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.

Eat a Bowl of Tea

Written by Patrick Hao

73/100

Wayne Wang’s Eat a Bowl of Tea begins with narration discussing the predicament that Chinese American communities found themselves in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1886 had prevented many Chinese men from bringing to America their wives and daughters. This created a “Bachelor Society ” in the various Chinatown’s, stunted by the lack of single Chinese women and the taboo of inter-racial dating. However, with World War II, China as allies, and the returning Chinese G.I.’s, America was loosening its immigration policies and beginning to allow veterans to bring home Chinese wives.

This socio-political dynamic is the backdrop of Wang’s Eat a Bowl of Tea, a woefully underseen film by a woefully under-discussed filmmaker. Based on the 1961 novel of the same name by Louis Chu, the film centers on Ben Loy (Russell Wong), a GI returning from WWII in New York City’s Chinatown, who is sent by his father Wang Wah Gay (played by frequent Wang collaborator Victor Wong), back to his hometown in China to bring back an arranged bride, Mei Oh (played by Wang’s wife Cora Miao), the daughter of one Wah Gay’s gambling buddies. As one of the first couples in New York Chinatown of child bearing age, they are expected to produce offspring to continue the survival of a community. 

“I feel like everyone is watching,” Ben admits to his Mei at one point in the film. This concept of a community gawking is prevalent throughout the film. When Ben goes to China to meet his bride, he is met with the curious eyes of many of the Chinese villagers who have never met an American Chinese before. Rumors abound that an American GI would not have all four limbs, and be mangled by war. At the wedding banquet back in New York City, the young couple are met with the prying eyes of hundreds of geriatric Chinese men as they represent the future of a dying community and as the source of Ben’s father’s newfound reputational prestige within the community. The pressure from the community for a baby manifests itself in Ben’s impotence. And for Mei, being in a new country with no true community of her own, loneliness.

Yet, despite the weightiness of these themes, Wang’s film is breezy and casually funny, couching the politics of diaspora and gender in the structure of a Classic Hollywood romantic comedy. Wang’s power as a filmmaker is his richly textured observation of a people in a time and place. His subtle gestures and characterizations of the community gives them specificity, which in turn, becomes universal. The film almost becomes a series of vignettes as it jumps from a gaggle of old men joking and gossiping in the barbershop to Ben stopping fights in the kitchen of the Chinese restaurant he comes to manage. In doing so, Wang paints a beautiful tableau of a community in transition, affecting family, sex, and culture. 

Eat a Bowl of Tea seems particularly informed by Classic Hollywood films in more ways than just genre. Wang seems to be in conversation with films of Classic Hollywood. In one particularly clever critique of Classic Hollywood, Ben and Mei share their first kiss silhouetted by Ronald Colman’s face from Lost Horizon. In another scene, during the height of his impotence, Ben is especially titillated by Rita Hayworth from The Lady from Shanghai, to the point he rushed home with his wife to take advantage. These two films being used is especially pointed for being representative of pop culture’s blatant exoticisism of the “Orient.” The two films are also representative of the two desires that inform the themes of Eat a Bowl of Tea – the desire for preservation of a community and the desire for sex. 

However, this is by no means a perfect film. Russell Wong is in the Henry Goulding camp of handsome but uncharismatic leading men. The original novel is also sadder and more caustic. Wang and screenwriter, Judith Roscoe, purposefully sanded off some of the edges of the source material to be lighter and more winsome. The results are the loss of some of Mei’s interiority and a third act that feels a bit too tidy. Wang himself has tinkered with edits of the film in re-screenings, including a less “happy ending” that was foisted upon him by the studio.

However, Eat a Bowl of Tea and Wayne Wang’s career feel ripe for rediscovery. The recent retrospectives on The Joy Luck Club and focus on AAPI-centric filmmakers always feels light in its consideration of Wang and his career. Eat a Bowl of Tea and Wang’s other works such as Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart, Chan is Missing, and more recent independent works like Princess Nebraska should make him a name that is worth considering in line with Ang Lee and the recent crop of Asian American filmmakers like Alice Wu, Lulu Wang, and Andrew Ahn.

Eat a Bowl of Tea is especially notable for its place as one of the first studio films to have an all-Chinese cast. The only white person with a speaking role is an uncredited Jessica Harper. More importantly, the film feels enlightening in its depiction of a period of Chinese American history that is often ignored, and its frank depiction of the politics intersecting sex, gender, and tradition. Yet it never becomes a film that feels like its purpose is to deliver a didactic “message” or a history lesson. Wang’s film is lived in with all the thorniness and haphazardness of real life. Much like a bowl of tea in its idiomatic title, all that bitterness of the film’s themes goes down surrounded by the warmth of Wang’s rich filmmaking.

Eat a Bowl of Tea Trailer

Eat a Bowl of Tea is currently available to purchase and rent on most digital storefronts.

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