Dating & New York
Dating & New York, Jonah Feingold’s feature debut after working in shorts and television for the past decade, is a film built from the scraps of its evident influences. The window dressing here immediately recalls Wes Anderson: the film opens with (and sustains) a storybook-esque voiceover framework, and its twee tenor reinforces such comparisons, though the specifics of this quality diverge across the film. Dating & New York’s content, meanwhile, is more Woody Allen: its study of relationship dynamics, frequent instances of twinkling jazz, and, well, its title, which could pull substitute duty on roughly three-quarters of Woody’s oeuvre. That’s to say, much will be familiar for viewers in this tale of — stop me if you’ve heard this before — two unattached singles who choose to execute their youthful right to a friends-with-benefits arrangement until complications arise, leading to the ultimate consequence of love. Milo (Jaboukie Young-White) and Wendy (newcomer Francesca Reale, who looks like a striking mix of the striking Anya Taylor-Joy and the striking Daisy Edgar-Jones) are twenty-somethings who, after an enjoyable date facilitated by the fictional Meet Cute app, continue on their dating way, to diminishing returns. Consequently, they return to each other’s orbit, the aforementioned FWB agreement is struck, and rom-com beats start getting ticked off.
If that general introduction to the film seems jaded, it’s largely a commentary on the cyclical, recyclable substance of the rom-com genre. But there’s actually plenty of freshness in Dating & New York’s moment-to-moment business. The comedic elements, while fairly pedestrian on the whole, are periodically upset by inspired moments of either anarchic or purely nonsensical bits of humor, such as when Milo details a particularly bad date where he’s repeatedly asked what time he was born. The film’s visual design keeps to this general pattern of occasional inspiration, supplementing mostly pro forma filmmaking with the occasional quirky flourish, like an abortive fisheye zoom and some vertical formatting (we are talking Millennial romance, after all). Feingold also seeks to flip the genre’s classic gender norms on their head, pitching Milo as the half longing for commitment while his sorta-partner clings to her relationship freedom.
But while Dating & New York’s periodic stylistic and thematic fillips keep it from ever careening into nonstarter territory, it’s still very much a case of sporadic pleasures. In fact, a tidy summation of the film can be easily extrapolated from Milo and Wendy’s deepening conversations as their relationship evolves: it rarely scans as less than authentic, but it also never moves much beyond shallow signifiers of depth. The film’s emotional climax, and its immediate narrative framework, further garble the film’s attempts at contemporaneous commentary on modern relationships, veering hard into cliché. Dating & New York has no idea how to end without defaulting to weathered resolution. It attempts to disguise its derivative genre core behind a melange of recognizable cinematic influences and occasionally subversive quirks, but it doesn’t ultimately amount to a whole lot more than a minor retuning of those exhausted parts.
Writer: Luke Gorham
Rob Schroeder’s Ultrasound exists on an uneasy continuum between genuinely unsettling weirdness and J.J. Abrams-style mystery-box storytelling, where plot exists solely as a twist delivery system to jolt an unsuspecting audience. It leans more towards the former than the later, for the better, but one can’t shake the feeling that it’s ultimately an elaborate shaggy dog story. On an isolated back road on a dark and stormy night, Glen (Vincent Kartheiser) gets a flat tire and seeks refuge at a nearby home. Here he meets Art (Bob Stephenson) and Art’s much younger wife, Cyndi (Chelsea Lopez). Art is gregarious and chatty, with a kind of insinuating goofball charm, and he insists that Glen stay with them for the night. Things turn strange quickly: Glen has brief dissociative moments that find him observing his own conversations like a bystander, while Art plies him with alcohol and slowly but surely talks him into sleeping with Cyndi. Glen is understandably reticent, but Cyndi seems receptive to the idea and soon the deed is done. In the first of what will be several narrative swerves, the film then switches gears and we are introduced to an entirely different character, Katy (Rainey Qualley). First seen in a swimming pool, the thin, lithe woman is doing laps and fending off creepy advances from a random man. She retires to the locker room, and while changing out of her swimsuit mutters to herself about the dryer shrinking her clothes. But as another woman in the room observes her, we see that Katy is suddenly very pregnant. Here Schroeder weaponizes traditional shot/countershot film grammar, as one angle presents a pregnant Katy and the reverse angle returns to her initial lean frame. What exactly is going on here? Eventually, Katy returns home and makes a frantic phone call; when a man finally comes to see her, it’s revealed that he’s a politician and that Katy is his mistress who’s being hidden away until an upcoming election is over. There’s also the matter of two scientists — Dr. Conners (Tunde Adebimpe) and Shannon (Breeda Wool) — who are collating data and rehearsing scripted lines that happen to be snippets of dialogue that we’ve already heard from the mouths of Cyndi and Glen. Meanwhile, Art tracks Glen down and explains that Cyndi is pregnant as a result of their one-night stand, and begs Glen to come see her. In quick order, Cyndi and Glen are suddenly living together, with Art stopping by to check on them occasionally. There are also two very serious looking men parked outside secretly keeping tabs on the duo.
There’s a lot going on here, and this is only (roughly) the first half. Further plot synopsis would rob the film of some of its odd pleasures, although it’s clear enough that some sort of conspiracy is afoot. The narrative gradually expands to focus on Conners and Shannon, who are running what appears to be a research institute that has very specific designs on Cyndi and Glen, while Art functions as a wild card who may or may not be in the employ of Katy’s mysterious boyfriend. Schroeder and writer Conor Stechschulte, adapting his own graphic novel Generous Bosom for the screen, have a lot of fun juggling all these disparate threads; the problem then becomes what to do with them all. Ultrasound is neither as intricately structured as The Prestige, nor as inventively expressionistic as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, just two of the films it shares DNA with, but it eventually must decide if it wants the narrative to make some sort of coherent sense or remain a phantasmagoric mind-fuck. It winds up splitting the difference, occupying a vaguely unsatisfying middle ground that involves a lot of pseudoscience mumbo jumbo while Schroeder cuts frantically between multiple planes of reality, revisiting earlier scenes as flashbacks that might not have really happened, and stripping away layers of artifice. There are so many characters vying for attention that a traditionally cathartic ending doesn’t really work: the actors are all quite good, but they’re as much puzzle pieces as they are recognizable human beings. Replete with reveals and reversals, Ultrasound eventually ties together all its loose ends, but maybe it could’ve stood to stay a little messier.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Catch the Fair One
Integrating the texture of noir into a feminist revenge flick — tilting towards, but not exactly near an exploitation film — Catch the Fair One mines discursive topicality in its tale of a female boxer, Kaylee (real-life world champion Kali Reis in her debut, also co-credited on the story), who willfully infiltrates a sex trafficking ring in order to find her missing younger sister. Reis doesn’t quite play a version of herself, but there are multiple similarities: beyond the homonym names, both the actress/boxer and her character are fighters of mixed Native American and Cape Verdean ethnicity. This latter detail is crucial to the plot, as Kaylee first trains to survive and then inserts herself into an operation that specifically accommodates requests for indigenous women. Director Josef Kubota Wladyka slowly builds to the moment of her induction, establishing character and narrative with spare precision, allowing context to trickle in small snatches and casual interactions. The rug pull, then, comes when the anticipated intricacy of a vigilante long con is almost immediately upset, the film sticking to stark character work rather than orchestrating any larger scale genre noodling. Kaylee is instead thrown into a few different fires across the film’s remaining minutes (it runs less than 90 total), gathering both strength and mania as her carefully laid plans give way to action-reaction circumstances, the film’s physical and psychological violence ratcheting until its very end.
Catch the Fair One’s grungy, Rust Belt milieu ably supports both its genre inflections — honorable brawler wages uphill war against rich, industrial baddies — and its nuanced capitalist critique; it’s no accident that this low-budget production’s locations alternate between grimy gymnasiums, rotted train yards, the dank spaces of sex trafficking, and the opulent mansion libraries of those heading such operations. Wladyka imbues all of this with a distinct melancholy, often cutting to immaculately composed static shots of moody, evening-blue skies and wintry vistas, the images offering both calm and menace in their interludes. In truth, it’s nothing too removed from the go-to playbook for this brand of indie filmmaking, but it’s executed expertly here. There are a number of impressive headlight-lit scenes that punctuate the film’s dingier interiors, and the character work is economic and intelligently handled: Daniel Henshall is appealingly unsettled as one of the bad dudes here, creepily toeing the line of predator and prey, while the film only lingers with Reis long enough to accentuate her innate gravitas and pathos without asking her to indulge in any ill-advised, non-professional grandstanding (and which results in a remarkable, interior performance).
But while Catch the Fair One resists subscribing to any miserabilist indie template, managing to remain fairly singular throughout, it still stumbles. Several psychologies are too patly articulated, such as Henshall’s character’s castigation at the hands of his (upper) middle-aged father, or Kaylee’s fractured relationship with her mother due to substance use issues and fuck-up child syndrome. And for a film that seems to traffick in a sense of contemporary topicality — this is obviously a more serious and reality-based affair than the nutty Wayfair business, but there’s no denying the subject matter’s emergence in the cultural conscience — there’s oddly no explicit commentary here regarding the unattended epidemic of the disappearing of indigenous women across America. By the time any finality is reached, the film’s mixed plane of drama and vengeance begins to feel disappointingly limited; the result is that the film’s underdone elements begin to blur with its minimalist leaning. But if there’s a lack of tidiness to be found in Catch the Fair One’s bleak exeunt, it’s at least a mirror of the reality it seeks to depict, which is worth plenty enough in life and in cinema.
Writer: Luke Gorham
Get Out gets the alien abduction treatment in No Running, a half-hearted stab at social commentary that isn’t nearly as fun or as clever as that premise might suggest. Director Delmar Washington and writer Tucker Morgan have crafted a sci-fi tale that strains for topicality but can’t even muster a single moment of terror, let alone anything resembling trenchancy. Skylan Brooks plays Jaylen, a bright young man with a troubled history who moves to a small coastal town in Oregon. As one of the only Black citizens in the predominantly white area, Jaylen and his family are immediately met with disapproving looks and suspicious glances. He soon finds reprieve from this torment in the form of Amira (Clark Backo), a fellow student nursing her own past traumas. The two begin a tentative romance that is cut short when, during a late-night swim at a Halloween party, Amira vanishes in a flash of blue light emanating from the skies above. Accused of foul play in regards to Amira’s disappearance, Jaylen goes on the lam in an effort to find out the truth, only to discover the town is housing its own fair share of skeletons.
The reason why a film like Get Out works so well is that the villains of the piece —i.e., the white, wealthy upper-class — blanketed their racist tendencies under a veneer of civility and woke liberalism, to the point that they were nearly blind to their own prejudices. The townsfolk of No Running, however, make no such effort; from the film’s opening moments, they are racist shitbirds who wear their hatred like a badge of honor. The local high school literally shows film strips detailing how segregation was a mistake due to the “wildness” of the Black man. If this was their desired setup, Washington and Morgan could certainly have done something clever with this particular wrinkle to the formula, but instead choose to barely even acknowledge it. As a result, Jaylen’s discovery of the town’s dirty dealings plays out more like the ultimate “Duh,” inspiring little in the way of the intended shock or disgust.
The film’s genre trappings, meanwhile, are equally thoughtless, its use of alien abductions feeling especially half-assed, existing only for a heavy-handed ending in which it’s made explicit that the victims of hate crimes and sexual assault often are silenced before their stories can be told, allowing their perpetrators to continue their malicious deeds and essentially passing evil from one generation to the next. All this metaphorizing rings as rather hollow, and the film’s overreliance on loud, abrupt chords to inspire cheap jump scares certainly doesn’t add any nuance to the film, nor does Washington’s love of Dutch angles. Hiring Shane West and Taryn Manning to bring a note of credibility to your 2021 project is…well, it’s a choice, although Brooks at least manages to deliver a winning performance that engenders more sympathy than the film around him earns. Still, there’s no saving this stinker. No Running? More like no brains. [Mic drop.]
Writer: Steven Warner
We Need to Do Something
We Need to Do Something is both the title of the new film by Sean King O’Grady as well as the increasingly frantic entreaty of a family trapped in an impossible situation. It’s a declaration of purpose that transforms from a simple, common-sense sentiment to a desperate plea, depending on which words and syllables you put the emphasis on. Filmed quietly during the pandemic, We Need to Do Something is a chamber piece, one of those single location films transpiring entirely in one setting (Alexandre Aja’s Oxygen being one recent example). Here we are confined to a bathroom in the home of a dysfunctional family that’s taking shelter during a particularly nasty thunderstorm. Young Bobby (John James Cronin), all precocious exuberance, wants to know if there’s going to be a tornado. Sullen teenager Melissa (Sierra McCormick) won’t stop texting, and is of course annoyed at her little brother’s non-stop chatter. Put upon mother Diane (Vinessa Shaw) is trying to keep the peace and remain calm, while dad Robert (Pat Healy) nurses a thermos full of liquor and can’t stop complaining. Only minutes into their ordeal, it’s clear that something is deeply wrong here: Diane and Robert throw accusatory glances at each other and exchange vague barbs while Melissa sends cryptic texts to someone, obliquely suggesting this cataclysmic event might not be a natural occurrence. O’Grady and screenwriter Max Booth III, adapting his novella of the same name, eventually leave the confines of the bathroom for brief flashbacks that begin to fill in exactly what Melissa and her girlfriend Amy have been getting up to, but the meat of the story remains in the one location. As the storm rages on, the power blinks out, and a lighting strike sends a tree through the home’s roof, blocking the door to the bathroom. It doesn’t take long for the family to realize that they’re stuck here with no way out, no food, and no working cell phone. Then the mysterious noises begin.
Crafting one of these “closed-door” thrillers comes with a high degree of difficulty, as there are limited options for fleshing out characterizations and building suspense. Single settings might save money, but require a lot of formal ingenuity in exchange. O’Grady does an admirable job playing around with the available space, carving out chunks of the frame with the camera and divvying the family up into different configurations to subtlety comment on their relationships: Robert is frequently framed in a single, while Diane and Bobby are almost always together in a two shot. Melissa begins the film largely isolated, but gradually gets grouped alongside her mother and brother and away from her father. Booth’s screenplay expertly escalates the stakes; there’s the requisite montage of them trying to escape the room, followed by a begrudging acquiescence, then frenzied volatility as things go from bad to worse. Peeking through the cracked door, which can open a couple of inches before butting up against the tree, the family first encounters a snake, then what seems to be a dog but is revealed to be…something else entirely. Supernatural elements aside, there’s the human-scaled drama to deal with as well. Robert becomes increasingly unhinged as his liquor reserve runs dry, and he takes desperate measures to stave off the shakes. Ace character actor Healy gives one of the great lunatic performances of recent memory, building from passive-aggressive bitching to profanity-laden outbursts to something darker and far more dangerous. Shaw is equally as good in a less showy role, the patient voice of reason who must console her children while simultaneously fending off her useless husband. She’ll eventually reach the end of her tether, and Shaw gets one show-stopping moment as she processes a moment of profound grief. Indeed, the purely dramatic parts of the film work so well that the horror elements can begin to feel almost like an afterthought. Occasional flashbacks offer exposition but also disrupt the claustrophobia of the bathroom setting, interrupting and diffusing the accumulated tension. (One egregious example: immediately following Shaw’s remarkable emotional breakdown is a hallucinatory dream sequence that borders on camp, radically altering the film’s tone.) The film also ends rather abruptly, suggesting the possibility of a bigger and more elaborate climax if budgetary constraints and Covid restrictions had allowed for it. Still, this is a solid genre exercise, and deserves a wider audience than if it were to simply float away into the gaping maw of some streaming library.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres
Ben Fong-Torres, the celebrated music journalist profiled in Suzanne Joe Kai’s documentary Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres, has a personal website whose tagline reads, “Almost Famous Since 1969.” This, of course, references Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film Almost Famous, inspired by Crowe’s days as a teenage reporter for Rolling Stone. Fong-Torres, who was then Crowe’s editor, is a very minor character in Crowe’s film, but here he gets to take center stage. Fong-Torres was a writer and editor at Rolling Stone from 1968 through 1981, and his profile and interview subjects, as well as some of the figures who appear in the film, are a veritable roll call of rock legends: Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Jim Morrison, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, The Grateful Dead, and, of course, The Rolling Stones. Unlike many of the musicians he interviewed, and some of his Rolling Stone colleagues, Fong-Torres didn’t get caught up in the hedonistic behavior of those in the counterculture around him. Instead, he diligently concentrated on his work, which included perfecting the form of the magazine celebrity profile. Simply put, in comparison to his interviewees, Fong-Torres comes across as a bit of a square. And because Kai opts to present her material in a similarly square fashion, as a standard doc package of interviews and archival footage, she often struggles to make her film a truly compelling portrait of its subject.
However, the strongest aspects of the documentary come not so much from the rock stories but in the way Kai posits Fong-Torres’ story as a specifically Chinese-American one. More specifically, Kai puts her subject’s work in the context of San Francisco’s Chinatown community, in which he was an active participant, as a volunteer editor of East West, a local bilingual Chinatown newspaper, in addition to his duties at Rolling Stone. One of the more interesting biographical tidbits revealed in the film concerns the origin of Fong-Torres’ unusual hyphenated family name, which was a direct result of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the racially restrictive U.S. immigration policy that was still in effect when his father emigrated from China. His father was forced to basically scam his way into the country by using a fake passport from the Philippines and adopting “Torres” as a family name. Fong-Torres’ family settled in Oakland’s Chinatown, where they ran a restaurant, and he subsequently went to college in San Francisco, where he began writing for the fledgling Rolling Stone magazine just a couple of years after he graduated.
The film makes very clear that the strong emotional ties Fong-Torres forged with his family, and later the larger Chinese-American community around him, gave him the strength and confidence to navigate the racism he experienced in his youth, as well as a music industry and culture industry where there were very few people who looked like him in his profession, compelling him to forge a career path with virtually no role models to look to. Fong-Torres was remarkably successful, building a formidable reputation as many musicians’ go-to interviewer. Indeed, he was so successful, and so well-liked by almost everyone, that his life story appears almost absurdly drama-free. That is, until a family tragedy occurs that hits in the film like a lightning bolt, a tragedy directly related to Fong-Torres’ Chinatown community reportage. Nevertheless, Fong-Torres overcame this tragedy as well, retaining the affable, even-keeled, wry demeanor he displays in the film, highlighting its most valuable purpose: conveying a vivid sense of the flesh-and-blood human behind the venerated byline.
Writer: Christopher Bourne