by InRO Staff Film

Before We Vanish | December 2020 — Part 2: I’m Your Woman, Finding Yingying, Billie

December 18, 2020
Credit: AFI Fest

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.


I’m Your Woman

The goals of I’m Your Woman are obvious. By pushing the criminal men to the margins of a crime movie, Julia Hart seeks to evacuate the genre of its masculine posturing and recenter the focus on the women who remain, in this case Rachel Brosnahan’s Jean. When her criminal husband doesn’t come home one night, Jean is whisked away by an old friend of his and sent into hiding, accompanied only by her baby. The baby was, one way or another, criminally acquired, as her husband simply showed up with it one day after years of Jean’s struggles with infertility. For the first hour or so, the criminal underworld stays at arm’s length, with Jean navigating the paranoia of her situation and the mundane pains of new motherhood. Slowly but surely, Jean comes out of hiding in the film’s back half, and a rather convincing crime film emerges, as our heroine plunges headfirst into the underworld looking for answers but finding only violence.

But despite Hart’s evident chops for this mode of genre filmmaking, her ambitions never feel wholly realized here. For one thing, much of I’m Your Woman’s second half seems to work in opposition to the first, as the film gives way to the exact sort of drama it had been avoiding without adding anything particularly new. More importantly and problematically, Hart and Brosnahan never fully realize Jean’s interiority. Hart’s frames often suggest the suffocation of domestic spaces, much in the same way Todd Haynes films Julianne Moore’s home in Safe, and her narrative of an innocent woman entangled in crime might recall something like Wanda, but the film is only ever the meager sum of its borrowed parts. While Brosnahan does a fine job conveying Jean’s easily readable emotions — fear, mostly — and maintains a compellingly cagey demeanor, the performance wants for the richness of a complex inner life. What characterization there is, apart from being scared and maternally inclined, is given through exposition arrived at during meaningful plot beats. And that’s the problem with I’m Your Woman writ large: it’s a film that seeks to dig beneath the surface of the crime drama but can only muster surfaces of its own. Chris Mello


Credit: MTV Documentary Films

Finding Yingying

Mere weeks after her arrival in the United States, Yingying Zhang, a visiting scholar from Peking University, went missing and was presumed dead. An avid agricultural student with dreams of managing her own ecology team once she graduated, she vanished from the University of Illinois campus on June 9, 2017, just as she was scheduled to sign an apartment lease. A federal investigation soon narrowed the suspect to one Brendt Allen Christensen, a former university student whose car was identified on camera picking her up. Christensen resisted questioning, confessing his grisly deeds only some two years later at his trial. Finding Yingying, Jiayan Shi’s moving portrait of a family in perpetual anguish, does not neglect to cover this aforementioned sequence of events, but the focus of its action, as per its title, is on the present continuous. Beyond an admission of guilt, or conclusive proof of Yingying’s remains, it is the hope that she might be out there somewhere, alive, which her family clings to.

Initially utilizing a true-crime procedural framework, Shi deftly sidesteps such bare bones to find the meat of the matter, charting the earnestly raw emotional aftermath of Yingying’s disappearance. The torturous wait for justice takes its greatest toll on her family as they await Christensen’s sentencing, frequently delayed in murky legal waters, and Shi captures their most gut-wrenching moments over a two-year period with startling immediacy. Herself an alumnus of Peking University — and from the same batch as Yingying — Shi invests a personal dimension into her documentary, empathizing on the basis of not only the family’s tragedy but also their shared immigrant status. In her diary, which Shi narrates out loud (albeit in English), Yingying articulates both the optimism and uneasiness felt upon touchdown; a fish out of water, she was eagerly determined to succeed, but felt stymied by familial separation and cultural distance. The kindness of strangers, ubiquitous back home, presents itself as a rarity over in this foreign land.

More than a factual account of her disappearance, Finding Yingying pays tribute to those who have survived her, bravely and intimately expressing the wounds hacked into the hearts of grieving parents, siblings, significant others, and countrymen. Many Chinese families who send their children abroad do contend with such risks, even as the U.S. remains a promised land in the eyes of most. Most crucially, Shi’s film celebrates Yingying’s life, her hopes and aspirations. “Life is too short to be ordinary.” Giving voice to her for the final time, Finding Yingying bittersweetly commemorates a life tragically cut short. Morris Yang


Billie

In February 1978, young arts writer and journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl was found dead under mysterious circumstances, thrown out of a window in Washington, D.C. For roughly a decade, Kuehl had dedicated herself to uncovering the true story of the legendary jazz artist, Billie Holiday. Despite recording hundreds of hours of interviews with many of Holiday’s collaborators and friends, the 38-year-old biographer never found the opportunity to publish her book, and the content of her tapes was left unheard. Fortunately, Kuehl’s decade-long research and immense audio archive can finally see the light of day, as it provides the considerable groundwork for British filmmaker James Erskine’s Billie. Indeed, this genesis sets Erskine’s biography apart from most other portrait-docs as it primarily relies on these recorded interviews rather than the typical talking-head interviews audiences have been conditioned to expect from the format — an on-camera conversation with Linda’s sister, Myra Luftman, proves the only exception here. It’s not only a novel approach but a strategically sound one, as Billie is not only a documentation of one of the greatest voices in the history of music, but also a platform for Erskine to evoke unheard voices from the past, affording them space to narrate their own history as the director carefully compliments and enhances through stock footage and archival images. A similarly successful example of Erskine’s delicate method can be seen in how he connects different crucial incidents of Holiday’s life with songs from her discography; as Holiday states in an interview, “The things that I sing have to have something to do with me and my life.” God Bless the Child accompanies details of her birth in Baltimore, Saddest Taleplays alongside talk of her work as a prostitute in her teenage years, and the singer’s famous and famously controversial Strange Fruit plays after Erskine recounts Holiday’s split with her all-white Artie Shaw band.

 Indeed, in Billie, Erskine is very consciously up to something more complex than the usual; he doesn’t intend to merely recount the fabled difficulties of Holiday’s life, including destructive romances, her path from smoking  “reefer” to struggling with cocaine and heroin addiction, and the subsequent and harassing narcotics investigations. For the director, what is far more fascinating are the ways an icon like Holiday can maintain relevance, even still featuring in present discourse, after over half of a century. Erskine guides his film toward issues of racial bigotry, sexual domination, and discrimination, underscoring (although with admitted imbalance) how the tragic fates of Holiday and Kuehl, two women from wholly different backgrounds, so profoundly resonate in each other’s story. Even if Billie retains a linear and relatively conventional structure, and probably isn’t as ambitious as it could be, one might still qualify its efforts as strangely fruitful thanks to Erskine’s audacious confrontation of the material. Indeed, the vision feels quite in tune with a sentiment conveyed partway through the film: “It was Billie’s interpretation […] not the song itself.” Ayeen Forootan


Credit: IFC Midnight

Hunter Hunter

It wouldn’t be entirely correct to call the new survival-thriller film Hunter Hunter a bait-and-switch; there’s no twist, exactly, but it does end in a very different place than it begins, first complicating, then ultimately abandoning its original narrative impetus for something altogether darker. Initially crafting a portrait of an unconventional family — fur trappers that live deep in the woods, purposefully eschewing most human contact — writer-director Shawn Linden gradually introduces new characters, each of whom expands upon or otherwise invade the cloistered Edenic space occupied by this familial unit. An almost unrecognizable Devon Sawa is Mersault, a tough, sometimes severe man who is teaching his teenage daughter Renee (Summer H. Howell) the tricks of the family trade, while wife Anne (Camille Sullivan) tends to their home and cooks whatever game Mersault can hunt or trap. Times are tough, as fur prices have gone down while living expenses have gone up, and Anne has grown weary of their hermetic, unsustainable way of life. For her part, Renee, eager to learn at her father’s feet, seems perfectly content to ignore the traditional lifestyle of a teenager. Into this domestic conflict comes a rogue wolf, who is poaching Mersault’s traps and encroaching farther and farther into the family’s land. There’s some kind of traumatic history here, as Anne alludes to past encounters with the wolf and is immediately terrified of it. Linden sets all this up with terrific efficiency and a sharp eye for unobtrusive realism. There are long stretches of father and daughter hiking, tracking, baiting traps, and skinning and tanning hides, conveyed with a fastidious attention to detail (it must be noted that those wary of even fictional depictions of animal violence should stay far, far away from here).

The family dynamic is also carefully delineated; no one here is a villain, but Anne comes across as pragmatic while Mersault becomes more obstinate. In a fit of hubris, Mersault decides to trap the wolf himself instead of going to the authorities, leaving Renee and Anne by themselves while he begins his days-long trek. It’s here that Linden starts juggling multiple threads and points-of-view, as Anne repeatedly fails to reach Mersault via walkie talkie and fears the worst, while Mersault stumbles across a gruesome scene buried deep in the heart of the forest. When Anne visits the local police station, two more characters enter the story, although it’s unclear at first what narrative purpose they serve. Linden isn’t afraid to leave our main protagonists offscreen for long swaths of time, a seemingly odd choice that comes into focus as the film progresses. To say more would be criminal, as Linden turns the screws in unexpected ways while the film marches inexorably towards a brutal, frenzied climax that rivals Bone Tomahawk for its inclusion of near-unwatchable acts of violence. Ultimately, there’s more to fear out there than wolves, and our unfortunate family learns too late that they were right to shun humankind. Daniel Gorman


The Last Blockbuster

Corporate nostalgia gets quite a workout in The Last Blockbuster, Taylor Morden’s breezy documentary on the world’s lone Blockbuster Video still open for business. Morden attempts to find the human angle in this tale of greed run amok, focusing on “Blockbuster Mom” Sandi Harding, manager of the last remaining relic in Bend, Oregon, who by all accounts seems to be a very nice and personable woman, thus making her exceedingly dull on screen. The film also rounds up an eclectic array of B- and C-listers to share fond memories of the video haven, whether it be stories of nights spent perusing its aisles or reminiscences from individuals who were once employed by the behemoth. Indeed, where else but in this film would you be able to hear the likes of Paul Scheer, Ron Fuchs, Adam Brody, Kevin Smith, Jamie Kennedy, Doug Benson, and, most importantly, the guitarist from Smash Mouth, wax rhapsodic on the great blue-and-yellow wonder? Morden also offers up a history of the company, details of its meteoric rise and devastating fall, including the now-infamous tale of how Netflix founder Reed Hastings offered to sell Netflix to Blockbuster only for the stockholders to laugh him out of the office. And if all this love for a corporation that bilked customers for millions of dollars in late fees has you feeling a certain way, Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman is on hand to spit some vitriol about how Blockbuster refused to carry his films. 

The whole thing goes down easily enough, but substance is hard to come by. Even at a brief 85 minutes, The Last Blockbuster is as padded as a preteen’s bra, endlessly repeating the same tired platitudes about how video stores were more than just a place to rent movies, but where one went for a sense of community and long-sought human connection. A visit was truly an event: walking up and down the aisles, reading the backs of the cases, talking to the employees, hearing their recommendations. Anyone who grew up in this era will certainly find a thrill or two in seeing shared experiences in the film’s anecdotes, but the very same effect could be achieved by simply talking to your friends or family about that bygone (but somehow still recent) era; at least then you wouldn’t be subjected to Morden’s terrible cover of “All-Star.” There’s also a strange level of ironic detachment on display in a film that seems so earnest in its intentions, embodied by those individuals who travel from literally around the globe to visit this last rental mecca, more concerned with snapping tourist-trap selfies than luxuriating in the nostalgia they claim to so desperately crave. The Last Blockbuster has its heart in the right place, but it ultimately proves as unfocused as a VHS tape in need of tracking. Steven Warner


Credit: Utopia

Minor Premise

One of the science fiction genre’s most enduring fascinations has been with memory and its plasticine architecture — better endowed in a cinematic context for the formal apparatus at a filmmaker’s disposal, allowing myriad perspectives and entry points into a subject’s psyche to unravel, limited only by one’s visual imagination and facility. Count Minor Premise (conceived early in the year as a teaser short), the debut feature of Eric Schultz, as yet another slab atop this increasingly unstable, though not entirely untenable edifice. The title’s quite a lark, really — from the get-go, we’re squared into a fragmentary language of ellipse and incident that’s redistributed into incoherent snippets, jargon-loaded spurts gathering into something unearthly (“Isn’t that, like, unethical?”, “You know, there are some things you shouldn’t try to control”; all comic trivialities brushing against Unchecked Ambition). More proudly displayed, still, is the film’s debt to the shoestring independent offerings of yesteryear, now widely-known as shorthand for structural complexity (think Coherence and Primer), a wonder crop from which it frequently purloins its look and momentum, with little regard for their focused construction. 

Our locus is Ethan (Sathya Sridharan), an embittered neuroscientist whose desire to surpass his late father’s unparalleled achievements and academic decoration leads him to test a research methodology and thesis — that pockets of someone’s memory serve as neutral spaces for the mapping of emotions, and can be isolated to produce positive responses in them — on himself. Failure is a foregone conclusion as per wayward tinkering of this sort, and his consciousness decomposes into different personalities named for the archetypes they resemble, each taking helm for six minutes per hour. External interests are kept strictly professional or are eschewed entirely; the company Ethan keeps throughout constitutes his ex, Alli (Paton Ashbrook), and co-worker, Malcolm (Dana Ashbrook, settling cozily into life after Bobby Briggs), the former intent on rekindling a dormant relationship and who injects the otherwise stultifying environs with some measure of humanity. In a more productive work, the quandary presented here would lean decisively towards either impish absurdity, mining farce from Ethan’s whiplash-inducing shifts and physical antics, or something altogether crueler, putting at the forefront an emphasis on the stakes of his downward spiral, each piece of interior machinery allowing the ugliness of normally suppressed instincts to emerge. As it stands, his initial hubristic characterization — which hints at pervasive alcoholism, domestic disputes, and an unhappy coming-of-age — evaporates after the main thrust gets its day in the sun, canted off for a series of meandering passages within which are manic paroxysms that bear no consequence or lasting impact. They are occasionally clarified in more personal domain when flashbacks are involved, but are even here deflated by some less than stellar effects montages. It doesn’t help that Sridharan, while possessing a theatrical background which, theoretically, should aid the film’s chamber-y staging, fails at mustering both the cuckoo energy demanded by his role and its more reflective interludes with Alli or at Ethan’s father’s deathbed, and subsequently retreats into sluggish, shell-shocked mugging. 

Minor Premise’s gestures towards impenetrable design, too, end up blunted, as its structuring goes from outwardly rhizomatic — with multiple solutions proposed to the same forward waypoint — to unambiguously linear (final zinger just to leave you thinking!), elaborating on its various enigmas so that no further discourse may arise. This bait-and-switch understandably skirts accusations of needless obfuscation, but ultimately punches down a more refreshing oddity to be reckoned with. Of the many traits that make up a human being’s spiritual and emotional whole, Premise concludes on Alli’s dictum that, “In isolation, these fragments are coarse, even unrecognizable, but when they co-exist in a single consciousness, something emerges […] something called self.” It’s a platitude appropriately set to schmaltzy images of reconnection, nicely tying together the 90 minutes we’ve just slogged through, which amount to a series of ill-fitting elements stitched together that fail to congeal into any interesting gestalt or even appealing jumble. Minor Premise inches at broad targets, but always without anchor. Nicholas Yap


The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee

The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee is a strange film indeed. A meta-sequel to the wildly popular Crocodile Dundee series (well, parts one and two, anyway), the film sees Paul Hogan playing himself — or, at least, some semi-fictional version of himself. Now 80 years old, Hogan finds himself in lean times: no one really remembers him anymore, although it seems to only really bother him whenever it is convenient to the script. This senior citizen would rather spend his days napping on the couch than trying to get a reboot off the ground, although his upcoming knighthood by the Queen herself — for special services in… comedy? — has thrust him back into the spotlight, and he keeps fucking things up because, well, he’s 80 and gets confused easily. What follows is a series of comedic set-pieces that mostly revolve around either a simple misunderstanding or Hogan’s inability to understand today’s ultra-sensitive PC beliefs. Somewhere out there exists a version of this script that is a stealth satire on the current cancel culture. As co-written by Robert Mond and director Dean Murphy, what we instead get is a series of toothless scenes where Hogan is deemed a racist because he says Will Smith is Black; is accused of child abuse after being attacked by some underage hellions; and inadvertently knocks out a nun with a water bottle. He’s also involved in a high-speed car chase with John Cleese, of all people, playing himself as a wacky Uber driver. This film also asserts that Hogan is friends with such high-powered celebrities as Reginal VelJohnson, Olivia Newton-John, Wayne Knight, and Chevy Chase, all playing themselves. A couple of the Hemsworth brothers even pop up for cameos. Euphoria’s Jacob Elordi, meanwhile, plays Hogan’s son, who at various points is seen running a nightclub out of his bedroom, teaching yoga, and working as an online Spanish teacher. This baffling subplot has absolutely no payoff and seems to exist solely for filler, as does nearly everything else in this film, including an aspiring paparazzi photographer who lives in Hogan’s front yard and desperately wants to prove his worth to his own mother.

Objectively, this is a terrible film, featuring more greenscreen than The Phantom Menace, and a directing style that can charitably be described as lazy. Oddly, the majority of the scenes take place in moving vehicles, static medium-shots of the actors intercut with shots of the exterior backend of the car because, hey, visual interest? There is something so good-natured and genial about the film, though, that it is near impossible to get too worked up about anything on display. This is ultimately a lame film about an 80-year-old has-been that seems to have been made exclusively for the 80 and over crowd, those who will find dated jokes about crazy drink combinations (Kale? In a shake?!) still humorous. There is, however, an absolutely batshit song-and-dance number at the midway-point inspired by Hogan’s classic Dundee line, “You call that a knife?” that feels like a drug-induced hallucination that I still can’t quite believe is real. It is the only very excellent thing to be found in this decades-late misfire. Steven Warner

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