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.
Adrian Shergold’s psychological thriller Cordelia found a bit of Internet infamy recently when the film’s official poster went viral. Featuring EMMA. hunk Johnny Flynn pressed against a wall while co-star Antonio Campbell-Hughes — clad in a gorgeous silver dress that instantly recalls Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper — voraciously kisses the back of his neck and tightly grips his forearm, social media was left to ponder: is this a film about Flynn getting pegged? And thus, could this be the greatest movie ever made? Unfortunately, nothing so salacious happens in Cordelia, a portrait of the devastating effects of PTSD that takes the form of both a heavy-handed allegory and a run-of-the-mill suspense flick.
Campbell-Hughes, who co-wrote the script with Shergold, stars as the titular woman, a jangled ball of nerves still recovering from some unnamed trauma that occurred 12 years prior. Suffering from severe social anxiety and borderline agoraphobic, Cordelia shares a flat with her identical twin sister, Caroline (spoiler: also Campbell-Hughes), who seems both physically and emotionally exhausted from having to care for her sibling for so long. An impromptu vacation, however, forces Cordelia away from the protective wing of her sister, as she is left to fend for herself and confront demons she has long attempted to keep buried, brought to the surface by dreamboat neighbor and cellist Frank (Flynn), who pursues Cordelia with passionate abandon. But as luck would have it, Cordelia also begins to receive numerous phone calls from a mysterious voice that seems to be watching her from afar. Could this be the too-good-to-be-true Frank, who also has candid pictures of both Cordelia and Rose on his phone, and who at one point sneaks out of a bar because he doesn’t want to be recognized?
For its part, Cordelia knows its central mystery has less to do with Frank’s motives and more with why Cordelia pursues a relationship with someone so obviously suspect. What exactly is the protagonist’s endgame, as her pursuit seems to be wreaking havoc on her fragile emotional and psychological state? Shergold manages to elicit quite a bit of tension in the movie’s first hour, the lush 35 mm filmmaking giving texture to the film’s deceptively simple production design. The majority of Cordelia takes place within rundown apartments, captured in gorgeous wide shots that highlight the jagged bricks, peeling paint, and shadowy recesses always on the verge of engulfing our protagonist. The symbolism is obvious, but it’s rather surprising how much mileage Shergold is able to get out of the ominous ring of a landline telephone. Cellos and violins squeal and moan on the soundtrack while empty, dark rooms are investigated, and there’s something almost comforting about the old school thrills being produced, Shergold’s skills proving most effective. Unfortunately, just as events reach what should be their climactic peak, the film abandons anything resembling momentum, the equivalent to taking a simmering pot of water and throwing it into the deep freeze. It isn’t hard to figure out what Shergold and Cambell-Hughes are up to here: PTSD takes on the form of a literal stalker who shows up when defenses are down, an adversary who proves impossible to defeat. But the filmmakers deliver their message in the most ham-fisted way possible, robbing it of any of the tension and dread it had so painstakingly established.
None of this is helped by the fact that Cordelia is defined solely by her trauma, or that Frank is a two-dimensional dolt, even if this is by design. Shergold and Campbell-Hughes fail to realize that, in order for an allegory to be successful, you have to care about the characters and the situations in which they find themselves. Cordelia, by contrast, is artistic masturbation, its creators getting off on their supposed cleverness without ever once considering the viewer. It must also be said that the cause of Cordelia’s trauma is teased throughout the film, and considering the storyline, it makes sense that this could possibly be a topical metaphor for the #MeToo Movement. Instead, once revealed, the choice makes no thematic sense, and seems cherry-picked simply because of its outrageousness. The film’s ending is especially frustrating, as it stops on a note of ambiguity that is admittedly appropriate but in no way dramatically satisfying. The whole thing is also quite cynical in its portrayal of PTSD, presenting its sufferers as individuals incapable of healing or improvement, which is certainly a bit of troublesome messaging. Ultimately, Cordelia needed 100% more pegging and 90% less hectoring. This is the formula of the future. Hollywood, take note.
Writer: Steven Warner
In this era of virtually boundless film content, the biographical documentary can be said to have entered a golden age. A compelling figure remains one of — if not the — most surefire ways to bring an issue, a theme, or a history into stark relief. The person centered possesses an authority that satisfies our craving for evidential substance, and provides the rhetorical theatrics required to get butts in seats or glue eyes to screens. Done well, the film’s larger ideas linger long past the end credits, made tangibly trenchant through the specificity mined from unpacking the drama of a life. Bruce Mau, the multihyphenate superstar designer, will undoubtedly be remembered for his larger-than-life ideas. Benji and Jono Bergmann’s eponymously titled film traces the arc of his journey from poor Sudbury kid to venerated visionary. It’s a bright supercut of his greatest hits, certain to thrill fans and admirers, but Mau ultimately fails to soar, its desire to be a rich character examination frustrated by its flirtation with being a self-branding exercise.
The first few minutes basically function as a trailer for the next hour and change, as excerpted broadcasts and snippets from interview subjects plug Mau’s vaunted status over a bubbly pop-jazz fusion. Here the film establishes its thesis, its brand platform: Bruce Mau is a genius, a legend, an indispensable fixture of modern design. Design first piqued Mau’s interest as a child when he saw Expo ’67 on his boxy, black-and-white TV. That peek into an alternate universe sparked the fire that would fuel his journey forward, surmounting poverty, childhood abuse, and his city’s bleak brutalism. The expansive nature of his mind ensured the Ontario College of Art would hold his interest for only so long. Pentagram failed to satisfy his creative drive as well. It’s in launching his own studio, Bruce Mau Design, that the film suggests Mau finally became the master of his own destiny. A montage of creative work and studio portraits indicate his arrival.
Mau and his collaborators often speak of him “doing things differently.” How that’s captured in his process is often left untouched. Perhaps as a competitive businessman he’s leery of detailing his best practices. Instead, the viewer is repeatedly treated to dazzling shots of his deliverables, framed so impressively by camera as to be enshrined. The viewer understands S, M, L, XL, the revolutionary design bible Mau co-authored with Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, to be revolutionary because accounts of the acclaim it received hailed it as such. The section on his Coca-Cola project is less a peek behind the curtain than an opportunity for the stakeholders involved to wax poetically about how they jump-started a commercial sustainability movement. We see more under the hood when the film shifts to Mau’s Mecca redesign project, but it skirts around examining the forces that undermined it. Lest you proceed through the film thinking Mau would ever take an L, tacked on is a brief nod to the third-party private-public interests that ran with Mau’s vision in their own developments.
Mau often seems hellbent on only showing the highlight reel. “Bruce was good when there weren’t any problems,” mentions one former co-worker, Jim Shedden, before adding that in contrary situations, Mau’s approach had a tendency to bite people in the ass. It’s a seed planted ninety seconds in that never sees much sunlight. Mau’s wife, Bisi Williams, alludes to the major pushback he received from within his own studio for bringing Coca-Cola on as a client. The film brushes aside the point for a chance to spotlight the leadership’s spin on the matter. The students of Mau’s Institute Without Boundaries struggle with his style of guidance — or lack thereof — on an exhibition they’re preparing, said at one time to be “near mutiny.” A smash-cut to the completed installation, “Massive Change,” attracting gawking spectators swiftly defuses that building tension. Missed opportunities like these deflate the film, rendering its investigations toothless and its slickly kinetic visual styling superficially sanitized.
It all may be fitting; Mau is not the study of a great man but a distillation of a great man’s persona into filmic form. Mau espouses a personal philosophy of fact-based uber optimism, being grounded just enough in reality to comment on it while going to extreme lengths to maintain a positive spin on things. It figures as a countervailing force against the cynical nihilism that a life in Sudbury ought to have saddled him with — and the tremendous amounts of compulsion, rage, and pain at least one interviewee suggests Mau may repress. The film’s avoidance of these thornier aspects mirrors Mau’s own, or at least his unwillingness to unpack these traumas on camera. No one is asking for misery porn, yet the film’s adversity allergy flattens a fascinating man into an extended CV. Segments of the film serve as a platform for Mau to proselytize, championing his rosily Rousseauian view of humankind or the importance of putting out “pure signals” to attract the partners you need. Mau the TEDx self-help guru is more polished and less interesting than Mau the examined design maverick, and Mau would work better chopped into bite-sized Louisiana Channel YouTube clips than it does as a feature-length documentary. We receive celebratory mythos and lore in place of anything that feels truly essential.
Writer: Travis DeShong
Gay Italian drama Mascarpone certainly knows how to appease its target audience, opening with a shot of handsome lead actor Giancarlo Commare in various states of undress before transitioning to a locker room scene set at a local gym where one spectacular derriere in particular gets substantial screen time. It’s true, there is certainly no shortage of sex and nudity in Mascarpone, a coming-of-age tale about a 30-year-old man desperate to find himself. Antonio (Commare) is a self-described trophy wife who married husband Lorenzo (Carlo Calderone) while still in high school. A degree in architecture going to waste as he spends his days lounging on the couch and baking various sweet treats, Antonio is given a rude awakening when Lorenzo announces out of the blue that he is love with someone else and wants Antonio to move out ASAP. Depressed and adrift, Antonio rents a room from sassy free spirit Denis (Eduardo Valdarnini), who inspires the aimless young lad to “find his light” before becoming engulfed by yet another lover’s shadow. The specifics of this process include going to work for a hunky baker named Luca (Gianmarco Saurino), attending pastry school, and sleeping with as many men as possible. The bulk of Mascarpone, then, includes watching Antonio navigate the treacherous terrain of Grindr, which involves hooking up with a bevy of Italian hotties but avoiding commitment at all costs. Turns out, this is easier said than done, as Antonio ends up falling for hunky news reporter Thomas (Lorenzo Adorni), who is ready to offer him the world. But is the world what Antonio wants? And what about Luca, who seems a little too jealous of Antonio’s relationships?
Mascarpone goes no place particularly surprising, with even a third-act twist proving as obvious as it is convenient. Co-directors and co-writers Alessandro Guida and Matteo Pilati keep the proceedings moving at a healthy pace, painting Italy as a beautiful gay mecca where every street corner is a breathtaking photo opportunity straight out of a Hallmark flick. But it’s in its characterization that the film unfortunately falters most, with Antonio coming across as a self-entitled asshole who spends the majority of the film’s runtime whining about “setbacks” that most individuals would view as incredible opportunities. Lorenzo, meanwhile, is painted as such a one-dimensional asshole that it makes it nearly impossible to sympathize with Antonio’s fragile emotional state, while potential love interest Luca scans as borderline possessive. That leaves poor Thomas, who is such a saint that you have to wonder if finding one’s self is all that great if it means sacrificing such a fantastic guy. The one aspect this film does get right, however, and with pinpoint accuracy, is the online gay hook-up scene, which is rendered here with such raw authenticity that it’s clear the filmmakers have intimate knowledge of the entire enterprise. This extends to one particular aspect of Antonio’s journey of self-discovery, mainly his aforementioned “slut phase.” It’s not pretty, but more than a few will find this particular plot point both uncomfortably and painfully relatable, and it’s in these moments that Mascarpone transcends its melodramatic tendencies and finds something akin to emotional honesty; if only the rest of the film had followed suit. Still, for those simply looking for a surface-level portrait of beautiful gay Italian men who like to make out with one another, you could do worse than the calorie-laden pleasures contained herein.
Writer: Steven Warner
Recently, a friend on Twitter mentioned that it was high time to stop using the “DTV” label as a pejorative. His point is well taken: some of the best contemporary action around comes courtesy of this still-maligned subgenre, particularly now that Hollywood has seemingly abandoned any notion of mid-budget pictures in favor of massively budgeted IP properties. But there is perhaps still some value in using the term as a descriptor of sorts; for better or worse, there are some inherent limitations to the DTV aesthetic, however loosely one wants to define it. They are frequently low-budget, filmed on tight schedules in off-the-beaten-path locales, and aren’t typically privy to A-list talent.
Case in point is new military thriller Black Site, a pretty okay movie that mostly succeeds in spite of some obvious limitations. Curiously, it’s got a very recognizable cast, suggesting some extra money spent on above-the-line costs; here, Michelle Monaghan is cast against type as tough-as-nails CIA analyst Abby Trent. After her husband and child are killed in a terrorist bombing in Turkey, she demands to be allowed access to a classified detention center known only as The Citadel. It’s home to the most dangerous, highest priority terror suspects and looks like a cross between Guantanamo Bay and the high-tech prison from Stallone’s The Escape Plan. She’s constantly butting heads with the gung-ho head guard Miller, a former soldier played by a bulked-up, beefy Jai Courtney (who knew there was an interesting character actor hiding behind those male model looks?). Just as Abby is about to finish up an extended tour of duty and head back to the world, the facility gets word that they’ve captured Hatchet, a mysterious terrorist wanted for numerous attacks around the globe. Abby is convinced that Hatchet is the person responsible for her family’s death, and she wants first crack at interrogating him.
It’s an awful lot of setup to get to this point, most of it fairly uninteresting. There’s lip service paid to the idea that torturing suspects and holding them indefinitely without charging them is bad, suggesting a kind of dumber Zero Dark Thirty, but this is geopolitics written in crayons (sample dialogue: “We built this place to fight terror with terror!”). Thankfully, things perk up considerably with the arrival of the aforementioned big-bad Hatchet, played by Jason Clarke. Through a contrived series of events, Hatchet escapes the holding cell where he is being questioned and begins rampaging around The Citadel, killing anyone he can get his hands on. Abby is trying to contain him and take him alive, desperate for answers about her dead family, while Miller wants to shoot first and ask questions later. There’s also a ticking clock element that gets introduced: if the facility doesn’t get its comms back online within one hour, it will be bombed into oblivion to keep its secrets intact.
Director Sophia Banks juggles these concurrent threads with fairly nimble cross-cutting, following Clarke through dark corridors and air ducts as he stalks around the prison while Miller attempts to keep the rest of the detainees in their cells. And there is some absolutely brutal carnage on display; Hatchet fully lives up to his namesake, slicing and dicing his way through people with scalpels and any blunt instrument he can find. Some of the bloodletting is so over-the-top that Black Site enters slasher-film territory, an effect accentuated by Clarke’s largely silent, Jason Voorhees-esque performance. Eventually, the plot thickens and things get dumb again, as we learn more about Hatchet’s agenda and who he’s really hunting. It all leads to a distressingly lackluster grand finale, with some laughably bad green screen effects and a tired monologue about all the clandestine stuff our government is up to. But there’s a solid 45-minute stretch that suggests Banks has a real future in the genre should she so choose. Any summary praise has to be understood as the product of grading on a curve, but still, for a certain type of viewer (you know who you are), Black Site is mostly a good time.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Escape the Field
Speaking as someone who was born and raised in the Midwest, cornfields are indeed more horrifying than their placid demeanor would at first suggest. What looks from afar like immaculately symmetrical rows of gorgeous green vegetation are, in reality, towering behemoths of terror, leaves sharp and rough, their intimidating heights seemingly never-ending as one looks to the sky for some sense of place or direction, the ground exceedingly soft underfoot. Rather surprisingly, very few filmmakers have exploited these features for maximum shock value, save for the occasional scene here and there in the likes of Jeepers Creepers 2 and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Sure, we have the seemingly infinite Children of the Corn franchise, based on a short story from one Stephen King himself, but that has more to do with pagan gods, ritualistic sacrifice, and folk horror trappings than pure corn terror (though one can never be sure what’s hiding in those sinister stalks).
New thriller Escape the Field looks to remedy this oversight. Set entirely within the confines of a sprawling cornfield, the film concerns six strangers who awake in maize hell, unable to remember how they got there. Armed only with a single item found at their side upon awaking — gun, bullet, compass, canteen, matches, knife — the disparate group must work together if they ever hope to make it out alive, as someone — or something — keeps popping out from behind the rows, dragging them away one by one. As that plot synopsis makes abundantly clear, Escape the Field is yet another gloss on Cube, in which a group of strangers had to escape a maze of various rooms, the majority booby-trapped for maximum gross-out goodness. Unfortunately, Escape the Field has no such features, opting instead for the aforementioned “thing” to jump out occasionally while our six protagonists get lost, complain nonstop, and shoot shady eyes at one another. Think Blair Witch meets Cube — that’s to say, Escape Room — as it’s soon discovered that a series of clues exist that will lead our heroes to safety — that is, if they can figure out the puzzles in time.
Perhaps all of this would go down easier if any of these characters were the least bit likeable or developed beyond one or two stereotypical and increasingly insulting traits, but such is not the case. Sam (Jordan Claire Robbins) has on scrubs, so she is a doctor; Tyler (Theo Rossi) briefly mentions his seven-year-old daughter, so you know he’s a goner; Ethan (Julian Feder) has on a private school uniform and looks like D.J. from Roseanne; Denise (Elena Juatco) has on a nightgown and works for the Pentagon, so she occasionally talks about government conspiracies; Cameron (Tahirah Sharif) is a lesbian who, at one point, loses her glasses and Velmas her way through a murder scene; and, finally, Ryan (Shane West) is an ex-militaryman who apparently got his entire troop killed and at one point utters the following line while looking at a sunset: “This reminds me of Afghanistan. Sky on fire. Perfectly beautiful.” He’s later shot with a syringe by a crash test dummy made up to look like a scarecrow, the serum turning him into a red-eyed monster that has super-strength and forces him to reenact Apocalypse Now for a few minutes, because this film is deep like that. You see, in combat he was a monster, and now he’s… a monster. Escape the Field is nothing if not a stunning takedown of the American military-industrial complex.
What it’s not, however, is the least bit scary. Or compelling. Or even remotely interesting. This is one of those films that features the likes of quicksand and cannibalism, and yet still feels like absolutely nothing happens in its brief 88-minute runtime. First-time director Emerson Moore demonstrates no skill in creating or maintaining an appropriate atmosphere of dread, a remarkable accomplishment considering the setting itself should do most of the heavy lifting. The acting is all dreadful, although West manages to entertainingly chew a few bits of scenery here and there, while the score sounds like it comes courtesy of a lobotomized Hans Zimmer. The field may prove impossible for our protagonists to escape, but luckily viewers should encounter no such issue: simply avoid this bumper crop of bullshit, a film that has the audacity to leave the door open for a sequel. Please, someone close it on your way out.
Writer: Steven Warner