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.

The Green Knight

Written by Alexander Reams

86/100

Honor is what we all search for at some point in our lives. Whether this is honor in your work, family, or hobbies, there is something we all desire honor in. Our first look at this study in honor came over 15 months ago. Then the world seemingly came to a stop and also lost its honor during the pandemic. Trading it for fear, miscommunication, and distrust. Such is the case with Gawain, played masterfully by Dev Patel. After entering into a game with a mysterious character who calls himself “The Green Knight”. He only wants to be indulged in a game. One that Gawain quickly, perhaps too quickly, accepts, and eventually sheds any facade of honor for these traits that the world did as well. David Lowery’s The Green Knight is an indulgence in a genre that once populated cinemas while also feeling modernized and old school at the same time. 

Through most of the runtime the film does not focus on the game between Gawain and the titular Green Knight. Lowery chooses instead to focus on the journey that Gawain undergoes to finish his game with him. The film skips through time, though never haphazardly, always acquainting the viewer with the new period within a few minutes of being in that environment. Something that cannot be praised enough to Writer/Director David Lowery. Always keeping the focus on a film that is not only grand in scale but rich in character. From the various scenes showcasing the superb production design along Gawain’s year-end journey to his mythic opponent. To the fantastical and surreal cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo. Who utilizes the technique “camera obscura” to put the viewer at ease. 

Dev Patel has been on the rise for quite some time now, my favorite performance of his was in the 2016 film Lion. He is delivering at his full potential along the films runtime. His narcissistic, egotistical performance fits the role and brings a new level to his skill as an actor. He took the text that Lowery adapted and met it graduating their vision to another level. This can also be said for the entire cast, filled with a star studded lineup, but from the opening shot it’s easy to forget about them. It is Dev Patel’s film, they are just in it. For a film with grand scale, it is very quiet. With spurts of loud, grandiose moments at times. These larger moments shine brightly, and have stuck with me. This is a picture that reminds me why I not only love films, but why I want to make them. Masterclass independent filmmaking on a grand scale is a genre that is not witnessed often.

The Green Knight Trailer

The Green Knight is currently in theatrical wide release.

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

Midsommar

Written by Michael Clawson

90/100

Style and story don’t cohere as rewardingly in Midsommar as in Aster’s debut, but his formal dexterity and ornate, hand-crafted aesthetics make for a visually distinctive and viscerally dreadful trip.

In Hereditary, Toni Collette’s Annie carefully toys with finely detailed dioramas of scenes from her and her family’s life, which, in turn, is being toyed with by an unseen evil. Aster builds this notion of manipulation and interference by outside forces into his film’s very form by shooting the family’s Park City home as if it were a doll house. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether we’re looking at the house itself or a miniature replica of it, which furthers an unsettling atmosphere of ambiguity about what’s real and what’s not. 

Whether its the colorful and folksy sets, the Horga’s pristine white costumes, or the increasingly bloodied props, the fastidiousness with which Midsommar’s trappings appear have to come together enriches the world with detail, but at the same time, can feel too neat. My eyes were dazzled by the particulars, even as I occasionally questioned the authenticity of what I was seeing. The artisanal lottery balls, for example, struck me as perhaps overly ornamental.

Stylistic precision, in other words, is both a feature and bug, and it seems to have come at the expense of the story’s ostensible themes and characters. Pugh is fantastic, and yet she feels underutilized. Dani is a passive figure throughout, stumbling into her throne as the May Queen by chance and then sentencing Christian to death, which is one of the only active decisions she makes that I can think of. Arguably it’s symbolic of Dani’s emotional progress and her finally having the strength to sever ties with Christian and his friend group, having found a new “family”, but it’s hardly the emotional release it could have been since Aster manages to only cursorily imply the nature of their history together and what they’ve come to mean to each other. On a similar note, by the film’s end, I had no better understanding of how far Dani has come in grieving the loss of her family. 

I actually really like this movie though! Hence the very positive rating. I cannot wait to watch it again, and it’ll make a fantastic double-feature with Hereditary because of all their parallels and rhymes. I just think it’s better defended on sensory rather than thematic terms, and as a nerve-shredding nightmare of sunny psychedelia rather than a portrait of a relationship. Separate from theme or character, what Aster handles masterfully is tone. The horrific tragedy everything begins with, the cliff side ceremony of suicide (there’s some S. Craig Zahleresque skull-crushing there), Dani’s escorts wailing in harmony with her when she breaks down – scene after scene is staged with such a singularly unsettling suspense that’s all the more astonishing for being kept up as its balanced and blended with comedy. “Don’t think about it too much” isn’t usually a viewing strategy I endorse, but I do think Midsommar is better felt than decoded.

Midsommar Trailer

Midsommar is currently streaming on Kanopy and Prime Video.

You can listen Michael and Taylor discuss Midsommar in greater length on Episode 42 and Episode 59 of Drink in the Movies.

Zola

Written by Anna Harrison

80/100

“Y’all wanna hear a story about how me and this bitch fell out???????? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.”

So begins the viral Twitter thread from 2015, and so begins the movie it inspired: Janicza Bravo’s Zola. The original thread from A’Ziah “Zola” King, consisting of 148 tweets, became an internet sensation, garnering thousands of likes and retweets over the course of its posting not just due to the story of the tweets but the voice with which Zola told them, the humor and no-bullshit attitude she displayed even when facing increasingly absurd (and frightening) scenarios.

Bravo and co-writer Jeremy O. Harris (Tony nominee and likely future winner for Slave Play) manage to recapture the captivating storytelling of the original Zola and bring to life the first Twitter adaptation with thoughtfulness and style to spare (it was shot on 16mm, giving it a hazy, almost dreamlike quality). Little has changed from the Twitter thread, except some names: we start with our titular heroine, Zola (as played by Taylour Paige), working at a sports bar (as opposed to the original Hooters) and stripping on the side. One day as she’s waitressing, she meets Stefani (Riley Keough), and the two—while not recognizing each other—immediately pin each other as kindred spirits with a shared enjoyment for dancing, and so Stefani convinces Zola to join her for a weekend in Florida hitting the strip clubs to make some extra cash. Zola agrees, so after convincing her boyfriend, Sean (Ari’el Stachel, Tony winner for The Band’s Visit), to let her leave through the power of sex, Zola joins Stefani, Stefani’s boyfriend, Derrek (Nicholas Braun, aka Succession’s Cousin Greg), and a mysterious, unnamed man called “X” played by Colman Domingo, and they go down to Florida.

If you’ve read the tweets, you know what happens next. X turns out to be Stefani’s pimp, and a far more threatening figure than you might first believe, Derrek is in completely over his head and one moment away from a nervous breakdown, and Stefani has dragged her purported friend into all this without thinking of the consequences. Luckily, Zola has a good head on her shoulders; Paige plays the straight man to the wild antics of her cohorts but does it with such magnetism that it’s hard to take your eyes off of her, even when she’s not talking (and she does often stay quiet, revealing her thoughts to the audience via the occasional voiceover, complete with the sound cue for a sent tweet to cap it all off). 

Keough’s Stefani is the flashier role, with an overexaggerated and culturally appropriated accent—you feel as if a slur is on the tip of her tongue at all times—but her over-the-top approach works well. Braun’s performance might seem like a Cousin Greg ripoff at first, bumbling and making bad choices, but as the movie progresses, he imbues enough layers into Derrek to set him apart, and Domingo is alternatingly charming and frightening, X’s Nigerian accent slipping out when he goes into a rage but just as quickly covered over by an American one and a wide smile. 

What sets Zola apart, more so than the performances, or the way it looks, or the excellent score by Mica Levi, is the way it interacts with its source material. The internet gives us access to all sorts of crazy things, but it in and of itself is apathetic, presenting these things and letting us marinate on them alone with our screens; Zola shows us Confederate flags and tower-like crosses on the drive to Florida interspersed with clips of its characters gleefully singing Migos’ “Hannah Montana”; Derrek drives alone with a scene of police brutality in the background. Bravo doesn’t comment on these occurrences, instead letting us scroll past them (so to speak) silently, conversely conveying much more than any exposition-heavy dialogue could. Tweet and text chimes abound, and at one point during a montage of penises (please do not take your child to this movie, as the couple sitting in the row behind me did), an Instagram heart flashes over the largest one. It’s all a performance, it’s all for the ’Gram. “Who you gonna be tonight, Zola?” she asks herself as she prepares to go onstage. “Who you gonna be?” Derrek watches Vines of people getting injured by various mishaps, chortling to himself at their misfortune (if 2015 feels recent, it only takes the appearance of a dead app like Vine to immediately date Zola). At one point, in what amounts to a hostage situation, Zola disassociates and our vision is replaced by a Mac screensaver—writhing tentacles of light changing color as they move. You know the one. Zola doesn’t just talk about our modern technological landscape, it merges with it.

Like the internet, Bravo never lingers too long on one particular topic, but crafts a better film for it: there are no monologues on the treatment of women, or the intersection of race and gender, or the way Zola slowly starts to lose control over her own body, because monologues like that don’t happen. We don’t wax and wane about these problems, we just have to deal with them in our own way, as Zola does, and they go on existing. By refusing to adhere to binaries, Bravo makes her film richer and more thoughtful. The ending is a bit too abrupt, but then again, it echoes reality—sometimes things end, just like that—so maybe that’s a small quibble. It’s hard to mind in the face of all the positives.

Zola Trailer

Zola is currently playing in wide theatrical release.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Capsule Review: Saint Maud

Written by Michael Clawson

80/100

A shaken young nurse shrinks in the corner of a dark hospital bedroom, blood dripping from her hands, a dead patient splayed out on her back on the cot. The grim opening scene and one jolting, gruesome flashback later on concisely replace exposition that might otherwise have spelled out the original cause of Maud’s trauma-induced delirium. Which is to say that I like the tightness of Glass’s storytelling, even if it did leave me with a less than completely satisfying sense of who Maud really is or was prior to her lonely descent into psychotic religiosity. Channeling Polanski’s Repulsion, Glass roots us in Maud’s crumbling headspace with ruthless commitment (here and there, she does get carried away with her expressive film craft), while Morfydd Clark excels in balancing the tragic dimension of Maud’s arc with its more immediately horrifying elements. All together, pretty thrilling, finely executed psychological horror.

Saint Maud Trailer

You can listen to Michael Clawson and Taylor Baker discuss Saint Maud in further detail in Episode 105 of Drink in the Movies.