Steven Soderbergh is truly a guy whose career bucks most trends and simultaneously feels like something from an earlier era with his “movie or two a year” pace but perhaps feels like a not overly optimistic look at what being an auteur could look like in the future in which he must make films of fairly modest size and scope and outside a lot of the usual distribution paths in order to create anything outside of the world of franchise filmmaking. These movies are called “experimental” but most of them aren’t movies that are trying to radically change the way you view cinema so much as they’re trying to find new small-scale ways to make what are otherwise conventionally entertaining stories. Case in point is his latest film Kimi which is probably one of his most successful movies in this mode in a while. It stars Zoe Kravitz in a sort of modern take on the paranoid thriller. Kravitz plays a shut-in working a remote job fixing audio detection bugs in an Alexa-like home voice interface called Kimi and while listening to bugged voice communications she hears what sounds to her like a murder happening and tries to report this to authorities but soon finds herself being pursued by paid thugs trying to silence her. The film is notable for being one of the first films to reference and acknowledge the pandemic, something that is said to have increased the protagonist’s agoraphobic anxiety but is otherwise mostly a background element but is probably part and parcel of the intense topicality and modernity Soderbergh tends to seek in his experimental films (something made possible by how quickly they’re made). Out of all the movies Soderbergh has made in this mode I’d say Kimi is probably one of the more successful and straightforwardly enjoyable of the lot, though I’m not sure it’s something that will be wildly memorable going forward. Kravitz (who’s having a GREAT month) is quite compelling as the lead and the story is clearly a deconstruction of other past films like Rear Window, Blow-Up, and The Conversation but certainly doesn’t exceed any of those classics or even try to. It’s a satisfying little snack from Soderbergh, but I still miss the days when he would try to make larger meals for us.
***1/2 out of Five
Fresh is a film that debuted at Sundance, was somewhat well received, and then went right to Hulu less than two months later, which I think was always the plan. The film is a horror movie of sorts that I think can safely be described as “inspired” by Get Out but with more of a focus on gender rather than racial issues. It begins with a woman, fed up with using apps to find dates, starts a relationship with a guy she met in a RomCom style meet-cute at a grocery store. He then invites her to a vacation at a remote cabin where it is revealed that he is in fact not a kind and caring person but has instead lured her there so that he could imprison her and slowly harvest body parts from her to sell to an underground market of cannibals. So yeah, the movie takes a bit of a turn after the first twenty minutes or so. Meanwhile the protagonist tries to find ways to escape from her predicament and also has a suspicious friend on the outside who is going to try to track down what’s happened to her… a bit like the TSA in a certain other movie. The film’s villain, played by Sebastian Stan, is probably the film’s highlight. Dude is just the worst kind of narcissist and the way he deludes himself into thinking his victims should somehow be “okay” with what he’s doing to them is kind of interesting. Beyond that though I’m not sure the film entirely works. For one thing, while the film’s general grizzleyness would I suppose make it a horror film, it really isn’t trying to scare you moment to moment or really engage too deeply in the tools of suspense. I also don’t think it’s as coherent as a social metaphor as the filmmakers think it is. The Stan character’s imprisonment and cannibalism scheme is presumably supposed to represent some aspect of the patriarchy or other but I’m not sure what specifically and either way it isn’t really brought to the screen that vividly.
**1/2 out of Five
Warning: Review contains spoilers
I do love movies that are willing to have one letter titles like Z or M (been meaning to see O) and now we have a new one with Ti West’s new horror film X. This film is being released by A24 and is looking to be a bit bolder than your average studio horror film but it is also different from the moody and allegorical horror films that that distributor is known for as structurally it’s a riff on the slasher film and it’s more defined by its graphic sex and violence than by metaphors for trauma. The film is set in 1979 and focuses on a small filmmaking unit who are going out into rural Texas to board at a guest house on a farm where they intend to film a pornographic film called “The Farmer’s Daughter.” However when they get there they find the farm in question is owned by a weird old coot and his half senile wife and tensions arise as they begin to secretly film their scenes. Violence ensues.
The film has a very strong set-up. The idea to set a slasher film around a 70s porno shoot is a clever idea and the various porn actors and directors make for a nice twist on the usual random horny teenagers who tend to populate these movies and the film’s cast does make you like these victims a bit more than usual… not a whole lot more mind you, but it’s an improvement above replacement. Really, it’s when the bloodletting starts that things get a bit more mixed. The visuals of a van coming across a rickety house in rural Texas where a night of mayhem will ensue of course instantly brings to mind The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which is certainly an influence but (and I’m going to start getting into spoilers here) the film that is also being invoked here both in name and premise is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Psycho is a movie that’s been endlessly spoiled over the years but the audience watching it is, for much of its running time, supposed to think it’s a movie about a crazy old woman murdering people and this new movie ponders “what if someone actually made a movie that was straightforwardly about that.” It’s not exactly the first movie to do this, there’s something of a slasher tradition of movies that want you to think they’re about young men killing people only to reveal as a last minute twist that it was actually an old woman, but this movie just goes all in on having senior citizen killers doing all the murdering.
This is perhaps an idea that works better in theory than in practice. For obvious logistical reasons West did not hire actual decrepit 80 year olds to play these killers and instead opted to create his geezer and crone with makeup; the old man is played by a guy in his 60s while the old woman is actually played by the film’s 28-year-old star/Final Girl Mia Goth, doing a double role. I don’t exactly begrudge West for not wanting to put actual old people in danger but I also don’t think he really pulls it off… the makeup isn’t good enough. Don’t get me wrong I can certainly see some skill the makeup’s application but it feels more like “monster” makeup than realistic old age work and hits a certain uncanny valley place where if just isn’t real enough to be convincing and I found it to be something of a distraction more than anything. But even if the makeup was perfect I’m not sure these old killer characters are really handled well here. They seem to be motivated by some combination of jealousy, repressed homosexuality, and extreme religiously motivated prudishness… which could all be interesting but I don’t think it’s really handled all that elegantly and doesn’t translate to the screen effectively. Having said that, these old murderers are effective in bringing some pretty gnarly kills to the screen so if you’re a gorehound this will probably satisfy. Really the whole thing is weird because it does have the makings of a strong slasher movie in general; it’s got (relatively) interesting victims, a skilled director, and some well-staged murders and gore, but its idea for who should do the murdering just doesn’t work and that’s close to a fatal flaw.
**1/2 out of Five
I’ve said in the past that I’m a little sick of science fiction that dwells on questions of how human robots are and whether they should have rights, but my mind isn’t completely closed on the subject, especially when someone finally seems to come at it from an original angle like in the new movie After Yang. Directed by the video essayist turned filmmaker who goes by the name Kogonada, this film is set in a near future where robotics have been accelerated and they’re able to make androids that certainly look very human. It looks at a family that purchases one of these robots, who they name Yang, to act as something of an older brother for their adopted child but as the film opens Yang has had a malfunction and it starts to look like they may not be able to repair him. What follows is something of a meditation on what it means to mourn a machine. It should be noted that while Yang does look human the film does not depict him as having an artificial intelligence that is fully human and he was very much built to be a consumer product that displays limited emotions. The family in question openly discusses Yang as a possession rather than a true family member and the film doesn’t harshly judge them for that. Kogonada’s style is generally very quiet and precise but I wouldn’t call this “slow cinema” necessarily; its screenplay is ultimately straightforward and its pacing is relatively brisk. I’m not sure the movie quite knew the moment to end on however and at the end of the day the film seems to ask questions without really following through on them to the end, but overall it’s a pretty respectable piece of work.
***1/2 out of Five