Bursting with humanity, grounded in humility, and in love with the poetry of faces, "Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets" is a classic indie film that will irritate or mystify some viewers while inspiring evangelical fervor in others. The rating at the top of this review tells you where this writer stands. Set on closing day at The Roaring 20s, a Las Vegas dive bar with basement rec room decor, this gem from co-directors Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross is a reminder that good films can be made cheaply as long as they supply the audience with remarkable moments. This one consists of nothing else.
An old intellectual boozehound with a craggy face and an ivory mane entreats a glamorous Black trans woman who's stepping out for a while to make sure to come back so he can sing a duet with her. "Don't threaten me!" she peals, and they both laugh. A Black Vietnam vet sits on a corner stool, lost in thought as conversation swirls around him; the camera zooms in slowly until it's close enough to see the trauma behind his eyes. The bartender, a bear of a man with a ZZ Top beard and shoulders wide enough for fully grown cats to sit on, takes a call on the house phone from a patron in the back who wants to know if he's ever going to get that beer he ordered. Later, that same prank phone caller—a skinny, older white guy with granny glasses, a long grey ponytail, and semicolon posture—dances with the vet to a Michael Jackson song. Another caller starts his conversation with the bartender by asking how he's doing (something nobody thinks to do) then asks he could please find Ira and tell him to stop drinking and go to work.
I could keep adding to this list, but if I did, you'd be here longer than the running time of Eugene O'Neill's four-hour barroom epic The Iceman Cometh, a play that the Rosses have cited as a primary influence. There are bits and pieces of other works in here, too, notably "Trees Lounge"—the reigning US champion of dive-bar cinema, populated by Queens eccentrics and more than a few hardcore alcoholics—and "Big Night," which builds toward a closing night party at a struggling restaurant, and likewise carves out space to note fleeting epiphanies, such as a woman slouched over a table after a night of magnificent feasting who says, through tears, that her mother was a terrible cook.
The style of "Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets" mingles documentary cinema and improvisational drama with such ease that, after starting the film without reading about it first, I decided to resist the urge to find out which it was, so thoroughly convincing were the characters, the intricate soundtrack (which catches multiple conversations simultaneously, some occurring offscreen) and the fly-on-the-wall cinematography (also by the Rosses). It's a gift to be able to birth a moment into being just by finding the right camera subjects and letting them be themselves. Everyone involved with this production has that gift.
Still, I guess I have to take a sidebar here and tell you about something that didn't bother me in the slightest, but that seems to have bothered a number of my fellow critics: the Rosses started out making documentaries and call this film a documentary as well, but it's the result of auditioning barflies around the country, choosing the ones they found most fascinating, then spending two 18-hour days in a New Orleans bar with them, feeding them situations and topics, watching them make drama from it, then cutting the results together with exterior shots of Las Vegas (shot through eerie filters that evoke the irradiated Vegas of "Blade Runner 2049.") Some of the performers have prior acting experience. Most don't. The movie doesn't identify which are which, and in most cases it's hard to tell. I've read reviews of "Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets" that find something vaguely sinister in this blurring of fiction and fact, and question whether it was deceptive of the directors to label the result as nonfiction.
I don't think the question matters much when you think about how many different international cinemas throughout the decades—particularly Italy after World War II, and Iran in the late 20th century—made art by blending reality and fiction. These films wove their narratives around nonprofessional performers (and sometimes a few professionals skilled enough to fake amateurism) playing a version of themselves. But if it did matter, I'd point to the many shots in the movie which plainly acknowledge that the only "reality" onscreen is the record of a filmmaking experiment.
One scene starts with a closeup of a barfly looking into the camera before reminding himself that he wasn't supposed to do that. A handheld lateral tracking shot follows the bartender as he walks behind the bar, the camera operator is not only visible in the wide mirror behind him, but stays in the shot so long (in a variety of mirrored surfaces; no matter how many times the poor guy repositions, you can still see him) that it's impossible not to fixate on it. If the Rosses—who have been transparent about their production methods in interviews—were trying to fool anyone, they would have deleted those shots, and others like it. "Everything’s a fucking documentary," Bill Ross told The Guardian. "Some people perform plays in front of the camera. We’re going about it slightly differently."
Whether or not this is, strictly speaking, a "documentary," it is certainly a movie that prizes documentary values: a record of a spontaneous occurrence. The framing is rough-and-tumble. You can tell it was a struggle to capture some of the wilder spontaneous moments without interrupting the performers' flow—and that, faced with the choice of destroying a scene's momentum and staying put and hoping for the best, they stayed put. The result finds beauty in simplicity. If you counted how many cuts there are in the film, you might not break three digits. But there are no ostentatious, Hollywood-slick shots—just instance after instance of the filmmakers finding the most interesting person in the room (who might or might not be the one doing the talking) and staying on them for a long time, to see what happens.
The vet quiets everyone else down and says he wants to tell a joke that's really more of an aphorism about human nature, and a deep one at that, but his audience else gets hung up on his repeated mispronunciation of the word "few" (maybe result of dental issues or a speech impediment) and won't let it go. The camera stays on the vet the whole time, crystallizing a moment that everyone has experienced at one time or another: a sincere attempt to connect, derailed by listeners who keep fixating on some minor, meaningless element. The bartender and several patrons watch "Jeopardy!" on the corner television, failing to get a single answer right. "Fuck this game," the bartender says, prompting gales of laughter from the customers. "What are we watching this for, to feel stupider? Like I need to feel dumber today, I already gotta deal with you clowns! Alex Trebek, you son of a bitch—you got the answers right in front of you, man!" The camera stays in a static wide shot the entire time, letting you choose which character to look at, and heightening your awareness of how much these regulars have come to depend on each each other. Friendship is an intoxicant, too.
Other times, the filmmakers' ability to concentrate—to really look and listen to their characters—cracks a moment open and releases deeper meanings. My favorite finds a drunk, drooling patron standing in the open doorway of The Roaring 20s as Michael, the intellectual barfly, urges him to go home. Most of the shot is obscured by an interior door frame and, more so, by the bartender's back and shoulders. Michael is squeezed into a v-shaped gap in the blackness, like he's part of a paper collage. Michael's sometimes-not-visible face, the drunk's disembodied voice, the bartender in the foreground, and the rectangle of merciless, blown-out sunlight backlighting the action combine, evoking primordial dread. It's as if one being is urging another to leave the womb, or give in to death's release, while we bear witness.
The movie keeps doing this: finding a moment—small, big, happy, horrible—and staying in it until feels like it's time to move on. The filmmaking and performances are operating on the same wavelength. Performers and crew agreed to try something, then went to a bar and did it and filmed it. This commitment to a vision—not just a filmmaking vision, but a vision of life—gives the project a philosophical spine. The range of thoughts and emotions released by that vision is the reason the movie exists. That scene in the doorway is a metaphor for the film you're watching, and for everything. "Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets" is about people who have come to think of their favorite watering hole as a place of refuge, and are so frightened by the certainty of losing it that they spend their final hours there pretending it's just another day. And isn't that what everyone does, each day of their lives? You go through one doorway and leave through another. You don't remember what came before. You can't know what comes after. And in between: days, hours, seconds.
As Michael points out in a monologue, most people don't have a lot of control over what happens to them, even when they loudly insist that they do. Admitting this can be paralyzing at first. You move past it by realizing that what matters most is what happens while you go about your business in that in-between space. It's all a series of moments. The finest ones are centered on other people. And the greatest gift one person can give another is to appreciate them.
This movie appreciates every person that passes in front of its lens. It throws spotlights on magic moments even when the people they're happening to don't know they're happening. It sees people's potential even if they've never capitalized on it. It sees their pain when they can't admit or describe it. It sees their struggle when they try to hide it. It's a documentary of compassion.
Now playing in a virtual run through at Film at Lincoln Center, with a rollout to follow
Tom Hanks continues his role as a WWII historian with “Greyhound,” an intense Aaron Schneider film that barely plays longer than an episode of the Hanks-produced HBO series “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific.” At just over 80 minutes if you skip the end credits, fans of this war movie will be drawn to its lean, no-nonsense approach, one that employs more nautical terminology and shouted orders than character detail. For Hanks, who also wrote the film, all you need to know about Commander Ernest Krause is in what he did in service. Sure, Hanks the actor finds a way to inject a subtle glimmer of doubt or fear, but this is one of the most purposeful war movies ever made in how little it offers outside of the naval events that justify its existence. On the one hand, the direct approach is admirable in an era of bloated blockbusters, and there’s something about a simple story of well-told heroism that’s almost refreshing. However, Schneider can’t figure out how to elevate it beyond those minimal intentions, and “Greyhound” starts to become numbing in its tactics, a film whose simplicity feels more shallow than lean. And, yes, there is a difference.
Hanks plays Krause, a career officer who was given command of a destroyer, the USS Keeling (its call sign was Greyhound), which led a convoy of 37 Allied ships across the Atlantic in early 1942. WWII historians know this section of history as the Battle of the Atlantic, a non-stop cat-and-mouse game between Allied ships and German U-boats that spanned the entirety of the war and cost thousands of lives. While Hollywood has produced a great number of films about the ground wars of Europe during World War II, less has been seen about what happened on the Atlantic Ocean, largely because the technical capabilities to really convey the tension of destroyers battling German submarines is relatively new. Perhaps this is what drew Hanks to adapt C.S. Forester’s The Good Shepherd—a sense that he could finally do so in a way that felt genuine.
That last word is clearly the driving focus of both Hanks’ and Schneider’s approach. The character beats in “Greyhound,” including Krause praying over a breakfast provided by head chef Cleveland (Rob Morgan) or discussing strategy with second-in-command Charlie Cole (Stephen Graham), can’t add up to more than five minutes of screen time. The vast majority of “Greyhound” consists of Krause shouting orders about degrees and rudders and other things that will play to Naval historians way more than the average film watcher. The detail is clearly what drives "Greyhound," and there’s a sense that we haven’t really seen this kind of film before in that no order is skipped over in the screenwriting or editing—in fact, almost every order is repeated from Krause down through the chain of command.
The historical accuracy of “Greyhound” makes it entertaining, but the filmmaking sometimes feels more like a lesson than entertainment. Schneider relies too heavily on his score to raise the stakes and the naval battles aren’t visually interesting enough given how much weight they have to carry. It’s refreshing of Hanks and Schneider to avoid jingoism, but the film's repetitive nature can make it feel distant. In a theater with the right sound system, “Greyhound” might have been more immersive, but it’s a project that seems destined to suffer by being shuffled off to Apple TV+, even for those with the best home sound system. Much has been made in the last few years about Tom Hanks jokingly being America’s Dad. He doesn’t have the same stories of bad on-set behavior as some of his colleagues, knows more about American history than most teachers, and even yells at people to wear masks. He was Mr. Rogers! And “Greyhound” certainly feels like a film tailor-made for dads of a certain generation—people who don’t want anything overly complicated or nuanced in their stories of heroism. It’s a classic story of someone who would never call himself a hero, but most certainly was one to those he protected on his convoy.
There’s a moment late in "Greyhound" when the naval orders are done, and the human element of Krause’s mission comes cheering to life, nearly saving the film. Not only does Hanks the actor sell this beat with graceful beauty, but it’s really emblematic of the entire reason the project exists and much of Hanks’ career in history-based projects. For years now, Hanks has been reminding us that heroes don’t wear capes and almost never call themselves heroes. Even with the frustrating minimalism of “Greyhound,” it will be a comforting reminder in a time when it feels like we could all use a bit more heroism. And it will probably make you want to call your dad.
Now playing on Apple TV+.
Just as Ryan Coogler crafted “Black Panther” as an entry in his own directorial universe, Gina Prince-Bythewood casts her Netflix superhero film, “The Old Guard” in her own stylistic image. The director of “Love and Basketball,” “The Secret Life of Bees,” and “Beyond the Lights” enjoys scenes where her characters get all up in their feelings, and she invites you to climb in there with them. These are some introspective characters, a by-product of their having lived for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. Several times, the camera lingers on their faces as they contemplate, or remember, the sadness of losing someone. The film sits patiently with these moments, putting the same level of importance on the characters and their emotions as it does on the action. A scene of Andy (Charlize Theron) savoring a piece of baklava carries the same weight as a scene of her cleaving a foe with a gigantic battle ax.
Andy is the eldest member of an elite band of people who appear to be immortal. The opening scene features a flash-forward to their bullet-ridden bodies; a little later, we see them rising up fully healed after this slaughter, spitting out the bullets that have penetrated their faces as they mow down their opponents. This squad of four is about to be joined by a fifth member, Nile (KiKi Layne), a Marine stationed in Afghanistan whose slit throat suddenly heals itself. She is also plagued by nightmarish visions of other team members, a psychic link that, according to Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), only shuts down once they have all met. Until Nile showed up, Booker was the Guard’s youngest member, joining in 1812.
Since “Mad Max: Fury Road” cemented Theron’s ability to weld her Oscar-winning acting skills onto the bodies of fierce warriors who kick ass, “The Old Guard” treats us to a great, plane-bound fight between Nile and Andy. The two showcase their battle credentials while Andy offers gruesome examples of Nile’s ability to heal. With Nile’s braided, natural hairdo and Andy’s Karen-style coif, their battle plays like an unintentional and vengeful commentary on those angry “can I speak to a manager” videos plaguing social media. What does feel intentional, however, is the inclusivity inherent in the depiction of the immortals, both in flashbacks and in its current timeline. They are played by a variety of different races and it never once feels forced or pandering.
In addition to observing the humanity of its heroes, “The Old Guard” also employs Prince-Bythewood’s penchant for grandiose, melodramatic gestures that shouldn’t work at all yet play out masterfully. Think about Noni on that balcony in “Beyond the Lights,” or Monica setting the terms of the climactic game in “Love and Basketball.” Here, the moment occurs between Andy’s teammates Nicolo (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari). By virtue of their shared immortality, these men have been together for hundreds of years. They are lovers whose “Meet Cute” occurred when they were constantly killing each other during the Crusades. After they’ve been captured by minions of our villain, the evil pharmaceutical dudebro, Merrick (Harry Melling), Joe’s concern for his fallen comrade is mocked with homophobic intent. “Is he your boyfriend?” his captor asks. Joe’s response with a declaration of love as shamelessly florid as it is heartfelt, putting that paltry moment of LGBTQ representation in “Avengers: Endgame” to shame.
Writer Greg Rucka, who adapted the graphic novel he wrote with Leandro Fernandez, hits all the standard story beats of this genre. There’s the obvious exception to the immortality rule, an over-the top villain, the villain’s conflicted right hand man (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a very sad backstory of torment for Andy, a betrayal, a climactic rescue mission, and even a scene that sets up the sequel. But he and Prince-Bythewood always support these familiarities with their actors’ ability to depict how strongly bound together their characters are. There are numerous scenes where people just talk to each other, either to get exposition out of the way or to propel the story forward, and every time, we come away feeling as if we know these people. So when the torture-filled middle portion kicks in, there is genuine concern for our heroes. These scenes force us to question the terror of being condemned to a lifetime of gruesome medical experiments simply because you cannot shuffle off this mortal coil.
Though it contains more dramatic sequences than most superhero movies, “The Old Guard” doesn’t scrimp on the good, old-fashioned violence. Combat scenes are filmed so you can see who’s doing what, and edited together for maximum carnage and effect by Prince-Bythewood’s usual editor, Terilyn A. Shropshire. Shropshire is a favorite of directors like Kasi Lemmons and, as seen in her work in the first episode of Ava DuVernay's “When They See Us,” she’s very good at alternating between intimate drama and the much wider scope of action, keeping both speeds in balance. The cinematography by Barry Ackroyd and Tami Reiker is also quite good; their sequences at night and inside rooms have the same richness as their brightly lit outdoor shots of France and the desert.
"The Old Guard” has the benefit of not carrying the strict, fan-driven baggage of the Marvel and DC movies. As a result, it may not get the attention it deserves. But this is an excellent example of what this type of film can be, one I hope will be studied by the much bigger-budgeted tentpoles you know and love. I can’t remember the last time I was actually pumped to see a sequel based on a “post-credits” teaser—to be honest, I never know what the hell is going on in most of them—but this one made me wish Netflix had switched me immediately to the next installment as the credits rolled.
Now playing on Netflix.
"Palm Springs," directed by Max Barbakow (his feature film debut), is a very interesting and thought-provoking experience. It often made me laugh out loud. The cast—Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Meredith Hagner—is so talented, so in the zone with the material that they crackle with unexpected character development, absurdity, flaws, humor. With all the humor, though, the film strikes an unexpectedly tender almost bittersweet chord, the humor shadowed by sorrow, loneliness, helplessness. "Palm Springs" works by stealth; it doesn't announce its tone in broad strokes. There's sleight of hand: judging from the opening sequence, when a bunch of people gather in Palm Springs for a wedding, you think this might be your run-of-the-mill party-out-of-town kooky-family-ensemble film. But "Palm Springs" is full of surprises.
At the wedding, Nyles (Samberg) and his much younger girlfriend Misty (Hagner) hang out in the hotel room, and something is really off about Nyles from the start. He and Misty try to have sex, but he's bored out of his mind. He attends the wedding wearing a Hawaiian shirt, drinking cans of beer during the ceremony. He seems like a typical manboy, "acting out" under the influence of alcohol. Sarah (Milioti, excellent, vulnerable and guarded by turns) is the gloomy maid of honor, who knows her family considers her "a liability who drinks and fucks around too much." After all, her younger sister is so selfless she donated bone marrow for someone who needed it. How can a big sister compete with that? Nyles hits on Sarah, even though he's dating Misty, and the two stumble into the desert for impromptu sex on the boulders. And then ... things take a wild turn. It's revealed that Nyles is stuck in some kind of time loop, where he re-lives the same day over and over again, a la "Groundhog Day" (the lack of any verbal reference to "Groundhog Day" stands out. "Groundhog Day" and its concept is so well-known that if anyone actually got stuck in a loop in real life, they probably would say, "Wait a minute, am I in 'Groundhog Day' right now?")
How the time loop operates is revealed slowly. Nyles has tried to kill himself repeatedly. No luck. He sleeps with everyone at the wedding on different occasions, including one of the groomsmen, just to get a little variety. It doesn't matter. He still wakes up in the same hotel room with Misty nagging him to get dressed. By the time Sarah enters the loop, Nyles has reached a carefree zone with his predicament. Life is now meaningless to him. Time is meaningless. He cannot change his destiny. The only thing to do is entertain himself by making huge drunken scenes at the wedding, just to see the shocked reactions. Sarah's response to being sucked into the loop, however, is not passive. She says to Nyles, "I don't want tomorrow to be today. I want tomorrow to be tomorrow."
How this all plays out is one of the movie's special pleasures. Time loop stories have been told in endless variations. There's "Groundhog Day," of course. There's also the recent Netflix series "Russian Doll." "Edge of Tomorrow" is an extremely entertaining version of two characters stuck in a loop, adjusting their behavior as they make the same mistakes over and over again, trying to get things right. In the long-running CW series "Supernatural" (which I wrote about here in March), one of the episodes most beloved by fans is "Mystery Spot," "Groundhog Day"-inspired. "Palm Springs" doesn't so much borrow from these as careens off on its own track. You may think you know where it's going, but Barbakow and screenwriter Andy Siara keep it fresh, developing ideas in a constant state of flux.
J.K. Simmons' role is difficult to talk about without spoilers, but he is one of the many "wrenches" thrown into what could have been a predictable story. Dale Dickey shows up as a biker chick in a bar, proving she is one of the most reliable and versatile character actresses in the business. The relationship between Nyles and Sarah develops in fits and starts. What started as a casual hook-up to escape their miserable lives, is forced into a sometimes-adversarial sometimes-close relationship. Feelings bubble up, but instead of being a welcome escape, they both are filled with melancholy and anxiety. Is it even worth it to get to know each other in this weirdo reality? Would this "thing" they have even exist back in the real world? In his script, Siara makes sure that both Nyles and Sarah get to be complex. They are both intelligent, flawed, lying to themselves, afraid of intense feeling. Their slow approach into something deeper unfolds in what can only be called an organic way.
Samberg and Milioti deserve a lot of credit for this. The "trope" of two people who seemingly despise each other before magically falling in love has a long history. Consider Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant flinging vicious verbal barbs at one another in "His Girl Friday," all while being sucked into each others' orbit. The question is: "Who else could put up with either one of these people? They're perfect for each other." Falling in love is not what either Nyles or Sarah expected in their lives. After all, back in the real world, Nyles chose Misty, by all appearances a nightmare (Hagner is hilarious), and Sarah spends her time self-medicating and covering up her self-pity with a jaded exterior.
"Palm Springs" is genuinely romantic, in a way that (sadly) feels old-fashioned (but isn't). People get bruised by past experiences in love, they barricade themselves off from hurt. This becomes a habit, and the habit then becomes your personality. "Wait until the right person comes along" assumes that people stay as open and vulnerable as they were when they were young. But when you've been knocked around by life, love is not necessarily a 100% positive experience. Love comes with other painful things attached: regret, fear, mistrust. "Palm Springs" explores it all.
Now playing on Hulu.
Deep in a snow-covered forest in Japan, George (Theo James) is on a lonely mission to restart a decommissioned base. It is an unwelcoming concrete palace, as cold on the inside as the weather outside—like a spaceship plopped on another planet. As George returns from a brisk run, he greets the two robots he built for company and checks in with his curt boss, Simone (Rhona Mitra). He finds some comfort away from work talking to his dead wife, Julie (Stacy Martin), through the Archive, a “2001: A Space Odyssey”-looking monolith turned casket that allows the living to talk to the dead for a few more hours. Time is running out before she will go silent forever, and in his spare time, George works on his third prototype to house her personality for a chance at resurrection. Unfortunately, that brings out the jealousy in one of the other robots and the suspicions of the company behind Archive who don’t seem thrilled about George’s data breach to create his version of Frankenstein’s monster.
Gavin Rothery’s “Archive” is a somewhat unwieldy sci-fi thriller to get into. The plot twists are many, and so are the cliches. In its attempt to create conflict, it dips into sexist tropes that diminish the story. Then, it unravels them with the last few minutes, and it’s those last few minutes that changed my perception. The question each viewer will have to answer for themselves is if can they get past the movie’s male fantasy aspect for that final reveal.
Debut writer/director Rothery, who comes from the art department world, draws from various sci-fi movies to create the forlorn look of “Archive.” Its influences can be traced back to movies like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” or “Blade Runner” in the way it blends American characters against the backdrop of a Japanese restaurant and big light-up ads. Plus, some robot designs from “Star Wars” and “Metropolis” are thrown into a narrative mix of “Ex Machina” meets “Solaris.” The themes of those latter two movies are certainly prevalent. In a sense, George is a mad scientist trying to resurrect the dead through science and technology, going through several prototypes in the process for his perfect companion like in “Ex Machina.” The unforgettable wave of grief, ghost visitations from his wife and the movie’s inescapable sense of loneliness owes much to the Russian classic, “Solaris.”
Here is where things get a little uncomfortable. George is mostly alone except for the three robotic prototypes he created to save his wife’s essence. The first attempt left him with a lumbering gentle giant much like a toddler who can’t speak. The second looks something like the ASIMO robot, and acts like a petulant child when his attentions move on to creating a more humanoid version, which of course, is smaller, skinnier, and more conventionally attractive. Sure, there’s a moment when George explains that it’s the third prototype’s brain power that convinced him she’s the one to carry his wife’s being. But it seems like a weird design flaw in the story not to create models like the one you’re looking for in the first place. There are other befuddling gaps in the script, including when an actor has to say this gem in a very serious manner: “I’m a risk assessor. I assess risks.”
There’s also the issue that George christens them all sisters and tries to get them to unite for the purpose of bringing Jules back. They each have varying degrees of his wife in them somehow, so I guess that makes them sister wives. Definitely odd. And when the second prototype goes HAL 9000-levels of jealousy and tries to sabotage the whole experiment? It's predictable and tired. It has nothing to do with how apparently this Archive process was done against her consent or what it might mean to override a sentient feeling robot with dreams of its own (hello, “Blade Runner”!) with another entity. It’s more because she’s jealous and insecure, ready to destroy her competition even if the competition is related to her in some strange way. It’s also because some women have to tear each other down or lose themselves to prove their love, right to the point of self-destruction.
Yet somehow, Rothery turns this all around in the last few minutes into something that left me genuinely stunned. With the help of cinematographer Laurie Rose, Rothery achieves an isolated and gloomy look without draining the color out of the screen. Instead, the red, yellow, and white lights of the facility, and the extensive art and production designs sell this ambitious film's illusions. There’s even a cool, if slightly creepy, montage of George bringing the robot to life that’s quite impressive. As the movie’s central character, James plays George with the utmost stoicism in the present day, making the flashback memories to happier times with his character’s wife a necessary addition. It gives him the emotional backstory his tightlipped character won’t speak of, and shows us just how much he’s lost and how he’ll stop at nothing to bring her back—even if it means creating Frankenstein’s jealous monster.
For a long time, the latest movie from Cairo-born Canadian director Atom Egoyan would be an eagerly anticipated showcase piece at the Toronto International Film Festival. His early pictures such as “The Adjuster” and “Exotica” were bold, exploratory dramas with heavy art-film accents. 1997’s “The Sweet Hereafter,” based on a Russell Banks novel, told a harrowing tale of tragedy with a distinctive voice that leaned just far enough into the realm of the mainstream to make the movie an indie hit and a two-category Oscar nominee.
Anyone who attended that Toronto festival in 2005 will remember an almost palpable “what the hell did I just see?” feeling that followed press screenings of “Where The Truth Lies,” Egoyan’s adaptation of a Rupert Holmes novel (don’t laugh) about showbiz sexual depredations in the 1950s. The strangely robotic performances, the on-the-nose dialogue, the nearly amateur-hour period trappings had me thinking “has this guy forgotten how to direct a film?” a question I have only ever asked concerning Dario Argento.
Since then, in any event, critics have looked toward each new Egoyan picture with a combination of anticipation and trepidation, looking for what they call a “return to form.” “Guest of Honour,” a knotty memory play and character study that, not unsurprisingly, screened at last fall’s Toronto fest, is a gratifyingly solid work that benefits from first-rate performers and a knowing location nose for the scruffier corners of Hamilton, Ontario.
After a few establishing shots, the significance of which will be fleshed out as the picture goes on, “Guest of Honour” opens proper with a convention begun perhaps by Preston Sturges, in his screenplay for 1933’s “The Power And the Glory,” that is, with two people talking about a dead man. They are Veronica, a composed and beautiful young woman, and Father Greg, a priest, played by Laysla De Oliveira and Luke Wilson respectfully. The dead man is Veronica’s dad, Jim.
Played by David Thewlis, Jim is a restaurant health and safety inspector who takes his job very seriously. He’s on duty even when he’s off duty, as we see when we first meet him, and he finds a hair in the rice he’s eating at a food court during his leisure time. He’s specific, strict, and very observant, but he’s not without compassion. As it happens, his compassion will backfire on him.
Veronica tells Father Greg of the rabbit Jim got for her as a girl, a bunny she named Benjamin. Benjamin lived for quite some time, almost setting a record for bunny longevity, and Veronica recounts to Greg how kind her dad was to look after the bunny while she was in prison.
Well, there’s a real “what you say?” moment, for Greg and for the audience. And things get even weirder. Veronica, once a music teacher at a high school, went to prison for a crime of sexual abuse she didn’t commit. Almost everyone knows she didn’t commit it. A codicil of Canadian law enabled her to avoid trial, plead guilty, and request the maximum sentence. To anyone who’ll listen she’ll say she deserved prison. But for a different crime, or let’s say sin, which goes back to her teen years and was based on a complete misapprehension of a situation involving her father. A situation she was both right and wrong about.
I mentioned this was knotty. But Egoyan keeps all the temporal balls he’s juggling aloft and plainly visible, so the porous borders between Veronica’s perception and a reality that deviated from that perception by a tiny but crucial degree are painfully known to the viewer. In Veronica the writer/director creates a nearly Bressonian figure of quixotic moral conviction, and De Oliveira realizes her beautifully. And Thewlis, as a father whose devotion to his daughter compels him to discard his own ethics in a way that, unfortunately, other simply can’t help but notice, is spectacular. He’s a character who would be easy to caricature, but Thewlis never goes broad. Egoyan himself can get a little on-the-nose here: the portrait of a dual Jim in a distorted mirror, coming directly after a revelation of one of his breaches, is a solid, Bacon-style image but a bit overstated. Nevertheless, “Guest of Honour” is the director’s sturdiest creation in a while.
Now playing in virtual cinemas.
The best coming-of-age stories tend to dramatize without totally embracing their teenage or preteen subjects’ angst. At least that's how it seems to me right now as I think about “We Are Little Zombies,” a feel-good Japanese black comedy about four adolescent orphans who start a garage band after their parents die.
“We Are Little Zombies” is, however, a little hard to describe: it’s not really about how music can transform and/or improve you. Or maybe it’s not just about that, since writer/director Makoto Nagahisa’s film is also sometimes a post-punk musical about authenticity and selling out, as well as a manic hangout comedy starring the Little Zombies, a quartet of young adults who are too young to drink or drive. “We Are Little Zombies” also isn’t just an entertaining, if grim, fantasy about teen angst as it’s experienced by a group of despondent Gen Zers who sometimes use, but don’t ultimately fit, the mold for success that’s been left behind by their Gen X and Millennial predecessors.
Instead, “We Are Little Zombies” is a relentless, but emotionally well-balanced character study of Hikari (Keita Ninomiya) and his bandmates as they receive a series of transformative reality checks, and also perform post-millennial garage rock that sounds like a cross between post-shoegaze emo rock and video-game-style chiptunes.
As you can imagine, “We Are Little Zombies” is something of an acquired taste: you have to want to spend time with these kids since they’re practically asking to be rejected at every turn. Their mopey, abrasive style of power-pop is also catchy, but obnoxious, and their jaded worldview is often literally framed by their addiction to outdated forms of technology, like Famicom video games and disposable cameras.
The Little Zombies’ backstories aren’t much more lovable: Hikari’s rich father was a serial adulterer and his mom would have preferred to live completely alone; Shinpachi (Satoshi Mizuno) found his parents dead in a stir-fry-related gas explosion; and while Yuki (Mondo Okumura) was beaten regularly by both his dad and older brother, Ikuko (Sena Nakajima) is applauded by her father for bullying one of her classmates, since, according to his logic, that means she’s not being bullied herself. Also, because Hikari is addicted to retro video games, his story (and his band’s, by extension) is presented as a series of video game stages, each one with a “Scott Pilgrim”-esque chapter title. And Puccini’s “Un Bel di Vedremo” aria, from Madama Butterfly, is almost always playing on the movie’s soundtrack. These kids are sociopaths, is what I’m saying, and Nagahisa’s story accurately reflects that.
Thankfully, Nagahisa never treats the Little Monsters or their shared pathologies as a sign of our times. Instead, Nagahisa presents their sprawling narrative—including their band’s rise and inevitable fall—as a series of encounters with other people who are also living lives that they feel have been, in one supporting character’s words, “chosen for them.”
“We Are Little Zombies” is often the sort of effects-driven, hyper-stylized, episodic narrative that Danny Boyle and Sion Sono used to specialize in (especially “The Beach” and “Suicide Club,” respectively). Nagahisa uses a battery of audiovisual tricks and styles to show how warped the world feels according to these characters. For about an hour, the Little Zombies talk about their pre-orphan days and prepare for their exciting and strange new lives by arming themselves with some objects of sentimental value, like an electric bass or a stir fry wok. But ultimately, “We Are Little Monsters” is about what happens once you realize that you’re not in control of your life, because your personal rebellion’s success (and general well-being) depend on factors that are mostly out of your hands.
I expect I’ll be thinking for a while about and admiring the little choices that Nagahisa makes throughout “We Are Little Monsters,” not because he’s already a great storyteller (this is his debut feature, after all), but because he’s thoughtful and ruthlessly impressive. Almost every scene feels like it was designed with a unique visual scheme and payoff in mind, and all feature some insight into Nagahisa’s characters.
I’m especially fond of the scene where Hikari, during an on-camera promo video, is asked what his ultimate goal is. He responds with characteristic intensity, saying that he hopes to murder the bus driver who accidentally killed his parents while they were on an “All You Can Eat Strawberry Tour.” “Defeating him is my purpose in life,” Hikari says. “Maybe,” he adds without missing a beat, making that one word its own sentence. “We Are Little Zombies” is a keeper because it’s more about that “maybe” than what exactly is the matter with kids today.
Now available in virtual cinemas.
“I’m already in the coffin,” admits an elderly Islamic woman while riding in a taxi. She’s headed to the Kargil War Memorial where she plans to place flowers on the grave of her son, whose death has rendered her a living corpse. Like many of the women in Praveen Morchhale’s quietly enraging film, “Widow of Silence,” she is akin to a flower plucked against its will by unfeeling hands. An opening title card informs us that Morchhale’s script is “based on many true stories” told to the director by various female inhabitants of Kashmir—the volatile Indian region currently administered by three countries—who are branded as “half-widows.” They are the stigmatized souls whose husbands have vanished during the region’s three-decade-long conflict, yet have not been officially declared dead, thus putting their loved ones at the mercy of a viciously corrupt bureaucratic system designed to deny them their rights. One deliberate typo on all-powerful government papers can take ages to correct. As a registrar (Ajay Chourey) explains with matter-of-fact malevolence, “You won’t be able to prove before your death that you are alive.”
This is the misogynistic quagmire that our heroine Aasia (Shilpi Marwaha) finds herself up against. We first see her tying a despondent old woman (Zaba Banoo) to a chair for reasons we only gradually understand. Morchhale could’ve easily tackled this subject in the form of a talking head documentary, but such an approach would’ve conflicted with his spare, observant style. He clearly understands the power of visual storytelling, and how—as one character pointedly observes—“silence gives people the chance to think.” The mere image of Banoo strapped to a chair as sunlight streams through the rectangular windows of her home conveys the sense of entrapment felt by every woman, to one degree or another, in the film. We soon learn that the ailing elder is Aasia’s mother-in-law, who became catatonic once her son was abducted by the Indian military seven years ago for a supposed interrogation and never returned. The particulars of the alleged crimes committed by Aasia’s husband are not of interest to Morchhale, whose concern remains fixed on how the man’s absence has robbed the women who were close to him of their own lives long before they have taken their final breaths.
Marwaha movingly embodies the pervasive weariness that reverberates throughout each scene, as characters are forced to endure the same cyclical conversations that guarantee no closure. Cinematographer Mohammad Reza Jahanpanah juxtaposes Aasia’s misery against gorgeous landscapes that almost appear to taunt her with their suggestion of tranquility. Time and again, she travels along the same appropriately zigzagging road, rushing back and forth from wholly unproductive meetings with the aforementioned registrar, who repeatedly denies her request for her husband’s death certificate, which would provide her with the ownership of her own home, thus securing her family’s economic future. My heart broke for Aasia’s 11-year-old daughter, Inaya (Noorjahan Mohammad Younus), who is bullied constantly at school by insecure peers about her father, whom neither her mother nor her grandmother are willing to discuss. The only time we see his face is when Inaya tears his photograph to pieces before putting them back in place, an apt metaphor for the fragments these families are forced to reassemble, which rarely add up to a satisfying whole.
There are times when the dialogue becomes overstuffed with exposition, such as when certain factual details are spelled out for the obvious benefit of the audience, since the characters have already gotten the memo. It’s unclear whether some of the lines were marred by the stilted subtitled translations, which are laden with enough errors to necessitate further editing. Yet it is a testament to Morchhale’s writing that its eloquence frequently manages to shine through regardless, especially in the sequences involving the taxi driver (played wonderfully by Bilal Ahmad, an actual taxi driver from the region) who quickly emerges as the film’s life force. As his car radio reports on the area’s latest terrorist attacks, the driver partakes in sardonic and poetic banter with everyone he encounters, whether they be passengers or border patrol. He provides the movie with its only glimmers of levity, such as when he pokes fun at the absurdity of Islamic law forbidding women from sitting next to men. His words are refreshing because they relate to the central action more like a Greek chorus would, artfully expressing the picture’s underlying themes in ways that may not be immediately apparent.
Ahmad’s repeated likening of Kashmir to heaven calls to mind the deceptively hopeful title of Douglas Sirk’s melodrama, “All That Heaven Allows,” which goes on to illustrate just how little heaven considers allowable. It’s not long before Aasia is pinned to a chair just as her mother-in-law was, as the registrar lays out precisely what she’ll be expected to do in order to rightfully obtain her ancestral one-third acreage of land. What he’s requesting isn’t a bribe, he assures her, but rather a support system of sexual favors that the government considers par for the course. “Seven years can make land barren without farming,” he argues, another instance in the film where women are objectified as either fertile soil or flowers in bloom. Rather than raise her voice, Aasia often pivots away from the registrar’s unwanted advances as if they were the spray of gunshots she hears outside her home at night, prompting her to blow out the candles. Any further context to these unseen terrors would’ve been superfluous. The audience is kept in the dark along with Aasia to the point where we begin feeling her mounting, viscerally unsettling frustration.
For the entire film, Aasia straddles the line between the past and the present, heaven and hell, the living and the dead. I’ll refrain from revealing anything else about her journey, apart from that it leads to a brilliant punchline. All we hear during a crucial moment is a trickling of liquid as inconspicuous as the water Aasia uses to feed her plants in the first scene, bringing the movie full circle with a payoff that is wholly unexpected. The final four minutes turn what was already a fine picture into an unforgettable one, affirming Morchhale’s status as one of the most exciting figures of the Indian new wave.
Now playing in virtual cinemas.
Sigmund Freud would be, all things considered, an excellent wingman. A more introspective one than usual, but by trade the psychologist is certainly one of the best listeners you could ask for. That’s not a thought I had watching “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” and yet it is one that came to me during “The Tobacconist,” a movie that bases part of its drab period fiction on the fantasy of getting Freud’s friendly advice, all for the price of a good cigar. But the script, based on a revered novel from Robert Seethaler, concerns more serious themes than Freud's off-hand advice, though its shallow storytelling gives little to contemplate.
Played by Bruno Ganz, this version of Freud has the trademark circular glasses and assured disposition, but there’s an emphasis here on how much he loves a good cigar. Such a taste brings Freud into the life of Franz (Simon Morzé, a 17-year-old who has recently moved to the big city of Vienna, leaving behind his dear mother and their small village. Franz is seemingly new to how adults treat each other, and ipso facto that the world can be mighty cruel. He expresses this in one of the film’s few poignant lines of dialogue, even for a script with Freud as a supporting character: “Maybe the times were always strange, and I just didn’t notice.”
The focus of “The Tobacconist” is on Franz and his coming-of-age during this period, and a whimsical enlightenment hat comes with him appreciating his dreams thanks to his new friend Sigmund, and the pleasure of a cigar, thanks to his boss Otto (Johannes Krisch) and his shop. But along with its drab color palette, too much so even for the cloudy plot developments ahead, the story is frustratingly surface-level. The spare moments that have Otto speaking philosophically of a great cigar’s power—matched with an impressively detailed shop—don’t inspire much wonder, as if the crew didn’t get the memo that a love of cigars is meant to suck us into the story, as if it were an art form.
There’s a little more imagination to the movie’s reoccurring blue-and-gray dream sequences, where overt Freudian concepts are thrown in like codes. Franz has a dream of waking up naked, or of being on a ship moving backwards that’s about to hit an iceberg. These dreams, and their significances are a glaring example of "The Tobacconist" hitting its drama right on the nose, leaving Morzé not have much to work with aside from playing up just how green he is to the rest of the world.
It only gets worse when “The Tobacconist” fully commits to Franz’s infatuation with a Bohemian girl named Anezka (Emma Drogunova), whom he meets at a fair. The big conflict with this arc of highs (dancing close after just meeting) and lows (she disappeared with his money shortly after) is that Anezka works in a cabaret, and in general has no control over her own body, which Franz selfishly translates as her being emotionally unavailable. Ever the budding romantic, but not the type who you'd want to be within even five feet of their first novel, Franz becomes infatuated with Anekza and her gap tooth, stoking up buddies Sigmund and Otto about one who got away. A legitimate beat in the story then involves Franz tracking her down to a cabaret, seeing her performance, and storming out in a huff. However much this fairly serious coming-of-age story is fully aware of Franz’s naiveté, the size of his heartbreak is far from sympathetic.
In the background of all of this, the Nazis moving into Vienna, and anti-semitism experiences an outbreak, with blood-red Swastika flags taking over more and more walls and plazas. The cigar shop is attacked with someone called Otto a “Jew-Lover,” and later on the cabaret goes from joking about Hitler to joking about Jews. It's the time for Freud to leave, and Franz is fashioned like one of his last friends, who encourages him to go to London. As with the other larger themes, “The Tobacconist” touches upon this enormous experience, but seems to have little to say about it.
As in a climactic moment in which Franz seeks Sigmund for advice, there might be a joke that Freud doesn’t have a ton of great wisdom here, except to ask questions. It also might be kind of funny that his advice to Franz about women virtually adds up to “go get ‘em, slugger,” because even Freud is unsure about women want. But it's all quaint, if not cute, at best.
Now playing in virtual cinemas.
The uninspiring time travel thriller “Volition” begins with windshield wipers moving in slow-motion across a dark, rainy windshield. James Odin (Adrian Glynn McMorran), a hard-living clairvoyant, speaks: “They say when you die, your whole life flashes before your eyes.” A few excruciating seconds pass; the wipers wipe. Then James adds, “I wish it were that simple.” And it is: James, a sad, unshaven man with rings around his eyes and a heart of gold, tries to save himself and his optimistic love interest Angela (Magda Apanowicz) from violent gangsters.
There are a bunch of other plot twists for James to wrap his head around, despite his prevailing certainty that the future already is what it is. But the only theoretically complicating factors in James’ story—how can he see the future, let alone use that to save himself—are too easy to anticipate. “Volition” isn’t clever enough to get over this somewhat prominent obstacle, mostly because its creators go all-in on with their convoluted, but never complex story.
James’ quantum-physics-related problems begin after his surly landlord informs James that he’s four days late on rent. He now owes $500 by the end of the day. Doesn’t sound too bad, you might say. And you’d be right: James soon makes the money he needs using his ESP-like abilities. He can’t plan or control how long he sees the future, but he can usually make out the shape of things to come long enough to take some notes and make a little money. Still, James’ supernatural powers have understandably left him feeling drunk and jaded, a degrading condition caused by alcohol and a tragic childhood incident that turned James into a sad orphan, and then later a bitter adult.
Enter Angela, the sort of vaguely defined ingenue who’s new in town and enjoys drinking beer with James on his rooftop. Apanowicz delivers a fine enough performance, but Angela is more plot device than co-lead, let alone supporting character. When James says that “Our choices don't matter. Life happens beyond our control,” Angela’s there with a dutiful, but unconvincing response: “That's a shitty way of seeing the world.” James wants to buy what Angela’s selling, but he’s a little preoccupied with a diamond fencing scheme that’s (barely) planned by Ray (John Cassini), a tetchy hardware store owner, and Ray’s heavies, Sal (Frank Cassini) and Terry (Aleks Paunovic).
Here’s where matters become negligibly complicated. To solve Ray and therefore James’ money problems, James has to start talking to his nagging, eccentric scientist friend Elliot (Bill Marchant). Elliot warns James that he needs to try harder, in general, which explains why James has avoided him until the events depicted in “Volition.” But once James and Elliot do finally get together, some kind of plot begins, with James having to figure out a way to travel back in time, and save himself. There aren’t many surprises here, because the bread crumbs that lead to the movie’s big finish are plentiful and very stale. Seriously, the plot twists in this movie are so obvious and unappetizing that you couldn’t miss them if you tried.
And even if you succeeded, the biggest question posed by “Volition” would still be: So what? The movie’s ensemble cast are all believable enough in their respective roles, but director Tony Dean Smith and co-writer Ryan W. Smith don’t take them anywhere noteworthy. James retraces his steps right until something inevitably goes wrong with Ray’s diamonds. Then he has to retrace his steps even further, now with an ostensibly renewed sense of purpose: fix the diamond deal, or die trying. This cycle of events repeats itself, with some minor variations, until it becomes clear that the Smiths’ bigger ideas don’t meaningfully affect the shape or the substance of James’s story (ex: it’s unclear what Elliot does except keep the plot going). And while a complex narrative isn’t everything when it comes to science-fiction, it’s kind of important when your time-travel movie is focused on one man’s frustrated attempts at escaping his own private “Groundhog Day.”
Nothing in “Volition” seems consequential, because the Smiths barely pitch their narrative’s stakes. Their sketchy scenario always seems to be a few rewrites away from some place unexpected, but they never quite get there. So while there’s some talk in “Volition” about free will and the consequences of one’s actions, that all sounds like genre movie ballyhoo coming from stick figure characters like James, the kind of undeveloped hard-luck character who tries to establish his blue-collar bonafides by describing time travel as “Some quantum string theory bullshit about different events ringing out over space and time.” I wish “Volition” weren't so simple, but it is.
Now available on digital platforms.