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 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 Sean Boelman
Rob Zombie is one of the most recognizable filmmakers in the cult film space, having created such fan favorites as House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects. He’s no stranger to adapting popular IPs after his divisive duo of Halloween movies, and the community was equally split when it was announced he would be tackling another (this time, family-oriented) property: The Munsters.
Based on the now-iconic television series from the 1960s, The Munsters tells the story of a family of monsters who move from Transylvania to an American suburb. Zombie has created what is effectively an origin story for everyone’s favorite monster family, exploring the romance between Herman and Lily Munster.
In a way, the film almost feels like an extended pilot to a new reboot of the series, as it picks up before the eponymous family leaves Transylvania and ends with an unsatisfying cliffhanger ending. However, this also provides a great introduction to these characters for new, younger audiences who might not be familiar with the source material.
The portion of the movie that is likely to receive the most negative criticism is its visual style, and while Zombie’s approach to the film certainly looks somewhat cheap, it’s for the purpose of recreating a particular retro vibe. It’s obviously not interested in capturing the black-and-white style of the original television series, but the vibrant, campy colors of the movies that followed the show’s cancellation.
It’s clear that Zombie has a profound admiration for this property and these characters, and he has made something that manages to be both an effective ode to one of the titans of family television while still very much being its own thing. It’s the rare throwback that isn’t shoving nostalgia down viewers’ throats, which alone makes it meritorious.
As a whole, the film has a very goofy vibe to it. It’s very much a Zombie movie, albeit one without the blood and gore. Even though this is Zombie being family-friendly, the film still has his maximalist, exaggerated tendencies. Everyone and everything about the movie is dialed up to eleven, giving it a very particular energy that is infectious.
Like most of Zombie’s other movies, Zombie puts his wife, Sheri-Moon Zombie into the leading role. And honestly… it works here. Her usual brand of over-the-top, theatrical acting is perfect for a film whose entire brand is cheesiness. This movie’s Herman, Jeff Daniel Phillips, is certainly no Fred Gwynne, but he’s fun to watch in the role nevertheless.
The Munsters is pretty much what you would expect from Rob Zombie making a family film: a campy, silly movie with a ridiculously wild style. His approach is sure to disillusion purists of the series, but his unique homage to a television show that was part of so many people’s childhoods is certainly at least somewhat charming.
The Munsters is now available on VOD and Netflix.
Review by Sean Boelman
Having been selected as the submission to represent New Zealand in the Best International Film race at this year’s Oscars, Tearepa Kahi’s Muru presents itself as a police thriller, but there’s so much more to it. Even though the film doesn’t hit all of its ambitious swings, there is something undeniably effective about it.
The film tells the story of a New Zealand Police Sergeant who is forced to choose between his duty and his community when he is ordered to launch a raid on his community in the middle of a school day. While using a police officer as the protagonist of a film about police brutality may seem like a questionable choice, Kahi focuses it in such a way that it feels very natural.
The film opens with a title card that reads “these are not the opinions of the New Zealand police,” however, the film is inspired by a series of true raids that happened in the Te Urewera valley. It very much peels back the curtain on an important issue that is in need of discussion and has unfortunately not yet received the spotlight it demands because of the world’s tendency to ignore Indigenous issues.
Movies that deal with morally ambiguous cops can be a bit of a tricky line to tread, especially in this day and age, but Kahi manages to pull it off mostly successfully. The film may not be as starkly anti-cop as one would hope, but it’s certainly not the type of “copaganda” audiences may have grown accustomed to.
Cliff Curtis does an amazing job in the lead role, bringing a lot of complexity to this character. Obviously, the role requires quite a bit of range to show the character’s internal dilemma. It’s some of the best work of his career, largely defined by supporting performances, but it will be exciting to see if this turn earns him more leading roles.
Something else notable about the film is that it features the legendary real-life activist Tame Iti in a significant supporting role. It adds a feeling of legitimacy to the film because Ite is one of the most prominent people fighting for Indigenous rights in New Zealand. Even though this is a somewhat fictionalized, popcorn movie take on the topic, Ite’s involvement shows that it is also something to be taken seriously.
That said, Kahi does a great job of shooting the film in a way that is enjoyable and suspenseful. There’s a lot going on in the film between the different storylines, but it is edited in a way that is kinetic and exciting. The action is largely done in a very gritty way, emphasizing the realism and making everything hit harder.
Considering the way it sounds on paper, Muru is quite the accomplishment. An underdog film presenting some of the best Indigenous representation that has happened in the history of New Zealand cinema, this is a film to keep an eye out for.
Muru screened at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, which ran September 8-18.
Review by Sean Boelman
Some of the best Latin American films have been those that have found optimism in the underbelly of society. This is the case with Laura Baumeister de Montis’s Daughter of Rage, the first ever narrative feature to be directed by a Nicaraguan woman, a moving if often generic drama.
The movie tells the story of an eleven-year-old girl and her mother who are separated as they struggle to make a living in Nicaragua’s largest landfill. We’ve seen plenty of films about families from low-income communities struggling, but since the issue persists, it’s important that we continue to have this conversation.
One of the main things that this movie talks about is the system of indentured labor that still happens shockingly frequently in Latin American countries. Although the film clearly depicts the harm that this system causes to the people involved in it, it still doesn’t feel like a strong enough indictment of the society that let it happen.
There are certainly some moments in the movie that are quite emotional and harrowing, but they are more effective individually than they are as a cohesive unit. At several moments throughout the film, viewers will be left feeling thoroughly depressed at what they are watching, but all too often, it struggles with familiarity.
The area in which the movie struggles the most is its character development. The audience will undeniably connect with the protagonist because of her plight, but the supporting characters are all extremely shallow. Every antagonist in the film is almost cartoonish, and the relationship the protagonist has with her is a thoroughly conventional arc.
Ana Alejandra Medal’s performance in the leading role is pretty great, and is a large part of what makes the movie work so well. For such a young actress who has no other prior credits to her name, her performance is extraordinarily nuanced and complex, and she is able to carry the film on her back despite relative inexperience.
There are also some very stark visuals in the movie, largely dependent on the contrast between the stark reality of the landfill setting and the beauty of the cinematography. Like so many other films about people in low-income communities, the movie is about finding the beauty in the most unlikely of places.
Daughter of Rage is far from a perfect film, but for what it is, it’s pretty solid. The use of imagery and strong acting make up for the occasionally generic writing to create a movie that is generally pretty affecting.
Daughter of Rage screened at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, which ran September 8-18.
Review by Sean Boelman
Luis De Filippis’s debut Something You Said Last Night won the Changemaker Award at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, signifying that it has a noteworthy social message. A quietly resonant film, Something You Said Last Night is subtle to a fault, sometimes losing its focus in the search of nuance, but mostly effective nonetheless.
The movie follows a twenty-something trans woman who accompanies her family on a beach vacation despite the fact that she doesn’t really feel a connection to her family anymore. An expansion of De Filippis’s short, For Nonna Anna, it’s a very unique approach to a genre that has a lot of entries.
What sets Something You Said Last Night apart is that it is a trans story that isn’t necessarily about being trans. While being trans is a fundamental part of the protagonist’s identity, the film isn’t about gender transition and she is experiencing a conflict beyond her identity. This is the next step towards positive representation: normalization.
Granted, the movie does struggle to find its footing and its purpose. Eventually, it settles on being a dissection of the family dynamic, and it’s a pretty solid one at that. De Filippis isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been said before, but she approaches the themes in a way that is honest, authentic, and resonant.
What De Filippis succeeds at the most is creating an effective atmosphere in the film. The movie wavers between being a fun portrait of a family on vacation and a tense one of a family in turmoil. Yet the film feels refreshingly trope-free, staying away from the melodramatic pitfalls that all too often plague family dramas.
The one thing that does hold the movie back is its character development. The protagonist is obviously very compelling, but it’s difficult to get a read on her family. It seems to be the purpose that we are supposed to have mixed feelings about them, but rather than mixed feelings, we end up feeling ambivalent and disconnected from them.
However, Carmen Madonia’s lead performance is tender in a way that absolutely carries the film. Given that there isn’t a whole lot of external conflict throughout, the movie was very much on the shoulders of Madonia to sell the emotional stakes, and she pulls it off in a way that is quite nuanced and naturalistic.
Something You Said Last Night is definitely very noteworthy for its representation, even if it doesn’t have as much weight as one would like. Still, Luis De Filippis is a new voice to watch, as this is a very strong feature debut.
Something You Said Last Night screened at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, which ran September 8-18.
Review by Sean Boelman
Kirill Serebrennikov is one of the most acclaimed Russian filmmakers working today, but his films are very unorthodox in nature. Petrov’s Flu is about as bizarre as they come, and while its inconsistent tone can be a bit much, the things that Serebrennikov does with the form is nothing short of fascinating.
The movie follows a family living in post-Soviet Russia as they get sick and begin drifting in and out of reality. It’s a very expressionist film, and for those who are willing to put up with some of the more abstract moments, it can be a rewarding glimpse into a society that is very different from our own.
Serebrennikov’s movie is certainly very politically charged, which is ultimately the case with any of his films but is aggressively so here. While international audiences are unlikely to pick up on some of the more intricate references to the complexities of Russian politics, there are still messages in it that are quite universal.
One of the biggest obstacles the movie faces in reaching beyond its core art house audience is its substantial length. At nearly two and a half hours long, asking most viewers to sit through that much of a Russian art film might be a serious ask — especially given its experimental nature. Although there are thematic and narrative through-lines, this is the type of movie you feel more than you watch it for the plot.
Serebrennikov certainly uses disturbing and haunting imagery to his advantage in the movie. Some moments are brutal and shocking in a way that you will have hardly seen anything quite like this on film before. However, at a certain point, one has to wonder whether these excessively graphic images actually justify their existence by serving the movie’s message, or if they go too far. Often, the answer is the latter.
On the opposite side of the coin, Serebrennikov infuses the film with stylistic flairs to give it an almost fantastical quality. Serebrennikov splits the difference between nightmarish and dreamlike, putting the viewer in a trancelike state. It manages to be alluring and unsettling at the same time, with results that are quite disorienting, but mostly in a good way.
Semyon Serzin delivers an extraordinary performance in his leading role. It’s a role where he very easily could have ridden on the coattails of the strong messaging and imagery, but he brings an added layer of depth to the role. Although the movie is hardly subtle in anything it does, Serzin captures the complexities of the character well.
Petrov’s Flu is certainly a very interesting formal experiment, even when its content doesn’t always work. Fans of weird art films are certainly going to enjoy the bizarre quirks and ambitious political messaging of the movie, but its unorthodox nature will be off-putting to others.
Petrov’s Flu hits theaters and VOD on September 23.
Review by Sean Boelman
Edgar Allan Poe is without a doubt one of the most acclaimed American horror authors of all time, hence why there has been so much media created about his life. Raven’s Hollow is the newest film about the author, trying to split the difference between a biopic and the type of story he would write himself and failing in the process.
The movie follows the famous poet and author as a fresh West Point cadet, as he and four other cadets discover a gruesome murder and set out to investigate in a local isolated community which may have some sinister secrets bubbling below the surface. We already got the “Poe as a detective” movie a decade ago in the unfairly maligned John Cusack film The Raven, and Raven’s Hollow isn’t an improvement.
The central mystery of the story isn’t particularly entertaining, which is where the issues with the movie begin. There isn’t a whole lot of action in the film, with a few scares spread throughout, but most of the story takes the form of interrogations and conversations with residents of this mysterious village. It quickly starts to become boring.
However, the most frustrating thing about the movie is its dialogue. Hatton’s script attempts to be poetic and needlessly dense. There are also an excessive amount of Poe references that come across more as pandering than substantial. It’s the type of movie that a middle schooler who is just discovering Poe’s work for the first time might find to be the coolest thing in the world, but for most viewers, it will simply be frustrating.
Although this is clearly an independent film that doesn’t have a considerable budget, it does a decent enough job with its periodization. The costuming and sets look much better than one would expect. Many indie period pieces have costumes that look like they are straight out of a high school theater production, but this movie does a good enough job of transporting the audience back to 19th century New England.
That said, Hatton struggles to create an atmosphere and scares that are sufficiently unsettling. Poe’s style is certainly very gothic and macabre, but this film goes too overboard with it in a way that is aesthetically unappealing. Rather than being dark and brooding, the movie primarily just feels gray and bland.
Some of the imagery in the film can be quite striking, but the CGI suffers from the low budget. The opening scene of the movie is a good indicator of what the rest of the film offers: a series of images that don’t quite go together and aren’t exactly good, but are just well-done enough not to be forgettable.
Raven’s Hollow struggles from figuring out whether it’s for casual audiences or those who already appreciate Poe’s work, and as a result, it ends up being largely unsatisfying. Somehow, it feels like it is both pandering to Poe fans and embarrassingly simplistic in its understanding of the writer’s work, making it worth skipping.
Raven’s Hollow streams on Shudder beginning September 22.