In Secret (2013)


I wrote before about the recent shuttering of both Vulcan Video and I Luv Video, and how neither one managed to survive the consequences of prolonged COVID-related shutdowns. In truth, both have been struggling for a while. When I was still living in Louisiana and only visiting Austin, there was a Vulcan Video location in North Austin near UT’s campus, complete with a giant mural of Spock, one block south from the apartment building where I would ultimately get my first place in Austin. One block west was the second location for I Luv Video on Guadalupe. By the end of my first year of residence, Vulcan had relocated their North location by about 25 blocks, and the I Luv Video on Guad posted a bunch of their DVDs and memorabilia for sale and consolidated with the main location on Airport Boulevard. It was at this sale that I found the Mrs. Winterbourne press packet that I wrote about when that was our Movie of the Month, lo these many years ago now. Most of the good horror had already been picked over, and what remained was risky. Jessica Lange had just left American Horror Story and I was hankering for some of that good Lange content when I stumbled across the DVD for In Secret, which featured her prominently on the cover. It was a fairly recent release (2013), too, and I figured I could risk the $4 and see if it would soothe my jonesing. But then, as these things often happen, I had to move and the DVD got stuffed into a box, and then put on a shelf for three years where it was occasionally discussed and then rejected as I could never quite sell my roommate on it. And then it went into another box, and then onto another shelf in another new place, where it’s sat for another year, until it took a trip with me to a cottage in the Texas Hill Country as part of my “emergency media” stash for my wi-fi free solo writing retreat (it’s going great, by the way). I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t live up to the hype. Spoiler alert for an Emile Zola novel that’s older than harnessed electricity.

In Secret is the very rote 19th century story of Thérèse, a young girl whose mother dies and leaves her in the care of her indigent explorer father, who immediately deposits the child with his own sister, Madame Raquin (Jessica Lange) and her chronically ill, possibly hypochondriac son Camille. Raquin is no wicked aunt/stepmother, but while she lacks ill intentions, she has an abundance of ideas of propriety and the natural progress of a life that are rigid in both structure and enforcement. In time, Thérèse grows up to be Elizabeth Olsen, and Camille grows up to be Tom Felton, and all the while the two are still forced to sleep in the same bed. When word arrives that Thérèse’s father, who has been gone for what must be at least eight years but feels like more, has died, Madame Raquin wastes no time in marrying the cousins to each other, which was the style at the time. She secures a job for Camille in Paris doing some kind of office work, and she opens a dress shop in a dingy alley with Thérèse as her assistant. Camille is soon reunited with Laurent (Oscar Isaacs), a childhood friend whose family relocated before Thérèse came to live with the Raquins, and his vivaciousness and bohemian nature capture Thérèse’s fancy, as her life is otherwise completely passionless and dictated by her aunt/mother-in-law.

The two soon begin a sordid, torrid affair, but when Camille decides to move the family back to their country home, their desperation to stay together pushes Thérèse and Laurent to kill Camille so that they can stay together in the city. While on a day trip in the park that culminates in renting a boat, they push him overboard before sinking the boat and framing the whole thing as an accident. While waiting what seems an appropriate amount of time before marrying one another, Laurent and Thérèse grow bitter and resentful of one another, and even after they have married, this hatred for one another continues to grow, especially once Madame Raquin suffers a stroke that leaves her largely paralyzed and requiring constant care, until they both seek desperate measures to extricate themselves from the circumstances.

This movie is … not very good. You know how, sometimes, you see that a movie was filmed in Serbia, and you’re like, “Oh, this movie was made specifically so that they would have something to show on buses for people traveling across Eastern Europe”? This is one of those films. This is, to date, the only feature helmed by director Charlie Stratton, who looks to have come up through the Hollywood ranks as an actor first, with sporadic one-off roles in TV series like L.A. Law, Thirtysomething, Dallas, and Matlock, with a major role on the Dirty Dancing television show, which apparently existed. From there, he’s mostly directed for television sporadically (Revenge, The Fosters, Chasing Life, Everwood), but the problem here isn’t one of direction (it’s competent), it’s one of story. This is a very 19th Century story, and it feels like it.

Certain narratives of that age can be endlessly reinvented or reinterpreted (say Bronte, Austen, Alcott), and this is a story penned by Émile Zola, who was nominated for both the first and second Nobel Prize in Literature. He wrote it with the intent of examining the relationships between the four temperaments, with each of the characters representing one of them, and as such considered the narrative itself to be a foregone conclusion, as this was the only way the four archetypes could interact, and the tragic ending was a foregone conclusion. That’s fine for the era in which it was written and is even fine if one were to engage with that worldview/mindset and re-examine and reinvent the narrative. There’s nothing inventive or novel about this extremely faithful approach, and as such, it feels more like an outdated morality play than anything else. One may as well make a completely straightforward adaptation of Pamela if one isn’t going to engage with the text in a meaningful, transformative, inspective way.

Most contemporary criticism revolved around Lange’s performance, and she delivers a great one, as usual, as she wrings great drama out of the scenes in which she is trapped in her body and attempting to communicate to others that all is not as it seems. Felton is serviceable, and Olsen and Issacs deliver characteristically invested performances as well, but there’s only so much overwrought peak-Romanticism era histrionics that one can stand. The film’s more somber moments are undercut by an air of (one hopes) unintentional comedy, delivered mostly by the presence and performances of Matt Lucas, then best known for Little Britain, and Shirley Henderson as, respectively, Olivier and his wife Suzanne. Above and beyond the fact that no one, from Lange down, even attempted to portray a hint of Franconess in this very French story, these two Brits seem to be playing every scene in which they appear for humor, and although it’s tonally jarring, these few morsels manage to be the only moments of real entertainment that the film has. The scene in which Lange’s Raquin painfully attempts to tell her assembled friends that Laurent and Thérèse killed Camille by painstakingly drawing individual letters with her enfeebled hand, only to get out “Thérèse and Laurent” before exhausting herself, only for Olivier to declare that she must have been writing “Thérèse and Laurent are taking great care of me,” is camp of the highest order, and completely out of place in what is otherwise a dour and dreary film.

Matt Lucas should never be the saving grace of anything.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Ingrid Goes West (2017)

Anyone who engages with some form of social media is aware by now that there is a massive gulf between the personae we present online and our True Selves. By skewering LA hipsters who cultivate online celebrity through carefully curated Instagram profiles, the dark comedy Ingrid Goes West isn’t necessarily revealing anything its audience isn’t already aware of. The titular protagonist of that work, however, is a relatively fresh look at how that artificial cultivation of an online Personal Brand affects its consumers, specifically those suffering from mental illness. Ingrid Thorburn, miserably brought to life by Aubrey Plaza, is a character as worthy of study as Robert DeNiro’s Rupert Pupkin or Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates. In a lot of ways, Ingrid Goes West falls short of being worthy of that performance, which updates the classic-tragic Lead Role Psychopath for the online stalker era in both a darkly humorous & incredibly tense way. The story that forms around Plaza’s turn as Thorburn isn’t afforded nearly as much nuance as the character herself, but her onscreen presence is alone enough to justify giving the movie a look.

Ingrid Thorburn begins her tragic saga in isolation, with only the cold glow of her smartphone holding her hand through a recent loss & the raw emotional compulsions of an obvious chemical imbalance. She frantically scans Instagram profiles for a point of contact out there in the great social void, desperately hanging on for dear life to any kind word or signal of acknowledgement. Her obsessions with individual Online Personalities are intensely focused, requiring just as much meticulous planning for stalking & befriending as her targets afford selfies & squared-off photographs of avocado toast. Her obsession du jour in this particular episode is an LA socialite (Elizabeth Olsen) who’s so wrapped up in her online persona that she builds a profession around advertising products on her feed. It turns out that there’s a vulnerability to constantly updating your location & minute-to-minute activities online, not least of all that your online followers can become your literal followers “in real life.” The even bigger danger, though, is in having people interpret your online hyperbole as actual sincerity. There’s a huge difference between advertising that a breakfast spot sells The Best Avocado Toast In The World and telling another human being “You’re so funny. I love you so much. You’re amazing. You’re my favorite person I’ve ever met.” When you’re dealing with human emotions, especially ones as pronounced as Ingrid Thorburn’s, that kind of disconnect from sincerity & authenticity can be dangerously cruel, especially when your victim discovers you’re not really “friends.”

There are theoretically better versions of this same story where the thriller aspects are highlighted & Ingrid becomes a kind of social media assassin who drags her obsessions down to her level or where LA charlatans & phonies are comedically lampooned for being heartless demons. Instead, Ingrid Goes West floats halfway between those extremes in a noncommittal way. There’s some incisive criticism of Los Angeles Bohemia in subtle digs at its barely-concealed racism or the unspoken expense of its “rustic” mason jars & potted succulents lifestyle. Ingrid badly wants to be an avocado toast kind of girl, but she’s much more at home eating McDonald’s out of the bag; there’s a wealth class difference in that distinction. The movie’s much stronger in its intense thriller beats, however, drumming up more visible thirst in Ingrid’s eyes than Sofia Coppola even dared to conjure in her recent remake of The Beguiled. You’re never sure if Ingrid wants to eat, fuck, or Single White Female her obsessive targets and the movie’s strongest moments are in accentuating the delicate intensity of that unspoken desire. It will often diffuse the danger of her real world stalking with a comedic sing-along to K-Ci & JoJo’s “All My Life” or the charming presence of Straight Outta Compton‘s O’Shea Jackson Jr., who plays the world’s most patient man (& biggest Batman enthusiast). I’m not sure looking to Ingrid Goes West for insightful satire on cellphone addiction or the inauthenticity of social media posturing is ever nearly as satisfying as watching Ingrid Thorburn dangle from a thin thread while she tries to land herself a lifelong bestie as if she were shopping for clothes online. Aubrey Plaza does a fantastic job of making that precarious intensity a memorable, worthwhile viewing experience, but it is somewhat of a shame that the movie it supports couldn’t match that performance in its extremity or specificity.

-Brandon Ledet

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

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Captain America: Civil War was a lot of fun! I went into the film expecting it to be a bit of a letdown after how much I loved Winter Soldier, and while it’s not as good as the last Cap flick, it’s certainly worthy of the positive critical reception that it has been garnering. I expected that there would be more of a backlash against it given that the negative reception of Batman v Superman was characterized by proponents of that film as being the result of a pro-Marvel bias among the blogosphere. Instead, the film’s 90% positive professional critic score and 92% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes reflects a generally positive reaction, and the film deserves it. While there are some detractors who are critical of the film, citing the distinct division between plot lines (one focused on the titular conflict between the different members of the Avengers and one which is devoted to following up on the plotline surrounding the Winter Soldier and his past), I’m in agreement with the general public in that I found this film a worthy successor and a great introduction to the new direction of the MCU as Phase Three revs its engine.

I’ll be saving my comparisons to other films and my discussion of the spoilery elements of the film for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. dual review, but I’ll talk about my favorite elements here. Unlike Age of Ultron, which likewise had a large number of characters and introduced new ones, this film felt neither overstuffed nor imbalanced. There’s more of Cap than anyone else, but that’s to be expected, and every other character gets at least a few minutes of screentime that develops them as individuals and reveals something about their personal philosophy. Notable among these is Scarlet Witch, who is basically filling the Kitty Pryde role on this team as the youngest member/trainee, getting tips on superheroing from Cap and Black Widow in the field. Elizabeth Olsen plays the hell out of Wanda’s insecurities and independence, and it’s a testament to her strength as an actress that the audience fully understands her character after just a couple of films in which she plays a role that doesn’t get a lot of screen time. Although Scarlett Johannson’s role here is much more brief than her meatier presence in Winter Soldier, the Russo brothers effectively understand that her relationship with Steve would be strained by their placement on opposite sides of the Sokovia Accord issue; I won’t get into detail here, but she gets a few scenes that allow the actress to play this conflict, and ScarJo nails it despite being arguably underused. Vision also feels a lot more like Vision this time around: a weird android whose utter incomprehensibility of human social norms is both charming and unnerving at the same time. The movie also gets a lot of subtle comedy out of the character’s uncanniness; there’s something utterly surreal about a blockbuster comic book movie featuring a character whose unusual body shape is covered by the kind of sweater that your grandmother orders out of a J. Crew catalog.

I also really enjoyed that, for the first time in the MCU, we got to see a team fight another group.In most of the films, the final confrontation boils down to a one-on- one fight (Iron Man, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man), the protagonist and maybe a sidekick facing off against a single villain and his attendant faceless horde (IM2, IM3, Thor 2), or a group facing off against a single villain and his attendant faceless horde (Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers 2). It’s not surprising that the only film from Phases One and Two that doesn’t fit into one of these boxes is Winter Soldier, which sees the individual members of Cap’s team in different places and fulfilling the roles that were best suited to each. This did mean that we didn’t get to see, for instance, a moment of pure four-color glory like Cap using his shield as a refractor for Iron Man’s blasts like in Avengers; what it does accomplish is raising the emotional stakes when the villains are well-developed and individual rather than being mass market Chitauri, Dark Elves, Ultron bodies, or the Sting-Winger things from Guardians. Here, it’s a full team against a full team, using their powers in new and inventive ways and showing how these personalities play off of each other, especially with regards to the more mature members of each team and their more green teammates. Ant-Man is a particular delight (despite some questionable CGI in a few scenes), with Paul Rudd effectively playing up Scott Lang’s awe at meeting Captain America; the serious affectation he puts into the line “Here’s your shield, Captain America” got the film’s biggest chuckle out of me, although Spider-Man’s sincere fascination with Bucky’s metal arm was great as well.

The fight scenes are frenetic in the best way, and they all push the plot forward rather than simply occurring at the anticipated intervals in which we’ve been conditioned to expect them. That’s not to say that this is a fun movie throughout, however. The length of the scenes featuring Holland’s precocious, quipping Spider-Man are balanced out by a conspiracy plot that reflects the darker elements of Winter Soldier. These revisitations don’t resonate as strongly this time around, but the revelations about the Winter Soldier program and one character’s motivations for wanting to bring this information to light are effective in their Manchurian qualities. This actually leads into the question that the marketing for the film has played up, one that was much more straightforward in the source material (which we’ll talk about in the Agents review): whose side are you on?

Where do I stand? There’s a great underlying throughline in this film that shows that, in a way, Tony Stark is right. It’s almost easy to write off Steve’s motivations as being too personal and lacking in professional distance; his desire to not only save but redeem Bucky may be the most ethical motivation in play, but it’s undeniable that this morality isn’t what motivates Cap. Steve Rogers’s desperate desire not to lose one of the last tenuous connections that he has to a home that no longer exists is understandable. On the other hand, it’s not hypocrisy on Cap’s part that he does not want to defer to the potentially unethical whims of a questionably impartial caucus while engaging in ambiguously unlawful activity himself to defend Bucky. It’s totally in line with what he claims is his goal: assuming personal responsibility. It’s also understandable that Tony would be the person most in favor of the accords: his ego and compulsion to take personal responsibility for protecting the entire earth led to the creation of Ultron. Of course Tony feels more of a need for oversight than Cap, who had heretofore never been on the wrong side of any moral conflict. In the end, however, the stakes become as personal for Tony as they are for Steve, leading him to act out violently using his technological advantage. Further, this conflict comes as a result of manipulation by a basic human for whom the stakes are also too personal. Supersoldier, genius inventor, and haunted family man: all give in to their worst instincts, tearing down empires and threatening worldwide political ramifications of the future because of the limited horizons of their own pain. This movie is both an embodiment of the need for accountability as made manifest in the lives of three different men, but also a demonstration of the infeasibility of the accords themselves.

Some situations require action faster than a committee can authorize it. This is a world where an alien portal can open up over New York or interdimensional monsters could appear in London and end life as we know it while some U.N. page is just trying to get enough people together to make a motion to deploy the Avengers. What if everyone was at lunch? And then, boom, humanity is enslaved to the Skrulls or consumed by Galactus because all they had to do was attack during everyone’s smoke break or a particularly nasty flu season. There really is no side that’s entirely right or wrong, which is the film’s greatest strength. There are a lot of people making comparisons to Batman v Superman and with good reason, considering that there is a weird overlap in some of the plot elements, but what really stands out to me is that BvS has what is essentially a sitcom stock plot where Character A and Character B are in conflict because they don’t communicate with each other. Then things get blown further and further out of proportion while shenanigans ensue, until they realize that, hey, being honest is important and everyone learns a lesson about teamwork and friendship. In Civil War, the conflicts are ideological and thus more rooted in the humanity of its characters. That’s the core of what makes this film work, and it’s a great start for the next wave of Marvel’s flicks.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond