Vampires, Assassins, and Romantic Angst by the Seaside: Takoma Reviews

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The vampires are allegories for something.
The assassins are all searching for redemption.
The romantic angst by the seaside is largely very, very gay. (I've been on a Jarman kick).


Vengeance, 2022

Ben (BJ Novak) is a writer living in New York and dating a rotating cast of women. One night he gets a call that a woman he dated, Abby (Lio Tipton), has died. Ben goes to Abby’s small hometown in Texas, where it becomes clear that Abby’s family believes he was Abby’s boyfriend. Soon after his arrival, Abby’s brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) drafts Ben into a plan to investigate and avenge Abby’s death, certain that she did not accidentally overdose as reported.

This comedy mystery has some decent moments of levity, but it doesn’t quite pull off its main character arc in a satisfying way.

The film is at its best when it’s gently skewering Ben’s pretentiousness and his implicit assumption that he’s smarter, more cultured, and just better than Abby’s family and the rest of the town’s inhabitants. In one scene, he nods along as a local record producer, Quentin (Ashton Kutcher), laments the fact that people post pictures of Audrey Hepburn without actually having seen her films. Later, Ben references Chekov’s Gun, and when Abby’s sister Paris (Isabella Amara) notes that she doesn’t think there was a gun in any plays she read from Chekov, Ben concedes that he’s never actually read anything by the man.

I also appreciated the film’s point about the exploitative nature of a lot of true crime content, and specifically the seemingly infinite number of true crime podcasts. Speaking with his editor back in New York (a wonderful, very welcome Issa Rae), Ben constantly refers to Abby’s family as “characters”. Their grief---the loss of their family member--isn’t nearly as important to him as getting quirky soundbites of them professing their love for Whataburger. It is dehumanizing to Abby’s family and to Abby herself, made all the worse because Abby’s family is so open with Ben because they believed he loved and cared for Abby. As Ben digs deeper into Abby’s life, he discovers depths to a woman he cast aside and forgot about.

I really enjoyed the cast, especially the actors who played Abby’s family. In addition to Amara and Holbrook, Dove Cameron as her little sister, Eli Bickel as her little brother, and J. Smith-Cameron as her mother all make a strong impression. The performances and the script keep them from being flattened into twangy stereotypes.

But fundamentally, the film seems to be a bit conflicted about its small town Texas setting and citizens. Early in the film, Ty tells Ben that unofficial policy is that you don’t call 911. Ty intends to find and kill whoever was responsible for Abby’s death. Ben discovers that the police, when they are minimally involved, write everything off as an “accident” and care very little for the frequent overdoses taking place in their town. With the exception of the character who turns out to have been involved in Abby’s death, everyone is shown as just hunky-dory nice people. Even characters who did something that could have killed (and did seriously injure) a person are let off the hook with a wink and a shrug.

I was also conflicted on BJ Novak playing the lead role, which seems like it would be more suited to someone about 10 years his junior. On one hand, it speaks to the immaturity of the character that he’s in his 40s but still talking philosophical nonsense at parties. But on the other hand, the quest to go and define America using a podcast feels much more in line with a younger character. He’s fine, and his comic timing is good, but it makes the film (which he also wrote and directed) feel a bit like a vanity project, especially considering the way it concludes.

Also, and maybe this is just me, I kind of wish there had been more of an actual mystery? It’s immediately obvious who is responsible, even without the law of economy of characters pitching in. I liked a scene where Ben confronts a local drug dealer named Sancholo (Zach Villa) and the conversation that follows. The film could have used more moments like that.

Overall a decent comedy-mystery, but it doesn’t feel like it makes the most of its premise.

Samurai 1: Musashi Miyamoto, 1954

Tazeko (Toshiro Mifune) and Matahachi (Rentarô Mikuni) are fighters who find themselves on the losing side of a battle between two large clan groups. On the run, they end up in the care of a widow and her daughter. While Matahachi has a betrothed waiting for him back home, Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa), he ultimately runs off with the two women. It is Tazeko who returns home, only to face a village that is hostile and suspicious of him. Only a local priest, Takuan (Kuroemon Onoe) seems interested in justice.

This is a fun, frothy mixture of action-adventure, romance, and drama. It serves well as its own story, but also in setting up the trilogy of which it is the first part.

There is something really engaging about the different cycles of disillusionment, awareness, and enlightenment that the main characters go through, and how they meet at different points in those cycles. Tazeko begins the film in a bitter mindset, having been part of the losing side in the big battle. Abandoned by Matahachi, Tazeko returns home only to find himself unwelcome. Faced with Matahachi’s mother and fiance, Otsu, Tazeko cannot bring himself to say that Matahachi has run off with the widow and abandoned them. And on Otsu’s side of things, she waits faithfully for Matahachi, eventually realizing that Tazeko has been shielding her from that heartbreak.

The evolving relationship between Tazeko and Otsu is really sweet, all full of youthful idealism, misery, and passion. It’s even more enjoyable the way that it is framed as taking place under the knowing eye of Takuan, the wise priest. “I don’t know much about love,” he demurs at one point, despite having basically played matchmaker between Tazeko and Otsu. When the young people are heading into rash decisions, you get the sense that he’s always one step ahead of them, either allowing their actions or gently steering them off-course when needed.

The movie also looks pretty good, making great use of color. We get lush green forests, and dark shadowed barns. We get a lovely shot of long reels of fabric being washed in the ocean like long jellyfish tendrils. I particularly loved a shot of the fugitive Tazeko emerging from the night blue dark woods into the warm light of a fire where Otsu and Takuan wait.

The performances are all very good. Mifune was always good at playing characters who are skilled, but also have something to learn. Yachigusa is very sweet as Otsu, and she is easy to root for as she unpacks the way that Matahachi’s betrayal has impacted her. Onoe is a lot of fun as the priest who gently but firmly points the lovers away from danger and toward each other.

A fun action-romance that definitely leaves you ready for the rest of the series.

Samurai 2 Duel at Ichijoji Temple, 1955

Picking up a few years after the end of the first film, Musashi (Toshiro Mifune) has been on the road honing his skills as a fighter. While his swordsmanship has improved, he is chastised by some of his elders for not understanding the chivalrous aspect of being a samurai. Arriving in town to challenge the head of a famous school, Seijuro (Akihiko Hirata), Musashi once again encounters his former flame Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa). Also in town is the friend who betrayed him, Matahachi (Sachio Sakai), as well as Akemi (Mariko Okada), the daughter of the women Matahachi ran off with and who still believes Musashi will be with her.

This was a fun, albeit plot-heavy, follow up to Samurai 1, with all of the action and romantic angst of the first film dialed way, way up.

The Musashi of this film is more controlled and mature than the man we saw in the last film, but he’s still trying to sort out exactly what it means to be a real samurai. He has honed his technical skills, but is still vulnerable to emotion and unable to really understand those around him, especially the women in his life.

As with the last film, the acting is all very solid. Mifune is good in the lead role, letting Musashi be someone you can root for while also being a bit frustrating at times. Yachigusa is sympathetic as Otsu, a woman who has given years of her life to waiting for a man who might no longer want her. The way that Otsu and Musashi’s uncertainty bounce off of each other is engaging and frustrating. Hirata makes Seijuro the kind of antagonist where you count the minutes until someone puts him in his place. Okada has maybe the most challenging role as Akemi, whose behavior makes her an impediment to our protagonists, despite the fact that she’s treated unfairly by just about everyone in the film. Koji Tsuruta is mostly enjoyable as enigmatic swordsman Sasaki.

There’s a neat dynamic to the film where the whole movie builds to a duel between Musashi and Seijuro. Both out of his own cowardice and the urging of his underlings, Seijuro does his best to dodge actually having to fight Musashi. This involves various plots and schemes, including setting up traps and underhanded ambushes. At every turn, fate or secondary characters intervene to keep Musashi as a threat to Seijuro. But along the way there are prices to be paid, including Seijuro punishing Akemi for her love for Musashi by raping her while her mother and associate listen on but do not intervene.

I had a hard time with the way that the movie treats Akemi. She wants to believe that Musashi might run away with her, taking her away from the adults who want to use her as a bartering chip. And for her feelings, she is brutally assaulted. What is hard to watch is the way that neither the movie nor the characters seem all that sympathetic toward her plight. At one point she is overwhelmed and ends up passing out. She wakes up to find she’s in a hut with Sasaki, who then proceeds to act as if he’s going to rape her before declaring that he was “just joking.” Hilarious. Akemi has clearly become a bit unhinged but the movie constantly undercuts what she’s going through by focusing on how her actions get in the way of Musashi and Otsu ending up together.

But aside from the treatment of Akemi---which, again, is not totally unsympathetic but is definitely lacking---I really enjoyed this one. The plot does come at you fast and hard. The scenes cut from one to another at a pretty quick pace. As one small subplot resolves, another two leap up in its place.

Another satisfying entry that resolves major character arcs while still leaving room for the continuation of the story.

The Batman, 2022

In a grimy Gotham City, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Robert Pattinson) perpetually takes out his angst over his parents’ murder on the various big and small time criminals. But things escalate quickly when a man known only as the Riddler (Paul Dano) begins gruesomely taking out powerful players in the city. Working with Lieutenant Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) and a young woman named Selina (Zoe Kravitz) who is determined to find her missing friend, Batman must discover the identity and objectives of the Riddler and how it connects to his own past.

While there was plenty to like in this film, from the performances to some of the action set pieces, there’s an overriding sense of disjointedness.

I suppose a big part of how much someone likes this film will depend on how they feel about Pattinson’s iteration of Batman. I liked it. This is a Batman who is deflecting his own pain outward on a scale made possible by his vast financial resources. He calls himself Vengeance early on in the film, a nickname that Selina uses whenever they interact. This is the unhealthy compulsion of revenge mixed with escapism. Pattinson’s Batman is probably the least social of any version I’ve seen, spending almost zero time as Bruce Wayne, and even then only apparently by necessity. I also liked that we see that this is a Batman who is sometimes rough around the edges. When he takes off his mask, we still see the dark paint he wears around his eyes. A thrilling aerial ride from a rooftop goes from exhilarating to bad news very quickly.

I actually enjoyed all of the acting in this film. Kravitz is delightfully prickly as a woman who resents the way that Batman keeps trying to turn her investigation into support for his own. Wright’s Gordon falls more into sidekick mode than gruff authority, but he’s a welcome presence. Dano’s Riddler is appropriately unhinged and a good foil for Batman’s own roiling anxiety. I wouldn’t have ever recognized Colin Farrell as a character who is a precursor to the Penguin, but he’s good even under all of the prosthetics. You’ve also got John Turturro as a smooth gangster and Andy Serkis in the role of Alfred.

In terms of the plot of the film, I was very drawn in by the mystery aspect of it. There are cyphers, and subtle clues, and Batman has to unravel several elements of both old and new city corruption. Instead of yet another Batman origin story, here we get a Batman recontextualizing his origins. It makes for more compelling viewing, honestly, especially when so many movies feel the need to go back to the beginning for every single “reboot”.

But there’s something ultimately loose and unconnected about the story, which is too large in scope but without fully satisfying payoffs. Selina’s search for her missing friend is probably the plot I found most engaging and moving, and it does result in one pretty memorable confrontation. But somehow I didn’t feel very connected to the overarching plot about the Riddler’s mission, despite the mystery elements and the performances. And at almost 3 hours long, I really felt the length of the film in a negative way. I found myself wishing that they’d stuck to a more streamlined story, or somehow managed to abridged the stories they did tell. I also didn’t super buy Selina being genuinely attracted to Batman, but maybe that’s just me.

I’d definitely watch another Batman film from this same crew, though I can’t imagine wanting to revisit this one anytime soon.

Confessions of a Psycho Cat, 1968

A deranged, wealthy woman named Virginia (Eileen Lord) invites three acquitted murderers into a bizarre game whereby she will pay them $10,000 to hunt them down in the streets of New York. Agreeing for different reasons, the men scatter as Virginia tracks, traps, and attempts to kill them.

This film is an absolute hoot, and it lives in that special space where most of its faults end up being endearing elements to its kooky vibe.

All the praise in the world goes to Eileen Lord as Virginia, playing a woman who is unhinged but also scheming. Her money and social position allows her access to many resources that she uses to track down and kill her targets. She hits a maniacal tone that is perfect for the film’s bonkers plot and she’s watchable to the last frame.

There are plenty of movies out there where people end up being hunted by some rich or crazy (or both) person or group. What makes this film a bit different is that the people being hunted are total garbage. Yes, they are all killers. There’s no innocent party here who accidentally ends up in Virginia’s crosshairs. And in flashbacks we get to watch their crimes, including a man laughing as he injects a woman with drugs and watches her overdose. I’m not saying that you root for Virginia, per se, but being released from anxiety about the wellbeing of her victims allows the film to play out with a tension that is more fun than nervous.

The hunting of the men and their killings are an interesting mix of elaborate entrapment and bizarre staging. One minute Virginia is bribing someone to help her lure one of the men into a trap, and the next she’s flouncing around in a matador costume, ready to impale one of her victims. Virginia’s a wild mix of brains and brawn, and it means you never totally know what she might be up to.

The main downside is the 10 or so minutes of “sexy inserts” that were put into the film. In this subplot, a group of twenty-somethings are gathered in an apartment, having a laconic orgy. The scenes are, honestly, pretty boring. These characters don’t really factor into the main plot, and they don’t have personalities. There’s this hyper-awareness that it’s just women taking their shirts off to be groped by men who seem to intend to have sex without ever taking off their pants. If that floats your boat, great, but I was promised a maniac hunting men through New York, and every time the film decides to go back to the apartment of underwhelming sex scenes, it was like “No!”.

This is a short, sweet little piece of ridiculousness and I quite enjoyed it.

Thursday Next's Avatar
I never could get the hang of Thursdays.
I was hoping that the vampires, assassins and gay romantic angst were all in one movie. I'd definitely watch that movie.

I was hoping that the vampires, assassins and gay romantic angst were all in one movie. I'd definitely watch that movie.
Not a movie, but I will just point you at the 2020 Dracula miniseries (which is three episodes).

Jarman's Edward II gets you 2/3.

Small Soldiers, 1998

A boy named Alan (Gregory Smith) is astonished when he discovers that the new toys in his father’s store are autonomous and mobile. That astonishment quickly turns to alarm when he realizes that the soldiers are determined to defeat their enemies, the Gorgonites, peaceful fantastical creatures. With the help of a neighbor named Christy (Kirsten Dunst), Alan tries to save the Gorgonites and fend off the murderous soldiers.

While not perfect, this tongue-in-cheek romp from Joe Dante is better than expected and benefits greatly from a game cast and good effects.

Smith and Dunst make for engaging leads, both playing teenage protagonists who turn out to be capable and brave as they deal with the outlandish threat of the deadly toys. They are supported by a deep secondary cast that includes Jay Mohr and David Cross as the toys’ inventors, Phil Hartman as Christy’s materialistic dad, Tommy Lee Jones as the toy soldier commander, and Frank Langella as Archer, the leaders of the Gorgonites.

The effects are also shockingly good. Yes, a few of the parts with the toy soldiers start to skew into that uncanny valley, obvious CGI look. But for the most part, the animation of the toys and the way that they are integrated with the live action is really good. This is especially true of the Archer character. I think it helps that the toys are meant to have somewhat restricted motions and also have very visible joints, but I was constantly pleasantly surprised.

The tone and content of the film land in an interesting, very PG-13 place. On one hand, there’s the childhood fantasy aspect of toys coming to life. On the other hand, there’s . . . the reference to the Bataan Death March. It’s a movie that could be enjoyed by an adolescent or an adult.

I liked the film the most when it was in its more earnest mode. I liked Alan’s interactions with the gentle Archer, or Cross’s character enthusiastically talking about the potential for the toys to help children learn. At times the film’s humor could be a little grating, especially the Gorgonite who was inexplicably designed to be full of puns, which totally doesn’t fit with the peaceful creature vibe of the rest of them.

The film also lands some solid, if gentle, jabs at pop culture and marketing to kids. “That sounds like a lot of violence,” one of the developers notes. “Righ, so call it ‘action’,” retorts the CEO. There are also some gentle pokes at the American obsession with “military grade”, something that is still very present in today’s marketing to adults and kids.

I did get a little fatigued with the film going into the action-packed last act. I’ve never been all that taken by people fighting dolls/toys in movies, and this was no exception. The unending war movie references do help a bit in this regard, but I could still feel myself checking out a bit as the final siege began.

Silly, but largely enjoyable.

Bullhead, 2011

A man named Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts) finds himself in the middle of a messy situation involving the illicit use of hormones in beef cattle. As if this weren’t bad enough, one of the men involved, Diederik (Jeroen Perceval), was a part of a horribly traumatic experience from Jacky’s youth. As the walls begin closing in on the “hormone mafia”, Jacky is forced to reckon with the unresolved demons from his past.

This film is a painfully intimate portrait of a man turning himself inside out because of what he thinks he is supposed to be.

The story itself is an interesting blend of crime thriller and psychological drama. Jacky isn’t the real focus of the investigation, but he’s tangled up in the crimes and as we learn about his past, we understand the reasons he makes the choices he does. Part of what makes the film so difficult is knowing what kind of choices he’s bound to make.

Yes, this is one of those movies where someone you want to root for just keeps digging themselves deeper and deeper into a hole. Jacky isn’t at all to blame for the horrific thing that happened to him as a child, but his coping mechanisms are clearly not sustainable and he can’t separate himself from a concept of masculinity that is actively doing him harm. The longer the investigation goes on, and the more agitated Jacky gets, the more we wait to see if Jacky will cross a point of no return. Key to this dynamic is a woman named Lucia (Jeanne Dandoy), who is also a part of Jacky’s past. It’s through her perspective that we can see both sides of Jacky: someone who has love to give and who clearly needs love, and someone who is so angry that he is genuinely dangerous.

Jacky, as we see constantly through the film, is addicted to steroids and testosterone. It started as a medical intervention due to an injury he suffered as a child. But we see in flashback sequences how anxieties about “being a real man” were put into his head from that young age. Jacky is so convinced that he is incomplete that he buries himself under pounds of muscle and a duffle bag full of various drugs and supplements. If Jacky could see a way to being vulnerable, or compromising, things would go a lot easier for him. But he is so sensitive to any signs of weakness that he constantly backs himself into a corner.

I always enjoy Schoenaerts as an actor, and I think he’s really great here. For all his bulk and posturing, the hurt that won’t leave him always lingers right there in his eyes. He is a man who is always in a state of punishment---either punishing himself or punishing others. I also really enjoyed Perceval’s performance as Jacky’s grown up childhood friend, carrying around a guilt that sits adjacent to Jacky’s trauma. Dandoy is also good in her role, portraying a woman who is empathetic but wary in just the right proportions.

I will often give warnings about animal content, but in the case of this film I think it’s worth mentioning a sequence of violence against a child that is incredibly disturbing. The scene is not graphic, and it is a key plot point of the film, but it is harrowing to watch.

No complaints about this one. It’s a devastating character study sitting inside the framework of a crime thriller. This was the first feature film from director Michael Roskam, and I think it’s an impressive debut!

X, 2022

A small crew of adult film workers head out to a remote farm property to film an adult movie. Director Wayne (Martin Henderson) is confident that with actresses Maxine (Mia Goth) and Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow) and actor Jackson (Kid Cudi), plus cameraman RJ (Owen Campbell) and sound-operator Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), he’s onto something brilliant. But the elderly couple who own the farm, Howard (Stephen Ure) and Pearl (Mia Goth), are hiding some deadly secrets.

Despite doing a very fun job of playing with both film-within-a-film moments and meta-horror moments, this fun slasher left me just a little wanting.

Overall, this film is very fun, and the game cast really elevates it. A big part of the film’s plot revolves around Goth’s character Maxine having an “X-factor”, and it’s certainly true in the sense of this film. Goth has an undeniable presence here, and you can totally buy that Wayne believes she’ll be a star. Henderson as Wayne plants his character firmly with one foot in optimism and the other foot in pragmatism. Snow and Kid Cudi add a humorous spark in their supporting roles. Campbell’s turn as RJ, determined that this film will be ART, is a lot of fun, especially when he has a meltdown over his girlfriend wanting to participate in the film. Ortega’s Lorraine feels a bit slight, but she at least gets some really fun moments in the last act.

There are also some very strong visual moments. Not being anything like an expert in 1970s erotica, I can at least say that I liked the look of those sequences and the way that the color schemes were used. And on the horror front, there are also some great and creepy images. A fantastic overhead shot involving an alligator. Engaging shots combining background and foreground. And several moments where the characters are bathed in blunt, bloody red light.

In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I’ll just say that when it comes to the character motivations and how it connects to the bloodletting, this film actually has a very well-realized character arc for all of its major players. Time is taken to establish elements about Howard and Pearl that pay off later and keep them from being just random scary old people boogeymen. The movie even goes to a place not usually addressed in horror movies, and that’s the jealousy that older people can feel toward younger people not just of their youth/beauty, but of their potential and their experiences.

I also appreciated the film’s attitude toward its adult film stars. It’s able to poke a bit of fun at them, but doesn’t dehumanize them. There’s the old horror trope of the disposable, slutty character (and the male equivalent of the disposable bozo), but all of these people are the slutty ones, LOL, and none of them are disposable. They are all more or less likable, which adds emotional investment to their fates as the film progresses. It’s kind of a neat trick that this was a film where I cared about the characters even as I appreciated the over-the-top way that many of them were dispatched. I particularly liked the hard look that the film took at RJ, a man who rhapsodizes about the artistry of his film, but then has a little-boy meltdown when his girlfriend wants to participate. A lot of people have this unhealthy push-pull relationship with sexual personas, lusting after them and feeling contempt for them at the same time. The character of RJ calls out this dynamic and his bathtub breakdown was one of the funniest parts of the film for me.

Somehow, though, I didn’t quite get to a place of love with this one. I think that honestly, a big part of it was the decision to have Mia Goth also play Pearl in prosthetics and makeup. Why did they do this? The makeup, with all due respect to the people who surely worked very hard on it, looks like bad old-age makeup from the 80s. Howard and Pearl don’t look like real people. They look like younger people wearing a lot of prosthetics, and it’s perpetually distracting. There’s something about centering horror on someone elderly (and even emphasizing the “horror” of elderly bodies) and not even having an older person in that role that just feels off to me. I kept waiting for something to happen to justify it and . . . nope.

Altogether a fun film, but didn’t land quite as well as I hoped it would.

While I liked this more than you did, and feel it's one of the better Batman movies, I can agree with some of your issues with it; like a number of movies its length, it would've benefitted from being trimmed down some (down to an even 2 & 1/2 hours in its case) and having some of the plot cut out, since it felt like they were trying to slightly force an epic feel to it without that being fully earned, its "grimdarkness" felt a bit derivative without adding much of its own to the Batverse (I felt like I've seen the introductory scene where Bats says "I'm vengeance" or some variation of it a million times now), and it also felt like they were trying to have some sort of personal redemption arc for Batman where he learns to not just be a symbol of fear, but a figure of hope by the end, without properly following through with all of that journey, leaving some of that feeling overly implied rather than explored properly (say what you will about the excessive exposition of Nolan's entries, but at least you knew what he was trying to say there). Still, Reeves is a good director with a knack for memorable setpieces (particularly during the escape from the police station sequence), so I still enjoyed it on the whole in the end.

I still enjoyed it on the whole in the end.
I enjoyed it, but the last act in particular felt kind of messy to me. And a long movie with a messy final act makes it hard to maintain enthusiasm.

Antonia’s Line, 1995

At the end of World War 2, Antonia (Willeke van Ammelrooy) returns to her hometown with her teenage daughter Danielle (Els Dottermans). The town is filled with quirky characters, and through sheer force of will, Antonia and Danielle bend the small society around them to accommodate a welcoming, matriarchal compound. As the years pass, the relationships and dreams of those in the community are tested by forces both within and without.

This Danish film is an unabashed fairytale about creating the kind of society where the only real enemies are time and differences in desires, and how even those foes can be accepted as part of the natural order of things.

Antonia, brilliantly realized by van Ammelrooy, is the heart of the film, but the best testament to her character is the way that her bold spirit percolates down through the generations. Early on, Antonia makes it clear to Danielle that the institutions in place in the town---the church, the school, the tradition of marriage--will not define or confine them. As a young adult, Danielle decides that she wants a baby (but not a husband), and she and Antonia just . . . go about making that happen and meet some great friends along the way. Danielle’s child, Therese (Veerle van Overloop) is a math and music prodigy who also marches to the beat of her own drum. Each generation has her own desires, and it’s engaging watching how they support each other down different paths.

The women in the family are well matched by the people, men and women, with whom they build alliances. With pretty much just two exceptions, the film takes a positive viewpoint on all of the characters. Even the man Danielle hooks up with to get pregnant is cast in a very positive light, seen as an affable guy who we later learn is living the happy life he deserves. There’s also the local farmer who woos Antonia, a young man who grows up with Therese and loves her, and the local curate. There’s also the nihilistic man named Crooked Fingers (Mil Seghers), whose lamentations about the damned state of existence finally latch on via his tutoring of Therese. The film nicely balances its vision of a matriarchal compound without the need to put down men or the women who want a more conventional life.

I really liked the film’s approach to conflict. It would be easy to have the whole film revolve around pitting the women against patriarchal authority figures. Instead, both of the unlikable characters are dealt with in relatively small amounts of screentime. There’s the local pastor, who hypocritically rails against the sins of the women in the community, before being set straight by Antonia’s lover. The more insidious character is Pitte (Filip Peeters), a young man who Danielle catches raping his developmentally disabled sister, DeeDee (Marina de Graaf) in the first act, and who returns later in the middle of the film to cause more pain. But the film isn’t interested in watching the women slug it out with him. It’s also not interested in reveling in his misdeeds, and the worst act that he commits is left off-screen.

It would be reductive for the film to center conflict (and specifically conflict with men), and so I loved the way that the second half of the movie focuses almost entirely on the relationships and how the extended family handles the inevitability of aging and loss. The movie repeatedly makes big jumps in time---in one part Therese goes from being a teen to being in her early 20s. Each women descended from Antonia has her own desires and trajectory, and we watch them grapple with how to accomplish them. For example, Therese is very conflicted about whether or not to have a child, something that her lover clearly wants. Her true passion is mathematics and music, and on a certain level it doesn’t necessarily make sense for her to have a child. Despite the fairytale vibe, the questions the women have to answer about how they want to live their lives feel very grounded and relatable. The film is none too shy about the way that societal constructs keep people from being happy---such as a subplot about a Catholic and Protestant who live in adjacent apartments and love each other but won’t get together because of their difference in religion--and looking at an ideal world where people can push such constructs aside.

Visually, I found the film very delightful. There are several overt fantasy sequences, such as a statue of Jesus turning to look at Danielle, or a stunning moment where Danielle (who is one of the better realized queer characters I’ve seen in a hot second) envisions Therese’s teacher as Aphrodite emerging from the sea. There’s this great mix in the portrayal of the village between the kind of quirky design you see in a film like Delicatessan and a sense of reality. Also, love forever to any movie that’s willing to put a range of bodies on display with the understanding that they are beautiful. A sequence where four very different couples all enjoy some conjugal fun was sweet and funny.

My only critique with this one is that, while I understand their necessity in the story, I didn’t love the time jumps. This might just be me, but big jumps in time often have the effect of making me feel a bit disconnected from a story. Obviously without the time jumps the movie would be a billion hours long, but I still felt a strange kind of disappointment every time the narrator would say “Years passed . . .”. There are also a few times where the male characters in the village are used almost like a deux ex machina. I don’t mind it in the sense that Antonia and her family have more than earned their loyalty, but at times it feels like it’s letting those characters do the dirty work so that Antonia’s hands stay clean. (Although those moments are incredibly satisfying, so . . . ).

Just a real delight. Joyful and bittersweet all in the same breath.