Random Movies: Best to Worst

Vox Lux

Vox Lux is a super sinister, depressing, nightmare-inducing movie about the link between hedonism and explosive violence in the 21st century. The story is about a narcissistic pop star played by Raffey Cassidy (who was also awesome in The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and Natalie Portman, but that’s just the framework for a really smart, creepy essay on how we’re destroying ourselves as a culture. You legitimately have to wait until the last five minutes to understand what the film’s trying to say but, when you do, it washes over you all at once, and you feel horrible but also kind of impressed.

Fair warning – Vox Lux opens with a really, really graphic depiction of a school shooting that isn’t fun to watch, and that you might not be expecting if you go into this cold. I said more about the movie at PopMatters.

Blindspotting

Blindspotting is about the intersection of race and class in America, and was co-written by its two stars, Daveed Diggs (from Hamilton) and Rafael Casal. Some of it’s a little bit too on the nose – like, there’s a character who just happens to be studying for her psych exams so that she can read from a textbook to explain how stereotypes work – but there are other scenes, like a surreal nightmare sequence in a courtroom, that took my breath away because they were so powerful and unexpected.

The trailer makes it look like the movie’s about police brutality and, while that’s an important part of it – seeing the police murder a black man causes the protagonist to re-examine his relationship with his white best friend – most of the film is about more intimate, personal questions having to do with identity and intersectionality. Ultimately, it’s about people who care about each other trying to figure out how to do that in a poisoned culture, which is really interesting.

Endzeit

Endzeit is kind of like a German companion piece to Annihilation. It takes place during a zombie apocalypse, where two women are forced to go on the run for different reasons, and end up wrestling with the question of whether humanity’s being destroyed or changing into something different. Like a lot of art lately, it captures the idea that the world we’re familiar with is about to end and we’d better get ready to face the unknown.

There are some technical problems with the editing – particularly toward the end, the timeline jumps over a couple of pretty important plot developments – but the ideas were really interesting, and it was very cool to see a zombie apocalypse movie that grappled with big, philosophical questions and had two women in the lead roles. More at PopMatters.

A Simple Favor

A Simple Favor is a weirdly-pitched Paul Feig movie starring Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. It’s sort of a comedy and sort of a thriller, but not a satire of a thriller. It’s sort of dark but not all that serious about it. It’s also sort of queer-baitey, but not in a super mean way.

The story is about Anna Kendrick’s character becoming obsessed with Blake Lively’s character, right before Blake Lively’s character mysteriously goes missing Gone Girl style. There’s a creepy element to how much Anna Kendrick’s character wants to become Blake Lively, and how much she benefits from Blake Lively’s disappearance, but the movie doesn’t really dive into that, because it’s too busy working out the nuts and bolts of the twist ending.

There’s also a strange editing choice toward the end that left me confused about the timeline and how Tertiary Character X was able to do what he said he’d done when, last time we saw him, he was dealing with a SWAT team, but whatever. It was mostly entertaining.

Greta

Greta is a Neil Jordan movie about a sweet, caring twenty-something woman played by Chloë Grace Moretz who forms an awkward friendship with a lonely middle-aged woman played by Isabelle Huppert. I don’t know how the trailers are going to frame this, but the awkward friendship turns into a terrifying stalking, kidnapping, and torture scenario pretty quickly, and the press images clearly show Chloë Grace Moretz chained to a bed in a dungeon somewhere, so.

The best part of this movie is Isabelle Huppert totally throw herself into being a terrifying serial killer. A lot of people at the screening I went to were laughing like they thought it was funny to be afraid of a middle-aged woman, but she’s fucking scary.

The worst part of the movie is that, in order to work, it needs to find a reason why nobody can talk to the police, and it never really succeeds. I don’t want to be the person who nitpicks it for that, but because this is such a plot-driven movie, it becomes a big deal if the plot doesn’t make sense. There are multiple points where calling the police would have almost definitely solved the problem, and it’s weird. More at PopMatters.

Teen Spirit

Teen Spirit is directed by Max Minghella (of The Handmaid’s Tale) and stars Elle Fanning as a working class teen who wants to win a televised singing competition. The biggest thing it has going for it is that Elle Fanning is actually quite a good singer, and Max Minghella is quite good at directing music videos. There are two key sequences land exactly how they’re supposed to and really lift the rest of it up.

The story itself is a little bit whack. The main focus is on the teen’s relationship with a drunk old man who wants to be her manager, and the film is really naïve about that. Like, basically, it believes its heart is in this beautiful unlikely friendship between Teen and the dude who followed her into the parking lot after she sang at a bar. The movie clearly knows that’s creepy, but instead of choosing a different premise, Max Minghella just keeps trying to explain why in this particular instance it’s not actually creepy due to reasons.

Also no one seems to know that people who finish second place on a reality show can still get a record contract. But the singing’s really good! More at PopMatters.

Papi Chulo

Papi Chulo is a comedy/drama about a gay white weatherman who hires a Latino immigrant to be his friend because he’s lonely without his partner. It’s trying to be uplifting, and it’s succeeding in being a good LGBT movie, and those things make me want to like it, but the immigrant story is awkward.

Basically, it’s one of those things where, once a white person decides to do a good deed by befriending a person of colour, the person of colour can’t escape. Like, literally, he hunts this guy across the city at one point, and the movie wants to frame it as the power of human connection rather than entitlement or something but… don’t hunt someone who wants to stop hanging out with you. It’s not okay.

It’s like if Greta were about how we were supposed to feel bad for her because she’s so alone, to the point that we didn’t mind her stalking/kidnapping behaviour. I do feel sympathy for the weatherman because he’s sad, I just also feel like this is a horror movie for the guy he hires. More at PopMatters.

Angelo

Angelo is an Austrian movie that draws inspiration from the true story of Angelo Soliman, an 18th century Viennese courtier who was kidnapped from Africa as a child and raised as a curiosity in Europe. When he died, they literally stuffed him like a taxidermy animal and put him in a museum because people are really horrible.

The best things about this movie are a) that it’s telling an important story from history, and b) that Makita Samba, who plays Angelo as a young adult, really shines in his performance. There are mesmerising sequences where we see this double performance where Angelo, who’s become something like a court entertainer, recites rehearsed stories about his fantastical life in Africa, and it’s clear that he has a sense of pride and showmanship as a performer, but also he has to hold himself at a distance from what he’s saying because it’s so racist and othering. He’s offered a way to fit into this world and have a kind of status, but only if he cheerfully accepts being lesser than everyone else. It’s really uncomfortable to watch.

The worst thing about the movie is what looks like a pretty big anachronism in one of the sets – it’s a concrete warehouse that clearly has fluorescent lights and indoor plumbing and I have no idea if that’s a mistake or some kind of post-modern attempt to tie the events to the present day.

The part I’m not sure about – and the part that makes the movie feel like a bit of a slog, at times – is that we don’t really get to know Angelo much better than the nobles holding him prisoner do. He keeps his private self hidden from them, which is understandable, but it’s also hidden from the audience most of the time. And, while I can make a case for how that could be a good narrative choice, I sometimes felt like he was still being treated as a spectacle, and we were just waiting to see what awful thing would happen to him next instead of connecting with him on a deeper human level.

Gwen

Gwen is about a farm girl in 19th century Wales who fights with her mom a lot and comes to believe that something evil is trying to destroy her family. She’s right, but, despite a couple gross-out, semi-demonic jump scares, the evil thing turns out to be pretty mundane.

It’s not a bad movie, but I went into it thinking “Supernatural thriller!” and what I got was “People are horrible” with a side of “That’s disgusting.”

Hold the Dark

Hold the Dark is a Netflix movie about a guy who needs to kill everyone he meets and the wolf hunter who happens to be there also. I don’t even know what I watched, honestly. Here are some things that happened:

  • The white woman in the film took off all her clothes and put on a creepy mask and tried to get the wolf hunter to choke her the first night he was in town and the wolf hunter did not immediately bail on the situation.
  • The Indigenous woman in the film told the wolf hunter a cryptic clue about how to find the killer he was looking for, referred to herself as a witch, and sat in the dark giving the white characters mysterious advice about the spirit of the wolf.
  • The white man who needs to kill everyone killed an American soldier who was raping an Iraqi woman, the coroner, two police officers, the witch, some guy in the woods, some guy he used to be friends with, and probably some other people I don’t remember.
  • The Indigenous man in the film had a couple of lines about why he didn’t trust the police, which the film seemed to agree with, and then there was a super long sequence from the police POV where he killed a bunch of police officers with a machine gun while they screamed and writhed on the ground, and then the white guy who’s a police officer was forced to kill him, too.
  • Oh, hey, so the white man who needs to kill everyone, I think, killed the white police officer eventually as well.
  • The white man who needs to kill everyone also put on a creepy mask for some reason.
  • Everybody left the wolf hunter alone, even though he was right in the middle of every single tragedy that happened.
  • Somehow, I think, the white man who needs to kill everyone and the white woman had the spirit of the wolf or something. And possibly they ate their son.

In all seriousness, I was at the Q&A, and the actors were being asked about their characters’ motivations and all of them said some polite variation of, “This was not a super complicated role.”

Image: Vox Lux; Neon | October 15, 2018