In the order in which I saw them!
Good Madam: Post-apartheid South African horror, streaming on Shudder. A woman going through family troubles (Chumisa Cosa) and her daughter move back in with her mother (Nosipho Mtebe), to the house where the mom has worked as a maid for most of her life. Disturbing hints and events pile up: Is the house haunted? Who really holds the power here, and what do they want?
I loved the setup for this, and the use of tight close-ups on ordinary objects and moments really created a feeling that the social setting was the horror: every domestic detail is a cruelty. I did think there were too many kinds of horror here, not well-enough woven together, and the supernatural plotline gets resolved incredibly quickly and easily. Just come to your senses! It’s that simple! That kind of ending is never really satisfying. Still, this is definitely worth a watch if you’re at all interested in the setting or in servant-horror/horrors of class division and colonialism.
Wendy and Lucy: Incredibly hard-to-watch drama about a woman living out of her car, who gets stranded in a small Oregon town with her dog. You just basically know that nothing good is going to happen for an hour and twenty minutes. Promises a harrowing depiction of poverty and its Catch-22s and its moral judgment and shames, and delivers on that, so hey, you can’t say you didn’t know what it would be like.
The Black Phone: In 1978, a small town’s children are terrorized by a serial killer. But when one kid is kidnapped by “The Grabber,” he discovers that a black phone in the kidnapper’s lair allows him contact with the souls of the previous victims…. Spoilers below :/
This movie builds an extremely believable 1978, going beyond mere production design and haircuts to capture a world where violence is taken for granted. (Do kids still gather on the playground chanting, “Fight! fight! fight!”?) The whole world of the movie feels very lived-in. That was the film’s strength, for me. The Grabber is not particularly interesting; he’s neither intelligible nor a horrifying representation of all that’s unintelligible. He’s the excuse for the black phone to happen. Still, I was entirely willing to go where this movie wanted to take me… right up until the end, when it decided to sell the creepy message, “Violence isn’t just necessary, kids–it’s how you become cool!” The main kid (a soulful Mason Thames) goes on a journey from loser kid troubled by the violence of his world to cool kid who does violence because he’s cool like that.
Why not structure your supernatural intervention to prevent that trajectory? Why not let the kid stumble out into the sunlight, a tough survivor who has learned a lot about the awfulness of the world but still is not a killer? Lol I feel bad about saying this because The Black Phone is based on a short story by Joe Hill aka Stephen King’s kid, but you know who always understood that what children have to do to survive is hard for them, and their gentleness is worth protecting? Stephen King, that’s who.
Anyway why is St Francis such a fairy, etc etc.
La Llorona: The 1933 Mexican one! Viva las illegally uploaded to Youtube peliculas! A weird flick, starts strong with legit creepy close-ups on dying hands, then plunges into fairly bland costume drama. Really hammers on the postcolonial aspect of the story–La Llorona, “the weeping woman” eternally seeking her lost child, is also La Malinche, the Nahua woman who became a conquistador’s consort. Her attacks on respectable Mexican families are explicitly shown as the vengeance of the servant class. That’s bad, in this movie, which makes the ending unsettling: order is temporarily restored, but it’s a bad order, and your hope is in the ghosts.
Would make a great double-feature with White Zombie, I tell you what.
A Midwinter’s Tale: Kenneth Branagh directs this black-and-white, very 1995 tale of schlemiel actors brought to a church in the hinterlands to put on a Christmas Hamlet. Buzzsaw-speed dialogue, cynicism as airy and sweet as cotton candy, and deep love of The Theatreeeeee: if you like “Slings and Arrows,” this film offers many of the same pleasures, and if you enjoyed this movie, you absolutely must check out S&A immediately. I didn’t think the film managed the transition from cynical comedy to heartstring-tugging as deftly as S&A usually does–its heartfelt elements were a bit shopworn–but it was still a real pleasure. Loved the dotty set designer (“Smoke. People–in space–in smoke”), loved the acting advice (if you forget your lines in Shakespeare, just say, “Crouch we here, and lurk”), loved the acting exercises and the unexpectedly-existential theme song, “Why Must the Show Go On?”
The Death of Stalin: Rewatch, and this time what I noticed most was the clear lineage from Armando Iannucci to his writing collaborator Jesse Armstrong’s current project, “Succession.” TDOS is in fact also about a succession, it’s got the same ferocious gallows humor of lackeys catering to a dictator’s most bizarre whims while people suffer in the background, and there’s a boardroom-vote scene that basically just is the season one attempted coup at Waystar Royco. It’s a comedy about people with terrible priorities: caring too much about trivia (because you have to or you’ll die), realizing that you have become trapped in a phantasmagoria where meaning is painted onto your life the way shadows are painted on the sets in Expressionism, and the painters are the worst painters in the world, but they’re painting with blood so what can you do? There’s an inherent absurdity in abusive situations because everybody involved is Wile E. Coyote sprinting out over the void, where the imago Dei borne by every individual human being is the chasm you can’t look at or you’ll fall.
Also Steve Buscemi is just a joy, as always. The moment where he says, “Yes. Beria is the murderer,” and you realize that for a moment you really got sucked in to thinking that some of these guys are so much less-murdery that they’re almost not-murdery-at-all… gorgeous.
Spirited Away: I really did delight in this! I don’t know, if you want to see this lush and loping fable about a girl who must labor in the bathhouse of the spirits in the hopes of rescuing her parents, you’ve probably already watched it. But as a latecomer to the party I’ll say that it is not only truly beautiful to look at, its aesthetic delights are perfectly-paced: cavalcades of grotesquerie punctuated by quiet, haunting moments that let the weird beauty of it all sink in. Both loping and lilting, somehow.
The underlying worldview is… weird, there seems to be a theme of work, a theme in which forced labor and being mistreated and insulted all turn out to be charming in the end, but setting that aside, I loved this and look forward to revisiting it.