Black Cinema 2022 & Black Is Beautiful Exhibition Recap

By Janiah B. Rorie

As we come to the end of February and Black History Month, I want to briefly summarize the experience from my visits to the Reynolda House Museum here in Winston-Salem for the exhibition Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite of which the Black Cinema film series was curated to celebrate. Our featured films were chosen from the 1960s and 1970s to highlight Brathwaite’s participation in the cultural movement that was “Black is Beautiful” which started in the 1960s to combat traditional European and Western beauty standards.

The exhibition focuses on photographs from the Black Arts Movement also known as the Harlem Renaissance, a critical period for African Americans where Brathwaite and his brother cofounded the African Jazz Art Society & Studios which was composed of designers, playwrights, dancers, artists, and the Grandassa models. The Grandassa models are a primary feature of the exhibit, with images of various African American women including Brathwaite’s wife. Also included were some of the garments and jewelry worn by the models at the time for some of the photos that were taken. My favorite part of the exhibition was that there was music playing the entire time that matched the aesthetic of Brathwaite’s photographs, as a lover of both visual and performance art it tied everything in for me in a personal way.

After visiting the Kwame Brathwaite exhibit and seeing all of the films featured in our Black Cinema series here at a/perture, I do wish that more people were able to have the full experience of viewing both the film series in its entirety and the exhibit. Seeing the exhibition once before the full series of films and once after provided a great deal of perspective. I hope in the future people will feel more comfortable to attend these collaborative events as the conversations with those who did come to view the films were engaging and insightful.

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Black Cinema Shorts

Janiah B. Rorie

In the final installment of the Black Cinema 2022 series, we have four short films by three directors, Jacqueline Shearer, Alile Sharon Larkin, and Fronza Woods. These women contributed to the filmmaking industry in various ways beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, creating short films and documentaries that highlighted the African American experience with primary focus on the experiences of African American women. The shorts Killing Time/Fannies Film (Woods), Your Children Come Back to You (Larkin), and A Minor Altercation (Shearer) give viewers some understanding of these experiences and tackle subjects surrounding the intersections of racial identity, gender, and class which prompts my overall five slash rating.

Starting with Killing Time/Fannies Film, I would give the two shorts the same slash ratings of five slashes. Even though Woods kept both shorts very much simple and to the point I felt connected to them more than the films by the other two directors, not because those films were any less interesting or entertaining but the themes in Woods’ shorts were not stereotypical or what would be expected for the time in my opinion. With Killing Time specifically and its dark, yet humorous subject matter, I was pleasantly surprised and intrigued the most. Fannies Film reminded me of sitting and having conversations with older relatives which I found to be heartwarming as well as saddening because many of the relatives I have had conversations like Fannie Drayton’s with the interviewer have passed away.

For Your Children Come Back to You, I can honestly say I have various grievances with the film that impact my individual slash rating for it. I would give this film four slashes primarily for the visual aspects because the content of the film itself is based around varying negative stereotypes which was disappointing. Content wise, the aspects of the film I did like were that viewers are able to get perspective from the child in the film on topics like social inequality, wealth, and class. One fact I learned watching this film is that the child, who is played by Angela Burnett is the daughter of filmmaker Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep) who is credited for cinematography and editing for Your Children Come Back to You which I found interesting.

The final short film is A Minor Altercation (Shearer) which I disliked the most out of the four shorts. It was hard for me to understand what exactly the intentions of the film were supposed to be. The film bluntly explores topics of race and discrimination with themes related to school desegregation. I mainly felt more uncomfortable with how the film ended rather than with the subject matter. There was not any clear resolve to the literal or hypothetical conflicts within the film and I would like to know more about why that is, or if there was any reason Shearer chose to set up the plot of the film in the way that she did. I would give this film an individual rating of three slashes.

Killer of Sheep

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by/janiah b. rorie
kino lorber/80 min.

I will start by saying that anyone who may be squeamish at the sight of dead animals or the processing of animals for their products may have a somewhat hard time making it through the entirety of the film, though if you can I do recommend sticking around for the other components of the film that do not involve any sheep. The best scenes actually involve no sheep at all so I am going to focus on that. Killer of Sheep tells many stories within one and provides the audience with a view into middle and lower class African American life in the 1970s, with emphasis on the hardships faced by working class individuals such as the protagonist Stan.

Stan is one of the only people in the film given a name, he has a wife and two children who he makes conscious efforts throughout the film to do better by and support. There is not much of a clear traditional plot line in Stan’s story which I consider to be quite genius. Charles Burnett made a point to demonstrate working class African American life the way it was at the time Killer of Sheep was created, but there were many aspects of the experiences Stan and other supporting characters have in the film that remain pertinent decades later. Some of the events that take place in the film make very little sense, the conflicts we see never truly get resolved, which gives the story authenticity and allows for viewers to make personal connections because that is often the way life functions.

The wearisome, unfulfilling nature of Stan’s work at the slaughterhouse along with the impacts of that work on his home life are what made the film worthy of a full five slash rating. The emotions expressed by Stan’s wife and children as result of their circumstances, having uncertainty surrounding where you are in life, not knowing if your decisions are propelling you forward or fueling stagnation, those are concepts any viewer can emphasize with.

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One

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janus films/75 min

by/ janiah b. rorie

The first thing I had to figure out with this film was how to pronounce the title, though after watching it twice through I realize the title may be part of the experimentalism of the film itself. Trying to decipher the title and figure out what it means, more or less directly reflects the general idea that the film is mainly about interpretation and perspectives. Any individual person who watches this film will take something different away from it or pay closer attention to some aspects of the film that another person may not acknowledge at all. I believe William Greaves was intentional about the way the film was shot and meant for it to be left to interpretation due to all that takes place, showcasing the process of making a film and giving the audience an opportunity to use their own perspectives to form ideas on that process.

Aside from gathering the meanings behind the film’s title I had to make an attempt to understand the purpose of the film itself. In my opinion the film was a bit confusing which made writing this review more difficult than expected and that is when I realized that the point of the film may not have been clear intentionally. The way I perceive this film as someone with little to no knowledge on filmmaking would not be the same as a person who has been on a film set before or has filmmaking experience, so it would be interesting to discuss the film with someone who understands more about the technical aspects of filmmaking that are explored. I feel that the film somewhat works in the way artwork does, as a person who is an artist would have a different perspective as someone who is an art critic or spectator of the arts.

Even though the film was difficult for me to follow along with, there were various aspects of it that I found interesting which gave me reason to give it four slashes. William Greaves  including music by Miles Davis in the film and having a diverse film crew featured in the film were small details that gave me some insight regarding who he is as a person as well as his intentions as a filmmaker. The discourse on sexuality and person-hood related to sexuality was also something I was intrigued by considering the film was released in 1968, a time period where queerness and existence outside of heterosexual norms was discouraged which makes me wonder how controversial the film was when it was released. Even though the subject matter of the film (and the film within the film) stood out to me, the confusion and unanswered questions I have pertaining to the film put a damper on my rating.

Black Girl

What Lies Behind the Mask(s) in Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl?

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by/janiah b. rorie
janus films/59 min.

Throughout history of indigenous African cultures traditional masks have had various meanings and representations, many of which holding significant spiritual or cultural value to the ethnic groups of which they were taken from. In 1966 feature film of Ousmane Sembène Black Girl was released. The film follows the journey of a Senegalese woman Diouana, played by M’bissine Thérèse Diop who is also native to Senegal, as she travels from her home of Dakar to France to work for a white family to pursue a better life, with optimism about the future for herself and her family. The meaning of home, identity, and how the impacts of colonialism effect these parts of personhood in post-colonial society are the primary themes I gathered from this film, with the presence of masks providing both literal and figurative representations of what home means to Diouana in the contexts of who she was in Dakar compared to who she is being made to be in France, much to her disappointment.

Black Girl is a film that reflects the time it was made in, though many themes of the film remain present in modern day. While I enjoyed the film and the outstanding performance done by Diop (who is still alive today) I wonder if she or Sembène knew that over fifty years after the films release, we would still be facing the same issues they showcased at the time on an international scale, as the lasting effects of colonialism still impact people of the African Diaspora globally. From 1966 to today the questions that Diouana pose to herself throughout the film surrounding who she is, the true conditions of her existence in white spaces, and what purpose she serves in those spaces still hold a great deal of relevancy. Even though Diouana’s dreams were her own, many of them correlated with aspirations to be like white women she saw in magazines, though she could not be faulted for neither the lack of representation of African women in printed media or what Western and European beauty standards deemed to be the “accepted” or “desired” look at the time.

In a conversation I had with a patron at the theater after our scheduled screening of Black Girl, it was pointed out to me that essentially all the dialogue from Diouana is done in voice-overs. There is never really a point in the film where she says much of anything to anyone directly, which gives allusion to the concept she may have been detached from her sense of self in more ways than what is shown to us on screen. I did not notice this detail the first or second time I watched the film before considering what thoughts of mine about the film I would include in my writings. The use of voice-over for the dialogue of the main character of the film is an intriguing choice on Sembène’s part to me, because even though this story is being told with Diouana as the focal point why are viewers only able to get to know her through personal thoughts and actions? I do believe that this was done intentionally, which is more of a positive than a negative in the context of understanding Diouana and the complexities of her journey that unfortunately concludes with a tragic, dark (unsurprising) ending.

Bells and Belief in Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life

by Nick Luciano

*The following contains spoilers. Some of the film quotes were taken from the “for your consideration” version of the screenplay that is widely available online. Because of this, some of the quotes may not reflect the dialogue in the final film with 100% accuracy.*

Bells are everywhere in A Hidden Life—there are church bells (which are nearly omnipresent), bicycle bells, cowbells, and sleigh bells in both major and minor points in the story. The bells take on an added significance because Malick pairs them with two existing compositions by composer Arvo Pärt—Sarah was Ninety Years Old and the second movement of Tabula Rasa. Pärt is arguably the most prominent composer whose work has been colloquially described as holy minimalism. The holy minimalists were generally Eastern Europeans whose music usually resembled the consonant, repetitive style of the better known American minimalists, like Philip Glass or Steve Reich, but with a more introspective, meditative, or religious inclination. 

Pärt isn’t the only holy minimalist that Malick uses in A Hidden Life—also present is a piece by Henryk Górecki, who was most famous for a piece that received a surprising amount of mainstream success, his Symphony No. 3, “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.” What makes Pärt’s inclusion and prominence in the soundtrack so important is his compositional style, which he has dubbed tintinnabulation, a word derived from the Latin word for bells. The details of the compositional method are not important for the purposes of this essay; instead, what is important is Pärt’s relationship to the style and to bells. Musicologist Richard Taruskin writes that “Pärt fastened on the sound of bells—a sonic component of religious rituals in many traditions, but particularly in that of the Russian Orthodox Church. The evocation of bell sounds became for Pärt the sonic equivalent of an icon: a holy image that embodied mystical belief in material form.” Furthermore, Pärt describes tintinnabulation in the liner notes to one of his most famous compositions, Fratres (itself prominently featured in the Paul Thomas Anderson film There Will Be Blood), as

an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers – in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises – and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. . . . The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.

It is unclear if Malick is aware of Pärt’s compositional style or its meaning to him. It seems likely that Lauren Mikus, the music supervisor on A Hidden Life and Knight of Cups (another Malick film that features music by Pärt), would at the very least be aware of the connection between Pärt’s music and bells. Whether or not tintinnabulation consciously factored into the decision to pair Pärt’s compositions with bells, it is remarkable how perfectly Pärt’s quote describes Franz’s conflict of faith—the quote could be seamlessly woven into Franz’s voiceover with only a few word changes. Based on a true story, A Hidden Life details the decision of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) to refuse military service in the Nazi army in World War II. His resolve to resist the Nazis is tested countless times—the townspeople turn against him for not serving while their loved ones do, the mayor and priest try to change his mind, he faces the possibilities of jail and execution if he does not change his mind, and even his sister-in-law doesn’t support his decision—leading him to be unsure about the path he is following. Through it all, his faith and family constantly guide his moral compass.

It’s important to distinguish Franz’s faith from the institution of the Church. The Church is not portrayed in a positive light, as leaders have made concessions to avoid Nazi persecution. Two Church leaders, Father Fürthauer (Tobias Moretti) and Bishop Fliessen (Michael Nyqvist), try to dissuade Franz from his decision. Meanwhile, Ohlendorf (Johan Leysen), a painter restoring the art in the church, openly muses about the hypocrisy of the Church, commenting that “They look up and imagine that if they’d lived back in his time, they wouldn’t have done what the others did. They would’ve stood by him. They wouldn’t have run. His friends did, though. They would, too. . . . I turn the suffering of the brave into my livelihood. So people can look up from these pews and dream!” Ohlendorf presents us with the hypothetical question that has haunted us since World War II—what would we do if we were in Nazi Germany? It’s easy to say that we would stand up and resist in the face of losing everything, even though studies like the Milgram obedience experiments say that we likely wouldn’t. In this case, the Church has failed its mission, just as so many of us fail to meet injustice in today’s world.

Instead, nature seems to serve as Franz’s real church. The towering peaks and vast valleys of the mountains surrounding his house evoke a cathedral’s spires and cavernous naves in their majesty and boundlessness. Many of Franz’s discussions about his uneasiness with potentially having to serve in the war, including with Father Fürthauer, occur outside. The outdoor settings also allow the bells to be noticeably present throughout Franz’s life, not just as reminders of God’s presence in good moments—like quiet moments with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and watching his young daughters play—but in his low moments as well. The bicycle bell belongs to the local mailman, and the screenplay describes “Franz and Fani wait[ing] in fear and suspense every time [the postman] appears. He might deliver the same induction notice to Franz that his neighbor Hessler received.” At another point, Franz engages in fisticuffs with a neighbor about his refusal to join the army while bells ring in the background. 

Through it all, Franz is understandably unsure about his decision. He knows he is making a choice in accordance with his faith, but doesn’t want to abandon Fani and his children. Franz is only finally convinced to follow the path he is taking to the end only after Fani reassures him in what is the most powerful scene in the film, telling him “Whatever you do, whatever comes, I am with you, always. Do what is right.” Franz is indeed executed by the Nazis for his refusal to join the Nazis, and the church bells in his village chime once again to commemorate him. Fani’s approval finally provides Franz unity, and everything that is unimportant falls away.

dark waters

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by/nick luciano
focus features/126 min.

There has been a recent renaissance of investigative journalism films following the critical and commercial successes of 2015’s Spotlight. The Post followed in 2017 and was nominated for multiple Academy Awards, while Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters and Scott Z. Burns’ The Report were released days apart this year. While Dark Waters and The Report don’t revolve around journalists per se—instead following an environmental lawyer and a Senate staffer, respectively—but many of the tropes are still there: the lone investigator slowly compiling information to uncover the truth about powerful interests over the course of years, finally succeeding despite being intimidated by those interests and receiving little institutional support, all while using massive amounts of exposition to explain their findings.

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Yet Dark Waters distinguishes itself from The Report in several important ways. The Report details the investigation conducted by Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) into the CIA’s use of torture in the Middle East. While containing some interesting moral quandaries and strong performances, the film is mostly Driver yelling the report at the audience, disguised as rebuttals to the CIA’s talking points. The audience is asked to keep track of an incredible amount of information that is mostly dumped on them. There is virtually no human element outside his working relationship with Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Benning). At one point, Jones alludes to a romantic relationship with someone that ended because of his obsession with the report, but the audience only gets this one line—we never even know the name of the other person. Jones works with two other staffers reviewing the documents, April (Sarah Goldberg) and Julian (Lucas Dixon), but their relationships are mostly nonexistent, as April leaves the team fairly early in the film and I can’t recall Julian having a line in the second half of the film.

By comparison, the relationships in Dark Waters are much closer to the foreground. The film follows Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a corporate defense attorney at a prestigious Cincinnati law firm, who decides to take a case against the chemical company DuPont. Billot discovers that DuPont had knowingly dumped thousands of tons of toxic chemicals in a landfill, poisoning the town and surrounding areas of Parkersburg, West Virginia. As Billot digs further, he discovers that DuPont’s actions haven’t only affected the health of the town, but have implications for global health as well.

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Billot is married with young children when his investigation begins. His wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway), is a former lawyer herself and is forced to bear much of the brunt of Billot’s obsession with the investigation. While somewhat cliched, their relationship adds a layer of motivations that aren’t present in The Report. Although Sarah believes that he is too obsessed with the report, and think he’s putting his job and lifestyle in jeopardy, she also stands up for him when he needs her the most. Billot’s interest in the case is rooted in its impact on and his relationship with other people: he is initially drawn to the case because the client, a farmer named Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) knows his grandmother, and is spurred on when he sees a young girl’s fluoride-blackened teeth. He often thinks of his own family, and how they could have easily been affected as well, had Billot not left the area.

The film’s color pallet is very muted and bleak—it’s almost as if the light is filtered through dark water. At its best, the visuals thoroughly complement the diseased setting of the film and draw in the viewer—I felt physically sick and tainted while watching a character drinking tainted water, and the cold light bathing the scene was a major part of that reaction. The color palette exudes hopelessness, and can at times feel overwhelmingly grim, but the hopelessness is mirrored in the obstacles Billot must overcome.

While Billot faces many hurdles, he also has many advantages that stem from his position as a lawyer at a prestigious law firm. To me, one of Dark Waters’ most interesting subversions of its subgenre, and something that I wish was developed further, is the implication of Billot’s complicity in the very systems that protect corporations like DuPont. At one point midway through the film, despite already spending more than a year on the case, Tennant angrily shouts “you’re still one of them!” at Billot. This is, of course, true. He is still a lawyer at a firm that defends other chemical companies—it’s not a stretch to imagine that some of their clients engage in similar practices—and other partners at the firm often express concern about losing business and prestige. Billot has a tremendous amount of privilege that is not afforded to the citizens of Parkersburg: he is able to put his children through Catholic school and live a comfortable lifestyle, despite not making any money for his firm while incurring tremendous expenses for the better part of a decade. Over time, Billot cedes some of this privilege, taking multiple pay cuts and suffering declining health, but there is little examination of the dichotomy between the work he does and the systems that allow him to do it beyond Tennant’s admonishment.

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Dark Waters is far from a perfect film—it’s a tad rote and overly bleak—but is elevated by its performances and examinations of class, environmentalism, and corporate greed. The film is an exposé, but it is also a call to action, that we don’t uncritically trust the systems that are meant to protect us, nor that we fail to recognize our own complicity in those systems.

honey boy

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by/nick luciano
amazon studios/93 min.

You may have noticed that there is a chicken featured prominently in the logo and promotional material for the film Honey Boy. That chicken is, of course, Henrietta Lafowl, the world’s first daredevil chicken. Henrietta does not play a major role in the film outside of symbolism, but we’ll get to that.

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Directed by Alma Har’el and written by Shia LaBeouf, Honey Boy lightly dramatizes LaBeouf’s experiences as a child actor and an adult in rehab. After drunkenly crashing his car, Otis Lort (Lucas Hedges) is sent to court-mandated rehab. Although he is often dismissive of the rehab and antagonistic with his counselors, he takes to an assignment to write about himself. This quickly evolves into writing about his relationship with his father (mirroring the real-life inception of the film).

The majority of the film takes place in lengthy flashbacks, often triggered by events in the present. The flashbacks follow a twelve-year-old Otis (Noah Jupe) and his father James (LaBeouf). Despite his successful acting career, Otis and James live in a run-down motel. James is emotionally and physically abusive, a bigot, and a sex offender.

James is obsessed with get-rich-quick schemes. This is where Henrietta comes in. The audience is first introduced to Henrietta Lafowl while James is hitting on a woman. He tries to impress her by recounting his days as a rodeo clown, and the act that he performed with Henrietta, all while being completely oblivious to Otis, who is struggling to get out of a harness by himself. Henrietta and Otis serve the same purpose to James—they are sideshows meant to be exploited to make a buck. Otis pays James to be his chaperone, correctly asserting with growing confidence that James would not be there if it was not for this money. Most of their interactions involve Otis’ career, running lines and practicing juggling almost incessantly (with pushups as a punishment for mistakes). Despite James’ reliance on Otis’ income, there are odd moments of presumably jealousy-fueled sabotage mixed into their interactions; for example, a moment when James pulls Otis out of a scene just as he was starting to do well. Their relationship causes Otis to have a skewed, transactional perception of relationships in general—to the point that he tries to pay an older girl (and probable prostitute) that he befriended (Shy Girl, played by FKA Twigs) after she spent time with him.

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Shy Girl is one of the few bright lights in Otis’ life; as such, I think that her representation is likely more romanticized than it is an accurate accounting of their friendship. There are romantic undertones presented to the audience, but I think that it is much more likely that she was someone that was kind to him and filled a gap left by Otis’ mother’s absence and his unhealthy relationship with James.

There are moments of symmetry throughout the film. Two such moments even made the trailer, comparing instances where Otis is violently ripped backward by a harness as part of a stunt. In one of the scenes, the older Otis wearily walks back to his spot—he’s clearly done this so many times throughout the years that it has lost any level of excitement for him. Other moments trigger flashbacks; for instance, a rehab exercise in a pool prompts a memory of an incident between his father and Otis’ Big Brothers Big Sisters mentor involving a pool. Even the final shot of the film mirrors an earlier scene. The most powerful of these moments mirrors a moment where Otis is by himself, juxtaposing a vibrant younger version of Otis shouting on the top of a junkyard car in a classic “king of the world” type pose with the older Otis screaming as a result of all of his emotional pain in the middle of the woods. It is one of the most beautiful, devastating, and memorable moments in the film.

It’s a credit to LeBeouf’s acting and Har’el’s adept direction that the audience is able to feel any level of pity for James. And yet, despite knowing everything he’s done in the movie and in his past, it’s hard to see someone that is so inept, ignorant, and insecure. We don’t sympathize with him or his behavior, but we can at least feel pity. But the real character arc is Otis’, who grows from a person that does not take his rehab seriously to someone who can reach a point where he can forge his own path and forgive his father. He is the embodiment of one of the film’s final lines: “a seed has to totally destroy itself to become a flower. That’s a violent act, Honey Boy.”

in fabric

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by/nick luciano
A24/118 min.

“Isn’t it a little risqué?”

“A provocation. For what else must one wear?”

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Characters throughout director Peter Strickland’s new film, In Fabric, refer to the various “sleeping dreams” that they recently experienced. The dreams are Freudian wonderlands—one character dreams about the stink of their mother’s corpse causing a bus to drive off a cliff, while another dreams that she is in the store catalog on every page, continually growing skinnier even though the size of the garment she’s wearing is increasing. Implied in categorizing an event as a sleeping dream is the existence of a “waking dream;” the film unfolds in a similarly dreamlike and provocative manner—a sort of “waking dream” in its own right.

The film primarily revolves around Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), the new owner of a haunted dress. The haunting has presumably already taken the life of the catalog model who had previously worn it (the sales clerk is kind enough to reassure Sheila that the model showered before wearing it, so the customers have nothing to worry about!). After the dress slowly destroys Sheila’s life (or, depending on your interpretation, while it continues to destroy her life), it comes into the possession of a loveless couple named Reg and Babs (Leo Bill and Hayley Squires) when Reg’s friends buy the dress to make him wear it to haze him during his bachelor party.

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Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed), the sales clerk that initially sells the dress to Sheila, absolutely steals the show. Luckmoore’s memorably baroque vocabulary and peculiar speaking cadence confound other characters as she continuously talks circles around them. She and the other clerks are members of a weird cabal, seemingly led by the gruesome Mr. Lundy, devoted to forwarding the dress to new victims. Miss Luckmoore and Mr. Lundy could be seamlessly dropped into a David Lynch film—compare their pale complexion, otherworldly inflection, and menacing dialogue to the Mystery Man from Lynch’s Lost Highway. There are many other apparent nods to Lynch, ranging from the use of red curtains to mimicking Lynch’s style of imagery and sound design in particularly surreal moments (the description of the film on the Toronto International Film Festival page includes yet another comparison to Lost Highway: a bifurcated plot). While I am a big fan of Lynch and surrealism in general, the most overtly surreal scene in the film, featuring Mr. Lundy voyeuristically watching a few clerks wipe down a mannequin, didn’t quite work for me. Perhaps I would feel different if it was directed by someone whose filmic vocabulary I was more familiar with, but the scene in question was uncomfortable and felt out of place with the rest of the film.

Another influence felt in the film is that of the Italian horror subgenre giallo. The Italian word for yellow (taken from the color of their dimestore pulp novels), giallo was an influential subgenre from the 1960s and 70s prioritizing mood, style, violence, and psychosexuality over plot and characterization. In Fabric, much like giallo films, is not particularly interested in answering questions and tying up loose ends. Images of the dress hovering menacingly over its future victims, or of a maintenance room with way too many mannequins than anyone could reasonably feel comfortable around, would feel right at home in a giallo. The icing on the pastiche cake is the score. Much like the score to famed giallo director Dario Argento’s film Suspiria (1977) by the band Goblin, Cavern of Anti-Matter’s score to In Fabric is synth-heavy with a simple, haunting melody, evoking that earlier subgenre while setting a suspenseful mood over the film.

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While clearly an entertaining film, I could never quite shake that it felt like an episode from the early series of the sci-fi anthology Black Mirror. It’s hard to say why (although it may be as superficial as being produced by BBC Films—early seasons of Black Mirror were similarly produced by a British television production company, Channel 4). This is not entirely meant to be a criticism, as I am a big fan of those early seasons. While the film has some satire, it isn’t quite as overt and pointed as the best of Black Mirror. There is certainly a critique of consumerism present in the final moments of the film that thread can be extended to the rest of the film, even if tenuously so. I think that it would be valid to read the dress as a stand-in for consumerism—Sheila purchases it to increase her self-esteem pending date following a separation from her husband; in reality, she is feeding into the systems that are oppressing/killing her.

The film probably isn’t for everyone, especially people who don’t enjoy surrealism or unresolved plotlines. But In Fabric displays capable acting, fantastic cinematography, evocative music, and an entertaining story, and is well worth a look. It wears its provocations boldly, rarely falling flat and keeping the audience in suspense until the end.

waves

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by/alex abrams
a24/135 min.

The camera spins as it follows high school wrestler Tyler (a brilliant Kelvin Harrison Jr.) in the opening minutes of “Waves.” The nonstop movement captures an average day in Tyler’s life, from singing in his truck with his girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie), to sitting through class and lifting weights.

MV5BZmFjY2Q5MjAtNmE5Yi00ZDQ1LWEyNGMtZTlmMDI5MGI1ZjhkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTQ4ODA2NzQ@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1566,1000_AL_With his use of vibrant colors, blaring music and sparse dialogue, writer-director Trey Edward Shults lets you know from the very beginning of “Waves” that you should brace yourself for plenty of unsettling images. Everything is spinning out of control for an affluent African-American family dealing with love, heartbreak, grief and regret.

Like the Academy Award-winning “Moonlight,” “Waves” deals with themes revolving around what it means to be a black man growing up in South Florida. Both films show their protagonists floating in the ocean as if the water will cleanse their souls and protect them from the harsh realities of life.

If only things were so simple.

An amazing cast carries “Waves,” which is emotionally draining but so compelling you can’t take your eyes off the impending disasters. Harrison and Taylor Russell, playing Tyler’s confused younger sister, Emily, shine in their breakout performances. “Waves” is both of their stories. The first half of the film focuses on the mounting pressure that Tyler — with his dyed blonde hair — feels as he struggles with a wrestling injury, relationship problems and a demanding father (Sterling K. Brown) with good intentions. When things take a turn, “Waves” becomes about Emily’s journey.

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“Waves” runs the risk of feeling like two films in one. However, Harrison and Russell do an incredible job bringing Shults’ vision to life and showing that the brother and sister share the same story. They balance out the film. Tyler and Emily are each suffering, but they express their pain in much different ways. At any time, though, it’s possible for them to go down the same path. More than once, you might feel compelled to holler at the screen to try to get them to make better choices.

Brown brings both heart and intensity as Ronald, the patriarch of the family. Some moviegoers might be taken aback by his performance, which is much darker than he has become known for as the loving, driven father, Randall, he plays in NBC’s “This Is Us.”

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Brown avoids going over the top with his performance. When he breaks down while talking to his daughter during a fishing trip, you realize he’s just as flawed, hurt and human as the other characters. He’s doing the best he can, but he’s ill-equipped.  Acclaimed Broadway actress Renée Elise Goldsberry — who performed earlier this year on Wake Forest University’s campus — rounds out the family as Ronald’s wife Catharine.

Nothing in “Waves” easily drifts through the film. It’s one crashing wave after another, but if you can stomach it, the payoff is well worth it. Just leave some time after the film ends to let it all sink in.