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.
Charting the professional milestones and personal travails of Zoey Tur and Marika Gerrard, the dynamic partners noted for their contributions to L.A. live reportage (most prominently coverage of O.J. Simpson’s trial and high-speed freeway chase), Matt Yoka’s Whirlybird secures to its stringer’s paradise the earthly anchor of empire in freefall. For much of its runtime, the film proceeds not along the typical axis of retrodiction favored by similarly end-motivated, “rise-and-fall” documentaries, but instead follows its subjective path along the experiential crests preventive of both reflection and forethought. This proves at least somewhat crucial to leveraging the immediate, immersive appeals of the duo’s labors to create an engaging tenor, but soon proves uninterested in any reflective input from their present-day avatars.
Zoey’s induction into her role is fraught with complication, facing serious impediment by way of financial anxiety and limited access to newsworthy scenes. Even after saving up adequately to request credit for a news helicopter, the emotional toll of her frequent proximity to death and violence manifests silently, culminating in a mid-interview breakdown while discussing her coverage of the Aeroméxico Flight 498 crash. Such responses are few and far between, however; her familiarity with the job corresponds to a stunning apathy towards the human crises documented by her partner — a particularly chilling segment, filmed during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, depicts the beating of Reginald Denny in graphic detail, set to Zoey’s commentary as she beseeches rescuers from the safety of a helicopter before offering despondently, “It’s important to see the dark side of the city”. Her carceral instincts in response to the incident, offering eyewitness testimony against the L.A. Four, situate the bourgeois passivity of the preceding footage (predictably) within the ranks of liberal moralism and justice-seeking, but Yoka’s placidly observational eye hardly deigns to provide a motivational or psychological foil for this supposition, or to adopt any critical stance in accordance with the logical trajectory of intent evinced by his chosen material.
Though an oversight like this one doesn’t register distastefully in the moment, it’s a questionable omission of context when accounting for the film’s structural organization as a cautionary tale and evident lack of endorsement for anyone featured; proffering space for the occasional first-person recount of its archival sequences but curiously shying away from asserting too conspicuously their more troubling implications. It’s not even that they’re comparatively unimportant in the mass of assemblage presented: save for the above-mentioned O.J. broadcasts, Whirlybird remains largely composed of filler footage overlaid with the off-screen couple’s musings about their disintegrating relationship and stressful working conditions. The choice of visual accompaniment hinges almost entirely on generating momentum, and the recreation of a detailed synchrony, in its overplotted spectrum of disarray (or rather, the optical impression of disarray rather than undertaking investigation into its incrementally tilled and tiered components), winnows down any opportunity to trace recorded history’s continuity into the here and now, failing to do justice to the innate complexity of Zoey and Marika’s perspectives, especially with the latter being unfairly sidelined. Threads concerning Zoey’s abusive familial past, unfulfilling childhood, and her gender dysphoria pre-reassignment, too, inch their way into conversation, and leave briskly with all the significance of biographical footnotes or pop trivia. While the seeming reticence to discuss them closely could well be a valid personal choice owing to the sensitivity of their content, Yoka’s decision to devote a heartbreaking confessional bookending the film intimates an open and forthcoming attitude rarely seen here, as well as the possibility of a more authentic dialogue emerging from a more subject-oriented/mediated approach. Instead, Whirlybird disappoints with its bland journalism, ironically, making for an event-heavy, informational pamphlet and little else.
Writer: Nicholas Yap
American Sausage Standoff
The first question that must be asked of American Sausage Standoff has to be: what the hell, actually, is this? Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen, perhaps best known for his leading role in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration, and followed by a whole mess of leading roles in prestige Danish films, writes, directs, produces, and co-edits this woefully misbegotten tale of Midwestern American hypocrisy. It’s a film that desperately wants to be a barbed dark comedy in the vein of the Coen Brothers (or the work of contemporary Anders Thomas Jensen), but also a somber thinkpiece on Trump America, and while there’s an argument that it works as a satire, everything here is so broadly drawn that it tips into purely parodic territory, and that’s even before the opening credits roll. ASS is the type of film where grizzled voiceover narration introduces us to a story of Jesus Christ, a receding hairline, and how to unfold, courtesy of a police sheriff (Chance Kelly) who waxes philosophical on sausage. He patrols over the town of Gutterbee, a small dust bowl in the middle of nowhere, a place gasping on its last breaths. Townsfolk are leaving in droves, financial opportunities a thing of the past, leaving local bigot Jimmy Jerry Lee Jones Jr. (W. Earl Brown) in charge. Along with his son Hank (Joshua Harto), Jimmy has taken it upon himself to rid the town of any “undesirables,” which basically amounts to anyone who isn’t white and American-bred (you know the type). He soon gets a wake-up call when a German immigrant and sausage aficionado by the name of Edward Hofler (Ewen Bremner) rolls into town, sights set on opening an authentic German restaurant. It isn’t long before the two are butting heads, with Edward representing the modern-day melting pot American dream while Jimmy stands for old-fashioned, conservative American values that are approximately as hypocritical as the church over which he presides.
Tonally, American Sausage Standoff is a mess of epic proportions. Long-winded and passionate monologues about the deeper meaning of sausage are intertwined with scenes of a naked Asian man getting tortured and forced to ride out of town on a bicycle. Elsewhere, that the religion in which Jimmy participates is entirely fabricated seems like a flimsy excuse on the part of Thomsen to escape possible criticism when it comes to his critique of specific brands of organized worship, and this is symptomatic of the problem at the heart of American Sausage Standoff: it has no real guts, which leaves its “satire” entirely neutered. Thomsen actually brings a unique perspective in that he reflects a foreign perspective, like his protagonist, yet his vision of America is painfully reductive; it often comes across as if his only knowledge of Midwestern America was gleaned from MadTV sketches. There’s also a weird strain of homophobia infecting the film that Thomsen insultingly posits as acceptance: the character of Hank, Jerry’s son, is gay, and the viewer is instructed to recoil in horror as Jerry refers to him as a “fruit-flamin’ butt-hugger,” while only moments later Thomsen presents another character’s acceptance of his own homosexuality as a joke, adorning him in stereotypically colorful garb as the local bartender automatically serves him a tropical drink embellished with umbrellas. And there’s no point in working through the deeply problematic territory of one homophobic character being anally raped by a horse, the whole thing played for laughs — brutal comeuppance as irony — nor the part where the film ends with a gay character sucking on a sausage. There’s also suicide thrown into the middle of all of the cess because, again, Thomsen lacks any sort of control over tone.
It shouldn’t surprise to hear that American Sausage Standoff is an utter shitshow, and one for the ages at that. How Thomsen managed to rope Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle into these proceedings is anyone’s guess, but the film certainly looks gorgeous, its vision of Middle America a color-corrected hallucination of bleached skies and unnatural landscapes; at least someone in this film knew what they were doing. But the next time Thomsen feels another passion project stirring within, he would be wise to head to the nearest restroom and deposit it in the precise place that American Sausage Standoff rightfully belongs.
Writer: Steven Warner
What We Left Unfinished
1921. 1989. 2021. The cycles of imperial superpowers invading, occupying, and summarily abandoning Afghanistan run their course with horrifying regularity to the point of near mundanity. To American and European onlookers, even the name of the country has become practically synonymous with chaos, signifying everything white Westerners fear — religious extremism, political insecurity, and the notion that, without particular leaders in power, that could one day be us. Amongst all the baseless fear-mongering and legitimately valid, reasonable fear-mongering, it’s far too easy to lose sight of humanity. Lives are lived under occupations, between wars, and, crucially, art is still made. It’s in the violent, tumultuous transitions of power that art is precarious, whether it be the centuries-old Buddhist monuments destroyed by the Taliban or the creative infrastructure torn apart by regime changes.
Mariam Ghani’s documentary What We Left Unfinished explores the cases of five films, born during an artistic golden age when funding for the arts was readily available, and reluctantly abandoned during the subsequent unrest following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Ghani combines newly accessible archive footage from those unfinished films with interviews with the creatives involved to create what is effectively a time capsule of a very specific period in the country’s artistic and political history. Ghani’s interviews are less concerned with the technical side of filmmaking in a precarious state than with retelling anecdotes of the era, lending a loose, unstructured sensibility to the film that both complements and clashes with the director’s visual style; when certain stories are related, Ghani’s use of archival footage works in tandem with her interviewees, while in other cases, her selection of images seems wholly careless. Likewise, this casual structuring and muddied use of the films themselves can lead to the whole affair feeling more like good ol’ days-style reminiscence rather than urgent, political work.
But perhaps what’s most trying in What We Left Unfinished is that it, like its subject matter, feels genuinely incomplete. Due in part to the ongoing conflicts in the region, but also to the filmmakers’ lack of any real guiding structure, there’s not even the barest hint of resolution to be found here, and while that may be an accurate reflection of the present reality, it doesn’t make for much of a satisfying film. This unique time capsule of a documentary is difficult by its very nature, concerned as it is with the incomplete, but despite effectively memorializing the lost films of the Soviet-Afghan era, What We Left Unfinished goes no further than that act of archivalism. While perhaps an interesting document of an under-explored period in history, there aren’t any great revelations to be found here, and by the end of the film, there is a distinct sense that the most interesting questions are the ones left unanswered, and even perhaps unasked.
Writer: Molly Adams
One would be forgiven for mistaking the new con artist dramedy Playing God for yet another Conservative-leaning, faith-based project from the PureFlix assembly line, home of the godforsaken God’s Not Dead series. But even though writer-director Scott Brignac brings the Big Guy himself into the proceedings here, he has no explicit interest in plumbing the depths of modern-day faith or religion. Instead, Playing God busies itself with the low-level illegal activities of its central protagonists, twin siblings Rachel (Hannah Kasulka) and Micah (Luke Benward). Don’t let the biblical names fool you, though, as the two impeccably-dressed and drool-worthy twenty-somethings are actually grifters who swindle anyone who crosses their path; scruples are in notably short supply when you scam pregnant newlyweds with a bogus “Help an Orphaned Child in Need” program. Forced to pay back thousands of dollars to a violent businessman who puts them on a strict two-week deadline, the bro-sis duo set their sights on Ben (Alan Tudyk), a wealthy entrepreneur on a spiritual quest after the tragic death of his young daughter. The plan: the pair will pose as human angels, working for God himself, who has come to Earth to help Ben in his time of need. In the process, they will locate the safe within his mansion and rob Ben blind, as the man is notoriously “unbanked.” Meanwhile, Michael McKean plays Frank, a.k.a. God, a roller rink proprietor and criminal mentor to Rachel and Micah who sees nothing but dollar signs, so long as he doesn’t let the role go to his head.
It goes without saying that Playing God is deeply stupid in conception, boasting a plot that makes no sense within the context of anything resembling the “real world.” And yet, Tudyk delivers a performance of stunning emotional heft, one that completely sells his character’s desperate plumbing of the unanswerable. Rawness, anger, and vulnerability are legitimately felt in Ben’s character, entirely unexpected yet wholly necessary in order for any of this material to emotionally resonate with its audience. Tudyk gets a nice assist from Kasulka, who brings a hard-edged fragility to her otherwise stock character, while McKean remains a pleasure to watch, even if he doesn’t have much to do here. And like any good con game, Playing God has a twist up its sleeve, but one that here renders the proceedings far more treacly than necessary, even if it introduces a thematic wrinkle that isn’t entirely unwelcome. Ultimately, though, Playing God is a tale of fathers: the good ones, the bad ones, and the absent ones. That this is wrapped within a tale concerning the holiest of fathers Himself is certainly a clever maneuver, if not a bit too obvious. Brignac clearly means well, even as his flawed film stumbles more than a few times, especially when it comes to the whiplash-inducing characterization of Micah. But as the end credits roll, if the tiniest of lumps forms in your throat, just chalk it up to a small miracle, the kind that elevates an otherwise mediocre film on strength of its landing.
Writer: Steven Warner
Blood Conscious, the debut feature from writer-director-editor Timothy Covell, starts on a note of ripped-from-the-headlines horror, as siblings Kevin (Oghenero Gbaje) and Brittney (DeShawn White) — accompanied by fiancée Tony (Lenny Thomas) — arrive at a lakeside resort only to discover that all of its guests, including their parents, have been murdered by a crazed shooter (Nick Damici). Claiming that the individuals were possessed by demons, the gunman holds the trio hostage, setting off a chain of events in which the line between paranoia and pure madness becomes dangerously blurred. And so, for its first half, Blood Conscious is a tale of survival, as our three protagonists desperately try to gain the upper hand against their seemingly deranged assailant. But with the arrival of a stranger at the film’s mid-point — a middle-aged woman named Margie (Lori Hammel), suffering from the apparent effects of PTSD — the film evolves into something else entirely, a modern-day riff on The Thing wherein the very humanity of each of the characters is called into question.
To that point, it’s precisely these various twists and turns of the script that make Blood Conscious such a compelling watch, even as the technical specs fail to deliver. The film is obviously a low-budget affair, yet that doesn’t exactly excuse the atrocious dialogue or the subpar performances — save for Damici, that is, who, as always, is a welcome presence. A majority of the film takes place in horribly underlit locations where it’s near impossible to tell what action is transpiring, a detail which could conceivably be used to create tension but instead here only breeds frustration. The score, courtesy of Sam Tyndall and Akari Uchiyama, is appropriately charged, fraught with dissonant strings and prolonged wails, although, as that description fairly explicates, it’s certainly nothing unusual or ambitious for the genre. But as easy as it is to find fault with the film’s small-scale constraints, there’s something about its plucky, DIY spirit that proves fairly infectious. It would be easy to imagine a Hollywood remake that irons out these wrinkles, sure, but that would also remove the homespun charm that’s inherent within. Blood Conscious is no threat to become a genre classic, but taken on its own terms, there’s plenty enough for horror fans to enjoy in the film’s clever manipulations.
Writer: Steven Warner