W lesie dziś nie zaśnie nikt (Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight, 2020)

W lesie dziś nie zaśnie nikt (Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight) is a 2020 Polish horror film about a group of camping teens who are stalked, attacked, and murdered by mutants in the woods. It’s 10% Phenomenon by way of the aesthetic of the European forest and the house in which the mutants are sheltered by their mother, a solid 40% Friday the 13th per its teenage-camping-trip narrative, 20% Scream via the discussion of the “rules” of horror films, 15% C.H.U.D., 8% Housebound, 2% Fargo, and 3% X-Files black goo episode for some reason. Like certain things that advertise themselves as being 98% recycled material, it’s rugged, durable, and serviceable, but not that exciting.  

The film follows a standard gang of five teens who, along with their adult chaperone/instructor Iza (Gabriela Muskała), are guided through “Camp Adrenaline,” which not only separates the kids from their electronic devices but also appears to be at least partially punitive. At least that’s the impression that one gets from Julek (Michał Lupa), who I think is supposed to be “the fat one” but who just looks like, you know, a teenager, is explicitly stated to be there instead of at a South Korean eSports summit because of his parents’ concern regarding his hobbies (the kid has 900K YouTube subscribers, though, so that’s like a career, dad). There’s also handsome, athletic, and–based solely on the number of mobile devices he owns–presumably wealthy Daniel (Sebastian Dela), who is immediately attracted to blonde cardboard cutout Aniela (Wiktoria Gąsiewska), who honest-to-goodness curls her hair in preparation for the hike. Rounding out the teenage troupe is soft-spoken closeted kid Bartek (Stanisław Cywka), who seems excited to disconnect from social media and its accompanying jealousies and clout jockeying, and Zosia (Julia Wieniawa), our final girl who is haunted by the death of her family in a fiery car crash. 

No, you’re not having déjà vu. You have seen this before. You may not have seen it better, but you have seen it. 

Each of the deaths is nigh-identical to a kill you’ve seen before in the Friday the 13th movies. The first death, in which one of the kids is trapped in their sleeping bag and then bashed against a tree, is how Judy is killed in The New Blood (Part VII); the second, in which someone is impaled through the neck, has shades of the death of Jane (also from New Blood) and Jack (from the original film). There’s also a decapitation, which is a Friday staple, a head crushing and a person being bisected (both appear for the first time in Part III), and a woodchipper. The last of these accounts for the 2% Fargo mentioned above. I don’t know what it’s doing here, but as for that 10% Phenomenon, it turns out that the killers were the sons of a poor woods woman living in bucolic, pristine Polish woodland in her little adorable house, until one day they were turned into mutant cannibals (or at the very least cannibalistic humanoids) by the black goo inside of a meteorite* and were thereafter locked in their mother’s cellar (where they dwelled underground). We learn this from a man (Mirosław Zbrojewicz) who lives nearby, a postman who escaped from the terror twins some 30 years prior in the film’s opening, in a scene reminiscent of the expository scene in a lot of films but I went with Housebound because I am so very tired. When it’s not aping Friday the 13th, we also get Julek’s recitation of the six “sins” of horror films: curiosity (i.e., “let’s look inside”), disbelief (“it’s just the wind”), overconfidence (“it’s just a haunted house”), splitting up, having sex, and being unattractive, some of which have already been broken and the others follow shortly thereafter. 

Where this film triumphs over the forebears from which it borrows is in the kids themselves, who are all more charming than they have any real right to be, given that these could just as easily have been cardboard cutouts of people. Julek crushes on Zosia almost immediately, and attempts to compliment her in his own awkward way, mostly by comparing her to Sarah Connor, even before she squares off against the unstoppable killing machine(s). Zosia, for her part, finds this endearing, even quoting the T-800 back to him in a sweet moment. Daniel, for all his swaggering and posturing, turns out to be a virgin whose only relationship has been with a woman online, and he’s a secret stoner to boot. There’s also a sweet scene between Bartek and Aniela, in which the two bond over the absurdity of the social expectations placed on them, in which Bartek opens up about how his father is completely blind to his son’s sexual orientation, even when the kid brings home his boyfriends. It’s bittersweet in a way that Friday the 13th knockoffs and imitators rarely get to be; when Jason mows through a group of teenagers, it’s the deaths that are memorable while the characters, other than a few outliers who manage to make an impression, are usually interchangeable. That we the audience know that Aniela and Bartek are doomed lends an air of poignancy to Bartek’s bitterness about the difficulty of being gay in Poland and Aniela’s comiseration. The scene also leads into one of the film’s few genuine shocks, which elevates it by default. 

It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a strange little plot cul-de-sac in which Bartek escapes from the killers and makes his way to a small church, where he asks the priest (Piotr Cyrwus) to call for help. The priest initially claims that the church’s landline is out of service, but when the phone rings, he ditches this pretense and knocks Bartek. When the boy comes to, he’s tied to a chair with a ball gag in his mouth, but when the priest leaves to check and see why the woodchipper turned on by itself, Bartek frees himself and hides in the confessional, his fate left unknown for a pretty long period of time. It’s a scene fraught a truly weird energy where it seems like our buddy is in for some kind of sexual assault, and it feels extremely out of place. Bartek’s treated as kind of an afterthought once the killings begin, and even his fate feels more like a tied-up loose end than a logical plot progression. It also occurs that the situation feels a little bit like the gimp scene in Pulp Fiction, which means that this film really is 100% recycled material. 

It’s also worth noting that the gore here is largely understated. There are some dismemberments and even a decapitation, but on the scale of believability they hover somewhere around “Christian haunted house alternative.” Even in the film’s most cinematic scene, a flashback to Zosia’s father crawling out of the wreckage of his burning car while she watches, not only does the fire look fake, but it doesn’t even look like he’s in that much pain. A few times we see grue drop into frame from offscreen, but the combination of R-rated concept with mostly TV-14 content makes the whole thing feel smaller than the sum of its parts. It’s not bad, but it barely exceeds “fine.” 

*This fact is, and I cannot stress this enough, completely irrelevant. It could have been any MacGuffin, even just like, radiation or something, but for some reason it’s X-Files black oil.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Druids Druids Everywhere (2020)

For the first half hour of Druids Druids Everywhere, I thought I had finally hit a wall with my enjoyment of Matt Farley’s backyard horror comedies. Now that I’m nearly a dozen feature films into his staggering catalog, it’s not like there’s much left to discover anyway. This past year I’ve found myself looking under every unturned rock in the Motern Cinematic Universe looking for Matt Farley movies that slipped by me a couple summers ago when I was at the heights of my Motern madness. It’s mostly been worth the effort! While not as heavily promoted or discussed as cult-gathering Motern Classics like Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, both Obtuse Todd & The Paperboy offered some of the most sublimely inane moments of understated comedy in any Matt Farley work I’ve seen to date. Then, Druids Druids Everywhere shook my faith in the entire endeavor. Was it possible that Farley (along with longtime collaborator Charles Roxburgh) had made a movie even I, a hopeless devotee, couldn’t enjoy? It was scary; then it got better.

Originally intended to be the fourth & final entry into Farley & Roxburg’s “Druid Cycle”, Druids Druids Everywhere was always going to be a for-fans-only proposition. To fully appreciate their crazed commitment to the long-running bit of the Druid Saga, you’d not only have to already be under the spell of their greatest non-druid hits like Local Legends and Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas, but also to have seen the pre-requisite druid titles Adventures in Cruben Country, Sammy: The Tale of a Terrible Teddy and, the crown jewel of the series, Druid Gladiator Clone. That’s a lot of homework, especially for a no-budget comedy about a druid cult. It makes sense, then, that they decided to shelve the film in 2014 without ever officially releasing it, if not only to avoid scaring off new audiences who might have stumbled into it as their very first Motern experience. In the six years since that decision to shelve the film, though, public demand for Motern Content has only gotten louder, making Druids Druids Everywhere a Day the Clown Cried type Holy Grail for the few dozen freaks who’ve seen all the other Druid Saga films and maintained enthusiasm for more. And now it’s finally been released as an extra feature on the recent (excellent) Gold Ninja Video release of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!. I wish I could report that it was fully worth the wait.

To put it as simply as possible, the first act of Druids Druids Everywhere suffers what I’ll call The Adam Sandler Problem. Recalling the most annoying, soul-draining performances in Sandler’s cursed oeuvre, Matt Farley starts the film speaking in a painfully unfunny Voice that threatens to tank the whole enterprise if he sticks to it the entire runtime. It’s not exactly Little Nicky-level bad, but it’s not far off. Thankfully, he eventually drops the Voice (and its accompanying Spirit Halloween Store fake beard) and teams up with Roxburgh to rid the New England woods of the druid cult that’s been haunting them for four movies solid. Immediately, Druids Druids Everywhere feels like classic Motern, with extensive straight-faced gags involving evil clouds, home-cooked cans of Spaghetti-Os, and cargo pockets stuffed with magical dirt. The back half of Druids Druids Everywhere is rewardingly funny, but you have to suffer through some pretty dire schtick to get there. But, let’s face it, if you’ve gotten this far into the Motern catalog you’re going to be willing to put in the effort.

All the underplayed absurdism & recurring goofball players Motern fans love eventually bubble to the surface in this movie’s final act. If you’re already a Motern convert, it’s genuinely just a joy to dick around the woods with Farley, Roxburgh, and company MVP Kevin McGee for 90min. I doubt anyone who’s not already a fan would find much of value here, or likely even make it past the fake beard & Adam Sandler Voice intro in the first place. They knew that when they made the film, though, and it’s honestly generous of them to release it now anyway just so hopelessly curious nerds like myself could complete the Druid Saga and feel at rest. Sure, this is for-fans-only, but if you’re a Motern fan all you really need is moments of recognition to point at the screen at such classic Matt Farley Bits as walking!, ranting!, and playing basketball!. Please refer to the ranked Motern hierarchy below to determine whether you’re ready to enjoy such a low-key, but warmly familiar indulgence.
Must-See Motern Classics
Local Legends
Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!
Monsters, Marriage and Murder in Manchvegas
Second-Tier Motern Gems
Slingshot Cops
Freaky Farley
Druid Gladiator Clone
For-Fans-Only Motern Charmers
The Paperboy
Obtuse Todd
Sammy: The Tale of a Terrible Teddy
Adventures in Cruben Country
Druids Druids Everywhere

-Brandon Ledet

Liberté (2020)

The premise for Albert Serra’s latest #slowcinema provocation was too alluring of a hook for me to pass up, even though my patience was stretched beyond its limits in his previous film. In The Death of Louis XIV, Serra captured the boredom of waiting for death, filming French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud as the titular monarch in his dying days, practically passing away onscreen in real-time. In its follow-up, Liberté, Serra captures the boredom of an unenthused orgasm, framing sex as the same kind of tedious bodily function as he previously framed death. I naively assumed meaningless sex would be more interesting to watch than a meaningless death, but Serra manages to make them equally boring & spiritually empty. To be fair, both movies are about boredom; I just don’t find that an especially rich subject, turns out.

In this glacially paced period drama, a small group of pre-Revolution French Libertines in exile take political refuge in the woods, passing the time by diddling each other and members of a nearby convent. There are no character beats or plot points to speak of, just bored old men seeking debaucherous sexual thrills over an unfulfilling, never-ending night in a “cursed place in the woods.” Figures don’t arrive on the scene so much as they materialize like ghosts, haunted by their philosophical commitment to seeking orgasms as an act of political rebellion, even though the going-through-the-motions drudgery suggests their hearts aren’t really in it. Throughout, Serra contrasts the gorgeous & the grotesque, the obscene & the serene. Quiet shots of the eerie woods are scored only by crickets and the rustling of pantaloons. That nature footage alternates with depraved, often unsimulated sex acts like analingus & piss play, presented with the same lack of urgency. There’s no purpose or direction for this monotonous, half-hearted activity, and it only ends because the sun eventually, thankfully rises.

It’s difficult to know what to do with a movie that aims to shock and bore audiences in equal measure. Liberté dwells in an awkward, liminal space between amoral debauchery & art cinema refinement. It’s like watching Salò hold out its pinky out while taking dainty sips of tea, perverse both in its content and in its own self-conflicted nature. I’m not sure that it adds much to the themes & textures of explicit provocations about the self-destructive nature of meaningless sex, though, especially since that canon is populated by much more exciting, exquisite titles: Salò, We Are the Flesh, In the Realm of the Senses, Stranger by the Lake, etc. There’s a sense of humor to the exercise at least, detectable in the way the Libertines stumble between sexual partners like Romero zombies in a shopping mall, or in the way one participant declares “Open the gates to Hell!” before rimming a nun-in-training. However, I gather that most of Serra’s amusement is rooted in intentionally boring himself & his audience, which is not at all my speed. This is a provocation fit only for #slowcinema aesthetes; more hyperactive trash gobblers like myself need to seek our own perverse thrills elsewhere.

-Brandon Ledet

The Nest (2020)


The Nest avoids beating a dead horse, but it does bury one. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In this second feature from director Sean Durkin following the 2011 debut showstopper Martha Marcy May Marlene, Rory O’Hara (Jude Law) and his wife Allison (Carrie Coon) move their small family to Rory’s native England from suburban New York, in their fourth move in a decade. Like WW84, this is a mid-eighties period piece, and at first theirs appears to be an ideal Reagan-era nuclear family, with teenage daughter Sam (Oona Roche) and ten-year-old son Ben (Charlie Shotwell) getting along in the way that siblings rarely do. We ultimately learn that the truth is a little messier (Allison was a single mother to Sam when she and Rory met and thus this is a blended family) and that this artifice is purely for the sake of creating a perfect impression to the outside world despite the reality being perfectly normal. The family is fine as it is, but Rory needs it to be more perfect, and like most of the facades that Rory spends so much time building, it’s an unnecessary gilding that endangers the foundation.

When proposing that they return to England so that Rory can go back to work for his old boss Arthur (Michael Culkin), Allison asks him if he’s hiding the truth about the family’s financial situation, with the implication being that it wouldn’t be the first time. Discussing the move with her mother (Wendy Crewson), the older woman tells her to simply trust in her spouse—”It’s not your job to worry, let your husband do that”—and Allison, mirthfully but sincerely, teases her that this is a worrisome ideology. When Allison and the kids arrive at their new home in England, they discover that Rory has rented a positively gigantic mansion, which has grounds on which he promises to build a six-stable barn for Allison’s horse Richmond and promised future stallions and mares, with the implication that Allison can one day resume equestrian instruction, which had been her occupation prior to Rory’s repatriation.

What plays out is, essentially, a dramatic version of the Simpsons episode “You Only Move Twice,” as each member of the family succumbs to negatives in their personal and social lives in their new environment. The long distance that the family must commute into London (it’s a little under an hour’s drive from Surrey to London in 2020 and was likely longer 35 years ago) wreaks havoc on their previous unity, which fell into place with ease in their earlier suburban life. Rory insists his children attend the best private* school, which results in Ben being bullied extensively and Sam spending time with a rougher crowd of local kids, presumably in rebellion against being expected to socialize with her fancypants classmates. Ben and Sam also drift apart, as Ben clings to Sam when their parents are away because the large, empty house frightens him. The house itself also immediately becomes another millstone around the struggling family’s collective neck as it’s too large for them to even furnish, although this doesn’t stop Rory from boasting at parties about their “farm” and the intent to purchase a “pied-à-terre in Mayfair” (a very chintzy part of London’s Hyde Park area) while Allison expresses discomfort with this; whether Rory’s dishonest or delusional, she’s still troubled, as well she should be. Things come to a head when a business deal that Rory is pushing Arthur to sign off on is rejected and Allison’s horse falls ill and collapses while she’s riding him; she has to go to a neighboring farmer for help (i.e., to put Richmond out of his misery) and, because Rory has allowed the phone bill to lapse, he’s unable to let her know that he’s spending the night in London, leaving Allison alone to bear the brunt of it all. The stress drives her to a point of dissociation, in which she declares that everyone in her family has become a stranger to her.

There’s nothing wrong with The Nest. In fact, it falls into my sweet spot of “woman on the verge.” Narratively, the film is solid, as the screenplay deftly weaves in good bits of foreshadowing early on that come into play later. When we first see Rory and Ben interacting, the two are playing soccer with one of Ben’s young friends, and although Rory wins, his son declares that he did so by cheating, demonstrating that Rory doesn’t let anything stand in his way, even when the opponent is his son and the stakes are as low as backyard bragging rights. We also get to see Allison in her element as a horseback riding instructor, where she deftly and calmly handles both the beasts and her clients, collecting their payments without wheedling or the slightest hesitation. She’s better at her job than Rory is at his, and although he’s no Gordon Gecko, he is a member of that deplorable group of eighties businessmen who turn money into more money by moving it around and for whom the impending deregulation (you know, the one that allowed wealth aggregators to plunder the economy of Western society and destroy the middle class) is a cause for celebration.

We are made to sympathize with Rory to an extent, as we’re told about his lousy childhood, including social exclusion and mediocre educational opportunities (which is what prompts him to overcompensate with the enrollments of Ben and Sam), although his mother, while cold, isn’t entirely unreasonable. She accuses Rory of never reaching out to her, and he retorts that she never called him, either, but we in the audience have no reason to disbelieve her complaint that Rory moved so much that she lost track of him. Ben is ten years old at this point and we’re told that this face-to-face reunion between Rory and his mother (orchestrated so that he can ask her for financial assistance) is the first time she’s been made aware that he’s married or that she has a grandson. However, while Rory’s story is tragic, it’s tragic in a classical way, as the ultimate cause of his ruination is not the change in broad social trends, or the dissatisfaction of his family as they overcome their culture shock and become accustomed to this new old world, or even his own poor handling of his emotions in the workplace (he’s allowed to have a lot more outbursts, consequence free, than would be allowed in a contemporary office). It would also be reductive to say that Rory’s life falls apart because of his greed, although that’s certainly part of it. It’s most accurate and honest to say that Rory’s loss comes equally from his unerring adherence to using the successes of others as the yardstick against which he measures himself, even when he could live comfortably within his means, and his devotion to the “fake it until you make it” ideology that has become even more common in the intervening decades. In his attempts to emulate success as part of a campaign to acquire the wealth that he craves and plays at having, he overextends what was likely a perfectly reasonable income, because he thinks that he deserves to have access to the same playground.

As Arthur tells Rory at one point, the latter has mistaken his coincidental success (that is, being in a rising tide that lifted all boats) for genuine intelligence and aptitude, which is simply untrue. He even tells the younger man that striving for a sudden, imminent payday to put paid to all of his current woes is foolish, as he should be striving to build something for himself over time instead of impatiently demanding his success now now now. And this is where the film missteps for me on a conceptual level, as it apparently presents Arthur’s advice about what Rory should do as a kind of blanket truth, when it isn’t. What Rory even does is kept deliberately obscured with industry buzzwords that ultimately mean nothing, and neither he nor Arthur are actually productive; they simply maintain the paradigm of ownership of the means of production and acquire wealth by buying and selling that labor. In case you forgot, labor creates all value, so make sure to write that one down somewhere that you see it every day. Allison’s manual labor that she performs for the neighboring farmer is the only work that we see anyone get any emotional satisfaction from, which isn’t a bad storytelling point, but Arthur’s presentation of the idea that a living wage can be earned simply by living within one’s means, delivered from the last point in Western history when upward social mobility through hard work actually was possible (before it was brought to an end by the very deregulation that Rory worships), misses the mark, although it’s possible that this was intentional and I’m being dense about it.

Like I said, there’s nothing “wrong” with The Nest. The performances are great, as Law effectively plays a man whose charm is so powerful he’s managed to convince even himself that his delusions are true, and he’s magnetic and contemptible in equal turns. You wouldn’t be able to accept a lesser actor in this role without thoroughly hating him, and that’s a testament. He’s also possibly the only actor who has ever managed to make BVD briefs look sexy, and at nearly 50 to boot. Similarly, Carrie Coon’s Allison is pitch perfect (and she’s proper fit, as one of Sam’s rude teenage friends notes). Each interaction contains the perfect amount of emotional distance and intimacy, and Coon is fantastic. By the time she really starts to fall apart, she’s held it together with such aplomb for so long that the audience feels her every revelation with empathetic exhaustion. I also like that there’s no beating around the bush about what the family’s problems are: there’s no infidelity (if anything, the couple’s sex life is the only thing about which they both remain passionate through the entire runtime), and all of the family’s anxieties stem entirely from Rory’s pathological obsession with money.

Outside of the performances, however, the whole thing feels very rote. Allison discovers that Sam has been smoking, but doesn’t confront her about it. Sam throws a rebellious teenage party when she’s supposed to be watching Ben. Ben discovers that his mother’s dead horse is starting to rise from the ground because it was buried improperly and has a little freak out about it (ok, maybe that last one is novel). There’s simply nothing new on the table, and a full throated denunciation of deregulated economics followed by a halfhearted commemoration of a time when a single breadwinner could provide–comfortably if not extravagantly–for a nuclear unit makes for a tonally confused film. Not to bring up Queen of Earth again, but that’s a film in which what’s being attempted here is successfully pulled off: a thriller where all of the violence is emotional and the tension comes from wondering who’s going to break first, and in what way. But where Queen made that work, Nest feels like a pale version that gets by solely on the strength of its performances and its cinematography (which is gorgeous), but which lacks the freakout that would take it to the next level.

*Here using the American definition of “private,” that is, a school which stipulates a hefty tuition and is not available to members of the general public and practices elitism and classism in practice even if it disavows it in theory. In England, the terms are reversed so that “public” schools in the U.K. meet this definition while their use of “private” generally correlates to the American “public,” i.e., state-funded. Yes, it is confusing.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Spontaneous (2020)

It’s very difficult for the post-Heathers high school black comedy to match the exact glorious highs of Daniel Waters’s 1989 classic. In the late 1990s, titles like Drop Dead Gorgeous, Jawbreaker, and Sugar & Spice leaned a little too hard into the flippant cruelty of the Heathers template, while more recent works like Mean Girls, The DUFF, and The Edge of Seventeen aren’t quite cruel enough. That’s why it’s a little frustrating that Spontaneous is so dead-on in its post-Heathers teen comedy cruelty in its first half, only to abandon that black comedy tone entirely as it reaches for a more earnest, less humorous conclusion. Of all the Heathers descendants I’ve enjoyed over the years, this one starts off with the most promise to share its icy, sardonic throne as the queen of the genre; then it abruptly decides it’s interested in pursuing something much more muted & emotionally grounded. I can’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment for that tonal shift as a result, even if the movie still holds up as a cute, enjoyable experience on its own terms.

Spontaneous is a shockingly well-timed horror-comedy-turned-teenage-melodrama. It’s about a spontaneous combustion pandemic that spreads throughout the senior class of one specific high school, forcing the student body into strict quarantine as their friends & classmates explode one by one in spectacular displays of gore. All the isolation & unprocessed grief that’s been hanging over high school & college kids since the coronavirus pandemic derailed all semblance of normalcy in March of 2020 is reflected here in a way the filmmakers could not have anticipated. Regardless of last year’s hyper-specific health pandemic context, though, the spontaneous combustion phenomenon works well enough as a generalized representation of the social pressures & gloom that hang over the heads of all kids who’re trying to remain optimistic about their futures as our planet continues to fall apart. It’s difficult to plan for the future when climate change, nuclear war, or your entire senior class exploding into piles of mush all threaten to end the world as we know it, so you might as well live in the moment – spontaneously.

There’s a lot to be disappointed by here if you’re looking to complain. It starts very strong when having morbid fun with its premise, but gradually loses steam as the heaviness of the material outweighs what its teen-drama earnestness can manage. I personally would’ve loved to see a version of this same film built around the lead’s friendship with her bestie rather than her brief senior-year romance with the new boy in town, since it’s a relationship that’s much better established & more worthy of exploring. I also obviously have a major mental block in assessing it as its own isolated accomplishment without constantly comparing it to my beloved Heathers, which it only echoes in its first hour. Ultimately, these are probably smart choices on the film’s part in reaching out to a teenage audience instead of my dusty thirtysomething sensibilities. The big emotions of the doomed romance, the dwelling on communal grief, and the Spencer Krug & Sufjan Stevens soundtrack cues are all perfectly pitched to hyperbolic teenage Feelings in a way I’m not sure I’ve seen matched since Your Name. Hopefully that teen audience will find this small, off-kilter gem while its context of graduating high school mid-pandemic is still a fresh, relatable wound.

If there’s any irony in me nitpicking Spontaneous‘s comedy-to-melodrama tonal shift, it’s the way that trajectory matches my very favorite aspect of the film. It perfectly captures the way that high school kids will impulsively say something mean to people who don’t deserve it in an attempt to be funny, then immediately regret that decision. The movie itself has flippant fun with its exploding-teens premise until the blood dries, and it has to clean up the emotional hurt that’s left behind – which is the same natural tendency the lead has to fight in herself as she treats everything around her as a meaningless joke. There’s something distinctly Veronica Sawyer about that character trait, as well as something universal to anyone who’s ever been a moody teenager. This is a fun, cute movie about a fucked-up tragedy, until the fun & cute evaporates and all that’s left is the fucked-up part.

-Brandon Ledet

Black Box (2020)

Black Box is the story of Nolan (Mamoudou Athie), a man suffering from amnesia following severe injury in a car crash that also claimed the life of his wife. He struggles with keeping up with the basics, like eating breakfast, making dinner, turning off the coffee pot, and picking up his daughter Ava (Amanda Christine) after school. Although he wants to go back to work as a photojournalist, his editor (Gretchen Koerner) gently rejects his new portfolio, citing both budget cuts and that his work doesn’t have the spark that it used to. After receiving nothing but negative prognoses for the return of his memories from multiple doctors, he’s not very optimistic when his doctor brother Gary (Tosin Morohunfola) recommends he see a noted specialist, Dr. Lillian Brooks (Phylicia Rashad), who works in the same hospital as Gary. Brooks, through a combination of hypnotherapy and virtual reality brainwave augmentation, tells Nolan that there is hope to retrieve his seemingly-lost years with his wife and daughter. As Nolan starts to go deeper into the titular black box, however, what gets pulled out of his subconscious doesn’t seem to match the life he’s living now. Was he someone else once? Was Nolan once the person who could have done the things that he now remembers? 

Charmaine Bingwa and Donald Watkins also star in this sci-fi thriller from first time feature director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, who also shares a writing credit with Stephen Herman. Both men have experience with several shorts, and it’s not immediately apparent that this is their first feature. It does feel a little slight in places, and it’s not a surprise when Jason Blum’s Executive Producer credit shows up in the early credits, as this feels very much like a slightly off-brand episode of Black Mirror, which is an appellation that could also be applied to some of the more sci-fi slanted episodes of Into the Dark, like All That We Destroy or Culture Shock, but with a sensibility that’s more in the realm of Bloodride. This works better than any of those, however, as it never feels like a TV show, but it does exist in the realm of the near-future speculative fiction indie realm that features pictures like Marjorie Prime.

Between the time that I first started writing this review and picking it back up to complete it, I reread the Wikipedia page for it, and wouldn’t you know, there’s a reason it feels so much like Into the Dark: it’s an “installment in the anthological Welcome to the Blumhouse film series.” Still, it’s worth noting that Into the Dark has still produced multiple films that are actually quite good, and one of them (New Year, New You) even made it into my best of 2019 list. Like New Year, New You, Black Box uses its “smallness” as an asset instead of fighting the smaller budget and trying to make something outside of its grasp, creating a world in which the stakes are personal and rooted in internal struggles with the worst elements of our nature. The twist that centers the film comes very late in the game, but it’s well-seeded with just the right amount of foreshadowing, and there’s still sufficient screen time in the movie’s relatively lean 100 minutes that follow that reveal to let us explore the implications of what we’ve learned and the ethics of what our lead has to do next. But one of the ways that Black Box spins its humble budget of straw into passable onscreen gold is in its cleverness.

For instance, the representative mind world inside the box features a frightening creature in human form but which moves with distinctly inhuman noises (like the cracking of bones) and motions (crabwalking in the upward bow yoga pose); this is accomplished by the hiring of contortionist Troy James for the role, but instead of attempting to CGI a different face onto him, every face in the dream world is initially blurred Ringu style. This is incorporated into the narrative as part of the process, as the blurry face represents an incomplete memory for Nolan to reconstruct. A lesser movie would try to do something more complex and ultimately overcomplicate things, but by leaning into the limitations, Black Box turns them from flaws into strengths. 

I don’t want to spend too much time talking about the film because writing around the twist is always a little tricky. In films like this one, that’s often the main drawing point, and my lifetime love of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits, and Twilight Zone proves that I’m always on board for it, as long as the twist is good. This one’s a little more complex than normal, and it requires a bit of suspension of disbelief, but you’d have to be a real taskmaster for realism to be unwilling to go along with this one. It’s not the strongest one I’ve ever seen in this type of film, but as someone who has the unfortunate writer’s tendency to try and guess the next twist instead of letting the work take me on a journey, this was one in which I couldn’t guess the twist, and that’s always a plus. Luckily, Black Box doesn’t depend solely on that twist, as it becomes a different story afterward, about what the reframing of what has happened so far and what could happen next is a pivot that changes the film but doesn’t muddy it at all, which would be a feat for even a more experienced director. Its only real crime is that it lacks a truly cinematic eye, which is clearly a matter of budget in this case and not behind-the-camera crew. It remains to be seen how many pies Jason Blum can stick his thumb into, and Into the Dark has already run thin in a few places, but you wouldn’t know it from Black Box

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Painter and the Thief (2020)

My favorite documentaries in recent years have been the experiments in style that push the medium to newfound extremes, testing the boundaries of what makes something a “documentary” in the first place. The way titles like Rat Film, The Nightmare, Casting JonBenet and, most recently, Dick Johnson is Dead blur the boundaries between fact & fiction, observation & essay, and all other criteria that separate the documentary from traditional narrative filmmaking has been continually exciting to watch, and it feels like the artform is reaching new creative highs with each new experiment. The Painter and the Thief is of a much rarer breed among recent critically lauded docs, then. It calls back to a type of no-frills documentary filmmaking that doesn’t push its style or formalism to any flashy extremes, because it can easily rely on the stranger-than-fiction details of the story it tells. I’m thinking of titles like Crazy Love, Tabloid, and Three Identical Strangers, except in this case the story is much gentler & more intimate. It aims more for empathy & rehabilitation than it does “Get a load of this crazy shit!” sensationalism, which is more of its distinguishing deviation than any of its experiments in form.

The Painter and the Thief chronicles fine art painter Barbora Kysilkova’s bizarre friendship with a man who was arrested stealing two of her most expensive works. Kysilkova’s both genuinely fascinated by the drug addiction & impulsive behavior that drew this total stranger to stealing her paintings and inserts herself into his life in hopes that the lost (likely sold) works can eventually be recovered. Both of the film’s subjects are skeptical of each other’s intentions. The repentant Karl Bertil-Nordland worries that the artist he wronged is going to exploit or mock him in some way, while Kysilkova can’t help but push him for more details about the lost paintings he claims he can’t remember the fates of. Their initial barriers break down when Bertil-Nordland becomes the subject of a new Kysilkova painting, though, totally flabbergasted that someone would take the time & care to render his face on canvas. The film isn’t in any rush to tease out the stranger details of their relationship from there. Instead, it leisurely draws parallels between the unlikely friends’ lives & temperaments until the story of the robbery that brought them together in the first place comes full circle in its own time.

If there’s anything flashy about the way The Painter and the Thief tells this story, it’s in how it alternates between its two subjects’ perspectives. Both The Painter and The Thief take turns explaining their side of the friendship divide in rigidly partitioned segments, offering as much empathy to both subjects as possible by leveling the platform they share here. That’s not a choice that necessarily reinvents the documentary as an artistic medium, though, more than it is a choice that breaks down the (mostly classist) assumptions the audience might make about what separates its two subjects. Bertil-Nordland’s “Snitches are a dying breed” tattoo & “Fat people are hard to kidnap” novelty t-shirt project a kind of defensive, dirtbag energy meant to keep people like Kysilkova at a distance. The way she reaches past that boundary in her work to truly see him is the real phenomenon explored here, as it highlights how much of a rare occurrence that exchange is in his life. This is a movie interested in interrogating the social, class-based boundaries between its subjects more so than it is in interrogating the boundaries of its medium. It can feel like a traditionalist approach to the material at hand, but it’s also a surprisingly moving one.

-Brandon Ledet

Dick Johnson is Dead (2020)

The central conceit of Kirsten Johnson’s fantasy/documentary hybrid film Dick Johnson is Dead sounds almost too morbid & emotionally traumatizing to stomach for its full 90 minutes. Somehow, though, the execution leaves the film feeling surprisingly lighthearted and, against all odds, cute. The titular Dick Johnson is Kirsten’s father, who is grappling with losing his mind & body to old age & senility. To help prepare for this impending familial loss, the retired psychiatrist agreed to collaborate with his documentarian daughter on a film about his death. Johnson is depicted lying in his coffin, lounging on his favorite chair in Heaven and, most frequently, dying on camera in various mundane accidents that could reasonably kill a man of his fragile age. It’s an exercise that’s clearly meant to function as cinematic therapy for one specific family, but in practice it works as broad, universally relatable gallows humor. We’re all going to die (some of us sooner than we’d like), so we might as well get used to the idea and learn to have a laugh over that inevitable fate.

If there’s anything that’s especially tough to endure as an audience here, it’s in Kirsten Johnson’s lingering loss of her mother, who died nearly a decade ago after suffering a more extreme version of memory loss than her still-living husband. Johnson’s haunted by the irreversible fact that she did not take the time to document & collaborate with her mother while she was still in her prime, a mistake she’s determined not to repeat with her father. By making a film with her father about his own impending death, she’s not only getting comfortable with the reality of that tragedy, but she’s also making sure to spend time with him while she can. Dick Johnson is Dead is gradually less about envisioning its subject dead in a coffin or on an NYC sidewalk and more about documenting his gregarious personality, his most guarded vulnerabilities, and his personal fantasies of an ideal world. Dick Johnson hams up the various performances of his death with broad comedic humor because, at heart, the project is mostly about having fun & spending time with his filmmaker daughter while he can.

Dick Johnson’s escalating senility does limit how far the film’s central conceit can be pushed, both because it would be cruel to make him work long hours on movie sets and because he eventually forgets the fantasy aspect of the project, confusing stage blood for the real thing. Kirsten Johnson isn’t entirely interested in maintaining the structure of that staged-deaths conceit anyway. Much of the film shows her deliberately stripping back the artifice of both the staged-death vignettes and the more traditional documentarian techniques at play. Stunt doubles, boom mic operators, gore makeup technicians, and everyone else involved in the project are allowed to wander into the frame as if this were a home movie of a company picnic rather than a high-concept art project. As a result, the biggest emotional impacts come from intimate moments like Johnson responding “I didn’t know that” to her father’s various anecdotes or from their tough conversations about what freedoms he has to give up as he ages, like the ability to drive. If anything, the staged death scenes are the film’s comic relief, and it’s the quiet moments of idle time in-between where the severity of the situation hits the family (and the audience) hardest.

-Brandon Ledet

Black Bear (2020)

There have been a few truly great entries in what I call the Writer’s Block Thriller genre in recent years, a canon once populated only by Charlie Kaufman screenplays. Titles like Staying Vertical, Sybil, and Ismael’s Ghosts haven’t exactly dominated the pop culture discourse, but they’re fantastically frustrating headtrips for the few audiences who discovered them in their film festival & Netflix algorithm burial grounds. These are films in which a creatively constipated artist stares at the blank page until they go mad, eventually getting further & further wrapped up in pointlessly absurd, go-nowhere conflicts created mostly by avoidance of completing their own work. The Writer’s Block Thriller is often a meta, heavily neurotic genre that’s mostly about their off-screen creators’ personal & professional anxieties more than they are about characters or plot. Even when done well, there’s an embarrassing layer of narcissism that weighs down the exercise, which can feel like reading a stranger’s tell-all diary. When done poorly, it can feel like reading an exceedingly boring stranger’s diary, which doesn’t at all help with the second-hand embarrassment.

Black Bear fits very snugly in the Writer’s Block Thriller genre, if not only because it plays more like an academic writing exercise than it does a complete work. Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, and Sarah Gadon co-star in this meta mental-breakdown thriller as narcissistic filmmakers & artists who are bad at their jobs and bad at their relationships. They start the film as Brooklynite hipsters staging a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? type dinner party from hell while on an artists’ retreat in the woods. Then, their character traits are scrambled & reassigned for a second, paralleled scenario in which they all continue to manipulate & berate each other in feel-bad Edward Albee tradition – this time for twice the length. These two lopsided segments are rigidly separated by chapter breaks & a repeated image that resets the stage like a rotary dial: Aubrey Plaza sitting at a writing desk, frustrated by the blank page. It plays as if writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine had access to a nice woodland cabin location & a few talented actor friends for a long weekend, but no clear idea of what he wanted to accomplish with those resources. You can practically see him sitting at his own writing desk, unable to get any work done because petty arguments with his friends & lover are looping loudly in his own neurotic skull. The result feels labored, uninspired, self-indulgent and, worst of all, pointless.

If there’s anything useful that came out of this Creative Block writing exercise, it’s in gifting the three central actors a lot of archly hyper-emotional dialogue to play around with. I’ve seen some claims that this is Aubrey Plaza’s best work to date, which can only be assumed if you haven’t been paying attention to her work in recent years; she’s been just as great in much better films (Ingrid Goes West, The Little Hours, Joshy, hell even The To Do List & Dirty Grandpa). Still, it’s true that the second, overreaching segment of the film allows her to run wild & manic in a way we only really get to see from Elizabeth Moss in recent years (an unavoidable comparison, given the central premise’s parallels with Queen of Earth), a mode that Plaza is deliciously sinister in. As frustrating as Black Bear‘s structureless meandering can be in a narrative sense, it is consistently impressive as an actors’ showcase. That feels like an intentional feature of the writing too, which loosely sketches each character as an over-the-top stage play archetype rather than a real person. In the film’s best scene, Plaza is trapped at a dinner table listening to a couple systematically contradict every one of each other’s statements in an absurdly endless flood of bickering & snipes – the one time both the writing and the performances seem in sync instead of circling each other in search of a purpose.

The most frustrating thing about Black Bear‘s shortcomings is that it’s totally aware of its own pointlessness. In the opening segment, a character openly asks a filmmaker “How you can you make something if you don’t have anything to say?” with the incredulity of someone who just sat through a screening of Black Bear. Levine even works in a parody of a Kubrickian asshole director who allows his creative hubris to drive his collaborators into the ground with endless takes & headgames in empty pursuit of some unattainable intellectual exercise that’s above everyone else’s heads. By all accounts, Kubrick was a total nightmare to work with, but at least his films all felt like they had a clear vision & sense of purpose. By contrast, this movie feels like a placeholder for an idea that never fully formed by the time production wrapped. If the best Writer’s Block Thrillers feel like reading a filmmaker’s personal diary, Black Bear feels like flipping through an abandoned, forgotten sketchbook. It’s all very lopsided, unfinished, and not quite ready for public view.

-Brandon Ledet

Kajillionaire (2020)

When I was going through a really bad breakup in 2014, there was a quote that I stumbled across on Tumblr (again, it was 2014) that spoke to me on an intimate, deep level. I thought it was part of a poem, but I could never find it again, and I spent six years occasionally plugging the random bits of it that I could remember into Google to see if it would spit out the name of the poem, or the poet. Finally, in September, the search engine of record returned a result. The author was Miranda July, and it wasn’t a poem, it was an excerpt from her book It Chooses You

“All I ever really want to know is how other people are making it through life—where do they put their body, hour by hour, and how do they cope inside of it.”

It may not seem like much to you (although if you’ve ever struggled with depression, it probably does), but I never felt more seen than I did in the moment that I first read this assortment of words in this particular order. How do other people make it through? Where are they parking their bodies and coping inside of those bodies, hour after endless hour? When you’re in the bottom of your emotional well and every hour feels like days, how are you supposed to live with that? I wanted to know and even knowing that someone else wanted to know it too made me feel less isolated and alone.

The answer to that question is not found in Kajillionaire, Miranda July’s 2020 film (she is credited as both writer and director). The film tells the story of Old Dolio Dyne (Evan Rachel Wood), who was so named by her con artist parents in honor of an unhoused person who won the lottery in the hopes that their daughter would be put in his will (in vain). Her father Robert (Richard Jenkins) prides himself on having no interest in or connection to mainstream consumerism, instead preferring to reject society’s pursuit of wealth and the accompanying desire to become “kajillionaires” to instead live a life in the margins, and her mother Theresa (Debra Winger) is in complete sympatico. They’re rejection of the conventional economy extends to making their home in an inexpensive office next to a soap factory, which also includes a twice-daily scooping of soap bubble overflow that comes out of the walls into a drain in the floor. They’re not just freegans, though: they’re pickpockets, scammers, and con artists, meticulously and obsessively keeping track of surveillance cameras and performing elaborate movements to avoid being seen, largely oblivious to the fact that they stick out like sore thumbs otherwise. Since Old Dolio’s childhood, they have split everything three ways. 

After attending a pregnancy preparation course taught by Dead to Me’s Diana-Maria Riva, Old Dolio starts to recognize how little her parents care for her emotional well being (read: not even a little bit). This is exacerbated when, while doing a quick airline luggage fraud scam, Robert and Theresa meet Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) and adopt her into their schemes while also immediately beginning to treat her with more tenderness and concern than their daughter, which does not escape her notice. Seemingly charmed by the thought of Hollywood-style heists, Melanie puts forth the idea of going to the homes of the lonely, elderly customers at the mall-based ophthalmology office where she works and complimenting their antiques until they offer her something of value, which the quartet could then flip. Ultimately, she finds the desperate, morally questionable actions of the Dyne clan to be seedier and less Ocean’s Eleven than she expected, but not before she develops a crush on the emotionally damaged Old Dolio. When Theresa can’t manage to use a single term of endearment for her daughter, Melanie promises to do all of that and more. 

Wood is giving a solid performance here,

On a recent Lagniappe episode of the podcast in which we discussed The Other Lamb, Brandon noted that he thought that the film would fall within my wheelhouse because of my interest in cults, be it real life cults like NXIVM or fictional cults like those in The Lodge and The Endless. And it’s true, and it’s also true that, as we discussed in that episode (and in other places), although I wasn’t raised in a cult per se, I did grow up in a particular segment of Evangelical Christianity that was very particular in its beliefs, and, like the Dyne parents here, created a mythology that was not only outside of and opposed to the mainstream, but was also strictly about opposition to the mainstream as part of its ideology. What really worked for me about Kajillionaire was Robert and Theresa’s strange little beliefs and how those beliefs so heavily affected their raising of Old Dolio not as a child but as a tool. Their self-centeredness and codependence upon each other, to the point of ostracizing their daughter, is played for laughs, and it’s often funny, but it’s also horribly depressing. When Old Dolio wins a trip to New York, her earnest attempts to take the trip with just her mother is not only rebuffed by Theresa, but Robert later uses it to denigrate his daughter as part of one of his many angry diatribes about how their way of life is the only feasible way. When Old Dolio manages to graft the aforementioned lost-luggage-insurance-fraud scam onto the trip to net just enough for the family to pay their back rent, said con involves flying to NYC together and flying back separately as strangers, but George immediately insists that he and Theresa will be a couple, and Old Dolio will travel alone. Not only is an arrangement of Richard flying alone while Theresa and Old Dolio fly together not even considered, but Richard and his wife are true narcissists who only see their daughter as a prop for their “jobs,” and nothing more. 

The Dynes don’t want to be “fake” people, behaving as society expects a parent to, and they find the idea of treating Old Dolio with tenderness as both artificial and patronizing, as if undignified. And I’ll be honest: that speaks to me, too. It’s probably the a reason that I am not very good with children (and wasn’t even when I was one, although there was also the bullying), as I find it hard to engage with them when the situation (very rarely, thankfully) requires me to do so. But this film carries that idea through to its inevitable dark end when applied to parenting, and although the film’s marketing makes it look like this situation will be at least somewhat charming before conflict arises, it’s clear from the earliest moments that this is completely unhealthy, and that the world within which Old Dolio is trapped is one where even the slightest kindness or touch of comfort or is completely alien to her. 

There’s something fascinatingly and fantastically alien about Old Dolio’s situation, on top of and adjacent to the world that the rest of us live in. Miranda July seems to have asked herself about how one extremely specific person was making it through life —where she was putting her body, hour by hour, and how she was coping inside of it. It’s a character study of someone raised in a culture that is invisible, tangential, and almost inconceivable. In that, it’s worth a watch, although I’d wait until after its hefty rental price comes down a little.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond