Review by Joseph Fayed
The new Netflix documentary A Trip to Infinity by directors Jonathan Halperin and Drew Takahashi tackles the concept of infinity, led by experts ranging from renowned physicists to mathematicians to philosophers who offer their perspectives on the concept. The most common thread between their insight is that there is no finite answer to what infinity truly is.
Set against the backdrop of different animation styles, the documentary is divided into chapters on how infinity is approached from our real-world perspective. In one memorable early sequence in the film, infinity is presented as this infinite hotel with an endless number of rooms that keep multiplying when more guests check into this hotel.
The sequence is shot in the style of Steamboat Willie and is the most engaging animation we have presented in the film that truly breaks down the complex information being told by a voice-over. One recurring element of the film is the idea that we, as humans, are such small fragments of this big wide universe.
One, like myself, may not fully understand the concept of infinity outside of what has been taught in a school classroom, but the aforementioned example about how small we are in this big universe is admittedly underused when discussing how vast something like a black hole can be.
The segment discussing black holes in the universe does differ from the rest of the documentary when each interview subject is given a small black sphere to hold. At this point, the interviews seem to turn from how mathematics is applied to understanding infinity to how we present it to ourselves. One of the mathematicians, Steve Strogatz, uses this sphere to explain how this object is only a reflection of infinity and not an accurate representation. I could not help but laugh at that moment when I noticed how much more self-aware he is than the directors are before quickly remembering what his profession was.
It is pointed out towards the end of the film that humans are bound by rationality and creativity and that we can not be infinite. We are bounded by ourselves, essentially. There are no definite answers to be given about this. Yet, it does feel defeating to have spent ninety minutes learning about the concept of infinity only to be told that it is nearly impossible to visualize it.
Ultimately, A Trip to Infinity has interesting moments, but when broken down, its segments could have easily been featured on the Netflix series Explained instead of as a feature-length documentary.
A Trip to Infinity is now streaming on Netflix.
Review by Cole Groth
For better or worse, Netflix's Stranger Things has changed the course of coming-of-age horror for the foreseeable future. The '80s are hot right now, and My Best Friend's Exorcism leans so heavily into the synth-y style of this era, ending up feeling like a tired series of tropes with some solid coming-of-age action. Led by an admirable duo in Elsie Fisher and Amigh Miller, this film, based on the 2016 novel by Grady Hendrix, hits a series of predictable moments to get to a rather satisfying story of true
My Best Friend's Exorcism is about friendship, first and foremost. At the film's core, we follow two girls who seem like they should be diametrically opposed, but manage to stick through thick and thin for each other. A key issue with this film is that it simply doesn't do a good enough job justifying their friendship. We don't get to see why they became friends, and their relationship seems rather thin on the surface level. Their bond increases as the plot moves forward, and it's a solid
friendship by the end. However, marketing the entire film around these two people who aren't that close of friends seems like a major misfire.
The characters surrounding the leading duo aren't much better. Everybody feels so disconnected from each other that each interaction feels manufactured rather than genuine. Instead of investing in complex characters, the director, Damon Thomas, decided to fill these gaps with '80s songs and hairstyles. The archetypes that he chooses not to flesh out aren't inherently a problem because they work pretty well as generic characters, and most of the time is spent on Abby (Fisher) anyways, so it's negligible to some extent.
As a horror film, this one works pretty well. If you aren't that good with horror, this might be the film for you. Thomas doesn't cheaply abuse jump scares to jump up the fright, so you'll find more disturbing content and lots and lots of projectile vomiting. The demon that takes over Gretchen's body isn't as evil as he is mischievous. This is where
the comedic element of the film comes into play, which is just strong enough to keep the story moving forward. At a brisk runtime of 96 minutes, each joke only serves to keep the film from feeling like a total mess.
Most of the film is set up for the exorcism, which takes place near the end. Without delving into spoiler territory, I can say this is the scene that carries the movie. It's disappointing that so much of the film is spent on rather meaningless bonding scenes when Thomas clearly could've focused on the intense, scary, and hilarious penultimate scenes. Here, Chris Lowell steals the show as a goofy, over-the-
top Christian preacher/singer combination. The stakes don't feel particularly high, even after all the set-up, so while this remains the film's highlight, it comes at the expense of the rest of the story.
My Best Friend's Exorcism is a mixed bag of a comedy/horror film. The coming-of-age elements feel surface level, the comedy is only great toward the end, and the horror isn't all that scary, but it all weirdly works as a better sum than its weirder, grosser parts. If you love B-Tier horror schlock, Elsie Fisher, or the 80s, you might enjoy this strange film.
My Best Friend's Exorcism releases exclusively on Amazon Prime starting September 30th.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver have been established actors for decades now. Lately, they have been taking it easy or resting on their laurels, if you will. They haven't been in as many noticeable film and television projects as they had before. The days of the Alien franchise and Dave have gone by the wayside. That all changes with the new dramedy The Good House.
Hildy Good (Sigourney Weaver) is an aging real estate agent in Wendover, Massachusetts. It was primarily known as a fishing and claiming village before the upper middle class turned it into a well-to-do area on Boston's North Shore. The real estate industry is sparse, but the town is a small, tight-knit community where everybody knows everybody. Weaver's character falls back on a relationship she once had when she was younger with a local businessman Frank Getchell (Kevin Kline). There is more to this sleepy little town than meets the eye.
This film uses one particular filmmaking technique that has been used in comic books but not as much in movies, breaking the fourth wall. Weaver's character pretty much does this from the beginning of the film to the end. It's used like a crutch to explain significant aspects of the film, such as an alcoholism subplot, but she also uses it to talk about other characters.
This film is based on a book of the same name by Ann Leary. The screenplay by Thomas Bezucha, Maya Forbes, and Wallace Wolodarsky beats the alcoholism story to death. Weaver's character has had issues with this disease her entire life, but the filmmakers and writers make it out to be the end-all-be-all of her life. A few blackout scenes and an intervention make it seem worse than it actually is. The things she has to deal with in her life make it seem like a crutch for her, but it's more like a way for her to relax and take the edge off.
The actors try to talk with a Boston accent. At first, it comes across as jarring and comedic but eventually, I felt comfortable with it. The area the movie is filmed in is beautiful, especially during the fall months. The story spans quite a bit of time. Subplots involving a local artist (Morena Baccarin) and a psychiatrist (Rob Delaney) were interesting. A second about a conniving ex-real estate agent was the glue that held the movie together. It needed them.
The Good House is your typical dramedy. It has a few subplots that drive the narrative forward but struggles with the central theme for its characters. The alcoholism plot thread and breaking the fourth wall didn't seem to work for me. They seemed forced into the film, and I'm sure this wasn't supposed to be the case. Having not read the book, I don't know if these were meant to be depicted differently or not. They just didn't work very well. This movie wanted to give a message about alcoholism; instead, it just lost its way trying to tell its story.
The Good House is now playing in theaters.
Review by Sean Boelman
One of the buzziest films to play at this year’s TIFF, even if the buzz wasn’t intentional, The People’s Joker managed to make a huge splash despite being seen by what has to have been the fewest people. An unbridled work of artistic expression, this is a movie you’ll want to keep an eye out for… if you are ever able to see it.
Inspired by characters from DC Comics and the filmmaker’s own experience of coming out as trans, the film follows a clown who grapples with her gender identity in a city full of heroes and villains. In a way, writer/director/star Vera Drew is reclaiming the Joker story, creating something that is literally the antithesis of its toxicity and all that it has come to stand for.
The use of DC characters and IP has gotten the movie in a bit of hot water and caused the filmmaker to pull it from the rest of the festivals it was slated to play in. However, what we have here is actually a tremendously hilarious parody, taking these familiar beats and characters and using them in a truly subversive way.
The interpretations of these characters are honestly pretty fantastic. Drew’s Joker is a combination of Joker and Harley Quinn, and the result is a character that feels much more fleshed out than either character in their respective movies in the DCEU. Also of note is Nathan Faustyn’s Penguin, which is a unique take on the character.
Of course, this was a very personal film for Drew given that it is loosely semi-autobiographical. And it is perhaps one of the best explorations of LGBTQ themes there has ever been, largely because Drew refuses to sanitize her experience for the sake of a cishet audience. That is what you get when you make a movie that is, first and foremost, for yourself: complete and utter honesty.
Drew’s background is largely in comedy television (she’s worked on shows like On Cinema, Comedy Bang! Bang!, and Who Is America?), so her movie obviously has a very fast-paced approach to its comedy. It’s a combination of deadpan, shock humor, and sight gags, and the right audience will be left rolling.
The technical aspects of this film obviously aren’t super polished given that it’s a DIY, crowdfunded movie that was predominantly shot against a green screen, but it’s beyond charming in all of its imperfections. And despite its low-budget, it manages to get the viewer fully immersed in this sillier version of Gotham City.
The People’s Joker is undoubtedly one of the most unique films that you (probably) won’t see this year. Although it isn’t a perfect movie, Drew has made something so idiosyncratic and so earnest that it’s hard not to respect it.
The People’s Joker screened at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, which ran September 8-18.
Review by Cole Groth
At 80 years of age, Walter Hill’s career is still moving steadily ahead. Although it’s quite clear that he’s not as sharp as he was in his prime, his latest film, Dead for a Dollar, meanders through common tropes to make a satisfying yet mostly uninteresting Western. While it’s seemingly amateur in production, the A-list cast, led by Christoph Waltz and Willem Dafoe, manages to elevate it to be worthy of a watch if you’re a fan of the genre.
The first thing most viewers might notice is that visually, Dead for a Dollar is wholly unimpressive. Most of the cinematography consists of boring medium shots and even worse lighting. When the cinematography gets tired of being so dull, it gives its laziness over to the editing. Baffling cuts and cheesy wipes take the audience from scene to scene. Unintentionally, some of these cuts are laugh-out-loud hilarious. A shot of Willem Dafoe looking flabbergasted while staring at a gun looks comically bad, and stands out as one of the many moments in the film that will leave the audience questioning “how much did the filmmakers care about this?”
At the expense of the production, Hill relies on a script that doesn’t take many risks, which manages to make a very satisfying Western that isn’t seen frequently nowadays. It’s occasionally very hard to follow whatever is happening, but Christoph Waltz’s dedicated performance, supported by Brandon Scott, takes a powerful hero and charges him to the end. It’s nice to see Waltz getting the hero treatment that he can pull off. He’s a flawed man, yet he’s still wonderfully entertaining and easy to root for.
It’s uncommon to find films like Dead for A Dollar in modern cinema, which makes this release a notably interesting watch. Instead of taking the genre and putting a modern artsy spin on it, as most filmmakers do now, Hill takes a traditional approach. The sets that inhabit this production look remarkably like an old TV show Western set would look. It’s hard to figure out if Hill is paying homage to classical Hollywood or cutting corners when it comes to set design, but the lazy editing, cinematography, and lighting seem to point to the latter.
Some of the characters have motives that will leave even the most attentive viewers rather confused. Willem Dafoe takes the second billing, but his character only seems to exist to share some occasional screen time with Waltz. Rachel Brosnahan’s character of Rachel Price is one of the few things that takes a risk in the film. After running away with a Black deserter of the military, she finds herself hunted down by a group of Mexican gangsters. Her relationship with the deserter, Sergeant Poe (Warren S.L. Burke), is a consistently interesting storyline, and it probably would’ve been a better avenue to explore the conflict that she faces with more precision, rather than the generic plot that this film ends up following.
Even though it’s easy to criticize this film for its production inadequacies, it’s hard not to admire the story. This feels like a Western that your father would show you. If you’re a cinephile, this film definitely won’t satisfy you, but if you love more simple cinema, this should leave you with a smile on your face. Plot lines messily open throughout the film, but it all comes together at the end in an epic shootout. Endings like these are strangely difficult to find. Sometimes it’s good to stick to a formula. This might not be an advanced film, but sometimes it’s important to have less ambitious films to serve as a baseline for the genre that it released in. If the worst-made Westerns can look like this, then it’s at least a step up.
Dead for A Dollar will play in select theaters and on video on demand starting September 30th.
Review by Sean Boelman
Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits was one of the best independent films of the past decade, and for her next directorial outing, she partnered with her co-writer Saela Davis. While God’s Creatures maintains much of the same low-key vibe, it’s far less compelling due to poor pacing and the difficulty of understanding its cast’s accents.
The movie tells the story of a community in a seaside fishing town as they are rocked by the return of the son of one of the town’s matriarchs, which soon causes tragic events to take hold. It’s a pretty straightforward morality tale — a story of “will they or won’t they?” — and it fails to explore its themes in a way that adds anything new to the conversation.
Unfortunately, the biggest issue with the film is that it does not have a whole lot going on in terms of its plot. It seems like this is the type of movie that wants to be a slow-burn thriller, but there isn’t enough tension to keep the audience's interest. Once it finally reaches the “payoff,” viewers will be left feeling more frustrated than anything.
This also gives way to another issue with the film: thin character development. Because there isn’t much forward movement in the movie’s arcs, the characters are given very weak motivations. Obviously, the protagonist is torn between her loyalty to her son and her morality, but that is the only legitimate arc in the film.
There is one obstacle to enjoyment of the movie that many audiences may suffer from: the actors’ accents are extraordinarily thick and often difficult to understand. All of the cast is speaking in a heavy Irish accent, and even as someone who is typically able to understand accents, it was difficult to understand a solid 75% of what was being said in the film. Granted, audiences who are able to watch the movie with subtitles won’t suffer from this and might be able to enjoy it more.
Beyond that, the actors are giving pretty strong performances. Emily Watson is transfixing in her lead role — even if it is hard to understand exactly what she is doing and saying, the emotional power behind it is evident. In the supporting cast, Paul Mescal, who is having quite a year, gives a memorable turn, managing to be both charming and mysteriously sinister at the same time. On the opposite end of the coin, Asiling Franciosi (The Nightingale) isn’t given enough to make much of an impact.
The one thing that is beyond reproach in the film is its visuals. It’s a seaside noir, a stylistic approach that has been experiencing a sort of renaissance, and Holmer and Davis create a wonderful atmosphere for the movie. A big part of this is thanks to gorgeous cinematography by Chayse Irvin, capturing the English seaside.
God’s Creatures isn’t a bad film, but it’s not particularly memorable aside from a couple of decent performances and some strong visuals. That being said, if you are able to understand more of the movie through its cast’s accents, you might have a better appreciation of what it has to offer.
God’s Creatures hits theaters and VOD on September 30.
Review by Sean Boelman
IFC releases some of the best genre cinema of any given year through its IFC Midnight label, but Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper’s Vesper is being released through their main branch. The reason why is that it shouldn’t be relegated to being genre cinema because it’s an ambitious independent sci-fi film, the likes of which we rarely see attempted — much less succeed.
Set in the future after the collapse of Earth’s ecosystem, Vesper follows a young girl who, having lived alone for years with her paralyzed father, discovers a mysterious stranger in the woods and decides to help her, changing her life in ways that she can never come back from. The film’s biggest shortcoming is that its story feels overwhelmingly generic.
We’ve seen plenty of movies about the child surviving on a post-apocalyptic Earth using their wits alone, as they fight against the corruption that has taken over the remaining adults on the planet, soon discovering that the child is the key to the future survival of humanity. It might not be the smartest sci-fi flick you’ve seen, but it’s a damn entertaining one.
Still, it would take someone heartless to not sympathize with and root for the eponymous protagonist. We want her to win against her sadistic, blood-peddling uncle and share her knowledge with the rest of the world. Vesper puts a nice, female-led spin on these tropes, although it largely skirts around the gender-adjacent themes it could have explored.
Young actress Raffiella Chapman has a very natural screen presence, able to lead the film, stealing the spotlight from her more seasoned character actor co-stars. Eddie Marsan plays the main antagonist, playing the same two-faced snake he usually plays. But the most interesting performance is Richard Brake’s, who was cast against type as the benevolent father, showing that the horror icon has an unexpected amount of range.
The level of immersion that Buozyte and Samper are able to pull off in this film despite its scale is absolutely extraordinary. The world that they build in the movie feels extremely lived-in, as if it has a mythos that has been fleshed out for years even though this is the extent of the media around it. Somehow, they managed to avoid the tropes and genericisms that often come along with indie sci-fi and created a world that feels unique enough to work.
Of course, much of what allows this world to work is the visual effects, which are certainly impressive for the budget that this film was working with. There are a few moments in which the CGI begins to show that the filmmakers didn’t really have much money to work with, but for the most part, they rely on practical aspects like the production design and cinematography to draw the viewer into this future.
Vesper is certianly a feat in that it takes the very minimal resources that it had at its disposal to make an immersive sci-fi drama. The execution allows it to stack up favorably against some bigger-budget sci-fi movies, which is pretty damn impressive.
Vesper screened at the 2022 edition of Fantastic Fest, which runs September 22-29 in Austin, TX and September 29-October 4 virtually.
Review by Sean Boelman
Between his film Tickled and his Netflix series Dark Tourist, New Zealand journalist/filmmaker David Farrier has become the go-to guy for documentaries about the darkest corners of society. His newest movie, Mister Organ, promises to investigate another unhinged subject, and it plays out in a way that is expectedly entertaining.
In the film, Farrier begins exploring a shocking (but legal) parking lot extortion scam, sending him down a rabbit hole that proves to be one of the most personal stories he has investigated yet. It’s the type of strange-but-true follow-up that audiences would expect from the person who made Tickled.
Mister Organ is admittedly somewhat dependent on audiences having at least a passing familiarity with Farrier’s work and style. For those who haven’t already acquainted with Farrier’s unique style of gonzo journalism, this probably isn’t a great introduction, as its story is even weirder and more random than his claim to fame.
That being said, the escalation of events that occurs in this movie is nothing short of bizarre — especially given how it started with a person putting locks on people’s tires in a parking lot and turned into a full-fledged case of stalking and harassment. Admittedly, at a certain point, audiences will be left to wonder whether it’s Farrier’s own fault because he is definitely taking things too far, but it’s entertaining nonetheless.
The major flaw with Farrier’s approach to this story is that it doesn’t seem to know what approach to take with Michael Organ. While Tickled has a clear stance — exposing the dark underbelly of the internet in all its disgusting ways — Mister Organ attempts something much more akin to moral ambiguity, and it doesn’t work.
Farrier also fails to connect this story with any sort of greater social context. Part of this is just the nature of the story, as this story doesn’t really represent anything deeper about New Zealand society, but this means that the film largely struggles to find any real reason to exist beyond the story being weird.
The blend of investigative journalism and sleek filmmaking that Farrier brings to the table certainly makes things feel a lot more compelling than they might otherwise be. Farrier knows that his main goal here is to entertain and that he isn’t making some sort of groundbreaking exposé or anything informative for the viewer.
Mister Organ sets out to tell a wild true story, and thanks to the distinctive gonzo style of filmmaker David Farrier, it mostly succeeds. Although it’s hardly as fascinating as Tickled, it’s still a compelling, weird enough story to make it worth watching.
Mister Organ screened at the 2022 edition of Fantastic Fest, which runs September 22-29 in Austin, TX and September 29-October 4 virtually.
Review by Dan Skip Allen
Hocus Pocus 2 is the sequel to the 1993 cult classic Hocus Pocus, starring Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimi as the Sanderson Sisters. They disintegrated at the end of the last film. This film picks up in Selem when they were children, but it mainly focuses on three young ladies in modern-day Salem, Massachusetts. They had to find a way to bring these sisters back for the sequel, or there wouldn't be a second film.
Becca (Whitney Peak), Izzy (Belissa Escobedo), and Cassie (Lila Buckingham) are three typical high schoolers in Salem. They get picked on, and they're a bit odd, like teen girls can be. However, the history of the Sanderson Sisters and witches, in general, hangs over the head of this community. Inadvertently they bring the sisters back to life, who get up to their same old tricks again.
Once the sisters come back to life, the comedy and singing and dancing ensue. The three actresses take this opportunity of returning to flex their comedic chops in various scenes. They go to Walgreens, start drinking cleaning fluids, and get into things they shouldn't. Rather than brooms, a couple of the sisters use a Swiffer and Roomba to travel. This is part of the oddball comedy the film chooses to go with.
With the comedy also comes two inexplicable singing/dance numbers where the sisters sing "The Witch is Back," a take on "The Bitch is Back," and another big number. This isn't new, though, because they did "We Put a Spell on You" in the previous film. This is the type of thing this film is going for. It's not trying to be serious in any way. It's going with the campy absurd route, and that's what audiences can expect from this film. It's not going to be for everybody, but fans of the original might like it.
This sequel has a familiar cast of returning characters, but it also has a few new characters with notable actors portraying them. Tony Hale does double duty as a town mayor way back in the 1700s Salem carrying his pitchfork and a newer version of a similar role in modern-day Salem. Hannah Waddingham (Ted Lasso) plays a Mother Witch, the mentor figure for the Sanderson Sisters. Sam Richardson plays Gilbert, an archivist of the town and sisters.
This movie doubles down on the previous film from 1993, but this story doesn't necessarily resonate with a modern-day audience. It just comes off as campy and weird. I couldn't imagine adults actually enjoying this film in the least. The music numbers might entertain children or teens, which is why the film was put on Disney+ instead of being released in theaters like the original.
One redeeming element this film has is the director's recruitment of a good cinematographer, Elliot Davis. The movie looks really good, and some of the visual effects look quite nice. The technical aspects of the film show some potential for the director, Anne Fletcher. That's about all the positive feedback I can give for this movie sequel with awful acting and a terrible script for them to work off.
Hocus Pocus 2 is another prime example of why sequels, prequels, and reboots aren't always the best way to make films. Sure, there is a nostalgia factor where the teen girls who grew up with this film back in the day are probably mothers and aunts and maybe grandmothers, so they want to share this film with their young children, nieces, and grandchildren. I'm here to say it wasn't scary at all. There just wasn't a need to do this film. It doesn't say anything new or does anything to advance this franchise in any way. It's just another excuse to make a film and give paydays to actresses who don't need it. This is not a good film in the least, no matter who the target audience is.
Hocus Pocus 2 streams on Disney+ beginning September 30.
Review by Sean Boelman
Initially envisioned as a short-form television series, the Scott Mescudi (aka Kid Cudi) and Kenya Barris-created Entergalactic is now being released as an animated special, and it’s a surprisingly excellent work of animation. A lovely, charming romance, this is the perfect culmination of all the talent involved.
The special follows a carefree, charming artist about to make his break in the industry as he has a chance meeting with his successful photographer neighbor, kicking off a whirlwind romance that he doesn’t know if he even wants. Although the title might suggest that this is a sci-fi of some sort, in reality, it’s a very grounded romance, with the title coming from the stargazing metaphors in the art world-based aspects of the story.
One of the highlights of the special is its animation, gorgeously brought to life by Fletcher Moules. The style splits the difference between something like Waking Life and Into the Spider-Verse, with realistic character design but settings and atmospheres that are impressionistic and fantastical.
Entergalactic is very much centered around vibes more than anything else, and it does a great job of creating an atmosphere that is immersive and lovely. However, this is by no means experimental animation — it has a traditional, accessible narrative that allows it to have wide audience appeal, even beyond Mescudi’s core fanbase.
Of course, the aspect of the special that most people are likely looking forward to is the soundtrack, given the involvement of Mescudi. It’s good — even if it isn’t anything particularly memorable. This isn’t a musical, the songs largely relegated to the background or being an accompaniment to a montage, and while some are catchy, they all have a generically poppy vibe to them.
Audiences will undoubtedly connect with this romance that is very low-key, if altogether straightforward. The story hits all of the expected beats, but it’s more than charming enough to overcome its genericism. The only distracting issue is that, given the fact that this was a short-form animated series turned into a single feature, the pacing is a bit uneven and rushed.
Mescudi’s lead voice performance is really solid, better than any of the acting work he has done in the past. His chemistry with Jessica Williams, who plays his love interest, is great — and she is perfect in her own role. The supporting cast is filled with big names, like Timothée Chalamet, Vanessa Hudgens, Keith David, Laura Harrier, Christopher Abbot, and more, although these are more cameos than anything else.
Entergalactic might not be the flashiest animation to come out this year, but it works in its restraint. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that Entergalactic manages to do the Richard Linklater animated film better than the actual Richard Linklater animated film to come out this year.
Entergalactic streams on Netflix beginning September 30.