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 September issue tackles a couple recent fall festival circuiters — Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat, Takashi Miike’s First Love — as well as Paolo Sorrentino’s latest, Christopher Morris’s much-awaited follow up to Four Lions, and a sprinkling of other small-scale films of varying quality.
The corrupt progress of global capitalism is and has been an inevitability for the past half century, its footprint visible in the bruises mottling the surface of society and making vulnerable all but the ultra-monied elite. The Laundromat takes aim at this reality and hopes its righteous fury will dupe audiences into ignoring its didacticism and shallowness. Coming from Steven Soderbergh, a dexterous director whose successful work in both blockbusters and micro-budgets has established him as skilled in finessing tone and modulating scale, The Laundromat is a surprising squall. All blunt force and torrential bluster, the film takes its eccentric structural cues from The Big Short, presenting a series of thematically-related episodes, all introduced through pithy maxims (“The Meek Are Screwed”) and further explicated by Jürgen (Gary Oldman) and Ramón (Antonio Banderas), the real-life duo whose nefarious activities were outed with the Panama Papers’ release. And like McKay’s film, it has a similar pedagogical tendency, one rooted in a distrust of the audience’s capacity for understanding and interest in jargon-laced, white-collar criminality. But while in The Big Short, the specific instruction remained largely consequential and injected with interruptive levity, The Laundromat opts for something tawdrier and further removed from any educative aims — the sensationalized, villainous foibles of the rich, rendered with the slick artificial sheen of Hollywood. The film itself, and thus its narrative intricacies, is positioned as a performative sham, and moments that hold hypothetical resonance — a man bribing his own daughter with bearer shares to keep secret his infidelities — are instead played with smug, back-slapping broadness. Add to that any number of dubious distractions — a noble but miscalculated fourth-wall break, a confounding bit of actorly double-duty — and not much remains that Soderbergh, Streep, and company haven’t already fully chewed. Luke Gorham
Takashi Miike has never been one to play it safe. With over 100 films under his belt in a little over 28 years, you would think the writer-director had exhausted all possible scenarios in which he could showcase his singular tastes and proclivities. And yet here we are with his latest, First Love, a twisty underworld thriller that contains more than a few of those indelible Miike moments, the squareness of the surrounding tissue notwithstanding. This is a film that, with just a few tiny tweaks, could be re-made into a standard-issue Hollywood action-comedy. That is not something one wants to hear when seeking out the latest Miike opus. Is this the same man who once made a film for which a ticket purchase came with an actual barf bag? An argument could be made that Miike has been pursuing something akin to mainstream accessibility and critical acceptance for over a decade now, with films like 13 Assassins and Blade of the Immortal leading the charge; Ichi the Killer they most certainly were not. And while First Love seems to hearken back to those earlier days, what with its story of a young boxer with a brain tumor who inadvertently gets tangled up in a Yakuza turf war, the very look of it tells you that this is 2019 Miike. Gone is the grunge and grit; this is sleek and shiny, like a bulletproof Escalade. And then there’s the CGI blood, the worst thing that could’ve happened to a filmmaker like Miike. Ever since it first appeared in the early 2000’s, it has made the auteur’s work feel safe and sanitized, no matter how many heads roll. That’s not to say First Love isn’t a whole lot of fun. But it is also one of those films where the double and triple crosses feel simultaneously clever and obvious — and also the reason this review is so vague on plot details. Hell, even the big ending action sequence, set in a sporting goods store, feels overly familiar, especially after this summer’s Stuber. And the fact that I just referenced Stuber in a review for the latest Miike movie should tell you everything you need to know. Steven Warner
Paolo Sorrentino’s Loro is art in the Age of Trump — so basically the most weak-sauce imaginable critique of a buffoonish caricature (former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi instead) meant as comfort food for liberal audiences. There’s plenty of low-hanging fruit to gawk at here, from Berlusconi himself (played by Toni Servillo, caked under an unseemly volume of make-up and mugging for nearly every second he’s on-screen) to his young underling Sergio (Riccardo Scamarcio), who tries to catch the media tycoon’s attention by throwing endless amounts of ecstasy-fueled soirées. Both men are vain, selfish, and cynical, which serves the film’s transparently one-note mockery of the world’s current political atmosphere, even as it contains the development of even a single female character over the distended 145-minute runtime. (Originally released as two separate movies earlier in the year, Loro has now been edited into one shapeless mess.) Sorrentino is less concerned with exploring the psychology of these narcissists than with showing them in the most opulent possible situations. Why take a moment to explain where Sergio’s lust for power came from when you can have him railing coke and fucking women half his age instead? Loro’s numerous party sequences (usually set to pulsating EDM music and featuring as many half-naked models as possible) are what Sorrentino tries to pass for commentary on the administrative class, as if presenting such debauchery were the same as condemning it. But maybe the crown jewel of Sorrentino’s carelessness is how he slowly transforms Berlusconi into a source of pity, a choice that completely removes any point that the supposed “satire” had been building to. Paul Attard
The Day Shall Come
The Day Shall Come, Christopher Morris’s follow up to his debut (and sleeper hit) Four Lions, treads similar ground as its predecessor — though it moves the action to North American soil, satirizing the FBI’s day-to-day work against security threats. It does this by depicting a foul-mouthed team of agents commanded by Kendra Glack (Anna Kendrick), an FBI operative willing to use empty nuclear weapon canisters to frame possible terrorist threats. But the film’s protagonist is a young black preacher named Moses (played brilliantly by Marchánt Davis), the leader of a religious cult that praises Jesus, Mohammed, and Black Santa, among other figures, and who prophesies of an eventual race war that will lead to their triumph on Earth. Moses’s organization becomes the focus of Kendra’s team, who attempt to lure them into committing a federal crime. Morris swiftly develops this basic scenario in a series of sequences that presents the absolute madness and ridiculousness of all involved — from the delusional preacher who believes can invoke dinosaurs by sounding a horn, to the FBI team willing to create a character who delivers an ‘Al Qaeda Magazine’ to make them believe that he’s the real deal. Its 87-minute runtime helps the film avoid overstaying its welcome as it carefully pinpoints the racial biases behind organizations like the FBI. A film built on humor, The Day Shall Come nonetheless builds to a gut-punch ending, which abruptly halts the laughs, and drops the viewer into the grim reality of the present-day United States. Jaime Grijalba Gomez
Riot Girls and Villains
Lifting a page from a varied litany of genre precedents, Jovanka Vuckovic’s Riot Girls envisions a post-apocalyptic world — brought about via virus, not zombies or nuclear war — where adults have died off and only kids remain. In a choice that’s meant to mirror various high school clique power struggles, a small town has been divided into two halves, one run by some cool, punk-rock kids and the other by a bunch of fascist douchebag frat boys collectively known as the Titans. When Nat’s (Madison Iseman) brother Jack (Alexandre Bourgeois) gets kidnapped by the jock jam bunch, it’s up to her and her BFF Scratch (Paloma Kwiatkowski) to get him back. Exhibiting a real scrappy energy — a kind of lets-put-on-a-show vibe — Riot Girls is a low-budget goof that manages to be fun despite some fairly significant shortcomings. The the admittedly shoddy special effects are appealingly lo-fi, and the set design has a strong handmade feel. The cast is mostly amateurish, but they give it their all, leaning into their various high school archetypes with gusto. While the performers are all basically playing dress up, the film is at least professionally made — which shouldn’t be considered a backhanded compliment. As the unwatchable genre offerings of Amazon and Netflix might attest to, dirt-heap horror movies are a dime a dozen, and baseline professional competency is rarer than it might seem in this age of the gaping content maw. Thankfully, Vuckovic and writer Katherine Collins steer clear of the smug, self-aware ironic detachment of dumb-as-shit pastiches like Kung Fury and Wolf Cop. Throw in a supportive queer romance, a multi-cultural cast, and a bunch of behind-the-scenes roles for women and you’ve got a pretty good time on your hands. Riot Girls isn’t a great film, but some kid is going to stumble across it at just the right, young, impressionable age and they are going to have a blast.
If Riot Girls represents an outsized ambition relative to its meager production values, Villains is something like the polar opposite, a small, insular film that gets a lot of mileage out of its talented cast but has no ambitions beyond that. Mickey (Bill Skarsgard) and Jules (Maika Monroe) are an adorable couple of dumb, petty crooks — the film opens with them robbing a gas station and then running out of gas as they make their getaway. They’re like a stoner Bonnie & Clyde, breaking into a secluded suburban home and getting high while they look for stuff to steal. Of course, things get more complicated when they discover a little girl chained up in the basement and the residents unexpectedly return home. As the homeowners, Jeffrey Donovan and Kyra Sedgwick are clearly having a blast playing a couple of psychos who will do anything to keep Mickey and Jules from getting out alive. It’s a fantastic set up, but this hook is about all the film has going for it apart from the talented ensemble cast. Villains is a modest movie, the equivalent of a bottle episode of TV, as virtually the entire thing takes place inside this house. Writer-directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen keep the pace lively enough and manage a couple of solid set pieces, including a real showstopper as a bound Jules and Mickey have to figure out how to get a tongue piercing out of Jules’ mouth without using their hands. But everything plays out almost exactly the way one expects it to, with few surprises. Berk and Olsen don’t generate much suspense from their scenario, and instead lean more on goofball charm, which Skarsgard and Monroe both have in spades. Villains frequently feels like a short film that got padded out to feature length, when it might have worked better as one part of an omnibus film (or even an episode of TV). In the end, it’s not much more than a mildly amusing lark. Daniel Gorman
Chained for Life
Chained for Life opens with a quote from Pauline Kael: “Actors and actresses are usually more beautiful than ordinary people. And why not?” Director Aaron Schimberg’s invocation of this quote immediately establishes his film’s broad thematic palette, but it also reflects its ironic sense of humor. Unfolding around an exploitation film production replete with a Naziistic caricature of a director and which depicts the familiar tale of a blind woman who learns to love a deformed man, Chained for Life’s central leitmotif addresses the relationship between interior/exterior beauty and ugliness. An early interview scene with the actors finds them confronted directly with their film’s exploitation of physically deformed people, a move which simultaneously draws attention to the film’s meta nature and those implications while also critiquing its beautiful stars for their own vapidity. The opaqueness of this narrative structure allows for the film to play with various dichotomies: it dresses itself as both modern and classical, obfuscates the line between the reality of its thematic concerns and the fiction being spun at its center, and finds humor in the pretensions of what is “normal” versus the characters that are being exploited in-film. Interestingly, Schimberg allows this progression to lead to an unexpected place: in highlighting the humanity of characters who are often misrepresented and relegated to roles predicated on their abnormalities, he circles back to ask if beauty is not also exploited for cinematic effect? The result of all this can feel muddled and unformed, but Schimberg is starting a conversation about the role of physical appearances in media that’s worth having. Jason Ooi
For those who haven’t yet written off James Franco’s entire career, there’s some cause for optimism in the first act of Zeroville, his much delayed adaptation of the supposedly unfilmable novel by Steve Erickson. Oddly enough, it starts around the same time of the final act of Tarantino’s latest, showing the influx of new talent flooding the Hollywood industry, in this case focusing on Vikar (played by Franco himself), who starts as a set designer and then becomes interested in film editing. All the while, he’s surrounded by actors playing versions of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, the cast and crew of Love Story, among many other details that are likely to make a cinephile jump in their seat a bit. But the film derails when it introduces its main source of conflict: Vikar’s infatuation with an actress played by Megan Fox, introduced through Vikar’s screening of Jesus Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos. As the performances become more and more strenuous and exaggerated, it becomes apparent that the film’s image of how Hollywood works is merely clichéd. As the film twists and turns to justify its Hollywood portrait, it gets away from the sense of awe and discovery that Vikar displays the film’s first minutes, where he discovers genuine joy in the art of movies and editing. It’s downright embarrassing to see his character speak at the Venice Film Festival, praising a bunch of random movies by calling them good, great or masterpieces, for no apparent reason. And the third act is just nonsensical, again changing the film’s tone, this time by incorporating some fairy tale elements, and thus prompting viewers to throw away any remaining goodwill they might have had for the film. Jaime Grijalba Gomez
Precise figures will vary, but the fact remains that our world is in the midst of the largest refugee crisis since WWII. The convergence of drought, civil strife, and poverty — all linked to global warming and disaster capitalism, as carefully delineated by Naomi Klein’s 2014 book This Changes Everything — has led to the displacement of millions and millions of people worldwide. It’s a sad truth that we need reminders that these are people, not just numbers and statistics and phantom boogeymen to be used as rhetorical pawns in political gamesmanship. Midnight Traveler is an urgent document that puts the human cost front and center, giving us a glimpse of what life is like for a refugee family. It’s an important work, but also a bracing aesthetic object in its own right. Constructed entirely out of footage shot on cell phones over a number of years, Midnight Traveler follows filmmaker Hassan Fazili, his wife and co-director Fatima Hussaini, and their two young daughters, Nargis and Zahra. The film begins in Tajikistan, since the family had been forced to flee Afghanistan due to death threats from the Taliban. But their asylum application has been denied and the family is being deported back to Afghanistan, where Hassan is convinced they will face certain death. We follow them as they flee again, first to Bulgaria and then to Serbia, where they live for almost a year and a half. They eventually return to Hungary for a hearing and are granted asylum status, although the film’s conclusion leaves them still unsure where they will be able to permanently settle.
It’s a harrowing journey, made all the more so by the immediacy and intimacy of the video footage. If the film has a flaw, it’s only that one wishes it were longer. It is, by design, episodic and limited only to preexisting footage, so there’s no additional photography or talking heads to fill in blanks. And the film’s brevity means that the audience doesn’t always feel the full weight of this experience. As directors and videographers, Hassan and Fatima both have a good eye, and certain scenes and moments are allowed to linger, fleeting glimpses of beauty and poetic digressions offer a picture of life beyond brutal, day to day realities. As the film contains footage from over three years of travelling, we see Nargis and Zahra grow, and they are truly remarkable children. The film has several unforgettable scenes of the children simply being. Their resilience is extraordinary. The last words in the film are given to Nargis, who declares in voiceover narration that “I’m going to forget; I don’t want to remember this in the future.” Hopefully these scars can heal for her, but it is imperative that we, the audience, never forget. Daniel Gorman
The Sound of Silence
Writer-director Michael Tyburski’s feature film debut, The Sound of Silence, certainly has an intriguing premise, based on what’s known as house tuning — the process of calibrating the sounds in one’s home to relieve stress, anxiety, or depression. (At the very least, it compelled me to do a little online research myself.) Unsurprisingly, the phenomenon is bogus, just like film surrounding it. Peter Sarsgaard stars as Peter Lucian, house tuner extraordinaire. He has discovered that the everyday items around us each emit a specific sound, or note. If you place the wrong items in the same location, then the “music” they produce is discordant. So change a toaster and, voila, your sleepless nights are history! House tuning is a mere side job for Peter, though, as he’s devoted most of his life to researching his ultimate theory, that the lives of all individuals are governed by the sounds that surround them. He has discovered that each borough and major hub of New York City has its own soundtrack, and that the city’s denizens are at the mercy of its stanzas. But when his theory is challenged by a client (Rashida Jones) whose problems he can not solve through auditory means, Peter will learn that, in order to make the ultimate human connection, one must…communicate.
When your metaphors are as blunt as tuning forks, every other element in your film better be Beethoven-level melodious, and there are a few notes here that truly sing. Sarsgaard gives a reliably strong performance, methodically peeling back the psychological and emotional layers of a man whose entire existence has been called into question. The film’s sound design is also on point, taking us on an aural journey into both the mind of our lead character and the world he occupies. But the rest of this film is a slow burn that never catches fire, playing like a short film that has been painstakingly stretched to feature length — which, unsurprisingly, this was. Peter’s character arc is also given short shrift, as he goes from confident to doubting to borderline insane within only a few minutes. One could argue this is by design, but every other story element — the central relationship between Sarsgaard and Jones, a subplot about the corporate commodification of Peter’s research — is executed in a similarly haphazard and lackadaisical manner. As it turns out, silence does indeed have a sound; too bad that here, it’s more Backstreet Boys than Bach. Steven Warner
Diego Maradona, Asif Kapadia‘s latest film, is entirely comprised of archival footage, most of which comes from Italian news sources that preyed upon the famed Napoli soccer player. Focusing solely on his years in Naples — which he came to through one of the most expensive transfers in the history of soccer — the documentary is limited in its scope, but it’s also neither overly passionate nor partial towards its main subject. The usual talking-heads material is here replaced by a host of voices that speak and interact with the film’s images, which is somewhat commendable. The fact that 90% of the voices are either in Spanish or Italian also works to add genuine sincerity and emotion to the narrative of Maradona’s decline. (The latter segments of the film focus on how his cocaine habits went public.) Although the filmmakers have touted the footage as having never been seen before, the events and facts presented aren’t exactly new — and the limited amount of time that the film actually devotes to its subject is a major deficiency. It’s a useful primer on this legendary soccer figure, but not much more. Jaime Grijalba Gomez
Rarely has a film’s meaning been so contingent on purposefully disconcerting stylistic contrivances. In Fallen Angels, Wong Kar-wai and his longtime cinematographer Christopher Doyle use their collaborative efforts to create an urban environment that feels at once hermetically sealed and overwhelmingly expansive. Not just a mere portrayal of the Hong Kong cityscape, however, the film follows the tangentially connected stories of two sets of “partners,” both pairs weaving in and out of each other’s lives while somewhat routinely going about their business. The nature of these relationships — whether romantic or business or both — is occasionally unclear. But considering the psychedelic nature of his aesthetic choices, this lack of narrative clarity appears to be exactly what Wong was aiming for. The ephemerality of human interaction is the thematic center of his Fallen Angels, and it’s manifested through an exhausting visual bombardment. Nearly every shot is either an extreme close-up, filtered through an ever-changing color palette, or distorted in a variety of funhouse mirror ways, with virtually none of Wong’s signature cool, calm collectedness. It’s a bold vision, one that seems the product of youthful imagination and ambition — but as undeniably unique as it is, it’s frankly not much fun to watch.
Because of the way Wong intentionally obscures normal ways of seeing, the viewer is forced to do a bit too much guesswork as to who these people are and why they are acting the ways they do. Such a quest for understanding can often be an engaging way to pull an audience in, but in Fallen Angels, that quest becomes too exhausting without any reprieve from the punishingly bombastic environment Wong creates. That’s not to suggest that there’s absolutely no method to the madness; these are “fallen angels,” after all. The hedonistic characters Wong follows have little to stabilize them, and his choice to depict them through unflattering filters and askew setups succeeds insofar as it’s a visually appropriate way to contextualize them. Instead of maintaining the viewer’s interest in these characters, however, these people feel more like cartoon mice spinning an elaborately constructed circus wheel, their interactions with each other made frequently nonsensical by the incessantly hyperbolic style. To be sure, there are a number of fantastic moments throughout; if anything, the style is so unique that each individual sequence could potentially be cited as a highlight. This is particularly evident in the film’s finale, a lengthy motorcycle ride, captured in another extreme close-up, only this time the shot is afforded the attention it deserves rather than being rushed. Strung all together, Fallen Angels is overwhelming, but individual parts stand out. Even at less than peak form, Wong is incapable of crafting anything less than fascinating cinema. John Oursler