HAPPENING (2021)

(Theaters only/VOD soon) Audrey Diwan’s HAPPENING (original French title: L’ÉVÉNEMENT), adapted fromAnnie Ernaux’s autobiography of the same name, may initially look like a slice-of-life character drama: It’s France in the early 60s and Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is a devoted student of literature, ready to buckle down and pass her final exams. Her parents are supportive, albeit overly industrious small bar owners and, after sunset, she enjoys a bit of the nightlife with her clique, while occasionally being glared at by her enemies.

In another film, that could be the opening of a quaint, comfortable ‘that one crazy summer’ movie. Not HAPPENING. Underneath its sun-washed gauzy palette of aqua blues and verdant greens is a tense, unwavering tale of a young woman under pressure as she realizes that she is pregnant in a country where abortion is outlawed and vehemently taboo. Anne is gravely aware of her ticking clock and she is determined to roll it back.

Anna gets to work and, as she goes from one failed plan to another, we see how her possibilities and her world shrinks. The already-tightly composed framing — shot in an 1.37 aspect ratio, closer to the boxed-in look of a standard definition TV show than a widescreen film — finds the camera inching closer in on Anna; rooms she inhabits feel smaller, more constrictive, she takes up more of the frame, her wide, defiant eyes inhabiting more and more of the screen. Her friends distance themselves, and those she talks to cower in fear of being jailed for simply hearing her broach the idea.

Anna’s solutions become more desperate, the world increasing hostile to her escape attempt, and the camera refuses to flinch or turn away, brusquely displaying her efforts through longer and longer takes. Her strength and vitality wane, exhaustion sets in due to the strain of the clock, the machinations of her body draining her, and she finds herself more and more emotional drained by her time spent lurking in the shadows.

Yet, during all of this, Anna unwaveringly brandishes her physical desires with confidence. That detail helps to set HAPPENNING’s scope to that of a steadfastly look at an unjust twist in a singular person’s life as opposed to one part of a grander coming-of-age tale or a film consisting of well-meaning scare tactics.

HAPPENING is an affecting work that resonates past the France of the 1960s, a headstrong tale of individual survival. Diwan, who is open about having had an abortion, had the following to say about why she adapted L’ÉVÉNEMENT:

“Lots of people told me in the industry, ‘Why do you want to make the movie now, because we’re in France and we already have [a law legalizing abortion]?’ And I was like, ‘OK, I really hope that you’re going to ask the same question to the next filmmaker that comes to you and says they’re going to make a movie about World War II. Because I guess the war is over.’ It was not easy to have them understand. I mean, look at how many women died on that battlefield and tell me it’s not a war. It’s a silent war.”

WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR (2021)

(Cinemas, VOD) WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR was often described as creepypasta during its film fest tour last year, which — fair, given that it’s about (mostly) teens performing ritualistic summoning acts based on internet content, and then recording themselves online to document the results of said acts — but I find it more to be a character drama lined with horror elements, as opposed to a modern technological horror tale.

(As usual, I’ll keep spoilers light, but if the above sounds appealing to you, perhaps just watch the film and read this after!)

To summarize: ‘Casey’ (an astounding debut from Anna Cobb) is a high-school teen who lacks a mother, hides in a bedroom attic from an asshole father whom is rarely home, and has no friends. She loves horror and darkness and is -extremely online-. She decides to take ‘The World’s Fair Challenge’, which consists of repeating ‘I want to go to The World’s Fair’ three times over — Bloody Mary/Candyman style — then pricking your thumb and bleeding onto a screen, and lastly, watching the ‘The World’s Fair Challenge’ video via said screen, all of which she records via her very underwatched online channel.

What happens next is questionable for all involved, but it always involves some sort of physical transformation. While this could be construed as a teen puberty allegory, it has more depth.

(It’s at this point that I should note that the director, Jane Schoenbrun, is trans, but hadn’t started transitioning when she started writing the script. I highly recommend reading her spoiler-free interview with IndieWire’s Jude Dry)

‘Casey’, based on her videos, hears from an older male-presenting person known solely as JLB (the memorable character actor Michael J Rogers), who constantly frets about her. Matters escalate, but in ways you wouldn’t suspect.

At the center of WE’RE ALL GOING TO THE WORLD’S FAIR is a meditation on finding one’s identity and transformation, not in thrills or scares. (Although it does have a few of those.) While some would write this off as a COVID-centric film — apart from a sole snippet in one scene, no two major players act alongside each other — it’s also about how people reach out through technology when there’s no other way. It’s a heartfelt, singular work, and I can’t wait to see more from Jane.

Lastly, I’ll note: this may seem antithetical for an -extraordinarily online- work, but try to make the effort to see it in the theater if possible. The use of negative space, of silence, of punctuational sound — especially rain — and most certainly of hard-cuts to loading animations is so goddamn effective when blown up and taken out of a smaller screen context. It becomes almost overwhelming and daunting in a way that one rarely thinks about, but one that is certainly intended.

“I swear, some day soon, I’m just going to disappear, and you won’t have any idea what happened to me.”

SCREAM (2022)

(VOD/Paramount+) The SCREAM franchise has always been culturally and technologically relevant so I can’t say I’m surprised that the fifth SCREAM film — which self-describes itself as a reinvention, despite slavishly adhering to the original’s trappings — was a financial success.

However, even if this is a franchise that is fundamentally about being paint-by-numbers, SCREAM (2022) rings a bit perfunctory at times. It certainly doesn’t feel as inventive as directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s previous very violent take on Agatha Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE: READY OR NOT. It replays the first SCREAM’s opening scene and mimics many of the initial film’s beats and the rules the franchise has previously underscored (as opposed to invented — it’s practically an adaptation of everything laid out in Carol J. Clover’s brilliant series of essays on slashers: MEN, WOMEN, AND CHAINSAWS), although that’s not quite a crime given the understood confines of the slasher genre.

I always felt the initial SCREAM film was far more interesting because it lead with Sidney Prescott already being traumatized by the rape and murder of her mother, as opposed to being some naive teen. She was a survivor from the very opening, living and coping with her trauma, which is surprisingly rare with initial slasher entries.

There’s a similar, but completely different weight hanging over SCREAM (2022) lead character Sam Carpenter (the versatile Melissa Barrera) that I won’t spoil, but it is an interesting — albeit far-fetched — character note.

Along with Melissa Barrera, it has a brilliant supporting cast: a goofy Jack Quaid (TRAGEDY GIRLS) as Sam’s boyfriend, Jenna Ortega (YOU and JANE THE VIRGIN) as Sam’s sister, Jasmin Savoy Brown (THE LEFTOVERS) as the queer film nerd, the ever-defiant Mikey Madison (BETTER THINGS), and the very game returning cast.

Is this as good as the first SCREAM? No, of course not, but that was something singular and I’m sure SCREAM (2022) lands differently for youths than it does for someone like me who was alive when it first hit screens. Is SCREAM (2022) a wild and unpredictable ride? Yes and no, respectively. Is it worth your time? Certainly, it’s very well-honed and executed, as colorful and full of camera motion and crane shots as the original, and a despite a bit of flab, mostly tightly plotted.

“How can fandom be toxic? It’s about love!”

YOU WON’T BE ALONE (2022)

If forced to describe YOU WON’T BE ALONE, the first film from Goran Stolevski, in a simple log line, I’d say: it’s equal parts Truffaut’s THE WILD CHILD, Virginia Woolf’s novel ORLANDO and Sally Potter’s film adaptation, and Angela Carter’s THE BLOODY CHAMBER and Neil Jordan’s adaptation, THE COMPANY OF WOLVES. (Then again, every single one of those works were very formative for me, so I’m perhaps not the most reliable narrator for this write-up.)

While that may sound very specific, it doesn’t quite do YOU WON’T BE ALONE justice. Set in 19th century Macedenoia, it’s about a young girl promised to a wolf-eateress named Maria (a ruthlessly great Anamaria Marinca) — for all intents and purposes, a witch — by her mother to account for being set fire to at the hands of their community. Her mother then forces her daughter into an enclosed cave for the rest of her youth, in an attempt to prevent the witch from absconding with her and turning her into a wolf-eateress/witch.

Once the feral girl is grown, Maria kills the mother, takes on her disguise, and abducts Biliana (Alice Englert, who also appeared in THE POWER OF THE DOG), predictably changing her into a witch with the hopes that she’d be the daughter she never had.

What follows are a number of physical transformations, of Biliana exploring her humanity but in a rather flailing way, and often being disappointed by the results, all portrayed by depictions of fundamental elementals; hair, water, fire, earth, blood and skin.

It’s a bewildering work, one far more sensitive than I thought it’d be, with a wildly roaming camera that knows how to sit still when necessary. It’s visually astounding while also being quietly desperate; a stunningly heartfelt first film.

HATCHING (2022)

One of my favorite activities to attend when the world first re-opened in the summer of 2021 was Joe Swanberg’s Secret Screenings at Chicago’s Davis Theater. If you aren’t familiar with Swanberg, he’s perhaps best known for being a mumblecore pioneer — the low-rent indie film genre that emphasized language and small-scale human drama — but he’s also a prolific actor and producer and he loves Chicago, specifically his neighborhood of Lincoln Square, where the Davis is housed.

His secret screenings are exactly what they sound like: you buy a ticket solely knowing you’ll get to watch a film wouldn’t be possible to see otherwise. (I’ve previously written about a few of his prior screenings, including DETENTION). If you can attend, he has one more secret screening at the Davis on April 9th, and the writer/director will be present for a post-film Q&A. (Swanberg knows how to moderate these things, so it’ll be a quality Q&A!)

His first secret screening of 2022 was of Sundance darling HATCHING, a Finnish coming-of-age horror film from director Hanna Bergholm and writer Ilja Rautsi about Tinja (Siiri Solalinna), a gymnast teen with a monstrous social media-obsessed mother (a wicked Sophia Heikkilä), one who would rather break the neck of a raven that literally shatters the trappings of the family home as opposed to letting it free. Tinja later finds the crippled creature, puts it out of its misery, then sees a sole egg from the raven’s nest and decides to tend to it. Matters escalate in a brilliant way that explores puberty and terrible mothers.

Trust me, the less you know about the rest is best, but it’s a thrilling, wild, disgusting, intense ride. It’s a film that would make a great late-night double-feature with GINGER SNAPS.

I’d like to digress a bit from the film though, solely to discuss horror and bodies, as HATCHING — more than any other film I’ve seen in some time — scrutinizes physicality. Horror, perhaps more than any other genre than action, relies on people’s bodies being thrown around, either self-imposed or done by others. As someone who was infatuated with tumbling, bar work, and gymnastics in general as a youth, you’re repeatedly told to trust yourself, to get over your fears, to think of your appendages as tools; you specifically toss yourself around like an object for the amusement — or bemusement — of others. I look back and am shocked at the acts I put my body through, for no goddamn good reason apart from the fact that it felt good and it was expected.

I was not a gifted gymnast and, similarly, HATCHING’s Tinja is not a gifted gymnast, but unlike her, I was never pressured by a desperate mother to pursue it. It was just an extracurricular I latched onto.

I can’t imagine putting myself through those routines now as I’m too old and creaky, but I do miss it. That feeling is much what horror films capture and encapsulate: the thrill of youthfully putting yourself in perilous situations, of exploiting the belief of immortality of the young which is, at least in most horror films, often then cut short; victims of hubris, of launching themselves too high towards the sky and failing to stick the landing.

(As usual, including a trailer, but probably best to stay away if you have any interest in the film.)

X (2022)

On paper, X (2022) sounds like sexploitation by way of the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: it’s 1979 and a group of Houston-based porn filmmakers head out to the boonies to shoot what they think will be -the- artistic home-video porno breakthrough, only for it to become their ultimate nightmare.

However, writer/director Ti West has always been supremely measured and thoughtful when it comes to his take on horror. The standout scene in his breakthrough film THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL consists of two minutes of protagonist Samantha (an ebullient Jocelin Donahue) dancing to THE FIXX’s ‘One Thing Leads to Another’ as it plays on her WalkMan, as opposed to the spectacularly nightmarish set-pieces that close the movie. West knows how to imbue emotion and heartfelt sincerity into his films in ways that few genre filmmakers do, and X is a clear case of this, even down to a similarly adorable music break.

Without spoiling anything, yes, X is lurid, is sensationalist, and definitely luxuriates in the sort of capitalist free love that existed at that time (at least, on film) but the soul of the film is about desire, to want and be wanted and feel hands on you; of coupling reciprocity. West is making the slasher subtext of physical, usually knife-centric, intimacy into text.

It also helps that West is ruminating in all of his cinematic influences: from John Ford to Jean-Luc Godard to Hitchcock, every scene — practically every shot — takes an established, recognizable visual motif and then skews — or skewers — it.

X is a wild but surprisingly sentimental ride, one that could revel in nastiness but opts instead to be an array of character pieces that also happens to be a rather thrilling, blood-soaked 90 minutes.

Lastly, I’d like to note: one facet of X’s production studio A24 that I love is that they encourage their auteurs to send out a newsletter reflecting on their film, and West’s one regarding X is worth a read.

Favorites of 2021: Video Games

Despite having acquired a PlayStation 5 in 2021, I played far fewer games than normal this year, opting instead to mindlessly whittle away at long-haul interactive experiences as opposed to short-form works. Nonetheless, here are my favorite gameplay experiences of 2021!

ASSASSIN’S CREED VALHALLA

Thanks to the pandemic, the Assassin’s Creed series has been my interactive comfort food. I’ve sunk way too many hours into AC: ORIGINS, AC: ODYSSEY, and now AC: VALHALLA — as these series have been relatively non-taxing, rarely frustrating fare that allows me to routinely press buttons in order to check out of the hellscape of the last few years, which feature some surprisingly well-penned characters and situations, a far cry from the prior franchise games.

One of the great things about major franchise games like Assassin’s Creed are: you can play one of the entries when it launches, then wait a year or so and it’s a completely different experience, especially if you’ve purchased a season pass.

While I completed VALHALLA in 2020, I returned to it in 2021 for the two extremely generous DLC packages, which allows you to travel to both Dublin and Paris. The mission types are nothing new — really, very little has changed about the ASSASSIN’S CREED gameplay since the days of ASSASSIN’S CREED II — but the writing and character work has become far sharper and, it must be said, hornier.

These are games you can spend hours and hours and hours playing, especially if you’re like me and wants to clean the world maps of any unfinished tasks. While VALHALLA’s DLC isn’t terribly memorable — there were a number of missions where I explicitly uttered to no one: “Well, this mission is absolutely no fun.” — it works as the distraction toy that I needed for the end of 2021.

DEATHLOOP

An hour or two into DEATHLOOP, I questioned whether this was a game for me, as it was maddeningly difficult and, while it featured Arkane’s signature reliance on stylish vertical level design, I was turned off by the sweaty dialogue; it felt like it was trying too hard to appeal to youths.

By the time I made it to the third or fourth hour, I’d found a groove and realized how the game wanted you to play it. Really, it’s far simpler than you’d expect — although I admit I have yet to complete the game — so far this isn’t the roguelike loop that one might expect.

Additionally, the combative dialogue? The overly agressive landscape? It grows on you. It still feels slightly performative, at least at the point I’m at in the game, but it’s a game that gets to have its cake and eat it too: slyly smart while being stylish enough to sell.

FAMICOM DETECTIVE CLUB: THE MISSING HEIR

A completely unexpected, but very welcome remake of an adventure game/visual novel few of those in the US were even aware of. Oh, and it’s from Satoru Okada: the director of KID ICARUS and METROID, and the brains behind the Game Boy.

More here:

https://mediaclature.com/2021/06/10/famicom-detective-club-the-missing-heir-1988-2021/

PSYCHONAUTS 2

“15+ years later, is PSYCHONAUTS 2 the sequel I wanted? Yes and no. It leans far more on spectacle and less on cognitive/character visual motifs than I would have liked. It’s certainly not as idiosyncratic as the first game. However, it […] does such a great job at detailing how flawed we can be, but how we can learn to be better with some help, and how we need to accept each other on these journeys.”

More here:

https://mediaclature.com/2021/12/28/psychonauts-2-2021-pc-macos-ps4-xboxes/

RESIDENT EVIL VILLAGE

While RESIDENT EVIL VILLAGE has — rightfully — gained a lot of attention due to the very tall Lady Dimitrescu, it’s also a thrillingly executed bit of action-horror that only falters in the final act. It’s immensely playable, and I can’t wait for the upcoming DLC.

More here:

https://mediaclature.com/2021/06/02/resident-evil-village-2021/

In my queue:

  • THE ARTFUL ESCAPE
  • CHICORY: A COLORFUL TALE
  • THE GREAT ACE ATTORNEY CHRONICLES
  • LIFE IS STRANGE: TRUE COLORS
  • METROID DREAD
  • OVERBOARD!
  • SABLE

Favorites of 2021: Books

I straddle a number of release years while reading so I rarely read as many contemporary texts as I’d like, but here are my favorite 2021 works:

DREAM GIRL – Laura Lippmann

“[DREAM GIRL] is peppered with all sorts of references to old-school noirs and detective fiction, novels like THE DAUGHTER OF TIME, references to her friend and author Megan Abbott, […] so many riffs on classic Hollywood and horror films, and even a quick moment with Tess Monaghan herself. In other words, it was tailor-made for me, but there’s also a lot to appreciate about the novel from a structural standpoint. [Laura Lippman is] exceptional at setting everything up so that, right before the reveals come, the curtains fall from your eyes, and you can’t help but appreciate the breadcrumbs she’s strewn through the prior pages.”

THE FINAL GIRL SUPPORT GROUP – Grady Hendrix

“THE FINAL GIRL SUPPORT GROUP goes above and beyond [horror tropes], and is a surprisingly brilliant example of what the genre is capable of.”

GIRL ONE – Sara Flannery Murphy

“[A] very inventive and engrossing take on, not only, the Frankenstein tale, but also witch folklore.”

GLAMOUR GHOUL – THE PASSIONS AND PAIN OF THE REAL VAMPIRA, MAILA NURMI – Sandra Niemi

“[A] classic Hollywood tale, but not the classic Hollywood tale most want to hear.”

IT NEVER ENDS – Tom Scharpling

“[As] amusing [of a memoir] as you’d expect from Scharpling, [and] far more interesting and deeper than you’d suspect.”

NIGHTBITCH – Rachel Yoder

“Nightbitch goes through one hell of a journey and, while it’s not nearly the horrific transformation tale I expected to read, it is a very satisfying one.”

NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT THIS – Patricia Lockwood

“Patricia Lockwood’s novel — which is primarily concerned with self-reflecting on being extremely online, until it isn’t — may come across as utterly obnoxious to anyone who isn’t familiar with the litany of terms, memes, and bluntness that being ‘extremely online’ entails, but I’d like to think that her artful prose and peculiar framing supersedes the need for that sort of knowledge.”

THE SECRET TO SUPERHUMAN STRENGTH – Alison Bechdel

“[A] tremendous accomplishment, one that I look forward to revisiting.”


2021 pieces waiting for my attention:

GIRLY DRINKS – Mallory O’Meara


DEATH AT GREENWAY – Lori Rader-Day

BURNT OFFERINGS (1976)

(VOD) I happened to read Robert Marasco’s 1973 horror novel BURNT OFFERINGS a few years ago, a properly enigmatic ‘house possesses and feeds off of its guests’ work, focused more on male/paternal/provider anxieties that hasn’t necessarily aged as well as one would hope, but it’s an intriguing enough qualified read.

I had absolutely no idea that, not only had it been adapted into a feature film in 1976, but that it has a surprising roster that features Oliver Reed as Ben, the father who drags his family to a spacious, yet dilapidated, summer house for vacation, Karen Black as Marian, his wife, Bette Davis as Aunt Elizabeth, as well as Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart as the brother and sister renting the house to the family.

As you might suspect based on the roll call, what ends up on the screen is an eclectic oil-and-water mix of performances: Reed brings an old-school stiffness that occasionally balloons to an overly grandiose show; Karen Black plays it a bit more naturalistic, bringing a haunted quality to the film, and Bette Davis gleefully leans into the creep factor of the aunt’s ailing body. Only Meredith and Heckart bring a playful vibe to the film, but it helps that they’re both on-screen for less than ten minutes.

While the film mostly hews close to the novel’s original tale, which primarily consists of putting the family’s young son David (Lee Montgomery) through the physical and psychological wringer, it deviates in two important ways. First, director Dan Curtis inserted a bit of back story for Ben where he keeps seeing a pale, grinning chauffeur, first at his mother’s funeral. Allegedly, this was a bit of dream-inspiration on Curtis’ part, but it slots into the adaptation quite well. Second, the end is significantly more close-ended and shocking than the source material but, again, it suits the work.

Tonally, the film is far more interesting, if not occasionally maddening, especially given how it contrasts against similar horror films of the time. It’s not quite a throwback, but it doesn’t quite embrace the evolving style and leniency of 70s horror.

Warning: the trailer pulls no punches and spoils some of the biggest moments of the film.

NIGHTBITCH (2021)

I blindly bought NIGHTBITCH, Rachel Yoder’s debut novel, knowing only that it sounded like a maternal, early-middle-aged version of the teen girl werewolf-as-puberty film GINGER SNAPS: the struggles of a woman trying to reconcile her life as a stay-at-home mom tending to her toddler son, having abandoned her artist life and career, her loving-but-simple engineer husband bringing home the bread, while also thinking she is turning into a werewolf.

While GINGER SNAPS leans on filmic horror conventions and tropes, NIGHTBITCH relies more on dark literary fairytales and lore and mystery, but they both get to the same place: underscoring and subverting what is perceived to be a woman’s place in society, of suburban ennui, of letting loose a howl, of diving into the dirt and grime, to take yourself off of this cultural leash and not give a shit about the repercussions.

NIGHTBITCH is singularly focused on interiority. The mother, the son, and the father are never explicitly named (although the mother does eventually refer to herself in her head as Nightbitch), and dialogue blurs into internal thoughts. The bulk of the novel is the mother examining and evaluating her life in the here-and-now and is thrilling and leaves you wondering what this is leading up to, which utterly flummoxed me while I was reading it, but I was delighted as to where it ended up. Nightbitch goes through one hell of a journey and, while it’s not nearly the horrific transformation tale I expected to read, it is a very satisfying one.

https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/665285/nightbitch-by-rachel-yoder/