by Ken Bakely
As the end of the year draws near, I’ve been catching up on many of the noteworthy titles of both recent weeks and previous months. Here are reviews of three movies I recommend.
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Rob Savage’s Host is an ingenious, efficient horror film. While it certainly gets in and out quickly – though its 56-minute runtime is arguably a good length for its compact storyline – it also serves as a fascinatingly constructed idea of how a movie could be made even under the most fundamental of restraints. Shot and set during the COVID pandemic, the film follows a small group of friends who have regular Zoom hangouts. The movie takes place entirely through the simulated screen capture of Haley (Haley Bishop), one member of the group, who has decided to spice up one get-together by enlisting the services of Seylan (Seylan Baxter), a medium, who will perform a virtual séance. No one on the call aside from Seylan gives much credence to the proceedings. However, it soon becomes clear that not only are there ghosts among them, but the friends’ dismissive reactions make them more real than ever: through their hijinx, they’ve actually awoken some sinister spirits, who haunt each of their homes and start to lash out. It all begins innocuously enough, with a few minor technical blips or glitches that could be easily explained away. But it’s not long before it’s clear that something deeply amiss is going on here, and the presences they’ve summoned will not be satisfied with merely frightening the friends.
Savage, working from a script written by himself, Gemma Hurley, and Jed Shepherd, effectively introduces the characters and builds to the conflict in a relatively short timespan, before introducing and reveling in the chaos that follows. The cast is also game for the material, performing through intentionally awkward webcam angles, and performing their own stunts alongside practical special effects which are well-mounted and executed. Host has been discussed as something of an experiment; it’s one of the first, or at least most high profile, films made during the COVID era. But even notwithstanding those qualifications, it’s still an engaging watch. It’s not merely a matter of Savage and company making the most out of their situation: this is an accomplished work. It’s breezy and creative, both sufficiently tense when at the right moments and coyly clever in others – the nature of the movie’s ending is partially ushered in through a wryly funny invocation of a “feature” of the Zoom software. Of course, there are no surprises to be had with its straightforward, threadbare plotting. But as a brutally fast and cutting horror tale, it succeeds, taking the screencapure-facsimile filmmaking of Unfriended and Searching and providing an entertaining new entry.
Sound of Metal
There’s an enrapturing quality to Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal. It’s not merely that Riz Ahmed delivers a very good lead performance – though he does – or that the film is able to simulate its character’s experiences with an immersive, thoughtful, layered sound design – though it does. It’s that the film also strives to tell its story with intuitive empathy and realism that feels both deeply welcome and effortless. It follows Ruben (Ahmed), a heavy metal drummer who begins to suddenly lose his hearing; it seems as if it’s but a matter of days before his hearing capacity has diminished by nearly 80 percent in both ears. He exists somewhere between denial and anguish: he tries in vain to continue life as if nothing happened, desperately seeks out costly surgical procedures to restore his hearing that may not even do that much, and also worries that the ordeal will lead him – a recovering heroin addict – to begin using again. Lou (Olivia Cooke), his girlfriend and bandmate, pushes him to move into a small community for deaf people who are also recovering addicts, led by Joe (Paul Raci, in a commendable supporting role), a sharp Vietnam veteran. Ruben reluctantly obliges, and it’s from here that we examine the internal and external conflicts which follow. Joe and the other residents of the community believe that deafness is not an obstacle to overcome, but rather a way of living one adapts to. Yet Ruben can’t quite give up his search for various ways out – from both the location and his condition writ large – and struggles to accept his new reality.
Although Sound of Metal, which mostly operates as a largely constrained and reflective work, can startle a bit when it suddenly opens up its scope in the final act, Marder handles the transition fairly well and with much of the same care he has until that point. The movie develops Ruben’s arc with a refreshing sense of human candor. The screenplay, written by Marder and his brother, Abraham, from a story by Darius Marder and Derek Cianfrance, narrates a believably messy path for the character. He is not an invention of pity or non-human perfection. He experiences emotions in real time, not along a perfected path for the sake of a viewer’s satisfaction. There are times when he seems to be in a happier or more open place than others, and Ahmed wisely plays every moment of the role with a keen sense of observance and reflection. He portrays Ruben as a character who tentatively wanders around the edges of the situation, not someone who is plunged into the deep end in order to create a more conventionally crafted character study. His interpretation of the character is that of an undeniably active player, but also one who keeps looking for any reason not to believe that he is where he is. It’s a startlingly difficult balance, and a hard one to describe. But suffice it to say that though the film is conceived on a strong foundation, it is many times stronger because of Ahmed’s work.
What the Constitution Means to Me
The title What the Constitution Means to Me begins as something of a lopsided statement; at the start of Heidi Schreck’s play – which was filmed in a recent production directed by Marielle Heller – Schreck, as both a writer and star, recounts how, in the 1980s, she paid her college tuition by traveling the country as a high schooler and participating in speech and debate contests in which students had to give speeches on the history of the U.S. Constitution and how it impacted their lives. Schreck begins by approximating her high-school self, imagining the anxious and overprepared remarks she may have said in a typical tournament, but in each of them, there’s a thread which will begin to pull at the story the adult Schreck wants to tell. The Constitution – in all its flawed and strange histories, in all its uplifting and devastating components, in all the ways it has been interpreted to grant and to crush the autonomy of marginalized people, by judges almost never parts of those groups – is much more than the document we argue over; it shapes what is possible for people and how their lives will and will not be protected. Schreck crafts a blistering, funny, gutting, and deeply thoughtful monologue, recounting the women in her family and the ways that the Constitution, and the men who enforce and interpreted it, have often done so little for the lives of women, and how change has come at incrementally, and often at a two-steps-forward-one-step-back dynamic.
Those familiar with the play know, however, that there is more than a monologue: the piece reframes itself multiple times, and the audience can’t become complacent. Schreck brings on a high-school debater (in this performance, Rosedely Ciprian), and they are to debate whether the Constitution can be reformed to create a more perfect union, or whether its flaws render it beyond repair. The audience judges who wins. With Mike Iveson – who plays the moderator of Schreck’s reenactment, the moderator of the debate, and gives a monologue of his own – What the Constitution Means to Me is a sterling achievement with these three talented people. Schreck has crafted a remarkably conscientious and gripping act of drama and reflection, which casts such shredding doubt on the mythos that Americans are governed under a document which will naturally right itself. It assumes that the right people will do the right work, but so many others are often not allowed into the room to make those decisions. All the while, the people who live under this document must live and navigate their lives. So much hangs in the balance. It is a wonderful play, and though this filmed production tends to make the questionable choices of too many filmed plays in terms of camera work – close-ups that seem more suited for a movie than for capturing stage performances, and oddly timed cuts to the audience that take away from capturing the energy of live piece’s rhythm – it’s hardly a lasting issue. The material here is incredibly strong and the ideas are fantastically, wrenchingly conceived and delivered.