Review by Sean Boelman
The Teachers’ Lounge debuted at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival to strong reviews and has since earned Germany’s submission for the Best International Film Oscar. Although the film might seem quaint by its premise, director Ilker Çatak has managed to make something unexpected out of it.
The movie shows the impact that reverberates throughout a school when a teacher accuses one of her colleagues of theft. While the story is certainly very intimate and small in scale, expert direction from Çatak will keep the viewer consistently engaged and reaffirms viewers of the intense stakes.
Without a doubt, the best part of the film is its pacing, which will keep viewers on the edge of their seats for the entirety of the ninety-odd-minute runtime. Although the movie is not exactly a thriller, the story unfolds in a way that you could almost mistake it for one, concluding in an explosive final act at once feels frustrating and like the natural conclusion to this story.
It’s interesting to see that — in a year with so many films set in the educational system dealing with timely themes — Çatak and Johannes Duncker’s script deals with something much more timeless. Although there are some uniquely 21st century themes on display here (unauthorized recording being the most prominent), the movie is less focused on the setting than the connections that bind its characters.
Çatak and Duncker do an extraordinary job of giving us characters that are tremendously nuanced. The decisions made by the characters are often frustrating, but the film deals in the empathetic humanity of their actions. Even more interesting is the fact that the audience is not asked to pick a side, instead being shown the tragic aftermath for all parties.
Leonie Benesch’s performance in the lead role is utterly gripping. She plays the character with a level of restraint, yet also a palpable anger, imbuing it with a sense of verisimilitude that is essential for the movie to have its emotional impact. Also impressive is young actor Leonard Settnisch, who gives a quiet but often powerful turn.
Çatak has exquisite control over the film from a directorial standpoint, working with his collaborators to create a consistently unnerving atmosphere. Judith Kaufmann’s camera is wonderfully fluid, often making the viewer feel claustrophobia through prolonged close-ups. And Marvin Miller’s score does a great job of heightening the viewer’s suspense.
The Teachers’ Lounge is an unexpectedly great movie, taking its somewhat simple premise and making an absolutely captivating film out of it. From great performances to strong direction, it’s truly engrossing and unexpected. If this does not end up in the slate of nominees for the International Film Oscar, the Academy will have made a massive mistake.
The Teachers’ Lounge screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, which ran September 7-17 in Toronto, Canada.
Review by Sean Boelman
Richard Linklater’s latest film Hit Man debuted earlier this month at the Venice Film Festival to raves, and while it’s enjoyable enough, it feels rather slight. A crowd-pleaser that never challenges the audience in any way, the movie lacks much of an identity beyond vague quirkiness.
The film follows a professor who, on the side, works with the CIA to pose as a hit man, capturing those who hope to order a murder. It’s an interesting concept (partially inspired by a true story) that one would hope Linklater would use in a Bernie-esque dark comedy way. Unfortunately, Hit Man is a bit too candy-coated for its own good.
What is surprising about the movie is that, for most of its runtime, it’s a relatively standard romantic comedy. It shares much more in common with School of Rock or Where’d You Go, Bernadette than Before Midnight or Boyhood. That’s not to say Linklater isn’t also good at directing comedy, but this one lacks the spark it needed to fully work.
That being said, in the final act of the film — with one expertly sharp scene kicking it off in particular — it finally channels the energy that viewers will have been hoping for from the beginning. Had the movie been able to achieve and keep this momentum early on, it would have been one of the most charming movies of the year.
The film is certainly made better by an extraordinary performance from Glenn Powell, who previously worked with Linklater as one of the members of the ensemble in Everybody Wants Some!! He exudes an effortless charm in the role, finding the right balance between confidence and lovable goofiness.
Looking at the supporting cast, everyone pales in comparison to Powell. Adria Arjona has decent chemistry with the leading man, but otherwise isn’t able to hold her own against the more charismatic performer. Retta gets a few funny moments as the sidekick to Powell’s agent, but is just there to get the laugh.
Visually, the movie is surprisingly not as good as one would hope. Obviously, it’s competent considering Linklater’s experience, but it’s disappointingly vanilla as Linklater adheres to the typical style of the romantic comedy genre. The only thing about the film that feels stylistically inspired are some of the needle drops, which give it a nice tone.
Hit Man is an amusing little movie, but its appeal stops there. Apart from a strong performance by Glenn Powell, there’s really nothing about this film that’s overly special above your average romantic comedy with a unique premise, and that’s disappointing considering the talent involved.
Hit Man screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, which ran September 7-17 in Toronto, Canada.
Review by Sean Boelman
Molly Manning Walker’s feature debut How to Have Sex debuted in the Un Certain Regard section at this year’s Cannes, where it walked home with the top prize in the category. Although the film definitely works best on an aesthetic level, it's hard to discount the subtle character work that Walker offers in her debut, resulting in an unexpectedly emotional experience.
The movie follows a group of three teenage girls who go on a summer vacation, with the goal of partying and hooking up with attractive boys. Although this core premise is one that has been done by dozens of films before — if not more — How to Have Sex approaches it in such an unfussy, incredibly naturalistic way that it still feels refreshing.
This is the type of movie that deals more in vibes than narratives. Although there is a story, which becomes particularly prominent in the third act, it’s better to let the movie wash over you as an experience, rather than try to cling to the narrative threads it contains. Then, the more emotional final act will be able to resonate even more.
Like so many coming-of-age movies, How to Have Sex deals with the concept of what it means to grow up. However, while many films in the genre explore how people are forced to grow up, Manning Walker’s debut stands out in that its protagonist is pushing herself to grow up prematurely, allowing the movie to ask refreshing questions that are uncommon to the genre.
A big part of what makes the film work so well is the verisimilitude with which they approach the characters. Around every corner, they are making stupid decisions — as teenagers often do — but it will be endearing to viewers as they remember the times when they made those decisions in their own youth.
Mia McKenna-Bruce is fantastic in her leading role, bringing to the character a perfect dichotomy of both sadness and hope. Her chemistry with the other two actresses who play her friends — Lara Peake and Enva Lewis — is also fantastic. In the supporting cast, Shaun Thomas shines as the love interest, with a certainly charming presence but also a subtly mysterious undercurrent running through his performance.
The movie absolutely thrives in its execution, with fantastic cinematography and a great soundtrack that fully immerses you in this rave culture. It should come as no surprise that Manning Walker’s background is as a cinematographer, as her eye for aesthetics in her debut is absolutely astounding.
How to Have Sex offers some of the best vibes you’ll see this year until a third act that brings everything the film is exploring together in an absolutely soul-crushing way. Molly Manning Walker’s debut is one of the finest of the year, and cements her as a voice to watch out for in the future.
How to Have Sex screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, which ran September 7-17 in Toronto, Canada.
Review by Sean Boelman
Riddle of Fire debuted in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar at Cannes earlier this year to a positive, but relatively low-key reception. Now, it is reappearing where it belongs — at genre festivals, starting with a slot in TIFF’s Midnight Madness program. This throwback is both adorable and fun, cashing in on nostalgia without ever feeling like nostalgia bait.
The film follows a group of three children who find themselves on an adventure up against a mysterious coven after they are sent by their mother on a quest to procure her favorite blueberry pie. It’s a magical adventure that reminds you of the likes of The Goonies or Stand by Me, with light supernatural elements, but really just an innate love of the innocent joy of childhood.
Part of what makes Riddle of Fire work so well, especially in comparison to other pieces of retro/throwback media, is that it truly understands what made the media it references work beyond a superficial level. There’s a very tongue-in-cheek nature to everything happening here — the MacGuffin is a blueberry pie, after all — which gives the movie its much-needed feeling of innocent fun.
That’s not to say that the film doesn’t also nail the aesthetic, because it absolutely does. Although there are some undeniably modern elements — like the object of the opening heist being a “cutting-edge” video game system — the cinematography by Jake Mitchell, shot on 16mm Kodak film, lends it a grainy aesthetic that offers the perfect level of nostalgia.
However, in feeling like it was ripped out of the ‘80s, Razooli’s movie does also have the somewhat meandering pacing of the children’s films of the era. It’s more about capturing the sense of childlike wonder that comes with the adventure than the destination the characters reach, and if you are willing to meet the movie on that wavelength, you will be engrossed.
The film will live or die based on how connected the viewer is able to become to the central characters, and thankfully, Razooli writes them in a way that’s almost impossible not to love. Although they do have the archetypes of the genre at their core, they defy expectations throughout the movie in a way that makes them feel endearing and unique.
Razooli deserves praise for getting what might be three of the finest child performances in recent memory. Charlie Stover, Phoebe Ferro, and Skyler Peters are all fantastic in their roles. Not only are they adorable, but also surprisingly nuanced and emotional, especially given the somewhat absurd nature of their actions on display.
Riddle of Fire is the rare homage that actually manages to stand up to the media it references, capturing the atmosphere perfectly while also offering a fun adventure of its own. Weston Razooli’s directorial debut is just so fun that it will be exciting to see what he does next.
Riddle of Fire screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, which ran September 7-17 in Toronto, Canada.
Review by Sean Boelman
When Wim Wender’s Perfect Days was announced as the Japanese submission for the Best International Film Oscar, a number of master Japanese filmmakers were left in the dust, including Hayao Miyazaki, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, and Hirokazu Kore-eda. Kore-eda’s latest, Monster, definitely feels different from his usual work for a multitude of reasons, but it’s still a strong and intriguing movie with nuanced direction.
Monster follows a school-age child who becomes embroiled in a complex dilemma when he starts behaving strangely, causing his mother to investigate his teacher whom she believes to be the cause of his behavior. Interestingly, Monster is Kore-eda’s first movie not written by himself, and Yûji Sakamoto’s script is the source of most of the film’s weaknesses.
The movie has a Rashomon structure, where we see the events of the film unfold from three different perspectives, adding more to the story with each permutation. Although this is clearly done with the intent of showing that no one person knows the full truth, it does undermine the pacing and suspense at a few points.
Sakamoto’s character development is very unsatisfying for much of the first two-thirds, taking until the final third to tie everything together. As such, viewers might spend much of the runtime feeling disillusioned with the characters’ actions until the pieces fall into place. It’s certainly a nuanced and layered approach, but effective? Not always.
The performances in the movie are strong all-around, but working with the cast has always been Kore-eda’s strongest suit. Eita Nagayama is probably the biggest stand-out as the teacher accused of abuse, showing a vast range of emotions that add a lot of nuance to a somewhat unsubtle character. Sakura Andō is less nuanced in her role, but still affecting.
In exploring the film’s themes of bullying, Kore-eda has made a movie that feels much more heightened than the rest of his body of work. Although Monster in many ways still feels rooted in a core of human connection, it also feels a tad more histrionic when it hits its higher moments, whereas Kore-eda’s films generally feel more subdued.
Of course, Kore-eda’s grasp of the camera is as strong as ever, with the cinematography by Ryûto Kondô being exquisite. The late Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score is also sweeping and fantastic. However, it is worth noting that the very regal nature of the execution does create a bit of a disconnect with the tone of the script.
Monster is an interesting movie, and thanks to the deft directorial hand of master Hirokazu Kore-eda, it’s thoroughly compelling. However, the script’s lofty ambitions often threaten to undermine it, with an approach that aims for ambiguity but settles into occasional convolution.
Monster screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, which ran September 7-17 in Toronto, Canada.
Review by Sean Boelman
Hot off the most critically-acclaimed film of his career in Drive My Car, Ryusuke Hamaguchi surprised the world with the announcement that his latest film, Evil Does Not Exist, would come out this year. While it’s not quite to the level of his best work, Evil Does Not Exist features many of the intriguing trademarks of the director’s style.
The film follows the inhabitants of a small village in Japan as their idyllic community is threatened by development when plans for a nearby glamping site are revealed. Hamaguchi tells the story from different perspectives — both the residents and the developers — telling this story in a way that is layered, if somewhat over-ambitious.
The pacing is very much a slow burn, building up to a final third that goes a little too out there for the rest of the film that preceded it. There’s a strange sense of humor to the entire affair — often at the expense of the absurd concept of glamping — keeping the film from being overly didactic in its approach.
On its surface, Evil Does Not Exist is a message movie, exploring environmentalist themes in a way that is much less subtle than Hamaguchi’s past work. However, when the film switches perspectives in the second half, it turns into a more nuanced look at conscience and complicity that challenges the viewers — just as the characters — to re-evaluate their role in standing by.
Like so many ensemble-driven movies this year, Evil Does Not Exist struggles with balancing its many characters in an effectively compelling way. Hamaguchi’s anthology film, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, arguably worked better thanks to its disconnected nature. In his attempt to tie together the narrative threads this time around, Hamaguchi leaves things feeling somewhat underdeveloped.
Interestingly, Hamaguchi primarily works with non-actors for his latest film — or at least performers with few screen credits (a handful also appeared in the director’s Happy Hour). This does lend the film a sense of naturalism that was clearly Hamaguchi’s intention. Hitoshi Omika, the film’s de facto lead who worked with Hamguchi in a behind-the-scenes capacity before, is arguably the stand-out, but the rest of the cast is also strong in their relative anonymity.
Of course, the film is excellent from a technical level, with great cinematography by Yoshio Kitagawa and a fantastic score by Eiko Ishibashi. Hamaguchi is essentially taking tropes that are known for being somewhat overwrought and turning them into something more restrained and elegant, and these wonderful technical aspects deserve a lot of the credit for that.
Evil Does Not Exist aims high with its ambitious approach to its themes, but its attempt to weave the narrative together intricately does not always work. Although it’s easy to admire what Hamaguchi was trying to do, it’s unable to quite reach the heights the filmmaker has achieved in the past.
Evil Does Not Exist screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, which ran September 7-17 in Toronto, Canada.
Review by Sean Boelman
At nearly two hours in length, Moritz Mohr’s Boy Kills World is a deluge of non-stop action, gore, and wise-cracking humor. Yet despite all that energy, it’s hard to get invested in the film because of its painfully unoriginal script that has plenty of good ideas, but just seems to be spinning in circles endlessly.
The film follows a mute warrior who has been trained to be an instrument of death after the murder of his family, as he sets out on a journey to topple the regime that was responsible for his torment. Boy Kills World is the type of movie that wears its influences on its sleeve — perhaps a bit too earnestly — but will be catnip to the audience it is designed for as a result.
Mohr attempts to realize the film’s world in a way that feels graphic novel-esque, but Arend Remmers and Tyler Burton Smith’s script is so nondescript that it ends up feeling like just another dystopia. Although there are a few inspired moments — such as the introduction in the jungle — the more urban stuff starts to blend together with the film’s many influences.
The fight sequences in the film are great, but unfortunately, there’s just not enough of them. There are plenty of moments that are certain to get a visceral reaction out of the audience, including one with a cheese grater that manages to one-up the now-infamous scene from this year’s Evil Dead Rise.
Ultimately, the film wants us to get invested in the story because of the underlying family drama. However, Remmers and Smith do not seem to understand just how conventional their writing is. A young boy’s parents are viciously murdered in front of him, inspiring him to take up intense combat training in an effort to avenge them. Sound familiar? Of course, there are some twists on this formula, but not enough to make it feel fresh whatsoever.
The most frustrating thing about the film, though, is that the protagonist played by Bill Skarsgård is completely mute, and voiced by a narration track that is simply annoying. The wise-cracking nature of the character against the backdrop of the brutal violence has earned Deadpool comparisons, but the film is sadly never funny enough to work on that level.
That being said, apart from Skarsgård — whose talents feel sadly underused — the film has some inspired casting. Michelle Dockery, Brett Gelman, and Sharlto Copley chew the scenery to shreds as the film’s antagonists, with Copley in particular being a ton of fun to watch. Jessica Rothe gets a few moments in which she really gets to shine. And Andrew Koji steals his scene despite how brief it is.
There’s one thing you absolutely cannot fault Boy Kills World for — it does not lack in manic energy. However, in all that enthusiasm, the film still manages to underwhelm. Somehow, it’s consistently over-the-top, yet still never feels like enough. It’s passable as a B-movie, but you certainly expect it to go somewhere more.
Boy Kills World screened at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, which ran September 7-17 in Toronto, Canada.
[Fantastic Fest 2023] CONCRETE UTOPIA -- A Stunning and Nuanced Disaster Epic for a Materialist World
Review by Erin M. Brady
The King James Bible translates Matthew 22:39 as “And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” This verse essentially means that whatever you do to your neighbor, whether it’s through words or actions, needs to be something you want to have happen to you. This is especially true in times of unexplainable hardship, and while it is never outright stated, it is arguably the core idea of Um Tae-hwa’s disaster epic Concrete Utopia. If you do not know and love your neighbor as an equal, damnation will eventually come for you.
The film centers around the various residents of the Hwang Gung Apartments in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake. The apartment building was somehow completely undamaged, making it a safe haven for survivors, much to the dismay of its residents. One such resident, Yeong-tak (Lee Byung-hun), is voted to take charge due to his past advocacy against unwanted development on the apartment grounds. Unfortunately, his leadership successes come at a devastating cost, especially after nurse Myeong-hwa (Park Bo-young) fails to convince her husband, Min-seong (Park Seo-joon), that something is wrong.
It would be remiss to ignore the stunning visual work that brought its destroyed Seoul landscape to life. One scene, in particular, will likely go down as one of the best ever made in the subgenre. Cinematographer Cho Hyung-rae crafted stunning shots in this grey, desolate, and horrifying environment, even in parts where the integration of CGI green screen and physical sets isn’t perfect.
However, these sequences aren’t the main draw of the film, and much is still left to the imagination as to what actually happened. Choosing to center the movie around the aftermath of the earthquake is not a particularly unique direction – often, disaster movies highlight the degradation of the human condition as proof that we’re all capable of horrific violence under the right circumstances. How these characters degrade certainly is. They never become cartoonishly evil or desperate, as is usually the case with similar stories. They simply act like people wanting to maintain the order they previously had in their lives, no matter what they do to regain it.
Herein lies the film’s biggest strength: nuance. There is, for lack of a better term, a concrete reason behind every decision made by its ensemble. Lee Byung-hun’s performance is arguably the best example of this, as Yeong-tak’s rise to power within the complex coincides with a much darker secret he’s hiding. When this secret is revealed, it is juxtaposed with scenes of what is supposed to be a joyous celebration of survival. This is the perfect example of who Yeong-tak is as a character: someone who knows of his sins but will continue to reap the benefits they have given him. Audiences can judge him and the rest of these characters, but not without wondering if they themselves are capable of acting the exact same way.
Um’s direction, along with the script he co-wrote alongside Lee Sin-ji, exemplifies this overarching idea in every scene. In this regard, it is likely the most realistic depiction of what would happen if a disaster movie came to life, right down to the minute details of how its characters exist in this new world. If the world they existed in valued property and materialism above all else (a detail outlined to us in the opening credits), it’s only reasonable that these attitudes would carry over into times of crisis.
Concrete Utopia is both pessimistic and optimistic about the state of humanity in extreme events. There is never any reason for why the apartment complex was spared, nor do we ever get any answers as to why larger help hasn’t come. However, these aren’t questions you are supposed to ask about this film. Instead, you’re supposed to ask yourself if you are as morally righteous as you think you are, the film challenging the audience at every revelation and development. By fully immersing viewers into the lives of its ensemble, it forces you to think about how you treat your neighbors, both figuratively and literally. Will you be the one helping outsiders survive in difficult conditions, or will you be the one throwing objects at them to get them to leave? Can you be sure of your answer?
Concrete Utopia is screening at the 2023 Fantastic Fest, which runs September 21-28 in Austin, Texas.
[Fantastic Fest 2023] YOUR LUCKY DAY -- A Decent Chamber Piece Thriller Undercut by Tremendously Weak Script
Review by Daniel Lima
There is little more disheartening than the dawning realization that the feature film you’re watching must be adapted from a short. That creeping feeling arrives early on in Your Lucky Day, the feature debut of writer-director Dan Brown that, yes, is adapted from his own 2010 short film of the same name. In spite of a clear directorial voice and a solid ensemble, the laborious and contrived script creates a ceiling for how effective the film can be.
On an inauspicious night in a New York corner store, a businessman wins a $156 million lottery ticket. He is immediately held at gunpoint by a down-on-his-luck drug dealer, which turns into a standoff with a beat cop. After a shootout that leaves both businessman and officer dead, the dealer attempts to convince the store owner and a young couple who happened to be there to assist him in covering things up. All parties are forced to adapt to a rapidly deteriorating situation that tests how far they’ll go for a chance at a better life.
This film seemingly has a lot on its mind. Much of what drives these characters is the harshness of their current economic reality, and the unfair hand they have been dealt simply by not being born rich. That the film is set in the first year of the Trump presidency is a deliberate attempt to invoke the ambient anger towards the hoarding of society’s wealth and resources, and it goes a long way in setting the tone of every scene.
To that end, the film adopts a naturalistic look and feel. Tight close-ups and subtle handhelds abound, giving the audience the same claustrophobic perspective as the characters as the night wears on. Cold, harsh florescent lights and extensive shadows stave off any comfort. When the tension ramps up, there is a clear understanding of how to maintain momentum and propulsive energy. For all the narrative failings, it’s clear that Brown has a handle of how to tell a story visually.
Chamber pieces can live and die on their cast, and this boasts plenty of solid performances. Every actor lends their character personality that goes far beyond what is written, from Mousa Hussein’s weary, weathered store owner to Elliot Knight’s sensitive and doting musician. The only person who seems ill-at-ease is Angus Cloud, unable to sell any of the emotional beats or weighty dialogue he’s tasked with. The clear standout, however, is Jessica Garza, turning in an intense and commanding performance that if there is any justice in the world, will be her breakout.
Yet as much as Your Lucky Day has going for it, it is all horribly undercut by the script. That this is a story of economic inequality, that these characters are fighting between their sense of morality and the immortality of the capitalist world, is glaringly obvious. The film opens with the title card “Based on the American Dream” — yet the dialogue constantly reiterates these themes and ideas. What should feel like a natural outgrowth of these characters’ lived experiences ends up feeling like a screenwriter on a crusade to speak to the issues, so the illusion of grounded realism is broken.
Even the dialogue that doesn’t directly comment on what the movie is about has a clumsiness that clashes with the film’s aesthetic. When they aren’t laying bare the core themes, characters give monologues neatly establishing backstory, calmly decide on their next course of action, even engage in lightly-comic banter. None of this is inherently bad, but it feels wildly incongruous with the naturalistic style, compounded further by how circular and repetitive the conversations are. It creates the impression that these people are just saying anything they can to fill time.
The need to pad things out is evident in how the story develops. About halfway through, there is a narrative turn that introduces new complications into the characters' plans, to decidedly mixed results. On the one hand, it allows for more tension-driven sequences that lean on the film’s strengths. On the other hand, it also introduces a new batch of ideas to grapple with that muddle the clarity of directorial vision. By the time the credits roll, it’s unclear what the film is actually trying to say, not because of a cultivated air of ambiguity, but because the narrative has gone into so many directions that it lost its sense of focus.
Ultimately, while Your Lucky Day serves as a decent calling card for a first-time director, it is an unremarkable showing for a first-time screenwriter. Consistently shooting itself in the foot with didactic messaging, clunky dialogue, and unrefined storytelling, it is all the more frustrating because of how strong all the other elements are.
Your Lucky Day is screening at the 2023 Fantastic Fest, which runs Septemeber 21-28 in Austin, Texas.
Review by Daniel Lima
It seems that the longer a film franchise goes on, the more likely it will renege on its mantra — the core idea that gave the original its heart. The Rambo series devolved from sobering psychological drama about the cost of war to right-wing fantasy. Jurassic Park asked whether having the technology to do something justifies doing it, to which the CG slop of the long-gap sequels said, “Yes.” Pet Sematary is a cautionary tale about clinging to something after its time has come and gone, so it’s only natural that Pet Sematary: Bloodlines attempts to revive an IP which should have been laid to rest.
In the 2019 reboot of Pet Sematary, John Lithgow plays Jud Crandall, a kindly old man who tries to help his new neighbors adjust to life in the town of Ludlow. Bloodlines winds back the clock fifty years, as the young Crandall prepares to leave home for the Peace Corps, only to be drawn back into town by the sudden return of an estranged friend. His return brings with it an ancient evil that forces Crandall to confront not only his friend, but also the history of his town and his own family.
That this is a prequel to the remake, and not the original film, is important because Fred Gwynne’s Crandall in the latter has a scene where he explains exactly what happened in the town decades ago when someone began meddling with the curtain between life and death. On the one hand, this means this story has never even been hinted at within the narrative of this particular interpretation of the Pet Sematary cosmos. On the other hand, this series is powered by residual goodwill towards that first film, so it can be assumed the audience will be familiar with this film’s point of origin. Add that these monkey’s paw tales — character’s dreams coming true only for them to regret it — only have one place to go, and the film ends up feeling wholly inessential.
Horror films have long used a boilerplate narrative as the foundation for an exercise in style, but this fails to cultivate any atmosphere or mood. Where a Sam Raimi film possesses a manic energy reflected in the dynamic camerawork, or a Lucio Fulci film creates a surreal dreamscape through hazy, lurid imagery, Bloodlines looks like any number of straight-to-streaming cast-offs. The film adopts a muted color palette that makes the days seem dreary and the nights impregnably dark, and the compositions never rise above workmanlike.
There is a world where the characters elevate the material, and the ensemble fleshes the world out in a way that makes the audience invested in their plight. For some unfathomable reason, however, the film spends more time on the mystery of the town — a mystery anyone watching will already know — than establishing who these people are.
The moments where the film gestures towards emotional bonds between the characters are laughable, as there is no work done to establish the nature of who they are and the relationships they have outside of quick flashbacks. That every single performance feels phoned in does nothing to help, though it's always nice to see Pam Grier and Henry Thomas getting work. As for star Jackson White... he's no John Lithgow.
The lack of purpose, aesthetic, or engaging characters means that when the film actually does take a stab at horror set pieces, it falls flat. These moments are horribly telegraphed, there’s never any tension as the scene develops, what actually happens is wildly unimaginative, and there’s no reason to care about anyone in the movie anyways. The best that can be said about the horror is that there’s some solid makeup and practical effects, and even those are obscured from view in the darkness of some of these scenes.
In the face of this obvious lack of creative ambition and inspiration, it’s hard not to ask, “Why does this movie exist?” The answer is simple: the reboot made over five times its budget. The only thing animating this is the desire to keep the brand alive and within the popular consciousness, and keeping something alive beyond its natural end, in defiance of the laws of God and nature, carries with it a terrible price. For the small town of Ludlow, it was a miasma of malevolent energy that spoke to a rot at the core of the community. As someone who just watched Pet Sematary: Bloodlines, I’d say they were lucky.
Pet Sematary: Bloodlines is screening at the 2023 Fantastic Fest, which runs September 21-28 in Austin, Texas.