February 2023 Roundup
Huesera: The Bone Woman
XYZ Films // Directed by Michelle Garza Cervera // Starring Natalie Solián, Alfonso Dosal, Mayra Batalla, Mercedes Hernández
For her directorial debut, Michelle Garza Cervera decided she wasn’t going to play it safe. Instead, she presents a chilling dissection of the tribulations of pregnancy following a woman settling into a domestic life having grown up fighting against that very idea. Having prayed to a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Valeria (Solián) and her husband Raúl (Dosal) receive the outcome they desire as their lives are about to be blessed with a newborn baby. However, the following months for Valeria are plagued by sneering family members, a loss of profession, a husband who fears sex in case it harms their baby, a desire for her old partner, and, oh, a malevolent entity that wishes to possess her. In short, she’s had better times. Huesera portrays a slow-burning, subtle horror that has an alarming intimacy, it's far more focused on Valeria’s struggles against a culture that expects her, as a woman, to submit to motherhood than with traditional horror - but there’s enough of that throughout also. She spends her pregnancy trying to live up to what others want when its apparent she isn’t clear on what she wants, and these moments provide plenty of discomfort alongside scenes of a menacing presence that lurks in the shadows and torments Valeria at every given opportunity (this entity is based on actual Mexican folklore). Cervera shows plenty of flair in her direction and the combined cinematography and sound design are especially impressive - at times, the sound literally crackles throughout as sequences of silence are shattered by the sickening crunch of bones. As Valeria spirals further physically and mentally, the movie veers more into conventional horror as the third act begins leading to a visually striking and satisfying conclusion, but, crucially, the movie isn’t upended or disjointed tonally by this shift. With a super lead performance from Natalie Solián (in her feature debut), sharp writing, and a combination of sequences that get under your skin, Huesera is a triumphant debut offering. The pace and overall lack of ‘scares’ may not be to everyone's tastes, and, at times, it does feel sluggish, but Huesera delivers a powerful, engaging, and sometimes bruising experience.
Black Spade Productions // Directed by David Willing // Starring Kestie Morassi, Jane Badler, Taysha Farrugia, Darcy Kent
The Australian film scene is one that consistently delivers strong productions that often fall below the radar, and their horror scene has, in the past, delivered some excellent entries into the genre. With Surrogate, debutant director David Willing opts to foray into the supernatural with a story focusing on Natalie (Morassi), a single mother and nurse who, after aiding a sick woman late at night, falls mysteriously ill. This illness results in immediate symptoms of pregnancy that quickly culminates in an apparent birth, though the baby is nowhere to be found. With the ire of doctors and child services raised, and her physical and mental well-being on a rapid downward spiral, Natalie must do everything within in her power to keep her family and herself from falling apart. Whilst not wholly original - the film does lean heavily on its influences - Surrogate is an effective and sometimes excellent low-budget horror movie that blends supernatural elements with mystery and thriller aspects. Anchored by a strong lead performance from Kestie Morassi, there’s a confidence that flows through Surrogate which is a testament to Willing and co-writer Beth King, and its competent production blends well with Mark Buys’ score. At times, the movie can feel solid if unspectacular but sprinkled throughout are some genuinely excellent sequences - a seance midway through the movie is perfectly framed and executed to deliver a deliciously atmospheric and tense situation - and the conclusion was unexpectedly bleak and striking, its an ending that really props the movie up satisfyingly. With the varying subplots, characters, and genre crossovers, the movie does sometimes threaten to derail itself, and whilst not every aspect is a success, at no point do the wheels fall off entirely. Surrogate is an assured debut feature that attempts to blend the old and new, and, more often than not, succeeds in doing so.
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures // Directed by Peyton Reed // Starring Paul Rudd, Jonathan Majors, Evangeline Lilly, Kathryn Newton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll
The time of Kang is now. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is both the 31st movie in the ever-lingering Marvel Cinematic Universe and the feature debut of Jonathan Major’s Kang the Conqueror - described as the next Thanos-level villain for our Avengers heroes. Peyton Reed returns to helm the third eusocial-themed blockbuster as Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang, along with his daughter Cassie (Newton), the Wasp (Lilly), Hank Pym (Douglas), and Janet van Dyne (Pfeiffer), explore the mysterious Quantum Realm, and, in doing so, threaten to unleash a force that could take over the universe. How they get there is a bit ridiculous, as is the rest of the movie sadly. Quantumania is a disjointed, messy, and, frankly bland movie that basically serves as a setup for the next batch of MCU movies at the expense of…being an Ant-Man movie. Quantumania starts off feeling like an Ant-Man flick and it’s as breezy and fun as you’d expect, but once the Quantum Realm is introduced, everything begins to fall apart narratively. The need to move things along to introduce Kang and his backstory, at the expense of the story, is plainly obvious alongside some tedious foreshadowing of “HIM”, “HE” and “SOMEONE” - Michelle Pfeiffer is asked to lazily spend half the movie not telling her family information which would be deemed as crucial to their plight. Thankfully, Jonathan Majors saves the movie with his strong and menacing performance as Kang, each scene he is in is elevated to the point that the rest of the movie seems vanilla by comparison. That’s not to say Paul Rudd isn’t his usual charming self, he is and he’s doing what he does best here, but the rest of the cast…aren’t great - I assumed throughout that Michael Douglas had quit acting whilst filming this. The cast has to work with what they are given so that should be taken into consideration, but their characters end up becoming lost in the sheer glob of colour and sometimes toe-curling VFX. I’m fully aware that the Quantum Realm needs to be realised somehow but, even for a multiverse setting, it felt too much here, especially with the StageCraft usage that stuck out badly. The art department was afforded licence to have fun with their designs though with an abundance of aliens and funky background characters, even if it did feel a bit Star Wars-y at times, and this element allowed for some ace character designs to distract from the visuals, shallow script, and uninspired gags - though MODOK was, well, awful. As someone who dug the first two Ant-Man movies, this feels like a step back for the character in service of the now standard-MCU setups which is a shame. We get Kang, which is great, but it’s hard not to wish that he could have been introduced in a better movie. After an encouraging start, Quantumania succumbs to mediocrity when it had the chance to propel the MCU forward effectively. Jonathan Majors is great, but the movie is anything but. Oh, and Bill Murray appears for some reason.
Puss in Boots: The Last Wish
Universal Pictures // Directed by Joel Crawford // Starring Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek Pinault, Harvey Guillén, Florence Pugh, Olivia Colman, Ray Winstone, Samson Kayo, John Mulaney, Wagner Moura
Everyone’s favourite swashbuckling feline is back in Puss in Boots: The Last Wish…but for how long? You see, Puss (Banderas) has long neglected the value of his nine lives and is now down to his final one. After a brush with a villainous Wolf (Moura) causes him to retire to a cat home, Puss is quickly drawn back into the fight when the chance to wish his lives back into existence rears its head - but he’s not the only one trying to reach the mythical Last Wish. 2011’s Puss in Boots was well received as a spin-off to the Shrek franchise but a sequel after twelve years seemed like an odd choice, specifically, where has the interest come from to suddenly release a sequel now? Well, I’m glad that Dreamworks decided to push forward as Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is wonderful. A movie about a marauding cat delivering some genuinely poignant themes of friendship, selflessness, mental health, and mortality was not on my bingo card this year but here it is. The movie offers some deliciously realised animated action set pieces, good comedy, unsurprisingly strong voice acting from Banderas and Hayek (plus a slew of newcomers including Florence Pugh and Harvey Guillén’s cutesy Perrito) and one of the better villains I have seen in years - Wagner Moura’s Wolf had such a sinister presence that never let up, his menacing smile and whistle was a real sign that it was about to hit the fan. Similarly, the movie follows suit in that it doesn’t condescend to the audience in delivering its narrative and messages which is something that cannot be levied at other animated movies in recent years (also, at one point, a dude has his skin sucked right from his skeleton..). Crucially, whilst the story does sag somewhat at the midway point, there’s more than enough on offer throughout to keep audiences of all ages engaged and engrossed in the adventure. Emotional and surprisingly excellent, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish is one of Dreamworks' best and a real crowd-pleaser.
NEON // Directed by Brandon Cronenberg // Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Mia Goth, Cleopatra Coleman, Jalil Lespert, Thomas Kretschmann
When you see the surname ‘Cronenberg’ attached to anything, you should know that you’re in for a wild ride. The poster alone for Brandon Cronenberg’s latest effort Infinity Pool is odd enough, Alexander Skarsgård submerged in a red goo as Mia Goth looks on seductively/menacingly beside him - that would explain the ‘Pool’ of it all. The story centres on struggling author James Foster (Skarsgård) and his wife Em (Coleman), who, whilst, vacationing at a luxury resort on the reclusive island of Li Tolqa, meet Gabi (Goth) and Alban (Lespert). Whilst all initially seems pleasant, an incident outside of the resort (all guests are explicitly told not to leave the resort) involving both couples sends the Foster’s relationship into turmoil and James spiralling into an abyss of excess, depravity, and lust having witnessed…something…that initially repulsed him before becoming fully seduced by the idea. If you couldn’t tell, I am attempting to keep things as vague as possible so as not to drop spoilers for what is a fever dream packed with sex, orgies, urine, dark humour, and violence - it’s a lot. However, Infinity Pool feels focused narratively and in its direction - this feels like a step up from Cronenberg Jr’s previous movie Possessor - with its themes of depersonalization, hedonism, and the rich indulging their unkempt desires (money is the root of all evil, and all that). Skarsgård delivers a fine performance as he walks the lines between fear, anxiety, rage, lust, and acceptance and Goth provides yet another example of her exceptional talents (she again plays a scarily-genuine feeling psychopath), their interplay between them is fascinating to watch. The movie as a whole may not be fascinating for everyone to watch as it depicts graphic sexual scenes, drug usage, full frontal nudity, and blunt violence - it's not the heaviest movie I’ve ever seen but it may prove to be too challenging for some. Infinity Pool comes out of the gate fast with a strong first half before settling into a satisfyingly solid second half, though I never felt any real lulls throughout. The intrigue is enticing and there is enough black comedy to ensure proceedings don’t become too wild - there’s a real maturity to the storytelling here and provides another interesting addition to Brandon’s burgeoning filmography.
Universal Pictures // Directed by Elizabeth Banks // Starring Keri Russell, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich, Brooklynn Prince, Christian Convery, Isaiah Whitlock Jr., Margo Martindale, Ray Liotta
Cocaine. Bear. The two words that have come to define cinema. This is cinema. This is Cocaine Bear. Right, enough silliness, I’ll leave that for the movie itself. Having taken the internet by storm simply due to its title and premise - that being, a bear feasted on a large amount of ditched cocaine in 1985 - could Elizabeth Banks’ latest directorial effort live up to the hype? Kind of. If you’re going into the movie expecting to see a coked up bear going on a rampage, then you’ll find yourself in luck but…bear…in mind that a hefty chunk of the ninety-five minute runtime is gifted to a host of human characters, most of whom aren’t particularly interesting. Now, this being called a true story comes with the notion that you take that with a pinch of salt, a major amount of liberties have been taken here, but, without those liberties, this would be a very boring movie. Did the real cocaine bear massacre a rabble of misfits? No. But why let the truth get in the way of a drug-fuelled story. At no point does the movie lose sight of what it is though, this is self-aware comedy horror and everyone here is game for the mission - O’ Shea Jackson Jr. and Alden Ehrenreich are both having a blast, as is Margo Martindale, and Keri Russell is dependably solid in her role as Sari, mother of young teen Dee Dee (Prince) who is taken by the bear when she and her friend Henry (Convery) ditch school for a days adventure in the national park. The issue is that the characters themselves don’t really have a lot to them other than their gimmick, and as the movie doesn’t lean in hard enough to each of them, they feel undercooked and underserved. Similarly, whilst the bear brings nothing but terror, the nagging sense that this could have gone harder or wilder never left me. It’s bloody, for sure, and there are some great gags, but I left my viewing feeling like the movie would have been more…fun. Had Banks trimmed some of the unnecessary subplots - including a sweet but unnecessary one about a dog - then the movie would have felt that bit tighter and allowed for more focus on the bear and the humans fighting for survival. For what it is, essentially a jacked up B-movie, Cocaine Bear is still a fun enough ride, however, for a movie called Cocaine Bear, to be left with the feeling that this was not crazy enough is, well...crazy.