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.
Isolation, a horror anthology co-produced by James P. Gannon and Nathan Crooker, is made of nine shorts created and set in life during the pandemic. They’re mostly dead on arrival, though, as the anxieties and terrors that defined the past two years are so familiar and recently lived-in that these shorts feel shallow in comparison. The first film, Larry Fessenden’s Fever, proves a decent opener as it makes evident the low-budget nature and peculiar circumstances of filmmaking by showing shots of empty cities. As a man becomes delirious, stop-motion is used to unsettle and disorient, but it’s utilized too infrequently and without much purpose beyond being a signifier of mood. Even worse are the depictions of this stifled time; a shot of New Yorkers banging on pots outside their windows serves as little more than an announcement of a desire for community. That the narrator then directly explains this idea is regrettable spoon-feeding.
Such superficiality is constantly on display. All these shorts, for example, are prefaced with the name of a city. Doing this instead of showing the film’s title is a befuddling move, as little distinguishes these films by their location. One could argue this maneuver is meant as a signpost for the universality of the pandemic experience, but that would require substantial throughlines that link films together. Certain shorts take a look at conspiratorial attitudes, for instance, but they’re laughably unrealistic as to feel both less fascinating and terrifying than knowing such people in real life. Andrew Kasch’s 5G has an exaggerated script that makes the short read like unintentional comedy even during its intentionally amusing moments, while Alix Austin & Keir Siewert’s It’s Inside is delightfully bloody but nothing else, using the protagonist’s loony logic as an easy path toward a grisly climax. There’s no insightful commentary, nor is the character fleshed out enough to be a captivating window into such self-destructive mentalities, but at least offers opportunity to gleefully wince.
The most memorable passages in Isolation are those that capture some semblance of atmosphere. Alexandra Neary’s Homebodies utilizes found footage for effective moments of trepidation, but that’s a consolation prize for a story that doesn’t meaningfully build on a premise involving a company’s voracious need for exciting news stories. Kyle I. Kelley & Adam R. Brown’s Meat Hands and Zach Passero’s Gust are fine, if only because their quiet explorations of loneliness are comparatively innocuous. But more often than not, these films struggle in a way that’s typified by Bobby Roe’s Pacific Northwest, which follows two children as they try to survive escaped convicts; the short hobbles along inelegantly with forced moments of suspense. Isolation never gets past its gimmick, as contrived premises are shoehorned and presented without nuance, failing to capture any real emotions or experiences related to life in lockdown.
Writer: Joshua Minsoo Kim
Night at the Eagle Inn
Brothers Erik and Carson Bloomquist might just be the hardest working filmmakers in show business right now, and chances are you have never even heard of them. Their latest feature, the thriller Night at the Eagle Inn, is their third film to be released in 2021, this one coming mere weeks after their last venture, Christmas on the Carousel. (Why the Christmas movie was released before Halloween, and the horror one after, is a question for another time.) Erik takes sole directing credit here, while both brothers share writing, editing, and producing honors. Commonalities between their films include 70-minute running times, single locations, and a handful of cast members. One can only imagine the budgets for these projects are minimal at best, and the mere fact that they are getting distribution to wider audiences is worth celebrating. Whereas their romantic drama from earlier this year, Weekenders, proved a welcome diversion thanks to its low-key naturalism and subtle charms, Night at the Eagle Inn is another beast entirely, a horror flick in which two fraternal twins, Sarah (Amelia Dudley) and Spencer (Taylor Turner), travel to the titular abode in the snowy mountains of Vermont in hopes of finding answers regarding their parents’ long-ago disappearance, but instead find literal hell on Earth. One can’t help but be reminded of both The Shining and The Innkeepers as various supernatural events unfold, including disembodied voices echoing through empty hallways, furniture that moves on its own, and static-ridden television sets that display disconcerting imagery of dastardly deeds (okay, that might be more The Ring right there).
But Bloomquist is no Stanley Kubrick — hell, he is no Ti West — and what results is a deeply stupid thriller completely devoid of thrills. So much key plot information is delivered in artless exposition dumps, while the “spooky” cinematography consists of nothing more than a few Dutch angles and some various colored lighting. The score is so generic that it literally sounds like one of those Halloween stations that pop up on Spotify every October, a combination of obvious synth and sharp strings. The acting is competent in its best moments, outright embarrassing at other times — Greg Schweers, appearing as The Night Manager, gives off major “Dinner Theater Jack Torrance” vibes, although his enthusiasm is, at the very least, appreciated. It doesn’t take a lot of money to scare audiences, as films like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity have made abundantly clear, but everything here is so derivative and, quite frankly, boring, as if everyone involved was merely going through the motions. Perhaps there’s a reason why the majority of filmmakers don’t take on multiple projects within the span of a year; Night at the Eagle Inn is nothing if not a definitive sign of burn-out. Go ahead and take a breather, Erik and Carson — you’ve earned it, despite this latest dud.
Writer: Steven Warner
It wouldn’t be a film festival without the requisite, ham-fisted coming-of-age drama, and for the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, Tracey Deer’s Beans comfortably fits the bill. Set during the 1990 Mohawk uprising in Quebec, the film follows an Indigenous twelve-year-old girl nicknamed Beans (Kiawentiio Tarbell) who is caught in the middle of a conflict between descendants of white settlers and the First Nations people who are protesting their sacred land being bulldozed for a golf course. As the uprising turns violent, Beans is forced to navigate her dangerous newfound reality with her father on the front lines, while simultaneously getting caught up with a new group of friends, forcing her to grow up all too quickly.
Despite its timely subject matter, the coming-of-age story at the core of Beans feels distinctly too familiar, relying on tired tropes of adolescent rites of passage set against a revolutionary backdrop. And while there are parallels between the Indigenous uprisings in Quebec in 1990 and current anti-fascist actions happening around the world — the crisis at Standing Rock is an obvious comparison, but the film’s spiritual center easily extends to include Black Lives Matter protests, among others movements — Beans is often marred by an anemic script, amateur performances, and Deer’s awkward sense of pacing. The film even bungles its attempts to establish rapport between characters early on by relying on hyperbolic laughter to punctuate even the most mundane actions, an ungainly attempt to establish contrast with the vile displays of racism and violence that they will all face by the end. Unfortunately, these make very little impact because of Deer’s use of news footage from the time, the harrowing immediacy of which outshines the comparatively stiff reenactments.
Beans certainly has its heart in the right place, offering a fly-on-the-wall look at Native struggles in the face of institutional colonialism, but it displays neither the polish nor the dramatic bonafides to pull off such a serious topic. Even more egregious, Deer fails to make her characters either charming or memorable, a fatal error for a coming-of-age narrative attempting to use a child’s point of view to guide audiences through a historical event. The results are oddly listless and dramatically inert, leaving the unfortunate impression that the Mohawk uprising and its enduring legacy deserve a film that offers more than good intentions. [Originally published as part of TIFF 2020 — Dispatch 6.]
Writer: Matthew Lucas
Lost in the anonymous aesthetic swarm that is digital, independent filmmaking, She Paradise, directed by Maya Cozier, oscillates between trope and something more benevolent, before abruptly undercutting its quiet subterfuge of allied perseverance for a muddled politic. The feature adaptation of a short film by the same name, we follow Sparkle as she contends with her conflicting desires for dance, material sustainability, and connection with others (both kin and newfound friendships). We are very pointedly guided through the unobstructed sightlines of a plot that shepherds her straight into the lion’s mouth: music video producers and musicians ogling her for both her beauty and the way in which she enacts agency through a physical sensuality in her choreography. And in truth, it’s the manner in which characters perceive this gesticulation — literal and figurative — where the film most consistently falters.
This eroticism of movement, as presented through dance, is given the shortest stick of all the film’s present facets, a likely sticking point for viewers (i.e. this critic) with a reverence for such a commitment to the physical. Contributing to these problems is a sound design that often dissipates into the background: there’s the stomp and clap of bodies astray within intangible and dimensionless soundscapes, monopolized by an unsynced music track. The cutting around the dancers is also frequently arrhythmic, neither in tune with dance or music, more often than not obscuring the momentum of weight placed into each motion. It’s a surprise because even the precedent short caught the tactility of this diegetic texture, the particular echo that reverberates as a foot meets the floor, as thighs slap the wood during splits. Without this fixation on the bodily evocations of this dance, what is the film supposed to anchor itself to? Character? Sparkle, unfortunately, is a stand-in for the ideas many before her have represented, and many after will emulate. And even more perplexing is the film’s final shot, where money seems to become a reconciliatory material in the wake of trauma. It’s a tough sell to find in money the semblance of empowerment, and certainly not from the violence and exploitation it stems from, as an abuser offers his victim an apology, or payment, or hush-hushing. The last frame is a smirk, but it’s still unclear where it comes from and what exactly it signifies? The semiotics around it are confused, leaving the film in a state of floundering, gasping for something to call purpose.
Writer: Zachary Goldkind
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time
In 1982, a young Robert B. Weide wrote to his literary idol with a proposal for a documentary. Twenty-five years later, the writer Kurt Vonnegut died as the result of a head injury — he was 84 years old, and, following a traumatic career in the U.S. Army during World War II, spent 50 years writing, eventually becoming one of the most ubiquitous names in American literature. So it goes. In the decades between these events, Weide and Vonnegut developed a deep and unusual friendship that eventually became woven into the fabric of both artists’ work, and resulted in Weide’s long-awaited documentary, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time.
The documentary proceeds in mostly linear fashion, following Vonnegut’s childhood, his time at war, and his writing career, and were it not for Weide’s presence and phenomenal access, the film would probably have not been any more remarkable than a simple A-to-B biography. Weide himself even bemoans the cliché of the filmmaker who becomes a part of his own documentary, but here it is an inextricable component, as instrumental to the film as Vonnegut himself, and doesn’t come across as even vaguely gimmicky. Weide, as the fanboy turned friend, becomes the emotional core of the film, and his adoration of Vonnegut is deeply felt. Weide’s unprecedented level of access provides the film with an intimate look at Vonnegut, delving into both his public face and the very real grief and trauma behind that self-image. The film isn’t limited to mere speculation, with stark moments of contrast taking center stage — one particularly affecting pairing is the laughing, morbid Vonnegut joking about the ignoble deaths of his wartime comrades in opposition to the author solemnly discussing the death of his beloved sister, all sense of dark humor vanished. It’s a tension that inhabits Vonnegut’s work, and Weide reflects it perfectly, probing behind the curtain into the source of his iconic satirical sensibility.
Despite Weide’s valid concerns over the friendship intruding on the film, it is exactly this tension that keeps the documentary riveting. Weide leans into the tension, refusing to separate the art from the artist both narratively and visually, stylishly combining Vonnegut’s illustrations with intimate home videos, and carefully examining the coexistence of Vonnegut’s personal and creative lives. Given his intense personal relationship with his subject, it’s a testament to Weide’s artistic integrity that Unstuck in Time remains so impartial, treating its subject with empathy and compassion, but never indulgence. The film is equally as comfortable admitting that Vonnegut was often an absent or intimidating father figure as it is venerating his artistic genius and the love and fondness with which his children remember him. As a portrait, Unstuck in Time is unafraid to be whole, and despite the film’s intense personal inflection, never serves as apologia for an undeniably complicated man.
Writer: Molly Adams
For movie nerds of a certain age, the story of Kevin Smith and his 1994 debut film, Clerks, is the stuff of legend. Coming on the heels of breakout indie successes from Tarantino and Linklater, Smith was, according to who you asked, the new John Cassavetes, the heir apparent to Jim Jarmusch, or a potty mouthed, Gen X Woody Allen. Smith was also “one of us” — the schlubby, overweight geek who made it. The new documentary Clerk. is an exhaustive, and exhausting, overview of Smith’s entire career, touching briefly on each of his feature films as well as his numerous podcasts and speaking engagements. It all culminates with Smith and longtime friend and collaborator Jason Mewes receiving stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a symbolic validation of Smith’s storied, love-hate history with the mainstream.
Director Malcolm Ingram, a longtime Smith associate, opts here for the simplest, least demanding structure for this filmed hagiography: a linear, chronological order. After a brief intro that recounts Smith’s childhood and religious beliefs, Clerk. retells, for the umpteenth time, the genesis of Clerks and the shockwaves it sent through the festival circuit. Linklater and Tarantino pop up in brief talking head interviews extolling Smith’s genius, while Smith himself is on hand to essentially narrate his own story. After being given carte blanche from the studios for his second feature, Smith hits a brick wall with Mallrats. This leads to some deep soul-searching and a return to his indie roots as Smith scrounges up money to make Chasing Amy, heralded as a “return to form” by the critical community. On and on the documentary goes, giving a brief overview of every Smith film, introducing a few interview subjects to talk about it, and then punting back to Smith for a kind of final summation. Anything of particular interest is either barely touched upon or glossed over entirely — Smith’s acknowledgment that much of his success came at the hands of convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein is allotted the same amount of weight as Smith praising the virtues of the San Diego Comic Con. A fascinating chapter of Smith’s career involves a weird detour called Red State; there’s footage here of Smith premiering the horror film at the 2011 Sundance Film Fest and preparing to auction it off to a distributor before revealing that he’s actually distributing it himself, in an elaborate cross country touring road show. It was a premeditated publicity stunt that probably burned a lot of professional bridges which Clerk. presents as a cheeky prank instead of potential career suicide.
It all feels like an elaborate DVD extra, albeit one with virtually unlimited access to the man himself. Taken as a whole, Clerk. raises an important question that it can’t really answer: Who exactly is this film for? Too long and too enamored with minutiae for a casual viewer, one might think of an endeavor like this as a “for fans only” affair. But Smith’s legions of admirers know all of this stuff backwards and forwards. Smith himself has told these anecdotes countless times, particularly in his multiple An Evening With… DVDs. There emerges a conflicting portrait of a man who craves attention, often tailoring his films to appeal to a mainstream audience, and then lashes out at critics and fans who refuse to embrace his more outlandish proclivities. Neither Smith nor the film really digs into this seeming contradiction, and is poorer for it. Recent duds like Tusk and Yoga Hosers are commented upon entirely as positive experiences, a chance to goof around with friends and family while making a movie. A noble enough sentiment, but one which lets Smith and his decision-making process off the hook. These films aren’t failures, at least not in the insular world of Kevin Smith. They’re successes because his wife and kid had fun on set. Ultimately, Clerk. feels like a testament to Smith from Smith, a love letter to himself. That might be all well and good for anyone already in the tank for this once interesting filmmaker, but it’s not particularly illuminating for the rest of us.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
When speaking of Dangerous, it’s difficult to not make the most immediate Die Hard reference when the film, itself, seems comfortable enough luxuriating in that very pastiche. Like many a mimicry that came before, this one lazily offers us some exposition which will justify all the subsequent gun-toting confrontations: specifically, regarding a mysterious treasure lurking somewhere on a mysterious island, where family and friends have gathered for the mysterious funeral of a man who has no reason to be dead. Scott Eastwood takes the lead and executive producer spot here, offering us a space-cadet, wide-eyed killer trying to reform his antisocial personality disorder through breathing exercises and depressants.
Dangerous is directed by David Hackl, who, after some years separated from his Saw installment, has dedicated his filmography to these languid reappropriations of ‘80s action tropes. And these films seem to work on a plateaued production structure: recognizable name in the front seat, surrounded by bit players of little to niche familiarity, capped off with a special appearance role by iconic personalities: from Billy Bob Thornton to Richard Dreyfuss to Mel Gibson. One could arguably observe this consistent organization of productions, extrapolate little to nothing from these shoddily put together, straight-to-DVD aesthetics, and come to the conclusion that, maybe, these films are a front for some kind of tax shelter. Of course, this is just a silly assumption, provoked by a silly film that seems made only to purposefully disappear from, not even the cultural memory, but the cultural periphery. No one wants to be here, and everyone seems to be holding back a laugh that’s threatening to burst through the seams of the gobbledygook austerity caked onto this meandering flaccidity. Nothing dangerous to see here.
Writer: Zachary Goldkind