Candyman (2021)

Now that the Delta Surge is receding and local vaccination numbers are looking robust, I’m personally getting comfortable with returning to movie theaters.  Anecdotally, I’m also seeing larger crowds testing those same waters than I did this summer when I briefly showed up masked & vaccinated at the local multiplex just before Delta sent me right back into my turtle shell.  Luckily for me (and unluckily for movie theaters), the film distribution pipeline hasn’t yet caught up with that return of consumer confidence, which means there hasn’t been a flood of major new releases to wash out the big-ticket movies I missed in the past few months of extended seclusion.  So that’s how I got to see Nia DaCosta’s Candyman reboot on the big screen in the weeks leading up to Halloween, even though it was initially released in the summer.  By now, professional critics and terminally online horror nerds have already talked the merits & faults of Candyman ’21 to death (and the bee-swarmed mirror realm beyond it), so I expected there was no room left for discovery or interpretation in my late-to-the-game viewing of the film.  And yet, I was pleasantly surprised by the new Candyman despite my tardiness – both in how much I enjoyed it and in how well it works as a direct, meaningful sequel to the Bernard Rose original.

I remember hearing a lot of chatter about how the new Candyman is blatant in its political discussions of the continued gentrification of Chicago, but I somehow missed that those discussions are linked to an ongoing, generational trauma echoed from events of the original film.  This latest update could have been justifiably titled Candyman 4: Candyman, since it directly recounts and expands the lore of the original film through audio recordings & shadow puppetry.  By the end, we’ve seen & heard several characters from the original cast dredging up the most painful details of that shared past, landing DaCosta’s film more as a “reboot” than as a “remake” despite the expectations set by its title.  However, rather than developing Candyman lore by transferring the Candyman character to exotic cultural locales (New Orleans’s Mardi Gras celebrations in Candyman 2 and Los Angeles’s Day of the Dead celebrations in Candyman 3), DaCosta instead expands the boundaries & definition of Candyman himself.  Building off his body’s occasional form as a gestalt of bees, Candyman is explained to be a buzzing hive of various tormented Black men throughout American history instead of just a single murderous ghost with a hook for a hand.  He’s a symbol for Black pain fighting its way from under the boot of this country’s long history of racist violence, and the terror in this particular chapter is in watching our troubled-artist protagonist get absorbed into that history despite his mostly charmed life.

Personally, I don’t mind that the new Candyman is transparent in its political messaging & metaphor.  It’s at least conceptually sturdy in how it chooses to examine the generational & cultural echoes of trauma, which is a much more rewarding mode of “haunting” for this particular horror icon than it would’ve been if he latched onto another lone victim like Helen Lyle.  Its art gallery setting is a brilliant choice in that paradigm, as it both functions as a physical symbol of gentrification and as an open forum where heady ideas about art & symbolism are totally justified.  Candyman is first summoned by white art snobs in a gallery showing of political Black art that they do not take seriously (beyond its economic value), presenting him as a significant yet volatile form of Black representation in popular media.  If there’s any lesson taught in his re-emergence and his eventual absorption of the painter who gives him new life on canvas, it’s that the pained, racist history that he represents should not be evoked lightly.  DaCosta seems careful not to revive Candyman for a cheap-thrills supernatural slasher; she wants to genuinely, directly contend with what place he holds in the larger pop culture zeitgeist.  I believe she finds plenty of worthwhile political substance to contend with there, so I don’t understand the supposed virtue of being subtle about it.

My only sticking point with the new Candyman, really, is how often it shies away from depicting onscreen violence.  The greater cultural & political violence that Candyman represents is sharply felt when the film is viewed as a whole, but individual kills are often obscured through mirrors, wide-shots, and physical barriers in a way that often undercuts their in-the-moment effect.  It plays like a PG-13 television broadcast of an R-rated film, except in this case the network forgot to bleep the cusses.  DaCosta is way more concerned with the meaning behind Candyman than she is in the physical consequences of his presence, which makes the film feel like it was intended for an audience who appreciates the social commentary aspect of horror without all that icky horror getting in the way.  She totally nails the eeriness & tension that a good horror scare can build, especially in her expansion of the buzzing bee & mirror realm imagery that made Candyman iconic to begin with.  She just also seems disinterested in (or maybe even politically opposed to) the cathartic release of an onscreen kill shattering that tension to shards.  At its most visually upsetting, Candyman makes room for the slowly-building body horror of a bee sting that festers beyond control.  Mostly, it’s upsetting in its concepts & politics, which isn’t going to satisfy most audiences looking for the latest, most exciting big-screen scares.  I’m honestly surprised I was satisfied with it myself, violent catharsis notwithstanding.

-Brandon Ledet

Wojnarowicz (2021)

Most documentaries about the lives & works of artists are majorly self-conflicted in their form & content.  The artist being profiled can be the most provocative, combative bombthrower in the history of their medium, and their retrospective documentary will still be the safest Wikipedia-in-motion overview of their life imaginable.  I don’t know that the recent doc Wojnarowicz ever matches the righteous fury of its own subject, but you can’t say it doesn’t try.  Fully titled (please excuse the incoming slur) Wojnarowicz: Fuck You Faggot Fucker, the film clearly attempts to recreate the in-your-face political activism of its subject’s ACT UP-era queer resistance & art.  It’s nowhere near as inventive, shocking, or confrontational as multimedia artist David Wojnarowicz was in his own time, but it’s at least bold & propulsive enough to convey what made his art so vitally incendiary.

It helps that almost all of the documentary’s imagery was created by Wojnarowicz himself, supplemented by audio interviews with the people who personally knew him.  Paintings, prints, stencils, photographs, 3D instillations, audio journals, and a soundtrack from his post-punk band 3 Teens Kill 4 overwhelm the screen, often as David himself rants about the grotesque injustices of the world at large and of 1980s NYC in particular.  There’s a vibrant, purposeful anger to his visual art and his recorded monologues that especially comes into sharp relief in discussions of the AIDS crisis and the Reagan administration’s genocidal indifference to that epidemic.  There’s no shortage of worthwhile targets for Wojnarowicz’s fury, though, and he throws well-observed punches at the irresponsible vapidity of news media, the grotesque elitism of fine art collectors, and the economic disparity that led him to hustling as a runaway teen, among other social ills.  When he was alive, most of Wojnarowicz’s contemporaries likely would’ve reductively described his unbridled anger as a mentally ill artist sabotaging his own success.  Here, his work is properly contextualized as confrontational, queer activism in direct opposition to economic exploitation & respectability politics.

The purposeful, incendiary provocation of Wojnarowicz’s art reminded me a lot of Marlon Riggs, along with the more obvious No Wave contemporaries in his social circle (most notably Richard Kern).  If Wojnarowicz had survived the AIDS epidemic to make this film himself as a self-portrait retrospective, I imagine it might’ve come out as invigorating as Tongues Untied, Riggs’s magnum opus.  Director Chris McKim instead does his best to recreate that exact era of queer-activist video art with the clips, scraps, and completed works that Wojnarowicz left behind after dying at the hands of governmental indifference.  The result is one of the few hagiographic documentaries on an artist’s life that approximate the shock & awe of their subjects’ actual work: Sick, Crumb, Marwencol, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, etc.  At the very least, it leaves you infuriated that Wojnarowicz and his immediate community were purposefully abandoned & encouraged to die by their own government at the height of the AIDS epidemic; he likely would’ve been proud of that effect.

-Brandon Ledet

The NYC Art Gallery Concert Film

I recently found myself falling down a hyperspecific rabbit hole watching live performances of bands that meant a lot to me in high school. It started with the David Byrne concert film American Utopia, which I caught up with on HBO as part of the late-in-the-year hunt for potential Best of the Year list-toppers. Even more so than the landmark Talking Heads documentary Stop Making Sense, American Utopia is a unique specimen within the concert film genre. Unlike most rock concert docs, it doesn’t aim to energize or throttle the audience in any discernible way. It’s an upbeat but gentle work, staged with regimented, clinical precision within the rigid confines of a Broadway theatrical setting. Spike Lee directs the film with a controlled, observant formalism that only appears in flashes in his messier, more idiosyncratic works. As a movie, American Utopia is more like stumbling across a performance art piece in an NYC art gallery than attending a rock show or even a typical Broadway musical. It’s not the only concert film of that exact ilk, though, and I soon found myself seeking out more heady art gallery concert docs on its wavelength to keep the arty party going.

I was lucky enough to catch the traveling American Utopia show live at the 2018 Jazz Fest, but it was a lot more of a traditional rock performance than what’s captured in the movie version. Watching Byrne perform for the first time live in the afternoon sunshine, I found myself crying while dancing in a rare moment of ecstatic happiness – maybe the second time I’ve ever experienced such euphoria at a concert. That Jazz Fest set was an abbreviated version of the show, one that cut out a few songs and, more importantly, abbreviated the spoken monologues that act as the show’s thematic throughline. In the movie (and, presumably, most live performances of the act), Byrne’s parade of solo & Talking Heads hits are bookended by short lectures that examine the function & the soul of American culture from a distanced outsider perspective; it’s a kind of spiritual sequel to Byrne’s small-town America portrait True Stories in that way. It’s an honest but optimistic temperature check of where America is today, both acknowledging the horrors of racially-motivated police brutality that have long been a stain on this country’s honor and pointing to our current moment of change as a possibly transformative turning point towards a better future. Meanwhile, everything onstage is rigidly uniformed & regimented like a dystopian sci-fi film, with the traditional rock performers’ instruments & colorful costuming stripped away to mimic the minimalism of modern performance art.

American Utopia has earned plenty accolades as one of the best cinematic experiences of the year, but it’s not the only NYC Art Gallery Concert Film that was recently highlighted as a Cultural Event. In an effort to stay visible as a cultural institution despite ongoing COVID-lockdowns, the Brooklyn concert venue St. Ann’s Warehouse has been periodically broadcasting past shows on YouTube, free-to-the-public. A recent one that caught my eye (thanks to write-ups on sites like the New York Times) was a 2007 concert film version of Lou Reed’s Berlin. The follow-up to Reed’s cult solo record Transformer, Berlin was a critical & financial flop in 1973, a failure that broke the rock ‘n roller’s heart to the point where he refused to play songs from the album live. The 2007 performance at St. Ann’s Warehouse is a decades-in-the-making event, then, finding Reed performing the proggy concept album in its entirety with a sprawling backup band that included contributions from Sharon Jones, Antony, and a full children’s choir. It also translated Berlin into the world of Visual Art, layering in dramatic visualizations of the album’s loose “narrative” (as projections on the stage and interjections on the screen) as if they were fuzzy memories bubbling up to the surface of the songs. The film’s director, fine art painter Julian Schnabel, does his best to turn the concert film experience into an instillation piece, achieving an art gallery aesthetic in a much uglier, more somber way than Byrne’s work. Weirdly enough, both movies also happen to share a cinematographer in Ellen Kuras.

After watching Berlin & American Utopia in short succession, I caught myself wondering what the ultimate NYC Art Gallery Concert Film would be. The answer was immediately obvious, although I had not yet seen the film myself because of its limited availability. Laurie Anderson’s 1986 concert film Home of the Brave is a 90min distillation of her two-night concert piece United States I-IV. Having now only seen a fuzzy rip of the film that’s lurking on YouTube (as it unforgivably has never made the format leap from VHS & laserdisc to DVD), I’m fairly confident in calling it The Greatest Concert Film of All Time. I know that title has been communally bestowed upon Stop Making Sense, but Anderson’s piece certainly belongs in that conversation, if not only for highlighting how her work pioneered a lot of the more Conceptual Art elements that goes into Byrne’s stage shows. Anderson also observes the soul & structure of America in a series of abstracted, outsider-POV lectures the way Byrne does in American Utopia, but those monologues are interwoven into her avant-garde new wave songs to the point where there’s no boundary between them. Projectors, voice modulators, newly invented instruments, and guest appearances from William S. Burroughs of all people are prominently featured in her show as if they were the hallmarks of a rock ‘n roll music video instead of weirdo outsider-artist eccentricities. While American Utopia & Berlin evoke the mood & setting of an art gallery, Home of the Brave is an art gallery, and it’s a shame that it’s the only film of the three that you can’t currently access in Blu-ray quality.

Although she’s less of a household name elsewhere, Laurie Anderson was very much an equal & a contemporary alongside David Byrne & Lou Reed in NYC art snob circles (and Reed’s spouse in the final years of his life, a pain explored in the experimental essay film Heart of a Dog). Stop Making Sense might have preceded the concert film version of her United States I-IV act by a few years, but she was already pushing its more out-there ideas (especially its use of projectors) to their furthest extremes in her own stage work at that same time. If anything, American Utopia finds David Byrne leaning even further into the Laurie Anersonisms of his own work, to the point where it feels like it’s turning Home of the Brave‘s idiosyncrasies into a concert film subgenre all of its own. The only other concert doc I can name that approaches these films’ shared NYC art gallery aesthetic is Bjork’s Biophilia project, which is great company to be in. They might not be the most raucous or chaotic specimens of rock ‘n roll hedonism, but they collectively strive to elevate the concert film to new artistic highs; and Anderson clearly stands as the mastermind of the medium.

-Brandon Ledet

The Painter and the Thief (2020)

My favorite documentaries in recent years have been the experiments in style that push the medium to newfound extremes, testing the boundaries of what makes something a “documentary” in the first place. The way titles like Rat Film, The Nightmare, Casting JonBenet and, most recently, Dick Johnson is Dead blur the boundaries between fact & fiction, observation & essay, and all other criteria that separate the documentary from traditional narrative filmmaking has been continually exciting to watch, and it feels like the artform is reaching new creative highs with each new experiment. The Painter and the Thief is of a much rarer breed among recent critically lauded docs, then. It calls back to a type of no-frills documentary filmmaking that doesn’t push its style or formalism to any flashy extremes, because it can easily rely on the stranger-than-fiction details of the story it tells. I’m thinking of titles like Crazy Love, Tabloid, and Three Identical Strangers, except in this case the story is much gentler & more intimate. It aims more for empathy & rehabilitation than it does “Get a load of this crazy shit!” sensationalism, which is more of its distinguishing deviation than any of its experiments in form.

The Painter and the Thief chronicles fine art painter Barbora Kysilkova’s bizarre friendship with a man who was arrested stealing two of her most expensive works. Kysilkova’s both genuinely fascinated by the drug addiction & impulsive behavior that drew this total stranger to stealing her paintings and inserts herself into his life in hopes that the lost (likely sold) works can eventually be recovered. Both of the film’s subjects are skeptical of each other’s intentions. The repentant Karl Bertil-Nordland worries that the artist he wronged is going to exploit or mock him in some way, while Kysilkova can’t help but push him for more details about the lost paintings he claims he can’t remember the fates of. Their initial barriers break down when Bertil-Nordland becomes the subject of a new Kysilkova painting, though, totally flabbergasted that someone would take the time & care to render his face on canvas. The film isn’t in any rush to tease out the stranger details of their relationship from there. Instead, it leisurely draws parallels between the unlikely friends’ lives & temperaments until the story of the robbery that brought them together in the first place comes full circle in its own time.

If there’s anything flashy about the way The Painter and the Thief tells this story, it’s in how it alternates between its two subjects’ perspectives. Both The Painter and The Thief take turns explaining their side of the friendship divide in rigidly partitioned segments, offering as much empathy to both subjects as possible by leveling the platform they share here. That’s not a choice that necessarily reinvents the documentary as an artistic medium, though, more than it is a choice that breaks down the (mostly classist) assumptions the audience might make about what separates its two subjects. Bertil-Nordland’s “Snitches are a dying breed” tattoo & “Fat people are hard to kidnap” novelty t-shirt project a kind of defensive, dirtbag energy meant to keep people like Kysilkova at a distance. The way she reaches past that boundary in her work to truly see him is the real phenomenon explored here, as it highlights how much of a rare occurrence that exchange is in his life. This is a movie interested in interrogating the social, class-based boundaries between its subjects more so than it is in interrogating the boundaries of its medium. It can feel like a traditionalist approach to the material at hand, but it’s also a surprisingly moving one.

-Brandon Ledet

Céline Sciamma Has Always Been On Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an intimidating movie to write about, because I find myself both endlessly impressed with its craft and somewhat baffled by its ecstatic critical reception. Portrait is a visually gorgeous but patiently observant film about a short-term queer romance in 18th Century France. Its gradual accumulation of small glances, electric touches, and guarded desire snowball to an avalanche of emotion in its final act that is so self-evidently magnificent that calling its merits & accolades into question feels like cinephilic blasphemy. Yet, it’s also an overwhelmingly quiet film in its earliest stirrings, soundtracked mostly by crackling fireplaces, hushed wave-crests, and charcoal scraping canvas. Without a guiding score to anchor my attention in its pensive build-up, I found my mind wandering outside the emotions of the conflict onscreen to instead consider the film’s significance in the mighty catalog of its director, Céline Sciamma. That strained attention span is admittedly more of an intellectual shortcoming on my part than any fault of the movie’s, but it did lead me to wonder: Why, exactly, is this the film from Sciamma that pro critics are deliriously gaga over, as opposed to her previous, equally stunning works? Basically, “Why y’all gagging so? She brings it to you every ball.”

The only other time I can recall stumbling over this exact internal conflict is with the films of New Queer Cinema poster boy Todd Haynes. While Haynes’s most idiosyncratic, structurally adventurous works like Velvet Goldmine & Wonderstruck tend to be flagged as uneven or “messy,” his traditionalist costume dramas like Carol & Far From Heaven are collectively exulted as his masterworks. I very much admire both of those films, if not only for their exquisite sense of visual craft and their detailed attention to quietly, bodily expressed desire under social policing. However, I would never guess that Todd Haynes in particular had made either film if his name wasn’t included in the credits, as they’ve been stripped of the idiosyncratic playfulness that distinguish his most personally identifiable works. Céline Sciamma’s personal stamp is similarly obscured in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, at least in terms of how her filmography has played out so far. Her masterful deployment of diegetic music and her fixation on themes of queer & gendered self-discovery certainly carry over here, but removing those touches from her usual modern settings to the more stately stage of a period drama somewhat dilutes what makes her distinct as a storyteller. Like with Haynes’s most critically lauded works, I’m not sure that she’d be the first director whose name I’d guess were attached to the film if it were obscured in the credits. That’s not even something I hold against Sciamma or the film itself, really; I’m happy to see the director emboldened to reach past her usual boundaries to explore new territory. I’m just a little skeptical of why this is the film that’s being singled out as the pinnacle of her catalog, as opposed the equally stunning, modernist teen dramas Water Lilies or Girlhood. It’s as if the film’s period setting & hushed tones are somehow automatically more Prestigious than films that feature Rihanna dance parties or trips to McDonalds. That’s bullshit.

It might just be that Portrait of a Lady on Fire leaves the strongest impression since it ends on its highest notes, entirely by design (whereas Girlhood somewhat unravels in its epilogue and Water Lilies & Tomboy both go gentle into that good night). In the film, a young painter is hired to secretly produce a portrait of a French heiress who is arranged to marry a noble Milanese stranger against her wishes. Posing as the subject’s hired companion, the artist closely studies her for hours as they socialize, memorizing her ever feature to later reproduce on canvas in private. The border between artistic study & romantic fixation gradually blurs as the two women’s companionship naturally evolves into an outright torrid affair. By the time they realize their growing love & sexual attraction for one another is mutual (or at least by the time they’re both brave enough to act on it) there’s a rapidly approaching expiration date on their time together, and so much lost time to make up for. Suddenly, the practiced restraint & quiet observations of the opening half of the film give way to a rush of overwhelming emotion as the two women cram the entire arc of a fulfilling romance into only a week’s time. Meanwhile, the guise of their artist-subject dynamic affords them a brief respite from the societal demands & economic exploitations of marriage & the world of men. They manage to carve out a perfectly functional femme community outside the restrictions of their typical daily lives. The tragedy of the film is just as much rooted in the impermanence of that femmetopia as it is in the inevitable dissolution of their tryst.

It’s exciting to watch the carefully planted seeds from the film’s quieter half bloom wildly in its explosively passionate conclusion – especially as its spooky Gothic literature & Greek myth allusions fully materialize in the narrative. Before that delayed payoff fully leaves its mark, however, I mostly found myself drawing comparisons between Portrait’s basic elements and similar triumphs in Sciamma’s earlier works. There’s a communal, witchy chanting scene around a beachside bonfire that directly recalls similar dance party tangents in each of Sciamma’s’ previous features, best exemplified by the “Diamonds” scene in Girlhood. Similarly, the stoic, unreadable expression of actor Adèle Haenel as the titular portrait subject is true to the quietly observant figures of Sciamma’s’ previous work, including Haenel herself as a teenager in Water Lilies. Usually, Sciamma’s stories of queer and fluidly gendered self-discovery are staged among children on the verge of teenhood. Here, that theme is echoed in how Adele’s adult bride-to-be has been “sheltered” (read: imprisoned) from the world outside her home because of her gender, to the point where she’s been robbed of the adult development appropriate for her age. She knows no more of her body or her sexuality at the film’s start than the preteen children of Tomboy or Water Lilies, and part of her initial attraction to her painter/lover is their usefulness as a window to the world outside her enclave. This film is very much in active conversation with the rest of Sciamma’s portfolio, but something about its period setting & quiet restraint has earned it more emphatic attention from pro critics. I think that critical impulse is worth questioning even if the film itself is practically unimpeachable.

I want to live in a world where two teenage besties breaking up their BFF status at a McDonalds can be considered just as cinematically Important as an adult woman having her heart broken at an 18th Century orchestral concert. I recognize that some of that craving for modern settings & mood-establishing score is a shortcoming of my own attention span, but I do feel like Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s critical consensus as Sciamma’s masterwork is somewhat arbitrary. She’s been making excellent movies that hit the same emotional highs (earlier & more often in the case of Girlhood & Water Lilies) for over a decade now. They just happened to be couched in a tone & context that aren’t afforded the same breathless critical gushing. Better late the never, I suppose. Céline Sciamma has delivered yet another exceptional work of queer romance & self-discovery here, one that’s now dressed up in the stately finery of what we’ve agreed to consider Great Art.

-Brandon Ledet

Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

Contemporary art galleries are some of my favorite places in the world. The shiny white floors and tall white walls sparsely decorated with bizarre, thought-provoking pieces make me feel like I’m trapped in a glorious nightmare. Dan Gilroy explores this mix of art and horror in his most recent Netflix film, Velvet Buzzsaw. It’s mysterious, stylish, and oh so very gory.

I have yet to see Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, but I’m well aware Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance in the film was well received. I haven’t seen many Gyllenhaal  films, so I never really had an opinion about him. I always thought he was just okay, far from being a noteworthy actor. His performance in Velvet Buzzsaw has completely changed the way I feel about him. I never thought I would say this, but I’m officially a Jake Gyllenhaal fan! His character in the film, Morf Vandewalt, is a pretentious art critic who is extremely influential in the art world. How Gyllenhaal was able to make me fall in love with such an unlikeable character is beyond me.

In the beginning of the film, Morf leaves his boyfriend and develops a sexual relationship with his colleague, Josephina (Zawe Ashton). There aren’t nearly as many bisexual characters in cinema as there should be, so this was just another reason for me to appreciate Morf. Josephina works under Rhonda (Rene Russo), a well-known, tough-as-nails art dealer who was once a member of a punk band named Velvet Buzzsaw (the origin of the film’s title). Josephina is sweet and probably the most down-to-Earth out of the bunch, but that all starts to change when she uncovers the massive personal art collection of her deceased mysterious elderly neighbor. Josephina claims the paintings, and after she brings them to the attention of her fellow art associates, the paintings take the art world by storm. When anyone looks at the paintings, they look like they saw Jesus Christ in the flesh. It’s obvious there’s something magical about these paintings, but once those who come in contact with them begin to die in mysterious ways, the paintings go from being magical to pure evil.

Velvet Buzzsaw effortlessly balances being a satire of the highbrow art world while also being a blood-soaked slasher. The star-studded cast (including fabulous appearances by my all-time favorite actress, Toni Collette) work their magic by giving fabulous performances without allowing the film to lose its funky underground vibes. This is one of the best horror films to come out so far this year,  so 2019 is definitely off to a good start.

-Britnee Lombas

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018)

The microbudget documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening is the debut feature as a director for fine art photographer RaMell Ross. I doubt that was initially the film’s intended form. With the fractured, narrative-light meandering of a photojournal in motion, Hale County This Morning, This Evening plays more like a diary than a proper documentary. Ross appears to be gathering moving images to either calcify a concurrent photography project or to supplement those photographs with a curated installation piece. Either way, the experiment makes for rich raw material to pull from in the editing room when repurposed for a feature-length non-fiction piece, no matter how disjointed the result. Like all D.I.Y. art projects (especially ones this disinterested in narrative) there’s a hit or miss quality to Hale County on a minute to minute basis, but in its best moments it strikes the exact notes of beauty & nightmarish atmosphere you’d want to see in a microbudget, swing-for-the-fences debut. A lot of that artistry seems to be the result of editing-room tinkering in post-production, but it’s all built on the foundation of Ross’s already-established documentarian eye.

A large part of the reason RaMell Ross’s photography work lends itself so well to documentary filmmaking is that he already was documenting little-seen niches of life before he thought to set those images in motion. Ross’s latest project is portraits of black lives in the rural American South, finding eerie beauty & tragic calm in lives marginalized by poverty. More importantly, though, his work’s fine art formalism brings a distinct cinematic eye to his newfound medium so that these portraits don’t feel so much like matter-of-fact dispatches from lives on the fringe, but rather expressions of beauty and deep guttural moans of pain & frustration. The spaces he documents in Hale County, Alabama provide a very grounded, recognizable tapestry of black lives in the modern, rural American South: churches, dorm rooms, trailer parks, gymnasiums, bowling alleys, maternity wards. They don’t amount to much aesthetically, but Ross’s patience & detail-oriented eye allows them to develop into a larger tapestry that encompasses birth & death, time & the cosmos, real life & the world of our dreams. He asks abstract questions like “What is the orbit of our dreams?” and then “answers” them with small, candid moments of sweat dripping on a basketball court or the Sun vibrating across the sky in a time-elapsed road trip. It’s an eerie, disjointed gestalt — the kind of distinctly cinematic eye usually not afforded places like Hale County, Alabama.

As you might expect with a narratively disinterested, tonally experimental art project, Hale County‘s greatest strengths lie in the intensity & memorability of isolated images. Much of the film patiently documents the minor moments of toddlers’ playtime, stray kittens, wandering cattle, and video game “parties” in crowded living rooms. Yet, there are also spectacular moments of a one-of-a-kind novelty: intense Southern storms swarming in on tiny, unprepared human bodies; a mother’s eyes rolling around her skull on pain mediation during an intense birth; a prankster jokingly attempting to view a solar eclipse through a waffle fry. There’s an undeniable political weight to this style of portraiture as well, especially in the financial & physical conditions of the setting and the quiet presence of police lights that bathe & invade those spaces in regular intervals. I’m not convinced that Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a slam dunk (to borrow terminology from the film’s strong focus on local basketball culture), but it’s certainly a wonder to behold in its best moments and an emotionally harrowing experience even in its worst. The only question now is how much greater could RaMell Ross’s cinematic eye become if he set out to make a feature film on purpose at the start of a project, instead of finding one after the fact in the editing room?

-Brandon Ledet

The Square (2017)

Last year when I was putting together my list for the Best of 2017, I lamented that my roommate’s phone dying prevented us from seeing The Square during its all-too-brief run in Austin. While searching for something to watch this past weekend, we discovered that it’s finally found its way to Hulu, and we were overjoyed! Although there was some hemming and hawing about its 151 minute run time (especially as we had watched the 141 minute Bad Times at the El Royale earlier that same day), this was definitely worth the wait.

Christian (Claes Bang) is the divorced curator of the X-Royal modern art museum in Stockholm, which hosts such exhibits as a room full of identical piles of gravel, stacks of commonplace objects, an exhibit in which people must declare through the push of a button whether they trust other people or not (we do not see what happens if you admit you don’t, but entrants who go through the “I trust others” door must leave their phones and wallets in an open area), and the newest exhibit, Lola Arias’s titular “The Square.” Arias’s piece consists of a lighted square, four meters on each side, that is “a sanctuary of trust and caring” and within which “we all share equal rights and obligations.” After he is pickpocketed and loses his phone and wallet (and perhaps his cufflinks) as part of a con by a few people in a public space, Christian’s barely-together life falls apart completely. He sleeps with Anne (Elisabeth Moss), a slightly deranged American art journalist who he previously met professionally and runs into again later at a party, and their next interaction goes . . . poorly. His plan to retrieve his stolen belongings, encouraged by his assistant Michael (Christopher Læssø), involves tracking his GPS to an apartment building and stuffing all of the mailboxes in the complex with a threatening note. He succeeds, but not without affecting an innocent boy (Elijandro Edouard) whose parents assume the letter is about their son and punish him severely; the boy then demands Christian apologize and clarify the situation, or he will “make chaos” for the curator. His inattentiveness to the work of two young PR men (Daniel Hallberg and Martin Sööder) to increase the public’s interest in “The Square” results in their creation of a viral marketing attempt that manages to upset just about every person in Sweden; his daughters are constantly fighting; and to top it all off, one of the cleaners manages to vacuum up part of the gravel pile exhibit, meaning that the piles are no longer identical.

There’s a lot going on in this film, which functions more as a series of vignettes than as a complete whole, but it manages to be stronger than merely the sum of its parts, and even with two and a half hours of screen time, there are still answers left unexplored – for instance, if you’re hoping for an explanation of the bonobo that appears in the trailer, you’re still going to be unclear by the time that the credits roll (per the IMDb trivia page, director Ruben Östlund said in Cannes, “Anything can happen in a movie when suddenly a monkey appears in an apartment. Everything should have a monkey in it.”). In the U.S., when a film or TV show mocks the world of modern art, it’s usually mean-spirited and lacking in humor or depth, focusing on the apparent ridiculousness of the artistic sphere and their arch removal from the earthy, grounded nature of “normal” folk (see: any episode of King of the Hill in which Bobby becomes temporarily obsessed with anything other than clowning). In The Square, the mockery is still present, but less abrasively, as epitomized in the early, tone-setting scene in which Christian asks Anne if putting her purse in the museum would make it art. She waits for him to continue from what appears to be a rhetorical question, until the silence between them grows deafening.

Instead, The Square mocks not the artifice of haute culture and instead revels in needling the shallowness of artistic expression when self-important artists attempt to make broad social commentary while lacking any real depth of insight. In the introduction of the concept of “The Square” to the museum’s wealthy patrons, Christian’s assistant thanks two donors for their contribution of fifty million kroner (about 5.85 million USD); following this, Christian launches into a practiced speech before a minor interruption offers him the opportunity to make an “impromptu” request to go off-script and begin again, a specific strategy to appear more personable and relatable, and which we have already seen him rehearse in the previous scene. “Lola Arias compares ‘The Square’ to a pedestrian crossing,” he says. “In a pedestrian crossing, drivers are to look out for pedestrians. In a similar way, there is a contract implied by ‘The Square,’ to look out for each other. We help each other. If you enter this space and ask for help, anyone passing by is obligated to help you. ‘I’m hungry. Can you help me with a meal?'” This comes after several scenes in which Christian himself expresses reticence to leave his Tesla while visiting a poor neighborhood (you can tell because the building he enters has flickering lights in the hallway on every single floor), and in which requests from those experiencing homelessness are ignored by the characters we have been following. Immediately after this monologue, Christian yields the floor to the museum’s chef, who attempts to describe the meal that has been prepared for the patrons in attendance but has to shout at them in order to finish describing the menu as the horde ignores his description as they herd themselves to the dining room; this contrasts with Christian’s interaction with a homeless woman who asks specifically that he buy her a sandwich with no onions. The rich, despite being financially able to meet all of their needs until the end of their lives, are oblivious to the food they plan to shovel into their mouths; the poor, for whom every meal could be the last one for a while, have sincere desires that they may find difficult to explicate, and any desires that are specific are met with derision. Christian buys the sandwich, but throws it at the woman and says that she can pick out the onions herself, treating her with socially and economically enforced disdain, despite his pretensions toward equality that he espouses in the art that he curates. This motif repeats itself throughout the film: Christian the curator embraces the importance of charitable humanity and the need to support the poor and the weak; Christian the person ignores the plight of people around him, writes a threatening letter to an entire apartment complex with reckless abandon, refuses to apologize to a child for the havoc in the boy’s personal life for which he is directly responsible, and when he does try to make things right, it’s both too little and too late.

European art films also tend to highlight the beauty of centuries-old architecture and frame their outdoor sequences in such a way that captures their beauty, both that which is pristine and that which is distressed in an attractively antique way. The Square is instead comprised of harsh, gray, buildings that seem born out of the era of architectural brutalism. The museum itself consists of the former palace of the Swedish monarchy, but more often than not we see 711 convenience stores tucked away under concrete blocks or the aforementioned apartment building with its endlessly flickering lights. We see the sumptuous world of the rich more rarely, like in the dinner scene featuring Oleg’s performance (which gets out of hand) or in Christian’s apartment, which is haunted by the shouting of the boy he has wronged and his own screaming following a tantrum at his daughters. It’s no surprise that, near the film’s climax, Christian finds himself digging through the trash for something that he desperately needs, and that this is the moment where he finally realizes that he has responsibilities to make reparations to the people he has harmed.

This all makes the film appear more somber than it really is. It is at turns deeply discomfiting, hilarious, and charming. And now that it’s on Hulu, you can check it out. Please do.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Office Killer (1997)

I’ve been singing the praises of the directorial debut of art world “it girl” Tara Subkoff, #horror, for at least a year now, but the film seems to have, um, limited appeal. A tongue-in-cheek art horror with a cartoonish hook in its premise (social media is killing our children!), #horror premiered at MoMA in NYC before being quietly dumped onto VOD platforms (including Netflix, eventually) to a tepid-at-best critical response. This is not the first time the directorial debut of an art world darling has been treated this way. In the mid 90s, visual artist Cindy Sherman joined in the then-blossoming indie film industry with her own cartoonish art horror. Like with Subkoff’s debut, Sherman’s Office Killer was trashed by critics, tanked financially, and was eyerolled quietly into home video oblivion. Sherman made a fun, visually gorgeous, sardonically humorous genre film that should have launched a whole new phase of her career, but instead was shrugged off & swept away.

One of the more infamous Cindy Sherman photography series (in my mind, anyway) was her early 80s collection of “fashion” photographs, which depicted women (often herself) wearing clothing that supposedly made them powerful, looking miserable, squirming under the microscope of the camera lens. The picture numbered #122 in this series finds Sherman disheveled, wearing one of those monstrous shoulder pad power suits, and grimacing under the harsh florescent light of what appears to be an office. This one image almost seems to be the roadmap for where her film Office Killer would go over a decade later. The harsh lighting, the visible discomfort, and the disruption of disorder eeking out from within the rigid business world containment of the clothing feel like the stirrings of what Office Killer would eventually come to be. The only pronounced difference is that Sherman would bring in a sense of absurdist humor from her other works into the project.

Although Office Killer has Cindy Sherman’s eye crawling over every inch of the film, the real highlight is Carol Kane’s lead performance. Starting off as the exact uncomfortable-in-her-designated-role archetype depicted in the above referenced Sherman series, Kane’s titular killer is a mousy homebody who cannot suffer the intense scrutiny of being a young woman in the modern workplace. Her murder spree begins by accident, but then develops into a conscious, cold-blooded effort to make herself comfortable in a more domestic work environment. Carol Kane is usually relegated​ to minor supporting roles in her career, like her violent fairy in Scrooged or her crazed landlord in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but in Office Killer she’s allowed to command the screen whole-heartedly. What’s even better is that she’s given a chance to do so in a quietly campy, increasingly violent lead role that recalls Kathleen Turner’s performance in the John Waters classic Serial Mom, a comparison I evoke only as the highest of compliments.

Serving as a lowly, nobody office girl at a magazine publication, Kane’s anti-hero protagonist is an awkward ball of nervous energy. With a uniform of tightly-bunned hair, ratty sweaters, wire-framed glasses, and drawn-on eyebrows, she’s a sore thumb in the workplace, where more traditional Modern Women (including Molly Ringwald) poke fun at her discomfort & reclusiveness. The pressure of caring for her invalid mother (Alice Drummond of Ghostbusters fame) at home and fighting off the unwanted sexual advances of men at work tear her mind in half and she snaps. After accidentally killing a coworker after-hours, she takes the body home to her basement and finds them much easier to deal with that now that they’re lifelessly compliant with being manipulated and she’s in command. That’s when the killings become an intense obsession. She converts her basement into a “home office,” forgiving errands from her not at all alive victims to stave off search parties (in the same very early in the game Internet Age paranoia) and setting them up like mannequins at computers & typewriters. This is all in service of directly evoking a long simmering punchline about how she’s now able to “work from home.” It’s a deranged premise, but it’s all in good fun.

It took me a little while to get on the same wavelength as Office Killer. It’s the kind of film that improves exponentially each scene until it concludes at its most ridiculous point, so it makes sense to me that a contemporary audience in the 90s would turn on it early and never be able to land back on the same page as the film. Sherman has explained in interviews that the initial plan was for the film’s kills to be much bloodier & more gore-focused, but she scaled the violence back to focus on how Kane’s protagonist disposed (or doesn’t dispose) of the bodies instead of the actual acts of violence. I think this was ultimately the right decision, since it allows the film’s campy, Serial Mom vibe to play out much more brightly. The initial kills, which include electrocution, strangulations, and deaths by asthma inhaler, may not be bloody, but the softness of their initial impact makes way for a much more shocking, grotesque reveal once you get to see the full, gory scope of the killer’s self-made “home office” (which recalls John Landis’s “Family” episode of Masters of Horror). The dead bodies held together by scotch tape & Windex, including children, gives Office Killer the violent edge horror audiences may have been looking for throughout its runtime. Sherman chooses to save that mayhem for a morbid punchline that allows Carol Kane to shine in full Norman Bates glory before it hits. It may have been a decision that turned off audiences at the time, but plays in retrospect like an act of genius.

Cindy Sherman delivers exactly what I want from my genre films here, the exact formula that won me over in Tara Subkoff’s #horror. She mixes lowbrow camp with highbrow art production in an earnest, gleeful work that values both ends of that divide. As faintly silly as Carol Kane’s performance can be as a deranged killer, Sherman colors her background with a genuinely horrific history of sexual assault, where she constantly has to hear praise for her abuser in a work environment. She employs infamous provocateur Todd Haynes to provide “additional dialogue” to make sure that discomfort seeps in. The sickly, flickering florescent lights of her film’s office setting afford it a horror aesthetic long before the kills begin, especially when she focuses on the harsh, moving light of a copier running in the dark. Even the opening credits, which glides as projections across still, office environment objects, have an artfulness to them missing from a lot of tongue-in-cheek horror. Maybe some audiences don’t know what to do with that tonal clash and assumed Sherman similarly didn’t know what she was doing when she created it. Maybe it’s that exact attitude that also sank #horror before it really had a chance. All I can say for sure is that Office Killer deserved a much better response than the one it got and it’s criminal that Sherman hasn’t had a chance to make a follow-up to her near-perfect debut.

-Brandon Ledet

The House with the Laughing Windows (1976)

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

The House with the Laughing Windows is a 1976 giallo film directed by Pupi Avati, and is the film in that director’s canon that has experienced the greatest visibility outside of Europe. The film follows Stefano (Lino Capolicchio), who has been invited to a small village in the Valli di Comacchio area in order to restore a fresco depicting the killing of Saint Sebastian, which is on the rotting wall of a church. The friend who helped him get the job, a conservatory scientist recovering from a breakdown of an undisclosed variety, becomes increasingly paranoid and warns Stefano that the village hides a dark secret, cryptically referring to a house with laughing windows. When this friend is killed before he can reveal the full truth, Stefano starts to wonder if all the threatening phone calls he’s been receiving are more than just pranks.

Stefano learns that the fresco’s original artist, Legnani, was considered to be mad, and the villagers imply that his two sisters were worse; Legnani had a tendency to portray his subjects, like Saint Sebastian, in states of torture, and it is rumored that the Legnani sisters would torture innocent travelers in order to provide their brother with models. Stefano reveals the faces of the two killers in the fresco and matches them to an old photo of the Legnanis, but no one seems interested in helping him except for Coppola (Gianni Cavina), the town drunk who takes him to the place where the Legnanis buried their victims (behind a house painted with large laughing mouths, hence the title). Everyone else treats Stefano’s concerns as unfounded, but events transpire to put him out of his hotel, which eventually lands him in a mostly-abandoned home occupied by Laura, a paralyzed woman who depends upon the assistance of Lidio (Pietro Brambilla), a mentally handicapped man who is also an acolyte at the church where Stefano is working. Eventually, Stefano goes to the police, but they are unable to find the evidence that Coppola previously showed to him.

Dejected, Stefano returns to the house where he is staying, only to discover that his love interest Francesca (Francesca Marciano) has been killed; when he brings the police around, all the evidence is gone. Still later, he discovers that the sisters of Legnani are alive and well and are attempting to bring their dead brother back to life by presenting sacrifices. Stefano barely escapes with his life, but for how long?

There’s a lot to unpack in this film, and I like that the entire village is in on the murders, a la the original Wicker Man or the modern classic Hot Fuzz, although the reason for why the consent to be complicit in the murders requires inspection. As is the case with many gialli from this era, there is a larger cultural context that I am unfamiliar with, and that knowledge may lend itself to a clearer interpretation of the film’s themes; one reviewer of the film refers in his analysis to a metaphorical attempt to transcend the Fascism of Italy’s past, especially in the wake of WWII.

This reading of the film is, no pun intended, foreign to me, and I can’t say that House illustrates this as well as, say, Your Vice is a Locked Room, which explicitly made mention of growing European solidarity and international trade. Still, a film should work in and of itself and succeed or fail on its own merits, and this one mostly succeeds. There is a sense of tension that permeates the proceedings, and the film is smart to open with a long diatribe from Legnani that encapsulates his artistic desires and his madness, as this sets the tone and keeps the maliciousness of the villain(s) in mind even when the scenery is idyllic and serene.

The one sticking point that I keep coming back to is the fact that (spoiler) the Legnani sisters are still alive, and the townsfolk seem content, for no immediately apparent reason, to let them continue their murderous machinations long after their brother has died. The best interpretation I can summon is that the villagers may be trying to cover the sins of the past (just as one of the sisters covers the revealed faces in the fresco with fresh clay to obscure their identity), which works well as a metaphor. The townsfolk cannot expose the current serial killings without revealing that they hid the Legnani’s crimes decades before. The final sequence, in which Stefano rides around the deserted village in a scene reminiscent of High Noon, pounding on doors and begging for help while the villagers ignore him with great difficulty, lends itself to this interpretation. They could stop this from happening, but they won’t, out of fear or guilt. The problem with this is that the villagers do not simply seal themselves off from the world until their past sin of allowing the Legnanis to reign in terror is interred with their bones; instead, they willingly accept newcomers like Stefano and Francesca into their midst with no warning.

The Legnanis terrorize by consent of the terrorized, and while that is an interesting twist on the genre, it doesn’t mix well with the giallo trappings. Overall, it’s a good horror film and deserves more than the modicum of attention that it has at present, but it falls short of greatness.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond