In & of Itself
When magic tricks succeed they often deliver some form of awe: Eyes grow wide, jaws drop to the floor in shock as the impossible just seemed to have happened. Those reactions happen throughout Derek DelGaudio’s In & of Itself because the titular man is a rather incredible magician. But you also see plenty of people cry, overwhelmed with emotion; a feat no exactly expected at any kind of magic show. DelGaudio is more a magician that looks at tricks as a means to an end. Avoiding a huckster’s brash flash, he is a soft-spoken storyteller who uses sleight-of-hand, manipulation and illusion to deliver a meditation on existential yearning, to explore his sense of self and gently invite his (live) audience to do the same.
And he did so while still making it a hit: DelGaudio’s one-man-show of quasi-metaphysical explorations enjoyed a lengthy Off-Broadway run between 2017 and 2018. With Frank Oz directing both the stage version and this film version, the show begins with each audience member in a lobby picking from a wall of hundreds of small white cards before they take their seats: Each one saying ” I am… a scientist,” “I am… a leader,” I am… I father” and so on. From there, DelGaudio takes a seemingly meandering road to circle back on their initial decision — and the reveal lives up to the build up, connecting all the essential queries he hits on for the whole show: Who am I? What is arbitrary and what is predetermined? What is real and what is invented? Watching the impacts of this process, it’s clear that the trickery matters less than its therapeutic impact, as DelGaudio transforms the tropes of a magic show into a grander journey of self-discovery that grows more sophisticated as it moves along; a celebration of the way the world can feel both mystical and ominous at the same time. It’s truly a universal feeling. A magic show that doesn’t just make you ponder how that happened, by why. In & of Itself, in the end, hits grounds unlike really anything else of its kind, taking a remarkable ingenuity that transforms mental trickery into therapeutic power.
In & of Itself is available to stream on Hulu
It’s interesting to call Viggo Mortensen a Hollywood star, simply because he’s so unclassifiable. Throughout his career he’s jumped from niche arthouse material to things of massive scale, à la The Lord of the Rings trilogy. So it might not come off exactly as a shock to see Mortensen’s directorial debut be just as unclassifiable, a film that’s both sincere and jagged. That film, Falling, at its most basic centers on John (Mortensen), a married gay man who lives in California, struggling with his dementia-laden, homophobic father, Willis (Lance Henriksen) in the latter’s final days. Yet Mortensen, behind the camera, doesn’t give it the atypical rhythms a film like this usually has. Told in a bifurcated structure, Falling begins with one of the many flashbacks that are laced throughout the movie, as a younger Willis (then played by Sverrir Gudnason) and his wife Gwen (Hannah Gross) bring their newborn baby (John) home from the hospital sometime in the middle of the 20th century. Alone with his son for the first time, Willis leans over the crib and says something that many people have thought, but very, very few have probably said aloud: “I’m sorry I brought you into this world, so that you could die.” With the baby John beginning to cry, the tone is set for Falling.
In the film’s present day (or really 2008) timeline, life has nearly come full circle and John has assumed responsibility for his father. It’s not an easy job. Willis has grown into a bitter and abusive old man who decided to only look for the worst in people at a certain point in his life and has been stuck in a tailspin ever since. It’s gotten to a point where it’s hard to know where his natural hostility towards other people ends and the foul-mouthed violence of his mental decline begins. And as the film progresses, you do begin to wonder if Willis is just a huge dick who’s suffering from some routine memory loss and has the misogynistic streak that came from his upbringing. But it’s the strength of Henriksen’s large but nuanced performance that ultimately is too untamed and self-possessed for a diagnosis to really be relevant.
Throughout, Falling is often loopy and a little perverse in the ways that it looks for dissonance between the present and the past, but it’s told with some sense of consistency that suggests Mortensen knew what he was trying to find. Despite the film’s anti-drama nature and the hostility of Henricksen’s performance, there is still some gentleness at times. Even the uncomfortable family lunch featuring Laura Linney as John’s flustered sister is rooted in something real, though it’s woefully stilted. The entire film continually feels that personal (Mortensen has said that the film was inspired by the final years he spend with both his parents), to the point that the clumsy flashbacks are unmoored from either John or Willis’ perspective in a way that it makes them feel as if they’re only being remembered by the man behind the camera. As the film spirals deeper into itself, the specifics of Willis and John’s relationship grow considerably less compelling than the question of what Mortensen was trying to synthesize from them. Is this a portrait of a man trying to defy his father’s enraged idea of masculinity? Is it a study of how time moves through people? Falling‘s fiery climactic showdown tires to be both yet they don’t really congeal. The non-linear montage that follows, though, does reach a bigger impact, leading to the film’s sensual yet baffling farewell. It’s here that Mortensen’s sense of poetry is liberated from that of a plot, but, by then, it’s a little too late for Falling to really get off the ground. Falling strives for earnest transcendence yet more often stumbles into clunky repetition that, to a point, simply flattens its drama.
Falling is available on VOD
Chad Hartigan’s Little Fish is set amid a pandemic. No, don’t start running away! It’s not the one we’re currently living through. Instead of Covid-19, this film’s fictional world is suffering from NIA (neuroinflammatory affliction), a virus that causes a mysterious, mass memory loss. Enriched with many existential questions, the film follows the newlywed couple of Emma (Olivia Cooke) and Jude (Jack O’Connell) through jumping between timelines of before and after NIA, transforming this “sliding doors” romance into a narrow scope of something expansively impactful that only imbues the film with more power.
Attempting to sweep you up in Emma and Jude’s romance through an almost collagist approach, Little Fish is very much a film that skims over the science; it’s sci-fi rooted more in feelings than fact. It’s resonance can even bring to mind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but that’s still vastly antithetical. As the virus spreads and starts to reach closer and closer into their bond, Little Fish entwines itself around love attempting to last when the memories start to fade: “They say you can’t forget feelings,” Emma says. What happens when one party has no recollection of the past that led to falling in love? And if memories shape one’s identity, what does it mean for one to continue loving someone who is no longer their original self? The answers won’t always come, but the questions are what permeate the film’s intrigue. Intimately looking at impermanency, Little Fish is a film of bittersweet sensitivity told in the smallest scale.
Little Fish is available on VOD