Written by Tom Augustine.

At the recently concluded Venice Film Festival, Pablo Larraín’s El Conde was the recipient of the Best Screenplay Award. A divisive film, El Conde reimagines an alternate history where Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was in fact a 250-year-old vampire. Larraín is the director of fantastic films such as Jackie, Spencer and the vastly underrated Ema. Believe it or not, even though it just premiered at Venice, you can now watch it on Netflix. You’d be forgiven for not knowing that, as El Conde, like so many modern films, have fallen into the black hole of straight-to-streaming. In the whirling morass of content that streaming services offer, the specialness of these films is all but deactivated, their cultural footprint washed away in a moment. Most of these films are films not in the English language, or lack big names in their cast, or are in some way or another considered too much of a risk to release wide, and so they vanish. It’s rare that I find my way to Netflix these days, but in the past week or so the sheer number of fascinating titles at risk of fading from sight just as they emerge was so great that I found myself venturing within. Two more – Fair Play and Amazon Prime’s Totally Killer, are dropping Friday 6th. All of these films are worth your time – some are among the year’s best. They all deserve better.


The Wes Anderson Roald Dahl Shorts (Netflix)

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar / The Swan / The Rat-Catcher / Poison

Is the short film having a moment? It would certainly seem that way, with two of the greatest living filmmakers, Pedro Almódovar and Wes Anderson, releasing shorts this year that are ravishing, powerful examples of this underappreciated form. Almódovar’s Strange Way of Life, a gorgeous Western love story, is enjoying a cinema release currently – deservedly, with its sweeping vistas and vivid production design. Anderson, meanwhile, has crafted four shorts, all as part of his deal with Netflix to adapt a range of work from beloved children’s author Roald Dahl. Though known for his pleasingly nasty stories for younger audiences like The Witches and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dahl’s short story collections captured the author in a different mode, telling stories that stretched his moralism and plunged deeper into wild, often menacing territory. This turns out to be a perfect match for Anderson, whose work has grown ever more exacting as he’s gotten older, until his diorama-like worlds within worlds have virtually no peer in any other filmmaker currently working (save, perhaps, Roy Andersson). 


Anderson has already this year gifted us with the magnificent Asteroid City, but the sum total of his Roald Dahl shorts (which together make up the runtime of a feature) may be his superior work of 2023. The director has assembled a small troupe of performers – Ralph Fiennes, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ben Kingsley, Dev Patel, Richard Ayoade and Rupert Friend – who all take on multiple roles across The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, The Swan, The Rat-Catcher and Poison. In each, we see Dahl (Fiennes, with a grandfatherly manner) creating the story. We then plunge into the world of the story, and sometimes then, as is the case with Henry Sugar, into a story within said story (as is Anderson’s style). These stories are created through movable, enormous diorama sets of astonishing intricacy. The sets change, often transporting us from one location to the next within the space of a single shot. The effect is not unlike the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer, though in that case the Wachowskis aimed to create a single, smooth moving image in the vein of anime through dazzling visual effects. Here, the effect is theatrical staging. 


Within the narratives of these films, we see Anderson experimenting with new moods and approaches that are thrilling to behold. This is the magic of the short film – it’s a sandbox with ample space to roll the dice on different approaches without as much risk. For Anderson, it allows drips of venom to fleck his well-established melancholy and gentle demeanour. In The Swan, a profound story of the contradictory cruelty and nobility of pre-teen boys, two lads in possession of a gun exact Funny Games-style tortures on another boy, to see how far they can push him. In The Rat-Catcher, Anderson experiments with horror, telling a spine-tinglingly creepy little story of a rat-like man who seems to have an intrinsic understanding of the rats he tries to catch, and the horrific bet that he enacts with two unassuming townspeople. In Poison, Anderson crafts something akin to a thriller, as two Indian men – a doctor and a colonial trooper – attempt to rescue a British man from the clutches of a deadly snake that has fallen asleep on his chest. All are startlingly well-executed, with The Rat-catcher leaving the greatest impression, particularly in Fiennes’ terrifying ratman creation (though special mention should be made, too, of Rupert Friend, spectacular in The Swan).


Then there’s Henry Sugar, a longer piece about a gambler (Cumberbatch) who discovers in a small book in a library a method of reading cards without being able to see them. The act involves years of rigorous training, mostly of the solitary, meditative variety, after which this callous and greedy man begins to discover transcendence. Sugar is a remarkable work, showcasing the best of both Anderson and Dahl. The moving, minor-key story weaves a dazzling spell, one that drizzles gently over the viewer until they are enraptured. Throughout the four shorts, Anderson utilises direct address to the camera, his actors telling the story of the film as they are acting the film. It’s a method that would be impossible to sustain in a feature, but works wonders here, an arresting method that locks the viewer in, much in the way a bedside story woven by a master storyteller might. It’s difficult to declare the Roald Dahl shorts as the best work Anderson has done in years, considering the depth and power of The French Dispatch and Asteroid City, and yet, the magic of these shorts lingers in my mind, a reminder that a new shade in the hands of a great master can pry open entirely new worlds at which to marvel

Rating: Five stars.


No One Will Save You (Disney Plus)

Over on Disney Plus, a delightful, pulse-pounding alien invasion thriller practically designed for the big screen has been relegated to the sidelines. No One Will Save You is the promising sophomore feature of Brian Duffield, drawing from Spielberg, Shyamalan and Peele’s Nope for a clever thriller that wears out its welcome only slightly, and is propped up by a stellar performance from Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart, Ticket to Paradise). Dever is Brynn, a peculiar young woman living in solitude in a country house and shunned from her small town because of an unknown tragedy in her past. One night, her house becomes ground zero for an alien invasion, as a frightening little grey saucerman attempts to hunt her down for nefarious purposes. 


One of the big conceptual swings of No One Will Save You is a lack of dialogue. Most of the film proceeds without it, relying instead on the action and Dever’s emotive, fascinating performance to drive the story. It works, for the most part, though it starts to get a little unwieldy as the film finds itself needing to resolve its dramatic setup. For the most part though, No One Will Save You is lean and muscular sci-fi horror, with fantastic creature design and more than a few set-pieces that will have you watching through your fingers. It should be a star-making turn for Dever, who turns in work with far more complexity and depth than expected in your standard horror heroine. Whether the film will get enough eyes to make that happen, though, is a different question. 

Rating: Four stars.

As the cinema world draws its breath to prepare for the plunge into Oscar season, a number of fascinating titles both great and not-so-great are being released with little fanfare to various streaming services. The best of them are good enough that you might question why they’ve been relegated to the black hole of the modern straight-to-DVD strategy.

Reptile (Netflix)

Between No One Will Save You and Reptile, Grant Singer’s labyrinthine murder mystery, one of the great problems of the streaming era emerges – great established actors and promising newcomers receiving less and less oxygen to either mount comebacks or go on and become major players in their own right. In Reptile, this actor is Benecio Del Toro, one of the most deceptively seductive actors of his generation, unjustly denied an Oscar for his turn in Villeneuve’s Sicario. I mention that film because Reptile is a thriller that draws liberally from the well of Villeneuve’s work, in both aesthetic and narrative. Del Toro plays Tom Nichols, a small-town detective with a murky past who is drawn into an investigation of the murder of a local real estate agent. Her husband (Justin Timberlake, the film’s weakest link) is the prime suspect – but did he do it? 


The strongest touchstone for Reptile is, naturally, Villeneuve’s Prisoners, which shares Reptile’s semi-gothic tendency toward darkness and shadows. I’m no great Villeneuve fan, but there’s no denying that his direction packs a hell of a punch when it needs to – not a bad inspiration for a dark, twisted thriller such as this. Sadly, Reptile lacks the courage of its convictions, becoming so mired in the ins and outs of its mystery that it forgets to have anything meaningful to say. Del Toro’s Nichols is an intriguing creation, enlivened by the actor’s natural mysterious magnetism. As his wife and confidant, Alicia Silverstone is a surprisingly compelling foil, and the scenes between the two are among the film’s best. By the time the mystery is resolved, though, a hollowness has set in to Reptile’s construction, which unfortunately manifests as wispy forgettability. 

Rating: Two and a half stars.

Streaming Roundup Reptile (Singer, 2023) / No One Will Save You (Duffield, 2023) / The Wes Anderson Roald Dahl Shorts (2023)

Movie title: Streaming Roundup Reptile (Singer, 2023) / No One Will Save You (Duffield, 2023) / The Wes Anderson Roald Dahl Shorts (2023)

Movie description: As the cinema world draws its breath to prepare for the plunge into Oscar season, a number of fascinating titles both great and not-so-great are being released with little fanfare to various streaming services. The best of them are good enough that you might question why they’ve been relegated to the black hole of the modern straight-to-DVD strategy.

Date published: October 6, 2023

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