After Yang (2022)

Do you think Colin Farrell starts his workdays by looking in the mirror and declaring, “I’m going Lobster Mode on ’em”?  At the time, The Lobster felt like a significant departure for the pretty boy Irish actor, but he’s played enough emotionally hollowed sad sacks in the years since that Lobster Mode Farrell has become its own subgenre: The Beguiled, Voyagers, Widows, Killing of a Sacred Deer (obv), and now the sentimental sci-fi chiller After Yang.  I expected Farrell’s post-Lobster run to show off much more range in his new turn as a Serious Actor, but he only breaks out of Lobster Mode when he’s working in goofball genre films (see: Farrell going Penguin Mode in The Batman).  For the most part, if you’re casting Colin Farrell in a sincere drama, you’re going to get the same quiet, inward brooding with the same furrowed brow and the same gravely grumble of a voice he’s been delivering since he first worked with Lanthimos in 2015.  He’s good at it, but it would be nice to see him perk up a bit.

The gloomy predictability of Farrell’s performance aside, I was thrilled by After Yang as an ultra-modernist sci-fi picture . . . for its first half hour.  It leads with its best scene: a DDR-inspired opening credits montage where several families compete in an online dance-off in impossible, isolated photo-shoot voids.  It really gets the blood pumping, only to coast from there on waves of loneliness & grief.  Farrell stars opposite Jodie Turner-Smith as adoptive parents of a young Chinese girl (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja).  They are loving but inattentive, purchasing an android model (Justin H. Min, the titular Yang) as a babysitter & Chinese Cultural Ambassador, looking after their child while feeding her a steady stream of “Chinese Fun Facts.”  Most of the movie is concerned with what happens after Yang stops functioning and is effectively decommissioned.  Is he an appliance they should leave on the curb with the rest of their weekly suburban waste, or is he a legitimate member of the family deserving of a respectful burial?

Reductively speaking, this is the mawkish family-drama sci-fi of Bicentennial Man repackaged as a quieter, more cerebral meditation like Marjorie Prime.  My declining interest in its central story was more a question of genre tastes than artistic success, as director Kogonada only uses the thrills of future-tech paranoia as a starting point for a much calmer, less sensationalist conversation.  Farrell’s rattled patriarch starts the film skeptical of the inner lives of the clones & technosapiens that now live among traditional humans, a cultural conservatism that’s reflected in his life’s work cultivating & brewing authentic teas (in a future-world that’s converted to single-use packages of flavor crystals).  He pays shady characters to break into the deceased Yang’s memory banks, fearful that they’ll find spyware recordings of his family’s intimate moments, but instead he discovers that Yang was his own separate person with his own inner life.  Yang’s stored memories play like a film school thesis project from a young director who just saw their first Malick – collecting small, sunlit details from the world around him in a digital scrapbook that’s useful to no one else outside his head. 

That switchover from cybertech paranoia to lingering questions about the borders between humanity & its closest imitators is admirable, but it doesn’t leave much of a narrative drive to propel the movie across the finish line.  When it’s a seedy backroom thriller about A.I. surveillance, it has its hooks in my flesh.  After the switch, it’s just mildly melancholic & sweet, with about ten consecutive endings it quietly drifts past in search of a grander purpose.  It doesn’t help that Farrell goes full Lobster Mode in this instance, since his low-energy moping does little to fill the void left by the genre switch.  I had some hope in the opening minutes that Kogonada made the actor jump around to shake himself loose & awake with some DDR choreo, but he immediately regressed to his Lobster state in the very next scene.  At this point, I have to assume that’s exactly the performance he was hired to deliver, considering that he’s been reluctant to try anything else in recent years, at least not when the role calls for a Serious Actor.

-Brandon Ledet

Neptune Frost (2022)

At its best, cinema is honest artifice.  At its best, cinema is fiercely provocative & political.  It’s a shared dream; it’s poetry. Neptune Frost is cinema at its best.  The genderfucked Afrofuturist sci-fi musical is the kind of start-to-end stunner that feels so peerless in its fury & creativity that there isn’t a clear, pre-established critical language to fully discuss what it’s doing.  In genre terms, it triangulates unlikely holy ground between the communal-solidarity sci-fi of Bacurau, the dreamworld lyricism of Black Orpheus, and the “Hack the planet” online resistance culture of Hackers.  Otherwise, it’s untethered to tradition, using the digital tools of internet-era filmmaking to build an entirely new cinematic sensibility from scratch.  While so many genre filmmakers are stuck mining the past for retro nostalgia triggers, Saul Williams & Anizia Uzeyman are honest about the look & means of the moving image of the present, and as a result Neptune Frost feels like the future of sci-fi in the medium.

Neptune Frost‘s resistance to clear comparison or definition is integral to its design.  It boldly opposes every institutional structure it can hurl a brick at, from major oppressive forces like Capitalism, Christianity, and rigid Gender boundaries to more pedestrian concerns like Plot.  There are two lovers at the center of its loose, musical fantasy: a coltan miner mourning the loss of his brother and a non-binary traveler mourning their loss of place & community.  They find each other in the Rwandan savanna, and their love for each other combines with their hatred of modern civilization to create a new way of engaging with spiritual life & the physical world.  Other refugees & dissidents appear drawn to their subsequent political commune like a spiritual magnet, finding a way to collectively “hack” into the world’s computer systems from their remote locale through the power of their own hearts & minds.  Enough characters have names like Innocence, Philosophy, and Tekno that Neptune Frost feels like it should have a clear metaphorical guide to its scene-to-scene events, but I would be lying if I could say that I can make full sense of it (or that I’m even confident about my vague overview of its big-picture premise).  Since it’s all conveyed through music & poetry, though, it doesn’t have to make logical sense; it just has to be emotionally potent, and I felt every minute of it deep in my chest.

I do believe there is a clear guiding force to its political messaging, at least.  As much as it sets out to methodically undermine every single institutional structure in its path, it’s all filtered through a very specific disgust with the mining of coltan in countries like Rwanda, where horrifically exploitative working conditions are treated as a necessary evil to powering the world’s smartphones.  It’s openly confrontational about this trade-off, starting with a needless death in a coltan mine and referencing “Black-bodies currency” in its free-flowing song lyrics.  The beauty in its political subversion is in the way its savanna hacker commune turns the tools of their oppressors against them, using the community of online connection to overpower the systems that profited from its creation.  It’s a purely electronic mode of spirituality & political fury that feels more real & vital to modern life than the organized religions & pre-existing political movements it’s supplanting.  I don’t know that it offers a clear, real-life solution to the exploitation of coltan miners, but it does have a clear ethos in how online political organization is necessary to create meaningful change in the physical world, despite the exploitation that makes that connection possible.

The closest I’ve seen previous experiments in form approximate Neptune Frost‘s specific mode of political-resistance sci-fi euphoria was in the feature-length music videos Dirty Computer & When I Get Home.  I love both of those films for their boldness in pushing the medium to its outer limits, but I don’t think even they quite match Williams & Uzeyman’s far-out achievements here.  More importantly, they’re both relatively recent works, which means Neptune Frost is at the forefront of something new, something not yet fully defined.  It’s a thrill to behold, even with the uneasy balance between its political hopefulness and the real-world misery that drives its resistance to current status quo.

-Brandon Ledet

The Science of Sleep (2006)

I don’t know that we’ve ever given Michel Gondry his full due as a visual stylist and an auteur.  While other Twee-era directors who came up while I was a high school art snob are still regularly working and relatively celebrated—Wes Anderson, Miranda July, Spike Jonze, etc.—Gondry’s name isn’t often referenced as one of the aughts’ absolute greats.  And yet, his combination of arts & crafts whimsy and gloomy French New Wave dramatics are so specific & idiosyncratic that I often see direct echoes of his work in titles like Dave Made a Maze, Girl Asleep, and Sorry to Bother You (which does name-check Gondry, to its credit).  You’d think that this year in particular would be the one that inspired the most breathless, fawning articles on Gondry’s post-Twee legacy, though, considering that two of the best films of the year so far—Strawberry Mansion & Everything Everywhere All at Once—are so strongly, undeniably influenced by his work.  I wonder if it’s the bitter taste of Gondry’s debut feature as a writer-director (as opposed to his more iconic music video work or his non-writing credit for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) that has tempered his legacy as one of the greats.  Beyond its surface-level cuteness, The Science of Sleep is a deeply unpleasant, emotionally troubling watch, which makes it a tough sell as the purest feature-length form of Gondry’s vision as an auteur (despite that being a fairly standard internal conflict for Twee art in the aughts).  It’s also pretty great.

Revisiting The Science of Sleep felt like reliving the best and the worst parts of my college years in the aughts: the excitement of for-its-own-sake art collaboration and the complete ineptitude at healthy romantic interaction.  I even acquired my used DVD copy of the film in the exact way I would have back in 2007: plucked it off a shelf at the Goodwill (although I just as likely would have found it on a Blockbuster Video liquidation table the first time around).  Gael García Bernal stars as a toxic indie scene fuckboy who immaturely rejects the idea of settling for an office job even though his macabre, mediocre illustrations of famous tragedies are never going to pay his bills.  He’s a dreamer in the truest sense, struggling to differentiate between his nocturnal fantasies and the doldrums of his waking life.  He’s also a selfish baby.  When he moves in with his mommy to take a dull calendar-printing job that she arranged for him, he finds himself smitten with her next-door neighbor, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg.  The neighbor is delighted by the fuckboy’s crafty creativity and values him as a friend & artistic collaborator.  The fuckboy badly wants that friendship to turn into a romance and throws a feature-length temper tantrum when he doesn’t get his way.  From the outside, The Science of Sleep looks like a cute, whimsical romance between a couple of wide-eyed twentysomethings who’ve watched one too many Agnès Varda films.  On the inside, it’s a rotten little story about how inept all twentysomethings actually are at friendship & romance, especially entitled young men who don’t know how to handle rejection with grace.

Gondry offers plenty ammunition to audiences who want to treat Twee art as whimsical fluff.  The film opens with the whiny babyboy hosting a dreamworld cooking show, explaining to a delighted TV studio audience how dreams are prepared – stirring random thoughts, reminiscences of the day, memories of the past, and earworm pop songs into a giant gumbo pot, and voila.  The stop-motion, papier-mâché, cut-and-paste surrealism of the dream sequences that follow is a wholesome delight, in sharp contrast with the toxic, selfish behavior of the manic pixie fuckboy protagonist.  Gondry shoots the waking scenes in a handheld documentarian style, while the dream sequences that frequently interrupt that real-world drama directly echo his iconic D.I.Y. dreamworlds in music videos like “Everlong,” “Bachelorette,” and “Fell in Love with a Girl“.  In general, I don’t think people give the aughts era of Twee art enough credit for being emotionally challenging & bleak, likely because the romance & whimsy of its visual style is so pronounced.  Even at the time, though, The Science of Sleep tasted sourer than most of its peers, smashing the romance of its dreamworld fantasy sequences against its characters’ cruel, immature behavior in a volatile mismatch of tones (as opposed to the more subtle melancholy of most Twee art).  It’s a conflict that worked for me a lot more on this recent rewatch than it did at the time, because all I knew then was that the lead made me uncomfortable and the movie wasn’t as romantic as I wanted it to be.  That discomfort feels more purposeful & self-aware now, especially since I can see my younger self’s worst behavior reflected in the main character’s glaring faults.

Gondry continued to work well after The Science of Sleep, with plenty of highs & lows in his creative flow.  His underseen, underrated drama Mood Indigo was an excellent continuation of the bittersweet Twee of his debut; his director-for-hire work on the superhero action comedy The Green Hornet was an all-around disaster; and the quirky crowd-pleaser Be Kind Rewind falls somewhere in-between those extremes.  I’m not sure he ever recovered from the perception that his debut as a writer-director was a step down from his much more beloved work on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, though, which in effect made Charlie Kaufmann appear to be the true genius behind that project.  That’s a shame, since I find Gondry to be the more consistently rewarding, emotionally engaging artist of that pair, and the works that have been inspired by his distinct visual style are more often among the best new releases of their respective years (whereas I can die happy without ever seeing another Kaufmann-inspired psych drama about writer’s block, or whatever).

-Brandon Ledet

Crimes of the Future (2022)

He has not announced plans to retire, but if Crimes of the Future does end up being David Cronenberg’s final film, it would be an excellent send-off for the director’s career.  Just as A Dirty Shame registers as the perfect marriage between John Waters’s early-career transgressors and his late-career mainstreamers, Crimes of the Future lands midway between the sublime body-horror provocations that made Cronenberg famous and the philosophical cold showers he’s been taking in more recent decades.  It’s less of a complete, self-contained work than it is a loose collection of images, ideas, and in-jokes aimed at long-haul Cronenberg sickos.  It’s got all the monstrous mutation & fleshy, fetishistic penetration of his classic era, which makes it tempting to claim that the body horror master has returned to former glories.  It presents those images in the shape of his more recent, more talkative cerebral thrillers, though, as if to prove that nothing’s changed except that’s he’s grown out of a young man’s impulse to gross his audience out.  Crimes of the Future is the kind of film that’s so tangled up in the director’s previous works that it makes you say things like “‘Surgery is the new sex’ is the new ‘Long live the new flesh'” as if that means anything to someone who isn’t already a member of the cult.  And yet it might actually be a decent Cronenberg introduction for new audiences, since it’s essentially a scrapbook journal of everywhere he’s already been.

If there’s anything missing from Crimes of the Future that prevents it from reaching Cronenberg’s previous career highs, it’s not an absence of new ideas; it’s more an absence of narrative momentum.  Much of it functions as a dramatically flat police procedural, gradually peeling back the layers of a conspiracy theory that never feels as sharp or as vibrant as the future hellworld that contains it.  It’s a pure, playful exercise in complex worldbuilding & philosophical provocation, which are both major markers of great sci-fi no matter what narratives they serve.  Cronenberg essentially asks what our future world will be like once we inevitably accept the New Flesh mutations of his Videodrome era body horrors, as opposed to recoiling from them in fear.  He imagines a scenario where the pollution of accumulating microplastics in our bodies has triggered a grotesque evolution of new, mysterious internal organs that are hastily removed in surgery as if they were common tumors.  Meanwhile, our new bodies have essentially eradicated pain, making the general populace a depraved sea of self-harming thrill seekers.  A murdered child, an undercover cop, a network of paper-pushing bureaucrats, and a nomadic cult of proud plastic eaters all drift around the borders of this new, grotesque universe, but they never offer much dramatic competition to distract from the rules & schematics of the universe itself.

Crimes of the Future is at its absolute best when it’s goofing around as a self-referential art world satire.  Its most outlandish sci-fi worldbuilding detail is in imagining a future where high-concept performance artists are the new rock stars.  Viggo Mortensen stars as “an artist of the interior landscape,” a mutating body that routinely produces new, unidentifiable organs that are surgically removed in ceremonious public “performances.”  Léa Seydoux stars as his partner in art & life, acting as a kind of surgical dominatrix who penetrates his body to expose his organic “creations” to their adoring public (including Kristen Stewart as a horned-up fangirl who can barely contain her excitement for the New Sex).  Cronenberg not only re-examines the big-picture scope of his life’s work here; he also turns the camera around on his sick-fuck audience of geeky gawkers & fetishists.  It’s all perversely amusing in its satirical distortion of real-world art snobbery, from the zoned-out audience of onlookers making home recordings on their smartwatches, to the hack wannabe artists who don’t fully get the New Sex, to the commercialization of the industry in mainstream events like Inner Beauty Pageants.  Although it appears to be more self-serious at first glance, it’s only a few fart jokes away from matching Peter Strickland’s own performance art satire in Flux Gourmet, its goofy sister film.

I hope that Cronenberg keeps making movies.  Even five decades into his career, he’s clearly still amused with his own creations, when there’s big-name directors half his age who are already miserably bored with their jobs.  Hell, he doesn’t even need to create an entire new universe next time he wants to write something.  Crimes of the Future‘s plastic gnawing, organ harvesting, surgery-fucking future world is vast & vivid enough to support dozens of sequels & spin-offs.  It turns out you don’t even need much of a story to make it worth a visit.

-Brandon Ledet

Gagarine (2022)

In the early 1960s, the Communist Party of France funded the construction of the Cité Gagarine housing project in the Parisian suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine.  On a practical level, the building was intended to house low-income Parisians & immigrant communities in its near-400 units.  On a more symbolic level, it was intended as a monument to the power & possibility of Communist ideology in France.  To that end, Cité Gagarine’s opening was commemorated with the attendance of the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin—the first human to reach outer space—who also inspired its namesake.  To me, Gagarin is only significant as the muse for a kickass PJ Harvey song (simply titled “Yuri G“), but a half-century ago he was a much more inspiring symbol of the endless possibilities of a Communist Future, in France and beyond.

That dream apparently ended in the late 2010s, when Cité Gagarine was demolished for not keeping up with modern public health & safety standards in the decades since its construction.  As the Communist Party of France lost its financial & political sway, no other governmental power stepped in to support the Cité Gagarine residents.  First-time directors Fanny Liatard & Jérémy Trouilh are obviously fascinated by the political symbolism of Cité Gagarine’s history & demolition.  Their 2015 short Gagarine was inspired by interviews with the real-life residents of the housing project in the months before its condemnation, and they’ve since expanded the project into a debut feature of the same name.  It’s a small, intimate drama with huge, Paris-wide political implications about both the current state of European politics and what communal solidarity & resources have been lost from more hopeful eras of the past.

Newcomer Alensi Bathily stars as the aptly named Youri, the last true believer of the Yuri Gagarine dream.  As Cité Gagarine is being forcibly evacuated, the teenage Youri has nowhere to turn, so he decides to squat until the building is physically destroyed.  A lifelong astronautical obsessive, he converts the abandoned building into a kind of D.I.Y. spaceship, recruiting as many fellow teens as he can for his naive mission into the uncertain beyond (including The French Dispatch‘s Lyna Khoudri as an amused love interest).  What little community is left in the aftermath of Cité Gagarine’s closure is only held together by Youri’s stubbornness.  He inspires fellow tenants with solar eclipse watch parties and analog retro-futurist refurbishments to his living space, but it’s just not enough to overcome the cold, bureaucratic indifference of the modern world.  No matter how much beauty or community Youri finds in his home, recent history has already decided his mission is doomed.

Gagarine maintains a striking balance between grounded, pessimistic realism and the magical thinking of a young mind still awed by the possibilities of life.  It searches for a far-out middle ground between a twee version of Silent Running and a distant galaxy where the Dardenne brothers occasionally lighten up.  As often as the film slips into heart-soaring escapism, it’s also balanced by a wealth of archival footage from Cité Gagarine’s history that makes it clear that fantasies of a bigger, better life were always part of its design (including footage of Yuri Gagarine’s attendance at the building’s inauguration).  Gagarine has had a slow international roll-out since it first premiered at Cannes in 2020, which speaks to its relative anonymity as a low-budget coming-of-age indie drama, but there is something special in its heart and its historical context that merits more attention than it’s ever likely to get.

-Brandon Ledet

Umma (2022)

A few months ago, it was baffling that a Sam Raimi-produced horror film starring Sandra Oh was getting so little press coverage in the early weeks of its theatrical release.  Now that I’ve seen it for myself, I totally understand the lack of enthusiasm.  Umma follows through on its promise of giving Oh the same heightened-emotions acting showcase that similar recent horror films like Hereditary, The Babadook, The Invisible Man, The Night House, and Here Before gave their own lead women in distress.  The problem is that it aspires to participate in that distinctly modern subgenre without fully understanding its appeal.  Umma indulges in the go-to themes of post-Hereditary trauma horror while backdating its filmmaking sensibilities to the look and feel of mainstream horror in the aughts, somehow offering the worst of both worlds.  It’s useful as a glimpse into what aughts horror might have been like if its protagonists weren’t 100% white by default, but it’s even more useful as a counterpoint to contrarians who claim A24 & other “elevated horror” peddlers have ruined the genre in recent years.  Things used to be way duller, and not that long ago.

Every post-Hereditary trauma horror needs a blatant 1:1 metaphor to dictate all of its scene-to-scene scares.  Umma claims the cliché anxiety “I’m turning into my mother” as its own metaphorical territory.  Given how common the cyclical, hereditary nature of abuse is as a go-to theme in modern horror, that might not sound specific enough of a metaphor, but Umma takes the phrase “I’m turning into my mother” very literally.  Not only does Sandra Oh’s childhood abuse survivor start to repeat her mother’s cruelty while raising her own daughter (influenced by her mother’s ghost, of course), but she also physically mutates to look like her, forming CGI wrinkles & drooped cheeks in her most monstrous moments.  She is haunted by her mother, but she is also transforming into her.  There’s some genuine, heartfelt drama to be mined from that premise, making it very clear why Oh found the project so promising as an actor that she also put her weight behind it as an Executive Producer.  Her only mistake, apparently, was in not pushing screenwriter Iris Shim to hire a more visually ambitious director.

Umma is well considered in its narrative & themes, but it’s got absolutely nothing going on visually or tonally that feels fresh or even up to date.  It just played in theaters a few months ago, but it feels like watching the last leftover DVD from the Blockbuster Video going-out-of-business sales that you just never got around to.  It can be interesting to see that dusty aughts-horror aesthetic applied to the story of a Korean American family, and the film’s most memorable visual details are directly tied to that cultural POV: kumiho attacks, haunted hanboks, creepy wooden masks, etc.  It’s a shame, then, that those details couldn’t be brought into the meticulous visuals & atmospheric tones of the A24 horror aesthetic that guided its choice of themes.  The dingy, underlit basements & attics where it stages most of its ghost attacks are shot with an outdated, uninspired visual eye that hasn’t been seen onscreen since the 2000s remake cycle of titles like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas, and The RingUmma is Shim’s debut feature, so I hope that if she continues to work in horror, she’ll take more inspiration from the genre’s recent visual & tonal trends along with its function as a metaphor machine.  As is, it seems like she’d be more at home directing TV – a writer’s medium.

-Brandon Ledet

Watcher (2022)

According to my count, there have now been four significant riffs on the classic paranoia thriller Rear Window in the past year, each starring freaked-out, disbelieved women in the James Stewart role.  That trend could a response to the increased social isolation during the pandemic making us simultaneously agoraphobic and nosy about strangers’ lives (now seen entirely through the digital windows of social media apps).  Or it could just as likely be that Hitchcock’s’ influence is eternal, and several Rear Window projects have happened to bottleneck in their distribution paths at a weirdly apt time.  Either way, Chloe Okuno’s debut feature Watcher is done a huge disservice by this sudden deluge of Rear Window riffs, maybe even more so than its unintended sister films.  Understated & unrushed, Watcher is a little too lacking in scene-to-scene tension and overall novelty to stand out in its crowded field (bested by both Kimi & The Voyeurs in those rankings, surpassing only The Woman in the Window).  I appreciate the icy mood it echoes from post-Hitchcock Euro horrors of the 1970s, and the stern narrative follow-through of its ending is almost enough of a shock to make up for the preceding dead air, but I’m not convinced that’s enough to make it especially noteworthy or even worthwhile.

Maika Monroe (It Follows) stars as an out-of-work actress who moves to Bucharest at the behest of her workaholic boyfriend (Karl Glusman, Devs).  Alienated by her endless days alone in the apartment and her inability to speak Romanian, she becomes more of a quiet observer than she is an active participant in her own life.  Worse yet, a neighbor she can see from her apartment window has taken to staring back with an intense fixation on her every move, even when she leaves the relative safety of her new home.  The actress is convinced her stalker is a neighborhood serial killer known as The Spider, so she sends the few men in her life to violently threaten him & interfere before his obsession gets out of hand.  As their patience for humoring her suspicions wears thin, Watcher becomes a fairly typical Believe Women thriller.  Its only distinguishing details, really, are the fashions & architecture of its Eastern European setting and the cold, stubborn brutality of its conclusion.  It’s thematically rich in its intricate gender politics, especially in the way Monroe is dismissed & infantilized by the men in her social circle and endangered by demonstrating even the most benign friendliness to male strangers. The tonal & visual expressions of those themes are just a little too calm & well-behaved for the movie to stand out as anything special.

My fixation on Watcher‘s lack of novelty is likely just as much of a result of seeing it in a film festival setting as it is a result of its recent competition among other, flashier Rear Window updates.  Watcher played at this year’s Overlook Film Festival among dozens of similar low-budget genre films with their own abundance of pre-loaded comparison points.  To my eye, it’s the one that most suffered from its dedication to long-running genre tradition (at least among the nine titles I watched at the festival), precisely because it’s the one that was least interested in attention-grabbing novelty.  And yet it’s the one title that was simultaneously playing in AMC theaters elsewhere in town, while most of the bolder, weirder Overlook titles I caught will get nowhere near screens that size.  I appreciated the opportunity to see Watcher in a theatrical environment, since its distribution through Shudder means most audiences will force it to compete with smartphones for their attention when it inevitably hits streaming.  It’s a pretty good movie with admirable political convictions and an effectively eerie mood.  It’s just also nothing special, really, at least not when considered in comparison with its competition – Overlook, Soderbergh, Sweeney, or otherwise.

-Brandon Ledet

Mad God (2022)

By the time Phil Tippett’s stop-motion freak show Mad God closed this year’s Overlook Film Festival, it was up against a towering wall of anticipation – not just from over the weekend but from decades of production delay.  The finished product was very divisive in the room.   It was my favorite movie I saw all festival, while the lovely chap I was chatting with in line on the way in said it was his absolute worst.  Teasing out his reasons for despising it, it sounded like he experienced Mad God purely as a for-its-own sake immersion in scatological mayhem, with no meaning or emotion behind its non-stop, nonsensical gore gags.  He also had no idea what the movie was about or how it was made before the screening started, other than it was one of the more hyped titles on the program.  Knowing Mad God’s backstory as an abandoned project from the early 90s that was recently completed through horror nerd crowdfunding on Kickstarter, I found it to be an oddly touching reflection on the creative process, the indifference of time, and the cruelty of everything.  We’re probably both at least a little bit right.

There’s no spoken dialogue in Mad God, nor is there a discernible narrative.  It’s a movie built entirely on nightmare logic, where one bizarre event mutates into another with no strict reasoning behind the progression. It’s mostly an animated experiment in scale.  A faceless soldier with no discernible personality or inner life follows his mysterious master’s marching orders to explore a post-apocalyptic hellscape populated by specimen-jar freaks of all shapes & sizes.  It’s like the unexplained, awesomely scaled Space Jockey reveal in 1979’s Alien repeated over & over again as our faceless, soulless protagonist explores dank hellpits populated by grotesque monstrosities big & small.  The scale of these hideous creatures’ violence also varies wildly, from petty squabbles over who has to shovel the shit of the bigger monsters that tower above them to real-life footage of nuclear blasts.  Phil Tippett did not work on the special effects for Alien, but he did work on other beloved genre classics like Star Wars, Robocop, and Starship Troopers.  If Mad God is “about” anything in particular, it’s about displaying the full dark magic of what his stop-motion wizardry can do on-screen.  The clay soldier is more of a starting point than a proper protagonist, as the movie has more to say about Tippett’s adventures in the industry than it does that disposable, replaceable explorer.

The story goes that Tippett began working on Mad God while doing the animated effects for Robocop 2 in the early 90s.  When he was subsequently hired for special effects work on Jurassic Park, he was convinced that the stop-motion medium was an inevitable dead end, soon to be replaced by animatronic sculpture & CGI.  The project was then shelved for three decades until younger collaborators in love with his traditionalist techniques convinced Tippett to complete the abandoned project.  Smartly, he appears to have left the original, shot-on-film footage from the project’s early days mostly untouched.  The first half is like a lost artifact from an era when artists like Dave McKean, the Quay Brothers, and Jan Švankmajer ruled over a steampunk hellworld that’s since been paved over by brightly lit computer graphics.  The original footage ends with the clay explorer being decommissioned & dismantled, and we cut to modern digital footage of fellow genre filmmaker Alex Cox (as a wizardly Tippett surrogate) plucking an identical, soulless soldier from his vast, unanimated supply to send on another mission in new dank hellpits with new grotesque monsters haunting them – now in crisp HD.  Tippett marks the passage of time between these bifurcated segments with repeated images of clocks, candles, death, and rebirth.  In the tension between its two parts, it becomes a self-reflective story about the resilience of personal creativity.  As an artist he has no choice but to keep sending his little soldiers out into the cruel world, hoping one of them one day completes their mission.

Mad God is meticulously designed to either delight or irritate.  It’s especially grating in its soundtrack’s relentless use of crying babies & ticking clocks, making a large contingent of the audience wish the term “Silent Cinema” was literal.  You can count me among the awed freaks in the room who never wanted the nightmare to end, though, especially since I doubt I’ll ever have the chance to see it projected on the big screen again.  Catching Mad God at Overlook was vital, even though it will soon be streaming on Shudder in a more accessible, affordable presentation.  I don’t know that I’d have the mental willpower to watch the entire runtime without glancing at my phone when it’s available to stream at home, but in that theater I was outright mesmerized.  It’s a spell that doesn’t work on everyone, but it’s a powerful source of creative dark magic if you can open yourself up to it.  Knowing the backstory of how it was made might be an essential part of that receptiveness, but it’s a stunning work of visual art no matter the context.

-Brandon Ledet

Hypochondriac (2022)

Hypochondriac is a slow-building psychological horror in which a clay potter is haunted by the physical manifestation of his childhood trauma.  Whatever expectations you may have about its tone or intent based off that description and the nonstop flood of self-serious Trauma Horror that’s followed in the years since Hereditary is likely off-base.  To start, the metaphorical Trauma Monster is represented onscreen by a low-rent Halloween-costume wolf, falling somewhere halfway between the Donnie Darko bunny & The Babadook.  Furthermore, the monster wolfs ass.  Hypochondriac is an irreverent, queer, oddly erotic approach to mental breakdown psych-horror.  It never fully tips into horror comedy territory, but it constantly prods the audience to laugh for much-needed tension relief.  More atmospheric horror films about Trauma & Grief would do well learning from its levity.

We meet the adult version of our potter-in-crisis dancing to Jessie J while working a shift at the LA hipster pottery boutique that pays his bills.  He appears relatively happy & well-adjusted considering the violent childhood clashes with his schizophrenic mother that creep up in sporadic flashback.  He’s employed, romantically paired, stable.  That is, until a single phone call from his estranged mother’s cell sends him spiraling – losing his mind, the function of his hands, and every relationship he’s built as an independent adult in his freaked-out moments of dissociation.  The Donnie Darko-inspired Trauma Wolf who appears during these episodes doesn’t physically attack him, exactly, but it scares him enough that he hurts himself.  His unresolved, unsafe relationship with his mentally ill mother (and his own loosening grip on reality) is the real villain of the story, and the wolf mostly show up as its mascot.  When they touch, it’s more often to make out than it is to tear each other apart.

Hypochondriac is more charming than it is thrilling or scary, but it does have plenty of charm.  From its flashes of heartfelt romantic tenderness to its ZAZ-level parody of the pottery wheel scene from Ghost, the movie is a constant surprise in a way that few Trauma Metaphor horror films have been in recent years.  It has its own unique visual language in a way you wouldn’t expect from such a low-budget effort, framing most of its action through the fish-eye lenses and high-angle pans of security cameras but breaking off into kaleidoscopic mirrors in the most intense moments of dissociation.  Director Addison Heimann is brimming with D.I.Y. ambition here, and judging by the “Based on a real breakdown” title card that kicks this off, it’s all coming from such a personal place that it’s easy to root for him.  I can’t say his debut feature is a knockout, but he has my full heart and attention.

-Brandon Ledet

Deadstream (2022)

Because I’m such a glutton for screenlife horror films, my expectations when approaching each new entry in the genre are pitifully low.  For every genius laptop-POV thriller out there like Unfriended, Host, and Spree, there’s ten times as many dull, uninventive imitators like Searching, Safer at Home, and Untitled Horror Movie.  Screenlife filmmaking is such an easily affordable, attention-grabbing gimmick that the genre has become overcrowded to the point where it’s no more of a novelty than carbon, oxygen, or tap water.  I’m still always thirsty for more found footage chillers about cursed internet broadcasts, though, so I couldn’t resist the unassuming haunted house horror comedy Deadstream when I saw it on the program for this year’s Overlook Film Fest.  I went into the movie expecting more post-Unfriended mediocrity, which is likely why I found it such a constantly surprising delight.  It got huge laughs in a way that transported me back to Overlook’s joyous screenings of One Cut of the Dead the last time the festival was staged in-person in 2019.  It’s easy to roll your eyes at the simplicity & tardiness of its premise in a market overcrowded with so much screenlife #content, but Deadstream is a verified crowdpleaser.

Deadstream essentially does for Blair Witch what Host did for Unfriended: borrowing its basic outline to stage a chaotic assemblage of over-the-top, technically impressive scare gags.  A found-footage horror comedy about an obnoxious social media influencer getting his cosmic comeuppance while livestreaming his overnight tour of a haunted house, it also functions as a kind of internet-era tech update for the vintage media nostalgia of the WNUF Halloween Special.  The influencer in question is a smartass YouTuber with a popular channel named Wrath of Shawn and a sub-Ryan Reynolds sense of humor.  He’s occasionally funny but relentlessly grating, not to mention casually sexist, racist, and classist.  Hot off six months of “cancellation” for an “insensitive” YouTube stunt he’s reluctant to sincerely discuss, he attempts to earn back his audience & sponsors with a night spent in the aforementioned haunted house.  There, he runs afoul the ghost of “Odd Duck Mildred”, a Mormon-raised poet and victim of suicide who violently hijacks his livestream to promote her own poetry.  Even while being supernaturally tortured for his sins against humanity & good taste, Shawn remains brand-conscious in his self-referential catchphrases and shameless audience engagement tactics – a true heel to the end. 

The shitheel YouTuber’s way of delivering frat boy one-liners in a Steve from Blue’s Clues voice is dead-on in its parody of social media celebrity.  He’s so heavily weighed down by his camera equipment & brand-awareness duty to his sponsors that it’s impossible to get him to interact with the world outside his tablet screen with any semblance of sincerity. Thankfully, Mildred is there to slap him around as an undead audience surrogate, throwing exponentially absurd, gross-out scares in his path until the entire house is crawling with spooks & ghouls who’ve joined her cause.  The movie itself never feels like a mess, though, despite its potential to devolve into the found-footage equivalent of Spookies.  It’s very careful to explain the camera angles, editing tech, and audience input that makes its live-feed broadcast plausible, down to Shawn visibly pressing play on his Walkman’s pre-loaded “Shawn Carpenter” soundtrack to build tension.  There’s an ambition in thoroughness & scale here that represents the very best of what the screenlife format can do for filmmakers with little funds but plenty imagination.  Deadstream is an excellent argument that the genre is still thriving even as it’s become more pedestrian.  More importantly, it’s a very funny, effectively scary horror comedy where the worst things happen to the worst kind of person.

-Brandon Ledet