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. Issue #4 collects our takes on April theatrical releases, including the divisive, delayed Under the Silver Lake from director David Robert Mitchell; Claire Denis’s philosophical space operetta High Life; the ultimate passion project in Terry Gilliam’s decades-in-the-making The Man Who Killed Don Quixote; Buddy, a documentary populated by adorable and utilitarian service pooches; and others.
Under the Silver Lake
Under the Silver Lake, the third feature from writer-director David Robert Mitchell, is the kind of ambitious, self-indulgent project destined to appeal only to a small, but fervent group of fans—a prefab cult classic, in other words. Andrew Garfield stars as Sam, an aimless slacker who spends most his days smoking, reading comics, and spying on his (female) neighbors, Rear Window-style. But when a gorgeous new tenant (Riley Keough) suddenly disappears, he goes on a demented, monomaniacal search for her across the City of Angels. Mitchell’s film falls squarely in the territory of American detective fiction—specifically, the hazy Los Angeles noirs of Robert Altman (The Long Goodbye) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Inherent Vice). But one might also do well to consider it alongside something as stylistically and tonally distinct as Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. Like that film, Under the Silver Lake offers a grim, though superficially “playful” assessment of the contemporary pop culture condition, surveying a media landscape where all art is commodified; it seems to exist mainly for the purposes of soulless, subreddit dissection. Through Garfield’s paranoid conspiracy theorist, the viewer becomes drawn deeper into a Pynchonesque odyssey that’s meant to be as pointless as it is intoxicating. But unlike one Brian De Palma, Mitchell is largely unwilling to offer the viewer the participatory (often scopophilic) pleasures of Sam’s quest. All too aware of the toxic qualities of his protagonist (not to mention those of the subculture he exemplifies), Mitchell continually presents the film’s comically surreal proceedings at a slightly judgmental remove. For all the talk of its “divisive” nature—the film was roundly panned upon its premiere at Cannes last year—Under the Silver Lake neither challenges nor discomfits. It is, ostensibly, a swing-for-the-fences effort that just ultimately doesn’t risk much at all. Lawrence Garcia
Alex Ross Perry‘s Her Smell is a ferocious film, built upon a mesmerizing, volcanic lead performance by Elizabeth Moss. Moss plays Becky Something, the aged lead singer of the grunge-era chick rock band Something She (think Courtney Love and Hole, circa the late 90s). Structured as five discrete vignettes, arranged in something like chronological order, we watch Becky alienate her bandmates, her ex-husband and infant daughter, her mother, and even her own fawning acolytes. Each section has its own build-up and climax, as Ross and cinematographer Sean Price Williams orchestrate a series of claustrophobic long takes that snake and track along recording studios and backstage green rooms, all shrouded in cigarette smoke and pulsating fluorescent lighting. Her Smell has to be the least sexy movie ever made about a rock star, unblinking in its portrayal of addiction and mental illness that spirals into a power cord-fueled nightmare. Becky is unpleasant, a hurricane of recriminations — you can’t take your eyes off her. The film really comes to life in the fourth segment: Becky has gone through some kind of treatment program and is living by herself, she can’t leave her house, and she refuses to go out in the world for fear of potentially triggering a relapse. Here, Perry and Williams change their aesthetic course, as a prowling, subjective camera gives way to calm, classically composed shots, and even natural light. The editing becomes less jagged, a signal of Becky’s relative, newfound peace. But Moss does something interesting, giving her performance an edge of sorts — the galvanic rage and emotional tempestuousness are still tangibly present, but bubble just under the surface. It’s a real live wire act, and Moss wrings all the tension she can out of it. The fifth section of the film also manages genuine suspense, as Something She reunites, back under the harsh glare of the spotlight, and we wait to see if Becky’s composure can hold. There’s an almost religious epiphany as Becky performs, proclaiming that this is it, she’s got nothing left. At one point, Becky’s mother asks her if she understands forgiveness and regret, and Becky can only respond by calling her a weak, stupid wimp. But Her Smell is a work of radical empathy — to forgive is divine. Daniel Gorman
“The closer you get, the further away it seems.” Claire Denis‘s latest takes to space to articulate humans’ place in the cosmos, with a story that follows a group of young convicts sent from Earth into the depths of the galaxy to collect data on a black hole; undergo experimentation to test reproductivity in conditions of extreme radiation; and complete daily tasks to ensure the viability of their ship’s life support systems. High Life is, then, a presentation of humanity in the state of what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls “bare life,” or life in its most essential form — framed by the forces of bio-political dominance. Production designer Olafur Eliasson’s stripped-down, brutalist sets serve to amplify the film’s sexualized violence, suggesting the emptiness of human experience when reduced to bare bodily function. Denis establishes a closeness to the reality of domination, but also renders it abstract, in a sense distant — by juxtaposing its power against the greater power of an interstellar void. The closer the void gets, the more bio-political structures themselves seem to dissolve, with Robert Pattinson’s Monte providing the clearest indication of this dissolution. Over the course of High Life, Monte goes from being a dominated subject to a person who crafts and determines his own life’s meaning, on his own terms: There’s his celibacy and refusal to conform to the absolute sexualization that surrounds him, but also his eventual acceptance of his daughter Willow (Jessie Ross), whose birth was the result of state-sanctioned experiments carried out by Dibs (Juliette Binoche), the ship’s doctor. In the film’s final moments, Willow and Monte even seems to go beyond the universe itself, entering a freedom of blinding light. In a dialectical manner, Denis shows that only by pushing past established structures — beyond the furthest reaches of human knowledge — can one truly conceive of new ways of being. Matt McCracken
“What the fuck are you thinking?” a police chief asks dog groomer Marcello (a cartoonishly wide-eyed Marcello Fonte) about halfway through Dogman. He asks this question after Marcello has allowed the brutish, coke-fueled Simon (Edoardo Pesce) access into his business afterhours in order to rob an adjacent jewelry shop — though the question posed is broadly applicable to any situation in which he puts up with the violent antics of his “friend,” where the absurd lengths gone to protect him become tiring rather quickly. And this is director Matteo Garrone’s central goal here: to demonstrate the submissiveness of humans burdened by fascism and their willingness to protect their subjugators, taking this idea to its most absurd conclusion. However, once you remove the political allegory from the center of the film, there’s nothing left here. Garrone’s gambit proves effective for roughly 20 minutes of a nearly two-hour film, in which viewers are constantly subjected to watching a spineless man do mental gymnastics in order to defend abhorrent behavior. The grueling nature of this relationship dynamic is only worsened by Garrone’s often garish visual style, which tends to favor needlessly long takes that are more aggravating than technically impressive. (The most notable example of this being when a frozen dog is resuscitated, a weirdly toxic mix of realistic technique and absurdist comedy that’s too obnoxiously gross to be funny or heartwarming.) There’s rarely a choice made that isn’t displeasing in some regard, making Dogman torturous to endure until the end — when viewers are rewarded with Marcello being fully ostracized because of his actions. It’s a fitting punishment for the crime of being a total chump. Paul Attard
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
For writer-director Terry Gilliam, a filmmaker who’s been ’tilting at windmills’ for most of his career, Miguel De Cervantes’s Don Quixote always seemed like an appropriate choice of source material. But as has been painstakingly chronicled over the past two decades, Gilliam’s various attempts at making this project have been thwarted at every turn, as if he were stoking the anger of the Movie Gods themselves. This struggle resulted in 2002’s excellent making-of documentary, Lost in La Mancha, about one such failed attempt. Perhaps Gilliam should have quit while he was ahead: here we are, in 2019, with the release of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a work that brings an old Gilliam fear — that the mythology of his failures is grander than any actualized film — crushingly to the fore. The film firmly roots itself in the sub-genre of Hollywood-movies-about-moviemaking and explores its usual requisites — the toed-line of art and commerce, the relationship between creativity and madness — with only the specific narrative details here providing any distinctness.
This is familiar territory for Gilliam; in fact, it’s his thematic calling card. To make another movie about this process now feels, at best, redundant, or at worst, like some 11th-hour bid for relevancy. This time, Gilliam’s proxy is Toby, played by Adam Driver, a young film director disillusioned with the Hollywood machine. In Spain shooting a commercial inspired by Don Quixote, Toby ultimately finds himself on the run from police, and accompanied by his former Don Quixote actor (Jonathan Pryce), who has gone mad and truly believes himself to be the titular character. Or is it possible that this man really is Don Quixote? Cue groans. Gilliam is far too talented and too interesting as a filmmaker to really make a bad movie; even turkeys like The Zero Theorem and Baron Munchausen have moments of inspired lunacy, and here, such saving graces come in the form of Sergei Lopez, playing a Muslim man pretending to be Spanish, and a sequence in which Toby escapes from Quixote’s RV-cum-stage after it engulfs in flames. But so much time is devoted to upholding the whole is-he-or-isn’t-he-crazy schtick that the proceedings become an exercise in monotony. And it’s not until we get to The Man Who Killed Don Quixote‘s final act, which takes place at a Russian billionaire’s estate, that Gilliam seems to get to the point, which is really just that…rich people suck? (There’s even a Trump joke, in case the signaling isn’t clear.) As the credits roll, and double-down on considerations of sanity regarding our ‘hero,’ it’s hard not to let this narrative filter extend to Gilliam and his multi-decade obsession with making this film. That so much has has gone into something that ultimately amounts to so little is both cause for disappointment and concern. Steven Warner
It feels pointed that the segment in Long Day’s Journey Into Night’s checkered timeline that forms its romantic core is set in the year 2000, which is when In the Mood for Love premiered. Wong Kar-wai’s masterpiece forms the most obvious touchstone for the more swooning sections of Bi Gan’s likewise color-coded and dreamlike sophomore film, which also draws from the films of Tsai Ming-liang with its imagery of dingy, waterlogged rooms and oversized clocks (literalizing the fluidity of time). Andrei Tarkovsky and Roberto Bolaño are two other noticeable influences, though this ambitious, big-thinking arthouse anomaly is far too odd — and too specifically Bi Gan’s — to register as mere homage. As a textural experience, it is almost overwhelming, which mostly excuses its disinterest in providing a coherent storyline, ostensibly concerning a world-weary man named Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue), who returns to his hometown of Kaili on the trail of a lost paramour (Tang Wei), while also reflecting on his attempted revenge for the mob murder of an associate/friend named Wildcat. The noirish overlay here feels a touch shopworn (Luo’s raspy voiceover offers pulp like, “After we met, it seemed everything happened at night”), and the love affair, shown in half-remembered fragments, proves as abstract and evanescent as the dreams Bi attempts to simulate. But plot soon proves secondary as the impact of the film’s visual symbolism becomes harder to shake (besides the water and clocks, apples and pomelos tumble about meaningfully). This is particularly true of the much-discussed, nearly hourlong, unbroken take (in 3D!) that shows Luo exiting an already-abstract present and entering (via lantern-lit tunnel) an even less logical dreamworld, filled with zip lines, pool, ping pong, and gravity-defying flights over twinkling festivities. Bi pulled a similar stunt (minus the 3D) in 2015’s Kaili Blues, which, in its shape and abstraction, now seems like a more shoestring warmup for the bigger-budgeted ambitions here. And though the filmmaker may want to avoid repeating the trick again in his next film (lest he be pigeonholed as “the sequence shot guy”), it is thrilling to see the 29-year-old employ the full contents of a (now-shinier) toolbox in putting his big vision onscreen. Justin Stewart
The Wind marks director Emma Tammi’s first foray into narrative cinema, a step away from her documentarian work and directly into the foreboding wilderness of the horror-western. Already one of the more uncommon examples of the hybrid genre format, screenwriter Teresa Sutherland positions a female homesteader contending with isolation and overwhelming supernatural forces at the fore to construct an idea that strikes as being refreshingly unique. But, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, by the end, The Wind falls victim to the many traps that have become gratingly typical of recent horror cinema. Through its nonlinear narrative structure, plot details are withheld for extra dramatic emphasis, so that a moment of realization can wash over the viewer with an eye-roll and a sigh. This blasé response is the product of seeing something with initial promise trip over itself in an attempt to deliver on a final reel ‘pay-off.’ Instead, what we’re left with is that familiar type of conclusion that feels as though it nullifies much of the film that came before, rather than unpacking or enriching a jumbled series of events. It’s lucky, then, that The Wind features such a vigorous central performance from Caitlin Gerard to help anchor its fragmented and delusory narrative. As the core of the film, Gerard at least serves to effectuate the period-specific thoughts and feelings of life on the open prairie, along with presenting a resolute stance against the (much more real) hardships that sometimes show their face. There, too, are glimpses of something more substantive as regarding the film’s representation of a woman struggling to be believed. Unfortunately, Tammi proves too beholden to her unreliable narrator gambit, a decision which undermines her film’s more compelling aspects. But at a concise 86 minutes, it is a relief to affirm that, despite other troublesome elements, The Wind at least knows better than to overstay its welcome. Sam Redfern
Over his 30-plus year career, Mike Leigh has incisively observed human interactions and dissected the various factors (upbringing, education, religion, etc.) that define those relations. So it’s baffling to try and understand the justification behind Peterloo, a three-hour film of people giving long speeches, with nearly no central characters to latch onto. To depict the events leading up to the Peterloo Massacre, Leigh observes the two major, opposing sides of England’s class struggle grow in size over meetings in the respective camps. Unfortunately, there’s little to care about here on an emotional level, since the film prioritizes introducing second-rate historical figures over firmly characterizing any significant personalities on either side. Everyone presented is defined solely by the ideals they convey: the working-class insurgents never move beyond wanting more wages and less work, while the bourgeoisie sit around barking about how much they hate the poor. The ideological dichotomy Leigh introduces is so rigid that within a few seconds of someone speaking, you’ll often know exactly which topics they’ll touch on (sovereignty or liberty if they look a tad unkempt; government control if they don’t), the time it will take them to get through their proclamation (roughly ten minutes), and what the next person in line will say (the same exact thing). This is history as it probably was: largely boring and inefficient, relentless and exhausting. Paul Attard
Master Z: Ip Man Legacy
Yuen Woo-ping’s Ip Man “side story” is a perfectly appropriate addition to this franchise, for both better and for worse. Master Z: Ip Man Legacy serves as a direct sequel to Wilson Yip’s Ip Man 3, taking place in the aftermath of Cheng Tin-Chi’s (Max Zhang) behind-closed-doors defeat by Ip Man (Donnie Yen). Cheng has since abandoned the Wing-Chun kung-fu school he once taught and now lives a quiet life with his son, managing a small convenience store. Inevitably, he’s dragged back into action when he crosses paths with Tso Sai Kit (Kevin Cheng), a local thug who aspires to be a bigshot crime lord but who works under the command of his more even-tempered sister, Tso Ngan Kwan (Michelle Yeoh). Cheng is innocently riding home when Julia (Yan Liu) and her opium-addicted sister-in-law Nana (Chrissie Chau) bump into his bike in the midst of their escape from Tso Sai Kit’s gang. Cheng’s chivalrous instincts kick in, and some other kicking goes on as well — and later, Cheng finds himself the victim of a brutal retaliation, when his home and his business are burned to the ground. For Yuen’s limited ambitions — which amount to architecting elegant if harried set-pieces through which Max Zhang must fight his way — this simple revenge plot with some women in trouble at the center would be more than adequate. But like the Ip Man films, Master Z chooses to develop in myriad directions at once. The dense ensemble includes Yu Ying as Julia’s speakeasy manager brother — who gives Cheng and his son a home, and employ, and who later reveals that he’s also a former kung-fu fighter who wants to test his mettle against the famed Wing-Chun style — as well as a delicatessen owner played by WWE star Dave Bautisa and an inexplicable cameo role for Tony Jaa, whose shadowy assassin becomes a kind of deus ex machine for this plot, and is seemingly there to set up expected sequels. Master Z frequently satisfies in isolated sequences, including a multi-planed brawl during which Zhang and Yeoh in particular become conduits for the kind of practical-effects wire-fu that Yuen’s best films have often excelled at delivering. But the complexities of this plot simply aren’t justified by the total flatness of these characterizations — and the broad political and historical messaging that some entries in the Ip Man franchise have drawn interest from just feel too overly familiar at this point. Sam C. Mac
Film history is chock full of men falling in love with the ‘whore with a heart of gold,’ either to the effect of their own ruin (Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel), the ruin of the woman (Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!), or, less likely, a happily ever-after (Gary Marshall’s Pretty Woman). Sauvage, the directorial debut from French filmmaker Camille Vidal-Naquet, seeks to turn that trope on its head, framing it through a decidedly queer lens: gay escort Léo (Félix Maritaud) shuns the expectations of his trade by seeking intimacy with his clients rather than simply selling his body. “You’re made to be loved,” Léo’s friend and fellow escort, Ahd (Éric Bernard), advises him, and it’s an idea that Léo takes to heart, as he offers services that go beyond mere sex. For Léo, prostitution is as much about his own search for love as it is a career. The problem is that he’s fallen in love with Ahd, who isn’t so much gay as a straight ‘gay-for-pay’ opportunist looking for an older sugar daddy to take care of him. As such, Léo’s search for love puts him on a self-destructive path, in a world where intimacy is merely an illusion. To his credit, Vidal-Naquet never judges the sex-workers at the center of his story, framing the profession not as some sort of sexual and emotional prison, but rather as a realization of his protagonist’s desires. Léo is a prostitute because he enjoys it, but also because it provides a means to help satisfy a deeper need for human connection. Sex means something to Léo, even if he’s being paid for it, and the line between the fantasy he creates for his clients and the reality in his heart soon becomes dangerously blurred. Sauvage bears more than a passing resemblance to other recent queer films, such as Stranger by the Lake, Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo, and especially, God’s Own Country, each distinguished by their frank sexuality and exploration of the intersection between intimacy and intercourse. Yet by centering his film around one man, Vidal-Naquet pulls the focus inward on Léo’s own emotional journey, recalling Eric Rohmer’s wry exploration of the fickle nature of young love in his first Moral Tale, The Bakery Girl of Monceau. While the film certainly wears its inspirations on its sleeve, Maritaud’s remarkable performance as Léo is wholly his own, as inscrutable as it is expressive, embodying a sense of longing in a 22-year-old man who has few close friends and desperately seeks connection in others. Vidal-Naquet boldly charts his protagonist’s sense of inner turmoil and insecurity. The result is a film that isn’t necessarily as emotionally satisfying as it is enigmatic, a conundrum as unsure of itself as its protagonist, yet somehow wildly, hauntingly beautiful. Mattie Lucas
Girls of the Sun
Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun has the noblest of intents, making it almost impossible not to admire it in the abstract. It’s also hard to call a good film: If some festival fare can be frustratingly vague and opaque, this is the opposite, failing as simple, straightforward dramatic storytelling. Which is a shame, as the story of an all-female group of Kurdish resistance fighters taking on ISIS insurgents had the potential to be a fascinating story, not least because of the female perspective — which, to be fair, Husson does give a bit of: women trading stories of children being taken from them or engaging in a pre-battle sing-along, their faces briefly lit up with smiles in scenes of poignant solidarity. There’s also thankfully none of the macho bullshit chest-thumping or gun-fetishizing of most American war films. But these graces just aren’t enough to outweigh the clunkiness of this film. As the quiet, stoic, tough-as-nails leader of the Kurdish resistance fighters, Bahar, the fine actress Golshifteh Farahani tries her best to make an impression, playing against the… quiet, stoic, and tough-as-nails imbedded war photographer, Mathilde (Emmanuelle Bercot), who travels with Bahar and her group on a combat mission. Bahar, Mathilde, and all the other characters here are seen frequently staring pensively, or glimpsed in silhouette — so much that they don’t feel like people, just loose ideas, figurines, sometimes literally faceless, and usually unnamed. The story that propels these women is awkwardly laden with expository flashbacks that detail misery after misery — and there are, of course, clichéd, postcard-perfect shots of the setting sun. Daniel Gorman
As a foolproof, crowd-pleasing subject, you can’t go wrong with dogs and their owners. So it’s not hard to see the appeal of veteran Dutch documentarian Heddy Honigmann‘s Buddy. But it’s to Honigmann’s great credit that she doesn’t just settle for the sentimentalism to which this material is often prone, but instead exhibits many of the perceptive and deeply empathetic qualities that have been hallmarks of her long and storied career. Buddy follows six service dogs and their owners, intimately detailing the intense emotional bonds between them, which no doubt is often far stronger than those between people and their non-working pets. Through close observation (often shot from dog-eye level), and by utilizing Honigmann’s gently prodding off-screen queries, the focus shifts squarely to the valuable tasks and emotional support provided by these dogs to their human subjects. In some of the most engaging scenes in the film, a dog operates doors and drawers with ropes tied to them, as well as fetches printouts for a wheelchair-bound woman who works from home. Other dogs provide support for an autistic boy; an Afghanistan war veteran suffering from PTSD and combat-related injuries; an elderly woman blinded during the Second World War; a middle-aged man slowly losing his vision; and a young, wheelchair-bound heavy metal fanatic. The unique skills of these dogs come to the fore, most pertinently their unceasing vigilance and attentiveness to the needs of the humans they serve, as well as their seemingly inexhaustible capacity for patience (one which far exceeds that of humans, according to the multiple non-canine participants here). Far more than a nice movie about nice people and their nice dogs, Buddy offers a series of intensely moving and complex love stories, all beautifully told and vividly captured. Christopher Bourne
In 1987, Margaret Thatcher made her infamous assertion that “there is no such thing as society” in order to espouse her doctrine of methodological individualism. Well, if the specter of Thatcher looms large over Naked, then it seems only natural that most of its characters should be atoms adrift — disengaged from the world around them. This very lack of community offers a stark contrast to the functional, interdependent relationships seen in many other Mike Leigh films, presenting an odyssey from the viewpoint of one such atomized drifter, who rejects the threads of friendship that he happens to stumble across. Indeed, the palpably spontaneous surface of Naked was drawn from the improvised interactions that cast members had with one another in rehearsals, often “with Mike following…like a voyeur.” This, in conjunction with the behaviors and attitudes garnered by the cast’s observations of real-life exemplars, gives rise to the idea of mimesis slipping into reality (and vice versa). We could even view Leigh’s notions of ‘the end of the world’ — which infiltrated his cinema more as the millennium drew to a close — as being a corollary of the grisly acrimony that arose from a heritage of ‘angry young men’ dramas. The sentiments of both reach a terminus in the character of Johnny (David Thewlis), a man every bit as self-destructive as one would expect from a harbinger of the apocalypse. Naked begins with our obdurate protagonist swiftly departing for London after he rapes a woman in a Manchester back-alley. Once in London, he seeks refuge with a former girlfriend before heading out again into the streets for a series of diverse encounters.
Johnny is the centrepiece here, his ragged countenance intruding upon every private sphere he manages to worm his way into, welcome or not. He rejects society at-large but not its people, seemingly finding some fleeting meaning in his vulgar and often salacious exchanges with others. The fluctuations between crudities and philosophical musings project an image of volatility, one delivered through staccato utterances and the voracious desire to transgress upon every woman he can exert some power over. A subplot involving the wealthier and much more sadistic character of Jeremy breaks through at irregular intervals, as an adjunctive point of comparison for Johnny’s behavior — both engage in abhorrent acts, but where Johnny’s are the product of an obstreperous psyche, Jeremy’s emerge from a place of callous petulance, and are the result of a genuine lust to see the pain of others (reminding us that no matter how reprehensible Johnny might be, there is probably someone worse). A good portion of Naked proceeds in this manner, meandering through shadowed streets and alleys until Johnny finds one of the many depressed souls of London to latch onto. Finally, the drama begins to coalesce upon his battered and bruised body. Here, he’s offered the chance of reconciliation, a proposal for a real future that nonetheless falls on deaf ears — it would only undermine the core of Naked were he to accept it anyway. The future is cancelled in his eyes. Thus, the final and most striking juxtaposition we’re given is his ardent nihilism clashing against the mettle of the women surrounding him. As our guide through the underworld, Johnny can never leave, but that doesn’t mean we can’t spot a few glimmers of life on the voyage down. Sam Redfern