First watches: Discoveries in film | August 2023

Unfriendly neighbors, unfriendly ghosts, unfriendly robots, and unfriendly troops.

6 min readSep 11, 2023

Black Box (2023)

I’ve never been as fascinated by something so unutterably dull in all my life.

Since moving to Berlin, I’ve noticed a few cultural differences: jaywalking is frowned upon, you mustn’t throw away glass bottles, and there are very few coffee shop chains (gotta love Hauptbahnhof’s lone Pret A Manger). But more than that, society itself is structured differently. People often aren’t housed in blocks of flats, but in buildings encircling a communal courtyard. Everyone passes through this space, which leads to either a lot of ire and tense rivalry or, rather, pleasant give-and-take. Black Box tells multiple stories from inside one of these buildings, locked down for reasons unknown.

Armed Polizei block the entrance. Nobody is allowed in or out. The titular “black box” is a small office in the midst of this chaos, from which the redevelopment manager — Herr Horn, a controversial fellow — acts as leader by default. The confused residents first grimace at the prospect of another Covid lockdown, but soon turn on each other — asking who’s to blame. Is the danger outside, on the street, or inside the building? Paranoia sets in. Some residents question their neighbors’ behaviour while others fixate on fighting the landlord. It’s oddly tense, with commentary on rule-breaking, unconscious bias, stereotyping, and arbitrary extensions of power.

But, truthfully, you can get just as much excitement from looking out the window. Director Aslı Özge clearly has a lot to say, but finds the least exciting ways to say it. The acting here is almost unbearably naturalistic. Huge portions of the movie resemble a flatlining daytime TV drama, yet I was hooked. Perhaps I’d think differently if I actually spoke German, but the conversations feel realistic (i.e. mostly uninteresting) while characters mill about the courtyard, gossiping. I’ve never been as fascinated by something so unutterably dull in all my life. Still — I’d sooner recommend 2017’s Berlin Syndrome, which uses the same setting to greater effect.

Talk To Me (2022)

You’ll be asking your friends to “talk to me” about any details you might have missed.

Some horror movies adopt a jaunty sensibility, undercutting any sense of dread. Talk To Me feels a bit like another one of those at first but its jokes spring organically from its characters circumstances — unlike in latter Scream films wherein the writers seem to want to force as much meta commentary as possible, regardless of character or context. Here, however, the playful banter lulls us into a false sense of security, serving to rip the rug from beneath our feet once the titular phrase is uttered too many times: everything suddenly goes berserk.

Using a mysterious embalmed hand, a group of teens fool about conjuring lost spirits (possibly demons) by speaking aloud: “Talk to me” and “I let you in”. Directors Michael and Danny Philippou are restrained in showing us what Mia (Sophie Wilde) is experiencing afterwards. But as she plunges deeper into explorations of the undead, things become increasingly graphic. We can empathise as she’s trying to reach her late mother. But panic inevitably mounts. The words of warning shared earlier, in lighter, jollier moments sit in the back of our minds; unsure if Mia’s being brave or increasingly foolish.

None of this would count without an ending that feels resolute. Mia’s attempts to game the system only create weirder, more bizarre problems — and we truly grasp the consequences by the time the credits roll. Talk To Me does a great job of offering a definitive explanation, while quite expertly keeping the door open to sequels (and interpretation). Upon leaving the cinema, you’ll be asking your friends to “talk to me” about any details you might have missed. Good to see a new horror that’s bold enough to go grim and hopeless, without leaving viewers feeling empty.

Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One (2023)

Ethan’s just a “Groovy baby!” away from becoming Austin Powers.

The seventh installment of the Mission Impossible franchise is the first of two parts. But something tells me the story needn’t have been split. Much of the dialogue in Dead Reckoning “part one” is vague and circular, revolving near-incessantly around a mysterious key (which itself is broken in two parts). The key is needed to shut off a psychopathic hyper-intelligent artificial “entity”. In fact, there are far too many gizmos and doodads, and too many characters standing about explaining the plot. People don’t speak like this.

I know they’ve always been farfetched — clambering around on Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in Ghost Protocol, clinging to a plane during takeoff in Rogue Nation— but these movies are at their best when action propels story. Even in Fallout, panic, exhaustion, and surprise appeared permanently etched onto everyone’s faces, because the stakes had been set very high. Whereas here, the action seems to take place for action’s sake. This is still shocking and impressive — and actress Hayley Atwell offers a standout performance — but interspersing it with constant abstract chatter about keys doesn’t make for emotional weight.

Now faced with a nearly cosmic foe, Ethan Hunt should be at his most irrevocably stressed out, but he’s just a “Groovy baby!” away from becoming Austin Powers. Every set piece is insane, contrived, and overburdened. All the while, the script juggles double-crosses as if the territory’s never been explored before; whereas we know, in every movie, someone rips off their face to reveal they aren’t really who we thought. Hopefully “part two” makes up for this overlong, bland entry. That said — the music is top-notch.

The Inspection (2022)

A pretty effective indictment of the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

“If we kicked all the gays out of the Army, there would be no more Marines.” An erotic thought, perhaps, but The Inspection shows that being a gay soldier prior to 2005 was anything but sexy. And that’s despite various steamy shower scenes stuffed full with naked torsos. Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) is a homeless gay POC, booted out by his homophobic mother, seeking to find purpose — as well as a roof over his head, clean clothing, and a warm meal — in the army. As you can imagine, he’s out of the frying pan and into the fire.

This is a pretty effective indictment of the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy; solid, well-paced, emotionally-driven. Though, at times, it’s a bit too neat and polished; some of the core drama and suffering seems a little too easily overcome; a deeper exploration of Ellis’ inner world would have been appreciated. Rather, we witness fleeting conflicts with his straight, machoistic comrades, as well as a Dave Chapelle lookalike, instructor Laws (Bokeem Woodbine), who tries to drown him — you know, to build morale! Or something.

Some of the most impressive scenes are the quietest; Pope’s facial acting does a lot of the heavy lifting. His head-to-heads with his mother are frustrating, creepy, and heartbreaking. It’s interesting to see him suppress his feminine traits, only for them to escape in moments of heated agitation or whenever he feels comfortable enough to lower his guard — temporarily. We’ve come a long way, which isn’t to say a movie about gay men in the army in 2023 would be all sunshine and lollipops. But neither would you have seen this movie receive such a widespread release in 2005.

Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One (2023)

Honorable mentions:

  • Saw: The Original Short Film (2003) —James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s first foray into the philosophy of the Jigsaw killer.
  • Doodlebug (1997) — Christopher Nolan’s first short, which is typically topsy-turvy and, as expected, mind-bending.
  • Floats (2013) — a fascinating, meditative short from skilled animator Idan Barzilay.

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