Review: The Discovery (2017)

“What kind of atheist talks to God?”

In the near future, a scientist (Robert Redford) discovers definitive proof of the afterlife. In response, millions choose to commit suicide. What no one has figured out yet is exactly what said afterlife looks like. This is where we meet Redford’s son, played by Jason Segel, as he heads to his father’s compound to confront his mistakes – but not before he runs into a ghostly Rooney Mara and feels an instant connection.

The Discovery has a premise rife with potential. Regardless of the plausibility behind it (wouldn’t other scientists have to recreate the results? Why would people off themselves if the form of the afterlife isn’t clear?), the basic conceit could allow for a direct and poignant rumination on mortality built upon a loose science fiction backbone.

In theory, there’s plenty of human drama to mine from. Segel projects an exhausted fragility in every interaction, and the ways in which he, Redford, and Jesse Plemons (as his hilarious jam band brother) interact find intimacy behind their estrangement. Segel presents his affections for Mara as simultaneously romantic and selfish – though Mara doesn’t really make an impression, seemingly sleepwalking through the role as a distant waif. Potentially, there’s a hell of a lot of character to be tested against the backdrop.

Unfortunately, Charlie McDowell and Justin Lader’s script chooses to focus equally, if not more so, on the machinations of the science, rather than its emotional implications. The inner lives of their characters and their motivations seem created purely to move through the various twists of the plot. And though their is a powerful grace in its final moments, and a certain profundity in the optimism it wrings out of the hell of its final third, one still wishes that these people – and their very human problems – had been given more room to breathe.

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Review: Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

For 90% of Merry We Go To Hell‘s running time, it is a stunning, beautiful, heartbreaking portrait of self-loathing and love. Opening on Fredric March’s alcoholic, cripplingly self-hating Jerry meeting Sylvia Sidney’s bubbling, intelligent Joan in a delightful meet-cute, Merrily moves along as a comedy for its first act, with only the occasional feint towards something darker. It is only after their marriage that nearly all of the comedy drains out and we are forced to watch the disintegration of a love that could and should never be.

Jerry fears that he is unworthy of love, and so he lowers himself to that state. He takes up drinking again, and he has an affair with the woman whose rejection created that fear in the first place. He is a sad, angry, selfish bastard – but he is charming, too, and sympathetic.

And Joan loves him. Despite his many, many faults, Joan sees the man that could be hiding inside Jerry’s tattered shell. Through it all, she loves him. So when Jerry betrays her, when he turns away from the only woman to love him unconditionally, she is broken. She makes a decision, one that would be a happy ending in a modern world, the power of a woman taking control over her life – she takes her own lover, allowing their marriage to go on as a frame for their occasionally intersecting lives. But it’s not happy, it’s not good, because she was forced to do this. She never stopped loving Jerry, even though he did not deserve it, and that love gave her life. She had to sacrifice her love to reclaim her agency. By the time Jerry realises his folly and cruelty, it is too late for him to fix anything. Joan realises that she can’t go on living adjacent to her heartbreaker, and she leaves him.

It was at this point in the film that I cried. Terrible tears, my body seizing up in shakes and starts, two loves lost in an instant because of fear.

That is where the film should have ended, with Jerry losing his love because he inadvertently tried to take her life.

But it doesn’t. The film goes on for another 15 minutes, and it lets Jerry win Joan back. It makes no sense and it takes away the power Joan had had so recently. The ending feels tacked on and fake, so utterly ridiculous compared to what had come before. Though Dorothy Arzner still directs the hell out of these last moments, almost selling them completely, they don’t work.

So I will forget them. Author be damned, I’m sticking with the parts that made sense and made me cry and had strong female characters.

Review: True Stories (1986)

Taken at face value as satire, True Stories is condescending and simplistic – a tired condemnation of consumerism as a spiritual force. David Byrne could conflate a certain midwestern happiness with a naive embrace of capitalism – a musical number late in the game involving a series of advertisement-based Talking Heads members could be seen as the thesis.

I say all of that with a definite potentiality to all of the verbs. Could be seen as so and so. Because, despite what’s all there on the surface, True Stories never feels patronising, never feels like it’s making fun of Virgil, Texas, and the way its denizens – liars, fools, cheaters though they may be – live. Instead, Byrne finds legitimate awe and curiosity in the proceedings, bringing out the beauty of this specific time of America, where consumerism and idealism walked hand in hand. When a microchip company bringing up a small town could be seen as a sign of a happy future, where jobs were plentiful and technology was impossibly endless. Where never getting out of bed because one doesn’t have to is both a sign of laziness and a sign of prosperity. The film’s spirit is most embodied in the character of Louis (played by a young and impossibly adorable John Goodman), who eventually places an ad for a girlfriend on the TV, and whom Byrne embraces without an ounce of pity. He has the ability to advertise his love, so why shouldn’t he? Just because the festival celebrating the town’s “Specialness” is paid for and primarily exists as an ad for the electronics company doesn’t mean it can’t also be used as a venue to proclaim truth and beauty in the face of an infinite future.

An exceedingly optimistic film, even if such attitude is what immediately dates it as one from a long ago time.

Review: Zoo (2007)

“I am talking to you, kind of in the same way you are staring at me. Mammal to mammal.”

I never thought I’d say this regarding a film about a man being fucked to death by a horse, but Robinson Devor’s Zoo is beautiful.

Devor, known primarily for his under-seen black comic masterpiece The Woman Chaser, shoots his documentary almost entirely as recreations, taking the technique popularised by Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue and pushing it to its limit. He shoots as if falling through a dream, the camera never stops floating, following, drifting. No one talks onscreen. Instead, voice-over fills the air, interacting with the gorgeous score to create a loose, hazy soundscape, never quite letting us settle into a sense of reality. And Devor structures the film to follow this trend, revolving around the main event again and again, getting closer each time from the past and the future, but never quite giving into the moment. We, the audience, are adrift, attempting to place the speaker of the scene, attempting to find a foothold in time, attempting to find comprehension in the actions of these men, these men who engage in carnal acts with animals.

That’s a lot to ask from an audience, especially regarding a subject as salacious as this. To a certain extent, it could be called pretentious, putting that much distance between the subject and form. If you don’t want to bridge that gap, I understand, I salute you, go on your merry way.

But if you give yourself to Zoo, if you try to cross that gap, try to find reality in the unreality, you may find yourself in the same boat with Devor. As much as he’s abstracted the narrative, Devor is trying to humanise these men. But it’s hard to humanise actions that so many cannot begin to comprehend. And so he keeps us at a permanent distance. We try and we try, but there will always be something ineffable – morals, psychology, shame, whatever – keeping us from connecting to this subject matter. But as long as we’re trying, perhaps we can catch a little of their minds. That moment when they’re staring into an animals eyes, searching for a common ground, searching for consent – and they rationalise their own desperation as recognition in the animal’s eyes. You have seen me, and you are with me, and I am trying, and you can understand.

In the end, all we’re left with the words of the woman who saved the horse from future engagements. “I think I’m close to understanding. But I don’t ever think I will really get there.” There’s pain in her voice, maybe even sympathy for these deviants. She’s trying to find herself in them.

But she can’t.

And, for the most part, neither can we.

Review: Sonny Boy (1989)

“Sonny Boy’s my kid. I made him what he is. And he ain’t no painter.”

A low-rent thief (Brad Dourif) accidentally kidnaps a baby when he steals a car. His boss (Paul L. Smith) and transgendered wife (played by David Carradine with remarkable grace and power, especially considering the type of movie surrounding) decide to raise the child, albeit as a feral instrument of destruction with no tongue. The titular Sonny Boy eventually escapes his twisted family, and his adventures bring unwanted attention upon his family.

On paper, this reads like a grimy Texas Chainsaw Massacre rip-off, but writer Graeme Whifler and director Robert Martin Carroll play it essentially straight, transforming what could be campy horror into surprisingly affecting melodrama. Their secret is sincerity; no matter how horrific or crazy the events depicted, the creators treat them simply as more obstacles to these characters’ happiness. This is a film in which multiple people are murdered via cannon, a film in which Brad Dourif gift’s his recently severed thumb to the boy who bit it off, a film in which a doctor is discredited due to his use of monkey parts – and it is still enormously affecting.

The surprisingly poignant core is helped immeasurably by the performances and score. Everyone here is incredible, especially the aforementioned Carradine and Michael Boston, who brings soul and pain to the mute Sonny Boy. Carlo Cordio (who also scored Troll 2, so I don’t know what’s happening) treats everything with an almost cheesy tragedy, a lilting harmonica that would be ridiculous if it didn’t cut through the insanity so well. And that’s saying nothing of the theme, sung by Carradine himself.

This is a film about devotion and unconditional love. It’s about what it means to love someone because of their flaws, because their flaws are who they are. It’s about being able to see the good in the worst, about finding love in a heart that seemed cold, and about learning to see one’s self as loveable. It’s about love in all forms, in all its power – good and bad.

I’ve been trying to convince myself out of this rating, because it seems kind of crazy, kind of impossible. Sonny Boy, on paper, is not a particularly great movie. Somehow, though, everything comes together in a singular alchemy of exploitation craziness and wistful burden.

There’s something to be said for sincerity.

Review: Szamanka (1996)

“Every God is a God of death.”

My third Andrzej “Unresolved Issues with Women” Zulawski film is also the first one I’ve outright enjoyed – though whether that’s because I actually dig this or have just become numbed to Zulawski’s abrasive style is up for debate.

Anyway, Szamanka is the story of an anthropologist who simultaneously becomes obsessed with a polish student known only as ‘The Italian’ and the centuries-old body of a Shaman. As these obsessions dovetail, the anthropologist’s life – hell, everyone’s lives – falls apart.

Szamanka exists in two modes: violent sex and freakout screaming. Like his most well known film Possession, this is about the possessed – The Italian is possessed by … something wild (maybe), the anthropologist is possessed by The Italian, and the world is possessed by chaos.

The Italian and the anthropologist’s relationship is based in BDSM, though neither accept the place of the sub, instead spending the entire film trying to dominate the other. As their relationship intensifies, the world itself seems to tear apart, and Zulawski starts abandoning traditional logic in his storytelling. He begins likening their sexual exploits to a spiritual experience, and religion in general as a channel through which sexual desire is twisted. As a crying The Italian drips the anthropologist’s semen onto his arm in the shadow of a makeshift crucifix, I found myself numb to the crazy imagery, but also entranced. Maybe it’s because the hysteria never lets up, but I finally found myself lost in a Zulawski film. Maybe that’s the point of all of his works. When hysteria becomes normalised, the only way to feel something is to become more hysterical.

All of this violent outdoing of itself eventually culminates in a scene reminiscent of Possession, except this one actually made me recoil in horror – you’ll know the moment when you see it. Zulawski returns to the same themes again and again, and I don’t know if I feel comfortable with how much he feints towards outright misogyny, but he’s never less than absolutely fascinating.

P.S. There is a scene in this film in which a guy smokes three cigarettes at once from his fist. I found this intriguing.

Review: American Honey (2016)

Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is a sprawling, often earthily gorgeous coming of age tale that isn’t afraid to get blunt in the name of beauty. It is also a shaggy, inconsistent one, in which indulgence is both its subject and primary flaw.

18-year old Star finds herself in the company of youth just like her – aimless, wandering, poor and lost – and they journey through this small part of their lives as a temporary family. One of the ways that American Honey is so insightful is that it understands the ways these kind of families work – not as a harmonious, understanding whole, but a warring, energetic mosh pit of familiar faces. And so Arnold fills the film with a distinct sense of tribalism. Again and again, these kids gather around a fire and sing the same songs, dance the same dance, and physically fight the same fights. This is repetition, this is ritual, this is a collective memory that will blur and create a sense of gradual growth in person, rather than small steps.

Arnold uses this backdrop as the foundation for a well observed coming of age story. As Star grows as a person (with the help of a tortured relationship with a fantastic Shia Labeouf) she grows into a greater sense of transience, already looking back on her adolescence as a piece of her that was never permanent. A damaged aspect that she can exist beyond.

And on the macro level of that milieu and basic story, Arnold’s film soars. Where I found significant issues, and ones that pulled me out of the work, were in her formal shagginess and inconsistent characterisation.

Talking too much about the characterisation would require me to spoil a few scenes, so all I’ll say there is that Star’s behaviour seemingly requires a ton of contradictory psychology, especially towards the end of the middle 3rd. I recognise that the reasons Star does everything she does are not even necessarily clear to her, but the way she goes about any given stressful situation seems to change from second to second.

But a greater issue than that is Arnold’s indulgence. I’m not saying the film is too long, exactly. I think basically every scene works and justifies itself. but I found the editing to be so goddamn hesitant, holding moments so much longer than necessary, perhaps hoping for a certain lingering essence to seep out of the frame but instead simply diluting the power of any given beat. Early on, this creates a sense of, and excuse the phrase, but poverty porn, as Arnold rubs the audience’s faces in the economic situation of her protagonist, seemingly getting a kick out of showing us the misery. It feels disingenuous, not because it’s blunt (I actually found the bluntness of the film rather powerful and pure) but because it feels exploitative and condescending. Later, Arnold’s lingering is less insidious, but it still feels like a pull to every punch (especially in the last scene).

Finally, the use of nearly wall-to-wall music, often diegetic, I found completely alienating. I can’t exactly say it was the wrong decision, because I am sure there is a purpose behind it, but, for the life of me, I cannot figure it out. Having one popular song end and then starting up another a few seconds later completely threw me out of the film. I’m searching for a reason for this, and no doubt I’ll find one eventually, but right now I’m baffled.

There is an amazing, beautiful film buried in American Honey, but it needs a couple of shaves before I’ll be able to see it.