Issue #17: Not a Good Look 🙈
The Rental + Waves
What better week than one following the RNC to talk about movies that didn't light our fire? Even that isn't quite true, this week both of us are writing about movies that lit something within us for the wrong reasons. You win some, you lose some, and this week we did not win with our respective movie nights.
First up, Zosha talks the disappointments of the better Franco's directorial debut, The Rental and its promises for "elevated" horror. Then Cate is on Waves and all its missed opportunities for actually shedding some light on the characters within it. We didn't necessarily have fun watching, but we sure had fun going in—enjoy babes.
Zosha on The Rental
Written by: Dave Franco and Joe Swanberg
Directed by: Dave Franco
Distributed by: IFC Films
Things Dave Franco was probably referring to when he said his new film was an “elevated” horror movie:
He wants a slasher film with a psychological thriller sensibility: In the same interview, Franco made a point to mention that he wanted his movie to feel grounded, and have genuine emotional stakes for the characters that dug them out of some sort of two-dimensional hole. The problem is when you’re melding genres they have to actually play off each other for it to feel effective.
Charitably, I’d call this movie a sort of homage to Psycho, with all the themes of voyeurism and sexual impropriety. Like Psycho, The Rental turns on a dime in its second act and becomes a different weekend than even the emotionally fraught one these characters were already careening towards, jumping from emotional drama to horror film. Then it does it again in the third act, going from thriller to slasher. The problem is, it does this with very little care for how these bump up against each other. As the horror mounts, it seems almost like a perfect storm for why these characters don’t just call the authorities or get the hell out of dodge. They can’t do it without betraying their adulterous ways to their respective partners.
But then the killer comes in and...just does away with them all, very quickly. So ultimately, what Franco and Joe Swanberg’s script has done is combine unlikable, flawed characters with a “motiveless killer.” I assume he’s supposed to be scarier because he’s senseless, but ultimately he seems like the perfect encapsulation of how bland The Rental becomes by the end. His rapid descent gave even their deaths no arc. While this would be a truly, profoundly upsetting weekend from start to finish if it were to happen in real life, in a movie it is hardly elevated.
Houses in horror movies are actually about the horrors of the people inhabiting them: If I am being pedantic — which, frankly, The Rental puts me in the mood for — I am guessing that Franco meant to elevate the character interactions themselves. And truly, there are some very interesting dilemmas, if you’re into bottle episodes and talky dramas (I am).
What we have in the main quartet is a delightful (for our dramatic purposes) tension ready to boil over any moment. We see an illicit encounter, a revealed deception, exposing of white privilege — and that’s all just in the first 45 minutes or so.
Ultimately it almost feels as if Franco ran out of steam on what could’ve been a propulsively good drama or even more grounded horror. If you found a shower camera in the same shower where you cheated on your boyfriend with his brother, what’s your next move? In Franco’s world, that dilemma isn’t nearly as “elevated” as a killer who never shows his face or talks.
Letting the actors do all the work: I mean this to be only slightly backhanded. It is definitely funny that Franco would talk about elevating a genre and all its archetypes with a single film focused on character arcs that are ultimately really boring. For as interesting as their dilemmas are, the actual characters do too often err on the side of flat: We have the tech-start-up bro with a shady dating history and a superiority complex; we have his brilliant business partner (dating his brother) who is Middle Eastern, a thing the movie likes to throw around but not really comment on; there’s her boyfriend, who has an inferiority complex and a dog; and then the bro’s wife, who is trying too hard to please each other.
That these roles feel in any way breathable is definitely on the shoulders of the actors—Dan Stevens, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, and Alison Brie, respectively. The color in beyond the lines, creating relationship dynamics that feel lived in and whole. Small beats, side conversations—it’s all them.
But I say this mostly to say that Franco should stay away from the pen for a while. His direction skills seem incredibly astute if reserved. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to take an unfussy approach—quite the opposite. He provides a depth of field that seems to plunge deep, creating room for secrets to swell up into the vacuum. Franco captures the beautiful house making it seem eerie without being overwhelmingly off-putting, as so many killer houses can be. It’s a confident approach, especially for a first feature, always leaving room for a betrayal or suspense within the frame.
Technology, but too much: I am only a little bit trying to pick on Franco at this point; writing one of these can really take it out of you as you go along. I know we have a general problem with people thinking horror needs to be uplifted from some lowly level in order to become a Great Genre™️.
Here’s the problem: Horror is already a great genre! Since its inception far before movies were around it revealed underlying fears and anxieties of a society, capturing them as some other “other” but preserving them as something we had to face.
So let’s unpack this Franco quote:
I think about how the country is as divided as it’s ever been...No one trusts each other yet we trust in the home of a stranger simply because of a few five-star reviews online.
The whole thrust of this quote is so bizarre to me. Like, the country’s massive divisions in this moment have very little to do with the gig economy—or, they do, but not because of breaches of trust in the way he’s flippantly connecting them here. If he really did want to say something about the horrors that can befall us when systems stop serving us and privatization creates a Wild West for us all, why not actually do something with Mina’s racism subplot?
I get it—I too can feel paralyzed by the technological eye of Sauron I find my livelihood on. That’s what makes the final act feel so bizarre and out of place. It completely undermines all the work and thoughtfulness that had been crafted for the premise and the characters to make way for some Michael Myers rip off, only for the Airbnb era. I’ll admit, watching it alone in my dark apartment I got spooked during the final credit scene, even though I haven’t left this apartment in a significant enough way for a killer to install cameras in months. But the more haunting thing was how Franco murdered a good premise under some obligation to “elevate” horror by emulating the greatest hits. All he did was muddle his point and sink a good thing.
Alison Brie’s teal sweater: This one is not a joke. If anyone has a line on the turquoise sweater that Alison Brie’s character wears in the final act, get at me; that thing will elevate a drama all by itself.
Cate on Waves
Written and Directed by: Trey Edward Shults
Distributed by: A24
It’s been almost two years since I’ve hated a film as much as I hated Waves. I know that with certainty because the last film to prompt this kind of visceral disgust from me was 2018’s Green Book, and I ranted about that film for what felt like years.
Perhaps my expectations were simply too high, but it’s been nearly a year since the first glowing reviews of Waves were published, and I’d been putting off watching it until I had time to fully absorb the ~cinema~ that I assumed I’d be getting. Instead what I got was a tropey, over-saturated and borderline offensive film full of performances far too good for the terrible script.
Waves is about the fracture of a southern black family in South Florida. Led by overbearing patriarch Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) and stepmom Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry), wrestling star Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is driven to substance abuse first to hide his sports injury and then to forget it when it becomes too severe to ignore. You’d be forgiven for forgetting that his sister Emily (Taylor Russell) exists at all given that she is a mere afterthought for most of the first half of the film.
When a drunk Tyler angrily follows his pregnant girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) to an after-prom party, their argument quickly escalates into a physical confrontation that ends in Alexis’ accidental death. After this, the film’s narrative cleaves apart, and the perspective shifts to Emily’s attempt to deal with the aftermath of the family’s tragedy.
Now, my issues with this movie are plentiful so I’ll try my best to get to as many of them as I within the constraints of this exercise. The most glaring (and offensive in my opinion) issue with Waves is that it is lit like an episode of Game of Thrones. Director Trey Edwards Shults has no concept of how to light black skin and large chunks of the story are imperceptible because the actors’ faces are heavily cast in shadow. There is not a single frame in which you can clearly discern Sterling K. Brown’s face. For most of the story, he is rendered into a living caricature—only the whites of his eyes and the shine of his forehead can be seen.
The same is true for Kelvin Harrison Jr.— a particular tragedy given that so much of the story rests on his character’s reactions. Harrison Jr. is an incredible actor and a budding young star, but part of his particular skill set is his commanding control of his face. His earlier project Luce demonstrated that in vivid and terrifying detail. In Waves, crucial scenes are made effectively useless in the narrative because he cannot communicate to the audience what Tyler is feeling. Scenes between both Brown and Harrison Jr. are particularly hard to parse because of their difference in skin tone. The lighter-skinned Harrison is lit like a ghost, and Brown is left to make do with whatever light bounces off his face. So much of the story is opaque because the characters are almost literally invisible to the audience. Shults greatly handicaps his actors by casting them all in heavy shadow. When Emily’s boyfriend Luke (Lucas Hedges) enters the equation he’s given the same treatment.
The story itself is also basic, plodding and stereotypical. Shults seems to be attempting to tell a story about the limits and perils of black patriarchal domination, but he is only moderately successful. What we get instead is an abusive black father, a repressed black teen who replicates those same dynamics with his girlfriend and black female characters largely pushed aside or only highlighted in response to the actions of the men. Waves isn’t a very wordy film, but I would bet money that most of the dialogue is of Ronald berating his son.
The intense pressure that Tyler feels leads directly to his poor decision making—ironic, given the similar themes of Luce, a much better-executed film—but in Shults’ incapable hands Tyler’s actions become pathology. Tyler’s eventual crime and conviction are framed almost as an inevitability. The film’s first half is swathed in the red and blue light of a police siren.
And when the story redirects to Emily in the aftermath, we still get very little about her interior life. Her brother is in jail, her parents’ marriage is crumbling under the weight of their grief and she herself is overwhelmed with guilt for not intervening on that fateful night. But all we truly get to know about her is framed through Luke, who up until then has been absent from the narrative altogether. Information that might have been relevant in the film’s first half—like the fact that Catherine is the kids' stepmother and their biological mother died of an overdose—are dribbled out reluctantly in conversations that happen as she drags him to reconcile with his own addict father. The only indication we really get about her mental state is a brief breakdown on a fishing trip with her father, and a text message she sends to Catherine after disappearing to Missouri with Luke. There’s little real attempt to interrogate her inner life.
In more experienced hands (Waves is Shults’ third feature) the story might be a moving rumination on grief and family in the wake of an overwhelming tragedy. The story would be so much more appealing if it began in the middle and centered on Emily from the start. How did this family get to be so broken? How can they heal? Instead, Waves is a muddy, ugly and unearned film about black pathology by a director far more ambitious than he is skilled.
¡Viva la Revolución!
This week you should absolutely be joining the effort to bring justice for Jacob Blake (starting by not sharing the video around the internet, and instead sharing resources and initiatives on the subject.
Donate to his family's GoFundMe.
Reach out to elected officials:
Kenosha City Attorney: 262-653-4170
Kenosha Mayor and City Administration: 262-653-4000
Kenosha Police non-emergency line: 262-656-1234
Wisconsin DOJ: (608) 266-1221
Support the Milwaukee Freedom Fund, which is extending support to protesters in Kenosha.
Assorted Internet Detritus
Zosha: Marking the end of I May Destroy You (fab!) with pretty much everything I can, including this interview with Michaela Coel and some keen analysis. Devouring this LA Times package on the Chicano Moratorium. I loved this piece about how we can reimagine the Confederate monuments around the U.S. And I always appreciate a reminder of anger's productivity, and how we benefit when we understand its place in our lives. Also, if you still find yourself wondering about how we'll "get back to normal," here's a consideration of three countries attempting to do contact tracing through apps.
Cate: These movies might have sucked but here are some great pieces that didn't: this story from The Cut about a Youtuber who "rehomed" her adopted son (yes, we hate her and her husband), this NYT examination of the lack of diversity in the Criterion Collection, this Mashable story about the recent trend in influencers flocking to OnlyFans in quarantine and finally, this delightful piece with Elaine Hendrix, the best worst stepmother in the millennial film canon.
And with that we're done. For Issue #18, we're talking the knotty web weaved by lying liars who lie in two classics by women filmmakers: Lulu Wang's The Farewell, and Elaine May's A New Leaf.
Not mad, just disappointed (and a little mad), and still yelling about movies,
Zosha + Cate <3