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Going Into the Nightstream, 2021 Review Pack
Reviews from the second edition of the virtual genre festival.
While the 2021 edition of Nightstream may have concluded already, and while its own future is uncertain as its central festival organizations plan comebacks for next year, the virtual genre event still lingers in my thoughts.
The following is a pack of four reviews of movies that, I hope, everyone will seek out sometime.
Not So Shapeless At All
A flick set in the New Orleans musician community that isn’t a documentary or a cookie-cutter rise to stardom story? Shapeless appears to be after this writer’s heart. I yearn for genre films that are set and shot in the region (hopefully conceived here too) and even more for bold brashness and creativity that breaks through any and all limitations. Certainly, in director Samantha Aldana’s feature film debut, we get most of those. Most.
Lensed by the great cinematographer Natalie Kingston, Shapeless doubles as a tale of self-destruction and a drama that toys around within living nightmares, making for a tragically potent and poignant kind of horror. It all comes into focus on a mental health exploration that dives head-on through eating disorders, self-sabotage, uncontrollable obsession, and dangerous anxiety. Kingston finds these genuine personal horrors from behind and inside corners, composing our lead character at angles that place her at different edges of the frame in some of the more lonely and thoughtful scenes. The protagonist’s life is oblong and stuck within the boundaries of disease, so it’s clever to show just how these parameters are defined, and how close she can come to recovery. And while there is plenty of grand technique to go around in the film, I can’t help but feel that it’s accomplished on overdrive, perhaps as a cover for too little story.
Actress Kelly Murtagh’s Ivy, a singer by trade, is presented as absolutely alone in her illness, unwilling to let anyone else in. Out of shame or maybe some twisted form of relief, Ivy keeps her affliction secret throughout, hiding everything from friends and colleagues, including her horrifically realistic-looking visions of mutation. Much is left unsaid and unexplained, and all for the better. Murtagh is left to express this turmoil without the crutch of exposition, pulling herself into every moment of pain with the energy of a thunderbolt, delivering a performance that’s as honest as it is visceral.
Shapeless is a feature, but it operates as if it’s meant for a shorter duration. Maybe it didn’t feel the need to go far in the fantastical horror realm, and maybe sticking to the real fright of a real issue was a good decision, but with only a tease of special effects body transformation, and a story begging for more to work with, ninety minutes is almost a stretch. A lack of confidence? It is a debut, so this may be the case. It’s too bad that some punches were pulled, as one more good hit to the gut would’ve been welcomed.
Still, with what is available, Shapeless does throw out some curves to the face. It’s a movie less concerned with satisfaction and more concentrated on depiction and heightened truth. Nothing is easy with mental illness, and to see it so laid bare is profoundly heartbreaking. Maybe we’ll get more exploration down the line. Maybe. 3.5/5
Sinew Drips from the Skin of After Blue (Dirty Paradise)
You know, it’s possible that director Bertrand Mandico might, just might, have some issues with women. Not necessarily of the negative variety, but definitely some of fascination, at least to the point of obsessive perversion. At least. Based on his films Apocalypse After and his latest After Blue (Dirty Paradise), Mandico enjoys diving into the nitty-gritty of sexuality and sensuality, from a female perspective circa his male imagination - thus the perversions come into play. And his imagination runs incredibly wild, indeed. Especially in After Blue.
This second feature directorial takes place on a distant planet, where only women can survive the atmosphere. They’ve lived here long enough to form colonies and cultures and, most aggressively, pent up desires. The film follows a hairdresser and her daughter, as they are forced into a mission to kill one Kate Bush. Not the singer mind you, but a witch-like being who causes destruction everywhere. It’s certainly played up, her name, as it’s always said in full when in reference. Commentary on the real counterpart? Probably just some joke for the better or, for worse, some serious but esoteric element.
This world, called After Blue, is one of grand design. Every set piece is gorgeous and breathtaking at once, from stage and set-piece to small details. Everything has a lived-in story to it, I like to think. The time it must’ve taken Mandico and crew to conceive and develop this setting and environment was clearly well worth it and then some. However pretty and deeply visual, however impressive and incredibly envisioned, and however embedded it becomes, After Blue’s main attraction is in its weirdness, which is both an attribute and an albatross.
Kate Bush, here, is a lusty and dangerous figure of androgenous entanglement, exciting the hairdresser’s daughter to a fault. She explains many times to an unseen figure, into the camera, how attracted to and scared of Kate Bush she is. This journey she’s on with her Mother, who too explores some sexual inclinations if more timidly, couldn’t be more interesting or more complicated. If After Blue (Dirty Paradise) is good at anything, it would be just how intriguing and odd it is. If the film is bad at anything, it would be in why and so what.
Duh, movies don’t need to be "about” anything nor must they satisfy every mark available. For sure though, they ought to add up to something for someone. And this equation, for me, no matter how well-constructed, is a touch too much math.
And softcore porn. Just a tad too much.
Though, it’s well done. And well performed. And memorable. And appreciated. 3/5
It’s a Family Affair in the VHS Memory-scape of Landlocked
Some see attachment to nostalgia as unhealthy in Landlocked, but this is not how I would describe the film. It’s a movie after my own heart, being oh so dedicated to the equipment, the aesthetic, and the feel of home videotapes and VHS cameras. Through these items, characters get to visit their childhoods and peek into their individual and collective pasts, where the viewfinder of a shoulder-held camcorder becomes the telescope of a time gone by. There’s good in this journey, and danger to be found too. But it’s not so much that "nostalgia” itself is harmful, but perhaps that searching for some after the fact resolution isn’t wise, at least potentially.
This is a most spectacular exercise in family filmmaking, unlike anything I’ve watched before. Written, directed, and starring members of the Owens family, Landlocked could be in a genre of its own making. There are three brothers - one of whom is our protagonist - who visit their old family home before its planned demolition. Mason, the sibling who left town, returns to collect a few things and spend a few final days within the walls. Already, with Mason sleeping in his old bed, among emptied rooms and dust bunnies, there’s a clear missing link in his heart. Fetal position sleeping rarely lies. Soon enough, he finds the camcorder that belonged to his deceased father and boxes of blank tapes which, after toying around, can essentially break the bonds of time and capture living memories that exist not unlike ghosts that haunt.
It’s all so minimal in Landlocked, and all so easy too. The details of the video edit bay and the camera, from adjusting to light and plugging in cables to changing the date and time, are pretty remarkable for a modern film to showcase with ease. Its atmosphere is ripe with emotion, vibrant with stillness, and filled with mystery. Landlocked is both refreshing to see play out and terrifying to experience, as a real family performs reel versions of themselves, bending reality to the hilt. I can’t confirm if their real home movies are really used as the time-traveling tapes, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.
I remember a friend telling me that shadows of the past, based on heavy emotional events, can be sensed in given spaces. For Landlocked, instruments are needed and symbolically important. VHS cameras bring back the chills of Christmas, the worries of the first days of school, and the togetherness of family, because that’s what they would often record. Static analog and auto-tracking are associated with the past, no matter when the tapes are made. This can be fond and can be scary. And sure, creeps and villains had access too, but there’s no fooling around like that in this film - it’s a family effort and a family affair, dealing with what was and what will inevitably be.
Stuck to the screen, fingers on the remote and at the ready to rewind or pause, Landlocked isn’t against nostalgia or nostalgics, but rather it’s wary of searching and searching boxes and bins for what’s already inside and in front of you. There’s something very sweet to that, and something very big about a family participating in it. Bold, this kind of filmmaking is.
As a horror, it’s striking. As a drama, it’s deeply affecting. As a memory, it’s far from fleeting. 5/5
To the Infinite Two Minutes, and Beyond!
The cutest movie of this or any year. A top ten favorite!
It’s difficult to write this review for Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, as I worry about getting some sort of sugar shock from the positive and sweet nature of the movie and my thoughts on it. For a feature film so clever, smart, and fairly short, Beyond couldn’t and shouldn’t be too much to handle. And yet, here I am, about to gush over it and all over this post.
Perhaps we keep this one a bit brief?
Screens staring at screens within streams upon streams provide a look into the future, two minutes at a time. A cafe owner and his friends stumble across this, and quickly turn their fascination into a near-abuse of the Universe. Near, of course. Beyond works more or less as a means for laughs and genuine sweetness, not all that differently from One Cut of the Dead, another mostly one-take flick. It’s staggering the skill involved to shoot this sucker, from the timing between actors and cameras to comedic punches and stings. What rings the most impressive about the film though, would be its sincerity.
Absolutely, Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes is joyful and a kind of hymn to filmmaking and living for today. For all of the anxieties of modern life, it’s a blast to be reminded of stories so pure. The movie isn’t anything more than what it is, and that kind of clarity of self is humility at its finest. Sure, themes can be plucked from it, but just let it be itself - a comedy, and a romantic one too.
It makes the heart flutter to know that films like this can still be made, from the silent Sherlock Jr. to now. Indeed, both that one and this one are movies of trickery and stunts, of love and hilarity. When you can reach the highs of Buster Keaton, you’ve done well. Very well.
Now, some taffy. 5/5