Movie Review ~ In the Earth



The Facts:  

Synopsis: As the world searches for a cure to a disastrous virus, a scientist and park scout venture deep in the forest for a routine equipment run. Through the night, their journey becomes a terrifying voyage through the heart of darkness, the forest coming to life around them. 

Stars: Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, Hayley Squires, Reece Shearsmith, John Hollingworth, Mark Monero 

Director: Ben Wheatley 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 107 minutes 

TMMM Score: (5/10) 

Review:  We’re officially over a year into this pandemic and while we’re marking a number of milestones in our own lives, we also look outside our own bubble for the lasting effects this global crisis has had on our previous normalcy.  If you’re reading this (and this review in particular), odds are you’re a movie fan that has felt the sting of not being able to go to the theater as much to see film and likely consumed a great deal of releases that were completed long before the lockdown began.  While we’ve already seen several movies filmed when the restrictions on the wide shut-downs were eased (Songbird, Malcolm & Marie), over the next few months we can expect to see a new crop of titles that were conceived, filmed, and released during the COVID-19 epidemic.  Some will have nothing to do with the virus or make mention of it at all while others, like writer/director Ben Wheatley’s new horror film In the Earth, will make it integral to their plot. 

I’ve definitely had my ups and downs with Wheatley over the years, with the early high points (2011’s unforgettably cruel Kill List) giving way to harder to take lower points (2015’s cuckoo High-Rise), which led to 2020’s par-baked remake of Rebecca on Netflix that I sort of liked but was mostly dismissed by everyone else.  Before he jumps into his first big blockbuster film (a sequel to The Meg for Warner Brothers), Wheatley took the time during lockdown to write In the Earth and then went ahead and gathered the crew and made the thing.  The result is another uneven effort from the always off-balance director who demonstrates again that he knows how to start a film that sinks its hooks into you with a fierce force but can’t maintain his grip on the plot, allowing the narrative to go totally slack by the end.    

During a fierce plague that continues to throttle England, research scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry, Yesterday) arrives at a deserted forest lodge serving as the gateway to a larger area of woodland that has been made available for scientific study.  Intending to bring new equipment to a colleague, he needs the assistance of a guide to help him navigate the trails and terrain he is unable to cross himself.  Setting out with Alma (Ellora Torchia, Midsommar), an observant ranger who gets the feeling there’s more to Martin’s story than he’s letting on, the two don’t make it too far into thick before they are attacked during the night by an unseen presence.  

Without supplies (or shoes), they continue on, eventually meeting up with Zach (Reece Shearsmith, The World’s End) who has entered the park illegally but offers to help them in exchange for their silence.  Forgetting what their mothers always told them about going anywhere with a stranger, Martin and Alma agree to go back to Zach’s camp and it’s about then that Wheatley’s promising beginning starts to unravel, slowly at first and then quickly as time wears on.  There’s more to Zach than meets the eye and the same goes for the forest, which Wheatley has filled with Celtic lore and rumors about Parnag Fegg, a spirit of the forest said conjure all sorts of spooky what-have-yous and no-thank-you-whatnots.  These Blair Witch-y elements are all fine and dandy, it just depends on how you use them and how Wheatley chooses to weave them into the back half of the movie makes for a dizzying experience. 

Fair warning for anyone with light sensitivities, the final third of In the Earth features lengthy sequences of strobe lights and other visually intense moments.  It’s a stylistic choice that works in some respects (there’s a dandy shiver-inducing shot involving Zach and an axe) but fails in most others because it feels like a punishment to watch.  Even I had to look down or look away for a few seconds just to give my eyes a rest.  The arrival of a fourth character, Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires, In Fabric), initially steers the film back to its mysterious origins with a lot of strangely welcome exposition (often a sign of script weakness but here actually a boon after an onslaught of obtuseness) but it isn’t long before we’ve drifted back to the not as engrossing side of Wheatley’s tale where it’s all shock and awe showmanship.  That kind of filmmaking seems a bit beneath the director at this point. 

This being a Wheatley film, you knew the violence isn’t going to shy away from gaping gashes, flayed flesh, or other various injuries incurred in this trek into terror.  Though he tries to temper some of the more extreme acts with some humor, it doesn’t necessarily break the tension of the moment because we always know that Wheately will see it through to the end anyway, somehow.  In that respect, the production design and special effects make-up is well done as is Clint Mansell’s (Noah) unsettling score that could almost be considered a fifth character lost in the woods.  While the camera work also helps in setting the mood, cinematographer Nick Gillespie (Stan & Ollie) allows it to get increasingly frenzied instead of the jarring which would be a more sophisticated approach and still in line with the attitude of the piece. Performances are generally solid, with Shearsmith achieving a tough to maintain balance of menace tempered with a fair dose of dark humor and Torchia proving a compelling lead. Only Squires feels out of place in the quartet, but she appears so late that her presence is meant to upset the balance so perhaps it’s all intentional. 

Horror speaks to people on many different levels so for you, In the Earth might be that nice mix of pandemic panic leading to horrors we never could have imagined.  Or, if you’re like me, you want more follow-through with your features and wish obviously talented people like Wheatley, who proves over and over again he can gather the right people and conceptualize an idea, would get out of their own way. While it has brief moments of flight at the outset, In the Earth mostly never leaves the ground to achieve something bigger. 

Movie Review ~ Gunda


The Facts:  

Synopsis: Experiential cinema in its purest form chronicling the unfiltered lives of a mother pig, a flock of chickens, and a herd of cows with masterful intimacy. 

Stars: Gunda 

Director: Viktor Kosakovskiy 

Rated: G 

Running Length: 93 minutes 

TMMM Score: (4.5/10) 

Review: I couldn’t have known it at the time but I’m sort of miffed at myself for busting out my whole argument about how you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear back in August for my review of the dreadful horror movie The Pale Door.  I thought (correctly) that it applied in that situation but oh, do I wish it was fresh so it could truly make its debut here and now for Viktor Kosakovskiy’s languid documentary Gunda.  It’s literally about a sow and one could argue the filmmaker has made a 93-minute dialogue-free, scoreless attempt at a silk’s purse that winds up awfully rough for those going in with the wrong expectations.  Set your expectations correctly and Gunda may sizzle your bacon just right.  Fail to know what you are undertaking, and you best gird your loins for a long sit. 

I actually thought I would be able to take Gunda and not just because I’m kind to animals, read Charlotte’s Web at least once a year as a child, and am not so sure Babe didn’t deserve the Oscar for Best Picture.  I can take non-narrative documentary features just fine and honestly, who needs a score when you have the pleasant sounds of nature to make beautiful harmony throughout?  The use of black and white cinematography is always an intriguing choice and to be perfectly frank, after a series of loud and obnoxious movies lately I was looking forward to a step back from all that noise, feeling good and ready for a down on the farm kind of evening.  There was just one small thing about the film I failed to notice.  That I should have noticed.  That I regretted not noticing. 

You see, Gunda was directed by Viktor Kosakovskiy, the same Russian filmmaker who unleashed Aquarela back in 2018.  In case you missed that bore wonder, it’s another documentary without any spoken dialogue that explores water and ice around the world…and that’s about it. Just endless shots of water and ice and water and ice and water and ice.  You’d think from a production standpoint a movie like that would be impressive to look at, but it wasn’t even interesting enough to be distracting accidentally.  Amazingly, it has a high aggregator score which goes to show you pretentiousness wins out over everything else, including entertainment.   

I figured out Kosakovskiy was behind Gunda mere moments before it started and was prepared for a similar experience, wondering if I’d have to save Gunda a spot on my worst of the year list just like I had for Aquarela.  Happily enough, Gunda is more focused than its predecessor, with Kosakovskiy appearing more attuned to the subjects which have shape and some order to them.  Mostly about our titular sow and her new littler of piglets but occasionally drifting to other members of the farm like a one-legged chicken and some free-wheeling cows, all things that pass in front of the camera are presented at face value, nothing more and nothing less.  A shocking moment within the first five minutes feels like it needs some kind of visual coda, but Kosakovskiy frustratingly denies it to his audience for no real reason. 

Plenty has been made about the camera work being something to behold, but to me it didn’t feel any different than our highest level of nature photography.  Have any of these people even seen a program on National Geographic or the Discovery Channel in their lives?  I don’t need to see five minutes straight of piglets nursing, nor do I need a similar sequence repeated in random locations around the barn and acres of land they call home over the course of the picture.  One moment the young pigs are exploring their new surroundings stretching their legs and the next they are hungry and poor Gunda is on her side again.  If this were a film for young children, I could see some of the importance in guiding them through the growing process of baby animals as an educational tool. If Kosakovskiy had really considered his adult audience that would probably be undertaking his work, he’d understand most of us don’t need to see the same event over and over again to understand its significance. 

Everything in Gunda just takes time.  Lots of it.  Chickens walk s-l-o-w-l-y through a field, and you’ll feel each and every step they make as the camera follows practically each blade of grass they disturb along the way.  Again, in short bursts these are dazzling sights but nearly every sequence goes on twenty times longer than it must and that winds up robbing the original impressive awe of some of its magic.  The only passage that makes sense is Gunda’s effective conclusion which is stretched to an eternity…this time with real purpose.  It’s one of the main reasons why the movie is worth sitting through and will stick with you for a while after, bouncing around in your brain, unable to shake off its meaning and the part many of us play in it. Had the rest of the film justified itself likewise, Gunda could have been a valuable piece of art for all instead of a narrow-focused experiment for some.