by InRO Staff Film

Before We Vanish | October 2020: Spontaneous, Ham on Rye, The Antenna

Credit: Paramount

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.


Spontaneous

Spontaneous is a lot of things: sci-fi, horror, romance, tragedy, coming-of-age. The one thing it fails to be, however, is compelling; writer-director Brian Duffield is unable to find not only a consistent tone, but enough story to fill his seemingly endless 101-minute running time. Based on the 2016 novel by Aaron Starmer, a disciple of the John Green school of writing, this is all snarky teens endlessly saying clever things while simultaneously attempting to elicit genuine emotions from audience members in the most hackneyed ways possible. Yes, there is indeed a doomed relationship at the heart of all of this, even as Duffield and co. bend over backwards to prove how hip they are through both fourth-wall breaking, casual drug and alcohol use, as well as the shocking violence of its central conceit, which entails suburban high school kids spontaneously combusting for no discernable reason. Despite the fact that David Cronenberg is name-dropped within the first five minutes (see, I told you this film was hip), those looking for the grisly body horror of Scanners would be wise to look elsewhere. The explosions here are simply CGI-pops of red, while the cast is doused with corn syrup for reaction shots. It is all fairly unexciting, save for a manic episode near the film’s mid-point where kids start going off like champagne corks at a New Year’s Eve party.

Our protagonist, Mara (Katherine Langford), is sarcastic and disaffected, barely responding to the horrors around her until she falls in love with Dylan (Charlie Plummer), an earnest classmate inspired by the events around him to take charge of his life and pursue his dreams. The central mystery of Spontaneous is why these events are happening to this specific group of kids, and granted, there are a number of metaphorical ways the material could be read, touching on everything from anxiety to depression to societal pressure on today’s youth. Strangely, Duffield chooses none of these avenues, instead playing the material completely straight and adding nothing in the way of a viewpoint. (Is he leaving it up to audience members to read into it whatever they choose? Or is he just incredibly lazy?) One can see this tract working in its original novel form, but here, it bleeds the proceedings of anything resembling depth. Langford and Plummer actually share some sweet moments together and have a decent amount of chemistry, but these things aren’t nearly enough to save a film that is so lacking in urgency. There are large chunks of this film where absolutely nothing happens, and both the characters and the situation are too underdeveloped to warrant such indulgences. By the time the film finally gets to its parting, bumper-sticker of a message, which basically amounts to, “Shit happens, so live each day like it’s your last,” I also longed for the sweet relief of combustion; at least I would have felt something. Steven Warner


Ham on Rye

Coming-of-age narratives make up a significant proportion of contemporary independent cinema, and by extension the titles that an ever-growing number of Gen Zs and even millennials flock to. It is considerably rare, however, to witness such narratives boldly distill the usual thematic suspects of their genre — overwhelming nostalgia, pubescent sexual attraction, far-flung ambitions — into tone-heavy canvases more integral to the film than its plot specifics. In the case of Ham on Rye, the debut feature of Tyler Taormina, narrative is deliberately sidelined from the get-go, abstracted in order to focus on an adolescent milieu at once brazenly generic and poignantly specific. Shot over just two weeks on a shoestring budget, it impressively portrays the coming of age in a fictional American suburb; with little emphasis on naturalism, the film evokes an uncanny fever-dream state, languid and dazed, on the cusp of life-changing revelation eternally deferred.

Over the course of a single day, several high-school students converge upon Monty’s, a local deli where an annual rite of passage is to take place at sunset. In between long walks through rows of immaculate housing and bites of sandwiches (“ham on rye”) at Monty’s, they recite lines of dialogue stereotypical of banal teen flicks — one group muses over the higher purpose of “porking”; another contends with life in the countryside — but issued with more endearing earnesty than deadpan cynicism. Conversations surface and fade, as the shots linger on each group of students for no longer than a couple of minutes each time. Before long, everyone in attendance at Monty’s proceeds to the ritual: a mysterious and vaguely menacing coupling between opposite genders, initiated by the male and determined by the female’s thumbs-up or -down. Those who form couples are last seen walking towards the twilight, their silhouettes blinking out of sight.

Those who remain form the subjects of Ham on Rye’s nocturnal second half, languishing and huddling around fires and empty parking lots in varying degrees of stupor and ennui. The wandering souls of this eternal night include one Haley, a girl we see earlier on with her girlfriends who, after their ascension into the dusk, leave behind only voicemail recordings and unanswered doorbells. Like her, we are not privy to what lies beyond the cloistered world of adolescence and all the promises of the future; Taormina’s goal, insofar as he has one, is simply to present the transition as a liminal point not unlike death, before which nostalgia for youthful pining must yield. Some never make the transition, and repeat their days, listlessly and in limbo. Morris Yang


The Antenna

Director Orcun Behram’s The Antenna is a curious hybrid, beginning as a comically on-the-nose, almost inept political allegory before transforming into a more straightforward (and pretty effective) horror film. Like a lot of directors making their feature debut, Behram crams in as many ideas and references as he can, which leads to an episodic structure and some wild fluctuations in tone. Produced in Turkey but taking place in a nondescript public housing complex, The Antenna sometimes feels like any number of drab, Eastern European movies that take place under various post-Eastern Bloc regimes. As the film begins, apprentice building manager Mehmet (Ihsan Önal) is informed that a new communication device is being installed, one which will connect all buildings and citizenry directly to government programming, beginning with a scheduled mandatory address later that evening. Things get strange quickly, as the worker doing the installation plummets to his death, and building occupants start complaining about black goo leaking into their rooms. The goo itself is coming directly from the antenna, dripping and oozing out of it, turning the antenna into a manifestation of… something. It’s somehow simultaneously too diffuse and too literal. 

Behram’s nods towards the generically Orwellian and Kafka-esque are facile, at best, while the goo itself is vaguely defined, at various points doing whatever the script demands of it (it causes accidents, hallucinations, and turns people into faceless murderers). It’s almost funny, except that the film is mostly straight-faced, so dour that any comedic undertones feel unintentional (one exception, a strange detour featuring a kitschy skin-care routine that is deeply out of place). Critic Bilge Ebiri (himself Turkish) suggests that “thanks to censor-happy governments past and present, Turkish artists have cultivated their own brand of nonspecific allegories.” This is almost certainly true, but it’s this lack of specificity, coupled with references to Hitchcock, Carpenter, Cronenberg, and Cohen, that transform tropes into clichés. Still, all of that said, Behram conjures some terrifically tense and creepy set pieces. The goo itself has a thick, tactile texture, and it moves almost like it has a mind of its own. There’s a clear viscosity to it; as it coats walls and people, the frame starts to look like a Franz Kline painting come to hideous life. Various building inhabitants meet gruesome ends, and as Mehmet loosens his grip on reality, there are some strikingly surreal moments that invoke nothing less than Un Chien Andalou. Ultimately, The Antenna doesn’t really have anything to say about life under Erdoğan’s regime, nor even any commentary about life in a surveillance state. But for horror fans hungry for something a little offbeat, this might be worth a look thanks to its strange alchemy. Daniel Gorman


Once Upon a River

Once Upon a River is another entry in a developing sub-genre of post-Twain bildungsroman cinema, combining elements of fable with aw-shucks rootedness in the natural world. Its title even pretty explicitly suggests both. The tonal spectrum of such films is fairly wide: Winter’s Bone is severe, bringing to the fore the dark undercurrents that inform these narratives; Mud plays a bit like Dickens by way of Twain, imbuing its squalor with a certain muted romanticism; and then there are Benh Zeitlin’s films, which utilize fantastical elements to create a mythic tenor. Haroula Rose’s debut, adapted from a Bonnie Jo Campbell novel of the same name, falls somewhere in the middle: the film doesn’t manage to convey any distinct personality in the way of most fables, but you also don’t get to feature two grumpy old men named Smoke and Fishbone, who happen to be angels of sorts for the film’s heroine, without the intent being obvious. And according to the formula of such narratives, after early tragedy strikes, Margo (Kenadi DelaCerna, quietly terrific) sets out on her personal odyssey, ostensibly seeking her long-gone mother but, of course, actually searching for herself all along. She proceeds to encounter a litany of strangers, some helpful and some threatening, before ultimately arriving at self-reliance.

It’s a fine template to start from, but Once Upon a River succumbs to an adaptation problem wherein it hustles through its encounters and emotional shifts with speed instead of slowing down to build any depth into its various compartments. Most characters only pop up to espouse wisdom that Margo needs to hear in order to continue her journey to self-discovery, and even her Native American heritage remains mostly unexplored — she encounters a Cherokee man on her journey who tells her that colonizers “never intended for us to survive,” but the sentiment is left just hanging, and the connection that could be made between the disruption of Margo’s stable existence and the broader cultural disassociation of indigenous populations never materializes. Rose is more adept at crafting striking compositions. One memorable image is of a dead, weathered stalk bristling in the wind, the blue sky slightly out of focus in the background, while elsewhere she initiates scenes with vista shots of purple, blue, and pink dusks and twilights, often reflected on lake surfaces or distorted by a river’s moving water. But it’s unfortunately not much more than pretty wrapping on a meager package. Despite her struggle to handle the material, Rose proves to be a solid image-maker and coaxes an impressively natural turn from DelaCerna, but the tricky task of adapting Once Upon a River is a challenge for which she is simply outmatched. Luke Gorham


La Belle Èpoque

Time travel is a popular mechanism throughout film history for understandable reasons: it offers fertile emotional and psychological territory, accommodating narratives that explore universal desires to rejuvenate, revisit, or relive. It’s an appropriate assessment of La Belle Èpoque, where 41-year-old French director-screenwriter Nicolas Bedos tells the story of depressed, stagnated sexagenarian cartoonist and book illustrator Victor (Daniel Auteuil), a man who doesn’t seem able to accept the shifting developments of modern-day life. Unlike his cold and distant wife Marianne (Fanny Ardant), who spends her leisure time attached to VR goggles and internet-surfing, he’s an old-fashioned man who stubbornly mocks technology and is struggling with aging. That is until one day when, through a mysterious agency’s services, he decides not just to relive his past, specifically when he first met young Marianne in 1974, but more importantly to re-stage and recreate it. It’s a plot device that foreshadows La Belle Èpoque’s meta-filmic aspect, exploring the relationship between the real and the imaginary and the notion of role-playing in one’s life, and leads to the film’s fundamental question of the possibility of rewinding time and reviving that which is long-passed. It’s the latter that leads to the most interesting element of Bedos’s film, as unplanned moments complicated Victor’s attempt to re-script and re-stage lived experience according to his memories.

 As Bedos explores this particular thread, it’s easy to see thematic similarities with films like The Truman Show, Midnight in Paris, any number of Charlie Kaufman efforts, or even Westworld. It seems likely that this was supposed to work as a remarriage comedy of sorts, but instead of moving into any humorous exploration of the underlayers of the human condition, Bedos presents everything a bit like an outdated vaudeville-esque show. It’s an amalgam that ponderously functions on mere conceptualization, all clichéd plot twists and gimmicks and shallow, happy-go-lucky nostalgia. He fixes his mostly grim-faced characters within the film’s flamboyant visuals mimicking the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet with overexposed artificial colors and lighting where images lose power as they accumulate one upon another and featuring whiplash editing that mechanically cuts from one scene to the next. It’s all in favor of the film’s narrative machinery and whimsy, and Bedos fails to provide any space for delicate moments to bloom or character depth to build. Fake, talkative, and coward are among some of the harsh adjectives Marianne uses to describe her husband, and while it may not be entirely fitting to appropriate these terms as critiques of La Belle Èpoque, it’s fair to say that it’s a fairly regressive film that flirts with a lot of superficial signifiers without managing to develop much emotion or present viewers with any kind of refreshing, singular world. Put simply, Bedos may be content to repeat favored tropes from cinema past, but viewers deserve something more creative and innovative from his next effort. Ayeen Forootan


Let’s Scare Julie

The big hook of the new teen horror-thriller Let’s Scare Julie is that it takes place in real time, designed to look like an 83-minute unbroken shot. So imagine my surprise when, within the first ten minutes, I spotted several cuts so obvious that a blind man could see them from space. Don’t get me wrong, by this point, the one-take thing is so overused that I honestly couldn’t care less. But if this is the only thing your film has going for it, and you are trumpeting it in your marketing materials, you’d better make sure you deliver at least on the most basic level, which is ironic considering Let’s Scare Julie is the most basic horror film imaginable. A group of absolutely obnoxious girls get together one night to hang and decide to scare their new neighbor, Julie, who recently moved into a home that is believed to be haunted because of some bullshit involving the former owner, who got into “the supernatural” after the death of her daughter. These girls literally have no idea who Julie is, they have neither seen nor met her, so why they want to terrorize her is beyond me. Yet they go through with their plan, and one by one, they go missing. Unfortunately, we are stuck back at the homestead with our gloomy sad-sack protagonist, Emma (Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson), where absolutely nothing scary is happening save for a drunk dad with a gun who feels remorse for accidentally killing a child (?). Once in a while one of the girls will make a brief reappearance and spout nonsense, or call Emma to scream and cry. None of it is the least bit scary, not even when we finally get to experience the haunted house for ourselves, which basically amounts to hiding in a basement. Lest you think Let’s Scare Julie isn’t deep, though, prepare yourself for the ending, in which the real-life horrors of teen bullying finally get their proper due in cinema through a stirring monologue in which Emma tells her little sister, “Be good to others” before tearfully accepting her fate. Dear readers, I confess I am now a changed man, and I apologize to anyone I may have wronged in the past. I expect writer-director Jud Cremata to issue his own formal apology to viewers of this uninspired dreck in the coming weeks. Steven Warner


Death of Me

There’s a scene early on in the shoddy new horror-thriller Death of Me where Neil (Luke Hemsworth) makes a Wicker Man joke to his wife Christine (Maggie Q). They’re vacationing on a small island off the coast of Thailand and, after a night of drunken revelry that neither can remember, they’ve discovered a video recording of him strangling her to death, then burying her corpse. Except she’s alive, standing right there in front of him, understandably confused. It’s a decent hook for a horror flick, and then this knowing comment grinds everything to a screeching halt. It’s a self-conscious bit of Tarantino-esque nonsense, the kind of thing that insecure filmmakers use to let the audience know that they know their genre history, a wink and a nudge. It’s simultaneously stupid and manages to tells you exactly where the rest of the narrative is going to go, and here it’s the first dumb decision in a movie full of dumb decisions. 

Put fairly, Death of Me is a mind-bogglingly tedious bit of vaguely racist horseshit that is devoid of chills, thrills, or even cheap gore. The film engenders thoughts of kung fu movies, Wu-Tang Clan, Geto Boys, Kool Keith, and Horrorcore, that long, fascinating history of overlap between hip hop and genre cinema, not because any of those things relates in any way to this particular movie, but because Death of Me wafts in one ear and out the other and viewers will need something else to think about. Another thing horror, action, and rap fans can agree on: there’s nothing worse than being fucking boring. Director Darren Lynn Bousman made his name on the Saw franchise, and it takes a unique (lack of) talent to make one wish they were instead watching one of those dumb nu-metal torture-porn slogs. 

Anyway, Neil and Christine run around this small island town, demanding answers to their admittedly unique predicament. This happens with alarmingly repetitive frequency, until finally a secondary character tells Christine exactly what’s going on in what amounts to about five minutes of exposition. Christine then spends the last reel trying to escape her gruesome fate, being chased by islanders who are supposedly scary because they’re not white, and then the movie ends. Based on the laundry list of co-financiers that scroll past during the film’s opening credits, one can only surmise that this was a tax shelter or money-laundering scheme for the producers and a paid vacation for the cast and crew. Hopefully they had a good time making it because no one will have a good time watching it. Daniel Gorman

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