CRIMES OF THE FUTURE (2022)

June 2, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. So, what happens when society evolves to the point that pain barely exists? Well, of course, people will then desire pain for pleasure and will go to extremes to experience the new forbidden bruised fruit. Anyone familiar with filmmaker David Cronenberg’s 40+ year career is already anticipating ‘what else’ the master of ‘body horror’ and twisted provocations will add to the proceedings. And the answer is … plenty.

Viggo Mortensen stars as Saul Tenser, and Lea Seydoux co-stars as Caprice, his performance art partner with benefits (such as they may be). If you’ve ever wondered what a second career for a trauma surgeon might look like, well Caprice’s role in the live shows is to first tattoo and then remove the newest organ that Saul’s body has generated – all while the appreciative audience looks on as if Picasso were painting or Edith Piaf were singing. Wait, what? His body grows new organs? Yes, Cronenberg has set this in a future where a segment of the population has an evolved digestive system and mutations, pain has been mostly eradicated, and Saul’s body grows new organs that may or may not have a legitimate function – they’re never left in the body long enough to find out because it’s Show time!

An opening sequence features a young boy’s inexplicable action, which leads his mother to an unfathomable next step. We are clearly in a (not so bright) future and Cronenberg delivers his first crime. That boy is linked to one of the many sub-plots in the film, though it’s Saul and Caprice who are at the center of most. A secretive government agency is responsible for registering all new organs, and it’s run by Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart). Wippet worships Saul as an icon, while Timlin takes it a step further by whispering in Saul’s ear, “Surgery is the new sex.” Stewart plays polar opposite to her usual subtle on-camera style, delivering a humorous take on a curious, bird-like creature with tics and a lack of social graces.

Outstanding supporting work comes from Scott Speedman, Welket Bungue, Tanaya Beatty, and Nadia Litz. I’ll say little else about these characters or their story lines, because this film works best as you uncover each layer for yourself. A general description of the film would be what happens when anatomy and art collide with science-fiction. One can easily draw connective dotted lines between this Cronenberg film and many of his earlier ones. It has the bizarre sensuality of CRASH (1996), a nod to THE FLY (1986), common ground with EXISTENZ (1999), a line from DEAD RINGERS (1988), and social commentary in line from both VIDEODROME (1983) and SCANNERS (1981). This is Viggo Mortensen’s fifth collaboration with Cronenberg, but surely the first where he’s said, “I’m not very good at old sex.”

Carol Spier’s signature Production Design plays a significant part in the film, and best I can tell, she has worked on each of Cronenberg’s films since 1981. The two Canadians make a good team. It’s been 8 years since Cronenberg’s last film, and the 79-year-old filmmaker is already in pre-production for his next. The Inner Beauty Pageant and Accelerated Evolution Syndrome are elements within this film, and as you would expect, he delivers visual effects that will stick with you. That said, nothing is over the top, and if anything, the cult filmmaker is on pretty good behavior, though he fully expects “walk outs” within the first few minutes. While I’m not sure the twist is even a twist, this is vintage Cronenberg offering no apologies while choosing to leave us with yet more of his provocations … “don’t spill”.

Opens in theaters on June 3, 2022

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MEN (2022)

May 20, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. This is only the third feature film directed by Alex Garland, but his creativity and innovative nature in the first two (EX MACHINA, 2014 and ANNIHILATION, 2018) established him as a writer-director to follow. His latest is certainly deserving of those descriptions, yet it’s also less assessable while being more open to interpretation and worthy of discussion. Reactions from viewers are sure to be varied.

Jessie Buckley, one of the finest actors working today, takes on the lead role in yet another of her unconventional projects. We absolutely respect and admire her risk-taking, and each project benefits from her presence. Some of her recent work includes THE LOST DAUGHTER (2021), I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS (2020), WILD ROSE (2018), and a great arc in the “Fargo” series (Season 4). Here she stars as Harper, a Londoner heading to holiday in the English countryside after the death of her husband. When she arrives at her bucolic Airbnb manor, the serenity is apparent … right up until she meets Geoffrey, the landlord. He’s played by Rory Kinnear (Tanner in the recent James Bond movies, and excellent in the “Penny Dreadful” series and its spinoff). Geoffrey’s awkward social skills involve colloquialisms and country charm to ensure that Harper knows she’s no longer in London.

The country manor is walking distance to town (which apparently consists of a church and pub), and sits alongside a forest, seemingly perfect for nature hikes. Harper’s first walk in the woods has a fascinating scene as she experiments with the echoes of a tunnel by singing notes in harmony with herself. This simple pleasure ends when she notices a nude man apparently stalking her. After calling the local police, she heads to the church where she encounters a rude boy and a vicar who is unsympathetic to her plight. All of these interactions could fit into an interesting story, but filmmaker Garland takes things to another level. Geoffrey, the stalker, the cop, and the vicar are all played by Rory Kinnear … even the boy! Later, we see that Kinnear even plays the pub’s clientele. Since it’s obvious to us, and she doesn’t seem to notice, we can assume this is a major clue for how we are to interpret what’s happening with (and to) Harper.

Flashbacks are employed so that we are able to piece together the strained relationship between Harper and her husband, James (Paapau Essidieu). Her emotional turmoil plays into what’s happening during this rural getaway meant for relaxation, yet often this has a surreal or dreamlike feel, making it challenging to know what is real or what she is imagining. Harper holds the occasional FaceTime with her friend Riley (Gayle Rankin), and the broken signal on these calls may or may not be real … like so much of what we see. Garland’s third act goes a bit bonkers, and includes some icky body horror effects ala Cronenberg. The mythology of Sheela la nig and The Green Man (rebirth) are part of the numerous uses of symbolism throughout.

The film is beautiful to look at thanks to the cinematography of Rob Hardy, and the frequent use of vibrant green jumps off the screen during many scenes. The atmosphere created is primed for something that may or may not pay off by the end, but it’s certainly another artsy creep-fest in the A24 universe. Ms. Buckley proves again what a talent she is, and Mr. Kinnear joins Peter Sellers (“Dr. Strangelove”), among others, in mastering multiple roles. Lesley Duncan’s spiritual and melancholic “Love Song” is the perfect accompaniment for Harper’s drive, and Kinnear’s frequently appearing face enhances the myth that men are all the same – a constant threat lurking for women. Folk horror resurgence continues, and viewers will have to decide if they can reconcile the abundance of symbolism.

Exclusively in theaters on May 20, 2022

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THE INNOCENTS (2022)

May 12, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Norwegian filmmaker Eskil Vogt wrote the screenplay for last year’s terrific THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD, and that’s just one of his collaborations with fellow countryman Joachim Trier. The two seem to enjoy, or at least have a knack, for creating films that take viewers out of their comfort zone. This is Vogt’s second feature as director, and you will likely find yourself questioning your ideals of the complexities of childhood and debating what makes a kid “good” or “bad”.

A family moves to a new apartment so that their eldest daughter Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) can receive the best possible treatment for her non-verbal autism (seemingly trapped inside her own body). Anna’s younger sister Ida (Rakel Leonora Flottum) spends an inordinate amount of time on her own as their mother (Ellen Dorrit Petersen is also Rakel’s real life mother; THELMA, 2017) focuses on Anna. Immediately we are struck by how cruel Ida is to Anna, obviously envious of the time her parents devote to the child in need. The film moves meticulously as Ida befriends Ben (Sam Ashraf), a young boy from the same apartment building. Ben has an ability to move things with his mind. His telekinesis is in the early stages, and Ida pushes him to develop his powers. One particularly disturbing sequence involves the two kids and a local cat at the top of the building’s stairwell. Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), another young girl from the building starts hanging out with Ida and Ben. This also draws in Anna, as the sweet Aisha has a connection with her and a way of communicating telepathically. It’s at this point where our brains shift into overdrive as we realize there is something supernatural going on.

As Ben’s ability grows, so does his sadistic nature. He reacts (often violently) to situations where he feels disrespected. At the same time, Anna and Aisha grow closer, and Ida and her parents are thrilled with Anna’s improved demeanor. As viewers, we come to realize that director Vogt has made the apartment building a character itself. Is the building behind the special abilities shown by these kids?  Or is it the ominous nearby forest? Why are the powers strongest when the kids are together? For a film that mostly progresses very slowly, there is much for us to take in – although we do wish more time had been spent on the makeup of all four kids. We are only teased with what other kids in the building are experiencing, but the supernatural aura is clearly in play.

None of the four child actors have any previous feature film experience, yet each is superb in their own way. They perfectly capture the curiosity and confusion that goes with childhood, and there is an insightful “kid” moment when Ida shows her one ‘talent’ to Ben. We are left to wonder if the film’s identical title to the 1961 classic is coincidental or purposeful. It’s not a remake, but it works as an homage. The staircase shot is even similar in the two films. Filmmaker Voigt excels at ensuring we believe something evil is just around the corner, yet he never rushes to the next moment. An eerie, ominous atmosphere is perfectly complemented by these four kids. Vogt’s dark film sticks the ending, and stays with us for a while.

Opening May 13, 2022

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HATCHING (2022)

April 28, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. The exceptionally creepy creature leads us to believe this could be a terrific new addition to the creature feature genre. However, director Hanna Bergholm and screenwriter Ilja Rautsi expend so much time and energy on the metaphor aspect that we feel a bit bludgeoned by the end. Despite some wonderful horror elements, we find ourselves thinking, ‘alright, already … just stick with the creepy stuff!’

We open in a beautiful home with pristine design features, where a beautiful mother (Sophia Heikkila) is filming her beautiful family for her vlog, appropriately titled “Lovely Everyday Life.” Of course, we all know what happens to perfect little families in movies – the façade cracks. We get our first taste of beautiful mother’s not-so-beautiful true nature as she deals with the crow that flies in through an open window and destroys some of the beautiful decorations displayed in the home. Things get interesting when Tinja (a superb Siiri Solalinna), the 12-year-old gymnast daughter, recovers an egg from the intrusive bird’s nest and “mothers” it until the egg (the metaphorical façade) cracks open after growing to an enormous size. Out pops a bizarre looking “baby” bird that Tinja names Alli, after the song her family sings.

It doesn’t take long for Tinja (and us) to figure out what’s happening. The bird not only assumes Tinja is her mother, but it also takes on the emotions that Tinja keeps bottled up inside so as to not upset her overly-demanding mother. See, mom is a former skater and projects her dreams of glory onto her daughter through gymnastics. We never even get the impression that Tinja enjoys the sport, and it’s likely she does it because that’s the only closeness she gets from dear old mom … especially when compared to her little brother Mattias (Oiva Ollila) or dad (Jani Volanen). In fact, mom is so dominant over dad, that she’s taken on a side lover in handyman Tero (Reino Nordin), who she admits to loving in yet another inappropriate moment with Tinja.

Soon the bird is acting out Tinja’s private thoughts to extremes (a true monster in the closet), and no one is really safe. There are some creepy elements that tell us an excellent horror-comedy is in there somewhere. Watching Tinja sponge-bathe the creature and the replicant effects are both imaginative. Ms. Bergholm’s film premiered at Sundance, and if anything, it’s just a bit too ambitious with the metaphors. We can view this as a coming-of-age story for Tinja as she breaks the shackles of childhood for more independent thinking. And the most obvious interpretation is that of a mother so obsessed with perfection – especially as to how her family is presented to the outside world – that it requires an ugly incident (bird) as a dose of reality. This is clearly commentary on social media and how some become so committed to presenting and maintaining a certain image. As a horror-comedy, the film from Finland offers neither jump-scares nor laugh-outloud moments, but there is enough here for a decent midnight offering.

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YOU WON’T BE ALONE (2022)

April 1, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Perhaps you are a normal movie lover and have never wondered what it might be like if director Terrence Malick delved into the horror genre. Well, the first feature film from writer-director Goran Stolevski gives every indication that he has spent entirely too much time with such thoughts. This arthouse folk horror film will likely frustrate many with its unconventional approach, odd narrative, and spiritual narration that hardly contributes to the characters in the story.

Opening in a remote mountain village in 19th century Macedonia, we witness a ‘Wolf-eatress” witch named ‘Old Maid Maria’ (Anamarie Marinca; 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS, 2007) visiting a mother (Kamka Tocinovski) and her newborn baby. It turns out Maria has a taste for newborn blood, but the mother negotiates a deal which would allow her to raise her daughter Nevena until Maria takes her in teen years. The child is then hidden away in a cave, isolated for years and mostly feral when Maria returns. Teenage Nevena (Sara Klimoska) knows nothing of the outside world and sets out on her journey of life lessons, guided by Maria, a witch who may or may not have her best interests at heart.

Shape-shifting, or assuming the form of their victims is a trait that Maria passes along to her protégé. This process is quick and brutal, and we see it played out along the way as Nevena takes over a local mother (Noomi Rapace), so as to get a taste of normalcy, a wolf (just because?), a man (Carlota Cota) so as to absorb power and experience sex, and a young woman (Alice Englert) in order to give birth to a child. This shape-shifting is referred in the movie as “dressed in corpse”, which is a spot-on description. The Wolf-eatress follows closely, but does give her new daughter the space to explore humans, though Maria does not share the appeal.

There are some excellent scenes in the film, but it leaves the impression of trying too hard to come across as Malick doing horror. Still, with some similarities to Robert Eggers’ horror gem, THE WITCH (2015), there is enough atmosphere of terror to keep us engaged and working through the often-confounding narration. As a bonus, it leaves us with the perfect final line, “And yet …”

Opening in theaters on April 1, 2022

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THE PRANK (SXSW 2022)

March 23, 2022

SXSW 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. You need only know one thing to put this on your must-see movie list: beloved EGOT Rita Moreno plays a bad*** teacher in a horror-comedy. As a bonus, the film is loads of fun and is actually filled with comedy and suspense. Directed by Maureen Bharoocha and co-written by Rebecca Flynn-White and Zak White, the film allows the 90-year-old WEST SIDE STORY star to shift her pesona into Mrs. Wheeler, the demanding AP Physics teacher who thrives on intimidating her students to do better.

Connor Kalopsis plays Ben, the stressed-out over-achiever aiming for the scholarship that will get him admitted to the same college his recently deceased father attended. All he needs is to make the grade on his midterms. That plan comes to a screeching halt when Mrs. Wheeler announces she is failing the entire class due to a cheater in their midst. Ben is crushed and when he tells his best friend, Mei Turner (Ramona Young), about the unfair situation, she goes into full friend-protection mode. See Turner is not as ambitious as Ben, although she’s a brilliant computer hacker and hatches a plan to “prank” Mrs. Wheeler. She plants the rumor and “creates evidence” on social media that Mrs. Wheeler was responsible for the disappearance and possible death of one of the school’s missing students.

As you might imagine, the prank goes awry and the fallout is devastating. It becomes a viral accusation and attracts the police, causing tragic problems for the disliked teacher. Bringing just the right touch of comedy, the supporting cast includes Keith David as the Principal, Kate Flannery as the sarcastic cafeteria worker, Jonathan Kimmel (Jimmy’s brother) as the all-knowing custodian, and Meredith Salenger as Ben’s trusting mother. Each of these seasoned professionals contributes, and I found Ms. Flannery to be particularly effective.

Director Bharoocha does a really nice job blending the genres and juggling the multiple pieces. She provides a twist on the ‘skeletons in the closet’, and really let’s Ms. Moreno do her thing. If there is any complaint here, it’s that the envelope could have been pushed a bit more on the horror aspect, but that’s only a minor wish. Topping off this fun ride are the hilarious outtakes that play over the closing credits. I do wish more directors took advantage of this.


SOFT & QUIET (SXSW 2022)

March 21, 2022

SXSW 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. If you prefer your movies light-hearted, good-natured, and relaxing to the spirit, then you need to avoid writer-director Beth de Araujo’s first feature film at all costs. I’m not sure I’ve ever been more uncomfortable watching a movie than I was during this one. Whatever you do, don’t assume that a story featuring a group of young women meeting in a church for snacks and socializing will be cute or funny. This is neither. In fact, I’m at a loss for the properly descriptive words.

It doesn’t take long for us to realize these ladies aren’t soccer moms here to discuss cupcake recipes or romance novels. When Kindergarten teacher Emily (Stefanie Estes) pulls the cover back from the homemade pie she baked, the swastika carved into the crust is clear as day. Their club, “Daughters for Aryan Unity”, is actually a group of racist bigots filled with extreme hatred towards people of color. Their stated mission is ‘multi-cultural warfare’ and standing up for the place in society they have earned. One of Emily’s phrases is “feminine, not feminist”, and she explains why. This conversation continues until the Pastor overhears and kicks them out of his church.

Adding to the tension and contributing to the profuse feeling of disgust is the filmmaker’s decision to avoid cuts and present real time in one continuous shot. We never get a breather from these despicable people. The big concern with bigotry is that unforgivable words can shift into dangerous actions, and that’s what happens here. A store confrontation over a bottle of wine leads to a prank that goes horribly awry.

I’m not sure if the film is meant as a lead-in to serious dialogue on the topic, or whether it’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of racism and bigotry. Perhaps it’s a reminder that racism and evil behavior is not limited to southern rednecks in pickup trucks. Whatever purpose Ms. de Araujo had in mind, the film (even with a surprise ending) is certainly uncomfortable to watch.


DEADSTREAM (SXSW 2022)

March 21, 2022

SXSW 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. How about a modern day version of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) leaning heavily into our social media world? Co-writers and co-directors Joseph Winter and Vanessa Winter include touches of the multitude of Ghost Hunter-type TV shows while blending humor with a heavy dose of make-up, especially in the film’s second half.

Joseph Winter stars in his film as Shawn Ruddy, a recently disgraced You-Tuber known for dumb pranks (in the mode of Johnny Knoxville) for his show, “Wrath of Shawn.” In an effort to redeem his reputation, Shawn plans to live-stream his overnight in a dilapidated haunted in house in Utah. Built in 1880, it’s known as ‘Death Manor’ due to the history of many deaths that have occurred within its walls. Shawn believes this will make great live content since he’s deathly afraid of ghosts.

The set-up and first half of the film are excellent and a lot of fun. We get to know Shawn for what he is, including his effeminate screams of terror as things go bump in the night … and even sometimes when they don’t. Some of the best moments happen as he reads the viewer comments alongside his live stream. Just when it starts to drag a bit, Shawn’s plan is upended by Chrissy (a terrific Melanie Stone), who claims to be a superfan. She brings a jolt of energy and immediately shifts the tone.

The best horror films employ a setting that takes on a role of its own, and ‘Death Manor’ is perfectly trippy to explore via GoPro and flashlight. The legend of Mildred collecting souls makes for an enticing legend, but the film’s second half goes over-the-top, despite the most creative use of beef jerky and duct tape that you’ll likely see in any movie. It just seems a bit too long, though lovers of midnight movies will appreciate the mixture of comedy and horror.


MASTER (SXSW 2022)

March 21, 2022

SXSW 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. With her first feature film, writer-director Mariama Diallo shows us that the terror of racism need not be blatant and obvious, and can be subtle and generational. Thanks to Jordan Peele, horror films have become de rigueur for exposing and exploring the many facets of racism. Ms. Diallo embraces the genre, while also mixing in the element of classism and entitlement.

Regina Hall is superb as Gail Bishop, the newly hired first black House Master at Ancaster College, a fictional, Ivy League-type school in the northeast that is as old as our country. Also excellent is Zoe Renee as Jasmine, a high-achieving black incoming freshman. A brilliant touch displays the symmetry of move-in day. Gail moves in to a creaky, dusty old home on campus, while Jasmine draws “the room” in dormitory. What is “the room”? Well, there is a legend tied to student deaths and long-ago witch trials … and 3:33am on the clock.

The supernatural forces attached to her room are only part of the challenges facing Jasmine. There is also her roommate played by Talia Ryder, the overall entitlement of other students, and another interesting character – her professor of Literature, Liv Beckman (Amber Gray). Ms. Beckman is friends with Gail, but Jasmine files an official complaint alleging she was targeted on her grade for a paper on racism in “The Scarlet Letter”. Complicating the matter, Ms. Beckman is also black and up for tenure, despite a shaky publishing record and a curious lack of background detail.

The multiple story lines become more intricate with the odd editing and threads as presented. Cinematographer Charlotte Hornsby works wonders with the creep factor, but the editing choices are often curious. Gail’s big career stepping stone introduces her to institutional racism at the institution where she’s employed. The three main characters each have their own story arcs, and the intersections are often quite advanced. However, the multiple stories do create some cinematic obstacles, and not all are handled smoothly, especially in the final act. Still, Ms. Diallo announces herself as a filmmaker to watch, and all three lead actors perform admirably.

In select theaters and on Prime Video beginning March 18, 2022

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FRESH (2022)

March 3, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Discotheques and Night Clubs were regularly referred to as ‘meat markets’, and all movie lovers are familiar with the term ‘meet-cute’. It’s rare for meat and meet to merge into a cautionary tale of modern-day dating, but that’s what we get from director Mimi Cave’s first feature film and a script from Lauryn Kahn (IBIZA, 2018). This twisted film should slide easily into the Midnight Movie rotation for those looking for a slicer, rather than a slasher.

Daisy Edgar-Jones (“Normal People”, 2020) stars as Noa, a twenty-something frustrated with the results of digital dating apps. Her experience is a case study on the challenges of meeting someone special, or even someone not psychotic, through a dating app. She swipes right on a cute puppy picture, and almost immediately receives an unwanted ‘private’ shot. When she does agree to have dinner with one guy, he criticizes her fashion, yearns for old-fashioned femininity, makes her pay half, and doesn’t bother to hold the door for her. Noa tells her close friend Mollie (Jojo T Gibbs) that she’s done with dating for a while, and who can blame her?

Not long after that trainwreck date, and when she’s least expecting it, Noa gets her meet-cute in the produce aisle at the grocery store. Steve (Sebastian Stan who plays Bucky Barnes in the Marvel Universe) is a charming, good-looking guy and she agrees to give him her number. Their first date is filled with the usual background Q&A stuff, but it’s clear that Noa and Steve have some chemistry. The reason this works cinematically is that director Cave allows us to view Steve through Noa’s eyes. Just like her, we are diligently searching for red flags, remaining on high alert for signs something is off. But plastic surgeon Steve’s early warning signs only become noticeable much later (too late) after his true self is revealed.

Steve’s true-self-revelation is a doozy, and the opening credits pop up just after the gut-punch, approximately 40 minutes in. While the first act plays a bit like a traditional rom-com with all the associated romantic awkwardness, the stunningly plausible shift jerks us and Noa in a different direction. Additional supporting work is provided by Dayo Okeniyi as an initially helpful bartender whose recognition of horror film tropes prevent him from taking any heroic action, and Charlotte Le Bon as a surprise addition to the proceedings. But it’s the performances and the twisted chemistry of Ms. Edgar-Jones and Mr. Stan that allows the premise to work and Act 3 to not quite slip into full blown absurdity. Without giving anything else away, I can admit that this referendum on dating and people, presented as a horror film, struck me as a blend of PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020), GET OUT (2017), and a personal favorite, EATING RAOUL (1982).

Streaming exclusively on HULU beginning March 4, 2022

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