Having established a strong lane for herself somewhere in between narrative and nonfiction filmmaking with her recent run of features, Crystal Moselle stays on course with Sophia, a sly documentary concerning artificial intelligence and human fallibility that proves to be her deftest work so far. Joined this time around by cinematographer Jon Kasbe, who also serves as co-director, and backed by Showtime — poised to distribute theatrically — Moselle premiered her latest at the 2022 iteration of Tribeca Film Festival, a smaller platform for the Sundance regular, but a fitting one considering the role parallel org Tribeca Film Institute played in financing her 2015 documentary The Wolfpack, a project conceived and shot in relative geographic proximity to where this fest is held (also the case with 2018’s Skate Kitchen and its television adaptation/extension Betty.) Not the case this time around though, with Sophia instead finding Moselle and collaborator Kasbe globetrotting in pursuit of their film’s title subject, a humanoid robot animated by a supposedly revolutionary AI, and its obsessive/probably delusional creator.
The creator in question is David Hanson, an American roboticist based out of Hong Kong who, by the time Moselle and Kasbe link with him, is several years and millions of dollars deep into his Sophia project, which endeavors to perfect a bot capable of cleanly mimicking human interaction using a combination of carefully pre-programmed facial and verbal responses. Constantly on the move booking expo appearances and pleading with investors to extend funding, Hanson’s belief in Sophia reads as totally sincere, and yet he’s plagued by an inability to sell anyone else on the necessity or use of his beloved creation. It’s unlikely that audiences will find themselves particularly convinced either, the inventor/entrepreneur’s off-putting casual arrogance matched by a childlike naivete that makes it hard to have much faith in his vision.
Undoubtedly skeptical themselves, Moselle and Kasbe massage Sophia’s narrative into something close to farce, casting Hanson as a larger-than-life tragicomic figure emblematic of the current state of American hucksterism. Enthusiastically likened to the Mechanical Turk hoax — an 18th-century chess-playing automaton that was actually operated by a human hidden inside — by one of Sophia’s primary programmers, this supposed artificial intelligence is closer to a very expensive, expressive chatbot given physical form, physically manifested as the head and torso of a human woman. With cameras fixed in her eyes and her mechanical skeleton dressed in realistically textured skin approximate (the nightmarish application of which is shot by Kasbe in unsettling close-up for the film’s opening moments), Sophia is able to maintain eye contact and carry on conversation while also contorting her face to express a range of specific emotion. But while she can respond to tone and a wide variety of prompts and communication styles, she can’t actively analyze this information to learn on her own, all of her responses written and programmed in by Hanson and his team in response to her performances. Thus, Sophia is shown to be more akin to a (super complex) puppet, an amusing performance piece that plays well on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show or Will Smith’s Instagram, but effectively purposeless outside of the media sphere.
Moselle and Kasbe really lean on the tension between Hanson’s perception of himself and his passion project, and the way in which viewers will inevitably receive them both, with stretches of the film working a pretty arch angle, mining his bumbling misfortunes and masculine, antisocial obliviousness for nervous, cringe laughs. Some of this is genuinely funny and pointed — Hanson’s struggles to defend the need for his robot to be so femme along with him interchangeably addressing her as if she was both his wife and daughter stand out — while some of it might be just a bit too mean, though the directors do attempt to balance this with some humanizing familial drama concerning a sickly mother to okay effect. At the very least, the tone overstays its welcome operating in that register despite only going for 89 minutes. Regardless, Sophia is more smart than it is snide, and Moselle’s relationship with her subject/target is more clear-cut and accessible than it was with the rather dubious The Wolfpack. Now three features and one television series deep into her career, Moselle continues to refine and rework her narrative nonfiction approach to storytelling. Sophia, then, proves to be her most assured and cogent film, though with the unfortunate though not fatal side effect of also being her most staid.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux
Wes Schlagenhauf Is Dying
Fewer subgenres in recent memory have had a more fleeting window of viability, if ever it even really existed, than the “pandemic film.” Beyond that, a close second might be this millennium’s mumblecore movement, which bore a few intriguing iterations amidst a tidal wave of back-slapping tedium. In fairness, it’s perhaps more accurate to observe that the moniker of “mumblecore” has been retroactively befitted with a certain negative connotation, essentially allowing works from Andrew Bujalski, Alex Ross Perry, and even Noah Baumbach to be lifted from the genre and deposited into more “elevated” territory. Fair or not, this delineation is the accepted narrative according to prevailing cinematic consciousness, which makes leaning into the relatively antiquated mode of “lesser” mumblecore — like, say, by getting a co-sign and cameo from king mumblecore himself Mark Duplass — while also saddling your film with a pandemic-specific narrative, a bold proposition in 2022. But that’s exactly the line that the trio of Parker Seaman (director, co-screenwriter), Devin Das (co-screenwriter), and Wes Schlagenhauf take with their debut feature Wes Schlagenhauf is Dying, a bit of would-be meta moviemaking about moviemaking and (sub)genre deconstruction.
Cinema sin number one: if the title didn’t make it clear, the central trio all play unflattering versions of themselves, a fairly lazy gambit on its face and one which here isn’t done any favors by couching all of that potential self-critique within broad comedy trappings — they track only as lovable cartoon doofuses rather than characters (or artists) of depth. The plot, meanwhile, as it typically goes in these kinds of films, is welcomingly simple. Past: Parker, Devin, and Wes move to L.A. to make it in the industry, but three years ago Wes renounces the biz and returns to Boise. Present: Wes has come down with Covid, and despite not visiting him in the intervening years, Parker and Devin — now directors of branded content — decide to take a mini-road trip to see him, making a movie on their way with corporate funding they were given after fudging the severity of their friend’s condition (see is Dying). What follows, of course, are shallow questions of loyalty, artistic integrity, and friendship, riddled with so much winking you could mistake it for blinking.
Which brings us to sin number two: what Seaman and Das fail to understand is that merely acknowledging the blatant cribbing your film is built upon does not constitute meta-commentary or deconstruction, nor does it absolve you from leaving your film void of imagination. There are super twee inclusions like noting how films need to have a “fun-and-games montage,” and so naturally the duo proceeds to include a fun-and-games montage. If that doesn’t fully melt your brain, perhaps you’ll cotton more to the endless instances of the film bolding, underlining, and highlighting the various formal subtexts and conceptual principles of early mumblecore, but knowingly lest you find this all an exercise in monkey see-monkey do. Further insecure justification for this “passion project” comes in Duplass’ aforementioned cameo — literally via Cameo; see what they did there? — in which he explains that the best films come from late-night conversations you have with friends, from making movies that you would want to see. There then proceeds to be a lot of blather about “heartfelt indie content.” It’s all very annoying.
For all the humor that doesn’t land — i.e., most of the film — the trio does stumble into a few genuinely funny bits. At one point, when attempting to find a van on Craigslist in which to complete their road trip, Parker refers to “The hit indie film Little Miss Sunshine starring Greg Kinnear.” And during an act of friendly fire, Parker seeks to sabotage Devin’s solo directorial gig by pretending to be him, leaving a voicemail for the higher-ups that includes the winning bit of grade school revenge, “Sorry for the late night phone call, as earlier I was busy shitting my pants with my little poopy butt.” Of course, such juvenilia isn’t the kind of material any film can hang its hat on — Hot Rod excepted — and the fact that these admittedly mid jokes register at all is more a reflection of the utter dearth of originality or humor anywhere else in the mercifully brief 75-minute runtime. Those other 74 minutes and 45 seconds are constituted by glib rehash and lazy derivation, ushered into viewers’ eye- and earholes by a triad of grating man-baby narcissists. It’s pretty clear that Wes Schlagenhaug is Dying was intended as a kind of calling card film, but this is one number you’re going to want to lose.
Writer: Luke Gorham
Within the steadily growing niche genre of Jewish horror, there are two key tales that have a hold over the imagination of filmmakers. With a few notable exceptions — like Keith Thomas’ 2021 mazzik film The Vigil — most Jewish horror movies center either a golem or a dybbuk. The golem, a figure of strength, is an animated weapon of destruction, awoken to wreak revenge or protect the Jewish people from persecution; the dybbuk, on the other hand, is a far more complicated creature. To non-Jewish audiences, the instinct is to compare a dybbuk to a ghost, but while the dybbuk is the spirit of a once-living person, their behavior is more akin to demons, taking possession of the living in service of some agenda. For a culture with a long history of violent persecution, even to the extent of genocide, perhaps it’s obvious that an idea like that of the dybbuk would have a natural hold over minds. Since the early days of horror as we presently understand it, and the Gothic tradition stretching back centuries, these kinds of hauntings have afflicted women far more frequently than men. Female protagonists, trembling and frail or else entangled in their husbands’ and fathers’ dark pasts, were far more susceptible to the call of another world than their male counterparts, and the Gothic has always had a particular fascination with women’s interiority. When one of the seminal dybbuk texts, W.S. Ansky’s 2008 Yiddish-language play The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds, featured a woman as the victim of its titular dybbuk, Jewish horror concretely became part of the long, feminine tradition of hauntings and possession.
In Attachment, that tradition moves in a distinctly modern direction. An out-of-work Danish actress, Maja (Josephine Park), falls for Leah (Ellie Kendrick), a British academic, and follows her home to London to care for her after a seizure. Upon arriving in London, Maja meets Chana (Sofie Gråbøl), Leah’s overbearing mother, and discovers that there may be more to the pair than quite meets the eye. Writer-director Gabriel Bier Gislason’s script not only draws expertly from Jewish folklore, but also from Jewish stereotypes, capitalizing on the archetype of the overbearing Jewish mother, with Gråbøl’s performance lending an emotional turbulence to the role that many writers don’t tend to allow for. Chana is the sort of character who might otherwise be a footnote, but Attachment takes her ferocious maternal instincts entirely seriously, treating them not as mere inconvenience, but as a literal matter of life and death. Gislason might trade in tropes here, but he doesn’t do so carelessly, and when the Jewish-mother type is passed through his neo-Gothic lens, it loses something of its venomousness and becomes altogether more human. Gislason likewise riffs on the lesbian stereotype of U-hauling, the social phenomenon of gay women forming deep emotional attachments quickly to the point of moving in together almost immediately. But what might seem unconventional in the real world becomes deeply affecting in the world of Attachment — Maja is ready to follow Leah across an ocean at the drop of a hat, but does that kind of intense, quick-fire love survive under the pressure of supernatural forces? Attachment takes this theme to its logical extreme, arguing that to truly love a person you must know and love the full weight of their history as well, even if that comes in the form of a dybbuk, possessing body and soul.
Unlike most elevated horror nonsense, Attachment doesn’t wear such considerations entirely on its sleeve. Femininity is a constant presence, but the near-entire absence of men goes largely unnoticed, and Gislason doesn’t feel the need to have his characters discuss their faith or their trauma openly. Instead, he conjures an atmosphere of near constant low-level tension, with Maja constantly at odds with a community of orthodox Jews that has no desire for a queer Gentile among their ranks, and the lack of privacy in Leah’s home — just upstairs from her mother’s — replete with good-luck charms manifesting around the flat, all contributing to a constant sense of surveillance. In Attachment, haunting is something that occurs en masse, with an entire community dragged into the orbit of one family’s misfortune, and despite the relative sparsity of the cast, this community-driven context only builds the characters’ sense of insularity. Put simply, this is a story that couldn’t be told against any other backdrop, and Gislason permeates not just the home or the individual psyche, but entire relationships with this notion of possession, coloring each of the film’s even minor interactions with as much purpose as character’s sexualities or traumas. While scares may admittedly be a little thin on the ground, Attachment represents an exciting step for Jewish horror, with Gislason building a narrative that doesn’t just wear the trappings of religion, but which interrogates all manner of faith — in God, in family, in love.
Nude Tuesday, it must be said, gets bonus points for creativity. In telling the tale of a long-married couple who attempt to spice up their love life with a sojourn to a New Age retreat, director Armagan Ballantyne and writer/leading lady Jackie van Beek opted to make up an entirely new language, the cast members spewing out complete and utter gibberish for the full running time. The finished product was then handed over to English comedienne Julia Davis — best known to American audiences for her 2016 series Camping — who proceeded to translate and subtitle the film based solely on her viewing experience. In its own unique way, this calls to mind writer-director Steve Oedekerk’s cult classic Kung Pow: Enter the Fist or, going even further back, Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, in which foreign films were dubbed over with ridiculous dialogue that oftentimes clashed with the action on screen. Nude Tuesday is much more consistent in its novelty, as the majority of viewers unfamiliar with the film’s backstory will likely assume that what they are hearing is a foreign language of unknown origins, with the accompanying subtitles presumably an accurate English translation. But therein lies the rub: if the watcher is unaware of the conceptual hoodwink at play, then what is the point?
Indeed, the thought and creativity that went into making Nude Tuesday is directly inverse to the story itself, a thoroughly shopworn tale of hippy-dippy free love that wouldn’t pass muster as a segment on Laugh-In. Damon Herriman and van Beek star as Bruno and Laura, husband and wife and parents to two adorable young girls. The spark is gone from their marriage, as their latest wedding anniversary features not a night of passionate love-making, but Bruno choking the chicken as Laura suffers from a bout of thrush that has left her underwear “full of yogurt.” A gift from Bruno’s mom prompts the pair to visit a beautiful mountainside retreat where they hope to get their mojo back thanks to sexual guru Bjorg (Jemaine Clement), who preaches honesty and experimentation. What follows is as predictable as to be expected, with the uptight Laura finally attempting to cut loose while the jealousy-prone Bruno sulks on the sidelines until he drinks a tea with some hallucinogenic mushrooms, because there is no cliché or narrative convenience this film won’t embrace. It all leads up to the titular event, in which the entire cast doffs their clothes and learns a few life lessons about both themselves and each other.
A scenario like this literally writes itself, which is why it’s up to Davis’s translation to inject life into the proceedings. Unfortunately, the comedienne opts for a plethora of dick and fart jokes that are not only obvious, but serve to highlight the sheer banality of the on-screen material. Van Beek and Herriman exhibit a rather tender chemistry that manages an effective authenticity, and both manage to inject quite a bit of pathos into characters who are otherwise as broad as a barn, especially as the subtitles keep feeding us lines that at times almost betray the emotional texture of the performances. (More believable is that Clement would talk about his “cobra” nonstop, or would interrupt a handjob to take a phone call about the proper amount of gold thread needed in the making of his tunics.) Yet, for all the carnal activity on display, Nude Tuesday feels rather old-fashioned, the type of “naughty” comedy your grandmother might enjoy after a few Mimosas on a Sunday afternoon. It’s just too bad that it’s so damn boring, moving from one tired set piece to the next like it’s just ticking off boxes on a mundane checklist. Davis manages to squeeze out a few laughs here and there — the fact that Laura’s big corporate advertising presentation is on erotic adult diapers is rather amusing — but not nearly enough to recommend a watch, regardless of the intriguing behind-the-scenes shenanigans. Nude Tuesday will likely best be remembered as the film where Clement goes full-frontal for ten minutes and lets his bits flop around while running up a mountain, a sight that’s neither more or less impressive than everything else on display. At least he and everyone else look like they had fun dropping trou to make this, but it’s unfortunately at the expense of anyone who watches it.
Writer: Steven Warner
As America stands on the brink of an illegitimate Supreme Court abolishing Roe v. Wade, abortion and women’s health rights have once again been thrust to the forefront of the public consciousness. Many have turned to recent work like Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always & Audrey Diwan’s Happening, or even Cristian Mungiu’s older 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days as guideposts for navigating this precarious moment in time, each film a bracing reminder of what is at stake if (or, more realistically, when) these rights are rescinded. Into this heated atmosphere comes Sophie Galibert’s Cherry, a charmingly light, big-hearted sorta-comedy that charts an increasingly desperate young woman’s 24-hour quest to decide whether or not she should have the procedure done. At a very brisk 76 minutes, Cherry is virtually a sketch, but one with so much energy and such carefully delineated, realistic relationships that it never feels slight.
Arriving late to her job at an old-fashioned magic shop, Cherry (Alexandria Trewhitt) rushes to the bathroom to take a home pregnancy test. No sooner has the little blue “positive” line appeared than Cherry’s boss begins banging on the door, haranguing her for her habitual tardiness. Fed up, he fires her, and Cherry immediately begins to cajole him into changing his mind, begging for one more chance. He shakes his head — this is clearly not the first time they’ve done this dance — and acquiesces. Most likely everyone knows someone like Cherry, that irresponsible friend who is so charming and so good at manipulating other people that they constantly seem to get their way. It’s a tough tightrope to walk, to keep a character like this sympathetic in spite of their obvious flaws, and so it’s all the more remarkable that Trewhitt imbues Cherry with a kind of guileless innocence. She’s indisputably a fuck-up, but you can’t help but want to take care of her.
After getting fired for a second time on the same day, Cherry rushes to a clinic. They’ve just closed, but once again Cherry talks her way into someone’s good graces, and so a very obviously put-out doctor examines Cherry, confirms the pregnancy, and lays out her options: keep it, wait and get a more expensive, invasive medical procedure a few weeks down the line, or make a decision in 24 hours and get a cheaper, chemically-induced abortion. And so begins her day-long odyssey, as the film structures itself around a series of encounters between Cherry and the significant people in her life — her roller-skating dance troupe that nurses some bad blood towards her; boyfriend and potential father-to-be Nick (Dan Schultz), a wannabe rockstar currently DJing at a roller rink; her mother (Sandy Duarte); her over-achieving sister (Hannah Alline); and finally her blue collar father (Charlie S. Jensen).
Cherry is frequently hilarious, although a sense of urgency and even dread can’t help but seep in around the edges. Beyond the question of whether or not to abort, Cherry must decide if the pregnancy is entirely unwanted, as she seems to have a notion that a child will usher her into adulthood, essentially forcing her to “grow up.” Her various encounters then become refractions of the complicated interplay between parents and their children. In this respect, Cherry’s long conversation with her father manages to unravel a lifetime of recriminations and misunderstandings with a minimal amount of fuss; here, a look or a gesture carries as much weight as words. And it’s by design; for all the goofy banter on display, Galibert and co-writer Arthur Cohen are getting at something deeper and more substantive amidst their otherwise lightweight sensibility.
There’s also a certain level of formal stylization at play here, as Galibert and cinematographer Damien Steck infuse the largely naturalistic milieu with subtle long takes and an expansive frame that allows the performers to fully perform. There are virtually no closeups or choppy shot-reverse-shot cutting here; instead, scenes play out almost in real-time, with conversations allowed to ebb and flow and detour. Other flourishes likewise resonate: Cherry’s visit to her dance troupe involves an actual performance of their entire elaborate routine, while recurring transitional scenes show Cherry roller skating blissfully to and fro her various destinations — it would be an obvious stretch to call these Ozu-ian pillow shots, but they do almost function in the same way. These modest virtues can sometimes get lost in an “actor’s showcase,” which Cherry certainly is with it’s a star-making turn from Trewhitt, but one shouldn’t discount the amount of directorial control it takes to make such things look effortless. And so ultimately, what Cherry achieves is one of the most difficult tasks in narrative film: the convincing suggestion that these characters existed before the cameras captured them and will likewise endure after the credits roll.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Patrick Bresnan & Ivete Lucas’ documentaries have always gravitated toward the observational, content to let moments unfold in natural manners to reveal some truth about humanity. Their films have largely focused on everyday people: high schoolers, warehouse workers, and Floridians eager to view the airplane that transported Donald Trump. Their latest feature, Naked Gardens, follows a more unexpected group: nudists. Here at a resort in the Florida Everglades, Bresnan & Lucas are smart in their approach: specifically, to start broadly and depict the cozy atmosphere of the locale before then spotlighting a handful of people to showcase the variety of folks living here. The immediate shock of Naked Gardens is, of course, the nudity on screen, and the first fifteen minutes depict people in an alternation of anxiety-inducing and tender moments. Of the scenes that feel concerning: an older gentleman working out near weight plates, a group of people playing bocce ball, and someone using a power saw — it’s safe to say the average person would likely be worried about harming their genitalia in such situations. But between these moments are shots of someone relaxing on a lounge chair, a mother taking a shower with her child, and a woman giving her husband a haircut. Naked Gardens’ entire thesis is found here: these people are dedicated to their lifestyles, but at the end of the day, they’re not so different from the average, clothed person.
The problem with Bresnan & Lucas’s film, then, is that this “thesis” is as deep as the film goes. It’s hard to shake that these first few scenes could constitute a short film — one similar to the length of their previous works — and be sufficient. But as the film proceeds, ideas and themes are explored with frustrating shallowness. The reality is that there’s an upsetting paradox at play here, that in wanting to show how everyone in this film is actually very normal, Naked Gardens ends up being little more than a snapshot of ordinary people talking and going about everyday tasks, with the only difference being their nudity. Their nakedness is initially a bit of a shock — compared to the average film, these bodies are presented in an unsexual, matter-of-fact manner. But it’s only noteworthy for so long, as one grows accustomed to this particular reality within minutes and realizes that there are still other things they have to deal with — at one point, a woman comments on the fact that while people won’t judge you for your body, you’ll still be judged for your personality.
There’s some tension during a meeting wherein people discuss the future of the resort, and it’s suggested that rules are imposed to mandate nudity, or to ensure that the number of women and men who live here is more equal (there are more men). In one of the more illuminating moments, a woman discusses her past traumas and how they’ve led to her living in this place, and a man tries but fails to respond in either a meaningful or thoughtful manner. You see, this place isn’t so different from most communities. The film’s final passage is devoted to the Mid-Winter Naturist Festival, which is the largest gathering of nudists in the US, but there’s no drama or excitement in the lead-up despite obvious concerns about its success. The event itself is also rather benign: just a bunch of people taking photos or throwing paint on each other, all shot with little panache and capturing no celebratory or dynamic energy. If the primary difference between nudists and their clothed counterparts is something more internal, then Bresnan & Lucas do little to excavate that essential question, allowing people to briefly share their life stories without using the filmic medium to elevate such truths. Bresnan & Lucas’ approach to cinéma vérité is ultimately lazy, bereft of any imagination or creativity to instill their images with anything beyond banal pseudo-profundity.
Writer: Joshua Minsoo Kim