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

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

Another late night at the laptop while the temperatures start to wind down and September brings in its first stirrings of Autumn, and here I mull over how to start a criticism of director Josephine Decker’s https://explorationproject.org/annotated/christmas-day-on-essay/80/ https://chanelmovingforward.com/stories/lab-reports-format/51/ short essay on simplicity esl phd essay editing site for college i need an essay written text resume formatting hoofdpijn viagra https://tffa.org/businessplan/essay-all-you-need-love/70/ https://www.myrml.org/outreach/dissertation-chair/42/ dove prendere il cialis follow site life goals paper outline papers already written enter cialis official price viagra de que esta hecho nederland cialis click here get link informational essay prompts how to get prednisone without prescription http://hyperbaricnurses.org/10712-rush-limbaugh-boys-viagra/ viagra crown point source url get link essay about exam anxiety current employment on resume source link Keyword discovery education homework help research website source Shirley. I originally saw Shirley a little over a month ago but at the rate that I eat movies for breakfast as if though I was a voracious Pac Man devouring white dots and frightened blue men, it’s a miracle that I get to review them at all. [It is the sole reason why I somehow went on pause shortly after October of 2017 and didn’t even resume until sometime last year. Sometimes hiatuses happen because there is no other way to process information than to store it until a future, less hectic period arises and you can safely back-date your post to fill in the blanks.]

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014)

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 I wasn’t actively writing (other than short stories which still remain unpublished), and her piece, while beautiful even though it ventured into slight ickiness reminiscent of Southern Gothic, didn’t quite leave a deep impression on me as to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

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

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

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

Helena Howard from Madeline’s Madeline (2018)

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

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

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

Elizabeth Moss becomes Shirley Jackson.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shirley is available on most on-demand platforms.

Fifty Years and Several Æons Later: Fellini’s Satyricon

Image from Criterion.

It doesn’t matter what critics tell you about what they consider the masters; you may acknowledge that they indeed continue to exist via their body of work, but if their body does not call to you right away, then what’s the purpose of engaging in what would be two hours of your precious time in a tenuous affair with a man or woman you will never meet?

I’ve been enamored with the art of cinema since I saw (a rather truncated version of) Fritz Lang’s 1927 movie Metropolis in 1977 at the tender age of seven. I felt that a movie such as that, which depicted a strange world where the mighty few consume the Earth of its pleasures and the millions of slaves toiled, unseen, in the Underbelly, serving the voracious God of Industry, Moloch, had a striking, haunting appeal that lingers on almost 100 years later and has actually come to represent today’s world of the one-percenters and the masses who — including yours truly — have not.

Fellini has always been on my radar. I will openly say that I admire him wholly and unabashedly — the way he is able to construe sublime energy out of a ball of what is, essentially, his chaotic mind. However, in a world that throws so many new releases, film festivals, and the occasional big-budget independent feature, his body of work, which I have in my queue, continues to elude me even now with the exception of 8 1/2 and Amarcord, a film that I have a personal attachment to for its loving depiction of memory. The rest, Fellini’s body if you will, is waiting for the moment when I finally acknowledge it and like the characters in Satyricon, come to feast and dance and have sex and be merry.

Fellini Satyricon precluded Amarcord by a few years but it follows on the same theme initiated in 8 1/2: The persistence of memory, funneled through a chaotic mind. Loosely based on an ancient tome believed to have been written by Gaius Petronius, Fellini’s version follows its own logic, keeping some of the basic plot threads alive but preferring to present his own vision of what may have happened to these characters. Dear Reader, even if you see this twice (as I did; I usually do this when a movie presents itself a bit obscure or saturated with details and Fellini falls under the latter), you probably won’t get it all. Don’t.

Image from Pinterest

This is a world that exists only in fantasy. Satyricon is as close to a fever dream borne from hallucinogens as a written document. Even when the document presents actual characters of all sorts of social standing, they blend together into a pastiche of color, pomp & circumstance, and essentially become more part of the background than semblances of people.

At the core, there are two gladiators: Encolpius (Martin Potter) and Ascyltus (Hiram Keller), and the underage boy Giton (Max Born) caught in between them, less a person than a cipher for pleasure. Their misadventures, which also includes Encolpius having to prove his manhood by both bedding a woman and battling a Minotaur, is the only thread that gets any prominence during the movie. I wish more time had been devoted to what made these two men tick, but this is, of course, wishful thinking, and Fellini had his own logic. Never would he have been able to zoom into one single character. If he could have told something called “Il Mundo” he would have.

Waving in and out are a multitude of them, in which beggars get their hands chopped off and replaced by a gold one. Noblemen perv on younger boys who are invited to the feast of debauchery for one purpose only. Stories within the narrative get told to a rapt audience feasting voraciously on the delights presented. Magic, sex, death, and little love converge into one giant melting pot in which everything whirls, and nothing exists as a whole.

It takes a keen vision to present this layered of a movie. Could Satyricon — complete with its incursions into the risque — have been done by an American? I would say not. Not in the daring 70s, in which the anti-hero rose to prominence, the glum ending became almost necessary, and Woody Allen introduced us to neuroses on camera. Satyricon is a deeply reverent Italian movie that honors its Ancient story, warts and all, and isn’t afraid to present it to the world in a feverish tornado, untethered to any conventions, any resolutions, and even a proper ending.

Michael Powell’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Image from BFI

It’s a shame that Michael Powell is known in the US for what seems to be basically only one movie — The Red Shoes, a mainstay on TCM’s programming. Or that in 1960, Powell released a movie that many have stated “killed” his career, the bloodless psychological horror movie Peeping Tom, which scandalized anyone who saw it but now… seems mostly a case of “WTF were these people scared of?”

What many of us — me included — did not know is that aside from the fact that Peeping Tom did not “kill” Powell’s career (it may have caused quite the stir, but he still made several pictures in both the UK and Australia; they just weren’t the massive hits that Powell had enjoyed in previous years), Powell had a directing partner in Emeric Pressburger for the most of his time in movies. Their production company was known as The Archers, Powell & Pressburger and both produced movies from 1943 to 1957, when the partnership was dissolved. However, both men would reunite for a few more movies that enjoyed limited success outside of the UK.

Let’s just say that Peeping Tom would not be the first time Powell and Pressburger would cause a stir when trying to make a film. When they focused on Colonel Blimp the newspaper comic strip character by David Low, guess who came calling and not with good news: then Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Him. It seems that his ego was bruised; the strip was known to mock those in higher positions of office and that was a matter that Churchill did not take lightly to. Powell and Pressburger deflected by stating that their movie had no relation to the strip but Churchill was undeterred. It seems that Churchill would make it his mission to stop funding, production, and the acquisition of actors of the stature of Sir Lawrence Olivier all in the name of what Churchill deemed an offensive movie.

But there’s more to the story — there always is. The screenplay that became the movie called for a friendship to develop between a German soldier and a British soldier during the Boer War. Such a friendship would last 40 years. England was smack in the middle of a war against Germany and of course, Churchill not only verbally attacked the film but the actor playing the German (Anton Holbrook).

The film prevailed, but not without the long arm of censorship which forced the movie to be trimmed down considerably and not released to the US public until after the war. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, as a matter of fact, did not get restored in its entirety until the 80s, and today, thanks to the efforts of Powell’s third wife, Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese, Criterion Collection now can show the movie in its full glory, as it was intended.

Anyone who loves British movies ought to experience Colonel Blimp. It is a hoot and a holler in its first sequence reminiscent of what Monty Python would later do, but as its story moves forward in time, it starts revealing its true face, and what emerges is an exercise in altruism in both the central friendship of Charles Wynn Candy (Roger Livesey) and the German officer (Holbrook) who becomes his lifelong friend. In the middle we see Deborah Kerr, right before her arrival in Hollywood, playing three parts. She is, at least for two-thirds of the movie, the glue that holds the men together. In the first vignette, she is the woman who falls for Candy, but because his German friend has also fallen for Kerr, he gives her away selflessly… and never forgets her. In the second vignette, Candy will marry Kerr again as another character during the First World War but during the Second World War, Kerr plays Candy’s driver, and a spirited young woman with a passion for defending her country.

Viewers of Luis Bunuel’s cinema might see a wink thrown at his direction at casting the same actor in several roles but this may have been incidental; Powell had wanted Wendy Hiller to play the role that ultimately went to Kerr in the final installment, but Hiller was unavailable, so Kerr remained on set.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is now available in its full running time in both physical DVD and via Criterion Channel and I suggest you take a look into it. This is quite a remarkable film, one of historic value, and if Churchill would be alive now he would probably have to agree.

The Death of Innocence: Elem Klimov’s Devastating Come and See

There probably will never be a war movie quite like Elem Klimov’s traumatizing Come and See. No amount of hero-worship, no amount of action set pieces, pyrotechnics, or simple wartime nostalgia will replicate the horror of innocence lost to time and devastation. I saw Come and See through the suggestion of a friend and while I don’t shy from difficult pictures I almost wish I hadn’t seen this. That is a compliment, not a complaint. This is not a movie for beginners or people with weak stomachs. This is the movie Spielberg saw before filming his own Schindler’s List and even that movie had a few moments where the audience could breathe before the horror would pick up again.

I’m not sure I want to write anything too detailed because at one point I was so disturbed by what I saw that I had to stop the movie — thank goodness for DVD remotes — take a break, get settled, and tackle the rest of it, even when I knew that the worst was yet to come.

In a nutshell, Come and See is about a young Belarussian boy of fifteen, Flyora Gaishun (Aleksei Kravchenko), who wants to join the partisans during the Nazi occupation of Russia in 1943. The event that seals his conscription is the finding of a rifle buried in the sand, but once he joins the partisans he is left behind due to an unfair exchange of footwear. He encounters a young girl named Glasha (Olga Mironova) and becomes smitten with her, not before they undergo a blitz attack from German bombers that leaves them both disoriented. Once they arrive home Glasha realizes Flyora’s family — indeed, the entire village — has been killed. Flyora, convinced they are still alive, states he knows where they are located and attempts to walk through a bog while a terrified Glasha follows. The actions result in Flyora reconnecting with villagers who now see him as the cause of their miseries, a thing that basically makes Flyora lose the last of his mind.

However, survival still remains, and hunger sends Flyora and a small group of partisans in search of food. In a scene that has to be experienced to be believed, there is an exchange of machine guns that basically leaves Flyora again, alone and destitute. If you thought that things are about to get better, think again. Come and See dives into the abyss and right into the face of the Fuhrer himself in an agonizing shot of reverse chronology that pulls the rug off of you and leaves you speechless.

Last year I saw a Romanian movie called I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians, and while that film was mostly comedic, its finale and that of Come and See are inextricably linked through the massacre of a people by the hands of the military. Come and See has a much longer and cringing sequence, and itself was the moment I had to stop viewing the movie due to the sheer level of horror that leaped from the visuals. All the anguish, all the agony gets carried out in a young boy’s face as it morphs from that of a teenager with dreams to a rictus of pain and fear. This is not Empire of the Sun. This almost qualifies as a documentary — it’s that horrifying. Klimov, if he wished to make a commentary on how barbarous this event was in which 628 Belarussian were slaughtered by the Nazis needn’t worry.

When Horror Recycles Itself: Rob Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, and Dominique Rocher’s The Night Eats the World

Tilda Swinton as one of three roles in Lucsa Guadagnino’s Suspiria (image from Vulture).

[Originally written in early June of 2020.]

One of the hidden blessings of living under the very real horror of a lethal pandemic is that because there is nowhere to go to, you stay indoors, order contactless, pop a bottle of luscious Chardonnay or Prosecco, and order away on the Smart TV so it can instantly deliver to your hungry eyes a plethora of cinema old and new, good and bad, while the world around you collapses into a fiery mass of merry hell. As long as you have wipes and enough toilet paper to last several lifetimes, you’ll be perfectly fine, [Too soon?]

This is, of course, what Yours Truly has been doing for the past few months. Because it seems that no one may be reading this and no one I know is feasting on movies like the fresh cadavers of the recently deceased through carnage or infected human on infected human violence the writer has deemed it secondary to update his blog regularly with new reviews, so of course, now he has a list of films that he has seen starting Day Zero (March 16, give or take a day) which he needs to either re-watch or tackle from memory and hope to deliver something tangible for whoever is still out there, interested in what he has to say.

So here we go.

Sometimes you will watch a movie and not get it the first time. If you are like me, you will probably give the film a terrible review and then, out of curiosity, give it a second-go. It can happen that something about that film just failed to resonate with you. Perhaps the acting wasn’t what you expected, or the mise en scene was just a shade too anachronistic or cheap for you to sit back and let suspension of disbelief whisk you over the rainbow. Perhaps you were having a bad day and while you thought that going to see a film would alleviate your thoughts from rumination, your mind has a “mind” of its own and decides, “No, we’re going to sit here for about two hours and stew, stew, stew.”

To list an example: just before the pandemic, I saw Corneliu Porumboiu’s entry for the 57th New York Film Festival The Whistlers, previously reviewed. At first view, I had no clue what to make of it and I will admit my feelings bordered on hate and sheer incomprehension. I came home and any attempts of furnishing at least three coherent paragraphs were et with frustration and the constant pressing of the delete button. It took me a second view to finally get it, and now it sits as one of my favorite movies for this year.

House of 1,000 Corpses

Sid Haig (1939 – 2019)

Rob Zombie’s 2000-filmed but 2003-released House of 1,000 Corpses won’t suffer from the same fate as, let’s say, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (which has deservedly grown in reputation after 40 years). When Zombie’s film came out, I was unmoved by the hoopla surrounding it. One thousand corpses? Sounds like a day at the trenches or a disaster movie. That must be quite a cast for a two-hour horror movie featuring a poster of a person with Marilyn Manson features. Essentially, I said no. I had just come around delving into Japanese horror (Audition, anyone?) as well as The Blair Witch Project, the micro-budget horror movie that single-handedly resuscitated the found-footage technique back to life, and was still being raved about.

Eventually, I did see it sometime in early 2004 and I was mostly unimpressed. My Made in China heart did not warm up to it, or perhaps the batteries had gone to hell. It was 85 minutes of badly done shock and gore. I’m okay with both — Cabin Fever had just come out and David Fincher had delivered with Se7en several years earlier — but I need a story. I need an arc. I want compelling, interesting characters. If I wanted to see what is essentially a remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I would have re-rented that one instead.

Upon inspection almost 20 years later, the best I can say of House of 1,000 Corpses is that you can see Zombie’s potential of becoming a real visual master of grindhouse horror, but that’s as far as I can go. He leaves no room for suspense, even less room for actual scares, and has decided that “… the kids don’t matter; the bad guys are the heroes”. That already tells me moviemaking seems to be a mode of Zombie to perhaps exorcise his demons instead of creating something cinematic.

Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria

Dakota Johnson (center) and Mia Goth (left), image courtesy by Michigan Daily.

I’ll be the first to admit that when Luca Guadagnino announced his decision to do a remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 Giallo classic Suspiria I was quite surprised and not in a good way. So many inferior remakes have been made of horror classics — Psycho, Halloween, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Hills Have Eyes to name a few — that the sole mention of Suspiria as seen through 2018 sensibilities, for 2018 crowds, would be at least controversial and at most, a colossal failure. So, in the tradition I have of avoiding remakes, I steered by and was not surprised one bit when into its third week in theaters it was barely playing.

However, the proverbial river has a way of finding its own course, and my own changing temperament has made me a bit more mellow. Once Suspiria came to Prime I shelved it for a rainy day, and again, thanks to the pandemic and having seen The Staggering Girl in February, I was able to sit back and digest Guadagnino’s take.

I wasn’t disappointed — not by a long shot. With the sole exception of 2017’s Call Me By Your Name, Guadagnino’s films focus on strong women finding their voice. If you take away the supernatural and occult themes that his version of Suspiria contains you have a tale of a young girl who represents the future finding her own footing — pun not intended and reneging the past. Susie Bannion (Dakota Jackson) triumphantly screams out, “I know my name!” and slowly, but surely, reveals her true calling.

The timing of Guadagnino’s Suspiria is of note. While the original came out the year the events of this one take place (1977) the circumstances could not be more diametrically opposed. You could perhaps state that 1977 is the sole link between the two features if you didn’t recognize Jessica Harper today — she plays a minor but pivotal role in the current version. However, Argento’s Suspiria, like many of his other movies, seems to exist in a hyperreality that teeters on the surreal. The action is still in a dance studio but we rarely do see anyone dancing (much in the tradition of older horror movies that take place in a specific setting). such a setting isolates the entire cast into its own micro-universe.

Furthermore, the matrons of the former were rarely if ever seen except for Miss Tanner and Madame Blanc (Alida Valli and Joan Bennett in the original, now played by Tilda Swinton and Angela Winkler). In Guadagnino’s version, they (and all the other teachers) play a much larger, much more active role for reasons linked to both 1977 and its Berlin location. Germany in 1977 was still split into two. The GDR (German Democratic Republic) was the more repressive of the two as it was bound by Russian ties and that in itself signifies a police state which made life rather difficult for its inhabitants. [East] Germany then was also going through the German Autumn, its own offshoot from the German Guilt following the fall of Hitler’s Third Reich which ended WWII and brought the German nation to its knees. Snippets of the country’s instability seep into the narrative and inform you parallelism between the universe of the Helena Markos School of Dance and Germany as a whole.

You can say that the matrons — here depicted as all-knowing, all-powerful witches serving a coven — could very well be stand-ins for a larger motif: the Stasi, and the corruption of power.

Knowing all this, we can see why Guadagnino’s Suspiria would then go for a desaturated palette, which adds to the film’s austerity. HIs version also tones down the horror almost to a minimum — indeed, it does take a while for anything of note to happen. We get glimpses of Susie’s dreams, and only until one character makes the mistake of leaving early do we see what a ritual in full force — here presented as the power of dance itself in a bravura move — can do.

I will say that I rather liked this new incarnation of Suspiria for motives tied to my appreciation for horror as a motif for a larger theme. This is not a remake of Argento’s movie by any means even when many of the characters retain their names. This is a strongly feminist movie. Women are seen as emblems of both good and evil — the ones who embrace the past, which has since gone sour, come forth as more corrupt in nature. The ones who choose to face the future without fear, however, receive the blessing from Mother Suspiriorium and thus face the light. This is a powerful concept, one that the movie uses without preaching.

The Night Eats the World

Image by Amazon

Every year brings forth a new batch of zombie movies and The Night Eats the World is one of what might now seem an endless sea of them. Now, what makes Dominique Rocher’s film a cut above the rest is not so much the attacks, which happen mostly off-screen, but the lone survivor’s approach to living on his own while the rest of the world seems to have vanished in a cloud of the undead. Sam (Anders Danielsen Lie), a musician, finds himself at the wrong place at the wrong time when he goes to visit his girlfriend Fanny (Sigrid Bouaziz) to retrieve some musical items. Unable to find them, he passes out in the room next door amidst sounds of violence just outside the apartment window. When he wakes up, the world has gone to hell. Everyone has reverted to mindless, flesh-hungry zombies and Sam himself barely escapes being eaten by Fanny and others who were semi-conscious outside the apartment. Having to get creative Sam has to now roam the entire premises to find a secure place and also, since it is clear he won’t be leaving any time soon, survive. That itself becomes an endurance test, and there will be moments of loneliness so intense that it seems his own will to live will break. Rocher keeps his mostly one-man act alive by Danielsen Lie’s complex, introspective performance. His interactions with the now-zombified building manager (Denis Levant) and a woman he meets later on (Goldshifteh Farahani) will form the basis of Sam keeping his fragile humanity intact. The Night Eats the World is a solid debut, surprisingly compassionate at times, and much better than I had anticipated from a genre film.

Streaming: The Gentlemen

Image from The Guardian

Hello reader, and thank you as always for stopping by. I don’t believe I’ve reviewed anything done by Guy Ritchie on my humble page, and it would be a task for me to go back thirty-odd pages and four on five years of movie-watching just to see if there have been any of his movies that I missed.

Actually, let me rephrase that — I did see King Arthur. I bravely tried to view Aladdin with dismal returns. I saw both Sherlock Holmes movies — liked the first one, not so much the second, and can’t remember a thing about either, which says something. With that in mind I know for a fact, those might not be buried amongst the heap of movies that I’ve seen both good and bad, short and long. What I am referring to are Ritchie’s roots, his essence, in short, the movies that make Guy Ritchie the British counterpart to Steve Soderbergh.

Has it been that long since Ritchie made a sucker-punch of a movie? Did Madonna’s mortally toxic approach to cinema and rampant inability to act almost ruin his career when he attempted to direct her in a Lina Wertmuller classic? It seems so… his attempts at the recapturing the lightning in a bottle of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch have all but gone up in smoke, so I could see his need to prove he could direct non-genre fare and perhaps discover aspects to his own narratives that the limited nature of his aforementioned breakthrough movies did not possess.

It is for this reason that when I rented The Gentlemen I admit I wasn’t too keen on seeing it other than to get it over with and move on. After all, the valley Ritchie had left behind after the peak of his first Sherlock Holmes entry left a lot to be desired. Reader, how wrong I was. The Gentlemen is perhaps Ritchie at his best in the genre that gives him ample room to stretch his muscles out. You can even say that there is a maturity to the approach — yes, the narration is still labyrinthine, the accents next to impenetrable, and the violence is often punctuated by non-sequiturs that by now seem reminiscent of Tarantino with nods to Scorsese.

There isn’t much for me to say that might point at the negative in The Gentlemen other than I felt there could have been more of it. As a matter of fact, this is, hands down, one of the best movies of the year, period. It is complete with performances by a stellar cast of veterans and rising stars, with standout performances by Colin Powell, Charlie Hunnam, an unrecognizable Hugh Grant who walks away with the entire movie, and Michelle Dockery as the lone female more than holding her own in a sea of men playing variations on sociopaths.

Black Lives — Goldie, Support the Girls, and Joy

Here at Mostly Indies, a place where you can read about the movies you won’t be seeing in any multiplex near you, we (and by we, I mean I) value diversity in cinema. Yours truly prefers to go with the alternative instead of the blockbuster, vanity project for the sheer reason that there is more to the narrative than popcorn. In that vein, the writer at this page also has made it a point to focus on cinema that portrays Black Lives in a powerful way. So commencing now, this will be a running theme throughout my page for as long as I have the will to write because until the Hollywood machine can stop perpetuating the Black experience through White characters, or even worse, perpetuate Black stereotypes that serve nothing but to diminish the lives of Black Americans, this is all he can do.

Slick Woods in Goldie.

Goldie

From the moment you see her, you see splashing blotches of color that announce her before you see snippets of her figure, lean and gamine, racing through the streets of her Bronx neighborhood to a performance. Goldie is played by newcomer to movies Slick Woods, a fashion model who displays equal parts naivete and mixes it with a Don’t-fuck-with-me” vibe. Goldie has drive, ambition, and a hunger for fame that constantly presents itself in images of gold and yellow. Goldie aspires to be in a hip-hop video, a vision in yellow from her head to her feet. She has no fear. Her career, she tells her boss who fires her for being late one too many times, is about to take off.

If life were that simple. Goldie constantly sees herself “there”, but has not the means nor the smarts, and that will prove to be her Oedipus heel. During a furious, 85 minute run, we see Goldie in constant movement: darting back and forth trying to escape some security guards after stealing a precious item — a yellow onesie — that will form a part of her crucial leap into fame.

Next, we see her amongst what seems to be an extremely dysfunctional family. Here the dysfunction stems from poverty itself — lack of education, perpetuated by generations of parents raised in neglect and the false idea that “this is what it is to be us”. Her mother, played by Marsha Stephanie Blake (last seen in Luce as Octavia Spencer’s crack-addicted and mentally unstable sister), is barely there, living just to exist with a boyfriend (Danny Hoch) who is a horror show of a parent. She has two adorable little sisters (who introduce every character with voices that sound like sunshine on a city playground).

It seems that Goldie and her family live in the suspense that one day they may get evicted (from what I could glean). Eventually, the worst comes to happen in the guise of money Goldie steals from her stepfather, an act that leads to her mother taking the fall in an arrest. This alone quite literally tears the family nucleus apart from the center, leaving Goldie with nowhere to go and the tenacious custody of her two sisters who will most likely wind up in foster homes.

This predicament, however, doesn’t deter Goldie from achieving her dream of being famous. It is here where the story threatens to turn Goldie into a narcissistic caricature that no one could root for. How could someone in their right mind be so committed to “making it big” when the odds are so stacked against her is the one question that I kept asking myself until I realized what was happening.

It’s one thing to have dreams that are achievable, but Goldie doesn’t yet know it yet. She is a force of nature moving at such speed that a collision with an unmovable object is but a given. Goldie, however, and despite it all, soldiers on with the fearlessness of a bull in a China shop, all instinct and aggression and nothing else, until she reaches a point where the cards say no, turn back, not this time.

Sam de Jong’s Goldie is in the vein of Italian Neo-realism seen through the eyes and experience of its brave but ultimately rash protagonist. This is a bold little movie that presents what many in the sidelines, naked of privileges, go through on a daily basis because of how society as a whole has been turned into a game that is rigged from the get-go. In one telling scene, Slick Woods looks straight into the camera, her eyes almost asking for either sympathy or an answer to her predicament. I can’t but hope that even in a fictional world Goldie — or let me rephrase it as the Goldies of the world — will find their niche instead of wallowing in lurid fantasies fueled themselves by the hip=hop culture.

Regina Hall leads a cast of young actresses in Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls

Support the Girls

There is something deeply unsettling about watching women work in environments that lean towards debasement in exchange for a few bucks and dreams just out of reach. Andrew Bujalski’s 2018 film Support the Girls doesn’t delve deep into the issue, but in its short running time, its story flies around Lisa (Regina Hall), a general manager of a breastaurant located in what seems to be an anonymous part of the United States. Throughout one day, Lisa will try to tackle whatever calamity she has to face, and in 90 minutes, they will be quite a bit with next to no release. From a would-be burglar stuck in a ventilator to trying to raise money for a waitress only to find out that the money has ulterior motives, another employee having an affair with a customer, yet another one violating company rules by getting a visible tattoo, to a boss (played to slimeball perfection by James Le Gros) constantly threatening to fire her, Lisa has the unenviable task of having to keep it all together while the world around her threatens to come undone. Regina Hall has never been better, and in fact, she is the glue holding Bujalski’s slight film — itself reminiscent of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project — together. This is a woman that has made some wayward choices in getting caught in what seems to be a cul-de-sac of opportunity. On top of the terrible work circumstances, she finds herself having to be there for a precocious son while grappling a tense situation with a husband who seems to be in the grips of depression. Support the Girls is often funny where it needs to be, otherwise, it would be a rather downbeat film in which nothing these isolated people do will spawn any roots and everything will lead to a dead end.

Joy

If you made it as far as here you will find that Sudabeh Mordetzai’s Nigerian-Austrian movie Joy will go far beyond where Bujalski’s would fear to tread. This is a powerfully depressing film that begins with a young woman, Precious (Precious Mariam Sanusi) entering what appears to be a ritualistic cleansing via a juju priest but unbeknownst to her is essentially a trap that will enslave her to the world of human trafficking. Because they operate as illegal aliens Precious, like many before and after her, will have little luck but to pay off “debt”.

That “debt” is the carrot that looms over tantalizingly in front of the women we encounter living in squalor in an unnamed city. It hovers over, menacingly, like the interest people with actual credit card debt will have a hard time paying. The title character, Joy (the magnetic Joy Anwuilka Alphonsus), steps up to the madame (Angela Ekeleme Pius), a ruthless tyrant who in exchange for Precious’ inability (unwillingness) to sexually perform for the clients she meets on the streets has her brutally raped (offscreen — still, it is brutal to witness).

Because of this now Joy must oversee Precious’ performance if only to ensure that her own release does not get delayed by having to forfeit her own hard-earned money to pay off for Precious. When the opportunity to become a whistleblower appears Joy is hesitant. What guarantees does she have to remain in Austria legally? Slim to none.

Joy is a movie that offers little in the emotion and comes with almost no answers as to how these abused women will manage to survive when the odds are stacked up against them in both Europe and their native Nigeria. The actresses, reportedly former streetwalkers themselves, fully inhabit Mortezai’s aching wound of a movie. It is refreshing to see how the women working under Madame behave — almost as sisters — although it’s also clear there is a sharp competition amongst them to deliver. That is the false sense of security that permeates the story: even when you think that you are safe with the women you share tight quarters with, they will throw you under the bus at the slightest notice.

I will tell you, this was a hard watch for me because you ache at the choices that led these women to be so brainwashed into believing that the power of their religion mandates they sell their own bodies for a pittance. I’m not glad I saw this movie — but it is a necessary view in order to understand the plight of the forgotten, because these, at one point, were the light of their mothers’ eye — little girls with promise, now shattered and damaged.

Movies Under 90 Minutes: Notes on an Appearance, and Grass

Hello, and thank you for stopping by. I hope you find your time reading these little entries as time well-spent, and if not, that’s also okay, I only aim to express my thoughts on film and hope that at least one person will agree with me, or disagree enough to start some interesting dialogue,

The indie world is full of shorter than average films because this is where many directors usually take their first steps before striking it big, hitting the spotlights of prestige, and returning not a chance in hell again, Notwithstanding, I prefer to see these ultra short films because they present themselves as neatly packaged stories that aim to observe and simply, give you a sliver of someone’s life experience which sometimes may end in a satisfying conclusion, and sometimes, in a question mark.

Notes on an Appearance

There is a subtle irony in the title of Ricky D’Ambrose’s hour-long film because it contains not one, but two disappearances, both of which occur off-screen. Stephen Taubes, a controversial theorist makes his exit quite literally from life itself in a rather unresolved manner, leaving behind, it seems, broken acolytes and followers to wander in and out of frame like the walking wounded, One of them is David (Bingham Bryant), an ex-pat who travels from Milan to Brooklyn, New York to assist a friend, Todd (Kevin Paulson) into a project attempting to not only research but re-establish the reputation of the aforementioned theorist. The conflict, and the story proper, start when David begins perusing through notes, letters, and news items, and then, without saying a single word, literally walks away from the entire movie, his back to the camera, in what seems to be a rather uninhabited New York.

He is never seen again.

Image by Kicktarter

David’s disappearance seems to be a dream, since other than the missing persons’ report, we never see a follow-up to it again other than a cursory, unsatisfying mention later on. A female colleague of Todd, who from the word go seems to be hostile to David, clearly wants no more talking or references about him. We are left to see Kevin and another female friend (played by Tallie Medel of Dan Sallitt movies) become the audience, mourning the loss of a man too young to die. As a matter of fact, neither seem to want to really admit to themselves that David may very well be dead, and both continue to float throughout the movie like spirits who have not yet been allowed to cross over.

D’Ambrose’s movie is quite an interesting watch because it doesn’t take the approach of a regular film. Subway maps take the place that an establishing shot would occupy. Notes scribbled by the absent David fill the screen, often leaving the audience to decipher their meaning. Conversations are heard just barely from over the ambient noise in what seems to be coffee houses where hipsters, coffee aficionados, and writers-in-training congregate. And most interestingly, we get to become privy to home movies — one, a train ride from Long Island to New York City, recorded it seems in the early 90s. The other is a ferry ride from Staten Island in which the Twin Towers get prominent exposure for a short moment. The subject, both in front and behind of the operating camera remains a mystery,

That is how D’Ambrose chooses to posit his Notes on an Appearance, as an intriguing puzzle that has echoes of Antonioni’s Blow-Up and a sense of crucial details just beyond the camera’s grasp. Perhaps we aren’t meant to ever truly know what happened to David. My assessment is that D’Ambrose was constructed a mystery that is just slightly off-screen, somewhere in the implicit, just like the mostly unseen participants or the disembodied voice of the doomed Taubes.

Image from Cine Maldito

Grass

Can a protagonist be a passive observer to other people’s foibles and conversations? Hong Sang-soo seems to believe that, and in fact, let’s be honest, how many of us have gone into a cafe to either meet someone or sit in silence while time goes by and managed, through coffee and tapping away at our computers, overheard fragments of people’s lives? How many of us have then delved into passing silent judgement on them as if we were a character in a slim Marguerite Duras tome?

This is the entirety of Sang-Soo’s Grass. Kim Min-Hee, his actress of choice, returns yet again to portray a young woman who sits by herself in a corner of the unnamed cafe. In essence, she is the audience, observing the micro-dramas unfold.

There is a recurring theme of transition from a life-changing event. The first conversation concerns a woman (unseen, but referred to) who has met an unfortunate end, causing a rift between the man and the woman sitting at the cafe. The second and third conversations concern older actors making inappropriate advances to their female friends. One of them makes an even more inappropriate pass at Min-Hee Kim’s character, which veers on the creepy.

However, Sang-too turns the tables on us and then lets Kim gets rescued by her brother who wants to introduce her to his girlfriend. Kim then morphs from silent witness to exacting judge and executor, hurling a volley of verbal attacks at the happy couple. We get a vague idea that she herself may be desperately unhappy — so many of Sang-Soo’s recent movies starring Kim have placed her in various stages of abandonment.

Grass is a bit frustrating in how impassive it can be. Much of its scenes would function by themselves in their own separate drama, but get compacted into mini-scenes that seem to have a feeling of dress rehearsal. Even so, Grass is at its best when letting the actors improvise and weave into their own manufactured scenes, while Kim, as the audience substitute, simply types away, noticed but unnoticed,. and ruminates in uneasy peace.

From the Canine to the Cannibal: Pick of the Litter and Caniba

The puppies from Pick of the Litter [Image from Movie Paws]

Hello again, and thank you for stopping by. If you have been reading me since the inception of this film site almost six years ago you will notice that I rarely if ever touch on documentaries. I myself have often wondered why, if I do so enjoy viewing them myself, should I not be capable of producing a personal assessment of the story at hand. I think the reason simply might be because I tend to mainly keep my criticism firmly entrenched in the fictional rather than the observational. I seem to feel more at ease analyzing a character than a situation based on actual reality. And since most documentaries don’t come with all the visual bells and whistles that a regular movie brings (with some notable exceptions which I will have to revisit and review for my own peace of mind and (hopefully) your reading pleasure), I have decided to skip them altogether.

However, lately, I have had a change of mind. It has been half a decade since I began my trip down cinema both old and new. Documentaries, like shorts (a topic I also tended to avoid until The Staggering Girl and Olla, recently reviewed, came around), are just as interesting if not more than many narratives and often bring their own levels of insight on a topic I might not have been aware of in the past,

Dana Nachman’s and Don Hardy, Jr.’s Pick of the Litter is a look into what makes a guide dog for the blind, It focuses on five puppies — all brothers and sisters and ridiculously cute — Patriot, Potomac, Phil, Poppet, and Primrose — which have been selected if you will to be trained to become guide dogs for the blind. However, the process seems a bit more arduous than you would think. The process in itself is an unbelievably rigorous one, from having the dogs be sent to family homes to ensure their social skills, to then bringing them to more experienced handlers who will then step in. If the dog in question is deemed “successful”, he or she passes to the next level and gets another handler who then, in turn, will train the animal on all aspects of walking alongside a blind person (or someone with limited vision).

I could understand this process, because it’s not as simple as proclaiming a dog fit to be handled by what will be their blind owner. That alone comes with a whole set of issues for obvious reasons of mobility throughout streets and parks. One slight mistake, or if the dog doesn’t fit the profile and consistently fails, and the dog goes back to its owner.

For the most, Pick of the Litter remains mostly on the side of cute over serious. It avoids any sentimentality, although, with five cute as heck labradors, each with their own personalities, some who bond rather closely with their first or second owners, it’s almost guaranteed that tears of emotion will be shed. On the other hand, there is a slight tone of reality show present, almost as if the dogs themselves were the unwilling participants of a competition they must win. Overall, Pick of the Litter remains rather refreshing and the end result for the ones that do make the cut is in itself, satisfying.

This is how close the camera is to Issei Sagawa’s repellent face. Consider yourself warned. [Image from New York Times.]

Now, Caniba, Véréna Paravel’s and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, is an entirely different kind of experience altogether. Satisfying I would not call it. Enlightening, even less.

If you have a strong stomach do check this movie out which is available on the Criterion Channel until the end of the month, but I’m sure it will pop up on Prime or iTunes where it will taunt the brave person to sit back, relax, and witness the life and horrors of one Issei Sagawa. As a matter of fact, when this movie turned up at the 2017 New York Film Festival, I was vaguely intrigued, but not interested, in such a topic matter because I was somewhat aware of Sagawa’s crime, and at the time, cannibalism wasn’t on the menu for me. [Now, I’ll again, gladly view a fictional account of cannibalism be it on the cheap or the auteur, but I don’t have to think that the character displayed on the screen is someone that I might actually encounter while on a stroll in New York City.]

So let’s get into the meat of this, shall we? Caniba brings us to a basically disabled Sagawa as he, shot up close and personal by the observing camera, eyes closed, lips barely parted, narrates his life in Japan, and how he came into such horrible desires. Sagawa goes into almost lurid detail into how while living in Paris in 1981 he came to lure Renée Hartevelt into his apartment for dinner, then shot her in the back of the head, and proceeded to do the unthinkable. That he was found insane and deported to Japan is almost an aberration of justice, but that Sagawa would later find fame not only as a manga artist who successfully published books based on his own lurid crime (to almost intolerably explicit levels) but as a porn actor, is hard to swallow in itself. As if accentuating the point, the directors sandwich a scene from a porn movie where Sagawa was an actor. Even as it is pixeled out, already you will have seen too much.

Sagawa’s manga, right before it gets bloody and depraved. [Grasshopper Film]

However, the directors also save a little time for Sagawa’s brother Jun. It seems both brothers are enamored of the concept of masochistic pain. Jun goes to great lengths to show us how he manages to torture himself, and it involves wrapping himself in barbed wire, biting his skin ravenously, and bloodletting.

During the entire run which is still too long for anyone to tolerate, all I kept saying to myself was, “I just hope I don’t see his teeth when he talks.” It’s never occurred to me that when people talk their teeth can occasionally be visible for fleeting moments. With the camera so close to Sagawa’s face, I just kept feeling a sense of rising dread. I just didn’t know how would I react if I actually saw the man’s eyes open… or his teeth. I was just glad it was over, and I could then take a shower and erase all traces of this unseeable picture for once and for all.

Women in Film: Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard, Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey, and Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Sidney Flanagan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always [image from Amazon]

Hello again, and thank you for reading me. Given the dramatic rise of women in film — be it on the director’s chair, as producers, documentarians — I’m going to start a little something called Women in Film, and it’s going to spotlight women who have made or are currently making contributions to the art of film making in positions behind the camera. Considering how the Academy consistently fails to include them even now in prominent categories (where were Lulu Wang and Greta Gerwig in last year’s Oscars? Oh, right, they weren’t) and the fact that ten, fifteen, twenty years ago you had to really scavenge through piles of videos and theatrical offerings to find anyone female (aside from the few prominent ones — Claire Denis, Kathryn Bigelow, Jodie Foster, Agnes Vardá, and Chantal Akerman, to name a quick few off the top of my head, I think it’s time to create a running theme that will focus on women.

Those of you who know cinema will agree that since the dawn of cinema as an alternative hobby in the 19th Century, which soon evolved into larger, longer forms that eventually became the Silent Film, women have been present as directors, screenwriters, and producers in their own right, and only because a group of men decided to put the lid on this did we, after Dorothy Arzner, not see a prominent woman director until Ida Lupino came along and brought her gritty noir classic The Hitcher. It’s a shame, because when you come across some of the movies directed or written by women you will notice that it is they who can create the most memorable narratives I have seen.

Below, I will review two superhero movies and one indie drama, all directed by women, with strong female leads as players.

Superhero Movies

One of the reasons I never review superhero movies is because they’re frankly, un-cinematic, and represent the worst of movie-making. It’s pretty stupid to think that stories like these have any worth other than perpetuating a comic-book mentality. I just can’t walk into a movie theater, or now in the days of Covid-19, hit click on a title, and expect to see a coherent, intelligent narrative that doesn’t devolve into a CGI atrocity complete with the now ubiquitous use of martial arts as the one form of conflict resolution. I just don’t know what to make of these films. Maybe I’m not with the times, but frankly, I’ve never cared for canned entertainment.

Now, this opening paragraph might sound like I truly hate superhero movies down to the last one. I don’t: Patty Jenkins’ epic Wonder Woman, for example, announced that women can also create complex universes with elaborate set pieces, direct complicated battle sequences, and include topics of sisterhood, altruism, and especially, a hero’s journey all in one –, at times better than men. Someone who would fit that niche nicely is Claire Denis, for example. Had she been brought in to direct Joker, I can guarantee it would have been even darker and more twisted still and managed to deliver one of the most complex supervillain origin stories ever. It would have been memorable. But… c’est la vie, and I digress.

The Old Guard. Image from Netflix.

The Old Guard

The Old Guard is based on the graphic novel of the same name and its DC comic origins can’t be ignored as its writer, Greg Rucka, is also a comic-book writer. Stepping away from the convoluted storylines present within every superhero biography, he presents a small group of renegades led by Andy/Andromache (a muted Charlize Theron, again sporting what seems to be a trademark asymmetrical haircut). This group has been on the fringe of society for as long as they know; Andy herself may as well be over 6,000 years old and at one time was a goddess worshipped by the Greeks who then traveled, alone, around the world only to meet Quynh (Veronica Ngo), another immortal like herself, who suffered a cruel fate and whose whereabouts are unknown at the moment.

Accompanying Andy are Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), the terribly named Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli). The latter two are former soldiers who fought each other on enemy lines ages ago and quite frankly, met cute in a time when there were no labels, and have since been together and thus becoming the planet’s first gay superhero couple.

The plot, however, doesn’t yet concern this group (other than introducing them), but instead, focuses its attention on a young African American soldier, Nile (Kiki Layne), who gets mortally wounded in Afghanistan. When Nile not only fails to die but also recovers miraculously, she starts experiencing vivid dreams in which she sees the aforementioned band of renegades, who also happen to be dreaming about her. Andy, clearly the band’s leader, decides they must seek Nile out and recruit her.

What these immortals don’t know is that they’re about to get sold down the river by an unscrupulous individual named Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who has long been observing them pop up in all kinds of historical news items dating back millennia (and how he was able to come into contact with so much of this information is debatable, but in true comic-book sense, no one is really counting).

Copley wants to trade the immortals in to study their powers of regeneration so he can do some good himself for humanity after experiencing the tragic loss of his wife. The problem is, who he is dealing with has ulterior motives and usually, in narratives such as these, this involves a megalomaniac villain (here portrayed by Harry Melling with insane gusto; he does a sadistic coward beautifully) with unlimited access to all sorts of things.

The Old Guard takes a somewhat meandering pace during its own early run time, and that in a way is pretty effective in keeping the story itself moving forward but also taking some asides. One large chunk of the movie involves Andy as she tracks down a very resistant Nile who fears she may be dishonorably discharged from the military. Theron and Layne operate well in both their verbal spats and their balletic fights; Layne is particularly a potent foil to Theron’s world-weary unwilling heroine. Once Nile is incorporated into the band of renegades she finds out that being an immortal comes at a heavy price: she will outlive everyone she loves. A scene with Layne and Schoenaerts feels reminiscent of some of the more poignant scenes of Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire as seen and experienced by Brad Pitt’s doomed character.

Something I noticed, and perhaps this is unintentional but I’ll throw it in for good measure. There is a running concept that your work during an incarnation is not done until it is done for good. Because these immortals have been “standing up to what is wrong” all their lives, it seems that they have been offered a heavy task or series of tasks to balance out karmic debts.

However, I don’t want to go into too much New Age blathering. While not memorable by any means — I had trouble connecting with The Old Guard once it was done and it will not surprise me, from the final scene, that there will be a sequel — Gina Prince-Bythewood’s movie is a solid piece of good old fashioned entertainment featuring a multi-cultural cast complete with high-caliber performances that elevate a silly, and frankly, overdone origin story into pure fun. Cinematically, it’s a bit flat and often seems to be a work for hire, but who cares? Had this been released in movie theaters it would have struck gold at the box office for sure.

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

Someone must have seen Cathy Yan’s debut feature film Dead Pigs at Sundance or AFI (the only venues where her movie has played) in 2018 and been impressed enough to warrant giving her the helm at directing the female-centric superhero movie Birds of Prey, the spin-off to Suicide Squad, and it shows. Now, I have not seen Dead Pigs and am awaiting either the Film Society of Lincoln Center or some art-house distributor to release it online, so I don’t have any platform on where to judge Yan’s first movie and how it correlates to her sophomore feature. What I can say, and I will keep it short only for reasons that again, this is a superhero movie and I don’t want to impose a War and Peace type article because I have yet another movie to review, Cathy Yan is an electric director with her hand on fast narrative, razor-sharp humor, and a lead performance by Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn who gleefully embodies the energy of a psychopathic Tazmanian devil with so much abandon you can practically feel her sinking her teeth in what seems to be a massive pile of rich velvet cake. With a script penned by Christina Hodson (who also penned the derivative Shut In and can be forgiven for it), Birds of Prey is supremely fast-paced, offers equal opportunity for its group of female actresses (Rosie Perez, Mary-Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Allie Wong, and Ella Jay Basco) to shine and burn a path of mayhem on their own as they ferociously assert their own brand of girl power. If the producers and whatnot can keep these two on board for what will be a necessary sequel come 2022, I’ll be easily sold into watching it.

Sidney Flanagan and Talia Ryder in Never Rarely Sometimes Always.

Never Rarely Sometime Always

Here we have one of the best movies of the year so far, if not the best. Eliza Hittman’s poignant, observational Sundance breakout hit Never Rarely Sometimes Always, should you see it, will haunt you for a long time after the credits roll.

The movie stars newcomer Sidney Flanagan in a role I am sure will garner her numerous praise and award nominations within the independent crowd (and of course will be ignored by the Academy as this is not their cup of tea, wasn’t made with pomp and circumstance in mind, and is frankly, too left of commercial to be widely accepted). Flanagan plays Autumn Callahan, a 17-year old from a small town, Pennsylvania, who discovers she is pregnant, But before we get there, we are introduced not to her situation, but what may have led to it, and thus, the film’s remarkably astute title.

Following some high-school performers singing 1950s tunes — all boys, mind you — Autumn enters the stage, guitar at hand. Listen to the song she is singing; it in itself drives the entire plot and it’s all you need to know to appreciate what she is going through, Mid-way through, a boy cat-calls her from the audience, calling her “Slut!” [Incredibly, no one bats an eye; no one intervenes to call him out, which is the film’s first exclamation point that points out how men even at a young age get away with atrocious behavior that will, of course, lead to more troublesome behavior along the way.]

Undeterred, Autumn lashes back, singing as if this is all she has. She will later get back at the boy, but for now, she has more issues that are starting to take form. In a move that defines just how innocent she is about practically life in itself, Autumn goes to a clinic to get a pregnancy test. She gets the test done and realizes she could have simply bought it at a local CVS Pharmacy. When the test comes back positive, almost immediately the kind doctor handling her case makes a point that Autumn should not have an abortion but should instead put it up for adoption.

However, for Autumn, who lives home with her distant mother and unsympathetic father, this is not an option. Her perceptive older cousin Skylar (and excellent Talia Ryder) reaches out and in a wordless montage realizes that Autumn is indeed in trouble. Without any hesitation, the two young women make an unplanned trip to New York to have an abortion, come back, and resume their lives with a secret only the two of them will share.

Imager from No Film School

Eliza Hittman’s movie is a masterpiece of narration because it never gives the girls an easy way out. We who travel take for granted that big cities with mass transit, for example, offer perks for visitors like a one-day subway pass. Such minor detail is essential for the story because neither girls know this bit, and with the money that they’ve stolen from the pharmacy, which they have erroneously thought should be enough to carry them through an extremely expensive city like New York, they begin to use it for the simplest things like buying subway tickets.

This, and many other details, make even the slightest wrong turn, crucial for Autumn and Skylar who simply want to get through a quick appointment and return to their small Pennsylvania town and forget this ever happened. When the first clinic they go to, located in the middle of Brooklyn, informs Autumn that due to the advanced stages of her pregnancy she will have to go to the clinic’s Manhattan location for assistance, she is dismayed but makes the best of it. Because you cannot stay overnight at Port Authority, they elect to ride the D train all through the night. [Again, it is important to signal that these aren’t savvy travelers; they could have stayed at Penn Station, for example, with no problem at all, but then we wouldn’t have the story we have now.]

The situation gets only worse for the girls — but mainly for Autumn — when she then gets the unwelcome news from a kind female counselor that her procedure will take two days. The counselor offers help via a shelter, but Autumn, who plays her emotions as close to her chest as she can until she reveals them in the most heartbreaking manner possible — and that is a gut-wrenching scene that threatens to swallow the movie whole–, chooses again to spend it with Skylar wandering about the city, traveling the subway until the following day, where they meet a boy (Thèodore Pellerin) who will help them financially… for a price.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is an emotionally shattering little movie that must be seen to understand the plight of teen mothers — and women in general. It is in its own way a cry against the way women get treated by men — even young men — and the society that while seeming to want to do the best by them, often fails. Practically all the men in the movie are seen at some level of hostile to the two girls — ranging from a lecherous boss to an uncaring information agent to a lewd subway rider. Now, note that it is not a movie that hates men per se — but when you think that in many states abortions are illegal and women are still unprotected against the abuses of men, then you will totally understand the theme of Hittman’s powerful story.

Watch it and discover a strong director in Eliza Hittman who pulls back no punches and while remaining on the side of restraint, she actually intensifies the power of the female voice that never gets heard or told except in the shadows. I promise you this movie will linger Sith you for a while as it did with me.