Prisoners Of The Ghostland (2021)

Quick Synopsis: A captured bank robber (Nicholas Cage) is tasked with retrieving a Governer’s adopted granddaughter/sex slave in this Japanese-inspired western horror. At one point his testicles get exploded.

Is Nicholas Cage picking films based almost entirely on how fucking strange they are lately? I mean, I’m all for it if it produces stuff like Willy’s Wonderland. That was fun and strange and a one of a kind movie. This was, I dunno. I should like this film, it’s an interesting mesh of genres (western and horror/sci-fi), both of which lend themselves to going weird and out-there. But I just didn’t mesh with this for some reason. I think it’s because when I was watching it all I could think was “I would much rather be playing this and experiencing it that way”. When you do a mash-up of genres like this does you need to do it in a way that highlights certain things from both genres which best suit the story you’re telling. The story should be driving the genres, but this feels like it was done the opposite way. It feels like they got the genres, made them into cars, drove them into each other and then made a script based on the result. The film itself is too surface level, there’s nothing underneath the obvious what you see. No meaning, no deep beauty to it. It feels so in debt to its stylistic forefathers that it doesn’t seem to have an identity of its own. Outside of “modern Japanese western” it’s incredibly flat and one dimensional. Visually it’s not that exciting either. I mean, it’s got a lot of colours, but they just don’t POP. If you look at a film like Blade Runner and how they use colour it’s a visual delight. In comparison this just looks like a Lite Brite a few minutes before the batteries die.

I really don’t have a lot to say about this, because there is nothing to say. I won’t remember this film for too long after I saw it. Maybe this is partly because I watched it at the “wrong” time. I feel this is supposed to be watched with friends while drunk, cheering and hollering at the screen. I watched it on my own in the middle of the day. But I watched Come True in a similar situation and that pulled me in.

The issue is that there’s nothing particularly wrong with this film (although Bill Mosely’s performance seems kind of wrong, he never feels like a character who is in control of the situation, he always looks too nervous and jumpy), there’s just not much I could find to particularly be too invested in. It just exists. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a big mac, fine in the moment, but I would never really go out and hunt it down except if I was drunk. A film like this should not be quite as boring as this one is.

Nomadland (2020)

Knew nothing of this film going in, that’s becoming a running theme with these reviews lately. Truth be told I don’t actively seek out films, I don’t go onto film sites and search for recommendations. My knowledge of what films to see come from four sources:

  1. Trailers at the cinema
  2. Personal recommendation (is why I watched Love And Monsters)
  3. If it gets nominated for a lot of awards (Sound Of Metal)

My fourth one is the one I’ve used the most this year. And if you ever wondered how the hell I found some random films, it’s likely to be from this. I go onto https://filmdistributorsassociation.com/release-schedule/this-weeks-releases/ every week to look at the films that have been released that week, if I haven’t heard of it at all I’ll quickly google it and see if it intrigues me. That’s why I end up hearing about films such as Come True (very much yay), Blithe Spirit (very much not yay), and I Blame Society (I don’t know yet as I haven’t seen it, but it looks great). When I say “it intrigues me” I mean that I read a quick one line synopsis, if that hooks me I usually just add it to the list. So there’s a lot of films where I haven’t even seen the trailer (if I had then I wouldn’t have seen Mouthpiece as I’ve since watched the trailer for that and it did nothing for me, which is a shame as it would have meant missing out on one of my favourite films of the year).

So yeah, despite it being one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year (well, technically last year. I’ll stop using parenthesis soon I swear), I went into this knowing very little. Highly recommend going into it this way as seeing everything unfurl in front of you is a delightful experience. I say “delightful”, it’s actually horrible. This has the tone and look of an apocalyptic future. It resembles a word in the near future left ravaged by war. So when is this film set? 2011. That’s a stunning indictment of American capitalism.

But that’s not really what this film is, it’s not about dystopia and bleakness. It’s ultimately about humanity and hope. It’s about beauty and life. It’s about everything and nothing all at once. It feels all too real, but sometimes that realness gives you a warm glow inside.

The feeling of reality is helped by the cast, mainly because Chloe Zhao decided to cast non-actors, instead reaching out to people who actually live the nomadic life. Risky strategy, but it definitely works. These characters know the perfect way to play every single piece of dialogue, bringing the characters to life in a way that few other films could. I should also mention the way that Zhao shot a lot of it. She doesn’t go to make it look like a dramatic film, it’s shot almost like a documentary. Again, this makes everything feel real. It doesn’t often feel like you’re watching a film, but more like you’re standing there alongside them, it truly makes you feel like part of a community (then the film finishes and you’re back to a reality where you’re alone with just a cup of tea for company, and you cry). Considering this film stars Frances McDormand, one of the best performers around, making you forget that she’s an actor is something incredibly difficult to do. But both the talent of the film, and the talent of McDormand herself, make that easy to do.

I suppose it is also helped by being based on a non-fiction book (Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century) which I now need to read I think. You’d think being based on a non-fiction book would mean it lacks narrative. It kind of does, but also doesn’t. It’s not a standard “A leads to B, which leads to C” style plot. It’s the cinematic equivalent of just wandering around somewhere (almost nomadically you could say) and observing. Sometimes you meander, taking stock of what’s in front of you at that moment, sometimes you move forward quicker, and sometimes you stand still. It’s the moments where characters just sit around talking which are the highlights. A key example of this is a guy explaining how his son committed suicide. He talks about how living on the road means you never say goodbye, because you know you’re going to see everybody further down the road. That’s why he does it, because he feels it means his son hasn’t said goodbye, they’ll always meet each other later on. Just writing that bit and remembering it almost brought me to tears just now. That’s how powerful it is.

In summary, you really need to see this. It’s one of the most compelling things I’ve seen all year, and it deserves everything you could give it. Plus it’s available for free on disney+ right now so….yeah.

Undergods (2020)

I was intrigued by this. Anthology films are always really interesting to see. I like seeing how the different stories interact with each other and how the writer tells different stories in the same universe. Also it looked like it could be fascinatingly brutal.

It’s not though. It’s not brutal. It’s bleak, there’s a difference. There’s not really many “holy shit” moments, it’s just an unending sense of dread, the cinematic equivalent of a boot stamping on a human face forever, then laughing as they do so. I think that was what made the film not for me. It was just so bleak and nihilistic that I didn’t really care or get emotionally invested. I wasn’t even emotionally devastated by the bad things that happened to these people, I was just so apathetic that I didn’t give a shit. I don’t think it helped that two of the stories seemed somewhat similar, in fact, all the stories were so similar in tone there wasn’t much emotional difference between the three. It felt like it was just three ways of making the same point. I can’t really remember the stories themselves in terms of how they unfolded, I can remember bits and pieces of them, but none of them really stuck with me, which is a shame. I think part of that is a location. The stories, and the way the film looks (and more on that later) brings to mind more Eastern European work, something about it just screams “former Soviet country”, but the story is in English, just seems kind of strange.

Now onto the good: from a technical standpoint it was pretty damn impressive. The music was cool, kind of synth-ey in a way that made it seem both retro and timeless. Reminded me of Come True, which as anybody who has been keeping up with these reviews knows, is pretty high praise. The look is good too, the use of colours to create the universe is brilliantly done. I don’t know when they filmed this, it could have been in the middle of summer, but the use of colour and set design makes it look absolutely freezing. You feel cold just looking at it (which probably leads to me feeling it feels more like a Soviet state).

The messages are depressingly timeless too, the themes present throughout the narrative are ones you will always see in art that has something to say. It’s just concerning that it happens to people who we don’t care about, and is dependent on characters behaving in a very certain way.

So in summary, I’m much impressed by Chino Moya’s work as a director than I was by his as a writer. I wouldn’t be tempted to see a film he only wrote, but I wouldn’t hesitate to watch something he only directed. It’s a film you’ll be impressed by, but not one you’ll really feel anything for.

Come True (2020)

Usually when I see a film like this, I do the usual review and mention about how I love it, but never want to see it again. The best examples of this are Hereditary, The VVitch, and Vivarium. All three films I love, but I’m not sure I could get through again. This had a similar effect with how it made me feel, but weirdly I want to see it again. In fact, I need to see it again. It has one of those endings which I know will make me appreciate the film more on a second watch. It feels low budget, but in a good way. In a way where it feels like everybody who worked on it was pushed to their limit to create the best thing possible, a film made possible by true dedication to the art of film-making.

I apologise for those of you who personally know me, and who like horror and sci-fi movies, because I will tell you to watch this film, and I will tell you it until you watch it. It’s one of those films that I feel you really need to experience. Turn the lights off, sit in the dark, and truly let it take you into it’s world. I’ve said this about a lot of films but it’s especially true with this, the fact I didn’t get to see this in the cinema is a great disappointment to me as I feel that would have been the optimum way to watch this.

I suppose if i had to describe this in a word I’d say “retro”. The music and visuals all combine to make it seem like something from the 80s, but in a good way. Not in a way that seems dated, but in a “this is a classic film from that time that you are now watching”. It’s hard to compare it to anything else but if I had to? Dunno, maybe a smattering of Nightmare On Elm Street, Alien (not with the plot, but in terms of the visual aesthetics), along with a side of….I’m not really sure, but there’s definitely a third element which I’m familiar with but can’t quite place. In terms of modern films, the closest I can find to this in terms of tone would be It Follows. A weird throwback but keeping a modern sensibility to it.

It’s hard to talk about the plot to this film, without spoiling it. So watch the trailer first, then decide if you want to watch it. The plot isn’t technically important, in terms of, if this was a book I wouldn’t advise reading it. But the way the plot and the technical nature merge together makes a lot of sense.

Almost all of the greatness of this film is down to two people: Anthony Scott Burns, and Julia Sarah Stone. Sure, the supporting cast are great, but it’s those two that anchor the movie. Stone gives a performance that if this film was better known, would be considered starmaking. She portrays so much in this movie, the fear, the exhaustion she faces is all written in her performance. She genuinely has some of the best non-verbal nuances I’ve seen in a long time. On that topic, there’s a few moments where I’m uncertain if the acting from some of the supporting performers were really good, or really bad. A few incredibly subtle facial tics where you can tell someone is actually happy when they’re supposed to be putting on a front of being sad/horrified. Either it’s really bad acting, and the performers can’t hide their actual emotions, or it’s REALLY good acting and all those incredibly subtle facial movements are just great character work. I’m leaning more towards the second one, as I don’t think Burns would allow anything less.

Right, Anthony Scott Burns, time to mention him. I mentioned how much of this movies greatness is down to him. He wrote it, and directed it. Which is not too unusual, but still good to see. But he also did the music, and that is SUCH a big part of why this film works. The music sounds blue (if that makes sense) and suits the colour scheme. He’s insanely talented and not gonna lie it makes me a little jealous. Although I know a few people who are looking to do similar roles, and it’s nice to see that it is possible, and how it can help create an artists true vision.

So in summary, if you get a chance you have to see this. It really deserves to be on Shudder, but until then, find other ways to watch it, you pretty much have to see it.