This Week in Art House Cinema: American Honey, The Birth of a Nation and more

Photograph courtesy of A24 Photograph courtesy of A24

American Honey

American Honey is a swirling, passionate and chaotic road journey. At nearly three hours, it is an essential epic about youth as well as an intimate portrait of one young woman breaking free of the things that were holding her down and replacing them with something exciting and new, even if those new things aren’t any less of a burden. The masterful writer-director Andrea Arnold (Red Road, Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights) has discovered a shining gem in newcomer Sasha Lane. Lane plays Star, who flees her troubled home when she is tempted by group of young people her age driving cross country selling door to door magazine subscriptions. At first, Star thinks the group is led by the charismatic Jake (Shia LaBeouf), but before long, she seems him kowtowing to uber-tough Krystal (Riley Keough, who was last seen in Mad Max: Fury Road), who handles all of the money, accommodations, hirings and firings. As much as you might roll your eyes at the prospect of sitting through something with this running time, featuring a cast of almost entirely unknowns, I can’t emphasize enough just how exhilarating American Honey truly is. An excellent example of this is watching LaBeouf turn on his seemingly effortless charm that makes him the greatest salesman/con artist I’ve seen in ages. He sizes up each new client while creating a new persona in himself that maximizes his likability in order to close the sale. He’s remarkable. The problem is that when he’s paired with Star to act as her mentor, she keeps screwing up his sales by refusing to be something fake to these strangers. She’s killing his mojo, and it only draws him to her even more. So much of this movie is about figuring out what these two are to each other in the end. I understand why it won two major awards at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Photograph courtesy of A24 Photograph courtesy of A24 In one of the especially harrowing sequences, the pair fight and she leaves him only to get picked up by three finely dressed good-ol’ boys. Throwing this firecracker into a barbecue pool party with three middle-aged men seems like a recipe for disaster of some sort, but Star has learned from the best, and before long, she’s got their cash in hand and signatures on the dotted line. Like all worthy road movies, American Honey has a stellar soundtrack, a great deal of character development during extended sequences in the mini-bus, and an other-worldly quality to the entire film that makes it feel that seemingly meaningless events have major consequences. Director Arnold places her camera among the throng of people, making you almost a part of the conversation, the drinking, the fighting, the rubbing against each other. The film never feels frivolous, despite these young adults having no clear path beyond selling their damn magazines, and that’s the key. LaBeouf and Lane have such completely different styles of acting, yet they mesh perfectly in a kind of free-form, jazzy groove that makes it clear almost from the first second they spot each other that they will fall into bed together. I don’t ask you to trust me very often, but on this one, I will. American Honey is special. It doesn’t just show you these people; it makes you one with them. And by the end, you realize you’ve spent a whole lot of time with the future of America, and that’s both thrilling and terrifying. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema. Photograph courtesy of FilmRise Photograph courtesy of FilmRise

The Greasy Strangler

Certainly one of the most talked about and divisive films of this year’s Sundance midnight screenings (or any other film at Sundance this year) was The Greasy Strangler, a film with many objectives but only one true goal: to send audience members out of the theater both entertained and slightly queasy. From the minds of director/co-writer Jim Hosking (who did a segment in The ABCs of Death 2) and co-writer Toby Harvard, comes an L.A. story about a father-son team that is impossible to drive from your mind once you’ve laid eyes on them. In fact, when I saw the actors playing them around Park City in the days after the Sundance premiere (which happened with a bizarre frequency), I had to avert my eyes or run to the other side of the street for fear of being caught in their greasy grasp. The elderly, crusty Big Ronnie (Michael St. Michaels) runs a “disco tour” of Los Angeles, in which he takes customers to random houses around the area, claiming that various major disco events happened there or that key disco players lived there (we have to assume he’s full of shit, as well as grease). His put-upon son, Brayden (Sky Elobar, who I last saw in Don Verdeen), wants desperately to break free of his insane and fiery-tempered father, but lacks the confidence or social graces to do so for any length of time. Big Ronnie berates Brayden for never having been with a woman, and rubs it in his face about all the sex he has. And their screaming sessions are the first line of fire in The Greasy Strangler’s campaign to make you uneasy almost from frame one. Ronnie is also a serial killer, fueled by greasy foods (and sometimes just vats of lard and the remnants from grease traps). He becomes a murderous creature coated in a thick layer of grease that makes him look like a melting candle, with his massive drippy dong on full display. Tasty. Many of the arguments between father and son center on Brayden not making their meals greasy enough. Once Ronnie has killed, he runs to his local carwash and sends himself through the scrubbers and brushes to scrape off the grease. It’s awful to watch, which of course is the point. I can say with confidence that The Greasy Strangler is not a film you talk about in terms of “liking” or “disliking.” It’s a film to survive. They should hand out t-shirts at the end of every screening declaring “I survived The Greasy Strangler.” It’s an endurance test; it’s relentless in its assault on your patience, nerves, stomach, ears and eyes. It’s also a full-on cavalry charge on your definition of entertainment. Lines are chanted over and over while you want to scream at the screen to just fucking stop, but it doesn’t and it won’t. This is a cult film in search of an audience (and I have no doubt it will find one), and one of the most ambitious rosters of genre producers in recent memory, including Elijah Wood’s new genre house SpectreVision and Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League), and they know exactly what they have on their hands. Probably my favorite character in The Greasy Strangler was Brayden’s girlfriend Janet (Elizabeth De Razzo from “Eastbound & Down”), who is tempted to cheat, drawn to Big Ronnie’s sheer, volatile presence. Almost from the first scene, Hosking seems to be channeling old-school John Waters without the social commentary, employing inexperienced actors delivering lines with the same enthusiasm you’d have reading the list of possible side effects for a strong prescription drug. I’m not entirely sure such a drug wasn’t slipped in my drink during this movie. If you’re having trouble figuring out whether I’m recommending The Greasy Strangler or not, that’s kind of the point, and you’re not alone. I tend to admire films that are demented and aren’t afraid to work your last nerve in the spirit of being something different—good or bad doesn’t really factor in. This is a mind-fuck, face-melt, primal scream of a film that eats away at your brain, daring you not to punch it in its juicy face. This is a film that doesn’t care about consequences, or who it offends or sickens, or whose moral code it violates. There is something for everyone to hate, which isn’t a condemnation at all. You may hate it with every fiber of your being, but you’ll never, ever forget it, and I’m fairly certain the filmmakers will be just fine with that outcome. The film is playing the midnight shows Oct. 7 and 8 at the Music Box Theatre. Check out the NSFW trailer here. Photograph courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Howard’s End

Some of you youngsters may not remember or realize this, but there was a time when period films made by the team of director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (who usually adapted a revered novel) ruled the art-hour roost for about 10 years, beginning in the mid-1980s. Works like A Room with a View, Maurice, The Remains of the Day (my personal favorite of the bunch), and the breakthrough Howard’s End, based (as many of these titles were) on the writings of E.M. Forster. There was meticulous attention paid to every level of British society—from the leisurely rich to the struggling working class. But these examinations weren’t just about the clothes and manners; they dealt with the repressed psychological turmoil that both wealthy and poor experienced, triggered by different things, to be sure, but no less meaningful. In honor of the film’s 25th anniversary (which I’m pretty sure is next year), Howard’s End is being rereleased in a positively breathtaking 4K restoration that acts as a spectacular reminder of the bygone era of Merchant-Ivory-style filmmaking. Watching the film again today reminded me of so many things. For example, this is the film that made me love Emma Thompson. Although I’d seen her in several films before this, Thompson’s portrayal of free-spirited Margaret Schlegel, an Edwardian-era woman who is fiercely protective of her family and friends, but sees few prospects in her romantic life. She befriends the ailing (and much richer) Ruth Wilcox (the absolutely ethereal Vanessa Redgrave), and the two become inseparable when Ruth’s husband Henry (Anthony Hopkins, only a year after his Oscar win for The Silence of the Lambs) is away with their grown children. Separately, Margaret and sister Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) get involved in the life of Leonard Bast (Samuel West), a young clerk whose station in life is a made all the worse when the sisters give him bad career advice by passing along a rumor to Bast from Henry, only to find out the rumor wasn’t accurate. Photograph courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics Photograph courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics After Ruth’s passing, Henry develops feelings for Margaret and before long they are married, much to the dismay of Henry’s inheritance-hungry children. A great deal of Howard’s End centers around the titular property, a rather ill-fitting, ugly estate that Margaret has fallen for all of its quirky attributes. Little does she know that just before Ruth died, she willed the property to Margaret as an act of friendship. Her family kept it from the Schlegels, but in the end, things have a way of working themselves out, even if it must be through the most painful gauntlets. The very different paths the two sisters take through life is sometimes brutal and certainly strains their bonds as Margaret tries her best to be the best wife to her conservative husband, who hides his face when he lets forth with any show of emotion. The Schlegel sisters are two of the great pairs in literature and the movies. You know almost instantly that you would want them on your side in a pinch, as much as you’d want to avoid nearly every member of the Wilcox clan. Yet somehow, these disparate folks all find a common ground by the end of the film, and even love comes out victorious to a degree. The interconnecting worlds of these characters doesn’t quite reach the level of Dickens, but that isn’t the point. What’s here is captivating and regal while maintaining an earthy and charming presence. Howard’s End may sound like a standard-issue costume drama, but there is a wicked wit and social commentary that is undeniably modern and hooks us in for quite a ride. I hear restorations are in the works for other Merchant-Ivory productions, and that I get one more chance to see them all on the big screen again. It’s where they belong. The restored film opens today at the Music Box Theatre. Photograph courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures Photograph courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Birth of a Nation

It’s time once again to review the movie and not the controversy. Taking its title from probably the most popular, overtly racist films every made, writer-director-star Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is the story of real-life slave-preacher-turned-slave-rebel-leader Nat Turner, who led a small army of Southern slaves against their owners, killing as many as possible in the process before being put down after about two days of fighting. Since very little is known about Turner’s life, a great deal of this film is fiction, which leads the way to Parker turning him into everything from a Christ figure to a martyr, which in a way betrays Turner’s strength in the history books as being an unremarkable man before he led this rebellion. The Birth of a Nation shows us Turner as a boy, best friends with his owner’s son Samuel, who grows up to take over the plantation (and be played by Armie Hammer). Nate is taught to read and write by Samuel’s mother (Penelope Ann Miller), and when he grows older, his knowledge of the bible makes him a great preacher, a fact that is exploited when the farm’s finances are hurting. At the suggestion of the local priest (Mark Boone Jr.), Samuel rents out Nat to other Georgia farms and plantations with unruly slaves. He quotes a few passages from the bible that encourage slaves to abide by their masters, and that seems to get the job done. Samuel gets the money, and the plantation begins to thrive again. But the entire practice gnaws at Nate’s soul, and after his new wife is assaulted by some local whites (including a slave tracker played quite maliciously by Jackie Earle Haley) and a whipping he receives for back talking, the seeds of uprising are planted. Winning both the Audience and Grand Jury prizes at Sundance this year (right in the midst of the #OscarSoWhite campaign leading up to the most recent Academy Awards), The Birth of a Nation is undeniably a passionate, rousing labor of love from Parker, who also gives a screen-burning performance that seems deliberately ripped from Braveheart (Mel Gibson was something of a mentor to Parker; The Passion of the Christ also seems like a none-too-veiled visual reference here). Photograph courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures Photograph courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures Perhaps it's a result of a smaller budget, or just Parker reaching too far to achieve something that could have been captured more simply, but a great deal of the film feels like an amateur production, with nearly all of the actors going some degree beyond a balanced performance. That being said, I was impressed with Miller’s sweetness in her supporting role. Also doing excellent work is Colman Domingo (from Fear the Walking Dead) as Turner’s most trusted ally and fellow slave Hark. He’s not afraid to let an understated performance sell his most emotional moments. Including images of angels speaking to Turner, as if he is the Chosen One to go into this battle as its spiritual and actual leader feels a little counterproductive. As a preacher going from place to place to help subdue rowdy slaves, Turner saw untold atrocities. He likely wouldn’t have needed the extra push from God to get righteous and angry about the way things were. The Birth of a Nation tells an important story in American history, and one day, I’m guessing, someone else will tell it better. As it stands, I still think it’s an important movie, worth seeing as an example of filmmaking at its most emotionally raw. But as we all know, making choices and decisions when we’re at our most emotional does not always result in the best decisions being made. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.