Quick Movie Reviews (Dick Johnson Is Dead, Eternal Beauty & Scare Me)

Dick Johnson Is Dead

Kristen Johnson’s previous film, Cameraperson, was an autobiographical portrait that allowed a career to speak for itself. A collage of unused material from her years spent as a documentary cinematographer, the film cannily repurposed raw footage from over two dozen different projects to showcase Johnson’s professional methods, compositional sense, and empathetic relationships with different environments and subjects. Johnson is an active presence in her new feature, Dick Johnson Is Dead, in which she films her titular father in the months and years following his dementia diagnosis. To help both of them process his impending demise, Johnson stages multiple visions of his sudden accidental death. We watch as she and her father plan, rehearse, and then film scenes of him tripping down the stairs, having a sudden heart attack, or being hit by a falling air conditioner on a Manhattan sidewalk. The finished death scenes are comically abrupt while the rehearsals demonstrate Johnson’s meticulous approach to a tragedy in the making. Dick Johnson Is Dead plays like living tribute to the man, a record of a time right before he inevitably fails to recognize his own daughter. It just happens to take the form of killing him over and over again.

Dick Johnson Is Dead doesn’t simply coast on the director’s noble intentions. It helps tremendously that Dick Johnson himself is a great documentary subject, whose comfort on camera will coax grins from even the most stoic audiences. A big-hearted man with an infectious smile and an even greater laugh, Dick is a go-with-the-flow guy, which makes him a perfect collaborator for his daughter. Johnson features many scenes of her father playing with his grandchildren or cracking jokes amongst friends to ensure that the audience feels as protective of Dick as she does. It renders the infrequent moments when he shows hurt or fear to be appropriately devastating, like when he’s told he can no longer drive his car because of his condition, or when he becomes visibly rattled during a staged-death scene involving fake blood. But his buoyant spirit and good humor regarding his decline goes a long way to keeping Dick Johnson Is Dead a generally lighthearted affair. “I give you permission to euthanize me,” he chuckles to his daughter when she asks if he wants to live past a point when he can no longer communicate. “At what point do I have permission to do that? Johnson asks. “Well… pass it by me before you do it,” he wryly replies with a knowing smile.

Image via Netflix

Considering that the film is about Johnson’s relationship with her father, it’s understandable that she takes a more personal, hands-on role behind and in front of the camera. Still, you can too often feel her guiding hand in Dick Johnson Is Dead. Her voiceover can be unnecessarily leading, especially when she’s explaining transparent subtext that the audience can pick up themselves, and a scene rarely transpires without a clear and direct emotional message. (Her formal choices, on the other hand, find a unique singularity.) Though Dick Johnson Is Dead might be about the period that comes at the end of everyone’s life, Johnson is rightfully disinterested in closure. She asks some of her subjects about their experiences with death, and she recounts her own familial relationship with it, but the film isn’t about providing answers to tough questions. Instead, it’s concerned with the urgent need to document loved ones when they’re around, and to process emotions in the moment rather than retrospectively. Johnson is acutely aware that you can lose someone long before they actually die, and Dick Johnson Is Dead frequently acts as a sincere attempt to do for her father what she failed to do with her mother. That Johnson pulls this off through the lens of black comedy, without succumbing to outright miserabilism, is an achievement. May we all have the opportunity to be present at our own funerals, surrounded by loved ones, before it’s too late. Set artfully between the joyous and the bittersweet, the celebratory and the elegiac, Dick Johnson Is Dead is a touching and funny mediation on embracing life and fearing death at the same time.

Grade: B+

Dick Johnson Is Dead is available to stream on Netflix

Eternal Beauty

Actor Craig Roberts dedicates his second directorial effort to “the real Calamity Jane,” making clear that Eternal Beauty is based on actual people in his life. The Jane he presents in this film is played by Sally Hawkins, and her strong performance is yet another startling transformation in her filmography. Her Jane suffers from a form of schizophrenia. Her state isn’t entirely debilitating but it is certainly erratic. And it manifests itself in often alienating behavior. She buys her own Christmas presents, opens them in front of her family and then hands out receipts to the designated givers. While driving, she suddenly and unnecessarily slams the breaks, she nearly breaks her nephew’s neck, knocking him unconscious in the process. Then, while accelerating again, she tries to strap on the kid’s seatbelt with one hand.

Image via Samuel Goldwyn Films

For the first half-hour or so of Eternal Beauty, Roberts and Hawkins take an unusual and intermittently illuminating approach to depicting mental illness. Roberts’ manipulations of image and sound, and Hawkins’ precise depiction of Jane’s peculiar attention span, dig into Jane’s head, an unusual and sometimes scary place to be, with some unique persistence. But that good work doesn’t stay around long. Once David Thewlis, as another patient at a clinic Jane visits, comes on to her strongly, the movie devolves into a gloopy romance that quickly drowns the film into a soupy-depressive fog. There is something honest here about the way mental health doesn’t follow a clean dramatic arc of betterment and catharsis, but by the time Jane is asking her doctor “What if there’s no such thing as happiness, only moments of not being depressed?” we’ve already become lost in a cluttered hollowness. Though it admirably tries to portray mental illness from the inside out, all of Eternal Beauty‘s idiosyncratic, empathetic honesty eventually becomes obscured in its uneven jumble of formal gimmicks that seem to eager to amuse, rather than firmly observe.

Grade: C+

Eternal Beauty is available on VOD

Scare Me

As beloved as some horror anthologies are, it’s hard to make one without raising the ghost of their inherent unevenness. Has there ever been a review of an anthology film that didn’t mention that element? Scare Me finds a strange but enticing solution by having its two main characters tell an anthology’s worth of horror stories themselves, without other actors getting between them and the audience. Fanny (Aya Cash) and Fred (Josh Ruben) may look like framing devices as they sit in a woodsy cabin and weave tales of werewolves, trolls and elderly creeps; they even bust out dueling Crypt Keeper impressions. But the movie never cuts away to other performers acting out these stories in “real” environments. Most of the action stays inside the cabin, augmented by only sound effects and occasional lighting shifts that blur the line between the performers and what’s happening in their mind’s eye. That doesn’t necessarily put the two storytellers on equal footing. As it happens, there’s a major disparity between Fred, a frustrated advertising worker still hoping to write a great screenplay or novel or something (he’s not focused enough to decide), and Fanny, whose most recent horror novel has become a critically acclaimed bestseller. They’ve both rented cabins for the weekend of solitary writing, but only Fanny seems to really understand what that entails. Fred, whose point of view the movie follows most of the time, goofs around for a full day before the power goes out, essentially putting his near-blank page out of its misery.

Very soon, Fanny shows up at Fred’s cabin during the neighborhood power outage, and suggests that they swap scary stories to pass the time. Fred agrees, despite feeling intimated both by Fanny’s success and her unsparing digs at his half-baked ideas. A substantial chunk of the movie really does consist of the writers taking turns improvising scary stories, with their single-person audience offering the occasional idea, edit, or commentary. A sort-of writing exercise for the characters becomes an acting workout for Cash and Ruben, and if the elastic yet cutting Cash appears to outmatch her co-star in that department, there’s a meta-twist there: Ruben, playing a guy who fancies himself an actor-writer-director despite a lack of actual credits, is also the movie’s writer-director. He’s made a movie portraying himself as someone bad at pitching movies. The thing is, are these contortions impressive enough to sustain a feature film? Not really, as Scare Me insists on having a one-hundred-minute runtime. Ruben does have fun composing different variations of theatricality, allowing his actors to perform straight to camera, and with the requisite dialogue explaining camera moves: “If this were a movie, I’d dolly in real slow right about now,” Fanny says at one point, and the camera follows her suggestion. The movie also throws in a solid, at first, wild card when it introduces Chris Redd, delivering pizza and a couple laughs.

Image via Shudder

Scare Me does have more on its mind than performing engagingly middling story-skits with movie-reference asides. While Fred claims to love traditionally macabre scary stuff, it’s clear early on that his deepest fears have more to do with his own mediocrity and entitlement. It just doesn’t help that the movie outright speaks its subtext continually to the point of being annoying. But, the fears that Fred can offer Fanny are concealed for nearly half the runtime, but by the time Ruben finally tightens the tension between the two of them, it’s somehow both overtly obvious and vastly underdeveloped, mostly undone by slack pacing. The idea that movies can easily lose ten or fifteen minutes of runtime to smooth things out with impatient audiences is often a patently absurd idea. Yet nearly every single scene in Scare Me feels to some degree of overlong. Sometimes that’s part of the fun, sitting in the room with the characters and wondering if the movie is really going to flesh out Fred’s vague “werewolf revenge” idea in real time. Just as often, it makes the movie itself feel like a single anthology segment overstaying its welcome. Scare Me has moments of clever ingenuity, but, sadly, its taffied and ladened with slapdash, fumbled commentary.

Grade: C+

Scare Me is available to stream on Shudder

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