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 electronic essay topics go to link go coupon for viagra sample essay process and procedure homework help math source url go here phd thesis narrative analysis if they give you lined paper write sideways steps in writing a research paper middle school professional case study writer service au things to write an essay on essays of william lyon phelps viagra savings and coupons purdue thesis format latex here night sweats synthroid dialog essay doxycycline expired go to link isotretinoin 20 mg buy the outsiders conclusions to essays canada best pills 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 I wasn’t actively writing (other than short stories which still remain unpublished), and her piece, while beautiful even though it ventured into slight ickiness reminiscent of Southern Gothic, didn’t quite leave a deep impression on me as to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.

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


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.

Essential Cinema: Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past

If ever there was a genre that drew the blueprint on what would become the flawed antihero doomed to swim in the mire of his own mistakes, surrounded by sharks posing as men or women in need, Film Noir would be it. It seems every director with a pulse had a try in the genre from the moment crime and shady people became what the public wanted to see during the 40s and 50s. Jacques Tourneur, fresh out of directing I Walked with a Zombie and Cat People, was brought in to direct what was then considered an A-picture by RKO, and to be honest, I don’t think the movie would be half as good without Tourneur alongside cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca at the helm. While the plotting is multilayered (and you thought you couldn’t follow half of The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep; try this one for a change), it is the look of it that matters.

So much of this movie depends on its mood and lighting. The opening sequence shows an idyllic, sleepy town that will be the place where weary-eyed Robert Mitchum will get approached by a shady figure from his past with an offer Mitchum won’t be able to refuse. But before we get there, through a flashback sequence Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey reveals to his saccarine sweet girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston in one of her many “good girl” roles) that his real name is Jeff Markham, and that he was hired by Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to retrieve Sterling’s girlfriend Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer, who could have used an Oscar boot to acknowledge her icy, lethal turn) who has disappeared with something of his. That something happens to be 40,000 dollars (about 400,000 in today’s money). Sterling isn’t up for losing that amount of money, but perhaps its his pride at having been done one good by a female that has him on the pursuit.

So far the movie is rather straight forward, even sunny. It’s when the story moves to a Mexican resort that we get a hint of what’s to come. As Jeff downs a drink in a bar, in walks Kathie, a vision in white momentarily blurred by a pool of shadows. Had Jeff been paying close attention and be a little less deluded by Kathie’s beauty (Ann, while safe, can’t hold a candle against Kathie), he would have walked away and fast and claimed he missed her. However, Jeff falls for her without knowing it. They both initiate a verbal dance that has to be heard to be appreciated in its complete form. It’s not what they are saying on the surface, but what they are really meaning that again, mirrors Bogie and Bacall riffing off each other in To Have and Have Not and of course, The Big Sleep.

To go into more detail would be to spoil it (and while I do know that Out of the Past has been out for nearly 75 years, it packs a wallop of plotting). Suffice it to say, the movie gets darker and moodier by the minute, which mirrors Jeff’s morality sinking into a deep, black hole. In the center of that black hole is Kathie, playing not just Jeff but half the men in the cast, coldly amused. Her villainous turn might only be eclipsed by Barbara Stanwyck’s in Double Indemnity. It is, without a doubt, fascinating to watch her, baby-faced, with those large, expressive eyes and fragile body language, completely dominate not just Mitchum but a lion such as Douglas. While Douglas, back in the present, briefly gets the upper hand, you realize its only time before she makes one last, brutal move.

The reason Out of the Past is essential viewing is because this is quite simply, one of the greatest is not the greatest noir movie there ever was. How Tourneur was able to convey so much mood, so much energy, negative lighting, characters constantly framed by darkness or turned into silhouettes against some background lighting, is incredible. No other noir has this kind of effect. Any movie that can have two acting powerhouses like Mitchum and Douglas sizing each other up constantly, reflecting so much anticipation of barely concealed violence brought upon a need to out-man the other is a sight to see. Interestingly enough, their characters are completely blind to the machinations of Kathie, and Greer plays her as though she had been born to do so.

Reviews: Disappearance at Clifton Hill, CROOKED HOUSE, and After Midnight

Working out childhood trauma is always a good topic for a character who has narrowly escaped some uncertain fate as a child. It essentially tills the soil for the adult version to tackle later this event with better, if imperfect, tools and perhaps solve the lingering puzzle that’s been haunting in the background ever since. Albert Shin is a director unknown to me, but his hand on the genre is pretty atmospheric in presenting a horrific event that marks the childhood of a young girl who later, as an adult (played by Tuppence Middleton), buzzes around a mystery like a buzzard seeking a dead body whose disappearance went cold. Instead of letting it go, she clings on to the idea that she can somehow come to terms with the boy’s disappearance and dives further into the murky waters of the seedy town where the incident took place, only to find her own sanity begin to unravel. Shin doesn’t quite have a full grasp of the entire genre per se, bringing an extended circus sequence that doesn’t quite fit in with the tone of the picture. Some of the acting is also a bit hammy, if at all to drive the point home that yes, this is a bad place with bad people. However, Disappearance at Clifton Hill manages to emerge mostly unscathed; as a thriller it holds itself well, has some nifty twists and turns, and maintains that frosty, cold atmosphere that has now become a staple of the genre in which shadows loom long and mistrust is everywhere, like a ghost.

The murder mystery has experienced a renaissance as of late with one successful adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel leading to a second. On the heels of that we were served with Knives Out, a murder mystery with social undertones that managed to make it onto several critics’ “best of 2019 lists and almost made mine had I not seen a few that won by a narrow margin. Crooked House came out in 2017 right on the heels of Murder on the Orient Express, but its release on internet platforms muddled its performance, and to be frank, seeing it nearly two and a half years later, it feels mostly inert. That is not a surprise; there have been several disappointing Agatha Christie adaptations done over the years, so another one is just a casualty of a project not quite working. The story is quite similar to that of Knives Out for those who have a sharp eye at narration, but Knives Out manages to use the concept and go to other directions with it and keep the story fresh, exciting, and above all, interesting. You won’t find that here despite the large ensemble cast headed by Glenn Close. Crooked House is basically dead on arrival. It’s as if the stance chosen by the director was to make an already flimsy story even weaker by inert direction, cardboard performances, and questionable events that seemed to have lifted in order to force the viewers into gasp mode once the killer was revealed.

It really pains me when I see as movie made for pennies within the indie community that I can’t recommend. That movie is someone’s project, someone’s idea of a story, and here I come, the Big Bad Reviewer, watch the entire thing (twice, may I add), cringe with every scene being offered, and give it a bad review. However, not everyone in the indie scene is made to make a good product and After Midnight, a film by Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella, is the result. The story concerns Hank and Abby (Gardner and Brea Grant), a couple living the life in the backwoods of America. They are, apparently, happy, Except that by the end of the extended scene in which both express their love, she has left the house, leaving a cryptic note, and left Hank in stasis, unable to move on. So unable to move on that the entire movie features a flashback sequence to when he and Abby were happy and in love every five minutes. Once is okay, but when your story has to venture into horror and we are still in washed out colors and puppy dog stares I started to wonder when the mess would start.

Spoiler alert.

Reader, it does start, but not in the way you would believe and I can’t believe I had to write a second paragraph to explain why. Any kind of horror involves a mood. We know that something bad has to happen, or at least, that there is a sense that something is not quite alright from the onset and is about to get slightly worse as proceedings follow. That never happens in After Midnight. Hank has a business; we never see him in that business. Hank goes to a bar to down some beer and the scene falls flat on its face when he meets a buddy (Henry Zebrowski) who is munching on peanuts. For some reason the camera decides to cut in, twice, on Zebrowski as he chews peanuts and almost chokes on a mouthful. Does this advance the story? No. Neither does a stop at a sheriff’s friend (played by Justin Benson, one half of the other directing duo who brought The Endless, another example of terrible horror). Finally, the horror arrives: someone (or something) is stalking Hank at night, leaving him terrified and shaken. While that should amp up the horror level, Gardner and Stella never change the tone and leave it as bland as an extended flashback into present scene when the much missed Abby decides to come back. And while I don’t want to reveal to the audience how this entire fiasco gets resolved, let’s just say, I might never listen to Lisa Loeb’s Stay (I Missed You).

Bad, bad film-making, terrible storyline, an incredibly cheesy guy in a monster suit, and flat acting: this is what in essence you will get if you sit back and watch all 75 minutes of the interminable After Midnight.

You were warned.



Director: Taylor Sheridan
Runtime: 110 minutes
Language: English

Midway through Wind River, a character roughly says, “This murder is practically solving itself,” and that, my dear friends, is a problem. Taylor Sheridan once again dives into the underbelly of society, but where his incursions redefined the Western in Hell or High Water and danced with horror in Sicario, both films which yielded memorable performances from its shady as heck characters (and a sympathetic one from Emily Blunt, a female FBI agent tossed in the middle of an increasing set of odds in Sicario), Wind River, while correct and serviceable as a crime thriller, never truly manages to find that dark tone that would have made it the standout sleeper of the late summer. It’s a shame because with an action taking place in the desolate mountains of Wyoming in the Indian Reservation of Wind River, there was plenty of material to convey an atmospheric sense of a larger corruption at hand, something truly unsettling.

The best scene is, as a matter of fact, its most disturbing. The film opens to a young woman dashing barefoot through the snow, escaping an unknown danger before she collapses to the elements and passes out of the story, in body. Enter Jeremy Renner, a game tracker separated from his Indian wife, who finds the dead woman’s body and has to team up with the nearest FBI agent sent all the way from Vegas to survey the crime scene, and with her report, justify the need to send out more agents or close the case. When she appears it’s under the form of Elizabeth Olsen, and at first, as it always is in these movies, her presence is, for the locals, meant to be merely perfunctory, a blip in a series of nothings in a place where nothing really happens. However, a correct assessment of the way rhe woman — Natalie — died doesn’t match up despite the coroner’s report. However, the coroner can’t justify homicide. Olsen can’t call for more agents, so it’s up to her and Renner to take matters into their own hands.

I’m going to say that perhaps this is what happens when someone who’s barely directed takes a film as ambitious as this into his own hands in the hopes of delivering a strong product and coming up just a shade short. Wind River is what you’d call a serviceable, above average procedural that takes you from start to end without delving too much in the horror of it all — even the necessary flashback scene that sets the plot in motion feels flat and done without style or any sense of suspense or even terror — but somehow it just didn’t quite go that extra mile to stay in my memory and thus, remains as just another good movie with solid performances by Renner, Olsen, Gil Birmingham, and Jon Bernthal in a small but pivotal role.


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.