The Evening Hour

Written by Patrick Hao

45/100

Movies haven’t quite gotten a handle on how to portray the ongoing opioid epidemic in America, especially with how it affects the rust belt states. Ben is Back and Beautiful Boy falls into cloying sentimentality, and Hillbilly Elegy and Cherry were grotesque caricatures meant for the rich coastal elites to feel better about themselves. Braden King’s The Evening Hour is a more compassionate and thoughtful film about the opioid crisis, but it never reaches anything beyond its modest ambitions.

The film centers on Cole Freeman (Phillip Ettinger), a compassionate elder care nurse who buys unwanted opioid pills from his patients in order to sell to others. He views his deeds as a service to help the ailing unidentified town in Appalachia, helping those who are injured or the hopelessly addicted. Freeman rather they get the drugs from him than the local drug kingpin, Everett (Marc Menchaca), who tolerates the petty competition. Unfortunately, any sense of balance or happiness is disrupted when Freeman’s absent mother (Lili Taylor) comes back to the town, as well as a former high school friend Terry (Cosmos Jarvis) who wants a piece of the larger drug trade.  

Through Freeman, a mosaic is painted of the town, from party girl Charlotte (Stacy Martin) to an eccentric fellow caregiver Reese (Michael Trotter). Kerry Bishé (who is always great and should be a household name) especially shines as someone who could have gotten away but had to come back. Based on a novel by Carter Sickels, The Evening Hour feels like an adaptation of a literary work. Supporting characters do not get enough moments to gain the interiority a novel may afford them. Freeman simply bounces around to each character interaction as if they were video game NPC’s.  

King is empathetic and respectful to the people who populate his movie. The film does not pass judgment on anyone. It recognizes the underlying pain of economic hardship and a political system that has passed them by. Yet, King never delves into histrionics like in Hillbilly Elegy, just quiet perseverance and a will to survive. Even the moral quandary Freeman faces about his culpability in people’s addictions is left open-ended and without judgment.   

But these virtues also lead to the film’s largest problem – it is patient and subtle to a fault. The film is all atmosphere underscored by the lilting strums of frequent King collaborators, Boxhead Ensemble. As the film turns to its more crime thriller elements at the end, King continues to underplay it. Instead of a tense Cormac McCarthy-esque final third act, the film’s conclusion is staid and unaffecting.

There is an urgent need for a great movie about the present opioid crisis – one that deals with the complications and systems that underlies. This film at least treats these characters with the humanity that is often forgoed by more mainstream Hollywood far. However, despite the good intentions of the filmmakers, The Evening Hour is far too restrained to ever be great.

The Evening Hour Trailer

The Evening Hour opens in limited release in New York on July 30th.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

Old

Written by Patrick Hao

75/100

There is a simple beauty to the premise of Old, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest feature. A seemingly idyllic family goes to a seemingly idyllic beachside. Of course, the families and the beachside are not quite idyllic as the surface suggests. For those on the beachside, they find themselves rapidly aging – a single lifetime can span 24 hours. It’s a simple metaphor and an existential terror we all face – one that can be gleaned from the trailer itself. Life passes by in an instant. Shyamalan wrings that existential vein of terror with all his earnest verve and virtuosity to make his best movie since Signs.

Old, loosely based on the graphic novel Sandcastle by Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters, centers on Guy (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) and their two precocious children, 6-year-old Trent (Nolan River) and 11-year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton). Guy and Prisca are on course to separate but decided to give their family one final vacation in an unidentified island resort. They soon find themselves on a private beach alongside one other family, the vain Chrystal (Abbey Lee) and her even more vain husband Charles (Rufus Sewell), their six-old daughter Kara (Kyle Bailey), and Charles’ aging mother, Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant), a couple, Jarin (Ken Leung) and Patricia (Nikki Amuka-Bird), and a mysterious rapper Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre) who had been on the beach tending to his bloody nose when everyone arrived.

From there, a pleasant and serene beach day slowly escalates as everyone discovers that they are rapidly aging. Shyamalan and his director of photography, Mike Gioluakis, expertly utilize the Dominican Republic beach location. The sand, stuck between high rocks and the wide-ranging blue ocean, creates a claustrophobic atmosphere heightened by the camera’s lateral movements across the beach. Characters, in the tensest moments, are often shot in close-ups, with the wide lenses allowing for large amounts of negative space. There is no escaping the situation.

Within these tense spaces, Shyamalan allows his actors to give soulful performances that are no easy feat. Krieps and Bernal convincingly navigate their rapidly aging bodies, personalities, and minds. Shyamalan does the smart move of only relying on subtle hints of aging – extra wrinkles, liver spots, a touch of grey. All the while, the children, Trent, Maddox, and Kara, age into older performers Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie, and Eliza Scanlan respectively. In another clever move, Shyamalan shoots these transitions between the young actors to their older counterparts slightly off center.

If anything, Shyamalan as a storyteller has always been underappreciated. Like all great thrillers, the film is filled with set up and pay off from the get-go. The screenplay is efficient and clear in setting up it’s rules and the core stakes of its ludicrous concept. 

Ultimately, it is Shyamalan’s earnestness and utter conviction in his film’s silliness – traits that have made him an easy target for cynical film fans – that allows the film to thrive as much as it does. But what that means is that Shyamalan can navigate the schlocky horror that is expected from this premise as well as the natural human emotions that would be derived from such a scenario. This may cause whiplash for some, but it mostly works – though I admit that the schlock may be a bit uneven at times. The ending might be the only cynical thing about the movie and, not because of the classic Shyamalan “twist,” but because it is the only time the film feels like it is following a studio note and not Shyamalan’s own story instincts.

The recent reappraisal of Shyamalan’s career has been heartening. After years of being an irony-laden punchline, an idiosyncratic original filmmaker like Shyamalan should be cherished in this movie landscape inundated with IP. Old is a worthy reminder to all the doubters that he is indeed one of the best suspense directors working today.

Old Trailer

Old is now screening theatrically in wide release.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

Tribeca 2021 Film Festival Review: Settlers

Written by Patrick Hao

33/100

In the past month there have been unprecedented heat waves and forest fires in the Pacific Northwest, a fire in the Gulf of Mexico from broken gas pipes(the ocean was on actual FIRE), and melting polar ice caps. With the hubris of humans on Earth causing these climate disasters, the uber-rich have begun imagining a way to travel and colonize Mars. Director Wyatt Rockefeller (yes of those Rockefeller’s) unsuccessfully tries distilling these current anxieties of unending resource consumption, greed, and colonization into the film Settlers, a grim neo-western set on Mars.

Set in the future, years after the Mars atmosphere has been made inhabitable for humans (the how is never explained) and settlements have come and gone, Settlers follows a family consisting of Reza (Jonny Lee Miller), his wife Ilsa (Sofia Boutella), and their daughter Remmy (Brooklynn Prince) on a farm, seemingly surrounded only by a vast landscape. Their anxiety soon ratchets up when it becomes clear that the family is not alone, as they begin to hear howls in the distance and the message of “Leave” is left on their window. It is revealed that the family had acquired the farm through violent means, as they begin to be terrorized by Jerry (Ismael Cruz Córdova), the son of the farm’s former occupants who wants to reclaim his land.

Rockefeller gets a lot of mileage from filming on location in the beautiful Vioolsdrif desert in South America. Filmed with the typical red hue to denote Mars, the homestead ranch juxtaposed against the miles of barren landscape really highlights the themes of isolation and loneliness that run throughout the film. Rockefeller uses the filmic language of the Classic Hollywood western to draw parallels between the old notions of settlements of the Western Frontier in the 1800’s and all the complications that comes with, and that of a possible Mars settlement.

However, the film’s allegories become muddled with its confused depiction of Jerry. The character seems to be an amalgamation of all the movie tropes of an indigenous character from an old western. He is, on one hand, in tune with nature as he is cultivates the homestead’s land for much needed resources, and, on the other hand, craven in his desires, especially sexually. His character design, as well, draws troubling comparisons to indigenous people. Any criticisms of colonialism and human greed are undermined by the shortsightedness of a depiction such as this.

Problematic depictions aside, the film quickly becomes dramatically inert after a tense first act. The film relies too much on long meandering stretches of brooding characters completing chores. While it creates a good atmosphere, there is not enough thematic underpinnings that warrant such long stretches. The film is never as thrilling or suspenseful as the opening third and premise suggests. Settlers ultimately feels like a first film, grand in ambition, but shallow in thought. Rockefeller certainly has the eye for a striking image and the ability to stretch a budget. The film is admirable in its earnestness in wanting to engage with the heady issues that underpins the film, but never seems to connect any of the sociopolitical implications of the film beyond humans having the capacity to be “bad.”

Settlers Trailer

Settlers is currently available to purchase and rent on most digital storefronts.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

Written by Patrick Hao

70/100

There is a sort of perverse curiosity when we watch a film about a famous public figure whose death came so prematurely, especially when the cause is suicide. The natural inclination is to ask, “Why?” Morgan Neville’s newest documentary, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, is fully aware that the question “Why?” would be in the heads of an audience who would watch a documentary about the famed chef, raconteur, and television presenter. Neville does not shy away from the why, nor does he hinge his film on answering that question. Instead he presents Anthony Bourdain’s humanity and public persona with great intimacy and respect.

Neville chronicles Bourdain’s professional and personal life starting with his breakout success as an author in 2000, with the publication of his memoir Kitchen Confidential. From there, the film progresses mostly linear–describing the development of his travel shows No Reservations and Parts Unknown, highlighting key episodes from them to perceive something deeper about the man and his ethos. Interspersed are talking heads made up of friends and colleagues who are candid about their experiences with Bourdain.

Like all of Neville’s films, Neville is dexterous with his use of the 10,000 hours of footage that he had access to. Because Bourdain was a writer who specialized in an open self-monologuing style, Neville can let the film essentially be narrated by Bourdain himself. Clever use of editing and juxtaposition cause the film to have a haunting quality, so that you fall in love with the zeal that Bourdain had for life without ever forgetting his end.

The footage that Neville uses really captures the appeal of Bourdain to viewers. In every way, the TV-version of Bourdain was an aspirational figure for the modern man. Smart, acerbic, deeply empathetic, and compassionate, with the right bit of punk rock edge to keep him cool. He had the literary stylings of Hunter S. Thompson and George Plimpton, and a voracious love of film that he was able to bring to the sensibilities of his shows.

Bourdain is a natural subject for Neville’s oeuvre. Neville’s previous documentaries on Fred Rogers in Won’t You Be My Neighbor and Orson Welles in They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead were also about famous figures with intensely crafted public personas that clashed with and bled into their personal lives. Neville similarly demystifies Bourdain’s public persona by delving deep into the ways that Bourdain’s personal life was hampered by his celebrity and work ethic.

Yet, all of the carefully crafted footage and intimate talking heads could not fully capture the intense personal turmoil without traversing salacious territory. The final act of the film portrays Bourdain’s final relationship with film actress/director Asia Argento and falls dangerously close equating the blame of Bourdain’s final moments as an act of romantic revenge (Argento was not interviewed for the film). Thankfully, the film never fully puts the blame on anyone but Bourdain himself, as Neville and talking heads point towards Bourdain’s past heroin addiction creating an addictive personality, as well as his past depression and suicidal thoughts. However, there is enough insinuation there to make one queasy.

The best moments of Roadrunner are the time devoted to how the people who loved Bourdain have reacted to his suicide. Suicide is such a rare topic for any film to grapple with, especially its aftermath. Neville is able to deal with the subject with sensitivity, bolstered by the talking heads’ candidness. The interviewees display a range of anger, confusion, and profound sadness. They also display a deep love for a friend who is gone and gratefulness to have known him. The scars are still there but that means the wounds are healing.

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain Trailer

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is currently playing in theaters.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

Cannes 2021 Film Festival Review: Invisible Demons

Written by Maria Athayde

60/100

Invisible Demons directed by Rahul Jain is an examination of climate change, the free market economy and, its consequences, in India. Jain’s documentary explores this by capturing images of visible particulates in the air that are perforating lungs slowly, breathing tastes where middle aged women break out in coughing fits, and crowded streets that give you a sense of the collective strain against the environment in India and New Delhi in particular. This story will resonate with anyone that is worried about our warming climate, growing amounts of refuse, and whether a habitable future on this planet will be possible. 

Jain’s unique camerawork and visual style really help dictate the pace of this doc. Most of the “talking” in this documentary is done visually. Jain sporadically breaks his visual narrative by featuring newscasts or first person accounts about what is happening in India and the effects of air pollution in Delhi. By doing so, Jain adds a bit of heart to this story. He examines a past, present, and future that is incredibly depressing as the citizens of this megacity experience the cascading and interconnected effects of climate change. 

Ultimately, this documentary works because it explores the mostly individual and collective experiences of climate change and what they mean for the country as a whole. In a place where air pollution is one of the most deadly killers (15 of the top 20 most polluted cities are in India) Jain’s storytelling never becomes cynical. Instead, he tries to offer us a visual representation of what the present and future hold as people live and learn to deal with climate change.  

Recommended

Invisible Demons screened as part of the Cannes 2021 Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.

You can follow Maria Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.

F9: The Fast Saga

Written by Alexander Reams

56/100

The laws of physics have unknowingly or knowingly been the backbone of the human race since the dawn of time. Countless times films have tried to disregard those laws, with some succeeding even without them, and some have crashed and burned spectacularly (looking at you Transformers: Age of Extinction and Transformers: The Last Knight). Ever since its resurgence in pop culture in 2011 with the wildly successful Fast Five, the Fast & Furious franchise has continued to be less and less realistic (I’m sorry but Dwayne Johnson moving a torpedo’s trajectory with his bare hands is amazing, but a stretch at best). This continuation of less grounded films peaked in 2019’s Hobbs & Shaw and now they have gone too far. 

The film is continuing the story of Dominic Toretto and crew, including his wife, Letty Ortiz, Tej Parker, Roman Pierce, sister Mia Toretto, and mysterious hacker Ramsey. The plot of the movie is one that we’ve seen thousands of times, the crew needs to get a “thing” so that the bad guys don’t. That’s it. That is the entire plot. The twist here is that the “bad guy” is Dom’s long lost brother, Jakob Toretto. Yes, they are continuing their streak of doing soap opera tropes but with a budget, and the script certainly feels like one at times. The question that has been asked since the film came out is “Who is at fault?” The answer is clear, the screenwriter, or in this case, screenwriters. This is the first film in the franchise since The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift that Chris Morgan has not written, and he was a driving force behind keeping this series in control of itself and never going too far fetched and keeping the stakes real. This time Justin Lin, Daniel Casey, and Alfredo Botello are the writers of the film and it reads as if they scoured the reddit forums and just threw countless ideas at a wall and saw what stuck. 

Read Alexander’s Fast and Furious Franchise Retrospective

Justin Lin is not only a writer on the film, he returns after a 8 year hiatus from the franchise. His return not only brought a level of hype back to the franchise that I had not felt since 2013 when James Wan was announced as the director of Furious 7. It also brought a level of expectation of quality that I had associated with Lin’s work in the franchise. He is responsible for two of my favorite entries of the franchise Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6. Unfortunately I felt that we did not get the maturing and exciting Justin Lin that did Star Trek: Beyond here, it seemed like we got Fast & Furious (2009) Justin Lin, which as you might know, is the only entry that does not work for me on any level. While his quieter moments do not work, he undeniably has a great eye for shooting action set pieces. Particularly a car chase with Dame Helen Mirren and Vin Diesel through the streets of London and an early jungle chase in Montequinto with the crew. His pacing throughout these scenes is masterfully done and is never too frenetic or too quick to jump cut.

Han’s death in The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift was a shocking and heartbreaking moment in the franchise, even more so after seeing him in entries 4-6. His character was my personal favorite and his constant snacking became one of my first thoughts whenever Fast & Furious comes into conversation. When it was revealed that he would be back for F9 my excitement went through the roof. However my excitement was reduced when I began to think about how he would be brought back. I should have tempered my expectations far further than I had. I won’t delve into spoilers but, the explanation given is one of the biggest half baked explanations of the entire franchise. Bringing Han back also took away any sense of stakes and consequences, now anyone can be brought back, no matter dead, disintegrated, melted, etc. 

F9 is a muddled mess, from the story, to performances, Charlize Theron is acting like she is in a completely different film and constantly made me feel like I was watching a Razzie Awards clipshow of horrendous lines. While I do not believe this film to be anywhere near the greatness of entries 5-7 or Hobbs & Shaw there is enjoyment to be found throughout. If you go into the film thinking of it not as an action film, but as a comedy, you might find much more enjoyment. Let us all hope that the 2 part finale will be far superior, Chris Morgan, please, I beg of you, please return to the franchise. 

F9: The Fast Saga Trailer

F9: The Fast Saga is currently playing in wide theatrical release.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

Zola

Written by Anna Harrison

80/100

“Y’all wanna hear a story about how me and this bitch fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”

So begins the viral Twitter thread from 2015, and so begins the movie it inspired: Janicza Bravo’s Zola. The original thread from A’Ziah “Zola” King, consisting of 148 tweets, became an internet sensation, garnering thousands of likes and retweets over the course of its posting not just due to the story of the tweets but the voice with which Zola told them, the humor and no-bullshit attitude she displayed even when facing increasingly absurd (and frightening) scenarios.

Bravo and co-writer Jeremy O. Harris (Tony nominee and likely future winner for Slave Play) manage to recapture the captivating storytelling of the original Zola and bring to life the first Twitter adaptation with thoughtfulness and style to spare (it was shot on 16mm, giving it a hazy, almost dreamlike quality). Little has changed from the Twitter thread, except some names: we start with our titular heroine, Zola (as played by Taylour Paige), working at a sports bar (as opposed to the original Hooters) and stripping on the side. One day as she’s waitressing, she meets Stefani (Riley Keough), and the two—while not recognizing each other—immediately pin each other as kindred spirits with a shared enjoyment for dancing, and so Stefani convinces Zola to join her for a weekend in Florida hitting the strip clubs to make some extra cash. Zola agrees, so after convincing her boyfriend, Sean (Ari’el Stachel, Tony winner for The Band’s Visit), to let her leave through the power of sex, Zola joins Stefani, Stefani’s boyfriend, Derrek (Nicholas Braun, aka Succession’s Cousin Greg), and a mysterious, unnamed man called “X” played by Colman Domingo, and they go down to Florida.

If you’ve read the tweets, you know what happens next. X turns out to be Stefani’s pimp, and a far more threatening figure than you might first believe, Derrek is in completely over his head and one moment away from a nervous breakdown, and Stefani has dragged her purported friend into all this without thinking of the consequences. Luckily, Zola has a good head on her shoulders; Paige plays the straight man to the wild antics of her cohorts but does it with such magnetism that it’s hard to take your eyes off of her, even when she’s not talking (and she does often stay quiet, revealing her thoughts to the audience via the occasional voiceover, complete with the sound cue for a sent tweet to cap it all off). 

Keough’s Stefani is the flashier role, with an overexaggerated and culturally appropriated accent—you feel as if a slur is on the tip of her tongue at all times—but her over-the-top approach works well. Braun’s performance might seem like a Cousin Greg ripoff at first, bumbling and making bad choices, but as the movie progresses, he imbues enough layers into Derrek to set him apart, and Domingo is alternatingly charming and frightening, X’s Nigerian accent slipping out when he goes into a rage but just as quickly covered over by an American one and a wide smile. 

What sets Zola apart, more so than the performances, or the way it looks, or the excellent score by Mica Levi, is the way it interacts with its source material. The internet gives us access to all sorts of crazy things, but it in and of itself is apathetic, presenting these things and letting us marinate on them alone with our screens; Zola shows us Confederate flags and tower-like crosses on the drive to Florida interspersed with clips of its characters gleefully singing Migos’ “Hannah Montana”; Derrek drives alone with a scene of police brutality in the background. Bravo doesn’t comment on these occurrences, instead letting us scroll past them (so to speak) silently, conversely conveying much more than any exposition-heavy dialogue could. Tweet and text chimes abound, and at one point during a montage of penises (please do not take your child to this movie, as the couple sitting in the row behind me did), an Instagram heart flashes over the largest one. It’s all a performance, it’s all for the ’Gram. “Who you gonna be tonight, Zola?” she asks herself as she prepares to go onstage. “Who you gonna be?” Derrek watches Vines of people getting injured by various mishaps, chortling to himself at their misfortune (if 2015 feels recent, it only takes the appearance of a dead app like Vine to immediately date Zola). At one point, in what amounts to a hostage situation, Zola disassociates and our vision is replaced by a Mac screensaver—writhing tentacles of light changing color as they move. You know the one. Zola doesn’t just talk about our modern technological landscape, it merges with it.

Like the internet, Bravo never lingers too long on one particular topic, but crafts a better film for it: there are no monologues on the treatment of women, or the intersection of race and gender, or the way Zola slowly starts to lose control over her own body, because monologues like that don’t happen. We don’t wax and wane about these problems, we just have to deal with them in our own way, as Zola does, and they go on existing. By refusing to adhere to binaries, Bravo makes her film richer and more thoughtful. The ending is a bit too abrupt, but then again, it echoes reality—sometimes things end, just like that—so maybe that’s a small quibble. It’s hard to mind in the face of all the positives.

Zola Trailer

Zola is currently playing in wide theatrical release.

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