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.”

EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE (2022)

(Cinemas) I’ve gone on record as being both an easy laugher and an easy crier when it comes to film viewing, but it’s very rare that I do both at the same time. The Daniels’ (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheiner, who previously helmed the surprisingly affecting dick joke of a film SWISS ARMY MAN) EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE had my face wet and aglow more than a few times.

EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE (henceforth referred to as EVERYTHING) is an absolutely outrageous film; it’s mind-bogglingly high-concept, often amusingly puerile, always inventive, but also remarkably emotionally grounded. If that sounds like your idea of a good time, read no further and just go see it, preferably on the largest screen possible. (Although, if you do read further, I promise no major spoilers.)

EVERYTHING is all about Evelyn (see what they did there?) played by a never-better Michelle Yeoh — and that’s saying something, as her career is vast and multi-faceted and brilliant — who helms a laundromat with her overly joyful husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan, who you may remember as INDIANA JONES’ Short Round) that is currently being audited by the IRS, specifically by Deirdre (Jaime Lee Curtis, clearly having the time of her life). Meanwhile, Evelyn is trying to mediate matters between taking care of her addled, elderly father (the illustrious James Hong), and her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) and her daughter’s girlfriend, Becky (Tallie Medel), all while personally bemoaning all of the options she could have pursued over her life, including singing and acting, instead of tending to a struggling laundromat where her husband keeps slapping googly eyes on everything.

When heading up in an elevator in a non-descript IRS building to meet Deidre and iron their financial matters out, Waymond’s disposition completely shifts; he pops an umbrella to obscure a security camera, and then gives her the barest of instructions and information, which ultimately results in: right now, I’m not your husband; I’m the same person, but from a different, splintered universe, and I need your help. Evelyn’s then walked through the process of accessing her multiverse personas, explicitly through silly, surreal actions.

Matters escalate and what ultimately follows is a very heady trip through not only a mid-life crisis, but a personal reckoning with family. And hot dog hands, which happen to exist in a universe in which people play pianos with their toes. (I can’t help but think that’s a bit of a Tarantino riff. Notably, Uma Thurman is thanked in the credits.)

While EVERYTHING feels a tad too long at almost two-and-a-half-hours, none of that running time is wasted. It is jam-packed, almost overstuffed, with so many ideas, so many effusive, brilliant visual gags, so much hurt between Evelyn and Joy, so much enthusiasm from Way, so many brilliantly choreographed and executed fight sequences, it’s hard to say what they could have cut. The film is an embarrassment of riches, a treasure-trove of cinematic appreciation, but also a surprisingly thoughtful take on hope and love and humanity and of aging and of missed opportunities. While I’m prone to crying and laughing too much at a film, it is an astonishing achievement, and one worth being exuberant about.

Lastly, buy an everything bagel before diving in, and save it for after. You’ll thank me later.

SPENCER (2021)

Truth be told, I signed up for this screening solely because of Kristen Stewart’s depiction of Princess Diana. I’m not one who cares about the British monarchy. I barely paid attention to either the anointment of Diana or her death, although I do vividly remember seeing it in print …because it was being used as kitty litter at the pet adoption agency I visited shortly after moving to Chicago. I had a panic attack when my wife tried to walk me through the primary Harrods shop, back when it housed -all- of the Diana memorials, solely because of how populated it was. I haven’t even watched Pablo Larraín’s initial film in his ‘(doomed) princess’ trilogy, JACKIE (2016). Consequently, I expected to find SPENCER well-made, but not terribly engaging.

I certainly did not expect it to be a brilliant, skewed take on THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER. While I often read a lot of Greenaway influence into works, I think it’s undeniable here, as Greenaway’s film was explicitly about the suffocation that climate invoked, the prison one is placed in when bending the knee, and SPENCER is all about feeling trapped, about being boxed in and unable to breathe, and similarly about obligation and servitude, while also mimicking THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER’s visual tropes, notably making Diana the camera’s magnet, fixated on following her across rooms and through walls, flat-framing her, exchanging Gautier for Chanel, even color-coordinating her wear with the wallpaper and meals, such as the inaugural dish served at the opening of the three day Christmas decadence: pea green soup capped with a white foam, while she’s attired in a pea green frock lined in white. Also, her primary confidant and connection throughout this debacle? The chef; food being her only comfort apart from her sons.

SPENCER is a bold tale, singularly focused on Diana mentally spiraling downward, unfurling, and realizing that she’s rebuking this life, struggling to return home and to her roots. She’s opting-out, but yet is still trapped. It’s a story of acknowledging service, service to one’s family, to one’s nation, and of knowing yourself and unceremoniously rejecting your place in that hierarchy.

I’m on record as being a Kristen Stewart booster but even I was a bit on the fence about having her portray Diana, but she’s a goddamn revelation in the role, all wild, sad eyes and angered and antagonistic in a way I’ve never seen from her. It’s brilliant casting and writing, with deft camerawork, and surprisingly one of my favorite films of the year. Catch it while you can.

BENEDETTA (2021)

(Cinemas) BENEDETTA, the latest from the always inventive and thrilling filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, is based on the true story detailed in Judith C. Brown’s text IMMODEST ACTS: THE LIFE OF A LESBIAN NUN IN RENAISSANCE ITALY. Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira) was pledged to the church by her rich family after a very troubled birth. Benedetta felt that Jesus spoke to her from a young age, and then when she was a youth, her parents paid for her to stay at a nunnery, which according to the film was a slightly disillusioning experience, partially because of the very brusque, practical abbesse Soeur Felicita (the always exceptional Charlotte Rampling) at least until — later in life — a young Bartolomea (a wide-eyed Daphne Patakia) stumbles into the nunnery and Benedetta’s life, chased by herd of sheep and her abusive and rapey father. Benedetta convinces her parents to pay for her to stay there, and she and Bartolomea spiral into a very complicated, charged relationship, with severely uneven power dynamics on both sides.

Apologies for yet another ‘hey I saw an advance screening of this film’ post, but I saw an advance screening of this film a few weeks ago, and it’s the first film I’ve seen in some time to have protestors castigating those walking through the Music Box doors. (Heads-up: I didn’t capture this footage and this isn’t my account.)

The screening was at least two-thirds populated and, if you can attend a nearby screening, are vaxxed, and are comfortable with it, I would suggest attending. The film looks great — although two loud film nerds of a certain type directly behind me complained about the ‘shit CGI’ without realizing that’s part of Verhoeven’s cartoonish violence schtick — but, given the nature of the material, you wouldn’t think that this film is funny, but it is. It’s Verhoeven — it’s irreverent, but it comes from a place of wanting better from people and society. Always has been, hopefully always will be. There’s a purpose behind his cutting humor beyond sugar-coating some rough moments and being clever; it helps to provide insight and flesh out the characters. Consequently, hearing how people laugh and respond to the material in a crowd situation is surprisingly enlightening, although I will note that at least a good third of the laughs were of the nervous kind.

Yes, Verhoeven did take certain liberties — I won’t mention what they are as one is pretty important, one could say the crux of the film — so there is definitely some fictional sensationalism, but ultimately this is a human drama, one which showcases how very little has changed over hundreds of years.

THE SOUVENIR PART II (2021)

(Cinemas) I wrote a bit about THE SOUVENIR (PART I from here on out) a few days ago, in case you missed it. You might want to start there.

Given that I will watch anything from Joanna Hogg, I intentionally neglected to watch THE SOUVENIR PART II’s trailer (PART II from here on out), going in cold. What I saw wasn’t even close to what I thought we would get. I was thinking it would be something along the lines of THE UP series — checking in on the character as they age.

PART II is far more interesting than that.

PART II, an overtly autobiographical piece from writer/director Joanna Hogg, picks up approximately where the first part left off and follows aspiring filmmaker Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) as she tries to process the events of the first ‘film’ of her life (in several ways), while also becoming a more singular being.

I imagine there will be a number of folks who will find PART II to be too inside baseball. (That said, film nerds will eat this up.) Instead of focusing on a realistic relationship melodrama, PART II is specifically about Julie trying to find the images to deal with what she’s going through, and most of that is done through her work on her final student film. There’s a lot of riffing on PART I, there’s a lot of film jargon, and a lot of time spent on film sets and film crew members angrily bickering with each other.

In other words, the narrative propulsion is the polar opposite to PART I, but the center is still the same: it’s all about Julie’s journey, and Hogg handles it masterfully. Just like with PART I, it’s so beautifully and effectively shot — you can tell it’s a Hogg film based on how she frames buildings and navigates interior urban spaces, how she opts to obscure people’s faces more often than not, have them ‘turnout’ or ’turn in’.

I can’t recommend these two films enough, but I would suggest watching them relatively close together. I hadn’t seen PART I since it screened in theaters in 2019, and felt like I was missing out on a lot in PART II because, uh, my memory, and the past two years have been particularly harrowing.

Lastly, Vadim Rizov’s A.V. Club review touches on a lot of film and autobiographical references and riffs I wish I had time to note.

SUPERIOR (2021)

(Cinemas/VOD) Sorry, yet another ‘very difficult to track down’ film. For the past month or so, Joe Swanberg has been programming Mystery Monday screenings at the Davis Theater in Chicago, showcasing films whose releases were delayed or quietly rolled out to VOD due to COVID. One of the most recent was SUPERIOR, and he managed to bring in director Erin Vassilopoulos for an enlightening post-film Q&A. If you are in Chicago, I highly suggest attending these screening — Swanberg has excellent taste, he’s a very gracious interviewer, and he’s doing good work trying to boost films that might otherwise fall through the cracks.

SUPERIOR is the debut feature film from Erin Vassilopoulos (and co-written by one of the two primary protagonists, Alessandra Mesa), but follows directly after Vassilopoulos’ short film of the same name. It’s a character drama/thriller centered around two identical twins, one a misfit musician on the run from her abusive husband, the other living a very domestic life, trying to have a kid with her milquetoast husband.

It’s a remarkably handled film that, while it definitely has shades of Brian de Palma’s SISTERS (1972) and David Lynch (take your pick: LOST HIGHWAY, MULHOLLAND DRIVE, even FIRE WALK WITH ME), it is its own creature, with quite a bit to say about how sisters push and pull each other, as well as how they deal with individual and intertwined identity.

Just the script and the performances from the two twins (the previously mentioned Alessandra Mesa, and Ani Mesa) would be enough to make this a notable film, but it’s also staged in the 1980s, and Vassilopoulos shot on 16mm to give it a delicious visual texture and familiarity that serves the work well. Additionally, the production design and locations are perfectly handled — attractive, distinct, but they never overshadow any particular scene or moment.

It’s an impactful initial work, one that is tautly paced and doesn’t overstay its welcome. While it’s played a few places in 2021, they’re looking at a proper rollout around March 2022, so keep your eyes peeled for it.

https://vimeo.com/505267853

JOY RIDE (2021)

(Cinemas/VOD) Sorry, I’m yet again putting the pause on horror posts. I simply loved this film — as you can probably tell by the wall of text — and wanted to boost it.

I’m always reluctant to post about films that folks can’t see — after all, I started these missives to suggest interesting works one could safely watch at home during the pandemic (which, duh, still isn’t over). That’s growing increasingly hard as Chicago’s film programmers and filmmakers have been working overtime to (safely) bring people back to theaters, including folks like Joe Swanberg — I’ll be talking about his contributions next week — and, of course, the Music Box, and they’re often able to bring in directors for screenings of their latest films that the directors have never seen with an audience.

This was the case for Bobcat Goldthwait’s JOY RIDE which, unfortunately, really isn’t available to publicly view yet. (I just slotted in VOD because it’ll be available that way eventually.) I attended the Chicago premiere tonight at the Music Box and director Goldthwait was there, as well as his dear friend and co-star Dana Gould.

I know most people only know Bobcat Goldthwait from the POLICE ACADEMY series, which is a shame because he took a quality left turn with his career and decided to start writing and directing weird little works, including GOD BLESS AMERICA, SLEEPING DOGS LIE, WORLD’S GREATEST DAD (starring his old friend Robin Williams). They’re all darkly comic and satirical pieces, but imbued with a sensitivity and humanity that’s often lacking in satire. Plus, he’s become a veteren director of comedy specials, and directed his own genre TV show MISFITS & MONSTERS. To top it off: he’s friends with Dana Gould.

I realize Dana Gould isn’t a household name, but he’s been involved with so many legendary comedic works over the years. He wrote more than a few THE SIMPSONS episodes; he’s penned for SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE; he was a performer on THE BEN STILLER SHOW; he did voice acting for Nicktoons’ DOUG — the list goes on-and-on. I caught the ensemble reading of PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE that he wrangled via this year’s streaming-and-cable-only TCM FEST 2021. While I was reading GLAMOUR GHOUL – THE PASSIONS AND PAIN OF THE REAL VAMPIRA, MAILA NURMI, I discovered that he was a good friend to Maila, and helped keep her alive and healthy many times.

With that out of the way, I can finally summarize the film: it’s two extraordinarily funny men taking a road trip, taking their show on the road, mostly reflecting and riffing on their lives and their friendship, both in the car to each other, and to an audience. It’s a fantastic take on a comedy special, and one that is both darkly hilarious, heart-warming, and emotional. It showcases these two men, one of which — Bobcat — has been an absolute asshole to many people and audiences in the past, and even to Dana — and Dana who has been a prickly, difficult person, but has also changed a great deal. They ruminate on their lives and you can hear and see in the way they act towards each other that they’ve learned and healed so much over time. That kind of raw male unburdening is rare to see on-screen.

Also: JOY RIDE is absolutely hilarious. The two of them are consummate storytellers, but they also love to work off of each other and egg each other on, and the editing is pitch-perfect. The film killed at the Music Box, absolutely killed. I’m an easy laugher, but the best works bring me to a rolling boil, and JOY RIDE managed to pace itself so exceptionally — even with the emotional moments — that by the end I was a giggly mess.

As mentioned in the preamble, this was Bobcat’s first time watching the film with an audience. Not to brag — well, maybe just a little — but Goldthwait (a new Chicago denizen) was sitting directly across the aisle from me in the theater, close enough to tap on the shoulder. I’d sneak a few looks at him from time-to-time, just to see how he was reacting because I was curious, and he was laughing a lot — well, as much as you could tell when everyone’s masked.

When Bobcat and Dana stepped onto the stage to discuss the film, Bobcat talked about how emotional it was sitting there watching the film, hearing everyone’s laughter, and how he loved laughing at his friend’s jokes. It was a sincere, pure moment. We’re all healing as we (hopefully) come to the end of this awful era, and seeing JOY RIDE under these circumstances was such an immensely enjoyable time, and I’m so happy I could see it with such giving artists.

LAMB (2021)

(Cinemas) I would argue that this isn’t horror — not even what people like to qualify as ‘A24 horror’ or ‘elevated horror’ (sigh) — but it’ll be labeled as such no matter what I say, so I consider it game and I want to write about it, so here we are.

In my eyes, LAMB is a high-concept relationship drama concerning a husband and wife who farm the lands and raise sheep. Apart from their sheep, their sheepdog, and their cat, they only have each other, but there’s something missing.

The first act goes to great trouble to obscure what the twist is, so I’ll respect that. I will say: I don’t think it’s a twist worth hiding.

What is a big deal is the fact that this feels like an A24 Béla Tarr film, one not too far removed from the previously recommended THE TURIN HORSE. Rightfully so, as Tarr was one of the executive producers of the project. It’s quiet, mannered, under-explains itself, but is full of existential threats. (It is a tad more optimistic than THE TURIN HORSE. Just a tad.)

Lastly, Noomi Rapace delivers an amazing performance. Without her ability to oscillate between hardened to tender and loving, this film simply would not work. (I’ll note that she was also an Executive Producer for the film.)

As usual with any work that I hesitate to pen a full summary, I suggest skipping the trailer — although I should state that the trailer quickly gives away the twist, and it has a completely inappropriate needle-drop — but here it is:

DETENTION (2021)

(Cinemas/VOD) DETENTION (2021) This film is based on the previously featured videogame, but unless you played said game, it’s unlikely you would know it despite the fact that it mostly adheres to the original game’s story and visual design. Many of the sets are surprisingly detailed recreations of the game’s 2D environments, and Gingle Wang is a fantastic swap-in for Fang (ostensibly the protagonist, and I will fight you about that), but the script is rich enough that it doesn’t feel like an horror point-and-click game adaptation.

Yes, it takes a few liberties and makes a few feints — some characters stick around far longer than they did in the game — but it’s a far more nuanced and complicated expounding on the game’s narrative and characters, and it even improves on the already fantastic creature design.

Personally, I played the game first and then immediately watched the film and felt very rewarded. There are a number of easter eggs that aren’t just there to point at, including how deftly the film handles the game’s multiple endings.

I’ll note that there’s also a mini-series available via Netflix, which I have yet to watch.

TITANE (2021)

(Cinemas) TITANE is the second feature from Julia Ducournau, who previously wrote and directed the sisterly cannibal tale RAW (2016), and while RAW was exquisitely executed, TITANE is a masterclass in controlled filmmaking.

I won’t describe the plot — I personally don’t believe in spoilers, but while TITANE is deadly serious (although it does have a number of quality laughs), it’s also an extremely wild ride that I think is best viewed without knowledge of a plot summary — but I will give two very sparse character sketches of the two protagonists: 1) Alexia (newcomer Agathe Rousselle, who plays this role like a seasoned pro) is a 32-year-old dancer who had a skull injury when she was young and still lives with her parents. 2) Vincent (Vincent Lindon) is the captain of a large firefighter group whose young son went missing a number of years ago.

What Ducournau does with TITANE is nothing less than astounding. You may see something onscreen or hear something that has you scratching your head, wondering why that was there, and a few minutes later, it becomes very aware in a way that makes you feel like the film respects you, as opposed to the film thinking it’s so clever.

It’s also surprisingly concise — apart from a few indulgent (with a reason) scenes, the film has very little fat. While at first that facet is a bit jarring, it creates a tempo that unnerves.

It’s impossible to discuss the film without noting how difficult it can be to watch, for a litany of reasons. I can’t remember the last time I so extensively averted my eyes from watching a film. However, those moments are not exploitative — they are meant to be uncomfortable, they are there for a reason. I simply felt that I was able to glean that reason by listening, instead of watching.

This is a work that film scholars will inevitably be discussing for some time to come, for better or for worse — frankly I’m still unpacking the film — but it is definitely memorable.

The trailer is properly enigmatic, but maybe don’t watch it if you’re going to see it within the next few days. (Slightly NSFW):