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

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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