September 2022 Roundup
IFC Films // Directed by Peter Strickland // Starring Asa Butterfield, Gwendoline Christie, Ariane Labed, Fatma Mohamed, Makis Papadimitriou, Richard Bremmer, Leo Bill
For his fourth directorial effort, Peter Strickland offers up Flux Gourmet, a movie about sonic catering…something that I was absolutely not familiar with but certainly am now. It is the practice of extracting strange and interesting sounds from food for the ultimate goal of performance artistry. So, there you go. The movie, however, is really a biting satire of the unrequited lust for control that powers certain people, the feud between art and mainstream, the odd cultish idea of collectives, and, well, flatulence (flatulence is the fuel that keeps the movie running, in reality). Flux Gourmet may not be to everyone’s tastes (no pun intended), especially those unfamiliar with Strickland’s work, and, whilst I found the movie to be simply OK overall, there’s plenty to appreciate, not least the ersatz pop art visual stylings. Gwendoline Christie dives into her role as Jan Stevens, the proprietor of the revered institute that sonic caterers dream of earning a residence at, with glee and more than an ounce of relish, and Asa Butterfield brings an assured performance to match. The flatulent character of Stone (Papadimitriou) is really the pulse of the movie, he is employed to document happenings at the institute but soon finds himself becoming one of the cult…I mean, collective. He also provides expository narration in Greek (because, of course) during the movie to further our understanding of the motivation of the collective. It all comes together by the end, I promise. Flux Gourmet, of course, leans into the performance art angle heavily, certain sequences providing genuine wince-inducing moments, but moments that affect the narrative, the majority providing more than just style and shock (but not all of them). It’s a handsome-looking movie with a quirky score to match, though I can’t ever say I was truly engaged with the characters or their journey. It was a nice meal, but not one I’m rushing to try again.
Nordisk Film // Directed by Hanna Bergholm // Starring Siiri Solalinna, Sophia Heikkilä, Jani Volanen, Reino Nordin, Saija Lentonen
Hanna Bergholm’s feature debut Hatching is certainly a bold one - body horror fused with a major dose of allegorical horror. It centres on twelve-year-old Tinja (Solalinna), a budding gymnast desperate to attain the approval of her domineering mother (unnamed but played by Heikkilä). Alongside that, Tinja is caring for an unhatched egg that belonged to a bird killed by Tinja’s mother after it wreaked havoc during a panic-fuelled trespass into the family home. However, what hatches is anything but ordinary and sets the stage for this surprising and grim fable. It’s not a stretch to state that body horror can live or die by the quality of its effects and makeup. Thankfully, costume designer Gustav Hoegen and special effects makeup supervisor Conor O’Sullivan deliver some truly inspiring work with their creature designs here, without describing quite what hatches, it is grotesque and extremely well realised. Tinja’s story is inextricably linked with this creature and the majority of Hatching's horror comes from their connection, however, her struggles to win the approval of her mother are equally as sad and emotional - Solalinna is very confident in her debut role depicting various states of emotion and peril. How these parallel storylines come together eventually is superbly executed after a slow, tense journey towards the shocking conclusion of the movie (it must be said that the pacing is impeccable) and, whilst bleak, it was a satisfying ending, Bergholm went in and stuck the landing. As well as being extremely creepy and unsettling at times, Hatching is incredibly deep as well, there’s a lot to ponder beneath the surface regarding appearance, acceptance, validation (Tinja’s mother is a serial vlogger), and coming of age - not to mention the specificity of having a crow being behind the inciting incident. Boasting alarmingly effective creature designs and strong performances, Hatching is resoundingly unique but familiar at the same. It’s deep, imaginative, and it’s very, very good.
Crimes of the Future
NEON // Directed by David Cronenberg // Starring Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, Kristen Stewart
David Cronenberg, a director I hold in high esteem, is back after nearly a decade away from feature films with a movie that shares a title with a 1970 film directed by…David Cronenberg. Whilst not a remake of that movie, it shares certain similarities. Here, we’re thrust into a world where humans no longer feel pain or crave sex in the usual way. This is a world of bodily evolution, where new organs grow inside humans and that is certainly the case with Saul Tenser (Mortensen) - a man who probably helped to bring about the opening of a new government department that registers and documents new organ growth - who has garnered a reputation as someone who can reproduce new varieties of organs even after removal. Working with his partner Caprice (Seydoux), his new organs are removed as part of a performance art routine designed to delight and repulse audiences, whilst seemingly pleasuring Saul simultaneously. Throw in a strange detective subplot as well as a father desperate to use his deceased son's corpse as part of the performing art show, and, well you have Crimes of the Future. The word post-festival release was that audience members couldn’t handle the movie and left in their droves, now having seen the movie, I can’t imagine why they would - not because this is effective because it sadly isn’t, but there is nothing on-screen that should elicit such reactions. This feels like a restrained version of Cronenberg, an imitation of his previous works. Maybe they left because they were bored? That would make more sense as the movie meanders from point to point without ever feeling as if there is any purpose - that’s the biggest disappointment of the movie, it just doesn’t seem to go anywhere even by the time the credits roll. The performances are decent, Stewart injects the movie with some energy, and the settings feel true to the director's usual vision - but everything just feels spiritless and tame. By the time we reach the finale’s provocative sequence intended solely to shock, it feels like a last-gasp attempt to end with a grim flourish or to jolt people into remembering they’re watching a Cronenberg movie. There is a far more interesting movie to explore within Crimes of the Future, one that further examines the human evolution or the line delivered by Kristen Stewart’s Timlin to Saul, “Surgery is the new sex”. Instead, we’re left with an unbalanced, unexciting slog that promised a lot but, frustratingly, doesn’t deliver.
Three Thousand Years of Longing
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer // Directed by George Miller // Starring Idris Elba, Tilda Swinton
Seven years after he rocked the cinematic landscape with Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller returns with Three Thousand Years of Longing - an altogether different proposition. Here, Idris Elba stars as a djinn who, after being cooped up in a jar for, well, a few thousand years, is freed by narratologist Alithea (Swinton) and recounts his life story to her in an attempt at attaining freedom. Adapting A. S. Byatt's The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye, Miller aimed to deliver scope, visual splendour, and a sense of dreaminess, but, sadly, Three Thousand Years of Longing doesn’t really deliver on any of those. Instead, the movie feels messy with incomplete themes and concepts before limping to a thoroughly abysmal ending, and, whilst it was a predictable conclusion, how the characters (more so Alithea) end up where they are is laughable - especially given the clanging lack of chemistry between Swinton and Elba (he needs a new agent pronto). The flashbacks shown during Djinn’s recollections offer some interesting moments and deliver the highlights of the movie, but I never felt like I was fully engaged with what was happening, it felt like I was being spoken to as opposed to experiencing. The movie felt as if it were designed to gently lead you along with promises of depth, all the while ignoring a far more present story about fulfilment versus desire. That the screenplay was also largely flat did not help at all and this was especially prominent in the hotel room scenes where Djinn and Alithea face off verbally throughout - a hotel room devoid of any cinematic appeal (not dissimilar to the movie itself). Throughout, the visual effects were a mixed bag, some blended in effortlessly and provided some visual joy whilst the majority felt too clean and polished to really allow yourself to become invested in. After a prolonged absence, Miller’s return is ultimately a disappointment - I felt like I had lived through three thousand years of longing for the movie to end.
Lionsgate // Directed by Scott Mann // Starring Grace Caroline Currey, Virginia Gardner, Mason Gooding, Jeffrey Dean Morgan
What can you get for $3m nowadays in Hollywood? A survival thriller, in fact. Scott Mann’s Fall delivers a pretty simple premise for its miniscule budget: Grace Caroline Currey’s Becky is struggling to recover from the death of her husband Dan (Gooding) during a rock climbing accident, and a year later, her influencer best friend Hunter (Gardner), who was also present for the accident, guilts her into a daring climb up a 2000ft TV tower (got to get those clicks and likes!). I’m usually an advocate for keeping things simple when the story calls for it, however, Fall’s premise is so simple that Mann was required to pad out the painfully stretched runtime with nauseating revelations and histrionics masquerading as twists (one was awfully telegraphed early on in the movie) and you can feel the screenplay dissolving with each passing minute. Whilst clearly ridiculous, the premise isn’t entirely bad and Fall certainly offered its share of sweaty palm moments mixed with some solid cinematography. Where it fails, however, is the two lead characters, both of which suffer from horrible dialogue, unlikable personalities, and generally mediocre performances - I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping they would both just fall off the tower. The narrative directions the story takes are riddled with cliché and convention which, along with the awful characters, really detracts from the experience of watching this movie - or simply just sitting back and enjoying this movie. Fall is very much a movie that asks for the audience to kick back, switch off, and be entertained, but, sadly, the movie itself does everything in its power to prevent any of that from happening. What could have been a lean thriller instead ends up as overly long and dragged down by cliché, forced melodrama and unappealing characters.
Bleecker Street // Directed by Abi Damaris Corbin // Starring John Boyega, Michael K. Williams, Nicole Beharie, Selenis Leyva, Connie Britton, Jeffrey Donovan
Based on a true story (and the article They Didn’t Have to Kill Him), Abi Damaris Corbin’s Breaking is a dramatic thriller that centres on Marine Corps veteran Brian Brown Easley (played here by Boyega), who, believing he is owed payments from Veterans Affairs and facing genuine financial ruin, threatens to blow up a bank - including hostages - in order to have his story and injustice heard. That all sounds very dramatic, and it is, but the story being told here is not one of terror or violence. Instead the movie focuses on Easley’s relationship with his young daughter, how his situation(s) could affect her, and his need for justice against a system that seems grossly imbalanced. Though Breaking might not fully reach its dramatic potential, it’s still highly engaging and offers plenty of tension, anchored by a stellar performance from Boyega - the best of his career so far - who captures and executes the required nuances, mannerisms, and emotional states of Easley’s predicament expertly. Sadly, Breaking also provides Michael K. Williams' final performance following his passing in September 2021, and his towering presence shines once more as police sergeant Eli Bernard. Beharie and Leyva are also both strong as the two bank hostages caught up in the circumstances. Easley's actions aren’t necessarily championed and glamorised, as they shouldn’t be, but it’s hard not to feel sympathy for this family man driven to such chaotic measures simply to survive and provide for his daughter and Breaking leans into this direction more often than not, though it strays just far enough from melodrama for it to be effective. It’s not a flashy movie either, it has no reason to be, as Corbin and co-writer Kwame Kwei-Armah deliver understated visuals in favour of characters and emotion complimented by Michael Abel’s tasteful score - there's a genuine sincerity to Breaking. Whilst understatement may be required in certain areas, the title Breaking is not just a simple one, it’s a very smart one given the context and contents of the movie - a man at breaking point, his broken family, the nature of the breaking news coverage, the system around them that is clearly broken, it’s an all-encompassing title that was only made clear after viewing. Boyega is superb in this tightly-wound thriller that’s high on emotion and tension, even if it never quite fulfils its potential.
See How They Run
Searchlight Pictures // Directed by Tom George // Starring Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Ruth Wilson, Reece Shearsmith, Harris Dickinson, David Oyelowo
Debutant director Tom George’s debut See How They Run was certainly a bold choice to kickstart your feature career - the murder mystery/whodunit genre is a tough nut to crack. Sure, the conventions are laid out barer than most but conjuring and executing the mystery alongside engaging characters and an interesting location isn’t easy. Here, the story is set in London back in 1953 and sees a Hollywood director, Leo Köpernick (Brody), murdered before he is able to complete his film adaptation of beloved stage play, The Mousetrap. This calls for the talents of Inspector Stoppard (Rockwell) and his rookie sidekick Constable Stalker (Ronan) and together the pair run through a list of suspects in the tried and tested manner. See How They Run displays all the turns and fakeouts of your typical murder mystery/Agatha Christie (that rhymed…) story, something that George was able to capture admirably here, but in amongst the meta-commentary and the slew of gags, the writers forgot to include an engrossing mystery. There’s a lack of connection with the characters which makes the overall investigation and ending rather unsatisfying, and whilst the ever-reliable Saoirse Ronan is game for a laugh and Sam Rockwell is well-cast as the weary Inspector, I don’t recall much about the rest of the cast such was their lack of remarkability. Ironically, the character with the most chutzpah and energy was the initial victim...sigh. Additionally, the setting and production design is rather twee and quaint which is nice, but it is lacking in energy and real excitement. As is usually the case (I find) with murder mystery stories, the first half of the movie is the most appealing as the suspects are introduced and potential methods and motivations revealed, and that could be applied to See How They Run. However, the best in the genre build and capitalise on those foundations whereas the majority fumble to a clumsy or unsatisfying ending which, also, sadly must be applied here. Despite some solid directorial flourishes from George, a decent initial set up and lead pairing can’t compensate for a story that limps to a mediocre conclusion.
IFC Films // Directed by Kristina Buožytė and Bruno Samper // Starring Rafiella Chapman, Eddie Marsan, Rosy McEwen, Richard Brake
Science fiction movies set in a dystopian near-future are nothing new, in fact, they seem to be becoming more and more frequent in their numbers. With that familiarity brings exactly that - familiarity alongside well-worn tropes and visuals, but occasionally one will slip through the net and prove there’s life still in the subgenre. Kristina Buožytė and Bruno Samper’s Vesper is the latest to slip through, a Lithuanian-Franco-Belgian production that follows a thirteen-year-old girl living in the aftermath of the collapse of Earth’s ecosystem who must use all of her smarts and talents to survive and push for a brighter future. For transparency, Vesper does not necessarily break free from the aforementioned familiarity, but what it lacks in surprise value it makes up for in character strength, story, worldbuilding, and visuals. Vesper tells a character-driven coming-of-age story that delivers enough exposition regarding the state of the world but does not become bogged down or defined by it - this movie belongs to Rafiella Chapman’s Vesper. The titular character is both intelligent and naïve, as well as being strong and vulnerable as she attempts to survive in a world where the richest survive by attempting to bioengineer food and resources for herself and her inert father, Darius (Brake), a man only able to communicate via a floating droid linked to his brain (a brain that survives in a wired contraption outside of his skull). The only other surviving family she has is her uncle Jonas (a deliciously menacing Marsan) who breeds children for their blood in order to trade with the mysterious oligarchy that resides in enclosed citadels - and he has similar plans for Vesper. Things do begin to change for Vesper when she comes into contact with Camellia (McEwen), a girl from the citadel who promises Vesper entry to the promised land if she can just get her back there, but Vesper realizes there is more to Camellia than meets the eye, something vital that must survive. The movie's messages of capitalism, family ties, government attitudes, class systems, and climate warnings (to name a few) combine to create something that is far more cerebral than it is ‘exciting’ - Vesper has its moments of tension and, indeed, action, but it succeeds more on feeling than cheap thrills. The Children of Men-esque landscape is littered with an array of CG biota, animals and additions that add such a presence and celestial feeling and atmosphere to the world without ever looking or feeling out of place or too otherworldly - the special and practical effects on show are truly excellent especially given the budget the filmmakers had to work with, this a world that feels lived-in as it struggles to fend off total destruction. Whilst the movie is paced with purpose, Vesper does require a degree of patience before it reaches its more action-focused conclusion, this isn’t a space opera or a movie intended to electrify, instead it's far more satisfying and inspiring than that despite its perpetual glumness. Though it isn’t an original or glossy entry into the subgenre, Vesper is certainly one of the better recent additions - by prioritising characters and story over exposition and thrills, the movie delivers an ethereal and often beautiful experience.
Don't Worry Darling
Warner Bros. Pictures // Directed by Olivia Wilde // Starring Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pine, Gemma Chan, KiKi Layne, Nick Kroll
With all the hoopla surrounding Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling, it was a genuine relief to just be able to finally sit down and watch the movie (it’s definitely a movie as Harry Styles confirmed). To say too much about the plot of this psychological thriller would be to stray into spoiler territory but what I will say is the movie is a disappointment…a big disappointment. Where the movie falls flat mainly is its lack of thrills and tension given its premise and potential, there really isn’t many moments of spark to be found in the two-hour runtime. The initial mystery and unravelling is interesting but there just isn’t enough here that’s captivating or compelling as the story unfolds, a few scenes aside - a heated scene at the dinner table is far and away the highlight of the movie in terms of sequences. The real highlight is Florence Pugh, who, as Alice, carries the movie with a characteristically strong and layered performance, though acting alongside Harry Styles’ decidedly average Jack probably didn’t hurt either (he wasn’t bad, just…not strong either). Stylistically, the movie is a delight, however. Wilde and longtime Darren Aronofsky collaborator and DoP Matthew Libatique conspire to create some arresting visuals and the aesthetic and palette is highly pleasing (during the movie, I did think this would make for a great Aronofsky effort) though John Powell’s score felt out of place at times as the movie lumbered towards it’s ludicrous finale. It’s a shame as Don’t Worry Darling looked set to be one of the best films of the year but it is sunk by a messy screenplay, laboured narrative, and ultimately unsatisfying finale.
Netflix // Directed by Andrew Dominik // Starring Ana de Armas, Adrien Brody, Bobby Cannavale, Xavier Samuel, Julianne Nicholson
It’s important to note immediately that Blonde is not a true-to-life biopic of Marilyn Monroe/Norma Jean, instead playing out as Andrew Dominik’s fictionalized take on her life adapted from Joyce Carol Oates’ book of the same name. It’s a bloody long adaptation at that, clocking in at nearly three hours as Dominik shows us the life of Norma Jean from childhood to her untimely demise aged just 36. But despite a game and (mostly) excellent Ana de Armas in the lead role (delivering a fictionalized accent it would seem), Blonde is a stylish mess. It’s hard to deny that Blonde is an attractive looking movie in terms of cinematography, mise-en-scène, and technical achievement, but it is a horrendous movie outside of that. Whilst fully understanding the fictionalized nature of the story, Blonde feels like nothing more than a weird fantasy or lust fulfilment from Dominik - it lurches from one objectifying, exploitative scene to another with seemingly no purpose other than to ruffle feathers which is a shame as I prefer narrative substance ahead of shock. As the ‘celebrated’ subject of the movie, the depiction of Monroe is cruel and damning with Dominik’s attempts to tap into the darker or more painful elements of her life seem to be played more for pleasure than any sense of empowerment - rape, abuse, a drowning attempt, miscarriage, abortion, subservience, it’s all here and more besides. It is admittedly always refreshing to see a switch up from the standard Hollywood biopic template but Blonde goes too far in the opposite direction, it’s exploitative, messy, visually sublime but creatively barren.
Netflix // Directed by Rob Zombie // Starring Sherie Moon Zombie, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Daniel Roebuck, Richard Brake, Sylvester McCoy
Rob Zombie’s reverence for The Munsters has always been well-known and, after a long gestation period, his reimagining of the classic 1960s series has dropped on Netflix and Blu-Ray. The marketing was interesting to say the least with the tone and visual style coming under scrutiny, with many believing the trailers to be red herrings, but, alas, red herrings they were not - The Munsters is as wacky as the trailers suggested. Wacky doesn’t always translate to great though which is very much the case here. Though Zombie dials back on his usual dirty, trashy style to embrace the oddities of the Munsters themselves, the movie ends up feeling camp but maybe not camp enough, it’s more theatrical and stagey if anything. Nothing, however, is more stagey than Sherie Moon Zombie as Lily, it feels like she is very much mimicking Yvonne de Carlo and comes across as grating. Daniel Roebuck (a previous guest on Star Wars Sessions) nails The Count and Jeff Daniel Phillips too is solid as Herman Munster, capturing enough of Fred Gwynne’s chutzpah to feel at home in the overly stylish and garishly-lit settings (even if he is slightly larger than life comparatively). Dramatics aside, for a comedy, The Munsters is not particularly funny, the gags didn’t land on many occasions and there is no real direction to the story. Things just happen, the scenes ends, and we move on to another skit - there’s a clear attempt at recreating the sitcom feel of the original series but it falls flat here. It doesn’t help that Zombie’s screenwriting skills are…lacking (please, please hire a screenwriter). With no plot or real structure to the movie, it’s hard to feel overly connected to the events on-screen especially given there are no subtexts to the movie, which is certainly something the series had - it all just feels a bit hollow. Whilst the movie fully embraces the Munsters daftness and there is no Zombie goriness or grime here - plus it is enjoyable to see Rob Zombie venture into a different genre - the reverence will more than likely alienate those not aware of the originals 1960s series in a way that The Addams Family did not. Whilst it isn’t terrible, The Munsters isn’t strong enough to coast on nostalgia or good enough to stand on its own, it’s a disappointingly unfunny romp.
Paramount Pictures // Directed by Parker Finn // Starring Sosie Bacon, Jessie T. Usher, Kyle Gallner, Caitlin Stasey, Kal Penn, Rob Morgan
The horror genre seems to be the place for short films to be adapted into features - Lights Out, The Babadook, Oculus, When a Stranger Calls, and Terrifier being a handful of examples and now Parker Finn’s Smile can be added to the ever-expanding list (being based on his short film Laura Can’t Sleep). Whilst I wasn’t taken by the initial trailers for the movie, the excellent viral marketing for Smile piqued my interest and I’m happy to say the movie itself lives up to the smart promotion. Smile isn’t the most original of horror movies, it carries more than a hint of It Follows, Truth or Dare, and The Ring, but what it does do effectively is it gets the basics right and shows a commendable level of restraint with its central/titular gimmick - there are far worse horror movies to come out of 2022, or this decade, that are similar to Smile in many ways but fall foul of their own concepts or lack of restraint (The Conjuring 3, Antebellum...) Smile combines a solid lead performance from Sosie Bacon, disconcerting imagery, some excellently executed jump scares with a decent sense of mystery and it’s clear that Finn endeavored to make this feel as grounded as possible, until the third act goes bigger and threatens to derail what came previously, though it manages to stay on track - some impressive and alarming imagery can be thanked for that. The restraint comes from the surprising lack of smiley faces given the title and marketing, but, to me, that restraint acts as a positive for the movie overall (some of the smiley kills are, in fact, historical, or seen via CCTV for example). It would have been so easy to overdo the gimmick to the point that it lost its potency, but in holding back, the dread that fell when those smiles appeared remained high - Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s suitably haunting score only adds to the sense of unease. Aside from being a creepy jump scare flick, Smile imbues its story with subtexts of past trauma and grief which, whilst generally presented well, I didn’t feel were as strong as they could have been, or, additionally I didn’t believe Smile was as deep as the movie itself thinks it is especially when it came to the depiction of mental health. As a pure horror movie, though, Smile is very decent and a welcome surprise given my initial hesitations.
My Best Friend's Exorcism
Amazon Studios // Directed by Damon Thomas // Starring Elsie Fisher, Amiah Miller, Rachel Ogechi Kanu, Cathy Ang, Clayton Royal Johnson, Nathan Anderson, Cynthia Evans, Christopher Lowell
Halloween season is upon us and with it brings a raft of new horrors aimed at varying demographics and tolerance levels. Based on Grady Hendrix’s novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism provides a lighter affair to usher in the spooky season and shouldn’t be giving anyone any nightmares post-viewing. Set in 1988, the movie follows besties Abby (Fisher) and Gretchen (Miller), plus Margaret (Kanu) and Glee (Ang) who make up the rest of the friendly foursome, as they traverse high school and the unfortunate fact of possession after a demon inhabits the body of Gretchen - can their friendship survive a brush with Hell? My Best Friend’s Exorcism works better as a coming of age story and a shot of 80s nostalgia than it does a horror movie, owing to the lack of scares, tension, or stakes - the movie makes it pretty clear how far it isn’t willing to go with its characters and their overall fates. That said, there are a few decent sequences that hinted at a stronger movie, and, indeed, a scarier movie. Whilst there is plenty of room for young adult horror, My Best Friend’s Exorcism felt like it wanted to be a mature effort whilst also being dead set on throwing in some pretty cringe dialogue and quips throughout. Director Damon Thomas does, however, include subtexts of bullying and gay representation which were welcome and probably handled better than the attempted scares. Fisher and Miller were good in their roles - I’m not prepared to praise anyone too highly here - and their friendship felt authentic enough, I just wish Elsie Fisher would find a new agent. As a fluffy, throwback sweet treat, My Best Friend’s Exorcism is entertaining enough, but as a supernatural horror, this is as tame as they come.