Directed by the co-editors of 2018’s wonderfully unique Searching, Missing tells a similar story and deploys the same storytelling conceit, unfolding through applications on a screen, but it suffers for the comparison. Inverting its predecessor’s story, June is an 18-year-old searching for her missing mother who disappears while on holiday — June is well equipped to investigate as a tech-savvy youth and, naturally, a true crime afficionado. Missing is less faithful to its screenlife gimmick than Searching, and the issue with this half-measure is that the whole exercise becomes a clunky method of storytelling without the same consistent voyeurism. It does deliver a more involved story with a well-executed midpoint twist, though its later revelations become distractingly convoluted. Storm Reid is believable as June, but a frequently sullen and detached teenager is a far less engaging protagonist in a medium that already distances the audience through layers of interface, clouding any emotional investment. There is enough that works to make Missing worthwhile but the inescapable déjà vu serves as a constant reminder that Searching delivered something all to similar in a more effective package.
“Family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation.”
“White noise”, both figuratively and literally, may be an apt description of Noah Baumbach’s dialogue style, a skill he has deployed with varying effectiveness over the course of his filmography. White Noise, adapted from Don DeLillo’s breakout novel, seeks to explore the anxieties at play in a typical 1980s American middle class family, a pervasive existential dread and specifically fear of death. As someone with an apparently atypical relationship with my own mortality, I am perhaps not best placed to opine on Baumbach’s presentation but these were frustrating characters to observe navigating their issues. This is through no fault of the actors — Adam Driver is an ever-reliable lead, as a professor who is more a performer than an educator, and Greta Gerwig is similarly effective as his wife, though her character becomes increasingly absent over the course of the film. Divided into a series of discrete but thematically connected events, the most resonant was a train derailment that spews a toxic cloud into the air — whilst the children worried, Jack displayed a complacency that they would be unaffected by the disaster, shielded by their privilege — and there seems to be an underlying suggestion that American society is particularly ill-equipped to deal with events outside their control. This broader social satire is White Noise at its best, like man who demands attention because he is scared, as if his fear would be validated if deemed newsworthy. The detailed period recreation is impressive, and at times astonishing like a meticulously stocked supermarket filled with old branding. Production, costuming and acting are each impressive in isolation but White Noise feels considerably less than the sum of its parts, its increasingly absurdist tone distancing the audience from the subject matter.
“It’s smiling at me. But not a friendly smile. It’s the worst smile I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Content warning: suicide, trauma
I am a sucker for minimalist, high concept horror and writer/director Parker Finn’s feature debut Smile may be the best example since 2014’s It Follows. After witnessing a patient’s suicide, hospital psychiatrist Rose becomes terrified that a supernatural presence is stalking her, leading her toward the same fate. Like It Follows, the method transmission serves an allegory, in this case for the way that trauma begets trauma from one person to another. Although there is some gore to be found, it is the simplicity of the rictus grins which plague Rose that make Smile so unnerving. These false visages serve as a metaphor for masking — the need for neurodivergents to wear a veil of normality in public — something that Rose finds herself increasingly unable to maintain. Returning to a theme of Finn’s previous short film Laura Hasn’t Slept, Rose’s sleep deprivation becomes a factor in the horror – it is writ large on Sosie Bacon’s face, drained of colour, but it also provides a legitimate reason for the common horror trope of nightmares bleeding into reality. Smile may do nothing groundbreaking, but Finn deftly weaves the mechanics of horror with the awkwardness of human interaction to craft something truly memorable.
“What happened? Why at the age of 32 was this smooth-voiced girl from Downey, California, who led a raucous nation smoothly into the 70s, found dead in her parents’ home?”
Content Warning: eating disorders
Long before Barbie — in fact when Greta Gerwig was just four years old — Todd Haynes created a fascinating student project which used the dolls to portray the life of Karen Carpenter. Filming animated toys is itself nothing novel, but Haynes’ specific combination of Barbie with Carpenter’s life and particularly her anorexia nervosa created a powerful statement about society’s treatment of women and celebrities. In contrast to the previous decade’s rock and roll, the Carpenters’ melodic pop was marketed as “clean cut”, imposing a particular image on siblings Karen and Richard. The use of dolls presents a clear statement about the way in which musicians are controlled and puppeted within a society driven by consumerism rather than art. Barbie’s particular body shape was no accidental choice for a film focused on anorexia (at times adopting the style of a Public Service Announcement) — not only would anorexia-related complications eventually lead to Karen’s death, but Haynes portrays a life dominated by a desperate desire for control. Her family are often protrayed in a grotesquely distorted manner and Superstar may have a subversive tone but it is only ever sympathetic to the tragic figure of Karen and it is overtly critical of society’s treatment of female celebrities in particular. The result reflects unpleasantly back on Barbie herself, as much a tacit subject of the film as a tool. Meanwhile that same treatment of female characters and controlled image is a thread that runs through Haynes’ work, including Carol and most recently May December.
“In life, of course, nothing is nearly as neat and tidy.”
Zach Braff takes a more conventional and less self-indulgent approach to his latest film (he remains firmly behind the camera) and this provides greater space for the central themes of grief and addiction to flourish. A Good Person is not subtle in its writing but is elevated by towering performances from Florence Pugh and Morgan Freeman as individuals linked by loss arising from the same car accident. Allison’s grief is masked by painkillers to which she becomes addicted and Pugh’s portrayal is a study in showcasing both the inner pain and how it it muted. Freeman’s portrayal of Daniel is fuelled by anger as a man struggling to be better than he was. Additional connective tissue is provided by Celeste O’Connor as the teenager Daniel is ill-equipped to raise and who forms a connection with Allison. Shot in a more naturalistic style than we have previously seen from Braff, this is a tender film with genuine emotion even if its execution is frequently heavy-handed. If one focuses on the addiction side of the story (which commands an outsized portion of the running time) one will be disappointed by derivative depictions but, taken as a whole with its commentary on grief and the way that those still grieving can aid one another, A Good Person has more to offer than may initially appear.
The Raid put Indonesian action cinema on the map and The Night Comes For Us seeks to invoke a similar magic by lifting two of its stars and placing them in a similar world of crime, betrayal and relentless violence. Timo Tjahjanto’s film is not so precisely constructed as Gareth Evans’ masterpiece, telling a broader story of a Triad enforcer being hunted after sparing a young girl’s life, seeking help from his old gang to keep her safe. The action, not the story, is the focus and there The Night Comes For Us excels with the sort of kinetic close-quarters fights that leave floors slick with blood, punctuated by detailed injury effects. Though there is occasionally novel camera work like a rig that sits behind an actor and rolls with their perspective, many of the fights blend together as they unfold in visually indistinct grey-green concrete spaces. Standout sequences include a meat-locker brawl and a three-way battle between female killers every bit as violent as their male counterparts. The Night Comes For Us may not improve on its inspirations but, if you have the stomach for it, this is a solid addition to the genre.
“I will no longer tolerate abuse. I deserve happiness!”
Horror comedy Renfield starts promisingly with a contemporary riff on Dracula’s familiar that refashions him as an absurd action superhero (who needs to consume bugs for his powers) protecting his vampire master whilst attending support groups for those stuck in co-dependent relationships. His origins are explained via a montage of recreated scenes from Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula, with an arch Nicolas Cage stepping into Bela Lugosi’s cape. Nicholas Hoult works well as the beleaguered Renfield dreaming of freedom, though he perhaps leans too far into the everyman role. Cage naturally revels in an entirely evil character and theatrical overacting even through layers of prosthetics. Unfortunately this energy is paired with a hackneyed B-plot as Awkwafina’s traffic cop tries to take down a crime family to avenge her murdered father. It does little other than provide an excuse for Renfield to engage in cartoonish action sequences where unexpected gore is frequently a punchline in a similar way to The Boys. Director Chris McKay has comedy experience — he edited The Lego Movie and directed Lego Batman — but it tends to be the visual gags and physical humour that land. Renfield tries to breathe fresh life into the lore of Dracula, and it does so briefly, but this is a reanimated corpse rather than a resurrection.
A ridiculous vanity project from consummate rock star Dave Grohl, Studio 666 is a campy horror comedy inspired by the likes of Sam Raimi, with a wafer thin plot about the Foo Fighters recording their tenth album in a haunted house. If it were not clear from the title, the audience should know what to expect from a brutal murder in the opening seconds and the fact that the opening credits include “make-up and animatronic effects” — it’s that sort of movie, punctuated with gory deaths to make up for schlocky writing. Grohl was clearly the driving force behind the project and he commits fully, relishing the opportunity to skewer his own image. The rest of the band seems to be along for the ride, gamely enough though these men are all performers rather than actors. There is less new music than one might hope, and Studio 666 features a heavier, more thrash metal sound than the Foo Fighters have ever produced. The spectre which hangs over Studio 666 is drummer Tayler Hawkins’ untimely death just a month after the film’s release, and fans may struggle to separate this death-filled story from the real life tragedy. The small cast and essentially a single location also make it painfully clear that this was a COVID production, but that constraint serves to keep proceedings focused. Ultimately Foo Fighters fans will be vicariously entertained by the band enjoying thesmelves, but Studio 666 is average fodder that will be swiftly forgotten.
“Those who make lifetime a commodity make people a commodity.”
The first half of this German sci-fi thriller is an engaging examination of a future in which medical technology enables people to transfer years of their life, allowing the wealthy to rejuvenate themselves at the expense of the impoverished. Andew Niccol’s In Time (starring Justin Timberlake) was a flashier version of the same concept a decade ago, but Paradise makes its own interesting observations about capitalist society, meritocracy and class divisions, as well as the use of philanthropy to deflect criticism. There is an interesting lens on ageism as we notice our own reaction to elderly-looking individuals in groups of youths. Like In Time, the filmmakers do not trust the audience to find this sufficiently engaging and the second half of the film devolves into a formulaic and predictable action thriller after a woman has 40 years taken against her will. Throw in some poorly lit nighttime action involving a terrorist cell using Biblical imagery and it becomes more familiar Netflix fare — overcomplicated with uninspired execution. The score is a mixed bag, sometimes sounding like a budget Hans Zimmer homage, but elevating other scenes with a gentler blend of electronica and disquieting choral vocals. Paradise eventually returns to its more interesting moral questions by restoring agency to its main characters, though the ending feels rushed and incomplete. It is cogent enough to be thought-provoking in its commentary on society and mortality but Paradise squanders too much of its running time by underestimating its audience.
“I want to find a character who is difficult, on the surface, to understand.”
With an actress visiting a once-infamous family to learn details that will help her portray the mother, there is an argument for going into May December blind to the story. I won’t spoil anything that is not apparent within the first 20 minutes of the film. Gracie and Jae Yoo’s infamy arises from the fact he was a child when their relationship began but they have stayed together and raised a family. By approaching their relationship from the back — as their children are about to leave for university — rather than from the start, the script has a broader canvas and an ability to wrong-foot the audience. Our perspective is largely Elizabeth’s as she investigates and gradually develops a fuller perspective by speaking to more family and locals, the score matching this mysterious tone with insistent strings and enquiring piano. The central performances from Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore and Charles Melton are nuanced and emotionally compelling, particularly in the parallels drawn between the leading women — both are manipulative, Gracie in her desire to control the narrative and Elizabeth in her search for acting inspiration. There are missteps, like the late “revelation” of a lie that ought to have been clear, but overall Todd Haynes weaves an excellent tapestry of ambiguity that leaves the audience uncomfortable as we evaluate the relationship before us.