Undergods is a crypto-anthology film that gradually morphs into a distaff network narrative, one of those everyone-is-connected type movies that were all the rage about 15 years ago. Directed by Chino Moya and set in a vaguely futuristic, unnamed European locale, Undergods plays like a bombed-out version of Welles’ apocalyptic The Trial, with the distinct dark flavor of JG Ballard. The various segments alternate between grimy, hollowed-out factories in industrial wastelands and bland, antiseptic office buildings, visualizing a struggle between corporate drudgery and the slave labor that powers it. The first segment takes place in an unfinished condominium high-rise, as the sudden arrival of a seemingly harmless stranger facilitates the implosion of an unhappily married couple; part two involves a man telling his young daughter a bedtime story loosely inspired by E.A. Hoffman; the protagonists of that story-within-the-story segue into the third section, as prisoners toil away at some unknown, Sisyphean task that plays like a Kafkaesque nightmare. One of the nameless prisoners is eventually released and returns to his flummoxed family, who haven’t seen him in 15 years, and his wife is now remarried to a corporate drone working for some nebulous corporate entity. This last segment is the longest, and also the weakest, mining overly familiar material about office politics and masculinity in crisis. Undergods is most effective when functioning as abstract allegory, and detailing the dissolution of this familial unit requires more specificity and empathy than Moya seems willing to invest.
Everything in the film is purposefully vague, more interested in conjuring mood than coherent narrative. But to that end, for the most part, it’s successful. Certain motifs recur: unstable couples, amorphous empty spaces, Brutalist architecture and collapsing buildings that dwarf the human body, murder, and an overall absence of what might be called naturalism. There’s an absurdity to the whole endeavor that recalls Monty Python or even the films of Roy Andersson, while the overriding sensation of encroaching doom suggests nothing more than the end of the world as we know it. If it all winds up feeling a bit pat, a little too satisfied with itself, it’s still a wild journey. Moya has a great eye, and cinematographer David Raedeker conjures a dreary, gray dystopia that never succumbs to digital fuzziness. The viewer is left with a stark portrait of a crumbling EU, and an even more bracing divide between the haves and the have-nots. Abandon all hope ye who enter. Daniel Gorman
For the Sake of Vicious
Writer-directors Gabriel Carrer and Reese Evensehen are no strangers to the DIY Canadian horror scene, each having delivered a number of such films over the past decade, but neither has found a breakthrough project that could introduce them to a wider audience. That could all change with their latest collaboration, For the Sake of Vicious, a lean, nasty little thriller that plays like the lovechild of Death and the Maiden and The Strangers. A thirty-something father has taken hostage the man he believes brutally raped his young daughter, dragging his unconscious body to the home of a seemingly unrelated local nurse. He wants her to keep the man alive long enough for him to admit his transgressions, but the hostage in question is a pillar of the community, an individual of wealth and power, and so soon his goons have descended upon the house. But there is more going on here than meets the eye, as all three must band together if they intend on making it through the night. To reveal any more of the narrative would be to rob audiences of the film’s surprises, of which there are plenty for unsuspecting viewers.
At only 80 minutes, Carrer and Evensehen waste no time in throwing audiences into the middle of the action, establishing the stakes, and then letting the events play out with brutal efficiency. While using something as horrific as the sexual assault of a child as setup is fairly morally dubious and undeniably manipulative, it does sometimes work to ground the otherwise wild actions of the characters. But those considerations are pretty quickly tossed out the window once the brutal back-half kicks in, with the merciless attack scenes staged and shot with surprising cleverness. Taking a page from, of all films, The Bourne Ultimatum, Carrer and Evensehen stage their carnage in increasingly cramped quarters, with assailants using any and every item at their disposal as a weapon, from toilet toppers to shower rods. It’s a visual approach that plays to the strength of the filmmakers, who favor close-ups for the majority of the feature (sometimes frustratingly so). Yet the pay-off is more than worth it, and allows scenes featuring gorgeous wide shots — such as a trio of white-helmet-clad psychopaths speeding down a street in unison on their sheening crotch-rockets — room to breathe, lending shivers of excitement to the dread-heavy material. For the Sake of Vicious doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel when it comes to the home invasion thriller, but it does enough to leave audience members satisfied. With a clever title and some truly impressive practical effects, a company like Netflix would be stupid not to pick up this ruthless little genre effort, allowing Carrer and Evensehen to finally receive the attention they deserve. At worst, it’s a remarkable calling card for the duo. Steven Warner
Although the Western may be long past its heyday, there are still filmmakers working within the genre who are trying to redefine and revive it, through the introduction of new ideas and other unique means of expression. There are some trends, though, that bind together a select group of ‘post-modern Westerns’: an emphasis on less plot and less action, with the focus shifted instead to atmospheric mood or some contemplative, mysterious or mystical quality. Call these ‘Transcendental Westerns’ — and David Perrault’s Savage State fits the bill. The film is pretty much unconcerned with narrative and more solicitous toward its sun-dappled, trippy visual effects. An eclectic film that manages to combine European romanticism with myths of the Old West, Savage State mostly constitutes a mix of serene and tense moments. The intrigue of that strategy is apparent from the film’s first act, and it helps the French Perrault render his Western as a sensory cinematic experience — with particularly skillful and evocative use of mise-en-scéne. From the Kubrickian candle-lit sets to the Viscontian staging and even some camera movements that seem to mimic Max Ophüls in period drama mode, Perrault shapes an immersive aesthetic that hooks the viewer.
And then the narrative kicks, sends a group of women on the run, and Perrault leaves his immaculate interiors for natural landscapes and otherworldly sights. Unfortunately, it’s also here, heading into the second act, where things are most underdeveloped — even the climactic battle between said women and a wild bunch of masked mercenary men (cf. Sergio Corbucci’s spaghetti western Django) falls flat; the scene’s ridiculous, simple-minded execution fails to even muster any entertaining, B-movie grotesqurie. One can certainly appreciate Savage State’s psychedelic feminist western ambitions, but it doesn’t really follow through on them as convincingly in the latter half — the electronic soundtrack (which resembles Cliff Martinez’s work for Soderbergh’s The Knick of all things) and an overuse of slow motion don’t sell the asthetic effect like they should. And merely casting your film with women isn’t enough on its own to position it as ‘feminist’ — especially, when most of those characters come off as little more than dummies at a rodeo show. This has become a recurring issue with many a contemporary, post-modern Western — they don’t do much with character, and settle instead for cyphers vaguely representative of old Western classics, more fetish than flesh. Ayeen Forootan
The works of Lloyd Kaufman, founder and director of Troma Films, have always been about breaking the boundaries of what can be shown and told in a genre film, an ideology that has helped gain him a cult following. The stylings of a Troma film certainly aren’t for everyone, distancing even some hardcore genre fans with their more outlandish inclinations. Tromeo and Juliet is perhaps the director’s best-known work, a relatively faithful adaptation of Shakespeare’s star-crossed teen tragedy, but narrated by Lemmy (from the House of Motörhead, as he’s credited in the film) and replete with graphic sex and incest. Here, almost 25 years later, Kaufman takes another stab at the Bard, this time tackling, in the Troma way, The Tempest.
Those who’ve followed the director’s works will be familiar with his penchant for both capitalizing on contemporaneous cultural discourse and engaging fiscally-prudent movie trends: this is perhaps most evident in Kaufman’s best film, Poultrygeist, a horror-splatter musical and masterpiece of vegan cinema that takes food companies to task and features zombie chicken slaughter. In #ShakespearesShitstorm, the iconoclast turns his attention broadly to issues of wokeness, cancel culture, social media, and cultural appropriation. If the concept sounds a bit cringey, the film, while blunt in its criticisms and demonstrably crass in its execution, isn’t without interesting talking points regarding the state of our post-postmodern culture.
#ShakespearesShitstorm begins abord a large ship where the big wigs of a pharma corporation are celebrating their pecuniary success with a cocaine-fueled orgy. The revelry is soon interrupted by a pod of whales that jump over the ship, defecating all over it in the process, creating the eponymous catastrophe. All this has been orchestrated by Prospero, a scientist who was ostracized by the company after he made some insensitive comments and was “canceled” by both the media and protesters. All of this builds towards a massive finale, all gross-out bombast — combining various mutations, exploding heads, and plenty of other Troma staples.
While the film’s portrayal of “social justice warriors” might engender a knee-jerk rancor by some, the film is surprisingly even-handed in its rhetoric, especially given the broad register it operates in, portraying both the virtues and the ills of a (performatively) enlightened society gone awry. In the end, the saturating melange of political and social commentary — including the welcomingly progressive treatment of body, race, and gender — while entirely outrageous, manages to embody its own sort of wokeness. It’s a happy development for a film that could have been perceived as the final shout into the void from an old man that has made too many movies with blood and nudity, lost in a world that seemingly doesn’t want them anymore. Instead, #ShakespearesShitstorm is an act of defiance by a singular artist, evolving in his own way. Jaime Grijalba Gomez
With Sanzaru, writer/director Xia Magnus details both the grueling daily trials of elder care and the immigrant experience with the patient, observant eye of a documentarian. Evelyn (Aina Dumlao) is a young Filipina woman and live-in nurse for Dena (Jayne Taini), an elderly woman slowly succumbing to dementia who refuses to leave her home. Evelyn is also the caretaker to her teenage nephew, Amos (Jon Viktor Corpuz), and both have forged a kind of tentative friendship with Dena’s adult son, Clem (Justin Arnold). It’s a potent mix of damaged people; Clem is an Afghanistan vet, while Amos has been suspended from school — both seem prone to potential violence. Evelyn speaks to her sister on the phone, begging her to take Amos back, but they end up bickering about family history and Evelyn’s pleading is refused.
For anyone who has watched an aged relative wither, Dena’s condition is gut-wrenching. Magnus sketches the frailty of a deteriorating mind and body in excruciating detail, and that reality feels downright Cronenbergian. Frequently confused, constantly in danger of falling down, and covered in bruises and bed sores, Dena wanders the house in a daze, unsure where she is or what exactly she’s even looking for. During her infrequent lucid periods, she’s convinced that Amos is stealing from her, and frequently demands to question him. Here, Magnus is careful to delineate the power dynamics and casual racism at play; while Dena depends on Evelyn and even seems fond of her — in one scene they hold hands while working a crossword puzzle together — she doesn’t hesitate to make demands or jump to conclusions. When Clem apologizes to Evelyn for Dena’s latest accusation, Evelyn snaps back that Dena should be apologizing herself to Amos. All of this drama plays out amidst a rural Texas landscape, flat as far as the eye can see, a kind of metaphorical battlefield that is pointedly barren.
Magnus seems less assured when navigating the horror elements of his story; indeed, despite the presence of otherworldly apparitions and revelations of long-buried family secrets, Sanzaru functions better as straight drama than according to its horror inflections. Evelyn starts hearing noises and worries that she’s going crazy. Meanwhile, Dena’s increasingly erratic behavior takes on more sinister overtones. There’s a mystery involving exactly who, or what, the ‘Sanzaru’ of the title is referring to, the resolution of which feels piped in from an entirely different film. And once Magnus begins visualizing a literal battle between good and evil spirits on screen, things veer dangerously close to kitsch. Still, the director has a keen sense of familial drama and gets great performances from his uniformly excellent cast. Jettison the undercooked genre elements, and Sanzaru is a quality gothic melodrama. Daniel Gorman