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. | By some miracle, the world made it to 2020. To honor that collective achievement, we will review some films. Collected here in our January issue are a quartet of 2019 Cannes (and myriad fall festival) holdovers — Zombi Child, Beanpole, The Traitor, Les Misérables — a new anime from one of the genre’s biggest names — Makato Shinkai’s Weathering with You — and Nicolas Cage delivering another inifity mirror performance of himself in Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space, among others films.
Voodoo, as represented in Zombi Child, is a religion of opposing functions that ties together life and death in a volatile form of spirituality, though it isn’t until the film’s conclusion that this becomes clear to us. Its narrative proceeds by juxtaposing two stories, different in their temporal and geographical setting but which (superficially) unify to present life and death as brought about through the practices of voodoo. One takes place in Haiti in 1962 with the funeral of a man named Clairvius who soon rises again through the power of voodoo to become a zombie, forced to work in the fields even past his death with no mind to give him autonomy. The second situates us in the company of a girl’s sorority at a prestigious all-girls school; one of the members, Fanny, befriends a Haitian girl, Mélissa, who lost her parents in the 2010 earthquake and invites her into their group, soon becoming aware of her connection to the alien religion of voodoo. Until the denouement, we’re necessarily limited in our perspective because of our being tied to the conception of voodoo contrived by the European girls’ brief internet searches. Director Bertrand Bonello builds tension in this sense by framing Mélissa as a possible threat; indeed, her otherness and connection to the terrifying representations of zombies the girls have seen suggests an antagonism which finds its way into her own perspective, comporting to her European friends’ fears of her and, in a brief daydream, assuming the role of zombie to take a bite out of her friend’s cheek. This can be considered problematic in its reduction of cultural differences to a method of trite tension-building, but it does open up into a slightly more nuanced understanding of voodoo – albeit one where ‘zombies’ are always questionably foregrounded. Once Mélissa’s aunt, Katy, is introduced we’re informed of voodoo’s purpose beyond the creation of zombies, learning of its communal aspect and ability to allow the living to interact with deceased friends and family, yet Fanny forces her own relatively trivial problems upon Katy to make clear the metaphorical underpinnings of her role: that respect is not something this European is capable of in her dealings with the otherized religion of voodoo. Here, the Haitian story takes better shape, tying together Clairvius’ journey from a victim of voodoo to his eventual emancipation, concluding in a place quite different from the present-day story where Fanny’s folly inadvertently condemns Katy to the supernatural consequences of the religion. It’s obvious that Bonello has a clear conception of the social commentary at work here, but the connection between his parallel stories remains spurious and his need for tension reduces the effect of any cogent statement one can parse out. Sam Redfern
Makoto Shinkai has already proved himself an idiosyncratic anime filmmaker whose singular universe is gradually shaped and expanded through each and every new work, his stories largely revolving around teenage couples and their coming of age. On both counts, Weathering with You is no exception. Here, Shinkai traces the heartwarming adolescent romance of Hodaka – runaway boy far from home – and Hina – a girl with an extraordinary power for changing the weather and bringing sunshine and joy into gloomy lives. Their paths collide twice in a damp, gray Tokyo, which is mysteriously and habitually soaked in heavy downpours – first, during a meet-cute moment at a restaurant, and then later, as Hodaka saves Hina from a nefarious club looking to intimidate her into red-light work. This dichotomy, situating the naïve, innocent teens within a self-serving and cruel adult underworld, enables Shinkai to affectingly address both hardscrabble realities and escapist fantasy, the mundane with the otherworldly. Visually, all frames in the film – from the cityscapes to the interiors, from characters to fabrics to technological gadgets – are rendered with an exemplary delicacy and finesse that effect an ethereal, dreamlike quality. Despite the catastrophic and even apocalyptic climate, Shinkai makes sure his world is shimmering in radiant colors, love and humanity shining through. This is, after all, a heartfelt tale about the struggle to find and hold love in a world of encroaching menace and hardship. Hodaka must find his beloved Hina and bring her back to life, not unlike an orphic journey, but here the pair escape the underworld through soaring, floating, and dancing freely in the skies above. Ayeen Forootan
A response to the sci-fi-horror hybrid genre’s fixation on specificity, with regard to the catalysts of fear and the need to define them in detail, H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Colour Out of Space” sought to strip explicability from its pages, understanding it as innately comforting, even when couched in terror. Said comfort remains relative, of course, but in subverting readers’ expectations, Lovecraft rejected the familiar imagery of horror in favor of a distillation of its psychology, seeking to explore not just the unknowable but the unnamable. The titular colour is introduced in the form of an otherworldly meteor, and in representing it as a shade previously unexperienced on Earth and thus undefinable by all who witness it, Lovecraft mines fear from language itself – in losing the ability to name a thing, our mastery over object or experience becomes subsumed by an almost existential dread, a catastrophic disruption of our intellectual capacity for control. This particular upsetting of genre convention also anticipates the specifically ‘80s fixation on shapeless horror creations — The Blob remake, The Fog, Stephen King’s The Mist. The difference is that, in Lovecraft’s story, there’s a resistance to even the most basic instinct for explanation. Fitting, then, that Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space adheres to those most recognizable ‘80s horror tropes: a gnarled, aged house is the fulcrum for sinister happenings; a checklist of familiar characters populate the periphery, including — obviously — the local, small town sheriff; and at center is an affable nuclear family whose children operate as loose archetypes. The eldest child, Benny (Brendan Meyer), is a genial stoner, while the middle child, Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), is an angsty, black-clad wiccan, and the youngest, Jack (Julian Hilliard), is a delicate eccentric like so many five-year-old horror film youngsters. Add to that a pair of pre-granola parents (played by Joely Richardson, deadly serious here, and Nicolas Cage, who charts a course from restrained oddness to expected outré wackadoo) and a healthy dose of throwback body horror, including some obliterated alpacas looking straight out of House of Wax and a monster dog doing his best serious Frankenweenie impression. Take all of this together and Color Out of Space feels more authentically like ‘1980s cinema’ than it does merely inspired by the era’s touchstones. The indescribable, alien color, an obvious challenge to realize on screen, is cleverly manifested: a swirl of pasteled pink and violet hues fog the air, while the meteor itself, and all that it infects, radiates a sinister neon mauve. Other genre flourishes will remind of Alex Garland’s Annihilation (based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, a studied acolyte of Lovecraft’s weird horror sensibilities), with temporal and geographic realities unsettled and a disturbed muddling of biological and psychological upset. Yet for all that, the challenge of actualizing such an intellectualized abstraction proves too difficult, and the film instead opts for the more lavish lane of gross-out extremity and a crescendo of mania. But what scans as gonzo on the page is rendered as largely inert retread when it comes to what should be a saturation of expressionist horror. There are moments where Stanley suggests he understands the world he’s operating in, at one point capturing the image of a witchy-garbed Lavinia nobly riding a steed across a lush green pasture, but expectation takes precedence and the idiosyncrasy unfortunately gives way to cheap, unsatisfying familiarity. For a certain audience, Color Out of Space will be prescribed an intentionality it only half earns – which is to say that this was conceived as a cult film, and that seems self-evident. But for those needing more substance than signaling, the film’s obviousness ultimately feels antithetical to the concept of indefinability that it’s ostensibly going for. Luke Gorham
War films have been with us as long as film has been a medium. Less common are depictions of what comes after conflict, presumably because the excitement is over; lingering pain and trauma are harder to dramatize. Kantemir Balagov‘s Beanpole takes a page from Roberto Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero, imagining the bombed-out aftermath of an epochal conflict — in this case, postwar Leningrad. Iya (Viktoria Mironshnichenko), who’s also known as “Beanpole,” works in a hospital overflowing with soldiers wounded in combat. She cares for a young child, Pashka, and struggles with a form of PTSD-induced seizure. When tragedy befalls Pashka, Iya must tell her friend, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), what has happened. It is revealed in due course that Masha just recently returned from the front lines, and was actually Pashka’s mother; she now insists that Iya get pregnant and give her a new child. This is heartbreaking drama, as the two women struggle to go about their lives in a city that has been devastated by war, surrounded by wrecked human bodies and their own wounds, both physical and spiritual. Balagov, working with cinematographer Kseniya Sereda, conjures a unique vision of hell, with deep, rich colors plastered on the otherwise barren walls and the dingy white surfaces of the hospital. Every space looks authentic, lived-in, and the performances are impressive across the board. There’s no valor here, no sense of honor or a job well done. These people lived through something unimaginable and unknowable. It’s a remarkable achievement by a young director, who manages to conjure an ending so beautiful that it makes the misery bearable. Two women, sitting down and constructing a shared fantasy for the future, even though they both know it is a fiction. The world is bleak, but no amount of suffering can crush this last small flicker of hope. Daniel Gorman
A biopic of Mafia boss Tommaso Buscetta (played splendidly by Pierfrancesco Favino) — nicknamed “the boss of two worlds” for being a snitch for the Italian government, in one of the country’s largest mafia trials — Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor attempts to understand the psychology of a betrayal. Buscetta went against La Cosa Nostra (as the mafia is called here), in part because he felt the organization had moved its moral compass, getting involved in the drug trade and dispensing with anyone who got in their way. While it’s understood that Buscetta was largely forced into the role of informer — we see a gruesome sequence in which the Brazilian police threw his then wife from a helicopter right before his eyes — his experience within the organization influences his decision to turn. Even as the former mobster throws everyone he knows under the bus, however, he’s also wracked by remorse. This is especially evident during Buscetta’s courtroom confrontation of Pippo Calò (Fabrizio Ferracane), a supposed friend of Buscetta’s since childhood, but who later kills two of his sons. As the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt — and that’s an expression that might also be applied to the experience of watching this film. Two familiar genre frameworks inform how The Traitor unfolds: the biopic and the mob movie. And, to be sure, Bellocchio frequently adheres to formula. But he also displays a disarming compassion for everyone involved. We’ve seen snitches in court scenes numerous times before; less common are scenes like the one in this film, in which Buscetta processes his willingness to personally forgive someone who’s killed members of his family, but remains committed to seeing them serve time for their crimes. The Traitor relies on the complexity of this central struggle, and especially on Favino’s performance — the way the conflict on his rugged face translates into our own conflicted feelings about how to view the character. Jaime Grijalba Gomez
Ladj Ly‘s debut feature may be called Les Misérables, but it’s not an adaptation of either the Victor Hugo novel or the Broadway musical. Rather, it’s a tense cop drama, simultaneously engaging modes of both documentarian observation — befitting Ly’s previous filmmaking experience — and more conventional plotting and characterization. Nevertheless, there is a Victor Hugo connection: the setting is the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil, a major setting of Hugo’s novel, currently a neighborhood with a majority black population of African descent. Inspired by the suburban riots that rocked France in 2005, the film is largely concerned with the potentially explosive tensions between Montfermeil residents and the police. The cinematic antecedents are fairly obvious: La Haine, Do the Right Thing, Training Day. However, Ly doesn’t plunge us immediately into the maelstrom of social strife. Instead, we begin with a much more utopian image, the multicultural mass of soccer fans reveling in France’s 2018 World Cup victory, a raucous celebration in the streets, with the arresting sight of a little black boy proudly wearing the tricolor flag of France as a cape. But this initial expression of togetherness proves illusory, as we then follow three cops as they patrol the Montfermeil streets. They are cop movie archetypes, if not outright clichés: Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), the by-the-book rookie; Chris (co-writer Alexis Manenti), brash and unapologetically racist; and Gwada (Djebril Zonga), resident turned cop uneasily straddling the police/policed divide. Ly meticulously maps out the complex negotiations between the neighborhood’s groups — cops, unruly kids, drug dealers, Muslim Brotherhood members, Roma circus folk — that must occur to prevent the powder keg tensions among these factions from exploding. This mapping is reflected visually in the film’s go-to image, a drone shot (operated in the narrative by a neighborhood kid) surveying the action from high above. Predictably, all of this negotiating fails, with incidents involving a stolen lion cub, and subsequently one of the cops seriously injuring the young thief. Oddly for a film hinging so heavily on police malfeasance, the cops are more fully drawn as characters than the Montfermeil residents, who are mostly flat antagonists of the police with little discernible backstory. Though Les Misérables is clearly drawn from outrage, Ly’s shallow characterizations dampen his film’s sense of incendiary anger. Christopher Bourne
Jack Henry Robbins’ VHYes is the kitschy, post-ironic, pseudo-found footage 80’s pastiche the world didn’t need. A mix between documentary and sketch comedy modes, VHYes follows Ralph, a young boy who has been gifted a video camera and begins filming everything in sight. This includes not only his own antics, but also any random late night nonsense on the television. Ralph has accidentally started recording all of this on a VHS cassette that also contains his parents wedding ceremony, so we are bombarded with snippets of this old wedding footage, boys goofing around, and longer segments of basic-cable and late night infomercial parodies. The whole thing is interminable, as Robbins flits from fragment to fragment to fragment, with no sense of flow or rhythm, just increasing oddity that amounts to little more than diminishing returns. There’s a hint of a narrative here, as Ralph inadvertently begins documenting his parents dissolving marriage, but there’s just not enough of it to mean anything. Robbins stacks the cast with overqualified ringers, including Thomas Lennon, Mark Proksch, Kerri Kenney, and Charlyne Yi, but the comedy is aimless, counting not one but two porn parodies, a silly hardcore punk band performance, and yet another spoof of a Bob Ross-type hippie-dippy painter. VHYes is very obviously striving for an Adult Swim brand of absurdity, but there’s a reason most of those shows are 15 minutes long. Indeed, one of the few iron clad rules of criticism is that the critic must watch the entire film in question before proffering their critique. But even 30 minutes of VHYes tested this critic’s resolve, and watching the remaining 40 minutes did nothing to disabuse me of the notion that the film need not be viewed at all, by anyone, at any time. Typically, a 70-minute run time would be mercifully short, but life is too brief to waste it on such a frivolous, useless object. VHYes is a vanity project, a product of Hollywood nepotism masquerading as a found art object, its existence based entirely upon the fact that director Robbins just happens to be the offspring of certified famous people Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon (a fact that would not necessarily demand to be pointed out except that young Jack parades his parents out in cameos and again over the end credits, while also giving mommy a producing credit). A paraphrase of Frederic Jameson seems an apt summation: ‘imagine… a face on your television screen accompanied by an incomprehensible and never-ending stream of keenings and mutterings… it is an experience to which you might be willing to submit out of curiosity for a few minutes. When, however, you… discover that this particular videotext is twenty-one minutes long, then panic overcomes the mind and almost anything else seems preferable.’ Daniel Gorman
Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Earth, from the outset, frames its massive landscapes as sites of continual transformation; large-scale machinery usually litters the frame, excavating the planet indiscriminately and gradually altering its surface. Most of this ruination is done for the sake of human convenience, abusing land for the sake of more livable space in California. Occasionally, we’re taken underground (a coal mine in Hungary; copper mining in Spain) to witness the grand extent of this destruction, to understand that there’s truly no resource humans wouldn’t exploit for their own gain. Geyrhalter understands this and wisely avoids fetishizing these acts — which would be the biggest issue a film of this nature could indulge in while attempting to wrestle with the existential weight of its subject matter — by placing particular attention onto the griminess of this work: the mounds of dirt being transported, the workers often coated in layers of dust, and the never-ending oceans of sand being relocated. The film’s general rhythm is one of alternations, shifting between the vastness of these locations and the seemingly insignificant opinions of the workers at these sites in talking-head interviews. Some have come to terms with their actions, others see it as a necessity — both in terms of human dependence and their own financial compensation. While their comments are never particularly astute or challenging in their intellectual rigor, they possess such a matter-of-factness as to provide the film a pragmatic footing. There’s never an implied sense of prosperity that comes from the drudging of Earth’s riches, just the apathy that arises from the looming hand of transnational economy pushing the planet to its breaking point till nothing remains whole. As one worker puts it, almost ironically, “once we get here, it’s not nature anymore.” Paul Attard
“Whatever was going to happen has already happened,” says the protagonist of Marco Bellocchio’s 1965 debut feature, Fists in the Pocket (I pugni in tasca). This is one of many tautologies Alessandro (Lou Castel) will pronounce throughout the film, adding to an already stifling cinematic experience that sardonically skewers the institutions of family, marriage, and Catholicism — the very foundations of Italian culture and the mainstays of neorealist Italian cinema that Bellocchio so effectively excoriates. Shot in Belloccio’s childhood home in the northern Italian countryside, Fists in the Pocket is a grim fable of extreme family dysfunction, complete with incest, epilepsy, and murder. Of the blind matriarch’s four grown children, only the eldest, Augusto (Marino Masé), is unafflicted. Listless, bratty Alessandro spends his time trolling schoolchildren and spying on his sister, while Giulia (Paola Pitagora) sends Augusto’s fiance threatening notes cut from magazine letters. Taciturn, morose Leone (Pierluigi Troglio), the youngest, sums it all up: “what torture, living in this house.” All three siblings are epileptic, but only Sandro considers this a reason for homicide. Ostensibly, dispatching the rest of the family — himself included — will free Augusto, the only one with a future, from the thankless burden of being their caretaker. Alessandro’s authority to make this decision seems based solely on an unchecked talent for wreaking ferociously calculated havoc. The fact that his plan is allowed to escalate at all speaks to the hypnotizing inertia of this family’s existence; despite acting like feral animals, their daily life is mired in idle, semi-bourgeois banalities such as tutoring, sunbathing, and preening before the mirror. Their father is never mentioned and money is a source of worry, matter-of-factly accepted as a justification for murder. When Alessando shares his plan with Augusto, it’s during a car ride in which Augusto drives, navigating twisting, shadowed streets as wide as hallways. We never see his face and Alessandro is only in profile; there’s no sense of their destination and no urgency at all. Is this conversation a reflection of Alessandro’s self-loathing — an elaborate scheme to orchestrate his own demise — or is he projecting Augusto’s repressed desires onto himself? Is he reciting a suicide note or a pre-emptive confession? Throughout this dreamlike sequence, in which Sandro appears to monologue to a faceless audience, it becomes clear that his warped sense of entitlement, which encompasses a total lack of morality, guilt, or shame, is Augusto’s only chance for freedom.
Though the title points to clenched fists, Bellocchio also fills the screen with shots of the characters’ grasping, scuttling hands. They are always cut off at the wrists and in motion, measuring the length of a weapon or inching to and away from an invisible object, or simply choosing a piece of fruit. In this toxic household, these attempts to claw for nourishment, protection, or companionship mutate into gestures of hatred and greed. Set against these carefully considered sequences are shots of frantic, animalistic frenzy, as characters tumble over furniture and fling themselves in any direction that takes their momentary interest. The film is full of unexpected hisses and grotesque, jerking movements: characters with restless bodies that defy domestication and combative energy that quickly turns fatal. The family throbs with its own off-kilter logic and survives as a singular, self-contained mass, like a tumor. These primal modalities — repression and release, singular and whole — are pitted against age-old Italian institutions, bringing to the film’s neorealist forbears an unflinching portrait of familial dysfunction that represents the crumbling of society as a whole. Tearing through the family villa, burning their mother’s things in the same courtyard where, during her funeral, altar boys roughhoused, Sandro and Guilia embody Bellocchio’s anarchic vision of Italian culture, down to the current of eroticicism that bubbles beneath Pitagola’s performance. Meanwhile, Ennio Morricone’s haunting soundtrack brilliantly underscores the siblings’ skulking, airless existence, the threat of the next epilepsy fit hovering over the house with the inevitability of a plague. The movie’s final scene is a cooly confident encapsulation of Bellocchio’s deeply cynical thesis: in this world, you must fend for yourself or perish. Fists in the Pocket teems with ugly urges and illicit desires, yet it’s the final moment of restraint that unforgettably succeeds in wrenching the knife even deeper. Selina Lee