Tag Archives: 2020

CAPSULE: JUMBO (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Zoé Wittock

FEATURING: Noémie Merlant, Emmanuelle Bercot, Bastien Bouillon,

PLOT: A young woman falls in love with the newest attraction at the amusement park.

Still from Jumbo (2020)

COMMENTS: Do you believe “inanimate objects have a soul, which sticks to our soul”? Probably not; or of you do, you mean it in a way that’s not nearly so literal as Jeanne. Even Jeanne can’t express her romantic feelings about objects properly: “Have you ever felt something for an object? When you touch them, you might feel something. Understand some things.” Unspecific things, that are impossible to communicate to others.

The thing that Jeanne has feelings for is the Move-It, one of those amusement park whirlygigs, the latest model, with lots of swinging arms and flashing multicolored neon lights. The Move-It (or Jumbo, the pet name Jeanne gives it) apparently becomes aroused as Jeanne gently wipes its buttons with a cloth. Later, it will communicate with her; and after some thrilling conversations, they appear to be getting along, so they move to the next logical phase of their relationship. That is to say, Jeanne strips to her panties in a white void as Jumbo spatters her with, and then submerges her in, his greasy oil, in a sequence that calls to mind a sex-positive version of Under the Skin‘s black goo.

The choice is up to you as to whether you view this as magical realism—Jumbo really has a soul, and a libido—or the hallucinations of an unreliable narrator. The movie has relatively little to offer other than its novel premise and its money shot psychedelic sex scenes. The narrative is essentially a gussied-up coming out tale, with Jeanne slowly revealing her heart to her on-the-make boss, promiscuous mother, and mom’s new drifter boyfriend, most of whom meet her revelations with a mixture of concern and disgust and develop strategies to “fix” her. Machine sex aside, the story goes exactly where you expect it to.

Fortunately, Noémie Merlant is excellent. Through most of the film she is believably awkward around animates; half of the time, she’s verging on a panic attack. Her love scenes are, believe it or not, genuinely erotic. She’s so good that she sells you on her orgasmic abandonment within Jumbo’s metallic embrace, and make a lovers’ spat with a multi-ton hunk of creaking machinery come off as tragic rather than comic. Without Merlant’s performance, Zoé Wittock could not have pulled off this wild ride.

Objectophilia (people who are sexually attracted to inanimate objects) is a real thing; Jumbo was inspired by the story of a woman who “married” the Eiffel Tower. It’s so rare on the spectrum of human sexual behavior, however, that it might as well be Wittock’s invention. Jumbo is not a deep study of the psychological roots of objectophilia, nor is it intended to be. You won’t learn about the cause of the condition, which may result from neurological mis-wiring (it’s correlated with both autism and synesthesia). But understanding isn’t the point. At heart, Jumbo is a prosaic (if important) parable about tolerance and acceptance of those who deviate from the norm—harmless weirdos. That’s a message we can all get behind. The naked girl dripping with oil is just a bonus.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s no sidestepping Jumbo‘s recognizable weirdness… Jumbo is a fireworks display of cinematic sensationalism that explodes with feeling, expression, and uniqueness that questions why anyone in their right mind would strive to be ‘normal’ by conventional standards.”–Matt Donato, We Got This Covered (festival review)

CAPSULE: HONEYDEW (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Devereux Milburn

FEATURING: Sawyer Spielberg, Malin Barr, Barbara Kingsley, Jamie Bardley

PLOT: A lost couple spend the night at a peculiar old woman’s farmhouse.

Still from Honeydew (2020)

COMMENTS: Honeydew is a roller coaster of horror—but I don’t mean that in an altogether complimentary sense. Rather, the problem is that the film is as uneven (and, sometimes, as twisted) as the Cyclone’s track. When Honeydew is on, it’s creepy as hell. But when it’s off, it’s a case of “yeah, I totally saw that coming.”

The pre-credits sequence is strong, beginning with a young girl’s faltering voice reciting some religious dogma, leading to an intercut sequence of a black-veiled widow at a funeral and a hunter investigating what appears to be an abandoned barn. This montage also highlights what will turn out to be Honeydew‘s only consistently great feature: the sound design and score. The creepy voiceover is accented by eerie hums, rural insect choirs, fluttering percussion, and musical notes that sound like bonesaws being scraped over piano wire.

This promising start yields to a setup of two city slickers traveling to the country to encounter all the familiar backwoods horror cliches: silently-staring yokels, a spooky old man advising them to move along, lack of cellphone service. You may forgive this connective section as a necessary step on the way to the real plot, and your assumption would be correct. Once the couple finds their way to batty old Barbara Kingsley farmhouse, things pick up considerably. We lose track of time entirely; the couple arrives in what must be the middle of the night, but their host insists on cooking them a huge dinner, and after they finish they always seem to be preparing for bed without ever actually getting to sleep. The night is endless, and scored to endless bumps; transitions between scenes can be disorientingly abrupt, and sometimes it seems like the film might be jumping back and forth in time. Significant creepiness is supplied by Kingsley’s son, with his bandaged head, a barely-responsive demeanor, and a penchant for public domain Popeye cartoons (which, in another bit of bravura sound design, becomes the nightmare soundtrack to an epileptic fit).

That section of the film is near-excellent. Unfortunately, once it becomes time to wrap things up, and the dreams fade away and the mystery dries up. What had seemed to have a supernatural, psychological edge resolves into, basically, a torture porn finale that goes exactly where you feared it would. A gross ending sequence goes on a bit too long, lessening its impact. I do think that a certain breed of horror fan will enjoy the transgressive grotesqueness of the third act, but it’s not really of a piece with the film’s dreamlike middle section; if you’re going into Honeydew hoping for something wall-to-wall weird, you’ll be disappointed.

To recap: a strong pre-credits sequence is followed by a pedestrian setup leading to a superbly creepy second act petering out in a disappointing finale. Debuting director Milburn does great when focused on building atmosphere, but bogs down when it’s time to advance the plot. Give him a script that’s more free-flowing and isn’t so insistent on ticking all the standard Texas Chainsaw boxes, and he could deliver a real feast.

Honeydew is currently in limited release and virtual theaters, coming to VOD on August 13.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Reviving the spirit of ‘70s North American rural horror while very much still feeling like a film tapped into out contemporary moment, Honeydew is one of the wildest, weirdest horror films of the year.”–Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Alliance of Women Film Journalists (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: COME TRUE (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Anthony Scott Burns

FEATURING: Julia Sarah Stone, Landon Liboiron

PLOT: A teenage girl enters an experimental sleep study, then finds her life turned into a waking nightmare.

Come True (2020)

COMMENTS: 18-year old Sarah is sleeping around. No, she’s not promiscuous, although she will have a sex scene—a problematic one—later in the film. She’s sleeping around rather more literally: crashing on her friend Zoe’s bed when she can, pitching her sleeping bag on the playground slide when she can’t. In the mornings, she waits for her mother to leave for work and sneaks into the house for a shower, fresh clothes, and a cup of coffee. With this arrangement, it’s no wonder she eagerly volunteers for a sleep study at the local college: it means eight hours per night in a bed, even if she has to be strapped into a bodysuit left over from Tron and wear a goofy foam-rubber helmet with wires leading from it. And she gets paid! If she’s going to leave a deal this sweet behind, you know the nightmares will have to get bad. It’s no spoiler to say that they do, or that getting away from them will require more than just walking out on the study.

The film is anchored by a fine performance by waiflike Julia Sarah Stone, who perfectly embodies the resourceful girl struggling to make it in the big bad world. Though not a great film (see below), Come True is a great calling card for Stone. Direction is stylistically solid; the odd lighting schemes (why would scientists illuminate the room they use to monitor sleeping patients in purple neon?) can be forgiven as part of a scheme to create a dreamlike atmosphere. The clinical look and some of the odd faces and wardrobe choices (i.e. Dr. Meyer in his enormous glasses), slow pace, and synthy score all put me in mind of Beyond the Black Rainbow.  And, while the nightmare scenes themselves (which tend to be tracking shots down shadowy corridors, ending with visions of silhouetted figures) are a little low-key, Come True is legitimately visionary at times: Sarah wakes in an unfamiliar place with an eyepatch and a freakishly dilated pupil, finds another person hooked up to a dream monitor, and watches some low-res hypnagogic hallucinations (including a brief shot of herself with fangs) while a spookily comforting ian ballad plays in the background.

With all that going for it, it’s sad to say that Come True totally drops the ball with a truly disappointing, left-field twist ending. While, in retrospect, you can put two and two together, there aren’t any meaningful hints about this last-second revelation dropped throughout the body of the picture. The reveal turns 90% of the movie into a red herring—so that, to the extent that you get involved in the putative plot, your time has been wasted. It’s rare that a movie’s final shot can undo all the good it’s done up until that point, but Come True manages that trick, turning a film that was headed for a mild recommendation into a recommended pass.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Burns’ script is just as concerned with the weirdness of Sarah’s waking life as it is the literal monsters that populate her dreams, and the filmmaker’s ability to balance and juxtapose those two portions of the film only strengthen each section.”–Kate Erbland, Indiewire (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE FATHER (2020)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Florian Zeller

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: Anthony, an old man with dementia, has difficulty recognizing the people around him, or remembering where he is.

Still from The Father (2020)

COMMENTS: The Father delivers exactly what its synopsis and trailer promise it will: a movie with the shape of a psychological thriller and the emotional punch of a heartrending drama. And, of course, a performance for the ages (and the aged) by Sir Anthony Hopkins.

Directing from his own play, first time filmmaker Florian Zeller delivers a tight screenplay that disorients viewers, purposefully. We follow (loosely speaking) the story of Anthony and his daughter Anne, as the old man tries to retain first his independence, and then his simple dignity, as his mind slips away into dotage. There are temporal incongruities; Anthony thinks things that actually happened a decade ago occurred just yesterday, and script’s timeline mimics this dislocation by jumping forward and back (and in one memorable scene, forming a perfect circle). Anthony’s daughter and son-in-law are sometimes played by different actors—not to mention the numerous aides he cycles through—we can never be sure if they’re new hires, or old ones Anthony simply doesn’t recognize. Locations also change, and mysteries emerge: why doesn’t Anthony’s other daughter visit him? Is Anne moving to Paris, or not? The few scenes without Hopkins in them seem to reflect a canonical reality, but even then we can’t be 100% sure; one scene in particular seems to reflect Anne’s dark fantasy.

Ironically, although we come to identify with him, we do not learn a lot about Anthony as a person. Anne drops hints as to his previous career—which was not a tap dancer—and we know he loves opera. But much of his personality is disappearing into the murk of Alzheimers; Anthony is headed towards a generic senility, in the process of becoming less and less of a individual. This, of course, is the tragedy that Hopkins is capturing as his weathered face registers irritation, confusion, and dawning fear. The loss of individual memories suggests the loss of everything that makes us unique. The big final emotional breakdown scene may be the tiniest bit overdone, but Hopkins sells it—and at any rate, the movie has banked enough empathy by this point that it could get away with almost anything.

Olivia Colman’s supporting work as the stressed-out daughter is great, but this is understandably Hopkins’ showcase. Although he’s not slowing down, it’s almost a shame for the octogenarian to act again; he could not hope for a better role than this to end his career.

Although eligible for the 2020 Oscars, The Father did not show up in theaters until 2021; had it debuted earlier, it would have crashed my top 10 mainstream films list for the past year.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… very little is what it seems in this meticulously constructed jewel box of a film… Not since ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ has a filmmaker so thoroughly put the audience inside the experience of a protagonist, to such shattering emotional effect.”–Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

 

366 UNDERGROUND: SISTER TEMPEST (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Joe Badon

FEATURING: Kali Russell, , Holly Bonney

PLOT: Anne must defend her version of a complex series of misunderstandings, tragedies, and hallucinations before an inter-dimensional tribunal.

Still from Sister Tempest (2020)

COMMENTS: I do not research a film before watching it. This typically works in a film’s favor: having formed no preconceptions of what it should be, I tend not to measure it against the wrong yardstick. As in general, so with Joe Badon’s sophomore feature–a rather messy, rather creative, and rather abstruse story about two sisters, several dramatic mishaps, and the nature of memory. Sister Tempest (or, as the credits arrange the title, “Sister Temp Est”), over the course of two hours that felt alternately drawn-out and hasty, presents me with some difficulty. I want to make this review a pitch for it, but I don’t think I can. And I feel a little awkward about that.

It starts off with a breezy sense of promise. The death-of-parents montage that begins the movie had the not-uncharming feel of a Maddin and Brakhage co-production for Troma Studios. The “confession” gimmick, involving a six-entity tribunal headed by a cosmic judge who could moonlight as a Rankin/Bass cartoon-land king, was perhaps an obvious choice, but that didn’t make it a bad one. Slices of temporally re-arranged scenes are smattered alongside hallucinations and false awakenings, but the crux of the narrative is: older sister, Anne the art teacher, alienates younger sister Karen after years of acting as a parent figure. Karen leaves in a huff to spend time with her drug-dealer boyfriend; arriving in her stead is Ginger Breadman, a fragile young art student who appears one day in Anne’s class.

I try to eschew dismissing opinions as being “wrong.” But now, having read up a bit on Sister Tempest, I wonder if my own opinion is in error. (The rest of the IMDb-ternet appears to be in love with this thing.) The film has quite a lot to unpack—symbols, metaphors, metaphoric symbols, allusions, illusions, nods, acknowledgements, Jeff the Janitor—so I wouldn’t say it lacks substance. I never really mustered the will to care, though. It didn’t help that the film was sliced into eight pseudo-cryptically-titled chapters that came across as a, “Hey guy, check out these Smarty-Pants we’re putting on,” more than as anything narratively useful.

From what I’ve read about Badon’s first movie, I presume that he’s improving, which brings to mind the opening sequence’s wrap-up.  Alone at a desk, manning his typewriter, sits the screen-writer. Rolling out a sheaf, we watch him read it, crumple it up, and toss it aside. His presence echoes throughout the film, as distant type-clacks occasionally occupy the soundscape. It was an interesting scene that set up an interesting aural motif. There was also good fun to be found in Sister Tempest (even the final iteration of the “gingerbread man” joke got me laughing). But spare me the Looney Tunes gimmicry; spare me the needless musical numbers; and for Heaven’s sake, spare me the multi-Messiah finale. In Tempest‘s spirit of cryptic cognomens, I shall thus conclude with, “The Movie’s Blood is in the Execution–Please do not get blood everywhere.”

Sister Tempest is in online theatrical release until May 31. You can find information on how to watch the film at the official website.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Club MC Jason Johnson (playing himself) introduces a karaoke act on stage with the words: ‘I’m gonna show you something new tonight, something ethereal, something trippy, something you haven’t ever seen before.’ His words might as well be describing Sister Tempest itself…”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (contemporaneous)