Please Baby Please
It’s the rare film that proves capable of achieving genuine novelty, and even rarer to find one that manages to parlay novelty alone into success. Too many such aspirants resort to gauche gimmickry or conceptually florid moonshots that result only in scaled-up failures. On its face, it might seem strange to observe this when talking about Amanda Kramer’s Please Baby Please, a film not just indebted to but intentionally cribbing from a number of aesthetic and modal reference points. But if every story tells a story that has already been told, it follows that recreation is creation. Given the thematic and discursive well it’s drawing from, it’s not surprising that at the core of the film’s singular makeup is a profound sense of the familiar, but in taking pains to defamiliarize these recognizable parts before carefully recomposing them, Please Baby Please proves to be like few other films you’re likely to have seen.
It’s a logical and liberating approach. After all, queer film — a tradition within which Kramer quite unabashedly situates her film — has long reconfigured the existing modes and traditions of the medium’s hetero homogeneity. Telegraphing her intent to do exactly this from the film’s first moments, Please Baby Please opens with a scene lifted from classical musicals of yesteryear: a roving group of leather-clad (semi-)youths, ostensibly led by Teddy (Karl Glusman) and ironically dubbed the Young Gents, dance their way down an alleyway. But any illusion of soft musical edges is immediately upset when the gang viciously murders a passerby couple for no apparent reason. Witness to the assault are Suze (Andrea Riseborough) and Arthur (Harry Melling), a newlywed couple we are soon told have heretofore shared a happy union, but who in this moment find all relationship stability obliterated. He is drawn to Teddy, their eyes meeting and lingering, Arthur struck dumb in the aftermath of this traumatizing assault, but his face and mien in this moment articulating plenty. She finds her terror quickly spun into erotic charge, stirred by the violence, the placidity of her life now thrillingly unmoored. RIP the ‘50s facade of domestic bliss.
From this moment, Arthur and Suze proceed to barrel down divergent paths, both of which are a reaction to the pervasiveness and toxicity of postwar American masculinity. He lashes out against these expectations — “I will not be terrorized into acting like a savage just because I was born male,” he asserts — and begins processing his latent homosexuality via his obsession, and increasingly tender relationship, with Teddy. Suze, meanwhile, rages against the regressive imposed order of womanhood and wifehood, especially after a run-in with vampy upstairs neighbor Maureen (a wonderfully dialed-in Demi Moore) who spouts off such delicious camp as “I ought to be famous but I’m just married.” Maureen represents a different kind of kept woman to Suze, and the liminal psychological space Suze finds herself in across the film’s remaining runtime melds her newfound fixation on violence with impressions of domesticity, realized in a series of musical fantasy sequences wherein she is given the BDSM treatment by the Young Gents while occupying traditional homemaker spaces. Through it all, Arthur and Suze take stock of their developing disengagement, often with lines as cutting as they are affected: “You know I love you. That’s implied,” Arthur notes at one point, before adding: “I love you for now. But I’m getting real nervous about the you that’s coming.”
All of this speaks to another prevailing influence on Please Baby Please: the theater, both formally and thematically. Of course, much of the narrative content here immediately recalls the modern American dramatists of mid-century America — A Streetcar Named Desire is even instructively mentioned in only the film’s second scene — an indictment and dissection of the art that for so long shaped our cultural understanding of gender roles. And much of the action here consists of monologuing and dialoguing in apartments, clubs, and other minimally furnished settings, the film’s production design quite obviously taking inspiration from a theatrical ethos. But where other films of such character too often feel divorced from the film medium, cut through by limiting dissonance, Please Baby Please leverages this quality to accentuate its sense of intimacy, Kramer guiding this influence to its most logical and pleasantly indulgent and campy ends. Riseborough, for instance, is simply ferocious, a wild performance of exquisite melodrama, something of a female counterpoint to the blustering males of the angry young men tradition (Melling is given less overt “acting” to do, though the haunted, enigmatic persona he has perfected in recent years is a tidy fit here). And in addition to the film’s more thematically scrutable colloquies, it’s also liberally peppered with all manner of hilariously baroque phrasings: “You got smog in your nog” is undeniably top-notch work; and later, riffing on the established bad boy character arc of these kinds of films, one character remarks, “That’s what a girl does. She makes a pretty poodle out of a salty dog.”
Kramer continues to fold influences into her highly aestheticized world beyond mere period/cinematic iconography. There’s more than a dash of John Waters here, and the film’s hat-tip to Kenneth Anger comes immediately and consistently throughout. But there are others reflected here, too. Peter Greenaway’s penchant for mixing the beautiful and repellent on screen, as well as for blurring art and artifice, and the boundaries of medium, are certainly woven into Please Baby Please’s essential fabric, and there’s also something of Gaspar Noe’s oversaturated scuzziness present as well (though absent his brutal explicitness and wild compositional theatrics). And Kramer punctuates all of this via the film’s visual palette: its pared-down physical spaces are bathed and appointed in blues and red, an obvious signifier of the film’s gender dichotomy but one that lends a phantasmagoric texture, dreams and nightmares spun into bold, cogent visual expression. Of course, as is the case with all camp — invoked in the least reductive way possible here — this is firmly fixed in a YMMV lane, little-to-no subtlety at hand in the text or form, all of which feels double-underlined in red. But rather than merely trading in hollow spectacle and cheap buzzword-baiting, Please Baby Please is a thesis of style. For those who often find films “in good taste” to be a bad time and who are bored to tears by the tedium of serious cinema’s self-conscious restraint, Kramer’s film might just be 2022’s best bit of kink.
Writer: Luke Gorham
Grief, guilt, and superstition slowly wreak havoc on the mind of a recent father, as he grapples with the death of a former lover. Seire, Park Kang‘s feverish cinematic debut, draws its title from the Korean custom of shielding newborns from the outside world for 21 days, as it’s believed they are particularly susceptible to the influence of bad luck, bad spirits, or whatever other form the world’s sinister forces might take.
The past catches up with Woo-jin (Seo Hyun-woo), after he receives a text informing him of his ex-girlfriend’s death. He and his wife, Hae-mi (Sim Eun-woo), have just welcomed their first child, but Woo-jin has been preoccupied with the bizarre nightmares that have been plaguing him, filled with rotten apples and haunted by a pregnant woman who turns out to be his deceased ex, Se-young (Ryu Abel). After learning of her premature passing, his dreams intensify, growing stranger and more unsettling each night, before eventually bleeding over into the daytime as well. When informing his wife of Se-young’s death, Woo-jin doesn’t tell her who’s funeral it is, referring to his ex only as a “college classmate.” Still, his wife begs him not to go, since she is terrified of the misfortune that might befall their newborn. Woo-jin, who doesn’t share his wife’s superstitious beliefs, goes anyway and ends up meeting Se-young’s twin sister, Ye-young (also Ryu Abel). He is uneasy about the prospect of a confrontation with his past, especially in this grim setting, but nonetheless agrees to go to the burial the next day. However, as the three-day funeral carries on, strange things begin to happen. First, Woo-jin and Hae-mi’s baby develops a mysterious fever, and then Hae-mi’s pregnant sister, who lives next door, begins to feel like something might be wrong with her unborn baby as well.
Seire pits old-fashioned superstitions against modern-day rationalism, preoccupied with dreams, birth, death, and the intangibles that lie beyond the realm of so-called common sense. Rotting fruit, crying babies, sexual desire — Park’s film plays on our inherited visceral reactions and lizard-brained impulses with some memorable imagery, as well as an ability to shift between dreams and reality without having to resort to cheap gimmickry. As the story unfolds and Woo-jin falls deeper into the chasm that has opened up before him, lines become increasingly blurred and the imagined seemingly makes its way into the real. Hae-mi reacts by making her husband partake in antiquated rituals, at one point pelting him with rice, and later making him commit petty theft so that any potential curse can be directed away from their child. Woo-jin, meanwhile, spirals further into a severe spiritual crisis he seems incapable of finding his way out of. Wracked with guilt and unable to trust his own senses, he’s forced to contend with his past relationship and the way in which it ended. But he soon begins to suspect that, perhaps, his dead ex-girlfriend might somehow be trying to punish him for his misdeeds from beyond the grave.
Introduced as a committed father and husband, dutifully going along with his wife’s wishes with regards to the seire-related rituals, the film begins to imply a darker side of the personality of the slightly oddball family man and his past behavior, especially as the specifics of his six-year relationship with Se-young and the circumstances surrounding her death begin to reveal themselves. Faced with nightmares, hallucinations, ominous visions, and life-altering tragedy, Woo-jin’s mental state continuously deteriorates, the confrontation with the unknown pushing him to the brink of his sanity and bringing to light some of the ugliness that he had previously hidden away from others — and maybe even himself. It’s a lot of moving parts, but while Park’s deliberately paced psychological horror drama doesn’t fully commit to the ambiguity it so expertly maintains for most of its runtime — the ending feels strangely and uncharacteristically on the nose — Seire still offers a lot of oneiric weirdness, shocking gross-out effects, and some moments of genuine, pitch-black humor, all of which make it worth seeking out.
Writer: Fred Barrett
It’s something of a fool’s errand to try to trace broad trends throughout a full festival lineup — most critics don’t see anywhere near the entirety of what’s actually exhibited, and fests like Fantasia are purposefully very, very large, offering a huge variety of modes and genres. Still, when one watches multiple films in a compressed amount of time, the mind can’t help but tease out links and connections. To wit, the most interesting films I’ve come across at Fantasia 2022 have experimented with a range of formats in an attempt to get at something deeper than simple narrative beats; Mitchell Stafiej’s The Diabetic combines digital video with low-gauge 8mm and 16mm film; Chris Osborn’s Gussy invokes memories of old VHS tapes and CRT TVs; Park Sye-young’s The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra is lit almost entirely by soft, woozy neon. The point is that all of these films possess a formal quality that goes beyond “mood” and into a more experiential, even epistemological space. Without simply resorting to cliched first-person point-of-view shots, these films nonetheless crawl entirely into their characters’ heads. None do that moreso than Kyle Edward Ball’s stunningly strange, deeply unnerving Skinamarink.
Shot in seven days in Ball’s childhood home, Skinamarink transforms a simple suburban house into a nightmarish dreamscape haunted by some unfathomable specter. Taking its gibberish title from an old children’s song, the film fully commits to the logic of a terrified kid — the rational and irrational become mixed up, turned upside down, defamiliarized. The film’s extremely minimal plot involves two very young children, Kevin (Lucas Paul) and Kaylee (Dali Rose Tetreault), who awake in the middle of the night to find all the doors and windows in their home gone. Waiting for their parents to come and find them, the children watch TV and hang out on the couch until they begin hearing voices and seeing strange things. Ball and cinematographer Jamie McRae have made the odd but ultimately effective choice to never fully show any of their actors. There are only four characters in the movie, the children and parents, and they are captured in oblique angles, frequently from the back of the head, from a distance, or as disembodied arms and legs (with one very effective exception). The actors playing mom and dad are heard but not seen, silhouettes that have become threatening instead of comforting. A dark, guttural voice occasionally beckons the children to go someplace or another, each hallway and room in the home suggesting some kind of unknowable horror just out of frame. The house is a labyrinth of liminal spaces, and it’s alarmingly dark.
Combining practical, on-set lighting, a digital camera capable of shooting in extreme low light, and a rigorous post-production process, Ball has constructed the film almost as a series of still photographs. The sharp 2:35:1 widescreen frame, coupled with a blizzard of fuzzy (digitally added) film grain, literally feels wrong, in the sense that scope images simply do not typically look like this. Ball has truly tapped into the uncanny, transforming the quotidian into something strange and unknowable. The interior architecture of the home is reduced to a series of sharp edges and hard straight lines, light fixtures become abstract objects, and the children’s own toys take on ominous portent. The dull hum of a TV in the background casts a hazy glow over certain rooms, the noises from old black and white cartoons filling the air. The dense grain turns dark corners into eerie voids, every texture alive with subliminal movement. The soundtrack is entirely post-synch ADR, recorded separately after principal photography, and layered with a series of hisses and pops that sound like an aged, warped vinyl record. The children’s dialogue is mostly unintelligible, some of it relayed via subtitles that pop up on-screen, but which only transcribe bits and pieces of sentences. Like everything else in the movie, they too become unsettling simply by virtue of being incomplete, incorrect, just slightly wrong.
The lack of traditional story and absence of normal characters can make Skinamarink difficult to connect to, and its repetitive, somnambulist rhythms are perhaps a little too lulling. Frankly, one might be forgiven for dozing off. But for adventurous viewers who can attune themselves to its very peculiar wavelength, the film contains some of the most unsettling imagery in recent memory. It’s a true sensory experience, and a testament to low-budget ingenuity. Just be ready to sleep with the lights on.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Viewers these days are fortunate that movies about nerdy science kids, time and space travel, and all manner of other adventure-fantasies are no longer a relic of the past nor are they exclusively within the purview of big-budget blockbusters. In fact, it’s fair to say that any “revival” of the sci-fi genre has long since completed, given that such works are such a constant and recurring part of our cinematic culture. And yet, the dinosaur flick, almost like the grand creatures themselves, has felt extinct for a while now, wiped off the face of silver screens. Obviously, we’re not talking about the ongoing Jurassic Park franchise, but rather more of the B-movie sort that was at one point en vogue, works like Karel Zeman’s Journey to the Beginning of Time, Irwin Allen’s Lost World, Kevin Connor’s The Land that Time Forgot, etc. But here we are in 2022 with Timescape, the sophomore directorial feature from Montréaler Aristomenis Tsirbas, who previously worked as a VFX artist on James Cameron’s Titanic and Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy, among many others. The film follows Jason (Sofian Oleniuk), a young loner with a curious and bright mind, who one night in the woods happens upon and becomes trapped on a spacecraft with a girl, Lara (Lola Rossignol-Arts), who claims to be from the future. Soon, the two find themselves catapulted back to the Mesozoic era, all the whole accompanied and assisted by an onboard, floating-air robot called M.I.A.
Roughly 20 minutes into the film, it’s quite obvious that Timescape is striving to be a collage of many things: a kind of fusion of Spielberg’s E.T. and Jurassic Park, a combination of Joe Dante’s Twilight Zone and Explorers with Richard Donner’s The Goonies, and even some Home Alone sprinkled in — particularly when Jason pulls a Kevin McCallister by screaming directly into the camera. But what’s quite vague, at least in the beginning, is whether — and if so, in what way — Tsirbas intends to pay tribute to all of these at-hand millennial nostalgias. Unfortunately, as the film progresses, all viewers are left with is a very unimaginative, inauthentic series of winks and nods that do nothing but flirt with overfamiliar clichés and mimic everything from the dialogue to the drama that we’ve seen played out multiple times in much better works. Even when the kids find themselves spacecraft-wrecked in the prehistoric setting (only hours before the asteroid strikes the earth) and anticipation for some entertainingly perilous events or hilarious adventures ratchets up, Timescape instead heads toward mild field-trip flick territory where Jason and Lara shape a predictable and bland friendship.
Deprived of any successful thrills, action, or humor, and plopped into a pastiche of very lo-fi visual effects (which at least recall that unassuming B-movie quality of earlier films), minimal set design, and a discordant and oddly epic musical score (composed by Mateo Messina), Timescape seems content to be single-viewing fare, a safe and harmless but hardly challenging escapist romp for undemanding audiences to pass the time with (the young Rossignol-Arts at least shows considerable promise). Still, it’s nearly impossible to imagine that the film will satisfy any millennial nostalgia, and even harder to think it would please any younger viewers, given the bevy of superior sci-fi works that have saturated their formative years. If you’re being generous — AKA loose and lazy — you could still dub Timescape a “family-friendly movie,” though it’s far closer to an 80-minute, well-executed Super Bowl commercial than a fully-conceived or visionary, even if low-budget, film. Given its modest designs, it’s tough to be too hard on Timescape’s, a film that occasionally delivers mild pleasures, but suffice to say that kids, robots, and dinosaurs all deserve much more in the future.
Writer: Ayeen Forootan
There’s a great movie about a group of women getting together to bond and overcome trauma while going on an adventure that eventually turns into a nerve-shredding survival-horror creature feature. That movie is Neil Marshall’s The Descent. Unfortunately, Berkley Brady’s new film Dark Nature, while competently constructed and occasionally quite gruesome, is no The Descent. It’s an agreeable enough thriller that has unwisely cribbed from a beloved modern genre staple and simply can’t measure up to its predecessor.
Beginning with Joy (Hannah Emily Anderson) barely surviving a brutal assault at the hands of her asshole boyfriend Derek (Daniel Arnold), the film then fast-forwards several months to find Joy living an isolated life, seemingly terrified of going outside. Her best friend Carmen (Madison Walsh) is worried, naturally, and convinces Joy to join her on a therapeutic retreat with Dr. Dunley (Kyra Harper), a renowned counselor known for her unorthodox approach to treatment. Also along for the journey are Tara (Helen Belay), sporting multiple self-harm scars, and a former soldier named Shaina (Roseanne Supernault), who’s dealing with intense PTSD. Filmed on location in the mountains of Alberta, Brady and cinematographer Jaryl Lim capture both the natural beauty of the environment and its ruggedness. Totally isolated and with only each other to rely on, the group embarks on an arduous hike while trying to figure out exactly how to open up about their traumas. Shaina is aggressive and sarcastic, while Tara prefers not to talk about it at all. Carmen appears to be the furthest along in her recovery, acting as mother hen to Joy and tamping down conflicts within the group dynamic. But Joy is quiet and withdrawn, despite Dunley’s encouragement.
There’s a lot going on here, and Brady’s screenplay never completely coalesces into something fully satisfying. There’s an art to quickly sketching an ensemble, to giving everyone a personality and direction in limited space, and Brady simply can’t quite crack it. Instead, the movie just lumbers from idea to idea. For her part, Joy is seeing things in the forest, convinced that Derek has somehow followed her, and the film vacillates between suggesting she’s right to be scared and hinting that she might just be losing her mind. Meanwhile, Joy also confronts the doctor over her methods, concerned that she’s putting the group in danger. The other women try to convince Joy that Dunley is on the level, but the film drops this thread almost as soon as it’s introduced. Eventually, the other women start having visions also, replaying their violent pasts over and over as if under a mass hallucination.
The film finally kicks into high gear during its last act, after almost an hour of hemming and hawing. There is indeed an explanation for what’s happening to the women, and it’s nothing so banal as an abusive ex. Dropping all the excess narrative baggage, the film really comes alive once it simplifies its concept and gets down to pure genre brass tacks. Brady shows off some impressive action chops in the home stretch, as the women must evade their pursuer and then traverse a cave system to try and save one of their own. It’s overly familiar, but well-executed all the same. It amounts to a passable-enough exercise, somewhat salvaged in its late-going and mostly notable for its low-budget ambition and focus on female solidarity. But, to put it bluntly, Brady the director needs a better writer.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Within every poorly constructed jape, at the center of every cringe-inducing bit, lies the art of the dick joke. For the foul-mouthed comics who enjoy the pleasurable laughter born of repetitive banter, there always comes its eventual mutter; male genitalia has always been at the forefront of outdated 21st-century humor, and the whiff or mere mention of a phallus is a dangerous weapon in any drunken conversation. For those bold enough to enter the labyrinth of testosterone-wreaked, Axe-scented locker rooms, there occasionally emerges a piece of media brave enough to subvert the absurdity of the free-willy. Shinichiro Ueda, an underground auteur known for his pulpy zombie cult-hit One Cut of the Dead, has returned from international success with his own re-iteration of the gag; sadly, Popran’s all absurdity, little subversiveness.
A rockhard odyssey with a penetrative tendency to aimlessly comment on the cycles of toxic masculinity, Ueda’s cautionary tale revolves around a flying penis and perfectly embodies the ethos of toilet humor. Popran is a modern-day fable; a prudent testament to the idiocy of men and their hefty dependency on masculine ideals. Throughout the film, we follow the familiar archetype of a proud manga corporation owner on an insolent quest for redemption. But the issue with Ueda’s film isn’t necessarily the potty humor in question, but rather the lack of originality in its thematic investigation. Its commentary lacks punch, as the beats are stripped from its riches-to-rags textbook narrative — a bland three-act tragicomedy retelling a schmuck CEO’s fall from glory. The juvenility of a Chaplin-esque chase amplifies, briefly, its sociological commentary, although Chaplin-esque doesn’t quite cut it; when Ueda’s head-scratching premise and ironic winks fail to intersect with the language of character-building and atonement, what the viewer gets is little more than riskless comedy, rich in semen but stark-poor in ideas.
Visually, the film reaches the same technical achievements of any other Ueda production, helmed by a team of prosthetic talents conjuring intricate digital and practical imagery under a tight budget. But there’s little of the whimsy, and none of the imagination, so anticipated in the name of Shinchiro Ueda. The end product is a shallow affair; an innuendo-ridden fantasy sprinkled with the occasional naughty delight.
Writer: David Cuevas