Good Luck to You, Leo Grande
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, or so the title of Sophie Hyde’s latest feature goes. It’s a peculiar statement from the outset, one that only becomes more confusing once the proper context has been provided by the film’s end. Why would we wish any luck upon sex worker Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack) and not the painfully awkward, middle-aged, retired schoolteacher (Emma Thompson) he’s been paid to shack up with? Are we to feel bad for the young lad, wishing him the best in the face of such adversity? That would certainly go against the nice-core, sex-positive message the film uncomfortably attempts to articulate every ten minutes or so. But given how mawkishly Thompson’s semi-senior citizen is defined outside of small familial details — she has a son who’s too “boring” for her taste, an estranged daughter stuck in Spain — and her gracelessness, there’s a small likelihood this could be a back-handed quip after the fact. Maybe there’s a hint of irony to the name that’s hard to detect under the maudlin feel-good sentiment the film carries through, reducing the impact any and all attempts at this type of subversion could possibly land. But considering the general trajectory the narrative takes, that would be giving this thing too much credit: Hyde and her first-time screenwriter, Katy Brand, keep the drama moving toward a conclusion that’s pre-determined and somehow undercooked, where what happens in the film’s middle stretch leading to this end doesn’t matter as much. Things go as expected, yet even those beats feel belabored. For a film that frames most of its preoccupations around sex, there’s seldom any friction to be found in regards to the central conflict; scenes stack up against one another and form an illusion of temporal progress, when there’s, visually and thematically speaking, little that separates one encounter from the next.
On a strictly formal level, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande resembles the type of non-cinematic entertainment you’d throw on your television when your full intent is to dick around on your phone for most of the runtime. Confined to one hotel bedroom over three different encounters between Grande and his sugar mama — there’s a fourth shot in the hotel’s lobby, talk about a Covid-era location switch-up — and having McCormack and Thompson alone together for most of the runtime, the film bears the look and feel of filmed theater, with a few big actorly moments sprinkled throughout for a little bit of goosing. Both leads deliver serviceable work, impressive given the tepid nature of the material they’ve been provided, but there remains little real ambition to be found from any participating party here. That apathy makes sense to a degree: Good Luck to You, Leo Grande hardly reads like a project worthy of much interest, instead choosing to play things safe with a subject that requires anything but. But maybe, just maybe, we’re supposed to read the title as a message from character to audience, with the titular “you” serving to address the viewing public at large, followed by Leo signing off. If that’s the case, good luck to all who endure something this trite, indeed.
Writer: Paul Attard
Family Dinner, Austrian filmmaker Peter Hengl‘s feature-length debut, has one insurmountable problem — it hews so closely to the folk-cult horror handbook that anyone who’s ever seen The Wicker Man or its progeny knows pretty much exactly where this is going very early on, turning the movie’s otherwise tidy 90-minute runtime into a waiting game. It’s moody and atmospheric, but ultimately doesn’t have anything new on its mind; echoes of Midsommar, Honeydew, & You Are Not My Mother abound, whether intentional or not. The film begins with teenaged Simi (Nina Katlein) arriving at her Aunt Claudia’s (Pia Hierzegger) secluded forest home for a long holiday visit. The two seem affectionate, but haven’t seen each other for some time; Claudia divorced her first husband, Simi’s maternal Uncle, and it is implied that Claudia and Simi’s mother don’t talk anymore. Claudia has a teenaged son, Filipp (Alexander Sladek), and is now remarried to an intense man named Stefan (Michael Pink). It’s revealed in short order that Simi is visiting in a determined effort to lose weight, and hopes that Claudia — a nutritionist and bestselling lifestyle author — will help her.
Hengle wastes no time in creating an unsettling, unwelcoming mood. Filipp is quiet and aloof, and shockingly rude to Simi when the adults aren’t around. Claudia seems friendly enough, but can’t quite suppress her annoyance at Simi’s sudden appearance in her home. It doesn’t stop there; Filipp sleeps with a knife, and has carved “bitch” and “cunt” into the bed frame that Simi will be sleeping on. For dinner, Claudia prepares an outlandishly elaborate meal even though she and Stefan are fasting for Lent. When Simi says that she didn’t realize Claudia was religious, Claudia coyly suggests that they’re “not really,” but are exploring their options. Queue the eerie music. After some cajoling, Claudia finally agrees to help Simi with her weight loss, which is to begin with an intense, week-long fast — no food whatsoever, Claudia demands, so that toxins can leave the body. Simi is surprised at the severity of Claudia’s plan, but decides that Claudia knows best and agrees to the program. Meanwhile, while out jogging, Simi comes across an elaborate wooden pyre, an ominous sign if there ever was one in this sort of film.
Family Dinner jumps into the deep end of strangeness and general unease so quickly that there’s no baseline of normality established, leading an incredulous viewer to wonder why Simi simply would not leave right away. One early bit of jarring violence is revealed to be a dream sequence, that most desperate of ploys to goose an audience while we wait for the other shoe to drop. Young Katlein is quite good as the quintessentially polite houseguest, trying valiantly not to make waves even as increasingly creepy events continue happening. Unfortunately she’s not given much depth; at one point she stumbles upon Claudia and Stefan having sex and seems a little too curious about it, but any potential psychosexual undertones aren’t explored any further. At different points, both Stefan and Filipp, acutely aware of her suffering while abstaining from food, tell Simi that she’s just fine the way she is and shouldn’t worry about losing weight. Simi firmly retorts that they shouldn’t tell her how to think about her body — a welcome assertion of her own autonomy, but again suggesting provocative undertones that aren’t ever mined further. Once the family finally sits down for a highly ritualized Easter dinner, it’s pretty clear what’s going on. Hengl eventually rallies to give genre fans a pretty gruesome ending, but it’s all a long, familiar journey to get there. There’s a mastery of time and ambiance to be found here, but no real understanding of how to modulate it. There’s a length of talent on display, but optimists will have to wait until next time.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
As a film title, God’s Time looks and sounds a lot like Good Time, and the similarities don’t end there. Writer-director Daniel Antebi’s tale of two recovering addicts and best friends making their way through the seedy underbelly of New York City over the course of one eventful night certainly calls to mind the Safdie Brothers’ breakout from 2017, as does its emphasis on style over substance. But where the Safdies’ were able to distill something wholly unique and uncomfortably immersive out of admittedly shopworn parts, God’s Time feels like nothing more than an indie exercise in excess, its stylistic choices both hopelessly dated and frustratingly alienating. Within its first five minutes, Antebi utilizes fourth-wall breaking, frenetically edited montages, whip pans, and overlaid text that annoys more than it stimulates, the desperation practically dripping from the screen.
Best buds Dev (Ben Groh) and Luca (Dion Costelloe) are subsequently introduced at a recovery meeting — something apparently so exotic that the film literally stops dead in its tracks to explain what one is — where various individuals share their tales of woe, including the loquacious spitfire Regina (Liz Caribel Sierra). It’s soon revealed that both men are in love with this headstrong Dominican, even as her various confessions hint at a deeply troubled individual. After one particularly unsettling share session in which Regina vows to kill her ex-boyfriend Russell (Jared Abrahamson) due to his refusal to give back her beloved dog, Dev becomes convinced that she will follow through on her actions. With Luca in tow, the two track Regina across the city, encountering everything from wealthy coke addicts to amusement park-obsessed grandmothers to gunshot wounds.
Taking place over the course of 24 hours and lasting only a scant 83 minutes, God’s Time should, if nothing else, be capable of delivering a hit of propulsive storytelling. But for all of the scandalous happenings and provocative themes on display, nothing of much interest ever happens, each potentially exciting new circumstance proving just as anti-climactic as the last. Where a film like Good Time leveraged its hyper-stylized visual flair and aural bombast to plant the viewer within its protagonist’s horrific predicament, continually ratcheting up the anxiety-inducing tension on the strength of the film’s aesthetic onslaught, Antebi employs such stylistic bluster simply as a means to distract from a script that feels only half-finished. It’s only in the film’s final scene that it, quite ironically, comes to life, as Antebi drops the bullshit theatrics and at last foregrounds his trio of lead actors, with Costelloe delivering a killer monologue that’s keen authenticity clashes with everything that has preceded it. With any luck, God’s Time will propel the talented performer to bigger and better things; indeed, all of the actors here deserve more than this tonal mish-mash and overblown bid at indie cred.
Writer: Steven Warner
David Lynch, a filmmaker with an oeuvre so inimitable and a style so recognizable that he is one of a handful of directors whose last name has become an adjective, is famously loath to discuss the meanings behind his work. Alexandre O. Philippe‘s essay film Lynch/Oz, as indicated by its title, looks to Victor Fleming’s 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz as a key to at least partially illuminating the elusive inspirations for Lynch’s celebrated body of work, seizing on this reported statement by Lynch during a post-screening Q&A: “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about The Wizard of Oz.” Philippe gathers seven commentators — critic Amy Nicholson and filmmakers Rodney Ascher, John Waters, Karyn Kusama, Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, and David Lowery — to explore this thesis in six separate chapters.
Employing a vast arsenal of film clips, many of which range well beyond the nexus of Lynch’s films and The Wizard of Oz, Lynch/Oz explores the direct Oz references in Wild at Heart, the porous boundary between dreams and reality which is a key component of Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive, the ways Lynch’s oeuvre can be seen as a darker, nightmarish flipside to the seemingly sunnier Oz (notwithstanding the evil witch and flying monkeys), the impact of Fleming’s film on its star Judy Garland (connecting this with “Judy” mentions in Lynch’s films), and many other subjects.
While much of this material is often quite compelling, the strongest segments being the rigorous, well-argued contributions from Nicholson and Kusama, as well as the deliciously dishy section by Waters (during which we’re treated to a clip from his unfinished early work “Dorothy, the Kansas City Pot Head”), this documentary suffers from a lack of focus and palpable overreach. Clips are sourced from such disparate films as The Matrix, Babe: Pig in the City, Suspiria, Pan’s Labyrinth, and The Big Lebowski, as well as films by Wong Kar-wai and Spike Lee, which unfortunately muddies the waters in terms of serving the film’s central premise of drawing parallels between Lynch and Oz. Also, The Wizard of Oz is posited as inspiration not only for Lynch, but seemingly just about every other American film that followed it, which is a move beyond the central premise and more than a bit of a stretch, even as Ascher’s segment acknowledges that the story of a lost protagonist wishing to get back home is basic and generic enough to be applied to almost any work. Still, despite its lack of tidiness and imperfect articulations, Lynch/Oz contains enough insights into its dual cinematic subject to be well worth viewing, especially for those interested in exploring the connections between personal artistic expression and the cultural collective unconscious.
Writer: Christopher Bourne
We Might As Well Be Dead
Natalia Sinelnikova‘s We Might As Well Be Dead begins with a bedraggled family slowly traversing a long road through dense forest, a towering high rise perched in the middle of the woods looming far in the distance. It’s an ominous opening, the stuff of fairytales perhaps, and upon their arrival at this mysterious destination they are immediately subjected to an intense security screening via a very serious-looking guard, Anna (Ioana Iacob). She asks a battery of questions while waving a metal detector wand up and down their bodies, somewhere between a TSA agent and a militarized realtor. It soon becomes clear that these people are not merely potential tenants of this glistening tower, but are in fact auditioning for a place amongst the other residents. Vague, portentous details about the outside world emerge, as the desperate father gets on his knees to beg admittance for himself and his wife and child, “for their safety.” Anna looks on dispassionately, suggesting that such an outlandish display of naked emotion could appear unfavorable to the acceptance committee. Here, dispassionate pragmatism rules the day, or so Anna claims. It slowly sinks in that we are in the land of allegory; this well-appointed high rise acting as a synecdoche for society in general, a kind of metaphorical battleground for real-world anxieties to play themselves out in microcosm. In other words, we’re in J.G. Ballard’s world, a la High Rise and even Super-Cannes, his other novel about gated communities harboring dark secrets and perverse conspiracies. This is skyscraper-as-social-stratification, a literal manifestation of stacked hierarchies and castes, complete with a basement-dwelling undesirable. It’s never explicitly stated what exactly lies beyond the razor wire fencing of this ensconced compound, only hushed utterances of fear and a steadfast desire to never return to it. Instead, a committee of banal-looking executive-types rules over everything with an iron fist and a pleasant smile. Anna is their enforcer, although the bulk of the film will detail just how precarious her position really is.
There’s a lot going on here, as Sinelnikova flits between broad-strokes social commentary and more lived-in, realistic human behavior. Formally, We Might As Well Be Dead lands squarely on the Haneke spectrum, with clinical sparseness and precise framings that isolate people within the elaborate architecture of the building. There’s also a dash of Lanthimos sprinkled here and there, a deadpan, darkly comic sensibility that mines humor from the weird and exaggerated. Anna’s daughter, Iris (Pola Geiger), won’t leave the bathroom, and only interacts with her mother through a vent opening. An odd man rides up and down the elevators all day selling poetry to the residents, the tower’s sole nod toward a dispossessed underclass. An army of pasty white middle-aged retirees plays golf in disarming synchronicity, while the committee organizes some annual performance gala (the only thing that seems to resemble the arts or entertainment here). Of course, this carefully constructed simulacrum must be disrupted, and it comes in due course by Anna herself — quite accidentally, she interrupts some tenant’s bizarrely ritualized foreplay routine while searching for a lost dog. Anna runs away, embarrassed, but the tenants become convinced that an interloper from outside the fences has somehow infiltrated their sanitized pseudo-utopia. Demanding results from their security guard, Anna is in effect tasked with hunting herself down, something she obviously chooses not to do. While she works to calm the residents and reassure them that their sanctuary is secure, fear turns to paranoia, with certain agitators now convinced that it must be one of their own who has turned against them.
Sinelnikova makes her point quite bluntly when a woman informs Anna that “the appearance of safety is just as important as safety itself.” To the fear-mongering paranoiacs safely ensconced indoors, even the slightest perturbation is cause for alarm. If this all feels a bit labored and predetermined, one need only look at the recent recall election in San Francisco for an applicable real-world analog. Sinelnikova also smartly observes how quickly the well-off turn against the weak, abusing the elevator vagrant and even attacking Anna with passive-aggressive reminders that she’s an outsider, “no matter how well she speaks the language” (Iacob is Romanian, lending this German film an additional layer of immigration subtext). We Might As Well Be Dead isn’t a slam dunk; much of this is well-trod material, a familiar allegorical construct critiquing well-established societal ills. But the cast is uniformly excellent, and anchoring it all is Iacob, turning in another fine performance after several collaborations with Radu Jude (most notably in I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History As Barbarians). Sinelnikova, working with cinematographer Jan Mayntz, has a great eye for imposing, off-kilter compositions and ominous negative spaces, and largely on the strength of this artistic instinct, the film thankfully never devolves into the kind of anarchic violence that characterizes many of these dystopian projects, a la Ben Wheatley’s misguided adaptation of High Rise from some years back. While certainly bleak, Sinelnikova allows her characters at least some amount of resilience even in the face of an uncaring, racist upper-class that prefers hiding from problems instead of fixing them.
Writer: Daniel Gorman