This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
The midnight section at South by Southwest is often a fascinating array of styles that some programming committee thought would play well after dark. It’s not pure horror like some fests, skewing more towards the odd and quirky than the gory and violent. Sure, a few bodily fluids help, but it’s more a tonal thing, especially this year, which sees a notable lack of obvious high-profile projects like last year’s Blumhouse offerings “Upgrade” and “Unfriended: Dark Web.” For the most part, my midnight experience has been rocky at best so far this year, but there are at least few bright spots within the darkness.
Ninian Doff’s “Boyz in the Wood” is the kind of movie that undeniably plays better in darkness than light, preferably at an establishment that serves alcoholic beverages. Its best moments pulse with creative energy, propelled by a playful cast that includes the great Eddie Izzard. Its worst moments are when you tire of that energy, such as in the film’s many drug interludes and a musical number that I thought might never end. A movie this energetic can be a mixed bag, in that one admires the gusto for filmmaking on display but also kind of just wish it would catch its breath every now and then.
Four kids head out on something called ‘The Duke of Edinburgh Challenge.’ It seems relatively simple. The teenage boys have to navigate the Scottish Highlands from Point A to Point B and not die along the way. It should take about a day’s hike. The first problem is that at least three of these boys are, to put it politely, not outdoorsmen. They’re attached to their phones and more interested in their online personas than how to read a map. The second problem is that there’s a maniac out there calling himself The Duke (Izzard) who believes it’s time to cull the herd of the weaker animals in the new generation of teenagers. There are times when you may find yourself agreeing with him.
There are some truly inspired moments in “Boyz in the Wood,” enough to save it if you’re in the right mood and with the right crowd. Nearly every bit with the local police officers trying to figure out what the hell is going on and convincing themselves there are hip-hop terrorists roaming the Highlands made me laugh. The biggest problem with “Boyz” is maintaining this kind of in-your-face comedy for the length of a film’s running time. To be blunt, what Edgar Wright does is not easy. I started to get as annoyed with the style of “Boyz” as the Duke is with the kid who calls himself DJ Beatroot. But no one here, with the exception of perhaps the one kid with a head on his shoulders named Ian, is supposed to be particularly likable. I’ll say that “Boyz” does have one thing going for it in terms of Midnight movies: you certainly won’t be bored enough to doze off.
That may not be true for “Tales From the Lodge,” a well-meaning project that looks like it was a heck of a lot of fun to make, but that doesn’t mean it works as a feature film. This movie that could be shorthanded as “The Big Chiller” is purposefully ridiculous, but never quite finds the right tone to make its odd blend of horror and comedy effective. I hate to get this direct, but it’s neither scary nor funny enough to be a story worth repeating.
Abigail Blackmore’s horror/comedy is about a group of early forty-somethings gathering at an isolated lodge on the occasion of the death of one of their friends. They’re up there to scatter the ashes at the old haunt, and they entertain each other by telling increasingly ludicrous horror stories, each of which somewhat cleverly comes from the concerns of their actual lives. However, of course, there’s something actually threatening at the lodge, even if that’s the most ludicrous story of all.
“Tales From the Lodge” is undeniably tongue-in-cheek, fully aware of its goofy nature from beginning to end, but it also attempts to land a few resonant character beats, particularly in a few of the relationship dynamics. And those are where the film really crashes tonally (despite solid work by the always-welcome Laura Fraser). It also suffers from a common problem of anthology films in that not every story is equally interesting. And you can’t just go to the kitchen and pour yourself a drink like you would if it was one of your actual friends losing the plot, as often as this film tends to do.
Pollyanna McIntosh’s “Darlin’” could be accused of “losing the plot” on occasion too but I think that’s part of what people will like about it. In this case, the plot is secondary to the angry passion of the piece, a movie that never stops moving and tackles the patriarchy with bloody teeth. It’s an imperfect movie, but I admire McIntosh’s go-for-broke style and the ambition of this project, one that reminded me of George A. Romero in the way it tries to blend social commentary, pitch-black humor, and a heavy dose of bloody make-up.
“Darlin’” is a sequel to the 2011 Lucky McKee movie “The Woman,” about a feral woman (played by McIntosh) who is captured and tortured by a seemingly upstanding member of the community and his family. Using Jack Ketchum’s source material, McKee & McIntosh challenged the perception of what is civilized and what is not with that dark vision.
McIntosh’s update opens with The Woman pushing her feral, cannibal daughter Darlin’ (Lauryn Canny) into a hospital doorway. Darlin’ is filthy, naked, and doesn’t speak, but she’s cared for. The hospital cleans her and sends to a religious girls’ home run by a corrupt man (Bryan Batt), who wants to use Darlin’ to further the cause of the church. Look what God can do! God can save even the lowest creatures on the human ladder! Things don’t go as planned.
“Darlin’” could be called tonally inconsistent but I think its tone is meant to be “inconsistent.” It veers wildly from dark humor to vicious violence, which is in keeping with Ketchum’s writing, but the wild swings can sometimes produce whiplash in a way that pulled me out of the movie. I think that’s part of McIntosh’s intent, though. She wants to thrash you around, keep you uncertain, and then push you back into the cold night of Austin, wondering what the hell you just watched.
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