For anyone who’s still wary of the Gaspar Noé sensory assault in full feature length form, Lux Æterna offers a slight variation.
Oh, he’s still beating us about the face and neck with psychedelic imaging, pulsating rhythms and immersive colors, he’s just keeping it to under an hour this time. And, even bringing along a dare-I-say lighthearted touch to this meta mashup of cinema and witchcraft.
Most everyone here is playing themselves, starting right at the top with Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg talking shop. They swap stories, laugh heartily at their “shit films” and eventually get down to the business of making “God’s Work,” a post-modern tale of witches.
Dalle is directing, Gainsbourg is starring, and once on set, the laughter gives way to a cascade of madness and hysterics, rendered even more disorienting by Noé’s consistent use of split screen formatics. Not only is following both sides often challenging, but anyone sensitive to flashing lights might well be overwhelmed.
The “God’s Work” producer is hatching a plan to get Dalle fired from the project. Gainsbourg is juggling trouble at home and unsolicited pitches from an aspiring director (Karl Glusman from Noé’s Love), while her female co-stars (including Abbey Lee and Clara Deshayes) face a string of indignities.
Noé intersperses it all with clips and quotes from films and filmmakers he admires, and when a lighting miscue becomes a flashpoint for total chaos on the production, Noé’s embrace of the breakdown is clear.
This is where his art thrives, and Lux Æterna finds Noé nearly winking at his own reputation. Longtime aficionados may feel a bit slighted, but any neophytes will get a healthy appetizer to help decide if you’re up for bigger portions.
Spooky buddies! What’s what we’re talking about, that’s who we’re talking to.
5. The Ritual (2017)
David Bruckner has entertained us with some of the best shorts in horror today, including work from V/H/S, Southbound, and one of our favorites, The Signal. Directing his feature debut in The Ritual, Bruckner takes what feels familiar, roots it in genuine human emotion, takes a wild left turn and delivers the scares.
Five friends decide to mourn a tragedy with a trip together into the woods. Grief is a tricky, personal, often ugly process and as they work through their feelings, their frustration quickly turns to fear as they lose themselves in a foreign forest where danger lurks.
The film works for a number of reasons, but its greatest triumph is in making the woods scary again. That environment has become such a profound cliché in horror that it is almost impossible to make it feel fresh, but there is an authenticity to the performances, the interaction among the characters, and the frustration and fear that grounds the horror. And then there is horror—intriguing, startling, genuinely frightening horror. Yay!
4. The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
You know the drill: 5 college kids head into the woods for a wild weekend of doobage, cocktails and hookups but find, instead, dismemberment, terror and pain. You can probably already picture the kids, too: a couple of hottie Alphas, the nice girl, the guy she may or may not be into, and the comic relief tag along. In fact, if you tried, you could almost predict who gets picked off when.
But that’s just the point, of course. Making his directorial debut, Drew Goddard uses that preexisting knowledge to entertain holy hell out of you.
Cabin is not a spoof. It’s not a satire. It’s sort of a celebratory homage, but not entirely. What you get with this film is a very different kind of horror-comedy.
3. Tigers Are Not Afraid ( 2017)
Issa Lopez’s fable of children and war brandishes the same themes as Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, but grounds the magic with a rugged street style. One pack of feral children have only each other and their imaginations to keep them safe.
Tigers follows Estrella, a child studying fairy tales—or, she was until her school is temporarily closed due to the stray bullets that make it unsafe for students. As Estrella and her classmates hide beneath desks to avoid gunfire, her teacher hands her three broken pieces of chalk and tells her these are her three wishes.
But wishes never turn out the way you want them to.
2. The Descent (2005)
Adventuring buddies get together for a bit of spelunking. Writer/director Neil Marshall begins his film with an emotionally jolting shock, quickly followed by some awfully unsettling cave crawling and squeezing and generally hyperventilating, before turning dizzyingly panicky before snapping a bone right in two.
And then we find out there are monsters.
The grislier the film gets, the more primal the tone becomes, eventually taking on a tenor as much like a war movie as a horror film. This is not surprising from the director that unleashed Dog Soldiers – a gory, fun werewolf adventure. But Marshall’s second attempt is far scarier. For full-on horror, this is one hell of a monster movie.
1. It Follows (2014)
It Follows is a coming-of-age tale that mines a primal terror. Moments after a sexual encounter with a new boyfriend, Jay discovers that she is cursed.
As Jay’s close-knit crew does what they can to help her evade the shapeshifting horror that follows her, Mitchell captures that fleeting yet dragging moment between childhood and adulthood and gives the lurking dread of that time of life a powerful image. There is something that lies just beyond the innocence of youth. You feel it in every frame and begin to look out for it, walking toward you at a consistent pace, long before the characters have begun to check the periphery themselves.
Don’t worry, parents, the high schoolers in Hulu’s Crush don’t play Seven Minutes in Heaven anymore.
“That perpetuates a Christian narrative. We’re playing Seven Minutes in a Hotel Bathroom.”
Noted. So while the hormones here are as active as ever, the cage they’re raging in is awash in idealized hipness, as a trio of newbie filmmakers craft a feature debut full of genuine sweetness and winning humor.
Paige (Rowan Blanchard from TV’s Snowpiercer) is a Junior at Miller High, and being gay is the least of her drama right now. She’s struggling with the application to Cal Arts – her dream school – and she can’t find the courage to make a move on Gabby (Isabella Ferreira) – her dream girl.
That’s not all. Miller’s Ren Fest-loving principal (Michelle Buteau – a hoot) thinks Paige is behind the series of artful school vandalism murals signed by the mysterious “King Pun.” To avoid suspension, Paige agrees to become extracurricular active (Gabby runs track, so…) and work on outing the real vandal (king pun intended).
But just when it seems Gabby is interested, Paige can’t quit thinking about another track teammate (Auli’i Cravalho, voice of Moana) who never seemed like her type.
Director Sammi Cohen invites us into an upper-middle-class teenage dream where kids are accepted and their choices are trusted. None of the stakes or the heartbreaks feel particularly dramatic, but the film itself finds resonance in being purposefully sanitized.
Screenwriters Kirsten King and Casey Rackham develop a nice groove that is self-aware without any awkward pandering to the teen audience. There are plenty of wink-winks to the formula they’re upending, and while the film is never as authentically sexual as last year’s Plan B, the occasional bawdy zinger does land.
Both Blanchard and Cravalho are irresistible charmers, with scene-stealing honors split between Megan Mullaly as Paige’s Mom (“Don’t take edibles before school, we talked about this”) and Aasif Mandvi as the track coach (“I know 60 percent of you are queer!”)
Wait, are Mom and Coach talking dirty to each other? OMGLOL!
Underneath all the horniness is a feel-good formula that may remind you of last year’s Oscar-winning CODA. But the emphasis in Crush showcases a high school world where the queer kids drive that formula. The film itself becomes a 90-minute safe space, where kids can just stress about their crushes instead of the reaction to whatever gender they may be crushing on.
Every once in a while, a film comes along that has no hope of fitting inside those “every once in a while” constraints.
Because if you’re looking to sum up Stanleyville in such generic terms, good luck to you.
It’s a weird movie. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.
In his feature debut, director and co-writer Maxwell McCabe-Lokos serves up an offbeat comedy that is equal parts exaggerated and restrained, one that’s anchored by the quiet existential dread of Maria (Susanne Wuest from Goodnight Mommy).
Startled by a hawk flying into her office window – and the lack of a reaction from her co-worker – Maria walks off away from her job, her family and the few material things she’s carrying with her. Slumped and staring blankly ahead from a massage chair at the local mall, Maria’s approached by older gentleman in an ill-fitting suit. Oh, and his name is Homunculus (Julian Richings).
What’s this? Maria’s been chosen from among “hundred of millions of candidates” to compete in a contest. And not just any contest, a “platinum level exclusive contest!”
The prize: a brand new habanero-orange compact SUV.
Maria’s in, and she reports for duty to find four other contestants (with names like Bofill Pancreas and Manny Jumpcannon) ready to battle for that sweet habanero ride. As Homunculus explains the ten rounds of competition (“Uh, there’s only eight up there.”), check that – eight rounds of competition, contrasts are drawn between Maria and her opponents.
She’s up against a hedge fund d-bag, a muscle bound jock, the fame whore and the badass bitch. McCabe-Lokos fits all four into clearly purposeful stereotypes, while Maria is reserved and harder to read.
The eight rounds are bizarre and abstract, with the microcosm of society breaking down along familiar lines as desperation grows to get the grand prize, along with the validation of conquering “the very essence of mind-body articulation.”
The brand of satire is indeed fascinating and ambitious, it’s just never more than dryly clever. Even at barely 90 minutes, a sense of drag seeps into the film, and though McCabe-Lokos shows definite promise for the future, Stanleyville hits the final bell more of a curiosity than a champion.
It’s not just that it’s the role he was born to play. It’s also that it feels like precisely the right moment for him to be playing it, as if the cosmos themselves are aligning to deliver us some rockin’ good news.
How good? Well, for starters, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent gives him about a minute and a half just to name check himself as “Nic f’innnnnnnnnnggggggggow!WoahCage!”
It’s a film that nails a joyously off the rails tone early and often, as Nic goes after the role of a lifetime with a public rage reading for David Gordon Green, but comes up short. The letdown has Nic considering walking away from the business altogether, until his agent (Neil Patrick Harris) calls with an attention-getting offer.
Attend one birthday party for a superfan, collect one million dollars.
So it’s off to Spain and the lavish compound of Javi (Pedro Pascal), where Nic is blindsided by two federal agents (Tiffany Haddish, Ike Barinholtz) staking out the place. Seems Javi is actually a drug kingpin who’s holding a young girl hostage in an effort to influence an upcoming election.
Sounds funny, right?
Not really. Which makes it even more of a kick when there’s no defense against giving in to the gleefully meta madness.
Director and co-writer Tom Gormican (That Awkward Moment) taps into the cult of Cage by both exploiting the myth and honoring how it took root. There are multiple, non-judgemental callbacks to the Cage filmography, while the young Nic (via hit or miss de-aging) drops in to remind his older self just who the F they are!
And while we’re loving all manner of Cage, here comes Pedro! More natural and endearing than he’s ever been, Pascal starts by channeling the fan in all of us, and then deftly becomes the film’s surprising heart. Yes, there are nods to Hollywood pretension, but they’re never self-serving, and the film is more than content to lean all the way in to a madcap adventure buddy comedy spoof.
Would it shock anyone if we eventually get a tell-all book revealing that Cage actually was a CIA operative? Or that he won Employee of Every Month? Nope, and Massive Talent is a fun, funny salute to a guy who’s improved a host of movies by never forgetting who he is.
We dig deep into the history of horror to pay tribute to some of the true cinematic breakthroughs – films that defined horror and are still imitated and adored today.
5. Dracula (1931)
Oh, Bela. When Lugosi took the screen in 1931, no one was yet tired of Dracula. It was still a literary property only made once into a film, albeit illegally and under a different title by F.W. Murnau. (If you haven’t seen the masterpiece that is Nosferatu, please do.)
Bela, alongside director Tod Browning, got to create the image that would forever define the most mimicked, reworked, revamped – if you will – monster in cinema.
4. The Black Cat (1934)
Rocky Horror owes a tremendous debt to Edgar G. Ulmer’s bizarre horror show. The film – clearly precode – boasts torture, tales of cannibalism, and more than the hint of necromancy.
Plus Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff?! What is not to love? It looks great, as does Karloff, whose lisp is put to the most glorious use. What a weird, weird movie. So good!
3. Vampyr (1932)
The well-groomed if aimless dreamer wanders with what appears to be a fishnet to a secluded little inn. But trouble’s afoot.
And dig those crazy shadows!
The great Carl Theodor Dreyer co-wrote and directed this gorgeous black and white fantasy. The painterly quality of Dreyer’s frames and the bizarre character behavior give the film a surreal atmosphere you can’t shake. His decision to limit dialog to a minimum and craft the movie with traditional silent film gimmicks benefitted the dreamscape atmosphere.
2. Freaks (1932)
Short and sweet, like most of its performers, Tod Browning’s controversial film Freaks is one of those movies you will never forget. Populated almost entirely by unusual actors – midgets, amputees, the physically deformed, and an honest to god set of conjoined twins (Daisy and Violet Hilton) – Freaks makes you wonder whether you should be watching it at all. This, of course, is an underlying tension in most horror films, but with Freaks, it’s right up front. Is what Browning does with the film empathetic or exploitative, or both? And, of course, am I a bad person for watching this film?
Well, that’s not for us to say. We suspect you may be a bad person, perhaps even a serial killer. Or maybe that’s Hope. What we can tell you for sure is that this film is unsettling, and the final, rainy act of vengeance is truly creepy to watch.
1. Frankenstein (1931)/Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
James Whale’s brilliant take on Mary Shelley’s novel looked at Frankenstein’s monster and saw the cruelty humanity was capable of committing. For him, the monster was the central and most interesting figure. Unlike Shelley’s antihero, Whale’s creature was utterly sympathetic, an oversized child unable to control himself, making him simultaneously innocent and dangerous.
Barons and aristocracy, the European setting – the film distrusts scientists and public officials as fools unable to reign in their own ambitions no matter the dire consequences.
Four years later, James Whale and Boris Karloff – with tag along make-up man Jack Pierce – returned to Castle Frankenstein for another tale of horror. What makes this one a stronger picture is the dark humor and subversive attitude, mostly animated by Frankenstein’s colleague Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger).
The sequel casts off the earnestness of the original, presenting a darker film that’s far funnier, often outrageous for its time, with a fuller story. Karloff again combines tenderness and menace, and Elsa Lanchester becomes the greatest goth goddess of all film history as his Bride.
We’ve been grappling with the falseness of our social media identities long enough now that we should have expected this attack of the movie clones. Dual takes the premise of last year’s Swan Song and filters it through the high concept lens of The Lobster for an absurdist comedy that – as my grandpa used to say – is as black as the inside of your hat.
Karen Gillan is Sarah, who coughs up a great amount of blood and learns she is going to die. Sarah is told what she has is “painless…but killing you,” as writer/director Riley Stearns begins taking direct aim at our current state of anxiety.
To save her boyfriend (Beulah Koale) and mother (Maija Paunio) from the pain of losing her, Sarah signs up for clone replacement. But as Sarah2 arrives and starts the assimilation process, the original Sarah’s diagnosis is reversed, and now we have a problem.
“We can’t have two of you walking around forever. That would be ridiculous.”
Sarah2 has been in the world long enough to invoke her right to request a “stay,” which means that in one year’s time, a duel to the death will leave only one Sarah bathing in the cheers from both a stadium and broadcast audience.
So Sarah1 gets to work, in an effort to prove to her battle trainer Trent (Aaron Paul) that she really wants to live, and win back her mom and her man who already like Sarah2 better.
Stearns trades his thriller vibe from 2019’s The Art of Self-Defense for a near-future sci-fi landscape and finds delightfully organic ways to bring us up to speed on the rules of the game. And with Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers and Jumanji franchises), Stearns has the perfect partner to set the humor level on deadpan and never budge. The laughs come with a cynical, satirical bite, and while some may be a bit obvious, Stearns scatters other hilarious breadcrumbs just out of focus (don’t miss the title of the video Sarah is watching early on).
Dual doesn’t shy away from the absurdity of navigating a culture of death and winning Instagram posts. In fact, that’s where it lives, fully committed to finding out who really believes laughter is the best medicine.