Director: Aurora Gossé
Cast: Liv Elvira Kippersund Larsson, Sturla Harbitz, Anne Marit Jacobsen, Andrea Bræin Hovig, Anders Baasmo, Cengiz Al, Frida Ånnevik, Viljar Knutsen Bjaadal
Synopsis: Shy, slightly awkward, bookworm-ish Mina does a 180 when she leaps into the audition for an Instagram-famous hip-hop dancer’s new crew. But the young teen must overcome inner demons and dance-world pressures to find her own way to shine.
Thoughts: Proving that even international films can trade in rote formula, I knew early into director Aurora Gossé’s Dancing Queen exactly where the beats would land. After 90 minutes, we arrived safely at the destination as expected. What surprised me was the sincerity with which Gossé delivered the material, helping to keep an easy-to-predict story feeling nimble. Much of the credit has to go to the leading performance of Liv Elvira Kippersund Larsson as Mina, a wallflower of a seventh grader who surprises even herself when she tries out for and is accepted into a newly formed hip-hop dancing crew at her school. With the encouraging assistance of her joie de vivre grandmother (a sparkling Anne Marit Jacobsen) and a determination borne out of a sometimes-questionable desire to fit in, Mina is paired with the most advanced dancer in the group, leading her down a path that can only lead to disaster…or can it?
I can’t forget to mention Sturla Harbitz (another sincere child performance in a sea of truthful acting) as the literal boy next door and Mina’s best friend that secretly pines for her and whom she completely ignores. Wanna guess how that turns out? The final act has enough emotional peaks and valleys to put you in traction, but it almost doesn’t matter when the credits roll because you’ll be too busy furiously dabbing your eyes. I’d hedge a bet this was an extremely successful film in Norway because it has a rich commercial feel. It’s the type of movie determined to wrap up all loose ends by the final reel and leave no emotional baggage unchecked and addressed. Ultimately, that’s great, though. There’s room for feel-good movies like Dancing Queen, especially when they have the textured spirit Gossé and her cast bring to it.
Director: Rodrigo Sorogoyen
Cast: Marina Foïs, Denis Ménochet, Luis Zahera, Diego Anido, Marie Colomb
Synopsis: A middle-aged French couple moves to a local village, seeking closeness with nature where their presence inflames two locals to the point of outright hostility and shocking violence.
Thoughts: Nominated for seventeen Goya Awards (Spain’s equivalent of our Oscars) and winning nine, including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, Score, Actor, and Supporting Actor, The Beasts had also collected a mountain of other high-profile trophies before it arrived at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. That made it as prestigious a screening as possible, so no wonder the house was packed for this 147-minute potboiler from director Rodrigo Sorogoyen. Filmed in French, Spanish, and Galician in Northern Spain, it’s partly a thriller in the vein of Straw Dogs paired with a dash of the backwoods hill-people protocol of The Devil to Pay.
Loosely based on the documentary Santoalla from 2016, Sorogoyen and co-screenwriter Isabel Peña form their film around French farmers Antoine (Denis Ménochet) and Olga (Marina Foïs) that have moved to a small village in the country around the same time the entire land is being eyed for sale to a wind-turbine company. Their vote against it nixes the deal, infuriating the lifelong residents that could use the influx of cash. Simmering anger begins as passive-aggressive verbal digs between Antoine and his neighbors, farming brothers (Luis Zahera and Diego Anido) who like to throw their weight around and who have made their distaste for Antoine crystal clear. A war of words turns to threats that become physical and, eventually, deadly.
There’s a unique structure to Sorogoyen’s film, and to say more than that would be to give away a major spoiler, but there’s a marked change in momentum when the shape of The Beasts changes. It breaks the movie into two distinct pieces, and I have a feeling there will be those that favor the first section, which is conceived as a more commercial thriller (and ooo, does it get the pulse racing a few times!). In contrast, others will find the meat of the film more satisfying in the second part. Personally, I felt the film started to put its characters in a spin cycle during the last 40 minutes. While I didn’t mind the extended length overall, Sorogoyen could easily have trimmed out 9-12 minutes of the film and started looking for what to cut in the second half of The Beasts.
It’s easy to see why the performances scored so big at the Goyas. Ménochet is superbly cast as the new kid on the block pushed to extreme measures to protect his home and family. As his wife, Foïs’s role is tricky to work with because it requires a lot of waiting around to talk until after everyone else has finished…but they had better listen when she does pipe up. I was more than a little fascinated with the sparks Zahera was emitting in his devious turn as the neighbor from hell. He comes across as more innocuous than his strange sibling, so he should be feared the most.
With lush but ominous cinematography of the filming locations in Northern Spain, Sorogoyen layers in a subtle score that acts like a trigger to get our blood pumping at just the right time. I’m not sure if The Beasts would qualify for an Oscar run in 2023 or if 2022 was when it would have made the run for the gold, but I’d hope Spain would offer this up as Best International Feature next year. It would be a solid selection for the shortlist, at least.
I Like Movies
Director: Chandler Levack
Cast: Isaiah Lehtinen, Romina D’Ugo, Krista Bridges, Percy Hynes White
Synopsis: Socially inept 17-year-old cinephile, Lawrence Kweller, gets a job at a video store where he forms a complicated friendship with his older female manager.
Thoughts: I spent a lot of I Like Movies with my hands over my eyes. It wasn’t because there was anything horrific about it or because I was starting to burn out after my third movie of the day, but there were so many moments in Chandler Levack’s Canadian shot/set film that I related to. And I’m not sure I was ready to. I remember being a teenager that found solace in movies and made a local video store my second home. My first adult friends were employees at Mr. Movies (where I later worked, partly because I hung out there so often and started shelving returns for free that the owner decided to pay me). I’d take a marathon movie night over a high school party evening out.
One thing is for sure; my home life wasn’t as complicated as Levack’s central character, intense high-school senior Lawrence (Isaiah Lehtinen), who lives with his widowed mother (Krista Bridges) and has one friend (Percy Hynes White) that he doesn’t treat with much value. When he gets a job at Sequels Video, he meets store manager Alana (Romina D’Ugo), finding an individual who doesn’t judge him for his intrinsic individualism, as off-putting as it may be. Levack and Lehtinen achieve the challenge of making Lawrence a person you want to root for and throttle, often in the same scene. Lawrence is never a true underdog, just a typical teen dealt some bad hands that flips the table when aggravated instead of attempting to find a new way of winning the game. There’s a nice snap to Levack’s writing filled with early 2000 callbacks without putting the audience in a time warp or leaving those out that may not be as well-versed in movies of that era.
I Like Movies is a genuine audience pleaser that tells a universal story while homing in on a specific niche. Lehtinen is an absolute wonder, tackling the role with a dark charm that doesn’t always serve him well in the intensely dramatic scenes but wins you over when it settles into gentle sensitivity. As the two central women in the film, Bridges and D’Ugo are superb, with D’Ugo drawing out an extended monologue so richly that you could hear a pin drop in our audience when it was complete. I like movies. I liked this movie. I think you will too.
Director: Laura Moss
Cast: Judy Reyes, Marin Ireland, A.J. Lister, Breeda Wool, Monique Gabriela Curnen, LaChanze
Synopsis: A morgue technician successfully reanimates the body of a little girl, but to keep her breathing, she will need to harvest biological materials from pregnant women. When the girl’s mother, a nurse, discovers her baby alive, they enter into a deal that forces them both down a dark path of no return.
Thoughts: Horror movies at film festivals can be a mixed bag. Some are classy winners, elevated by their arty vibe, while others are amateur slogs hindered by budget or lack of imagination. Existing somewhere in the upper quadrant is the juicy pulp category. This fun discovery is meant to be shown late at night and right after a Danish documentary about a family wool factory. That’s precisely why Birth/Rebirth was a damn delight to absorb at the end of a long day of good films, the true cherry on top of a Saturday sundae.
Director Laura Moss makes her feature debut with this treat of a medical horror-thriller. Avoiding the usual pratfalls of the genre by putting the story and acting first, Moss lets the gruesome gore have its memorable moments for maximum effect. That serves leads Judy Reyes and Marin Ireland quite well, allowing the actresses to go to town with the gonzo gaga plot involving Ireland’s medical pathologist experimenting on the body of Reyes’s dead little girl and bringing her back to life. When the girl is miraculously revived by science using questionable methods (to say the least), a moral price to keeping her alive begins to gnaw away at the Reyes…for a while. Working together in increasingly tense circumstances in Ireland’s small apartment pushes the women into dangerous physical and mental arenas where one girl’s life could lead to the death of many.
Distributed through IFC and Shudder, Birth/Rebirth represents the best of both companies. The smooth independent lens makes IFC a standout for finding confident voices like Moss to amplify. It’s a good-looking film that makes some distinct choices in editing that reward the viewer with a payoff they may not expect. On the Shudder side of the aisle, Moss delivers where the horror of it all is concerned but never goes over the top to turn her film into a sleaze and sinew show. The script comes across as intelligent enough to make the mad science sound mostly convincing; you can tell there’s been work put into the small details, with the filmmakers taking the first stab at poking holes into their logic.
Ireland and Reyes are giving two outstanding performances. Like, no joke. The film could have survived with lesser actresses, but it’s the strong beast that it is because of these leads. Add in Moss, and you have a trio of kick-ass women that got the job done on this horror endeavor and are ready to present it to audiences.