Good Intentions

Blood on Her Name

by Hope Madden

Good intentions are very mortal and perishable things.

So are people.

Leigh Tiller lets good intentions muck up what should have been an easy crime to get away with. No one would have known. No one would have suspected. Not that there wouldn’t be complications, but she’d deal with those later.

While co-writer/director Matthew Pope doesn’t reinvent the wheel with his Rust Belt noir Blood on Her Name, it is actually the refreshing simplicity of the storytelling that compels you to pay attention. That and Bethany Anne Lind’s performance.

As Tiller, Lind weaves a dotted line between upstanding and sketchy. Her compass doesn’t always point due North, or maybe it does, or at least maybe it could. Right? It could. It’s this struggle, most of it internal, that Lind characterizes with subtle anguish to give the film an aching, remorseful tenderness, a longing for what should be but what is always just out of reach.

Pope populates his low rent neighborhoods with an intriguing mix of characters, none of whom are rendered with broad strokes. Dani Wilson is especially strong as a fading white trash hottie, while Will Patton finds dimension as an old man who believes he deserves a second chance but probably does not.

Blood on Her Name is a film that should feel bleak but it rebels against its own grim fate. This is a film that knows Leigh Tiller deserved better choices, stronger options. It’s a film that doesn’t want to give up on small town, low rent, hard work. But it’s also a film that’s bracingly clear-eyed about the reality that balances that optimism.

The result is a memorably quiet eulogy.

Just Another Tricky Day

Disappearance at Clifton Hill

by Hope Madden

A seedy motel, a low-rent Sigfreid & Roy, the sketchy side of a tourist town during low season—Albert Shin’s Disappearance at Clifton Hill is a neo-noir told mainly in nostalgic colors, smoke and mirrors.

The setting for the mystery is the Rainbow Inn Motel, a dump just off the Niagara River gorge that’s seen better days, though it’s tough to imagine when those days might have been.

Abby (Tuppence Middleton – British much?) is home to complicate the fulfillment of her mother’s will, because that will involves selling the old Rainbow Inn to the town mogul who looks to raze Abby’s memories in favor of day-glo paint ball.

What is it she remembers, exactly? A fishing trip down in that gorge. A one-eyed boy. A kidnapping.

Shin mines all those wistful ideas about going home again as Abby begins sifting through sordid secrets, wealthy families, and the decay of the once wondrous world of her youth. Where will her sleuthing lead?

Aah, the untapped resources of your local public library. Is that a microfiche machine?!

Shin excels at nailing atmospherics. Tourist trap towns do feel seedier off-season, their sparsely populated amusements somehow sad. In Shin’s hands, the town, its near vacant fun house and caged tigers all conjure the notion of childhood perverted.

Magician’s trickery. Sleight of hand.

The delightfully dodgy Abby is the epitome of an unreliable narrator, although to Shin’s endless credit, we’re not asked to believe something she’s telling us. We are with her, step by step, as she convinces herself of something, which allows us—like Abby herself—to really hope she might actually be on to something.

There’s a fluidity to the way Shin and co-writer James Schultz unveil Abby’s own sketchiness, beginning with a barroom conversation/seduction. This is also where he begins to introduce a delicious stew of supporting characters, each one a little quirkier than the last.

Hannah Gross particularly impresses as Abby’s far more grounded sister Laure, but I was probably most excited about Walter.

When you think of David Cronenberg—and I think of him often—you don’t always consider his acting. But he does add a little something something to films. Here he charms as Walter, area historian and podcaster: “Remember, rate and review.”

Disappearance at Clifton Hill is not a flawless film, but it is deceptively competent. It’s fun and clever. Middleton’s clear eyed yet delusional Nancy Drew never ceases to be appealing.

And just when you think Shin and company have tidied up a little too quickly…smoke and mirrors, my friend.

Attention Getter

Seberg

by George Wolf

Another film on the blonde 60s starlet who died far too young, and under mysterious circumstances? Yes, a starlet, but not Monroe.

She may not have been the icon Marilyn was, but Jean Seberg’s celebrity life and tragic death had its own “Candle in the Wind” comparisons, all embodied with beguiling grace by Kristen Stewart even when Seberg falls back on superficiality.

Seberg’s breakout in 1960’s Breathless made her a darling of the French New Wave, but Jean was an Iowa native. As the winds of change in her homeland began raging, Seberg took an interest in the counter-culture that was strong enough to make her a target of the FBI.

Director Benedict Andrews anchors the film in Seberg’s involvement with the civil rights movement, and her relationship with activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie). Two FBI agents (Vince Vaughn and Jack O’Connell) report Seberg’s status as a “sympathizer,” and the increasing surveillance throws her life into turmoil.

Andrews, a veteran stage director, seems most at ease recreating Seberg’s glamorous life, enveloping the film in an effective old Hollywood gloss and Stewart in consistently loving framing. She responds with what may be her finest performance to date.

We meet Seberg when she is already a star, and Stewart conveys a mix of restlessness, conviction, selfishness and naivete that is never less than compelling. In just over an hour and a half, Stewart takes Seberg from confident fame to paranoid breakdown, and the arc always feels true.

O’Connell leads the strong supporting cast (also including Stephen Root, Margaret Qualley and Zazie Beets) with a nuanced performance as the young agent with a nagging conscience. But while the script from Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (The Aftermath, Race) wants to draw comparisons with more recent government overreach, Andrews has trouble meshing the FBI thriller with the introspective biography.

Too much of the spying agenda (“This comes from above!”) seems paint by numbers, but it never sinks the film thanks to Stewart’s command of character. Much like her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson, Stewart has followed her blockbuster fame with a string of challenging projects and impressive performances.

In case you’ve missed any, Seberg is a good place to start catching up.

Call to Action

Incitement

by Rachel Willis

Opening with real-life footage of Iraeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s speech on the South Lawn of the White House on September 13, 1993, director Yaron Zilberman creates a disturbing portrait of a country in crisis with Incitement.

Rather than focus on Rabin and the political decisions surrounding his peace accords with Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, the film instead focuses on Rabin’s assassin, Israeli law student Yigal Amir.

After the signing of the Middle East Peace Agreement, Amir drives directly to a rally protesting the peace accord. After a near arrest, he drives to the campus of Bar-Ilan University and takes part in further demonstrations. A rabbi in support of the protests speaks to the students, encouraging their involvement in activities to undermine the government’s efforts for peace.

The film does not spend inordinate time focusing on the violent Palenstinian-Israeli history. Instead, we’re thrown directly into Amir’s world. There are brutal acts by Jewish extremists that are fully supported by Amir. At the funeral of Baruch Goldstein (responsible for the massacre of 29 Muslim worshippers in a mosque), Amir listens to a rabbi praising Goldstein as a martyr and a hero for the Jewish people. When suicide bombings in Tel Aviv occur as a reaction to the massacre, Amir cannot see the cyclical nature of this type of extremist violence.

From the beginning, there is little sympathy for Amir. We’re merely witness to his descent into religious extremism and right-wing nationalism. The film is also an indictment of the rabbis and political leaders who spoke about Rabin in harsh tones. At rallies for Benjamin Netanyahu, from which Zilberman incorporates real footage, protesters call Rabin a traitor and chant “Death to Rabin!”

Throughout the film, Zilberman uses archival footage to great effect. It heightens the tension and shows the audience exactly how violent the rhetoric became surrounding the peace accords. While thousands came out in support of Rabin, seemingly just as many came out against him.

However, it takes a while for Zilberman to make his point, and not enough focus is given to the factors that drove Yigal Amir. The film spends a lot of time following Amir around as he tries various ways of undermining Rabin’s attempts to create a peaceful coexistence between Israel and Palestine.

As right-wing nationalism and extremism rises around the world, it’s worth examining how violent rhetoric from religious and political leaders can inflame an already angry populace. Would Amir have acted had he not felt he had the support of numerous rabbis and Jewish law?

Zilberman has his opinion, and Incitement is the means in which he expresses it.

Feeling Seen

The Invisible Man

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Leigh Whannell likes him some mad science.

Two years ago the Saw and Insidious writer found his footing as a director with the unreasonably entertaining Upgrade. In what amounted to Knight Rider as imagined by David Cronenberg, the film gave the old yin/yang concept a robotics feel thanks to the work of an evil genius.

The evil genius concept is back for Whannell’s reimagining of The Invisible Man. But the most interesting thing about this version of the old H.G. Wells tale is that the man—invisible or not—plays second fiddle.

Instead of the existential ponderings that generally underscore cinematic Invisible Man retellings, Whannell uses this story to examine sexual politics, abuse, control and agency.

It’s a laudable aim, but the reason it works is casting.

How fucking great is Elisabeth Moss?

Not just in this film—but make no mistake, she’s fantastic. Whether it’s her TV work, small bits in indies like The Square or The Kitchen, or leading film roles, she’s been brilliant in everything she’s ever done. (Last year’s Her Smell is making its cable TV rounds – watch it!)

Whannell’s script is smart, with much needed upgrades to the invisibility formula as well as the havoc wrought. There are a handful of unrealistic moments, mostly in terms of character development, but a game cast (including Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer and Michael Dorman) consistently elevates the material.

There is also an irritatingly convenient employment of security footage: there when it suits the film, but weirdly unmentioned when it would derail the plot.

The fight choreography, on the other hand, is evenly fantastic, and these one-sided battles had to be hard to execute.

But the success of The Invisible Man is almost entirely shouldered by Moss, who nails every moment of oppressed Cecilia Kass’s arc. And early on, Moss has to sell it – pardon the pun- sight unseen. We’re only told Cecelia is abused, but Moss makes sure we never doubt that it is so.

Cecelia’s desperation, her fear, her logic, self-doubt as well as belief—all of it rings absolutely true. When you’re building a fantasy film in which one character is invisible and most actors are responding to an empty room, authenticity is key (and often very hard to come by). Moss makes it look easy.

But beyond the sci-fi and horror elements, Whannell’s success at weaving this tale through a #metoo lens comes from our total investment in Cecelia as a person first, personification of a systemic problem second. Without that, the gaslighting is less resonant and the eventual payoff less earned.

The two-hour running time does come to feel a tad bloated, but this new monster vision boasts plenty of creepy atmospherics, controlled tension and – wonder of wonders – well developed jump scares.

At its core, The Invisible Man is an entertaining B-movie horror propped up by contrivance. Whannell’s aim is to give the story new relevance, and thanks to Moss, his aim is true.

Weaponizing Anxiety

Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations

by Christie Robb

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it[1].”

In the documentary Viral, director Andrew Goldberg explores the recent rise of antisemitism in the United States and Europe. In a painterly black and white introductory sequence he gives the subject matter the feeling of a fairy tale. The film begins, “It started long ago with a lie about the Jew…”

If only the rest of the film was fiction.

Goldberg compares antisemitism to a virus (topical) which evolves and spreads, empowered by its ability to adapt to the people and circumstances in different locations. The virus began thousands of years ago. Now, one of the interview subjects suggests, we are nearing the “end of a Jewish golden age of feeling comfortable.” The virus is ending a period of dormancy and becoming active once again.

In this film, we are introduced to four “mutations” of the antisemitism virus: the Far Right, USA; Blaming the Jew, Hungary; The Far Left, The United Kingdom; and Islamic Radicalism, France.

 Although tweaked in each mutation to suit the individual circumstances, the “virus” involves getting people to turn off their ability to think critically and giving them a embodied focus on which to place the blame for their fears or anxieties. (See Germany in the 1930s.)

In the US it’s the Jew as orchestrator of the Civil Rights movement and subsequent supposed lessening of accustomed white privileges. In Hungary it’s a campaign to brand George Soros as a puppet master apparently forcing Muslim refugees into the nation to destabilize national culture. In the United Kingdom it’s Jewish colonial capitalists evidently conspiring against the working class. In France, it’s Muslim former-colonial subjects violently murdering random French Jews because they ostensibly back the Palestinians against the Israelis.

Individual Jews are conflated with “the Jew,” which is associated with the threat, the change, the loss of power. Concepts that take years of study to unpack are simplified and reduced again and again until the result is a caricature of a hook-nosed grinning villain with a neon arrow pointing to it and letters spelling out, “B-A-D G-U-Y.”

The whole simplification process is only made more efficient by the availability of the Internet. Once the conspiracy theory is tailored for a local audience it can be repurposed by anyone with a cell phone and/or social media account and replicated over and over.

It’s a scary documentary Goldberg has put together. It’s scary because of the real-life examples of abuse, vandalism, and murder, and because the film itself can be a bit simplistic. This could easily be a miniseries or several individual films, rather than Viral‘s quick summaries of really complicated issues. (Just unpacking everything around the creation of the state of Israel could be its own series – or academic career.)

Still, it’s useful to be aware of when, how, and where a virus is surging. Those of us who are willing to think must keep an eye on the present so we are not doomed to repeat the past.



[1] A quote by George Santayana which is itself frequently misremembered.

Put the Load Right On Me

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band

by George Wolf

How big of a music geek are you if you can name all five members of The Band?

They were the rare musical breed whose biggest personality was not the lead singer. Still, even charismatic guitarist Robbie Robertson remained largely anonymous next to the very rock stars his work was influencing.

Writer/director Daniel Roher makes Robertson and his memoir the anchor of Once Were Brothers, and while that does limit the film’s scope, Robertson is such an enthusiastic and engaging storyteller – and his access is so valuable – you come to understand the choice pretty quickly.

Robertson met his future Band-mates while he was still a teenager, playing guitar and writing songs for Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. The Hawks’ talent soon outgrew Hawkins rockabilly style, as Robertson and the boys moved on to a legendary Hawks collaboration with Bob Dylan, before cementing their legacy as The Band.

Roher and executive producer Martin Scorsese surround Robertson (looking fantastic at age 76) with praise from of a succession of legendary fans (Eric Clapton exclaims “Big Pink changed my life,”) and, of course, plenty of priceless archival footage.

Music docs are always going to be most interesting to the subject’s core following, but even casual Band fans will get bracing reminders of Robertson’s guitar virtuosity and drummer Levon Helm’s passionately soulful vocal power.

Plus, getting a peek at Dylan telling folk fans “Don’t boo me anymore!” and hearing Scorsese deconstruct his own filmmaking on the iconic concert film The Last Waltz fosters an engaging intimacy. At times, the reach extends beyond Robertson’s music history to touch on the creative process itself.

As a rock doc, Once Were Brothers blazes few trails, but the ones it travels are well worth revisiting. And though the lack of any counterpoint from surviving member Garth Hudson is noticeable, tour guide Robertson is the kind you’re ready to tip when the day is done.

Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Hudson, Helm and Robertson, by the way, but you knew that.

Geek.

I Don’t Want to Go Out—Week of February 24

It’s here! The one movie of 2019 that everybody loved, and why not? Plus, you know what? The rest of this week’s crop ain’t half bad.

Knives Out

Brainiac: Transmissions After Zero

Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer

Frozen 2

Color Out of Space

Screening Room: The Call of the Wild, The Lodge, Brahms: The Boy II, The Assistant, Olympic Dreams, The Night Clerk