VIFF 2021 Review: The Girl and the Spider

Written by Michael Clawson

90/100

Apartment complexes are places of relatively constant change. There might be a few tenants in any given building who’ve resided there for what seems like forever, but otherwise, tenants tend to come and then leave, all their belongings, pets, dramas, and peculiarities in tow. The Girl and the Spider, a poetic and precisely assembled German language art film, co-written and directed by the brothers Roman and Silvan Zürcher, is about such moments of flux, and the emotions, dreams, and tensions exposed and discovered in periods of instability.

Lisa (Liliane Amuat) is moving out of one flat and into another, leaving her roommate Mara (Henriette Confurius) behind. A radiantly blue-eyed, cryptically expressive twenty- or thirty-something year-old , Mara is the focal point of The Girl and the Spider, but as the setting alternates between two different apartment buildings, myriad other flat dwellers, cats, dogs, and spiders included, win the Zürcher’s attention. Mara doesn’t help Lisa settle into her new place so much as she idles and observes as handymen, Lisa, Lisa’s mother, and neighbors come in and through Lisa’s new flat, introducing themselves to one another and exchanging glances and remarks that range from benign to hostile and flirtatious. The tone of communication between characters often changes on a dime. For example, one moment, Mara, for no easily discernible reason, is rudely declining to shake the hand of a woman neighbor who stops in to say hello, only to then, shortly thereafter, appear receptive to the woman’s furtively romantic advances. This is to say that the Zürcher’s aren’t operating in the domain of conventional drama or straight-forward storytelling, and they’re all the better for it.

Very much of a piece with The Strange Little Cat (2013), Roman Zürcher’s feature debut, The Girl and the Spider is a film of beguiling ambiguity and delightful idiosyncrasy. Carefully modulated acting is the first mark of the Zürcher’s unique film direction, but what further distinguishes their formal signature is their methodical framing, their lyrical focus on ordinary spaces and objects, and their musical sense of rhythm. At transitional moments in the film, a classical score accompanies montages of the items and household animals strewn about the flats that Lisa is moving in and out of. A yellow box cutter on a bathtub’s side, a blue sponge on hardwood floor, a cigarette sitting on a balcony ledge, a spider crawling up into the corner of room; some, if not most of the things are of minor narrative import in any obvious sense, but the Zurcher’s compositions suggest their worth considering all on their own. The Zürcher’s are formalists of the mundane, and very, very fine ones at that.

The Girl and the Spider Trailer

The Girl and the Spider was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

You can find more of Michael’s thoughts on film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

The Blazing World

Written by Patrick Hao

35/100

The Blazing World is part of a concerning trend with genre movies in which filmmakers and the film press feel like in order to instill these films with a sense of importance, these films have to be didactically about real world trauma. The Babadook, a movie I love, is the first one of these films that come to mind in the way that the press hailed it as great because it tackled such heavy subject matter like postpartum depression. As that movie garnered praise and attention, more and more genre films have seemingly felt the need to be shallow and explicit about the very “trauma” at their core.

Recent examples, such as Candyman, The Night House, and the David Gordon Green’s new Halloween movies come to mind as films that put the subtext as text in a way that feels self-conscious in asserting their importance to the public discourse of trauma. This feels especially disconcerting given that a genre like horror has always been about trauma as the root of fear, but it was allowed to exist as subtext. The Blazing World lives in a pretentious self-consciousness.

The title, The Blazing World, comes from Margaret Cavendish’s seminal 17th century story about a utopian society, but this film has little to do with that, having drawn more inspiration story and style-wise from C.S. Lewis or Lewis Carroll. The film follows Margaret who accidentally drowns her sister as a child while her parents (Vinessa Shaw and Dermot Mulroney) are fighting. As she contemplates suicide, she is whisked away to somewhere else through the help of a man named Lained (Udo Kier as an Udo Kier type) and a portal. Now, as an adult (played by the writer-director Carlson Young) as she returns home, she is on a surrealist journey fueled by her subconscious defined by trauma and loss.

As Carlson Young’s debut feature after spending more than a decade as a young actress doing Disney television and Scream Queens, it is easy to understand that Young wanted to throw everything at the wall to see what stuck. Her surrealist subconscious is bathed in different hues and seems informed by works from Lynch and Jodorowsky. But, in how misguided it is, The Blazing World is probably more like Terry Gilliam’s Tideland

The world that Margaret finds herself in is neither surreal enough to allow the dreamscape to wash over the viewer nor tethered in emotions that are relatable. There is barely even tension in some of the horror focused scenes. Any room left open to interpretation is undercut by the fact that we are supposed to be seeing this as a trigger of Margaret’s trauma. There is even a character who explicitly tells Margaret what she is going through is traumatic.

The lighting and production design is also self consciously cool. The aesthetic may be best described as mid-2010s Tumblr chic with “One Perfect Shot” energy. It’s so self consciously cool that it might as well be this Letterboxd list – cool to look at but devoid of substance. But, as a calling card, Young certainly displays enough of any eye to deserve a bigger budget, and maybe a better script. It’s also hard to be too harsh on a film like The Blazing World. It is clearly a personal passion project with a lot to prove. But it also seems emblematic of a trend in genre movies that should be quickly reversed. Let subtext be subtext.

The Blazing World Trailer

The Blazing World will be available in limited theatrical release and to rent and purchase on most major VOD platforms on October 15th.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

VIFF 2021 Review: Red Rocket

Written by Taylor Baker

85/100

What happens when there’s a global epidemic and the film you’d been planning to shoot can’t be shot? For Sean Baker the answer to that question is Red Rocket. A long gestating idea that’s been percolating around his mind since researching for his 2012 film Starlet which he also co-wrote with Chris Bergoch. In Sean’s own words Red Rocket is a story about a narcissistic suitcase pimp(though it sounds like you can’t be a suitcase pimp without the narcism) who’s more than just “kind of a piece of shit”.

Red Rocket starts out with a bruised Mikey Saber passed out in the back of a car headed from California to Texas. We don’t know who he is, why we’re entering the story with him now, or anything about him besides his visibly rough circumstances. Baker, true to his filmmaking core, is sharing a slice of life film with us again. This time it’s the life of an ex-pornstar and his return to Texas City, Texas. But once again Baker’s film is predicated upon characters on the margins of society, eking out an existence where films other his so rarely look.

After walking an unknown distance Mikey knocks on the door of a ramshackle home to request shelter from Lexi, a woman he seems to have a history with. Her mother Lil, played by Brenda Deiss, also lives with Lexi. It seems these two have been through this sort of thing before as they protest and run through the laundry list of reasons why he’s no good and can’t stay. So, naturally he stays, promising to pay for rent just as soon as he gets a job. Which he needs an extension on because he can’t go apply for jobs looking all beat up like he is now.

Vancouver International Film Festival 2021

After surprisingly applying seemingly everywhere all around town Mikey goes to an old connection of his to see if he can deal marijuana for her again like he did when he was a kid, and slowly Mikey goes about building up a clientele and providing a high quality product that rather than take up the meat of the story with, Baker eschews to the margins of his narrative fabric with details visually shown without fanfare like Mikey always lugging around with his backpack which we know is full of bud or discussing the act of dealing itself but in very few scenes do we actually see him dealing. He is selling so much in fact that he’s able to pay for the month’s rent at once instead of weekly, which gives Lexi, Lil, and Mikey reason to celebrate. So naturally they go down to the local donut shop for the biggest coffees they serve and as many donuts as either Lexi or Lil desire. This is also the moment Mikey meets Rayleigh, a 17 year old girl who works the counter of the donut shop on Wednesday’s after school.

Mikey skeezily begins to build a relationship with Rayleigh who urges Mikey to call her Strawberry instead of Rayleigh. “That’s what my friends call me.” Mikey begins grooming this 17 year old girl immediately. Going to great lengths to convince her that he’s a hotshot agent from LA. Which leads to one of the funniest running gags in the film, Mikey tossing his bike in the back of Strawberry’s mother’s truck to drive him “home” which is a large and luxurious house that stands starkly against the ramshackle exterior of where he currently hangs his hat. He feigns walking to the door as she drives away and as soon as she turns the corner he turns around and begins pedaling his bike back to the home he’s sharing with Lexi and Lil. Whom Strawberry doesn’t know even exist.

Trey Edward Schults mainstay collaborator Drew Daniels serves as cinematographer for Red Rocket. His images are as sumptuous and bedecked in a shading of light and shadow as ever. Images that simply reek of excellence. If you were to put some of the night time exterior bike riding or truck sequences alongside the truck sequences from Waves it would be hard to tell which shot or sequence belongs in which film. Baker serves not only as Director but Editor of the film, per usual. He experiments more with comedy and horror conventions than I’ve previously seen in a way that while cartoonish breathes a different sense of movie magic into his film that previous entries haven’t had, at least not the films from him that I’ve seen. Which also makes some of the harder to chew on details just a bit more bearable. There’s a great deal of significant events, reveals, and plot generalities that sharing in detail would remove the quality of the experience from, so for now I’ll leave the details of Red Rocket at that. Red Rocket feels familiar but treads ground rarely explored with great craftsmanship and tonal command. As Sean Baker said when he introduced the film to us, “It is a dramedy so if you feel like laughing, please laugh!”

Red Rocket Trailer

Red Rocket was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

Fantastic Fest 2021 Review: Mad God

Written by Alexander Reams

76/100

Stop motion animation has always been my favorite medium within animated storytelling. There’s a level of passion that is shown throughout stop motion animation that I appreciate above all else. From Wes Anderson’s entries in this genre to the Laika films, sans the occasional miss, stop motion has always always connected with me, including this film. Before this feature was released, director Phil Tippett released three shorts that cover roughly the first half of this film. These shorts were only a glimpse at the wonderful world that Tippett had crafted. 

This world is very reminiscent of The Dark Crystal combined with Lord of the Rings. Explored by characters that do not speak, but words are not needed. The visual storytelling crafted is worth more than any words could conjure. You feel every speck of dirt, every footstep in the ground, the entire journey is felt. Which elevates it and adds an emotional core, all without speaking a word. A testament to Tippett’s mastery of his craft. 

The film is not perfect though, the runtime of the film is relatively short, but it does begin to outstay its welcome. If 15-30 minutes were taken off the film it would be perfect. However, these moments that extend the runtime of the film are unnecessary to the story, such as the overextended opening take showing the world, I feel as though it would’ve been smarter to show the world as the assassin goes through the world as well. He is played as if this is his first time experiencing it and yet we feel as though we know more, instead, it should be the other way around. Even still, this is another fantastic stop-motion film and it was a joy to watch it.

Mad God Trailer

Mad God was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Fantastic Film Festival.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

Episode 114: Rescreening Cape Fear (1991)

“The cinema began with a passionate, physical relationship between celluloid and the artists and craftsmen and technicians who handled it, manipulated it, and came to know it the way a lover comes to know every inch of the body of the beloved. No matter where the cinema goes, we cannot afford to lose sight of its beginnings.”

Martin Scorsese, Director of Cape Fear (1991)

Links: Apple Podcasts | Castbox | Deezer | Gaana | Google Podcasts | iHeartRadio | JioSaavn | LibSyn | Player FM | RadioPublic | Spotify | Stitcher | YouTube

On Episode 114 of Drink in the Movies Michael & Taylor Rescreen Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991) and provide a First Impression of the next Rescreening episode title, Michael Mann’s Thief.

Visit us on your preferred Social Media Platform Letterboxd, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Michael Clawson on Letterboxd | Taylor Baker on Letterboxd

VIFF 2021 Review: In Front of Your Face

Written by Patrick Hao

71/100

Another year means another entry in Hong Sang-soo’s ever expanding oeuvre. In Front of Your Face is a sparse feature that, like most of Hong’s films, lulls the viewer into a sense of malaise to the daily trivialities of life, before the revelations change the context of the entire film. This has become quite a feature to many of Hong’s films, and really speaks to his interests in how we as people are able to go through the mundane when there is something earth shattering inside.

For most of the film’s 85-minute run time, In Front of Your Face follows Sangok (Lee Hye-yeong), an actress who returns to Korea from the United States. She spends the first half of the movie with her sickly sister, Jeongkok (Cho Yunhee), who is letting her stay in her apartment. The film moves at a leisurely pace, as a sort of a hang out film. They have breakfast, go on a walk, spill soup on a blouse. The interactions feel so mundane, less patient viewers might start squirming.

This very well might be the secret to Hong’s power as a filmmaker. Subtle tension becomes clearer as the film progresses especially with little flourishes, such as Sangkok’s internal monologue popping up from time to time allowing for little revelations. The grainy digital filmmaking that Hong applies also creates a sense of awkwardness between the two.  

The second half of the film revolves around a meeting between Sangok and a filmmaker (played by Hong’s frequent stand-in Kwon Hae-hyo) who was enamored with Sangok’s previous acting work. Here the tone shifts. Instead of a tension of a secret held, there is a romantic tension between every pleasantry between the two. Hong is always at his best when filming two people drinking, slowly letting their guard down.

The worst comparison anyone has ever made about Hong’s movies is that he is like Woody Allen. The comparison is there because Hong often has stand-ins for himself, but while Woody Allen is steeped in his own self centered neuroses, Hong’s films are buoyed by melancholic musings of daily human interaction. They just happen to always be about actresses and directors, the people that he knows best. Even though Hong works at such a prolific pace, there is grace in his films. The title In Front of Your Face is the perfect encapsulation of the thesis of the film. And for viewers, Hong presents it right in front of their face. It is up to the viewer to decide if they want to receive it.

In Front of Your Face Trailer

In Front of Your Face was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

Fantastic Fest 2021: Lamb

Written by Taylor Baker

50/100

Valdimar Jóhannsson solo directorial debut Lamb is a mountainous pastoral film that details the lives of two farmers. Maria and Ingvar, played by Noomi Rapace(Millennium Series and Prometheus) and Hilmir Snær Guðnason whose films most American audiences won’t know. Maria and Ingvar have barns full of sheep, a barnyard cat, a shepherd dog, and underlying the film–no child, no one around younger than them. We’re introduced to Maria and Ingvar as they deliver lambs in one of the barns on their property. The scene is one of truly bringing life into the world as the ewe is actually bearing each lamb into the world.

The wilderness, wind, and fog surrounding the land takes on character in the film, as the fog is essentially the first character we’re introduced to. It’s ideas of separation, isolation, and mixed realities breathes a tonal consistency to the film that saturates it allowing Valdimar control of how we as audience experience what is presented. Looking with the characters themselves through fog. 

Maria and Ingvar take one of the lambs they deliver inside that first night. They nurse it, and put it in a crib with blankets, and somehow the lamb loses it’s four hoof bearing legs overnight in exchange for human appendages. Two hands and two legs. It’s a full faced absurdist piece of magical realism that goes essentially unquestioned despite Ingvar’s disapproving brother’s arrival into the film. Pétur turns up one night as it appears he has many times before, seeking shelter from his brother and Maria. Though he disapproves he doesn’t question the occurrence.

Valdimar Jóhannsson crafts an uncompromising tale, one of absurdism, lust, taboo, and folk tales. But fails to arrive at any particular tier of excitement, intrigue, or affection. We simply witness as bystanders the events of the film rather than being affected by them. That doesn’t take away from his atmospheric prowess creating a place we feel we can imagine, but it does take away from me carrying Lamb further than the drive home from the theater.

Lamb Trailer

Lamb is currently playing in wide theatrical release.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

VIFF 2021 Review: One Second

Written by Patrick Hao

 63/100

Two years ago, Zhang Yimou’s One Second was pulled at the last minute from the Berlin International Film Festival. Many assumed this was due to last minute edits by the Chinese censors regarding the film’s content. This is especially surprising considering how Zhang has been criticized by contemporaries such as Jia Zhangke of being too sympathetic and a “sellout” to the Chinese government. Zhang was tasked with directing the opening ceremonies during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

It is easy to see why One Second could wrinkle Chinese authorities. Even in its current form, the political undertones are strong. Set during the Cultural Revolution in 1975, outside a desert town in northern China, a fugitive (Zhang Yi) escapes from a prison farm camp. His mission is to locate a film canister that contains a newsreel with the final known photo of his daughter. Before he is able to get to the canister, an orphan teen, Liu (Liu Haocun), steals the canister from the delivery man for reasons of her own. This starts a cartoon like back and forth between the two that makes up much of the first half of the film.

The second half becomes more sentimental as the two, learning of each other’s motivations form an alliance of sorts as the reel makes the town albeit in a rough state. This begins the saccharine love of cinema portion of the film, as the whole town is recruited to clean and unspool the roughened footage so that everyone can gather to watch a screening of the famous Chinese film Heroic Sons and Daughters.

It seems like every great filmmaker wants to make a film like this – one about the magic of cinema. Zhang relishes the images of the flickering screen on the faces of the rural townsfolk, hearkening back to other movies of this ilk like Cinema Paradiso. Zhang, himself, openly calls this film a love letter to cinema. Mileage may vary on this aspect, but Zhang certainly knows how to tug at the heartstrings.

Ultimately, the heart of the film, and like most of Zhang’s best films, is the coming together of two lost souls. He shoots the film with his signature expansive style, especially in the desert, implementing the grandiosity of his wu xia epics to this emotional intimate story. If all of this seems warmly nostalgic, underneath the central performance of Zhang Yi also contains a profound anger.

As it currently stands, we have no way of knowing how the original 2019 film was reedited. But the film still contains notes of subversion albeit subtle. Propaganda in songs, dress, the anonymity of character names, and the casualness of authority overpowering town folks and prisoners all points to the painful history of the Cultural Revolution. The nostalgia is certainly tinged by the darkness of Chinese history.

Still, much like Zhang’s recent body of work, his proclivities to sentimentality can be overpowering. Zhang is ultimately a cornball, albeit one with an unbelievably cinematic eye.

One Second Trailer

One Second was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

The Many Saints of Newark

Written by Alexander Reams

85/100

14 years ago one of the most acclaimed TV shows of all time ended. A time when all TV audiences expected catharsis for the characters they’d grown to know before the end. David Chase instead decided to fade to black not giving that final closure to Tony Soprano. Something that has haunted audiences since its air date. Chase returns to the Soprano’s world 30 years prior to it’s first season. Focusing on who was in power before Tony Soprano ever took over.

Dickie Moltisanti. Moltisanti, translates to Many Saints in English, of Newark. While also attempting to tackle the 1967 Newark race riots, and provide a backstory for Tony Soprano. Sounds like a lot to cover in a 120-minute film? That’s because it is. 

Rarely will a film fall into the issue of being too short, more often than not it’s an issue of being too long. Many Saints is too short. The film has so much it wants to cover and gives itself far too little time to cover each of these events. This could have easily been a 150-165-minute film and it likely would’ve worked even better and been decidedly more effective. Unfortunately, David Chase’s hubris wouldn’t let him make a longer film. A tragedy for sure, because once the film began I never wanted it to end. 

Chase’s new leading man is an actor that I have long loved, and have waited for him to get his big break. Something Chase and I have a shared sentiment about. The brilliant Alessandro Nivola. He has not only been good for years, he is frequently the standout in films where he is relegated to supporting roles. In The Many Saints of Newark Nivola is leading the biggest film of his career and he takes advantage of it. He embodies this mythological god that is Gentlemen Dickie Moltisanti (the father of future Tony Soprano victim Christopher Moltisanti) with such class and brutality that even Tony Soprano would be frightened. 

Filling out the rest of this world is Corey Stoll as a hilarious Uncle Junior, Vera Farmiga as the wonderful asshole Livia Soprano, Jon Bernthal as a somewhat forgettable Johnny Boy Soprano, Leslie Odom Jr. as a gleefully angered Harold McBrayer, Ray Liotta pulling double duty as Hollywood Dick Moltisanti and Salvatore Moltisanti (I was just as surprised as you when I saw this for the first time.), Michaela de Rossi as Giuseppina Moltisanti, Hollywood Dick’s wife, and Gentlemen Dickie’s “goomar” (don’t ask, it just makes it even weirder.). Billy Magnussen as a pitch-perfect Paulie Walnuts, John Magaro doing his best Steven Van Zandt impression with Silvio Dante, and Samson Moeakiokla as Big Pussy. Finally, Michael Gandolfini, son of James Gandolfini, is a younger version of his father’s iconic turn as Tony Soprano.

From the get-go, we are introduced to this world with a level of respect to the audience. Chase expects you to have seen at least part of the show, if not all of it. While it is difficult to talk about the film without spoiling some fantastic reveals, I will say that watching Nivola chew up every scene he is in is a great pleasure to watch, and his, brief bits with Gandolfini are nothing short of electric, though rushed. An issue that hangs over this film like the FBI watching Tony’s house. Calling it “the formative years of Tony Soprano” is more than a bit misleading. The film treats it as an afterthought, instead of the main plot. For which the blame falls on Chase. 

The time jumps in the film are not surprising but continue this overarching issue of being rushed. However in those time jumps we still are gifted with wonderful dialogue between everyone, something Chase can do brilliantly along with strong cinematography by Kramer Morgenthau. Even with all of these strengths in the film, I can’t let go of the fact that it is just too short. It needed to be longer, I think somewhere in Chase’s head he knew that, and if we get another film in this time period, he will hopefully rectify it. The final note he leaves us with is a perfect way to set up another film, while also being a great ending if he doesn’t wish to return to this world, something Christopher Moltisanti wished he could do before it was too late, but Chase will have to do it for him.

The Many Saints of Newark Trailer

The Many Saints of Newark is currently streaming on HBO Max and in wide theatrical release.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

Naked Childhood (L’Enfance-nue)

Written by Michael Clawson

90/100

A searingly honest chapter in the life of an unruly foster child, Francois, who as the film begins, is handed back to Social Services by a youngish married couple who can’t bear his egregious misbehavior— stealing, fighting, hurting animals (some of which is tough to watch). From there, Pialat follows Francois into the home of the Thierry‘s, a much older husband and wife, who already have one foster child, an older boy, and also live with the wife’s elderly mother.

It bears resemblance to The 400 Blows as a heartbreaking, naturalistic, and semi-autobiographic coming-of-age story from a French auteur. Michel Terrazon, who plays Francois, even looks quite like Jean-Pierre Leaud. Their mischievous smirks are remarkably alike, and God can only imagine what kind of shit they’d pull if Francois and Antoine existed in the same world and met each other. It also brought the Dardennes’ The Kid With A Bike to mind.

Pialat doesn’t indict anyone for failing Francois or any of the other foster children we see getting shuttled around, some of whom are so devastatingly young and vulnerable (and adorable), nor does he excuse any of Francois’ heinous wrongdoing. He simply observes, giving equal aesthetic treatment to moments of kindness, pain, bonding, and separation. The Thierry’s, though sometimes tough, are patient, loving people who see the good and sweetness beneath by Francois’ volatile temperament; his growing close with Grandma Thierry is enormously touching. The ending hurts, but it’s in keeping with the film’s piercingly truthful beauty.

Naked Childhood Trailer

Naked Childhood is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.