Run Through It

The River and the Wall

by Rachel Willis

Director Ben Masters has an interest in the land along the Rio Grande. In making The River and the Wall, he hopes to show us what makes the area so special.

Along with four companions – two wildlife filmmakers, an ecologist/ornithologist, and a Rio Grande river guide – Masters embarks on a weeks-long, 1200-mile trip from El Paso, Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. They travel along the Rio Grande, the potential site of a border wall that, if erected, would have a lasting, devastating impact on the land.

Most of the film screens like an adventure tale. The companions travel by mountain bike and mustang in places where the river is too shallow for boats. When the river is passable, they journey by canoe. By making the trip in this way, they hope to show the difficulty of the journey in numerous places. It’s an imperfect attempt to emphasize the unlikelihood that immigrants would choose these routes when attempting to cross into the United States.

Along the way, we meet people on both sides of the border. If there are people who live in these areas who are in favor of the wall, Masters and team don’t meet any. From people living in Mexico to ranchers in Texas, everyone recognizes the potential negative consequences to the proposed wall. Even the area U.S. representatives in Congress, Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat, and Will Hurd, a Republican, are opposed to the wall. Hurd states that building a wall “is the most expensive, least effective” method for border security. It’s a rare show of bipartisanship that should give those opposed to the wall some hope.

The cinematography is essential in a film that wants to impart upon the audience the beauty, vastness, and treachery of the land, and the crew is up to the challenge. Numerous shots highlight the diversity of the landscape as the five friends make their way along the river.

In some ways, The River and the Wall effectively states its case that the area around the Rio Grande should be protected. Ecologist Heather Mackey mentions over 150 bird species live in the area, some of which are only located in this area. A wall would disrupt migration patterns, bulldoze protected natural areas, and in effect, cede nearly 1 million acres of U.S. land to Mexico.

However, it is unlikely the film will change the minds of those in favor of the wall. Most likely because they won’t even bother to see it.

I Don’t Want to Go Out–Week of April 29

What’s worth watching this week? Most everything, really, even though one is more of a train wreck kind of thing.

Click the film title for the full review.


Dragged Across Concrete (DVD)

The Hole in the Ground (DVD)

I Trapped the Devil


Screening Room: Endgame, High Life, Family, Stockholm, JT LeRoy, I Trapped the Devil

Hey, is there anything new in theaters this week? Yes! Avengers: Endgame–maybe you’ve heard of it. But there are others you may not have heard of: Family, High Life, Stockholm, JT LeRoy and I Trapped the Devil. We talk through all of them plus give some thoughts on what’s new in home entertainment.

Listen to the full podcast HERE.

Don’t Open Until Christmas

I Trapped the Devil

by Hope Madden

Jordan Peele is not the only one preoccupied with The Twilight Zone. First time filmmaker Josh Lobo obviously has a soft spot for one of their episodes.

Don’t look into which one, though. In fact, don’t even watch the trailer for Lobo’s indie horror I Trapped the Devil, because not knowing the outcome is half the fun.

Lobo takes us along on a Christmas visit with family. You know, those awkward gatherings where maybe your brother is a paranoid schizophrenic who keeps a man captive in his basement.

Or, maybe your brother’s right and that man is really Satan.

But let’s be honest. It’s probably the former.

As Steve (Scott Poythress) tries to convince brother Matt (AJ Bowen) and sister-in-law Karen (Susan Burke) that it’s really the latter, Lobo hovers over issues of family dysfunction, grief, and the evil in the world. He pulls none of those strings in a way that is particularly satisfying, but he is onto something.

The film’s narrative offers a nice subversion of horror’s standard “is she crazy or is there evil in the house” trope. Historically, the genre relies on some kind of common assumption about feminine hysteria to drive a tension that asks the audience to wonder whether we are witnessing a mental breakdown or whether the protagonist’s feminine intuition has led her to pick up on something malevolent.

I Trapped the Devil overturns those gender assumptions and grounds the tension in something more scientifically intriguing. Is Steve a violently disturbed man with a captive in his basement, or has he, indeed, trapped Satan?

We the audience are supposed to be weighing our options. How realistic is it that his family is kicking around the options? Not very.

Committed performances from the trio help develop a sympathetic mood. Still, Lobo struggles—as does his cast—to get reasonably from Point: There’s a Guy Locked in a Closet Downstairs to Point: No, Let’s Not Phone the Authorities Just Yet.

He also leaves too many unexplored ideas on the table: the maddening grief, the weird images on the staticky TV, how Steve got the guy down his basement in the first place.

A little ambiguity can lend to atmosphere. This much tends to feel more like lazy screenwriting.

There are flashes of real terror now and again, though, and the mystery of the man in the closet remains a tense one to the seriously creepy closing image. Lobo’s horror instincts are sound, and even though his knack for fleshing out details is lacking, his movie’s a pretty solid scare.

I’ll Be You

JT LeRoy

by Hope Madden

Do you remember the JT LeRoy hubbub? Maybe you confuse it with the similar hullaballoo surrounding James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, the memoir that turned out to be highly fictional?

Please don’t. LeRoy’s bizarre fake nonfiction and ensuing scandal is so much more interesting.

Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy is a hoax perpetrated on an almost grotesquely willing public. Laura Albert, a frustrated writer, master manipulator and likely sufferer of mental health issues, invented LeRoy.

More than the nom de plume used to pen Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, LeRoy became Albert’s literary persona. Albert herself didn’t exist in this world. She became LeRoy, the writer of lurid “autobiographical” pieces that, together with a mysterious nature, won the hearts of readers, media and celebrities alike.

In fact, Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy became so popular that he had no choice but to show his nonexistent face.

Enter Albert’s sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop.

The weird true-life tale of LeRoy’s fake-life tale has been documented twice in works of nonfiction (the documentaries The Cult of JT LeRoy and Author: The JT LeRoy Story, both worth viewing). Director Justin Kelly is the first to make fiction of the fiction with his aptly cast film, J.T. LeRoy.

Though the film doesn’t offer a great deal of insight beyond what you can glean from the two documentaries, it takes Knoop’s point of view for a refreshing change of pace. But its real strength is the film’s cast.

Kristen Stewart makes the ideal choice to play Savanna/JT. Effortlessly androgynous, moody, sensual and conflicted, Stewart gives the character a vulnerable center, balancing Knoop’s motivation between a sense of duty to Albert and a personal longing for artistic expression.

Naturally, Laura Dern shines, stealing scenes and oscillating between free spirit and opportunist. She does a fine job of illustrating Abbot’s view of creating this other personality who can take on her own pain, can amplify that pain and turn it into both an escape and art. At the same time, Dern’s the schemer, the survivor manipulating those around her. It’s interesting the way the veteran character actor weaves between artist and manipulator in a context that questions the difference between fiction and fraud.

The two leads become a great point/counter point and the film is strongest in their shared scenes. When JT wanders off alone, burdened by puppy love or struggling to keep up a persona of another’s creation, a certain spark goes out.

That’s not to say that the balance of the cast falters. Diane Kruger is particularly slippery as Eva, a thinly veiled version of Asia Argento. But as intriguing as her interplay is with JT, you miss the constant push and pull of wills when Stewart and Dern work off each other.

All In


by Hope Madden

On occasion, film reps send us links to preview their film for review. Often, these links are password protected. Once, the password was bouncehouse.

Yes, please.

The film in question is called Family, writer Laura Steinel’s directorial debut, and it plays like a fun update of Uncle Buck with Juggalos.

That’s right!

We open on an uptight executive sprinting, face painted, through an Insane Clown Posse gathering and reflecting, “It’s kind of like a fun county fair where you could also, potentially, be stabbed.”

That reflective exec is Kate, and Kate is maybe Taylor Schilling’s best cinematic character. She takes to Steinel’s dialog with a flat affect that’s entirely, awkwardly enjoyable.

Kate is Uncle Buck, basically. Only she’s not. She’s a driven businessperson who actually got where she is because she has literally nothing else in her life to draw her attention or energy. And then she has to babysit her 11-year-old niece Maddie (Bryn Vale, spot on) and next thing you know—right, life lessons. We’re all familiar with the John Hughes handbook, but Steinel updates it with less schmaltz and more belief in nonconformity. And juggalos.

When Maddie says, “Magic is my passion,” I had to hit pause because I was afraid my snorting would drown out the next piece of comedy gold.

There are problems with Family (besides that inanely generic title). It is funny, and its comical scenes are delivered by an entirely winning cast (which includes the unreasonably hilarious Kate McKinnon and the unreasonably talented Brian Tyree Henry). That’s not the problem.

Steinel also inverts and subverts the tropes of the genre. There are two upended “makeover” scenes that are both funny and insightful. It’s also just a savvy look at being socially awkward.

No, the problem here is that the many colorful and fun scenes are strung together more than they are foundational to a whole. And the keen insight Steinel uses to sharpen individual jokes softens when the time comes to finish the story.

She John Hugheses it.

But a well-placed “sorry for your loss” is surprisingly funny and there are at least a dozen scenes here that I kind of love. Family is smart, R-rated comedy that ultimately caves to the pressure to conform, but its struggle to be itself is laudable.

Plus, those juggalos. They have hearts of gold.

PS, this is what all my sisters thought I would be like as a parent. And I wasn’t. Entirely.

Sympathy for the Devil


by Hope Madden

It’s amazing to think that a film has never been made of the heist that created the term “Stockholm Syndrome.”

Well, writer/director Robert Budreau has rectified this situation with his Ethan Hawke-led semi comedy, Stockholm.

Hawke, who starred in Budreau’s 2015 Chet Baker biopic Born to Be Blue, plays Lars Nystrom. A bewigged bandit, Nystrom concocts a 1973 bank heist with different goals than your traditional smash and grab.

By taking a couple of hostages, Lars hopes to win the freedom of his best friend, imprisoned bank robber Gunnar Sorensson (Mark Strong).

The always-welcome Strong creates a tender and level-headed counterpoint to Hawke’s endearing, idealistic dumbass. The lead wheel to the film’s cinematic tricycle comes from the quietly powerful work of Noomi Rapace (the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

Playing Bianca Lind, one of Nystrom’s hostages, Rapace’s plaintive performance suggests a character who relies on observation and personal judgment. Never showy, Rapace becomes the gravitational force that tethers flighty characters and wild antics to a realistic foundation.

Budreau seems to be asking himself how it’s possible for captives to choose to side with their captors. Credit the filmmaker for avoiding the pitfall of casting the authorities as one-dimensional bullies or buffoons. Christopher Heyerdahl is particularly effective as Chief Mattsson, a good man who’s n a bit over his head.

Stockholm’s greatest strength, besides the understated playfulness of its cast, is the light touch Budreau brings to presenting the two sides of the standoff. And yet, in the end, he ensures that we the audience do, indeed, feel more compelled by the outlaws.

It’s a subtle act of manipulation perpetrated by Budreau, but not so terrible as to sink the film. The filmmaker’s real miss is in his superficial look at the environment within the vault that brought the captives and captors together.

Thanks to a fine cast that’s able to toe Budreau’s unusual line between comedy and drama, though, you’ll find yourself strangely fond of everyone involved.

Star Child

High Life

by George Wolf

In tackling the final frontier, it’s not surprising that unconventional filmmaker Claire Denis shows little interest in the usual themes that dominate the sci-fi genre. High Life floats very deliberately in its own headspace, touching down somewhere between enlightened consciousness and acid-blooded killing machines.

Monte (Robert Pattinson) appears to be the last survivor of a spacecraft’s crew, but he’s not alone in deep space. He has baby Willow to care for, tending to her needs while he performs his duties and files the regular progress reports that feel increasingly futile.

The infant is one of many general questions director/co-writer Denis casually raises before playing with the film’s timeline to address them, all the while picking at the scabs of deeper insights into the primal desires and self-destructive instincts we cannot escape.

Denis is more than aware of her genre playground (there is a character named Chandra, after all), and while you may be reminded of other sci-fi institutions, High Life lives in the uncomfortable places even the best of these films gloss over. It is bleak and often surreal, draped in the stifling desperation of a crew seemingly controlled by Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche – a terrific model of subtle menace).

There is sex (Binoche’s solo sequence is damn near unforgettable) but no affection, reproduction reduced to its most clinical nature and an element of body horror that Denis’s close-up camerawork demands you acknowledge. Though the deep space effects may not be big-budget worthy, succinct visual storytelling is always in play.

In the latest of many challenging indie roles he’s been choosing post-Twilight, Pattinson is again impressive. In a succession of unlikable characters, he gives Monte a gradually sympathetic layer, an element that becomes critical to making the film’s third act as effective, and ultimately hopeful, as it is.

To her credit, Denis has always shown little regard for standard convention. While there is much to be gleaned from the opening and closing shots of her latest, it is the ride in between that makes High Life such a different animal.

Game of Stones

Avengers: Endgame

by MaddWolf

“How many of you have never been to space before?”

There is a lot to resolve in Avengers: Endgame, but it’s the film’s commitment to character and character relationships as articulated by fun, throwaway lines like that, that continue to elevate this series above its single-hero franchisees.

The Avengers who haven’t yet done space travel put up their hands, and it instantly rings true, underscoring a pillar of the MCU.

In every group setting, the different heroes don’t fight for opportunities to remind viewers who they are—the angry one, the sarcastic one, the winsome one. Instead, each reacts to another character; duos and trios bicker or riff, and true character dynamics emerge.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Marvel vets all, return to reap what they’ve been sowing for years. With that veteran cast bringing instant investment to their respective roles, the filmmakers cultivate relationships Joss Whedon sparked back in 2012 when he first put Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner and Thor at the same table.

You may have heard, Endgame goes to new lengths in the MCU: three hours and one minute, to be precise. While you might skip the jumbo soda to avoid restrooms trips, you won’t begrudge this film its time. In fact, give Marvel props for not splitting it into two separate blockbusters that would have diluted the impact of such an apt, respectful and yes, emotional capper to the saga.

There’s plenty of humor here, as well, but never at the expense of the drama or action developing. Rather, it’s the natural ribbing born of well worn, familial relationships. (One Lebowski comment and another about “America’s ass” both land really well.)

On the other hand, we still cannot get behind where this series has taken the Hulk. These developments may have comic-book roots, we won’t pretend to know, but outside of a memorable scene with The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) this Hulk is no smash.

Thematically, the film thinks big: time, love, loss, sacrifice. It moves impressively from ruminating on a post-9/11 reality to the importance of cherishing your own time and place, even while you accept the challenge of fighting for a better world.

There is plenty of fighting. The action is well-placed and well-presented, delivering fireworks without the dizzying, rapid-fire editing which can often reduce battles royale to battles of patience.

And we need to clearly see who is doing what when these Avengers assemble, because, let’s be honest, Thanos (Josh Brolin) and his Infinity Stones are a tough out, and it’s going to take all hands on deck to take him down.

For any upset fanboys who might still be wondering, that does include female heroes, a fact the film makes inescapably clear with a sequence that’s well-intentioned but maybe a tad pointed (or tardy?) in its parting defiance.

In the months since Infinity War, there have been plenty of theories about how Marvel will address that mountain of a cliffhanger they dumped on us.

Maybe you’ll guess some of it, maybe you won’t (you probably won’t), but wherever the MCU goes from here, Endgame is character capital well-spent,

As long goodbyes go, this one is satisfying and …pretty marvelous.