The Vast of Night (2019)

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November, 1958. Cayuga, New Mexico. Population: dwindling.
     “I think at the lowest level, they send people on errands, and play with people’s minds. They sway people to do things, and think certain ways—so that we stay in conflict, focused on ourself—so that we’re always… cleaning house, or losing weight, or dressing up for other people. I think they get inside our heads and make us do destructive things, like drink and over eat. I’ve seen good people go bad, and smart people go mad.”
     They? Who? Alien invaders, that’s who, the kind that make you get in your car and drive real far and drive all night and then see a light and it comes right down and lands on the ground and out comes a man from Mars…
     Martians, that’s what we’re talking about here. Little green men from outer space.
     Owing much to Rod Serling’s classic ‘Twilight Zone, and a whole lot more to Leslie Stevens’s ‘Outer Limits (especially the plot of its “The Galaxy Being” episode), The Vast of Night is a nostalgic throwback to classic science fictioners of the 1950s, there’s-something-out-there films that starred the likes of Michael Rennie and James Arness and Gene Barry. It’s part Close Encounters‘, part Super 8, yet it somehow manages to feel satisfyingly unique. For some odd reason, this Amazon original has polarized audiences more than any recent film I can think of:
     “A masterpiece. Pure sci-fi lovers will be in heaven.”
     “Pathetically amateurish.”
     “Spectacular! A must-see!”
     “Tedious nonsense, avoid at all costs.”
     “Wow! Fantastic film making – amazingly good.”
     “The Vast of Suck.”
     Irrespective of how one might feel about its vastness (of suckiness or spectacularness), the real stars of the show are Sierra McCormick, who plays tenacious teen switchboard operator Fay Crocker, and her nerdy, WOTW DJ pal Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz), a cigarette forever in the corner of his mouth. Despite that affectation the guy never actually stops talking, so much so that I had to pause the movie 20 minutes in out of sheer exhaustion (exhilarated, not indignant, take note). Fay and Everett just go at it without let-up, yackety yack, a mile a minute. She’s bought one of those new fangled Westinghouse tape recorder gizmos from the Montgomery Ward catalog and he’s asking her about it.
     “All right. Play me something. What have you recorded?”
     “Well nothing. Yet. I mean, I didn’t want to mess something up.”
     “So you haven’t recorded anything?”
     “No, I didn’t want to mess something up.”
     “Wait. You have a brand new tape recorder and you haven’t been curious enough to push a button?”
     That extended scene, with its accompanying chatter, goes on for quite some time. And the stylistic flourishes don’t end there. A 9-minute unbroken take of Fay manning the switchboard; occasional cuts in and out of television screens showing the Serling-esque Paradox Theater; pitch black, audio-only segments; multiple swooping drone shots that hug the ground through town, right into the high school gymnasium where most of the townsfolk are congregated for the big basketball game… all cement the realization that first-timer Andrew Patterson’s film doesn’t simply favor style over substance, but that style is the film’s substance, as much as the mysterious phonics transmitted over the airwaves that cause Fay and Everett—like this viewer, rapturously agog—to sit up and take notice.
     The Vast of Night is smart and retro and a little bit spooky at times and it promises big Things to Come from director Patterson. Science fiction hasn’t been this fun, frankly, since Donald Moffat’s character loses it in John Carpenter’s other-worldly The Thing: “I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I’d rather not spend the rest of this winter TIED TO THIS <EXPLETIVE> COUCH!”


(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw (2020)

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With more than a passing nod to Robert Eggers’s similarly moody and dimly-lit evocation of evil The VVitch (from 2015), The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw‘s tagline boldly announces its intentions with fighting words: “There’s another witch in town.”
     Indeed there is.
     The upstart bastard child of Ari Aster’s daring Midsommar and the original ‘Wicker Man (only without its parents’ blinding sunshine), ‘Audrey Earnshaw stars Catherine Walker (A Dark Song) and newcomer Jessica Reynolds (My Left Nut) in the title role. Walker plays a devout single mother who’s forced to raise her daughter (Reynolds) in secret due to a family curse. Because their farm is the only land in the county not plagued by blight and pestilence, they are clearly witchcraft material in the eyes of their aggrieved neighbors.
     I mean, why else would everyone’s crops fail but theirs? As Edward Woodward, who played Christian copper Sergeant Howie in the aforementioned ‘Wicker Man, economically explains: “There’s hardly any produce. Well, that’s it. The crops failed. And it’s Rowan! Rowan, and the crops failed!”
     Strangely, ‘Audrey Earnshaw is set in 1973, not 1693, although you’d barely know it from the look of the film and the tetchy sensibilities of its warring protagonists. The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw (originally titled The Ballad of Audrey Earnshaw but later spookified with a titular curse!) revisits this hell-bent belief in suspect women taking the rap for the shortcomings of nature. As written and directed by Thomas Robert Lee, it’s a workmanlike Canadian horror yarn that effectively produces stretches of slow-burn tension—emphasis on the slow part—before it begins to unravel.
     Case in point: the film’s central conflict originates from an altercation between Walker’s character and an aggressive community member played by Jared Abrahamson (American Animals). Teenage witch Audrey witnesses this—her mother has smuggled her into town in a wooden crate for some reason—and plots revenge. On the way home, Audrey (no longer crated) is spotted by another villager yet her mother makes no attempt to pass her off as anyone but her daughter, even offering the man bribes for his silence. After sixteen odd years of concealing her daughter’s existence she couldn’t come up with a quick “my cousin from out of town”?
     It’s logic loopholes like this that ultimately deep six this otherwise earnest attempt at punishing puritan paranoia.


(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Marriage Story (2019)

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Man. This is good stuff. Marriage Story from Netflix. Beautiful Baumbach—balanced and sensitive. Not written written, but natural and genuine. And perfectly cast (by Douglas Aibel and Francine Maisler). Not just the leads, Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, each never better, but the supporting players: her mom (Airplane!’s Julie Haggerty), her cut-throat lawyer (Laura Dern, who took home the “Best Actress in a Supporting Role” Academy Award for her fine contributions here), his attorneys (Alan Alda and Ray Liotta, showing us why they’re still in the game), Merritt Wever (Run, Unbelievable) serving papers, adorably, in a scene-stealer of a scene. Even the (typically bratty American) kid—Azhy Robertson—is decent. And the structure of the film, in all its beauti-foolishness, so well crafted: what I love about Nicole/Charlie. ScarJo’s long take at her shrink’s, those two scenes late in the film that literally sing to us. This is Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha) at the very top of his game, guns a’blazing, coaxing the most passionate and demanding best out of his performers. (Oddly, I could not get into his While We’re Young. Tried it twice. Now that film was written written—who needs it?) Marriage Story concisely showcases the disillusionment, the anger, even the humor of a divorce-in-progress. It’s all perfectly drawn and managed and manipulated, not showy or forced. Sure: big personalities emoting and shouting up a storm, teacup-like, it could well have been—Kramer vs. Kramer 2—but Baumbach doesn’t go there. Heck, voices don’t even get raised until the film’s mid-section. Watching Marriage Story can make you feel good about yourself, feel happy. Happy that your marriage isn’t like this, won’t end up like this if you have any say in the matter. It’s not always an easy watch, but it’s oh so easy to admire.


(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

 

 

Military Wives (2019)

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Now here’s a recipe for guaranteed disaster: take a fabulous actress (Kristin Scott Thomas, The English Patient) and a talented comedian (Sharon Horgan, Catastrophe), saddle them with one of those “uplifting,” chiefly Brit., based-on-a-true-story scripts (like Brassed Off! or Calendar Girls or the upcoming Dream Horse with Toni Collette), and entrust the whole enchilada to the director of The Full Monty. The execrable and patently inedible result? Military Wives. Actually, I forgot some key ingredients: mix-in some tired stereotypes, a tone-deaf musical score (thanks for nada, Lorne Balfe), and, last but not least, a shameless plug for our boys in camo (bludgeon this last element with a sledgehammer overnight to ensure that all traces of nuance and subtlety have been removed). Rosanne Flynn and Rachel Tunnard’s script—military wives form a feel-good choir to boost on-base morale while their spouses are away fighting the Taliban—goes where every Waking Ned Divine-inspired script has gone before. Without exception. Military Wives is painful and beyond predictable. Didn’t Kristin and Sharon glance at this thing at least once and say, “Whhhhat? This is a bit… obvious, isn’t it? Couldn’t we, maybe, work on the humor a little?” My Mum and Anglophiles, the same ones who loved Saving Grace and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Enchanting April (or anything starring Joan Plowright for that matter), will love this one. Others will be well excused for going AWOL.


(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

 

 

Judy & Punch (2019)

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That’s the way to do it!”
     In Mirrah Foulkes’s subversively feminist Judy & Punch, the wife beating, baby bashing, hangman hanging protagonist of the classic children’s seaside entertainment finally gets his comeuppance.
     And it’s been a long time coming: the Punch and Judy show originated during England’s Restoration Period in the mid-1660s… although the character of Mr. Punch dates back even further, to the 16th Century Neapolitan stock figure of Pulcinella. More recently, multiple borough councils in the U.K. have considered banning Punch and Judy shows on the basis that they condone domestic violence. The archive footage under Judy & Punch’s closing credits would refute the counter argument that kids love the violent puppet show: the supposed fans look positively traumatized.
     The theme of domestic violence (with a twist!) continues in Foulkes’s film, which stars “Ms.” Mia Wasikowska (Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) as Judy and Australian actor “Mr.” Damon Herriman as her ambitious, alcoholic husband. Puppeteers both, our titular talents bring an anarchic and socially irresponsible energy to their marionette performances, warmly welcomed by a bawdy bar crowd.
     While entrusted with the care of their baby for a fleeting hour, the booze gets the better of our red-nosed punchman and tragedy strikes. And when Judy returns home and confronts her mildly-distraught husband, tragedy strikes again. Set in the fictitious town of Seaside (“Somewhere in the Country-side,” we’re told, and “No-where near the Sea”), the film is a dark, droll, and daring upending of the Punch and Judy zeitgeist.
     First-time feature director Foulkes—she appeared in the Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom (2010) and drew accolades for her 2012 short Dumpy Goes to the Big Smoke—enriches the film with a solid sense of style, eliciting strong performances from her two leads in the process. The score, by François Tétaz, is suitably percussive, accented by Wiccan-styled chanting, and the production design (Josephine Ford) is impressive. Also of note is Stefan Duscio’s photography, a dense and foggy affair, often candlelit, highlighting the film’s recurring ruby reds and rouges.
     It’s not all fun and games, of course, but the stick-wielding and “foul-tempered, anti-authoritarian misogynist” has long deserved his day in court. And, with Judy & Punch, the swazzle-voiced miscreant’s desserts are irrevocably juicy, and just.
     On the strength of this bloody debut, Foulkes would appear to be a talent to watch.


(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

 

She’s Allergic to Cats (2016)

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If the term “anal gland” makes you bristle with revulsion, then Michael Reich’s offbeat horror-comedy-romance She’s Allergic to Cats is probably not for you. Lovers of slick Hollywood fare might also be put off by the experimental nature of the film, all handheld and jittery and underlit, with a propensity for showing us in close-up things we’d rather not see, even in long-shot. In the film, Mike Pinkney plays an aspiring videographer named Mike Pinkney—genius!—who’s described as a “giant, sad, dirty man-baby” (by his best friend). Mike is currently slumming as a dog groomer in order to pay the rent. One expects that his rent isn’t much given his rat-infested apartment; they like to nibble on his bananas. The opening scene, replete with slo-mo soapsuds and dirty dialogue—“Yes! Yes! Fantastic hand control… slowly and sensually, like that… Yes! Yes!”—might make you think you’ve stumbled into some hardcore fetish flick by mistake. You haven’t. Anyway, Mike’s long-held dream is to produce an all-cat version of Carrie (the Brian De Palma adaptation of Stephen King from 1976, not the William Wyler adaptation of Theodore Dreiser from 1952), but his agent isn’t convinced the project has any legs. Then one fine day Mike meets the luminous Cora, played by Sonja Kinski (daughter of Nastassja, granddaughter of Klaus), and romance blooms large… and weird. Very weird. Fuzzball psychedelia coupled with VHS-quality visual effects (courtesy our mousy lead; Pinkney also produces) dominate this film school dropout styled catharsis, which is just now debuting on VOD (it was made four years ago). ‘Cats is definitely an acquired taste and, some 24 hours after watching Reich’s semi-autobiographical fantasy, I’m still finding it a wee bit gristly.


(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

 

 

Images (1972)

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In Robert Altman’s Images, Susannah York plays a woman named Cathryn who’s married to a man named Hugh (René Auberjonois). Marcel Bozzuffi plays Cathryn’s former lover, René, and Hugh Millais plays Marcel, a friend of the family. Rounding out the film’s central quintet is Marcel’s daughter, Susannah, played by Cathryn Harrison. And so we come full circle: five characters, each one bearing the name of the actor who doesn’t play them. Considerably less thinking, apparently, went into the film’s storyline, an overwrought character study dealing with schizophrenia, paranoia, grand designs and underwhelming dream theatrics. Said study features lots of shock zooms, an utterly unhinged score (courtesy John Williams; it was nominated for an Oscar), and an aggravating telephone that rings off the hook, at least during the film’s opening fifteen minutes. It has that brash, British-sounding ring… Images was shot in Ireland by cinematographer par excellence Vilmos Zsigmond. The film is crammed and then some with other jangling, dangling objects—metallic wind chimes and glassy sun catchers and crystal car hangings draped from rear view mirrors. It’s a pretty noisy affair all told; Stomu Yamash’ta is credited with “Sounds” early on (a better title for the film, perhaps?). But for all its deliberately-crafted sonic motifs and mad mise en scène, Images—a genre departure for Altman even at this early stage of his career—doesn’t amount to much. It’s a jumble of psychological hyperbole despite Susannah (York) winning the Best Actress award at Cannes that year, no doubt for giving the thing her all.


(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

 

Hard to Be a God (2013)

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Trudge, sludge, murk, mire, for three generous arthouse hours. It’s true: Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God goes where few cinematic visions have gone before, or are likely to again. This unique Russian film professes to be a science-fiction parable (based, as it is, on a sci-fi novel by the brothers Strugatsky, whose book Roadside Picnic was the seed for Andrey Tarkovsky’s Stalker), but it feels more like Jabberwocky’s eastern bloc cousin than any trek through some shiny star system, the mucky, muddy parts of Monty Python and the Holy Grail scrutinized, lionized, and revitalized to the Иth degree—call it the Knights Who Say “Nyet!” After a voiced-over preamble we’re quickly plunged, rough and tumble, into the diasporic drudgery: a distant planet, similar to our own but one stubbornly stuck in the Middle Ages, is visited by traveler Anton (Leonid Yarmolnik), posing as a divine dignitary named Don Rumata. His mission: to help the Kingdom of Arkanar’s societal advancement without direct political or cultural intervention. German obsessed over Hard to Be a God for the last 15 years of his life, never quite applying its finishing touches (he died in 2013). The film was completed by his wife and son and premiered at the Rome Film Festival in November of that year to almost universal acclaim (the Russian critics, however, were mixed). There’s something oddly compelling about the single-mindedness of German’s phantasmagoria; Hard to Be a God never feels quite as long as it might (unlike, say, parts of Bela Tarr’s Sátántangó, another dirt-ridden dreamscape that unfolds at a pace a snail might consider leisurely). That’s not to say its 177 minutes exactly fly by, for they don’t. Hard to Be a God is an immersive cinematic experience like no other, a massive, messy slog through fundament—the unaltered, natural features of a world’s surface—measureless (as per Coleridge) to man.


(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Just Mercy (2019)

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Destin Daniel Cretton’s screen adaptation of Bryan Stevenson’s bestseller Just Mercy: a Story of Justice and Redemption is a sobering, by-the-books affair that never quite reaches the heights of greatness to which it aspires. Cretton’s 2013 film Short Term 12, which he wrote and directed, was quiet and small and powerful, and introduced us to Lakeith Stanfield (FX’s Atlanta). Just Mercy doesn’t have the same subtlety despite deft turns from its hard-working and well-cast cast—Michael B. Jordan (as public interest lawyer Stevenson himself), Captain Marvel’s Brie Larson, and (most notably) Jamie Foxx. SAG nominee Foxx is sublime as Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian, the real-life pulpwood worker turned death row inmate whose murder case young defense attorney Stevenson takes on after graduating Harvard Law and relocating to Alabama. Together with local advocate Eva Ansley (Larson, with a convincing drawl) they form the Equal Justice Initiative with the express goal of providing legal representation to prisoners on death row. Their clients, marginalized and abandoned, are often falsely accused and always poorly represented. Just Mercy is a powerful true story of one man’s dogged dedication to The Truth in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds—overt racism, Southern-style hostility, and a broken judicial system bent on ignoring the little, pertinent things in a case, like facts and evidence. This injustice is given proper prominence in the film despite the director’s predictable approach to the material. What’s on trial in Just Mercy is important, even if the overlong and, at times, overly-earnest film itself turns out to be less so.


(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Hustlers (2019)

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Everything about Hustlers feels like a hustle. It’s billed as a heist movie, but it’s really a bad stripper movie, since the “heist” part simply involves our heroes defrauding fat cat Wall Street types—first they drug them, then they max out their credit cards! It’s hardly Rififi. You might also expect to see a lot of Cardi B and Lizzo in the film, since their names are way up there on the marquee alongside those of Jennifer Lopez and Crazy Rich Asians’ Constance Wu, but they’re barely in it (a couple of scenes at best). OK, so what about J-Lo’s much touted Oscar-worthy performance? She’s good, no question about that—and I don’t simply mean in comparison to her co-stars (Wu is awkward and Julia Stiles, who plays the journalist who broke the New York magazine story on which the film is based, even stiffer). But worthy of an Academy Award nomination? I think not. And said Academy thought not too. What about “ferociously funny” (Rolling Stone) then? I suppose that depends on whether you find sad, pathetic, and depressing funny. Hustlers is extremely difficult to watch, most notably during the uncomfortable strip club scenes. But perhaps the ultimate hustle is writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s attempts to get us to celebrate the sisterhood’s questionable morality, as they steal from those who have essentially stolen from them. If I want a nice fleece I’ll go to L.L. Bean thank you very much.


(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com