There’s no shortage of revenge pictures out there; at this point, it’s such a well-trod genre that it’s gone through its own classical-to-revisionist-and-back-again cycle. In other words, Bull isn’t doing anything particularly new, but it manages to forge its own identity by doubling down on eerie, moody atmospherics and a shocking amount of extreme violence. Beginning with Bull (Neil Maskell) purchasing a gun and then casually shooting a man, writer/director Paul Andrew Williams wastes no time diving into a festering underworld of long-buried secrets and familial recriminations. Within minutes, Bull has also murdered middle-aged couple Cheryl (Kellie Shirley) and Ollie (Yassine Mkhichen), as well as a man named Marco (Jason Milligan). Informed of her death, Cheryl’s brother-in-law Norm (David Hayman, almost as scary as Maskell), the local Godfather-type, springs into action, assembling his crew of underlings. Meanwhile, Bull is hunting down his old associates, demanding to know what has become of his son, Aiden (Henri Charles).
In fleshing out this narrative, Williams proceeds along parallel narrative tracks: the present day, as Bull plays cat-and-mouse with Norm and picks his crew apart one by one, and flashbacks to the “good old days,” where Bull was Norm’s enforcer and married to Norm’s daughter, Gemma (Lois Brabin-Platt). It’s through these flashbacks that we discover the full depths of Bull’s sociopathy, and Norm’s willingness to indulge him until it threatens to consume his immediate family. We don’t know exactly what has transpired in the past, which the film teases out over its relatively brief runtime (and we certainly won’t spoil it here), but no one can believe Bull is back after 10 long years. If this sounds kind of like The Limey or Get Carter or Dead Man’s Shoes, it plays that way too. But Maskell’s off-kilter presence and the spare, dark cinematography also evokes the more recent Kill List, and the fractured timeline and emphasis on Bull’s harried, subjective point of view plays like a less phantasmagoric You Were Never Really Here. And make no mistake, Bull is a startlingly vicious movie. No man, woman, or child is safe as Bull seeks his vengeance, stabbing, shooting, gouging, and beating anyone in sight. Maskell’s paunchy midsection and awkward gait belie a ferocious appetite for violence, his cold, dead-eyed stare revealing a man lost in the throes of his own bloodlust. It’s a chillingly effective performance, all the more remarkable for the brief scenes between him and young Aiden, who appears to be the only person on Earth that Bull cares about. There is, however, the matter of the film’s ending. Williams takes a wild swing for the fences, and while one can certainly admire the audacity, it throws the film into disarray. It’s a shame, as the preceding 80 minutes are a fairly satisfying bit of amoral brutality. Bull is recommended for fans of the genre, but with this one unfortunate but considerable caveat.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
The 12 Day Tale of the Monster That Died in 8
Shunji Iwai is one of the most reliably adventurous mainstream directors in world cinema today. A quick look at his recent output: After his epic 2015 chronicle of a lonely woman and the Internet (A Bride for Rip Van Winkle), he made an animated prequel to one of his best films (The Case of Hana & Alice), an hour-long movie about Bae Doona as an alienated housewife that was actually an extended commercial for Nescafé (Chang Ok’s Letter), and two versions of the same film made back to back, one in China and one in Japan (Last Letter). So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that his latest, The 12 Day Tale of the Monster that Died in 8, is an adaptation of a COVID-boredom challenge by Shin Godzilla co-director Shinji Higuchi, wherein a variety of celebrities would make short films about their kaiju defeating COVID called, naturally, “Kaiju Defeat COVID.”
Takumi Saitoh (star of the upcoming Shin Ultraman) buys a kaiju egg online and talks about it with us in videos and with his friends in Zoom chats. One of the friends is a director who is a kaiju expert, another is a chef who is out of work thanks to the shutdown, the third is played by Non (star of Ohku Akiko’s Hold Me Back), who purchases her own creature online, an alien that can’t be seen on video. The kaiju start out as tiny, pea-sized balls but evolve and take on various forms as the days go by. Takumi is continually perplexed by what his kaiju is and what its final form will be. Is it a Windom? A Miclas? A Ballonga? A Devilman? Will it, as he hopes, defeat COVID, or will it destroy the world? (If it does the latter, he tells us, he will truly be sorry.) There are a couple of interesting ideas here: the matter-of-factness of a world where every popular Japanese genre cycle reflects an actual reality (successive waves of kaiju, aliens, ghosts, etc, our inability to understand “what COVID means,” and our powerlessness in the face of it, along with the widespread false belief that the cure might be worse than the virus itself.
The isolation and desperation of the shutdown are palpable in the videos, in which creative people slowly lose their minds from lack of social contact. It’s also a lightly funny parody of YouTube culture, the kinds of videos my kids watch that don’t make any sense to me (Takumi is particularly fond of a woman who live streams from her bathtub — fully clothed and with no water, of course). At times, the film veers dangerously close to cuteness, often a danger with Iwai, but as with his 1998 film April Story, which I think is his best work but which some find overly saccharine, he grounds it with just enough melancholy and deadpan weirdness to avoid that adorable fate.
Writer: Sean Gilman
1982’s supernatural horror flick The Entity — based on a true story, mind you — concerned a woman who was repeatedly assaulted and raped by an unseen force. The new Uruguayan film Ghosting Gloria dares to ask the question: what if that same premise was turned into a romantic comedy? Shockingly, the end results aren’t nearly as offensive as that brief description might imply, as filmmaking duo Marcela Matta and Mauro Sarser show a deft hand in handling material that could easily spin out of control. Their touch is light, even as their tale tackles female sexuality in a way that is neither flippant nor judgmental. The titular Gloria (Stefania Tortorella) is a thirty-year-old single woman living in Montevideo who works at a local bookstore with her blunt and perpetually horny best friend, Sandra (Nenan Pelenur). A typical sex-centric work conversation leads to the discovery that Gloria has never achieved orgasm, a fact that results in plenty of sleepless nights as Gloria is forced to endure the sounds of her upstairs neighbors humping like rabbits. Seeking a change in her life, Gloria moves into a new place, one whose previous owner unexpectedly died of a brain aneurysm, and whose spirit still haunts the premises. He is also incredibly horny, and it doesn’t take long for this ghost to perform cunnilingus on an unsuspecting Gloria, who is at first startled but goes along for the ride because he is so damn good at it, resulting in the first of many OOOs.
Given the incredible ickiness of that setup, which immediately raises issues of assault and consent, it seems necessary to qualify what’s going on here: Matta and Sarser establish a tone of explicitly playful horniness prior to these events, reminiscent of nothing more than the early works of Pedro Almodovar, and the initial encounter here is portrayed in such an absurdist way that any hints of impropriety practically vanish as Gloria implores her spectre to continue his carnal activities, beating the wall and screaming in orgasmic, over-the-top ecstacy. What follows is a love story between Gloria and her ghost, the perfect partner because, as she states, “I can talk about myself for hours and he never complains or interrupts.” And while all this alone would be enough plot for several films, Ghosting Gloria simply cannot stop, instead opting for an approach that demands to be described as epic. The film is ultimately a tale of one woman finding happiness on her own terms, putting aside societal expectations and choosing to live each day to its fullest, and it’s a journey that involves a suicide attempt, a trip to Heaven — or some Heaven-adjacent destination — and a possible romance with her asshole boss, Gustavo (co-director and writer Sarser).
All that is to say, Ghosting Gloria is stuffed to the gills, and the experience becomes exhausting long before the end credits roll. The further the film moves away from its supernatural elements, the more pedestrian it becomes, delivering a message of female empowerment that, while always welcome, does scan as a tad trite here. And the Almodovar allusions sadly dissipate entirely by the second half, an unfortunate development that ultimately makes the film a tidier fit in Hallmark territory. Still, Ghosting Gloria is never a chore to sit through, thanks to the visual playfulness of co-directors Matta and Sarser — just wait until you get a load of Heaven, which looks a little like a toilet paper commercial, in the best possible way — as well as a game lead performance from Tortorella, who imbues Gloria with equal parts strength, femininity, and vulnerability. The actress has presence to burn, and if this film doesn’t fully match her quality, her career should still fairly blow up if enough viewers catch this flick. That certainly seems possible, as LionsGate has already picked Ghosting Gloria for North American distribution, and it’s no real surprise; it’s a film built and bred to be a crowd-pleaser, and just in case you forgot, yes, we’re talking about a movie where a woman receives oral pleasure from a ghost. General audiences will undoubtedly be more forgiving of its flabbier tendencies and focus on its infectious spirit, which is hard to deny. But a truly fair assessment has to take note of the old adage: sometimes less is indeed more.
Writer: Steven Warner
Following the success of a documentary based on their experiences as addicts, two of the subjects and the director of Reindeerspotting: Escape From Santaland take the after party all the way to Bangkok. Director Joonas Neuvonen returns home as planned, while the other two, Jani and Antti follow their hedonistic urges to Cambodia. When Jani is later found dead in Cambodia under suspicious circumstances, Neuvonen returns, camera in hand, to create a tragic sequel and find out what truly happened to his friend.
The result of Neuvonen’s journey is half neon-drenched noir, half harrowing documentary, with each part clashing tragically and uncomfortably with the other. Pekka Strang’s monotone narration as the voice of Neuvonen provides cynical commentary, with an audible pessimism that colors the entire film. When combined with Neuvonen’s intimate footage of Jani, Antti, and their escapades in Bangkok and Cambodia, the effect is nothing short of distressing. The narrative flits between everyday footage of Jani and co. in Asia, surrounded by a revolving door of Thai and Cambodian extras seemingly drawn by money and drugs, and Neuvonen’s later search for the pair, in which he returns to the trio’s old haunts and tries to put the pieces of this puzzle together. Neuvonen’s dedication to long-winded, uncut scenes of Jani and co. leads to some unevenness and odd pacing, and despite the film’s fairly slim runtime, the sheer intensity of its subject matter makes the whole affair something of a slog to get through. Similarly, that the camera watches on as Jani descends further into addiction might leave some — this writer certainly included — feeling beyond uncomfortable. It’s voyeuristic to the point of exploitation, and no amount of rationalization can fix that. However, Neuvonen’s refusal to ever turn his camera away is also the film’s greatest strength: it’s his intense, singular focus that most effectively humanizes his subjects. While at first Neuvonen only seems interested in humanizing his white, Finnish subjects, even that scope eventually widens, with a scene featuring a Cambodian woman called Lee Lee, who is caught in the aftermath of Jani’s death, being perhaps the emotional peak of the entire film.
Switching at breakneck speed from melancholic to exploitative to tragic to explicit, Lost Boys will certainly not be to everybody’s taste. However, there is no denying that, with its singular vision and unflinching camera, the film is, for better or worse, not one that is likely to leave the audience’s minds any time soon.
Writer: Molly Adams
There’s a rich history of indie filmmakers getting their start with low-budget crime pictures. It’s easy to see why: The genre gives ample opportunities for sex and/or violence, and instead of special effects or elaborate sets all you really need is a crafty screenplay and a dollop of style. Think Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave, the Coens’ Blood Simple, Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, or the Wachowskis’ Bound. Mikhael Bassilli and Luc Walpoth’s Baby Money doesn’t reach the heights of those modern genre touchstones, but it’s a fine thriller, blessedly devoid of the self-conscious, hip posturing of all those mid-’90s/early-2000s Tarantino knock-offs. Bassilli and co-writer MJ Palo have crafted a mean, claustrophobic genre outing, light on unnecessary chatter and heavy on life-and-death decisions.
Pregnant and desperate for money, Minny (Danay Garcia) agrees to play getaway driver for her fuck-up boyfriend Gil (Michael Drayer) and the unhinged Tony (Travis Hammer) on what they think will be a simple break-and-enter robbery. Their target: a little purple box the contents of which are unknown, to be sold to similarly unknown buyers. Of course, things go awry, and Minny has to flee the scene in their car, leaving Gil and a now-injured Tony behind. With police officers crawling all over the neighborhood and helicopters circling overhead, Gil and Tony wind up hiding in the home of Heidi (Taja V. Simpson) and her son Chris (Vernon Taylor III). What follows is a particularly tense race against the clock: Gil and Tony will receive a call on a burner cellphone to meet the buyers for their ill-gotten gains, and if they miss the call, they miss the payday, making all their suffering for naught. The problem is, Minny has the burner phone with her, and the film proceeds to crosscut between her efforts to find another car to retrieve Gil and Tony while, back at Heidi’s house, Gil has to keep an increasingly volatile Tony from harming Heidi or her son.
Beyond the top-notch thriller mechanics, which tighten like a vice grip as the film progresses, the filmmakers manage to thread through a potent undercurrent of female solidarity and strength. Minny hatches a plan to get a car off of a particularly smug guy who recognizes her as his favorite stripper, and then must trick the police into letting her past their crime scene tape. Meanwhile, Heidi too proves to be more crafty and resourceful than her captors give her credit for. These are women who are used to cleaning up the messes left behind by uncaring or incompetent men — and they are tired. The inevitably violent climax is shocking without being unduly nihilistic, as all the simmering tensions come to a head and hard choices must be made. Baby Money is a fine debut feature, with a uniformly excellent cast, and if it’s not exactly reinventing the genre it at least shows there’s still room for solid, unpretentious thrillers that know how to turn the screws on an audience.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Giving Birth to a Butterfly
Giving Birth to a Butterfly, the feature-length debut from director/co-writer Theodore Schaefer, opens with a middle-aged woman laying out two seemingly identical christening gowns, preparing them for their eventual sale online. The woman, Diana (Annie Parisse), discusses with her teenage daughter how her childhood imaginary friend would always wear a wedding dress. When asked why, Diana responds, “She said she was going to marry the world to speak to animals.” Yes, we are firmly in the world of art-house pretensions, where every character speaks in slow, hushed tones, making poetic observations about the their lot in life, and where dissolves separate each scene, giving us more time to contemplate the supposed wisdom being shared. Pairs — and, more generally, duality — play a major role in Giving Birth to a Butterfly, symbolizing a life that could have been, and perhaps one that never was.
Diana is stuck in a marriage to a selfish man-child (Paul Sparks) who constantly belittles her for not supporting his dream of opening a restaurant. His current position as part-time employee of a fast food restaurant, as well as his insistence on wearing a chef’s coat at all times, implies Diana’s lack of faith is not entirely unfounded. After having her life savings stolen as a result of an online fraud, Diana hits the road with her son’s pregnant girlfriend, Marlene (Gus Birney), in an effort to find the perpetrators. What unspools is a surreal journey in which the final destination involves two identical women both named Nina (Judith Roberts) who offer Diana another chance at happiness — that is, if she is brave enough to take it. Or, you know, brave enough to abandon her family and two kids. Perspective is everything, a thematic sticking point that Giving Birth to a Butterfly takes to heart.
What does it mean to exist in the world? Do the black shadows of an object cast by sunlight truly represent the object in question? Is there not beauty to be found in that desolation? Or have we only convinced ourselves of such a fallacy? Schaefer and co-writer Patrick Lawler have a lot on their minds in a way that recalls a pompous college freshman discovering the works of the great poets and philosophers for the first time, desperate to share their “enlightenment” with anyone who will listen. At one point, Gus states the following to Diana while they sit in a parking lot: “I saw this painting once, in New York. It was ornate and beautiful, but damaged, because it was just hanging there. It had lost its original life. Just dead. Beautiful, and dead.” As Gus is speaking, the camera pans to just outside the car, where a man drops a crate of oranges and a black cat chases after one, before slowly panning back to the conversation. Classic cat and a crate of oranges situation, I guess? In other words, everything here feels too obvious, too calculated, and that extends to the film is visual qualities, shot in gorgeous super-16mm, rounded corners adorning the frame, an emphasis on soft lighting that renders the proceedings practically ethereal, but distinctly too affected. An audience for Giving Birth to a Butterfly surely exists, and it’s certainly not a terrible film; it ultimately feels like something Schaefer, like so many filmmakers before him, simply had to get out of his system. Let’s hope he’s here exorcised his worst film-school indulgences; he clearly has the talent to produce increasing returns.
Writer: Steven Warner