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.

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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.

sundance satellite 2022: everyday in kaimukī

by/brandon yunker

There’s something about sitting underneath a night sky that’s both calming and provoking. There’s a vastness to it, a space that’s empty yet feels full. For dreamers it gives a landscape to dream and for worriers it’s a reminder that the clock is ticking. The opening images of Everyday in Kaimukī (2022), directed by Alika Tengan, introduces us to a world that seems friendly enough, while at the same time, introducing a world that our protagonist would like to branch out from. This film is one that explores life’s contradictions, all under the guise of a millennial trying to nail down what he wants his life to be.

Naz Kawakami and Rina White appear in Everyday in Kaimukī by Alika Tengan, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The performances are natural, which is ideal considering many of the characters in the film are fictional representations of the actors themselves. The story follows Naz Kawakami as Naz, a young radio DJ who is dead set on leaving his home in Kaimukī to plop down in New York City. Kawakami brings a cool intensity to the character that he portrays. Naz is a self-admitted “worrier”, yet he has no clear plans, nor does he seem particularly convinced that wants to leave. But something keeps pulling him away from Kaimukī, and it’s through his relationships within his community, and the difficulties with his girlfriend, that we understand his struggle to make this leap and to prove to himself that he can go beyond the confines of his hometown. The transition towards maturity and adulthood is a theme that has been explored many times before, but it is how the film looks that elevates the material towards something fresh.

It is through Naz’s friends that we learn what he means to the community. Naz is the face that everyone seems to know. Many of his social interactions involve skateboarding, which is filmed tremendously by the Chapin Hall.  The shots of the skaters grinding and hitting the pipe have the polish of a skate video. The slick realism of how the scenes are staged and the characters interaction with each other lends itself to the cinema verité feel of the film. The two-shot conversations look as though they are happening in front of our very eyes, as if we’re traveling along with Naz as he tries to tie up loose ends. The hyperrealism of the shots sells us that we are in this place at this specific time. It makes the film immersive and helps give it its authenticity, breathing life into the inhabitants and to the city itself.

Naz Kawakami appears in Everyday in Kaimukī by Alika Tengan, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or ‘Courtesy of Sundance Institute.’ Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

When one pictures a story set in Hawaii, the images of sunny beaches and hula skirts come to mind. Every Day in Kaimukī is not this. It is much more representative of a modern Hawaii, one that has grown but not adapted since the middle of the twentieth century. Kaimukī is urban and aging. When Naz is driving around he remarks that the roads and bridges are stuck in the 1960’s when there were “30 cars on the island.” Kaimukī is a place that still has its soul, it’s filled with people enjoying the warmth of the sun compared to how New York City is presented, sprawling and frigid.  But maybe places like Kaimuikī need a new perspective, something that Naz sympathizes with.

Everyday in Kaimukī is very much an authentically Hawaiian film. But not int the way most audiences would guess. Kaimukī is depicted as a growing place of commerce but at the same time it is also proceed a sense of intimacy within the members of its community. And while the film is specific in its authenticity, its subject matter is universal. It is a story about a young man forcing himself to make tough decisions and the journey towards maturation that happens along the way. The performances and cinematography come together to present a pleasurable character study that never feels as if it meanders but instead invites you to hang out and soak up the vibes.

sundance satellite 2022: emergency

by/ronan moore

Emergency Review: Sundance Buddy Comedy Tackles Racism in America – The  Hollywood Reporter

As introductions to Sundance go, you certainly can’t go wrong with this one.

Kunle and Sean, two college students on the brink of graduation, plan an intense night of partying. All that is upended, however, when an unconscious young white girl is found in their living room. Fearing the worst may happen if the authorities are contacted, they take it upon themselves to find a solution to the problem.

One thing people may not get from the marketing around this film is that it’s pretty darn funny. RJ Cyler shines as Sean, an incisive, if a bit inebriated, friend to the group determined to help the young girl. Many moments with him garnered great laughs in the theater. The one responsible for the biggest laughs, though, was Sebastian Chacon’s Carlos, an optimistic misfit who is deceptively prepared for anything. The protagonist, Donald Watkins’ Kunle pretty much plays the straight man, but while he bears the brunt of carrying the film’s more serious moments, he is not without a good chuckle or two.

To bring it back to the serious moments of this film, there are many sobering instances that shine a light on what life is really like for young Black Americans. I had the privilege of seeing Emergency with a very reactive audience, so when scenes that played on the suspense of white outsiders misinterpreting the situation the main characters found themselves in, you could feel the collective heart rate of the room go up. There are some moments that expertly entwine comedy and social commentary, particularly towards and at the end.

This film is greatly elevated by its script and direction. Carey Williams does an outstanding job of elevating the genres he’s using by combining their strengths and providing results in the form of strong emotional moments. The conflict between Kunle and Sean is given so many more dimensions than most “college party” movies because Williams’ story and direction take full advantage of the Blackness of these characters. I think (and sincerely hope) that this movie inspires more conversations because of what it manages to say with its genre balancing. In my humble opinion, a film that makes you laugh and think is the best kind of film.

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.

The Sound of Color in Autumn de Wilde’s Emma.

By Alex Abrams 

In full disclosure, I made it only halfway through Jane Austen’s Emma before getting frustrated with the classic novel and giving up on it. It was the first book I was assigned to read in my first class as an English graduate student, and I didn’t have the patience to finish it. 

Credit filmmaker Autumn de Wilde for making Jane Austen entertaining for everyone. Plenty have attempted it. Who can forget about Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters? However, de Wilde’s adaptation of “Emma.” is the most visually stunning film of 2020. 

Women in colorful dresses are reflected in pools of water. Men fill up the screen as they walk and ride on horseback around the British countryside. Every shot in “Emma.” looks like it could be a portrait on display in a museum. Love and heartbreak in the 19th century has never appeared more stunning.  

Even though “Emma.” is de Wilde’s impressive feature-film debut, she left hints along the way about what she was capable of as a visionary filmmaker. Like David Fincher, Spike Jonze, and Hype Williams before her, de Wilde got her big break directing music videos. 

De Wilde’s style — such as her use of vibrant colors and lovable screwballs — is evident in the music videos she directed for the likes of Florence + the Machine and Elliott Smith. She returns to them in “Emma.” Here is how some of her videos foreshadowed her brilliant take on Jane Austen. 

Florence + the Machine’s “Big God” (2018) 

De Wilde accepted a pair of awards at the 2018 UK Music Video Awards for her powerful video for “Big God” — one for Best Rock Video Award and the other for Best Choreography in a Video. While the video is more intense than the whimsical “Emma.” de Wilde uses many of the same techniques in both. 

“Big God” and “Emma.” focus on strong women in bright colors, though one could argue whether the title character in “Emma.” — played brilliantly by rising star Anya Taylor-Joy — is actually as cunning and independent as she believes. While the young matchmaker likes to scheme, her plans don’t always work out and she ultimately wants to fall in love like the characters she sees as inferior to her. 

In “Big God,” vocalist Florence Welch leads an all-female group of dancers shrouded in red, blue, green, yellow and purple costumes. Emma, meanwhile, is a ringleader of her own. She has women in colorful period costumes following her as she dances at a party and goes shopping. She tries to control them as best as she can.  

One of the many impressive shots in “Emma.” involves a troop of young women in bright red dresses — think something out of “The Handmaid’s Tale” — crossing by a body of water and their images reflected in the water. In “Big God,” de Wilde has the women dancing on water and their costumes reflected as they splash around. The video ends with streaks of color floating on the water. 

Starcrawler’s “I Love LA” (2017)  

Jane Austen fills Emma with plenty of oddballs for comedic purposes, starting with Emma’s hypochondriac father, Mr. Woodhouse. Legendary British actor Bill Nighy plays him to big laughs in de Wilde’s film adaptation.  

Everyone around Mr. Woodhouse is just as bizarre, such as the over-the-top Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor), who’s Emma’s first choice for her single girlfriend.  

De Wilde shows her affinity for quirky characters in her long introduction to “I Love LA,” which lasts nearly two minutes before Starcrawler finally starts playing. The video is set in what has to be America’s worst doughnut shop, where the employees are slackers who let the phone ring and make customers wait. 

Arrow de Wilde, the director’s daughter, is the lead singer of Starcrawler. In the video, she plays perhaps the doughnut shop’s worst employee. She falls asleep in the restroom, admits to farting in the kitchen where the doughnuts are made and gives attitude to an odd-looking customer. 

 Like Emma, Arrow de Wilde’s character in the video is blonde, attractive and a mess when she’s given the freedom to do what she wants. 

Death Cab for Cutie’s “Cath…” (2008) 

“Emma.” opens with a wedding service at a church, and the film closes with a wedding (No spoilers here). It’s clear that plenty of drama can take place at a wedding, and de Wilde shows that in her video for “Cath…” 

While Death Cab for Cutie sits still and sings, the bulk of the video plays out like the classic ending of  “The Graduate,” when Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) storms into a wedding chapel to try to stop Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross) from getting married to another man. 

In de Wilde’s version, a clearly uninvited male guest arrives at a church and sits in the last pew before he can’t take it anymore and runs toward the would-be bride. He clearly still has feelings for her, and he interrupts the wedding before it’s too late. 

The wedding scenes in “Emma.” aren’t nearly as desperate, and there’s a level of humor to each of them. More importantly, the audience wants to see the characters who are getting married go through with the ceremony. There isn’t a sense that characters are making a mistake by marrying the wrong people. 

Still, de Wilde showed 12 years before the release of “Emma.” that a wedding is the perfect setting for a story. We know what to expect when a woman in a white wedding dress shows up and starts walking down the aisle, but de Wilde has a way of putting her spin on it. 

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.

Parasite won Best Picture—so let’s talk about those other movies.

The Movie Super Bowl has crowned its champion and we can all finally move on to the next year in what is sure to be another great season of movie-going. However, we haven’t entirely settled the score—so here is what our movie-minds here at f/stop have to say about 2019’s hidden (or perhaps uncut) gems.

Quentin Norris

My love for The Lighthouse boils down to my feeling that Robert Eggers plucked this movie out of my subconscious and brought it to life onscreen. This is the kind of movie I live for. Moody, oppressively atmospheric, inside a snowglobe world that feels absolutely lived-in. The Lighthouse is just as, if not more, witchy, spooky, and surreal than The Witch, while Eggers also challenges himself with broader elements of dark comedy and character study. I look forward to the multiple rewatches I’ll have for this film in the future.
  1. The Lighthouse
  2. Parasite
  3. Midsommar
  4. Us
  5. Knives Out
  6. The Nightingale
  7. Pain & Glory
  8. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood
  9. In Fabric
  10. The Farewell

Amanda Clark

“Knives Out” is one of the most clever, entertaining, keep you guessing ‘til the very end movies I’ve ever seen. It was a ride, from start to finish, with incredible performances by this all-star cast. The film received Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Award nominations, and Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas were recognized by the HFPA for their stunning work as well. Everyone in this film was at their best. This fresh take on a who-dunnit murder mystery is not to be missed. Cheers to director Rian Johnson for this screenplay, and its brilliant film work and innovative storyline. I will be re-watching it for years to come.

  1. Knives Out
  2. Booksmart
  3. The Peanut Butter Falcon
  4. The Irishman
  5. Skin
  6. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
  7. El Camino
  8. Gloria Bell
  9. Judy
  10. Hustlers

Nicholas Luciano

In the opening shot of The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a longer than usual closeup shot of a young African-American girl looking upwards. The next shot reveals a man looking down on her, clad from head-to-toe in a hazmat suit. It’s a startling reveal, especially to start the movie. The little girl continues to play, finding joy in a place where she shouldn’t really be. Themes of belonging and identity permeate this wonderfully shot, musically rich, and fantastically acted drama. An optimistic young man named Jimmie Fails (loosely based on and named after the actor that plays him) attempts to regain a house that his grandfather owned, over twenty years after his family lost it. His best friend Mont (Jonathan Majors), a struggling playwright, tries his best to help Jimmy in his quest. On the way, they grow as friends, individuals, and San Franciscans, eventually learning to escape history and forge their own path.

  1. The Last Black Man in San Francisco
  2. Once Upon A Time in Hollywood
  3. Us
  4. Parasite
  5. The Nightingale
  6. The Irishman
  7. Marriage Story
  8. Midsommar
  9. The Souvenir
  10. The Lighthouse

Nicholas Leon

Robert Eggers’ follow-up to his debut film, The Witch, is at once a callback to the old school and something entirely new. I love this film not just for how stylistically distinct it is, but for how clearly invested the director, cast, and crew  were in making it. The period-accurate dialogue, accents, clothing, setting and even myths at work here are some of the best I’ve ever seen. 

  1. The Lighthouse
  2. They Shall Not Grow Old
  3. Jojo Rabbit
  4. Parasite
  5. The Irishman
  6. Us
  7. Once Upon a Time In…Hollywood
  8. Midsommar
  9. Hail Satan?
  10. Birds of Passage

Now, on to 2020.

Madman Films south korea parasite bong joon ho gisaengchung GIF

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.”