Eugene Kang: With the lack of major studio releases until June, we must look to the relatively smaller movies for May. Taylor Sheridan is best known for writing films that take on some aspect of American culture and society and combine it with its physical landscape. In Wind River, his directorial debut, he examined the problems plaguing Native American communities while also maximizing the impact of the wintry landscape that his neo-noir takes place in. Now he returns with Those Who Wish Me Dead, which, while not a small movie since it stars Angelina Jolie, is not exactly stirring up big buzz as far as I know. I am always excited to see Angelina Jolie in action mode. I enjoyed her action prowess in Salt and her memorable turn in Wanted. I have to wonder though if this story about a fire warden (Jolie) protecting a young boy who witnesses a murder and is on the run from the killers may be the victim of misleading marketing. The trailer I saw advertised Those Who Wish Me Dead as an action thriller with an emphasis on the former, but there has always been an air of contemplation and deliberate pacing in the Sheridan projects I have seen. Perhaps the most notable example of this somewhat artier inclination is in Sicario, where Emily Blunt‘s character’s trauma is really the focus of that picture rather than pure action. Still, I am interested in checking this film out, especially since this is part of the HBO Max deal where it will be released on the streaming platform at the same time as it is released in theaters. Most of the movies that have been released so far have been big-budget blockbuster fare (Tom and Jerry, Godzilla vs. Kong, Mortal Kombat), but this and The Little Things, which started off the year, are examples of the more adult-oriented movies that Warner Brothers has on its slate.
Alex Sitaras: Not to mention Judas and the Black Messiah (had to add it- very much enjoyed the film). Back to Those Who Wish Me Dead. Wind River was a box office success, grossing $45 million on a budget of $11 million, and I think in a better year Those Who Wish Me Dead would have received more buzz prior to its release. I wouldn’t discount the film’s chances of box office success too early though as Sheridan doesn’t have a bad project to his name, and his prowess as a writer and director is no doubt the reason Jolie is even part of the film.
As you mentioned, I’m not sure how much action to expect as Sheridan’s work is pretty cerebral, but a blazing inferno should provide ample ‘action’ in its own right even if there isn’t too much hand-to-hand combat. And it might be enough to bring people to the theaters. Also starring in the film is child actor Finn Little, who not too long ago had the lead role in the film Storm Boy. Those Who Wish Me Dead is a pretty substantial stepping stone in this young actor’s career, and I’m looking forward to seeing if this film can help take him places. Finn plays the role of a boy who is protected by Jolie’s character after his father is assassinated by father-son assassins Jack (Aiden Gillen) and Patrick (Nicholas Hoult). Sheridan’s film should fit quite nicely within his body of work thus far and be a satisfying entry in the neo-Western genre.
Tangentially to Westerns, the next film in our column this month is Euros Lyn‘s Dream Horse. The films stars Toni Collette and Damian Lewis as two residents of a down-on-its-luck Welsh town. Jan (Collette) aspires to breed a race horse to give her and her small town a jolt of serotonin and livelihood. By pulling together enough support from the town’s residents, she is able to breed a young horse and raise him to compete in races. This horse is named Dream Alliance, and those familiar with horse racing or the Sundance documentary Dark Horse: The Incredible True Story of Dream Alliance may recognize the horse’s name and accolades. You had mentioned you were looking forward to this film Eugene. What about the film draws you to it?
Eugene: I’m honestly most curious about Euros Lyn, who directed some of the best-known and critically acclaimed episodes of Doctor Who. He is also profoundly Welsh, even having directed his first feature Y Llyfrgell in the Welsh language, so I am interested to see how he would bring his background into this film, which is set in a Welsh village. It also looks like the type of underdog film that I, and many moviegoers, like and Toni Collette is always a pleasure to watch. Even in projects that teeter on being saccharine or predictable (In Her Shoes, Muriel’s Wedding) Collette always brings something interesting to her performance that often saves the movie.
Speaking of underdogs, director Haifaa al-Mansour is coming back with her feature The Perfect Candidate. Al-Mansour has had a wild career. She faced great opposition for her first film Wajdja (the first Saudi Arabian film directed by a woman) mainly because of her gender and perceived criticism of the government and society of Saudi Arabia. She has also stretched far beyond her roots with films such as Mary Shelley, about the author of Frankenstein, and Nappily Ever After, about a Black woman whose life changes when she decides to shave off all her hair. With The Perfect Candidate, she seems to be revisiting the issues that she brought up in Wadjda in a story about a female doctor who seeks to be elected to the municipal board of her city. I have appreciated Al-Mansour’s carefully considered and gentle touch in films about issues important to women and how her characters are recognizable, realistic people first and that any political or social issues she wants to raise come from that empathetic place. What interests you about The Perfect Candidate, Alex?
Alex: I think what interests me the most about The Perfect Candidate is its potential impact. Outside of the story itself, there’s precedent and customs that just one film or one director can influence when a country’s cinema is young. As you noted, al-Mansour has had a very interesting career thus far, though I’m glad she’s directing a film in The Perfect Candidate that is a call back to the themes and discourse generated by her breakout film Wadjda. Like a number of Middle Eastern or Asian directors, al-Mansour’s work is likely to generate more acclaim and support abroad rather than at home. In portraying a woman’s journey through a local election, The Perfect Candidate raises the question of why a woman’s potential or livelihood should be constrained by the people and country around her. For Saudi Arabia, the question is a powerful reckoning, and even for America and most other countries, the film will likely continue highlighting the biases and obstacles that women face within their careers.
Moving on to another film that directly relates to the contemporary, the documentary Us Kids will be released in theaters later this month. The work of director Kim A. Snyder during the past few years has revolved around school shootings. She follows up her feature length documentary Newtown with this documentary that follows the March for Our Lives movement following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. In part due to the expanded presence that social media plays in our lives in recent years, discourse on gun violence is more vitriolic than ever and we don’t have to look far back to see the egregious comments and accusations towards Emma González, David Hogg, and their schoolmates. In light of recent acts of gun violence as people begin to establish a new normal within their work and communities, there’s certainly cynicism to be had regarding the topic. However, as Us Kids shows, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas youth truly have made a difference in increasing young voter turnout, inspiring walkouts, exposing corruption, and speaking to not only a nation, but also the world as supportive marches in other countries occurred. Us Kids takes a markedly optimistic outlook towards the topic of gun violence, and we can only hope the message that González, Hogg, and more have made will start to be heard.
Eugene: Clearly, the effect of gun violence on ordinary people is an issue that director Kim Snyder has been dedicated to showing through her work. Her previous documentary Newtown focused on the lives of the parents and loved ones of the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre. What interests me about Us Kids is that it seems dedicated to truly humanizing the young people who became activists because of the tragedy that happened at their high school. I remember that much of the news coverage around these young people was about how conservatives and right-wing media were vilifying them rather than the good work these activists were doing. I look forward to getting to know them better and, I hope, getting a much-needed injection of hope about the future of our country.
Finally, we move onto the much-beloved Criterion Collection with its release of Hou Hsiao-Hsien‘s Flowers of Shanghai later this month. I went on a binge of 90’s films during the past year or so, and Flowers was indeed a standout. Hou is so good at making small, intimate spaces seem big and expansive. This story of four courtesans in high-end brothels (or “flower houses”) over a hundred years ago does not stray from the dim, but beautifully lit interiors of these brothels, yet this story is full of love, betrayal, jealousy and murder. We know about this story mostly through conversations, yet the movie never feels overly stagey. We become enraptured in the story of these four women. It is almost intentionally oblivious of the outside world, but for these women, this is their war and politics and livelihoods, and we manage to feel the tenuousness of their positions because of the performances and how Hou subtly holds our attention on the screen through his compositions. Do you have any experience with this movie, Alex, or Hou Hsiao-Hsien in general?
Alex: I do not, unfortunately. Hsiao-Hsien is a bit of a blindspot for me; however, his most recent film, The Assassins, is available to watch for free with ads on YouTube, so I think that’ll be as good a place as any to start with his filmography. Back to Flowers though, from the trailer for the restoration, I’d concur with all you just said. There’s drama, politics, and power struggles that these women maneuver, especially involving a character played by Tony Leung. I look forward to seeing Flowers of Shanghai since it appears to be a beautifully-shot film with a memorable mise-en-scene. For those who have seen Flowers of Shanghai before or are planning on buying the Criterion release, included is a new documentary on the making of the film that should provide ample insight into Hsiao-Hsien’s celebrated film.