OK, so things don’t really vanish anymore: even the most limited film release will (most likely, eventually) find its way onto some streaming service or into some DVD bargain bin assuming that those still exist by the time this sentence finishes. In other words, while the title of In Review Online’s monthly feature devoted to current domestic and international arthouse releases in theaters will hopefully bring attention to a deeply underrated (even by us) Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, it isn’t a perfect title. Nevertheless, it’s always a good idea to catch-up with films before some… other things happen.
The Mimic, the feature debut from writer-director Thomas F. Mazziotti, is yet another film that claims to be inspired by true events, as if the mere specter of reality makes the proceedings somehow more profound. A little research shows that Mazziotti did indeed befriend an individual like the title character, a peculiar yet strangely beguiling sociopath — played here by Jake Robinson — who held a mirror up to Mazziotti’s own life and forced him to confront hard truths about himself. This would undoubtedly make for a fascinating five-minute anecdote that could be trotted out at dinner parties when conversation begins to wane. As an 80-minute film, it tests the viewer’s patience almost instantly, as Mazziotti is clearly a man who loves the sound of his own voice. The dialogue is best described as lobotomized Aaron Sorkin; no one ever shuts the hell up, but they simultaneously never have anything of interest to say. Mazziotti mistakes abundance for cleverness, and the effect is grating. The Mimic is also one of those movies that is obnoxiously self-aware, with the film even stopping at the midpoint for a five-minute interlude where “the writer” and “the director” discuss character motivation and plot development for the very movie you are watching — except not really, because they are fictional. Wow. Characters also occasionally break the fourth wall for no good reason, and even the film’s protagonist and narrator is referred to as “The Narrator” (Thomas Sadoski) and constantly discusses his screenwriting career.
It seems evident that Mazziotti at least seems to know quite a few famous people, as actors as varied as Austin Pendleton, Jessica Walter, Tammy Blanchard, M. Emmet Walsh, Josh Pais, Gina Gershon, and Marilu Henner pop up for a scene or two, on hand to pad out a plot that couldn’t withstand a stiff wind. It would be easy to call this a character study, but that would imply the two main characters possess anything resembling depth or worth studying; rather, they just babble endlessly about nothing in robotic fashion, because all sociopaths apparently sound alike, which isn’t reductive in the least. Then again, the film’s message seems to be, “Aren’t we all a bit of a sociopath sometimes,” which, yikes. Perhaps it would all go down a bit easier if it wasn’t delivered in the most smug and self-congratulatory way possible; the viewing experience comes with the distinctly icky feeling that Mazziotti could be sitting right next to you, eyebrows arched as he points at the screen and smiles, anxiously awaiting your validation of his “genius.” For his next film, Mazziotti should try to mimic something watchable.
Writer: Steven Warner
Made almost entirely by one person — writer/director/producer Jordan Graham also built his own sets, recorded the sound, and acted as his own editor and cinematographer — Sator feels markedly different from a lot of recent horror. This is not only because of its unique provenance and unconventional production methods — according to Variety, it took Graham six years to complete — but also because it subtly destabilizes the codified formal norms that have rendered so many recent genre films overly familiar. There’s no neon lighting here or nods to Kubrick or Carpenter. Graham’s nightmare storytelling has its own internal logic, a strange ebb and flow that’s almost hypnotic, like a trance. As A.V. Club critic Katie Rife details in her review of the film, Graham was in the midst of filming an entirely different movie when his grandmother, who was on set to shoot a cameo appearance, wound up telling him stories about her own supernatural encounters. Graham scrapped his original project and refashioned a new film around his grandmother’s tales, then cast her to play a fictionalized version of herself in the newly christened Sator.
Here, Adam (Gabe Nicholson) lives alone with his dog in the middle of a dense, isolated forest (the film was shot in Northern California). He goes about his day hiking and taking potshots at empty bottles, and every evening he retires to a creaky, almost barren old cabin to listen to deeply unnerving audio recordings of his Nani (Graham’s grandmother June Peterson) speaking about someone, or something, called Sator, who lives in the woods and visits her. Adam also frequently checks strategically positioned cameras placed in the woods, although it becomes quickly clear that he isn’t looking for deer. Adam is occasionally visited by his brother Pete (Michael Daniel), and they discuss some kind of cataclysmic event from the past that has ruptured the family. Graham intersperses old black & white video footage of Adam and Pete visiting Nani and their sister Evie (Rachel Johnson), although it’s not immediately clear how far in the past this footage takes place. Nani further discusses her history with Sator, describing how she would perform automatic writing exercises and then showing them the reams of notebooks full of her arcane scribbling. There are also bits of even older footage, which have the appearance of grainy 8 or 16mm film, the kind people used before bulky camcorders became ubiquitous. The siblings’ mother appears in these additional home movies, clearly obsessed with the idea of Sator, locked away making recordings of her own.
Slowly, Graham reveals the connection between Nani, the siblings’ deceased grandfather, and their mysteriously absent mother. There are some feints here as to whether Sator reflects an actual supernatural phenomenon or is instead emblematic of a familial history of mental illness, but to Graham’s credit, he doesn’t play coy with the film’s ending. More importantly, there’s an authentic, lived-in quality to the atmosphere here; Graham carves up the darkness with harsh, high-contrast lighting, creating an almost sculptural sense of space. There’s a somnambulant tone to David’s waking hours, with purposeful repetitions that lull the viewer until something finally reaches out from the dark and won’t let go. It’s a genuinely unsettling film, and like the recent The Empty Man, one that seems entirely disinterested in chasing modern horror trends. Graham has created something legitimately special here, a tale of generational despair and familial haunting that dispenses with belabored symbolism and instead crawls right into your subconscious.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Queer cinema has always (unfairly) had to walk a very fine line. Play it too safe, and narratives can often end up feeling more like an overly didactic PSA, tightly topical but preachy and, at worst, even patronizing. Conversely, if a film refuses to meaningfully engage its queerness, it runs the risk of appearing to skate over complicated elements of identity, devolving into mere tokenism. Unfortunately, writer-director Anna Kerrigan’s second feature, Cowboys, doesn’t always manage to strike the right balance. Centered around a father, Troy (Steve Zahn), who spirits his transgender son Joe (Sasha Knight) away from his transphobic ex-wife Sally (Jillian Bell) and into the Montana wilderness, Cowboys divides its narrative between flashbacks of the family’s life both before and after Joe comes out as transgender and Troy and Joe’s present-tense break for the border. In the vein of films like Hunt for the Wilderpeople or Captain Fantastic (in which Zahn also appears), seriocomic escape-to-nature narratives that examine identity, Cowboys is rife with potential to explore transmasculine identity in the context of the natural world and to provide much-needed representation for trans men and boys on screen. Instead, Kerrigan’s film is mostly charmless, and it seems largely unconcerned with any meaningful exploration of its landscape or the cowboy antics/ethos implied in the title. For a film seemingly founded on a father and son’s shared journey (in all the forms that implies), Kerrigan devotes far more time to flashbacks concerning Sally’s relationship with her son. It’s an understandable choice — Troy is considerably easier to sympathize with than Sally, for obvious reasons, and so there are potentially fertile depths to plumb — but ultimately it only serves to decenter the story from Joe and Troy’s course in a way that isn’t just frustrating, but tedious. There have been enough stories of bigoted parents learning to tolerate their queer children to last a lifetime, and while Bell delivers an admittedly nuanced performance, everything wraps up far too neatly to communicate any authenticity or originality. That’s not to say that every queer story should be one of tragedy, and indeed it’s a relief here that Kerrigan doesn’t subject Joe to virulent transphobia as a cheap path of feels, but the director’s alternative still ends up opting for the saccharine at the expense of the sincere.
Kerrigan’s interrogation of both trans identity and the origins of transphobia feels surface-level at best, with reductive ideas about gender — namely, using a preference in toys and interests as a litmus test of gender — ultimately doing a disservice to both the narrative and the real people and struggles it reflects. Small moments shine through, with Kerrigan highlighting the impact of both gender dysphoria and the less-represented gender euphoria that Joe experiences when watching men and trying to emulate them. Still, these moments are brief, and when Joe explains his gender identity to his father, his analogies feel too sophisticated to be authentic to the character’s experiences, ultimately contributing to the sense that this film is less interested in interrogating the complex emotions that transgender children go through than it is in educating (and in many ways, comforting) a cisgender audience. Bell’s performance helps maintain some kind of equilibrium by refusing to provide a stock villain — complicating things in a way the rest of Cowboy’s patness doesn’t — but her eventual, hastened acceptance of Joe’s identity feels so unearned as to ultimately undo much of the preceding complexity. There’s no denying the noble intent, but Cowboys feels like it was conceived with the engagement and edification of cis audiences at the fore. The result, then, is a film that passes up the opportunity to contribute much to the exploration and rhetoric of transmasculine identity and gender transition in children, instead content to coddle viewers with light didacticism and heavy sentimentalism.
Writer: Molly Adams
Burn It All
Contrary to popular belief, exploitation films are alive and well, seen in everything from last summer’s Russell Crowe road-rage thriller Unhinged to the recent right-wing school shooting atrocity Run Hide Fight. What sets these films apart from their ‘70s counterparts is that they hide behind a sheen of respectability, born out of studio funding, recognizable faces, and slick, professional filmmaking. Even when one of these movies attempts to capture the look and feel of a true exploitation-era relic, the result is usually calculated, manipulated, a la the works of Rob Zombie. One would have to go the DTV-route to find anything even remotely similar, and even then they feel too safe, neutered of their perversions. All of which makes Brady Hall’s Burn It All such a remarkable achievement. This is the purest 21st century exploitation flick in ages, one that truly evokes the scuzzy remnants of ‘70s trash simply thanks to both its single-minded intent and inept filmmaking. The dialogue is embarrassing. The acting is community theater-level. The sound design is a particular joke, with terrible dubbing, dropped lines, missing sound effects, and ear-splitting music levels. There are times where the film is out of focus, and others where the actor’s heads or bodies are awkwardly chopped off due to poor framing. The fight choreography…leaves something to be desired. No attempt is made to hide the cheap digital photography, which looks as if it was shot with an iPhone 4.
This all results in a final product whose very existence feels like a joke, being released by a distributor currently nominated for multiple Golden Globes for its Sia-directed musical. It should be made clear, then, that none of this seems intentional on the part of writer/director/cinematographer Hall, who amazingly has multiple features under his belt: this is simply a badly made film, even as its tale of female empowerment feels like a modern-day riff on the exploitation of yesteryear. Elizabeth Cotter stars as Alex, an emotionally and physically damaged young woman who goes to the outskirts of Seattle to retrieve her deceased mother’s body, but who instead uncovers an illegal organ trafficking scheme. Driven to the edge by abusive men who won’t take her seriously, she fights back, destroying every penis-equipped person in her path. Not that these men don’t have it coming. As Alex herself states, “Why does every dude tell me they’re a nice guy only after they put a gun in my face?” She isn’t wrong. Hall paints every male character on screen as the scum of the earth, from the old man in traffic who holds up a sign that reads, “Show your tits” to the baby boy wearing a onesie that reads, “Make me a sandwich, bitch.” Choice lines of dialogue from Alex include, “You really gonna mansplain my dead mother to me right now?” and “Anything you can do, I can do bleeding.” One man’s dying words to Alex are simply, “You’re a cunt.” Remarkably, aside from a few stray moments, none of this seems the least bit knowing, which makes it a rather glorious viewing experience. Based solely on this film, Hall seems like the type of guy who took a feminist theory course in college and bragged to everyone about how he understood women on a different level. It takes some cojones for a man to even attempt to tell this particular story, for starters, or to force his female lead to unironically describe a gun as a “totem of security.” If it wasn’t already clear, in no reality is Burn It All a recommended watch, but please trust that it’s an undeniably compelling viewing experience built on a profound badness that also, inadvertently, makes it something of a success. Don’t make me have to mansplain it.
Writer: Steven Warner
There are at least four different movies vying for attention in the new ripped-from-the-headlines thriller Body Brokers, each of them potentially compelling on their own, but here awkwardly meshed together into a jumbled morass. Initially a story of two junkies, Utah (Jack Kilmer) and Opal (Alice Englert), who pull stick up jobs and get high in flophouses, the film changes gears when they meet Wood (Michael K. Williams), a stranger who buys them a hot meal and offers to help them get clean. Utah decides to take him up on his offer, leaving a skeptical Opal behind, and heads to a treatment facility, where he detoxes and starts to get a sense that not all is as it seems in this otherwise picaresque environment. CEO Vin (Frank Grillo) becomes our guide to this segment, as he details how certain provisions in the Affordable Care Act created a Wild West for new, for-profit treatment centers, as places popped up out of the woodwork to take in addicts and then bill outrageous sums back to insurance providers. Utah eventually leaves rehab and teams up with Wood, and they start brokering junkies in and out of rehab places, paying them to temporarily get clean and getting kickbacks for filling up beds (hence the title). The plot thickens when a new scam presents itself; at Vin’s behest, Utah and Wood enter into an arrangement with an unscrupulous surgeon to place opioid inhibitors into willing participants, with everyone getting a cut of the insurance payout. Eventually, Utah meets a woman, just in time for Opal to come back into the picture and complicate things. And then there’s a murder. It’s a lot to take in, more like a season of a television show crammed into a two hour movie.
For it’s oversaturation, there’s still a lot to like here. Writer/director John Swab keeps things moving at a brisk pace, and the details of the brokering process are genuinely fascinating. But you’ve seen these rise-and-fall narratives before, as Utah revels in fast, easy money but gradually grows a conscience. There’s also a weird mish-mash of tones, from the somber realism of the early scenes to the flashy, punchy montages of Utah and Wood at work. Grillo occasionally pops in via smug voiceover narration, laying out the various scams in jazzy montages that recall The Big Short, or in a behind-the scenes-look at a call center where sales people auction off potential clients to the highest bidder that plays like a miniature Wolf of Wall Street remake. Things mostly hold together, thanks to a game cast, until Utah gets involved with May (Jessica Rothe), and the film gets distracted: it tries to sell their romance, legitimize Utah’s moral transformation, and indulge a sudden act of violence in an incredibly brief amount of time. The film rallies for a bracing finale, but despite the bold ending, Body Brokers never manages to rise above being a noble failure.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
I Blame Society
Wickedly funny and sharp enough to draw blood, I Blame Society is the feature debut from writer-director Gillian Wallace Horvat, who also stars as a warped version of herself. The semi-autobiographical film starts with a compliment: that Gillian would make a good murderer. Teasing the idea out to its logical, if bloody, conclusion, Gillian becomes increasingly fascinated with not only her own potential for violence, but also on the documentation of it, filming herself obsessively and creating her magnum opus while alienating (and murdering) the people in her life. From its painfully awkward first scene, I Blame Society is not exactly a comfortable watch. Horvat, as an actress, is still somewhat green, her dialogue a bit stilted and overly mannered in places, and it results in aura of voyeurism that a lot of mockumentaries strive to avoid. Throughout the entire film, then, this performative affect makes it impossible to shake the idea that you are both watching and somehow being watched, with every element of the film trained on Gillian’s desperate need for attention. It would be fair to think that sounds unbearable, but in execution it adds to the film’s charm; Horvat’s performance might be technically flawed, but it’s the sort of happy accident that works in the film’s favor, imbuing proceedings with a relatable, only mostly harmless narcissism.
In the age of the 24-hour meme cycle, satire, irony, and earnest critique can easily lose footing. Smartly, then, I Blame Society, chooses both its protagonist and her society as the dual targets for its satire, making it far more incisive and effective than films that try to laugh at everything but themselves. While Gillian is blissfully unaware of the absurdity of her situation, Horvat uses this ignorance to navigate a wide spate of issues, from the exploitation of women in Hollywood to how whiteness, and white womanhood specifically, situates individuals above the law. In a particularly chilling scene involving Gillian preying on a homeless man — a tactic that she later repeats — we are reminded that while Gillian sees herself as some kind of scrappy underdog, she still has the suitable privilege to get away with a murder spree. Her main conflict over the isn’t one of moralism, but rather how she can reconcile her talent for murder with her desperate need for validation — after all, as she points out, one of the drawbacks of being a murderer is that you can’t take credit for it. Despite being overused once or twice, one of the film’s central jokes about “strong female leads” could have felt cringe-inducing in any other script, but Horvat offers a genuine, surprising interrogation of what this actually means. The past decade has seen a number of films about morally ambiguous or even downright awful women that complicate and blur their feminist leanings — think Midsommar and Gone Girl respectively — but which might have viewers quietly thinking “Good for her.” Horvat makes no such appeal to our sympathy. Gillian is deliciously awful, aggressively self-centered, and wholly manipulative, but manages the tricky task of coming off just as likable as she is hateable, addressing meaningful cultural rhetoric without ever claiming any ethical footing. In many ways, she’s kind of the feminist (anti-)hero our generation deserves.
Writer: Molly Adams
Sarah and Zachary Ray Sherman‘s young love story Young Hearts (formerly titled Thunderbolt in Mine Eye) plays like intro-level mumblecore for tweens — so it should come as no surprise that Mark and Jay Duplass are listed as executive producers. The film depicts an awkward sexual awakening of, and the first love between, high school-aged Harper (Anjini Taneja Azhar) and Tilly (Quinn Liebling), and opts for naturalism over artificial drama. It’s an admirable choice that conjures more than a few suppressed memories: the stumbling conversations in which both parties desperately cling to commonalities; the lame excuses created to “accidentally” run into one another; the thrill of a first kiss, and the resulting urge to flee; the feeling of remembering that first kiss just moments later, a stolen moment that fills the mind and body with unadulterated joy. Young Hearts successfully captures that moment in life when the world seems both infinite and so very small, when your worldview changes through the prism of meeting that special someone, but also through the way your friends, family, and your peers respond to seeing you in the throes of your first love. For 80 minutes, the Shermans make you feel 13 years old again — for better and for worse.
As is the case with most mumblecore, “naturalism” sometimes translates to boredom, and while the two protagonists here are relatable, they aren’t exactly the most interesting people. It doesn’t help that both lead performances are rather inconsistent from scene to scene. And then there’s the issue of the Shermans’ need to introduce some sort of social commentary into the proceedings. In some instances, this feels pertinent, addressing the double-standard when it comes to male and female sexuality, for instance. One scene in particular, though, finds Harper giving an impassioned speech in class about the oppression of women of color, and when a teacher asks her if she wants to discuss it further, she excitedly answers, “Yes!” before the filmmakers abruptly cut away. That scene is symptomatic of the problems with this film as a whole: well-intentioned, sweet, but slight. [Published as part of Portland International Film Festival 2020 | Dispatch 3.]
Writer: Steven Warner
The legacy of H.P. Lovecraft looms large over the horror genre, so much so that even works with no stated connection to the old master can’t help but bear his influence. Such is the case with the new film Sacrifice, which, while technically adapted from a short story by Paul Kane, might as well be a remake of Stuart Gordon’s 2001 film Dagon, itself freely adapted from Lovecraft’s short story “Dagon” and novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth. One can’t help but feel like they’ve seen this particular story many times before, so consistently does it hit every expected beat. There’s nary a surprise in sight, and the filmmakers simply can’t figure out a novel way to make this material interesting (or scary). Even someone unfamiliar with Lovecraft’s mythology (or litany of assorted adaptations) would likely balk at the mediocre performances and thin, generic plotting on display here, all of it in service of a film that somehow manages to make its scant 88-minute runtime feel like three hours.
Directed by Andy Collier & Tor Mian, with Mian credited as writer and Collier acting as cinematographer, Sacrifice follows Isaac (Ludovic Hughes) and his very pregnant wife Emma (Sophie Stevens) as they return to Isaac’s ancestral home on a small island in Norway to sell his deceased mother’s old house. Isaac hasn’t been back since he was a child, when he and his mother fled the island in the middle of the night under mysterious circumstances. As Isaac and Emma settle in, they meet some rude locals, as well as the town sheriff, Renate (Barbara Crampton, sporting a questionable accent). Renate informs Isaac that his father was murdered that night, and that she’s been investigating the unsolved case for 25 years. Isaac is shocked by this news, but has no real memory of the events, so instead, uh, accepts Renate’s dinner invitation, where he and Emma (and the audience) are subjected to an inordinate amount of exposition. For such a short film, Sacrifice spends an inexcusable amount of time setting things up, first explaining and then tip-toeing around its central mystery, as Isaac and Emma keep discovering odd things on the island while arguing over whether to stay or go. While Renate initiates Isaac into their local religious customs — they worship an old deity known as “the Slumbering One” — Emma has vivid nightmares about being attacked by Isaac and him stealing their unborn baby.
Why is this cult so interested in Isaac? What were the circumstances surrounding his departure from the island? What’s that mysterious light coming from just beneath the surface of the water? Why is Isaac acting so strange all of a sudden? It’s all pretty obvious, and there’s no real gore or scares to break up the monotony of going through these particular paces yet again. Collier and Mian occasionally come up with an interesting composition, like POV shots from underwater or extreme closeups that break objects down into abstracted smears of light and color. But these moments are few and far between, and much of the film is poorly lit, pallid widescreen photography that overly emphasizes negative space. It’s supposed to be foreboding, but it instead comes across as merely flat and bland. When something finally (finally!) happens in the last five minutes of the film, it’s less excitement at the reveal of some evil master plan than relief that Sacrifice is mercifully almost over. Anyone already vaguely familiar with Lovecraftian lore and Cthulhu mythology will be unimpressed, as will anyone simply looking for a spooky good time.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
As far as horror films go, there are a number of avenues to success, and thus, also plenty of room for forgiveness. Inane premise? I’ll bite. Annoying characters? Easy — just kill them off in fun, inventive ways. Plot holes around every corner? Whatever, an immaculate screenplay isn’t always necessary in the face of legitimate visceral thrills. So when I say The Sinners is borderline unwatchable, know that it’s not hyperbole. The film follows a group of seven girls at a strict Christian school who are dubbed “The Seven Deadly Sins,” with corresponding nicknames according to each girl’s sin of choice. Never mind the fact that none of the girls ever seem to actually do any sinning other than the occasional light bullying or mild parental rebellion. The girls, egged on by their teacher who inexplicably bears little importance here other than as a threat of sexual promiscuity, begin fearing for their lives when, one-by-one, somebody starts killing their members.
Okay, so maybe no one is expecting a screenwriting clinic with a run-of-the-mill slasher like this, but The Sinners is only barely coherent even. Also present are predictable plot twists, cringe-inducing dialogue, and paper-thin characters who dip in and out of the story with little rhyme and no reason — nothing necessarily unusual there. But the culmination of these familiar pratfalls and the film’s thoroughly unintelligible storyline makes for a film that feels like somebody (presumably, director Courtney Paige) saw The Craft: Legacy and thought it would be better with less narrative logic and more arch villainy. By the time a serial killer shows up to start whittling the group down, there’s absolutely no reason to care about any of the girls or that they’re being killed off, and the girls are so interchangeable that it doesn’t really matter which of them die, in which order, and who survives. Despite paying lip service to a potentially interesting conceit with the Seven Deadly Sins character-building, in the end there’s very little to differentiate any of one-note girls, and it becomes just a superficial gimmick, effectively discarded mere seconds after it’s introduced. Indeed, perhaps what most defines The Sinners is its infant-like sense of object permanence, immediately forgetting about characters, ideas, or narrative threads as soon as they leave the screen. Entire characters — notably the background Sinners, including Sloth, Gluttony, Envy, and Greed — fade so far into the background that it’s easy to forget they even exist, and the film doesn’t overly suffer for their absence; it’s not a great sign when characters aren’t memorable enough to warrant even notice their scarcity. And it never becomes clear why, in the film’s final twenty minutes, writers opted to include two law enforcement officials who seem to only exist in order to antagonize a character that we don’t care about with taunts of “Go back to the big city,” but by this point in The Sinners, this is honestly just sort of standard operating logic.
It all manages to be both baffling and boring, yet frustratingly never reaching the levels of absurdity that would at least add a bit of (unintended) humor. Over the course of the last half-century, the so-bad-it’s-good horror film has become an interpretive fixture of the genre. Horror fans are arguably the most indulgent of trainwreck cinema, actively seeking comedy and camp where actual scares might be lacking; it’s an admirable quality, seeking redemptive (low-brow) pleasures, paths to salvage a viewing experience, to make up for hammy acting, loose plots, and myriad other deficiencies common to the dregs of the genre. But The Sinners is practically a checklist of how not to make a horror movie, one that’s not even self-aware enough to disrupt its banality with good humor. For a lot of horror-heads, the release of a new, low-rent, 90-minute slasher is an invitation to get drunk and laugh at it with friends (in non-pandemic times, at least). Let us be very clear then: The Sinners isn’t even so-bad-it’s-good. It’s just bad.
Writer: Molly Adams