had not lost my 6 years of hard-as-fuck work whilst I was on WordPress through a different provider, but there it is. At least, I can pat myself on the back and tell myself, “No worries, I can backtrack through my IMDB.com contribution history and redo the ones I resonated with the most, and be done with it.” And that’s good. I have as of now, a grand total of 323, so all is not lost. What I might do, because I can’t believably be outside of the house for 12 hours a day, 60 a week, watch a new release (or three, my usual dose), come home, type 1,500 words, and then on top of that go and work out on an existing or new story, and hope for the best. It’s just not possible. I’d be spreading myself too thin across bread.

So, on that note, I will be, for the time being, transferring old reviews dating back to the early 2000s when I blogged directly onto IMDb.com’s platform of user reviewers and also migrating my own from the period dating 2014 to 2021, while still posting a brand-new review, either of film or TV (or even books), at a rate of once a week. It won’t intrude on a project that I am working on and still leave me time to pursue other interests (and perhaps write about them, why not?). So for the few of you who follow me, do check the archive section often. You might find a movie I wrote about back when making its first appearance on my own site, for your enjoyment. Or not. [Hey, we all have our disagreements on what works and what doesn’t, right?]

What will remain a constant is my commitment to attend film festivals, be it in person or online, to see what is new, and what I can recommend. I may have to miss out on this year’s Tribeca Film Festival which will play in NYC from June 8 to the 19 due to personal issues. What I will not do is miss the New York Film Festival. For the cinephile, this is basically our version of Mecca. What would NYC be without the NYFF?

Well, that this it for now. I will get going…

ZB

The MIA Effect

Sometimes you decide to take a slight detour into another field to see how it might work out for you. I’ve been writing fiction and essays now since I was in high school, and when life threw me a wrench, it seems that all that was placed on hold. Only when the Moon was full, or inspiration, as intermittent as it was, came with a deluge of creativity, did I resume writing, only to stop just before the end, or end a story and shelve it onto my hard drive, never to be touched again.

November came at me with a hard bang. I felt as though perhaps I had said all I would want to say about movies, because with all the online reviewers that there are, many who vie for your attention with interviews and giveaways, perhaps this was not the road for me. Perhaps I could use a break and just see movies with the sole intention of enjoyment, not that plus criticism.

That is when I brought out my hard drive and searched for stories I. had written ages ago, stories that were sitting silently in the abject dark and telling their tales to no one. When I opened the first file, a horror story I wrote late in 2002, my heart sank and soared. It was as though I had come across a child I had given up for adoption and found again. The story unfurled itself to me, revealing its secrets, its twists and turns, and its final denouement.

I realized that the volume of work I had in that one box needed to be polished and developed and sent into the outside world so that others could read and enjoy (or not, I mean, let’s face it, not everyone will like a story one does the same way I don’t enjoy every movie my favorite director does.

So, starting around Thanksgiving, I took that story and began working on it. It was crude, but good, and could itself yield a few others at least through its characters. I set to work on every item I had created — some mere sketches and half-written scenarios — because their worlds begged me not to let them die in the dark. I could, in fact, return to movie-reviewing later on, or so do with less frequency at a rate of a movie a week.

So that is where I’ve been all these months. I’ve been at the Mac tapping away, performing acts of pentimento over tales that I might not see in the same light, reconfiguring plots and characters, repurposing characters into new scenarios, and lastly, making sure that I typed The End after each one.

As a matter of fact, I’m still in the midst of that. Late at night, I’ll be slaving away while the world sleeps, living an imaginary life, resolving the unresolvable. Movies have come and gone and we are now into the end of the winter season. I have seen at least 30 movies, all — well, almost all — which I have loved and hailed. I was swept away by Spielberg’s ultra-kinetic take on West Side Story, a movie I have now seen thrice. I was put off, then on, by Rade Jude’s Band Luck Banging or Loony Porn, the movie that I was set to write about on the 18th of November (followed right away by Branagh’s sensitive portrait of the life of a boy in late 60s Belfast. I was conflicted, but won, by the difficult story Maggie Gyllenhaal directed in The Lost Daughter, and completely floored by my personal choice of Movie of 2021, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog.

I just didn’t write about them. I was too busy writing.

But, while I can’t turn back time, and I won’t yet do a list of the best of 2021, I’m back to seeing new releases and at least discuss one classic a week, and gobble up as many festival films as I can, within reason, without turning my back on storytelling.

Because that is ultimately where I feel I will make the biggest splash.

That is humbly all.

Humbly yours,

NYCCritic.

Film Review: Last Night in Soho

Here we have a movie that comes from Edgar Wright, a director known for light horror movies that spoof the genre while obviously enjoying it. Last Night in Soho doesn’t spoof as much as revel, and while it clearly establishes a unique perspective on a narrative that has all but died in horror/mystery movies, its second half completely implodes as it goes off the rails, until Diana Rigg finally emerges from the shadows where she’s been lurking to deliver her final performance and reel in the mess and bring it back home into a cohesive but messy close.

The movie introduces us to Ellie (Thomasin McKenzie), a fashion designer wannabe obsessed with the 60s who gets accepted to go to London to study her passion. Her grandmother (Rita Tushingham) warns Ellie about the city, mainly because she fears Ellie’s talent for seeing spirits may take over her as it did her mother, who has since died tragically. However, Ellie promises she can fend for herself, and before we know it, she’s off to London where she meets a bitchy roommate (Synnove Karlsen) and a potential love interest (Michael Ajao).

When her living conditions prove to be incompatible she answers an ad for a room for rent. The landlady who runs the townhome is Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg), another grandmotherly type who lays down the law. Ellie, still wide-eyed about London, assures Ms. Collins she will have no trouble being a tenant. However, that night, as she goes to sleep, she wakes up in the middle of 1960s Swinging London and has inexplicably walked into someone else’s reality and is merely a spectator.

That someone turns out to be Sandie (Anna Taylor-Joy). Sandie struts around London with an exuberance and self-assured confidence that would make Holly Golightly take note. However, with such females, bell that surface is a young woman longing to make her mark on the world as a singer. Sandie wanders and latches onto the Rialto, a nightclub where singers like Cilla Clark perform. She meets Jack (Matt Smith), a dashing but slightly older man, who sees potential and gives her a spot. If only Sandie would know what awaits her, she would have turned tail and run away.

Here is where the movie shines the best. It moves effortlessly from the past to the present, and often blurs the lines between the two. In including Ellie in what seems to be a mirror world of Sandie’s, Wright tells delivers a clever little piece about time folding in on itself, and that’s not an easy trick to achieve. Through Ellie, we get a look into Sandie’s life and this begins to affect Ellie in her own life. Off comes Ellie’s mousy brown color and retro 90s look, and Ellie transforms herself into a blond with a penchant for cooler outfits. The change starts to inform Ellie’s fashion sense, which also catches the eye of her teacher who sees great potential.

But this is a mystery after all, and Ellie’s school designs take a back seat to the meatier story about to unfold. Every time Ellie wakes up as Sandie, she witnesses how the initial shimmer and glamor starts to reveal the cracks in its surface. Soon it becomes clear that Sandie has walked into a trap of human trafficking and is in some form of imminent danger from Jack and the men she is forced to sleep with to pay her dues. [And with this, Last Night in Soho also delivers its social message to the public.]

Meanwhile, Ellie starts to lose her grip and devolve into something else. Like all horror-movie conduits, Ellie becomes obsessed with somehow breaking the invisible glass that separates her from Sandie and possibly changing Sandie’s destiny. One particularly horrific vision informs Ellie that Sandie met a horrible fate. Trying to get to the core of the mystery (and possibly rectify it) she crosses the path of an old man (Terence Stamp) who may know more than what he is willing to disclose. And what of the men who went missing in Sandie’s neighborhood during the years after Sandie’s horrific murder?

I’m a bit torn with this movie. For a horror movie lover who also loves a good mystery and parallel times, this one is a crowd pleaser that will deliver on all aspects. Last Night in Soho‘s first 30 minutes are truly glorious — restrained and greyish where it needs to be, because we’re in Ellie’s rather sheltered reality. Once it ventures into the 60s, the movie explodes in color reminiscent of Technicolor and that soundtrack is a killer. Anna Taylor-Joy emerges as a pure creation of the era, with her hair and dresses. You truly believe she was one of the many carefree girls parading through London and possibly catching David Hemming’s misogynistic eye as Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills did in Blow Up.

Diana Rigg in her final screen performance.

The main issue that I had with Last Night in Soho is the fact that this being a mystery with horror elements, it never quite knows what to do with the horror aspect. Wright relies too much on apparitions and these detracted from the entire movie if not outright ruined it for me. The movie has a Broadway feel to it, where everything has to be telegraphed to the farthest seat in the house with loud, garish brush strokes and Giallo imagery. Then the movie takes a hard left turn, and while it is surprising, it also doesn’t entirely convince. At best, it looks tacked on, but then, many horror movies have tacked-on endings, so who am I to judge?

Thomasin McKensie is a solid actress, but the script has her come apart at the seams. She starts the movie so natural and self-confident, but by the end she’s been reduced to talking in whispers and barely even there. It just didn’t work for me. I wish that her character would have been less a Shelly Duvall and more a heroine. That kind of simpering, horror novel female has not been seen since the 60s, although perhaps, because Ellie is so obsessed with this decade, she actually filters women’s behavior of the time.

Anna Taylor-Joy has the stronger part of the two despite her co-starring screen time. Whenever she enters the movie, it takes on an entirely different dimension, and her character arc is tragic right up until the “What happened to her, really?” moment. As a plus, the movie gives many icons of the era in their twilight performances — Diana Rigg and Terence Stamp, for one. Margaret Nolan, a Bond girl of the time, shows up as a bartender. All throw in some much needed

class into this movie. Other than that, this is candy-colored horror with a strong Signet Paperback feel to it, and that, while not a bad thing, is also, not a good thing.

VOD Review: No Dormirás (You Shall Not Sleep)

Goya famously once quoted, “The sleep of reason breeds monsters.” Stephen King once used this famous quote in a modified form: “This inhuman place breeds human monsters.” Gustavo Hernandez, a director who scored a strong debut with La casa muda (The Silent House) in 2010, seems to have wanted to compose an elegy to the first (this being an Argentinian-Uruguayan-Spanish co-production) with centering the story around an experiment. The experiment in question has actors stepping into Alma Bohm’s (Belen Rueda) drama team and subjecting themselves to sleep deprivation in order to find some truth in performance. At least, this is what I think this is; the movie is rather ill-defined in what it wants, but one would never notice because the first 45 minutes are mostly setup and not much else.

In defense of the movie’s premise, experiments in sleep deprivation were an actual thing. During the 1970s and 80s, researchers subjected participants to sessions in which they remained awake for extended periods of time. The goal was to see how long the human body could tolerate hours and hours of sleeplessness, and how this would affect the mind. When we step into the movie we see a young woman (Maria Zabay) wandering disheveled, through a darkened hallway. She seems to be drawn to something as-yet-unseen. All the while, we listen to soft yet urgent rustling sounds. The woman, who we learn is an actress of certain prestige named Marlene, comes upon a sinister-looking old woman frantically brushing her hair, her eyes locked into an unseen force, terrified. When Marlene leaves she is suddenly attacked by a horrific creature, it’s face obscured by a gauze. We then realize Marlene is the woman brushing her hair. She is a part of Alma Bohm’s bizarre experiment, and when the camera slowly zooms on Bohm’s sadistically satisfied face we know exactly what we are stepping into.

It’s a pity that Bianca (Eva de Dominici), is oblivious to the trap she’s about to walk into. An aspiring actress of notable talent, she gets bamboozled into participating in Bohm’s experiment. Bohm is using the entire sleep deprivation to conduct a performance based on a mother suffering from postpartum depression who attempted to kill her infant child. She gets pitted against her friend Cecilia (Natalia de Molina), who also happens to be a professional rival. Bianca has a backstory that gets some exploration. Her father (Miguel Angel Maciel) has his own demons that he is unable to put to rest. When his mental lapse almost kills Bianca, he commits himself to a mental facility. In a way, Bianca follows suit as she walks into a former mental hospital that is now Bohm’s headquarters.

Much of You Shall Not Sleep‘s first half is set-up peppered with slight jump scares that don’t ring as earned. Really, the hand placed on a shoulder, or a ghoulish face suddenly appearing, complete with the stinger? Snore, yawn, no. It is, however, rather interesting to see Dominici, de Molina, and Rueda interact amongst each other, with Rueda playing a cross between late-period Joan Crawford and Philip Zimbardo with relished bitchiness. The girls are interchangeable — both complement each other as ingenues — but Dominici has the meatier role as the wait trapped in a Gothic enclave trying to solve a mystery.

The second half of the movie ramps up the horror, but just a bit. Too much time gets spent in narratives that don’t really correlate with the story or the horror ambiance. Bianca manages to leave the place, and her departure serves as an interesting yet also uninspired choice by the director. Is she truly out of the shadows or still “trapped” in the scary hospital? I’ll leave that for you to decide, and it’s really nothing clever. However, the movie decides to pull out all the stops and disclose what it is really about in a series of revelations that would make Rosemary’s Baby blush and M Night Shyamalan proud. That in itself is not a compliment. Perhaps it may have worked on paper, but on screen, it looks like a cop-out. And those jump-scares just keep on coming.

You Shall Not Sleep has an intriguing premise and enough ambiance to warrant a view, but is an overreaching mess that will not merit its run time. Hernandez could have made a disturbing psychodrama of identity and yielded chilling effects and memorable performances from everyone involved, but instead goes the way of tired genre tropes and telegraphing it’s own secret way before it actually arrives.

The Souvenir, Part Two: Film Review

Joanna Hogg’s new movie was always going to happen. Too much was left unresolved in her confessional The Souvenir for it to be a stand-alone movie about a young woman based on her younger self travelling through the dark side of a codependent relationship only to emerge bruised, haunted, but intact. Even so, Hogg could have ended Julie Harte’s tale there and leave us to put in the pieces of where the character would go next. She could have revisited it 10, 15 years later, but by then, she would have necessitated different actors… or tell a completely different story. And that would be fine all the same.

As it stands, Hogg took no time to get back in the director’s seat to develop the Part Two of The Souvenir, and it looks and feels as if she had in fact filmed it concurrent to her earlier film. We spare no time in re-entering Julie’s world. Anthony (Tom Burke) is dead, and she is still very much trying to figure what the hell just happened, and why is she, not he, still alive. Wanting to make sense of it all, while working on a documentary that now seems to be escaping her grasp and interest, she embarks on a series of visits to perhaps find closure. What actually takes place, however, is that Julie starts to move into a new project, one that will be her thesis in order to graduate, but one that she is advised against. It is the story of her own experience, seen through her own directorial eyes.

Most filmmakers who engage in autobiographic movies run the risk of turning their story into an exercise in auto-fetishization with a strong inclination towards self-pleasuring through indulgence. Not many directors have managed to successfully pull this off — Fellini may very well be the only one who not just did so, but single handedly pulled off in making one of the most influential movies of the Twentieth century, bar none. Almodovar comes as a close second. Hitchcock, a third, and even his incursions were mostly referential, with his narratives of the wrong man on the run, or his unhealthy obsession with Kim Novak.

The greater bulk of Part Two is seeing Julie attempt to recreate events almost identical to the ones that transpired in her own life. In doing this approach, which now includes having film school mates Garance (Ariane Labed) be a virtual stand-in for Julie (herself a stand-in for Hogg), she threatens to become a bit unglued, and unfocused. All throughout, she continues to receive ample support from her understanding parents (played by Tilda Swinton and non-actor James Spencer Ashworth, both who manages to make strong impressions with relatively small parts).

The Souvenir offers no surprises, no plot twists, no sudden, dramatic reveal. Early on, a plot development involving Julie’s period gets dropped in a rather comical manner in a scene involving Charlie Heaton of Stranger Things). It does offer an insight into the world of film making, as it presents not just the details on how scenes are constructed, but in Hogg’s own universe, which is a set made to resemble her own apartment, to replicate in fiction the event from her past. We also get to see Julie struggle with the task of being a director. She comes off as mousy to a fellow classmate now auteur-in-the-works (played to acid tongue perfection by Richard Ayoade). Other members of her crew start to struggle with the movie she is trying to create while all she can come up with is, “Well, this happened.”

Slowly, but surely, something does happen to Julie, and it is so subtle it goes by unnoticed for a long time. Because Hogg never gives us too much information on Julie’s private life but keeps us firmly planted in her day to day we only get snippets of memory coming together to form a collage. That the product she turns out is drenched in aspects of art-house moviemaking and thus, artifice, shows the ways in which a creative effort can go when some directions don’t pan out. The scene in which she inserts herself — which may or not be what she actually presented; well never know — is almost too meta, but it is necessary. To have her intended actors play out the climax of her heartbreak would have been like having Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg dance to the rhythm of “Unchained Melody”. It might have been what happened, yes, but film is reality through fantasy and escape.

The Souvenir Part Two is a great film in how it presents itself. Nothing is constructed. Everything flows from one scene to the next even when we hear an 80s pop song get cut mid-play. Events transpire in the most natural way ever, which reminds me of the cinema of Eric Rohmer. The only difference that it has to its predecessor is it’s tone. Much of the previous was filmed in muted tones that gave the movie and aura of austerity. This time around, the tones are more sunlit, brighter, more colorful, completely natural. There is a subtle comic air to her sequel which completely lifts the movie up from its rather drab setting. Honor Swinton-Byrne’s scenes with Swinton elder do not even look acted at all. I would believe this is how mother and daughter behave around each other at all times.

Julie’s story now comes to an end, at least for now unless Hogg decides to revisit her one more time. In the meantime, Julie has grown up, made a movie, and asserted herself in a way that would seem too subtle, but in her, it comes off as completely a part of her own character. It still remains a bit sad that she had to go through so much so soon, but a life well lived is a life that has a story to tell. Julie may have seen the dark side of the moon, but now she takes off running over a field of wildflowers in pure ecstasy.

Brief Musings: Passing, Dune, The French Dispatch, and just in time for Halloween, Antlers

Finding a common ground within the variety of movies that I watch, sometimes back to back because such is my life of living on the edge, can be a challenge. Looking at the list of what I’ve seen during the Halloween season alone makes me look like a human kaleidoscope, and because I’ve limited time to sit down and write something comprehensive, sometimes, like now, I have to clump them together and hope that the damn thing makes sense. The four movies I’m about to write some petite mots about don’t have much in common: two are based on novels, one is a director’s incursion into folk horror, and the fourth is a homage to none other than the elitist read, The New Yorker. And France, if you want to include that. What they all have in common is that all are the works of a creator stepping into the ambitious.

Ruth Negga is Claire Bellew in Rebecca Hall’s Passing

If only Nella Larsen had lived long enough to see her 1929 novella Passing be made into a movie. It makes me wonder how no one seemed to notice her work before when she was a part of the Harlem Renaissance. It might be possible that because she only published modestly, and has only two novels to her name, Larsen somehow disappeared into literary obscurity. Rebecca Hall brings her tragic story to vibrant life with her debut movie. This is the story of two African American women of mixed heritage, so mixed that they could ‘pass’ for white during the 1920s. When we meet Irene “Reenie” Redfield (Tessa Thompson), we only catch glimpses of her wide-brimmed hat as she flits about town, barely noticed. Hall surrounds Thompson with so much sun and light that presenting it in black and white leaves Thompson virtually drowning in a sea of whiteness, and that’s the purpose. You see, Irene, comfortably married to a doctor (Andre Holland of Moonlight), so she has the means to spend her days shopping and visiting places that even in New York would still be almost 100% white.

When Irene runs into a blond woman looking right at her at a chic restaurant, she seems shocked that anyone would know her since she seems to enjoy the anonymity of moving in predominantly white neighborhoods without as much as leaving a ripple. The woman turns out to be Claire Bellew (Ruth Negga), an old childhood friend whom she hasn’t seen in 10 years. The women catch up, and we learn that Claire has married rich, but upon meeting the husband, we become informed that he is virulently racist, and Claire has effectively fooled him in her ruse, even pretending herself to hate black people. But the movie moves away from Mr. Bellow (Alexander Skarsgard) and focuses on Irene and Claire, and the effect Claire has on everyone she meets. The danger of their rekindled friendship is that for a woman like Claire, being seen in Harlem might raise eyebrows, and it’s not long when the inevitable comes to pass, with dire consequences for both women.

I’ve been seeing Tessa Thompson for some time now in movies and her fascinating role in Westworld. To be honest, I’ve become almost enamored with her acting style. As Irene, Thompson is all internalization with her wide, Bette Davis eyes, her flawless enunciation, her delicate manners that recalls old Hollywood. Negga, meanwhile, counterbalances Thompson as she exudes a girlish sensuality that hides some inner pain. Just look at her deep-set eyes. The women seem to be also telegraphing some queer desire — I wouldn’t put it past Irene, who rebukes kisses from her husband, that she may have some deeply buried attraction to Claire, often seen bathed in light and exuberance. Then again… desire may be a simple observation. It makes me wonder if Irene might also quietly covet the type of life that Claire lives. She certainly reveals quite a lot when attending a function and discussing race with a close friend (played by Bill Camp). The movie manages to express quite a bit when Camp’s character, initially fascinated by Claire, upon learning her secret, basically ignores her. It’s as though he sees her as a fraud rather than the more genuine Irene who isn’t trying so hard to be noticed. His comments on the muscularity of some of the black men who attend the function leave a lot to say on how attraction shapes desire and the ongoing fetishization whites have often had towards blacks.

What I love about Hall’s movie is how she manages to convey so much with so little. Much like Todd Haynes’ 2015 movie Carol, Hall allows her characters to inhabit their own world and their spaces, and even when they talk, what they state may mean one thing but what their body language does may mean something else entirely. Hall definitely learned her time as an actress: she has a keen sense of placement, lighting, and cadence. Her movie might be deliberate, but it is never slow. If anything, it marches relentlessly to its climax, building tension scene after scene like a pressure cooker that at one point must release. If she decides to do more movies, and I hope so, I’ll be at the ready to see what she does next.

The French Dispatch

Wes Anderson is an acquired taste, and I mean that with respect. With every movie, he continues to build upon his style to a point where it almost threatens to override his movies proper. With The French Dispatch, he takes his artificial scenarios and pushes them to a level almost approaching abstraction. A movie based on the death of the founder of a magazine (Bill Murray) that seems to be a blatant stand-in for The New Yorker, who decides, as a homage to its creator, to publish five of its best stories, is not something that screams Hollywood. Who would even? Anderson, it seems, and he fabricates worlds so completely unique that we get lost in their intricacies. There are no stars in this movie; the only stars, and heroes if you will, are the writers and journalists who make up The French Dispatch, and as someone who is as budding as they can get, I love it. This is a movie that you may have to see twice to catch the minute details hidden in plain sight: Anderson loves his tiny, mannered quotes, his in-jokes, and his movie is littered with them. His actors are as stilted and deadpan as ever, and it seems everyone he has ever worked with shows up for the tiniest of parts. Notable here is Timothee Chalamet as a self-obsessed but also awkward activist hilariously named Zefirelli who loses his virginity to Anderson regular Frances McDormand as the writer who has to ghostwrite his manifesto, Lea Seydoux, paired with Benicio del Toro, as a crazed artist and his muse, and Jeffrey Wright as an author based on James Baldwin who goes on a wacky Parisian adventure.

The drama behind the making of Dune is long and rambling and I won’t get into it because, not today. I’m into my seventh paragraph and I still have another movie to write about. What little I can say about Denis Villeneuve’s epic movie is that this is one you must, above all else, view in movie theaters. I made the mistake of seeing it through HBOMAX, and nothing against the small screen — even though mine is nothing to cry about — but nothing Villeneuve will show you can be truly appreciated in the comfort of your living room/screening room. Nothing.

The story is as simple and as complex as Lord of the Rings. You have your essential struggle between two warring civilizations over a precious substance, on a planet with its own set of people and otherworldly creatures, all in a sparse but almost eternal landscape that Villeneuve renders as though this was his vision of Lawrence of Arabia. You have a hero, Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet again, and perfectly suited for his part, better than Kyle McLachlan ever was even though McLachlan was the same age as Chalamet when he played the part), and his story is the template of how a boy becomes a man. Joseph Campbell could not have written a better journey. We only get to see him at the start of his journey as he battles internal struggles and betrayals and external monsters and the unforgiving climate of Arrakis in order to find some form of safety for himself and his mother as he makes his next move.

I have nothing negative to say about Dune. Not one thing. Even at a patience-straining two and a half hours, I felt it could have been longer. Then again, this is the first of a trilogy, so of course, the entire length of Chapter One seems to be the prelude to a much larger, cosmic fight. Villeneuve has created something three-dimensional, magical, alluring, and yet he still grounds it in its own reality. Nothing seems fake or plastic — a risk many epics take and only the aforementioned Lord of the Rings has passed with flying colors. Nope — not even the Star Wars franchise has been able to replicate this. That story, which could have been ripped off of Herbert’s own work, did have its own dazzling effects of its time. The camera movement during the final battle of the first/fourth movie is a sequence to die for, over and over again. But in terms of characters, plot motivation, and relations, that movie was as cardboard as a cloak and dagger movie from 100 years ago. I could catch visual glimpses from previous movies (Arrival and Blade Runner 2049) filtering in but never intruding. The conflict and its stakes look dangerously real. This, in essence, is Herbert’s novel, intact.

An artistic rendering of a Wendigo

I would not associate Scott Cooper with the horror genre. In a directing career spanning five movies, all of his previous four have dealt with crime and redemption, and the choices men make which haunt them throughout. His latest, the much-delayed Antlers (I remember seeing the trailer for Antlers almost always following St Maud in November of 2019, before the pandemic), seems to be two movies sandwiched into one. On one side we have a domestic situation where a wayward father seems to be abusing one of his two sons; the elder befriends a teacher with a past who connects with his pain and wishes to help. On the other, we get the supernatural element of the movie — hence the title — and this is the part that works in some ways while doesn’t in others. In the middle, we get the tale of the Wendigo which also gets to feature as the movie’s opening quote, and the requisite Native American character (Graham Greene) who enters the plot to dispense some exposition of what the characters are up against.

As a whole, I will say that Antlers is better than its story should be. Its mood is as bleak as it comes, and it seems that its Oregon setting never sees the sun come out, ever. The woods form a backdrop that seems dense enough. Where I wasn’t sold was in the creature itself, and how its dark legacy passes through to humans, in essence, corrupting them. It seems that perhaps this may have had a little of the allegorical but the movie never plays it with fantasy, but straight. Scenes in which the tragic father meets an unfortunate transformation are painful to watch and rival (but don’t surpass) the werewolf scene in An American Werewolf in London. The dread element is intense and foreboding. However, characters start behaving like tropes in every horror movie known to man — so much that at one point, more than once, several players do the tired, “Is anyone there?” line, and one character literally exists to die soon later. To add insult to injury, the movie never seems to know when to stop but continues to barrel ahead as if this were a long, drawn-out gunfight, instead, replacing guns with a Final Girl and a Creature.

I wish that Cooper had taken a different route with Antlers. There are two excellent movies inside one that looks and feels mashed up but is far from unwatchable. The relation that grows between the boy (Jeremy T. Thomas) and Final Girl Jeri Russell is poignant and deserved better. Her relationship with her actor-brother Jesse Plemons suggests more than what it ultimately reveals. Had the lore of the wendigo been less supernatural and closer to “wendigo psychosis” I would have enjoyed it better. As it stands, Antlers is imperfect, stilted, but fans of folk horror who also saw Ben Wheatley’s eco-horror In the Earth (which also has its own folk thrown in) will sit back and be repulsed in a good way.

Titane: Movie Review

Here we have a movie that exists within its own logic. Julia Ducournau’s follow-up feature to her debut, 2016 movie Raw dives even deeper into the discoveries of unusual tastes and slathers itself in it as though it were a sow and its playground was a foot of densely packed mud. Many of you will, upon sitting through a screening of Titane, feel repulsed by what you are about to see on screen. I recall that while sitting in the Walter Reade Theater during the screening. of the aforementioned Raw during Rendezvous with French Cinema a solid 25 % of the audience walked out, their faces visibly nauseated. One woman, in particular, was so incensed by the movie she stood up in a fury from her well-placed seat which was the near center of the auditorium, pointed at the screen, and shrieked, “C’est film est merde! Merde!” spat on the floor, and ran out, a contained storm of indignation muttering to herself while we continued to watch the movie, unfazed.

Eh, sometimes shit happens even in Film Societies. People have strong reactions, and Durcounau’s movies are not for the faint of heart. Like Raw, Titane also follows a young woman. However, where Raw was kind of a coming of age, Titane is a little more elliptical. A little girl named Alexia is riding along with her father in his car when she makes the mistake of unbuttoning her seatbelt. Her father, upon trying to get her to put her seatbelt on again, gets into a hrorific car accident. Miraculously, both survive, but Alexia undergoes cranial surgery to replace missing bone and gets a titanium implant. It’s safe to say that she changes dramatically. Years later, a grown Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) works as a showgirl for a car show. When an admirer comes to meet her outside, she responds to his kisses by jamming her rather long hairpin into his neck and holding his spasmodic body until he dies in her arms.

It’s here where Titane the movie rears an extremely bloodthirsty head. Alexia inexplicably and gruesomely dispatches everyone who comes within three feet of her. The ferocity in which she commits these murders is only magnified by how unemotional she is, how disconnected. Adding to this, she starts having sex with what can only be described as a car while sitting in the back seat. What this may imply is left unexplored. In the meantime, Durcournau has Alexia escape from the authorities after she’s demolished the entire cast, and again, it’s not the fact that she is able to do so, but the way she goes about it that makes even this sequence the more disturbing. To make it simple: she sees the picture of a missing teenage boy she vaguely resembles. Because she will get caught looking the way she does, she not just cuts her hair to look like a boy but bashes her face into a sink to deform her nose and avoid detection.

From here on, Titane takes a complete nosedive. I won’t spoil it much — incredibly, what I wrote can only be considered a prologue to the real events of the movie. Titane moves from a woman on the run to a woman living like a man amongst men who display the glaring characteristics of toxic masculinity. At the same time, Alexia’s change into a boy also brings another change within her own body, and it’s one that the movie asks you to believe would happen undetected. However, as the story progresses and its own premise gets stretched out to its extremes, I realized that this is not a regular thriller about a female serial killer on the loose but something else entirely. As strange as this movie already is, Durcournau seems to be trying to tell us that sometimes human connections can arise from the weirdest of places. Alexia, now going by Adrien, seems to relinquish her need to escape and with great resistance settle into someone else’s life, even when she knows she may be discovered at any point. Alexia’s relationship to the man who was the real Adrien’s father (Vincent Lindon, in a balls-out committed performance, equal parts damaged goods and narcissistic he-man) dances the delicate territory of the incestual and the thuggish. It is cringey as all get-out, but Durcournau has her own agenda in mind.

I admire challenging movies. I want to see movies that dare to go to places that most of us wouldn’t. The entire time we follow Alexia on her journey and wonder what’s next. Knowing her penchant for horrific violence from the whirlwind intro, the long pause that follows might be its own mediation on a situation of symbolic gestation (still not a spoiler). Durcournau artfully drops Alexia into the most ironic of situations, and even then all we can think of is, will she escape — and there is that hairpin. We don’t even know how someone like her can have a future, but Durcournau pulls the rug even on her. In the end, once her purpose is complete, it becomes clear that perhaps this was never her story proper, but someone else who needed a son. In this, Titane becomes an exercise in misdirection, and that makes Durcournau’s movie unique.

The Last Duel: Film Review

To be quite honest, a movie with the title The Last Duel doesn’t conjure up images of 14th Century British history. No, in my mind, Tom Cruise pretending to educate Japanese Samurai on how to be more “samurai” comes to mind, with its own barrage of the White savior coming to help a lesser race on how it should act and think and ultimately, live (and if that isn’t American Imperialism at its worst…). However, once I realized this was Ridley Scott’s latest incursion into historical epics complete with sword fights and massive battle sequences, I was sold. If there is anyone who can turn any historical or quasi-historical event and spin it into gold, it’s Scott. Heck–I’ll even watch a bad Scott movie and he’s made a few of them in his six decades as a movie director.

I have a sneaking sensation that Scott has, at one time or another, watched Akira Kurosawa’s movies — notably, Yojimbo, and I’ll get into that in a bit, You see, The Last Duel touches on an obscure piece of history that unless the average person might not know of. In 1386, Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) challenged his squire and former friend Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver) to a duel to the death following accusations that Le Gris had raped his wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer), the last of a series of insults that could be resolved in no other way. WE later learn, should Le Gris win the duel, then Marguerite will be whipped naked in front of the entire public and burned alive. This is, obviously, not a happy affair.,

Scott then pulls us back — way back — to when Carouges and Le Gris were on more friendly terms. Even then, the movie depicts Carrouges as inherently noble by association and birth (albeit if it is on a lower level). On the other hand, Le Gris seemingly through no fault of his own rises up the ranks to be Count Pierre d’Alençon’s, right-hand man. It is this unlikely series of events that posits both men in increasingly adversarial positions. When Carrouges marries Marguerite, he intends to link himself to a higher position. However, this also gets taken away from him once d’Alençon grants this portion of land. To make matters worse, Le Gris also become a form of a manager to a fort that had been in the Carrouges’ family for generations. The last straw, what pushes Carrouges over the edge, is the claim that Marguerite makes to him that Le Gris raped her one morning while she was alone in their home as he was away on business.

This is a lot to unpack, but Scott makes it easy to understand with the movie’s deft writing and the clear exposition of the situation. Because Scott has divided The Last Duel into three chapters, we do not get to see the rape in the movie’s first third. Marguerite, the reason the duel even happens, remains a somewhat decorative figure in the background. We mainly get Carrouges’ account of the indignities he has been subjected to, and by all means, we do believe him.

Once we get into the second and third chapters, the movie starts to become something of a puzzle. Le Gris tells his own story and places himself as a lovable rogue who through no fault of his own found himself earning the favors of Philippe. When he gets introduced to Marguerite in a diplomatic meeting after he and Carrouges have fallen out of friendship, their kiss becomes a little more than just a kiss, and we see the faintest expression draw itself upon Marguerite’s face. This is a stark contradiction from the movie’s previous segment where she and Le Gris met, yes, but nothing of the nature that might indicate anything more than a polite kiss transpired.

Scott has the difficult task of filming Marguerite’s rape and because this is a movie that gives us three different accounts, we will have two very different accounts of what exactly happened. Le Gris’ account paints a Marguerite who wasn’t herself putting too much of a fight but simply allowed the incident to happen. Marguerite’s version, on the other hand, comes last, and when she begins to tell her story from start to finish, we finally get to see a woman not only diminished because of the times she lived in, but one who gets to stand up, use her voice, even if the very act may condemn her to a horrible death. She doesn’t simply stand by and watch Le Gris and Carrouges become adversaries; she is a strong advisor who knows how to use diplomacy to her advantage. It is telling how, in a dance Carrouges that follows her meeting to Le Gris, he may see a woman flirting with him; she is warning her husband about him the entire time.

And then the rape scene arrives, and it is truly horrifying. Her revelation, instead of instilling a protective nature in Carrouges, inflames his bruised masculinity even more. In Carrouges’ mind, his enemy has taken everything from him–even his wife, the ultimate humiliation. He even goes as far as to blame Marguerite herself, an action that hits closer to home even today. Marguerite, however, will not be silenced, and while the entire confession/accusation becomes a scandal, while her personal life gets exposed down to the last, most intimate details, she remains headstrong and defiant.

The duel of the title is the movie’s highlight. Here is where Scott lets all the anger of his hurt female, and the passive women that pepper the entire movie–Count Philippe’s wife, Marguerite’s sister and mother-in-law, the King’s own wife–echo that. This fight is because one woman stood up when countless others have not. This is no attempt to create a movie conscious of its need to tell a movie where the woman is at the center and thus appease feminists in general. The latter scenes slant heavily towards giving women a voice, no other character voices the acceptance of how women had to allow and withstand being trampled upon by the men of their time than Harriet Walker’s Nicole de Buchard. An evil mother-in-law at the start, she comes out of that shell and reveals to Marguerite how she is one of many women who have been suffered abuse in silence because they simply do not carry any power when power lies in the hands of men. If anything, this is the movie’s central message: to give us a mirror into the precarious position women of all classes had (which sus see how awful the time, and to see how little things have changed despite the march of time and feminism.