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.
Jake Wachtel’s debut feature, on paper, ticks all the boxes, and then some. A deeply personal interweaving of spirituality and science fiction, and a close-knit collaboration with cast and crew at that, Karmalink has the probable honor of being the first Cambodian work to explicitly marry its global horizons (technology, religion in a future-ready world) with its local ones (socio-economic inequality, narratives of no-name individuals) in such conceptually intriguing a premise as its title promises. Buddhist karma, roughly translated as the effects of one’s actions, is popularly invoked to justify or rationalize bad luck; in Wachtel’s futuristic vision of Phnom Penh, bad luck still exists, except that now it can not only be quantified but also digitized. But wait, there’s more: such digitization is effectively commonplace, even among the rank and file of Phnom Penh’s streets, and their paramount goal is effectively spiritual — to access the karma accrued in an individual’s past lives and therefore to facilitate one’s search for enlightenment.
This, by itself, would be enough to span a mini-series, such is its cultural intrigue and relevance in an age where religion has become increasingly commodified and, for better or worse, rendered commensurable with the hitherto alien notion of a posthuman future. Regrettably, much of this intrigue is outright squandered in Karmalink, not least due to its haphazard and ultimately inchoate attempts at world-building. Leng Heng (Leng Heng Prak), a teenage boy living in a soon-to-be-relocated neighborhood, traverses in his sleep what he claims are memories from his previous lives: first a common thief in antiquity, then a rice farmer in French Indochina, and finally a child during the U.S. bombing of Cambodia. A golden statuette of the Buddha threads through these dreams, setting forth Leng’s search for this elusive treasure along with Srey Leak (Srey Leak Chhith), a street urchin with a knack for sleuthing and scavenging for scrap gadgets to sell.
One can imagine Karmalink as a full-fledged existential noir of truly grandiose proportions, setting up its disparate narrative elements for a karmic showdown between good and evil, past and present, etc; or, as a speculative ethnography of post/transhuman society. As it stands, Wachtel doesn’t quite manage either in this bloated and clumsy stab at sci-fi. The script, courtesy of Wachtel and co-writer Christopher Larsen, gallivants between periods and places, yet feels plodding all the same, due in large part to its thinly-sketched characters and taciturn performances. Alongside Leng, Srey, and the film’s assortment of supporting characters come two neuroscientists, Vattanak (Sahajak Boonthanakit) and Sophia (Cindy Bishop), whose mysterious roles find clarification rather belatedly, nearing the film’s thematic climax and expounded in bathetic fashion.
The film’s exploration of its central premise, too, will leave critical viewers wanting for more. Citizens in Karmalink’s dusty and bustling shanty towns hook themselves up to the film’s eponymous network, an augmented reality of sorts whose specific functions aren’t quite clear: is this a state-mandated implementation, designed à la corporatism or China’s social credit system for command and control purposes, or can we see in these gizmos the logical consequences of our present-day reliance on technology as therapy? A couple of key scenes — notably, the opening shot, as well as a phantasmagoric dreamscape temple in which Leng eventually meets Vattanak — are staged with formal and artistic finesse, although the large remainder feels indebted to (but never worthy of) both the tonal palettes of Blade Runner 2049 and the metaphysical ruminations present in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s oeuvre. In sum, Karmalink suffers from an inventive premise marred by uninspired execution and a lackadaisical rhythm that, on the whole, chugs through narrative elements as if in pursuit of the cursory articulation of each. “Life after life, we are reborn,” remarks Vattanak sagely to our flummoxed youth; one wished the screenplay took itself seriously and iterated its past drafts anew.
Writer: Morris Yang
Relationship dramas revolving around the Covid pandemic and the early days of quarantine have proven to be, by and large, one of the worst things to afflict the film medium since Kevin Feige decided that artistic integrity was a disposable commodity. So many of these projects, including the likes of 2020’s Together and The End of Us, revolve around abhorrent couples who are forced to endure one another’s obnoxious faults — and, by extension, holding audience members hostage to their narcissistic and self-centered hostilities. Occasionally, we get a sweet-natured and hopeful romance, with most of the action taking place over Zoom, but even these tend to end on a bittersweet note. The pandemic has produced exactly one good film in this particular subgenre, Natalie Morales’ charming Language Lessons, while the rest resemble something like the dire new romantic comedy Alone Together, written, directed by, and starring Dawson’s Creek alum and former Mrs. Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes. Whatever novelty exists in the film comes solely from the narrative wrinkle that its two potential lovebirds are sharing a physical space together, the result of a double-booked Airbnb on the outskirts of New York City.
March 15, 2020. June (Holmes) is an uptight food critic whose debonair boyfriend John (Derek Luke) has reserved the two of them a place to stay outside of the city in hopes of escaping the dangers of the looming Covid pandemic. Canceling at the last minute due to a sudden need to stay with his ailing parents, John insists that June travel without him and vacation at the gorgeous abode in an attempt to relax and stay safe. What June instead discovers is that her potential safe haven is already occupied by Charlie (Jim Sturgess), a handsome 30-something who was promised the place by a close friend. Without a car and much in the way of motivation, June agrees to stay with this complete stranger, who is decent enough to give her the lone bedroom while he takes the couch. What follows is a story as old as Tiger King, as June and Charlie bond over alcohol and late-night trips to McDonald’s, discovering they might just be made for each other. A late-film visit by John confirms that he’s a raging asshole who belittles June’s hopes and dreams at every turn, so no lost love there.
Alone Together dares to ask the brave question: what if this pandemic was, like, the greatest thing that ever happened? June and Charlie are a pair of navel-gazing, Woody Allen-wannabe characters who sit around discussing such profound topics as existence, mortality, and the true meaning of happiness, but never in a way that might actually be construed as deep. Indeed, these two are in such a hermetic bubble of bliss that it’s almost like Covid doesn’t exist, the setup an excuse to have awesome bike rides, roast marshmallows indoors, and fuck like rabbits. God forbid the film acknowledge that its characters’ actions are likely the direct result of a highly stressful and borderline apocalyptic situation in which the fate of humanity seems/seemed doomed. When June and Charlie venture back to the real world, discover it sucks, and then go back to their fairy tale world, it seems like a damning critique, but Holmes paints it as the most romantic gesture on the planet, two delusional souls afraid to face the harsh truths of reality. The movie certainly doesn’t strive for authenticity in all facets, but it’s asking a lot of the audience to make us feel for the sudden death of two periphery characters when its protagonists act like a pair of spoiled lovebirds, literally making out under the golden arches of Mickey D’s. Holmes’ direction is as bland as the script, while she and Sturgess share little in the way of chemistry. Holmes the actress, meanwhile, has never been the most natural performer, often coming across as distant and aloof, and frankly, watching her approximate human joy here can feel like watching an alien trying to mimic Earth-bound behavior. Alone Together is ultimately yet another example of a standard rom-com using Covid as a novelty, when in truth it’s quite possibly the least novel thing viewers are likely to encounter nearly three years into a global pandemic. The sooner filmmakers figure this out, the better.
Writer: Steven Warner
Mr. Malcolm’s List
Everybody get your Regency romance bingo cards out, it’s time for Emma Holly Jones’ Mr. Malcolm’s List. An aloof gentleman bachelor with an inconceivably large fortune? Check. An eloquent, plucky, but tragically lower-class heroine? Check. More schemes and shenanigans than you can shake a stick at? Also check. For good measure, throw in a dashing captain, an impetuous sister, and high-society intrigue, and all the ingredients are there for a by-the-numbers Regency rom-com. With such a solid box of tricks to return to, new additions to the genre can wind up feeling stale, plain, or outdated, or they can go down the equally frustrating route of skewing more experimental, and ending up with a film that doesn’t seem to quite know what it is, cast somewhere between modern and traditional (see Netflix’s recent Persuasion adaptation). The scheme that animates the plot here — an aristocrat apparently growing past her prime (Zawe Ashton) is rejected by the titular Mr. Malcolm (Sope Dirisu) after failing to meet one of his many written criteria for a bride, and enlists her adopted sister Selina (Freida Pinto) and cousin Lord Cassidy (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) in seeking revenge — is more reminiscent of the Shakespearean comedies than anything contemporary, though there is certainly more than a hint of the screwball romantic comedy in the film’s DNA. The film’s casting is racially diverse, perhaps inspired by Netflix’s recent success with Bridgerton popularizing the trend, but given the film’s clear theatrical influences, the choice is perhaps equally due to the slightly longer theatrical tradition of race-blind casting. The result is a comedy that feels timeless, drawing on influences both old and new with a synchronicity that belies a confident filmmaker who has a deep understanding of, but is not beholden to, the genre she is operating within.
To a not insignificant degree, most romantic comedies succeed or fail based on the chemistry of their leads — it’s an alchemical thing, easier to get wrong than right — but what is somewhat baffling is that Mr. Malcolm’s List is able to succeed as well as it does when Dirisu and Pinto’s chemistry is only really middling for much of the film. Apart, both actors do an entirely satisfactory job of carrying the film, especially Dirisu, who manages to bring an absolutely magnetic charm to a character who is, on paper, aloof and even cold. But together, there is something left wanting about the pair. Especially when compared to its most obvious counterparts, like Emma. and Bridgerton, Mr. Malcolm’s List does feel somewhat sexless, devoid of the easy chemistry of the former and barely-concealed lust of the latter. While intellectual bonds can be just as fascinating to watch, the film feels almost too buttoned-up for its own good, and in spite of all Dirisu’s ardent gazing, something crucial is missing. Perhaps the answer to the success of Mr. Malcolm’s List despite this void comes in its ensemble, a group who have far more chemistry as a whole than the central couple. As an actress primarily seen on the stage, Zawe Ashton brings a unique energy to Julia Thistlewaite, the spurned sister, turning up the camp and caricature to the exact right level and maintaining admirable comedic control. Julia can be impetuous, childish, cruel, and grating, but Ashton never once lets that get in the way of being sympathetic, with all the loud staginess of her performance creating voids when her bravado falters, which Ashton is just as capable of navigating. As the effete and ineffectual Lord Cassidy, Oliver Jackson-Cohen is practically unrecognizable, offering a complete contrast from his performances of intimidating masculine presence in the horror genre. While he’s too overshadowed by Ashton to be a regarded as any kind of “revelation,” Mr. Malcolm’s List still marks a positive step in his career, demonstrating range outside of his usual sinister turns.
Where Mr Malcolm’s List may ultimately be memorable compared to its peers is in its thoroughly modern undertones. Beyond the contemporary sensibilities of its casting and the Bridgerton-inspired flourishes — a quite clearly borrowed voiceover and the now normalized vocabulary of Regency debutantes — the film draws distinct connections between the 21st-century dating scene, full of filters, criteria, and immediate judgments, and the borderline economical approach to marriage in the Regency era. It’s not a subtle subtext, but it is an astute and relevant one, particularly in comparison to the decidedly dated narratives and Mills & Boon bodice-ripper gender roles of the sub-genre, even if the film’s romance could perhaps do with some of its peers’ more adventurous qualities.
Writer: Molly Adams
What better filmic form for taking on a “too good to be true” story than that of the documentary? When director Dan Chen and his producers decided to take a trip to Breaux Bridge, Louisiana and check-out T.M. Landry College Preparatory, their hope was to illuminate the story behind a miracle of an institution. The unaccredited, co-ed private school had been dominating media headlines thanks to an 100% acceptance rate for its students to 4-year colleges, an already-impressive feat, but moreover the fact that its student body was low-income and predominantly Black and brown truly captivated national attention. Senior students’ college acceptance videos went viral, a collective and viscerally cathartic joy bursting from crowds of faces proving an uplifting tonic to all but the most envious, deeply racist, and cold-hearted. In telling this story, Chen anticipated a triumphant narrative about a school that had managed to transform the lives of institutionally disadvantaged youths and challenge the stereotypes which so frequently mar their futures. But instead, Accepted serves as a reminder that not all that glitters is gold: The documentary examines the thornier topics that underlie a pursuit of academic success for those often barred from it, while taking broader aim at societal injustices.
At first, Accepted plays about as rosy and inspiring as one might expect. Chen focuses on a principal cast of four students, outlining their personal struggles and dreams. We also meet Michael Landry, co-founder of T.M. Landry, whose ebullient intensity is reminiscent of a T.D. Jakes or LaVar Ball. We see montages of locked-in students learning trigonometry and Latin declensions. More montages fast-track the bonding between the four core students, all of this shot handheld, with an effervescent charge; all exceptionally well-paced and emotionally affecting. But simmering underneath is a mounting sense of dread. Lines like, “We’re only at our houses to sleep” or “It’s like boot camp” linger in our minds. Soon, the rousing soundtrack, which at the beginning scores things like kids setting off fireworks, is used to underline shots of students slumping at their desks, looking fatigued and lifeless. Likewise, the camera doesn’t shy away from showing how Mr. Landry’s motivational speeches can devolve into terrorizing rants.
Chen’s approach is free of maladroit moralizing; he allows the space for his subjects to speak on their own behalf. And it’s often during such candid moments, when students begin revealing their personal circumstances, that the more disturbing implications set in. Accepted is structured in such a way as to incrementally “sober you up” until you realize you’re effectively watching children trudge through 12-hour school days, six days a week, in a hollow warehouse that — for a genre film, say — could have been the set of a Black Site. Chen’s choice to focus on a few older students pays dividends, since when we come back to these young men and women later, we glean a glimpse of their mental deterioration from this pressure-cooker scenario. Their weariness, almost tragically, is still laced with gratitude for the opportunity that they were given.
Chen structures his film in such a way as to gradually “give in” to the darkness – with a climax, a bombshell exposé from The New York Times, that comes right at the halfway point. From that darkness, though, emerges a harrowing clarity: What we first believed to be “the light” of Landry’s educational method was not as it appeared. Accepted, in fact, resists easy answers to complicated problems. The students here are by turns seen as heroic and as victims of Landry College Prep’s academic ringer. But Michael Landry himself (and by extension his wife, Tracey, who gets less attention) is by no means some mustache-twirling villain in all this; a large-than-life man, he’s a boisterous blend of drill sergeant, preacher, and cult leader, and in his past lies a personal tragedy which motivated him and is viewed here as a kind of “original sin.” Chen manages to withhold overt judgment of Landry but, at the same time, is unsparing, giving the viewer a close look at his subject’s behavior. When Landry bellows disturbing demographic statistics to his shell-shocked students, is this a cold dose of reality or traumatizing and counterintuitive? More broadly, what’s the line between “tough love” and bullying cruelty?
Accepted’s most upsetting and eerie scene takes place at night — the camera hovers above the school building as excerpted commentary from students’ parents fills the void. Even in light of the NYT exposé, and its horrific allegations, the parents steadfastly support Landry and his mission; their deep-seated faith in the school’s promises of empowerment are only matched by their deep-seated mistrust of a white legacy institution’s rebuke. Here, the greater-scope villain begins to take shape. What type of society needs to exist such that racially and economically marginalized kids are told they must be superhumanly exceptional in order to survive? Why is it that they are only valued when they get into Ivy League schools “against all odds,” and not when their underfunded schools arrest their intellectual development? Chen movingly suggests that the true roots of this issue go deeper, extend further, and implicate greater numbers. Unfortunately, this latter section isn’t as deftly handled as what comes previous – the questions pursued are broad and less character-centric, and discussions around them can become more didactic. Thankfully, the continued journeys of the four featured seniors, and their lives after T.M. Landry, carry this film. Accepted resonates most through the stories of its individuals, while also probing some of the most pressing sociopolitical challenges of our times.
Writer: Travis DeShong
The Road to Galena
The Road to Galena, the feature debut from writer-director Joe Hall, plays a bit like the novice filmmaker desperately wanting to cross Tennessee Williams with a standard-issue Hallmark flick. Why anyone would even want to attempt such a thing isn’t exactly clear, and the end result is roughly as successful as that oddball description suggests. Indeed, in both look and tenor, the film feels like a middling entry in the God’s Not Dead series, except sans any religious themes and with the occasional F-bomb thrown in to prove adultness. There’s something both strangely endearing and outright offensive in the film’s blatant pandering to its target audience, those struggling, working-class, salt-of-the-earth folks who harbor a deep distrust of anyone in a suit or those who refuse to listen to country music. That’s not to speak ill of those individuals reflected in The Road to Galena, but only the way they have been turned into cruel caricatures by a filmmaker who seems to mistake stereotypes for fact.
Max Steel star Ben Winchell — imagine if that was your CV — stars as Cole Baird, a good ol’ boy growing up in the small farming community of Galena, Maryland. Cole’s dream is to buy some land and start a family with his girlfriend Elle (Aimee Teegarden) upon graduating high school, but his blowhard pop, local bank manager John (Jay O. Sanders), thinks such a life is pathetic and worthless, so he sends Cole away to college, where he ultimately gets into Georgetown Law School. Meanwhile, Elle hooks up with Cole’s best pal, Jack (Will Brittain), who has stayed in Galena and taken over the family farm, causing all sorts of turmoil in the friend group, because what this two-hour film needed was some relationship drama. Cut ahead a few years, and Elle and Jack are married with two kids, while Cole is a big-city lawyer in a fancy Washington D.C. law firm, shacking up with the social status-obsessed Sarah (Alisa Allapach). Jack can’t catch a break, what with the bank breathing down his neck, while Cole is a millionaire, living in the lap of luxury. But the question remains: is Cole happy? At one point, Jack confronts Cole, point blank asking him, “Who are you, man,” a query that so rattles our churlish protagonist that it makes one wonder if he was ever able to catch Moonlight on Netflix over the past few years.
The Road to Galena paints itself as an ode to those individuals still clinging to the farmlands of America, while duplicitous bankers and faceless corporations work overtime to take that which never belonged to them, all in the name of a quick buck. While such stories are all too common and tragic in the real world, they are certainly done no favors by narratives such as this, filled with characters whose traits and motivations are insultingly easy to categorize: rich and successful equals bad, poor and humble equals good. Jack’s initially flawed financial strategizing is what ultimately causes his family’s undoing, but it’s Cole’s father who is forced to take the blame, because he approved the loan. For good measure, the man also reveals himself to be a monster who resents his son’s existence, because bankers, am I right? Cole is a jerk because he pursues a job at which he is apparently a borderline genius, becoming a partner in less than a decade, but this makes it difficult for him to come down and help his friend on the weekends. Also, if you have a lot of money, you’re probably going to become an alcoholic. That it takes Cole literally 20 years — cue the terrible middle-aged prosthetics — to realize that you can be a lawyer and still own a small piece of farmland makes one wonder how he ever even managed to graduate high school, let alone law school, while Jack is ultimately turned into a bland martyr.
Hall goes out of his way to visually express the contrast between city and country life, imagery of wet and muddy earth juxtaposed with steel skyscrapers and concrete sidewalks. The film certainly looks like a Ford truck commercial, all golden-hued, sweeping aerial shots of gorgeous farmland, while the city is rendered cold and blue. If one were to take a shot every time a God’s-eye establishing shot of Galena was used, alcohol poisoning would hit by the 20-minute mark. The movie also boasts a strange habit of including close-ups of random items that the viewer naturally assumes will pay off later, but Hall is above your fancy foreshadowing, thank you very much. Ultimately, no one is done any favors by The Road to Galena, least of all its audience members; if only Hall had learned that being this cruelly condescending is a rich man’s game.
Writer: Steven Warner