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.
Queen of Spades
For viewers whose formative years have nourished the clickbait addiction of YouTube horror, neither the lackadaisical Queen of Spades nor the lore behind it should elicit more than a nonchalant shrug. Certainly not outrage or indignation: this Ottawa-set debut by director Patrick White barely qualifies as a feature apart from its runtime, and lacks even the maddening cognitive dissonance that “objectively” worse films would no doubt inspire. Such films, increasingly taken in contrarian stride, have opened the gateways to a multiplicity of readings, which are revealing and ridiculous in equal measure. For instance, both Birdemic and Fateful Findings exhibit an unavoidably surrealistic textuality, while Johnny’s character in The Room has been extrapolated onto many identities, from toxic masculinity to the demise of human empathy to, supposedly, a vampiric masturbator. With Queen of Spades, however, the contrarian disappears into the shadows, having no dialectical opposition to tango with. Like a copypasta whose words have spun equivalent variations, the film banks on a welcome embrace of stale familiarity.
Still, every copypasta has a point of origin, and Queen of Spades locates it in a Russian urban myth about a noblewoman who murdered orphans before being tortured to death by an angry mob. This myth is soon immortalized as Internet folklore, as a group of four teenagers halfway across the world with nothing better to do decide to invoke the noblewoman’s spirit via ritual summoning. She appears, marks each of them for death, and kills them off one by one until they enlist the help of an occultist. Anna, the youngest of the lot, bears the greatest burden; having been the one to summon the Queen, she helplessly faces the guilt of her actions while contending with her working-class single mother’s frequent absence. If this character elicits anything remotely resembling pathos, then White can be said to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
For one, the hare-brained set-ups throughout the film speak less to its narrative than the actors’ attempts to construct it, and a more engaging work could’ve seen the young cast realize and exploit the metafictional potency of its cliché-ridden premise. While Kaelen Ohm, playing Anna’s mother, earnestly delivers her mounting despair and anger, her role is overshadowed by the film’s hackneyed dimensions (such as they are). The film refuses to either elaborate on the vengeful spirit’s background or negotiate between fantasy and reality, even accidentally. A midpoint dream sequence suggests technical competence and nightmarish potential, but nothing more; the cards are laid bare from the beginning. Queen of Spades isn’t exactly critics’ fare, and since the cast and crew probably had tons of fun (as will the fans: “everybody knows it’s make-believe, but they can’t help but react,” says White), who wants to heed a professional mood-killer’s advice? For cinephiles, the film would theoretically make the perfect date movie, since they would have an excuse to not pay attention and indulge, for a change, in what normal couples usually do in the theaters. Then again, playing the queen of spades effectively invalidates your cinephile card and may well leave your date with second thoughts. Try the ace for a change?
Writer: Morris Yang
Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox has made a career out of crafting deceptively slight queer character studies that highlight the complex but ultimately loving relationship he shares with the city he calls home, Tel Aviv. That trend continues with Sublet, in which an American traveler and writer forms an unlikely bond with an aspiring 20-something filmmaker whom he is renting a room from for a brief five-day stay. Michael (John Benjamin Hickey) is precise and rigid, and his journey to Israel is both work-mandated and a welcome reprieve from a marriage currently in the midst of an unspecified crisis. Tomer (Niv Nissim) lives each day in a seemingly carefree haze of film school, weed-smoking, and random hook-ups. Both men are gay, a fact which seems to bind the two seemingly disparate individuals in ways that Fox capitalizes on: One immediately questions if Michael’s motives are completely innocent, while Tomer seems to take great joy in teasing Michael, to the point that it almost seems as if the young man is playing a borderline cruel game. The brilliance here, though, is that Fox takes the classic will-they-or-won’t-they gambit and, instead of manipulating it for maximum sexual tension, employs it as a means of exploring his characters — their possible motivations and fragile emotional states. As is made clear from the outset, neither individual is exactly innocent, and as the film progresses, the question turns from “When?” to “Why?” What has led these two men to this state, and what do they hope to gain from this brief encounter?
Sublet also serves as a gorgeous travelogue of Tel Aviv, as Tomer exposes Michael a side of the city rarely seen by tourists, highlighting the chaos and the stillness that co-exist within its borders. The seeming contradiction of that description aptly applies to both Sublet and Fox’s entire filmography, as he takes material that seems sensationalistic in nature and finds the fragile human heart beating within it. Sublet is the type of film that slowly passes over you, as gentle as a summer breeze, and it’s only when the final act is reached that you understand the weight it actually holds, setting viewers up for reveals that should by all rights come as melodramatic but which instead feel organic. When the tears come — and trust me, they will — they feel earned, never cheap. Hickey, in a rare leading role, underplays the material to the point that his performance can feel borderline comatose, a choice that proves to make perfect sense in hindsight and actually gives the film a considerable emotional pull. He shares believably complex chemistry with the — it has to be said — ridiculously good-looking Nissim, an actor making his feature-film debut and who matches Hickey beat-for-beat. If Sublet manages to find a large enough audience, the impressive Nissim is going to have a huge career in front of him. One wishes the same for Fox, a filmmaker who has steadily turned out fantastic work for nearly 20 years now, but who’s never seemed to garner the acclaim or crossover appeal he so richly deserves. The international indie queer scene wouldn’t be the same without his pioneering efforts, and Sublet is further proof of his gentle genius.
Writer: Steven Warner
The Evil Next Door
Is there anything more boring than a competent, middle-of-the-road horror movie? Tord Danielsson and Oskar Mellander’s The Evil Next Door follows the haunted house playbook to a tee, so you know where the movie is going by minute 10 and have to spend the remainder of its (blessedly brief) runtime waiting for it to catch up to itself. The directing duo at least has some formal chops; they know where to put the camera to prep an audience for the inevitable jump scares, and how to utilize negative space and hide ominous figures in shadows. But this is awfully familiar stuff: nothing offends, necessarily, but it’s very much like watching something unfold on autopilot.
After a brief prelude featuring a woman frantically chasing after her child, who’s been whisked away into a dark room by an unseen force, we are introduced to Shirin (Dilan Gwyn), who’s traveling with her boyfriend Fredrik (Linus Wahlgren) and Fredrik’s young son Lukas (Eddie Eriksson Dominguez). Fredrik’s a widower, and Shirin is having some difficulties living in a dead woman’s shadow. Still, they seem happy, so much so that Shirin and Fredrik are buying a house together. It’s a cute little duplex, but the problem is one half of it contains, um, some evil, as the extremely literal title indicates. And so we watch as Lukas befriends a ghostly specter that only he can see, while Shirin slowly but surely realizes that something is wrong. Once Fredrik leaves town for a new job, the haunting episodes increase in frequency and intensity. Shirin meets some not so helpful neighbors who inform her that something happened to the home’s previous owners, while declining to say exactly what. We’re then treated to a few minutes of Shirin playing detective, uncovering information that we’re all already well aware of, and visiting the woman from the prologue, who tells us about what we’ve already seen. Soon, the ghost begins pursuing Lukas even more aggressively, leaving marks where it’s grabbed him. Fredrik assumes that Shirin is to blame and kicks her out, but she summons her courage and returns just in time to follow the ghost into a hole in the floor, where it has dragged poor Lukas.
The film finally picks up in these final few minutes, as we get a decent look at the shape-shifting ghost while Shirin navigates a tiny crawl space under the floorboards to find Lukas. It’s appropriately claustrophobic, and the directors find some creative solutions for shooting in such a confined area. But it’s far too little too late; by this point, tedium has long since set in. Gwyn makes an appealing heroine, and young Dominguez does terrified moppet well enough, but the film skips over little things like character development and clever plotting in an effort to manufacture cheap scares as quickly and efficiently as possible. This might as well be an episode of some generic Netflix acquisition. Call it The Evil Next Door to the Haunting of Hill House.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide
Among the marquee names of the 1980s New York art scene, a tragically low number are still alive today. Iconic figures like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat pioneered artistic movements that saw them enshrined in history, and their early deaths (at the hands of the AIDS and drug use, respectively), emblematic as they were of the chaotic times, saw them almost immediately immortalized. But what about the artists who did survive? Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide chronicles one such figure, the oft-forgotten contemporary of Basquiat and Haring, throughout his career as a working artist, tracking the evolution of the East Village, the New York art scene, and Scharf’s interweaving personal and professional lives.
When Worlds Collide certainly can’t be faulted for lack of ambition. Taking as its subject several decades of cataclysmic social change, and confronting everything from the AIDS epidemic to inter-community squabbles, the documentary effectively captures the vibrancy and diversity of its setting. The directors cast Scharf, Haring, and Basquiat as unapologetically competitive and ambitious fellows, and the documentary is at its best when observing the transition stages in each artist’s career, all told with an added layer of nostalgia from a present-day vantage that only Scharf is alive to see. When ambition falls away with the deaths of Haring and Basquiat, along with the simultaneous burst of Scharf’s career bubble, what is left is the latter’s sincere love for his work and the work of his contemporaries. When Worlds Collide, then, ultimately paints the portrait of a survivor, one who endures not only the deaths of his friends, but also the hardships of his professional field, and finally finds joy not in conventional career success, but in repurposing garbage, painting strangers’ cars and jackets, and making art that is truly for the people.
Co-directed by Max Basch and Scharf’s daughter Malia Scharf, the documentary proposes an odd contradiction, with Scharf the younger attempting to both delve into the emotional realities of her father’s past while also pushing herself to the margins, allowing the artist to take center stage, a privilege he seems to have rarely had, overshadowed at his peak by Haring and Basquiat. In theory, this uniquely intimate perspective should elevate the material, but it instead ends up limiting it, casting Scharf in a way that engenders soft feelings of fondness, and little more. Understandable, of course (and Scharf seems plenty likeable), but the perspective does not exactly make for compelling viewing. Similarly, the film goes to no great lengths to find any overly compelling way to showcase Scharf’s vivid works, instead letting them remain static and bringing nothing much stylistically to the table. There is, of course, the argument that any amount of visual trickery or re-imagining might distract from the integrity of Scharf’s work, or imply that it doesn’t stand well enough on its own, but work as inspired by film and television as Scharf’s seems ripe for a cinematic re-interpretation, and for a visualization as chaotic and pleasurable as the original paintings. Ultimately, When Worlds Collide is just like its static shots of Scharf’s paintings — a wide-ranging look at a fascinating subject, one that embraces scope over depth, and sadly lacks the visual flair that its subject is crying out for.
Writer: Molly Adams
The new horror-thriller Stalker has much in common with the Tarkovsky classic of the same name, in that both share a plot concerning a psychopathic ride-share driver. While Tarkovsky spun this story into nothing less than a contemplative meditation on the meaning of life, director/co-writer Tyler Savage is far more straightforward in his ambitions, serving up a lean, mean, tasty slice of pulp that will satisfy even the most skeptical of genre fans. Andy (Vincent Van Horn) is your basic bearded, slightly chubby, drum-playing hipster who moves from Austin to L.A. after a particularly bad break-up. As fate would have it, he meets the beautiful and charming Sam (Christine Ko) on his first night in the city, and after hitting it off at a local dive bar, they head back to her place courtesy of a ride-share service. Unfortunately, their driver is Roger (Michael Joplin), an intense and overly friendly fellow who seems a tad too interested in the duo, and whose casual run-in with Andy at a local coffee shop the next morning seems especially suspicious. Andy, however, is a nice guy, and it’s only after accepting an offer for drinks that he begins to see Roger’s questionable nature, a fact that makes itself evident once Andy ghosts him. If this sounds like The Cable Guy, it is, only minus the laughs, as Roger proceeds to make Andy’s life a waking nightmare.
A film like Stalker hinges on its direction, and Savage is more than up to the task. He employs a series of camera tricks that include disorienting close-ups, split diopters, blurred frame edges, wide-angle lenses, and a playful manipulation of the image’s depth of field that often renders the background a smear of primary and/or neon colors. None of these maneuvers are particularly original, but they are deployed effectively to create an atmosphere of unease, and prove that Savage understands both the mechanics of the medium and the genre itself, elevating the entire film with his keen style. Credit to DP Antonio Cisneros as well, who captures the city of Los Angeles in a way that recalls — high praise forthcoming — the works of Michael Mann in its saturated daytime yellows and golds and washed-out black nights, as glowing street lights dot the darkened horizon. In his film debut, Van Horn makes for a surprisingly effective “everyman,” engendering far more sympathy than the material warrants, and he and Ko share a pleasant rapport. A fair criticism could be that Joplin lays it on a bit thick, but he is the villain in a movie bluntly titled Stalker, so the overacting seems appropriate enough. While the film predictably has a twist up its sleeve that most viewers will see coming, Savage does manage to spring a few surprises in the final reel, with an ending that more than lives up to the director’s name. Stalker is a sturdy entry in the “X From Hell” subgenre that proved so popular in the ’80s and ’90s, and hopefully this welcome and effective throwback will open the door for more, bigger opportunities and introduce Savage to a wider audience. The man has chops; Stalker more than proves it.
Writer: Steven Warner
Edge of the World
The name and fame of Sir James Brooke should be familiar to plenty, even if his (hi)story doesn’t immediately spring to mind. A well-known 19th-century adventurer and British officer, his life, and especially his position as the first white ruler and Rajah of Sarawak in Borneo, became a source of inspiration for novelists like Joseph Conrad (Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness) and Rudyard Kipling (The Man Who Would Be King.) From a cinematic standpoint, a grand personality of this sort can often provide thought-provoking context and entry point for great filmmakers to (re)observe and (re)capture various narratives of colonialism, addressing even the very concept of civilization, including its discontents, malaises, and befuddlements. Viewers should be able to quickly recall a wide range of cineastes who have traveled this terrain in their work — from Werner Herzog’s myriad such efforts to Lisandro Alonso and Lucretia Martel’s modern colonialist probings to James Gray’s recent The Lost City of Z. Given the rich cinematic history of these types of works, Michael Haussman’s biopic fiction Edge of the World, wherein Jonathan Rhys Meyers takes on the character of a young Brooke, might initially scan as a tempting watch. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long to realize that this film can neither live up to the dimension and valor of its historical character’s name nor should it be uttered in the same breath as the literary and cinematic masterworks of this particular subgenre.
It’s obvious from the start that Haussman and screenwriter Rob Allyn intend to somehow revive the ebullience and daring of old-school swashbucklers, but the obvious problem is that they don’t know quite how. They’re lost in the proverbial jungle, the film an unbalanced mix of narrative clichés and simplistic action-adventure dramatics that proves absolutely enervating. And then there are the mystical scenes in which Meyers offers soliloquy-like voiceovers, musing about nature and the new way of life he claims he has found in these untouched, faraway lands (with the supposed goal being to “build a natural utopia”). But if the film’s tilt toward historical epic reminds of a second- or even third-rate Apocalypto, it’s soft ruminating proves the worse sin, feeling like little more than a dumb riff on The New World. Indeed, this shallow Malickian mimicry grates even more than the film’s stultifying action, its absence of fleshed-out characters, and its failure to produce any real narrative thrust; everything feels merely ornamental within the strange milieu of the film — the setting’s exotic beauty is at least frequently captured thanks to the efforts of DP Jaime Feliu-Torres, however.
Amid the gory, R-rated sequences of carnage and beheadings, there is littered some PG-13 sexuality between Brooke and his local beloved, Fatima (Atiqah Hasiholan), but that’s about it. It all comes back to those pseudo-Malickian compositions and narrations, and Edge of the World has almost nothing else to offer stylistically other than to constantly run scenes in slo-mo and hit dramatic soundtrack cues (in music video fashion) to build to a supposedly effective climax. In one scene, Fatima asks Brooke, “Why do you come here, to Sarawak?”, to which he replies: “Escaping, I suppose. Looking for something.” Viewers hoping to find anything sense-sharpening or eye-opening here will likely be longing for the same, but will instead leave the affair pretty empty-handed. There aren’t even escapist pleasures to be found in Edge of the World, just an over-romanticized and corny portrait of a man whose best quality is being the least racist among a cadre of colonialists.
Writer: Ayeen Forootan
There’s a disappearing niche that films like Hero Mode (directed by A.J. Tesler) cater to, a crucial purpose that somewhat redeems its clumsy designs for those weaned off their appeal: retreating from the cynicism and resignation that characterizes many teen-pop offerings situated in the digital age, it tasks itself with nothing less than a revival of the uncool-ness and pervasive sincerity that dotted the landscape of aughts television. From the abrupt credits sequence, which transitions through composition after dull-as-dishwater composition of protagonist Troy Mayfield’s (Chris Carpenter) hometown, amateurishly displayed on an isometric grid, to its Disney Channel-ready hallway conversations, such an effort clearly strains for polite competency, markedly disinterested in surplus flair and scope — as much a function of the film’s limited budget as the spirit of its central indie game company. While such transparency is admirable and makes it seem almost tactless to comment on Hero Mode’s ends as an artistic product, intent alone cannot resolve the outcome. Ping-ponged between the dual poles of PSA didacticism and stodgy melodrama, with all the grace of a tool-assisted Crash Bandicoot run, is a business simulator that finds only industrial routine in game development and none of its attendant imagination.
Teen programmer Troy has spent years shadowed by the family business, yearning for a chance to put his considerable skills to work on a groundbreaking new project. His widowed mother, Kate (Mira Sorvino), has other ideas; specifically, wishing for him the gift of a “normal childhood” his similarly talented father never received. The fulcrum of her enterprise, Playfield, however, is being abraded by both poor health — diagnosed with multiple sclerosis before the film begins, her flare-ups have since intensified — and the threat of hitherto unseen competitors closing in, looking to harness what they can of a promising operation. Being naïve and ill-exposed to corporate dealing, Troy inadvertently botches an assessment of Playfield’s newest creation and loses a potential investor; one intuits, their only shot at continued viability, as rivals seem to have specific plans for this occasion. Naturally, the company’s continued existence is stamped on borrowed time, and our boy wonder has a month to brainstorm the motherlode of crowd-pleasers, before the respected exhibition PixelCon (a badly-disguised E3) rolls up at their door. So begins a listless catalog of high frame-rate montages in which Troy, granted the firm’s highest appointment to shore up progress on its throttled release, descends into a world of wraparound SQL code and revolving neon cityscapes.
Character as an afterthought is certainly predictable for an endeavor like this, yet Troy’s every action still seems remarkably ordained. A computer whiz with poor communication skills and an inability to consider others’ perspectives, Troy’s archetypal persona is well-founded, as is his budding relationship with Paige (Indiana Massara), who, sculpted with too-consummate precision, eventually fades into inclarity (save when dramatic cheerleading is mobilized by the script). Reduced to pure sketch and contour, the motions of romance, artistry, and intellectualism merge together in a protean broth which trades figure for fact. This has the unfortunate, if obvious, effect of rendering creative conception as an anonymous series of processes embodied and distantly glimpsed, its sole motivation external. And when this motivation arrives in the form of Troy’s older underlings finally voicing their discontent with his dismissiveness and authoritative input into their work, we’re supplied another pathway by which his prior onanism can be interrogated. The opportunity is deferred, of course, for a largely amiable reconciliation via halfhearted apologies — and an interlude in which Troy’s deceased father materializes unexpectedly — then discarded with passing attention. Indeed, most of Troy’s co-workers are consigned solely to yes-man mode, the call and response to his every breakthrough; the film’s airhorned praises of collaborative art meshing rather awkwardly with their insignificant place, and contributions, in the final victory here. Its title, one supposes, rings true after all: inured to feedback, criticism, or the possibility for real moral instruction, what we witness is the realization of adolescent fantasy, one that sees alliance as necessarily subordinate to a leader’s vision and its building blocks as fodder for the overall course of success their innovations take — each member nominally credited but otherwise treated as disposable and assimilable. Teamwork makes the dream work, but Hero Mode suggests it’s the latter that decides the bounds within which the former is allowed to intervene.
Writer: Nicholas Yap