Quick Movie Reviews: Malmkrog, Test Pattern & Things Heard & Seen

Malmkrog

In characteristically demanding fashion, Romanian filmmaker Cristi Puiu’s new drama (a term to be used as loosely as possible here) Malmkrog is almost nothing but chatting: a three-and-a-half hour block of philosophical discourse between wealthy intellectuals, restricted by nothing but their own patience, lung capacity, and tolerance for soapboxing. Setting itself around the turn of the 20th century within the dining hall of a vast Transylvanian manor, Malmkrog pulls up a chair to studiously listen in on a series of unbroken Christmas Eve debates between a collective of Eastern European aristocrats. The language is florid and expressive, yet it doesn’t disguise the sense that those speaking are running through the syllabus of a philosophy 101 class; the topics include such well-trod territory as colonialism, the morality of war, and the existence of God and evil. No one makes their case quickly. The film, in turn, makes a very slow case that these ideas maybe can’t be productively explored by pointing a camera at actors reciting pages upon pages of raw musings.

Image via Mubi

Adapted from the book War, Progress, and the End of History: Three Conversations, Including a Short Story of the Anti-Christ by Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, Puiu approaches the material like a creative challenge. Was it possible, he supposedly asked, to make something dramatically compelling out of a collection of dense, highbrow conversations? Malmkrog suggests the answer may be a resounding “No.” Puiu does attempt to provide some distinctive characteristics to his talkers: The host (Frédéric Schulz-Richard) is an antagonistic blowhard, his most frequent sparring partner a naïve and devout Christian woman (Marina Palii), their most revolting guest (Ugo Broussot) pitches his white supremacy as sensible straight talk. But the focus is on the words spilling constantly from their yappers; a mouthpiece with a hint of personality is still a mouthpiece. Around the edges of these long verbal showdowns, a more interesting movie occasionally threatens to emerge, Puiu keeps subtly pulling our attention away from the chatterboxes at center, our eye drifting to the servants wandering the background of the frame and gently interrupting with a beverage or food. A revolution threatens to burst the bubble of privilege occupied by these cloistered nobles. Yet the director is perhaps too committed to the maddening challenge of his experiment to deviate far from it; surrealist flourishes and ominous hints of an arising comeuppance never prevent a reversion to stultifying blather. One is left to admire the literal and figurate wallpaper — to be distracted by Puiu’s compositions and attempts to constantly vary how he’s staging a tedious one-on-one. He has a special gift for framing doors within doors, for instance. Yet you may also wish you could exit through one. Though its monotonously dialectic form can be boldly uncompromising, Malmkrog still suffers from being an eloquently voluminous philosophy 101 class.

Grade: C+

Malmkrog is available to stream on Mubi

Test Pattern

Test Pattern opens with a bait-and-switch: an ominous look of a man kissing a drunk woman in a dark bedroom cuts to a casual scene at a bar. The woman, Renesha (Brittany S. Hall), a corporate professional, now dances with a different man — Evan (Will Brill), her boyfriend to-be. The first half of Shatara Michelle Ford’s debut feature, then traces their relationship in an endearingly low-key fashion. Yet that doesn’t stop the unease of the brief opening from lingering, as you might question where such an event is coming. By the time the answer arrives, Test Pattern has forced us to question our presumptions about what rape and victimhood look like. In Renesha’s case it’s a series of subtle gestures. At a girls’ night out, two persistent men give her and her friend Amber (Gail Bean) drinks and weed, and one of them quietly takes a woozy Renesha home.

Image via Kino Lorber

Supportive but still indignant, Evan, the next morning, drags a disoriented Renesha from hospital to hospital, yet it turns out to be surprisingly hard to find an E.R. with a nurse qualified to administer a rape kit. Evan’s faith in the bureaucracies of health care and law enforcement clash with Renesha’s well-founded resignation, and his actions unwittingly deepen the theft of agency that has left her reeling. Test Pattern encapsulates all this with very little: From its nonlinear structure and open silences that invite interpretations within all the entanglements of race and gender. In the end, Ford pushes her audience not towards definitive answers but to bold questions. Test Pattern packs a lot within its small package, yet its simplicity can be deceptive, hiding the concision and urgency behind Shatara Michelle Ford’s direction.

Grade: B-

Test Pattern is available on VOD

Things Heard & Seen

The murder mystery and the ghost story genres are cousins, of sorts. Both revolve around an untimely, tragic death; it’s just that one is more interested in the circumstances leading up to the murder, and the other in the supernaturally-inclined aftermath. Things Heard & Seen has both — although, of its competing terrors, the straightforward far overwhelms the uncanny. This is more of a “the husband did it” thriller with ghostly overtones than a horror film, and the restless spirits tend to show up when it’s thematically convenient rather than metaphysically textualizing on their own. Based on Elizabeth Brundage’s better-titled novel All Things Cease to Appear, directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini adapt the material with a blunt faithfulness; whenever the camera turns toward, say, a horse or a bird, the assumption is that this was a rich symbol in the novel, rather than the random cutaway it appears to be here. But the novel’s setting is intact: It’s 1980 as young intellectuals Catherine (Amanda Seyfried) and George (James Norton), along with daughter Franny (Ana Sophia Heger), are moving from Manhattan to upstate New York — the home of spiritualism, art colonies, and old drafty farmhouses.

Playing housewife is one of those crumbling colonial relics, and Catherine becomes convinced that she and Franny are not alone in their new home, as George goes off to teach art history at a liberal arts college during the day. They’re not, although the stone-faced, translucent woman occasionally spotted in the corner of a room isn’t the most immediate threat to Catherine’s safety. That would be George, whose sociopathy is first noted by the cynical student (Natalia Dyer) with whom he’s having an affair; it soon becomes obvious to his plainspoken colleague (Rhea Seehorn) and spiritualist boss (F. Murray Abraham), too. That’s when the murder comes creeping in. All these incidents are endowed with a familiar tension, but Berman and Pulcini seem afraid of turning the screws too tight. While certain sequences condition you to hold your breath, the film’s genre-blurring source material compels its directors to resist a more pervasive sense of malevolent dread. The lights flicker, a handyman neighbor (Alex Neustaedter) is introduced with a hint of menace, and Catherine keeps finding creepy relics around the house, but there’s little threat of immediate danger from whatever happens to be going bump in the night.

Image via Netflix

Gaslighting is a key theme in Things Heard & Seen — one of the signs that a spirit is near is literally the smell of gasoline — and Seyfried’s Catherine is an archetypical victim: fearful, isolated, and weakened by an eating disorder that’s dramatized throughout the film. And it doesn’t take long before Catherine is overwhelmed, opening a portal that ties her soul to the generations of abused women who have lived in her house. But the emphasis on her puzzling out the house’s past grows tedious as it becomes clear that she has more to fear from her husband, and while Seyfried is committed, an actor of her talent is wasted on a character that spends most of the movie just connecting the dots. In fact, it’s hard not wish that Berman and Pulcini had leaned harder into how Catherine awakens as she loses faith in her husband. As such husband, Norton does a decent job of tracking George’s turns from chauvinism to sociopathy, but Things Heard & Seen is so eager for the character to become an emblem of mediocrity in crisis that it isolates him into being completely separate from what’s going on with Catherine (even if those threads couldn’t be more intertwined). “He’s just afraid,” someone diagnoses George. “Men at his stage of life always are.” And that fear — half-sketched but all too easy to track — eventually becomes a problem of several of the people unlucky enough to get in its way. But while the movie keeps returning to the idea of death as a bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds, it never finds a way to connect the two sides of the story it’s telling, which ultimately defangs them both. As the final stretch of Things Heard & Seen evokes everything from A Place in the Sun to even The House that Jack Built as it scrambles to close the gap that forms an irreconcilable distance between Catherine and George, Berman and Pulcini’s movie feels as if it’s more haunted by an unrealized identity than anything else. Burdened by blunt literalizing, Things Heard & Seen ultimately falls into being less than the sum of its superfluous parts, lacking the connective tissue and being vicarious and schlockier than intention.

Grade: C

Things Heard & Seen is available to stream on Netflix

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