An Unfinished Life

Salt in My Soul

by Rachel Willis

When she was just three years old, Mallory Smith was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. What transpires in director Will Battersby’s documentary, Salt in My Soul, is a family’s fight for their daughter’s life.

With unfettered access to the family’s home videos, Mallory’s own audio and video recordings, and interviews with those closest to Mallory, Battersby makes us feel like part of a village that nurtures and cares for the girl.

For anyone unfamiliar with cystic fibrosis, or who considers it a “nuisance disease,” as one of Mallory’s coaches did, this documentary is an eye-opener. Mallory’s mother talks of the diagnosis as “receiving a death sentence” at just three years old. The average life expectancy for a person with CF was eighteen years.

But with her attitude of “no pity parties,” Mallory flourishes despite her illness. There are hospital stays, but when healthy, she dates, plays sports, makes time for her friends, all while undergoing intense treatments designed to keep her alive.

However, the reality is that cystic fibrosis is an unforgiving ailment. The result of an inherited, mutated recessive gene, CF primarily targets the lungs, but can affect multiple organ systems and leave people especially susceptible to infections. At the age of nine, Mallory caught a bacterial infection (B. cepacia). Adding insult to injury, B. cepacia is a drug-resistant bacteria that further comprises an already battered body.

Battersby’s documentary evokes numerous emotions. There are moments of optimism mixed with moments of despair. Mallory and her family are candid about their experiences, from fights over treatment options to the heartbreak of a lung transplant that falls through. We’re privy to it all.

Documentaries that look so closely into private struggles can veer toward voyeurism or exploitation, but Battersby manages to make the audience feel like part of the team. It’s hard not to care about Mallory and her family as they exhaust every option. We witness the devastation of a new illness or another hospital stay; we’re elated when a treatment goes well or an experimental drug makes a difference.

Anyone unfamiliar with Mallory’s memoir – published under the same name as the documentary – might not know what to expect. But it’s a chance to pull the curtain back on a part of life many of us never have to see.  

Life Is a Highway

Drive My Car

by George Wolf

Adapting a short story into the three-hour class on storytelling that is Drive My Car (Doraibu mai kâ), writer/director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi turns a seemingly simple premise – a visiting theater director begrudgingly accepts a chauffeur from festival organizers – into a sprawling study of the human soul.

The key word here is seemingly, because there is nothing simple about the way Hamaguchi structures a screenplay.

Yasuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a Japanese stage actor and director who shares an unusual method of creative inspiration with his playwright wife Oto (Reika Kirishima). But just when you think this is a film about their complex relationship, it’s not.

Jumping ahead two years after a sudden tragedy, Kafuku travels to a Hiroshima theater festival to direct an adaptation of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. Though he cherishes thinking through his projects alone in the car during long commutes, Kafuku is forced to accept a chauffeur during his time in Hiroshima.

Casting and rehearsals get underway, and Kafuku’s art begins to imitate his life, and vice-versa. Just as one of his star actors gradually reveals long held feelings for Oto, Kafuku slowly learn to trust his driver Misaki (Tôko Miura), a stoic young woman with a complex past of her own.

Hamaguchi’s resume includes both four hour and five-hour films, and he has become a master at layering long form narratives so skillfully that there isn’t one minute that seems self-indulgent, or the slightest of human interaction that doesn’t weigh heavy with meaning.

The performances from Nishijima and Miura are equally understated and affecting. They peel away their characters’ defenses with a deep sense of purpose, cementing Hamaguchi’s use of those long drives as a metaphorical journey.

As secrets are revealed and burdens lifted, Drive My Car becomes a soaring treatise on grief and trauma, of forgiveness and moving on.

Not to mention the unending lure of a fine automobile.

Into the Woods

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror

by Hope Madden

Every so often you come across a movie and think it must have been made specifically for you. In my case, that film is Kier-La Janisse’s 3-hour documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror.

Yes, that does seem like a very big time commitment to folk horror, but Janisse’s film repays your undertaking with not only an incredibly informative documentary but an engaging, creepy and beautifully made film.

Dividing her topic into chapters, Janisse portions out information theme by theme. And while this essay-style documentation is driven by expert commentary, the filmmaker surrounds the scholarly material with beguiling imagery.

Every chapter has its own look and feel, each one opening with an appropriately bewitching bit of rhyme. Then it leads you through a clearly articulated and fairly comprehensive examination of certain moments in folk horror. Janisse opens on the big three, The Unholy Trinity–Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man—as a way to ease us into the conversation by pinning major themes on well-known films.

She goes on to explore TV and written tales tangentially, though her focus is always primarily on film, taking us from The Wicker Man through Midsommar. In between, she introduces dozens of underseen films and traces not only the history of folk horror but the societal anxieties that these films represent.

And while many may think mainly of British films of the 1960s and 70s for this category, Janisse presents an intriguing global history that unveils universal primal preoccupations from England to Argentina, the US to Lapland and beyond.

Dry as that may sound, between the snippets of the movies themselves and the fluid, often creepy presentation, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched becomes as transfixing a film as those it dissects. And it digs deep, into obscure titles new and old. Border! White Reindeer! Onibaba! Viy! Prevenge!

Bonus: You can find a gorgeous array of folk horror streaming on Shudder this month, including The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General.

There are so many, you can’t blame even a 3-hour film for leaving some out. Here are a few masterpieces glimpsed but not discussed and well worth your time:

And even then, there are some favorites not discussed at all that you might want to check out:

How can three hours of folk horror discussion not be enough? It’s a question that points to what may be the greatest strength of Janisse’s film. Like any truly strong documentary, her film not only covers its topic comprehensively, it inspires you to dig deeper on your own time.

Auckland Raiders

Dawn Raid

by Hope Madden

“Delightful” is a word I wouldn’t expect to use to describe a documentary about the rise and fall of a hip-hop empire. And yet, there you have it. Dawn Raid, Oscar Knightley’s doc about the seminal New Zealand rap label, is just that: delightful.

The main characters in the tale, Dawn Raid co-founders Danny “Brotha D” Leaosavai’i and Andy Murnane, are delights themselves. Humble, funny, self-deprecating and excellent storytellers, the duo tell their tale the way a buddy might over a few beers.

“Dude, listen to this — it’s crazy!”

The pair met taking a trade school business course that preached entrepreneurial spirit. Well, these two had that, so why finish the training? They wanted to start South Auckland’s first hip-hop label. To generate funds, they made and sold t-shirts.

The t-shirts, like their label’s own name, took ugly stereotypes about Polynesians and turned them on ear. (Dawn Raid itself refers to racist, government-sanctioned police action meant to rid NZ of unwanted Polynesian Islanders who’d outstayed their welcome.)

The joy and community pride that infects the pair’s actions inform not only their entire career but the film itself. While Murnane talks consistently of his desire to go bigger and get richer, it’s clear that both entrepreneurs wanted primarily to give South Auckland the chance to show the world its worth.

And it did. Beyond the charm of the film’s leads is the joy of the music itself. Knightly is wise to showcase each of Dawn Raid’s major artists—Deceptikonz, Adeaze, Aaradhna, Mareko and Savage. This not only provides a remarkable soundtrack, but it amplifies the impressive and unique style of music Dawn Raid recorded.

The typical ups and downs associated with this kind of music doc take on a freshness for the sheer energy Murnane brings to the film. Not a moment is wasted on regret, even though the digital age and the NZ government were not kind to Dawn Raid.

Still, Leaosavai’I and Murnane have little but joy to share when they remember the ups and the downs. Regardless of the fact that the outline is the same as many an entertainment doc, the soul is as jubilant as the music.

Giving Voice

Algren

by Rachel Willis

One of the literary giants of his age, Nelson Algren has faded from public consciousness in the seventy years since the publication of his award-winning novel, The Man with the Golden Arm.

Writer/director Michael Caplan hopes to revive interest in the Chicago native with his documentary, Algren.

As the winner of the first National Book Award, issued in 1950 for the above-mentioned novel, it’s surprising Algren is not grouped in similar circles as other U.S. literary greats such as Hemingway, Faulkner and Steinbeck. 

The best parts of Algren highlight the words of the writer himself. Excerpts from his letters, interviews, and his novels and short stories depict not only Algren as a person and writer, but the way he hoped to portray people in his work. Drawing attention to the underbelly of Chicago, and America itself, Algren portrayed prostitutes, addicts and the dark side of the American dream.

And he did so with sympathy rather than voyeurism or exploitation, according to the many interviews with Chicago natives (such as Billy Corgan) and Algren lovers alike. Several interviews with writers, such as Russell Banks, Studs Terkel and others, help capture the influence of Algren’s work and the importance of his depictions of the “voiceless.”

There is a lot to interest a viewer about Algren, not merely his writing, but his collage work, as well. Many of his collages are revealed throughout the film, and it’s moments like these that help the viewer understand Algren better than the tawdry details of his gambling issues or love life.

Algren’s work, though lauded, also drew controversy. Bookstores refused to carry his books; the Chicago Public Library sent a scathing letter declaring their decision to remove his work from its shelves. These are interesting tidbits provided in Caplan’s film.

Unlike the author’s groundbreaking work, Algren is standard documentary fare. It follows a common pattern, although at times, is messy, as it jumps around from subject to subject – Algren’s affair with Simone de Beauvoir, his dislike of the film version of The Man with the Golden Arm, his love of boxing and poker, his gambling issues. The documentary jerks us along through his life story without a clear focus.

If the documentary had kept a solid focus on one aspect of Algren – whether his artistic endeavors or his life experience – it would have benefitted greatly. Still, if Caplan’s film achieves its goal of reminding Americans of one of our great writers, it’s done what it sets out to do.

Face of the Nation

France

by George Wolf

France is the setting for this movie called France about a woman named France. So, subtle it’s not. But the latest from writer/director Bruno Dumont does manage to deliver some stylish eye candy with a fluffy middle that tastes plenty familiar.

Léa Seydoux is mesmerizing as France de Meurs, a celebrity journalist and host of “A View of the World,” one of the most popular talk shows in all of France. She’s juggling fame, her career, and family life with a blasé attitude about it all.

Her home life seems to bore her, the fame is satisfying only when it feeds her ego, and the integrity of her profession never seems to cross her mind. But a sudden traffic accident delivers the overdue wake-up call, and France begins to question if the person she’s become is the person she wants to be.

In the opening minutes, when some nifty editing has France asking pointed questions during an actual press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron, Dumont sets the stage for an over-the-top satire that never emerges.

Instead, it settles into a very repetitive, 133-minute groove that questions the increasingly blurry line between news and entertainment. But as France continually stages her pre-recorded reports, you realize the breezy nature of the opening has given way to an overwrought narrative that spends 30 minutes belaboring a point that Broadcast News made in 5.

Dumont is clearly speaking to his homeland first, though the message will be instantly relatable to U.S. audiences. It’s the film’s tone that becomes more curious in translation.

Seydoux is almost enough to forgive it all, with Dumont making sure his lens loves her as much as the TV cameras love France herself. And while that might not seem a difficult task when the luminous Seydoux is involved, it’s a crucial element that goes a long way toward helping the film resonate as much it does.

Women of the World

The 355

by George Wolf

Apparently, Jessica Chastain pitched the idea of an all-female Bond/Bourne hybrid to director Simon Kinberg while they were making Dark Phoenix together.

Now three years later The 355 is here, and while it’s more memorable than their X-Men installment, the project can never give the duo’s ambitious vision its own identity.

Chastain is “Mace,” a CIA agent sent to Paris with her partner (and maybe more?) Nick (Sebastian Stan). The job is to get their hands on a new cyber weapon that serves as an untraceable master key – and instant entry into any closed system on the planet.

But surprise, Mace and Nick aren’t the only agents hot for that drive, so after 45 minutes of chases and exposition, Germany’s Maria (Diane Kruger), MI6’s Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o) and Columbia’s Graciela (Penelope Cruz) agree to team up and fight for the future. Then after another 15 minutes or so, China’s Lin Mi Sheng (Bingbing Fan) joins the world party.

Actually, Gracie’s a reluctant guest, as she’s really a psychologist and not trained for combat. So while her secret agent sisters do get to be the impressive badasses, it’s Cruz who brings the film some welcome fish-out-of-water levity.

Kinberg, who also co-wrote the script, pushes all the buttons you’d expect from a mixtape full of Bond’s high-style sexy, Bourne’s lethal brooding, and some Danny Ocean misdirection. And most of it – from Chastain in this role to the cybercrime stakes to the moments of telegraphed action and even the girl power makeover – feels pretty familiar, and that familiarity breeds discontent with the two-hour run time.

Events finally escalate in the third act, and as the globe-trotting and the double-crosses mount, Kinberg does deliver one nicely orchestrated set-piece that truly grabs your attention with tension and bloodshed.

Is it enough to merit that next adventure the finale hints at? Not really, but it’s just enough to make one three-year-old conversation worthwhile.

Holding Out

A Hero

by George Wolf

If you’re familiar with Asghar Farhadi films such as The Past, A Separation and The Salesman, you already know what to expect from his latest. The Iranian writer/director’s calling card has become the intimate drama of complex moralities and lasting impact, wonderfully layered stories that probe the societal strife of his homeland while ultimately revealing universal insight.

Farhadi does not disappoint with A Hero (Ghahreman), a film that finds him questioning the increasingly blurred lines of truth and perception.

When we first meet Rahim (Amir Jadidi), he is coming home on a two-day leave from prison. Locked up for failing to repay a debt, Rahim is hoping to use his brief amnesty to talk his creditor into withdrawing the complaint in exchange for partial payment.

It doesn’t look promising, until Rahim finds a lost handbag full of gold coins – and returns it instead of selling the coins to pay his debt.

Suddenly, Rahim is a hero. But today’s hero is tomorrow’s milkshake duck, and it isn’t long before distrust of Rahim’s story begins to threaten the promise of freedom and a new job.

Is resisting temptation even worthy of such celebration, and how far will Rahim go to retain his perceived nobility? Is it possible to recognize the moment when the best of intentions can no longer justify a possible deception? Is “the truth” even a realistic goal in the social media age of constantly manipulated realities?

Jadidi crafts Amir with a deeply sympathetic balance of earnestness and suspicion, and the terrific ensemble cast helps cement a sharp morality play that often crackles with the tension of a thriller. Farhadi seems more than comfortable moving further from his stage roots than ever, illuminating Amir’s journey with a realism that patiently waits until the final shot to get showy.

Farhadi makes sure that separating the good guys from the bad guys won’t be easy. The moral high ground of A Hero is constantly shifting, which proves to be the perfect anchor for a gifted filmmaker’s latest examination of modern life’s often messy ambiguities.

The Truth Is Not Out There

The Scary of Sixty-First

by Hope Madden

At some point during The Scary of Sixty-First you may ask yourself, “What in the hell am I watching?” Don’t feel alone. In fact, if you don’t ask that question, you may be the only one.

Director/co-writer/co-star Dasha Nekrasova mines the weak logic of many Satanic horror films to marvel at the subjective reality that’s so prevalent these days.

Noelle (co-writer Madeline Quinn) and Addie (Betsey Brown) move into an uptown NYC apartment. It’s furnished, simultaneously high end and sketchy, and they’re getting it for a song because the previous tenants had to leave so quickly.

Ripe horror context there. Who were they? Why did they have to leave so quickly? Why did they leave behind all this stuff? Why is there a mirror on the ceiling in one bedroom?

The cinematic style, stilted performances and uptown apartments blur together to form a kind of Seventies-style horror like The Sentinel or The Mephisto Waltz. The most important element: wild leaps in logic—anagrams, prime numbers, cryptic messages.

Conspiracies.

Did the girls’ apartment previously belong to Jeffrey Epstein? Some people say so, specifically the young woman who poses as a realtor’s agent and then as an investigative reporter before finally fessing up that she’s piecing together her own theories about Epstein.

Noelle is in! The sleuthing is on!

Addie, on the other hand, is having some kind of breakdown. Is something in the apartment haunting her? Possessing her?

Nekrasova and Quinn weave together real conspiracy theories about Epstein and other topics to create a fever dream of horror that points out how preposterous and salacious all these theories really are. How these theories speak more to the mind of the believer than to any kind of reality.

Nekrasova is actually pretty empathetic toward conspiracy theorists, even if she clearly thinks they are 1) wrong and 2) probably insane. The film offers bold, wet, pungent lunacy, vivid fantasies pulled from the collective unconscious of folks ready to believe—or imagine—the most effed up scenarios.

Chances are strong that, between the intentionally flat performances and the supremely WTF plotline, The Scary of Sixty-First will not land with most audiences. But it’s a wild vision and I’m not sorry I caught it.