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Week Ending 1/20/23
Some house-cleaning before Sundance
The OFCS nominees are out and I was happy to see that I had caught everything but two: FUNNY PAGES and AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER. I probably could have gotten away with ignoring both, but I had been meaning to watch the former for a while now (thoughts below). So, why not take the opportunity to squeeze it in? I’d love to have fit in AVATAR too, but I have no interest in hitting a theater right now. And without a screener from Disney (no surprise there) or a press screening back in December, Pandora will sadly have to wait.
Either way, 2022 is officially in the rearview. There are still a few screeners I’d love to get to before they expire and surely a few forthcoming Oscar nominees I’ve yet to watch, but I have no other obligations to it. The timing is perfect too since I went and bought eight virtual tickets for Sundance that must be watched within their allocated five-day window of January 24-29. So, I’m off to bank a few new reviews for 1/27 and 2/3 releases, start February’s POSTERIZED column, and prepare for BAD BEHAVIOR, MAGAZINE DREAMS, JOYLAND, and others.
What I Watched:
BEAUTIFUL BEINGS [Berdreymi]
(now in limited release; Iceland’s International Oscar submission)
During a rash of youth violence in Iceland, Balli (Áskell Einar Pálmason) finds himself a easy mark. His abusive stepfather is in jail and his mother is hardly ever home. So, he ostensibly lives in a cesspool of a home all alone only to be mocked and abused at school for being the weird quiet kid who smells. Eventually the usual antics of bullies escalate to an assault that leaves him hospitalized and on the news. That’s where Addi (Birgir Dagur Bjarkason) first sets eyes upon him, laughing at the ordeal as a member of his own violence-prone gang of friends. Except, as we know, all bullies live in fear themselves. They pass their own suffering onto others. Therefore the only difference between these two boys is that Addi has someone watching his back.
Writer/director Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson shifts focus as a result. Where BEAUTIFUL BEINGS starts from Balli’s perspective and includes a rough-and-tumble hothead at the complete opposite end of the spectrum in Konni (Viktor Benóný Benediktsson), things ultimately settle upon Addi in the middle. He’s the latter’s best friend and willing to fight when needed even if he doesn’t have a taste for starting such battles himself. And he pushes himself to be the former’s champion—pulling Konni and Siggi (Snorri Rafn Frímannsson) into Balli’s sphere with him to form an unlikely quartet that’s always on the edge of losing themselves. Because they all know what it’s like to be abused and/or abandoned by father figures. They all possess a rage that would drive them to kill.
That fact renders these boys compelling because we can’t necessarily fault them for it. They exist on that edge because they know what it means to be alone and forgotten, refusing in turn to add to the others’ plight. What will they do to keep each other safe? I’m not sure you need to qualify an answer beyond an “everything” catch-all. All Addi has to do is tell Konni that he can’t keep going around hurting people anymore and his friend takes the words to heart even if he’d rather bash in whatever skull crosses his path. Would Addi request taking that step back if he hadn’t met Balli? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s one thing to be a victim and strong enough to also victimize, but it’s another to be completely helpless. While payback is earned, initiating violence makes you as bad as the monsters in your dreams.
And that’s where Guðmundsson takes an unexpected turn into the supernatural. Similar to his clairvoyant mother, Addi is haunted by visions and feelings that push him to be ready to make impossible choices. It’s both a narrative impulse to add intrigue and a metaphoric symbol for the sensitivity that runs throughout the film’s central friendship despite the toxically masculine overtones. That vulnerability and fear keeps even Konni grounded—at once ready to pummel someone bigger than him for the most forgettable slight and quick to lay his head in Addi’s lap for the comfort he’s never received at home.
It all adds up to a seminal moment in their lives that’s born from their proactive rage and protective spirit. The kind of event that feels like it’s going to be the thing that binds them together forever only to prove their undoing with each looking at himself in the mirror during the aftermath to decide what path they truly wish to follow moving forward. Justice is served. Mistakes are made. Thresholds are crossed that do not possess a way back through. The result is an intensely dramatic coming-of-age tale full of the dark secrets that lie in the shadows of a lower income neighborhood populated by teenagers who have yet to gain a foothold in the world. It’s a story about the power of friendship and the reality that its strength can be both solid enough to move mountains and too volatile to last.
(streaming on Netflix)
There’s a reason Timothy Meaher had the Clothilde set on fire and sunk after the slaves it was holding disembarked. Silence. Beyond those who were involved with the mission—said to have been launched on a bet to prove he could still bring Africans to the US circa 1860 despite it being illegal under federal law and punishable by death since 1808—nobody could hold him accountable if the evidence disappeared. He didn’t count on the Confederacy losing the Civil War, though. He didn’t count on the slaves from that ship reclaiming their freedom five years later to tell their story and inspire those who were born in chains to know a future existed for them despite what they were told. You can’t erase the truth once it’s unleashed.
Like so many examples through history, however, words aren’t enough when those who tried erasing that truth maintain power. That’s why it became important for the descendants of the Clothilde to find it. Doing so would not only provide answers for their history that rumors had thus far sustained, but it would also ensure those responsible were held to account a century after pretending like it never happened. But as Margaret Brown’s documentary DESCENDANT shows, the struggle doesn’t end there. Not with one hundred years to unpack and discover how little has changed. Cancer ravages the community of Africatown courtesy of volatile industrial factories surrounding it that were approved by, built by, and still operating on land owned by the Meahers and their peers.
This is therefore more than just an excavation of a slave ship. It’s an excavation of the soul. Does knowing help you move on? Does it help you dig in deeper for a fight? We hear from the last survivor of the Clothilde (Cudjoe Lewis) thanks to Zora Neale Hurston’s published account of his words Barracoon as well as the descendants living in his honor. We see the differing opinions of parents and children as far as what this discovery means and where they go next when the risk of celebrating might allow the same families who profited off their ancestors’ bodies then to profit off the tourist potential of their story today. And, thanks to Brown, we see countless white people stick their feet in their mouths. It seems she correctly left little of that on the cutting room floor.
The result is a powerful account of a living history. That which happened doesn’t just end because time passes. The consequences and pain reverberate through generations. The hope is that we have finally arrived at a moment where the country won’t turn a blind eye as the people of Africatown are exploited again, but that the next steps are watched with scrutiny and ultimately left in the descendants’ hands to decide how to push forward. It may seem simple, but watching the divers who helped recover the ship lead a class to teach young Black boys and girls how to swim is an invaluable development in and of itself. Because it’s not about closure. As one woman explains, it’s more a circle back to the beginning to reclaim what was taken and rewrite their future.
(now on Digital HD)
Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) has a formative champion in high school art teacher Mr. Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis)—his idol. To hear that man praise him supplies all the confidence he needs to let an untimely death push him into rolling the dice and forsaking the establishment before it’s too late. Why waste time with college when the raw talent and bitingly subversive humor at his disposal is already attuned to greatness in the underground world? The easy answer is security, of course. There’s a reason Katano is teaching after all. But the romantic notion of living a bohemian lifestyle—especially coming from the affluence Robert’s parents (Maria Dizzia and Josh Pais) possess—is too alluring to actually think long-term. Do it now and damn the consequences.
This central aspect of a spoiled child rebelling against his privilege precisely because he has the safety net to try and fail is the most intriguing part of FUNNY PAGES both because it gives meaning to Robert’s actions and because writer/director Owen Kline is the son of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates. If anyone knows how it feels to be connected and yet wish for the lo-fi lifestyle of starving artists as though it’s a rite of passage rather than a way out, it’s him. And he is self-aware enough to realize it, constantly putting his lead character into complex situations with stakes that never match the fanboy entitlement or rose-colored glasses with which Robert sees them. He leaves home to experience “life” only to discover just how much those living it wish to escape.
Are there enough authentically poignant moments like the mentally unstable Wallace (Matthew Maher) screaming at Robert to stop romanticizing another man’s failure to offset what’s at times an exploitative comedy at its less fortunate characters’ expense? Probably not. But I do like Kline’s sense of humor and penchant for going for broke when it comes to really highlighting how the depravity in the comics Robert loves is very much based in reality. As such, this is not going to be a film for everyone. It brings the lewd scenarios of those “funnies” to life (before Robert then puts them back to paper) in all their grotesque splendor, placing the extreme nature of the gags above narrative from frame number one. So, while it doesn’t completely work for me, I do applaud the boldness.
KIDS VS. ALIENS
(now in limited release and on VOD/Digital HD; streaming on Shudder later in year)
Fiction becomes reality in Jason Eisener’s KIDS VS. ALIENS as sister/brother duo Sam (Phoebe Rex) and Gary (Dominic Mariche) move from fighting anthropomorphic dinosaurs in the latter’s DIY action flick to actual aliens lurking in the water and woods behind their house. While you might think the shift from choreographed wrestling moves to life-or-death sword battles shouldn’t be that heavy of a transition in a romp like this, however, it is when a little romance gets in the way. Because Sam is a teenager now. No matter how much she loves horsing around with her younger brother and his friends (Ben Tector’s Miles and Asher Grayson’s Jack), it only takes one smile from Billy (Calem MacDonald) to sell them out for the potential of love.
Thankfully, Eisener and co-writer John Davies waste no time showing just how much of a douchebag Billy is so we can quickly shift away from the familial squabbles and invest in the us-versus-them acid bath war that’s brewing whether they wake-up to the fact or not. As Sam and Gary’s house is being destroyed by the rager Billy cons his way into hosting, the big green men from an effectively shot prologue arrive to take as many kids back to their spaceship as possible. The result leads to some pretty gruesome practical effects as skin melts, monsters are born, and Sam is finally able to show Gary she’s just as capable wielding a blade as she is her patented dropkick. Add some nice atmospheric cinematography and it’s easy to get lost in the carnage.
In a similar vein to PG: PSYCHO GOREMAN, KIDS VS. ALIENS provides a rollicking good time with tweens swearing up a storm as bodies fall left and right. And while I assumed it would embrace that sense of fun absurdity, I didn’t anticipate how impressive the stakes might prove. There’s one kill that literally made me gasp in surprise. I only wish Eisener and Davies supplied a complete story—especially since its 75-minute runtime leaves room to do so. The climax is memorable and the conclusion chock full of intrigue, but this trend of ending original IP on a cliffhanger in hopes of sequels continues to be a blight on the industry. Hopefully the seemingly ultra-low budget means subsequent chapters won’t be difficult to fund, but watching it unfold without that guarantee is a major letdown.
PS: Stay around after the credits.
A NIGHT OF KNOWING NOTHING
(streaming on Criterion Channel)
After filming tons of videos depicting their lives as students dancing and partying, the moment to figure out a narrative for it all arrived. Director Payal Kapadia and co-writer Himanshu Prajapati decided that the scenes played like memories in such a way that it felt like found footage rather than their own lives. So, they chose to tell an epistolary love story with it used as background, filling in blanks with archival video and ongoing campus protests once the political environment of India turned nationalist after Narendra Modi’s victory (think the US with Donald Trump). The narrator is introduced as L., a woman writing to her lover now that he’s been placed in hiding by his disapproving parents due to her lower caste. What follows is a document of revolution to escape their ancestors’ mistakes.
A NIGHT OF KNOWING isn’t going to be for everyone. It honestly wasn’t for me during the first half, but I stuck with it thanks to a few instances of more overt juxtapositions between sight and sound surrounding the rising political strife. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for esoteric metaphors as the dreamlike nature of the whole consumes all narrative, but that sense of floating through the images does eventually cease once L. realizes her writing would fall on deaf ears if she sent it. Because if her boyfriend really loved her, he would have stood up to his parents like he stood up with her during protests against the Hindu Nationalists. She knows that actions are all that matter. That equality cannot be conditional.
Kapadia’s work is formally strong with a captivatingly sensorial atmosphere, so it’s easy to see why it has found such staunch defenders with many calling it one of their favorites from 2022. It’s not too difficult to fathom someone hating it too, though, for its slow pace and essay nature. Either way, you cannot deny the impact of its message. One moment sees someone from the Film and Television Institute of India more or less passing the torch to his students, admitting that his generation’s lack of heroes created the void that allowed Modi and the Nationalists to take control. He tells them it’s their duty to tip the scales back—to witness the injustice and bigotry and fight to eradicate it. Because authoritarianism wins the moment their rising voice goes silent.
THE QUIET GIRL [An Cailín Ciúin]
(limited release forthcoming in 2023 after its Oscar-qualifying run back in December 2022; Ireland’s International Oscar submission)
There’s reason for young Cáit (Catherine Clinch) to be withdrawn. She’s the fourth girl in a family of five children with another baby on the way. If Da (Michael Patric) isn’t drinking at the pub or having an affair, he’s home gambling their money away while Mam (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) struggles to keep the house in some semblance of order. Add her sisters treating her like a pariah and classmates calling her “weird” and it’s no wonder she seeks escape and isolation in the weeds or that her anxiety and neglect leads to nightly bed-wettings. But it also means more time spent worrying about Cáit than Mam can afford. So, with the baby coming soon, a summer reprieve becomes a godsend as cousin Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) and her husband Seán (Andrew Bennett) offer to take her in.
Adapted from Claire Keegan’s novella Foster, Colm Bairéad’s THE QUIET GIRL ultimately proves to be as much a coming-of-age story for Cáit due to her time away from home being the first she’s ever felt truly loved as it is a balm for Eibhlín and Seán. They’re almost as quiet as the girl, stuck to their chores and rituals in ways that keep them at a distance. She therefore embraces Caít’s presence as welcome company—less about having someone to dote on or put to work than to no longer feel alone. It’s inevitably a strange scenario for Caít at first since she’s never experienced the sort of unconditional kindness shown. She’s more used to the fits of rage Seán delivers, although not the genuine contrition found shortly afterwards.
He has his reasons. The same as Eibhlín has hers in the opposite direction. Seán is trying his hardest not to find himself repeating the past with Caít while Eibhlín looks to relive it for as long as she can. What that past is will soon be revealed by way of a gossipy neighbor, opening everyone’s eyes on-screen (as well as our own) to the reality that this summer can’t be lost in nostalgia or mistrust. It must be enjoyed as a dream and remembered for a joy unencumbered by guilt or regret. The only caveat is, of course, that it has an expiration. At a certain point Caít must return home while Eibhlín and Seán reclaim the silence of theirs. The hope is that they’ll all be able to bear it or even find the ability to change their fate for the better thanks to what they found in each other.
It’s a subdued drama that allows us to sit with the characters as they sit with each other, owning Seán’s words insofar as it’s okay to not speak when speaking only proves the speaker should have kept his/her mouth shut. Because it’s in the silence that they find authentic empathy with a cookie or hairbrush. One mustn’t fake it or overcompensate when you can simply exist with a smile as the day’s work gets done with fun rather than resentment. Don’t expect that to suddenly translate into some rousing bit of excitement, though. This story doesn’t need such gimmicks when a perfectly executed example of narrative mirroring is enough to express love via a hug—both the one that’s not given and the one that will warm your heart and put a tear in your eye.
THE SILENT TWINS
(streaming on Peacock and available on VOD/Digital HD)
I’m a big fan of Agnieszka Smoczynska’s THE LURE and FUGUE, so I welcomed the prospect of watching THE SILENT TWINS. Unfortunately, while a fantastic stylistic work—music, animation, performances, etc.—I could never truly invest in the narrative of these real-life twins known for only communicating with each other. It’s as though the filmmakers pared a five hour film down to two with so many emotional beats ringing hollow due to a consistent lack of context. Andrea Seigel’s script is adapted from a book by Marjorie Wallace with the finished work finding inspiration from the real June and Jennifer Gibbons’ diaries, but it plays as less of a biography than a depiction of the sisters’ internal interpretation of their story. We’re therefore witnessing “effect” under the presumption that we already know “cause”.
So, perhaps it will make more sense for those familiar with the Gibbons’ lives before sitting down. I hope that’s the case since I found myself utterly lost as far as where the purpose of the exercise was concerned. Because while it’s easy to parse the gist of what’s happening by juxtaposing how June (Letitia Wright) and Jennifer (Tamara Lawrance) interact with each other in a conjoined dreamscape populated by their dolls and how they don’t interact with the outside world (shutting down into a near catatonic state), it’s difficult to truly care about the disparity beyond the movie telling me I should. There’s no explanation for it. Brief snippets of them in school not complying with teachers arrive with zero change and a third of the film suddenly seems to say they’re beyond help.
Enter act two: the rebellious period. The sisters apparently share a fantasy of being famous writers (I say apparently since it never comes up until they buy a typewriter and start submitting works) and decide they must experience life to become good. It’s presented as more of a whim than life goal and they start getting into trouble with boys, drugs, and arson—eventually landing in an infamous mental hospital for act three. We’re always at arm’s length, though. We’re watching from afar as they leap from one scenario to the next with little more than a jump cut. Characters come and go as pawns, one seemingly crucial figure (Jodhi May’s Majorie Wallace) earning the camera’s gaze despite us never having met her before (and not actually meeting her until a few more scenes pass).
There are some interesting psychological mysteries at play (the girls compulsively ensure that neither gets more or less of anything without the other’s permission, for example), but they are treated as window dressing rather than the point. Smoczynska and company obviously have their reasons for this, but I could never guess what they are. So, every time it feels like we’re getting somewhere, we’re unceremoniously whisked away elsewhere to either watch their toxic jealousy risk causing real harm or their infinite wealth of empathy for the other threaten the same. It adds up to what should be a heartbreaking moment of unexplainable sacrifice and yet it plays as matter-of-factly sterile as the rest.
(now in limited release)
You can’t win them all. I don’t know Florian Zeller’s life story, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover he had a parent battling Alzheimer’s. And that he never a child battling the sort of depression depicted in THE SON. I could be wrong. I hope I’m not, though, since what he and co-writer Christopher Hampton put on-screen is a gross manipulation of emotions that does little beyond show how the real person who needs to be in therapy is the father due to him being so messed up with his own Daddy Issues that he’s unable to recognize his drive to succeed isn’t a personality. Because this is ultimately Peter’s story (Hugh Jackman). Nicholas (Zen McGrath) is nothing more than collateral damage.
Perhaps that’s why the latter’s performance feels so stilted. Most of it is the script and direction since no one delivers anything resembling authenticity—not even Jackman despite what so many say while bending over backwards to praise something within this mess. They’re all robots spouting dialogue straight out of a theater group exercise wherein the responses are intentionally drawn to be as oblivious as they are counterfeit. The only reason I can fathom for this choice is that we’re seeing everything from Peter’s eyes. The eyes of a man watching the person he promised to support fall apart. It’s his refusal to actually listen to his son that makes it seem like Nicholas is putting on a show. I honestly thought Zeller would pan to McGrath’s tearful face turning hard and unfeeling numerous times. But this sadly isn’t WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN.
Zeller is playing it all in earnest. I therefore wish I could have at least laughed at the proceedings rather than roll my eyes and wait for the inevitable—the thing everyone from Peter’s new wife (Vanessa Kirby) to Nicholas’ psychiatrist (Hugh Quarshie) warned would happen. All I could hope was that it was working towards something more than hollow flashbacks (it’s telling that Peter must go back eleven years to find a moment of shared happiness with his son) and an epilogue that only proves Zeller’s desire to make Peter the victim. Let’s call the movie THE SON, but center Dad’s struggles. Let’s render the character that needs help a catalyst for another to look inwards and pity himself rather than wake-up.
What then is the point? To sympathize with Peter? Maybe, since Mom (Laura Dern) is only allowed to speak when talking to or about him. Is it to make parents feel better about their guilt when a tragedy like the one that occurs here happens to them? Maybe, since we never actually get to hear from Nicholas beyond the words he uses to punish his parents for what he sees as them punishing him. Just like he was an afterthought in Peter’s life, he’s an afterthought in the film. He’s there to push Peter over the line. To show us the temper Peter inherited from a father who actually embraces his villainy (Anthony Hopkins, not reprising his Oscar-winning THE FATHER role) that we can speculate from little pieces of dialogue sprinkled throughout. I don’t know. It merely felt like I was watching a narcissist destroy his life while the film played a heartfelt score to pretend as though he was trying his hardest and couldn’t catch a break.
I would have at least taken some visual flourish to distract me from the one-dimensional cutouts going through the motions of a generic case study for what not to do with someone who’s having suicidal thoughts, but Zeller doesn’t even give us that. THE FATHER was so ingenious in its cinematic construction. So, the otherwise generic cinematography and transitions marred by blatant stunt blocking to ensure the object of heated arguments is listening out of view every single time makes me wonder if the former’s success was all on Peter Francis and Cathy Featherstone’s brilliant sets. Because THE SON, much like Jackman’s Peter, is devoid of personality. It’s just scene after scene of “Afterschool Special” dialogue with zero room to let any of the actors breathe. They, like us, know the other shoe is about to drop from frame one. And the waiting is painful.
STARS AT NOON
(now on VOD/Digital HD)
Trish (Margaret Qualley) is a journalist in Nicaragua who’s run out of money, favors, and utility in her pursuit to finally leave its corruption behind. Daniel (Joe Alwyn) works for an oil company sent to scout the area for reserves and political imbalance who eventually finds himself out of favor with the government and pursued by both Costa Rican police and the CIA. They come together for escape only to discover they’re the other’s only hope for staying alive. The question then becomes whether self-preservation trumps whatever romance has seemingly blossomed between them. Are they both whores to the system or does love still mean something?
Based on Denis Johnson’s novel, Claire Denis’ STARS AT NOON (adapted alongside Andrew Litvack and Léa Mysius) refuses to explain the historically specific plotlines of the Nicaraguan civil war to make us care about the environment or understand how the characters fit in. And if we don’t care about those backdropped circumstances proving contextually crucial to the action on-screen, how does Trish or Daniel become a three-dimensional figure at risk of jail or execution because of them? I couldn’t therefore invest in their well-being or their relationship because they were both introduced as users willing to climb over the backs of anyone who served their means for advancement. Why should I believe anything about them is real?
The tears don’t work. Not after Daniel calls Trish out for faking them (even though Qualley delivers a wonderful performance that’s able to tell us when her manipulations have ceased). Fear doesn’t work either since neither is afraid to put themselves in danger right up until they realize their false sense of power has evaporated. So, we’re made to watch their two-plus-hour escape without any real connection to what’s happening. Chemistry is built by having Trish enjoy sex with Daniel after depicting how she doesn’t enjoy it with the other men she’s using. Suspense is built by villains threatening them without ever once acting on those threats. It’s two people in a complicated world that’s glossed over so their lust takes the spotlight. A tease of intrigue fizzling out every time we fool ourselves into believing a payoff may yet arrive.
Alex Pritz’s THE TERRITORY is a very good introduction into the plight of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau (or Jupaú) in Rondônia. As described in the film, their government-sanctioned legally-bound territory has become an “island of rainforest in a sea of farmland.” Invaders (entitled Brazilians who believe they are owed land) have been burning and cutting down their trees ever since “first-contact” in the 1980s, but deforestation more than doubled when Jair Bolsonaro won the presidency due to his anti-Indigenous rhetoric. Farmers were suddenly emboldened with the notion that the government would now sanction their looting of the Jupaú. And if that was the case, who was working to protect the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau’s rights to preserve that land?
The answer is exactly what you think: nobody. It’s been that way forever in every country built by colonial conquest and rule. Treaties are made to let indigenous people live in “peace” and then the inevitable squandering of their own resources leads the invaders to want to change the rules. Because it’s not exactly about rights or ownership like capitalists would like you to believe. It’s about racial supremacy. As the farmer that Pritz’s film crew follows says, “What do less than two hundred Jupaú people need with all that land.” He calls it unfair and decides it’s his right to take what’s theirs before stating he’d then defend what was taken as his. The hypocrisy knows no bounds.
Pritz follows this farmer and a settler as they talk big with their presumed government backing while showcasing the work done by Bitaté Uru Eu Wau Wau (the newly elected nineteen-year-old leader of their people) and Neidinha Bandeira (a Brazilian activist devoting her life to preserving this rainforest). One side selfishly talks about building Brazil with new crops by destroying forests that aren’t theirs to destroy. The other side debates a response while considering the complex ramifications (killing the invaders will only strengthen white opposition). It means something to therefore see this conflict unfold with undeniable video evidence. Bitaté pushes his village towards technological advancements that allow them to protect themselves since the government won’t.
It’s a compelling narrative with gorgeous cinematography that humanizes the insane destruction of our world’s lungs (let alone potential for medicines hidden within those trees). Pritz focuses on his quartet of subjects (two invaders with differing opinions on how to steal and two activists representing the Jupaú and their white allies) to set the stage and give voice to what’s happening. Not that we should have needed this film to realize everything the farmer and settler says is damning and criminal. The additional context only prevents the willfully obtuse from feigning ignorance. Because by the farmers’ own hate-fueled beliefs, property only exists for whites. So, Bitaté looks to remind them of their own rules.
THERE’S SOMETHING WRONG WITH THE CHILDREN
(now on VOD/Digital HD; streaming on MGM+ starting 3/17)
This quote from Roxanne Benjamin’s director’s statement says everything you need to know about THERE’S SOMETHING WRONG WITH THE CHILDREN: “Ultimately, at the end of the day, what I want to tell you about this movie is that it's an evil kid movie. For the sole intent and purpose of being—you guessed it from the title itself—an evil kids movie.” Because T.J. Cimfel and David White have written it as a metaphor about parenthood and responsibility. Benjamin shoots the third act as a never-ending purgatorial nightmare wherein Margaret (Alisha Wainwright) literally cannot escape the world’s demand for her to embrace motherhood. There’s even an effective subplot on stigmatizing mental illness via gaslighting. But it’s also just a horror film with super creepy kids wreaking havoc. When done right, with “fun” at the forefront, that’s enough.
Credit Briella Guiza and David Mattle for a lot of that success since they both have the ability to turn the most innocuous scene into a sinister game with nothing more than a smile. Their Lucy and Spencer know exactly what they’re doing when they sneak off in the night on Margaret and Ben (Zach Gilford). They know the terror those two will experience upon waking to find them gone and we know what that fear will do after having endured the usual “parenthood changes you” spiel the kids’ parents (Amanda Crew’s Ellie and Carlos Santos’ Thomas) have surely given them multiple times before. It’s the perfect cover for unexplained creatures to infiltrate humanity since most kids don’t even have to realize what they’re doing to manipulate the adults around them.
So, we weave through the quartet, gleaning details meant to distract us as much as the characters themselves. First we think Margaret and Ben are smart after seeing how on-edge Ellie and Thomas have become while trying to juggle their identities as parents with that of their adventurous and virile pasts. Then we wonder if perhaps their lack of needing to be responsible for anyone but themselves has caused them to drop the ball when it comes to watching their friends’ kids. Suddenly the secrets they all hold to keep up appearances and pride turn from anecdotes the others can use to feel better about themselves to weapons accomplishing the same with the added bonus of pain. We become so wrapped up in our own baggage and need to be superior that it’s easy to mistake real horror for delusion.
And by the time the true antagonistic force decides subterfuge is no longer necessary, it’s already too late. Benjamin leans on this reality, pushing both Ben and Margaret to the edge of sanity. Gilford delivers the panic and grief of helplessness first regardless of whether what he sees only happened in his mind. Wainwright comes next as she slowly realizes she sided with rational thought over love only to discover how society’s demand for conformity has tricked us into forgetting there’s more to life outside those constraints. The ending can feel repetitive and convenient at times, but it’s not because the filmmakers couldn’t decide how to finish things. It’s precisely because their messaging deals with subjects that cannot be finished. Its programming is ingrained in our DNA.
THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT
(streaming on Starz and available on VOD/Digital HD)
I’d love to know what director Tom Gormican wrote in the letter he sent Nicolas Cage to finally get him to agree to do THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT since his and Kevin Etten’s script would have been dead in the water otherwise. Because it’s not as though you can just swap the celebrity out like you might be able to get away with in BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. So much of Cage’s career is put into the fabric of the character and the plot, straight down to the climactic weaponry. Had he turned down the part again (he already had multiple times), it probably would have been more cost effective to simply scrap the whole project than rewrite everything around someone else. Luckily for them—and us—Gormican got his man.
Cage is the perfect fit for this type of fictionalization since he’s known as an eccentric that takes his craft seriously. Both those aspects are crucial because he must be cool with the joke of mocking himself via caricature and willing to buy in beyond the shtick so the film’s heart can hit home. Because this Cage is a prideful narcissist far enough from self-awareness as to lose himself in delusion where his career and family are concerned. Not only hasn’t he landed a major role in years, but his wife (Sharon Horgan) filed for divorce and their daughter (Lily Mo Sheen) has moved past embarrassment into disdain. Cage has no choice but to accept a million dollar birthday party gig to stay afloat. This is rock bottom.
Except that said gig is for Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal), the leader of an international crime family. Cage doesn’t know this, but the CIA agents working a kidnapping case (Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz) quickly enlighten him by hijacking his appearance with a guilt trip for help. Things get complicated, however, once they start hanging out and becoming fast friends. The money and reach of a guy in Javi’s position ultimately complicates matters with blatant boundary overreach, but his tastes and sensibilities are so aligned with Cage’s own that the latter never stays angry long. Their bond grows strong enough to allow both men to find the vulnerability they’ve needed to fix the problems in their lives.
You’ll have to gloss over the misogyny of Cage needing a man to prove other people’s interests are valid despite his daughter trying many times (it wouldn’t be so bad if the ending at least acknowledged as much in its “heartwarming, fatherly love” payoff), but that and other script issues get offset by the central pair’s fantastic performances and rapport. Cage and Pascal play it like all the best bromances, moving from awkward introductions to extreme enthusiasm and calm comfort to unhinged chaos with a smile. When the truth finally forces them to have to kill each other, we feel a Johnny Utah shooting into the air moment coming. Thankfully, a welcome “twist” smooths over any potential pitfalls from it to let the action fully embrace the absurdity of its unlikely hero, role-playing conceit.
Cinematic F-Bomb -
I vividly remember this one from watching GHOST as a kid—a heartbreaking moment. (Substack apparently can’t handle an embedded gif, so you’ll have to click over for a smoother experience. Or see everything at cinematicfbombs.com.)
New Releases This Week:
(Review links where applicable)
Opening Buffalo-area theaters 1/20/23 -
MISSING at AMC Maple Ridge & Market Arcade; Dipson Flix; Regal Elmwood, Transit, Galleria & Quaker Crossing
SKINAMARINK at Regal Elmwood, Galleria & Quaker Crossing
“[Its] refusal to actually engage with the action as more than "corner-of-the-eye" periphery prevented me from investing in any of the so-called stakes. Because if the kids don't seemed scared, why should I?” - Full thoughts at HHYS.
THE SON at Regal Transit
Thoughts are above.
THAT TIME I GOT REINCARNATED AS A SLIME: SCARLET BOND at North Park Theatre; AMC Maple Ridge; Regal Elmwood, Transit & Galleria
Streaming from 1/20/23 -
JUNG_E - Netflix on 1/20
MISSION MAJNU - Netflix on 1/20
NARVIK - Netflix on 1/23
BECOMING MALE IN THE MIDDLE AGES - MUBI on 1/25
THE LAIR - Shudder on 1/26
Now on VOD/Digital HD -
BONES AND ALL (1/17)
“Strip away the high-concept horror conceit and this is a poignant search for identity. Unfortunately, however, that conceit is also the draw. I just wish I didn't constantly have to wonder if every other scene wouldn't have been better as straight farce.” - Full thoughts at HHYS.
HIGH EXPECTATIONS (1/17)
SHE IS … (1/17)
THERE’S SOMETHING WRONG WITH THE CHILDREN (1/17)
Thoughts are above.
THE TOMORROW JOB (1/17)
ALL EYES OFF ME (1/20)
ALONE AT NIGHT (1/20)
KIDS VS. ALIENS (1/20)
Thoughts are above.
From the press kit archive:
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