By Sean Boelman, Daniel Lima, and Erin M. Brady
Fantastic Fest, occurring in Austin, Texas each September, is known as one of the most reputable genre festivals in the world, bringing together cinephiles from around the world to celebrate the latest in weird and macabre cinema.
We at disappointment media were excited to again cover the festival remotely. Here are some of our brief thoughts on some of the films that played at this year's festival:
The Animal Kingdom
Review by Sean Boelman
That the fantasy film The Animal Kingdom was even considered for the short list for France's submission for the Best International Film Oscar in the same breath as such movies as Anatomy of a Fall and eventual selection The Taste of Things is frankly baffling — especially when you realize it's not great. Although Thomas Cailley's film has plenty of interesting ideas, its allegories (yes, plural) are muddled down by one another, and the CGI is lackluster, resulting in an experience that is frequently frustrating rather than provocative. The movie also wastes its cast, including the talented Romain Duris and Adèle Exarchopolous — yet another example of this disappoiting film not living up to its potential.
The Coffee Table
Review by Daniel Lima
Where does a story go when it begins with its most shocking reveal? In the case of The Coffee Table, nowhere. A married couple purchases a grotesque coffee table, only to lead to disaster. The film immediately plays its only card, and all it has left to do is remind the audience of the card it played until the credits roll. As shocking as that moment is, it hangs over the rest of the movie, stymieing any attempt to deepen the characters or get the audience invested in what follows. In spite of that, the ensemble is impressive, particularly Estefanía de los Santos. A shame to see them go to waste.
The Cult of AGFA Trailer Show
Review by Erin M. Brady
If you've ever wanted that warm feeling of watching previews to last 80 minutes, then The Cult of AGFA Trailer Show is exactly the movie you need. The editing done for each real-life trailer and theatrical bumper is minimal, yet impactful in conveying the breadth of cult cinema — classics like The Doom Generation and forgotten exploitation fare such as The Other Side of Madness get their equal spotlight. It may not be the most exciting film at Fantastic Fest, but it does go to show how important the genre film, in all its various forms, can be in these times of studio greed and blockbuster fatigue.
Review by Daniel Lima
An old woman foraging through a Polish forest happens upon a young couple, dressed in strange garb, who claim to be lost. The woman doesn’t seem to trust them, and vice versa. For the next hour it’s left to the audience to puzzle out what exactly either party wants from the other. The mystery of Mushrooms is fun to work out at first, in large part because of the trio of solid performances. However, once it becomes clear the film will merely idle forward until the final reveal, it becomes tedious. That ultimate reveal is either a brilliant stroke that meaningfully recontextualizes the entire movie, or heinous and exploitative. At the moment, I lean towards the latter.
Kill Dolly Kill
Review by Erin M. Brady
It's difficult to objectively review any Troma film in the traditional sense. If you're looking for that to change with Kill Dolly Kill, you're sorely mistaken. The signature Troma low-budget sleaze is still oozing from every scene, and the over-the-top performances and writing sell this. However, there's only so much that can be done to stretch out one joke, and two poorly-choreographed lesbian sex scenes don't mask this issue.
Review by Daniel Lima
Another collaboration between director Yudai Yamaguchi, star Tak Sakaguchi, and action choreographer Kensuke Sonomura, One-Percenter is both a biting satire and loving ode to action cinema. Sakaguchi plays an action star location scouting for the true-to-life action epic he’s always dreamed of, who stumbles onto an attempted yakuza execution and decides to intercede. What follows is some of the most electrifying fights of the year, with a fluidity, grace, and kineticism that is jaw-dropping. Many references are made to both Sakaguchi’s career and the Japanese action film industry, and the philosophical underpinnings of Tak’s own perspective of his craft make the beautifully orchestrated violence all the more powerful.
She Is Conann
Review by Erin M. Brady
Much like experimentalist Bertrand Mandico's previous work, it's difficult to explain the appeal of his latest, She is Conann. A showcase of the hero's journey gone mad, the film outlines the life of a female barbarian who's lived as many lives as she's brutally taken. Unfortunately, in its attempts to juggle various societal woes (fascism, performative femininity, and capitalist-funded art among others), none of them come together to elevate it beyond the admittedly stunning visuals. You admire it and what it sets out to do, rather than actually like it. Maybe that's the point, but it's still disappointing to see such an ambitious film cannibalize itself.
Sri Asih: The Warrior
Review by Daniel Lima
The second film in the Bumilangit Cinematic Universe, an attempt at a superhero franchise out of Indonesia, Sri Asih: The Warrior bodes ill for the future of the series. A generic story about a woman who is a reincarnated goddess fated to save the world, the film suffers from a bloated narrative that refuses any impulse to build its characters or world, beyond merely baiting future installments. The commentary on economic inequality embarrassingly is shallow, and the low-budget Wonder Woman knockoff action is ugly as sin, particularly compared to the solid, grounded fights at the start of the film.
Review by Daniel Lima
The directorial debut of Stephen Alexander, Suburban Tale, follows a distressed young woman who is called back home by her estranged family to help care for a demon-possessed boy as the family prepares for a wedding. She slowly begins to exhibit signs of sickness, beginning a surreal, nightmarish descent into her own psyche. The practical effects work is commendable, and star Rashmi Somvanshi gives a dynamic performance, but the film is so coy with who she is that by the time that revelation arrives, it is impossible to connect with her.
You're Not Me
Review by Erin M. Brady
Christmas seems to be a recurring theme during this year's Fantastic Fest, and You're Not Me sets out to showcase the most wonderful time of the year as the worst. Marisa Crespo and Moisés Romera's film is an oftentimes engaging look into the horrors of an unsupportive family. Its lead character is a lesbian who ran away from her wedding to a man three years prior. However, it begins to lose momentum once it moves into a muddied immigration parable, before ultimately crashing in its final moments. It's a shame, too, as its well-done pacing and direction will make you anticipate a payoff that never actually comes.
The 2023 Fantastic Fest ran September 21-28 in Austin, Texas.
By Jonathan Berk
The 24th Annual Woodstock Film Festival kicks off on September 27 and runs through October 1. The films will be presented at venues throughout the bucolic Hudson Valley towns of Woodstock, Rosendale, and Saugerties, with some even available online. This year's festival showcases 28 feature narrative films and 26 feature documentaries by distinguished and emerging directors, with 9 World Premieres, 7 U.S. Premieres, 9 East Coast Premieres, and 16 New York Premieres, as well as 107 short live-action films, documentaries, animation, and music videos. There is a vast pool of films to tempt festival-goers looking to catch some films that have played on the festival circuit or find something that could be the next “it” movie.
This year’s opening night film is Fair Play, written and directed by Chloe Domont, her first feature film, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and was subsequently acquired by Netflix in the festival’s biggest sale. Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke’s (Alden Ehrenreich) relationship is pushed to the brink when a new promotion at their financial firm causes challenges both in and out of the office. As the power dynamics shift, they’re left to face the price of success and the limits of ambition.
Ally Pankiw’s I Used to Be Funny had its world premiere at SXSW and now makes its way to Woodstock. The movie stars the up-and-coming megastar Rachel Sennott (Bottoms, Shiva Baby, Bodies Bodies Bodies) as Sam, a stand-up comedian and former au-pair navigating PTSD. While going through her personal struggle, Brooke (Olga Petsa), the girl she used to nanny, has gone missing. The film uses non-linear storytelling, cutting back and forth from present to past, to build tension and reveal the connection between Sam and Brooke. It’s a tense film with moments of levity all resting on the very capable shoulders of Sennott. It’s definitely not one to miss.
Brittany Snow is a familiar face on-screen in movies like Pitch Perfect and Ti West’s X, but for Parachute, she makes her directorial debut. The film also premiered at SXSW and features Courtney Eaton (Yellowjackets) as Riley in an unbelievably brave performance. Riley is just leaving rehab for what she shruggingly tells Ethan (Thomas Mann), a potential new boyfriend, she was in for “eating things… body stuff.” Extremely difficult to watch at times, Parachute’s story, performances, and message of love are undeniable. Snow’s film is both harrowing and endearing, and should be added to your schedule.
For those who are fans of animation, Bill Plympton’s new film Slide may be right up your alley. Though, Plympton’s style is far from family friendly, so go into this film with that in mind. A Western in many ways, with unique art styling the characters, Slide follows a mythical cowboy who arrives in a corrupt logging town. He falls in love with a prostitute who is fighting back against the mayor and his twin brother, whose selfishness seems to be sending the town into disarray to lure in Hollywood movie studios. The film is not quite finished, but it is a quirky experience with a style that shows great promise.
Overall, this year's WFF looks to be another great one. With tons of options for festival-goers to choose from, if you’re in the area, there is no reason not to catch one, two, or even ten. Those interested in the festival, but unable to travel, will have a limited selection of films at the festival available online. At worst, those who can’t attend the festival can keep up with the buzz about the films and add them to their watch list.
The 2023 Woodstock Film Festival runs online and virtually from September 27-October 1.
By Sean Boelman
The 2023 Toronto International Film Festival might have been on a smaller scale than usual due to the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes preventing much of the big-name talent from congregating on Festival Street as they have in the past. Still, the film festival featured plenty of great international and independent cinema to check out, and we, at disappointment media, got to see over 80 movies between our time on the ground and through links before and after the fest.
Here are some of our thoughts on many of the films we did not give a full review to:
About Dry Grasses
Nuri Belge Ceylan’s About Dry Grasses debuted earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim. While there is a great movie in there in the film’s 3+ hour runtime, it all too often feels like Ceylan is throwing everything to the wall to see what sticks, causing the film to feel somewhat overwhelming. The second act of the film is fantastic, but the first act is a bit too slow in its set-up, and the final third is where the film goes really ambitious only to swing and miss. You have to admire what Ceylan is trying to do here, but the final result is more frustrating than satisfying.
Sara Summa’s film Arthur&Diana is reminiscent of the post-French New Wave work of filmmakers like Serge Gainsbourg. That’s to say it’s entirely pleasant, but there’s not a whole lot of substance to the film. Summa stars alongside her real-life brother Robin Summa in an auto-fictional tale about a duo of siblings who take a road trip from Berlin to Paris. The characters are compelling enough thanks to the film’s exploration of the family dynamic, but where Arthur&Diana shines is its visuals, which lend the film some absolutely exquisite vibes.
Close Your Eyes
Victor Erice’s first film in 30 years, Close Your Eyes, is the type of nuanced and layered film that demands multiple watches to fully understand it. Perhaps a tad meandering, Erice’s dense film following a filmmaker who investigates the disappearance of his friend and actor on the set of an unfinished film decades earlier nonetheless thrives on its subtlety and poeticism. The film also features a tremendous lead performance by Manolo Solo.
The South Korean disaster epic Concrete Utopia is like any number of disaster movies you have seen before. Although the film boasts some great CGI and production design, the story lacks the requisite thrills to make the genre work, and the commentary is too familiar to the genre to leave much of an impact. One has to at least admire the film’s massive scale, but the storytelling unfortunately leaves something to be desired.
The Dead Don't Hurt
Viggo Mortensen made his directorial debut a few years back with the underwhelming LGBTQ+ drama Falling, but his sophomore effort, The Dead Don’t Hurt, is a massive upgrade. Following two immigrants who form an unexpected love for one another, the film’s script is its weakest part — suffering from an unclear and needlessly convoluted narrative structure that makes the film hard to follow. Still, the visuals of the film are magnificent, as are the performances from Mortensen and Vicky Krieps, allowing the film to hit its intended emotional beats with ease.
Tarsem Singh is a relatively acclaimed filmmaker among cult film audiences, but his latest film — and his first set in his native India — is much more conventional than his past work. Dear Jassi starts as a relatively harmless romance about a couple in courtship. However, after the first hour, the film turns into straight-up trauma porn, and it’s impossibly miserable to sit through. While many people will undoubtedly sing the praises of the film claiming that it’s “important,” there have been dozens of movies to explore this theme much more effectively.
Death of a Whistleblower
The South African film Death of a Whistleblower has all the makings of a great political thriller. It has a timely story about the political assassination of journalists in authoritarian countries, and the direction is entirely competent, but the formulaic nature of the script threatens to undermine any resonance it could have had. Everything feels so exaggerated and melodramatic that it is difficult to give any credence to the very real problem the film hopes to call attention to.
In a festival with lots of long, heady films, it was nice to see something as quaint and short as Fallen Leaves. This Polish romance by Aki Kaurismäki doesn’t have a lot going on beneath the surface, but sometimes all a film needs to work is a satisfying story and strong execution. The film’s highlights are its two leads, Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen, who both give incredibly charming performances with some of the best chemistry you will see all year.
Oscar-winner Brian Helgeland’s latest film, the maritime drama Finestkind, is hardly up to the caliber of the filmmaker’s greatest work (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River). However, it is a mostly entertaining and very old-school film, the likes of which we don’t see often anymore. Ben Foster again proves that he is one of the most underrated actors working in Hollywood today because he essentially carries Finestkind on his back. By the end, the characters will win you over, even if the story mostly hits predictable — and often over-the-top — beats.
Greek filmmaker Christos Nikou (Apples) began his career as an AD for Yorgos Lanthimos, so it’s hardly surprising that his own style shares so many commonalities. His English-language debut, Fingernails, indeed ends up feeling like a lite version of Lanthimos’s own English debut The Lobster. Yet, although the themes and approach on display here are hardly original, there’s something undeniably charming about this uncanny film. There are also some very strong performances on display from Jessie Buckley, Riz Ahmed, Luke Wilson, and Jeremy Allen White.
Kei Chika-ura’s Great Absence is a much more restrained film than one would expect considering its subject matter. Although there are a few showy moments that are obligatory for the subgenre, the film is mostly very subtle in telling this story of a son dealing with the deterioration of his estranged father with dementia. The script is perhaps a tad on the convoluted side in a structural sense, but the excellent performances by Mirai Moriyama and Tatsuya Fuji keep the film feeling firmly grounded.
Agniezka Holland’s Green Border is unquestionably one of, if not the single most upsetting films that played at this year’s festival. Exploring the refugee crisis in Poland from a variety of perspectives — the refugees themselves, the border guards, and the activists hopelessly trying to protect their rights — the film paints a very bleak and devastating portion of this humanitarian crisis. Although the film is a tad repetitive, its repetition is effective, as it allows the film to show the devastating cycle these refugees are forced to experience.
His Three Daughters
Filmmaker Azazel Jacobs is primarily known for his deadpan comedies, and while there are aspects of that in his latest work, His Three Daughters, the film also packs much more of an emotional pang than one would expect. Following three sisters who convene as their father nears his final days, the film is an acting showcase for its three leads — Elizabeth Olsen, Carrie Coon, and Natasha Lyonne. Lyonne in particular shines, showing a vulnerability that fans of her more comedic work might not have expected.
Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell
Thien An Pham’s Vietnamese drama Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell debuted at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year to great acclaim, and it’s understandable why. Although the film’s three-hour runtime can be a bit taxing, its quiet reflection on faith in its many forms is often subtly moving, restrainedly poetic, and beautiful. The film also features some of the most breathtaking imagery you’ll see in any film this year.
Nikhil Nagesh Bhat’s KILL might not have a great script, but who needs strong dialogue when you have action as excellent as this? The film’s simple premise — billed by many as “The Raid on a train” — is merely a catalyst to kick off an intense nearly two hours of close-quarters combat. Lakshya Lalwani is a great action hero, but even more impressive is Raghav Juyal, who is downright menacing as the villain. It’s an extremely brutal film, so not for the faint of heart, but those who enjoy international action cinema will find that this delivers exactly what it promises.
Alice Rohrwacher’s La Chimera is a visually splendid film, but it’s just hard to understand how a movie about a group of grave robbers ended up feeling as uninteresting as this did. Lead actor Josh O’Connor is fantastic — even despite acting outside of his native English for a majority of the runtime — and the cinematography and score are both completely enchanting. However, the film simply takes too long to get moving, and once it does, it’s a bit too late to fully grip the viewer.
Ladj Ly’s first feature Les Misérables was an incendiary exploration of police brutality against minority communities in France, and his follow-up Les Indésirables feels like a spiritual successor exploring the bureaucratic side of the same coin. Following the residents and legislators of an impoverished suburb of Paris, the film asks some interesting questions, but attempts to come at this issue from too many perspectives for its message to be fully impactful.
Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero
For the most part, Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero is a pretty standard tour documentary for the global megastar, tracing the path of his unlikely rise to fame. The most interesting portions of the film are those in which he discusses his sexuality — his open identity as a gay man being one of the things that sets him apart in the music community. The professionally-shot concert footage is also very strong and immersive, although directors Carlos López Estrada and Zac Manuel make the questionable choice of often cutting to fan-shot cell phone footage, which draws you out of any sense of being in the moment that the film almost creates.
The biggest weakness of Michel Franco’s Memory is its script, which has dialogue so direct that you can tell it was written by someone for whom English is not their first language. Once you get past the unnatural stoicism of the dialogue, you are left with a poignant, somber film about the things we want to remember and the things we hope to forget. It’s messy, but so too is our memory. Franco also manages to get career-best performances out of both Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard.
Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros
Master verité documentarian Frederick Wiseman is back at it again with another four-hour documentary, this time pointing his camera at the kitchen of a Michelin star restaurant. As expected, Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros is utterly captivating, especially if you are interested in the inner workings of a kitchen (and with the popularity of The Bear, who isn’t at this point). There is a 30-ish-minute tangent where Wiseman follows the subjects into the agricultural side of their business, looking into the farms from which the restaurant sources its cheese and vineyards for its wine, but apart from that, every minute of this documentary is fascinating.
The Monk and the Gun
Bhutanese filmmaker Pawo Choyning Dorji is two-for-two for getting his country’s submission for the Best International Film Oscar. However, his second feature The Monk and the Gun is a massive improvement over Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, telling a much more unconventional story in a way that feels far more thoughtful. The Altman-esque ensemble drama about a community on the brink of transformation is not only funny, but offers some very smart commentary on its themes of democracy and violence without bashing it over your head.
The Movie Emperor
Nao Hing’s film industry satire The Movie Emperor was one of the funniest movies at this year’s festival — you just had to know what you were getting yourself into. The film stars international superstar Andy Lau as a fictionalized version of himself (named “Dany Lau”) as he experiences the rise and fall of fame. It’s honestly surprising to see this film playing at TIFF because it is such a sharp condemnation of film festival culture (although the targets here are primarily European). Still, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments that are absolutely ridiculous, and others which thrive on the sharpness of its satire.
A Normal Family
Herman Koch’s The Dinner has been adapted several times before to the screen, and the Korean drama A Normal Family takes a much more expansive approach to the familiar story. Although the film feels a tad bloated and the pacing a tad off, the commentary on privilege is sharp and timely, and the ensemble all turn in strong performances, even when the material feels a bit too melodramatic for its own good.
Because of the SAG-AFTRA strikes, this year’s festival was marked by a slew of films made by actor-directors, as a technicality allowed their filmmakers to bring star power to the festival if they so chose. Unfortunately, many of these ended up being rather mediocre, and Kristin Scott Thomas’s North Star was no exception. Starring an ensemble of Scarlett Johansson, Sienna Miller, and Emily Beecham, alongside Thomas herself, this family drama of three sisters exploring past resentments at the wedding of their mother is frustratingly maudlin to the level of feeling like a Lifetime movie. Not even the A-list cast — many of whom turn in actively bad performances — can save this.
Documentary filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Free Solo) make their narrative debut with NYAD, a biopic of swimmer Diana Nyad, who made history as the first person to free swim from Cuba to the tip of Florida. Like in their documentaries, Chin and Vasarhelyi show an aptitude for capturing seemingly inhuman acts, as the actual swim scenes in NYAD are genuinely fantastic. On the other hand, the rest of the film is a straightforward — and somewhat dull — biopic. Still, Annette Bening and Jodie Foster give strong performances in their roles.
DK and Hugh Welchman’s second feature The Peasants follows the same hand-painted animation style of their first work, Loving Vincent. However, in freeing themselves of the artistic limitations of mimicking one artist’s style, they are able to take this approach to even greater heights. That being said, while the film is certainly artistically unconventional, it’s a tad narratively familiar — transposing a somewhat standard palace drama to a peasant community background. It’s very bleak, and almost even hard to watch at times, but the visual artistry on display allows the film to work nonetheless.
Wim Wenders’s Japanese-language feature Perfect Days may have started out as a commissioned project to highlight Tokyo public toilets, but it evolved into a poetic and meditative two-hour drama. Although the film does feel stretched thin at times — particularly in the first hour that is a bit more toilet-centric than the back half — it boasts some phenomenal cinematography and works best as a showcase for the legendary Kôji Yakusho, who gives a phenomenally subtle performance in the lead role.
Pictures of Ghosts
Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho (Bacurau) might have made what is the definitive film about the meaning of cinema in Pictures of Ghosts. After filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Kenneth Branagh have made their odes to the love of the movies in a narrative format, Filho makes his as a documentary, exploring his relationship with cinema on the different levels at which he has interacted with it: as a filmmaker, as a cinephile, and as a Brazilian. The result is a dream-like odyssey that, while held back a tad by occasionally dry narration, still feels enormously personal and captivating.
The Promised Land
Nikolaj Arcel’s The Promised Land was one of the most entertaining films at this year’s festival — a Western set in the Danish frontier of the Jutland. Mads Mikkelsen gives a commanding performance (although can one expect any less) as the military man who sets out to achieve regality by colonizing one of the King’s inhospitable but still desirable territories. Simon Bennebjerg co-stars as the film’s antagonist, giving a gleefully sinister turn as the local landowner who hopes to thwart the hero’s plans to usurp his power. Although there’s not a lot beneath the surface here, it’s just an all-around well-crafted and entertaining picture.
Colman Domingo is unquestionably the highlight of the biopic Rustin, but even so his performance feels more like an impersonation than a true embodiment of the figure he plays. The film tells the story of the eponymous gay civil rights activist, and while the undercurrents of the film dealing with his identity as a gay man are there, they play second fiddle to a bland biopic painting with strokes that are too broad.
Felipe Gálvez Haberle’s The Settlers is, for its first two thirds, pretty much just an entertaining well-crafted Western. The cinematography does a fantastic job of capturing the Chilean landscape, and the script is a sharp — if familiar — commentary on colonialism. However, the film takes a time jump in its final third and turns into something very different and more talky. While that conclusion is nowhere near as strong as what preceded it, there are still plenty of interesting ideas afoot here.
Shadow of Fire
The conclusion of director Shinya Tsukamoto’s war trilogy, Shadow of Fire, is very different from the type of war movie that viewers might be used to seeing. Told through the eyes of a child, the film follows the struggles of an orphan and the people around him as they attempt to cope with the aftermath of WWII. The first two thirds are unquestionably stronger than the final act, but this slow-burn, poetic rumination of the cost of war explores its familiar themes in a refreshing way.
Michael Winterbottom is one of the most versatile filmmakers working today, with the ability to deliver both hilarious comedies and gripping thrillers. His latest film, the Israel-set espionage thriller Shoshana, has a script that is undeniably messy. However, Winterbottom directs the hell out of it, finding a way to consistently keep the viewer on the edge of their seats. The trio of lead performances from Douglas Booth, Harry Melling, and Irina Starshenbaum is also quite strong.
Jason Yu’s horror-thriller Sleep has been endorsed by fellow Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho, so you know you’re in for something good. Of this year’s Midnight Madness lineup, Sleep might have been the most enjoyable. The film follows a woman whose husband develops a disturbing sleep disorder, causing him to experience increasingly unnerving bouts of sleepwalking. While the film starts off as a somewhat restrained and straightforward psychological horror, it goes off the rails with a final 20 minutes that is so wild, you will forget most of what happened before.
We Grown Now
Minhal Baig’s We Grown Now is the type of coming-of-age movie that clearly means well, but it seems to fundamentally misunderstand the culture it is trying to depict. Set in the low-income projects of the Cabrini-Green neighborhood in Chicago, the film explores ideas such as gentrification and growing up in poverty, but its script feels so unnatural — especially when it gives children lines that are well beyond their age — that it’s hard to take anything seriously. It feels like the work of a first-time filmmaker, not someone who already has multiple features under their belt.
When Evil Lurks
Argentine filmmaker Démian Rugna’s When Evil Lurks contains what might be one of the most terrifying horror scenes in recent memory, along with a couple more that are shockingly effective. Unfortunately, outside of these confined moments, the film has little more to offer. The idea of a possession spreading through a community like a virus is interesting, but doesn’t get explored in the film in a particularly thematically rich way. On top of this, the film has a disabled character whose portrayal is frankly offensive.
Wicked Little Letters
The initial conceit of Wicked Little Letters is amusing, but this novelty wears off quickly when its premise wears thin after the first act. Following a sleepy town rattled by the arrival of anonymous foul-mouthed letters, the film reveals its twist too early, resulting in a final act that feels like it’s spinning its wheels until the credits roll. Jessie Buckley is great here, and Olivia Colman eventually gets to shine after starting off somewhat dull, but this British dramedy has one too few tricks up its sleeve to work.
Wendy Bednarz’s drama Yellow Bus, from the United Arab Emirates, is the type of movie where you can tell that the filmmaker’s heart was in the right place, but the execution is so lackluster that it’s hard to take the film seriously. This story of a mother who seeks the truth behind the death of her daughter in the sweltering heat of a school bus is clearly meant to be a gripping social drama a la the work of Asghar Farhadi, but its performances, dialogue, and production values all leave it end up feeling more like a daytime soap than anything with actual prestige.
The 2023 Toronto International Film Festival ran from September 7-17 in Toronto, Canada.
By Sean Boelman
The Toronto International Film Festival is usually a showcase for some of the highest-profile premieres of the year, but considering the strikes that are ongoing in Hollywood, there’s a larger focus on international cinema, indies, and acquisition titles from A-listers making their directorial debuts.
While films like Dumb Money and Next Goal Wins are still playing at the festival — and are sure to draw crowds even with their casts not being in attendance — we at disappointment media wanted to call attention to some of the more under-the-radar films you can see at this year’s festival.
The Human Surge 3
Eduardo Williams’s The Human Surge 3 is not the type of film I would recommend to the average moviegoer because it is so unorthodox, but for festival-goers who are more adventurous, it is absolutely not one to miss. The experimental film follows groups of people throughout the world as they wander through life. It’s a poetic rumination on themes both important and relatable, done in one of the most formally ambitious ways anyone has ever made a film.
Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person
Of course, one can’t go to TIFF without seeing a Canadian film, and one of the finest in this year’s festival lineup is Ariane Louis-Seize’s Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person. The deadpan horror-comedy with a wacky title recently premiered at Venice, where it got a mostly warm reception, but it’s likely to be even more well-received on its home turf. There’s plenty of great and charming humor in the film, but what makes it stand out the most is its genuine heart and poignant commentaries on a number of relatable themes.
Spirit of Ecstasy
Héléna Klotz’s thriller Spirit of Ecstasy is the movie that fans of high-intensity shows like Succession or Industry should see at this year’s festival. The film follows a quantitative analyst who hopes to rise through the ranks of the financial world at whatever cost. Although the premise and Klotz’s direction create a sleekly entertaining flick, the bigger draw here is arguably that the film is the fact that it is the acting debut of French popstar Claire Pommet (aka Pomme who gives a star-making turn here.
Kei Chika-ura’s Great Absence is a film that feels vaguely familiar, partially because it explores its themes with beats that many other films have before. But this poetic drama about a father and son who reconcile after the former’s dementia begins to progress severely is told with such a tender hand by Kei that it’s quite affecting. Although there are a few big, showy moments, the film’s strongest parts are those which are more restrained, riding on the quality of the performances.
For those looking for a more star-studded film to see at this year’s festival, look no further than the fisherman drama/crime thriller Finestkind. In a year where the premieres will be dampened a bit by a strike-related lack of talent, it’s nice to see a film like Finestkind still in the line-up, with an A-list cast led by Ben Foster, Jenna Ortega, and Tommy Lee Jones — even if they won’t be there to premiere the film. Throw in the fact that it’s written and directed by Oscar-winner Brian Hegeland (L.A. Confidential), and you have what should have been one of the festival’s hottest tickets on your hands.
The 2023 Toronto International Film Festival runs September 7-17 in Toronto, Canada.
By Sean Boelman
Drylongso is the type of smaller, independent film that might go under-the-radar among the month’s higher-profile Criterion releases, but must absolutely not be ignored. Cauleen Smith’s film is an exceptional work of independent filmmaking, with wonderful visuals and a challenging exploration of its themes.
The movie follows a woman who takes up an unorthodox project in her photography class: photographing Black men in the belief that they will soon become extinct. As one would expect from the premise, it’s a film that feels quite politically charged, but not in a way that is overbearing or unpalatable — simply thought-provoking.
Perhaps the most exciting reason for Drylongso to be added to the Criterion Collection is the fact that it is yet another piece of independent Black American cinema from a unique and distinctive voice. Between Drylongso and The Watermelon Woman, it’s nice to see this underseen corner of cinematic history getting the representation it deserves. Smith and Salim Akil’s exploration of Black identity is fascinating and compelling, pulling no punches when it comes to the systemic issues the community faced at the time — some of which still reverberate through society today.
All of this is set against the backdrop of a murder mystery. However, this is not a murder mystery in the Agatha Christie whodunit sort of way, nor even a procedural way, but one that interrogates the system that continues to perpetuate violence against Black people and cause so many senseless and unjust deaths.
The thread that ties the movie together is its tender character work, as well as a beautiful leading performance from Toby Smith. The film has a great deal of nuance in its emotion — even during the romantic plot that hits a few familiar beats — and it allows the movie to feel extraordinarily personal and lived-in.
The film is shot with exquisite 16mm cinematography from Andrew Black, which is lovingly and gorgeously restored in 4K by the folks at Janus Films for this release (as well as a theatrical run that has toured the art house circuit for much of the year). Considering that much of Smith’s work is in multimedia installation art — Drylongso is her first and only feature — it makes sense that this is so exquisitely beautiful.
When it comes to bonus features, the main draw of the Drylongso Criterion Collection edition is a smattering of Smith’s short films: Chronicles of a Lying Spirit by Kelly Gabron, Songs for Earth & Folk, Lessons in Semaphore, Egungun (Ancestor Can’t Find Me), Remote Viewing, and Suffolk. The disc also boasts a new conversation between Smith and scholar Michael B. Gillespie, as well as an essay by scholar Yasmina Price.
Drylongso is the type of Criterion Collection addition whose purpose is to showcase and preserve an important and underseen part of cinema history. Cinephiles should certainly pick this one up and discover an extraordinary piece of independent cinema.
The Criterion Collection edition of Drylongso releases on August 29.
By Cole Groth
Cinequest is back for the first time since 2020! The San Jose film festival has been acclaimed as one of the best in the nation. At disappointment media, we were able to review a small selection of the 253+ films you can catch at this year’s festival!
Simply put, Abruptio is a nightmare. While that may seem like a compliment for a horror movie, this one is grating. The basic premise follows an alcoholic whose sanity slips away after a bomb is implanted in his head. Normally, ugly-looking low-budget movies like this can be excused because of their lack of resources, but this one is so needlessly cruel that it deserves absolutely no forgiveness. There's a drawn-out sequence where the main character brutally executes a family, all while they beg for their lives. Stuff like this is truly evil. If you can somehow get past the disturbing plot, it's still easily the least-appealing movie of the year. Every character is a disturbing-looking puppet, but beyond a grasp at coming across as shocking, this design serves no purpose. The cinematography is boring, the lighting flat, and the editing headache-inducing. There's a moment toward the end where a big twist is revealed, but it makes zero sense within the context of the movie and will make you wonder why you bothered to watch it in the first place. As an aspiring filmmaker myself, it's hard to tear down indie filmmaking, but there's something so deeply reprehensible about Abruptio. Fans of Jordan Peele’s work will be entertained by his cameo, but that's not enough to salvage this film.
Fallen Drive will leave you confused. A series of bizarre script choices turn an otherwise well-made mumblecore drama/thriller into a tonally off-putting mess. In this film, directed by Nick Cassidy and David Rice, we follow a group of former acquaintances renting out an Airbnb for their high school reunion. Beyond the typical small talk, people make at this sort of event, a couple seeks revenge on a former classmate for a dark event in their shared past. Revealing any further details would ruin the most interesting part of the movie, so I'll stop at describing the event as a multifaceted yet unequivocally evil one. There are plenty of technical elements that are adequate. The cinematography and sound design are fine. It's not noticeably ugly, but it's also not a great-looking movie. The script has a lot of good marks, and the performances are good for the most part, but there isn't a characteristic of the movie without a glaring flaw or two. Jacqueline Jandrell, Phillip Andre Botello, and Donald Clark Jr. are all worthy of praise.
Under Water is a little Dutch drama that's slow, unpleasant, and a bit confusing. Here, our lead is Foekje (Elisa Beuger), a woman struggling to make ends meet after finding out her husband is having an affair. In a desperate bid to get money, she develops a scheme to get her mother to sell her house since the government is looking to buy it. The problem is her mom is a doomsday prepper who won't back down easily. For a thankfully brief 72 minutes, we watch the bothersome daughter nag her horrible mother to sell the house. There's not much else to it. It's a surface-level script marred with a boring story and a terrible ending. People who enjoy talky dramas might find something interesting in this, but it wasn't my cup of tea.
Silence 6-9 is a baffling mystery/drama that doesn't have a clear point to it. In a mysteriously half-abandoned town, two people find a close attraction. It's a brief film that feels like an impossible box to open. It's very well-shot and, from what I could tell, had great acting. Beyond that, nothing makes sense. It feels quirky for the sake of being weird and ultimately feels tonally lost. Viewers might click with whatever message this had, and if that happens, this could be a great time. A mean ending and obnoxious characters don't inspire much hope, though.
East Bay is perhaps one of the most tonally confusing films of the year. Written and directed by Daniel Yoon, this film follows an aimless 39-year-old as he makes a movie to find his place in the world. It's an unoriginal idea that suffers many of the problems an indie dramedy like this normally suffers: annoying characters, weak writing, and bad acting. Constance Wu is a notable standout, with her performance being the only one that isn't notably terrible. Yoon's direction is a whiplash of comedic scenes undercut with overbearing music and dramatic scenes ruined with off-putting jokes. It's unfortunately a pretty annoying experience both visually and audibly. There's a deeper message that could resonate with many viewers, but like the other films in this selection, this one didn't connect with me.
Cinequest 2023 runs from August 15 to August 30.
By Dan Skip Allen
The Exorcist is considered one of, if not the scariest horror film of all time. It came out fifty years ago to huge acclaim from critics and fans alike. People were running scared out of the theater throughout the country, and I guess that is a good sign people liked this film. Another sign is that it made a lot of money during its time in theaters in 1973. From personal conversations I have had with people who saw it back then, the reports are very true.
Chris McNeill (Ellen Burstyn) is a mother of a teen girl, Regan (Linda Blair). She is like any other girl, except she starts to get sick and starts to hear things in her room coming from the attic at night. Her mother tries to get her medical help, but when nothing works, she reaches out to the local clergyman in D.C., Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller). He notices something strange in the girl and asks for the help of a specialist in the field of exorcisms, Father Lankester Merrin (Max Von Sydow)
I don't usually get scared from horror films, but this one is very scary. William Friedkin, the director, adapts William Peter Blatty's novel in a way that makes everybody who sees this film scream in terror. There are multiple ways this story freaks out its viewers. The first is it gives the character of Regan, taken over by a demon Pazuzu, vulgar language, the second is she speaks in tongues, and the third is she levitates and spins her head around. These are three perfect ways to freak out any audience.
Friedkin, who was coming off a Best Picture and Director win at the Academy Awards for The French Connection hit another home run with The Exorcist. It is like Jaws and Star Wars, which after it captured the public consciousness. He created a film that everybody was talking about in some way. They went to see it over and over again, and brought their friends and families as well. People were scared out of their minds in a good way.
The ‘70s was a dark era of film. There were a lot of gritty and raw films. The grain used in the film played a big part in that. This decade spawned many great filmmakers, like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola. William Friedkin was one of those filmmakers who had a great career from this point on. His first film was a Sonny and Cher vehicle called Good Times in 1967, and his last film, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, will debut at the Venice Film Festival next month. He had a long and storied career for over five and a half decades.
Ellen Burstyn as the mother in this film is beside herself. She can't believe what has happened to her daughter. She has real emotions about why this happened and how such a thing could happen to her beautiful daughter. Every person she asks for help is useless, until the inevitable must be the answer. The answer is as scary as what has happened to her daughter — that she's been possessed. She uses everything in her acting repertoire to show how she is helpless to stop the situation. She gives a great performance.
Linda Blair is another one in the film who brings everything she has at her disposal. Friedkin gets her to do some of the most reprehensible things as this character while being taken over by Pazuzu. She curses and asks for sex while being possessed. It's not very becoming of a girl her age. And her transformation from the beginning of the film to the end is quite frankly incredible. This is a breakout performance from Blair. The one most people remember her for in her career. She is literally and figuratively beside herself as this character.
Part of what makes this film so good is its score by Mike Oldfield and Jack Nitzsche. It plays a handful of chords at the most inopportune times, but the rest of the score was very menacing and frightening all at the same time. It's a very good score, which is one that is remembered and discussed in the same way as the Halloween score. They are both very memorable in my eyes. Great horror scores don't come around every day either.
Max Von Sydow has had a long and storied career. Arguably, his role as Father Lankester Merrin in The Exorcist is one of his best. The scene where he comes to the McNeill home at night is a very memorable one. The producers turned it into a poster for the film. It's one of the most popular film posters ever. It's so good in so many ways. He is great in this role, even though he isn't in much of the film, making the most of the little screen time he is given.
The Exorcist is one of the greatest horror films of all time. It is the forerunner of this great genre. Burstyn, Blair, and Sydow all give great performances. Friedkin takes Blatty's novel and brings it to vivid life in such a dark and twisted way. The effects and makeup are both very good, transforming Blair into a twisted version of herself. The legacy of this film still remains at fifty years old. People are still freaked out when they see it, and that's because everybody involved did their best to make this happen. This film stands on its own as one of the greatest horror films ever, bar none.
By Sean Boelman
Every year, the Fantasia International Film Festival is a showcase of some of the most exciting genre cinema of the year. From horror to action to thriller and other films that are just downright weird, Fantasia is where genre cinephiles go to make their next big discovery.
We at disappointment media again had the pleasure of covering Fantasia remotely. Here are some quick thoughts on some of the films we saw as part of the lineup.
Korean filmmaker Park Hoon-jung has become something of a mainstay in the Fantasia lineup, best known for his duology of action horror films, The Witch: Part 1 - The Subversion and The Witch: Part 2 - The Other One. His latest work, The Childe, doesn’t have as much of a horror influence, opting instead for more of a gritty crime thriller approach — albeit with Park’s penchant for shocking brutality. Although the action sequences are a ton of fun, the story that surrounds them is overly convoluted and, worse yet, not all that interesting. There are some moments that are inspired and shine very brightly, but it just doesn’t all come together.
Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping’s Femme is the type of movie that is extremely difficult to watch, but in a way that feels necessary and thought-provoking. Following a drag artist who finds a way to get revenge against his assailant after a brutal homophobic attack, this is definitely not your standard revenge thriller. The film creeps under your skin, thanks in part to strong direction by Freeman and Ping, but also from a wonderfully vulnerable performance by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and a truly chilling turn by George MacKay. Although it might be too much for some to stomach, it’s quite effective.
Reiki Tsuno’s Mad Cats is the type of movie where its success will depend heavily on the viewer’s willingness to get onto its absurd wavelength. The film follows an unlikely hero as he goes on a bizarre quest to rescue his missing brother, bringing him up against a group of ferocious warriors who may or may not be cats. It’s a wild concept that has the potential for plenty of wacky, fun moments, but its aggressive quirkiness gets overwhelming at times. The martial arts action sequences are also quite enjoyable. However, despite a bunch of individual elements that work well, the film never congeals as well as it needed to.
Soi Cheang’s Mad Fate is a literal manifestation of the description “your mileage may vary.” The film is a vile cacophony of superstition and violence. It’s extremely unpleasant, but that’s exactly what some audiences will be looking for with a film like this. This story of a fortune teller and the man he foretells to be destined to murder simply doesn’t make a ton of sense. However, regardless of if one connects with the film’s weirdness and brutality, there’s no denying that the film boasts an impressive visual style, as well as more than a few moments that will be etched into your memory — for better or worse.
Stay Online is meritorious in the fact that it’s impressive that it was even able to be made, and its heart is in the right place. As the first Ukrainian fiction film shot during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the film shows the importance of the Ukrainian resistance movement. Unfortunately, the film’s story of a volunteer trying to reunite a young boy with his missing father feels like too much of a tear-jerker to really work. Add in some less-than-impressive performances, and the fact that the director often breaks the film’s Screenlife conceit, and you have a film that is thoroughly frustrating despite its noble intentions.
The 2023 Fantasia Film Festival runs from July 20 to August 9.
By Sean Boelman
Outfest is one of the most important LGBTQIA+ arts organizations, and their annual film festival in Los Angeles is one of the most important LGBTQIA+ film events of the year. This year’s hybrid festival brought audiences across the United States some of the most exciting queer films of the year.
Here are our thoughts on some of the films that we watched as part of the festival.
Anhell69 is one of the many hybrid/experimental documentaries that played at this year’s Outfest, and also probably one of the most successful. In the film, Theo Montoya explores what it meant to grow up as a queer youth in the conservative and violent city of Medellín. It’s a complicated, multi-layered, and nuanced film that is almost like a puzzle to unravel. Although not everything about the film works, those parts that do are pretty brilliant.
Corey Sherman’s coming-of-age comedy Big Boys is one of the most incredibly awkward and uncomfortable films of the year, but the story is told with so much sincerity that it’s hard not to be charmed by it. The film follows a teenage boy who experiences a self-discovery after forming an unexpected crush on a camping trip. Young actor Isaac Krasner gives a very nuanced, often hilarious performance in the leading role that will be extremely relatable to anyone who went through a period of sexual questioning in their adolescence. Although the film is straightforward, its honesty allows it to stand out.
Captain Faggotron Saves the Universe
Harvey Rabbit’s Captain Faggotron Saves the Universe is the type of niche genre film that will appeal to its target audience and absolutely piss off everyone else. The film follows a closeted priest and a gay superhero who try to thwart an alien trying to turn the Earth into a homosexual planet. The film’s purposefully low production values and stilted performances give the film a feeling akin to a porn parody, but there are tons of really funny and satirical moments throughout. It’s not for the squeamish or easily offended, yet there is certainly an audience who will appreciate its relentless absurdity.
The Fabulous Ones
Roberta Torre’s documentary The Fabulous Ones is at once a joyous celebration of the LGBTQIA+ community and a heart-wrenching examination of an issue that affects them. The film follows a group of transgender women who set out on a journey to fulfill the last wish of their late friend, who was buried in male clothing against her will. It’s both poignant and insightful in its exploration of how the trans community unfortunately remains oppressed, but there’s something undeniably charming about seeing this group of women who are there to support each other, no matter what.
Georden West’s experimental documentary Playland is the type of film you respect more than you enjoy. Having played at both IFFR and Tribeca to a positive reception, Playland hoped to cement itself a place in the ranks of LGBTQIA+ cinema canon by making a stop at what might be the world’s most important queer film event in the country. Telling the story of Boston’s oldest gay bar, the film incorporates archive materials and recordings along with some creative reenactments. It’s a pretty astounding experience visually, but it leaves something to be desired narratively.
Outfest ran in-person in Los Angeles from July 13-23, and online from July 17-30.
By Sean Boelman
Every summer in Montreal, Canada, cinephiles descend on the city for the Fantasia Film Festival — one of the most prestigious genre film festivals in the world. Every year, the festival has a lineup combining exciting world premieres with some of the greatest horror and genre film festivals that have been touring the festival circuit.
We at disappointment media are excited to again be covering Fantasia remotely, and of course, we had to give you some recommendations of films we think you should see:
Laura Moss’s Birth/Rebirth has been touring the festival circuit since its Sundance debut, and we haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. The feminist Frankenstein riff is making a quick stop at Fantasia before its release in the United States next month, and while it might not be particularly “scary,” it’s certainly unsettling and thought-provoking. The main thing working in the film’s favor is two extraordinary leading performances from Marin Ireland and Judy Reyes, who sell every bit of the film’s emotion.
It Lives Inside
For those looking for a straight horror movie at Fantasia that will leave them feeling scared, there’s not a better choice at Fantasia than Bishal Dutta’s It Lives Inside. At the film’s SXSW debut, it picked up the Audience Award in the Midnighters section, and it’s understandable why — this story of an Indian-American teenager dealing with a demonic entity that she unknowingly releases is absolutely terrifying at points, containing what might be the single best film of the year. It’s a movie that *will* be talked about when it is released this fall, and you don’t want to miss the chance to see it now.
Mami Wata is one of the less genre-oriented films in this year’s Fantasia lineup, although it does have a bit of a genre-esque spin with its folkloric fantasy elements. Set in a West African community, the film follows two sisters who fight to protect their community from outsiders by turning to the water deity they once worshiped. Festival-goers would be hard-pressed to find a film more visually transfixing than this at this year’s festival, as the directing by C.J. “Fiery” Obasi and cinematography by Lílis Soares are simply stellar.
Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls
Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls is one of the best midnight movies to debut on the festival circuit this year. Written, directed by, and starring Andrew Bowser in an expansion of his eponymous viral character, this is a pitch-perfect send-up of ‘80s horror (among other things) whose charm is hard to deny. Given that the Fantasia crowd is full of genre cinephiles, it’s certain that they’ll eat up all the easter eggs — but it’s also just an all around great horror-comedy.
Vincent Must Die
For those of you who enjoyed seeing The Sadness when it played at the festival back in 2021, Vincent Must Die is a must-see at this year’s festival. Stephán Castang’s horror-comedy following a man who finds himself suddenly being attacked by everyone around him for no apparent reason debuted at the Cannes Semaine du Critique a couple months ago where it understandably divided audiences. The Fantasia crowd will likely give it a much warmer reception, as it’s a wicked little treat — with some genuine scares, gnarly action, lots of humor, and a surprising amount of emotional warmth.
The 2023 Fantasia Film Festival runs from July 20 to August 9.
The Snake Hole
Retrospectives, opinion pieces, awards commentary, personal essays, and any other type of article that isn't a traditional review or interview.