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 enter site viagra wet dreams doxycycline powder for humans ib english comparative essay navy rotc essay 40 mg levitra mba dissertation ideas follow cialis snorting follow levitra yorktown heights help with handwriting watch dangers of viagra follow thesis review ppt see go to site brain drain essay in english argumentative essay refutation paragraph example legal issues in reduction of workforce simulation essay click cialis label fda how to improve essay writing apa format psychology research paper Cialis 10 Mg Cost Comparison essay on premchand 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 I wasn’t actively writing (other than short stories which still remain unpublished), and her piece, while beautiful even though it ventured into slight ickiness reminiscent of Southern Gothic, didn’t quite leave a deep impression on me as to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.


Director: Roger MIchell
Runtime: 105 minutes
Language: English

Mostlyindies grading:

1 out of 5 stars (1 / 5)

Does anyone remember those haunting opening lines of Rebecca? Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It’s enough to send shivers down your back whether you’ve read the Daphne DuMaurier novel, allegedly plagiarized from Carolina Nabucco’s 1934 novel A Sucessora, or seen the Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece in Gothic suspense. It also shows that perhaps this dreamy ambiguity was good for only one novel and nothing else; as a writer, DuMaurier may have had her inspirations, but she was not exactly what I would call a good writer.

Perhaps then this is the reason that Roger MIchell’s version manages to colossally misfire and land in a puddle of mud before it even has time to tell its tale. Picture this, a story in which another ambiguous line starts the wheels of the plot in motion– “Did she? Didn’t she?” — reeks of phoning in a sense of dread, the kind that by its presence and atmosphere alone should grab a hold of your stomach and apply some unsavory pressure little by little until you can’t even breathe. The person who utters that question is our hero Philip (Sam Claflin, previously seen in Their Finest), who plays the male version of Rebecca‘s X — basically a non person who tells of a childhood living wile and free with his cousin Ambrose, who then went off to Italy, and while there met and fell in love with the titular Rachel only to suddenly fall ill and die soon after the two of them were married.

So much build up is placed on these events that we feel that after Ambrose kicks the bucket, Philip will turn into some kind of raving Byronic hero of the kind fo leave even Heathcliff in the dust. He does vow revenge on Rachel, whom he suspects of murdering Ambrose, but once she arrives at Plymouth all that falls by the wayside and Philip is practically giving Rachel the benefits of the doubt and the keys to his entire estate faster than you can see 45 tweet covfefe. Once I saw this happen with frightening speed my eyebrow arched, and I went “What just happened? Can we refresh this scene, please, and play it slowly? No? Okay. ” That, my friends,  just doesn’t quite gel in a story that should be less about what is said, shown, or spoken, and more about insinuations, side glances, and especially emotions just waiting to be released, at least, for a little. It doesn’t help that Rachel Weisz is completely wrong for this film — an actress who could be more enigmatic could have been a better choice — and Sam Claflin, like I said earlier, is written rather blandly. It’s hard to care for any of this movie’s people when they themselves don’t give their own moments on screen any life. My Cousin Rachel isn’t deadly; shes just plain dullsville. Perhaps I’ll wait for Lady Macbeth — that looks like it’s got teeth.

My Cousin Rachel is still playing in theaters and arrives on DVD at the end of August.

France / Switzerland
Director: Frederic Mermoud
Runtime:  85 minutes
Language: French

Mostlyindies grading:

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Emmanuelle Devos is a French actress that I’ve been seeing on film for the past 15 years now, and while she’s a good performer for the most part, that little girl voice of hers and that look of perpetually helpless wait begging to be rescued somewhat puts me off. It’s the sole reason I didn’t go to see Moka at the Film Forum when it premiered and waited a couple of days until it was extended for a third and final week there. I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to sit in a theater listening to a woman just over 50 talking like a sex-kitten filled with angst and vulnerabilities plod her way through an intellectual thriller that someone like Isabelle Huppert could handle in her sleep without the slightest effort.

Well, dear reader, I have to say I was blown away with Devos in this little Swiss-French thriller that also paired her with acting giant Nathalie Baye. [As an interesting little note, Baye’s previous role was another barely seen French thriller in which she played the Devos role.] Moka starts with the image of Devos (who plays a woman named Diane) silently banging her head against a window. We don’t know where she is, until the camera pans away and we realize she’s in some sort of mental facility. And then the cards that plant the seeds of the plot get revealed: Diane has lost her son Luc in a freak accident where he was fatally involved in a hit-and-run. Since then, time and basically everything has stopped for Diane. Because the perpetrators were never brought to justice, Diane has hired a private investigator to find out about the vehicle that killed her son. She learns that it was a mocha-colored car registered to a woman who lives in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The woman happens to be Marlene (Baye). Marlene is the owner of a beauty salon, and from the moment both women meet there is a sense of uneasiness in the air. But Diane has other plans, and so does the story: while she is befriending (and getting to know Marlene), she’s also flirting with Marlene’s boyfriend Michel who is selling the mocha vehicle, and at the same time, she also establishes a tentative friendship with Marlene’s daughter from a previous relationship.  To add to the whole situation, Diane has met a guy who does deals on the darkside and produces a gun for her, and as a final nail, Diane’s husband eventually appears on stage wondering what has happened to her. Sounds complicated? It’s because it is, and director Mermoud wastes no time in getting into the meat of the action while allowing it to breathe and develop on its own. We wonder where is all this going and how long can Diane keep her charade alive without recurring to cheap solutions. Devos plays Diane as a relentless avenger, but with enough frailty and vulnerability that we wonder if she will carry out her affairs in Lausanne until the end. Baye, her hair bleached a cheap, older woman peroxide blonde, is prickly, suspicious from the get-go, but all reception. She’s a beautician, so she hears stories from her clients, and Diane’s doesn’t ring totally true. Even so, she lets her slowly in and we wonder if there isn’t some agenda . . . or is she being set up for something terrible.

It’s not often that movies feature strong women in leading roles playing complicated characters that dance around each other like samurais waiting to strike. Moka is a complex psycho drama that touches on the topics of grief and loss and the need to mete out personal justice without turning it into exploitation and offers enough twists and turns and even an emotional finale to out-guess aficionados of the thriller genre and leave them satisfied.


Director: A. D. Calvo
Runtime: 76 minutes
Language: English

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

What is it about fragile young women and old Victorian mansions with windows so menacing they almost look as though they have an evil intelligence that goes so well together in the makings of Gothic horror? I’ll only guess that it has to be the fact that someone less impressionable might not be as ripe for a gradual possession as someone more withdrawn and in-tune with their inner lives and what only they themselves can see, but what do I know? Ultimately, however, what haunts Adele (Erin Wilhelmi) is not the supernatural, but her own aching loneliness — she’s been sent to care for her aging aunt Dora (Sally Kellerman), a woman who’s become a complete and utter recluse, who’s left Adele a series of notes with instructions as to the management of the house and groceries written in handwriting so ornate as to seem from another time completely. Adele, none too happy with her situation, complies, not without a faint sense of “why me”.

And then she bumps into Beth (Quinn Shephard). The two girls could not be more dissimilar. While Adele is as waifish as they come, with long, golden hair parted severely in the middle and landing in exact geometric length halfway down her back, Beth is darker, more assertive, and worldly. The two take a liking to each other that seems almost too perfect to be true . . . fated, if you will. And  yet, the story moves along at its own pace, letting these two women breathe, share stories, experiences, and information that is vital to the bond that seems to be getting stronger between them. In the meantime, any attempt to reconnect with Aunt Dora goes unfulfilled–it seems as though something terrible has transpired in a time and a place before Adele was even born, yet has trickled down upon her head like an inherited crown of thorns.

But, back to the relationship between Beth and Adele. Because this is a horror movie — slow burn, creepy as all get out and with a palette completely drained of life, making even its bright 70s colors seem dusty and remote — it’s inevitable that whatever the two get into will not end well, and I really don’t want to give too much away because . . . well, you have to see it for yourself. If you get references as wide and varied as Robert Wise’s The Haunting of Hill House, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, and made-for-television fare such as Burnt Offerings in which a house seems to turn its people into something darker, you will enjoy Sweet Sweet Lonely Girl. The three actresses are perfect in their roles — with both Shephard and Wilhelmi complementing each other to near perfection, and Kellerman making the most of her barely-there scenes. I won’t call it a masterpiece — it’s certainly not — but it’s a work that pays homage to a kind of horror that was more rising dread and what-the-fuck endings that were quite common for a time in the 60s and 70s and have since been making a slow but steady comeback with films like The Witch, The Duke of Burgundy, Darling, and The Eyes of My Mother.

Sweet Sweet Lonely Girl is currently playing at Shudder.


2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)


Ever since B-movies like Ida Lupino’s 1953 film The Hitchhicker directors have been trying to up the ante while telling essentially the same story over and over. In this case, we open to an unseen figure dragging a body covered in what looks to be tarp across a backroad. We have no idea who this person might be, but the sharpening of knives and a quick glimpse of a dead face shows it’s clear what’s just happened and what’s to come. We cut then to a young British hitchhiker (Andrew Simpson, last seen in Notes on a Scandal as the kid Cate Blanchett’s teacher seduced) who witnesses a car veer to a screeching stop in front of him as an argument between a young French man and a woman (Josephine de la Baume) balloons out of control. The man, Jack, essentially rescues the woman, Veronique, from what could have been an impossibly violent situation. After the would-be-assailant takes off, Jack and Veronique continue, making small, tentative talk, each unsure if to open up to the other.

Soon after a car approaches them and a couple offers a ride. Anyone who would see the driver would probably give that man a “hell, no” from the get-go — Frederik Pierrot just oozes a kind of cheery menace I personally wouldn’t want to venture even near to. And the wife (Barbara Crampton as nervously stiff as ever), while quiet, makes allegations of a serial killer on the loose in the French countryside and later on as they arrive at the couple’s isolated mansion for a stopover, all but becomes unhinged at the seams. What could be going on with this older couple? Director Abner Pastoll keeps his cards tightly against his chest throughout the entire nocturnal sequence as the foursome have what amounts to a nearly terrifying dinner and the wife continues to warn Jack to keep his door locked at all times.

I won’t say more about what happens in Road Games because while it’s little more than cardboard horror, badly acted, it has a clever third-act that I didn’t quite see coming. Safe to say it’s an above average late night fright fest without too much gore or blood but a pretty dark center that points at the possibility, if French cinema was like its American counterpart, into sequels.


2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)



There is an undercurrent of similarities between Anne, the grieving mother in Piero Messina’s debut feature film L’Attesa (The Wait) and the grieving mother and widow she played a little under a quarter of a century ago in Krzystof Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs: Bleu (Three Colors: Blue). Both women start off losing a loved one, but where Julie retreats into her inner world and virtually disappears into the streets of Paris only to find herself through her dead husband’s last musical composition for the Unification of Europe, Anne remains a mystery only unto herself and the loss that pains her. I’m perfectly okay with that–I tend to gravitate to stories where characters move within their own little psychodramas that may or not have a perfect resolution. However, L’Attesa suffers from too much pretension and too little substance and fails to bring any closure on any level, and that to me is a problem.

We know from the start that Anne has lost her son Giuseppe. We don’t know how, but that it seems, doesn’t matter. We next see his girlfriend Jeanne (Lou de Laage, previously seen on this side of the pond in the excellent movie Breathe [Respire], which debuted here at the 2015 Rendezvous with French Cinema) arriving for a visit. It seems Giuseppe had invited Jeanne to visit him at his mother’s house before the events that start the movie. When she arrives, she’s greeted with a silence that is frankly, unsettling — almost Gothic. It doesn’t help that the house is darker than the mansion in The Others save for some dim blue lights coming from the stained glass windows. It also doesn’t help that the hostess (Anne) is so out of sorts it’s a wonder she can even speak. That no one in the house informs Jeanne what has transpired is an oddity in itself, and makes me wonder, am I in the middle of a thriller? Is something else amiss that I’m going to eventually find out? Is Giuseppe a male version of Rochester’s wife, in Jane Eyre, locked in a dungeon or an attic and perhaps Anne is deranged? And if she is, what mess has Jeanne gotten herself into?


No. L’Attesa plays its cards firmly against its chest and reveals rien. We are left with two women continuously circling each other, attempting to make conversation, observing, yet never totally giving in. Why Anne makes the choice she makes is beyond any comprehension unless there’s that “verbalizing would eventually make something unthinkable real”, but even then — it just strains credibility and turns a story that had enormous potential into images in chiaroscuro that really don’t amount to much. L’Attesa only saves itself from being a terrible mess by the performances of Juliette Binoche and Lou de Laage who foil each other perfectly. Other than that, it’s an okay debut for Piero Messina (who has worked as assistant director for Paolo Sorrentino and it shows), but not much else.