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Follower

by Tori Hanes

It’s a classic setup: three girls, an annual camping trip, a sadistic killer. Reminiscent of an 80’s horror flick, the antagonistic stalker is set on making girls pay for the crime of being female. With the added stomach-turning twist of the dark web community, director James Rich’s Follower establishes itself within the modern-day horror genre. 

Early in the film, the promise of an interactive experience is teased. Subsequently, within the first scenes, the audience is prompted to follow “Heather’s” real Instagram page. While a fun moment, it can only be defined as that- a moment. 

The interactive portion is forgotten until midway through, when the audience is encouraged to follow the killer’s page. With that, the interactive portion is complete. Ultimately, there was a heightened expectation for interactivity to be a prevalent part of the narrative fabric. The inclusion of the Instagrams with no correlation to the plot, though interesting in theory, was a disappointment in practice.

In a genre plagued by inauthentic and uneven performances, this indie horror shows shimmers of talent- specifically in leading ladies Revell Carpenter and Molly Leach. While it did take the characters a moment to ground themselves, once they achieved steadiness a natural buoyancy emerged. 

Even with these breakthrough examples, many performances left something to be desired.  It’s not uncommon to see actors derailed by the unevenness of their co-stars. Carpenter and Leach never fell victim to this – just the opposite. Whether subconscious or intended, they heightened their performances in response.

The film prides itself on women taking back the narrative from patriarchal horror films of the past. Whenever watching films that put the onus on the victims to reclaim their power, there is always the underlying hope that vengeance will somehow be inflicted tenfold. 

This is not only to claim revenge for the protagonists but justice for every bikini-clad teen who wasn’t given a chance in your favorite slasher flick. Follower fell short in this regard, not quite able to break the skin of what makes female vengeance so unique and deserved. 

Though set with a postmodern twist, Follower feels like a relic of horror movies past. 

Twisted Game

Agent Game

by Tori Hanes


In his third feature film, director Grant S. Johnson dives into the unrewarding cinematic web of United States bureaucracy. Agent Game centers around a group of expendable CIA officers scapegoated in a coverup and forced to fight the government for their lives.

While not entirely pro-United States, Agent Game makes the assumption that the audience shares a universal respect for their government. While this approach might have worked until the 2000s, it’s unrealistic in today’s age of information and dissent.

Governments’ relationships with their societies change, and a film that doesn’t reflect that shift puts itself at a disadvantage. Ultimately, Agent Game never climbs out of the ideological valley it begins in. 

The acting is, at best, uninspired. At its worst, it’s incompetent. This does not entirely seem to be the actors’ fault. Though perhaps verging on hyperbole, it looks like the actors were only given single takes. It’s hard to conjure another logical explanation for why, at points, it seems that they’re performing the lines for the first time. 

The only performances that manage to break into a believable space come from Jason Isaacs and Dermot Mulroney, who play two uncommonly moral CIA agents. While bouncing off of each other, they’re able to find the grit and realism Agent Game overwhelmingly lacks.

Though certainly not intended, Mel Gibson’s character ironically breaks up the monotony of the dull narrative. Supposedly the mastermind behind a twisted government operation, Gibson plays more like a parody of himself than a commanding force. The strangely elongated pauses and conviction behind cheesy quips make for moments of unintended comedy gold.

The story revolves around two separate but connected missions, confusingly paced and set non-chronologically. It seems the director and writers started with a fairly simple concept and decided the plot was too easily understood, so they created unnecessary and underdeveloped roadblocks in the narrative.

Ultimately, if there was even a hint of self-awareness, this film could be an enjoyable ride. Instead, it spends its energy trying excessively hard to distract you from its faults. 

Bill (Jason Isaacs) laments about his place in government morality, and his line perfectly encapsulates the takeaway of the film: 

“Looks like we’re not the good guys anymore.”

Were we ever, Agent Game?

Flipped Perspectives

Guantanamo Diary Revisited

by Tori Hanes

“Forgiveness is an act of revenge”.

This line- spoken by director John Goetz- echoes through every action taken by his film’s subject, Mohamedou Ould Slahi.

The center of a well-documented stain on United States history, Slahi was detained at Guantanamo Bay for 14 years without any charges officially brought against him.

In his book Guantanamo Diary (written in 2005, declassified for release in 2012, and the basis for the 2021 film The Mauritanian), Slahi accuses the United States government of extreme torture tactics, which to this day have been denied by special forces connected to his case. In what he considers to be the ultimate act of revenge, Slahi uses Goetz’s documentary to achieve his lofty goal: peacefully reconnect with the men and women involved with his torture in the name of forgiveness.

The documentary gets off to a rocky start. Goetz does not seem dedicated to the backstory that consumes the first half of the piece. Heavy-handed voiceovers spoon-feed us the questions Goetz wants us to be asking, as the film dutifully trudges through Slahi’s complicated past. Ironic, really, since Slahi is clear from his first moments on screen. His intention is exclusively to look toward the future.

Goetz competently introduces the key players: former special forces members connected to Slahi’s case, ranging in importance from a low-level guard to head of the operation. Goetz pushes uncomfortable recounts from each person, eventually finding the meat of his story.

The film becomes a power struggle over control of the narrative. Obviously disturbed by Slahi’s presence in the media, the individuals involved are desperate to clear either their name or their conscience. The story takes a turn from Slahi’s already well-publicized narrative and tackles the mental aftermath inflicted on his torturers.

In a case of trauma begetting trauma, a murky view of these people emerges. Questions surrounding complicity in immoral government sanctions, personal responsibility, and humanity in extremity are posed. Simmering on the backburner of the film, Slahi waits for his ultimate act of revenge.

Once Goetz cracks into the heart of his story, a gritty, complicated spectacle is born. In a narrative that is so seemingly black and white, the gradience of humanity is found.

Tied Down

Tethered

by Tori Hanes

Another “beware the beast in the woods” tale, Tethered (the first feature film for director/co-writer Daniel Robinette, expanding his short from 2017) attempts to make its mark on the genre utilizing a unique leading man- a blind, recluse teenager.

Abandoned by his mother (Alexandra Paul) at an early age, Solomon (Jared Laufree) makes due in his secluded wooded home before befriending a lost hunter (Kareem Ferguson). Solomon lives by the rules his mother left before her unceremonious departure, the most important of which being: always keep a hold of the rope. 

Connected to the home, Solomon ties the titular rope to his waist any time he ventures outside of its walls- partially for guidance due to his blindness, and primarily to keep away from the monster lurking in the forest.

The directing is competent and the film well shot, creating an aesthetically pleasing piece. The dull gray scale that has become all too common with modern horror is present but not suffocating, playing well into the earthy tone. The visual aesthetic created through production design and costuming is perhaps the strongest aspect of the film- the ever-present feeling of unease is visually palpable.

From top to bottom, the piece is plagued by uneven acting performances. The characters feel awkward and confusing, lacking in any interesting development.  Whether these character issues are caused by stilted performances or an unbalanced script is hard to say, but can most likely be chalked up to a bit of column A, a bit of column B. 

A blind teenager tethered to his home is an inherently interesting idea, but not interesting enough to carry the entirety of a film. Tethered seems to rely on novelty instead of investing in uniqueness. The themes it leans into- generational trauma, loneliness, parental abuse- are lightly grazed. The opportunities director Daniel Robinette had to explore these themes and transform this piece to a level similar to The VVitch or Hereditary seem visualized, but unfulfilled. 

Much of the film is spent indulging in the visuals- which, again, is the strongest aspect. But paired with the slow, staggered pacing and the lack of character development, one can’t help but wonder if the film’s 88 minutes could have been used more wisely.

In the case of Tethered, sometimes the beast in the woods can become your own unfulfilled ambition. 

New Moon

Moon Manor

by Tori Hanes

“I’ve always thought it was the dumbest thing… people miss the one party where everybody gets up and says how great they are.”

The debut film for directing pair Machete Bang Bang and Erin Granat, Moon Manor follows the extraordinary life and death of James “Jimmy” Carrozo (played by Carrozo himself).

Centering around his “FUN-eral,” the world orbits Jimmy on his last day alive before taking his life as a final solution to his progressing Alzheimers. Lamenting to bright-eyed reporter Andrew (Lou Taylor Pucci), caretaker Remy (Reshma Gajjar), and death doula Fritti (Debra Wilson), Jimmy recounts his warm and fantastical past in relation to his cold, calculated end.

Thanks to the co-directors’ keen interest in the uncomfortable, the journey takes an unflinching stance toward the absurdity of death. Relishing in disjunct emotions, the directors play between amusing and terrifying drug-inspired hallucinations.

Helming this voyage is Carozzo, with a heroic performance as a man thoroughly finished with life but unsure of death. Carozzo’s semi-autobiographical character subtly asks the audience to consider their own mortality and the morality surrounding it. Through a masterful blend of performance and directing expression, Jimmy’s reality becomes your own.

Within the first few moments, the film leaves no audience member unscathed. However, the interesting perspective gets lost to meandering. Too many tertiary acquaintances are given half-baked plots, which take away from the soul of the story. 

Ultimately, the piece finds its power by exploring the tangled emotions of the characters closest to the impending death. When the directors are able to shed the unnecessary weight, they find the beauty in Jimmy’s story and, in turn, his death. 

The film ends as most human experiences do: messily, with loose ends unevenly tied. But yet, we feel seen. Through the example of one man’s convoluted final journey, sorrow, joy, terror, humor, and absurdity find a place to flourish harmoniously. While you may not feel comfort by the answers Moon Manor offers, you will feel painfully human.

Real Family Ties

The Fabulous Filipino Brothers

by Tori Hanes

The Fabulous Filipino Brothers— by writer, director, and star Dante Basco—follows the separate journeys and (sometimes misguided) decisions of four first-generation Filipino American siblings leading up to a major family wedding.

Through the use of dedicated vignettes, each brother (played by Basco’s real siblings Dionysio, Derek and Darion) showcases deep-rooted differences while shedding light on the uniformity of the first-generation immigrant experience. 

Where the film succeeds, it flourishes. It finds power in sincerity, primarily thanks to Basco’s decision to use his family as actors to mirror their real-life identities. The lack of professional acting stamina is easily forgiven when the realism contributes so heavily to the overall charm of the film.

Basco’s themes of generational identity and cultural disconnect are best explored where he least forces it. The time dedicated to the warmth and humor in the family’s interpersonal relationships is where the film finds its footing. The best example is oldest brother Dayo’s (Derek Basco) vignette. In it, Dayo dabbles in illegal activities to help finance the wedding—with his geriatric grandmother riding shotgun. The comedy from the setup is enjoyable, but pairing familial responsibilities with Dayo’s individual journey hits the tonal stride that makes this piece unique. 

Allowing vignettes to anchor the script leads to unbalance. Two of the four vignettes get lost in clunky sincerity—caused, in part, by the disproportionate amount of time they’re given. Second oldest brother Duke (Dante Basco) returns to the Philippines to explore his roots and connect to a disjunct part of his cultural identity. Here Basco concentrates too hard on overarching themes without investing in the narrative to fully connect the audience.

During brother David’s (Dionysio Basco) time, an uninteresting love story unfolds. This segment also feels overlong and again attempts too literally to represent the figurative. The concentration on ideas without narrative execution ultimately knocks the plot off track.

The film’s valleys don’t entirely diminish its peaks. When Basco is able to let the story breathe organically, the overall piece is heightened. Where The Fabulous Filipino Brothers missteps, it counterbalances with charm and warmth only family can provide.

Big Boys Don’t Cry

I’m Not in Love

by Tori Hanes

I’m Not In Love, the final installment in director Col Spector’s trilogy, continues his exploration into the anti-romantic-comedy universe analyzing the modern man’s romantic relationships.

Shot in London, the story follows the melancholy and often hapless Rob (Al Weaver), who must decide whether to commit to his suitable yet average girlfriend Martha (Cristina Catalina) or continue in his journey to find the perfect woman. What ensues is the constant battle Rob must wage against himself in order to achieve external happiness in the form of a partner – just, preferably, not the one he currently has.

The brightest moments of the piece shine through Weaver’s grounded, understated performance as the ultimate anti-hero Rob. Embedded with inherited relationship trauma from his bitterly divorced parents, Rob consistently makes unjustifiable decisions at the expense of others- but Weaver’s ability to show a complicated relationship with self-awareness is what saves Rob from becoming unsalvageable. 

I’m Not In Love describes itself as an “anti-romantic-comedy,” and in a baseline way, it achieves this idea. It flips a few conventions on their heads: it challenges the idea of a picture-perfect ending and follows an unlikeable protagonist with an unredeeming story.

However, to fully encapsulate an “anti” version of any genre, a new or interesting idea should be present. I’m Not In Love paints an overly nihilistic picture of romantic relationships and familial commitment without much thoughtful consideration as to why. Like a teenager rebelling against their parents, the “anti” in “anti-rom-com” serves more as a symbol of nonconformity than thoughtfulness. 

The film runs a quick 85 minutes but feels bogged by a plot that spins itself in repetitive circles. Much of the story’s monotony stems from non-committal writing. I’m Not in Love can’t decide if it wants to live in a lighthearted air or dive into deep drama, which keeps the film in a perpetual limbo. 

Ultimately, Weaver’s performance is the gravitational pull that makes this piece interesting, and the film orbits around that. The lack of unique perspective would not necessarily be a deal-breaker if the plot had found more moments of genuine levity or self-aware humor. I’m Not In Love may leave you feeling joyless, but not in a cathartic way.