by InRO Staff Film

Before We Vanish | August 2020: Sputnik, The Pale Door, I Used to Go Here

August 26, 2020
Credit: IFC Midnight

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 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.


Sputnik

Here’s another sci-fi flick that plays like an extended X-Files episode. There will always be room for riffs on familiar scenarios — last year gifted us the superior Crawl, and this year saw the release of Underwater, a fast-paced, unpretentious creature feature. Even the recent Sea Fever, so clearly indebted to The Thing that John Carpenter should’ve gotten a writing credit, got by on good performances, squishy special effects, and a mercifully brief running time. The problem, then, isn’t so much that Sputnik is made from parts of other, better movies as that director Egor Abramenko can’t reconfigure them into anything interesting. Taking place in the early ’80s for no discernible reason, Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov) is a Russian cosmonaut who has crashed back to earth under mysterious circumstances and now suffers from amnesia. Tatyana Yuryevna Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) is a radical neurophysiologist, recently dismissed from her clinical position for her unorthodox methods, then recruited by the military to diagnose Konstantin. It’s not really a spoiler to say that an alien creature has returned to Earth with Konstantin, using his body as a shelter of sorts. It takes seemingly forever to get even this limited amount of narrative information out in the open, as Tatyana interviews Konstantin and butts heads with a mysterious Colonel (Fyodor Bondarchuk) who may or may not be keeping secrets (he is). This all plays out exactly as you expect it to, with virtually no suspense or outright horror anywhere to be found. The film is slickly well-made, which is to say that it looks both very professional and very bland in the manner of most prestige TV. There are a lot of shot-counter shot conversations, with characters centered neatly in the middle of a mostly empty scope frame. Most damningly, the film attempts to ape the worst aspects of Denis Villeneuve: glacial, ponderous pacing, strained seriousness, and frequently confusing grasps at profundity. To be fair, the alien creature is pretty neat, and the effects used to bring it to life are topnotch, but by the time it actually cuts loose and does some cool stuff it’s simply too little too late. This’ll probably be on Netflix in a couple of months, at which point it will settle in nicely as yet another filler title to endlessly scroll past. Daniel Gorman


The Pale Door

There’s a bit of a shared cinematic history between the Wild West outlaw archetype and women accused of witchcraft and demonic sorcery — the wicked witches, if you will. Both are often portrayed as roguish anti-heroes, rising up against powerful and corrupt authority figures defined by their righteous indignation. There is, however, one key difference: while the women of Salem and beyond were most often innocent of their accused supernatural crimes, outlaws were a real-world scourge who spread death, fear, and suffering wherever they traveled. The new Western-horror hybrid The Pale Door pits these two forces against each other, evil vs. “evil,” a premise rife with potential. Unfortunately, the film does absolutely nothing of interest with it, paying only brief lip service to the inherent ironies and social commentary found within its storyline. 

It’s actually almost impressive just how completely director/co-writer Aaron B. Koontz fucks things up — not a single element is successful. The film’s visual style is truly atrocious, a textbook example of ugly digital filmmaking void of any technique to make it look even remotely cinematic. A late-night train robbery sequence so deliberately rips off The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford — and fails spectacularly, at that — that it’s derivative mode begins to veer into fully comedy. Where a film like Bone Tomahawk, likewise constructed as a horror-Western mash-up, succeeds according to its brutal, sometimes nauseating realism and authenticity, there are no stakes in The Pale Door because nothing feels lived-in; the sets look cheap, the costumes resemble community theater donations, and you can practically see the acting in every performance. A lot of great character actors, including Stan Shaw, Pat Healy, and Bill Sage, are unable to elevate the material, and instead simply sink to its level. (Special shout-out to Melora Walters, head of the coven of witches, who delivers a performance so howlingly awful that it permanently revokes the lifetime pass she got from Magnolia.) 

As was the case with Koontz’s first feature, 2017’s Camera Obscura, there’s the temptation to chalk all of this up to reach exceeding grasp, but it doesn’t even seem like the filmmaker has his hand open here. At one point, The Pale Door suddenly decides it wants to be Evil Dead, with tiny charred witches scurrying across walls and ceilings and gouging out eyeballs; it’s a moment of tonal whiplash that’s tough to recover from. But perhaps its greatest sin is how tedious and outright boring it becomes, even as it ratchets up the batshit, an unforgivable development given its genre foundation. The whole enterprise would be amusing if it weren’t so pathetically miscalculated, and if you’re looking for a more playful horror treatment of witchcraft and wizardry pitched appropriately, you’d be better served by Álex de la Iglesia’s Witching and Bitching. There’s simply nothing funny or horrific to be found here. Steven Warner


Song Without a Name

Melina León’s Song Without A Name is representative of a lauded — and mostly corrosive — cinematic trend that’s grown in popularity over the past decade. In films of this type, aesthetic and narrative elements are practically intertwined in their effectiveness, their ability to manipulate. First, you use history as a cover, an inception point for the narrativized drama, which then also serves as a shield against criticisms regarding the exploitation of real-world misfortune and depictions of human suffering. (This isn’t to suggest cinema isn’t a useful medium to engage with such image-making, but on an ethical and moral level, it does matter how a maker justifies the creation of such images — and most usually don’t.) You then shoot the entire endeavor with “lush” black-and-white photography, the drastically hue-y type that’s supposed to supply a melancholy ambiance to the anguish we’re about to endure, and also highlight just how barren the landscapes are. Also, all of these shots have to be long-take master shots: the de facto approach from people who conceptualize cinema as a craft, not an art. Once you have the form down, you need a drama that will work in tandem with the figures presented. Usually, it’s one of victimhood at the hands of some oppressive government force, one that allows for weak characterization under the working assumption that our cheap pity is a far greater affective response than understood empathy. Ida, Roma, and the near entirety of Lav Diaz’s recent work have been able to hoodwink the greater critical community into believing their static “explorations” of history are worthwhile pieces of art based on these values; they fight against dominant Western image-making in the most obtuse ways possible, misusing and misappropriating slow cinema aesthetics and achieving only middling results. Song Without A Name plays like a self-serious running checklist of these listed components, using the historical context of an economically and socially distraught Peru in the late ’80s as a mere backdrop for a narrative involving child trafficking, even going the extra, despicable mile by ending on a dramatic close-up of a crying woman who’s had her child stolen. A more accurate way to describe these proceedings would be as an endurance test in the form of the moving image: If you’re a “serious” enough cinephile, you can handle the misery. It’s about the most sophomoric way an artist can go about their work in any medium, an elitist one that affirms its superiority over those who simply wish to engage with the art form in more productive ways than with festival-bound works that strive to emulate the worst of what contemporary art-house cinema has to offer. Paul Attard


Out Stealing Horses

Based on the acclaimed 2003 Norweigan novel of the same name, the decades-spanning drama Out Stealing Horses comes suffused with pedigree. Directed by Hans Petter Moland (In Order of Disappearance, Aberdeen), currently one of Norway’s most successful filmmakers, and starring Stellan Skarsgaard, the film seemed built for commercial success. But something has gone wrong in the translation from page to screen; what was powerfully nuanced in print has been reduced to a trite and tiresome offering. As a whole, the film superficially scans like one of those prestige fall flicks that has been produced solely to win Oscars, and that soullessness is present within every gorgeously-rendered shot. Put more clearly, Out Stealing Horses has the distinct flavor of a Joe Wright or Stephen Daldry flick. Skarsgaard stars as Trond, a despondent older gentleman who has moved to some snowy solitude in Norway to live out the rest of his life in isolation following the tragic death of his wife several years prior. Taking place on the eve of the 21st century, because this film never met a metaphor it couldn’t beat to death, Trond finds himself taking stock of his life after encountering a neighbor he may or may not know from his childhood. 

Part of the problem here lies in the presentation of events, as the narrative is built around endless cuts between past and present. And so, after this initial setup, we are thrust backwards, specifically to a summer in 1948 that changed Trond forever, because this is the type of story in which people are changed forever. There’s no doubt that being 15 years old can be difficult, navigating the strange moment when childhood meets adulthood, and it was no different for Trond. For him, this was the time when he discovered the truth about his soon-to-be-deadbeat dad, the power of a sexy older woman in a wet dress, the perils of the Norwegian logging industry, and the importance of safeties on rifles. In the present, Out Stealing Horses concerns itself with how this summer still haunts Trond; Skarsgaard keeps intoning in monotonous voiceover that he is changing, and it frightens him, but the flashbacks are never properly utilized to inform the present. As a result, the film is left centerless, collapsing instead into a melange of golden-hour vistas and trite platitudes about life. Then again, it’s not entirely surprising given the litany of Dr. Phil-approved clichés here such as, “Let go,” “You choose when it hurts,” and “Never look back at the past with bitterness.” At one point the film even outright quotes the opening of Dickens’ David Copperfield. Indeed, the two works share a remarkably similar message, but one is the work of a revered literary genius while the other seems like the product of an author who read Dickens and thought, “Cool!” Out Stealing Horses  is far too composed to be an outright failure, but it’s precisely that modicum of understanding that also makes it such a lame, frustrating slog. Steven Warner


I Used to Go Here

Kris Rey (formerly known as Kris Swanberg) is no stranger to female-driven slice-of-life narratives that tackle relationship issues, professional aspirations, and general day-to-day struggles. The director has successfully mined this material before, with Empire Builder and Unexpected, and her most recent comic drama, I Used to Go Here, fits comfortably within this lineage of works. This latest work follows the story of a mid-thirties writer, Kate Conklin (Gillian Jacobs), who after publishing her novel, leaves her pregnant bestie Laura (Zoe Chao) in Chicago to head to the college town of Carbondale, Illinois to speak at her alma mater — the invitation came courtesy of her mentor and former crush, Professor David Kirkpatrick (Jemaine Clement). It’s a short-term journey for Kate, one in which she confronts a long since mutated town and her past regrets and failures. Obviously, for a film of this ilk, low-key conflict must quickly arise, and here it manifests in Kate losing the only key to her accommodations on the first day. The cringe factor is present, as Kate also proceeds to run into old flames, tries desperately to reunite with her ex-fiancé, and fixates on an anticipated positive review for her novel from the New York Times. But as the saying goes (and as films of temperament go), “when one door closes, another opens,” and Kate soon befriends a group of college students who will ultimately help her gain a new sense of living and a broader outlook on herself.

It’s fair to say that I Used to Go Here is a timid and familiar film that never aspires to much. It recycles run-of-the-mill themes and heavily relies on overused stylistic formulas and indie film prescriptions. Yet, on the strength of Jacobs’ firecracker performance, the color-saturated compositions, and the thoughtfully-developed mood of small town enchantment, there’s a certain delightful coziness that begins to permeate even the most familiar elements. The script remains a problem, however, most saliently in the film’s second half when Kate and her newfound friends sneak into David’s house just to find out the married professor has had an affair with one student’s girlfriend — and to make matters worse, it’s revealed that the son of a bitch hasn’t even read Kate’s novel. Of course. From this point, story is hastily executed and prevents potentially winning serio-comic situations from really developing. Rey opts for an uninspired and forced conclusion, the ostensible tale of rediscovery and rebirth prematurely ended as Kate quickly rushes home to be with Laura who has gone into labor three weeks early. But it’s a fitting metaphor: I Used to Go Here is a film with plenty of promise, but the overwhelming impression here is that Rey executed her vision before it was entirely ready. It’s a film that while perhaps worth visiting for the minor pleasures, you’re unlikely to want to go back to again. Ayeen Forootan

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