Ms. Purple works best at its most reserved. In Kasie’s quiet contemplation, Chu reveals the weight upon her character’s shoulders through body language and tired eyes. Kasie stares wistfully at palm trees against a pink sky, and when she reconciles with Carey, the two simply fall into old patterns. They have the reticent, nonverbal communication of people who can be awkward with each other but nevertheless know one another well enough to forgive without the need for loud, tearful sob stories; that they’re speaking again is enough. Moments like this feel authentic, and they’re augmented by Ante Cheng’s rich, roving handheld camerawork, which colors faces in neon signage reminiscent of Wong Kar-wai’s collaborations with Christopher Doyle. In one great scene, the film intercuts Kasie falling at work with a flashback to wordlessly convey the emotional toll of caring for Young-Il.
But Chon never seems totally comfortable with naturalistic observation. Like the stark, confrontational nature of 2017’s Gook, his eagerness for showy dramatic conflict betrays him. Angry outbursts seem to materialize out of pure necessity rather than as an evolution of bottled emotions, and in an instant, people start hurling insults or breaking a bottle to use as a weapon. Subtlety dissipates as the film grasps for something louder and more obvious, which makes the characters look more like mechanical moving parts. Even scenes where Kasie stands before the ocean or moves her fingers through a ray of light feel banal in their self-conscious prettiness, a manufactured supplement for what turns out to be artificial drama.
Cast: Tiffany Chu, Teddy Lee, Octavio Pizano, James Kang Director: Justin Chon Screenwriter: Justin Chon, Chris Dinh Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories Running Time: 87 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Sergio Pablos’s film is essentially a metaphor for its own unique and refreshing mode of expression.
From Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, mainstream animation has taken a long-overdue look in the mirror as of late. Increasingly, animated films are opting for more experimental approaches, and often by taking inspiration from past techniques. Sergio Pablos’s Klaus is one such project, a throwback to classical animation that appropriately bakes its concern with tradition right into its plot. As a sort of Santa Claus origin story, the film examines the ways that tradition is built and torn down, all through an aesthetic that’s striking, beautiful, and as innovative as it is mindful of its own history.
The film follows the disgraced Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), a failing student at a postal academy, as he’s exiled to the frozen northern town of Smeerensburg. His father (Sam McMurray), the very rich head of the international postal service, has given him an ultimatum: establish a functioning post office in Smeerensburg, where so many others have failed before, or be cut off from his luxurious lifestyle. As a tipsy ferryman, Mogens (Norm MacDonald), notes at one point, the townsfolk have one thing to say to each other and no need for letters to say it: In some long-standing Hatfield-McCoy-esque familial feud, they swing axes and fire muskets at one another, making the ramshackle town a perpetual warzone.
No one in Smeerensburg sends their children to school because that would mean mingling with the enemy, and out-of-work teacher Alva (Rashida Jones) has adapted by using the schoolhouse for her side gig as a fishmonger, filleting catches right on her desk in front of the chalkboard. As he visits the unaccommodating locals, Jesper discovers a gruff, reclusive woodsman named Klaus (J.K. Simmons). Though Jesper initially suspects the hulking, white-bearded man of being an axe murderer who traffics in severed heads, Klaus only wants to help the town’s beleaguered children by gifting them handmade toys. All they have to do is ask for one by sending a letter with, of course, postage paid to Jesper.
The gears of the kids’ animated holiday movie are immediately apparent here, not just in the presence of a treacly tie-in song, but also in how Jesper’s own motivations will inevitably come back to bite him, with a requisite “I’m sorry” scene following a requisite “I quit” scene. These moments somewhat drag down the back half of Klaus, but the sheer extent of the film’s visual invention ensures that even such lulls are fabulous to look at. The exaggerated character designs are at once spindly and pleasantly rounded, and, most impressively, the textured, naturalistic lighting gives the film’s throwback techniques a distinctive and thoroughly modern edge. Pablos worked on Disney’s Treasure Planet and Tarzan, and that lineage is readily apparent in the bouncy, vibrant life that runs through all the character movements.
Beyond its characters’ wondrously cartoonish, emphatic gesticulations, much of the film’s humor results from unlikely circumstances of violence and hardship. When delivering presents in one scene, Jesper stuffs toys in socks hung to dry above a fireplace because he doesn’t dare enter the rest of the house, as we see him boxed into the center of the frame by a pack of sleeping, toothy dogs. And he drops into homes via chimney because the unwelcoming townsfolk of Smeerensburg, whose lawns and porches are littered with spikes and bear traps, naturally keep their doors locked. In the world of the film, Christmas traditions emerge through children’s rumors: Klaus’s wagon becomes a flying sleigh by pure circumstance, sent sailing through the air once the wheels come off, and when one child sees it just before it crashes to the ground, the story of the “sleigh” spreads like a haphazard game of telephone.
There’s an anarchic edge to both the film’s humor, as in a glimpse at a group of creepy kids building a snowman with so many carrots stuck into it that it suggests a stabbing victim, and the way it builds its uncanny origin story, all the while remaining skeptical of entrenched customs. Characters note that the long-running Smeerensburg feud (one scene shows it in the form of a cave painting) is what the town was built on, but the film’s dominant thematic current is that it’s time to move on, that remaining shackled to tradition or stuck in a rut only impedes progress. And with gorgeous animation that makes what was once old feel new again, Klaus essentially becomes a metaphor for its unique and refreshing mode of expression.
Cast: Jason Schwartzman, J.K. Simmons, Rashida Jones, Will Sasso, Neda M. Ladda, Sergio Pablos, Norm Macdonald, Joan Cusack, Sam McMurray Director: Sergio Pablos Screenwriter: Sergio Pablos, Jim Mahoney, Zack Lewis Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
If only the film made more of the curious tension between Timothée Chalamet’s Henry and Robert Pattinson’s dauphin.
A moody song of mud and chainmail, David Michôd’s The King twists Shakespeare’s four histories, known collectively as the Henriad, into a rather modern political fable. It’s the story of a young leader intent on rescuing his country from intractable warfare who nonetheless finds himself expanding the nation’s military footprint without doing great damage to his idealistic reputation. The film, co-written by Michôd and Joel Edgerton, doesn’t dwell on the parallels between King Henry V and Barack Obama. Intead, it shrewdly casts the former Prince Hal (Timothée Chalamet) into an avatar of millennial discontent toward power and the grisly means in which it’s exercised. He’s nonetheless seduced by its thrall.
The King doesn’t limn much conflict from Henry V’s failure to live up to his ideals. In fact, Michôd and Edgerton seem strangely oblivious to its most compelling aspects, chiefly the styling of Hal as a mid-1990s goth icon, a la Brandon Lee in The Crow, before his elevation to the throne. Chalamet’s narrow frame and innate talent for expressing sullen diffidence provide a jolt of modernity to the early scenes where England is riven by civil war and King Henry IV (a cotton-mouthed Ben Mendelsohn) sinks into paranoia and dementia. Estranged from his family, Hal cavorts with Falstaff (Edgerton), spending his nights at taverns and waking alone because Falstaff has ushered the women whom the prince beds out of their inn at sunrise.
After the deaths of his father and brother, and despite his emo rebellions, Hal assumes the role of Henry V with a mandate to pursue peace and a haircut that transforms this brooding figure into a wary warrior. His attention is soon consumed by the French, who send spies to infiltrate his circle of confidantes, and whose heir apparent, the Dauphin of France (Robert Pattinson) seems intent in taunting him into battle. By and large, the film portrays the king’s capitulation to a new battle as an act of attrition, in redundant scenes of Henry seeking the counsel of a war-hungry Archbishop (Andrew Cavill) and his Chief Justice William (Sean Harris).
The King somehow becomes more self-serious after Henry integrates Falstaff into his advisory council, reinventing the massive gallivant into a gentle friend and self-proclaimed man of few words. “What if Hagrid but a taciturn war hero?” appears to be the pitch for Edgerton’s Falstaff, a character who’s emblematic of the film’s confused identity. Is Henry a master tactician or a peacenik who’s in far over his head? This question is cast aside abruptly when the king declares war on France after an attack on Henry’s pride at the hands of the dauphin. This hasty decision is the only moment where The King questions Henry’s ego, and the scene undermines the film’s outsized attention to tedious backroom negotiations.
Though the film fails to explore Henry’s psychology, Chalamet effectively conveys the king’s efforts to perform leadership and charisma: The King’s version of the St. Crispin’s Day speech takes place on a muddy battlefield where Henry appears diminutive but persuasively motivates his troops into a potentially hopeless battle. If only the film made more of the curious tension between Henry and the dauphin, who Pattinson portrays as a gleeful imp who looks like he’s been airlifted out of Neil Jordan’s Interview with a Vampire. Instead, the two are sent into a scrum of armored bodies drowning one another in puddles and stabbing heedlessly. The battle is, like too much of The King, a slog of desaturated colors and endless slow motion that means to treat war as a brutal, meaningless affair, all the while capturing the action with a reverent grandeur that suggests there’s no other realm where heroes can be made.
Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, Ben Mendelsohn, Robert Pattinson, Andrew Cavill, Lily-Rose Depp Director: David Michôd Screenwriter: David Michôd, Joel Edgerton Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 133 min Rating: R Year: 2019
The film too often suggests an Under Siege that’s been pointlessly larded with critters from Jumanji.
Given its batshit premise—big-game hunter brings deadly jungle animals aboard an ancient freighter that just also happens to be transporting an imprisoned American assassin—Primal makes for a disappointingly ordinary action flick. Frank Powell’s film revives the single-setting gimmick that was popular in the 1980s and ‘90s—often referred to as “Die Hard on a _____”—without much flair or sense of escalation. Primal is essentially composed of scenes in which disposable extras wander hallways, waiting to get picked off. In the process, Powell squanders this project’s promising elements.
Most promisingly, the film’s big-game hunter, Frank Walsh, is played by Nicolas Cage, who has a famously insatiable hunger for gonzo B-movie madness. Cage plays Frank as a drunken, cigar-chomping braggart, the sort of man who feels, debatably, that he’s elevated slovenliness to a form of fashion statement. In one scene, Frank is relaxing up in a tree somewhere in a Brazilian rainforest, eating nuts, smoking a stogie, and waiting for his prey to take the bait. Here, we’re allowed to feel a loner’s solace in doing the thing he feels he was put on Earth to do. Primal could use more such moments, as Cage frequently falls back on his heightened “quotation mark” acting, in which he utters his lines in shifting and ironic cadences in a seeming effort to stay awake. Cage is such an intensely original performer that even his autopilot is pleasurable, though Frank Walsh fails to join Cage’s gallery of classic eccentrics.
More gallingly, though, Primal doesn’t capitalize on its awesomely ludicrous plot. One assumes that Frank will tangle with the assassin, Richard Loffler, who’s played by Kevin Durand in a sneering, manic key that competes with Cage’s performance for fuck-it-why-not bravado. These actors are ready to play, yet Powell and screenwriter Richard Leder keep them apart for large stretches of the film’s running time. One also assumes that a parallel will be established between Richard and the jungle animals as rhyming prey that Frank must hunt, but the animals are often forgotten and utilized only for the occasional jump scare or surprise fatality. (Perversely, Powell doesn’t even show the animals escaping their cages.)
Primal threatens to catch fire whenever it actually engages with its premise, especially in a competently staged knife fight between Frank and Richard that allows Cage and Durand to hit 11 on the machismo meter. Otherwise, Primal doesn’t live up to its name, too often suggesting an Under Siege that’s been pointlessly larded with critters from Jumanji.
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Kevin Durand, Famke Janssen, LaMonica Garrett, Michael Imperioli, Tommy Walker, Rey Hernandez, John Lewis, Braulio Castillo hijo, Jaime Irizarry, Sewell Whitney, Drake Shannon Director: Frank Powell Screenwriter: Richard Leder Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 97 min Rating: R Year: 2019
The film confirms that the ruthless knack of the wealthy and powerful to remain so is a universal impulse.
The opening scene of Lauren Greenfield’s documentary The Kingmaker shows Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines, handing money to children from the inside of a van stopped at an intersection. The stacks of paper currency that Marcos distributes throughout the film seem limitless, as do the throngs of children who line up to receive them. This initial act of beneficence, which is surely also a canny bit of self-promotion, ends abruptly when the traffic light turns green, and Marcos’s van tours the streets of Manila. “Before my time there were no beggars,” she says. “I had a place for them.”
This sort of reflection—at once nonsensical, deluded, self-aggrandizing, and menacing—is a dispiritingly common aspect of contemporary strongman politics, and the most depressing idea that The Kingmaker advances is that no person of stature, however ignominious, can ever be forced from the halls of power. Whether or not Marcos is aware that Greenfield (in her photography, as well as the films The Queen of Versailles and Generation Wealth) has framed her career around scrutinizing the fabulously rich, the legendarily profligate woman appears unconcerned about any potential critique. She has survived and overcome strong opposition for decades, and the true shock of Greenfield’s film is how close to the top she is again.
Before the documentary gets there, Greenfield cannily indulges Marcos’s view of her own life story: of the young beauty who abandoned a potential true love because she sensed the future clout that an army officer named Ferdinand Marcos could attain, and of the media’s love affair with a glamorous first lady, who tirelessly traveled the world charming dignitaries because her husband was afraid to fly. Unfailingly on message, Marcos peppers her rise with intimations of tragedy and modesty, revealing that she had to be institutionalized because of the stress of the political spotlight and mourning the fact that her disgraced husband remains encased in glass, as her political opponents refuse to grant him a state funeral.
Viewers of Greenfield’s previous work will be familiar with some of the tactics The Kingmaker employs to insert critique into its luxurious, saturated tableaus. At one point, Marcos guides us through a clearly staged array of framed photos from her husband’s administration. Moving around two crowded tables, she knocks one photo on the floor, and continues speaking as the sound of a helper sweeping glass comically interrupts the rest of the scene. Other images (depictions of a semi-nude first couple, paintings of Imelda as a water goddess, and asides where she asks aides about her physical appearance) need no such embellishment.
Where Greenfield’s prior films have landed as rather facile examinations of the insanity of American wealth, this one excels at juxtaposing the glitz of Marcos’s infamous shoe collection (she’s said to have never worn the same pair twice) with the plight of her administration’s victims and the continued growth of violence and wealth inequality in the Philippines. The documentary’s central act chronicles the many abuses of power during the Marcoses’ 20 years in power. Given that span and the sheer breadth of corruption of the regime, The Kingmaker rushes through years of tumult: a sustained period of martial law, state-sanctioned murders, embezzlement, and unfettered development that displaced thousands and created the underclass that Marcos herself is so keen to unsee. The film largely yields to career diplomats and Marcos’s political opponents to illuminate the truth of her time as first lady, though Greenfield’s crew spends a great deal of time on Calauit Island, which Marcos had emptied of its citizens and repopulated with exotic animals from around the world.
The Calauit footage, rife with sentimental images of injured and deformed animals, is a frustrating distraction from the human lives devastated by Marcos, but the film rebounds strongly as it follows the 2016 vice presidential campaign of Imelda and Ferdinand’s son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. Imelda clearly sees her son as the last possible opportunity for her family to again earn paramount power in the Philippines; he, like a Bush scion, seems to have accepted that this is the family business despite evidently being in over his head.
If The Queen of Versailles comes off as quintessentially American in its display of stupid, awe-inspiring ambition, The Kingmaker confirms that the ruthless knack of the wealthy and powerful to remain so is a universal impulse. Though Bongbong loses the race to a social activist, the film ends happily for the Marcos dynasty, but with a genuine sense of foreboding for democracy in the Philippines and beyond. Throughout the film, the openly murderous former mayor turned plutocrat Rodrigo Duterte is a looming absence, flickering to mind whenever Imelda praises her interactions with Richard Nixon or Saddam Hussein. The Kingmaker ends with Duterte and the Marcoses forming a new dynasty, a development Greenfield devastatingly frames around political rallies full of rabid fans clad in red.
Matthew Barney’s Redoubt is attuned to the grandiose and the spectacular. With its sweeping aerial shots of vast landscapes, homages to mythic narrative, and use of broad archetypes in place of three-dimensional characters, the film suggests something George Lucas might produce if he ever got tired of having the script explain his films’ conceits to the audience. Indeed, there’s no opportunity for verbal exposition dumps in Redoubt, as none of its half-dozen characters ever speak a line, communicating instead through body language, dance, and the tools they use to interact with the film’s enclosed alpine world. Part narrative dance, part Hollywood thriller, part Planet Earth—and with high-speed video footage of bullets hitting objects thrown in for added visual interest—Redoubt represents an eminently accessible version of the avant-garde.
In this loose adaptation of a tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Barney plays The Engraver, a bespectacled, skull-capped, white-bearded version of Actaeon, the hunter whom Diana, goddess of the hunt, transformed into a deer upon catching him spying on her bathing. Beyond updating the myth to the era of spectacles and skull caps, Redoubt adds wrinkles to its gendered schema, turning Diana (Anette Wachter) into the hunter and her male adversary into a copper engraver—though, as he lives somewhere in the North American wilderness, he predictably also owns a rifle. Here, it’s The Engraver’s petrified depictions of nature, his ossification of the forest’s beauty, not an act of voyeurism, that infuriate the camo-clad Diana.
Part Actaeon and part Prometheus, The Engraver somehow makes etchings that aren’t merely representations of the natural world, but which appear to capture aspects of the gods’ fire—so to speak. He shares a trailer on the edge of Diana’s woods with The Electroplater (K.J. Holmes), a kind of alchemist who turns his copper engravings into a source of energy—facilitated in some way, perhaps, by the ritualistic dance she performs in the clearing in front of their trailer. Dance plays a central role in Barney’s film, as characters use it to play out some kind of implied elemental circuit linking sky, earth, and body. In her ritual motions, The Electroplater reaches from the ground to the night sky, as if she wants to mediate between them; Barney complements such glances and gestures toward the infinite with swooping drone shots and time-lapse footage of the stars scrolling past the mountains.
Lacking verbal language, the film’s barebones story is communicated largely through the movement of bodies, and Diana has two nymph-like, dancing companions (Eleanor Bauer and Laura Stokes) whose gyrations and contortions seem to imitate the drama of life and death she sets in motion on her hunts, and who, more than anything, appear to annoy Diana with their hijinks. At one point, the pair mock-wrestles in a creek, turning the bathing scene of myth into a kind of wet-long-john competition. Diana, pointedly, has no interest in the bathing scene that forms the centerpiece of previous versions of this myth; she loads her high-powered rifle and leaves the scene. In many ways, Redoubt is serious-minded in its ideas about art and nature, but there’s a comic, playful element in such moments that make the film more than a somber contemplation and imbue it with a more vital dynamic.
Barney re-instills nature with some of the mystic aura that modernity, with its technologies and techniques of knowledge, has robbed it of. The Engraver and The Electroplater appear to represent an alignment of art and science that collaborate in the objectification of nature, thus incurring the wrath of the goddess of the hunt. Intriguingly, though, Diana and her arsenal of modern hunting weapons, which the camera lingers on almost admiringly, aren’t entirely innocent of such a charge, either. Perhaps, then, Barney’s alterations to the mythos reflect the developments in humans’ promethean relationship to nature, over which we now preside like the gods of earlier eras. With its reinsertion of mystic unknowability into an impeccably photographed natural landscape, Redoubt works as both visual feast and as food for thought.
Cast: Matthew Barney, Anette Wachter, K.J.Holmes, Eleanor Bauer, Laura Stokes, Sandra Lamouche Director: Matthew Barney Screenwriter: Matthew Barney Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 134 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Like a traumatized psyche, it remains uncomfortably stuck in the past, replaying familiar events in an effort to empty them of terror.
Like many Stephen King stories, Doctor Sleep, the author’s belated sequel to his 1977 classic The Shining, isn’t so much a work of straight horror as it is an epic fantasy suffused with elements of the horrific. In a narrative framework familiar from novels like It and The Stand, an evil, ethereal force can only be stopped by a surrogate family who can marshal those same forces for good, after a difficult journey and an episodic vanquishing of obstacles that hones their skills and resolve. As styled by King, such stories may on occasion provoke terror, but redemption and retributive justice are their true structuring emotions.
That writer-director Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of Doctor Sleep is also a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining—notoriously despised by King, principally for its un-redemptive finale—makes for an awkward combination. Flanagan’s film maintains King’s penchant for epic structure while repeatedly evoking Kubrick’s masterpiece of horror, from multiple callbacks to the earlier film’s iconic helicopter shot following a car headed toward doom, to appropriations of its methodically slow lap dissolves, to a brief and throwaway recapitulation of the original’s subtly unnerving job-interview scene, to the inevitable return to the Overlook Hotel. It’s probably to Doctor Sleep’s credit that it departs from its four-decade-old precedent in narrative and tone, but the new film’s repeated, overt references to a very different film give it a wobbly feeling, as if it’s teetering back and forth between King’s vision and Kubrick’s.
In the wake of the supernatural events of The Shining, Danny Torrence (Ewan McGregor) suffered through decades of trauma and hard living, pursued by the undead guests of the Overlook Hotel who’ve taken up residence in his psyche. Because of Danny’s telepathic gift (the titular “Shining”), the ghosts in his mind don’t manifest themselves physically, but they’re something more than mere memories, presenting both emotional and bodily danger. Luckily, Danny’s fellow “shiner,” the late Dick Halloran (Carl Lumbly), has also stuck around in Danny’s head, appearing at opportune times to advise him on how best to use the shining—not unlike a well-known sci-fi surrogate father McGregor himself has played.
Danny has his drinking in check and his multiple demons more or less battened up in metaphorical mind-boxes. Dick teaches him to build in his head, and is living a quiet and solitary life in rural New Hampshire when a powerful teenaged telepath named Abra (Kyliegh Curran) makes contact via the blackboard painted on Danny’s attic-apartment wall. The unlikely friends exchange messages with chalk on the wall for eight years, until the night Abra psychically witnesses what could be described as a transient, bohemian clan of psychic vampires torture and murder Billy (Jacob Tremblay), an Iowan child who also “shines.” Rose (Rebecca Ferguson), leader of the clan and a powerful telepath herself, catches the powerful Abra spying on them, and the group intends to make her their next victim.
While Doctor Sleep’s first act uses the escalation and release of tension to explore the horror of Danny’s repressed trauma, much of the film’s remainder is based not around the dread that there may be, say, a ghoul around the corner or a corpse behind the closed bathroom door, but around anticipation that the child murderers will get their comeuppance. While Flanagan finds ways to thrillingly convey, for example, the long-distance psychic battle between Rose and Abra, his continued adherence to the motifs of the Kubrick film make for a lack of cohesion between the film’s horror elements and its adventure ones.
The film’s simplified moral clarity is what largely makes it odd bedfellows with Kubrick’s The Shining. As the members of Rose’s clan are gradually dispatched, Abra is always on hand to proclaim, with cold moral righteousness, “You deserve this,” a needling and gratuitous reassurance to the audience that we have permission to enjoy their painful, writhing deaths. While King’s stories often concern themselves with such questions of just deserts, Kubrick’s The Shining doesn’t, which is part of why Flanagan’s partially digital rebuild of the earlier film’s Overlook Hotel set feels like it diminishes it of its abject horror.
The somewhat undermotivated return to Danny’s ur-space of anguish resembles a similar scene in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One far more than it should: Doctor Sleep’s final act is little more than a denuded pastiche of Kubrick’s film, repurposing its haunting visuals (including specific camera movements) and refiguring the spirits that haunt the Overlook as tools exploited by our heroes. Rose, encountering the hallway filling with blood, shrugs her shoulders and moves on—which may also be your response the umpteenth time you see the rotting, undead woman from Room 237 who haunts every bath in the film. Given the difference in the respective stories’ tone and themes, Flanagan’s film would probably have been served by a more decisive departure from its predecessor. Like a traumatized psyche, it remains uncomfortably stuck in the past, replaying familiar events in an effort to empty them of terror.
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Carl Lumbly, Zahn McClarnon, Emily Alyn Lind, Brue Greenwood, Jocelin Donahue, Alex Essoe, Cliff Curtis, Jacob Tremblay Director: Mike Flanagan Screenwriter: Mike Flanagan Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 134 min Rating: R Year: 2019 Buy: Book
Often viewed as delusional, opportunistic, or simply weird, paranormal investigators have seldom been treated seriously in popular culture. (Look no further than Nathan for You’s “Ghost Realtor” episode to see the stereotype amplified.) By contrast, writer-director Paul Harrill’s refreshing starting point in Light from Light is the idea that a paranormal investigator is as valid and complex a human subject as any, and that, in fact, it’s perfectly natural that an otherwise ordinary, workaday mom might be versed in the craft.
As the film begins, Shelia (Marin Ireland) is fielding questions from a local radio host (Rhoda Griffis), explaining a pair of prophetic encounters in her past that stoked her curiosity in the paranormal. And when asked whether she’s a believer or a skeptic, she sluggishly replies, “I don’t know what I am,” a response that casts her immediately as less a visionary outcast than a humble searcher for whom the paranormal is no greater an enigma than, say, parenting.
Stuck in a dead-end job at her local airport as a car rental clerk, Shelia is a paradigm of working-class, middle-American motherhood. Grinded into dispassion by her monotonous livelihood, she’s channeled whatever zeal she has left toward her son, Owen (Josh Wiggins), an earnest, soft-spoken high school senior in a wishy-washy relationship with a study buddy, Lucy (Atheena Frizzell). Ghost-hunting projects don’t come regularly, nor do they need to, since Shelia admits that taking money for them “just makes things more complicated.” Motivated less by financial necessity than some nebulous altruism that she herself may not fully understand, Shelia agrees to take on a case in a nearby county regarding a widower, Richard (Jim Gaffigan), who’s been plagued by suspicions that his late wife, who died in a recent plane crash, is still sharing residency in his quiet farmhouse.
As Harrill establishes a sense of domestic ennui within a fog-shrouded rural Tennessee, it’s reasonable to expect from the film’s early going that it might be readying for a dip in the pool of the popular “elevated horror” subgenre. But a pair of discreet, matter-of-fact scenes at Richard’s house allay this suspicion. In the first, Shelia is escorted by her client through the various rooms of his home, each of which Harrill lingers on for a pregnant beat before or after they’re entered, hinting at potential unseen forces. But days later, when Shelia returns to the home alone, flashlight in hand, for her first evening sweep, her calls into the emptiness go unanswered, and the backgrounds of Harrill’s shadowy frames remain undisturbed by any dark figures. If jump scares were to emerge anywhere, surely it would have been here, but Harrill’s ultimately interested in the internal rather than the external, and Shelia’s assignment sets her on a path of interpersonal—as opposed to otherworldly—discovery.
Just as Light from Light flirts with the conventions of the haunted-house movie only to then skirt them, Harrill also dances around the suburban-set yarn about people’s quests for self-discovery, a subgenre designed to deliver shopworn reassurances about the gratifications of middle age. That the film avoids these traps has partly to do with Ireland and Gaffigan’s performances—each intricately shaded and reactive—and partly to do with Harrill’s probing screenplay, which engineers buildups to emotional epiphanies without indulging in the expected payoffs. A long, stark heart-to-heart on Richard’s front porch—Dreyer-esque in its total lack of aesthetic adornment—finds Shelia coming as close as she’ll get to reckoning with her own disappointment in life, only to pull back and apologize for her perceived oversharing. Later, a climactic hike to the scene of Richard’s wife’s death sputters out not with tears, but with hushed resignation and then a deflating revelation inside Shelia’s car.
Harrill’s characters must eventually contend with their doubts and uncertainties directly and through the solidarity of others. The subplot of Owen and Lucy’s relationship, which is stalled by Owen’s concern about what he sees as its inevitable splintering due to the pair’s differing college plans, interweaves with Shelia’s arc as something of a barometer of her own relationship to the unknown and to the future. It’s only when she begins to notice the growing chemistry between Owen and Lucy that she’s able to confront certain failures of imagination in her own life—and, in turn, to prompt a similar psychic turn from Richard.
This might sound hokey, and it occasionally is, but Harrill doesn’t underline his characters’ breakthroughs, either through music (the minimal electric guitar score by War on Drugs members Adam Granduciel and Jon Natchez is used more for interstitial texture than scene punctuation) or camera movements. Harrill’s direction is clean and economical—witness the way the camera watches in one static take as Shelia, Owen, and Lucy shuffle out of the house in balletic synchronicity—and his observation keen. There’s something intuitively relatable, for instance, about the understated scene in which Shelia texts her friend about investigation equipment while at her day job and then self-consciously answers “Hello?” when he immediately rings her back, as though not expecting a call. It’s because of this finely detailed naturalism that Harrill is able to pull off the spontaneous miracle that concludes the film—again, shades of Dreyer—without it coming across as hokum. Only in focusing so thoroughly on the normal does Light from Light stumble upon the paranormal.
Cast: Marin Ireland, Jim Gaffigan, Josh Wiggins, Atheena Frizzell, David Cale, Rhoda Griffis Director: Paul Harrill Screenwriter: Paul Harrill Distributor: Grasshopper Film Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Richter discusses how he connects his classical schooling to one of his other early passions: outer space.
NASA launched its Voyager program over 40 years ago, and since then, sci-fi films like James Gray’s Ad Astra have been drawing inspiration from the journey that the program’s twin robotic probes have made through our outer solar system. And for the film’s post-minimalist soundtrack, influential composer Max Richter actually pulled plasma wave data from the Voyager probes and used it to make music that would embody the story of the long and precarious journey that an existentially fraught astronaut, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), makes through space to find his famed father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones).
Though Ad Astra’s music is written with an interstellar scope in mind, Richter is modest when speaking about his diminutive “notes on the page.” “If you don’t get the notes right on the piano, they won’t sound right when they are being played by an orchestra,” he says in a straightforward way. Ad Astra is also a bit of a return to a childhood dream for the musician, as one of his first memories was being woken up in the middle of the night by his parents to watch the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing on a black-and-white TV set in their living room.
Speaking with German-born British composer while he takes a break from recording his next album, we discussed how he connects his classical schooling—he studied composition and piano at the University of Edinburgh, the Royal Academy of Music, and with experimental Italian composer Luciano Berio in Florence—to one of his other early passions: outer space. In doing so, we also discover that the distance between two broken human psyches sometimes feels as though it’s on an interstellar scale.
Well, it’s very much the vein of my other kind of storytelling projects around society and culture, like Memoryhouse and Blue Notebooks. So, it has a kind of a sociopolitical, activist dimension. It’s very much in the vein of Memoryhouse and Blue Notebooks.
Both of those albums posit the idea of the democratization of music and getting it out there, and you’ve continued that commentary on sociopolitical things. What are your thoughts on the choice to perform the eight-hour composition Sleep at the Great Wall of China? Obviously sleep, shelter, and food and water are common denominators across all cultures and governments.
Sleep is a piece which is about finding a place to rest and repose. It’s a moment to pause and reflect, and I think music can provide that. Artworks can provide that. They can provide a place to think—to think about what we’re doing. That’s one of the most important things I think that music can do. I felt that bringing Sleep to that setting was, in a way, my way of contributing to that debate to what was going on over there, what is going on over there, and to try and make a kind of a plea for kind of a humane behavior. I think that’s really one of the things that Sleep is about. So, yeah, it was very, very interesting.
I saw that when you were approached to work on Ad Astra, you saw a rough cut. What were you originally struck by as a composer even in that early stage of the edit?
There are really two films in Ad Astra. There’s the father-son psychodrama and then there’s the voyage in space. I like the way that these two films are superimposed on top of one another. I then started thinking about the two kinds of musical language. The first being that kind of personal instrumental language, which speaks to the dynamic between Roy and Clifford, and the second being the kind of big-picture music.
I had kind of traditional instrumentation for them and their story and then I thought, “What about the big-picture music, what about the physics, and, you know, all of that science?” So I thought about the Voyager I and II probes, which have actually made the journey that’s depicted in the film. I contacted Iowa University’s Department of physics & Astronomy, which got data that the Voyager probes recorded on their journey.
They actually measured the plasma wave data all the way out and sent it back. We got a hold of the data and transformed it into musical sounds. That allowed me to use almost like a location-recording approach to the electronic music so that when Brad’s character goes past a planet, you’re actually hearing data collected there, transformed into music. As well as being illustrative and embodying the journey, you’ve actually got real objects from that place. That was the sort of jumping-off point for the electronic music parts.
Oh yeah! We’ve actually built computer-modeled instruments out of that data. So, there’s that kind of raw and cooked versions of that data [on the soundtrack].
I enjoyed the classical parts of the score meeting those electronic ones. It got me thinking about your background in Renaissance music. I immediately think of angelic things when I hear the harp on the soundtrack. First Man employed it in a different way. I was curious about that instrument choice.
I mean, there are a lot of sounds which kind of evoke traditional religious music or choral writing. There are these kinds of glassy, high-frequency tones and they sort of transcend them in some way. They evoke those colors. The reverberation I’ve used in the score throughout is a digital model of the Notre Dame in France. It’s a kind of a virtual cathedral [laughs] that all the music is being played through. I think that kind of affects us. It makes us think about big stuff and the sort of big questions. The film is about big questions. So, we’re trying to sort of populate the sonic universe of it with these sorts of emblems, which remind us of those things.
I watched an Estonian TV show in which you likened the Brexit situation to someone willfully stepping off a fast-moving train, and though the story for Ad Astra is highly personal, there are some moments, almost like Easter eggs, that are commentaries on what life might be like in that situation. Did you find any contemporary, socioeconomic elements coming out in the writing against those images?
Well, yeah. I mean, I think James Gray is a realist. You know, he’s a very, very smart writer, and he’s very sanguine about the present and the future. Certainly, the way the moon is depicted in Ad Astra is the big thing, as it’s got subways and stuff all over it and there’s a war going on. It’s like we’ve just exported all the problems of Earth and put them on the moon. That’s basically what he’s saying [laughs]. You know, it’s actually very sad. I think Brad’s character actually says this [about the moon]. He says something like, “You know, if my dad was here, he would certainly be so depressed.” So, James is very sanguine about the potential for humanity, but he does show humanity’s habit of falling back on these sorts of conflicts.
I read that you’re closer with your mother and I was curious if there was anything that you found with your personal journey with your father that came up as you were working through the soundtrack?
Yes, in a way. I mean, I think all father-son relationships have an element of confrontation [laughs] that Roy and Clifford have. It seems to be something about the male psyche isn’t it, somehow? There’s always something of that and hopefully [laughs] not as much as they have. Yeah, I think it speaks to people because of that. Roy is somebody who can’t connect to other people. That’s his kind of challenge and that’s his journey and connecting sometimes is hard. It’s also like the most important thing we do actually. Yeah, there’s a paradox in that. I think the film does speak to people in a personal way. And, certainly, to me.
You’ve done versions of classical pieces throughout your career, most notably on the album Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons, but I really liked the rendition of Bach’s “Erbarme Dich” from the St. Matthew Passion. What did you want to convey with that on the soundtrack at that point in the film’s narrative?
Bach’s music is kind of like the most perfect music in my brain. It’s like divine music, you know? “Erbarme Dich” from the St. Matthew Passion translates as “have mercy.” You know, obviously it’s in a religious context in that film. What I was thinking is, “Well, this is really what Roy is asking for from his father.” He’s saying, “Have mercy,” and the father is saying, “No, not in this way.” It just seemed to sum up their dynamic and, obviously, it’s fantastic music. It was a nice opportunity to kind of revisit that and then I think there’s something about Bach’s music which just sort of connects to some of those sorts of very archetypal, cosmic images. It’s because of the incredible perfection of the geometry of Bach’s music.
I really enjoyed the orchestra’s energy and thrum on “Encounter” and “Forced Entry.” They show more of the menacing side that you have as a composer and it’s definitely reflected in the film. It seems like there’s some kind of electronic-like processing on the instruments for those tracks.
Yeah, there is. I basically just put guitar pedals on the orchestra for just sort of gritty energy in various places. There’s quite a bit of that kind of stuff, and aside from the so-called planetary instruments made from the Voyager data, there’s also the synthesizer that I use most is a Moog System 55. Apart from being like an archetypal synth and my absolute favorite, it also comes from, you know, 1969, which is the Apollo 11 landing year. It all just sort of made sense. All of that quite gritty, analog-sounding electronics stuff is from the Moog 55 and it’s there because of its association with, you know, that moment in history. It has kind of a cosmic vibe.
Well, I guess it’s mostly about the sort of image of music, which can evoke something beyond ourselves. So that’s why it sort of connects a little bit to traditional religious music or historical religious music. It’s got this kind of slow-moving ritual quality and, you know, very extreme registers, kind of low-density, low-information density, so that the listener sort of completes the piece. [That is the impact] of those kinds of things on the soundtrack; I almost feel like they’re drones, but they’re not, they’re just very slow-moving music. There’s just something about very slow-moving material which makes it feel big. I don’t know why that is. I guess we’re used to seeing, you know, large, slow-moving objects in real life, and there’s something about that that we imprint on the music somehow. All of those sorts of ideas. Honestly, for any film, you’re really just looking for material which feels like it belongs to that world. When you find it, that’s it. I mean, of course, it’s a very technical and cerebral process on one hand, and on the other hand it’s completely intuitive.
Viewed charitably, its sketchy protagonist and vague atmosphere are meant to achieve the effect of a parable.
With Adopt a Highway, writer-director Logan Marshall-Green offers a sampler platter of inspirational clichés, in a presumed effort to keep the audience guessing as to where his narrative is headed. Which is a disappointment, as Marshall-Green initially appears to be concerned with the cruelty and hypocrisy of California’s now-defunct “three strikes” policy, which led to the long-term incarceration of people who committed minor crimes. Russell Millings (Ethan Hawke), who served over 20 years in prison for marijuana possession, at first radiates a compelling terror of the outside world, suggesting a person who can never be truly “released” from captivity, but the filmmaker soon turns him into a pawn—an unbelievable recipient of formulaic catastrophes and miracles.
Russell’s disorientation, upon being released from prison into the world and placed in a residence and a job at a fast-food restaurant, is initially poignant. But the film’s conception of him soon becomes ridiculous, as he’s a naïve man-child who’s barely heard of the internet and seems almost defenseless despite his stature as a seasoned ex-con. Marshall-Green stints on details that might’ve made this character palatable, such as references to Russell’s experiences in prison or his relationships with friends and family. In one of the film’s most absurd moments, Russell first learns of his father’s death while reading an obituary online, even though Marshall-Green has already established that he was never estranged from his family.
Viewed charitably, Marshall-Green’s sketchy protagonist and vague atmosphere—is Russell staying in a halfway house or a motel? How can he afford the latter on burger wages?—are meant to achieve the effect of a parable, in which an everyman stumbles through tall tales that underscore universal human needs. One may be reminded of other film fables centered around emotionally stunted men, such as Hal Ashby’s Being There, which satirized the sentimentality that Marshall-Green takes seriously, or Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump, which treated its absurd scenarios with a variation of the sort of preachy literal-mindedness that mars this film.
Russell’s first adventure pivots on his discovery of a baby girl in a dumpster behind the fast-food joint. Believing that abandoned children can be adopted via a loose “finders keepers” policy, Russell cares for the baby, earnestly yet badly, for a few days before realizing that he’s committing a crime that will screw his parole. And when he’s found out, the film abandons the implications of his indiscretions. Russell takes a bus out of town, running away and soon discovering his father’s secret inheritance while flirtatiously bonding with a troubled bus passenger, Diane (Elaine Hendrix). Most astonishingly, Russell eventually returns to the scene of his quasi-kidnapping, leaving directions for a trust fund for the baby before disappearing again without experiencing even the slightest of legal complications. You may keep waiting for Russell to wake up in prison, from a dream informed by dozens of coming-of-age fantasias.
It’s awkward to watch Hawke try to breathe this material to life, especially so soon after his brutally, painfully direct performance in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. Hawke fetishizes the social cocoon that Russell has spun around himself, keeping a personal distance from his character’s contrived simplicity: The actor’s shrewdness and intelligence are always palpable here, and are a relief, even though these qualities further compromise Russell’s reality.
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Elaine Hendrix, Chris Sullivan, Christopher Heyerdahl, Betty Gabriel, Mo McRae, Anne-Marie Johnson, Milauna Jackson Director: Logan Marshall-Green Screenwriter: Logan Marshall-Green Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Graham Swon undermines our expectations of horror-movie conceits, attempting to tap the primordial manna of oral storytelling.
Writer-director Graham Swon’s The World Is Full of Secrets centers on two sorts of perversity, of narrative structure and of morality, with the former intended to elaborate on the latter. Set on a summer evening in 1996, the film concerns a group of teenage girls who get together and try to shock each other with the worst stories they’ve ever heard. This evening is recalled from the future by a grown version of one of the girls (voiced by Peggy Stefans), who says that something awful eventually happened to them that night. The film has nesting horror-movie conceits, then, and Swon undermines our expectations of each one, attempting to tap the primordial manna of oral storytelling.
The World Is Full of Secrets most obviously suggests a horror anthology, which Swon has staged with a hallucinatory flair. When Clara (Dennise Gregory) talks to her mother on her bed, Swon shows only the girl’s hand and knee, with the mother entirely out of the frame until her hand enters late in the scene. It’s a deliberately alienating composition that transforms a potentially routine moment of exposition into something more suffocating—a constriction that’s intensified by the film’s boxy aspect ratio. Clara and her friends speak in a flat, affected tone that’s partially reflective of young people’s ideas of coolness, while more pertinently embodying Swon’s desire to ensure that nothing in his film go down conventionally or easily. He’s as eager to make an impression as his young characters.
There are other eerie directorial emphases throughout the film that suggest the random details we seize upon retrospectively when trying to make sense of moments of extremis. Before her friends arrive at her house, Clara watches an old black-and-white crime movie on TV in her bedroom, and Swon accords this movie a weird prominence, with a series of dissolves that gradually bring Clara’s television set closer to us. Swon holds on the crime movie for so long that one is encouraged to scrutinize it for clues as to whatever is going to happen to Clara and her friends. Other dissolves and abstract close-ups prime the audience for the atrocity to which the voiceover, with a kind of cornball dreadful-ness, continually alludes.
At a certain point in The World Is Full of Secrets, one is ready for Swon to get down to the business of telling at least one of the stories he’s set up. The tedium of this film’s continual hinting around is partially a joke, as even one of the girls admits to boredom with one of her friend’s endless foreshadowing, and partially an attempt to make atmosphere, rather than incident, the subject of contemplation. Two close-ups of two of the girls, Emily (Alexa Shae Niziak) and Suzie (Ayla Guttman), each last over 20 minutes, as Swon allows them to tell their horrible tales in their entirety. Emily speaks of a Christian girl in Rome who’s beaten, raped, and executed for refusing to marry a powerful man, while Suzie tells of a modern teenage girl who’s beaten and burned alive by her peers for dating the wrong person. The stories rhyme of course, suggesting essentially the same root atrocity, only with differing social flavor.
The stories are meticulously written and deliberately drawn out, with multiple potential ending points. This is another instance of Swon testing our patience, though the stories do also come to life, and the relish with which Emily and Suzie relate their stories is disturbing and truthful to the glee of children seeking to outrage one another. There’s something indecent in Emily and especially Suzie’s pleasure in these stories, and Swon suggests that this callousness summoned whatever tragedy befalls the girls later in the night. That tragedy, in another of Swon’s audience-thwarting conceits, is never revealed. Our rueful narrator seems intent on taking it to her grave, after spending 98 minutes elaborating on context and minutiae. The World Is Full of Secrets is concerned with the foundation of horror, rather than its aftermath, and that notion makes for a film that’s more theoretical than visceral.
Cast: Elena Burger, Dennise Gregory, Ayla Guttman, Alexa Shae Niziak, Violet Piper, Peggy Steffans Director: Graham Swon Screenwriter: Graham Swon Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
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