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.
On its surface, new teen dramedy Butter seems like the kind of film in which only a real monster could find fault. From its unconventional protagonist to its anti-bullying messaging, writer-director Paul A. Kaufman has crafted a tale that is bursting with good intentions. Yet something is rotten in the state of Denmark — or, more precisely, the state of Illinois, where our tale of woe is set. Marshall (Alex Kersting) — AKA the titular Butter — is your average 17-year-old high school student, the type of teen who is annoyed by his parents, harbors a secret crush on the most popular girl in school, and finds classes to be a gigantic pain in the ass. But one thing sets Marshall apart from his fellow students: his size. At over 400 pounds, Marshall is grossly overweight, resulting in him being endlessly ridiculed by his peers on a daily basis. After one particularly trying day, Marshall has seemingly reached his breaking point and creates a blog in which he vows to eat himself to death live on camera on New Year’s Eve — which is only five short weeks away. In a surprising twist, Marshall’s suicide proclamation proves the ultimate kickstart to cool, as the popular kids suddenly start hanging out with him, and the girl of his dreams starts looking his way, making him realize that life just might be worth living. In its broad strokes, then, Butter is an after-school special pleading for tolerance, the tale of a bunch of assholes who suddenly realize that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and maybe kindness is the ultimate form of cool.
But in the hands of Kaufman, a grown-ass adult who really should know better, the message gets lost in a sea of troubling plot turns that might prove entertaining in a can-you-believe-this-?! sort of way if they weren’t so harmful. As is addressed early in the film, Marshall’s overeating is a direct result of severe depression, with the constant bullying and a seemingly indifferent father (Brian Van Holt) being major contributors in this cycle. It certainly doesn’t help matters that his mother (Mira Sorvino, who deserves better than this) enables his unhealthy lifestyle by feeding him a nonstop supply of calorie-laden treats. Butter, however, treats the mental illness at its core as an afterthought, as if mentioning it once or twice is sufficient for its tale of teenage suicide and pervasive bullying. No one at Marshall’s school sees his actions as a cry for help or alerts a single authority figure, because then we wouldn’t have time to watch Marshall bowl or drive a car really fast, which is, after all, apparently why we are here. Marshall’s life improves dramatically upon declaring his upcoming suicide, and then — MAJOR SPOILER ALERT — gets even better after his failed attempt, a newfound healthy relationship with his parents and possible entry to Julliard included. Annabeth Gish pops up for a scene as a hospital psychologist who tells Marshall that depression can’t be cured overnight, a claim that Butter instantly refutes by ending on a note of wish fulfillment that seems both irresponsible and downright offensive.
Kaufman is a veteran of numerous Hallmark films, and Butter certainly has that basic cable network sheen and shape, making the messaging somehow even more insulting in its blandly slick presentation. Even its end credits, featuring cutesy cut-outs out of its cast members, seems wholly inappropriate considering the circumstances, one final insult to anyone brave enough to stick it out to the end. Understanding and treating depression, particularly in teens unsure how to advocate for themselves, is immensely important, and anyone having suicidal thoughts should know that the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 1-800-273-8255. That a film review of Butter ends with this information while the film itself does not should tell you everything you need to know about not just its quality, but its ethics.
Writer: Steven Warner
Ghosts of the Ozarks
There’s mystery afoot in the Deep(ish) South of Ghosts of the Ozarks, a sort of horror-western that slowly reveals itself to be something simultaneously more complex and less satisfying than that simple description. Beginning in the aftermath of the Civil War, young Dr. James McCune (Thomas Hobson) has been summoned by his uncle Matthew (Phil Morris) to the small town of Norfork, Arkansas. But before James can reach his destination, he is attacked by a transient. Quickly, however, the surrounding forest fills with smoke and eerie red lights as a spectral figure whisks the highwayman away, sparing the good doctor. Shocked by what he has seen, James is further amazed to finally reach the town only to find himself welcome with open arms, despite the fact that he is Black. Indeed, James’ race seems not to matter at all in this virtually all-white community, although it’s unclear if this is a relief or a red flag. Further, the townsfolk are very much aware of the “ghosts” that prowl the surrounding forest, so much so that they post sentries at night to stand guard, while citizens are only allowed to leave the protective gates with special permission. Much of the film’s early goings are filled with James getting the lay of the land and meeting his new neighbors, including a blind barkeep and his wife (a very welcome Tim Blake Nelson & genre stalwart Angela Bettis); a friendly businessman with an interest in photography (David Arquette); and Annie (Tara Perry), a young woman who used to live in town but now resides outside its walls along with her mute brother.
It’s a fascinating collection of oddballs and eccentrics, and co-writers/co-directors Matt Glass & Jordan Wayne Long do an admirable job of weaving necessary exposition into these introductory scenes. Eventually, as James settles in, strange occurrences begin piling up. Nothing’s quite as it seems here in Norfork, and it becomes clear that this place might be less a utopia than a prison. Locals drop hints as to what has happened to James’ predecessor, while Annie seems reluctant to admit to what drove her and her brother away from the relative safety of Norfork’s walls. Even Uncle Matthew seems to have some ulterior motives for summoning James. Like a lot of mysteries, and episodes of The Twilight Zone for that matter, the narrative hums along nicely as questions are raised, but less so once answers are required. All of the filmmakers’ admirable world-building falls to the wayside as it becomes frustratingly obvious where the story is headed, including the true nature of the “ghosts” and what’s really going on in the mine at the center of town. There’s a lot to like here, including a couple of nicely gruesome action beats and a uniformly fine cast, but eventually the film dissipates into a collection of familiar tropes and Scooby Doo-style unmaskings. There’s an interesting metaphor here for the lie at the heart of post-Reconstruction American society, the way that our racist history is sublimated into capitalist industrialization, but Ghosts of the Ozarks loses the thread as it devolves into simplistic allegory (and cribs heavily from a specific Shyamalan film, to boot). Regrettably, given its early promise, we’ll have to chalk this one up to a swing and a miss.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché
Making a documentary about any icon is a serious undertaking, so much so that there is maybe only one way it could be even more artistically intimidating: when said icon is also your parent. Co-directors Paul Sng and Celeste Bell take on the challenge in Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché, a documentary about the life of Bell’s late mother, Poly Styrene (born Marianne Elliott-Said), the lead singer of punk band X-Ray Spex. With Bell serving as narrator, the film follows its subject from her childhood, throughout the various stages of her career, and eventually to her demise in 2015, giving particular spotlight to the later stages of her life and work.
By all accounts, I Am A Cliché spends most of its runtime occupying the middle of the road. Bell and Sng rely heavily on the former’s voiceover narration and much of the film’s archive footage is simply recycled from Ted Clisby’s earlier, contemporary documentary, Who Is Poly Styrene? Although Ruth Negga intrigues as the voice of Poly Styrene, reading excerpts from the singer’s writing, it’s not enough to truly refresh the film’s staler aspects. Even the film’s few insights into the ‘70s punk scene, in particular the mixed racial politics and the childishly cruel hazing antics of the Sex Pistols, feel like a footnote, interesting bits of trivia rather than anything Bell and Sng might want to delve further into.
But despite the film’s relative mediocrity in terms of form, there is one element that truly stuns: co-director Celeste Bell and her unflinching candor regarding her mother. The film is structured around Bell’s changing perspectives of her mother, from chaotic and often negligent parent to artistic collaborator, and the honesty with which Bell explores the transition is remarkable. She refuses to sugar-coat this relationship, describing specific incidents of violence and the details of an erratic upbringing when her mother decided to uproot her infant daughter to join the Hare Krishnas. Bell’s accounts are the sort that other documentaries of this ilk might skate over in an attempt not to speak ill of the dead, but Bell’s genuine pride in her mother and her legacy balances the film perfectly, resulting in a brave piece of personal, somewhat diaristic filmmaking. So while the film’s form pales in comparison to its emotionalism, there’s at least one benefit — there’s nothing to distract from the film’s final act, which shifts from Poly Styrene’s life to her legacy, and marks a shift from her voice to her daughter’s. As such, I Am A Cliché manages to hold true to its overlapping perceptions of its subject, maintaining a well-balanced tension between the two that makes for fascinating viewing.
Writer: Molly Adams
Miss Willoughby and the Haunted Bookshop
On paper, Brad Watson’s Miss Willoughby and the Haunted Bookshop has all the necessary goods to deliver a perfectly enjoyable, entertaining flick. Half detective story, half ghost tale, all taking place in the Northeastern English countryside of York where rows of beautiful, old brick buildings line cobbled streets, the film — at least in its initial outlook — promises to be one of those well-known British policiers imbued with an aura of suspense and mystery. Miss Willoughby quickly introduces the story of a young girl, Elizabeth Willoughby, who after tragically losing her father is fostered by one of his military officer friends. U.S. mariner Robert Thompson (played by Kelsey Grammer when the film jumps ahead) proceeds to train little Elizabeth both physically (martial arts and boxing) and mentally (chess and literature) at a majestic family manor. Years quickly fly by, and the film cuts to the 40-ish Elizabeth (Nathalie Cox), now an elegant, well-mannered, and even sexy ancient history professor who teaches at a local university. But just as viewers are primed to watch a complicated drama of puzzles and thrills — after a family friend asks Elizabeth to investigate (more in a private detective capacity) a series of suspicious haunting incidents at the town bookstore Deakin’s — the larger story begins to feel much less captivating than its logline suggests, and its early promise notably wanes.
Saddled with an increasingly unengaging plot, a series of long-winded dialogues, plenty of drab situations, and a few unchallenging twists, the screenplay is a notably lackluster affair. Indeed, it mostly fails at meeting even the most modest expectations for this type of film — those of a particularly English character that mount investigations of either paranormal events or spectacular crimes and which often lead to long-concealed family and/or local history secrets, not far from the Agatha Christie mold. But what saves Miss Willoughby from becoming an abject flop is Watson’s tasteful and quaint (even if, academic) visualism, due in no small part to the posh costuming and ravishing set designs, not to mention the allure of the gorgeous locations, which are beautifully, cleanly captured by Watson and DP Ross W. Clarkson. The tender chemistry between the leading duo of Cox and Grammer offers another mild hook for a film with a relative lack of meaningful incident; even if the former isn’t entirely convincing as a professor-turned-detective, the latter’s well-grounded work acts as a solid anchor for the film’s ostensible core.
Miss Willoughby can best be regarded, then, as a quite typical, overly generic work that is nonetheless filled with plenty of visual charm, its lack of substantial wit compensated for with colorful, trimmed images. Adam Langston’s overshadowing score threatens to drown out these mild pleasures, but it’s still ultimately a harmless and unassuming film which its target could easily enjoy with a cup of tea in hand as a bit of casual, escapist Sunday afternoon fodder. It’s a film sketched with an antique aesthetic that situates it somewhere in between Enola Holmes and Knives Out, but with a more old-fashioned sensibility than the former and dramatic development and thrust than the latter. Indeed, despite its small charms, Miss Willoughby and Haunted Bookshop is so committed to this throwback vibe and its TV-quality mystery that it already feels preternaturally aged, even upon its release.
Writer: Ayeen Forootan