Two films that take sci-fi and horror cinema to unusual and creative places open this week. Also recommended is a winning back-to-school comedy.
“She Dies Tomorrow,” available Aug. 7 on video on demand, is an experimental, existential, inadvertently ultra-timely contagion thriller from writer-director Amy Seimetz. The premise, tailor-made for the 2020 time capsule, is that a feeling of imminent doom can be virulently and horrifically catching.
Like Seimetz’s lovers-on-the-run tale “Sun Don’t Shine,” the film stars Kate Lyn Sheil, offers genre appeal, and has characters driving themselves toward disaster. Seimetz has cited Agnes Varda’s death- and illness-themed “Vagabond” and “Cleo From 5 to 7” and Claire Denis’ “High Life” as influences for this movie, which also brings to mind “Coherence” and “Melancholia.”
In sprawling Los Angeles, Seimetz’s intentionally named Amy (played by Sheil) lives alone in her recently purchased home. When introduced, Amy is teary-eyed, drinking, and waxing morbid as she researches cremation urns online, listens to Mozart’s “Requiem in D minor,” and leans on the wall in pseudo-misery mode.
“I am going to die tomorrow,” Amy tells her friend Jane (Jane Adams), after stating that she wants her skin to be “made into a leather jacket” after her death.
Jane chides Amy for being ridiculous and blames Amy’s alcoholic relapse. But after leaving Amy’s place, Jane believes that her own death, too, will occur the next day.
At the home of her brother (Chris Messina) and sister-in-law (Katie Aselton), Jane, a sight gag in pajamas, announces her gloomy conviction. Soon the couple and their houseguests (Tunde Adebimpe, Jennifer Kim), plus a few minor characters, are speaking with the same foreboding.
The movie, a mood piece, contains a mere slip of a story. While Seimetz provides a hint or two as to the cause of the malady, the narrative’s overall vagueness will frustrate some. Resolution isn’t on Seimetz’s slate.
But at the same time, Seimetz reaps stimulating intrigue from the mystery. Via compelling sensory and cerebral elements, as well as tangible characters, she debunks the notion that experimental cinema is inaccessible.
Flashing bold colors and pounding sensations convey psychological unraveling, and the characters have just enough of a personal story — flashbacks reveal a past romance of Amy’s, for example — to keep viewers involved.
Seimetz deepens the picture by considering big-picture realities, some uncannily of-the-moment: the inevitability of death; the dread surrounding mortality; the effect of isolation on sanity. She contrasts petty minidrama with existential anxiety and illustrates how facing death can make us consider life with refocused eyes.
Herself an actor, Seimetz draws on-target humor-laced (the film is funny) performances. Sheil, both entertaining dippy and dramatically solid in the role of anchor presence Amy, is particularly noteworthy.
In smaller roles are Kentucker Audley (Sheil’s “Sun Don’t Shine” costar), as Amy’s former lover, and Michelle Rodriguez and Olivia Taylor Dudley as two women facing their expected doom in laid-back style.
She Dies Tomorrow
Starring: Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Chris Messina, Katie Aselton
Written and directed by: Amy Seimetz
Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes
Horrors of the historical and the supernatural kind entwine in “La Llorona,” a socially minded and quietly spooky movie that calls attention to Guatemala’s Maya genocide by addressing the tragedy through the entertainment forms of a political thriller and a ghost story.
Filmmaker Jayro Bustamante, who addressed homophobia in “Tremors” and the exploitation of indigenous women in “Ixcanul,” looks at war crimes committed by the Guatemalan military during the bloodiest stretch of the country’s civil war this time around.
The film is also inspired by the Latin American myth about a woman who drowns her children, commits suicide, and is sentenced to wander the world forever, weeping. Bustamante and cowriter Lisandro Sanchez have reworked the story so that the children’s killer is the Guatemalan regime and the weeping mother an avenging spirit.
Based on real-life Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt, the movie’s chief guilty party is Enrique (Julio Diaz), an elderly, ailing former general who lives with his loyal wife, Carmen (Margarita Kenefic), their liberal daughter, Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz), and Natalia’s young daughter, Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado).
“Why are people saying bad things about my grandpa … on the internet?” the girl asks.
Wide shots of the family’s spacious, claustrophobic mansion suggest a place where ghosts could have a field day.
In the early 1980s, when Enrique ruled Guatemala, about 3,000 people, most of them Maya civilians, were killed or “disappeared” every month. When the film opens, 30 years later, Enrique is on trial for these crimes, but the guilty verdict is annulled.
Protesters gather outside Enrique’s home, demanding justice and chanting slogans. Their voices form an anguished chorus with hints of otherworldliness.
The supernatural element intensifies when longtime housekeeper Valeriana (Maria Telon) welcomes new housemaid Alma (Maria Mercedes Coroy). Aspects of the near-silent Alma’s personal story eerily resemble those of the eponymous mythical figure. After Alma arrives, the house floods with water, among other weirdness.
Spirits of Enrique’s victims increasingly haunt the culpable.
Zip and vigor aren’t Bustamante’s defining filmmaking characteristics. A higher intensity level, either above or below the surface, would have made the movie harder-hitting.
Alma, who brings to mind a less fascinating version of Toni Morrison’s ghostly “Beloved,” is more of a plot device than the compelling primary character she’s set up to be.
But Bustamante blends serious political content, domestic drama and horror fantasy smoothly and effectively. He scores additional points for highlighting a genocide of which few are aware. The film also serves as a call for accountability on the part of Guatemala’s military and as a condemnation of the country’s patriarchal attitudes.
Affecting moments stem from Bustamante’s realist and humanist sensibilities. The matter-of-fact testimony of an elderly indigenous woman who describes the heinous crimes that soldiers perpetrated on her village is particularly powerful in this regard. Also memorable are horrific wartime scenes that present the arrogant, classist Carmen empathetically.
Conoy, from “Ixcanul,” gives Alma a strikingly haunted look, which helps make up for the screenplay’s failure to develop her character more fully.
“La Llorona” can be viewed on Shudder.
Starring: Maria Mercedes Coroy, Margarita Kenefic, Sabrina De La Hoz, Maria Telon
Written by: Jayro Bustamante, Lisandro Sanchez
Directed by: Jayro Bustamante
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Opening Aug. 7 on video on demand, “I Used to Go Here,” written and directed by Kris Rey (“Unexpected”), is the latest comedy, a la young “Young Adult,” “Laggies” and “Liberal Arts,” about a grown-up who, facing a major personal challenge, goes back to school, or to a hometown, or to some other place conducive to regression.
In this case, we follow Kate Conklin (Gillian Jacobs), a 35-year-old Chicago-based writer who, with her debut novel and love life both flopping, accepts an invitation from her former professor and crush, David (Jermaine Clement), to give a reading at her alma mater. There, she begins hanging out with the 20ish students living at her old college house and behaving immaturely.
It’s all rather slim and unchallenging, but Rey has a sharp and agreeable comic touch and hits amusingly on some sweet and sour truths about what self-discovery when you’re in your 30s is like.
Jacobs, meanwhile, is endearing in the role of an incorrigible but likeable mess.
I Used to Go Here
Starring: Gillian Jacobs, Jemaine Clement, Josh Wiggins, Hannah Marks
Written and directed by: Kris Rey
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes