movie review

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    As the February 23 release date for the sci-fi thriller Annihilation has drawn closer, film critics have speculated about its quality: is it being released in the “dump month” of February, right after the box office hit Black Panther, because it’s bad? Or because it’s a masterpiece that’s too intellectual to appeal to the masses?

    Well, Annihilation isn’t quite a masterpiece, but it’s definitely an ambitious, enjoyable movie — and a creative story that we haven’t seen before. Loosely based on the novel of the same title by Jeff VanderMeer and directed by sci-fi pro Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Never Let Me Go), Annihilation follows a soldier-turned-biology professor named Lena (Natalie Portman) whose soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) suddenly reappears in her home after being missing and presumed dead for a year — with no memory of where he was or what he was doing. When Kane suddenly begins coughing up blood, soldiers kidnap him and Lena en route to the hospital and bring them to a mysterious building outside “Area X” — a wilderness surrounded by a mysterious “Shimmer,” into which many teams of soldiers have disappeared. Kane is the first person to come back from the Shimmer, and nobody knows how he did it. Worse: “Area X” is expanding, and no one knows how to stop it.

    With Kane unconscious, Lena decides to do something other than wait around for him to wake up. She joins a team of scientists going into the Shimmer. The scientists are all women, which is treated as no big deal. Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a terse, detached psychologist who is the leader of the group. Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez) is an outgoing, tough-talking medic (and yes, you read that undercut right: she’s into women). Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) is a soft-spoken, brilliant physicist and the emotional center of the group. Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) is an anthropologist and the most observant of the women — she’s the one who tells Lena that each member of the group decided to go into the Shimmer because none of them feel like they have much left to live for.

    Garland tells the story nonlinearly. We see three timelines — Lena being interrogated by a scientist (Benedict Wong) after somehow escaping the Shimmer; Lena and the team of scientists entering the Shimmer, four months earlier; and, a year before that, Lena and Kane saying goodbye before Kane embarks on his own mission.

    The world Garland has created inside the Shimmer is visually stunning, intriguingly strange, and often terrifying — as Lena soon realizes and explains to her team and the viewers, inside the Shimmer, every organisms scells mutate. That means some beautiful sights — vines covered in a variety of multicolored flowers; tiny white deer with twigs for antlers — and some terrifying monsters that threaten the group’s lives. But the monsters aren’t all external, and as the scientists go further into the Shimmer, they discover disturbing messages left for them by Kane and his team.

    Some of Garland’s sci-fi creatures are scarier and more fascinating than others, but the film is definitely a thriller — I grabbed my face a little too hard at one of the jump scares and have a small scratch below my eye now. I admire how ambitious and creative the film is, but the real strength is the cast. It’s refreshing to see an action thriller led by five women — I can’t think of a single one I’ve seen before — especially when the women play complex and very different characters. Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson especially stand out, and though they get a decent amount of screentime, I wanted even more. It's also refreshing to see Oscar Isaac play a “wife”-type character — he’s unconscious for most of the movie, his mysterious illness drives Lena’s action, and he’s primarily seen shirtless and in flashbacks.

    Garland has been criticized for casting Portman in the lead role, because in the second book of Jeff VanderMeer’s trilogy, her character is described as being of Asian descent (none of the characters' races are mentioned in the first book). In a recent interview with Yahoo, Portland said that she wasn't aware of her character's race in the books and has not read the second book; she also agreed that we need more roles for people of color in Hollywood. In other interviews, Garland has said he hasn’t read the other books in the trilogy, either — though the books had been released by the time production began, so you’d think that someone could have read them and filled him in. The supporting cast primarily consists of people of color — Thompson, Rodriguez, Isaac, and Wong, as well as David Gyasi as a hot professor and Lena’s colleague. But though Portman’s performance is a good one, I can’t blame anyone for wishing an Asian American actress had been cast as the lead — there are many who would have been excellent in the role.



     top photo: Annihilation

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    Charlie Says 
    Directed by Mary Harron 

    Out May 10 

    Director Mary Harron and writer Guinevere Turner make a valiant attempt to turn the typical Charles Manson narrative on its head with Charlie Says, but they can’t quite shake the lurid allure of Spahn Ranch. Merritt Wever plays Karlene Faith, a grad student who meets Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel in 1972 while leading a feminist reading group at the prison where the three “Manson girls” are incarcerated. Getting to know them forces Karlene to reexamine her ideas about responsibility and victimhood. Meanwhile, Leslie (Game of Thrones’ Hannah Murray) grapples with vivid, violent flashbacks. 

    Wever’s role is arguably the most pivotal but feels the flattest, perhaps because she has to work overtime against the pull of the charismatic hippies. And Matt Smith (The Crown) is an unconvincing Manson—slouched and handsome under piles of fake hair. Another issue is the way in which the film emphasizes the emotional and physical abuse that kept Manson’s family together, but doesn’t fully investigate the girls’ culpability and rehabilitation, especially given the real-life work the late Karlene Faith did as an activist and scholar. Charlie Says wasn’t made to glorify the Manson family, but unfortunately the film’s acid-drenched orgies are its most compelling parts. (3/5)

    By Jenni Miller

    This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!

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    Written and directed by Laura Steinel 
    Out April 19     

    In Family, protagonist Kate (Taylor Schilling) is so hyper-focused on career that she puts family last—and believes her co-workers should, too. She makes fun of her assistant for letting her adult brother move in with her; she voices doubts that a colleague about to take maternity leave will ever return to work; and she advises a new hire that to get ahead, her job has to become her entire life. Then she gets a call from her brother: his wife has a family emergency, and he needs Kate to take care of his preteen daughter for a few days. That daughter, Maddie (Bryn Vale), is delightfully weird—she turns sticks into “weapons of nature,” she’s constantly practicing magic tricks, and she only eats chicken parm. When Kate discovers that Maddie is skipping ballet to secretly take karate, the two begin to bond. Under Kate’s care, Maddie befriends a group of teenage Juggalos and decides to join the Juggalo “family” herself.

    There are some cringey jokes about Kate’s single, career-lady status and preteen Maddie’s weight in this comedy, but the two actresses will definitely make you laugh—as will Kate McKinnon, in a supporting role as a controlling suburban mom. In the end, though, Family is yet another uptight-career-woman-learns-how-to-loosen-up story—with some added Juggalos. 3/5

    By Erika W. Smith

    This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!

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    Little Woods
    Written and directed by Nia DaCosta
    Out April 19      

    Writer/director Nia DaCosta’s first feature film is a drama centered around two sisters, Ollie (Tessa Thompson) and Deb (Lily James), living below the poverty line in fictional Little Woods, North Dakota. Ollie is on probation after an arrest for illegally bringing prescription pills for her terminally ill mother (and a few others) over the Canadian border. Since her arrest and her mother’s death, Ollie has been getting by selling coffee and breakfast food and taking in laundry—staying on the straight and narrow. But then, two financial crises hit: the bank tells Ollie she has one week to start making payments or her late mother’s home will be foreclosed upon; and Deb, already a single mom, is pregnant and wants an abortion. They need cash fast, so Ollie temporarily returns to dealing drugs.

    Little Woods is all about financial insecurity—as soon as one money crisis is solved, another one hits. And by setting Deb’s unplanned pregnancy in an abortion desert, DaCosta sends a message about the need for improved clinic access. The heart of the movie is the complicated relationship between the two sisters, and Thompson especially gives an incredible performance. With this feature, DaCosta proves she should have a long career ahead of her. 5/5

    By Erika W. Smith

    This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!

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    Directed by Brian Crano
    Out on February 9, 2018

    Anna (Rebecca Hall) and Will (Dan Stevens) have been a couple since childhood. Just turned thirty and on the brink of starting their adult life together, they decide to put their commitment to the test, sleeping with other people for the first time in either of their lives. Simultaneously, Anna’s brother (David Joseph Craig) and his life-partner (Morgan Spector) struggle with the decision to become parents.

    Written, directed, and produced by Brian Crano, the film follows Anna and Will’s flailing attempts at maintaining their relationship while pursuing casual sex. It’s less a romantic dramedy, and more a comedy of errors as both couples struggle to communicate honestly with each other and their other partners; although lighthearted and enjoyable, at times it evoked the same cringing feeling that occurs when you watch someone wipeout.

    The type of non-monogamy Crano presents resembles what only a person deeply committed to monogamy would conceive of. (At one point, there is a heavy-handed, slightly pedantic attempt to distinguish open relationships from cheating.) While it’s refreshing to see a romance that portrays options outside of monogamy as valid, and advocates for self-autonomy in favor of commitment, it works best as a tale about what communication errors to avoid when pursuing an open relationship. It did, however, do a nice job of defying gender roles by replacing a conventional straight couple with a conventional gay couple. 3/5

    Top Photo from Permission

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    The Long Dumb Road 
    Co-written and directed by Hannah Fidell
    Out November 16       

    Generations collide in this road trip comedy directed and co-written by Hannah Fidell. The Long Dumb Road centers on Nat (Tony Revolori), a recent high-school grad making his way from Austin, TX, to L.A., to study photography. His journey takes an unexpected turn, however, when his beat-up old van won’t start. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, Nat must accept help from Richard (Jason Mantzoukas), an impulsive, unreliable mechanic. Richard reveals that he, too, is hitting the open road. Specifically to Vegas, where he plans to take in all that Sin City has to offer. Nat views the coincidence as an opportunity to experience a part of life that he believes his middle-class upbringing sheltered him from. And just like that, two very unlikely people embark on a wild, alcohol-fueled adventure. 

    Like a lot of road trip comedies, The Long Dumb Road falls prey to predictability. But what the film lacks in surprises, it makes up for with fresh jokes, engaging narrative, and solid performances from both its leads and an excellent supporting cast that includes Grace Gummer, Taissa Farmiga, and Ron Livingston. Basically, The Long Dumb Road is guaranteed to make you laugh. (4/5)

    By Samantha Ladwig
    This article originally appeared in the October/November 2018  print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!

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    When Senator Ted Kennedy died in 2009 after serving in the Senate for almost half a century, obituarized memorialized him as “the Lion of the Senate,” praising his leadership among Senate Democrats and his lifetime support of universal healthcare and immigration reform. The new movie Chappaquiddick looks back at a decidedly less celebrated aspect of Kennedy’s career: that time he accidentally killed a woman and then tried to cover it up.

    Chappaquiddick opens by showing that woman, 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara), sunbathing in a cleavage-y swimsuit on the beach with a friend and fellow former Bobby Kennedy campaigner. The pair are discussing Mary Jo's reentry into politics: After taking a break from politics after Bobby Kennedy’s death, Mary Jo recently re-started her political career by working on a New Jersey mayoral race. Now, Ted Kennedy has talked with Mary Jo about working in politics on a higher level, and she’s considering it. In the midst of this conversation, Ted himself (Jason Clarke) walks up — and that’s the end of any hint of Mary Jo’s interiority.

    We next see Mary Jo with other “Boiler Room Girls” — a group of young women who worked on the Bobby Kennedy campaign — at a party with Ted, his cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms), and other Kennedy insiders. A gregarious and apparently drunk Ted takes Mary Jo for a drive — the filmmakers leave room for viewers to interpret this drive as the prelude to either a hookup or a conversation about Mary Jo’s career goals. After seeing the police approach their parked car, Ted speeds away...and drives straight off a narrow wooden bridge into a body of water. After Ted escapes the submerged car and swims to the beach, he lies back on the sand and reflects on the loss of his political career. Mary Jo is still trapped inside the car, panicking as it slowly fills up with water.

    Director John Curran, following a script written by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan, follows Ted as he goes to increasingly shady means to try to, at first, escape any connection with Mary Jo’s death, and then reduce the damage to his political career. The filmmakers portray Ted, his father Joe (Bruce Dern), and the rest of the Kennedys and their accomplices as single-mindedly focused on politics to the point of callousness — none of them give much of a thought to Mary Jo’s death beyond what it means for Ted's political career. But in doing so, the filmmakers also appear to have not given any more thought to Mary Jo’s death — or life — than the Kennedys did.

    With Kate Mara cast in the role and featured prominently in the trailer and marketing, I was expecting Mary Jo to appear in more than a few scenes. Yes, her character dies, but how about flashbacks to her time working for Bobby Kennedy, or showing her decision to re-enter politics? Kopechne's  Wikipieda page tells far us more about her than this movie even hints at: She was involved with the Civil Rights movement, she was a talented speechwriter, she loved softball. At the end of the movie, white text on a black screen gravely informs us that after failing to get past the primaries in 1980, Ted Kennedy never did run for president, framing the tragedy of the movie as the loss of Kennedy's presidential aspirations and not, y'know, the woman he killed. Chappaquiddick succeeds in showing the dark side of the political machinery behind the Kennedys, but there has to be a way to do that and give more value to Mary Jo’s life than the Kennedys did.


    top photo: Chappaquiddick

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    Red Joan has Judi Dench seemingly as the main attraction, but as pretty much every other reviewer has pointed out, that’s quite the red herring; Red Joan, after all, isn’t “starring” Judi Dench, but “featuring” her. The film is, instead, a plodding, intermittently entertaining showcase for Sophie Cookson (who you might recognize as Roxy in Kingsman) encapsulated within a cliched frame narrative. The story itself is reportedly based on the story of Melita Norwood, who passed the Soviets’ information on the West’s nuclear development. Changes have been made to consolidate the nature of Norwood’s spycraft: instead of being a secretary affiliated with Britain’s atomic weapons research, Joan Stanley is a physicist in her own right who grows disillusioned with the win-at-all-costs mentality of her fellow scientists. Sadly, Norwood’s Wikipedia page is more of a thrilling yarn than most of Red Joan

    We open with Judi Dench as Joan Stanley, the archetypal respectable English grandmother, as she’s arrested on charges of espionage. As she begins to tell the investigators her story, we jump into the meat of the film—the flashbacks, punctuated with short interruptions as present-day Joan protests her innocence, saying one thing and remembering another. At the beginning of young Joan’s tale, it’s 1938, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, when Joan falls in with a group of charismatic Communists while at the University of Cambridge. Sonya (Tereza Srbova) and her cousin Leo (Tom Hughes), two German Jews, lead Joan into a world of dark-roomed film screenings and heated discussions of Soviet political purges, where, of course, only Joan is wise enough to question Soviet propaganda. After graduating, Joan works as a research assistant for nuclear scientist Max (Stephen Campbell Moore), the only man who seems to immediately recognize her value, and with whom she inevitably has an affair. Joan is in the field for her love of science, and is propelled by her belief that it should be a pure and apolitical discipline, even as it’s being used to create nuclear weapons. As a result, she chooses to spy for the Soviets as a means of keeping balance—to make sure that all sides have equally destructive capacities and therefore won’t attack one another.

    There are kernels of a more thoughtful narrative that could have been told in Red Joan, if the filmmakers were committed either to following Norwood’s life more closely or committed to stressing the struggle Joan faces in reconciling her scientific mind with her humanitarian concern for people’s welfare, and for the loss of human life that these nuclear technologies could cause. After all, making Joan a scientist rather than an administrator arguably gives the character a greater sense of personal responsibility in the fate of the world—if she succeeds in making a breakthrough, it’s good for her career, but potentially catastrophic for the people on the other end of the little red launch button. Alternately, the filmmakers could have played with the nature of memory, and of storytelling, and emphasized the gap between what Joan Stanley tells her interrogators and what she actually believes, thus creating a protagonist whom we, the audience, cannot precisely pin down. There are hints of this nuance in Dench’s performance, which we can observe as we are expected to connect the passionate, heartfelt young Joan and the more reticent, truth-eliding elderly Joan, but this theme isn’t expanded upon nearly enough.

    Instead, Red Joan splits the difference, choosing to de-politicize Joan’s reasons for giving the Soviets secret information and ascribing the dirty politics of it all to Sonya and Leo, while failing to truly explore Joan’s realization that science is not, and has never been, devoid of politics. It’s through her close relationship with Leo, and his tendency towards grandiose statements about civilization, that Joan begins to understand the world as made up of people rather than rather than glorious buildings and monuments. Yet on the whole, the portrayals of Sonya and Leo, while meant to be seductive and compelling, I assume, are less of individuals than of mysterious, shifty ciphers. Sonya takes long, glamorous drags on her cigarette, always looking as though she’s internally laughing at Joan’s naiveté, while Leo alternates between passionate defenses of the Soviet Union and manipulating Joan with romantic gestures, calling her “my little comrade.” 

    The fact that they’re the only Jewish characters in the film and are the ones responsible for later cultivating Joan as a spy is even more unfortunate, because in real life, Melita Norwood was raised in a family with strong ties to leftist politics and seemed to be a committed Communist throughout her life. While the elderly Joan Stanley protests that she wasn’t a Communist—that joining Communist clubs and attending demonstrations was just the thing everyone was doing in university—Melita Norwood didn’t need to be deceived and led astray by cosmopolitan, attractive Jews with questionable approaches to morality, because Norwood already believed in the cause. But for the filmmakers of Red Joan and their resolutely black-and-white portrayal of Cold War politics, a protagonist who betrays her own country in the service of a sincerely-held ideology, rather than the total lack thereof, isn’t worth exploring.

    Top photo via IFC Films / Red Joan

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    Wild Rose
    Directed by Tom Harper
    Out June 14    

    Theatrically trained actor and singer Jessie Buckley gives it her all in this musical melodrama about a single Scottish mum with big Nashville dreams, but her considerable talent can’t save Wild Rose from its silly plot. When we first meet Rose-Lynn Harlan, she’s leaving a Glasgow jail with an ankle monitor. Her mother Marion (Julie Walters), is a no-nonsense lady who provides the only stability in the lives of Rose’s two children, but Rose seems intent on upending her family at every turn. Buckley—who is Irish but manages an impressive Scottish burr—is infinitely watchable as Rose, whether she’s on stage belting out tunes or bonding with her children and decorating her small but cozy home.

    Rose sports a tattoo that reads “Three chords and the truth.” But Rose’s relationship to the truth is tenuous at best. This is especially true when it comes to her new boss Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), who hires Rose to be her housekeeper and falls for her considerable charm. The world needs more prickly female protagonists, ones that screw up, aren’t perfect moms, and are reckless messes. But a film needs more than a wildly careening narrative arc and some admittedly terrific musical performances to hold itself together. (2/5)

    By Jenni Miller

    This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!

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    The feature debut of Tanzanian American writer/director Ekwa Msangi, Farewell Amor, follows an immigrant family from Angola that reunites 17 years after husband and father Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) left for New York to work as a cab driver and establish a home for those he left behind. When he is finally able to bring over his wife Esther (Zainab Jah) and daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson) to share his small Brooklyn apartment, expectations shatter as he realizes he is as alien to them as they are to their new adopted country.

    Told in the style of Akira Kurosawa’s famous 1951 film Rashomon, this family drama unfolds repeatedly from the point of view of each character. Father, mother, and daughter all do what they can to reconnect, carefully navigating conflicts that arise surrounding familial love and duty under pressure. A recipient of multiple prestigious filmmaking fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Tribeca Institute, and the Sundance Institute, Msangi proves with this impressive first feature that she is a rising star, and definitely one to watch.

    By Logan Del Fuego
    Header image via IFC Films

    This article originally appeared in the Winter 2021 print edition of BUST Magazine.
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    “My name is Aubrey Parker. I broke into my dead friend’s apartment. Who the fuck are you?” Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) says combatively to a walkie-talkie she found by her friend’s bed in a wood-paneled, cabin-like dream of a bedroom. It’s New Year’s Eve and Aubrey’s best friend Grace is dead, leaving behind a group of mourners, a tombstone with the epitaph “Always Right,” and a secret task that she expected Aubrey to be able find out about and carry out. In response, Aubrey has barricaded herself in Grace’s apartment, cocooning herself in how Grace has scrapbooked their memories on her walls, written it into the fabric of the home, so that it’s everywhere she looks. 

    Breaking into Grace’s home and essentially holing up in there until the food runs out is a tribute Aubrey is more comfortable with. She already left the wake early, unable to handle the raw emotions punching her in the gut—and the feelings prompted by Grace’s cousin telling her, “I don’t think I ever had a conversation with Grace where you weren’t mentioned.” But when Aubrey wakes up on a snow-dusted New Year’s Day, she finds that everyone else in town has vanished. The world, somehow, has ceased to exist, and she’s the only one left—she and a mysterious voice on that walkie-talkie. Aubrey, the mysterious voice, and a bunch of frightening alien creatures that were drawn to Earth via a secret sonic signal, and, weighing her down through it all, the grief. 

    It’s often said that the thing that’s scariest in horror films is what we don’t see, rather than the guy with the knife. Our own anticipation is what creeps up on us and sends chills down our spines. Starfish was written, directed, and scored by A. T. White, primarily a musician by trade, and it’s completely fitting in how it uses sound to fully evoke the horror elements of the story in a way that more expensive visual effects could only fail to describe as effectively. Of course, the central narrative of a story that stubbornly refuses to bend to its will is the quest for a bunch of tapes—a mixtape that will save the world, somehow, if Aubrey can only put it together and blast it from the radio tower in town. The sharp strings that return throughout the film as a motif heighten our anxiety as we stumble along with Aubrey, wondering where the heck everyone has gone, what that awful sound is, what those creatures are. Similarly, the organic, clicking, almost insect-like sounds that herald the faceless creatures’ presence are perfectly constructed for maximum disgust and dread. Towards the end of the film, the high-pitched sounds used in a dramatic moment are perfectly suited for the haunting, surreal imagery they accompany.

    The largely episodic story of Starfish is reportedly based on White’s experience in losing a friend, and so even when the science fiction aspects of the story fail to generate needed urgency, the emotional tone—the listlessness, the emptiness of loss—is exact and precise. The escapist power of music—its ability to transport us to places we never thought possible—is brought to life on the screen in ways both obvious and more subtle.

    Starfish could have followed a more straightforward, step-by-step narrative by going Thirteen Reasons Why (the book, not the show), where the recovery of the tapes becomes a quest of sorts, and where the recovery of each tape triggers her memories in a way specific to that tape and its location, and allows us to see more of the flashes in her past that she regrets now. For better and for worse, though, the storyline is not structured as such, instead focusing far more on its protagonist than on her journey, ultimately (and ironically, for a movie about an apocalyptic alien invasion) working in a more realistic milieu. Aubrey’s memories of the things she’s done aren’t treated as rewards for us to learn about, but as genuinely intrusive thoughts that compound her grief and pain, often causing her to bleed between nightmares and reality. In one memorable moment, she slips out of consciousness, comes face to face with one of the frightening creatures she’s been avoiding, and then awakes violently, suddenly, in the middle of punching her own hand bloody against a wall. 

    When we experience a tragedy, it’s understandable when we want the world to stop, to cease to exist, to allow us to process our grief on our own time. Grace, a person of nearly unspeakable importance to Aubrey, has ceased to exist, and therefore Aubrey is fairly ambivalent about whether the world outside Grace’s apartment walls should continue as well. Virginia Gardner essentially carries the entirety of Starfish on her shoulders as basically the only person left, and she proves to be up to the task, conveying Aubrey’s turn from nihilism to purposefulness and everything in between. Even when the film itself drags, Gardner is engaging to watch.

    Aubrey even admits to a perverse sort of pleasure in everyone else being gone, confessing to no one in particular that her longtime dream was for everyone to just disappear. Her world is gone, in a way, and the rest of the world also being gone allows Aubrey to hide away and wallow, allowing the grief and guilt over mistakes she made in her friendship with Grace to consume her completely; if there’s no one else outside that door to wait for her to stop grieving, to leave behind this last trace of Grace, then she never has to stop. She can experience this perfect heightened emotion forever. 

    Starfish will be available on VOD May 28, 2019.

    Top photo via We Are Tessellate / Starfish

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    If you're a millennial of a certain age, it’s possible you’ve been lusting after Joseph Gordon-Levitt for basically your whole life. From grade-school sleepovers in the late ’90s (10 Things I Hate About You) to date nights in the aughts (500 Days of Summer) to Oscar prepping in the 2010s (Inception), he’s always been there, upstaging higher-profile heart throbs in every genre.

    So, it is with great pleasure that I report he is every bit as charming as you’d want him to be, even on a cross-countryphone call in the midst of a pandemic that has made small talk nearly impossible. “I know that I ramble sometimes,” the 39-year-old jokes, as he explains—with an understandable amount of incredulity in his voice—that Donald Trump has just tweeted about the same anti-protest law referenced in his new film,The Trial of the Chicago 7 (out in November), which takes place in...1969. “When you watch this movie, it doesn’t feel like you’re watching history,” he says. “It really feels like you’re watching what’s going on today.”

    Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, Trial tells the true story of seven Chicago activists who were charged with conspiracy and inciting a riot after leading protests against the Vietnam War during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Gordon-Levitt plays Richard Schultz, one of the real-life prosecutors in the case. The stacked cast also includes Mark Rylance, Sacha Baron Cohen, Frank Langella, Yahya Abdul-MateenII, and Michael Keaton, among others. “It was fascinating and just invigorating, and such a deep honor to be around such talented and skilled artists,” says Gordon-Levitt, noting that the movie’s court room setting allowed for an unusual chance to watch each other’s performances. “It was an incredible moment as an actor.”

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    Pre-pandemic, Gordon-Levitt was also working on a new Apple+ comedy series about a California public-school teacher called Mr. Corman, in which he was playing the title character, writing, directing, and executive producing. “I was having a blast!” he says of the show, adding that the premiere is currently set for 2021. Then there’s Hit Record, his online community of artists around the world, and 7500, his airplane thriller that hit Amazon Prime over the summer.

    He’s been so busy, it’s not surprising that he has no idea what I’m talking about when I ask him if he was aware of the rampant Internet speculation that he was the Astronaut on Season Three of The Masked Singer. “My knowledge of popculture is somewhat limited,” he admits. “I am very aware of what’s happening on Shark Tank, though.” –Eliza Thompson

    Photographed by Ramona Rosales 

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  • DIANE Still2 7832e

    Diane is the sort of movie that Douglas Sirk would have directed in the 1950s—a “women’s picture,” so to speak, that centers on a female character and her trials and tribulations, often in a domestic context. (A Simple Favor is another recent movie that left a similar impression on me.) While Diane’s writer-director Kent Jones works in a more muted manner than the colorful, dizzying heights of Sirk-ian melodrama, the bones of that kind of story are still there (as are retro flourishes like the slow cross-fade effect between several scenes). 

    Diane (Mary Kay Place) is a kind, elderly widow who lives to serve her community. She does what she can for others, whether it’s working in a soup kitchen or providing companionship for a cancer-stricken cousin, with gentleness and without complaint. When the power goes out in a soup kitchen, she’s the one who keeps her head and lights candles. But Diane’s drive to do good is at least partially derived from an ugly, festering place inside her, a guilty wound that will not heal. There’s also the matter of her son Brian (Jake Lacy), who struggles with drug addiction and refuses to accept her help; their conversations are shot through with frustration, resentment, passive aggression, and avoidance of the real issues lingering between them. Diane is basically counting down the days until he overdoses, and so she’ll play the role of everyone’s mother since her own son has rejected her attempts.

    If the fact that Diane has a horrible secret from her past weren’t included in the film’s basic synopsis, Diane’s downright saintly behavior would undoubtedly clue us in to the fact that she’s certainly not perfect—that the other shoe is going to drop, because no one is that good all of the time. And drop it does, but in subtle ways derived from organic conversation between characters, rather than cliched, dramatic confrontations marked by screaming and throwing things. There are confrontations about the thing that Diane did, but they’re always grounded in realistic emotion and naturalistic acting.

    Still, though, depending on her level of Brian-related or cousin Donna (Deirdre O’Connell)-related stress on any given day, there are moments when the facade of patience cracks—when the real Diane sneaks through to the surface. We see flashes of it in Diane’s discomfort in talking about Brian in mixed company, and her eagerness to immediately deflect the conversation away from what she sees as a failure. After innumerable visits, Donna and Diane’s camaraderie melts over a game of cards and they finally address the elephant in the room of Diane’s past transgression. Diane’s reaction is defensive and not a little petulant. “When are you gonna let me off the hook, huh?” she demands in a whisper. “You’ve been hanging this over my head for years and I just wanna know for once and for all: do you forgive me or not?” “I forgave you, but I haven’t forgotten,” Donna replies, her voice like rocks scraping together. Diane desperately wants to be be someone who didn’t hurt her cousin and her son, but all she can do is perform goodness as a kind of repentance. She can neither forgive herself, nor forget.

    When Brian goes from passive-aggressively rejecting her help to calling her profanities in a drug-induced rage, Diane shows that she can dish it out as well as take it, calling up a ferocity you wouldn’t have connected with such a gentle-seeming person. When a fellow volunteer at the soup kitchen scolds someone for taking too many helping, Diane grabs her arm and all but throws her against the wall, her disgust palpable, her outburst honestly kind of refreshing to watch. In order to hang all this kindness and generosity on herself, after all, she must have an armature of steel. 

    Mary Kay Place is receiving well-earned praise for the role, and she’s supported by a strong cast and production team. Jake Lacy is neither the jilted boyfriend of Carol nor the impossibly sweet love interest of Obvious Child: he’s far more nervy, with hurt feelings towards his mother that are easily triggered. Deirdre O’Connell is haunting and riveting in her hospital bed, relying on Diane and Agatha Christie books for company while refusing to let bygones be bygones. Andrea Martin appears as Diane’s honest, blunt friend Bobbie, serving as a source of strength for someone who is so relied upon. Kent Jones, primarily known as a film critic, clearly understands what makes a good story and how best to tell it. There’s not a false note in the movie, a point where you might think: “oh, no one actually would say that.” Jeremiah Bornfield’s melancholy score enhances the mood of the film, especially the piano pieces used towards the middle and the slightly discordant, echoing chimes that seem to serve as Diane’s musical motif. 

    Diane feels remarkably lifelike; the characters look and talk like actual people, and there’s not much plot or contrived action for them. Indeed, there are sections of the movie that sag with their slowness and lack of dialogue. Not everything can be happening all of the time, after all. In one of the film’s best scenes, when Diane goes to visit a group of relatives, they sit around the kitchen table, the conversations flowing and hiccuping around one another, coming together and breaking apart into side digressions and reactions. 

    The true high point, though, comes in a scene later in the film, when Brian (having disappeared earlier in the film), comes back clean, born again, and extremely eager to proselytize at her. Diane, Brian, his wife, and their friend sit around the table, Diane going from amusedly tense to boiling over as Brian tries to wheedle, then bully her into being “saved” before bringing up Diane’s transgression as a weapon. The rhythm of the editing and dialogue is perfect, and it’s clear that Mary Kay Place is totally invested in creating Diane as a fully-developed human character, whose faults and good qualities mingle together in unexpected ways. When Brian comes to her house at the end of the film, drunk and feeling honest, it’s the first time we’ve seen mother and son showing their true selves to one another. She’s not performatively modest or driven to screaming extremes, and he’s not trying to preach at her or guilt-trip her. Their conversation about that terrible thing Diane did in the summer of 1999 ends with a very realistic sense of catharsis, and, hopefully, a new understanding between them.

    Top photo via IFC Films / Diane

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  • Natalie Morales photo cred Jeremy Mackie 4653f



    Written and directed by Natalie Morales

    Out September 10

    Natalie Morales, the actor, has been gracing our screens for more than a decade (Parks & Recreation, Battle of the Sexes, Dead to Me), but Morales the director is having a moment: Language Lessons, which she co-wrote and stars in with Mark Duplass, is one of the two features she helmed during lockdown. It’s the quiet, intimate flipside to Plan B, the chaotic quest movie she directed for Hulu, and both are must-sees. Much of Language Lessons’ closeness comes from the format- it was filmed entirely over Zoom, the perfect vehicle for the touching tale of a long-distance relationship. 

    Duplass plays Adam, a guy whose husband gifts him weekly Spanish classes with Morales’ Cariño in Costa Rica. At first, Adam’s lavish home, “kept man” lifestyle, and charmingly self-centred banter rankle Cariño. But a tragedy sets their lessons on an unexpected trajectory, and with only two locations, two actors, and lots of talking, the story is carried mostly by their captivating charisma and chemistry. Audiences get to know each other, with all the awkwardness, caginess, and unexpected vulnerability an online-only relationship can foster. Watching can feel like eavesdropping, and you’ll want to keep spying on this duo after the final frame. - LISA BUTTERWORTH

    Photo courtesy of Jeremy Mackie

     This review originally appeared in BUST's Fall 2021 print edition. Subscribe today!

  • TM020250 Photo Gareth Gatrell copy 80520

    A coming of age story meets The Smiths' fandom of the '80s in The More You Ignore Me. This film weaves Morrissey's legacy into the befuddled homelife of Alice (Ella Hunt), her loyal father, Keith (Mark Addy), and mentally disabled mother, Gina (Sheridan Smith) in rural England. The film is an adaptation of Jo Brand's darkly comic novel. Yet, beneath Brand's comedic writing, The More You Ignore Me tackles difficult themes like mental illness and loss as Alice is bent between her devotion to her mother and her newly found love for Morrissey of The Smiths, a symbol of freedom and vivacity away from her mundane reality.

    Buoyant yet unpredictable, the film shows us that family ties and youthful imagination are not mutually exclusive as Alice and Gina fall apart yet are brought back together again by Morrissey, whose stardom fuels them both with hopeful optimism. Upfront, Gina takes so much away from Alice: A stable maternal figure, a letter written by Morrissey himself, and eventually her long-awaited place at The Smith's concert. But Alice learns that it can all be shared, so long as her mother can still experience the joys of life through her fraught state. The More You Ignore Me taps into the hysteria of the '80s, the blissfulness of youth, and the attachments to home. As "This Charming Man" plays over Alice and Gina's reconnection, the audience can't help but fall in love with The Smiths all over again.

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    The More You Ignore Me

    Directed by Keith English

    Out October 13

    Top Image: courtesy of Gareth Gatrell 

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  • cuties 6ea15

    Trigger Warning: scenes in film of child sexual exploitation discussed. 

    Spoiler Alert! Pivotal scenes mentioned. 

    Cuties(2020) was written and directed by Maimouna Doucoure, a French-Senegalese filmmaker. The film is described as a coming-of-age drama starring Fathia Youssouf as the main character, Amy, an eleven-year-old Senegalese immigrant. Unsatisfied with the prayer, piety and religious customs of her Muslim culture, Amy becomes obsessed with her neighbor Angelica (Medina El Aidi-Azouni). At school, Amy finds that Angelica is a member of a twerking dance troupe called ‘Cuties,’ which glares in bright contrast to Amy’s religious upbringing. The girls on the team are adamant about finding success through social media, learning that the more they expose themselves, the more attention they get. In the film, this escalates to a dangerous level of sexual exploitation. 

    Growing up as a preteen in Western culture is difficult, add social media on top of that and it’s a nightmare, so I came into this film with empathy. I also came into this film with a feminist mindset after seeing tweets from actress Tessa Thompson and Karen Attiah. Each supported the film calling it “beautiful.” 

    As a woman viewing the film, I saw children trying to imitate the adults they see on television and social media. Was it uncomfortable? Yes, but it was supposed to be. If I was Amy, growing up with music videos filled with twerking and songs like “WAP,” “Savage,” “Like That,” and “7 Rings” I would definitely try twerking in a mirror alone if not with my friends. I certainly tried reenacting some of Britney Spears more risqué music videos when I was eleven-years-old. Thank the goddesses I didn’t have social media! 

    Another concern with the film was whether it qualified as child pornography or not. I would say no, the film itself is not child pornography but there is a scene that depicts it happening. Toward the end of the film, Amy takes a picture of her vulva (not shown), posting it on social media and alienating all her classmates. Unbeknownst to Amy, she has just shared and created child pornography. However, the director addresses the content of the film in a Youtube video on the Netflix Film Club account, saying, while researching for the film she “met hundreds of pre-teens who told me their stories. I needed to know how they felt about their own femininity in today’s society and how they dealt with their self-image at a time when social media is so important. Our girls see that the more a woman is overly sexualized on social media, the more she’s successful. And the children just imitate what they see.” In the interview, Doucoure also questions, “Isn’t the objectification of a woman’s body that we often see in our Western culture not another kind of oppression?”

    After watching the film and listening to Doucoure's interview, I’m convinced that the outrage is a problem of men viewing women as sexual objects rather than the girls being depicted as sexual objects. I’m more settled in the fact that, in general, men are so obsessed with the control of the feminine body that any signs of it being used to provoke their interest, even in the body of a child, arouses their anger. Either these men are ashamed for their sexual desire for children, and angered from that shame, or it is an instance where they are simply angry and threatened because they are not in control of feminine expression. The power of movies comes from what is shown and what is not shown. If bloody scenes of war are shown with glorification in film, then why not depict the way the online world affects a child’s mind and actions through film as well? 

    As I unfold the feminist foundations of the film, I am unshockingly finding that most of the comments that were concerned about the movies’ exploitation of children were from United States Republican Senators. 

    U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex tweeted that “Cutiessexualizes 11-year-old girls, which is disgusting and wrong. That’s why I’ve asked [Attorney General] Bar to investigate whether Netflix, its executives or the filmmaker violated any federal laws against the production and distribution of child pornography,” 

    Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., questioned Netflix CEO Reed Hastings via letter on why the platform is airing a film “depicting children being coached to engage in simulated sexual acts.” He captioned the tweet: “Netflix should explain why it is distributing a film, Cuties, that appears to sexually exploit children and endanger child welfare.”

    Even more dramatically, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., tweeted “Last year, Netflix lectured conservative states for passing pro-life laws to protect unborn children. Now Netflix peddles child pornography. At least Netflix is consistent.”

    The only notable comment against the film that I’ve taken into consideration was from the National Center of Sexual Exploitation stating that“While we commend Director Maimouna Doucoure for exposing the very real threats to young girls having unfettered access to social media and the internet, we cannot condone the hyper-sexualization and exploitation of the young actresses themselves in order to make her point.”  The nonprofit drives home, “The audience does not need to see the very long scenes with close-up shots of the girls’ bodies; this does nothing to educate the audience on the harms of sexualization.”  

    A necessary comment though is that The National Center of Sexual Exploitation is mostly led by white men and the CEO and president Patrick A. Trueman has ties to the Republican Party. Therefore, again, I’m confronted with white men’s opinions on the fictional narrative of a preteen girl and I’m not thrilled by it. 

    If anything, Cuties shows how refusing to talk to young girls about sex, the dangers of social media, and rather attempting to shelter them from the world is partly to blame for harmful behavior and exploitation. This is exactly what Doucoure intended the film to do. 

    This concern rings loudly in a scene where the girls are hanging out in a public park. Coumba (Esther Gohourou) picks up a condom and calls it a ‘boob’ while proceeding to blow on it. The girls are horrified running away from Coumba, one yelling, “you’re going to get cancer or AIDS!” Coumba, tears in her eyes, responds to her friend's fear, “How was I supposed to know that? It isn’t my fault that I didn’t know what it was.” The girls proceed to scrub her tongue with a scrub brush, hand soap, and water. 

    If young girls are exposed to sexualized content, whether parents like it or not, then they need to be exposed to real and honest conversations about sex and sexual exploitation. 

    Being a preteen and teenager is so difficult and confusing. I’m certainly glad I’m a grown woman now, but I can neither berate fictional girls or real girls for trying to imitate the women they see because I did it too. This film certainly isn’t for children, but it makes you consider how the sexualization of the feminine body has affected you at those pivotal ages, and that is absolutely an important topic to discuss and evaluate. If this is the evolution of pop-culture and social media, then talking to young girls about it is essential to their safety and well-being.


    Header image courtesy of IMDB

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