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.
The Sound of Violet
Phrases like “unbelievable” and “batshit insane” get bandied about by critics — this one included — so regularly that they have virtually lost all meaning, the inclination to traffic in extremes an unfortunate side effect of both recency bias and a love of the clicks. It’s especially unfortunate for films like new romantic dramedy The Sound of Violet, which starts with the logline, “A young man’s autism prevents him from realizing his soulmate is a prostitute,” and miraculously grows only more bonkers from there. Writer-director Allen Wolf adapts his own 2015 novel of the same name, which apparently won awards from groups whose names will remain anonymous. Perhaps this offensive melodrama worked better on the page, where its abrupt tonal shifts and wackadoo plot twists could have a little more room to breathe — or, at the very least, allow for the necessary suspension of disbelief for which the medium of film can occasionally have little patience. Yet it’s hard to imagine this working in any medium, considering the premise itself is flawed from inception.
Shawn (Cason Thomas) is a twenty-something coder working for a high-profile dating app, and his autism makes it difficult for him to engage in meaningful relationships. In the film’s opening montage, Shawn’s numerous dates are seen literally sprinting away from him, even as he is upfront about his condition and is Hollywood handsome, making these women quite possibly the worst people on the planet. Shawn’s romantic prospects take a turn for the bizarre when, at a “Pimps and Hoes” work party, he meets Violet (Cora Cleary), an attractive young woman and prostitute who agrees to have dinner with Shawn under the condition that she be paid $300 an hour. Shawn agrees, thinking she is posing as a “ho” and is not an actual sex worker, a fact which still eludes him even after she arrives at his place the next day, provocatively licking an apple muffin and removing her top. This evolves into the most bizarre first date of all time, as Shawn accompanies Violet on her various fuck sessions — four in total — which she claims are acting auditions. (Don’t worry, he waits outside.) Violet sees Shawn as her meal ticket out of a life of human trafficking, violently controlled by her evil pimp, Anton (Michael E. Bell). Shawn, meanwhile, just sees a nice girl, while his rightfully concerned grandmother (Jan D’Arcy) and brother (Kaelon Christopher) desperately try to convince him of the truth. It’s at the halfway point that Shawn and Violet get married, with Violet meeting up with a client minutes after their civil union, while Shawn is still oblivious. Once he learns the error of his ways, he tries to buy Violet back from her pimp for $15,000, but they have to act fast, because as Violet herself says, “I heard my pimp talk to a gangbanger about moving us to Portland,” which is quite possibly the whitest line ever uttered in a motion picture. At another point, the film briefly ventures into God’s Not Dead territory, as Shawn is devoutly religious and invites Violet to a church service, where she is so moved by an amateur band’s rendition of “Amazing Grace” that she briefly believes the Lord can save her. But the film soon forgets about this plot thread, because it needs to have an extended scene where Anton beats up Shawn.
It’s not the least bit surprising that the only other movie on writer-director Wolf’s filmography is a Lifetime flick starring Lacey Chabert, or that The Sound of Violet is the only novel he has ever written. (It is, however, a little more shocking that he is also a successful board game designer.) This particular adaptation feels like a Lifetime movie on crack, a startling accomplishment considering the cable network is currently waist-deep in a film series where Eric Roberts plays a diabolical doctor. It would be nice to report that the movie is at least well-intentioned, but it uses Shawn’s autism for so many cheap jokes that its attempts at empathy ring entirely hollow and frequently offensive. That these “jokes” butt up against scenes of Violet being drugged and raped makes the proceedings especially problematic, as if it wanted to be a feel-good romance a la Pretty Woman crossed with the gritty realism of Klute without ever realizing that such a tonal marriage is virtually impossible. There’s certainly more than a fair share of wish fulfillment going on in The Sound of Violet, even as it ends on a title card urging its viewer to seek more information on human trafficking. That would certainly be more worthy of your time than this ill-fated monstrosity.
Writer: Steven Warner
In his recent book Why It’s Ok To Love Bad Movies, philosophy professor Matthew Strohl carefully delineates the various strands and modes of “bad movie” appreciation, including the common but oft-misunderstood phrase “so bad it’s good.” To briefly synopsize what is essentially a book-length argument, Strohl suggests that something can still be aesthetically valuable not in spite of, but because it is an artistic failure. Here, he cites Plan 9 From Outer Space, one of the most famous of all “bad movies” that has nonetheless engendered decades of impassioned fandom and cult appreciation. The idea is that, despite the film’s obvious limitations, director Ed Wood’s idiosyncratic personality infuses the object with value beyond traditional notions of good or bad. Of course, the flip side to this argument considers films that are simply bad-bad; that is, films that attempt to adhere to the conventional norms of narrative filmmaking and simply fail at it while refusing to offer anything of value in place of those norms. All of which is a long-winded, roundabout way of saying that 9 Bullets is simply a bad film — not in an ironic way, or one ripe for cult recuperation, but simply in the most general, banal way. It contains nothing of value, possesses no personality or idiosyncrasies, and should not be viewed by anyone for any reason. The only question that remains, then, is how did this get made, and how did it manage to cast Sam Worthington and multiple Emmy, SAG, and Golden Globe awards nominee Lena Headey?
One must assume that the answer here is money, as is so often the case. And yet the film looks like it was filmed over the course of a long weekend with virtually no resources. Curious, indeed. Like old European co-productions of the ’60s and ’70s, 9 Bullets gives the impression of a screenplay written in another language and then hastily translated into English, full of awkward turns of phrase, odd pauses, repetitive plot points that reiterate the same beats ad nauseam, and a general lack of knowledge about how normal people interact in everyday situations. Here, Headey is Gypsy, a burlesque dancer who is retiring to focus on writing a book about her life (a real howler, that a stripper’s hard-luck memoir would be her ticket to respectability and financial independence). But before she knows it, her neighbors are gunned down by gangsters looking for an iPad with bank account info on it. Seems the neighbor was skimming from the local drug lord, and he wants his money back. In quick order, Gypsy stumbles across the only serving member of the family, young Sam (Dean Scott Vazquez) and his dog, and ascertains that it is in fact her former beau Jack (Sam Worthington) who ordered the hit. It should be noted that all of this happens in the first few minutes of the film, much of it intercut with woozy, soft-focus footage of Headey performing a striptease. It’s odd, to say the least. Before you know it, Gypsy and Sam are on the run together, with Jack and his goons in hot pursuit. What follows is both predictable and occasionally enervating, as the tough-as-nails Gypsy agrees to take Sam to an uncle in another state while she simultaneously attempts to use her former relationship with Jack to keep him from killing them. Will she gradually thaw to Sam’s charms, despite her traumatic past? Will this fallen woman gain redemption by protecting an innocent? The Christian allegory is obvious, although there’s thankfully no overt religious propaganda. Instead, this is ultimately just one cliché after another, the only surprises in store being just how ineptly each scene will be shot. Clearly there were dollies and Steadicams on set for at least part of filming, although good luck trying to figure out exactly how writer/director Gigi Gaston is blocking her shots. The less said about the cinematography the better; 9 Bullets looks like HD shit, all blown-out and over-lit, except for nighttime scenes, which are also over-lit but slightly less so. Gaston introduces a few new characters halfway through the narrative, as if tacitly admitting that the movie’s main plot can’t sustain even a 90-minute runtime, but they’re discarded almost as soon we meet them. It’s all inconsequential, as is the movie itself. There’s nothing to see here except a couple of decent actors who presumably needed a paycheck or got tricked. The only good news is that there’s a good chance no one will ever see this dud, as it is relegated to the dustbin of a streaming service near you.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Hello, Bookstore opens with footage shot in the early weeks of the pandemic, images of the surreal, almost dystopic shape our lives took in those early weeks of March 2020. Specifically, the subject here is Matt Tannenbaum, proprietor of The Bookstore in Lenox, MA, our first introduction to which is a masked Matt hollering instructions through the front door, turning away would-be browsers and facilitating curbside pick-ups. Despite our failure to return to a true normalcy in the ensuing two years, these early quarantine days feel like a distant memory, and Matt’s early interactions here suggest a film inclined toward capturing that interia of spring 2020, the ghost-town living that suffocated so many and hampered small businesses across the world. But director A.B. Zax‘s documentary began shooting long before Covid fundamentally changed our social frameworks, and he soon cuts back to pre-pandemic days, showing Matt in his element, a gab artist sipping vino from The Bookstore’s wine bar and waxing literary with a stream of ebullient customers. Hello, Bookstore proceeds according to this ebb and flow, slipping from scenes of “glory days” into the logistical and fiscal concerns of Covid-era bookselling, and back again; the structure operates as a loose mosaic, with only our understanding of pre- and post-pandemic marking any sense of time.
But these early sequences are something of a red herring, as the film is only about Covid in an organic sense, presentational rather than propositional. Much more time is actually dedicated to the film this was to be before, which centers Matt as the core character — and character he is. A sort of post-hippie booknik, he enthusiastically chats about current and favorite reads with guests, recalls learning the trade at the legendary Gotham Book Mart, and quotes florid passages from memory. And, predictably for a man of this profession and temperament, he spews plenty of memorable dictums: “There are two novels: the one that you write and the one that you talk about at the bar. I’ve been sitting at the bar for 42 years.” In this way, Hello, Bookstore settles into a soothing rhythm, an almost ASMR-esque viewing experience for book lovers.
But the flip side of this coziness, then, is that the film can feel fairly aimless. It’s a far more experiential watch than one motivated by any governing ideas, gentle but meandering. Given the onslaught of Covid cinema that has been borne of the past two years, it may be a blessing that we’re not here entreated to yet another bit of observational pandemic movie-making with little of substance to add to the discourse, but Hello, Bookstore has an undeniably low ceiling in the absence of any more driving purpose. Matt makes for an agreeably quirky presence to follow around, and more than anything this is a character study, but this too doesn’t merit even the scant 83-minute runtime. Moment to moment, this thesis-less approach makes for a nice documentary switch-up, as does limiting the talking-head moments to only Matt’s perspective: the transactional nature of his relationship to customers abuts everyone’s seemingly genuine love for the gregarious bibliophile, adding a bit of intrigue to watching the interactions unfold. But the film ultimately remains a slight affair, with only the calming quality of its niche setting much distinguishing it. As background noise for book lovers doing some light cleaning, Hello, Bookstore is an agreeable enough oddity, but even that targeted audience would probably find more pleasure in just picking up a book.
Writer: Luke Gorham
As They Made Us
Family dramedy As They Made Us marks the writing-directing debut of Mayim Bialik, current Jeopardy! hostess and star of the wildly successful sitcoms Blossom and The Big Bang Theory. On its surface, the film appears to be a bit of a departure for the television veteran, what with its portrayal of such devastating subject matter as death, child abuse, and domestic violence. Unfortunately, everything here is rendered in a key so broad that the only thing missing is an oppressive laugh track, which frankly shouldn’t be as surprising as it ultimately proves to be, even as the tale itself is semi-autobiographical. Dianna Agron stars as Abigail, a recently divorced mother of two and struggling writer whose life comes to a crashing halt after her sickly and aging father, Eugene (Dustin Hoffman), is given only a few months left to live. It’s this diagnosis that awakens painful memories long since buried, as Dianna confronts a past that includes everything from outright neglect to physical and emotional abuse at the hands of both her father and equally insidious/enabling mother, Barbara (Candice Bergen), the results of which sent older brother Nathan (Simon Helberg) packing long ago.
As They Made Us is undeniably heartfelt in the ways it presents Abigail’s familial struggles, a woman desperately trying to reconcile a horrific past with a present that asks her to feel sympathy for a man who ultimately inspired as many laughs as he did tears. Years of regret and anger have turned Eugene into a man desperate for forgiveness as he enters his final days, the complexities of which Bialik is unable to render with anything resembling insightfulness or artistry. To call it surface-level would almost be generous, as Bialik keeps interrupting the proceedings with lame jokes that are clearly meant to bring levity to the proceedings but ultimately render them meaningless. Bergen’s portrayal of Barbara is especially perplexing, a mother who enabled a monster that brought out her worst instincts, yet in the present-day scenes is nothing more than a punchline delivery system, comedically mispronouncing names and relentlessly flirting with any man in a 20-mile radius. That Bergen leans heavily into these sitcom tropes is unfortunate, as Agron brings genuine nuance to a character that is a simmering cauldron of self-loathing contradictions, desperately trying to make sense of the senseless. After her fantastic work in films as varied as Shiva Baby and Novitiate, it’s clear that Agron is one great role and filmmaker away from superstardom, and she does what she can with a role as underwritten as this one. Hoffman and Helberg equally try to find the humanity within their stereotypes, each having a moment or two to shine even as Bialik desperately tries to extinguish their light. Meanwhile, that this looks as flat and artless as a sitcom is both unsurprising and an insult to modern-day sitcoms. Ultimately, As They Made Us feels like a therapy exercise, the random scribbling of notes in an effort to better understand the present and shed light on past transgressions. And then the film goes and ends on a note of healing that feels as inauthentic as everything else on display; what kind of reward does one expect if they are unwilling to do the work? It’s a sentiment Bialik should take to heart, as audience members are far less forgiving than your average analyst.
Writer: Steven Warner
The latest no-budget sci-fi flick to tackle the devastating repercussions of time travel, director Jason R. Miller’s Madelines follows a lineage that includes such notably intelligent, head-spinning tales as Primer, Timecrimes, and Triangle. Writer/star Brea Grant is no stranger to the DIY indie film scene, having proven her bona fides with the Angela Bettis-starrer 12 Hour Shift and 2020’s depressingly timely thriller Lucky. Grant specializes in genre fare with a feminist bent, her heroines being strong-willed women fighting back against a patriarchy that sees them as inferior, helpless victims. Unfortunately, something is amiss with Madelines, which keeps teasing provocative themes that it frustratingly has no interest in plumbing. Grant stars as Madeline, a brilliant physicist and inventor who, along with her equally adept husband Owen (Parry Shen), has created a process that allows for the transfer of matter from one location to another through the application of time travel. A night of drinking inspires Madeline to test the device on herself, and the results prove wildly successful — except for the fact that she accidentally included a random bit of code that inadvertently creates a temporary time loop which results in the creation of 3,000 Madeline clones, one arriving each morning at the exact same time to wreak havoc. Citing both Back to the Future and Timecop as evidence, Owen comes to the immediate conclusion that each clone must be killed, as two Madelines cannot exist in the same time plane without seriously fucking shit up.
The first half of Madelines, then, is devoted to the elaborate and brutal ways the couple conceive of in dispatching these clones, with everything from axes to baseball bats to nitrous gas playing crucial roles. Unfortunately for audience members, all of this brutality is rendered with Sharknado-level CGI that takes the fun out of the darkly comedic scenarios, neutering the proceedings in the process. It’s only at the midpoint that the film begins to narrow its focus thematically, as Madeline decides she wants to communicate with the clones to further understand the effects of time travel itself. As is wont to happen in such scenarios, things spin wildly out of control, and before long, dozens of Madelines are occupying screen space, each one desperate to stake their individuality. There’s certainly a kernel of a good idea here, as Grant clearly wants to examine the ways in which women are often insultingly defined by one single trait, with each clone representing a facet of the original Madeline’s personality. By extension, these Madelines become representative of everywoman, a vast network of differing and often contradictory thoughts, feelings, and emotions. It’s also telling that hubby Owen is quick to kill those aspects he finds objectionable, while going easier on, for example, the Madeline clone who loves giving blow jobs. But in a curious move, Grant chooses to focus mainly on those clones who are violent, spiteful, and vindictive, which only serves to reinforce harmful stereotypes in ways undoubtedly unintended but still wholly depressing, all in service of a twist ending that isn’t clever in the slightest. It doesn’t help that the film is a scant 80 minutes and devotes more time to highlighting Madeline’s wine drinking — speaking of outdated stereotypes — than explicating its themes. Madelines is that most frustrating of viewing experiences, wherein you can ultimately see the movie it could have been had anyone devoted proper time and care to the material. As it stands, the film feels like a rough draft of a rough draft, and frankly looks like one, too. Grant will undoubtedly be back to kick more ass in the future — the indie scene needs her distinct voice. But trust us when we say, no one needs Madelines.
Writer: Steven Warner