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Movie Reviews: 7/24/2023 to 7/30/2023

Movies reviewed this week: The Fantastic Golem Affairs, Stay Online, The Primevals, Tiger Stripes, Paragon, Restore Point, In My Mother’s Skin, Good Condition, Lovely, Dark, and Deep, Rascals, If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do?, The Burning Hell, A Chinese Ghost Story, Insomniacs After School, Femme, Devils, The Perfect Place to Cry, Blackout, Drumming Makes You Happy, The Becomers, Lollygag, Hippo, Baby Assassins 2 Babies, Every House is Haunted, Where the Devil Roams, Aporia, Pett Kata Shaw, River, Saint-Sacrifice, The Sacrifice Game, Ms. Apocalypse, School Girl, The Man Traveling with the Brocade Portrait, Kurayukaba, Home Invasion, Hellmark, With Love and a Major Organ, and Ms. Apocalypse.

7/24/2023: The Fantastic Golem Affairs (2023): ***1/2

That was delightful. It’s an absurdist comedy about a man and his golem, on the surface. Beyond that it’s about death and family and coming to terms with both. The soundtrack is all fun bouncy throwback pop, fitting well with the retro mise-en-scène.

I think the thing I really liked was that the stakes mattered despite the surrealism.

7/24/2023: Stay Online (2023): ***1/2

Wars are getting closer these days; for one thing, the Ukraine War is a Western war, and the bulk of our media pays more attention to it than they do to, say, Rojava. But there’s also the technology factor. As with 20 Days in Mariupol, a sufficiently brave film crew can show us images we wouldn’t have seen even ten years ago.

Stay Online isn’t a documentary, but it’s driven by the realities of life during an invasion. At the post-film Q&A, Director Eva Strelnikova and producer Anton Skrypets talked about being on a Zoom call with the first AD when a bomb went off in the background. The film presents their truth.

As a movie it’s good. Not polished, a little clumsy in places. The emotional impact makes up for it. I felt uncomfortable in the early going, watching some of Katya’s actions. That turned out to be part of a narrative arc. There’s more here than just Russian invaders versus brave Ukrainians, although that’s of course part of it.

The screenlife format works here because it’s not strict. When the camera needs to follow Katya away from the screen, it does. It’s also good because it captures the information-starved claustrophobia of the war.

It’s weird to think about star ratings. The movie relies on the reality of the war for impact. I guess mine represents the way I felt post-movie.

7/24/2023: The Primevals (2022): ***

Four stars for being a cool passion project, two stars for being a kind of draggy adventure movie, plus a million stars for a character named Rondo Montana. We can all be Rondo Montana if we try.

7/24/2023: Tiger Stripes (2023): ***1/2

Sort of Bressonian magical realism, really. I don’t think body horror is accurate, since the transformative sequences are so clearly a metaphor for freedom. The slow build was perhaps a little slower than I wanted; at some point I realized it wasn’t going to have a climatic moment of violence and that was absolutely the right choice.

7/24/2023: Paragon (2023): ***

Even in 1984, ChatGPT was trouble. Crisp little horror short, worth the time.

7/24/2023: Restore Point (2023): ***1/2

Perfectly solid SF neo-noir police procedural, which took the time to think through the postulate and create story around it. Can’t ask for much more than that. It wasn’t wildly origjnal but not everything needs to be.

Andrea Mohylová has a great face for this, determined and angry at the same time. She took most of the heavy lifting; the other characters are more tropes.

The cinematography nailed that particular brutalist vibe. CGI of the current quality really opens up the possibility space.

I kept wishing the classical piece woven throughout the movie was Julie de Courcy’s Unity of Europe, which is profoundly dorky of me but there it is.

7/25/2023: In My Mother’s Skin (2023): ***1/2

Acknowledging my lack of knowledge about Filipino mythology, I read this as a metaphor for the impact of colonialism. The family’s sitting in a decrepit Western style mansion, with Western toilets, plagued with rumors about gold. It doesn’t matter who the father is cooperating with, because he’ll be hated either way. Occupiers cause pain.

The faerie appears Filipino — certainly the actress is — and associated with nature. At the same time, the hut where Tala the daughter finds her is full of stained glass windows. It’s almost a church. And I couldn’t help seeing a metaphorical communion wafer in one of those final scenes.

Speculation aside, it’s a lovely movie. Gory, but lovely, painting scenes with blood. Kenneth Dagatan has an excellent sense of framing for horror, and the sound design was deeply effective.

7/25/2023: Good Condition (2023): ***

Truly good acting leads to truly good comedy.

7/25/2023: Lovely, Dark, and Deep (2023): ****

Georgina Campbell is so good in this! I don’t want her to get typecast into horror movies but her ranger here is a far cry from her character in Barbarian so I’m sure it’ll be fine. The early scene where she sheds her reserve because she’s genuinely happy to see someone is excellent.

Teresa Sutherland is a first time director and I think the second half could have been a touch tighter, but I’m nitpicking here. As a screenwriter, she nails cosmic horror. It’s not that hard to write a movie about incomprehensible hunger; the special thing here is the way she incorporates human frailty into the mix.

Also impressive: you get everything you need to understand the mystery in the first act. Gotta pay attention, though.

7/25/2023: Rascals (2022): **1/2

City of God meets Grease meets Green Room, to poor effect.

The police side with the skinheads in the end, so that’s roughly accurate, but this plays way too hard into the evils of escalation for my tastes. The film implies that Rico punching skinhead Loki (who later separates himself from the “bad” skins, what?) was the flashpoint for future problems. Feh.

I would have liked something a bit closer to the actual history of the Black Dragons, who really were rockabilly inflected. Collective action is better than isolated resistance.

7/25/2023: If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? (1971): *1/2

So this is Estus Pirkle delivering a sermon about the imminent arrival of Communism in the United States. It’s going to take them a mere fifteen minutes to conquer us, so we really need to be alert. As Pirkle explains that the only way to prevent this horrible fate is dedication to the Bible, Ron Ormond cuts in scenes of the Communist hordes torturing, brainwashing, and generally persecuting honest Americans. Young Judy, who is only attending Pirkle’s sermon for social reasons, grows more and more horrified until at last she fulfills her dead mother’s dream by running to the altar and receiving Jesus into her heart.

This and movies like it were distributed to churches to play as one hour nuggets of propaganda. Jimmy McDonough, who’s just written a biography of the Ormonds, explained pre-film that this one made very little money because it was unexpectedly horrific. All I can say is that 1970s Baptists had a low threshold for fake blood.

There are no Black people anywhere in this movie. Certainly not in the congregation, and whatever the Communists are doing to Black people during the invasion, Pirkle and Ormond didn’t put it on screen.

It’s fascinating trash. The tactics haven’t changed; the sermon begins with warnings about how they want to hurt your children, and look, here we are again today. I can see where Pirkle has a certain driving charisma, although I’m not sure I believe that the rather winsome Judy would have been quite so moved. As a piece of outsider art, it’s a thing that I watched.

7/25/2023: The Burning Hell (1974): **

See my review of the awkwardly titled If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? for background on Ron Ormond and Estus Pirkle. Like that movie, this is Estus Pirkle preaching interspersed with vignettes illustrating his words. Like that movie, a member of Pirkle’s audience is overcome by emotion and seeks salvation. This time it’s Tim, played by Ormond’s son Tim. In a somewhat pleasant surprise, Tim sets himself apart from the rest of the cast of both movies by understanding the whole concept of acting.

The vignettes are more interesting too. Hell’s kind of dull, with the exception of the face makeup the demons sport. But the ancient Middle East is sort of fun. As one might expect, Pirkle’s Middle East (like his American South) is populated exclusively by white people. Some of them have impressive fake beards.

7/26/2023: A Chinese Ghost Story (1987): ****

Still head and shoulders above most movies in sheer zestful extravagance. If Tsui Hark needs a haunted inn, he’s going to stuff one in. Foreshadowing is for wimps.

The camerawork is superbly fluid. Every scene with Joey Wong and Leslie Cheung is like dancing. That’s romance.

Saw it on a terrible 35 millimeter print with terrible subtitles, just like the first time down at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

7/26/2023: Insomniacs After School (2023): ***

I scheduled this movie because I knew I’d need something sweet and gentle halfway through Fantasia. Mission accomplished. It gains some depth with Nana Mori’s layered performance; she shows the world what she thinks they need to see, which makes for a quiet commentary on expectations.

The stakes are high but not personal, so I never felt all that much tension, and the ending was expected. The scenes of rural Japan were lovely. Not every movie has to be great.

7/26/2023: Femme (2023): ****

Grim as fuck, and grim fucking. The performances made me willing to go along for the ride, and the ending was perfect. There are maybe a couple of minutes of film that don’t feel dangerous — and one of them is subverted anyhow.

It’s a queer movie without a hero. Jules isn’t a villain either, but he’s driven by revenge even after other emotions creep in. Actually, it’s the mixture of emotions that’s the flaw; if he’d maintained his intended course he wouldn’t have been betraying himself.

Again, those performances! The audience has to understand why Jules and Preston did what they did. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and George Mackay are more than able to explain themselves through physicality and expressions. They have to; their characters aren’t capable of verbalizing what they’re feeling, which is their mutual essential problem.

A happily ever after wouldn’t have been appropriate.

7/26/2023: Devils (2023): ***1/2

I signed up for 105 minutes of ultra-violent South Korean serial killer thriller and that is what I got. I also got a psychotic twist on the body swap trope: well-done. Don’t expect a lot of action; do expect a lot of blood.

ACAB rating: 10/10. The title is pluralized for a reason.

7/27/2023: The Perfect Place to Cry (2023): ***

An oddly sweet little morsel with a grimly funny ending; well directed and shot. Celina Bernstein gets across a lot with her expressions.

7/27/2023: Blackout (2023): ***1/2

I spent the first fifteen minutes of this thinking it was a bit heavy handed with the environmentalism and then I realized nope, that’s just Alex Hurt’s Charley being a flat out white savior dick.

The secondary spine of the movie is a rich white developer blaming Riho Garay’s Miguel, an construction worker, for the murders Charley commits. Charley could turn himself in at any point and get Miguel off the hook, but instead he has grandiose plans. Early on he goes to visit Miguel and in about 60 seconds flat Miguel makes it absolutely clear that he knows Charley is full of shit. “You know best for me.”

So that’s all pretty great. It’s not like Charley doesn’t have real problems, above and beyond turning into a howling monster at the full moon, but he goes a long long way to avoid taking responsibility for his actions.

The tone is also excellent. The cold open is a classic werewolf scenario, which sets the mood well. The rural little town is Talbot Falls, which is a cute nod to the classics, and the Talbot Falls police badge modifies the classic star into a subtle pentagram. Very cute.

The last half an hour drags, making this the second best werewolf movie of 2023 so far. I kind of want to watch them as a double feature; it’s a pair of interesting ways to use the werewolf mythos as a lens on society.

7/27/2023: Drumming Makes You Happy (2023): *1/2

Yes, fine, drumming is a pleasant and enjoyable activity. As a cynic I dislike being reminded of that fact.

7/27/2023: The Becomers (2023): **1/2

An interesting pandemic movie, albeit inconsistent and patchy. I read it as being about the lengths we’ll go to survival in apocalyptic times. The central segment was funny and horrifying and sweet in the right measures. Overall the throughline didn’t really work for me, especially with the implications of the final shot — it’s visually striking but wow that’s going to be bad.

I felt compelled to make a new list: see Russell Mael Ranked.

7/27/2023: Lollygag (2022): ***1/2

Instant addition to the canon of great swimming pool movies.

7/27/2023: Hippo (2023): ****1/2

I grew up with a family in two organizations which, while not cults, were cult adjacent. This story about an isolated family gone horribly wrong shook me. For me, there’s a metatextual element here: the Wes Anderson affect lulls the audience. Hippo’s funny! The mother’s obsession with UFOs is funny!

You could miss the darkness at the heart of the fears and conspiracies. I’m reminded of how much I liked Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminati mythos as a teenager. It’s funny until people are taking it seriously.

The black and white aesthetic conveys the isolation. It was a shock to realize how close they live to the rest of the world. That’s the same point, I think.

7/27/2023: Baby Assassins 2 Babies (2023): ****

That’s a step up from Baby Assassins. The comedy is a notch sharper, more focused, and the fight scenes are distinctly better. The final face off is one of my favorites of all time, at least while I’m riding on the energy of the Fantasia audience. Saori Izawa is insanely kinetic; she works within the constraints of her smaller size and she uses feints like very few movie martial artists. It’s poetry.

7/27/2023: Every House is Haunted (2023): **1/2

It’s true, the housing market is really difficult. The tone floated around a bit; it’s hard to range from finding a purpose to deep horror by way of found family in under 15 minutes.

7/27/2023: Where the Devil Roams (2023): ***1/2

This film struck me as more of a tone poem than a narrative. The DIY anachronistic imagery of the carnival felt like a dirty thumb smearing greasepaint across the decades, spreading the Great Depression over a canvas all the way up to modern day corpse paint clowns. Music is the binding element. There’s a narrative arc here, but there’s also a host of inexplicable visuals.

A pair of loose stories is nestled within the film’s 90 minutes: a family of serial killers driving across upstate New York and a carnival family drawing on the Devil’s power to get an invite to the Buffalo Horror Show. They happen to be the same family. It felt like the stories evolved during the shoot, with a bit of footage here and a bit of footage there. It’s not a focused movie, but it’s always evocative. I still have no idea what the second cold open was all about.

There’s a bit of me that suspects the serial killer plot was an excuse for the impressive low budget special effects. There’s plenty of gore here, albeit in small doses. I can’t object; if I could get shots like that on a microbudget I probably would too.

This was my first Adams family film. Scanning through other reviews, I may have benefitted from a lack of expectations. Or I may just like gothic folk music. Or, actually, I just thought the real affection of the real family brings a special element to the family we see on screen.

7/28/2023: Aporia (2023): **1/2


I’m gonna be that nerd and I’m going to spoil the movie horribly.

Payman Maadi is a powerhouse and if I hadn’t seen him recently in Opponent I wouldn’t have noticed. But man, he has range. Judy Greer and Edi Gathegi aren’t far behind. I think the marketing does this film a disservice; I went in thinking it’d be about the choice to return Gathegi to existence but it’s much more interesting than that.

The script doesn’t live up to either the concepts or the acting, unfortunately, and here’s where I spoil you. There’s a lot about this one that evokes Primer, from the time travel to the lo-fi time affecting device itself, which is cobbled together out of parts. That’s a high bar. Part of that bar is playing by the rules.

Rules: when you use the machine to change the past, only people who can see it being used remember the original timeline. So when Greer and Maadi restore Gathegi, they’re the only ones who remember him being dead. When Maadi stops a school shooting, he’s the only one who remembers it occurred.

The initial moral dilemma here is whether or not it’s okay to kill someone to restore a better person’s life. By the end of the movie everyone’s forgotten that. After one misguided change, Greer and Gathegi’s child becomes someone they don’t know… but that version of Riley is still a person, and nobody spends a moment debating whether or not it’s okay to remove the second Riley.

Because if Greer and Gathegi are going to snap into the new reality because they’re not in the room, why not kill someone five minutes before they were going to die anyhow? That way you don’t remove male Riley from existence.

Not that it’d actually work, because Greer still remembers Gathegi dying after Maadi uses the machine by himself. They’re always going to remember the original version of Riley. There is, in fact, no undo button and they’ve lost their child forever.

And the two scientists don’t ever bother talking about who should be in the room for the second time alteration. It’s kind of an important topic but they just ignore it.

I’m frustrated because it’s a very good premise and the characters were excellent. Even if you’re not nitpicking nerd details, the moral questions are still inconsistent. By the end of the movie they know they’re going to disrupt countless lives every time they use the machine… but they make derisions for the sake of themselves, and themselves only.


7/28/2023: Pett Kata Shaw (2022): ***1/2

Strong four part Bengali horror anthology; originally a web series. As you’d expect the quality varies a bit, but I enjoyed all of them. The director, Nuhash Humayun, ranges from comedy to sorrow.

The last story was the real standout, a sorrowful story of loss and guilt interweaving the legends of the Nishir Daak with social media.

7/28/2023: River (2023): ****

It was good! Not quite the formal puzzle box of Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes: it maintained the sweet heart of Yamaguchi’s former movie while developing in different directions with a different form of two minute time loop. That’s good in my book; I didn’t want repetition. Ironically.

His precision as a director was equally necessary in this movie. Each two minute shot is a single take, and from his post-movie Q&A it was a rather long shoot. The continuity was tricky.

At this point I’m risking spoiling the fun. The movies are not sequels or prequels or anything; see them both but don’t be concerned with the order.

He plans to continue with the time theme.

7/28/2023: Saint-Sacrifice (2023): ***

I’m fairly sure that’s not actual Catholic doctrine.

7/28/2023: The Sacrifice Game (2023): ***1/2

Pretty competent entry into the holiday slasher genre that starts with a bloody cold open and goes on as it began. I’m always up for a good lonely stone pile of a boarding school over holiday break, with almost nobody around. The movie delivers, with a well-executed twist that doesn’t come out of left field.

Madison Baines and Georgia Acken are convincing as the pair of left-behind students who bond over their social awkwardness. The gang of psychotic cultists is also generally good, with Laurent Pitre as Doug providing comic relief. “Oh, and Doug, uh… brings… his car.”

7/29/2023: Ms. Apocalypse (): ***1/2

This is why I try to fill empty Fantasia slots with random films. I wasn’t expecting a melancholy South Korean indie movie touching on poverty and desperation, with a focus on disability. Which is rare for South Korea.

The central relationship is between Lim Sun-woo’s Yu-jin, who is a paralyzed young woman, and Lee Yoo-young as Yeong-mi, who has a crush on Yu-jin’s husband of convenience. It’s complicated.

The whole movie is pretty complicated and melodramatic. There’s a whole hair-dressing competition in there. But that’s a thing I generally like about South Korean movies, and I think on reflection I liked it here. Director Lim Sun-ae seems to me to be co-opting soap opera tropes in order to subvert them; this isn’t the glossy perfection of K-dramas, and the endings are wistful rather than triumphant.

7/29/2023: School Girl (2014): ***1/2

That’s a really lovely illustration of a literary work. It’s a slice of life, not a narrative; the beautiful painted backgrounds and the symbolic, surrealist imagery is quite cool. I liked the prose enough to want to check out Osamu Dazai.

7/29/2023: The Man Traveling with the Brocade Portrait (2018): ***

Brief but fun story of a man who gets lost seeking a dream. Shigeyoshi Tsukahara really loves trains and trams and trolleys. That’s good because he draws them so well.

7/29/2023: Kurayukaba (2021): ***

That’s some seriously extravagant film making. The plot is more or less an excuse to draw a bunch of awesome underground black markets and a circus and steampunk mecha trains. Why is that gang wearing a bunch of weird porcelain masks? Why can’t Sōtarō get anywhere without being saved by Tanne? Don’t get distracted from the trains.

Like there’s one scene where Sōtarō has a conversation on a funicular just because those are fun. There’s real rail travel commitment here.

7/29/2023: Home Invasion (2023): ***1/2

I like a good sociological argument constructed of found footage and movie clips, so I was here for this.

The underlying thesis to the three primary acts resonates with me: we have convinced ourselves that the outside is a threat via wave after wave of home invasion movie, and then weakened the border to our homes by inviting the outside in via cheap doorbell cameras. The movie ought to close with the call for action disguised as a history of the Luddite movement. Looping back to discuss the invention of the doorbell weakens the trajectory of the argument.

The editing and rhythms of the movie are quite crisp. The short staccato bursts of text require connection by implication; there’s no room to make the link between Luddites losing work from home and Ring owners losing their home boundaries explicit. But there’s enough implication there to make the overall argument clear.

7/29/2023: Hellmark (2023): ***

“Why did you make this movie?”
“I worked on Hallmark Christmas movies for three years.”

7/29/2023: With Love and a Major Organ (2023): ****

Here’s a test. If the following dialogue makes you cringe, you can skip the rest of the review and the movie.

“So, what do you do at work?”
“I click and scroll. Mostly.”

That isn’t a metaphor, it’s literally what George does at the Point, Click, and Scroll Company. With Love and a Major Organ is intricately constructed of metaphors, making them explicit on screen. I might have expected this, given that the blurb makes it clear that people in this movie can literally give each other their hearts.

The conceit works in part because it’s consistent, and in part because of the aesthetic. In the first five minutes, Anabel (Anna Maguire) sees a man remove his heart and it’s a beautiful purple glowing vase full of flowers. Abandoning reality for metaphor allows Kim Albright to soak her world in visuals, and she takes full advantage.

The metaphor is almost too much at times. I thought the layers of artifice might hamper my emotional connection. In the end, at the end, the way Anna Maguire portrays Anabel’s heartless grief won me over. I’ve always been more affected by sadness than anything else.

Lovely way to end my festival.

7/29/2023: Ms. Apocalypse (none): ***1/2

This is why I try to fill empty Fantasia slots with random films. I wasn’t expecting a melancholy South Korean indie movie touching on poverty and desperation, with a focus on disability. Which is rare for South Korea.

The central relationship is between Lim Sun-woo’s Yu-jin, who is a paralyzed young woman, and Lee Yoo-young as Yeong-mi, who has a crush on Yu-jin’s husband of convenience. It’s complicated.

The whole movie is pretty complicated and melodramatic. There’s a whole hair-dressing competition in there. But that’s a thing I generally like about South Korean movies, and I think on reflection I liked it here. Director Lim Sun-ae seems to me to be co-opting soap opera tropes in order to subvert them; this isn’t the glossy perfection of K-dramas, and the endings are wistful rather than triumphant.

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