The Incredible Hulk

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Now, onto the movie that everyone forgets is canon.

55/100

Thor: The Dark World might have the distinction of being the worst Marvel movie, depending on whom you ask, but The Incredible Hulk most certainly is the most forgettable entry into the MCU, with most fans regarding it as barely canon until William Hurt appeared in Captain America: Civil War, reprising his role as Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross.

The first reason fans purposely forget The Incredible Hulk is that it is simply a forgettable movie. 

Audiences having just seen Ang Lee’s 2003 movie Hulk starring Eric Bana, director Louis Leterrier eschews an overlong origin story, instead starting in media res, which spares us a rehash of an oft-repeated story but also leaves us grasping for details about Banner’s first Hulk transformation shown over the opening credits (with some very 2000s graphics reminiscent of Elrond’s floating head in The Fellowship of the Ring). Why did Banner volunteer for this dangerous governmental experiment? How was he involved? What exactly happened that made him turn into the Hulk? We don’t know, but we are expected to care about this random man hiding in Brazil anyway. 

Banner has found work at a bottle factory, where he demonstrates his intellect but rebuffs any offer of promotion, determined to stay where he is. He seems to be doing okay: he has a dog, he practices martial arts and breathing techniques, his hot coworker makes googly eyes at him. He’s also looking for a cure for his little green friend, corresponding with an unknown “Mr. Blue” about bloodwork and cells, and looking forlornly at a picture of Liv Tyler’s Betty Ross. After an accident in the factory allows the US military to track Banner down, Thunderbolt Ross sends a team led by highly-decorated Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) to take Banner into custody.

Obviously, this ends rather poorly.

So Banner wanders back to the US and reunites with Betty, and they clearly want to get together despite Betty now dating a guy named Leonard (Ty Burrell), and we finally get some backstory. Bruce and Betty worked together on a scientific experiment for the military, ostensibly to make humans immune to gamma radiation but in actuality—though they didn’t know it at the time—to create super-soldiers. The exposure to gamma radiation created the Hulk within Banner, who pokes his head out whenever Bruce’s heart rate rises above 200 beats per minute. (Marvel entirely abandoned this heart rate conceit by The Avengers.) However, the serum has since been refined, and General Ross gives some to Blonsky, which obviously will end well. We also learn that General Ross is Betty’s father, something that is treated like a huge reveal by the movie but falls flat because a) we were not shown any reason to care about their relationship before the reveal and b) it has practically no effect on the rest of the movie. 

So Betty and Bruce go to track down Mr. Blue, who turns out to be the professor Dr. Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson), who turns out to be just a plot device (there are hints at him becoming his comic book counterpart, The Leader, but these are dead ends) to get Blonsky to fully turn into his comic book counterpart, Abomination. There are some big CGI fights and then it’s over; while Hulk vs. Abomination in this movie and Iron Man vs. Iron Monger from Iron Man sound similar on paper, the former gives us little reason to care about their fight whereas the latter builds a solid relationship between Tony Stark and Obadiah Stane before it all falls apart, so we feel invested in that clash of metal suits. (Tony shows up for about two minutes at the end to broach the Avengers Initiative with General Ross and those are the most interesting two minutes of the entire movie.)

It’s not that The Incredible Hulk is bad, per se—there remains a base level of enjoyment to most Marvel films, and at least from me you probably won’t see a score dip below 50—it’s simply a bit forgettable, a fact compounded by the way Marvel has tried to sweep the film under the rug, which in turn is compounded by the fact that Universal and not Disney owns the rights to any solo Hulk movie. (Remember when Marvel sold off character rights when they almost went bankrupt? Here are the ramifications.) It’s all very thorny.

The second, more obvious reason The Incredible Hulk has been neglected is Mark Ruffalo.

Mark Ruffalo took over from Edward Norton in the role of Bruce Banner come 2012’s Avengers, and aside from a joke about how he “broke Harlem,” the events of The Incredible Hulk are ignored. The circumstances regarding the recasting are murky: Norton, who helped write the film with Zak Penn (though only Penn received credit), wanted to go down a darker, grittier path with Hulk for any sequels, à la Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, whereas Marvel was already starting to find their sweet spot as quippy, fun, and fast-paced action movies. Norton is also rather famously rumored to have a big ego, and Ike Perlmutter, Marvel Entertainment’s CEO, is rather famously stingy (as well as racist and sexist, but more on that in the later entries). The official statement from Marvel on Norton’s departure read, “Our decision is definitely not one based on monetary factors, but instead rooted in the need for an actor who embodies the creativity and collaborative spirit of our other talented cast members. The Avengers demands players who thrive working as part of an ensemble,” so infer from that what you will.

Looking back on Norton’s performance after five movies with Ruffalo (seven, if you count his cameos in Iron Man 3 and Captain Marvel), it’s hard not to be biased towards the latter. Ruffalo’s Banner is a bit more bumbling and awkward, a smart man who gets in over his head. Norton’s Banner is… sexy? Did they try to make him sexy in this movie? He takes his shirt off, fights people, (almost) has sex, suavely winks at Betty before getting injected with gamma radiation… It feels bizarre compared to the current Banner, who has mostly remained unsexualized. (That Age of Ultron “romance” didn’t happen.) Norton feels far too cool for the role, and furthermore fails to provide Banner with an inner life that goes beyond “sad” and “horny for Liv Tyler.” Ruffalo gives the character a certain innate lovability while portraying the inner torment with more nuance and subtlety than Norton managed.

In fact, where Iron Man soared on the strengths of its characters and performances, The Incredible Hulk falls flat. William Hurt and Tim Roth are barely given anything to do and remain hollow outlines of characters: General Ross is the stock stoic military leader determined to subdue the enemy at all costs, Blonsky is the stock ruthless soldier who wants to amass more power because… because. 

And then there’s Betty.

Betty Ross is hardly a character at all: she is a Strong Female Character because she is Smart, and therefore must be an Independent Woman. (Strong Female Characters don’t need to actually act as people, they just need to have “progressive” traits such as intelligence and spunk so the audience knows that you the screenwriter are Woke and think that women too can be Smart.) What did she think about the project she worked on with Bruce? How did she react when it turned south? Gee, I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter because Liv Tyler looks hot and sad in the rain. Betty is smart, understanding, kind, supportive, alternatingly maternal or sexy when the script calls for it, and above all, flawless. She gets angry at a bad taxi driver and that’s about it, and that anger is all in service of Bruce. In short, Betty Ross is the “cool girl” monologue from Gone Girl, a far cry from our previous MCU heroine in Pepper Potts. (Not that Iron Man—or, indeed, the MCU as a whole—is a paragon of gender equality, but at least Pepper is a character with an actual personality.)

The Incredible Hulk is still fine enough, and is an interesting glimpse into the early Marvel days before they figured out their winning formula; this movie attempts to be darker than Iron Man, lacking the humor that has become trademark for Marvel and trying to do… a psychological drama? A character study about a big green guy that goes smash? Whatever it’s attempting to be, it fails, and becomes one indistinguishable mass, its characters utterly lacking in the heart and charm that defined Iron Man and would go on to give the MCU its staying power. But it’s not bad background noise.

Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • Obviously, Tony Stark shows up in the last few minutes of the film to discuss putting together a team. This does not happen until 2012, so this scene is just another case of Marvel throwing out something that might stick for a payoff that won’t happen for several years. (In the next Marvel movie, Iron Man 2, Tony will tell Nick Fury that he doesn’t “want to join your super secret boy band.” I guess he changed his mind from The Incredible Hulk once the writers decided to hold off on a team-up for another few years.)
  • Thunderbolt Ross shows up in Civil War, then again in Avengers: Infinity War, now Secretary of State. Betty has yet to be mentioned.
  • Tim Roth will appear as Emil Blonsky in the upcoming Disney+ show She-Hulk, along with Mark Ruffalo’s iteration of Bruce Banner. Is Marvel starting to actually recognize this movie? Seems like.
  • The super soldier serum Ross and Blonsky mention is the one that made Steve Rogers ripped in Captain America: The First Avenger and is of much discussion in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. (If I were in charge of Marvel, I would have put a Hulk movie after the first Captain America movie so we could see the beginnings of the program first to better understand the ramifications, but I understand wanting to wait to have such a cheesy movie as The First Avenger until the MCU established itself a little more. Kevin Feige, if you read this, call me, I have ideas.)

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Bruce and Betty try to get it on (never mind her other boyfriend!) before his heart rate monitor goes off, warning him he will Hulk out if they progress any further (never mind the random hot woman he’s implied to have slept with in Brazil!). Kinda funny. 

MCU Ranking: 1. Iron Man, 2. The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk Trailer

The Incredible Hulk is currently available to rent and purchase from most major digital storefronts.

Sources: Vanity Fair, The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, my own unholy amount of Marvel knowledge

You see more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Tribeca 2021 Film Festival Review: No Man of God

Written by Anna Harrison

55/100

No Man of God director Amber Sealey recently posted on Instagram a lengthy email from director Joe Berlinger, in which he accused her of taking aim at his own films about Ted Bundy—Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile with Zac Efron, and the documentary Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes—in a Refinery29 interview, where Sealey stated, “I don’t personally believe that any of the movies that have already been made up until now have really shown the real Bundy… They always glorify him.” 

Now, leaving aside the moral quandary that arises from this rather immature spat, the question arises: Can there ever exist a movie about Bundy without glorification? There is always a certain voyeuristic fascination with figures like him, even as we are repulsed by their actions; America has a constant need for celebrity, and killers, especially charismatic men like Bundy and Charles Manson, fill those shoes with ease. François Truffaut famously claimed that “There is no such thing as an anti-war film”; can there exist a movie about a figure like Ted Bundy that doesn’t glorify him?

It’s a hard thing to avoid, especially when Bundy as played by Luke Kirby oozes a snakelike charm throughout No Man of God, even at his most despicable. You can’t help but be fascinated by him, by the cocked eyebrows and tilted head, something that FBI profiler Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood, who needs to drop his skincare routine as soon as possible) comes to find after he volunteers to interview Bundy in an effort to discover what makes serial killers tick. “Dear Mr. Bundy,” Hagmaier writes before tossing the paper. He eventually settles on, “Dear T.,” and so correspondence begins. Eventually, correspondence begins, and Hagmaier makes various trips down to Florida over the course of several years while Bundy waits in limbo, still denying his crimes. 

The two make an odd couple: Bundy, slippery and dangerous, and Hagmaier, straightforward and devout. But they are fascinated by each other, and by the knowledge that, had things only been a little different, their places could have been switched: Bundy as the agent, Hagmaier as the killer. An obsession with “normal” plagues them both; could normal people do what they do? Are normal people capable of what Bundy did, or are both Bundy and Hagmaier unnatural? Together, Wood and Kirby form an infinitely watchable duo, simultaneously bouncing off of and melding into each other. They discuss everything from elementary school hijinks to pornography, getting closer and closer as they circle each other, probing into each other’s psyche. Does Bundy truly view Hagmaier as a friend, or is he just manipulating him?

However, the excellent performances make the shortcomings of the film that much more frustrating. Writer C. Robert Cargill of Doctor Strange, under the pen name Kit Lesser, carefully creates the parallels between Hagmaier and Bundy, but fails to elaborate on them past the surface level; it’s hard not to think about others that have done it better, especially in certain adaptations about a cannibal with a suspicious-sounding name. The real Hagmaier served as an executive producer for No Man of God, and part of me wonders if that hamstrung the film and Cargill had to step back from anything too damning lest he paint Hagmaier in a negative light. What could have been engrossing psychological drama ends up being rather unremarkable material elevated by the two leads at its center. 

The best moments come towards the end, when the media frenzy reaches a high around Bundy and he begins, for the first time, to fear his own death. Kirby never lets the viewer forget Bundy’s nature, his cold misogyny and violence, but by degrees lets in a real vulnerability as he reckons with his impending doom. It’s a tightrope act that Kirby walks with apparent ease. Wood shines too as Bundy finally lays bare the nature of his crimes and the depths to which he sank to Hagmaier, an excellently edited sequence cutting between the two so quickly it becomes hard to tell who’s who, the closest the film gets to committing to the merging of Hagmaier and Bundy. 

Does Sealey succeed in making a film that doesn’t glorify Bundy? It’s hard to say; perhaps its mere existence glorifies him. Though Sealey attempts to try a new approach with Bundy, No Man of God ultimately retreads well-worn ground, and the efforts to separate itself from the crowd don’t go far enough. The seeds of a gripping character-driven psychological thriller are all planted, but despite Wood and Kirby’s best efforts, they fail to produce anything more than sprouts.

No Man of God is currently streaming as part of the Tribeca 2021 Film Festival thru Tribeca at Home(available only in the USA). No Man of God is currently scheduled for Theatrical Release on August 27th.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Iron Man

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. We start at the very beginning (of release order, that is). 

Update, July 15, 2021: Upon reflection, and upon watching Captain America: The First Avenger, I had amended my initial score of 80 to become a 75/100; I still had my nostalgia-tinted glasses on when rating this. Iron Man holds up well, but not overly so.

80/100

“I am inevitable.”

These words, spoken by Thanos in Avengers: Endgame, seem as if they could easily be applied to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole; from our viewpoint now, where Marvel has saturated nearly every corner of our lives, it can be easy to think that the MCU was a given, and that its rise was just waiting to happen, but that would be disingenuous. With Iron Man, Marvel Studios pulled off a miracle, and they kept doing so until they finally climbed to the top of the media landscape—and then they did it again with Endgame, creating a (largely) satisfying end to a 22-film saga that somehow managed to balance its ridiculous multitude of characters. Of course, your mileage may vary on how much good you think these miracles do, and how good they actually are, but inevitable? Hardly.

And it all started with 2008’s Iron Man.

Having slowly clawed its way back after filing for bankruptcy in 1996, Marvel was still on unsteady ground in the aughts, and had sold off many of its biggest characters to other film studios: Spider-Man belonged to Sony, the X-Men and Fantastic Four to 20th Century Fox. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies and the X-Men trilogy performed like gangbusters, but Marvel Studios itself made little from these films, the bulk of the profits instead going to Sony or Fox.

Their solution? Take out a $525 million loan from Merrill Lynch and hire an independent director best known for the cult hit Swingers to make a largely-improvised movie around a C-list superhero played by an actor widely regarded as damaged goods. It hardly seems foolproof, and indeed, it wasn’t.

Yet against the odds, Iron Man worked, and it worked well, laying the blueprint for future MCU entries with its blend of action, humor, and heart (though Mamma Mia ended up outgrossing it that year). Much of its success rested upon the shoulders of Robert Downey Jr., who came roaring back to stardom with a pitch-perfect performance as Tony Stark, who would become the linchpin for the budding MCU. Tony would go on to undergo one of the most dynamic character arcs in the MCU, and it all starts here.

The first third of the movie could almost function as a standalone: Tony Stark, drinking and flirting his way through life, gets captured in Afghanistan after showing the US Army Stark Industry’s latest weapon design. Tony learns that his weapons have been being used for nefarious purposes by the terrorist group that captured him, dubbed the Ten Rings. (No one has ever accused Marvel of too much nuance.) The Ten Rings asks that Tony make a new weapon for them; Tony and fellow captive Yinsen (Shaun Toub) pretend to do so while secretly making a suit that will allow them to escape. From there, and after Yinsen’s inevitable death, Tony sets out to make things right and disarm his business, our perfect post-9/11 superhero out to single-handedly stop the War on Terror. (Iron Man is about the closest Marvel ever gets to critiquing the military-industrial complex, but we’ll table the discussion about Marvel’s relationship to the military for later.)

It is hard to overstate how much Downey owns Tony Stark. Here is a superhero who can’t shoot webs, who doesn’t have adamantium claws, who isn’t a nigh-undefeatable alien; hell, he doesn’t even have a six pack. He is just a man in a can, skating by on his wits (and his money, of course), by turns charming and infuriating, his every action streaked by a sense of desperation that pushes him to nearly a suicidal obsession with righting his wrongs and protecting those he initially failed. It’s a lot to juggle, but Downey does it with such ease that it’s hard to believe the studio was against his casting at first.

Director and fellow co-star Jon Favreau surrounds Downey with a talented cast of players, most notably Jeff Bridges as Obadaih Stane and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts. While much has been said over Marvel’s forgettable villains, Bridges makes Obadaih by turns genial and menacing, leaving an impression despite the rather unremarkable third act that largely devolves into men in metal suits punching each other. But Obadaih is still fun, chomping on his cigar and yelling at this subordinates; he doesn’t want to eliminate half the population or rule over the entire galaxy, he is just a greedy corporate crony willing to gloss over human loss for a bit of money and power, and his existence serves to remind Tony of what he can never become. (Again, this is about the closest Marvel ever gets to critiquing corporate greed and capitalism run amok. But it’s fun to watch.)

Much has also been said over Marvel’s forgettable romances, though there are a few exceptions, Tony and Pepper being foremost among them. This is due in large part to Favreau’s willingness to wait a couple films before throwing them together, and also because of Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr.’s great chemistry. Even if you don’t buy into Goop, it’s hard to deny the charm she displays in the film. Pepper herself, of course, is a great character, and she will become increasingly important in these films.

Terrence Howard is there too, obviously, though the character of Rhodey has become Don Cheadle’s so much so that the original Rhodey feels like a placeholder (the rumor goes that Howard left over a pay dispute, having gotten more money than Robert Downey Jr. for the first Iron Man and getting upset when that trend was reversed for Iron Man 2). Still, though Howard may believe that 1×1=2, he makes a good foil to Downey, his Rhodey a bit less responsible than Cheadle’s and a bit friendlier.

Iron Man, in retrospect, does not stand out as the most daring or inventive Marvel film, though that’s easy to say when comparing it against the 20+ films that have come out since. (It does, however, have the MCU’s steamiest scene: some dry humping that lasts about thirty seconds. It seems that Paramount was a more forgiving distributor than Disney would become in 2009.) But let’s not forget that while critics might complain about the now-staid nature of the MCU, it was founded on several enormous gambles, not the least of which includes Samuel L. Jackson’s cameo as Nick Fury: with the words “I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative,” the cinematic door suddenly burst wide open in a way it never had before. This was not just going to be a standalone movie, or part of a trilogy centered around one character; as Fury puts it, “You’ve become part of a bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet.”

Ah, but that’s for another day. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • The Avenger Initiative, obviously, leads to the formation of the Avengers later down the line.
  • Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson and the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division become more and more important, most especially in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (and, of course, the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., neglected by Marvel at large but eking out its own bizarre, fun existence).
  • Rhodey says, “Next time, baby” while looking at an Iron Man suit. In Iron Man 2, he becomes Iron Patriot. Wow. Crazy!
  • The Ten Rings will appear in the upcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which will no doubt retrofit Tony’s backstory a little bit.
  • Yinsen mentions meeting Tony at a party several years ago, though Tony—drunk at the time of the party—cannot recollect this. In Iron Man 3, Yinsen and Tony will appear via flashback at this aforementioned party.
  • The guy to whom Obadaih yells, “Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave with a box of scraps!” pops up in Spider-Man: Far From Home
  • Who could have guessed that this voiceover gig for Paul Bettany as the artificial intelligence J.A.R.V.I.S. would eventually result in his own TV show with Elizabeth Olsen?

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Pepper switching out Tony’s arc reactors. Funny and then sweet (“I don’t have anyone but you”). I can’t help it, I’m a schmuck.

MCU Ranking: 1. Iron Man

Iron Man Trailer

Iron Man is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streamable on Disney+.

Sources: Slate, Digital Spy, my own unholy amount of Marvel knowledge

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

“Aura” Short Film Interview with Director Chun Chun Chang

Written by Anna Harrison

It is exceedingly difficult to give a numerical score to a film like Chun Chun Chang’s animated short Aura. Clocking in at under four minutes, the story—if it can be called such—follows a man adrift at sea and then beset by a storm. As the man becomes lost in the storm, he becomes connected with the being or goddess at its center, simultaneously benevolent and violent. The film has no dialogue, only a stirring, string-filled soundtrack to carry us alongside the beautiful animation, full of bright primary colors. Aura is a testament to the power of the filmic medium: it eschews traditional narrative and dialogue, opting instead for a dazzling feast for the eyes and ears that nonetheless conveys an affecting story.

How did the idea for this film come to you? For a film like this that relies entirely on visuals, do you first imagine the scenes visually or did the story/narrative idea come before? 

The idea for this film came from different places, such as Greek mythology, Icelandic magical staves, photography, and choreography. I started with a few keywords such as fierce, hidden, and painterly; then, I just had fun trying a few visual designs. Based on the visuals, I then went back to developing a clearer story idea.

How do you write the script for a film like this? Is there even a script, or is it all a storyboard?

There isn’t a script. I made a rough storyboard, then moved everything into an animatic. Most of the modifications in the story were made in the animatic, so I knew the timing and flow of the film.

Did anything change from conception to final product?

Yes, the original plan was to ‘materialize’ the eye of the storm. For example, the eye of the storm would be a structure that would be made from cloud-like sculptures. But later, I figured that I would need to spend time elaborating on this concept in the film, which would slow down the pacing of the story. Therefore, I changed the concept to the current version.

The music was beautiful and so integral to the film—what was the process like to create that? How much collaboration occurred with composer Sturdivant Adams?

It was great working with Sturdivant. I only provided the direction that I wanted the music to be serene every time the goddess Aura showed up and when the two characters were in the eye of the storm. And then he created an amazing score.

How long did the film take to animate? 

From the beginning to the end, it took me one and a half years. I spent half of the first year developing ideas and the story.

USC is credited at the end of the film; was this film made as part of your MFA program for animation there?

Yes! This film was my thesis. USC was an amazing experience for me that I received great resources from the program while creating films, and I also got to learn from some of the best in the industry. For this film, I consulted with Candace Reckinger, Michael Patterson, and Bruce Block on refining my concepts for the films

What drew you to animation? How can animation tell stories that live action film cannot?

I’d say the art of timing is what attracted me to the world of animation. There are so many things you can play with in animation. A pacing change in the same movement can tell the story differently.

I think it’s easier and less restrictive to create imaginative worlds in animation than in live-action films. Animation has the luxury of experimenting with different directions efficiently.

What is an underrated animated film everyone should see?

It’s hard to pick one. I think film festivals are a great way for viewers to find some underrated animated films.

Aura

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Atlanta Film Festival 2021 Interview: Director Charlene Fisk Talks “Rideshare”

Interview by Anna Harrison

Summary: After a fun night out with friends, Gina grabs a rideshare. An uncomplicated lift home shifts gears when the driver’s intentions become questionable.

Rideshare played at the 2021 Atlanta Film Festival.

You can read Anna’s review of Rideshare here and see more of her work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Atlanta Film Festival 2021 Review: Wet House

Written by Anna Harrison

75/100

75, really, is an arbitrary number, plucked from thin air to try and represent the thoughts swirling around my head, and in this case, it feels disingenuous. To give Wet House a numerical score is to strip it of all its compassion and makes me feel as if I am ranking the human lives that Wet House showcases, but there’s that little 75 in the corner anyway, though it’s practically meaningless.

Wet House follows the lives of several men in Milwaukee who live in wet houses, facilities where chronic alcoholics are given a room, a monthly stipend, and an observed place in which to drink. So you could call those who work in these wet houses professional enablers, but that would be an oversimplification: the wet houses exist to keep alcoholics off the streets and out of shelters, hospitals, etc., saving taxpayer money and attempting to provide the safest place possible for these men while not driving them away or overwhelming them by forcing sobriety. Some of the employees of these wet houses, such as a woman named Shearise, were alcoholics themselves or family members of alcoholics, and so understand the position these men are in.

Director Benjamin May employs a direct cinema style in Wet House: he lets the camera simply observe, never commenting himself but letting us decide. It creates a judgment-free film, one that refuses to condemn its subjects. And, indeed, it’s hard to condemn them: these men are tragic figures above all else, people with strong relationships, hopes, and dreams—Dan had an offer to play hockey at Harvard before an injury drove him to drink, Petie used to have his beading displayed at an art museum—but trapped by a disease they have lost control of. That’s another triumph of Wet House—it addresses alcoholism truly as a disease, not something that everyone can just buckle down and get rid of if they put in the work. May shows us men that we pity, but never lets us forget that they are men. 

Even disregarding its subjects, Wet House proves compelling on a technical level. May and directors of photography Daniel Levin and Giovanni Autran employ some absolutely gorgeous shots, often accompanied by a jazz score from Jeremy Ylvisaker and the band Fat Kid Wednesdays. Milwaukee becomes transformed into a winter wonderland, her citizens framed against a backdrop of snow.

It would be easy to cut a film that just shows these people at their lowest, taking cheap shots to generate a perverse kind of interest, but May avoids that (though he doesn’t shy away from showing the darker sides of his subjects’ lives), instead opting to show the everyday existence of these men, good and bad, thereby allowing his audience to connect with them more personally. Never once does he look down on any of the wet house residents, and so neither can his audience; we can’t “otherize” them in an attempt to disengage, and therein lies Wet House’s power: empathy.

Wet House played at the Atlanta Film Festival.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Interview: Composer Lauren Culjak/Kotomi Talks Process, Songwriting, and More

Interview by Anna Harrison

Kotomi (Lauren Culjak) is a Los Angeles based composer, artist, and producer. A classically trained pianist and self-taught producer, her sound palate ranges from industrial and gritty to ambient and orchestral.

She composes music for film and television, and has recently composed for the Hulu series “Love Victor”, feature film “Long Weekend,” and The CW series “Nancy Drew.”

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Atlanta Film Festival 2021 Interview: Timothy Hall, Dustin Gooch, and Delia Kropp Talk “Landlocked”

Interview by Anna Harrison

Summary: Nick, a chef on the brink of opening his first restaurant, struggles to put his life back together following the loss of his mother. At his wife’s urging, he reluctantly reaches out to Briana, his estranged, transgender father. Seeking closure with both parental relationships, he invites Briana to join him on St. Simons Island, Georgia to scatter his mother’s ashes. Their journey across the American Southeast brings their tumultuous family history into full view and Nick and Briana must come to terms with the rocky emotional terrain of their pasts while determining a new path forward.

Landlocked played at the 2021 Atlanta Film Festival.

You can check Anna’s review of Landlocked here and see more of her work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Atlanta Film Festival 2021 Review: Dream Horse

Written by Anna Harrison

65/100

Dream Horse is exactly what it advertises itself: an unabashed crowd pleaser that wears its heart on its sleeve, fully aware of its cheesiness and making no attempt to hide it. The result is a film that, while it may not win any awards, leaves you with a smile on your face and perhaps a few tears in your eyes as well. 

Based on the true story chronicled in the 2015 documentary Dark Horse, Dream Horse follows Jan Vokes (Toni Collette, good as ever), a grocery bagger and barkeep living in a poor mining town in Wales. Jan and her husband, Brain (Owen Teale, turning in a wonderful performance), have been stuck in a slump, going through the same motions every day. Upon overhearing Howard (Damian Lewis) in the pub reliving his glory days as part of a racehorse syndicate, Jan, who used to raise livestock and racing pigeons, begins to formulate an idea. 

This idea involves buying a broodmare, impregnating her, and breeding a racehorse, then roping members of the town together to form a syndicate to help pay for the horse’s expenses. After initial balking, Jan is joined by several other colorful town members, including Howard, each offering charm and a bit of broad humor. From there, they embark on the quest to raise their foal, dubbed Dream Alliance. 

The rest of Dream Horse is utterly, completely predictable, but is buoyed by such a solid cast and made with such enthusiasm that it’s hard to get annoyed. To its credit, director Euros Lyn (director of some excellent Doctor Who and Daredevil episodes, as well as the eerie Torchwood: Children of Earth) avoids leaning too hard into the more obvious beats, so that the emotion lands without being overwrought. It helps that Lyn has such a fine cast at his disposal, who sell their joy and distress with such genuineness that you want to clap along with them.

The film focuses more on the human aspect than the horse, probably a smart move seeing as horses can only emote so much. Jan and Brian feel the old spark again, but Howard and his wife, Angela (Joanna Page), have a falling out: last time Howard joined a racing syndicate, it went under and they almost lost the house. However, by the end of the film, this has all been swept under the rug and everyone gets a tidy, happy ending.

Despite horses’ general lack of facial expressions, the scenes with Dream still play well. (Though it was highly amusing to see the tricks they used to get Dream to act unruly. Oh, no, he’s not facing the right way to start the race! Well, maybe if the jockey let go of his mouth… But to a non-equestrian viewer, these would be nonissues.) Toni Collette even sells the emotional monologues to the horse as he nibbles at her (probably peppermint-lined) sweater pocket. (Most of my verbal interactions with my horses, on the other hand, consist of, “Stop that,” “Don’t bite me,” and, “Stop spooking, there’s nothing there.”) Editor Jamie Pearson skillfully ratchets up the tension during the races even as you know the ending, cutting between spectators and horses in just the right places to keep you from getting too bored. 

It’s nothing groundbreaking, but that doesn’t mean Dream Horse is bad. Sometimes a predictable feel-good movie can be just what you need, and by the time the film ends with the cast singing together along with their real-life counterparts, if you don’t feel tempted to join them, you might want to reconsider your life choices.

Dream Horse Trailer

Dream Horse played at the 2021 Atlanta Film FestivalComing to theaters May 21st.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Atlanta Film Festival 2021 Interview: Director Asad Farooqui Talks ‘Congratulations’

Interview by Anna Harrison

Summary: Amir (Asad Farooqui) is a struggling actor, meddling with lowly, wordless terrorist roles. More importantly, he struggles with his parents not taking his career choice seriously. Amidst the party chaos highlighted by politics, cricket, and community gossip, a revelation brings Amir a new challenge—just making it through the day.

Congratulations played at the 2021 Atlanta Film Festival.

You can check Anna’s review of Congratulations here and see more of her work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.