Category Archives: Women in Film

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.

Bergman Island: Film Review

Director Mia Hansen-Löve tackles the topic of young love from the perspective of her own life experience in this very meta-narration that also pays homage to Ingmar Bergman.

It is a well-known belief that writers go back to the well of their own experiences to create their stories. For someone like myself who has read countless books and seen the works of many directors, I would be inclined to believe that this saying is true more than not. Even writers of science-fiction, horror, and fantasy will filter true-life events or experiences through the lens of the fantastic in order to narrate a compelling story.

Mia Hansen-Löve’s stories tend to walk the path of delicate character studies that give us glimpses of people handling romance and personal dramas without too much intensity, or at least, the right amount of pathos. Bergman Island, her first film in five years (to have a US premiere) focuses on a married couple, Chris and Tony, who happen to be filmmakers (played by Vicki Krieps and Tim Roth). They have come to Farö, the Scandinavian island where Ingmar Bergman filmed most of his iconic work and is also screening one of Tony’s movies.

Tony happens to be an admirer of Bergman’s work. Chris, however, is a bit ambivalent (although both engage in a lengthy conversation about the auteur’s movies while rooming in the place where he filmed Scenes from a Marriage and joking that “this is the same bed where [the movie’s stars] slept on). She uses the trip as a means to do a little creative writing herself and brainstorm an outline for a screenplay. While doing so, she misses some of the island’s offerings, like the “Bergman Safari”. In the interim, she meets a local, Hampus (Hampus Nordenson), a film student who takes her on a tour of the small island.

It doesn’t seem to amount to much, but once Chris [mostly] completes her story, she shares it with Tony. In her story, a young woman named Amy (Mia Wasikowska) meets and falls in love with Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie); however, a series of events has Joseph breaking Amy’s heart. All throughout Chris’ narration, Tony continues to either interrupt her or simply, not be engaged enough and resolves that he cannot help her end her story.

Bergman Island, like Hansen-Löve’s movies, meanders in a way that engrosses the viewer, I don’t recall wondering where was the story going — I was simply rapt by the bubble of gentle energy that she’d imbued her movie. I had let it take me along for the ride, enjoying the location dropping (“Here is where Bergman filmed the ___ scene in Persona.”), followed by a humourous conversation about Bergman’s ability to be a father and a filmmaker at the same time. The island’s peculiarities and its people, who also sub in as minor characters in her film, were a clever touch.

Where the movie also drew me in was in watching what seemed to be Hansen-Löve share with me what it must be like to be married to a film director of equal prestige (and longer career). The parallels couldn’t be clearer: Olivier Assayas has been making movies since the mid-80s and is internationally recognized for his own vision of cinema. Like Tony, he also doubles the age of Hansen-Löve. I can’t but help wonder if the couple in the movie is a mirror to their real-life counterpart. It very well might be, because how else would the director create something that seems so intimate and also, so delicate, like a lost love?

And how clever for Hansen-Löve, to pull a little bit of metafiction onto the viewer, a thing she has never done before. I won’t spoil it for you, but it pretty much mirrors the last scene of Persona. Bergman Island may be as light and gentle as a breeze, but when viewed, it will linger as an incursion into the creative mind of its own director who tackles not only the ghost of a great director, but also her own past, and in this way, finds her own voice.

Tackling loss in two very different ways: PIG and REMINISCENCE

The topic of loss — and in essence, the loss of a loved one — is the gift that keeps on giving. Every year there you can count on a movie or two that tells the story of a character, or set of characters, dealing with the loss of a loved one, the loss of innocence, the loss of a time gone by. Most recently, Chloe Zhao presented her magnificent Nomadland and single-handedly gave Frances McDormand a role so meaty, so juicy, that when the movie was over, and all you saw was her POV of the road ahead, you cried and cheered and kept wanting more.

Recently a movie called Pig came out, starring Nicholas Cage. Admittedly, I wasn’t too keen on seeing this movie because the poster made it seem as though it was yet another horror or revenge movie (and he has been known for doing both, and making something of a career resurgence with it in movies like Mandy or Color Out of Space). Pig, however, is… a bit different, and it left me quite speechless.

Not since the days of Leaving Las Vegas, which gave Cage his first (and so far, his only Oscar), have I seen Cage give such an understated performance in a film. Remember, Cage has a slight (okay, let’s call a spade a spade) tendency to bellow out his lines and telegraph emotions so far out into the bleachers you would grasp a clear picture of how sad or angry he is in the depths of space. When Pig starts, and throughout the entire run of the movie, Cage physically and emotionally embodies suffering in silence. So mute is the character he plays that we actually hope to hear him talk just a little bit more.

Playing Robin Feld, a former legend of a chef whose loss of his wife years ago left him completely stunted, Cage emerges from what seems to be a shack deep in the Oregonian forest to go about his business. Accompanying Feld is his beloved pet pig, Feld has a partnership with a twenty-something businessman named Amir (Alex Wolff) to whom he sells truffles, which go on to get sold to high-end concept restaurants. One day, unknown assailants attack Feld and steal his pig, leaving him destitute. Feld reaches out to Amir to help him find his pig… and here is the crux of the movie, which unfolds in some rather unexpected ways.

Look at that adorable face!

First-time director Michael Sarnoski fools the audience to think we are about to watch a movie about a man not only getting his prized pig back but also leaving a trail of mayhem behind him. His movie gives Cage ample opportunity to go through a progressive reveal of his personality which has remained stunted since the loss of his wife. There are no major reveals here, but the wife’s presence, like that of the pig of the title, hovers heavily throughout the entire story which takes us on a journey into darkness and pain, unlike any other movie I have seen and eventually gives us a fine portrait of a man wanting to recover his last connection to something, even when that connection is an animal. The movie also gives you a little bit of ambiguity between Amir and his powerful father (Adam Arkin). It remains implicit that the father seems to be thwarting Amir’s own entry into the business, but the movie never quite spells it out for us — rather, it lets us decide what exactly is the crux of their dysfunction, and if it may stem from the loss/absence of Amir’s mother.

Side story and all, this is, ultimately, Feld’s story, which binds them all, and Cage demonstrates why he is, despite his weird output of shabby movies, one of our best actors. Take the slightly chuckle-inducing title and you have a shattering drama of near-silent proportions, beautifully shot, atmospherically perfect, and one that ends in a cathartic moment of mourning while Springsteen sadly sings “I’m on Fire.”

Reminiscence should have been a comedy or a cheeky homage. Not this.

Less successful is Lisa Joy’s debut movie Reminiscence. Considering her output with Westworld (and that the HBO series also carries some key actors over to this movie), I was flummoxed to see her not just fail, but fall flat on her face in delivering a compelling mystery that links a man (Hugh Jackman) and a woman (Rebecca Ferguson) together in a downward spiral of love lust and betrayal.

Jackman is Nick Bannister, a private investigator of the mind (okaaay…) who operates a machine, not unlike the ones in Westworld alongside his sidekick Watts (Thandiwe Newton, criminally underused here). With this machine, Bannister seems to be operating an underground memory market that delivers clients’ memories to them for a fee. In the world of science fiction, this seems to be fair enough, but memories can be tricky, and sometimes downright impossible to decipher.

Joy’s already lofty script doesn’t care to answer those questions. Instead, she barrels full steam ahead and introduces Ferguson as Mae, a femme fatale so obvious she may as well be telegraphing it with the force of a banshee in the night. Mae is a lounge singer with an agenda. [Here’s a question. Why do femme fatales always have to have the requisite role of “lounge singer” and need to appear as a variant of Jessica Rabbit with the Veronica Lake hair? Are we still in the 40s?] Bannister, upon seeing Mae sing, doesn’t just melt, he goes full Tex Avery, all giant eyes and a river of hearts escaping his chest as a 16-ton anvil flattens him to a tortilla.

Really, Bannister?

Here is the problem. When Mae appears, she brings not a single gasp with her. Where the camera would normally highlight a woman’s entrance and her movements, Mae never registers a single thing. She’s just a regular, pretty woman. Vapid, with a vaguely foreign accent for kicks, but does that make a memorable femme? Nope. Think of Bergman in Casablanca, Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Anne Revere in Detour, Jane Greer in Out of the Past. Even Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. These are women who have you stand up and take notice of their presence alone. In Westworld, Tessa Thompson plays both Charlotte Hale and a lethal version of Dolores Abernathy. She exudes equal parts smoldering (but cold) sensuality and steel menace in both roles. Thompson, instead of Ferguson, would have been ideal — and she would have saved an unsalvagable movie. She has the silky voice that hides iron; she has the allure, and she can definitely carry her own self so that whoever watches her, will remember her. On the other hand, Ferguson, as Mae collapses even before she enters the scene, or as I prefer to say, before the scene portentously introduces her.

Ferguson, through no fault of her own, since she is merely a player, hurts the movie far more than she should. Hers should have been a small but crucial part. Laura, she is not, and it shows. What Bannister sees in her is a mystery all its own that deserves its own documentary or movie. It’s almost an insult to a performer like Jackman to reduce him to a slobbering mess of tears who can’t control himself. Even Fred MacMurray, never a great actor but intoxicated with Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, had some self-respect and went down nobly.

For Joy to then hinge the entire plot — which involves a heap of other things, such that cringe-worthy voice-over narration, the world of the criminal underbelly, and a land baron who’s placed a waterlogged Miami in a divide from the have and have nots — on a badly named woman who seems to be in every single plot development is ridiculous. Lofty, yes, perhaps ambitious, but a disaster, nevertheless.

Take away all the science-fiction gobbledygook and you have a basic noir. Why Joy needed to add so many extra layers that do not work is beyond me. In concept, this seems to work, but then, for kicks, let’s just go with the concept of memory. Do you remember things in chronological order? Even people with excellent memories have slips, which make them unreliable narrators of their own experiences. Joy seems to have brought Westworld sensibilities into a story that should have been more human. Her androids in Westworld have complicated memories because they’ve been implanted to program that way, in chronological order, with cleverly placed gaps to delete whatever was “problematic” and could deviate them from their storylines.

People don’t behave that way. Even the cheapest sci-fi story knows that. Memories are shape-shifting things, fit to mold themselves to whatever we prefer them to be. They are hardly the elaborately choreographed dance routines that Joy presents here, and while the concept is interesting it saps the main story from all its energy. And Reminiscence, in trying to keep the concept of memory alive, does the worst a movie could do, which is to repeat scenes we’ve already seen, over and over. Meanwhile, we are left with about three-quarters of the story left, and no care or interest whatsoever in what comes next, who does what, or how it even ends.

In all fairness to Joy, I know she did not set out to make a terrible pastiche of every noir movie known to man. No director ever does. Perhaps separating herself from the show would help? While bringing in Thandiwe Newton and Angela Sarafyan feels like a good choice she mirrors their stories (and fates) to their android counterparts from the show. Another thing that isn’t helping might be the Nolan association — too much of that seems to be distracting rather than enriching. But what do I know; I didn’t create this movie, I’m sure there was significant studio interference as there always is, and this is the end result. All you can do if you love movies, and love noir, is go and watch a good one. Even an okay one. Just not this one.

SFIFF: Censor

One of the aspects I enjoy the most from the horror genre is the manner in which it uses imagery to convey a deeper brushstroke. Prano Bailey-Bond’s movie Censor is a neat hat trick in which the director focuses on the same media she is using to tell a story about mourning. She focuses the spotlight on her heroine, Irish actress Niamh Algar, whom she then has play a movie censor who has to determine what snippets of horror movies are a bit much and need to be excised in order for the movie to be palatable. Think of her as the person or team behind ratings or standards and practices. If a scene is too gruesome, she’s onboard to command that it be edited out.

It is when Algar’s character, who by the way has the unfortunate and schoolmarmish name of Enid Baines for a reason, receives news from her own parents that her sister, who went missing years ago, has been declared dead when Censor starts to build up the dread. Enid, who already takes her job a slight too seriously, starts to have bad reactions to certain scenes, and some memories which she seems to have had repressed come to the forefront in menacing ways. Enid watches a movie sent to her and sees someone who resembles her sister down to a science (had her sister grown up, that is). Convinced that the woman, her sister, is still alive, Enid begins to find a way to get her back, and with that, her grip on reality begins to crumble.

Censor is a sharp piece of movie-making that manages to convey how a tight grip on one’s psyche can merely be an illusion. Enid, the lone person whom we can hold on to here, is a tight drum dressed in antiquated attire, her brown hair in a bun, eyes behind studious glasses. She seems to have survived something horrific from her childhood, and this job, which lands her in hot water with the public at one point, comes with the promise of escaping a dour reality and progressively delving into something darker, richer, and more exciting.

Watching Censor, I couldn’t but keep getting references to Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio — and no, this is not a cheap comparison to that film. Strickland’s movie also dealt with the act of creating a horror film and often employed visuals and sounds that were often chilling. Censor executes a similar act with the editing process, but also with sequences that reenact a traumatic moment that Enid simply has not processed correctly. I loved that the movie, shot in drab colors (except when presenting its horror movies which are lit in bright neon tones reminiscent of Giallo), progressively comes brightly lit itself. It is as though Bailey-Bond herself was using the editing process as a way to make the film itself shed its old skin and reveal the screaming horror underneath.

I also loved the slow progression of its story. There is only one jump scare during the entire film, and it arrives completely justified. I would even say that it becomes essential that Enid get that sort of visceral shock, because it shakes her out of her weird reverie. Once the violence arrives, it feels as though a can of black, emotional worms have been released. Only that this time, they come drenched in neon and a sense of complete disorientation that Bailey-Bond employs to maximum effect down to the film’s last scene.

Censor will arrive to US cinemas in June of 2021.

Grade: B+

SFIFF: Franka Potente’s Home tackles redemption in a small town

Instinct would say that you can never go home again, but when you have unfinished business, an ailing parent, and nowhere else to go, then home might be your only option. Franka Potente (the star of Run, Lola, Run) steps behind the camera to direct this heartfelt, but sometimes a tad on-the-nose drama of a convict who, released from prison for a terrible crime he committed years ago, decides to come home to start over.

Marvin (Jake McLaughlin) is a man of no resources of his own; all he has is the sheer determination to survive and hopefully make some form of amends. His mother Bernadette (Kathy Bates, as usual, excellent), isn’t too open to the idea. She’s been on her own forever and not much has changed since he walked out of her life. To add conflict, the town itself has little in the way of sympathy for Marvin — after all, the crime he committed was truly heinous and had no reason or logic. The family members of the woman he killed, led by hate-filled Russell (James Jordan) are living in arrested development, caught in the spirals of that unresolved crime, and are basically in wait for Marvin to arrive.

In the middle of this, is a young woman named Delta (Aisling Franciosi, of The Nightingale) who was a child when Marvin committed the crimes. Her story has her going nowhere fast as a small-time drug pusher barely surviving on the scraps she makes. Somehow, Potente figures out a plausible way to have Delta and Marvin somehow meet in the middle, purely by chance, and have their barely budding friendship be a harbinger of better things to come.

Jake McLaughlin and Kathy Bates in Franka Potente’s Home

Potente’s movie shows a promising director attempting to tell a story that seems to stem from the heart. While that is good for the most part, because it establishes a deep mother-son bond early on, it also saps the story from a little bit of tension. She at first sets up a potential showdown that grows and grows… but fizzles. At first, I thought, what was the purpose? and then realized that perhaps it needed to go that way to expand the story from its potential and predictable showdown, complete with Western overtones.

Potente instead veers the story towards Marvin’s rehabilitation through his encounter with Delta and his friendship with Jayden (Lil Rel Howery), a man who takes care of Bernadette. We see the movie go into Marvin’s character development in which he comes out of his shell and finally seems to be the man he should have, far removed from his old, more violent persona. McLaughlin manages to convey Marvin’s transformation through his soulful eyes and vulnerable body language — he doesn’t even attempt to defend himself in a crucial early scene.

Home isn’t perfect, though. One of its blunders is not knowing what to do with Wade (Derek Richardson). Wade is the one who knows Marvin the best and might be considered his ride-or-die friend. The problem is, Potente keeps him in the film for much longer than she needs to, and that in essence, slows the movie down to a crawl. One scene would have been more than enough to inform us that yes, these two have a deep bond, and as broken as they both are, they can still cling to each other for support.

Its ending also resolves itself in a religious setting which probably will push the limits of belief with some viewers. It’s not that movies can’t have a slight religious overtone, but Potente’s script calls for an almost Biblical intensity to a moment where a character can finally achieve some form of resolution, and it shouldn’t have happened that way, at least, not credibly. I, for one, was not too moved by this sequence. It just seemed to belong in one of these religious movies that are tailor-made for Christians and star Christian actors. However, this is the movie that Potente wished to release, and there it is, imperfections and all.

Home is awaiting distribution, so it has no release date yet.

Grade: C+

SIFF: Bebia, à mon seul desir

I hate to say it, but I left the most confounding movie from the entire film festival for last even though this was one of the first. I was able to see this one in pieces, pausing, resuming if at all to grasp its significance and digest its symbolic imagery, and while at times the film alienated me in more ways I’d like to admit, I felt in whole that I had seen an extremely personal, but somewhat self-indulgent film about death and linking your ancestors to their final resting place.

The movie itself, with its strange title Bebia, a mon seul desir, is mystifying. A teenage runway model named Ariadne (Anushka Andronikashvili) learns that her grandmother has passed on and must return home for the wake and burial. Once she arrives, the disconnect is clear. A family friend, Temo (Alexander Glurjidze), picks her up and escorts her home, but instead of there being any emotional greetings yielding to sympathetic exchanges, the two remain stiff and separated from each other.

When Ariadna arrives home her alienation is made deeper by the appearance of her forbidding and perpetually angry mother (Anastasia Chanturaia) who has little time for affection but spends her onscreen time lashing out. We wonder what may have transpired between her and Ariadna to engender such barely repressed hostility. The movie doesn’t go there, but instead, lets it fester, untreated, which in a way is satisfying. Not all loose ends have to be tied, so to leave this part of family dynamics up in the air is a good move.

When the time of mourning arrives Ariadna becomes confronted with tradition and it makes her laugh before she cries. Female mourners sit next to Arifdna and begin to wail painfully, their voices going louder and louder until the priest has to tell them to stop. It’s only then when Ariadne’s composure, which began complete with an eye-roll and a nervous chuckle collapses. It is her only moment of emotion.

Ariadna learns that tradition has it that she has to take a ball of yarn and walk from the house to the place where her grandmother died in order to link her soul with her grave. Ariadna then starts the trek over an open expanse of land with Temo beside her. Here is where the movie, which has worked up until now, starts to lose focus. A ritual of any kind has to open your senses to something greater than yourself even when the said ritual may seem silly or unnecessary. Ariadna’s walk through miles of land transpires without much emotional gravity. It’s so performed as though Ariadna herself was suffering from a type of disassociation by proxy. While she may be, in fact, completing a cycle of life, there is no emotional arc that plays here, no act of heroism, or even selflessness.

Director Juja Dobrachkous gives enough information that may explain the disconnect between Ariadna and her mother’s home. It may even — and I’m overreaching here — form a parallel between other stories in which a person who leaves a country finds his or herself at odds with the place of birth and its customs, now seem as borderline barbaric or plain ridiculous. Her use of inserts of the past (she claims they are not flashbacks) also confuses rather than enlighten. They don’t seem to add anything new to this elliptical tale, which is a shame because the opportunity was clearly there from the onset to make a great mediation about roots, and the loved dead.

Aside from that, Bebia, a mon seul desir is striking in black and white in a manner reminiscent of Pavel Pawlikowski’s Ida, and many shots that focus not on characters but on no specific subject, in general, come off also a bit like that film. It’s a dreamy experience that seeks neither to enlighten nor to reveal, but to let you in on a strange, symbolic labyrinth.

Bebia, a mon seul desir is also playing at the New Directors / New Films festival. It has no US release as of yet.

Rendezvous with French Cinema: Slalom and Summer of ’85

A teenage ski prodigy navigates sexual abuse in Chàrlene Favier’s zeitgeist drama Slalom, and François Ozon returns to his earlier oevre in Summer of ’85. Also seen at the Philadelphia and Seattle International Film Festival.

Prepare to be repulsed by Slalom. I came into it naked and unprepared for the levels of insidiousness that the character played by Jérémie Renier’s ski instructor character Fred would impose on his protege Lyz (a compelling, but sometimes maddening Noée Abita). From the word go we are drawn into Lyz’s harrowing story in which she, a skier with the potential to win big, becomes the unhealthy target of Fred’s obsessive training style which borders on the transgressive and would label him a criminal in the US (if reported). From the moment he lays his eyes on Lyz, her fate is set. Vulnerable, her isolation from her never-there mother (Muriel Combeau) makes her an easy target to mold to his standards of what he deems perfect. A predator who operates so casually on his instinct, perhaps because he’s been operating freely without any supervision, he treats Lyz like cattle, ordering her to undress in order to get her measurements. Lyz, strangely, acquiesces, perhaps because she hasn’t realized how love-starved she is. That we get to see progressive acts of transgression in which Fred eliminates the natural and logical boundaries between himself and Lyz in order to get her under his total control becomes almost unbearable to watch. This is an ugly movie to watch. It is also doubly important not to shy away from it. Too many men (and shockingly, women) in power have got away with these acts of degradation with the excuse of being a harsh teacher. Favier displays it all on camera, shot in shades of mostly chiaroscuro. We can only look and be outraged. A ferocious debut. [B+]

François Ozon has, for the better part of the past decade, been moving away from his early queer movies which were a bit lighter and experimental in tone and embracing a darker side. I think the moment that his cinema changed was in 2000 when he released Sous le sable (Under the Sand) and began to create narratives ripe with queer sensibilities but without being necessarily gay or lesbian, the exception to that trend being 8 Femmes (8 Women).

Summer of ’85 is based on the YA novel Dance on my Grave by Aidan Chambers. Summer tells the story of 16-year-old Alexis Robin (Felix Lefebvre), who’s on the verge of being arrested for being a suspect in the death of his 18-year-old friend David Gorman (Benjamin Voisin). Much of the movie transpires in extended flashback sequences as Alexis starts to tell his story which proceeds to let us in on how he met David, and what exactly happened between the two.

Much of Summer of ’85 moves rather rapidly, almost as if Ozon himself were trying to gloss over the rough pages and let us in only on the meat of the situation rather than trying to let the situation itself breathe on its own. That in many ways is fine — the chemistry between Lefebvre and Voisin practically leaps off the screen. The problem lies in that while their progressive evolution from simply friends to something more intimate is rife with suspense and erotic tension, once the inevitable happens, the movie veers into a forced situation involving a female British tourist. That in itself takes the story into unexpected terrain, and we are left with a somewhat unsatisfying coming of age with an ending so tacked on it almost looks like it could belong in another movie.

On the plus side, Summer of ’85 is a gorgeous view — from the scenery to its two young male leads who are polar opposites but fit together like a glove to a hand. Voisin resembles a young Nicolas Cage at the start of his career with his deep-set, soulful eyes and swagger. Lefebvre is more internal, and because he has the more difficult part, he has to evolve from an insecure, dependent young man to someone who could effectively be on his own and find the right guy. Ozon brings in frequent collaborators Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Melvin Poupaud in supporting parts — she as David’s clueless mother; he as Alexis’ teacher. [C+]

Slalom is available to stream on virtual cinema. Summer of ’85 will have its US release on June 18, 2021.

SIFF: Topside, or the Underbelly of New York City

You don’t often get movies that depict stories that focus on the forgotten who have slipped through the cracks of the big city. The last time I can recall I saw a movie that went there was in Oren Moverman’s 2014 Time Out of Mind, which got followed almost immediately by the Safdie Brother’s Heaven Knows What. Both pictures showcased compelling character stories of the homeless, stuck in a storm they might not probably survive while New York moved on, indifferent to their plight.

Logan George and Celine Held’s movie Topside follows in the previous’ footsteps but goes underground into the tunnels of the City. It is a sad truth that there are hundreds of people living surviving in squalor within the tunnels of New York’s massive MTA system. Topside focuses on a mother and child (Held and newcomer Zhalia Farmer). Nikki, the mother, scrapes for a living and tells her 5-year-old daughter Little she can only go topside (their term for above ground) once Little gets her wings.

Their communal fragility gets shattered when transit authority officers move in. Nikki and Little are forced to go above ground, emerging in what seems to be uptown (but is, for the keen observer, a mish-mash of footage shot in the Bronx — 170th St. and Nostrand Ave. inspired by the Freedom Tunnels). New York winters are harsh and Nikki, out in the cold open, has to find shelter for herself and Little.

Held’s direction is frenetic during these sequences, which contrasts the dark but golden warmth of the makeshift shelter her character lives in. The second she emerges onto the street, light crashes through, and Little, who’s never been above ground, is terrified. Movement, everywhere, people everywhere, sounds coming from all directions — this is where Topside goes into sensory overload and almost mimes the Safdies in energy.

Topside then makes a darker turn which has to be seen to be believed. Judging that Nikki is far from the best mother in the world — she can barely fend for herself — it seems to be the only logical step in a woman frantically searching for help in the wrong places. Held clearly has done an excellent job in studying the homeless, and giving her character a limited knowledge of resources available for her. Where I diverged a bit from the movie was in how Held (and George) chose to resolve Nikki’s situation. However, I realize that this is the only solution she can have, and it actually lands the movie with a poignant sense of tragedy mixed with hope.

Kudos to Held for looking like she hasn’t taken a shower in forever, and choosing her locations carefully. So many New York shots seem plastic; hers are entirely lived in and lit in ways that make the city a nightmare of urban chaos — which only mirrors Nikki’s own. With this movie, she announces herself as a bold filmmaker who can also act the crap out of herself and land a completely lived-in character that is flawed but trying to do the right thing, even when she makes some questionable choices.

Topside as of yet has no release date.

Grade: B+