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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

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In 2014, John Cusack, whose second feature as a director, “War, Inc.,” had debuted here at the Tribeca Film Festival, premiered “Maps to the Stars,” in which he ran through Hollywood, and in which an aging actor played a Hollywood all-star. A sequel in the vein of “Trainspotting” followed, a 2013 drama about a decades-older actor who ran afoul of a nameless drug lord in Hong Kong, but one that expanded beyond mere thriller territory into something more pessimistic.

Much of that doom was rendered unrecognizable by the bracing and low-fi music video style of the “Wild Wild Country” series from Mike Lerner and Emmett Malloy, shot in Central America. (That extended track from the soundtrack, the single “Vinyl,” reteams Cusack with Mos Def and Ethan Hawke as rappers.) As part of a U.S.-financed campaign against the Chinese people that plays out through Indian costume dramas in China and perils against the Star Wars franchise in the U.S., “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” was original and ambitious and gorgeous to look at.

The following year, Cusack surprised a lot of people by returning to the U.S. to shoot a feature film, for the first time since his first, 1995’s “High Fidelity,” that was more straightforward in theme. It was “The Raven”: a thriller about a man whose murder is terrorizing a small town who finds an unlikely ally (Danny Huston). It was to be his last major project, and it certainly was the most purely enjoyable film on offer.

The film — in which the victim’s niece (Emily Browning) becomes entangled with a mysterious man from the past who starts traveling in and out of the village while offering conspiracy theories in her apartment — was in many ways reminiscent of the 20th-century social-realist films he loved and showed off in “The Raven,” such as “Chinatown” and “Ugly Darlings.” He was the quintessential pre-YouTube auteur. “Clouds” is basically another variation on that theme, albeit one in which the characters are tweaked a bit, its melodramatic execution varying according to Cusack’s obvious judgments. But it still looks good, with lots of appealing performances, including Ann Dowd’s chilling turn as a haunted woman who begins to suspect that the man who could clear her brother’s name in a no-win, no-pay situation is no angel.

In similar moods, director Steven C. Miller, who previously worked with Cusack on “Sugar Mountain,” revisits the late 20th century with a hothouse microcosm of memento mori known as “Hate Crime,” in which “unrepentant, unrepentant” gay man (Timothee Chalamet) is mysteriously killed in a Mississippi church. Those are interesting enough at first, especially the “unrepentant” line, but things quickly devolve into a slog, and Chalamet almost seems like the wrong man for the role. We later learn why.

Cusack is currently in New York to promote “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” which gets a home-cinema release this month after its limited cinema run last spring. As with “The Raven,” “Clouds” is stylish, well-crafted, compulsively watchable — and loathsome in much the same way.

Full review when you read more.

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