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Films I Neglected To Review: Lions and Zombies and Angst--Oh My!
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Chemical Hearts," "Desert One," "The One and Only Ivan," "The Pale Door," "Peninsula," "Random Acts of Violence," "Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies," "Tesla" and "Words on Bathroom Walls" as well as a look at Criterion's groundbreaking box set "The Complete Films of Agnes Vada."

"Chemical Hearts" is yet another one of those faintly odious narratives in which an offbeat-yet-attractive woman with deep-seated emotional issues who unexpectedly turns up in the life of a callow young man and leads him to eventually feel better about himself. As the film opens, hopeless-romantic-who-has-never-known-love Henry Page (Austin Abrams) is entering his senior year of high school determined to be named to the exalted position of editor of the school newspaper despite his fears that he has nothing to say. (Since the paper only publishes four times a year, he clearly is not the only one who suffers from this problem.) He winds up sharing the position with recent transfer student Grace Town (Lili Reinhart), whom we can quickly peg as an outsider because she has a pronounced limp, owns a car but refuses to drive in it, refuses to actually write anything for the paper and has the studiously glam-free look that makes it seem like she goes through an extraordinary amount of effort each day to not look attractive, presumably in preparation for the inevitable big scene in which she cleans up and looks like she just stepped out of a magazine layout. At first, they seem like complete opposites but after spending time together, mostly at the countless newspaper meetings, they grow close and Grace eventually becomes comfortable enough to reveal the details of the tragedy that has so affected her life. Before long, Henry is in love but will Grace find the strength to move on with her life and love him back, especially after he learns a couple of additional details about her that might strike most reasonable people as red flags? More importantly, will they ever come up with a theme for that all-important last issue of the paper and, if so, is it possible that they might be able to find inspiration through their joint emotional turmoil?

Based on the YA novel "Our Chemical Hearts," the film seems tailor-made for anyone who actually watched "Endless" last week and found themselves thirsting for another gloppy tale of tragic teen torment. For the rest of us, the film is a resoundingly unconvincing pileup of familiar genre tropes that writer-director Richard Tanne presents with little evident enthusiasm. There is nothing new here and the conceit of the troubled young woman who seems to have no other purpose except to fall in and out of love with the hero, depending on the requirements of any given scene, has gotten really tiresome. (Just once, I would like to see one of these movies told entirely from the quirky girl's perspective--the end result might still be awful but the journey there might be a little more interesting.) In this particular case, it all happens to be a bigger slog than usual, thanks in no small part to the inability of the fatally bland Abrams to make his dull, annoying and self-absorbed character into someone worth following for two hours. Reinhart fares a little bit better but cannot really do much of anything with a role that is more a collection of tics than a plausible character.

Although the presidency of Jimmy Carter has undergone some degree of reappraisal since he left office in 1981, no doubt inspired in part by his much-lauded post-presidency career, there is still one aspect of his years in the White House that cause consternation even among his supporters--the 1980 attempt to rescue the hostages being held in the American embassy in Iran that fell apart before reaching its target and resulted in the deaths of 8 soldiers. The story of what happened is recounted in full detail in "Desert One," a fascinating new documentary from Barbara Kopple that examines the entire history of the event to shed new light on a subject that has been shadowed in confusion and mystery for too long. The first section of the film offers a quick primer of the fraught relationship between the U.S. and Iran that began in 1953 when the U.S. helped to back a coup to install Mohammad Rez Pahlavi as the shah, beginning a brutal and tyrannical reign that only ended when he was fled the country to the U.S. in 1979 following the uprising that put the Ayatollah Khomeni into power. When Carter would not send him back, Iranians seized the embassy and took 52 people hostage.After months of diplomatic efforts, Carter finally agreed to a rescue mission that was to take place in the dark of night on April 24, 1980 and which would involve 8 helicopters flying in to bust the hostages out and take them to safety. Unfortunately, the mission required six helicopters to work and when mechanical difficulties took three of them out of commission in the middle of the desert, the decision was made to abort. Unfortunately, disaster then struck that not only killed eight soldiers but transformed what was supposed to be a heroic top-secret mission into a cataclysmic and highly public disaster that was ruthlessly exploited by both Iran and Ronald Reagan, who was running against Carter for the presidency that year.

In Kopple’s most famous films, such as "Harlan County U.S.A.," "American Dream" and "Shut Up and Sing," she has captured the events with her cameras as they have unfolded before her to provide an often mesmerizing look at history as it happens. With "Desert One," she is telling a story that occurred four decades ago but she presents it in a manner that is just as alive and immediate as her other works. Although there is no footage of the mission to speak of, she is able to provide a sense of it through animated recreations of the events and actual audio recordings of certain portions, including both Carter and VP Walter Mondale being apprised of the unfolding status of the mission. More importantly, Kopple has recruited large number of people who were involved in the entire incident--including soldiers, hostages, hostage takers, a man who was a 10-year-old boy on a bus crossing the desert that happened to stumble upon the scene and was held captive by the U.S. forces and even President Carter (whose anguish over the failure, for which he continues to accept full responsibility, can be felt in every word that he says on the subject, them and now). The only real flaw with the film is that while it does bring up the subject of the possibility that Reagan's people had been in contact with the Iranians as part of a plan to keep the hostages there until after the election to harm Carter’s already dwindling chances (a theory that even some of the hostages believe to be true), it doesn’t spend enough time on it for it to be particularly effective of convincing. Nevertheless, "Desert One" is still a compelling and highly watchable documentary that allows you to emerge from it with a genuine sense that you have actually learned something about the subject at hand.

Based on Katherine Applegate's Newberry Award-winning 2013 book of the same name (which was itself inspired by a true story), "The One and Only Ivan" begins by introducing us to Ivan, a silverback gorilla who has been raised since he was a baby by Mack (Bryan Cranston), who has made him the centerpiece of a strange mini-circus that is housed inside a shopping mall and which is crying out to be featured in a documentary by Werner Herzog. Ivan is perfectly content with his lot in life--he is close to Mack and the other animals on display, ranging from the noble and elderly elephant Stella the pampered poodle Snickers to Henrietta the baseball-playing chicken--but even though he is still the star of the show, the fact is that the crowds are not turning up and Mack is in serious financial trouble. To lure in audiences, Mack brings in a baby elephant named Ruby and that helps a little. The big change comes when Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), the young daughter of Mack's only assistant, gives Ivan some crayons and paper and he begins drawing. When he does, however, it triggers memories of his life in the rainforest with his real ape family. This, combined with the final wish of one of the other performers before passing away, inspires him to try to escape to freedom. He and the rest of the menagerie do briefly bust out but obviously have nowhere to go, leading him to use his newly reacquired artistic gifts to get his message across.

Although I have not read Applegate's book, I can sort of understand how it might work as it plays out in the mind's eye. On the screen, however, especially done in live-action with the assistance of CGI animals, it just seems weird. For starters, it is extremely disconcerting to make the animals as photorealistic as possible and then not only have them talk amongst themselves but give them the voices of top-levels stars--Sam Rockwell is Ivan, Angelia Jolie is Stella, Helen Mirren is Snickers, Chaka Kahn is Henrietta and Danny Devito is a stray dog who pops up to lend moral support. The film also has serious tonal problems as well--it wants us to root for Ivan's desire to be free but at the same time paints his shopping mall existence in the most idealistic of terms and also throws a lot of slapstick comedy into the mix as well. (The character of Mack is especially confusing in this regard—it is clear that he cares for and loves his animals but it is less clear as to why he would keep them shut away in such dubious conditions for so long.) As for the big hook that the film seems to be offering--the notion of a gorilla being able to communicate through its artistic output--but the film doesn't seem to have any idea of how to handle that either, essentially disposing of it with a single and highly unlikely scene in which Ivan demonstrates his talents before a crowd. Because it has cute animals, a pro-conservation message and the Disney name going for it, "The One and Only Ivan" may well find some favor among younger viewers, all of whom probably would have been better served if the bits of documentary footage of the real Ivan seen during the end credits has been expanded into a full documentary on the real story instead of serving as filler for this well-meaning but ultimately blah fictionalization.

As the horror-western hybrid "The Pale Door" begins, the Dalton Gang is preparing is preparing to make a lucrative score robbing a train when one of their members is inadvertently killed. Needing a fifth man for the plan to work, leader Duncan (Zachary Knighton) has no choice but to utilize his younger brother, Jake (Devin Druid), whom he has tried to keep on the straight and narrow. Jake, for his part, is eager to take part because with his share of the loot, he will be able to buy back the ranch that his family lost in a horrific bit of violence when he was just a little kid. Alas, the chest that they grab that theoretically holds treasures galore instead contains a mysterious young woman named Pearl (Natasha Bassett). To make matters worse, Duncan gets shot during their escape and needs to see a doctor or he will die. Pearl tells the others that the town where she lives is nearby, where they will find both a doctor and a reward for her return. With no other choice at hand, they go off into the woods and soon come across a small town centered around a fairly lively brothel run by Pearl's mother (Melora Hardin). The guys are greeted with open arms, among other things, but before long, it turns out that the town holds a deadly secret that soon has them fighting for their lives, especially Jake, who has something that Pearl and the others desperately want.

"The Pale Door" is not likely to win any prizes for originality--depending on one's level of horror movie knowledge, most viewers will regard this as either a knockoff of the Herschell Gordon Lewis hillbilly gore favorite "2000 Maniacs" or the more recent Robert Rodriguez-Quentin Tarantino project "From Dusk Till Dawn"--but as unapologetic B movie fare goes, it proves to be reasonably tasty after all. Although it is not the first horror/western mashup by any means, it has been staged by director Aaron B. Koontz with an undeniable flair that makes nice use of the iconography of both genres. There are times when you can feel the film's ambitions straining against its presumably meager budget but it does contain a few visually impressive set pieces, especially in the crazy sequence in which Pearl and the other brothel workers reveal their true selves. "The Pale Door" is silly and largely forgettable nonsense, the kind that definitely would have played on the bottom half of most double bills. That said, it is nicely executed nonsense, the kind that, if you had encountered it on the bottom half of a double feature back in the day, would have sent you home reasonably satisfied and entertained.

Although I have seen so many mediocre zombie movies in the last decade or so that I could mostly go for a few years without seeing another one and not feel like I was missing much of anything, I did go into South Korean filmmaker Yeon Sang-ho's Peninsula" with a degree of genuine enthusiasm since his previous foray into the genre, the thunderously exciting "Train to Busan," was one of the best and most inventive recent forays into the genre. That film, you will recall, depicted the outbreak of a virus that turned its victims into zombies and was set largely on a train hurtling from Seoul to Busan where the passengers hoping to get to safety found themselves succumbing to the illness as well. The story it presents is unrelated to the original, both in terms of narrative and, alas, quality. Set a few years after the incidents of the original, we learn that South Korea has been almost completely isolated and abandoned by the rest of the world. Having fled Seoul for Hong Kong--it didn't go well, as we quickly discover—former soldier Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) is haunted by the events surrounding his departure and barely eking out a living when local gangsters make him an offer he cannot refuse to slip back into South Korea with a group that includes his resentful brother-in-law (Kim Do-yoon) to locate and retrieve 20 million dollars in an abandoned food truck. Surprisingly, they find the truck quickly enough with all the cash inside. Not surprisingly, the mission quickly goes south and in his efforts to survive and complete his mission, Jung-seok winds up confronting a particularly shameful ghost from his past in addition to the expected endless supply of super-speedy zombies giving chase.

"Train to Busan" was one of the most relentlessly kinetic action films of recent memory but what made it so memorable was that its was more than just a series of astonishingly staged and executed set pieces--it also offered up plenty of wit, moments of real emotion and even some intriguing elements of class commentary to give viewers something to chew on while the zombies were chewing on the cast. Yeon still knows how to put together an over-the-top action scene but since we have been given no reason to particularly give a shit about any of the people participating in them, they ultimately only work on a comparatively shallow and superficial level in the service of the kind of ticking clock thriller that we have seen a zillion times before. If this had been the work of a new filmmaker trying their hand at this genre, I might have had an easier time accepting it simply as two hours of gruesome eye candy but considering its pedigree (it is even going out under the official title "Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula"), I frankly wanted more and was disappointed that I didn’t get it. Imagine if George Romero followed up his groundbreaking classic "Night of the Living Dead" with a version of "Dawn of the Dead" that eschewed all the personality and incisive social commentary in order to tell a tale of a group of people trying to rob the shopping mall in the middle of the zombie outbreak--that is what "Peninsula" is like when all is said and done.

The debate about the relationship between art and violence, particularly in the complex ways in which they influence each other, has been the subject, buried or otherwise, of any number of past movies but few of them have been as plodding, muddled or cynically executed as "Random Acts of Violence," a film that ostensibly wants to explore that particular subject but only ends up exploiting it in order to present its own seemingly inexhaustible supply of gruesome images alongside pseudo-profound commentary that would get laughed out of a freshman dorm room bull session for being too puerile. Our ostensible hero is Todd (Jesse Williams), the creator of "Slasherman," a super-gory cult favorite comic book following the grisly exploits of a homicidal maniac inspired by a never-apprehended mass murderer known as the "I-90 Killer." Much to the consternation of his publisher, Ezra (Jay Baruchel, who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay, an adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name), Todd has decided to bring "Slasherman" to an end but has no idea of how to conclude it. In the hopes of finding inspiration, Todd embarks on a road trip to a comic convention along with Ezra, his assistant Aurora (Niamh Wilson) and his girlfriend, Kathy (Jordana Brewster)--it turns out that Kathy is herself working on a book on the killer, one that puts the focus squarely on the victims in an evident repudiation of Todd's work. Inevitably, the killings not only begin again but the killer is murdering people in ways reminiscent of Todd's own comics, he is forced to come to terms with his own deeply buried connections to the killings and his possible responsibilities for what his creations may have wrought.

Early on in the proceedings, the film raises the question of why people are so fascinated with violence as an artistic subject matter, particularly violence inspired by real life atrocities, and if that fascination can then inspire people to violent acts of their own. These are not especially fresh notions but they are still potent enough to inspire something potentially interesting in the hands of someone willing to tackle such issues in a thoughtful and serious manner. After paying these notions a little bit of lip service up front, Baruchel pretty much abandons them in order to stage his own super-gory tableaus that have little to offer other than a slight amount of shock value that quickly dissipates as the film goes on. The film is gross rather than insightful, annoying rather than engrossing and the meta-narrative aspirations are unable to cover up the fact that Baruchel has nothing to say, either in regards to the question of the queasy relationship between violence and art or in terms of its basic story, thanks to a collection of uninteresting characters who spend nearly all of their time getting into tiresome arguments with each other in between moments where the bodies are shredded. There is one reasonably effective scene in "Random Acts of Violence"--a well-staged sequence in which the killer attacks three young people on the side of the road one rainy night--but it says a lot that these throwaway characters in their brief vignette make a far greater impact than anything else on display.

Say what you will about "Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies," it certainly comes as advertised--an epic-length examination of the subject ranging from the birth of cinema to the present day and attitudes featuring commentary from a wide array of filmmakers, actors, critics and historians and, perhaps inevitably, a seemingly inexhaustible array of clips of nude scenes ranging from the seminal likes of "10," "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "American Pie" to obscurities like the Sixties-era nudie-cutie monster movie spoof "Kiss Me Quick!" (It will probably come as no surprise to discover that Mr. Skin, the ultimate authority of celebrity nudity, serves double duty here as a co-producer and as one of the on-screen commentators.) Although there is little here that will strike dedicated movie buffs as being new or revelatory, the film does have its good qualities--it sums up the history of sexy cinema from the first days of Hollywood to the collapse of the production code in the late 60s in a clear and concise manner and some of the observations from some of the interview subjects regarding their personal experiences are intriguing (Linda Blair's lingering resentments about how she was treated during the making of the ultra-sleazy "Chained Heat" can still be felt and Malcolm McDowell's comments on the making of the equally infamous "Caligula" are hilarious). However, most of the second half tends to feel more like a highlight reel of Great Moments in Nudity (almost exclusively female, naturally) and the commentary becomes somewhat less thoughtful and incisive in nature.

In an evident effort to make the film seem more than just an elaborate version of those homemade celebrity nudity compilations you can find online, director Danny Wolf (who also directed the recent three-part cult movie celebration "Time Warp") opens and closes the film with brief talk about how things have changed regarding nudity in the wake of #MeToo (though the most notable and creepy comment along these lines is inadvertent, when Shannon Elizabeth explains that she had no career before taking it off for "American Pie" but afterwards, "I got a three-picture deal with Miramax.") However, it spends most of the rest of the running time assiduously avoiding most anything of a potentially controversial nature--the debate regarding Maria Schneider's alleged experiences on the set of "Last Tango in Paris" is reduced to a couple of innocuous sound bites, the exploitation shocker "I Spit on Your Grave" is praised for its depiction of a strong female but neglects to mention the genuine outrage it inspired over its prolonged rape scenes and the countless battles between filmmakers and the MPAA over what could be depicted are hardly touched on. (That said, the latter topic was covered quite well by Kirby Dick’s still-relevant 2006 documentary "This Film Is Not Yet Rated.") "Skin" is slickly made and has a few moments of insight but even though it is a documentary, there is little risk that you will come away from it having learned anything of value.

After serving as a supporting character in films such as "The Prestige" (where he was memorably played by David Bowie in what might have been the most striking turn of his film career) and last year's "The Current War," it was perhaps inevitable that inventor and latter-day cult icon Nikola Tesla would one day become the subject of his own biopic. However, anyone going in to Michael Almereyda's "Tesla" expecting a Hollywood-style look at his life and work in the manner of the Mickey Rooney classic "Young Tom Edison" are going to be startled by a film that leans much closer to the wild and audacious sort-of biopics that Ken Russell used to crank out like clockwork in the 1970s. Oh sure, we get the basic highlights of the life of Tesla (Ethan Hawke)--his brief employment and acrimonious split with Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), his partnership with George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) and their subsequent war with Edison regarding their competing forms of electrical current, how his increasingly ambitious and futuristic notions were met with confusion and hostility and how he eventually died penniless and nearly forgotten in a lonely hotel room. One point of difference is that instead of making Tesla an overtly colorful oddball, Almereyda and Hawke present him as a perpetually withdrawn and painfully inarticulate type who is so at odds with the part of the world that does not revolve around his advanced notions that the very idea of speaking seems to pain him. Another key difference is that Almereyda, clearly determined to break the biopic mold, is constantly shaking things up from the use of deliberate anachronisms (including Google and iPhones) to illustrating the conflict between Tesla and Edison via an ice cream fight to a startling moment i which Tesla gets up and sings "Everybody Wants to Rule the World." I cannot in good conscience say that all of this works out in the end but I was certainly never bored with it and I suspect that the parts that I did like will stick with me for much longer than anything that might have been seen in a more conventional biopic. As a straight recitation of the historical record, "Tesla" is pretty much useless but as a film that tries to evoke the wild and untamed spirit of the man and his work, it is definitely worth a look.

Like "Chemical Hearts," "Words on Bathroom Walls" is another adaptation of a YA novel, in this case the book by Julia Walton, that takes the usual narrative involving star-crossed young lovers and adds darker real-world concerns into the mix. Unlike "Chemical Hearts," it at least seems interested in those concerns as something other than a cheap and melodramatic plot device. Adam (Charlie Plummer) is a high school senior who has long heard voices in his head--which visually manifest themselves in the forms of a hippie free spirit (AnnaSophia Robb), a ride-or-die bodyguard type (Lobo Sebastian), the standard-issue teen movie horny best pal (Devon Bostick) and a fourth that exists only as black smoke that whispers the darkest thoughts of all--and who ends up having his first full-blown schizophrenic episode in the middle of chemistry class, which leads to the injury of another student and his explosion. Adam is sent off to a Catholic school to finish out the year so that he can graduate and attend culinary school in the fall. After arriving, he meets the school's top student, Maya (Taylor Russell) and while she quickly grows to like him after some initial flintiness, he is unable to be honest with her about his condition. Meanwhile, Adam has been placed on a new medication that actually seems to be helping him keep the voices and visions at bay but comes with side effects that would essentially destroy his dreams of ever becoming a cook, forcing him to choose between the thing he has been dreaming of his entire life or his mental health.

There are some aspects to "Words on Bathroom Walls" that I concede might not sit too well with viewers who are actually dealing with the mental issues that it depicts--the finale in particular comes across as way too pat for its own good and the way that it presents the voices in Adam's head in physical and sometimes wacky terms is equally dubious. However, there are other aspects to the story--particularly the cruel irony of the side effects of his medication and the strain that his endless therapies put on not just him but his mother (Molly Parker) and her new boyfriend (Walton Goggins)--that have a genuine authenticity to them. As for the teen romance elements, they are fairly cliched--Maya turns out to be keeping a big secret from Adam as well and the ebbs and flows in their relationship seem to be borne out of the needs of Nick Naveda's screenplay than of actual human behavior. And yet, this stuff kind of works as well, thanks to the likable performances of Plummer and Russell, who was last seen as the best thing in the largely unbearable "Waves." Honestly, I don't know if I would ever voluntarily sit through "Words on Bathroom Walls" again (and not just because of the scene in which they speak of the Drew Barrymore gumdrop "Never Been Kissed" as some kind of cinematic classic from the olden days) but it more or less held my attention for two hours without causing me to roll my eyes too often, which is more than I can say for most movies of this particular ilk.

Over the years, I have come across plenty of home video box sets dedicated to the works of a single filmmaker but I cannot readily think of one as artistically sound and as imaginatively compiled as The Criterion Collection’s knockout of a set "The Complete Films of Agnes Varda." Over the course of 15 discs, the set indeed compiles all of the feature films, shorts, TV shows and documentaries directed by the woman who started off as the lone female voice of the French New Wave and became one of the most unique and delightful presences in world cinema, working steadily right up until her death in 2019. The actual work is practically without peer and it is fascinating to go through the films and realize that even towards the tail end of her career, she could still make a movie like "Faces Places" (2017) that was not only one of her strongest works but which also found her continuing to push the boundaries of what one could say and do in the context of a feature film. To have all of her films in one place--including titles like "Les Creatures" (1966), "Jacquot de Nantes" (1991) and the complete television series "Agnes de ci de la Varda" (2001) that are appearing on home video for the first time--would be enough to make this set a must-own package for any cinephile but its is Criterion’s thoughtful curation that really makes the set shine. Instead of a strictly chronological presentation of the films, they have chosen to group the films from a thematic standpoint. The first disc kicks off with her last film, "Varda by Agnes" (2019), a documentary that finds her looking back on her life's work and which nicely whets the appetite for what follows. Other discs group together such topics as her early works, films dealing with marriage, her sojourn to California, feminism, her collaborations with former husband Jacques Demy and actress Jane Birkin and her work as a visual artist and allows us to she how she developed as an artist in terms of those subjects. To supplement the films, Criterion has loaded up on the bonus features as well, ranging from trailers, rare film clips and archival and new interviews with her family, friends and key collaborators to a 200 page book featuring an introduction by Amy Taubin, program notes on all the films by Michael Koresky and essays by Ginette Vincendeau, So Mayer, Alexandra Hidalgo and Rebecca Bengal. Varda was a truly extraordinary artist whose output deserves an equally extraordinary treatment and that is exactly what Criterion has given us here. (The Criterion Collection. $249.95).


link directly to this feature at https://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=4259
originally posted: 08/21/20 03:38:10
last updated: 08/21/20 03:57:43
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