by InRO Staff Film

Before We Vanish | November 2020: Dreamland, Zappa, Monsoon

Credit: Automatik Entertainment

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.


Dreamland

Set during the Great Depression and amidst the dusty storms of small-town Texas, Miles Joris-Peyrafitte’s sophomore effort Dreamland opens with intoxicating narration courtesy of the half-sister of the film’s youthful outlaw protagonist. “Eugene left me with something more important than any of the facts. Now, first thing people get wrong about his story is the beginning.” Phoebe, that half-sister grown-up, conjures a historical milieu for us, her Malickian voiceover accompanying and commanding an impressive series of human portraits and geographical landscapes, stretching from the time of their parents’ venture into homesteading to Eugene Evans (Finn Cole) as a young man. His father left when he was five and sent him a postcard of Mexico, the “eye of God”; his stepfather, a sheriff’s deputy, shackles him to a restless state of discipline and mundanity. A clandestine reader of pulp fiction, Eugene longs for adventure: Mexico, Mozambique, anywhere away from the arid and meager prospects of subsistence farming. Such is his obsession with the gun-toting outlaws from his dreams that when one of them appears — first in the news, and then before his eyes — he plots not to take them into custody and claim a bounty that would put his family in financial comfort for the rest of his life, but to join them.

Allison Wells (Margot Robbie), the outlaw in question and wanted for murder after a bank shoot-out, holds both subversive charm and sexual allure for Eugene; wounded from the shoot-out and recuperating inside the Evans’ barnyard, she recounts her misfortunes to the starstruck adolescent, desperate to impress upon him the severity of her situation and his pivotal role in transforming it. Naturally, concupiscence conquers its master, conservatism; with little but a loving mother and lovable sister to lose, and a whole life (potentially alongside Allison) to gain, Eugene sets out to chronicle the latter as his own. The gorgeous if somewhat generic expositions in Dreamland’s first half soon give way to a compelling odyssey of two souls on the lam. Joris-Peyrafitte, as if anticipating criticism of the initial stretch’s plodding aping of greater classics and their memorable world-building, soon changes gears and veers into storytelling proper, inflating his Bonnie and Clyde with a mythos befitting of legends. A wild-goose chase for dreamland finds itself outpaced by the sheriff’s team, Eugene’s stepfather included. Allison, unmoored from Eugene’s naïve buoyancy, tries to caution the boy: in one of the film’s most striking shots, the camera lingers on Eugene for the longest time in the shower as he strips and wrestles with this irreversible transition. We glimpse Allison only in the periphery, and not until he affirms their shared destiny does she come into frame, and their visages — previously cut off — emerge, united. Dreamland concludes with a running off into the great, unknown expanse of fiction; more important, sometimes, than any of the facts. Morris Yang


Credit: Zappa Trust

Zappa

Whether you appreciate Frank Zappa’s work, few would deny the massive impact he had on contemporary art music. The musician, who died relatively young after a terminal battle with prostate cancer at the age of 53, was something of a curiosity: a chain-smoker who was vehemently anti-drugs; a self-taught multi-instrumentalist and musical virtuoso who, unlike many of his contemporaries, wasn’t initially drawn to the world of music because of a fascination with rock or blues. Instead, for Zappa, it all began in his teenage years when he first heard Edgard Varèse’s ominous-sounding compositions, an enduring and defining period that gradually led to Zappa’s very eccentric experimentalist style that placed him in the tradition of other avant-garde greats like Charles Ives, Harry Partch, and Sun Ra. In Zappa, it’s a sentiment best expressed through the words of Mothers of Invention percussionist Ruth Underwood: she dismisses such reductive categorizations as rock ‘n’ roll or jazz or pop, simply stating, “It’s Zappa.” And so, a fair question to ask of a documentary tackling such an enigmatic, bewildering man is what approach will provide the best expression, both formally and narratively? 

The answer, here, seems partly inevitable thanks to the immense personal vault of archival footage that the industry iconoclast and outspoken socio-political activist gathered and preserved throughout his lifetime. Director Alex Winter was given unprecedented opportunity to access over a thousand hours of mostly unseen material, assembling Zappa over the course of six years. But what makes for a crucial distinction between Winter’s film and so many other portrait-docs is that Winter never seeks to solve or understand Zappa’s singular mercurial character, and instead seeks to convey and celebrate the artist’s mystical aura and puzzling persona. Given the musician’s legacy and the sheer amassment of footage, fascinating anecdotes and information and images abound, but much of Zappa’s power is found in Winter’s deployment of restraint and economy of focus, his construction of the myriad parts always precise. There are talking-head interviews with Zappa’s friends, collaborators, and, most notably, his widow Gail Zappa, but Winter always keeps these conversations succinct, mostly allowing the images and words of Zappa to narrate their own history. The director never evinces any inclination for album-to-album storytelling or excessive biographical reportage, but instead, through very rhythmic editing, he tends toward a free-flowing style of filmmaking that almost resembles the spontaneous tone and feel of Zappa’s own underground directorial work in the ‘60s. On a few occasions in the film, Zappa is shown explicating on his artistic approach: specifically, that for him the most essential factor in creating music was to always and only make music that he would want to listen to. But rather than an egoistic statement, it’s actually an ego-deferring one, reflecting a man’s passion for, dedication to, and faith in his work at the expense of the easier road to success that the mainstream affords. It’s a quality that also defines Alex Winter’s tremendous effort, a work that stays true to its subject’s unique spirit and delivers the goods for avid music fans. Ayeen Forootan


Monsoon

The alienation of a Vietnamese expatriate named Kit (Henry Golding), who returns to his ancestral home after a lifetime spent in Britain, is at the core of Hong Khaou‘s Monsoon, an altogether lovely and poignant exploration of cultural identity in a nation forever changed by imperialist violence. Kit has returned to a Vietnam he can barely remember in order to scatter his mother’s ashes. But returning his mother to her homeland is merely the pretense for a journey of spiritual reawakening in which Kit reconnects with his own identity — both culturally and sexually, exploring the ever-shifting identity of a nation in flux through a series of one-night stands and a fleeting romance with a Canadian entrepreneur named Lewis (Parker Sawyers).

In many ways, Monsoon is a more focused and incisive exploration of the effects of imperialism on Vietnam than Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods. Whereas Lee’s take is more raw and thorny and unwieldy, it very much maintains the character of an American take on the devastation wrought by the war. Monsoon is something else altogether: an insider’s view of the post-War landscape and portrait of the nation’s modernity. Director Hong Khaou — who fled to Vietnam from Cambodia as a child to escape the Khmer Rouge, before then immigrating to the UK — seems to be channeling his own experience as a stranger in his own strange homeland. For Kit, Vietnam exists as abstract memory, a home to which he feels no specific kinship, yet one he seeks to connect with as an important piece of his identity. Hong’s graceful direction creates a kind of sensuous lyricism that recalls the fluid filmmaking of Kogonada’s Columbus by way of Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, and the formal strokes meld nicely in this queer romance where self-exploration has less to do with the visible sexuality and more to do with a former refugee’s pursuit of a sense of belonging.

The Ho Chi Minh City of modern times is a vibrant place, teeming with life and culture — for younger generations born after the war, the American conflict is something of an abstraction — and it is through this lovely backdrop that Kit wanders: day-dreaming, longing, fucking, and ultimately getting in touch with the man he was always meant to be. Monsoon is a delicate, lovely thing, a poetic exploration of identity through the lens of a man who doesn’t feel like he has one of his own. It’s a deeply personal and often aching work, but rather than dully sketching a man mid-identity crisis, it instead depicts an awakening, a man coming to terms with his past and opening his eyes to the future. Hong’s languid sense of pacing lends this 85-minute film an uncommon grace and helps build understated power, exploring a lifetime’s worth of longing and uncertainty in the briefest of encounters. Matthew Lucas


Credit: NYFF

Born to Be

Born to Be, directed by Tania Cypriano, takes as its subject New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital and the multitude of stories belonging to the transgender patients currently going through some form of surgical transition. Given the creation of new methods and procedures, this film has been released at a significant time in the history and development of trans medicine. Comprised of footage taken at the hospital — meetings, check-ups, and the moments before and after surgeries — Born to Be focuses largely on the work of Dr. Jess Ting and his interactions with his patients. In addition to this, we’re shown a number of more intimate explorations detailing the lives — past and present — of those transitioning, which helps weave together their experiences with the intricacies of pioneering new medical procedures. At the moment, access to the care seen throughout this film is limited and subject to a large waiting line, so one of its central tensions is the great stress placed upon both staff and prospective patients because of their knowledge of the urgent nature of the hospital’s work.

Dr. Ting’s role in the film occasionally slips over into a “great man” portrait, an understandable instinct in depicting a person whose labor proves beneficial for so many. And yet, given his relative distance from the lived experience of his patients, there’s a risk in having him mediate such an exploration of this subject. If there is one major issue, it’s that the film hampers its own ability to convey the protracted struggle that transitioning people face, treating them more as subjects than as partners in the creation of this documentary. Contextual information often adheres to a reductive desire for brevity, and even the mention of one patient’s suicide attempt comes as a surprise simply because her struggle has been so flimsily drawn. Born to Be is at its best when the voices of its subject serve not only to edify but also to help the audience gain an intimate understanding of the procedures of those who are transitioning. As such, the film can be taken as a testament to medical progress — and a successful one, too. But it delivers on as many fronts as it misses, leaving viewers with the impression that there’s simply much more that needs to be said. Sam Thomas-Redfern 


Triggered

With a title like Triggered, one might be forgiven for expecting some kind of topical political content, subtextual or otherwise, especially given the horror genre’s long history of smuggling big ideas in between the blood and guts. But Triggered does no such thing; in fact, other than featuring some tired jabs aimed at “lazy millennials,” it doesn’t do much of anything at all. Despite a clever-enough set up and some appealingly gloopy gore, there’s not much to distinguish Triggered from countless other low-budget horror flicks littering streaming sites. Here, a group of old friends gather in the woods for a reunion of sorts, drinking, smoking, and reminiscing about their high school years. After lights out, they are unexpectedly rendered unconscious, eventually waking up to discover elaborate electronic vests locked onto their bodies. Each one has a timer that is counting down to zero, and when the countdown ends, the rig explodes. The catch? Each person can “steal” time from someone else’s clock if they kill them, a process that repeats itself until there’s a last man (or woman) standing. It’s an idea highly reminiscent of the miserable Saw franchise (which one of the obnoxiously self-aware, pop-culture-savvy characters here is quick to lampshade). 

There’s a lot of problems here, not least of which is the collection of uninteresting assholes at the film’s center. Director Alastair Orr and co-writer David D. Jones can only think in clichés and hamfisted exposition, leading to a lot of awkward, clunky conversations and tired, sub-Diablo Cody pop culture zingers (exhibit A: “I knew you had no feelings when you didn’t cry at the end of Terminator 2!”). There’s no discernible reason these people would ever be friends, nor any reason to think that these jackassess would have any qualms about killing each other to save themselves. They mostly hurl invectives and squabble over who slept with whose significant others. It doesn’t help that the fuzzy, dark cinematography makes every scene look virtually identical, nor that half the cast looks alike. One couple becomes the de facto heroes of the story, mostly by virtue of looking a little different from the others and thereby easier to distinguish. But their characterization begins and ends with them constantly declaring “I’m a rockstar” and “I’m smart, I go to MIT.” There’s a narrative through-line involving a dark secret from the group’s past, a shared trauma that has led to their current predicament. But it’s employed entirely haphazardly, only popping up intermittently to goose the lagging narrative momentum, and by the time the culprit is revealed, audiences will surely be more excited that the whole endeavor is almost over. The only thing this movie will trigger is a viewer’s flight response. Daniel Gorman


Credit: IMDB

Echo Boomers

“A true story…if you believe in such things.” So goes the opening text of Echo Boomers, a snarky and reductive bid at social commentary, satisfied to be yet another in a long line of highly-stylized Boondock Saints –wannabes. Director and co-writer Seth Savoy, making his feature film debut, seems to earnestly believe that his film has something of note to say about modern millennials, a generation given the proverbial shaft by its capitalism-worshipping forefathers. Drowning in a sea of student loan debt and with little to no job opportunities, what is a twenty-something supposed to do if not steal from the 1% and destroy their possessions as some sort of political statement? That’s the path taken by Lance Zutterland (Patrick Schwarzenegger) and his group of cohorts as they set out to make some cash and take back what is rightfully theirs. Yet, the rub: why exactly do these self-satisfied assholes think they deserve anything? Echo Boomers is a film of such impressive stupidity that it never once thinks to address such a potentially incisive question — foregoing the chance to drill down into a few different theses, such as the tension between an increasingly-embraced post-capitalist ideology and an internet-era-raised generation’s collective pathology of entitlement — opting instead to mindlessly revel in the group’s debauchery and paint them as some sort of twisted, modern-day Robin Hoods: steal from the rich and give to themselves. 

In fairness, the irony doesn’t go entirely unnoticed, as the title itself refers to how money is a corrupting power that trickles down from one generation to the next, infecting even our loveable “heroes.” In a scene of pure chutzpah, one of the guys goes to a fancy restaurant and laments how the waiter is a struggling father desperately trying to make money to support his family after losing his job, before proceeding to treat him as subhuman when the poor guy attempts to remove a plate too early. However, as one character artlessly states at film’s end, “You are not just an echo of those that came before you. Your generation uses less tobacco and alcohol and is more diverse, thus more accepting of others.” This whole thing plays something like Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring sans satire, and the result is about as cringy as that description promises. It doesn’t help that the cast is uniformly awful, with Schwarzenegger possessing none of his father’s screen presence or charisma, while Alex Pettyfer pops up to remind us why he went away in the first place. Poor Michael Shannon is on hand as well, but considering this film was shot in his hometown of Chicago, let’s just choose to believe that he either wanted to make a convenient quick buck or owed the producers a favor. In either case, his considerable screen presence is wasted in this dud. Oh, and a little research reveals that this isn’t any sort of true story at all — how very Coens-esque. Now, kindly fuck off, Echo Boomers. Steven Warner


Girl

There isn’t real reason to brood much over Girl, a uniformly monotonous thriller which features broad strokes of anonymity that bleed into a kind of wishful zeal, squandering it’s lite-genre trappings and boasting a directorial sensibility that renders its potentially sharp edges into something more amorphous. So instead, many of my words will be re-focused on a discussion of what Girl reflects within the continuity of Bella Thorne’s career, and how first-time director (and supporting cast member) Chad Faust simultaneously, in an apparent accident, assimilates her distinct mannerisms into the void of anchored plotting.

Thorne, as her career has evolved, seems to have embraced a facade similar to someone like Kristen Stewart, insofar as she has situated herself firmly within what can be described as a bohemian unorthodoxy within the very specific Hollywood diegesis. As a performer, she has never felt like she truly was part of any film she has appeared in, and her recent string of EP credits attached to her starring works further emphasizes, in a strange ontological orientation, the manner in which she seems to drift through the very mise-en-scene of such films. Indeed, her best quality lies precisely within this alienating affinity for morbid curiosity, the very singularity of her screen presence: Thorne constantly appears to look through any performer she works with, leaving her functionally alone in the scenes she occupies, effectively curtailing the totality of the production and instead making of this idiosyncrasy a kind of sponge, capable of consuming all other scenery and surrounding cast within. In other words, she’s a performance artist, if forced to ascribe a label to her method, and it will be a fascinating day when some filmmaker realizes that traditional dramaturgy isn’t something she can accomplish.

And so now we find ourselves at Girl, an unfortunately haphazard work that attempts to shape itself according to Thorne’s presence, and in doing so ultimately allows its flourishes to collapse into a nebulous derivative of faux-Texas Chainsaw back-of-the-woods-isms. Even Mickey Rourke falls victim to the tedium. But then the film drops a twist, one that doesnt exacerbate the already-buried narrative, and the films coda proceeds to deliver a rather surprising moment of pathos, with Thornes characterization puncturing the film’s fabric of monotony. It’s a glimpse at an indeterminate something, like drifting off under the spell of a star-filled sky’s abyss, something perhaps affecting in its mystery. In that last glimpse of the unremarkable, we glance again. Zachary Goldkind


Credit: Empire

Make Up

There’s no shortage of coming-of-age stories out there, so credit director Claire Oakley for trying something a bit different with her debut feature Make Up. Set during the winter off-season at a caravan park in the seaside town of St. Ives, Cornwall, Oakley takes the familiar template of British kitchen-sink realism and injects it with a heavy dose of foreboding horror ambiance. Young Ruth (realized in an impressively reactive, opaque performance by Molly Windsor) arrives at camp in the dead of night, prepared to stay with her boyfriend Tom (Joseph Quinn) and hopefully find work. The place itself is virtually empty, with most of the pre-fab cottages literally wrapped up tight until Spring arrives, and Ruth finds herself aimlessly wandering the eerily calm beaches. When she finds a stray red hair amongst Tom’s things, Ruth is convinced that he’s been cheating on her and begins searching for a red-haired woman who may or may not exist. She soon meets other workers, including Jade (Stefanie Martini), an older, more self-assured woman who makes wigs in her spare time. Ruth assumes that Jade is the other woman, but her jealousy quickly morphs into something more complicated and abstract. As Ruth begins a kind of downward spiral, there are all sorts of strange, ominous, intrusions into this otherwise quotidian scenario, including dreamy interludes that may or may not be hallucinations and furtive glimpses of elusive phantoms. 

Oakley displays an impressive control of the frame, alternating precise, symmetrical shots of buildings and spaces with the occasional extreme closeup or bursts of jittery hand-held camerawork. Cinematographer Nick Cooke shrouds daylight scenes with a soft fuzziness while turning nighttime compositions into velvety pools of undulating black, as distant light sources meld into the darkness. There’s more emphasis here on mood than story, which lends the proceedings a certain thinness, and some of the formal moves start to suffer from familiarity after a while. But as a good faith attempt at expressing a deeply subjective psychological experience through form and mood, particularly accentuating the destabilizing notion of one discovering something heretofore unknown hidden within, Make Up is a modest success. Daniel Gorman


Dating Amber

Perhaps it should be taken as progress that films like the gay coming-of-age teen dramedy Dating Amber are no longer anomalies within the cinematic landscape. Strides have been made over the past decade when it comes to gay representation in cinema specifically and in pop culture as a whole. (That the majority of these characters are white and boast model-like looks is a discussion for another time.) Unfortunately, that also means that films that fall into this sub-genre need to do considerably more than simply demonstrate good intentions and feature a same-sex relationship. As with any successful movie, nuance and depth are important requisites of theme and character development; you can no longer skate by on novelty alone. That, unfortunately, is where Dating Amber falls flat, but it at least has a unique hook: high school seniors Eddie (Fionn O’Shea) and Amber (Lola Petticrew) are two closeted teens who decide to fake a romantic relationship in order to put a stop to the constant bullying by classmates. Eddie is also hoping to impress his father (Barry Ward), a hard-nosed military man who expects his son to follow in his soldier footsteps. Naturally, it doesn’t take long for things to spiral out of control, especially once Amber decides to officially come out after meeting a beautiful young collegian, leaving Eddie to face his sexuality struggles alone. Cue the last-minute run to the bus station before Eddie ships out to boot camp. 

Writer-director David Freyne actually injects some real moments of truth and honesty into the film, such as a late-film discussion between mother (Sharon Horgan) and son that staunchly avoids theatrics. But scenes like that exist in stark contrast to the aforementioned ending or some broad moments of “comedy” that involve handjobs and boobie-honking. And it should, of course, come as no surprise that Amber’s story is woefully underdeveloped relative to Eddie’s. Female sexuality, particularly reflected with any kind of complexity or nuance, is rarely addressed in film in a meaningful way, and Dating Amber is no exception — although, let’s be honest, that’s perhaps what’s to be expected from a male writer. Even the film’s exotic Ireland setting, all beautiful vista shots of rolling green hills, feels like somewhat secondhand backdrop to tell this story after 2017’s queer romance God’s Own Country. Despite fantastic performances across the board, especially from Petticrew and an always-welcome Horgan, Dating Amber is ultimately the kind of film where adjectives like “sweet” and “well-intentioned” get thrown around not as meaningful compliments, but because it’s honestly difficult to recall anything memorable amidst the film’s generic progressions. It’s a nice film, what can I say? Steven Warner

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