There’s an ancient, malevolent force living in the depths of the forest in director Jaco Bouwer’s Gaia, a psychedelic bit of eco-horror that finds nature taking over and transforming the human body in hideous ways. Forest Rangers Gabi (Monique Rockman) and Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) are doing their rounds when she hops off their boat to track down a broken drone camera. Winston continues upriver, and the pair become separated. After Gabi is wounded by a hunting trap, she limps into a dilapidated cabin and encounters a couple of strange men, Barend (Carel Nel) and his son Stefan (Alex van Dyk), who live a secluded life hidden away from modern civilization. While Barend tends to Gabi’s wounds, Winston is left alone in the dark, still searching for her. His ultimate fate is only the first of many bizarre, deeply disturbing images that Bouwer and cinematographer Jorrie van der Walt conjure. Barend eventually explains some of the strange goings-on to an incredulous Gabi: there is a living entity within the forest itself, which he believes is preparing for battle against humanity and its encroaching, destructive technology. He and Stefan worship it like a God, and live in a kind of tenuous harmony with it, offering small sacrifices and occasionally fending off infected humanoids that attack without warning (the same creatures that set upon poor Winston). Gabi begins having strange dreams and finds herself also infected, although Barend and Stefan seem to have found a way to treat or otherwise stave off the symptoms. As Gabi becomes more friendly with Stefan, Barend becomes increasingly unhinged, worried that she is tempting his son with her big-city ways and alienating him from their isolated, ritualized way of life.
There’s more to the plot than that, but what Gaia excels at is not story but oppressive mood. The omnipresent sound design of squelches and yelps, alongside the constant thrumming score, all discordant strings and low drones, creates an atmosphere of creeping dread, as the forest comes alive with tendrils and all manner of weaponized flora and fauna. There’s an almost Biblical feel to the proceedings, as Gabi and Stefan take on aspects of Adam and Eve in Eden, while Barend contemplates playing Abraham to Stefan’s Issac. The forest is awash with phallic and vaginal imagery, suggesting a symbiosis between man and nature that man is tearing asunder. Gaia is clearly influenced by Garland’s Annihilation, but Bouwer replaces that movie’s digital, bio-mechanical sheen with a muted palette and emphasis on the physical materiality of stuff — thick, goopy blood, shimmering water, mud, moss, spores, fungi. Meanwhile, the makeup effects are truly astounding, as people transform into organic hybrids and dissolve into beautiful tableaux of colorful but deadly masses of mushrooms and flowers. It’s a terrifying thought, nature defending itself against its own destruction by returning us to a state of primordial ooze from which we first evolved. In the end, there’s no defeating the Earth itself, and humanity will be gone long before bacteria will.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Broadcast Signal Intrusion
Working late nights transferring tapes of old broadcasts to disc, James comes across a strange pirate broadcast in the middle of a 1987 newscast. The images in the intrusion are unsettling, to say the least. A person in a mask, who seems to be a woman, stands in the middle of a room for which they seem too tall. The mask looks contorted into an open-mouthed expression of permanent agony. There are no words in this broadcast, only strange, droning sounds. And, as James will soon discover, this isn’t the only broadcast of its kind. If his initial investigative interest is simply curiosity — an easy enough motivation to buy into, it is a creepy tape — a possible personal connection, specifically the disappearance of his wife the day before the rumored final broadcast in 1996, drives James to obsession. Jacob Gentry’s Broadcast Signal Intrusion is that strong sort of paranoiac thriller more concerned with obsessor than obsession. Though the hunt for the truth itself is never less than compelling, it’s James’ inability to cope with the reality of his grief that materializes as the film’s primary subject. As in many horror movies, there are moments where an audience might want James to stop what he’s doing completely, but in this specific case, such an impulse might be less about fear of unseen horror and more a plea for the character to move on and heal. “Don’t go in there” because you might not find any answers within.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything scary in the plot itself; even outside of the pirate broadcasts, Gentry offers up plenty to unnerve. Most of these scenes are admittedly derivative — an encounter in a basement with a possibly responsible party plays exactly like the nerve-shredding Bob Vaughn scene in Zodiac — but none of these used parts are broken, and Gentry rarely opts for cheap shocks, displaying a confidence in what’s onscreen to do the work. Taken as a whole, the film is suitably eerie throughout and creates a queasy feeling of dread, all as it lurches toward its necessarily unresolved conclusion. That the film’s sustained ambiguity isn’t wielded as a cudgel against James’ crusade is to its credit. Just because James probably won’t find any answers about his wife doesn’t mean he hasn’t uncovered something genuinely sinister, and he can’t be blamed for trying to make order out of chaos, especially as the case takes several dark, violent turns. It’s all reflective of surprisingly sensitive filmmaking that doesn’t make a fool out of James, even as it acknowledges his quest as a fool’s errand.
Writer: Chris Mello
The End of Us
Those nostalgic for the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic will find much to like about The End of Us, Steven Kanter and Henry Loevner’s relationship dramedy that chronicles one recently-separated couple’s attempts to cohabitate after March 2020’s stay-at-home order. Everything that marked the beginning of quarantine is on full display: Tiger King, bread-making, copious amounts of wine, sudden unemployment, debilitating anxiety caused by fear-mongering news channels and social media feeds. It was a simpler time, one which not a single person alive would care to relive, especially as most of the globe is still desperately trying to regain a sense of normalcy in the face of continued catastrophe. It was inevitable that the re-emerging cinematic landscape would be inundated with movies tackling the pandemic in some shape or form, and it’s no surprise that those first out of the gate wield its specifics as novelty, a new wrinkle to tried-and-true formulas. Accordingly, The End of Us is a standard-issue rom-com with COVID proving the ultimate monkey wrench, as struggling actor Nick (Ben Coleman) and corporate executive Leah (Ali Vingiano) are forced to continue living under the same roof after a nasty break-up that coincides with the Corona-shit hitting the fan. Events follow a predictable path: petty squabbling leading to renewed feelings resulting from a night of binge drinking, which in turn of course leads to personal growth of both parties. Strike that, Nick attempts to improve himself, while Leah does stupid shit and regresses, but Kanter and Loevner don’t seem to recognize this, and so her arc feels muddled and incomplete, unless buying a dog signals maturity on her part — that detail is left unclear.
The filmmakers certainly stack the deck against Nick in the early going, painting him as some sort of immature man-child unable to properly communicate his feelings. But by film’s end, it’s the portrayal of Leah that seems borderline cruel, a bizarre choice that has the unfortunate hint of misogyny, no matter how unintentional it may in fact be. For their parts, Coleman and Vingiano actually exude a fair amount of chemistry, invaluable to a film of this nature, but their flaws, while realistic, also make them rather obnoxious company to keep for large stretches of the movie’s runtime. The question one has to ask when it comes to a movie like this — take note, more are surely in the offing — is: if you remove COVID from the equation, is this as effective? The fact that The End of Us is problematic even outside the specter of its pandemic trappings signals a flawed venture from the start. It’s the kind of film that will undoubtedly prove more interesting the further removed we become from March 2020, a snapshot of the minutiae that consumed and textured our isolated lives. But as a rom-com-styled portrait of a failed relationship, there isn’t a vaccine around that can save The End of Us.
Writer: Steven Warner
Modern American politics are, needless to say, a raging dumpster fire; bad news for the country, but great news for documentarians who have been busily churning out films on the dire state of affairs. These films of course range from rudimentary, PSA-style docs that take a surface-level look at issues of the day to more incisive works that thoughtfully examine our national political landscape. Jasmine Stodel’s Kid Candidate doesn’t really fit into either of those categories — and perhaps for that reason it’s one of the most memorable and unique docs from this broader genre to come along in recent years. The film follows 24-year-old musician Hayden Pedigo, who’s on a quest to become Amarillo, Texas’s youngest serving city councilman. It begins as something of a hodgepodge — with a series of viral, satirical campaign ads — but soon shifts focus and becomes a real-life David and Goliath underdog story, as Pedigo takes on Amarillo’s deeply entrenched political machine and their backers at the conservative Amarillo Matters PAC, who seem to own the whole city. Frustrated by what he sees as inaction from an insular city council, driven only by self-interest, Pedigo becomes determined to be the candidate of the people, targeting the city’s historically marginalized, young, and minority populations to make a tangible difference in his community. And while his candidacy displays many of the hallmarks of the contemporary social justice movement, Pedigo himself is a curiously apolitical figure; his nebulous ideology and his unwillingness to take a firm stance on any issue that he deems “too controversial” belie a genuine willingness to listen and learn from his constituents. Pedigo may ultimately not be ready for the office that he seeks — as the toll that the campaign takes on his emotional well-being throughout this film clearly demonstrates — but there’s something undeniably fascinating about Stodel’s real-life Mr.-Smith-goes-to-City-Hall-instead-of-Washington.
Because it clocks in at barely over an hour, Kid Candidate can admittedly sometimes feel like a documentary short that just runs very long, rather than a full-fledged feature. The lack of specificity about Pedigo himself becomes frustrating in the face of the many very distinct issues that face Amarillo. Stodel makes up for this, largely, by presenting her film as an exploration of the oft-overlooked value behind the processes of local American politics — as viewed through the lens of this particular quirky candidate. The mayor of Amarillo and other elected officials are all given a voice, and Stodel offers no explicit judgment — but to most, it will be clear that the politicians’ stubborn adherence to status quo and ignorance of reality (naturally cloaked in vague religious pablum about “doing God’s will”) serves to dispel the American right’s aura of victimhood when contrasted with the actual, tangible marginalization seen in minority communities living in the city’s neglected outskirts. As the old adage goes — all politics are local. The stranglehold on the town exercised by Amarillo Matters makes this painfully clear in its dedication to upholding the quality of life for the few at the expense of the many. Kid Candidate takes a microcosm of American politics and uses it to display the institutional rot deep within its core; that it does so with such wit and charm is a testament to Stodel’s prowess as a filmmaker. And while one can’t help but wish Pedigo’s story would enmesh more seamlessly with that of the underrepresented Black and Somali immigrant communities in Amarillo, Kid Candidate nevertheless gets at the heart of some pressing societal concerns that often get lost in the bombast of our politics at a national level.
Writer: Mattie Lucas
Potato Dreams of America
If Marvel’s Wandavision has left you aching for more of an Eastern-European protagonist understanding their life through the fantasy of the cinema they grew up with, Wes Hurley’s Potato Dreams of America might conceivably be the film for you. An autobiographical work, the film tells the story of Potato (real name Vasily) and his mother Lena, a mail-order bride, both during Potato’s childhood in Russia, as the USSR transitions to capitalism, and following a bold move to America, where grows up. Changing the shape of what could have otherwise been a paint-by-numbers coming-of-age, Potato has to deal with the same issues in two different worlds, coming to understand his sexuality, religion, national identity, and sense of self on both Russian and American terms. One of the cultural compasses Potato uses to navigate these two confusing, divergent worlds is film, from his childhood spent re-enacting contraband American films to the illicit LGBT rental-videos that help him understand his budding sexuality. To match this divide, Hurley employs a bizarre and bold sensibility, complete with musical numbers and Jesus as an imaginary friend, and vibrant visual style in the film’s first half, where Potato’s childhood is bright and full, even if threatened by the dangers Lena tries to protect him from. Once in America, not only does the film’s particular cinematic language change, but so do its actors, with the harsh light of the US illuminating an entirely different perception of Potato and his mother.
Unfortunately, this exercise in stark contrast doesn’t work as well as it could have — the brilliance of the first act, set in Russia, only accentuates how the film’s American half suffers in comparison. Where the first half of the film is effectively stylized, striking just the right balance of whimsy and grit, its back half is largely devoid — intentionally, but no less dulling — of the style that lends such charm to the early going. Likewise, the plot’s rhythms become jarring in places, particularly in the case of a late plot-twist regarding Potato’s stepfather that, despite being true to writer-director Hurley’s life, is inorganically incorporated. While it might mirror the unexpected twists and turns of life itself, Hurley’s second act suffers for it. Where implications of things outside of Potato’s perspective are often integrated in more subtle ways, such as the rampant anti-Semitism and homophobia of the first act, the film ultimately veers away from this tack, ending the initially promising effort on a sharp downward trajectory.
Writer: Molly Adams
As an inadvertent result of the world’s continued struggle against COVID-19, writer-director Martin Edralin’s Canadian family drama Islands evinces an unexpected form of empathy; with thousands upon thousands of single adult children around the globe forced to spend quarantine with their aging parents, this tale of a lonely, middle-aged man still living with his mother and father might hit close to home. While the premise seems ripe for all sorts of comedic shenanigans, Edralin takes a more subdued approach to the story of this Filipino family, who immigrated to Canada years ago and who have one son happily married with children, while the other is desperately shy but longs for romance. Joshua (Rogelio Balagtas) is reminded daily of his unenviable situation as the family’s disappointment by a mother who has all but given up on his prospects at finding happiness; meanwhile, at work, his colleagues desperately try to push him out of his comfort zone. Joshua even goes so far as to bargain with God, praying that He give him the strength to break out of his shell and find love. Unfortunately, that opportunity — when finally presented — turns out to come at a price: the death of Joshua’s mother. The funeral prompts the arrival of Marisol (Sheila Lotuaco), a cousin from Kuwait who likewise has a troubled relationship with her past. Marisol agrees to stay with Joshua and help him care for his ailing father. Romance ensues — and yes, for those wondering, Islands does address the whole “cousin aspect,” and in a mature fashion.
Edralin is not out for sensationalism; his film is, above all, a low-key character study showing how one individual can inspire change — no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential — within another. The structure of this story proves most successful to that end, as Joshua’s growth is contrasted with his own father’s, as he contends with the sudden loss of his wife and a physical and psychological breakdown. Through its engagement with feelings of love — both romantic and familial — as well as mortality, sexuality, and self-discovery, Islands ultimately emphasizes how connecting with other people is the driving force in our lives. That may sound weighty, but there’s a gentle effortlessness to Edralin’s approach, or at least in his writing: the cumulative power of Islands is revealed at the end, and shows Erdalin’s prowess as a storyteller. If only the same could be said for the filmmaking here, but sadly the visuals remain rather ugly: a combination of overlit scenes and shallow focus shots that make proceedings resemble a daytime soap opera, the mark of a crew unwilling (or unable) to elevate their digital cinematography above anything more than its most utilitarian form. The film’s cast of novice actors fare far better than its crew, with stand-out performances from Balagtas and Lotuaco, whose chemistry aids the natural development of their on-screen relationship. Sure, Islands doesn’t exactly have anything new to say about humanity, but it still manages to be compelling in its own low-key way.
Writer: Steven Warner