Monday, July 31, 2023

Review--Nocebo--Lorcan Finnegan (2022)


             Nocebo (Lorcan Finnegan, 2022) even manages to make Eva Green ugly!  Hard to do.

Many people do not take horror films seriously, and just think they are dumb fun without anything really socially relevant to say.  Further, those kinds of films rarely get Oscars, which isn't the only way to judge a film, but it is a way many people align films with their worth.  Sigh.  Sure, some films are more overt about their socially conscious message, but horror films have important things to say about our fears and anxieties, as well as how those fears shape our world.  Most horror makes us fear through the process of "othering," rendering characters who might seem different and strange as monstrous.  Nocebo, Lorcan Finnegan's newest film after Vivarium (2019) goes back to his Folk Horror focus, initially represented in his first feature Without Name (2016).  While I haven't seen either of his previous films, a film starring Eva Green will always be in my "to see" list, especially if it's a Folk Horror film.  Win!!!  Finnegan's film is an astute exploration of inequality and revenge, and once you get to film's end, the message is damn clear.  viewers should be thinking more deeply about where their clothing comes from, and who makes them...but I'm getting ahead of myself.

  Traditional medicine seems to fail Christine, for her symptoms disappear every time she sees a doctor

The film is set in both Ireland and the Philippines, making this work a solid coproduction.  Spectators are first introduced to Christine (Eva Green) while she's at work.  She's a children's fashion designer, and she's putting on a runway show for her latest designs.  Having to take a phone call, we only see her side of the conversation, but she appears deeply upset and says "pulling out bodies" at one point.  Ruh-roh.  My first thought was that either her husband, Felix (Mark Strong) or her daughter Roberta, aka Bobs (Billie Gadsdon), have been in a car accident.  This narrative move seems to be more and more common in horror films with female protagonists.  While Christine is on the phone, a mangy looking dog walks into the showroom, and slowly shakes itself all over Christine, showering her with ticks.  Yeah, it's nasty, but we never learn what the phone call is about until much, much later.  Cut to eight months later, and Christine is a shadow of her former self, with a mysterious ailment that she cannot seem to shake.  Her symptoms weirdly disappear every time she goes to the doctor, and thus Felix thinks it's all in her head--of course he does, because the unsupportive and suspicious spouse is the go-to in horror films that focus on women protagonists.  Then her savior arrives, the lovely and enigmatic Diana (Chai Fonacier).  Because of Christine's frequent memory lapses, she's not at all phased that she has forgotten she's hired Diana, a Filipino woman, to take care of the house and her daughter.

          Diana (Chai Fonacier) employs folk practices to help heal Christine's various ailments

Chai Fonacier as Diana is a force of nature in Nocebo, literally and figuratively.  She arrives, claiming to be there to help Christine, and she does so, using various folk traditions and practices to pull the sickness out of her.  She's a bit mysterious, though, with a shrine set up in her bedroom that she hides away from her employers, and a pile of ash that she leaves in front of her bedroom door--one that a child's footprints are nestled in.  Christine grows more dependent on Diana as time passes, and even Bobs becomes increasingly close to her gentle kindness.  Yet, what is she hiding?  Certainly Felix is extremely suspicious, and feels like he's in an emotional tug of war with her over Christine's well being.

               Diana, as a child, being possessed by the Ongo--one that gives her great powers

Diana eventually discloses to Christine that her healing powers come from her possession by an Ongo, whose powers were passed to her as a young girl when the Ongo originally passed in her childhood home.  Now, Diana has the ability to heal, and to also cause great harm.  Like any good Folk Horror, the cultural clash between this rich, white, privileged family and a poor woman of color struggling to make money determines much of the film's conflict.  Viewers discover later, through flashbacks to the Philippines, that Diana used to work in sweatshop eking out fast fashion in a Philippine city, and her daughter, who she was forced to bring to work with her, perished when a fire erupted in the warehouse.  Crucially, **spoilers moving forward, Diana was making clothing, children's clothing, for Christine.  Once viewers think back to the film's instigating incident, and the start of Christine's mysterious illness, the urgent phone call she takes at her fashion show is news of her workers perishing in this fire.  They were harmed because they were 1) forced to work in unsafe conditions, 2) asked to increase their quota of garments significantly, and 3) locked into the building in order to prevent them from stealing--something that Christine specifically makes a policy.  Diana's long game is revenge.

    Diana's rituals escalate as she "helps" Christine to understand her complicity in her daughter's death

Christine's husband Felix was suspicious of Diana from the start, but Diana expertly uses Bobs as a way to cast doubt on his trustworthiness, asking her to lie in order to turn Christine against him. Then a fortuitous fall over the bannister lands Felix in the hospital, and Diana conveniently steps up her treatment of Christine's illness, including having her slave over a sewing machine in intense heat and without breaks.  While I'm not going to give a way the film's ending, it's pretty damn satisfying.

                           Bobs, as the new Ongo, collects valuable herbs in the forest

Nocebo is unique for its clever mixture of occult and supernatural rituals--with a specific Philippine focus--as well as its frank and powerful indictment of white privilege, fast fashion, and sweatshop labor.  While I do love Eva Green, her character Christine is pretty hard to like by film's end, and her fate seems fair for the crimes she, however unwittingly, commits.  A comment by Diana, that she'll always be with Christine's daughter, Bobs, plays out as true and rather poignant, as viewers witness in the film's final images the young girl communing with the nature that surrounds her.  Finnegan's work here actually makes me want to give Vivarium a try!  Nocebo is currently streaming on Shudder, and highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Review--The Twin--Taneli Mustonen (2022)


           One Creepy kid (Tristan Ruggeri) and Finnish folks with dorky hats are in The Twin (2022)

I was really, really digging The Twin (Taneli Mustonen, 2022) through most of its run time!  Then came the film's ending, and I was so outraged.  Outraged!  

Sometime in the 1980s, Rachel (Teresa Palmer) and Anthony (Steven Cree) are struggling with immeasurable grief, as they lost one of their twin sons, Nathan, in a car accident.  Haunted by this incident, they leave New York City with their son, Elliot, in tow, and travel to Anthony's homeland, a small village in Finland (it was actually shot in Estonia).  The majority of the film takes place here, as the couple and their son hastily move into a giant house in the Finnish countryside in order to start anew.  The house in which the film is set has multiple floors, and seems to be the setting for a former funeral home or mortuary?  It's kind of unclear.  Elliot immediately decides to live at the very top of the house, in the attic, with a super sinister round window at the top, and asks that Mom and Dad put a twin bed in for his dear, departed twin.  Rachel acquiesces to his request, while Anthony immediately pushes back, suggesting that this situation is exactly what "the doctor" warned against.  This set up easily slides into the Haunted Heroine horror film, where a female protagonist struggles with seemingly supernatural events, while everyone else--the local folk, Anthony, and even Elliot--actively question every single move that Rachel makes.  Yet, there's a ton of creepy stuff afoot.

                       Rachel and Elliot cling to each other in the menacing Finnish forest

First, the family visits a local pagan shrine, where if you press your hand against the red handprints on the rock, and make a wish, your wish very well might come true.  Elliot proceeds to "make a wish," and you just know he's wishing for his brother's return.  Then at a welcoming party that the family attends, everyone seems to ignore Rachel, except for the elderly Helen (Barbara Marten), who the villagers believe has a screw loose.  She pulls Rachel aside and tells her that she dreamed of her, and that her son has made a wish, and it was granted.  Ruh-roh.  Not only is Rachel not fitting in, but she and Anthony are compelled to climb onto some giant wooden "wedding" swing as another "pagan" tradition of the town.  As the pagan traditions start to add up, I was getting really excited about a potential Folk Horror title to add to my very long list.  Helen appears to be the only person really willing to talk to Rachel, or take her seriously, especially when Elliot disappears, and then comes back, claiming that he's Nathan.  Sure, Helen equates pagans with Satanists, which is rally sloppy for 2022, but I went with it.

               Rachel, dressed up as some May Queen, is tended to by a bunch of nuns/cultists?  

The strange folk of their new town are rendered stranger at every turn.  At first, they stand around silently, looking disapproving and whispering behind Rachel's back.  Then her visit to the doctor about Elliot's claims (that he's Nathan) just serves to piss her off.  Helen then brings up a cockamamie story about her husband being possessed by some demon, his face twisted into an obscene grimace as he dies a pretty awful death.  There's even one scene that juxtaposes Teresa's weird nightmares/visions with Helen's to suggest that these two women are struggling within a foreign environment (Helen is British) intent on destroying them.  At this point in the film, like Rachel, viewers do not trust anyone, especially Anthony, who comes from this pretty grim place.  Helen also suggests that there are some weird town-related conspiracies involving circles, and we then see numerous rituals on bleak hillsides, where the strange folk are standing in circles, doing who knows what.

                                        Rachel looks pretty awesome in mourning garb

If not for Teresa Palmer's persuasive portrayal of Rachel, this film would be dead from the start, but she's so convincing, that viewers care about the stakes here.  The husband and son are not very well-developed, but after they move to Finland, Anthony comes across as a gaslighting mastermind, who has the whole town convinced that Rachel needs medicating.  In fact, there are numerous shots of Rachel waking up in bed after being dosed with a hypodermic.  What are these people up to, you wonder, as clumps of townsfolk stare, and stare at her.  As I said, the explanation jettisons all the potential Folk Horror/possession/haunting possibilities.  **SPOILERS FOLLOW Turns out, according to that jerk, Anthony, that he and Rachel never had a twin, that Nathan died in a car crash where Rachel was driving, and that she's just crazy, hallucinating another twin when there isn't one.  Oh, and Helen's clearly crazy too, just as the rest of the town thinks she is.  Sure, the Haunted Heroine narrative always oscillates between supernatural happenings and unreliable narrator madness, but something about The Twin felt cheap and dirty in choosing to end the film this way.  Leaving the cemetery one last time, with her family's two gravestones in front of her, Rachel climbs into her car to discover that EVERYONE'S ALIVE, including the imaginary twin she created.  Basically, the ending completely negates all of the spooky stuff happening throughout the earlier portions of the film, rendering any supernatural questions pointless.  The "it was all just a dream/delusion" finale does not feel earned, and I'm still angry at the bait-and-switch.  Perhaps the "she was always just insane" approach has worn thin for me, but The Twin, now streaming on Shudder, disappoints.  NOT recommended.

Monday, July 10, 2023

Review--Huesera: The Bone Woman--Michelle Garza Cervera (2022)


   The baby causes grave consequences in Huesera: The Bone Woman (Michelle Garza Cervera, 2022)

First off, a warning:  If you hate the sounds of knuckles cracking, and bones breaking, that snapping sounds that makes one flinch, then this film is not for you.  I'm just pointing out one of the chief ways that horror is produced in Huesera: The Bone Woman (2022).  Pregnancy horror has been a hot horror topic for quite some time, including everything from Rosemary's Baby to the recent 2021 film False Positive, but Michelle Garza Cervera's debut film provides a unique perspective on the topic.  The film has many of the common tropes--unsupportive family members, insensitive partners, tone deaf medical practitioners, a woman alienated from her own body--but it views these challenges in a woman's life through a queer viewpoint.  The film is not only a deeply empathetic character study of its protagonist, Valeria (Natalia Solian), but also mixes in Mexican folklore to create a truly chilling portrait of the ambivalence, depression, and despair many women feel when they are compelled to fit into a heterosexual world and its restrictions--including having a child.

Raul (Alfonso Dosal) only treats Valeria (Natalia Solian) with impatience as the film evolves

Valeria is married to Raul, who works in advertising, and she's trying to get pregnant, with the usual après sex legs-up calisthenics common to this desire.  Their married sex is very perfunctory.  She actually prays to the Virgin Mary with her mother in order to achieve this goal, and lo and behold, she's pregnant. What so few women realize is that in both Mexican and U.S. culture, childbearing and rearing are what women are supposed to do, and they are not fully prepared with the loss of individuality and the push toward conformity that motherhood entails.  In flashbacks, viewers discover that Valeria was once a free-wheeling punk in a queer relationship, preparing to leave town with her girlfriend, Octavia (Mayra Batalla).  With the sudden death of her brother, Valeria makes the choice to stay with her conservative family, instead of escaping the expectations that confine her.  She has made the choice to make her family proud by marrying a man, and conforming to the heterosexual life that her family demands she have.  The tensions around her queer sexuality come across in numerous jabs and insults that her parents and sister hurl at her, reminding her of some babysitting accident in her past that taints her, and just telling her to suck it up as she struggles with her new condition mentally and physically.

                     Valeria's sneaking of a cigarette will soon be punished beyond imagining

As a young, fledgling furniture designer, she makes unique furniture, but is told by her doctor that she should quit, because of the fumes.  Soon she's left home alone, and bored, while Raul is off to work.  One evening, upon waking, she sneaks a cigarette, only to watch a woman across the way, climb on top of a balcony and jump.  Yet, when Valeria looks at the ground, the woman slowly rises, her bones cracking as she stumbles upright, her body unnaturally shifting and moving in a jarring manner.  Raul convinces her that it's all a dream, but it isn't, and watching everyone gaslight Valeria and think that she's crazy is a bit frustrating.  The film implies that watching this death has tainted her, and dark magic must be used to help her escape from the horrors that consume her, and her newborn daughter.

                   Valeria's journey to motherhood and beyond affects her body significantly

The Mexican folklore that the film employs is fascinating.  Here's a summation of the legend from a Nerdist review of the film: "The film’s title itself stems from the legend of La HueseraThis Mexican myth is about a woman who collects animal bones—specifically from wolves—until she has a complete skeleton. She sings life into those bones, bringing the creature back from another realm. It runs free towards an open horizon, sometimes transforming into the shape of a woman. The bones represent the life force within us that doesn’t want to be tamed. And La Huesera seeks to restore what is lost." This folklore translates perfectly into Valeria's despair over her now "tamed" life, for she has chosen to conform to the expectations that Raul and her family have for her.  She repeatedly escapes, to the punk clubs and to Octavia, to experience that untamed freedom once more.  While Raul shies away from having sex with Valeria after she conceives, proclaiming a fear of hurting the baby, she finds someone comfortable with her body and desires when she visits Octavia.  Their relationship is loving, supportive, and buoyed by their shared desires and understanding. 

Valeria goes to some brujeria to help free her from the Bone Woman's influence

While some spectators might be disappointed by the relative lack of blood and gore in the film, cracking bones and writhing bodies are certainly unnerving, and the hallucinatory events that occur once Valeria visits the brujeria are both beautiful and revelatory.  I found myself completely invested in Valeria's emotional landscape, and I also found the ending very satisfying and fair.  Not everyone might agree, but the struggle between her desires and everyone's expectations that Valeria undergoes is concluded without any real plot holes, and is also distinctly sympathetic and supportive of her queer identity and her desire for her daughter's health and happiness.  Huesera: The Bone Woman is currently streaming on Shudder.  I highly recommend it!

Thursday, July 6, 2023

Review--Infinity Pool--Brandon Cronenberg (2023)

It's hard to feel sorry for James (Alexander Skarsgard) in Infinity Pool (Brandon Cronenberg, 2023)

I really loved Brandon Cronenberg's last film Possessor (2020), so a new film starring Alexander Skarsgard and Mia Goth was high on my list.  I was only slightly disappointed by the film, but as a visually arresting spectacle, it was a trippy and provocative experience.  Like Mandy (Panos Cosmatos, 2018), the film has some fun drug trip representations, which places it's narrative in that liminal space between waking and sleeping, real and fantasy.  The story is fairly straightforward, but the soundtrack, visuals, and "message" combine to create truly unique cinema.  This film may not be for everyone, but I dug it!!

Infinity Pool starts in media res as James Foster (Alexander Skarsgard) and his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman) wake up in their hotel room at a posh resort in Li Tolqa, a fictional place that was filmed in Sibenik, Croatia, with some scenes shot in Hungary.  They go to grab some breakfast and James soon encounters a fan of his book, Gabi (Mia Goth), and her husband Alban (Jalil Lespert).  For context, James is a "one book" novelist basically kept by his rich wife, and his one book was published by her father.  He and Em have come to Li Tolqa for "inspiration" since he's had writer's block for years.  To actually find someone who has read and LIKED James's book stokes his wounded ego, and he and Em decide to hang out with the other their detriment.  They go to the beach, and...let's just say Gabi gets handsy on the beach, and James does not say no.  Ugh.  He's already such a loser.

     James and Em decide to hang out in the afternoon with Gabi and Alban outside the resort

Of course, everyone gets too drunk to drive, and James gives it a go, but with the car's electrical system failing, he hits someone driving back to the resort.  Gabi and Alban insist that they should not call the police.  Nevertheless, James and Em are roused out of bed by the police and taken to the station to sort this mess out.  As the trailer gives away, SPOILER, Li Tolqa has some very unique rules, including tourists not leaving the resort compound.  If you commit a crime, the punishment is EXECUTION! Yes! I think I would have done my homework before vacationing in this place, but just like everywhere, if you're rich, there's a workaround for that.  As Thresh (Thomas Kretschmann), the head of the police,  explains to the couple once they admit what happened, if you pay enough money, you can have a double made--someone identical to you.  Don't get too hung up on the process by which this happens in this so-called poor country--it's the film's conceit, but an important one.  James gets smothered in red goo, and then he wakes to find out there's another one of him, identical in every way.

                                              James prepares to be cloned or doubled

Once the double is made, the eldest born son of the person who was killed must murder the criminal that did the deed, or its double, while the OG criminal (maybe) must watch himself be stabbed to death.  Pretty sick.  Once that experience is over, Em wisely wants to get the fu** out of there, but James's passport is missing, so he cannot leave with her.  He gives her permission to leave without him, and since she's still utterly destroyed by what she was forced to watch, she's thinking that this place, this marriage, THIS GUY is not for me.

Meanwhile, James seems to have a new lease on life, now that he can murder someone and get away with it.  He thinks it's his entrée into a rare club of rich folks, led by Gabi and Alban, who commit crimes and then watch themselves die, repeatedly.  He's definitely along for the ride.  As the locals celebrate before the monsoon season hits, and most of the resorts shut down, our gang of rich white a-holes wear some pretty freaky masks, and then run around hurting people and committing crimes.

                   Gabi encourages James to shoot some people already!  Everyone's doing it!

                               Gabi shows James how it's done in her own inimitable way

Mia Goth, as Gabi in Infinity Pool, is giving this performance at ELEVEN.  Seriously, you know she's kind of terrible, but at the same time she's so magnetic and out of control, she's really the heart of this film.  I loved watching her easily convincing James to commit ever increasingly horrible acts of violence, and she is luminescent onscreen.  

As a film that centers sex and violence, Infinity Pool is visually gorgeous--largely due to several drug trips the characters take in the course of the film.  

                                        Mia Goth, luminescent as Gabi in a drug-fueled orgy
Because the film is entirely through James's subjectivity, the line between fantasy and reality is almost always unclear.  Add some hallucinogens to the mix, and it's hard to tell who he's having sex with and how.  SPOILERS FOLLOW.  The nasty rich gang coerces him into participating in the brutal beating of Thresh, the head cop, and he inhales drugs in order to amp up his violence, only to discover that he was actually pounding the crap out of his own double--something Gabi and friends think is funny.  "It's just a prank, James."  When he runs away from this scenario, and returns to his room at the resort, he hurtles into the bathroom and grabs his passport, which he was hiding taped under the toilet.  Yes, he hid his own passport, so he couldn't leave with his wife!  Yet, when he finally  tries to leave the resort, the nasty rich folks are not having it, and spectators discover that Gabi, et al, have something even more vile in store for him.

                                          James's latest double on a leash, and ready to kill him

Key to enjoying the film's ending is caring one iota about James, which I just never do.  He never strays from his pathetic path, and he's in this mess all due to his weak ego, and his fertile desire to belong to the wealthy class.  The breastfeeding scene (yes, there is one) suggests that James has been reborn, and in a way, he has been.  The question is how many times?  Quite frankly, who knows how many doubles are out there by film's end--or who is the OG James.  I'm not giving away the ending, but it felt very meh to me, and I'm much more interested in what Gabi's up to in Los Angeles.  Still, Infinity Pool is a visually provocative film worth watching, and if you are not too upset by the weirdness, give it a spin.  The film is currently streaming on Hulu.

Sunday, July 2, 2023

Review--Unwelcome (Jon Wright, 2022)


After a brutal home invasion, Jamie (Douglas Booth) and Maya (Hannah John-Kamen) move to Ireland

As I'm working on a book on Folk Horror television right now, I'm always eager to watch anything that might be categorized as Folk Horror.  Jon Wright's Unwelcome (2022) is a demented little film that I really enjoyed, as it combines home invasion, folk horror, and creature feature into a fun package.  Yes, I'm "spoiling" the film a bit by highlighting the home invasion in my caption, but this break-in provides the motivation for Maya (the always fabulous Hannah John-Kamen) and Jamie (Douglas Booth) to move into his Aunt Maeve's place in rural Ireland.  A helpful neighbor, Neve (Niamh Cusack) impresses on the couple that Maeve practiced "the old ways," and that she left a blood offering for the Redcaps nightly, in order to satisfy their hunger.  When Maya takes this information in, she finds it quaint and rather silly; she's a Londoner, so she has no clue what Irish folklore--and stories of the far darrig--might entail.  Of course, all this "discussion" gets viewers primed for the Redcaps, and inevitably, Maya forgets to put out an offering, so....

 The Whelans at work--Eion (Kristian Narn) and Aisling Whelan (Jamie-Lee O'Donnell) cause trouble

Since Maya and Jamie have a huge hole in their roof, amongst other home repair issues, they hire a local Irish family, The Whelans, to do the repairs.  Led by "Daddy" Whelan (Colm Meaney), this bunch are stereotypically scary country folk who harass the new homeowners at every turn.  This rough bunch come across as shockingly similar to the home invaders that attacked the couple at the film's beginning, and the locals are not fans either.  The Whelans bring the necessary conflict to make the heavily pregnant Maya even more terrified in her new home.  Thus far, the supernatural elements seem less threatening than the Whelans.

Maya lets her curiosity lead her into the land of the fae, behind an ancient wooden door.  Here she finds a mystical forest, and an underground series of tunnels.  She also happens to encounter Eion Whelan (Kristian Narn), an abused son of Daddy, who takes a liking to Maya and her kindness. As soon as spectators think that Maya and Eion are bonding, he takes things too far and Mays screams for help.  Suddenly and brutally, Eion is pulled off of her, and she tears out of there, running in terror back to her home.

              Maya's curiosity compels her to explore what lies behind the old cottage door

Once Jamie returns home, he finds Maya terrified, recounting the story of what happened in the forest beyond the door.  Jamie doesn't believe her, and goes off to the pub, thinking she has "baby brain."  While he's away, she has a visitor.

                                        A Redcap visits Maya while Jamie's away

The film takes a rather drastic tonal shift once we see the Redcaps for the first time, as they are rather hilarious in a Jim Henson kind of way, rather than a terrifying way...until they bring Maya a gift--Eion's head in a plastic bag.  That's around the time when the film goes bananas, and pretty much stays that way until the very end, with gallons of bloodshed, a surprise birth, a trip down to the Redcaps cave, and the anointing of a new leader for the Redcaps to worship and revere.  Makes you want to move to rural  Ireland immediately. NOT.

                                                      Blood rains down on Maya

While Unwelcome hits many familiar notes, it's the Redcaps that keep you glued to Maya and Jamie's struggle.  The film is equal parts menacing and goofy, making for a relatively light-hearted, fun watch in the end.  It's not particular frightening, but horror doesn't always have to be, especially when a film deliberately injects comedy into its veins.  Definitely worth a watch.  Unwelcome is streaming on Shudder right now.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Review--She Said (Maria Schrader, 2022)


   Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) and Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) expose Weinstein in She Said (2022)

She Said, Maria Schrader's stunning 2022 film is a different kind of horror story.  One with which all women might identify.  Working, living, and loving in U.S. patriarchal society tends to play the horror of sexual harassment, exploitation, loss of bodily autonomy, fear of rape and murder, and other systemic inequalities on an endless loop.  I had heard about this film, and have had the book by the two journalists on my "to be read" pile for quite some time, but I cannot believe I waited so long to see this utterly riveting, powerful film.  Also, the terrific Maria Schrader, director of 2021's I'm Your Man, and star of the incredible Deutschland series ('83, '86, '89, streaming on Hulu), directs some gifted actors in this film--Carey Mulligan, Zoe Kazan, Patricia Clarkson, Andre Braugher, Samantha Morton, and Jennifer Ehle, to name a few luminaries.  Even though we know the ending of this tale, which focuses on the explosive publication of the Pulitzer prize winning news story that took down Harvey Weinstein, I think you'll still be compelled by this film's strong storytelling.

The film opens with a lovely Irish lass heading over to a film shoot, where they are filming some pirate ship on the water in 1992.  Cut to this young woman running through the streets, crying and holding her clothes close as she tears away from something terrible.  The film comes back to this event later in the narrative's trajectory.  Suddenly we're in 2016, and now New York Times reporter Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) is meeting with a woman who plans to come forward to accuse Donald Trump of sexual misconduct.  As Twohey moves forward with the article's publication, she gets a call from the Orange Blob himself, calling her a "disgusting creature." Another jump in time has this guy winning the U.S. presidency, starting the "nothing matters" era that seems to be the world in which we're living.  Megan's pregnant with her first child--what a world to bring a kid into--and the film shifts momentarily to her eventual partner-in-crime, Jody Kantor (Zoe Kazan), who's chasing a story on sexual harassment and misconduct in Hollywood, zeroing in on another creepy big guy with too much power--Harvey Weinstein.

                     The painful experience of postpartum depression consumes Megan

She Said focuses on women's experience, whether its at home, in marriage, or in the workplace.  I was both surprised and delighted about the integration of Twohey and Kantor's personal lives.  When Megan returns to The New York Times after maternity leave, her boss, Rebecca Corbett (Patricia Clarkson) comes across as both caring and concerned about Megan's physical and emotional wellbeing.  Her support of both journalists seems a little bit "too positive," regarding The Times' position in all this, but I'm willing to allow for it, considering all the time viewers spend at the NY office.  Jody reaches out to Megan, and here again, their conversation about being a new parent, and what a struggle it is, seems incredibly sensitive.  Likewise, the portrayal of their marriages is also thoughtful, really showing the challenges of creating a work/life balance.  Kudos to them both for finding such supportive partners!

                 Jody (Zoe Kazan) holding another heartbreaking interview with a Weinstein victim

Once Megan signs on to help Jody with the story, the rest of the film consists of the two interviewing woman after woman, trying to get each of them to go on the record about their experience working for or interacting with Weinstein.  Just like the journalists, viewers realize how high the stakes are getting, as well as how terrified the victims are, as these experiences become more and more ubiquitous. (Side note: I was lucky enough to be attending the Sitges Film Festival when the news broke, and "the shitty media men" list was circulating as well.  I said to a fellow critic at lunch that I didn't know if any of this stuff would make a difference.  Little did I know! October 2017 was the beginning of a reckoning that still has legs).  Ashley Judd, as one of the only actresses initially willing to put her name and reputation on the line, cameos as herself in the film.  Weinstein torpedoed her career when she rejected his grabby hands, and it's amazing to see these events retold within this film.

      Zelda Perkins (Samantha Morton) bravely hands over incriminating documents to Jody

The thing that some people do not realize, especially people who have never experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault, is that the experience marks you, stains you, changes you.  Your place in the world feels tenuous and precarious, your worth questionable.  You blame yourself, just as others will assuredly blame you.  She Said not only captures the stories of some of these incredibly brave women coming forward, but also examines the ripple effect that sexual assault creates--everyone whom you confide in or love will likely be touched by these experiences.  These moments do not just "go away", and justice is seldom achieved.  The film keeps ratcheting up the suspense for much of the runtime as repeated women meet with Jody and Megan, but are too afraid to go on record.  That's why when women ] start saying they will come forward, viewers cry the same tears Jody does while watching.  The film is intense, but not in a bad way.

                         Weinstein enters the New York Times offices with his lawyers

By the time Weinstein enters the New York office to confront the journalists crafting the story, with women lawyers to boot, I just wanted him to pay already.  Of course, he denies everything, and bullies Megan as she meets with them, silently listening to their defense, the camera slowly zooming in on her stoic features.  The film emphasizes the team effort it takes to bring this story forward, and the long hours and numerous disappointments that it took to get there.  After reviewing it again and again, the editor of The New York Times performatively presses "publish" onscreen.  The rest we can easily recall.  As just a reminder, in February of 2023, Weinstein would get an additional 16 years added to his 23 year sentence after his trial in Los Angeles.

Thankfully, the film barely shows Weinstein, although his presence looms large.  The film's focus is on Twohey and Kantor, two persistent women journalists who broke a huge story, and pushed a snowball that was big when it started, and is HUGE now as it continues to roll over some of these "shitty men" in its path.  Yet, for all the complaints about "cancel culture," and the fragility of men now in terms of their so-called victimization, plenty of them are not yet canceled--Mel Gibson, Kevin Spacey, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Louis CK, among others. She Said stands as a testament to what holding men accountable looks like, and we should keep doing it, especially for those who think of themselves as potential leaders for the United States.  The film is a triumph, and is available to stream with an Amazon Prime subscription.  I'm excited to see what Schrader does next, and this film should have won a ton of awards and accolades.  Highly recommended.

Friday, June 23, 2023

Review--Consecration--Christopher Smith (2023)


As a someone who was raised Catholic, I think almost all religious films, and religions, are scary.  My take is that Catholicism is a cult just like any other, and the Pope and his cadre of guys are the cult's leadership.  I'm also a pretty big fan of Jenna Malone, the star of Christopher Smith's latest horror thriller, Consecration (2023), so ignoring the disappointed and disappointing reviews of the film, I jumped right in.

         Grace (Jenna Malone) is a hardworking ophthalmologist trying to help her patients 

In the first few minutes of Consecration, Grace is walking down a London street when suddenly a nun in a pristine white habit points a gun at her...fade to black.  I like this beginning.  Call me intrigued and ready for more!  Switching to the present day, Grace is meeting with a blind woman and her husband, and suggests that there is a way to bring her sight back.  She then receives a phone call that her brother, a priest named Michael, was involved in what the police believe is a murder/suicide at a Scottish convent.  Grace doesn't believe that Michael could kill someone, let alone himself, and goes to the Mount Savior Convent on the Isle of Skye to investigate.  Cue sweeping vistas and sky-high seaside cliffs, as well as some really lovely drone shots of driving through the scenery.  Stunning.  The film actually reminds me of Mariano Baino's 1993 Nunsploitation shocker Dark Waters, with equally weird and malevolent nuns and just a touch of Folk Horror.  

              Grace sees the body of her brother Michael's body (Steffan Cennydd)

Grace is not buying the story the nuns are giving to the cops, particular DCI Harris (Thoren Ferguson), who is in charge of the investigation.  Why isn't there sand all over him if he died on the beach, she asks.  Well, Mother Superior and her mysterious fellow nuns are definitely hiding something.  Also on the case is Danny Huston's Father Romero, sent by the Vatican to consecrate the church and deal with a missing relic situation.  He appears to be helping Grace, but one scene gives away the game when Grace is not present.  Of course, as a Vatican "enforcer," he's not to be trusted.  He provides Grace with a book in secret code written by her brother--one that only she can read.  Kind of cool.  Lots of religious talk about there being "one true God," etc.  Again, like Dark Waters, viewers are not quite sure what God that might be, since the practices by the nuns are rather strange.  

Upon reading her brother's coded journal, Grace starts to experience a stream of confusing visions and hallucinations.  She has a very strong connection to Michael, in life and death, and not only does his spirit warn her, but she "sees" his torture by a priest and nuns when she touches an area where he has been.  What gradually unfolds is a traumatic past full of religious zealotry, child abuse, and children kept in cages.  Further, when the two children are on the way to being adopted after their mother's death by their father, a priest boots little Michael out of the vehicle and tries to chloroform Grace.  Things do not go well.  She also has strange flashbacks to experiences a century ago, where she's a little girl wearing a weird mask, and worshipping some deity above.  Definitely some folk horror practices going on.  Time bounces back and forth without clear boundaries, as Grace seems to see things from the past and the future.  No wonder in adulthood, Grace turned to science, while Michael fell deeper into religion.  Now, it seems there's a reckoning, as Grace investigates the secrets the convent is hiding, and how they connect to a traumatic past she is eager to forget.

                  Mother Superior (Janet Suzman) believes that the "relic" is Grace herself

Throughout the film, Grace is progressively stripped of her independence, as the convent places more and more restrictions upon her.  Also, nuns seem to end up dying right and left, by their own hand.  One minute they are brandishing a scary knife.  The next, they are dead.  Grace becomes more and more frightened as she watches these "murders" unfold, and the cops are highly interested in her.  Strangely, DCI Harris, when faced with these strange occurrences, steadfastly thinks it's all hooey.  Despite the occasional moment with another character, for expositional purposes, viewers are never far from Grace's side, and we are consistently meant to identify with her as she investigates these mysteries.

                         Grace begs Father Romero for help, surrounded by nuns

One of the penultimate showdowns between Grace and this cult is quite a spectacle, and the choreography of their religious rituals is definitely one of the visual highlights of the film.  Father Romero keeps saying "my child" to Grace in the most disingenuous way, but based laid cult plans!  I have to say, when viewers start to get answers to what's going on, I thought, "Oh. That's really dumb." Yet, you cannot just accept the film's "conclusion" at face value, because there are two, count them, two explanatory codas, that make spectators question everything that came before.  Like his previous film, Triangle, Consecration is certainly twisty, with some last minute reveals that sometimes hit and miss. Still, the nun with a gun comes back, and the very last death in the film is kind of great.  Sure, the death is a little cliché, but for me, that particular jump scare never gets old.  Consecration is not a great film, but it's pleasantly watchable, with a good performance by Jenna Malone, and a bunch of creepy nuns.  If you find religion terrifying, this film will hit some of your sweet spots.  It's streaming now on AMC+.