Swim At Your Own Risk

Infinity Pool

by Hope Madden

Brandon Cronenberg + Mia Goth + Alexander Skarsgård … for a very specific set of people, the sum there is hell yes.

Riding my favorite wave in horror – that rich people are unspeakably diabolical – writer/director Cronenberg takes us on a strange journey through privilege, debauchery, entitlement, boredom, narcissism, psychotropic drugs and more in his trippy new flick, Infinity Pool.

Skarsgård is James Foster, a writer of very little renown who’s vacationing on a fictional island nation with his wealthy wife (Cleopatra Coleman). They’re bored, but as luck would have it, James’s number one fan Gabi (Goth) and her husband have vowed to show them a good time.

Cronenberg’s ultimate concept is clearly, wildly his own, but moments sometimes call to mind ideas from last year’s Speak No Evil, as well as Society, Kill List, Hour of the Wolf, and A Serbian Film (no, not that part). Still, the film never feels borrowed. Uncomfortable, yes. Borrowed? No.

James represents the regular Joe – yes, a very good-looking version, but regular, nonetheless. And no matter how long he plays the part, he’s an outsider. The truly wealthy are alien. Beyond the sci-fi insanity, beyond the outright body horror, this is the most horrific element of the film because feels honest. It touches a nerve.

In 2020, Jeff Bezos racked up more than 16k in parking tickets. Because, why not? He wanted to park there. Once you reach a certain tax bracket – which is the one where you pay no taxes at all – no rules apply. And that does not create better people.  

It’s fascinating and refreshing, this particular approach to the story. These particular villains. And Goth proves once again to be a seductive menace and a force to be reckoned with.

There are certain scenes in this – one in a group holding cell at the island prison, for instance – that are as insightful, impressive and memorably horrific as anything any Cronenberg has filmed.

It’s hard to believe this is only Brandon Cronenberg’s third feature. It does not pack the visceral punch of 2020’s Possessor, but it is a satisfyingly surreal piece of class warfare and an outstanding way for the genre to kick off 2023.

Crimes and Punishment

Kompromat

by Tori Hanes

Two full hours of grit, sweat, and anxiety from all participants, both in the film and out. That’s what you can expect from the latest by director Jerome Salle. 

Kompromat is one of those unnerving instances for reviewers where your technical training and study of film confuses your internal perception. The film excels where it is meant to: it’s tense to the point of unbearable anxiety. It’s forcibly eye-opening, and it’s nauseatingly realistic. Lead actor Gilles Lellouche gives a standout performance as a grounded, gritty, desperate, resourceful anti-hero. The story, while seemingly convenient at times, builds masterfully while swerving down winding thoroughfares. 

The viewing experience itself can be defined as less than pleasant. While Salle succeeds at delivering a hard-to-watch movie, he also creates… a hard-to-watch movie. 

With something so viscerally unsettling, you might expect your worldview to be heightened as a result of the painstaking two hours spent. Kompromat doesn’t exactly succeed in this – it paints the illustration of a wrongly accused straight, white, French man in Russia’s highly unprogressive society. All facts and facades we’ve seen at play before. So it begs the question, what is the point?

The point, quite bluntly, seems to be tension. Building it, releasing it, savoring it. If the film makes you break a sweat, the crew can pat themselves on the back.

Obviously, there are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. Draping the background with a seemingly pressing political story convolutes the film’s actual intention. If Kompromat could be obvious in its goal, a more palpable connection between audience and film could be forged. Instead, there seems to be some thrashing in the netting Salle creates.

While Kompromat excels at holding a consistent fever pitch, it allows itself too much freedom. The two-hour runtime feels like a dumbbell lowering suffocatingly onto your chest. The film’s consistency in story and performance through the overly long run is a testament to Salle’s command of scene and pace but shows a streak of overindulgence. 

If your New Year’s resolution is to elevate your heart rate for 2 hours at a time, pick this up. If breaking a sweat while sitting on your couch isn’t appealing, you may want to skip out on Kompromat

Mission Impossible

The Mission

by Christie Robb

Tania Anderson’s documentary The Mission details the lives of four very young adults as they embark on two-year missions to try to spread the word of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to the population of Finland. Finland—a country in northern Europe with a high per-capita income, one of the best educational systems in the world, an extensive social safety net, and one that has ranked number one in every annual report of World Happiness since 2018. Not the kind of place where people are likely to be shopping for a new religious modality.

Barely out of childhood, the two American men and women spend a few weeks in a kind of missionary boot camp in Utah before being thrown into a new country, expected to converse with the locals despite only knowing a few stock phrases (and often stumbling over those) and ultimately convince them to convert. Their lives are regimented. Expected to rise at 6:30 AM each day and begin work, they are assigned a companion—a stranger—who spends all “non-hygiene-related time” with them for nine weeks before the companion is replaced with another. They are only allowed contact with family and friends once per week. And they have to pay for the privilege of doing this. The Church does not subsidize its missionaries.

Anderson emphasizes the loneliness. She lingers on the barren, spare quarters in which the subjects live. She uses long establishing shots of the landscape to show how small they are in this new country. She lingers on conversations that strain the viewer’s ability to handle social awkwardness.

In contrast to the aims of its subjects, the documentary itself is not preachy. It covers enough successful conversions and strengthening of faith to balance out the coverage of those dealing with doubt and existential despair. However, this balance is delivered at the surface level. We don’t really get to know any of the four subjects and what motivates them in any profound way. Their reasons for taking on this task, the logistics of the financial commitments, the cultural differences between Americans and Finns, and the missionaries’ personal struggles are only hinted at or covered at the depth one might expect while making small talk at a church bake sale.

The mission takes place between 2019 and 2021 and, unbelievably, it does not consider COVID-19 and the impact it had on a socially-focused pursuit, at all.  Nothing about the fears these folks had at being stuck in a foreign country when the borders started closing. Nothing about how they reacted when millions of mink that had been culled from fur farms in nearby Denmark started to rise from the grave. There are some shots toward the end where the missionaries are wearing masks, but aside from that, the pandemic is completely erased from existence, much in the same way that you are likely to forget this entirely adequate documentary after you have watched it.

Or Don’t

Maybe I Do

by Hope Madden

Writer/director Michael Jacobs is best known for producing TV shows that speak to teens: My Two Dads, Boy Meets World, and Girl Meets World. But just seconds after what feels like the longest pre-film credits in the history of cinema, his feature film Maybe I Do makes certain we know this is not that.

The romantic dramedy enlists four truly great veteran talents to take a peek at romance, love, and existential angst in your sixties.

Grace (Diane Keaton, who executive produces) can’t help but notice Sam (William H. Macy), who’s sobbing at a foreign film as he dumps M&Ms into his popcorn tub. She reaches out to him because he “seems distressed.” He assumes that, as she is also alone at a movie, she, too, is distressed.

She admits she is, but honestly, there’s nothing wrong with going alone to the movies. I’m saying that, not Diane.

Anyway, they bond. Meanwhile, Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon quietly out-hot each other. And across town, young Michelle (Emma Roberts) questions an uncertain future with Allen (Luke Bracey).

So, the film offers three different vignettes of couples talking, arguing, and ruminating about love until worlds collide in the most obvious and contrived way possible. The sheer volume of cliches at work here could drown out almost anything of value, but how do you dismiss a film starring Macy, Keaton, Sarandon and Gere? Even the tritest dollops of wisdom sound charming and/or wizened coming from one of these four.

Gere and Macy together are a particularly tender treat, and while I applaud the actors and the opportunity the film allows, this scene best articulates the movie’s most nagging weakness. The whole film is sad for successful men who are dissatisfied with how their lives turned out. No one on earth is less pitiable than a successful middle-aged white man and his angst over what he hasn’t accomplished. But Gere and Macy almost make it work.

The second biggest problem is that the film hits traditional romance so hard. The act that has Michelle rethinking her relationship with Allen should be a red flag, an end to the relationship. Instead, it becomes a “marry me or it’s over” ultimatum. No. No! And then the whole film, one brimming with wildly unhappy marrieds, intends to prove to us all that you just have to go ahead and take the leap with someone who publically humiliated you to make sure they didn’t have to commit to you.

No.

Maybe I Do is unabashedly romantic, deeply traditional, well-meaning and tired. So tired. But at least you get to see four tremendous actors riff off each other for 90 minutes.

Parks & Resignation

Living

by George Wolf

It shouldn’t take a film such as Living to make us realize what a treasure we have in Bill Nighy.

But then it shouldn’t take a grim diagnosis for Rodney Williams to seek true meaning in his life, so maybe Nighy’s long wait for a first Academy Award nomination is somehow cosmically right.

In this adaptation of Kurosawa’s 1952 classic Ikiru (To Live), Nighy earns every bit of that Oscar nod as “Mr. Williams,” the humorless manager of a public works office in 1950s London. Various floors full of buttoned-up civil servants pass on projects to other departments until the papers finally come to rest on one desk or another, with piles always kept as high as possible so co-workers won’t “think you have nothing better to do.”

Mr. Williams doesn’t, until a fateful trip to the doctor makes him realize how sad this is. A night out with that rascal Sutherland (Tom Burke) offers some cheap thrills, but it’s the persistence of the local ladies petitioning for a new public playground that give Mr. Williams the chance to leave a legacy.

Nobel prize-winning writer Kazuo Ishiguro adapts Kurosawa (and lands his own Oscar nom) with a script that shaves about 45 minutes off the running time while it adds layers of beauty and sentiment. Mr. Williams’ distance from his son becomes more heartbreaking, while the relationships with his two youngest employees (Alex Sharp and Aimee Lou Wood) are given more arc and resonance.

Director Oliver Hermanus replaces the original film’s clinical narration and B&W palette with gentle grace and the splendidly picturesque cinematography of Jamie Ramsay. Outside the office confines, this is a gorgeous London of crisp lines among detailed color, light and shadow, all in orbit around a lead performance of endless humanity.

Nighy is just the epitome of wonderful, with every sigh, furrowed brow and slight smile conveying so much about Mr. Williams’ journey to contentment. Nighy’s every moment on screen nearly glows with honesty, and provides the film with a unique and dignified identity.

Kurosawa’s take still hits hard, but Living would have been foolish to follow a similar fight plan. These blows may indeed be softer, but don’t think for a second they won’t leave a mark.

She Said/She Said

Women Talking

by Hope Madden

“Maybe sometimes people confuse forgiveness with permission.”

With nuanced writing and what may be 2022’s finest ensemble, Women Talking, the latest from filmmaker Sarah Polley, delivers quiet, necessary insight.

Polley invites us to witness a secret gathering of women. A select group from an isolated religious community has been chosen to make a decision for the entire sisterhood: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave.

For as long as any of them can remember, the women of the flock have been sexually preyed upon and told that they were wrong – they were lying, imagining it, or in league with demons. And they believed this, more or less, until one attacker was caught in the act. Now, while the men are in town bargaining for the release of the attackers, the women must come to a consensus about what to do next.

Think of it as 12 Angry Men, only not all of them are angry and not one of them is a man.

The entire cast is miraculous. Rooney Mara delivers an unusually gentle performance, while Frances McDormand (who also produces) leaves a heavy weight with her few moments onscreen.

Jessie Buckley and Claire Foy are both on fire, one angry at everyone, the second angry enough at the men for everyone. The way Polley, who adapts Miriam Toews novel with Toews, unveils each individual’s motivations is remarkable. Her camera and script linger over moments of compassion and consideration. Women Talking dwells here, as if to point out that these women will offer each other everything the men they know would not.

Polley shows respect for these women – not just for their bodies, their agency, their humanity. She shows uncommon respect for their faith. This is what every faith-based film should look like.

Though dialog-heavy (as you might expect, given the title), the film never feels stagnant. A languid camera emphasizes the lovely tranquility of the community when the men are absent, but Polley generates palpable tension as time ticks away and the women’s opportunity to make a decision draws to a close.

Women Talking is a quietly stunning achievement and a reminder of the power of dialog and respect.

2023 Oscar Nominations…We Have Thoughts

Well, they’re here, and the 2023 Oscar nominations are a reminder that we actually had some hits this year. Blockbusters are all over this lineup, as are indies, returning favorites, first-time veterans, newcomers, surprises and – say it with us – snubs.

Here are our thoughts on this year’s Academy Award nominations:

Best Film

Sure, people will cheer and/or complain about the love of Avatar: The Way of Water and Top Gun: Maverick. Purists will point out that many, many smaller films boasted better acting and writing (Aftersun? The Woman King? Nope?), while others will be happy that, for once, they’ve seen a Best Picture nominee. Our issue is with Triangle of Sadness, which has too many nominations altogether. For our money, The Menu’s nuance succeeded where the obviousness of Triangle failed, and it did it in half the time.

Nominees:

All Quiet on the Western Front

Avatar: The Way of Water

The Banshees of Inisherin

Elvis

Everything Everywhere All at Once

The Fabelmans

Tár

Top Gun: Maverick

Triangle of Sadness

Women Talking

Best Director

Östlund took a spot that could have more deservedly gone to Sarah Polley (Women Talking) or the criminally unappreciated Park Chan-Wook, whose sublime Decision to Leave was entirely ignored.

Nominees:

Martin McDonagh, The Banshees of Inisherin

Daniel Kwan and Daniel Schenhert, Everything Everywhere All at Once

Steven Spielberg, The Fabelmans

Todd Field, Tár

Ruben Östlund, Triangle of Sadness

Best Lead Actress

Where is Danielle Deadwyler? Easily the biggest snub of the day, Deadwyler deserves to be on this list forher turn in Till without question. And while de Armas was the one saving grace in the 3+ hour dumpster fire that was Blonde, Oscar-worthy she was not.

We’re happy to see the surprise nomination for Riseborough, but we do also miss Emma Thompson for Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, and Viola Davis for The Woman King.

Nominees:

Cate Blanchett, Tár

Ana de Armas, Blonde

Andrea Riseborough, To Leslie

Michelle Williams, The Fabelmans

Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All at Once

Best Lead Actor

This card looked about as expected, but we couldn’t be more thrilled that Paul Mescal is being recognized for his beautiful turn in Aftersun.

Nominees:

Austin Butler, Elvis

Colin Farrell, The Banshees of Inisherin

Brendan Fraser, The Whale

Paul Mescal, Aftersun

Bill Nighy, Living

Best Supporting Actor

Brian Tyree Henry?! Yes, please! One of the biggest surprises this year is also one of the most welcome. Thrilled as well to see Keogan join Gleeson and, like everyone else, overjoyed that the undeniable Ke Huy Quan will be at the Oscars – even if he doesn’t win, although things are looking good for him.

Nominees:

Brendan Gleeson, The Banshees of Inisherin

Brian Tyree Henry, Causeway

Judd Hirsch, The Fabelmans

Barry Keogan, The Banshees of Inisherin

Ke Huy Quan, Everything Everywhere All at Once

Best Supporting Actress

We would have loved to see literally anyone from Women Talking get acknowledged here, but honestly, we don’t have a lot of nits to pick. Exceedingly happy for every single person who made this list.

Nominees:

Angela Bassett, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Hong Chau, The Whale

Kerry Condon, The Banshees of Inisherin

Jamie Lee Curtis, Everything Everywhere All at Once

Stephanie Hsu, Everything Everywhere All at Once

Best Original Screenplay

Oh how we hoped we’d see Nope on this list. Jordan Peele’s genre-bending treasure deserves the Triangle of Sadness spot, and if not him, Charlotte Wells for Aftersun.

Frontrunners have to be Banshees and EEAAO, but honestly, that seems to be the case in almost every single race.

Nominees:

The Banshees of Inisherin

Everything Everywhere All at Once

The Fabelmans

Tár

Triangle of Sadness

Best Adapted Screenplay

All Quiet on the Western Front earned a lot of nominations. It’s clearly frontrunner for Best International Picture, and a worthy screenplay for this ticket. We’d love to see it go to Women Talking, most deserving of all the nominees. But where is Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio? It’s a far superior adaptation in narrative and vision than Glass Onion or Top Gun: Maverick.

Nominees:

All Quiet on the Western Front

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Living

Top Gun: Maverick

Women Talking

Best Animated Feature

Very quietly, 2022 was the best year for animated features in decades. Every last film on this list deserves an Oscar. So happy to see Puss In Boots and The Sea Beast make the list. Marcel the Shell was maybe the most charming film of 2022. Pixar released what may have been the most personal, accessible and needed film of its catalog with Turning Red. But del Toro out del Toroed himself with one of the best films, animated or not, of the year.

Nominees:

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

Puss In Boots: The Last Wish

The Sea Beast

Turning Red

Best International Film

Where is Decision to Leave? Because it shouldn’t just have been nominated, it should have won. Not to take anything away from these films, each of which is truly wonderful. (Smart money’s on All Quiet on the Western Front in what is the surest lock of the show.)

Nominees:

All Quiet on the Western Front

Argentina,1985

Close

EO

The Quiet Girl

Best Documentary

We saw a lot of documentaries in 2022, none of which was a brilliant and moving use of the medium as Moonage Daydream. How it managed to go unsung by the Academy is a crime.

Nominees:

All That Breathes

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

Fire of Love

A House Made of Splinters

Nevalny

Best Cinematography

Good choices, and nice that Bardo is getting a deserved nod here.

Nominees:

All Quiet on the Western Front

Bardo, False Chronicles of a Handful of Truths

Elvis

Empire of Light

Tár

Best Score

Sad to see no nods for GdT’s Pinocchio or Nope.

Nominees:

All Quiet on the Western Front

Babylon

The Banshees of Inisherin

Everything Everywhere All at Once

The Fabelmans

Best Song

We admit it, we were rooting for “Good Afternoon” from Spirited. And we thought TSwift had a shot with “Carolina” from Where the Crawdads Sing. But nominating RRR’s “Natu Natu” makes up for everything.

Nominees

“Applause” from Tell It Like a Woman

“Hold My Hand” from Top Gun: Maverick

“Lift Me Up” from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

“Naatu Naatu” from RRR

“This Is a Life” from Everything Everywhere All at Once

The 95th annual Academy Awards will air on Sunday, March 12 on ABC.

Screening Room: Missing, The Son, Alice Darling & More

Control Group

Alice, Darling

by George Wolf

Remember the palpable tension in the opening moments of 2020’s The Invisible Man ? We didn’t need visual evidence to believe Elisabeth Moss’s character was desperate to flee an abusive relationship. We felt it simply from the strength of Moss’s performance.

Anna Kendrick delivers similar results in Alice, Darling, reaching new career heights as a woman who has lost all sense of self to a controlling, manipulative partner.

Alice (Kendrick) can’t even join her besties Sophie and Tess (Wunmi Mosaku and Kaniehtiio Horn, both terrific) for happy hour without Simon (Charlie Carrick, politley menacing) texting multiple requests aimed at reminding Alice just who she answers to.

When the ladies rent a secluded lake house for a week-long celebration of Tess’s birthday, Alice tells Charlie her time away from him is strictly work-related. But once they’re at the cabin, Alice’s anxious behavior convinces her two friends that everything is not fine at home.

Kendrick – who also serves as an executive producer – has recently opened up about her regret and shame from letting a previous abusive relationship carry on too long. This is an understandably personal project for her, and she channels her own pain into a compelling portrait of a woman nearly suffocating from manipulation, where every message notification and car wheel on gravel serves as a trigger.

An apt underwater metaphor is just one of those skillfully employed by director Mary Nighy in an impressive debut that benefits from subtlety and confident restraint. Alice’s moments of self-harm are evident but not overdone, and her growing interest in the case of a local girl gone missing is understood simply from Kendrick’s quiet fascination.

Alanna Francis’s thoughtful script does eventually reveal Charlie’s gaslighting methods in action, but never to the point where it seems something needs to be proven, because nothing does.

This is no he said/she said. Kendrick has us believing from the start, as Alice, Darling becomes a healing journey back to self, and an intimate reflection on what love is not.