When I think of movie sequels that best their originals, what come to mind are the ones that go bigger, broader, and cartoonishly extreme, exploding the comparatively timid premises of their source texts – titles likeGremlins 2, Ghoulies 2, Child’s Play 2,Paddington 2, Batman Returns, and Magic Mike XXL. In all of those examples, though, I still like the original films that preceded them, which is more than I can say for the volatile, twisty screenlife thriller Missing. Missing is a spin-off sequel to one of my least favorite entries in the screenlife genre, Searching (a film that I should note Britnee reviewed very positively for this site back in 2018). Searching wasn’t embarrassing in the way that lower-budget screenlife schlock like Safer at Home and Untitled Horror Movie can be, but I still resented it for cleaning up a trashy genre I love for its illogical technophobic fearmongering by turning it into safe, This Is Us-style melodrama. Laptop-POV thrillers should prey on the eeriness of life on the internet, not act as tech-friendly advertisements that constantly reassure parents their terminally online children are actually doing okay. It was basically Unfriended for the corniest of suburbanites, a perspective I was happy to see dropped in its much meaner, trashier sequel.
Missing improves on the Searching formula in practically every way, most of all in how it maintains a healthy paranoia around modern tech even while explaining why it’s useful (and in how it’s willing to put its characters in actual, sustained danger instead of just pretending to). Storm Reid stars as the mouse-clicking, keyboard clacking internet detective du jour, a teenager who investigates the sudden disappearance of her mother—lost while vacationing in Colombia—from her laptop control room in California. Missing‘s tone echoes the hokey schmaltz of Searching‘s parent-child melodrama, scoring its petty mother-daughter tensions with heart-tugging piano flourishes you’d expect to hear in an engagement ring jewelry store commercial. Only, while Reid clicks away at the Ring cameras, location trackers, search histories, password workarounds, and username paper trails at her fingertips to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance, she’s revealing more than just the speedbumps & heartbreaks of modern familial bonds; she’s also cataloging the tools of the modern surveillance state. The surface-level text of the film details the twists & turns of a Dateline-style “true” crime mystery and subsequent familial grief, while the glaring subtext is all about how deep privacy-invading technology has already seeped into our daily lives in ways we’ve learned to ignore, simply because it’s convenient.
One of the major things I love about screenlife thrillers (and one of the major reasons they’re dismissed as frivolous novelties) is their nimble ability to document of-the-moment trends in modern life online. It’s something most other genres are scared to touch for fear of looking gimmicky or dated, despite computer screens accounting for so much of the visual data most audiences absorb on a daily basis. There’s something fearlessly honest about engaging with that supposedly uncinematic imagery, but I also just like to imagine how incomprehensible screenlife aesthetics would be to earliest cinemagoers who were astounded by The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station in 1896. For its part, Missing doesn’t have many updates in modern screenlife to document, except maybe the frustrating ambiguity of Captcha challenges and the low-key hostility of a thumbs-up emoji. It does have plenty notes about life outside of the computer, though, marking our cultural obsession with turning real life tragedies into true crime #content; zoomer teens’ uncanny savvy in navigating the back roads of social media; and our casual, collective acceptance of privacy invasion from vampiric tech-world capitalists. On a more practical, immediate level, it’s most useful as a showcase for Reid’s skills as a young actor and editors-turned-directors Will Merrick & Nick Johnson’s understanding of screenlife’s unique visual language, since those three collaborators account for almost everything we see onscreen. It’s a fun, well-staged mainstream thriller with just the right balance between social commentary, shameless sentimentality, and trashy what-the-fuck twists, when Searching only hit one of those three metrics.
Swampflix readers, the internet has been essentially de-democratized. What I mean by that is that when you or I go online to look for the answer to a question or read one (1) article about a thing that we engaged with or enjoyed, we no longer get to interact with that article in a vacuum. Unless you’re VPN’d up every single time that you look for a movie review or try to purchase a replacement ice mold for the Rival snow cone maker that you purchased at an estate sale without realizing that it required a part that was not present, you’re going to start getting ads for snowball machines and your YouTube homepage is going to be flooded with think pieces and video essays about the film that you just wanted one critic’s viewpoint on. Well, that and advertisements and algorithmically driven content to make you stay on the platform longer, feel encouraged to interact with the content to drive engagement, etc. Like most Swampflix contributors, my interests are not fully in alignment with the zeitgeist, but every once in a while, they are; unfortunately, although that means that I was as excited aboutM3GAN as the culture at large was, discussion of her wasn’t omnipresent in the discourse of the YouTube channels that I haven’t blocked. But boy howdy did YouTube love that I lovedGlass Onion. Amidst a deluge of clickbait bids titled “[Number] Things You Missed in Glass Onion!”, “All the Secret Connections betweenKnives Out and Glass Onion!”, and the like, I have to admit that I did encourage the algorithm just a little by watching videos that talked about the various films and TV shows that had served as inspiration for the film, because I go through periods where mysteries are all that I ever want to consume. Frequently cited as a major creative jumping-off point for the film was 1973’s The Last of Sheila.
Helmed by director Herbert Ross and scripted by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim (the only screenplay credit for each), the film tells the story of film producer Clinton Greene (James Coburn) and his plan to take several of his friends on a pleasure cruise aboard his private yacht. Their voyage begins, presumably not accidentally, on the anniversary of the death of Greene’s girlfriend, Sheila, who left one of his parties in a fit and was killed by a hit-and-run driver mere blocks from his house. An avid player of games of strategy and wit, Greene has planned out a series of mystery nights where his guests will go ashore with a set of clues and split up to try and solve a mystery. Each person aboard is also given a card that is to be their “secret identity” for the game, and the first of these that we see as characters open their envelopes are things like “Alcoholic,” “Shoplifter,” and “Homosexual.” Further, each of his traveling companions was there the night of Sheila’s death: Christine (Dyan Cannon), a film talent agent who’s full of wit and flirtatiousness in that a 1970s showbiz liberated way; glamorous but troubled starlet Alice (Raquel Welch) and her current beau, another film agent named Anthony (Ian McShane), who’s forever angling to get more involved with the production side of film; faded movie star and giant of another age Philip Dexter (James Mason) who’s now stuck in undignified commercials for dog food; and Tom Parkman (Richard Benjamin), a screenwriter who’s been stuck doing rewrites on spaghetti westerns while his original work remains unsold and unproduced. The only person on the cruise whom we are explicitly told wasn’t there the night Sheila died isTom’s wife Lee (Joan Hackett), a kind but idle and neurotic heiress. The first night of the mystery game is largely a success, with half of the group getting to the secret while the other half is either too late or doesn’t try at all. On the second night, however, tragedy strikes, and when not everyone comes back to the boat, our cast of characters return to the site of the previous evening’s game and discover that someone from their number has died, under mysterious circumstances.
Excited as I was to finally see this film, at a full two hours, it starts to feel its length in places. The site of the second night’s game is an abandoned monastery where the gang has to don identity-revealing robes and remain quiet until they locate the confessional in which Greene is hiding, which makes for a lot of fun as characters pass each other without we in the audience ever really knowing with whom they’re speaking or even if the characters know; unfortunately, this runabout through the monastery feels much longer than the ten minutes of screen time that it occupies and unfortunately telegraphs that a twist is coming. For the first hour of the movie, the omnipresent implication is that Greene has arranged some elaborate plan to discover which of his guests was Sheila’s killer, but a savvy viewer will know that there’s simply no time left in the runtime of the film to go through five more puzzles, and so there’s going to be a complicating factor at any moment. You’re not surprised by the second death, merely by who is the unfortunate corpse. I’ll be the first to admit that I might have been spoiled (or had a certain part of my brain atrophy while another part grew three sizes) by watching some 250+ episodes of Murder, She Wrote in the past thirteen months, so I could be stuck on that formula, but an hour in feels like an awfully late place to stick your midpoint murder twist. At the same time, there’s no fat to trim here, no extraneous beats that don’t reveal something relevant about character, motive, time, and secrecy, it’s just that the relevancy of all of these narrative moments is often revealed late in the game.
If there are two performers who stand out to me, I’d have to name Cannon and Hackett. Every performance here is good, but Cannon is delivering a wonderfully understated performance as a woman who’s committed to living life as sensually and hedonistically as possible but whose dark past she regrets; she’s stunning. A whodunit like this doesn’t require the sincerity and humanity that she brings to her delivery of a monologue in which she confesses to having furthered her career by slipping some names to the HUAC, but it certainly elevates it. “Then those people didn’t work for a while,” she says. “Now they work. Sometimes I try and get them work. Sometimes I see them on the street and sometimes … they cross the street.” She tries to play off her guilt, but no one is convinced, least of all herself, and it’s magical. Also doing great work here is Hackett, whose frantic, nervous, chain-smoking Lee is clearly having a very hard time with all of this business right from the start as the only person aboard who doesn’t belong there, since she was hundreds of miles away when Sheila died. As the only person we can be assured isn’t a killer, she seems to understand the jeopardy of being on the boat with someone willing to cover up their hand in an accident that resulted in a death. After all, someone almost kills Christine by turning on the yacht’s propellers while she’s taking a swim; who’s to say there won’t be more “accidents”? The big stars are clearly supposed to be Mason and Benjamin, the actor and the writer, who take point on trying to spin out the narrative that would lead to the things that the group has uncovered and discovered—and let there be no mistake, they are both more than satisfactory, with Mason having the upper hand over Benjamin in the charm department—but it’s Cannon and Hackett that I’ll be thinking about weeks from now.
Let’s talk humor. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that, alongside the performances, the other tempering element that helps the movie feel like it’s got some pep in its step when it gets a little slow is the film’s comedic wit. Before she can even get on the boat, Christine complains about the lack of a drink in her hand by declaring “My mouth is so dry they could shoot Lawrence of Arabia in it,” which I’ve found myself saying every once in a while over the years without ever remembering its origin (it’s the pull quote used for the film in Douglas Brode’s compendium—and my longtime companion—Edge of Your Seat: The 100 Greatest Movie Thrillers, where it ranks at 88th). Even the jokes that characters make that are supposed to be either unfunny or in bad taste within the text got a chuckle out of me, especially those that poke fun at Hollywood and celebrity culture. This includes Greene’s mocking of Tom’s body of work as a second set of eyes on Westerns by asking him to read from a section of Fistful of Lasagna (“or whatever it’s called”). Even if the references are a half century old now, the core truths in play keep the film feeling fresh, despite some major dissonance in other areas that it’s important to address: one of the characters is outed as a child molestor, which is bad enough, but the other characters don’t really seem to think that it’s a problem that needs to be addressed or even has a glimmer of an idea of reporting him to the authorities. If there’s one thing in this film that hasn’t aged well, it’s the casualness with which that horrifying little tidbit is dropped and the lack of reaction to it.
Already, I’ve risked giving away too much of the plot of this one, so I’ll wrap it up. Stellar performances, creative misdirects and clues, and clever jokes stashed away in little corners more than make up for the times where the film feels like it’s dragging the bottom. Although you can rent this one streaming, I’m sure your local library has a DVD that’s probably got some fun extras and easter eggs on it, so why not visit them instead?
I recently talked on the podcast about my dear friend Ana Reyes’s astounding and well-deserved success surrounding her first novel, The House in the Pines (still #2 on the NYT bestseller list for hardback fiction as of this writing!). When we were all having drinks after the launch party back on January 3, her husband, who is also a writer and friend, mentioned to me that he and Ana had recently been talking about how ahead of the “cozy mystery” curve I was when I put together my pitch document/series bible for the as-yet-undiscovered project Mrs. Wintergreen. As I smiled a toothless grin that belied my bitterness that fate has not seen fit to bring Mrs. Wintergreen to life, I didn’t even point out that not only was that the case, but also that I had even included a scene in which my protagonist, 108-year-old semi-pro sleuth Constance Wintergreen, expressed an appreciation forGlass Onion star Janelle Monae:
Agatha Christie is very in vogue, as evidenced by not only the aforementioned Christe-adjacent 2022 release Glass Onion, but also the Christie-containing See How They Run, a confident first feature from director Tom George penned by Mark Chappell, who is perhaps best known for his writing for the David Cross vehicle The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret. A period piece, the film begins on the night of the hundredth performance of The Mousetrap, a Christie-authored play which is infamous for two things: first, that there is a twist ending that the audience is encouraged not to reveal to others, resulting in the play’s ending remaining largely unknown to this day, and second, that the contract for the play forbids any adaptation of the source material to film (or the short story on which it was based from being published) until at least six months have passed since its final performance at London’s West End. This was a particularly long-sighted bit of legal play, as the show has run continuously (other than a COVID-caused pause) since its opening night in October of 1952, seventy years ago. In fact, I have some suspicion that this film exists solely for that reason, as it is the closest we can get to a Mousetrap adaptation for the foreseeable future.
Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody) is a sleazy slimeball of an American film director (redundant, I know) who has his sights set on turning The Mousetrap into a hit motion picture. That previously noted clause about the show being forced to close before this can even be a possibility is at the forefront of the minds of many involved, but theatre producer Petula Spencer (Ruth Wilson) assures him that the play has already reached its 100th performance and surely it will run out of steam soon, espousing the idea that a narrative with a whodunit at its core will, by its nature, see few repeat visitors and will necessitate closure sooner than later. Although we the viewers are sufficiently distant from this event that this is an historical irony for us, the contemporary American studio system is so confident that they already have Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo) working on a screenplay. Cocker-Norris’s English sensibilities and sense of adaptational faithfulness brings him into conflict with the flashy Köpernick, although the former is not alone in his distaste for the latter: British film producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith) is also protecting a scandalous secret about which Köpernick is blackmailing him; Köpernick is rude to all members of waitstaff everywhere, which includes the put-upon usher Dennis Corrigan (Charlie Cooper); and, mere moments before his murder at the ten minute mark, he is decked by Richard “John ‘Spared no expense’ Hammond” Attenborough (Harris Dickinson), who portrays the lead in The Mousetrap, for flirting with his co-star and wife Ann Saville (Pippa Bennett-Warner). The investigation of his death necessitates the appearance of Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell), the archetype of the drunken detective who plays fast and loose with the rules; due to a shortage of available partners, he is paired with Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan), a plucky, energetic up-and-comer who is mere months away from being the first woman to take the sergeant’s exams.
This is a neat little movie that makes sense in and of itself but also functions as a love letter to Christie and to her longtime fans, a body of which I consider myself to be a member. For instance: a scene in which the excitable Stalker asks a hotelier what part of France he is from based on the fact that he speaks French only to receive a deadpan response that he is Belgian is a fun comic bit in and of itself, but it’s also a nod to fans of Christie’s Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who often finds himself on the receiving end of this exact misunderstanding. There’s also a good running gag about Hamlet: Early on, Attenborough says of The Mousetrap “It’s not exactly Hamlet.” Later, Stoppard half-quotes Act II Scene II’s famous ending line “The play’s the thing” [“Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King”], spoken when Hamlet commits himself to obtaining evidence of his uncle Claudius’s guilt through an elicitation of a confession upon seeing a fictionalization of Hamlet’s father’s murder. This is itself a circular reference, as not only does it reveal that Stoddard has realized that the connection between the murder of Köpernick may actually have to do with the play’s content, not its performance as initially suspected, but the word “mousetrap” likely comes from Hamlet in the first place as Hamlet refers to the play as a mousetrap in Act III Scene II (line 2131), in what may be the invention of the term. Your mileage is likely to vary on certain comic elements, of course; whether or not you find it clever that Cocker-Norris disdains screenplays that include flashbacks as crass and artless moments before one occurs in his narration is going to be left up to the individual viewer. I find his asking of “Whatever next? A caption that says, ‘Three weeks later’?” juxtaposed with that very caption to be charming and fun, but I know that others will find it to be more of a moment of bathos.
My favorite gag, however, cribs neither from Shakespeare or Christie, but Adaptation: in a flashback, much to the chagrin of Cocker-Norris, we get to see a little bit of how Köpernick’s mind works as he shows a series of storyboards that he put together for the climax of the film version of The Mousetrap. The images are quick cuts between detailed insets: gloved hands at a power box, a revolver being cocked by an unknown person, a fire breaking out in the middle of a tense standoff with a hostage—all of it very un-Christie and extremely Hollywood. This is Köpernick’s attempt to “jazz up” the very un-Hollywood and extremely Christie ending of the play, which uses one of her most well-known and genre-defining tropes: the end-of-the-story summation gathering, in which the detective gets everyone together in a parlor to explain their investigation and conclusion. In fact, not that it matters, but it’s so very much part of the genre that a parody of this type of scene is the very first thing that happens in the script for the Mrs. Wintergreen pilot, “Mrs. Wintergreen and the Thorny Dilemma”
See How They Run turns this on its ear by playing both sides in the same way that Adaptation does, by mocking the hand that feeds it via denigrating comments about the formulaic nature of Hollywood adaptations, and then doing each and every one of the things that it mocks. The climax of the film takes place in a parlor that has the exact same layout, dimension, and decorations as the final set of the play, although this is obscured until the last possible moment to reveal it. The revolver, the fire, the standoff, the power box—the whole thing plays out in exactly the same way that Köpernick’s storyboard does. It’s a lot of fun to watch. (So would Mrs. Wintergreen be, I think, but I digress.)
I was engaging with some essay or other this week and was taken aback when the author noted that, for all of his extremely large body of literary work, Isaac Asimov’s oeuvre rarely sees film adaptations, with only a handful ever being produced: Konets Vechnosti from 1987, based on The End of Eternity, which I assume must have had a subtitled release in the U.S. at some point but I can find no evidence of; the Robin Williams vehicle Bicentennial Man; two separate adaptations of the 1941 short story “Nightfall;” and, theoretically at least, I, Robot. In general, the world does not lack for Christie adaptations; they are so numerous that films based on And Then They Were None alone have their own Wikipedia subpage. The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side was adapted as an episode of Miss Marple and Agatha Christie’s Marple, which are two separate television shows, as well as a film version in 1980 starring Angela Lansbury as Marple. When it comes to Christie media, we are the lilies of the field, neither toiling nor spinning, nevertheless arrayed in splendor. But we don’t have an adaptation of The Mousetrap, and we likely never will. Even if that day comes, there’s a risk it will be as dull and uninteresting as 2017’s Crooked House, which even Glenn Close and Gillian Anderson couldn’t save. What we do have is See How They Run, which is more than good enough; it’s great.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Mandyand 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.
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.