OK, so things don’t really vanish anymore: even the most limited film release will (most likely, eventually) find its way onto some streaming service or into some DVD bargain bin assuming that those still exist by the time this sentence finishes. In other words, while the title of In Review Online’s new monthly feature devoted to current domestic and international arthouse releases in theaters will hopefully bring attention to a deeply underrated (even by us) Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, it isn’t a perfect title. Nevertheless, it’s always a good idea to catch-up with films before some… other things happen. | Our December issue wraps up 2019 by taking on some of the year’s most praised films — A Hidden Life, Uncut Gems, Portrait of a Lady on Fire — some small wallops — Chinese Portrait and Midnight Family — and a couple nuggets of coal — Xavier Dolan’s The Death and Life of John F. Donovan and Daniel Isn’t Real — among others.
From its title alone, Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life concerns itself with subjects that cinema often struggles to depict: the twin blossomings of consciousness and conscience. In telling the story of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), an Austrian farmer and conscientious objector during the time of the Third Reich, the notoriously reticent American director has returned to the histories of his pre-Tree of Life period, even opening with archival footage of a Nazi rally. But this vision of breathtaking natural expanses and solid manmade enclosures remains every bit as formally radical as any of his films this decade. Time flows ever-forward, moving Franz from a life of contentment in the alpen heights of St. Radegund, to the prisons of Berlin-Tegel, where he awaits his final verdict. And yet, A Hidden Life — previously titled Radegund — remains, per its title, startlingly interior, unfolding as an essentially epistolary work, with nary a full, back-and-forth conversation over its 173 minutes. The story of Franz’s romance with his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) plays out in a flurry of glances and charged edits, set to Pachner’s hushed voiceover; Franz’s eventual departure for the city, which is accompanied by black-and-white train footage, is set to narration about a recurring nightmare. No doubt some will say that refusing to externalize Franz’s unwavering decision renders the film beatific in the extreme — but can one really assume that his silence indicates an absence of doubt, or that Malick’s view is one of uncomplicated approbation? Indeed, what A Hidden Life ultimately evokes is belief as a state of constant affirmation — which perhaps remains beyond what even cinema can capture. Only when the images stop flowing do we fully ponder the unseen; only at this film’s end, through an epigraph as moving as one is liable to encounter anywhere, do we feel the overwhelming weight of a life lived with conviction. Lawrence Garcia
Having recently explored heroin-heavy, vagabond living in Heaven Knows What (2014) and a bank robber’s desperation in Good Time (2017), directors Benny and Josh Safdie glimpse a different class of criminal underworld in Uncut Gems, an audacious, hysterical window into the shady dealings of New York City jeweller Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler). One of the Safdies’ trademark moves is an in media res opening, placing their audience immediately and immersively in the deep end, and the situation is no different here. There’s barely time to establish a connection to the characters before we’re seeing their worst sides, or to settle into the atmosphere of the film, with its din of constant chatter and background noise, and an imposing score from experimental producer Oneohtrix Point Never ensuring there’s nary a moment’s rest. New problems or opportunities, sometimes the two blurred, present to Howard around every corner, and Uncut Gems essentially plays out as an intertwining accumulation of high-stakes bets which affect his financial prospects, distort his behavior, and poison his relationships with those around him. An expletive-armed Sandler is off the leash, fully committing to this troubled character on a level he certainly hasn’t gone to since Punch-Drunk Love (2002), if ever before. While Uncut Gems emphatically concludes that risk-taking eventually catches up with you, the particular way the Safdies assert this is both unexpected and satisfying. In line with its apt title, nothing about Uncut Gems is neat or tidy, as the Safdies weave a complex web of materialism, revealing the pursuit of wealth to be a toxic and ugly folly. For those not yet won over by this directing duo, Uncut Gems should prove to be a wake-up call, as this gargantuan, highwire effort demonstrates the two filmmakers at the absolute top of their game. Calum Reed
The instantly ravishing Portrait of a Lady on Fire is Céline Sciamma’s grandest film to date, even if its story feels somewhat familiar. Winner of the Queer Palm at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it is the latest in the French filmmaker’s oeuvre to observe young women at their most curious and vulnerable, focusing on the friendship between a renowned portrait artist, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), and her subject, rebellious bride-to-be Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), which turns complicated when their kinship blossoms into romantic attraction. In this depiction of 17th century France, many of the shots look as if they could have been painted onto the screen: their saturated hues are keeping with the film’s neo-classical setting, and are complemented beautifully by Claire Mathon’s sumptuous cinematography. One of the most enlightening elements of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the way it explores the different functions of art: a portrait as a simple document of the features of a potential wife, as a way of understanding both the artist and their subject, or even as a means of overcoming trauma. There’s also a powerful feminist message in the unorthodox familial unit Marianne and Héloïse form with their young maid Sophie (a winning Luàna Bajrami), which makes for an authentic image of female interdependence. Some of the film’s more flagrant attempts to engineer conflict detract from what is largely a nuanced affair, and one wishes that a final close-up shot of Haenel had ended thirty seconds earlier so as not to betray too much of Héloïse’s fate. Still, Portrait of a Lady on Fire remains a worthy addition to Sciamma’s ever-consistent body of work, reinforcing her importance as an author of female experiences. Calum Reed
Peter Strickland is a stylistic maximalist, an homage specialist who makes Tarantino look like a film school pedant. Along with Helene Cattet & Bruno Forzani (Amer; Let the Corpses Tan), Strickland is the functional definition of ‘your mileage may vary’. His new film In Fabric is strikingly designed and undeniably beautiful to look at, but, for this critic, is exhausting. It is, on paper, fairly easy to describe — a haunted dress destroys anyone it comes into contact with. But in practice, the film is a bizarre bit of tonal whiplash, veering wildly from horror tropes to broad comedy to abstract interludes that look like outtakes from the post-Lichtenstein pop-art animated assemblages of Lewis Klahr. The film is bifurcated into two parts, the first notably stronger than the second. In the first half, a divorced middle-aged woman buys the haunted dress for a date, only gradually noticing that strange things begin occurring once she brings it home. Perhaps the first sign of trouble is the strange saleswoman who talks her into buying it, who speaks only in cryptic epigrams. The film occasionally stops to check in on this woman, who may or may not be a witch or whatever (it is frankly alarming once the woman begins masturbating an anatomically correct mannequin). Part two finds the dress attaching itself to a mild-mannered appliance repair man who is planning a wedding, and the whole thing culminates in an apocalyptic finale inside the (haunted?) department store. Strickland has a blast cataloging the various genre tropes here, from old British omnibus films to familiar standbys like Jess Franco and Jean Rollins. The film is also frequently funny, but the horror and the comedy don’t mesh in any kind of interesting way, instead undercutting each other. There’s just nothing scary about a sentient red dress creeping under doors and hovering over beds. Strickland ultimately settles on a kind of anti-capitalist, consumerist satire, something about how the things we own wind up owning us. Frankly, by the time he gets there, according to your mileage, you, like me, may have already checked out. At least the packaging is pretty. Daniel Gorman
An experimental documentary of modest means and sweeping scale, Chinese Portrait offers a scintillating snapshot of a rapidly changing nation. Director Wang Xiaoshuai assembled the film from footage taken during his travels around the country over course of a decade. Much like a travelogue, then, Chinese Portrait moves the viewer through urban construction sites, desert landscapes, and roadside eateries, among other diverse locations. In all but one of the film’s discrete shots, the frame is completely fixed, though Wang’s portraiture incorporates movement (mostly of individuals going about their work) as much as stillness (subjects staring directly into the camera as life unfolds around them). Much of the appeal here is the film’s sheer breadth. The atmosphere of various shots ranges from dystopian anomie to pastoral calm. Other compositions have a touch of humor and cavernous sense of space that recall nothing so much as Roy Andersson’s sensibility, if it were somehow channeled into non-fiction. More often, though, the film resembles the work of Nikolaus Geyrhaulter, such as Earth or Homo Sapiens — though what’s distinct (and surprising) here is that Wang doesn’t seem to have any larger argument in mind. There’s certainly no polemical statement or sense of urgency to match Zhao Liang’s recent documentary Behemoth. On the one hand, this means that Wang’s choices occasionally come across as arbitrary. (The relatively quick succession of cuts at one factory location stylistically diverges from the rest of the film with no discernible purpose.) On the other, the fact that Wang actively resists establishing a structure or developing a statement means that each shot is self-sufficient, and thus unusually attentive to its (human) subjects. Although there’s a bevy of sociopolitical implications one could draw from the film, there’s ultimately no dominant message — only a sense of life being lived. Lawrence Garcia
Seberg is just the latest film to signal its interest in issues of racial injustice, and progressive commentary, only to counterproductively build itself around the travails of the privileged instead — specifically the rich, white, beautiful movie star Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart). Conceiving the film around such an iconic, complex personality does certainly ensure bankability. But if we take things less cynically, there is at least a story hinted at here about the American government’s all-consuming obsession with maintaining the social status quo —even to the point of targeting society’s most visible members — due to status as sympathizer or ally. Even still, conventionality is the guiding force in a film whose moral core is a principled FBI officer, a cipher onto which audiences can project their own self-congratulatory decency. Several aggrieved black characters are pushed to the periphery in favor of Seberg’s more histrionic and palatably white-people storyline. There’s also the token villain, predictably arch, on which to direct all ire, and a laundry list of government officials who exist to embody the inherent corruption of agenda-driven intelligence agencies. Stewart, for her part, is an actress of distinctive presence, but one who can feel alarmingly incongruous if miscast. Here she’s both: her unsettled nature works in the film’s second half, as paranoia seeps in and instability shines out, but the composed, charismatic Seberg of the film’s initial stretch never fits. Ultimately, the problem here isn’t execution — director Benedict Andrews functionally, if unexceptionally, navigates through a suspense-building narrative that’s beholden to its particular structure — but rather the failing of Seberg is one of conception. In dismissing the tragedy of these characters in ways other than how they relate to Seberg, a movement’s systemic oppression is implicitly diminished and made byproduct of conspiratorial melodrama. Luke Gorham
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Chinonye Chukwu‘s grim death row drama Clemency begins with a lethal injection gone wrong, which results in a prisoner experiencing an especially agonizing end. Dealing with the controversial issue of capital punishment, still practiced by twenty-nine states in the U.S., the film is particularly concerned with the reality of those public servants effectively tasked with the role of executioner. Primarily focused on prison warden Bernadine (Alfre Woodard) and the impending execution of one of her inmates Anthony (Aldis Hodge), convicted for the murder of a police officer, Clemency may test the patience of some viewers—yet that’s somewhat the point. In keeping with the prisoners’ gruelling wait, there’s an underlying sense that those at the mercy of the justice system—which extends to grieving parents keen to gain closure—are in a constant state of purgatory. Woodard’s impressively contained turn as Bernadine conveys a balance of unmoving duty and underlying self-doubt. When her facade slowly begins to crumble in the final act, Chukwu gives her a two-minute close-up that is a masterclass in demonstrating introspective turmoil. Clemency ultimately feels too preoccupied with Bernadine’s personal life—her frayed marriage dominates without contributing much—at the expense of fleshing out the institutional politics at play. There’s also a reluctance to delve into the details of Anthony’s individual case, which essentially renders his guilt irrelevant to the question of whether or not he deserves the death penalty. The nature of the charge against him speaks to the troublesome nature of the African American community’s still-volatile relationship with the police force, and the presence of protestors outside the prison clearly acknowledges the Black Lives Matter movement. These elements are the closest thing to a political statement in Clemency, which essentially offers a humanist take on whether this specific idea of justice is really worth all of the pain. Calum Reed
The films of Jessica Hausner can be maddeningly opaque, but obfuscation is a feature, not a bug. Her newest film, Little Joe, makes a fascinating double feature with 2009’s Lourdes, a film that also takes a fantastical scenario and grounds it in the quotidian. In fact, Little Joe could be considered a secular version of that earlier film’s exploration of a deeply religious phenomenon — namely, how do we respond in the face of something ultimately inexplicable and unknowable? To even describe the plot of Little Joe is a spoiler of sorts, as calling it a riff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers basically gives the game away. But the film is so masterfully constructed, so deeply considered, that it is spellbinding even when one knows the inevitable narrative conclusion. In Hausner’s droll version of the oft-told story, scientists Alice (Emily Beecham) and Chris (Ben Whislaw) have developed a new kind of flower, one that demands laborious attention but rewards it’s keeper with feelings of happiness. Beecham takes one home to her son Joe, and soon he’s acting differently. Eventually, everyone in the lab is acting strangely and Beecham is left wondering if she is going insane or if this plant is actually changing the people around her. Hausner has a dry sense of humor, and it’s to the film’s credit that any character changes are only subtly pitched after their potential infection at the hands of this genetically-engineered botanical monstrosity. It’s a matter of degrees, a dead-eyed look or a lingering smile or a too-friendly ‘hello,’ that gives everything a slightly ‘off’ feeling. Hausner has a detached, almost clinical visual style. The camera is constantly panning left or right in slow, metronomic rhythm, or will very gradually push in to isolate something or someone. Hausner frequently uses windows and glass panes to visually separate characters within the frame, creating a profound sense of solitude. Some critics have suggested Little Joe is a kind of metaphorical indictment of antidepressants, but the film resists any straightforward, literal reading. Certainly there’s something here about the nature of parenting, losing oneself totally in the care and tending of someone or some thing. But Little Joe feels to be getting at something even larger, and perhaps even more ineffable than that. It’s a profoundly 21st Century film, replete with sinister corporations, science run amok, lax regulations, dismissal of mental health concerns, and the desire to control and organize nature to our own liking. In the old symbolic battle between the garden and the wilderness, Hausner has weaponized the garden. Daniel Gorman
There are fewer than 45 government-funded emergency ambulances in Mexico City — far from the sufficient number of vehicles needed to provide for the capital city’s nine million residents. This inadequacy has resulted in private, family-run businesses providing the same service, one of which is operated by the Ochoa family. Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family follows the Ochoas and, in the process, underlines issues plaguing the country’s healthcare system. The situation is dire: it takes 40 minutes for a boy with a gunshot wound to get an ambulance. More than simply prove the need for timely healthcare provisions, though, Midnight Family points to how for-profit healthcare can be disastrous. When the Ochoas help a highschool girl physically abused by her boyfriend, the girl almost immediately asks a question regarding the cost of her care, serving as a grim reminder that emergency treatment is something people are willing to forgo due to the price tag. And when the girl’s family is unable to pay, the Ochoas work through another night without compensation. They’re happy to have helped someone, of course, but they’re upset with the outcome. An early scene depicts the family’s home life, and reveals their unstable financial situation, a threat made all the more evident from their language, the tone of their voices, and their actions throughout the film. As such, Midnight Family’s consistent tension relies on two crucial components: both the urgency that defines the life of an EMT and the urgent struggle to resolve financial instability. In one of the film’s most painful sequences, police officers threaten to arrest the Ochoas for “stealing” the ‘bodies’ in their ambulance, a twofold frustration given that this interrogation not only prolongs the trip to the hospital, but also means the family could lose-out on this much-needed money. Midnight Family is consequently at its most compelling when it makes inextricable a link between the Ochoas’ morals and the government’s failed healthcare system — everything seems broken, and everyone just wants to survive. Joshua Minsoo Kim
The story goes: a young Xavier Dolan wrote fan letters to Leonardo Dicaprio, and as an adult, he considered what the fallout would have been had an A-lister actually begun a correspondence with a young child and been found out. The resulting film is The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, a didactic, self-important melodrama that feigns profundity while only shallowly probing its characters and conceits. The film is stupidly structured as an interview between a reluctant journalist (Thandie Newton) and the aforementioned child, Rupert (now grown, played by Ben Schnetzer), a framework that exists exclusively to provide instructive exposition. Rather than straightforwardly relate the story of Rupert’s pen-pal relationship with heartthrob actor John Donovan (Kit Harrington), an overnight sensation trapped between his public success and covert sexuality, Dolan habitually brings us back to the present so that the smug interviewer (a stand-in for society and all of its normalized judgments) can be lectured on notions of identity, privacy, and art. When Dolan abandons this black hole of a concept, there are glimpses of the tenderness that often works so well in his films: a particular high point finds John in the bath, his brother (Jared Keeso) and mother (Susan Sarandon) mirroring his jubilance as “Hanging by a Moment” pounds from the radio, and all three enjoying a moment of respite. But even these moments lead us to Dolan the pedant, whose explicit articulation of ideas obscures a career-long attention to character and form. Luke Gorham
Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother is a documentary portrait of Benedetta Barzini, the first Italian supermodel to appear on the cover of American Vogue, and the belladonna of an entire fashion industry. But even more than that, it is a film about the unique, blood-bond between filmmaker and subject — a son and his mother. For Barrese, the camera seems to be the only possible intermediary that can allow him to reconcile with his distant, frequently ferocious mother. But it’s to the camera, too, that Barzini feels an intense hostility and resentment. As she says during the film, there is an enormous gap between the image and the reality, between the photographs and the subjects whom the camera often betrays and manipulates. But despite such protestations, Barrese nonetheless attempts to capture, preserve, and cherish the memory of his iconic, ever-beautiful, intelligent, gray-haired mother. Like a curious, naughty child, Barrese insists on filming Benedetta even against her will. The intimacy from behind the camera and the incompatible hostility expressed in front of it are the opposing forces that invigorate The Disappearance of My Mother. Although Barrese always follows his constantly-moving mother with a handheld camera, we almost never see them together in front of it. Thus, an indirect mirror shot between the mother and son, and Barrese’s efforts to pose young models meant to impersonate Benedetta, are revelatory moments during the film. After all, it is also a film about intergenerational relationships: how a mother might continue to live on through her children, or the ways that a veteran supermodel can inspire younger ones. With immense delicacy, the film avoids becoming a one-dimensional, clichéd outlook on fading beauty, and instead becomes a paean to no less than the splendor of life. Towards the end, it is Benedetta that ultimately caps the lens of Barrese’s camera. The image goes black and she disappears from the picture, though her voice still resonates. “Let’s go!” she tells her son, before they set out on a day with no intrusions of camera or image. Barrese, though, stealthily smuggles us a peek of their reconciliation after the closing credits, observing Benedetta seated behind her desk while he joyfully sings and plays a guitar. Ayeen Forootan
It seems safe to assume that not a single person has ever asked for a dramatic take on 1991’s cult comedy Drop Dead Fred, in which Phoebe Cates is forced to confront her obnoxious imaginary childhood friend when he re-enters her troubled adult life, wreaking comedic mischief along the way. Yet here we are, 28 years later, with the deadly solemn thriller Daniel Isn’t Real. Unfortunately for us, instead of the charming Cates, we’re stuck with the charisma-free Miles Robbins as Luke, a struggling college freshman contending with a mentally-disturbed mother (played by Mary Stuart Masterson) and hallucinations straight out of Naked Lunch. His childhood wasn’t much better, which might explain why he invented imaginary friend Daniel in the first place — although there is no discernible explanation as to why Daniel is presented as a seven-year-old, ’50s-era greaser. After Luke and Daniel serve mom a Haldol milkshake, Luke is forced to banish his best friend to a creepy old dollhouse, summoning him again years later when a therapist suggests Luke get back in touch with his imagination. Before long, Luke has friends, potential love interests, and a knack for photography (okay?). But Daniel doesn’t like playing second fiddle, and soon he begins taking control of Luke’s life in harmful ways. But just the film allows the audience to begin to see the puzzle pieces of this allegory click into the place, director/co-writer Adam Egypt Mortimer pulls the rug out, presenting a twist of such confounding stupidity that it has to be seen to be believed, with the metaphorical becoming quite literal. The biggest problem with Daniel Isn’t Real is that Mortimer firmly believes the material to be far more clever than it actually is, which grows increasingly obnoxious the longer the film drags on. It doesn’t help that Patrick Schwarzenegger plays Daniel like he’s channeling Stuart Townsend’s vampiric goth rocker from 2002’s Queen of the Damned, which…is certainly a choice. Mortimer actually has some chops as a director, cribbing mostly from the three Davids — Lynch, Cronenberg, and Fincher — with a dollop of Harmony Korine thrown in for good measure. Nothing about his style is original, but it results in a few moments of memorable fantastical imagery, most notably when Daniel possesses Luke for the first time, facial flesh melding into one. It’s enough to suggest that with the right script, Mortimer might actually have a career ahead of him. Then again, in 28 years, Daniel Isn’t Real could have its own cult following, with Mortimer declared a misunderstood genius. If only my imagination was that boundless. Steven Warner
Over a decade before the Coen Brothers released their neo-noir, blood-soaked vision of Americana, Blood Simple, Terrence Malick’s Badlands etched into the public consciousness a particularly languid flavor of Midwestern cruelty. Loosely based on the true story of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate’s 1958 killing spree, Badlands stars Martin Sheen as Kit, a trigger-happy ex-laborer who tears across the South Dakota and Montana badlands with his underage girlfriend Holly, played by perennial naif Sissy Spacek. Prior to this debut, which closed the 1973 New York Film Festival, Malick had to his credit a single short film and a number of screenplays. With Badlands, Malick has crafted is a film that fuses his technical and visual trademarks, seen here in their infancy, with the mythology of the American west. He carries forth the lineage of hardscrabble frontiersmen, complete with gangs of bounty hunters and tales of lost Spanish coins, and in doing so updates classic American fables such as Huckleberry Finn and Swiss Family Robinson. Malick cites these stories as his inspiration for Badlands, however unconscious, and distills their central conceit as “an innocent in a drama over his or her head.” It’s easy to slot Holly into this role – Sissy Spacek’s huge green eyes simply demand it – but the same is true for “hellbent type” Kit, the wannabe James Dean. He’s guileless enough to admit that he always wanted to be a criminal, “just not this big a one”, and narcissistic enough to spend his final moments of freedom enshrining the spot of his capture with a stone cairn. Long, serene shots of animals and landscape, with the duo’s stolen Cadillac a mere speck hurtling through unfenced prairie, convey the American West’s fatal, intoxicating blend of fearlessness and romance, cut with a near-mystical faith in one’s own place in the world. Yet there’s something rotten at the core of Malick’s vision. Early in their fugitive days, Kit and Holly forge a ramshackle existence in a grove of cottonwoods and spend their time catching fish, creating homemade booby traps, and lounging atop wooden ladders in dappled sunlight. It’s an improbably pre-lapsarian sort of existence for those tainted by the cardinal sin of murder. But this idyllic lifestyle is a condition of fear rather than freedom, and their very ingenuity is what triggers another string of murders.
Like Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, another 70’s cut that evokes the peculiar temporal mythology, Badlands is arguably more concerned with tone than plot. Even as the body count mounts, the movie is languorous to the point of bordering on desultory. Throughout the film, Holly’s flat and expressionless voiceover acts as something far more unusual than the typical audience surrogate. Malick contrives for her to consistently know less than the audience, and in doing so, fashions a disconcertingly unreliable narrator from an unexpected source. The emotions we, the viewers, are invited to feel – horror at the increasingly senseless killings, or disgust at Kit’s cavalier attitude – seem absent in her. At the eleventh hour, she explains to a disbelieving Kit that she won’t go with him, for no other reason that that she just doesn’t want to. Malick’s genius is to create a thriller with so little urgency, it’s frozen in time. Like an insect in amber, Badlands captures a single moment that comes to define an era. The film’s stakes, which should reasonably surge to a fever pitch (as demonstrated by the climactic manhunt in Ridley Scott’s indomitable Thelma & Louise), barely rise to the level of life, much less life versus death. People are killed and spared on a momentary whim; executions are glossed over in mechanical monotone. For Kit and Holly, whose depth of understanding skim along the shallow, bright surface of things, capture is an inconvenience. Even in chains, it seems important to make the best of things. The movie’s final shot, of sunshine and clouds as seen from the airplane that carries them to their destiny, is a culmination of Malick’s vision: a declaration that the elemental horrors of human nature, can, despite everything, coexist with the numinous, tender miracle of simply being alive at all. Selina Lee