Suspicion (1941)

Given its austere domestic settings and the casting of Joan Fontaine as a woman driven mad by the sinister social forces that box her in, it’d be easy to frame Suspicion as the B-picture version Hitchcock’s Rebecca. It’s certainly a narrower, cheaper follow-up to that lush psychological drama, one with more of a penchant for outright comedy, which always has a way of making a film seem lesser-than. The main difference between the two pictures is that Hitchcock is far less interested in Fontaine’s character’s inner psyche here than he is in Rebecca. Suspicion is more explorative of a masculine sensibility, particularly in the cad-like villainy of an absolute scoundrel played by Cary Grant, who torments Fontaine throughout the picture. This is a film about the sinister combination of masculine charm & traditional handsomeness, to the point where if it were released in the 2010s instead of the 1940s it would have almost certainly been framed as a condemnation of the dreaded Toxic Masculinity. It also surely would’ve gotten more flack for how its Studio-sabotaged ending failed to fully condemn that weaponized machismo with any true conviction.

Fontaine stars as a Provincial daughter of immense wealth who’s staring down a potential life of spinsterdom, alone with her overprotective parents & mountainous piles of books. She’s taken aback, then, when a handsome playboy played by Grant actively courts her for marriage, when he could just as easily pursue much more worldly, glamorous women from the nearby metropolis of London. It quickly becomes clear that Fontaine has been singled out by Grant because she’s an easy mark, willing to overlook his glaringly obvious character flaws because he’s a handsome charmer. When Grant becomes frustrated that his new cash-cow wife’s inheritance money from her wealthy family isn’t pouring in quickly enough to bankroll his outrageous spending & gambling habits, things turn sinister. Characters who could bring money into the home through their last wills & testaments conveniently start dropping off like flies, and Fontaine fears her demise may be next thanks to her robust life insurance policy. Much of the film is dedicated to generating paranoia through the eyes of Fontaine’s increasingly suspicious protagonist as she attempts to parse out exactly who or what she has married – an overgrown man-child, a handsome grifter, a coldly calculating killer? Unfortunately, the studio behind the picture chickened out and forced Hitchcock to choose the least interesting answer to this question possible, but the director does a great job of holding onto the suspense of her suspicions for as long as they’ll allow him to.

Suspicion works best as a character study of an absolute scoundrel, especially since much of the film is dedicated to sussing out exactly how sinister Grant’s handsome-devil playboy antagonist truly is. So many of his character traits from frame one are the tell-tale signs of a toxic macho bully we’ve all come to recognize as the worst aspects of traditional masculinity. Instead of sincerely relating to Fontaine’s bookish Provincial nerd, he nefariously makes a point to seduce her, like a mid-2000s pick-up artist. He negs her with the off-putting pet name “monkey-face,” repeatedly violates her personal boundaries when she tells him “No,” and infantilizes her reactions he she is legitimately upset with his lies & selfish deeds. And because he’s a handsome charmer who people find pleasant to be around, they’ll excuse even the most roguish offenses of his behavior. Characters will wave off his faults by describing him as “a baby” or explaining, “You mustn’t mind Johnny when he cuts up. That’s what makes him Johnny!” When someone asks early on, “Isn’t Johnny terrible?,” it’s meant as a compliment to his cheeky devilry, but as his list of faults accumulate it retroactively plays almost as a warning. Johnny is terrible; in fact, he’s not much more than an amalgamation of the modern man’s worst behavior. Once he starts reading pulpy crime novels as if they were instruction manuals, the situation only worsens, but he was already a danger to everyone around him from the start – especially to women.

The only thing that hinders Suspicion from being a convincing screed on the dangers of toxic masculinity is its bungled conclusion, which was reportedly altered by RKO Pictures to preserve Cary Grant’s likeability with audiences by making the character’s guilt improbable (although not entirely absolved). The good news is that there are plenty of other places to find this exact story of male entitlement run wild in other works, at the very least in the novel this film was adapted from and its spiritual descendent in Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying (which has also seen several big-screen adaptations). There’s also plenty of places to see Hitchcock’s cheeky devilry as an auteur uninhibited by studio influence, partly due to the success of more stately pictures like Rebecca. What you don’t see as often is Cary Grant’s excellence as a dangerous cad who’s too handsome & too charming to fully resist – likely to your own peril. No matter how much the studio attempted to neutralize his performance of toxic bravado, the damning display of weaponized charm & sinister entitlement still shines through, and Suspicion is most worthwhile as a vehicle for his performance of a truly dastardly character who represents the worst societal ills of his gender.

-Brandon Ledet

Under the Silver Lake (2019)

The very first line of spoken dialogue in Under the Silver Lake is a verbal reference to Turner Classic Movies. Every character’s shithole Los Angeles apartment in the film is lined with Old Hollywood movie posters. The score (from the director’s return collaborator Disasterpeice) is an oppressive Studio Era composition that swells & overwhelms the soundtrack in playful nostalgia. A pivotal scene in the protagonist’s amateur investigation of Hollywood’s seedy underbelly is staged at the foot of Hitchcock’s grave. This is a movie that very much wants to be understood as a prankish, tongue-in-cheek throwback to noir thrillers of ancient Old Hollywood past. The problem is that all that influence signaling is a flagrant misdirect. Under the Silver Lake plays much more like an echo of 1980s Brian De Palma oddities like Body Double & Blow Out than it does any Hitchcockian thriller it pretends to riff on. Since De Palma himself was already prankishly subverting Old Hollywood tropes, this continuation of that tradition is essentially a copy of a copy, twice removed from any detectable sense of purpose. It also suffers the misfortune of continuing De Palma’s leering heterosexual perversions into an era when they’re decades out of date, removed form any possible “It was a different time” excuses. Worse yet, it suffers the worst fate any film could ever stumble into: it’s a comedy that isn’t funny. Still, I found myself on the verge of enjoying it in nearly every scene, frustrated that I could never quite get there.

I was majorly disappointed by this film. It’s difficult to imagine there will be a bigger disappointment all year. The drop-off in quality between David Robert Mitchell’s debut feature It Follows (Swampflix’s favorite film of 2015) to this straight-to-VOD follow-up is about as steep as any I can remember from any director. And yet, if someone told me they saw a Southland Tales-level messterpeice in it I’d almost believe them. I don’t at all blame A24 for quietly dumping it into home-streaming distribution after purchasing it at the height of its festival-circuit buzz, but I can almost understand what its apologists see in it if I squint from the right angle. This is a twisty, farcical fantasy piece about a hipster LA loser (Andrew Garfield) who follows his own vanilla tits-and-ass prurience into a vast, impossible conspiracy network that secretly runs the entertainment industry (and, by extension, the world). Pop music cults, hobo royalty, serial dog murderers, and an ancient succubus assassin are major players in a vast, mysterious organization that the movie deliberately sets up to provide no possible satisfying answers. It’s a horned-up, surrealist, Madlibs-style approach to storytelling that I’d normally find majorly exciting, but in this case fails to entertain in two significant ways: its jokes are not funny, and it’s impossible to care about its fuckboy protagonist. Many people had issues with the logical & tonal inconsistencies of It Follows, but that film at last has a strong grasp on its sense of atmosphere & a main character whose wellbeing we’re actually invested in, whether positively or negatively (with the added bonus of using that POV for an identifiable thematic purpose). By contrast, Under the Silver Lake is just a sunshine-noir moodboard where things just kinda happen, until they don’t. It eats up two and a half hours of your time and then it’s over. You just move along with your day, case closed.

As with De Palma’s seedier works, the major question at the center of this titties-obsessed Madlibs mystery is how much its depiction of a mediocre man’s lurid, vanilla sexuality is a shameless participation and how much is open mockery. We spend the entire film looking through the eyes of a listless, cigarette-smoking slob who’s absolutely dogshit at having sex. He’s the kind of just-rolled-out-of-bed, low-effort hipster that makes you want to shout “Take a bath!” at the screen, yet when he actually does take a bath the result is entirely unsatisfying. That disgust is intentional, as everyone he encounters on his amateur sleuth trail makes a point to comment on his stench. This is a man who punches children, slags the homeless, and peeps on his undressed neighbors through his Hitchcock Brand™ binoculars. It’s doubtful that we’re supposed to think of him as an upstanding citizen. Still, the default-misogyny of his POV works its way into the film’s DNA. No woman’s breasts or buttcheeks will grace the screen without a proper close-up. Bikini-clad hotties bark like rabid dogs in go-nowhere nightmare sequences. Sex workers & actresses are both coveted & mocked for the supposed degradation of their trades. This is a movie that gets its kicks by indulging in the male gaze, then has a character verbalize the phrase “the male gaze” just so you know the exercise is self-aware. At least when De Palma indulged in the same self-aware prurience his own sexuality was mildly kinky & risqué. Under the Silver Lake’s sex drive is the microwaved leftovers of a mid-afternoon trip to Hooters; it’s the faux intellectual titties-fetish of a Playboy Magazine collector; it’s the inner sexual life of someone who still wears cargo shorts in the 2010s. It’s boring, it’s scared of women, and yet any commentary on the sexuality of American pop culture you can derive from what’s onscreen would be meeting this shapeless mess more than halfway.

For every pointless scene throughout this journey into Juggs Magazine mystique, I found myself genuinely straining to enjoy myself. There’s almost a Greasy Strangler quality to its repetition, awkwardness, and ham-fisted interpretation of genre where noir = window blinds & missing dames. I just wasn’t amused, or aroused, or intrigued in the ways the film wanted me to be, which ultimately made this feel like a lot of effort for zero payoff. Kudos to anyone who managed to have Southland Tales-style Messterpeice Theatre fun with it, because I’m truly jealous. The only line in the film that resonated with me in any significant way was “It’s silly to waste your time on something that doesn’t matter.” This move does not matter, and I feel very silly indeed.

-Brandon Ledet

Knives & Skin (2019)

Is there such a thing as low-key camp or subtly played melodrama? Are those descriptors too oxymoronic to effectively describe anything? I’m picturing the “silent runners” window blinds subplot of Twin Peaks, Laura Dern’s monologue about the robins in Blue Velvet, the thin barrier between humor & heartbreak in The Elephant Man. Basically, anytime a David Lynch movie makes you laugh but you can’t pinpoint exactly why. The D.I.Y. teen mystery Knives & Skin operates entirely within this difficult-to-define subtle melodrama paradigm, somehow sustaining the quiet, off-putting humor of the silent runners gag for its entire runtime. It filters the Lynch Lite teen melodrama of Riverdale through a hallucinatory overdose of cough medicine, so that it sticks with you only as a half-remembered dream. You can recall laughing, but you’re not entirely sure why, or whether that was even its desired effect.

Much like Twin Peaks, the premise of Knives & Skin concerns the disappearance and possible murder of small-town teen Carolyn Harper, whose sudden absence shakes the foundations of her community. Unlike Twin Peaks, the film has very little interest in building mystery or menace around that disappearance. We all know exactly what happened to Carolyn Danvers & who was involved. The only mystique at play is in puzzling our way through other characters’ erratic expressions of grief in the weeks following the incident. If your favorite touches to Twin Peaks were the silent runners or the creamed corn or the fish in the percolator or Leland singing “Mairzy Doats,” you’re likely to be tickled by the quietly absurdist character quirks that run throughout Knives & Skin. Mothers dress in their daughters’ clothes and wander around wielding giant bread knives in a total daze; birthday clowns attentively perform cunnilingus full make-up; high school Beaver mascots trade mixtapes to cheerleaders in exchange for alcohol-soaked tampons. It’s a deceptively wild, over-the-top film, considering how much of it is communicated in hushed, sleepy tones.

Since it isn’t especially invested in its own central mystery and filters everything though a lethargic camp remove, this is a film that lives & dies by its aesthetic. There were some audible grumblings from the more macho end of our Overlook Film Festival audience about how it was the worst film they’ve ever seen at the fest, but I also heard other people say it was their favorite feature they saw all weekend. That harsh divide makes total sense. This is not crafted to satisfy your traditional Horror Bro. It feels like a murder mystery novel that was scribbled into a bejeweled Trapper Keeper with scented gel pens. Every single frame is bathed in bisexual crosslighting. The few possessions Carolyn Danvers leaves behind magically glow like fluorescent highlighters. Her classmates often breaks into acapella choir arrangements of 80s pop songs like “Our Lips are Sealed” and “Blue Monday.” It’s a gloomy, but aggressively femme teen aesthetic, as if Lost River were made by Ryan Gosling’s adoring superfans instead of the heartthrob himself.

I’m not exactly sure what Knives & Skin is trying to accomplish. In brief flashes it discusses parental grief, sex work, mental illness, enthusiastic consent, and how talented clowns are at giving head, but never with anything clear or nuanced to say. I still very much appreciated it as a beautiful, delirious slow-drift though a Teen Lynch aesthetic, though, especially once I realized how much it was antagonizing the more macho end of the room. I’m still not confident in saying there is such a thing as low-key camp or subtle melodrama, but if they do exist this movie is steeped in them – like so many alcohol-soaked tampons.

-Brandon Ledet

The Bedroom Window (1987)

Steve Guttenberg has a knack for playing silly characters.  Whether he’s roller-skating the streets of New York City in Can’t Stop the Music or goofing off as a wacky cop in Police Academy, Guttenberg’s natural comic essence always has a way of making me smile. How could he not with those innocent brown eyes and big rosy cheeks? In 1987, Guttenberg did something completely out of his realm and starred in Curtis Hanson’s psychological thriller, The Bedroom Window. To my surprise, he did a damn good job in what was essentially his first serious role in a major motion picture.

In The Bedroom Window, Guttenberg plays the role of Terry, a young professional having an affair with his boss’s wife, Sylvia (Isabelle Huppert). During one of their trysts, Sylvia witnesses a woman being attacked from Terry’s bedroom window. Thankfully, the assailant flees the scene after the woman begins to scream and a couple of people go out into the street to help her. Shortly after the incident, a woman turns up dead not far from Terry’s apartment, and Terry feels obligated to tell the police about what was seen from his bedroom window when the prior attack occurred. The only problem is that Terry didn’t actually witness anything; only Sylvia saw the attack. To protect Sylvia and keep their affair under wraps, Terry gets as much detail about the indecent from Sylvia as he possible can, and he lies to police about being a witness. From this point, Terry’s life goes to hell in a handbasket.

The surviving victim from the attack Terry fake-witnessed is a young waitress named Denise (Elizabeth McGovern), and she meets Terry when they both attempt to pick out the attacker from a police lineup, which they are not able to accomplish. One of the guys in the lineup, Carl (Brad Greenquist of Pet Sematary fame), sort of fits the description that Sylvia gave to Terry, so Terry does his own investigating. After following Carl in secret, Terry becomes positive that he is the attacker, and he immediately tells the police that he suddenly “remembered” seeing Carl attack Denise. He just keeps creating lie after lie to put Carl behind bars. Terry gets himself into this massive web of lies for two reasons. One reason is that he wants to protect Sylvia and report vital information that could potentially get a killer of the streets. The other reason, the more selfish reason, is that Terry wants fame. He wants to be the reason Carl goes behind bars, saving women from being murdered and assaulted. Unfortunately for Terry, everything sort of blows up in his face.

What I thoroughly enjoyed about this film is Guttenberg’s acting and McGovern’s surprising takeover of the screen. Guttenberg’s inherent innocence was vital for the role of Terry. Regardless of the douchey things that Terry does, we can’t help but be on his side. We want him to come out of this mess as the winner. If an actor that wasn’t as likeable as Guttenberg played Terry, The Bedroom Window would have played out very differently. As for McGovern, for the first half of the film, she’s in the background. We only know her as the victim of an attack, and she shows up in scenes very sparingly. Towards the latter half of the film, she becomes a total badass and plays a huge role in taking down her attacker. Of course, she and Terry become somewhat of an item, which is such a cliché, but you can’t help but love them.

The Bedroom Window is far from being one of the top films in the thriller genre, but it’s a good watch. There’s enough mystery and edge-of-your-seat moments to hold your attention until the very end, and most importantly, it’s got Guttenberg.

-Britnee Lombas

Burning (2018)

It doesn’t come up here very often as this is a film review site and not a place where I brag about all the books I read, but I’m a huge fan of Haruki Murakami. I was 16 in 2004 when a friend recommended The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and it is not an exaggeration to say that the book helped save my life in a dark time. Murakami has notoriously been reticent to hand over adaptation rights to much of his work (and if you’re a fan, imagine someone trying to turn 1Q84 or Kafka on the Shore into a movie and you can probably see why), but director Lee Chang-dong (Oasis, Secret Sunshine) did it, and the result is nothing less than spectacular. It took a little time, but Burning made its way back to Austin via the Film Society Cinema, and it was well worth the wait.

After his father runs into trouble with the law, Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), who finished college after his mandatory military service but has yet to find gainful employment, is making his way back to his father’s small farm in his hometown near the North Korean border to manage his livestock. Along the way, he runs into Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), a childhood friend and neighbor, whom he doesn’t recognize at first, which she attributes to plastic surgery. She demonstrates a talent for pantomime and tells him that she is planning a trip to Africa and asks him to feed her cat, Boil, while she is out of the country. The two sleep together when she gives him the tour of her tiny apartment, showing him the one spot in the single room which gets a ray of sunshine reflected off of the Seoul Tower for a few moments a day. After she leaves, he attends his father’s arraignment and attends to feeding Boil, whom he never sees, and grows more attached to Hae-mi in her absence. When Hae-mi returns from Kenya, she is accompanied by Ben (Steven Yeun), a fellow Korean with whom she bonded when they were both trapped in the Nairobi airport for three days due to a terror warning. The three attend dinner together, where Ben plays coy about his employment and claims to have never shed a tear in his adult life as he has never experienced sadness, while Jong-su appears envious of the rapport Ben and Hae-mi have developed.

The three get together again and Ben prepares dinner (or, as he says he sometimes imagines, and offering to himself) in his home, an upscale apartment in Seoul’s expensive Gangnam neighborhood; Jong-su compares him to Jay Gatsby, a young man of great wealth whose income is obscure. Still later, Ben and Hae-mi visit Jong-su’s farm and the three get high; Hae-mi dances topless beneath a beautiful sunset, Jong-su opens up about his mother’s departure when he was a child and his father’s anger, and Ben admits to having a fascination with burning down greenhouses. Jong-su insults and shames Hae-mi, and she and Ben leave. Later, when Jong-su tries to contact her again, she doesn’t respond. Eventually her phone number is disconnected, and after a visit to the Shin family still reveals no secrets, Jong-su investigates further. But what is he chasing? A woman? A shadow? A victim? A dream? A ghost? Someone who was never there at all?

This movie is dense. It also never feels its length, moving along at a steady clip for all 150 minutes. I’d never read “Barn Burning,” the Murakami short story on which the film is loosely based (and which was in turn inspired by a Faulkner story), but there’s a 13 page PDF version floating around the internet, so I gave it a quick once-over to see how much of the film’s plot correlated to the original text, and it’s less than you would expect. Still, it’s obvious that Lee (the director, not the carrier) is a fan of Murakami’s wider body of work based on other elements that he inserted in expanding the 5000ish word piece into a sprawling film. There’s no cat in “Barn Burning,” for instance, but the presence of cats in the author’s work can’t be understated (the missing cat Noboru kicks off the plot of Wind-Up Bird, Tengo’s obsession with a short story about a town of cats is an integral part of 1Q84, and Nakata in Kafka on the Shore can communicate with cats, just to name a few). There’s also no mention in the story of the father of the unnamed narrator (who is older than Jong-su), but bad fathers are also a frequent element in Murakami’s work (the titular Kafka runs away from home because of his father, Tengo’s reminisces about his childhood that don’t involve around Aomame are all about being used as a prop by his father on his NHK fee-collecting route, etc.), and Jong-su’s father here is explicitly a man with anger issues who drove his wife away before forcing his son to burn the woman’s clothes and who can’t seem to stop fighting with local authorities. As soon as there was a cat and a shitty dad, I thought to myself, “Now all we need is a well,” and sure enough, Hae-mi ended up telling a (probably false) story about falling into a well as a child and being rescued by Jong-su about ten minutes of screentime later. It’s all the Murakami hallmarks you’ve come to know and love, even down to the fact that the song Hae-mi dances to is Miles Davis’s “Générique,” although the narrator mentions that the trio listened to Davis during the visit to his home in “Barn Burning.” All that’s missing is an internal monologue about staying in shape by swimming in the city’s public pool or a step-by-step recitation of how to take care of vinyl records and you’d hit Murakami bingo.

Not that you need to speak Murakami to love this film. I confess I’ve not seen any of Lee’s previous work, but I have to imagine that if it contains half the subtlety, the meaningful composition, the sweeping cinematic beauty, and the intensity of emotion here, it’s no wonder he’s considered one of the great living directors (just look at the list of awards and honors on his wikipedia page). It’s almost impossible to really get into the layers of composition here without giving too much away, since there’s a lot going on. Just how reliable is Jong-su’s point of view? He paints Ben as Jay Gatsby, but Ben comes across more as a Tom Buchanan type, with Hae-mi as the mercurial and flighty Daisy to Jong-su’s obsessive Gatsby (albeit lacking in the archetype’s material wealth). We dislike Ben because Jong-su does, but should we like Jong-su, really, even before he starts to suspect Ben might have had something to do with Hae-mi’s disappearance and thus stalks Ben around in the world’s most conspicuous “stealth” vehicle? But if Ben’s so innocent, what is he up to with all his mysterious riches and his gaggle of friends? Is he a sociopath, as his lack of empathy seems to imply? What’s up with his collection of women’s jewelry – is he hiding a cuckqueaned wife from his series of girlfriends? Is this his collection of trophies from sexual conquests? Something more sinister? What really happened to Hae-mi? When she returns from Kenya, she delivers a poignant monologue about watching the sunset over the desert and feeling that she was at the end of the world, citing fear of death but a desire for non-existence. Did she disappear because that’s what she really wanted? This hearkens back to her explanation of pantomiming eating a tangerine (which does come from the short story): it’s not about believing that the tangerine is there, but forgetting that it isn’t. Does she want to not exist, or does she want to forget that she ever did? We even see this void/lack when Jong-su visits Hae-mi’s mother and sister, who not only haven’t seen her but tell Jong-su that she’s not welcome to return until she repays her debts; they’re correct that Hae-mi is responsible for Jong-su’s visit despite his protests that she didn’t send him, they simply don’t realize that its Hae-mi’s absence that is driving him.

I really can’t add any more here without telling you too much. Just go watch Burning. It’s currently streaming for $3.99 (a steal, believe me) on Vudu and Amazon Prime.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Nancy (2018)

Andrea Riseborough was one of last year’s clear standouts as a breakthrough performer, although she’s been steadily working for years. Between her haunting presence as the titular role in Mandy and her farcical incredulousness in The Death of Stalin (combined with my personal years-late chance viewings of Oblivion & Never Let Me Go), I feel like I had been bowled over by her talent from several drastically different directions, yet had very little grasp on who she is in the real world. Riseborough is a kind of personae chameleon, always impressive but rarely recognizable in her wildly varied roles & costumes. It was wonderful, then, to find a movie where she was front & center as the POV-commanding protagonist. Mandy may be the higher profile work for the still-rising actor, but she isn’t as spotlighted in the narrative as the title might imply. In Nancy, however, we never lose sight of Riseborough’s titular character, who drifts along through a quiet personal crisis with a wide-eyed stare as the audience tags along in a similar stupor. It’s an excellent showcase for the shapeshifting actor – not only because of her uncharacteristically increased screen time, but also because Nancy herself is an unknowable, unrecognizable enigma.

Nancy is a depressive pathological liar who lives at home as a caretaker for her disabled, verbally abusive mother. We’re introduced to her as she drifts between low-level temp jobs & seemingly meaningless grifts – faking pregnancies, Photoshopping fictional vacations to North Korea, and blogging under imaginary personae. These aren’t money-hungry con jobs either (even though she could really use the money). They came across as desperately hollow attempts to form human connections with strangers, whether or not they’re hinged on complete fabrications. The central conflict of the film is in the audience’s unease with how much we’re willing to believe her motivations & her reliability as a POV anchor. The biggest meaningless grift of her life falls in her lap as she’s watching late-night TV news and a little girl who’s been missing for 30 years is aged through computer simulation to look exactly like her. Shocked, Nancy contacts the missing girl’s parents and suggests that she might be their daughter, recounting half-remembered stories of being abducted as a child. We have no idea whether to believe Nancy, whether she believes herself, or whether her presence in the still-grieving couples’ home is a positive or negative impact. Nancy mostly remains an unrecognizable, haunted-looking enigma to us – the perfect Andrea Riseborough role.

In most ways, Nancy offers little more than what you’d expect from a low-budget film festival release. Ann Down, Steve Buscemi, and John Leguizamo all put in grounded, well-considered performances in the exact kind of supporting roles that attract notable actors to these kinds of projects. Peter Raeburn (who frequently collaborates with Jonathan Glazer) fortifies the atmosphere with a chilling, otherworldly score that underlines Nancy’s permanently lost stasis with a distinct sense of menace. The plot has some strong Lifetime Original Movie energy to it, but it’s no more outlandish or sensational than real-life accounts like Three Identical Strangers. The film’s only shortcoming in quality control is the state of Riseborough’s wig, which looks as if it might spin like a helicopter blade and fly the fuck away at any second. Riseborough has no trouble putting in an excellent performance despite her terrible wig, however, singlehandedly elevating the material from standard indie film fodder to puzzling character study. By the end of Nancy I’m not sure I got any more insight into who Riseborough or Nancy are as people, but I did find their mysterious magnetism to be perfectly matched in a way that made for a great movie regardless.

-Brandon Ledet

Ismael’s Ghosts (2018)

When I recently reviewed Alain Guiraudie’s bizarro drama Staying Vertical, I described it as a feverish plot driven by the desperation of writer’s block instead of any real-world logic. I wrote, “It seems to be solely the result of Guiraudie needing to put something, anything on the page. As with Charlie Kaufman’s similar works, that back-against-the-wall creative necessity leads to some . . . interesting choices.” Let’s go ahead and add Arnaud Desplechin’s latest feature, Ismael’s Ghosts, to that list of absurdist French dramas continuing the Kaufman tradition of writer’s block mania narratives. Like Staying Vertical, Ismael’s Ghosts follows an increasingly frazzled artist as they avoid the completion of a creative project to the point where their ever-growing list of obligations surround them like wolves (literally, in the case of Staying Vertical). Greater thematic purpose is near impossible to pinpoint in these works, as they’re driven mostly by the anxiety of being obligated to create. It’s like the filmmakers are pulling the audience into their own personal anguish of having to tell a story onscreen in the first place, making the immense pressure felt by the creator just as much of an emotional burden for the consumer. The results of these writer’s block meta experiments can be uneven (and even at times tedious), but they can also lead to fascinating, unpredictable places.

A long-successful filmmaker prolongs the process of writing & directing a feature about his estranged younger brother. He tends to his aging father-in-law, who shares the emotional pain of the filmmaker’s wife’s disappearance over two decades in the past. His current girlfriend is understanding about the ongoing emotional grief that lingers from this disappearance, but unsure of their relationship (and her own sexuality) in more general, intangible ways. The longer the screenplay & subsequent film go unfinished, the more absurdly disastrous these conflicts become. The brother becomes even more irrevocably distant as his fictional movie-within-the movie avatar strays further from the truth. The movie’s production becomes stalled & exponentially more expensive by the day. The father in law’s mental & physical health plummet at an alarming rate. Most significantly, the filmmaker’s wife, who’s been missing and presumed dead for decades, reappears in his life to blow up his current romantic relationship from the inside. The progression (or, perhaps more accurately, regression) of these events & relationships don’t make much logical sense, a fact that only becomes more increasingly obvious as their circumstances deteriorate. Somehow, though, you get the sense that everything would return to a healthy, balanced normal if our crazed, drunken antihero would just finish the damn movie he started writing. It’s his procrastination that threatens to unravel the very fabric of reality just as much as it’s his narcissistic self-absorption.

Ismael’s ghosts, as referenced in the title, are a brother, a wife, and an adopted child, all missing form his current life. These hauntings from the past aren’t a source of grief so much as a piling-on of anxiety: crazy-making sources of obligation that make his inability to complete the film he started writing even more stressful. The true conflict that drives the film is the desperation of writer’s block under the pressure of audiences waiting for a finished product. This creative desperation fractures the narrative into an array of opposing genres: spy thriller, Guy Maddin-style art piece complete with double exposure photography, melodrama about amnesia, a Persona-style psychological thriller (played out by French heavyweights Marion Cottillard & Charlotte Gainsbourg at a beach house), absurdist comedy, and so on. Ismael describes this hellish break with reality in the line, “I’m living in a nightmare and I can’t wake up,” but the truth is that he could wake up any moment if he would just finish the movie he promised his producers. In the meantime, the audience is held hostage waiting for Ismael’s Ghosts to tidily wrap up its illogical collection of disparate tones & storylines, a task that proves more impossible every passing minute. It’s as if Desplechin’s self-therapy for being tortured by his own writer’s block in the midst of familial & professional obligations was to pass that anxiety along to his audience so they can feel what it’s like. It’s a difficult mode of art to appreciate as a viewer, but one with a surprisingly rich tradition (if not only in the Charlie Kaufman oeuvre) and occasional strokes of brilliance among its expressions of creative frustration.

-Brandon Ledet

Loving Vincent (2017)

It’s near impossible to discuss the animated biopic Loving Vincent without focusing on the stunning visual achievement of its form. In a painstakingly meticulous animation process, the film combines rotoscoping technology with hand-painted, Impressionist oil paintings to provide a real, tangible texture to its morbid exploration of the final days of Vincent Van Gogh. The movie wants you to pay special attention to that process, opening with a title card that reads “The film you are about to see has been hand-painted by over 100 artists.” Between those painters, the two credited directors, the rotoscoped cast of in-the-flesh actors, and the film’s crowdfunding backers, Loving Vincent is a massive collaboration that finds entirely new avenues of expression in its visual form. As impressive as that visual achievement can be, however, it’s a shame that the film’s narrative is so creatively restricted. If the exact same script were presented as a live action production, this by-the-books biopic of the final days of a troubled artist would be more befitting of a BBC miniseries than an arthouse film, which points to there not being much substance here beyond the surface of its visual form.

In 1891, one year after Van Gogh’s death, a family friend is tasked to deliver a fundamentally undeliverable, posthumous letter to the artist’s brother. This mission of honoring a dead man’s request evolves into a kind of historical revisionism murder investigation that calls into question whether Van Gogh actually killed himself or if he was shot by a second party. Our makeshift sleuth (actually just a dutiful son of a postman) goes on a Magic Schoolbus-style tour of the various sets & characters that filled the frames of Van Gogh’s most infamous works. Just as the animation style approximates the Impressionism of Van Gogh’s brush, a series of black & white flashbacks emerge from these interviews to provide fractured sketches of who he was as a person (not unlike the structure of Citizen Kane). In a typifying line, one interviewee asks, “You want to know so much about his death, but that do you know of his life?” in-between the sweeping orchestral flashbacks that eat up half the runtime. The film is a re-examination of Van Gogh’s life & art both in its story & its form, but ultimately doesn’t have much to say except that he was a deeply depressed man who made beautiful paintings, something we all already knew.

Like Russian Ark, Loving Vincent is a stunning visual achievement that will prove useful as a classroom tool that actually holds students’ attention. Unlike Russian Ark, it could have used more imagination & lyricism in its content to match the intensity of its form. There’s a mind-blowing animated work to be made out of this oil painting rotoscoping process now that the idea’s out there, but much like how The Jazz Singer was never going to be the all-time greatest example of the talkies, Loving Vincent isn’t representative of the extremes where that technique could be pushed. The texture of the canvas surfaces & malleability of reality (especially in the way movement leaves a barely-perceptible trail) are promising of a strong future for this aesthetic, but Loving Vincent is a little too muted as a biopic to experiment with its full possibilities. There are obvious limitations to this visual style: the bizarre intrusion of recognizable faces like Chris O’Dowd & Saoirse Ronan, the internet cheesiness of seeing a Starry Night dorm room poster come to life, the eye’s search for details in texture while essentially running through an art gallery at full speed, etc. Mostly, though, Loving Vincent is an admirably ambitious proof-of-concept visual project that opens the door to a new mode of artistic expression: a brand new, but paradoxically traditionalist tool in the animator’s arsenal. Its worth is entirely tied to the audacity of its form.

-Brandon Ledet

The Unknown Girl (2017)

Directors and brothers Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne began their collaborative career making socially conscious documentaries, forming a critical eye for class and race-based politics that has carried over to their more recent work on narrative features. Their latest film, The Unknown Girl, breaks away from the blatant deliberations on those topics in economic dramas like Two Days One Night, in which Marion Cotillard has to beg those slightly better off than her for the opportunity to keep her menial blue collar job, to mix in some genre thrills to sweeten the medicine. The Unknown Girl plays with the hallmarks of a murder mystery and a medical drama as an easy in for its short form portraits of folks struggling with the class, race, and nationality divides of modern France. It subverts the expectations of a typical mystery plot by shifting focus away from seeking the identity of the killer and instead looking to uncover the identity of their victim, raising questions about the financial and abuse of power circumstances that lead to their death in the first place. There’s still a danger in asking these questions, though, even if the intent is to properly acknowledge the life & value of the victim and not to unmask their assailant.

A young medical doctor struggles to be taken seriously by her even younger male intern and frets with her own decision to leave a somewhat charitable office as a public servant for a more lucrative career with a private practice. Her insular concerns are disrupted when two criminal investigators inform her that a young woman who rang her doorbell for help late in the night, a plea she uncharacteristically ignored, was murdered at a nearby construction site. Shaken, the doctor throws her entire life into serving the patients at her meager practice, as well as launching a vigilante investigation of the murder. Sometimes the borders between these two quests are blurred and her investigation takes the form of home visits, where she employs her medical expertise in ways like checking a patient’s pulse rate as a makeshift lie detector test. Taking no time out of her endless routine to care for her own needs, she seeks answers about the identity & home life circumstances of “the unknown girl” who rang her doorbell shortly before being killed. As she puts it, “I can’t accept the idea that they’ll bury her with no name.” This oppressive sense of self-inflicted guilt extends far beyond her initial inaction to answer her door too. That worry weighs just as heavily on her as larger issues of poverty, immigration, abuse, race, and human trafficking, even if most of those underlying issues are left unspoken.

The murder mystery aspect of The Unknown Girl rarely aims for edge-of-your-seat thriller beats. Its medical drama moments don’t extend much further than focusing on the sores, burns, and addictions of the between-the-cracks societal castoffs who can’t afford proper medical care (or fear deportation if they dare to seek it). Our medical doctor protagonist is certainly isolated & vulnerable in her quest for the truth, which leads to occasional scenes of threatened or actualized violence, but that’s not where the film’s main focus lies. You can feel the Dardenne brothers’ documentarian past in The Unknown Girl‘s quiet, music-free drift through the domestic abuse, alcoholism, sex work, social services, and immigration imagery the doctor encounters on both her medical rounds and her one-woman murder investigation. As she ignores her own needs and works on her smartphone even while traveling between patients & interviewees, you get the sense that she’s trying to solve much larger systemic problems than just the death of one nameless stranger. Of course, she cannot solve every societal wrong she comes across in her daily rounds, but by the end of the film it’s easy to see how she’s made at least some small positive change in the world by trying, even when in the face of being told to butt out and the system itself remaining hopelessly broken. That’s not the usual resolution for a typical murder mystery plot structure, but The Unknown Girl‘s central concern was never its titular mystery anyway.

-Brandon Ledet

The Bat (1926)

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One scene into The Bat I felt an intense swell of confusion & disbelief as if I had just won the movie lottery. The film’s titular antagonist appeared in the black & white haze of degraded celluloid with the general look of the familiar, but in a completely foreign shape. It was like running into a dear friend’s close relative & mistaking them for your pal. Batman as we know him may not have made it to the cinema until his incarnation in 1940s serial shorts, but his misshapen ancestor The Bat appeared onscreen two decades earlier, predating even the first Batman comic. I’m not sure what I was expecting when I sat down to watch this silent era crime mystery, but it surely wasn’t the prototype of a movie franchise hero I grew up loving dearly.

There are some major differences between The Bat & The Batman that I should probably get out of the way early. The Batman flirts with criminality in his vigilantism, but The Bat is an outright criminal. In fact, his background as a jewel thief & a bank robber makes him much more akin to a masculine version of Catwoman in Batman’s clothing. Speaking of the clothing, the two characters’ costumes also deffer in a few significant ways. While The Batman is a smoothed out, leather-clad ideal of what a humanoid bat might look like, The Bat is much more realistic to his animal kingdom inspiration. He has goofy, gigantic ears like a horror show version of Mickey Mouse. He’s also much furrier, with a terrifyingly accurate mask the film smartly waits to reveal until the third act. He also carries around his weapons/tools in an old doctor’s bag instead of the utility belt rocked by the Caped Crusader.

Whatever. This is still a masked man in bat costume, complete with black cape & gloves, who runs around the rooftops of an Art Deco metropolis. He climbs the sides of buildings by rope like a far less campy Adam West. He casts a goddamn bat signal across an interior wall using a car’s headlamp. He spends mot of his runtime skulking around an old, city-side mansion that looks like gothic castle & contains secret rooms that house illegal acts. Why take my word for it, though? Comic book artist Bob Kane cites the film’s 1930s talkie remake The Bat Whispers (which shares a director with this version’s Roland West) as  a direct inspiration for the creation & design of Batman as a character. So, there you go. The Bat is in itself an adaptation of a Broadway stage play, so maybe Batman’s roots go back just a little further, but his existence in cinema undeniably starts here, an impressive forever ago.

As for The Bat‘s achievements outside its eventual massive influence on modern pop culture, the film works just fine as a tiny murder mystery & heist thriller. For the stretches where The Bat doesn’t appear onscreen, the film’s plot isn’t particularly flashy or experimental in any recognizable way. The only thing that stands out as a sore spot is the comic relief of a ditzy maid who continuously misguesses the identity of The Bat. “Maybe he’s The Bat!” “Maybe he’s The Bat!” “That Jap butler gives me the willies […] Maybe he’s The Bat!” I’m not sure I’m allowed to go any further into the details here, since ht film opens with the stern talking-to, “Can you keep a secret? Don’t reveal the identity of ‘The Bat’. Future audiences will fully enjoy this mystery play if left to find out for themselves.” Yes, I can keep a secret, especially since the film’s stage play mystery structure isn’t the most significant thing at work anyway.

The Bat is a must-see work of seminal art. It’s not some antiquated bore with an antagonist that was plucked from lowly ranks for a higher purpose. The film directly influenced the creation of Batman, but it also achieves its own, exquisite Art Deco horror aesthetic that recalls the immense wonders of the Hollywood classic The Black Cat, except with more of a creature feature lean. Its stunts are impressively dangerous-looking. Its actors are dwarfed by its beautifully immense sets. Shadows creeping up city walls & perfectly lit gunsmoke shooting down a stairwell make for some unforgettable imagery/cinematic history. It’s no wonder, really, that the film has been remade twice (the second was in 1959 with horror legend Vincent Price) or that its influence reached into comic books & beyond. It’s a gorgeous & violent work of early horror/crime cinema that caught me off-guard with its power & improtance as soon as the first scene.

-Brandon Ledet