Galaxy’s Edge, Panels, Argus Panox and More: Highlights from the 2019 Star Wars Celebration

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Regardless of what level of Star Wars fandom you subscribe to, it’s quite clear that what George Lucas originally intended as a fairytale has become more than he could possibly imagine. I was reminded of this while attending my first Star Wars Celebration in Chicago this past weekend. Being a lifelong fan of the movies (and pretty much all things related to them), I’ve always wanted to attend a convention solely dedicated to Star Wars. Overall, it was a full and rewarding experience, confirming that real life is so much better than internet life.

In case you weren’t aware (if so, I envy you), a certain faction of online Star Wars fandom has become toxic since J.J. Abrams brought back the Skywalker sage in 2015. Outraged from so-called fans could be found online due to the presence of a black stormtrooper and the focus on a female protagonist. Other complaints and bemoaning could be found online, some directed at the two “A Star Wars Story” movies, “Rogue One” and “Solo,” but the good news is I found none of that negativity in the five days I attended Star Wars Celebration. 

There were signs warning against harassment all over the convention floor and that was mainly due to non-consent advances that cosplayers have received in the past. I can truly attest that all my conversations, either with colleagues or regular attendees, were filled with fruitful Star Wars conversations revolving that were constructive and enriching. Any disagreements were rare and drowned out by a bountiful love for what Lucas created and what others have developed and maintained.

That in and of itself was certainly one of the highlights of the long weekend. It confirmed not only the differences between online and real life interaction, but it also reaffirmed that passion and enthusiasm far outweighs cynicism and apathy. The fervent fandom I encountered at and in-between panels or walking the exhibit floor, confirmed acceptance, respect and the desire to include others instead of ostracize them.

The people I engaged with were as diverse as the panel presentations offered at the WinTrust Arena or the ones across the street at the McCormick Place West Expansion. The biggest events were presentations for “Episode IX” and “The Mandalorian,” and panels that offered a look at a new entertainment venue for Star Wars, updates on existing properties, and behind-the scenes information on the making of some of the movies.

Galaxy’s Edge / photo by David Fowlie

<span class="s1" The panel titled “Bringing Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge to Life at Disney Parks” helped promote and detail the work that has gone into the Star Wars theme parks the House of Mouse will be opening in May 31st at Disneyland in Anaheim and on August 29th in Orlando. The idea behind it all is for visitors to basically walk into and interact with a Star Wars environment. Buoyant host Josh Gad came out on stage and brought out Imagineers (a patented Disney term) Scott Trowbridge, Chris Beatty, Doug Chiang, Asa Kalama, Margaret Kerrison, and Matt Martin, to discuss the creativity and authenticity that went into bringing the environment to life. 

As many already know, a life-size Millennium Falcon has been built for each location, parked at the Black Spire Outpost located on the planet Batuu. It’s a brand new location for Star Wars, yet it will feel familiar and be considered canon in relation to the universe. There’s already books out there pertaining to the location, and this summer Marvel Comics (owned by Disney) will release a Galaxy’s Edge comic. They even got the vocal talents of Jim Cummings, Paul Reubens, and Frank Oz involved, playing some deep cut characters and a recognizable one, respectively. 

Galaxy’s Edge will be a place where you can participate in the story at every turn, with each decision bringing you closer to The Resistance or the First Order (which means it takes place post “The Force Awakens”). No doubt, the big draw will be flying the Falcon, which will require six people in the cockpit – two pilots, two gunners and two engineers. The state of your ship afterward is dependent on how successful your mission was. If you took on damage, it will be visible. You’ll smell and see smoke when you exit the same Falcon corridors you entered, adding to the visceral experience. 

I attended this panel with a modicum of trepidation, knowing the parks will be astronomically expensive and that the presentation would have the propensity of being all hype. In a smart move, Disney made it so attendees of Star Wars Celebration can be part of Galaxy’s Edge at the convention by recording a statement in a booth (what Star Wars means to you or what about the park you are looking forward to the most) on the show floor, which will then be added to a holocron, which will be on display at the park. Bottom line: this is likely to be an amazing experience for fans, but there’s no doubt it will be crazy crowded the first year it opens. 

“Vader Immortal – A Star Wars Series – Episode I”

Two highly-anticipated video games were announced as well, both of which will be released this year. On Friday afternoon, there was a presentation for “Vader Immortal: A Star Wars Series – Episode I,” which was created by ILMxLAB for the Occulus Quest and Occulus Rift VR game systems. The designers, writers and producers of the game were brought out on stage, and they discussed how the story of the game is considered canon as well and has ties to the comics and films, specifically “Rogue One.” 

Set between “Revenge of the Sith” and “A New Hope,” the game finds you playing a smuggler who is hired by Vader (voiced by Scott Lawrence) to carry out a special job. You’ll have a droid named ZOE3 (Maya Rudolph) to assist you and offer some levity to a game that’s quite dark, with most of it taking place on the molten lava planet, Mustafar, home to Vader’s lair. Aside from the 40-60 minutes of the game storyline, there’s also a demo that occurs in a lightsaber dojo where you can test your skills as you feel the heat and vibration of a Jedi’s weapon. 

Saturday afternoon came the presentation for EA and Respawn’s new game “Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order,” a single-player Jedi fantasy story. It occurs after the events of “Revenge of the Sith” and follows a Padawan named Cal (played by Cameron Monaghan using performance capture) who managed to survive Order 66 – which branded all Jedi traitors to the Galactic Republic and targets for execution by the Grand Army of the Republic’s clone troopers – and is now hiding in plane sight. Of course, that won’t last long, and soon Cal is being pursued by an elite Inquisitor and a new type of stormtrooper (designed specifically for the game). With the help of assistant droid BD-1 (veteran Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt gave life to the character) and the mysterious Cere (Debra Wilson), Cal will work his way through what appears to be a compelling story arch. During the panel, an exciting trailer and informative behind-the-scenes clip was shown, which confirmed that this is more up my alley than a VR game. The game will be released on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC on November 15th.

The most memorable panels for me had to do with the talent that made the fantastic visuals of Star Wars possible. On Friday afternoon, there was a presentation called “The Creatures, Droids & Aliens of Star Wars” in which award-winning special effects and make-up artist Neal Scanlan came out and discussed his work. Scanlan has been working on Star Wars movies since “The Force Awakens” and had plenty to talk about, from the changes the Chewbacca costumes has undergone to the development of the new droid D-O for “The Rise of Skywalker.” He also had a fully-functioning head model for Six Eyes, aka Argus Panox, the cheating alien who played sabaac during Han Solo’s first card game with Lando Calrissian in “Solo.” The fact that Scanlan and his crew are responsible for convincing viewers there are living and interactive beings apart from humanoids in these movies is impressive.

Doug Chiang / photo by David Fowlie

Another talented artist, Doug Chiang, led two presentations, one on Saturday and one on Sunday, and both provided a revealing look at how the look of Star Wars vehicles and characters are developed. I’ve long admired Chiang’s work, starting with his designs for “The Phantom Menace” and on to his work on “Rogue One.” He led a class called “The Art and Techniques of Designing for Star Wars” and also delivered a tutorial “The Evolution of Star Wars Design – Designing Episode I,” in which he provided valuable examples of his work. He humbly described what it was like when he began working with Lucas in the mid ’90s and how his artistic approach has developed over the years. Hearing from this extraordinary concept artist/production designer and meeting him was a personal highlight for me. 

<span class="s1" The panels I attended were energetic, fun and often enlightening, but there’s more to Star Wars Celebration than these presentations. One could easily get lost for hours on all that the convention floor has to offer, but what struck me the most in the five days I attended was the obvious passion and camaraderie I witnessed from the fans. There’s been 12 of these conventions within the last 20 years and it’s clear they’ve become a place where fans from all walks of life can commune around something that has impacted their lives in a meaningful way.

Star Wars Celebration is a place where you can talk all things Star Wars with anyone there and not get a weird look in return. It’s a place where you can feel understood and accepted, which is something needed considering the toxic vitriol that tends to surface online when it comes to Star Wars fandom. I left the Celebration quite fulfilled and inspired, with a renewed appreciation for all things Star Wars. 

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Hail Satan?

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The question mark in the title “Hail Satan?” hints at a failure of nerve that Penny Lane’s documentary rarely suffers from. This light-footed movie is essentially a defense brief, on behalf of a group whose existence amounts to an ongoing prank-with-a-purpose, in the spirit of the YippiesBillionaires for Bush and The Yes Men. One key difference, though, is that this group uses a combination of legal acumen and absurdist reasoning to attack its targets, and succeeds more often than you might think.

Lane focuses on members of The Satanic Temple, which was founded in 2013 and bears no relationship to Anton LaVey’s 1960s-founded Church of Satan, except for the worshiping Satan part. Ostensibly this is an organized group of Satan worshipers, the kind that made parents throw out their kids’ Dungeons & Dragons games and play records backwards in the 1980s to expose hidden messages. 

But we quickly see that any religious component of their existence is outweighed by an ideological mission. They’re mainly about keeping church and state separate. That’s not easy in country where the boundaries have been porous for centuries, and where the Evangelical right wing, which rose up in the 1950s in response to the Cold War specter of Communism, has managed to insert religion into public life to an extent that the Founding Fathers could never have imagined. (Among the many didja-know facts that Lane includes here: “In God We Trust” didn’t appear on any US currency besides the two-cent piece until 1957, when Congress added it to all paper currency. And those identical Ten Commandments statues that dot public buildings around the U.S. were giveaways from Paramount Pictures, promoting Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 film.)

The Satanic Temple is best known for inserting themselves wherever Christian groups are trying to use public funds to praise Christianity, or integrate religious text or iconography into public commons. Wielding the first ten words of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution—”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”—the group seeks out situations where, say, the American History and Heritage Foundation wants to put up a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol, and demands that they also put up a statue of the demon-goat Baphomet.  

Throughout, Satan is treated more as a rhetorical device than a dark deity with a life force that can be tapped through incarnations or magic, as in a horror film. Devil worship is a way for Temple members to troll the dominant culture, expose mechanisms of control, and ask the sorts of questions a child might pose in Sunday school, such as “Why was it wrong for the Devil to offer Jesus food and water when he was suffering in the desert?” and “Why was it bad for the snake to offer Eve the chance to eat from the tree of knowledge, and go to live in the wider world with her mate?”

Lane directed “Our Nixon,” which viewed the disgraced president through the eyes of the people surrounding him, and “Nuts!”, a biography of a man who claimed to be able to cure impotence by replacing the testicles of non-performing men with goat testicles. She’s got unerring eye for quirky subjects who offer an alternative perspective on American mythology, and it serves her well here, even though the unruly complexity of the subject seems to overwhelm her in the end. 

The closest thing to a main character is TST spokesman Lucien Greaves. He’s a pale, smirking antihero with one glass eye—the sort of person that a horror movie might present as the smooth public face of a band of devil worshipers—but it’s obvious that the loves putting people on, and throwing shade so subtly that targets can’t be sure if they’ve been attacked or are just being paranoid. His power derives from his ability to keep a straight face whether he’s dealing with a reporter who pretends not to get the joke, or an outraged evangelical who doesn’t know there is one. 

There are many other comparably dynamic characters in the film, including Jex Blackmore, the leader of TST’s Detroit chapter who plays the role of youthful extremist firebrand to Greaves’ wise but maybe too-cautious elder. Greaves himself admits late in the film that The Satanic Temple has grown so large (with chapters as far away as Australia and South Africa) that it had to have a centralized authority, a scenario he’d always hoped to avoid by organizing it in a more anarchistic fashion. One of the things that a big group has to worry about is guiding and controlling the local chapters. The latter understandably want to have the freedom to maneuver and take chances. But they’re constantly being chastised for going off-script and exposing the group to charges that they’re contradicting themselves, or alienating potential converts who are receptive to the message but not the tactics. 

The philosophical conflict between Blackmore and Greaves is as fascinating as any of the details about the group and its public actions. Buried somewhere in this smart but somewhat disorganized and repetitious movie about The Satanic Temple is a trickier, potentially deeper and more all-encompassing work, about what happens to every seemingly dangerous group once it becomes popular. A small group that becomes a big group has to begin worrying about the long term ramifications of every action and statement, because it has so much more to lose than when it was a scrappy little band of figurative or literal hell-raisers. Unfortunately, Lane doesn’t really start to dig that movie out of “Hail Satan?” until the end, and she doesn’t excavate all of it—just the horns and head. 

We do get a good sense of what TST is actually up to, though. It comes across less as an unconventional/threatening theological organization than a social justice group with a secular, leftist worldview that is, in its ass-backwards way, rather earnest. The Satanic Temple of Western Florida collected socks for the homeless. The Satanic Temple of Arizona organized “Menstruate with Satan,” to provide menstruation products to schoolgirls who couldn’t afford them. The group’s first public act was rally in support of Florida governor Rick Scott, who was pushing legislation that would have allowed students to vote on whether to include prayers in public events such as graduation ceremonies. Scott, the group proclaimed in a press release, “has reaffirmed our American freedom to practice our faith openly, allowing our Satanic children the freedom to pray in school.” 

It’s as if the group had studied the“Rabbit season! Duck season!” exchange from the Bugs Bunny-Daffy Duck classic “Rabbit Seasoning,” and figured out how to turn the punchline into a political movement. The larger point seems inescapable: the modern mechanisms of American government have been so corrupted by greed and organized religion that compassion and fairness are now treated as the devil’s work.  

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“Ah, look at all the lonely people.” Anytime I hear the opening line of “Eleanor Rigby,” which the Beatles deliver like an elegiac sigh, I immediately picture the cramped interior of a subway train. The more crowded a car gets during the sweat-caked stretch of rush hour, the lonelier one can feel. An empty chair provides welcome relief, allowing us to bury our attention in the endless scrolling of our apps. Yet whenever I’m forced to stand amidst a tangle of passengers—our arms flailing for balance as if we were playing a game of Twister in a sardine can—my gaze remains fixed on an empty section of the wall. Longtime city dwellers have trained themselves to avoid eye contact with strangers for fear of being mistaken for a beggar or worse, a creep. Only in my early college days, after moving to Chicago from the suburbs, did I dare to make small talk in the subway with anyone willing to listen.

Michael Berry’s “Stuck” takes place in New York City’s MTA transit system, which resembles Chicago’s CTA system if it were redesigned by M.C. Escher. So dizzying is the labyrinth for first-timers that it’s a wonder any tourists make it to their desired location on time. The first inkling that my disbelief was in danger of becoming unsuspended arrived at the very top of Berry’s picture, when six travelers found themselves trapped in an otherwise vacant car, despite it being in the middle of a typically busy day. Such an anomaly would be hard to swallow, though for a brief moment, I wondered whether the characters’ purgatorial plight signaled their entrance into the Twilight Zone. 

After all, it is Lloyd (Giancarlo Esposito), the seemingly homeless man shaving at the end of the car, who seems to have willed this stagnation to occur. His Shakespearean monologues delivered to a reluctant audience unwilling to part with their cash would’ve seemed far fetched had I not encountered and befriended people exactly like him. Yet the film never appears interested in exploring his story, even as he coaxes all his fellow ensemble members into sharing their own. Esposito has a dynamic presence, and proves more than capable of suggesting the layers of vulnerability reverberating beneath Lloyd’s twinkly persona, but the character regrettably emerges as yet another incarnation of the antiquated archetype dubbed by Spike Lee as the Magical Negro. His chief duty is to supply the characters with precisely what they need at any given moment, including a clean roll of toilet paper, and appears all-too-content in living out his days on a circular path of benevolence. 

Maintaining a sense of claustrophobia is key for a film like “Stuck,” where the audience must feel immersed in the spatial limitations set for the characters. Berry’s movie is an adaptation of a one-act stage musical by Riley Thomas, and the train’s airless atmosphere is obliterated anytime a character breaks into song, mouthing to prerecorded tracks so slickly mixed, they are borderline laughable. Rather than have musical numbers spring organically from source ambiance or other sounds, such as the buzzing of earbuds or the tapping of fingers a la “Cell Block Tango” (which are used only fleetingly here), the songs jarringly burst forth in a way that makes one suspect the characters have been possessed by Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin’s ghosts from “Beetlejuice.” Speaking of vintage Burton, the title tune’s refrain of “Wo-oah! Wo-oah!” is so inescapably evocative of Danny Elfman’s villain anthem from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” that I kept expecting Lloyd to follow it up with, “I’m the Oogie Boogie Man!” 

It’s telling that the best melodic bit in the film is not only the simplest but most functional, as three of the guys perform scat on the spot in order to drown out the sound of a fellow passenger, Alicia (Arden Cho), peeing into a bottle. An early song belted by comic book artist Caleb (Gerard Canonico) about a wheelchair-bound superhero is certainly the liveliest, considering that most of the music serves purely as exposition, rushing through the backstories of each character—except for Lloyd—so that we may empathize with their troubles. When hard-working immigrant Ramon (Omar Chaparro) starts articulating his anxieties in Spanish sans subtitles, Lloyd instructs us to stop listening with our ears. This would’ve likely resulted in a touching sequence relying on the nuance of visual storytelling, yet the lyrics quickly switch to English, as if they had lost their nerve. The film’s opening moments are similarly promising in how they juxtapose city noise with an orchestra warming up, but Lloyd proceeds to hit the nail on the head by spelling out the “symphony of sound … underground.” 

Perhaps “Stuck” would’ve played better had it been released closer to the 2008 world premiere of Thomas’ well-received show, long before the photo sharing scandal that rocked the New York City Ballet last fall. We are supposed to find Caleb’s infatuation with Alicia endearing, despite the fact that he stalked the woman at her ballet job and took pictures of her without her consent. His persistent stabs at conversation despite Alicia’s clear disinterest affirm his inability to accept that “no” does indeed mean “no.” Equally frustrating are the attempts made by various characters to convince the pregnant Eve (Ashanti) that she should have her baby rather than get an abortion. The presumptions of these onlookers have no basis in anything apart from their own beliefs steeped in outdated gender roles, and perhaps a steady diet of Pure Flix movies, while the only evidence we’re left with regarding Eve’s maternal skills is her offer to help a mother carry her buggy down the stairs. 

When racial tensions inevitably flare up between the passengers, leading to all sorts of thoughtless name-calling, the film veers dangerously close to becoming the musical equivalent of “Crash.” Numerous issues of inequity and prejudice are brought up just so they can be resoundingly ignored because, as Sue (Amy Madigan) observes, “We are all on this train together,” a pat response at best, since they are all bound for separate tracks. Madigan fares better than her co-stars in part because the charm she exudes that lit up the screen three decades ago in “Uncle Buck” and “Field of Dreams” hasn’t faded in the slightest. Not only is the power of her vocals impressive, she’s also a joy to watch in the silent moments, such as when she nearly utters a word before sheepishly retreating. Too bad her character is to “Stuck” what Tallulah Bankhead was to “Lifeboat”—the uptight female who must be perpetually schooled in her privilege until it is revealed that, wouldn’t you know it, she’s harboring her own pain too. A word of caution: the more antagonistic the character, the more traumatic the flashbacks. 

All that being said, I find Berry and Thomas’ intentions admirable. If only the connections forged between their characters could’ve been crafted with some trace of subtlety, instead of being fueled by an overriding need to cure all societal ills. I’ll admit to being touched by certain small beats, such as the reveal of Caleb’s ultimate destination. But when the contrived uplift of the finale kicks in, with the ensemble singing together in different locations a la “Magnolia,” the schmaltz is laid on so thickly, it turns the stomach. The very end of Jill Sprecher’s great “Thirteen Conversations About One Thing,” where the wave of a stranger causes a smile to caress the lips of a lonely passenger, perfects in mere seconds what “Stuck” struggles to achieve for the entirety of its running time. It’s not a film so much as a lecture punctuated by a patronizing moral, and more importantly, it’s not much fun. 

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Fast Color

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2016’s “Miss Stevens,” starring Lily Rabe and Timothée Chalamet, came and went without too much commentary, although it got generally good reviews. Movies sometimes get lost in the glut of what is horribly referred to as “content.” “Miss Stevens” deserved more attention. It was such an eccentric film, funny and smart, with Lily Rabe giving one of my favorite performances of the year as the title character. Directed by Julia Hart, and co-written by Hart and Jordan Horowitz, “Miss Stevens” is ripe for discovery. “Fast Color,” the next collaboration from this husband-and-wife team, is far more ambitious, including dystopian-sci-fi elements, and held together by two very strong performances from Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Lorraine Toussaint. 

“Fast Color” takes place in the near-ish future, when water is so scarce it’s become the currency of the realm. The American West, as envisioned by Hart, her astonishing production designer Gae S. Buckley and cinematographer Michael Fimognari, is a near-empty wasteland, sparsely populated with roadside bars and diners, empty storefronts, lonely houses beneath a gigantic sky. Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is first seen escaping from a warehouse and fleeing into the night. Making her way across the desert, hitching rides, Ruth has secrets. People are looking for her, tracking her movements. People from the “government.” A recovering addict, Ruth also has violent seizures which appear to cause earthquakes. She’s so accustomed to this “power” that when she feels a seizure coming on, she calls the motel’s front desk and warns them to take cover. Such a power might prove very useful in this parched New World. What if it could be harnessed, controlled? 

<span class="s1" The opening sequences of the movie are gripping and mysterious, as Ruth—tormented by flashbacks to happier times—tries to get home to her mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) and her daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney), whom Bo has raised, since Ruth had been so wild. Hart takes her time establishing the backstory, allowing space for questions and confusion. Nothing is handed to us. People don’t sit around explaining themselves to one another, and these characters don’t either. Some of this leads to unnecessary confusion, but confusion is sometimes preferable to exposition underlined ad nauseam. Bo is first seen smoking a cigarette out on the porch of the family home, Nina Simone’s “New World Coming” drifting out of the open windows. Slowly, the cigarette dissolves into shimmering dust swirls, hovering before Bo’s eyes, before swirling back into its original form. This is the first inkling that Ruth’s apocalyptic seizures may not be some weird individual “power,” but something inherited and passed on. Lila, a young child who barely knows her mother, has a mechanical mind, and looks longingly at Ruth’s battered pickup truck, aching to get under the hood. Lila’s powers are wild and undeveloped. What starts as a wary family reunion, filled with bristling tension, transforms into an event far more urgent, with heavy-duty implications for all three of them.

How this plays out is not as important as “Fast Color”‘s devotion to the rhythms of life in this one family, grounding us in their dynamic, even as events become more and more supernatural. There’s one beautiful stationary shot of the kitchen, with the three characters moving in and out of the frame, getting their breakfast at staggered intervals, with no dialogue. Ruth is still almost feral, fearful of hurting someone when a seizure comes on. So she camps out in the barn, a stark white structure at night, with orange lamplight gleaming into the midnight-blue, stars exploding in the sky above, a sort of Thomas Kinkade filtered through a dystopian-glamorous lens. These moments provide texture and background, atmosphere and specificity. 

Mbatha-Raw has a frayed-nerve intensity as Ruth, flinging her body away from approaching threat, charging down an empty road clutching a gas can, or running across the desert from someone in pursuit. She’s gloriously physical in “Fast Color” but there’s something jagged about it, as though her body is not entirely under her control. Ruth is like a bucking wild horse, beautiful but dangerous. Toussaint is one of the busiest character actresses around, working steadily for decades now, a familiar face from countless television series and films. Here, Toussaint has a role she can really stretch out in. Mbatha-Raw and Toussaint’s scenes together are the heart of the film. 

Hart undercuts the expected “superhero” element of the story, up until and including the final sequence. She’s more interested in issues of power and creativity, more specifically women’s power and creativity. Power is creative, but—as Ruth knows, as Bo knows—it can be destructive too. Power comes with a price tag. Bo has paid the price. Ruth has too. Can Lila be protected from having to pay the same price? Threaded through with interesting thoughts about matriarchy, climate change and generational trauma, “Fast Color” tries to do a little too much, and there are maybe one too many things shoehorned in, but Hart wisely keeps the focus intimate, staying close to the characters. What interests her is Ruth, Bo, and Lila. By the end, you feel you’ve gotten to know these people. You care about what happens to them.

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Little Woods

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If “Little Woods” had trusted its two leading ladies just a little bit more, it could have been a truly great movie. As is, it’s a very good one that is worth seeing mostly for its cast, especially two leads who are increasingly rising to the top of their generation in terms of ability. Tessa Thompson and Lily James have arguably never been better than they are here in Nia DaCosta’s film about people on the edge of society who are forced into illegal behavior by a system that really does not care what happens to them. And they’re surrounded by an incredible supporting cast, including memorable turns from James Badge Dale, Lance Reddick, and a menacing Luke Kirby. Everyone here is very good to great, which makes it all the more frustrating when the dialogue given to them by DaCosta gets a few shades too literal. With character work this strong, we don’t need someone to say, “Your choices are only as good as your options are.” The movie makes that crystal clear.

Thompson plays Ollie, a woman near the end of a probation period—Reddick plays her officer, who warns her not to get in trouble in the end run before her freedom in a way that people in that role always do in the movies. Ollie’s mother has passed away and she’s having trouble making ends meet. She used to deal drugs like Oxycontin, something we’re aware of early in the film when one of her former clients comes looking for a fix. However, DaCosta’s film is not a movie that castigates junkies and those who feed their addictions. It has more empathy than that. The client has a horrible injury and he just needs to keep working. He’s one of many people in this country who get addicted to painkillers for their literal purpose—to ease the pain so they can get through the day. He can’t afford to take a day off work to get it fixed medically. He can’t afford to lose his job. He literally needs the Oxy to make ends meet.

But Ollie isn’t dealing anymore. She’s gone clean, despite the constant pressure around her to go back to her old ways. That pressure is intensified when the bank forecloses on her house and then her sister Deb (James) gets pregnant. There’s no easy financial fix to either problem. Abortions aren’t easy or cheap, and Deb discovers that a pregnancy with no health insurance costs close to five figures. Ollie is pushed back into dealing to solve both dilemmas, first casually and then with increased intensity to get what she needs and get out again.

“Little Woods” is full of wonderfully nuanced character beats. James and Thompson battle for who gives the better performance, both of them embodying a world-weariness that has infected so much of this country in places where the economics of daily life feel increasingly unmanageable. But they don’t sink into the archetypes these characters could have easily become. They’re two of the best performances of the year so far, almost more impressive in the little beats than the plot-driven ones. It’s in the look James gives when she’s told how much delivering a baby costs or realizes that a journey to get a fake ID could suddenly be very dangerous; it’s in Thompson’s defeated body language when she realizes everything could come crashing down. 

The larger problem here is with DaCosta’s script—characters too often say exactly what they’re feeling or need in ways that make them sound like mouthpieces for a writer instead of real people. It doesn’t happen often enough to detract too much from appreciating “Little Woods” as an acting showcase, but just enough to make one wish it was a more subtle film overall. In the end, it’s a film that feels deeply inspired by “Frozen River” and “Winter’s Bone,” other movies that went to depressed, unsafe parts of the country and allowed their leading ladies to really get under the skin of those who live there. “Little Woods” deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as those films.

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“I hate everyone, but I still think I am better than everyone else.” To understand the egotistical Kate Stone (a frenzied Taylor Schilling in a series of power suits), look no further than this statement she delivers early on in “Family,” Laura Steinel’s quirky and formulaic debut about a work-obsessed loner discovering her softer side. Appealing on a scene-by-scene basis but generic like its title—it might as well have been called “About a Girl” as a thematic nod to Chris and Paul Weitz’s superb 2002 film—Steiner’s dull comedy lacks the crucial feelings that could have made the suburban aunt-niece tale at its center something more memorable. 

It all starts with a voiceover, as these sorts of films often do—Kate wonders how she ended up in the midst of a raunchy, open-air gathering of Juggalos (those face-paint-wearing, seemingly vulgar, party-crazed rebels) just by doing something nice for someone for once. We soon find out just how unusual good deeds are for her, when Steinel takes us back a week where a perennially dissatisfied Kate treats everyone she crosses paths with awfully. A senior executive at a New Jersey-based hedge fund, Kate routinely agitates and insults fellow employees—in one instance, she offends a pregnant co-worker so severely that in real life, her controversial rudeness would have resulted in a lawsuit. In another, she belittles the familial relationships of her assistant. She isn’t exactly a popular employee of the month or life of office parties; though her colleagues’ rejection doesn’t stop her from crashing a baby shower to steal a slice of cake.

<span class="s1" Things don’t seem to be much better at home where the selfish heavy drinker roams alone and ignores her familial ties. Still, her brother Joe and his wife Cheryl (Eric Edelstein and Allison Tolman) don’t hesitate to ask Kate the favor of watching their 11-year-old daughter Maddie (Bryn Vale, amiably disgruntled), while they tend to Cheryl’s dying mother. Kate’s overnight visit turns into a whole week, during which she observes an isolated and angry kid in Maddie, victimized by the impossible demands of her parents. Maddie sneaks off to a karate workshop taught by the affable Pete (Brian Tyree Henry), while Cheryl insists on the supposedly more girly ballet. She prefers to wear a suit to a school dance, yet she’s ordered to put on a feminine dress. Moreover, she seems to be picked on at school by a group of popular meanies. Seeing herself in Maddie and discovering her troubles slowly (while irresponsibly allowing her to get away with excessive snacks and chicken parmesan every night), Kate takes her niece under her wings, especially when Maddie makes friends with the Juggalo crowd through a chance encounter.

In fairness, “Family” makes a decent attempt in trying to dismantle sexist societal perceptions. Steinel examines the concept of being a toughened workaholic and wonders why it is deemed acceptable and desirable for men, when women with the same level of dedication get pushed to a lonely corner, often in competition to one another. True to her modest ambitions, Steinel thankfully doesn’t pair Kate with a romantic interest. Instead, she introduces a younger female executive whom Kate trains only to watch her become an alleged threat to her own career. Meanwhile, a second female frenemy lurks next door to her brother’s home: a helicopter mom (Kate McKinnon, bringing along much-needed frothiness) adamant to show a completely disinterested Kate the ropes, with tensely funny results. 

And yet despite all that, the script neglects to give Kate personal depth beyond the bare minimum—“Family” almost takes for granted the idea that we’ve seen her kind before in countless other films. Consequently, Kate’s eventual make-good reunion with her father seems like an afterthought in her shakily sketched journey of self-realization. Still, Schilling makes the most of her part and establishes winning chemistry with Vale, reminding us that the star of “Orange is the New Black” should have become a more valued cinematic asset. As for the Juggalos … They remain hazily in the background even when they set the stage for a frantic finale. You won’t all of a sudden grow to care about this anarchic yet often misunderstood subculture, as it’s just another half-realized excursion from Steinel’s debut.

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One of the most recent horror movies to polarize audiences was Robert Eggers’ “The Witch,” that creepy 1630s period piece with Old English dialogue, an iconic sinister goat, and a terrifying finale. But Lukas Feigelfeld’s “Hagazussa” makes “The Witch” seem as zippy as “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” in comparison—“Hagazussa” is even more atmospheric and muted, with even less of a threat that something will jump out at you. Those are noble values for a horror movie, but it’s a shame they’ve lead to a frustrating genre pic that’s just too dreary to be scary. 

Presenting a 15th century woman’s psychological horror in slow motion, “Hagazussa” doesn’t so much have a story as a compelling yet straight-forward theme, which is that living alone in the mountains at such a period of time is a terror, especially if you’re a woman. The main focus of the story is a meek woman named Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen), who has been living in a hut next to a creek all her life. In the first of the film’s four segments, we see Albrun as a quiet young girl who witnesses her mother Martha (Claudia Martini, in a freaky performance) become bedridden with bulbous tumors on her body, and then begin to act very animalistic. Feigelfeld establishes aesthetic confidence early on by relying on minimal dialogue and expressive sound design, and this unsettling passage is like a 25-minute short film about a mother and daughter that could stand on its own. 

Hopes of that nervous energy continuing, however, are dampened by a resulting character study that isn’t ominous so much as monotonous. As strange as the mostly silent preceding events are, watching a grown-up Albrun in a vulnerable environment with a newborn baby and gradually embracing her witchy genetics, many scenes play out in a straight-forward fashion. An interaction with a possible new friend named Swinda (Tanja Petrovsky), a stroll through the dark woods after hearing her dead mother call her name—”Hagazussa” goes from one droning sequence to the next and doesn’t make its bare script more interesting with its glacial pace. All the while, Feigelfeld’s horror only comes from a couple horrific images but not an overall gripping fear, and he withholds so many details about any sinister mechanics that “Hagazussa” can only best function as another example of how madness runs in the family. 

“Hagazussa” is largely held together by an intense performance from Cwen, who adds bulging eyes and guttural screams to her character’s largely internal nature. Given the very spare dialogue throughout the movie, we merely watch her from the outside, making for a vivid performance in a straight-forward course of events. She is intricately tormented, we can see, but the script keeps us from getting too close.  

Feigelfeld approaches this project with a precise vision, reminding you of that any time he has a seamless edit (a close-up of a skull that fades into the mountain’s billowing fog) or when cinematographer Mariel Baqueiro tidily frames Albrun within her wild forest surroundings. He wants you to get a five-senses experience of being on that mountain with Albrun, often focusing closely on hands for long takes, like when Albrun is milking one of her goats in a moment of tranquility, resting her lonely head on its side. But intent is not the question in “Hagazussa” so much as purpose—Feigelfeld simplifies Albrun’s descent into madness until there’s no anxiety to offer, while forcing his audience to gaze upon extended, defiantly murky images and project grandiosity onto them. His taste for psychedelic horror in nature likely comes down to personal preference, but I found numerous shots plainly ugly, if not wasteful of his fledgling ambitions.

Whether it’s the reoccurring, gorgeous mountainside shots that run dull or the trippy shots that submerge the camera in green swamp water, “Hagazussa” has a very blunt idea of the peace and chaos it wants to use for its atmosphere. Even the flourishes that are usually thrilling in films like these—minute-long static shots of someone slowly standing up, oppressive passages of silence, a score that’s comprised of approximately two-and-a-half notes—feel cheap here. In the end, you don’t take away an atmosphere you can’t shake off, so much as the forcefulness of a new director demanding to be taken seriously. 

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