Dislocation and dissociation lie at the heart of Italian Studies, a work straddling narrative and documentary, identified precisely through its rejection of stable, reliable identity. The third feature from Adam Leon (who previously directed comedies Gimme the Loot and Tramps), Italian Studies pivots into heavier territory, centered around and within the headspace of Alina Reynolds (Vanessa Kirby), an amnesiac writer attempting to reclaim herself on the bustling streets of New York. For most of its economical seventy-eight minutes, Kirby puts on a one-woman show, journeying across fluctuating memories and fleeting impressions of her character’s environment in a perpetual fugue state. Her mental odyssey switches back and forth between the nocturnal and diurnal, seamless and unrestrained; the film’s frequent inclusion of J- and L-cuts assists these transitions, whose diegetic contents clash with their extradiegetic form and result in a slippery contouring well-suited to the spaces of imagination. It is this space into which Alina, without a concrete referent or anchor, slips, construing from its fertile depths a reality borrowed, inspired, and adapted from the fragments of others’.
Tapping into the city’s penchant for and obscene abundance of naturalism, Italian Studies surveys through Alina’s eyes New York’s cosmopolitan sea of faces, out of which her personal narrative finds its existential thrust. Defined by and against the city, isolated by virtue of her psychological tabula rasa but connected through lived experiences among its inhabitants, she mingles with diverse crowds mostly as a spectral presence, on occasion revealing a dialectical engagement beyond mere ethnographic appraisal. At a takeaway, she encounters Simon, an awkwardly genial youngster trying to sell her weed and hotdogs but, like her, mostly in search of companionship. Their interaction, cryptic yet tender, hints at a further backstory never shown. Elsewhere, she blends in with a casual group of youths who offer varying expressions of their hopes, ideas, personalities, and so on. The film’s central conceit slowly reveals itself: these fragmented encounters have made their way into Alina’s short-story collection, from where Italian Studies derives its eponymous title. She, however, has little recollection of it, relying on the clues her disjointed memory offers for a hazy approximation of reality.
In theory a promisingly ambitious study of both the atomized and collective layers of the societal landscapes littering our modern world, Leon’s autofictive approach forms a closed-circuit loop which ultimately devolves into the inconsequential, stymying an otherwise tantalizingly intertextual dialogue between the amphibious elements of reality and artifice that make up storytelling. Kirby’s persistently wide-eyed ambivalence is symptomatic of the film’s larger issue with its pacing; initially pensive, the screenplay’s banal rhythm — mistaken for improvisatory flair — soon turns ponderous, even for Alina herself. Unlike Nicolás Pereda’s drolly engaging Fauna, featuring a similarly metafictional construct, Italian Studies lacks the former’s cultural specificity, resorting to conventional wisdom and faux-realism in the urban signifiers that prop up the writer’s real and literary personas. Perhaps Leon might be articulating a grim reality about modernity’s cultural limitations after all; even so, it’s presented as a fait accompli, leaving Kirby (and us) in the dark to come to terms with, and then inexplicably transcend, its unestablished fiction.
Writer: Morris Yang
Titled in homage to the Van Morrison song of the same name, Sweet Thing exemplifies a similar sense of vague wonder at life’s beauty and tumult. “And I will be satisfied / Not to read between the lines” the song goes, and one imagines that director Alexandre Rockwell wants his latest film approached on similar terms, this fairly rote tale of child abuse and lost innocence not inviting much beyond a pretty miserbalist, face value reading.
At this juncture, Rockwell is likely most associated with the work he did in the ‘90s, specifically the Steve Buscemi-starring, Jim Jarmusch-paralleling In the Soup (alternatively, his segment in Four Rooms), an early Sundance success that enjoyed a recent resurgence in popularity thanks to a Factory 25 restoration in 2017. In the Soup is very of its time, a faux self-deprecating narrative about a dweeby, aspiring screenwriter (Steve Buscemi, full geek mode) who falls in with a charismatic criminal/con man (Seymour Cassel, tapped into some powerful energy) while fostering an unrequited crush for his neighbor. Buscemi’s screenwriter character from that film is credited as the mind behind Sweet Thing, with an early title card asserting this as “An Adolpho Rollo Picture” (his name also appears in the credits with various sound department roles). A cute throwaway probably, but also amusingly symbolic of this film’s self-importance and overreliance on faux-profound archetypal narrative — very much in keeping with Buscemi and Rockwell’s conception of that character circa 1992.
The initial gesture towards metafiction is mostly that, and Sweet Thing’s plot proceeds onward without much further distraction; the problem is, there isn’t really any intrigue or originality to spare either. Rockwell has cast his children (Lana and Nico, both good) and wife (Karyn Parsons) in the lead roles here, alongside Will Patton (who, of course, was in In the Soup, the continuity implications awfully curious); the quartet playing a family fractured by alcoholism and abuse, the children, Billie and Nico, trying to hold things together with what little agency they have. Patton and Parsons (unfortunately credited as Adam and Eve, respectively) represent two different variations on the alcoholic, abusive parent role; the former sweet and fun-loving when sober, but unreasonable and physically violent when drunk, while the latter is much more functional, but similarly dependent and also ensnared in an abusive relationship with a meathead pedophile. The children slide between these two households, with the narrative drifting from grim to bleak as they end up trapped on an extended vacation with their enabler mother and this irritable sex criminal, though totally predictably so, Rockwell’s script wholly reliant on canonical media abuse narratives that render Sweet Thing an endurance test more than anything else. This is all filtered through a whimsical tone, the film skewing about as close to magical realism as you can without actually becoming that, ultimately centering on how these extreme experiences inspire pluck and resilience in these children, often feeling more fetishistic than empathetic (hard not to think of the work of Benh Zeitlin while watching this, a scene where Billie reads Peter Pan to Nico really raising flags).
It’s a shame, as Sweet Thing features some of the loveliest 16mm cinematography in recent memory, courtesy of Lasse Ulvedal Tolbøll, who provides a clean handheld sensibility; organic in movement, but never aggressively so. Mostly shot on a nice, grainy black and white stock (barring a couple instances of color, including a delirious montage of nasty mixed drinks getting blended up, one of the film’s few funny moments), Tolbøll and Rockwell have realized some truly stunning imagery, clearly having considered their visual sensibility and shooting style with a thoroughness rare in contemporary film. Sweet Thing is clearly designed to feel timeless, which it accomplishes impressively on a purely visual level, working in the influence of silent film (convincing use of iris transitions) and Euro arthouse touchstones like 400 Blows and Landscape in The Mist, while still feeling appropriately contemporary. Yet on a narrative level, “timeless” has been confused for cliche and trope, and Sweet Thing is never able to access the emotional frequency that those aforementioned films resonate on. For Rockwell, it’s as if this heavy subject matter was chosen because it feels like what an important movie would tackle, not because there is any immediate emotional stake in telling it.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux
All My Friends Hate Me
As living through the pandemic has dramatically deepened our already burgeoning well of social anxiety, it’s easy to start seeing reflections of this reality everywhere. Just recently, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby set its farcical construction on the teetering edge of a panic attack, treating its otherwise hilarious setup with the gravity of a horror film. Andrew Gaynord’s All My Friends Hate Me is clued into this wavelength as well, but in a much more unusual, and much more British, way. Its humor is rooted in the dry cringe comedy exemplified by Bain and Armstrong’s Peep Show, while stylistically approaching the genre-bending of Edgar Wright’s Spaced, a slice-of-life precursor to the go-for-broke parodies of his Cornetto trilogy. Here, there’s a relatively down-to-earth comedy about navigating awkward friendship dynamics wrapped inside the box of a paranoid thriller. Pete, played by the film’s co-writer Tom Stourton, is a well-meaning but timid guy, celebrating a birthday weekend at a wealthy estate with a group of his old university friends whose aggressive pranks and raucous partying push him well past his comfort zone. To make matters worse, they seem to have picked up a stranger at the pub named Harry (Dustin Demri-Burns), who dominates the party with his mere presence while being mercilessly antagonistic to the birthday boy and suspiciously jotting notes in his notebook. The cherry on top is the presence of Claire (Antonia Clarke), Pete’s ex-girlfriend who, according to the group, had attempted suicide just after their breakup and is not as okay as she seems.
This chaotic brew forms the setup for events that play out on a principle reminiscent of Tommy DeVito’s testing of Henry Hill in Goodfellas: “I’m funny how? Funny like a clown?” Like Hill, Pete never quite knows when the switch gets flipped, and that thin veil between playfulness and menace slips into a murky uncertainty. The script relishes in this discomfort, wrenching grim humor from the anxious mental gymnastics racing across Tom Stourton’s face as he tries to navigate his friends’ gaslighting to get to the root of the mystery at hand. And “mystery” is the right word, as the aforementioned genre-bending strings things along in the mode of a serious psychological thriller until a parlor room style reveal, which culminates in both the funniest scene of the film and its most dramatic. By the end, then, All My Friends Hate Me’s off-kilter framework is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, its toned-down realism makes for a breath of fresh air contrasted with the bombast of comparable dark comedy thrillers like 2019’s Ready or Not, but at the same time, it runs the risk of alienating a good part of its audience by staking a weird type of middle ground that, just like its hero, never entirely finds its footing. Ultimately, there’s something charming in its abrasive oddness, and in its slight earnest streak hiding behind acerbic layers. You just have to be willing to play its uncomfortable little mind games to get there.
Writer: Igor Fishman
A heavy-handed allegory on the evils of capitalism posing as a contemplative character study, Zhou Ziyang’s Wu Hai wallows in the misery of its protagonist, Yang Hua (Huang Xuan), a man pushed to his limits by the stifling debt that has overtaken his life. Hua’s financial woes have put a strain on his marriage to Miao Wei (Yang Zishan), as debt collectors pound at their apartment door and literally set up camp in the building’s lobby. Hua has sunk all of the couple’s savings into Dinosaur Park, a resort in the middle of the desert made up of luxury yurts and cheap T-Rex sculptures. Anxiously awaiting a financial windfall promised by his business partner once the project receives government clearance, Hua’s life spins wildly out of control over the course of just three days, and Wu Hai chronicles this collapse and the impact felt by everyone within Hua’s spiraling orbit.
Ziyang favors expansive long takes and handheld camerawork that lend an immediacy to the proceedings, appropriate given the timely subject matter. It also brings an air of authenticity to a story that is ultimately nothing more than pure melodrama, presenting its hysterics with such straight-faced integrity that one could be forgiven for thinking there was something here resembling nuance or depth. We witness how Hua’s financial problems are merely an extension of a rigged system, Hua himself nothing more than a cog in a broken machine. He seeks money from his business partner, a seedy loan shark whose financial gain is dependent upon corrupt government officials. Meanwhile, Hua is instructed by said partner to shake down those clients who still owe him money, including a young woman who borrowed cash to buy an iPhone so that she would no longer be mocked by her fellow classmates, and who offers sexual favors in exchange for a loan extension. Even the debt collectors hired to hound Hua are destitute, working a job they despise in order to support themselves. That one of these men discusses how he is sick with AIDS and desperately needs medicine should be indicative enough of the unsubtle key in which Ziyang is working here.
By the time we get to a shot of Hua literally climbing into the mouth of one of the T-Rex sculptures — an apex predator, mind you — in order to obtain desperately needed shelter from the harsh environmental elements, viewers won’t be able to help but roll their eyes at the sledgehammer symbolism on display. Hua is a protagonist who never once receives a moment’s reprieve from the cruelties of a poisoned class system, to the point that the entire film feels like an exercise in masochism. How many indignities can Hua — and by extension, the viewer — suffer before a breaking point is reached? The specifics of that end point may remain a tad up in the air, but there is no mistaking where this journey is headed, making the proceedings an unpleasant chore to endure. There are a few distractions here and there, such as a close-up shot detailing the burning of a yurt whose destruction gives way to a gorgeous aerial view of the carnage wrought by our protagonist, as well as a commanding and soulful lead performance from Huang, but they ultimately lead to a message that amounts to nothing more than “capitalism sucks.” The sentiment is always appreciated, and certainly merits saturation in popular discourse, but not exactly groundbreaking in 2021, and not enough to make the one-note Wu Hai worthy of a watch.
Writer: Steven Warner
A-ha The Movie
Before childhood friends Magne Furuholmen and Paul Waaktaar-Savoy were joined by singer Morten Harket to form their synth-pop trio A-ha, and while they were still known as an underground act called Bridges, the duo stated in their first ever interview (with a local Norwegian newspaper): “We’re going to be international pop stars. Norway’s too small for us.” The music scene of Oslo in the early and mid-’80s was almost entirely dominated by dancehall groups, with no sign of famous domestic pop or rock to be found. Perhaps because of this, A-ha, whose musical vision and unique artistry drew no influence from their local surroundings — and instead was more influenced by the works of Joy Division and The Velvet Underground — headed to London to pursue their dreams. And after only a few short years of struggling to find a trusting record label and a proper producer, the group at last released a single, one which would suddenly turn into one of the eminent hits of the ‘80s and eventually represent the most popular song the band has ever recorded — “Take on Me.” Their 1984 hit brought them massive, lasting fame and success, its place in pop culture history so pronounced that plenty today may have forgotten the group was responsible for delivering many other popular tracks, including even a James Bond original — “The Living Daylights.”
But regardless of their stardom and unquestionable influence on later musical artists — hitmakers like Coldplay and Oasis, for example — A-ha’s history is not exactly one of those big stories rife with sell-out myths, tales of career adventures, or cautionary tales of savage ups and downs, twists and turns. Apart from their early struggles and difficulties at achieving initial success, as well as the later escalating individual differences concerning artistic decisions and creative tensions that led to temporary split-ups in which members pursued solo or side-projects until their eventual reunions — standard-issue developments that many popular groups have endured — A-ha’s story isn’t particularly extraordinary.
It follows, then, that A-ha: The Movie, directed by Thomas Robsahm and Aslaug Holm (also acting as DP here), is a very typical documentary that offers not much more than what A-ha’s fans likely already know, or else anything that a viewer who’s familiar with music documentaries cannot otherwise anticipate. Robsahm and Aslaug never really move toward any in-depth reflection upon the artistic authenticity, singularity, and legacy of A-ha — the film is fairly devoid of evaluation from music historians or critics, and also restricts the presence of the bandmates’ life-partners, producers, and managers to voiceover — and instead fix their attention on talking-head interviews with the band, sticking to a casual, even slightly introverted vibe that the three members seem to be most comfortable with off-stage. Combining archival footage and modern-day portrayals of the group (mostly as separate individuals), while also incorporating occasional animated moments — intentionally rendered in the style of Steve Barron’s work on the “Take on Me” music video, of course — Robsahm and Aslaug try to bring a little flair to the otherwise straightforward film. That’s to say, the whole thing mostly scans as an inevitable and faithful audiovisual documentation, with a few creative fillips. The experience is perhaps best summed up with a few stolen words from the lyrics of A-ha’s iconic megahit: the documentary has its “odds and ends,” hardly enthusiastic praise, but here it’s sometimes enough to cast viewers back into a distinct and enjoyable ‘80s mood.
Writer: Ayeen Forootan
The oner is one of the most divisive visual gambits in cinema, so the logical question is what makes for a successful execution of this maneuver? Is it the location of the shot, the images captured from the chosen setting? Is it the complexity of technique, indicative of elevated directorial stakes? Is it an effective implementation of narrative, one that marries well to the form? For decades, filmmakers across the world have been consistently producing work seeking to test the limits of the naked camera-eye, crafting and toiling in-camera timing and movement to create an illusion of real-time intensity. Such a mode obviously takes different shapes and contexts, whether it be a German coming-of-age crime odyssey set over the span of one fateful night (Victoria) or an ode to the legacy and history of the artifacts located in the Russian State Hermitage Museum (Russian Ark). That’s to say, the long take, misused as it often is, will never become stale so long as filmmakers continue to reimagine its potential for their own forms of expression. It only makes sense, then, that Elisabeth Vogler’s sophomore narrative feature, Roaring 20’s, a film about Parisian post-lockdown interconnectivity, would employ such a technique in its telling.
The film begins at the Louvre, as the camera stalks and documents a handful of unique characters across a sea of bustling, Parisian city life. As the film weaves through sites like the Seine river, the local metro, and even a portion of the Republique neighborhood, Vogler also takes care to focus on the internal post-lockdown dilemmas of each of her unique characters; one man describes creating amateur porn during lockdown, whilst a pair of shoplifting tweens discuss their next hit. The conversations are certainly slight and occasionally smug, yet the atmosphere that radiates from the surrounding milieu is what ultimately sells the pastiche. Primarily committed to creating chaos out of normalcy and re-connectivity, it shouldn’t surprise that a large part of what makes Roaring 20’s such an effective long-take feature, by necessity, is its refined technical detail and the way it stays in conversation with Vogler’s larger themes. But perhaps more surprising for such a film is the strength of and care given to its sound design, an immersive and nuanced experience that frequently even gives the sensation of binaural recording. Vogler specifically pays attention to both her diegetic and non-diegetic sound sources, including but not limited to her own character’s evolving psychosis and growing anxiety.
At its core, Roaring 20’s is pure romantic escapism, an immaculately choreographed and seamlessly edited tribute to the Parisian pandemonium of a specific moment in time (more miraculous for having been filmed in summer 2020). As each of the characters are tested and toil through scenarios that are brief and meaningless on the surface, the film somehow never loses its sense of renewal and the relief of post-quarantine living. Soon, we’ll all reach our new normal, much in the way of the paths that Vogler’s various characters take. After all, the beginning is just the end, and the end is ever the beginning. Vogler understands that time is a flat circle, and viewers riding the film’s woozy wavelength will see that our own roaring 20’s have just begun.
Writer: David Cuevas