Tag Archives: Matt Weiner

Eastern European Capitalist Blues

Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World

by Matt Weiner

An overworked production assistant driving all over Bucharest to collect footage for a workplace safety video doesn’t sound like the most likely candidate for an era-defining film that best captures the current political and social moment.

Yet with Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World, writer and director Radu Jude has made an unsparing, pitch-black comedy with a sprawling but never dull nearly 3-hour runtime that attempts to distill the last decade-plus of precarity and decline felt by so many workers. What’s miraculous is how well Jude succeeds, without ever becoming cloying or didactic.

Angela (Ilinca Manolache) is a contract worker for a Romanian film production company. A multinational company has commissioned a safety video that sends Angela around the city to interview severely injured workers that will be vetted for the final video.

Angela, an overworked gig worker herself who is so exhausted she can’t stop falling asleep at the wheel, shows sympathy for the workers and their families as she draws out their stories for the camera. This stands out in stark contrast to how the Austrian bosses parachute into Bucharest and talk about the poorer Romanians that bring the company its massive profits.

Nina Hoss in particular stands out as a perfectly icy marketing executive whose feigned empathy masks a barely submerged contempt for the lower-class Romanian employees. (The company itself is kept vague, but Jude gets in plenty of digs about a deforestation scandal involving furniture, which narrows it down considerably.)

Angela’s diatribes take on everything from class politics to foul-mouthed influencers like Andrew Tate, with these being delivered by her filthy alter ego Bobita. Manolache created the character during COVID lockdowns, and Jude brings them to hyperreal life in one of the film’s few recurring segments shot in color.

Jude’s story is unabashedly political, and ruthless in its portrayal of the inhumanity of neoliberal austerity. But the script, propelled by Manolache’s indefatigable portrayal of Angela, is also laugh out loud funny. The capital class can take a lot from its workers, but not their profanity.

Or, as the film shifts into the making of the final safety video, their humanity. When the company selects the injured worker they want to star in the safety video, the film crew gets to work recording his story. This sequence makes up nearly the final half hour of the film, and Jude’s staging and camera choices turn a routine film within a film into an audacious set piece with an unforgettable gut punch.

Whether or not another world is possible seems to lie just outside the bounds of Angela’s day-to-day living. But Jude makes the case that one is urgently necessary, even as we laugh in the face of everything speeding up our destruction in the meantime.

Sleeping with the Enemy

Femme

by Matt Weiner

“Revenge thriller with a twist” doesn’t do justice to Femme, the tight feature debut from writers and directors Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping.

Based on their 2021 short film, Femme kicks off with a brutal and unflinching gay-bashing when Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) stands up for himself after being mocked for his drag attire by Preston (George MacKay) and his mates.

The attack leaves Jules traumatized for months. After a chance sighting of Preston in a bathhouse, Jules realizes that his attacker is deeply closeted—and the idea for an intricate revenge plot energizes Jules and gives him a new purpose.

The plan is to film revenge porn and out Preston, ruining his life in a social circle with little tolerance for homosexuality. To achieve this plan, of course, Jules has to actually record the revenge porn, which kicks off a high-wire secret relationship between the two as they fall in something resembling love despite the glut of secrets each man is hiding.

Freeman and Ping breathe fresh life into the self-loathing homophobe trope. The sexy (and seamy) sides of London nightlife elevate Femme into a taut neo-noir thriller. As Jules develops complicated feelings for Preston, his plan for revenge feels much closer to Hitchcock than Forster.

The movie also moves at a rapid pace, almost to a fault. It’s a sparse plot, which puts the full weight of the challenging emotional interplay on MacKay and Stewart-Jarrett. The two leads are both exceptional, and pull off their thorny affair with empathy on both sides. This is no small feat for MacKay especially, whose Preston starts the movie full of hate and nearly killing his soon-to-be lover.

MacKay humanizes Preston without letting go of a barely contained menace that could erupt at any moment. It’s clear that Jules is playing a dangerous game. And one that is unlikely to have any winners.

Screening Room: Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, Road House, Immaculate, Late Night with the Devil & More

Reptiles Never Say Die

Riddle of Fire

by Matt Weiner

An inseparable band of foul-mouthed children drawn into a fairytale-like quest might sound very of the moment, but Riddle of Fire shows how much richness there is to explore in the hands of a unique voice that doesn’t settle for pastiche.

It’s hard to pin down any single genre that gets loving attention from writer-director Weston Razooli, but imagine the Goonies adventuring through the world of Mandy… and it only gets dreamier from there.

Children Alice (Phoebe Ferro), Hazel (Charlie Stover) and Jodie (Skyler Peters) liven up their summer vacation by stealing a video game console, only to be thwarted by a lock on the family television. In exchange for game time, the kids must bake a blueberry pie to cheer up Hazel and Jodie’s sick mother (Danielle Hoetmer).

When a key ingredient gets snatched up by John Redrye (Charles Halford), the trio—who call themselves the Immortal Reptiles—follow him back to his house, where he lives with the cult-like Enchanted Blade. When they accidentally stow away in the cult’s truck on a trip into the woods to hunt a prized stag, the group hardly notices that their afternoon has gone from whimsical fetch quest to life-or-death survival.

As the kids play a game of cat and mouse with the cultists, Razooli heightens the fairytale elements. The cult leader, a witch named Anna-Freya (played with beguiling menace by Crazy, Stupid, Love.’s Lio Tipton ), figures out they are not alone. It is only with the help of her daughter Petal (Lorelei Mote), a princess with powers of her own, that the children manage to outsmart the gang and escape back into town—but not away from danger.

Razooli’s mix of humor and danger ratchets up the suspense for any adult watching the movie even as the young heroes remain defiantly unbothered. It’s a proper fairytale, and also a stylish throwback to an era of movies that delight in the mischief of featuring young kids getting into real trouble.

But Riddle of Fire rises above other nostalgic retreads in the way it commits to the mystery and unease of the world Razooli creates for a remarkably assured feature debut. The film captures the spirit of adventure for weird kids in a grown-up world. And how sometimes it’s worth risking everything to play a cool video game.

Eugénie’s Feast

The Taste of Things

by Matt Weiner

You know you’re in for a hell of a meal when the appetizer is a 15-minute cold opening that lingers on every small detail of cooking a feast to a degree that borders on pornographic.

This scene from writer and director Anh Hung Tran sets the mood—and pace—of the rest of his latest feature, The Taste of Things.

Eugénie (Juliette Binoche) prepares these elaborate meals for Dodin (Benoît Magimel), a famed gourmand and restaurateur who has relied on Eugénie’s unique blend of skill and intuition to bring his culinary visions to life.

The bright, airy kitchen where these feasts are prepared might as well be one of the film’s co-leads. Binoche is spellbinding as Eugénie, who must be played as equal parts enchanting muse and aloof lover to Dodin. It’s a delicate balance, especially in a film with Tran’s subtle direction where the emotional connection between the pair comes out as much in the physical acts of cooking food as in the dialogue.

The two seem to have forged an idyllic life together that caters to their passions. Their kitchen is an insular one—debates over French culinary giants like Caréme and Escoffier are as political as Dodin gets, even as outside the kitchen modernism is poised to upend European society and tradition.

But within this narrow setting, Tran’s light touch and genial script centers the story on Eugénie and Dodin’s love and respect for one another, and how the two intersect personally and professionally. Dodin is determined to get Eugénie to marry him, formalizing the intimacy they already share.

A drawn-out challenge to turn a paramour into a wife may sound like a lucky problem to have. But in The Taste of Things, such stakes are life and death. And why shouldn’t they be? Dodin and Eugénie’s mutual affection for one another isn’t just around cooking, but in the vanishing conviction that craft elevated to art is in itself a monumental—and rare—achievement.

Arhat Get Your Gun

The Monk and the Gun

by Matt Weiner

What if you took the interlocking stories of a Pulp Fiction, but all the gunplay was in the service of a hopeful Buddhist fable?

It’s a fantastical idea, but the film recognizes that so is the sight of a peaceful country being “forced” to go through the early throes of democratic governance. For The Monk and the Gun, there’s no great upheaval accompanying these sweeping changes.

Instead, Pawo Choyning Dorji’s delightful second feature (after 2019’s Oscar-nominated Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom) takes place in the aftermath of the King of Bhutan choosing to abdicate the throne and hold modern elections.

The rural village of Ura is holding mock elections to help prepare its residents, whose reactions to the abdication range from apathy or disinterest to outright hostility toward those voting for parties that do not seem aligned with the former monarch’s views.

Tshering Yangden (Pema Zangmo Sherpa), an elections official from the city, arrives in town to oversee the practice election and educate voters on why democracy matters. Her big city assurances about the great import of the election contrast with Ura’s locals, who question if they really need something that they don’t have to fight for.

As Yangden grapples with proving that democracy is as sacred as the campaign posters around the village proclaim, the village Lama (Kelsang Choejey) instructs his monk Tashi (Tandin Wangchuk) to bring two guns for the full moon ceremony so that the lama can “make things right” in the presence of the election official.

Tashi diligently follows his master’s odd (and unsettling) request, which gets the unassuming young monk caught up with an unscrupulous American gun collector (Harry Einhorn) and the criminal underbelly of Bhutan. While The Monk and the Gun is mostly bucolic satire, it’s a credit to writer/director Dorji that the ominous unease surrounding the ceremony persists up until the very end. Being given the means to control your life—and your national destiny—is serious stuff. But along the way, his film pokes both inward at itself and outward at the west, suggesting that nobody has a monopoly on the best way forward for a community.

Putting on a Brave Babyface

The Iron Claw

by Matt Weiner

For the Von Erich professional wrestling family, success in the ring—starting in the freewheeling territory days and continuing into the present—has existed uneasily alongside the “family curse.”

Writer/director Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Nest) brings together his lifelong love of wrestling with a keen ability to heighten psychological tension to the breaking point and then see what fills the void that comes after that break.

The Iron Claw charts these harrowing ups and downs starting with family patriarch Fritz (Holt McCallany), whose overbearing presence dominates every aspect of his children’s lives. The athletic Von Erich children unquestioningly glide into the path Fritz lays out for them, the family business of wrestling.

The series of events that ultimately spin out of this fateful choice gives rise to the legend of the curse, which the brothers deal with in their own (mostly taciturn) ways. Kevin (Zac Efron) is the genial audience stand-in, who wants nothing more than to please his father and have fun in and out of the ring with his brothers.

This includes the charismatic David (Harris Dickinson), golden boy Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) and the sensitive aspiring artist Mike (Stanley Simons). Fritz and the boys are given varying degrees of personality and dialogue that at times sacrifices depth for quick characterizations.

But with so much biopic ground to cover, Durkin narrows in on Kevin as the one bearing witness to all the inexplicable tragedy. It’s a difficult role to serve, and Efron delivers a commanding performance. As the family’s Job-like suffering grinds down his stoicism and filial loyalty, he remains tethered to hope and the possibility of a different life thanks to his stalwart wife Pam (Lily James, matching Efron with a vibrant performance that elevates her otherwise dutiful lines).

The result is a mesmerizing sports movie with more echoes of Malick than Aronofksy. Call it a curse or call it bad luck, but Durkin’s deft handling of these events turns public tragedy into a searing meditation on familial bonds and the limits of a certain type of masculinity.

The Seaweed is Greener on the Other Side

Deep Sea

by Matt Weiner

Stormy seas are among the less pressing problems for a troubled young girl trying to find her way in the world, according to Deep Sea, the new animated film from writer-director Tian Xiaopeng (Monkey King: Hero Is Back).

Quiet and withdrawn Shenxiu (Tingwen Wang) dreams of finding the mother that abandoned her as a child. Her father and stepmother take the family on a cruise over Shenxiu’s birthday, but it’s not much of a mental distraction when a late-night storm throws her overboard.

She manages to find her way to a fantasy version of the world, where the cruise ship has been replaced by a floating restaurant called the Deep Sea. Its proprietor and captain is Nanhe (Xin Su), a mischievous and somewhat unscrupulous man who is more interested in getting rich quick than serving as a good steward of both ship and restaurant.

While Nanhe tries to find the right recipe to keep his patrons happy, Shenxiu’s gloomy moods are tied mysteriously to the presence of a Red Phantom, a surging mass of tendrils that threatens to engulf Shenxiu and anything in her way.

While Deep Sea at times lacks the polish and subtle charm of a Studio Ghibli tale, the film succeeds at its own version of the unique blend of terror, wonder and melancholy that comes with growing up. It’s hard not to root for Shenxiu, and that’s helped along by the expressive animation of the intrepid sea creature crew of Nanhe’s floating restaurant.

The film also trusts adolescents to handle content that can at times border on true horror, with more drowning panic than you’re likely to see in the average Disney film. The identity of the metaphorical phantom that pursues Shenxiu throughout the film might be quickly apparent to older viewers, but the emotional climax is no less moving.

And for all the ocean setpieces—which are stunning—it’s often the small touches that cut the deepest. Like Shenxiu’s lone birthday message from her cell phone provider, rather than friends or family. Or the image of a small girl lost in a storm, crying out to her mother.

The sea might be a cruel mistress, but in Xiaopeng’s coming of age tale it’s nothing compared to the pain of embracing life and growing up in the face of hardship.

Let’s Go Bowling

Saturn Bowling

by Matt Weiner

The sins of the father might be laid upon the children. But it’s the women who suffer the most in Saturn Bowling, a tight and gripping French noir from director Patricia Mazuy (Paul Sanchez Is Back!).

Police detective Guillaume (Arieh Worthalter) inherits a bowling alley from his late father. Too busy to run the business himself, he allows his estranged half-brother Armand (Achille Reggiani) to oversee the alley’s operations.

While Guillaume tracks a brutal serial killer who is violently attacking and murdering young women, he must also juggle a new relationship with animal rights activist Xuan Do (Y-Lan Lucas) while keeping his father’s rowdy hunting buddies happy at the bowling alley.

It’s not a murder mystery—we know right away who the killer is, even if it takes Guillaume too long to realize the suspect is someone close to home. But it’s the killer’s motivations (as well as the unflinching misogynistic rage) that makes Mazuy’s thriller so deeply discomfiting.

Saturn Bowling is also sumptuously filmed, with the bowling alley’s seedy nighttime scenes bathed in deep blacks, reds and blues. And the daytime offers little respite. As befits this neo-noir, there are no heroes to be found.

Worthalter and Reggiani are well-matched to fill in the blanks in the brothers’ long-estranged relationship with their demeanors. The grizzled detective is a familiar character, but it falls to Reggiani to turn the cryptic Armand into a fully absorbing (if detestable) person. The film plays it coy at times with just what is haunting Armand, natural or otherwise. Which makes it incredibly effective and hard to watch when Reggiani unleashes the full extent of Armand’s perversity. The brothers’ fates take on almost Shakespearean proportions in the shadow of their dead father. Mazuy and co-writer Yves Thomas construct a seamy world where predators are constantly on the hunt, driven by almost supernatural forces that are beyond their grasp to understand, let alone stop and imagine what a less hateful existence may look like.

Remembrance of Things Past

Our Father, the Devil

by Matt Weiner

Much of contemporary horror and thrillers have found chilling but abstract ways to exorcise trauma. Ellie Foumbi’s feature debut Our Father, the Devil is a haunting and welcome twist on the formula, with its all-too-human demons and a direct confrontation of the horrors of the past.

Marie (Babetida Sadjo) enjoys her work as a chef for a retirement home in southern France. She treats the elderly residents humanely, to the extent that she is gifted a family cottage from the kindly Jeanne (Marine Amisse), a former chef who also happened to get Marie the job as her star pupil.

It’s a slow burn in the bucolic countryside until the arrival of Father Patrick (Souléymane Sy Savané). The mere sound of the priest’s voice causes Marie to panic, a feeling that is later confirmed during a taut exchange alone between the two that triggers a distinct memory for Marie.

This tension is broken with a fateful outburst from Marie, who knocks the priest out and ties him up at her new cabin. She suspects that Father Patrick is actually Sogo, a supposedly dead warlord who murdered Marie’s family in Guinea and abducted her into his army of child soldiers.

The rest of the film is a tense, unblinking interrogation of what this reality means for Marie and the life she has left behind. The escaped war criminal hiding in plain sight has been fodder for plenty of films and procedurals, but Foumbi’s humane script and deft direction quickly elevate the uncertainty from material to spiritual doubt.

The horror of what Marie—and perhaps Father Patrick—have witnessed and done to others points to a deep, existential rot. Foumbi does not shy away from the moral complexity of Marie’s pursuit of vengeance.

And while the “Is he / isn’t he” part of the suspense is cleared up surprisingly early, electric performances from Sadjo and Savané and their interplay together keep the tension at almost unbearable levels for most of the film. Foumbi’s script eschews condemnation and easy answers in equal measure, and it wouldn’t work without the nuanced turns from the leads. Our Father, the Devil throws up a lot of weighty questions around forgiveness and salvation. The film is less concerned with answering those questions, but then that’s also the point. Escaping a cycle of trauma and abuse is hard. But not as hard as forgiveness.