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Chasing the Gold: Zendaya Becomes Major Best Actress Challenger

The film landscape has changed so much in recent years that a film and a performance, with the right narrative, can be a contender long into award season. Voters seem to have much longer memories now. They have been ignoring films that attempt a final push in the last weeks of December for the films they’ve loved all year. Everything Everywhere All at Once was released in March of 2022, yet nearly a year later, Michelle Yeoh strode across the stage to accept Best Actress. The greatest performances often supersede time and space. Zendaya gives an immortal performance in Challengers, making her the top Best Actress contender of 2024 thus far.

There’s no doubt that moments after seeing Challengers, people did an internet search for Tashi Duncan. Her character is so indelible that she has to be based on a real person. Like Cate Blanchett’s Lydia Tár from two years ago, Zendaya has pulled off an acting feat of epic proportions. It’s refreshing to see a woman so three-dimensional from an original script.

Zendaya takes the reins of the film from her first silent moments until her final primal scream of ecstasy. She is the one who carries the heft of the story. Her machinations drive her “little white boys” mad with the need to please her. She broods with the best of them, and her silences say even more than each of her careful and cuttingly terse words.

The performance is one for the ages and shows the brilliant actress Zendaya has become. It’s impossible to take your eyes off of her, even when she’s doing something despicable. Zendaya’s Tashi has the power to keep us on her side, even at her worst. She never telegraphs a move. Only the subtleties in Zendaya’s expression give us the barest hint as to Tashi’s true intentions.

It’s obvious Zendaya is the frontrunner at this point, but she will likely have some stiff competition. The strongest contender so far is another child star turned prestige player, Kirsten Dunst. The loudest pundit voices have championed her understated but powerful work in Civil War. Her narrative is the opposite of Zendaya’s up-and-comer. Dunst has had an illustrious career with too few accolades. She’s due for more love with only one Oscar nomination under her belt. However, whether or not Dunst has a chance is hinged on how much love Civil War can carry through awards season. Even if Challengers fails everywhere else, Zendaya is too much of a presence to ignore.

Other actresses from the spring releases who could nab a nod: 

  • Regina King’s performance in Shirley will be in the mix. 
  • Kristen Stewart’s brilliant turn in Love Lies Bleeding is talked about but might be a tough sell on this ballot. 
  • Anya Taylor-Joy will likely have her moment in the blistering sun with Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga
  • Anne Hathaway’s charms in The Idea of You are undeniable.

Zendaya has a terrific narrative behind her. She’s the 21st-century version of the Hollywood actress. She can balance prestige TV as well as franchise films. Not only that, but she’s also a producer who is a fierce advocate for her films. Two of last year’s Best Picture contenders were produced by their lead actresses— Emma Stone’s Poor Things and Margot Robbie’s Barbie. With the press and engagements for Dune: Part Two behind her, Zendaya can focus the rest of the season on advocating for herself and for Challengers. There’s a good chance another spring queen will be walking across the Oscar stage this coming March.

Un Certain Regard, Cannes 2024: Capsule Reviews of ‘Holy Cow’, ‘The Story of Souleymane’, and ‘When the Light Breaks’

The Un Certain Regard (translated to “a certain glance”) section of the Cannes Film Festival offers a lens into the perspectives of the world. This section mainly consists of filmmakers on the rise and debutants, who are given the chance to premiere their new or first works and stamp their names in the history books. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see many of the films on this slate. But I caught a few of them, some showing potential and others not so much, yet there’s some cadence. In this capsule review piece, I will talk about three of them: Holy Cow, The Story of Souleymane, and When the Light Breaks

Holy Cow (Vingt Dieux) (Directed by. Louise Courvoisier)

The first film in this piece is Holy Cow (Vingt dieux) by French filmmaker Louise Courvoisier. Coming-of-age films always have a space in the Cannes Film Festival. But they often arrive as a 50/50 split of creative and by the numbers—with levels of artistry or, to put it slightly, plain, vanilla-flavored. Unfortunately, the latter applies to the aforementioned film, leaving me without much of an impression. The film follows Totone (Clément Faveau), an eighteen-year-old kid who used to spend his time drinking at local pubs with his crew in the Jura region of France, but after his father’s passing, his life has shifted entirely. He is left alone to care for his little sister and make ends meet to keep the house. 

To make a “quick buck,” Totone and his friends enter a cheese-making competition in the Comté region. The winner gets a gold medal and thirty thousand euros, which will help Totone and his sister get a fresh start. We have seen hundreds of stories like this, where the “last resort” starts as an exploit to earn money, but later, the protagonist views it from a different perspective – connecting their suffering to their work process. In this case, cheese-making represents taking things slowly in life, where we shouldn’t rush things out of our control. It is a lovely message, with some moments having a genuine dramatic sensibility that wants to take a piece of the audience’s heart and break it. 

However, since, on a cinematic level, it is manufactured like the ones that came before, you don’t tend to care much about the story or its characters. Instead, you keep on guessing where everything is headed in your mind. But that isn’t the only reason why Holy Cow doesn’t work. While the performances are solid, the emotions in the narrative don’t ring true. There’s an artificiality that distances the viewer from the characters, leaving us without much to hold onto after the credits roll. This is not the worst film I saw at the Cannes Film Festival this year. However, it is the most straightforward and cinematically ambitionless, which is a far worse experience than watching a bing-swing disaster. 

Grade: D

The Story of Souleymane (L’histoire de Souleymane) (Directed by. Boris Lojkine)

The second film in this capsule review piece is The Story of Souleymane (L’histoire de Souleymane) by Boris Lojkine, which won the Jury Prize for the Un Certain Regard section as well as its Performance Award. Lojkine sometimes delves into a Dardennes-esque type of direction with the narrative, where we follow a lost soul in a rural city as he deals with life’s difficulties – feeling detached as he makes ends meet and has his family troubles. He also used this inspiration in his previous feature, Hope. But the difference is that the social commentary here is sharper and more nuanced, albeit a tad too expository for its own sake. 

The story follows Souleymane Sangare (Aubu Sangare), who is waiting for an interview call that might get him his residency in France. The film tells a forty-eight-hour tale about Souleymane preparing for that meeting as he encounters some troubles in his bike delivery job—dealing with cruel customers, the chaotic streets of Paris, and personal struggles. Like many of the characters in Lojkine’s filmography, Souleymane is fighting hard to fight for a better life. Regarding his monetary situation, most of his wages go to his contractor, Emmanuel (Emmanuel Yovanie), and the man helping him get his residency, Bary (Alpha Oumar Sow). This is where the narrative creates its tension. 

There’s uncertainty about what will happen to Souleymane the following day regarding his citizenship and buying his necessities. Aubu Sangare, in his debut performance, does a tremendous job at keeping everything genuine, personal, and impactful. He treats the calmness as a welcoming friend, even in the most challenging situations, and it makes each scene contain some emotional weight, even though the screenplay can often feel heavy-handed. The film lives and breathes under his wing, and Sangare guides it with empathy and sincerity. The problem lies in how Lojkine and co-writer Delphine Agut handle the Dardennes-esque sensibility of European social realism, which renders The Story of Souleymane rather maladroit at the film’s back end.

Grade: C+

When the Light Breaks (Ljósbrot) (Directed by. Rúnar Rúnarsson)

The third (and final) film in this capsule review piece is When the Light Breaks (Ljósbrot) by Rúnar Rúnarsson, the opening film of the Un Certain Regard section. This is a film about the stages of grief and how we handle and go through it in different ways, yet it all leads to the emotional catharsis that unites us all in our mourning. There’s a beautiful subtleness attached to each scenario that holds the film together on an emotional and cinematic level. However, there are certain directorial decisions that Rúnarsson applies, which make When the Light Breaks lack the potency of its topics and the relatable power of the performances. 

The film centers around Una (Elin Hall), a young art student with a bright future. She’s happily living with her boyfriend, Diddi (Balduer Einersson); the two spend their days together, hoping that they’ll get the opportunity to have a more prosperous life. But that day, at least together, will not arrive. An explosion in a tunnel has killed many people, including Diddi, who was heading out of town for a few days. Una now goes through an array of emotions – rejection, sorrow, guilt, remorse – as she grieves the death of her partner, one of the few people who accepted her as she was. 

When the Light Breaks is divided into sections, each set in a different location that reflects a stage in the grieving process. These places help translate the characters’ emotions into a step-by-step process of acknowledgment and understanding – learning about different ways people approach a loss. However, with this structure comes a necessity to turn up the emotional valve and tonnage in each location. This causes some scenes, although well-performed by the young talented cast, to lack that vulnerability of the story. The performances dictate that feeling, yet Rúnarsson makes it weaker by layering out the film in this fashion. 

In addition, the editing and scene-by-scene transitions bothered me. Each scene in the various locations culminates abruptly, leaving little breathing space so the audience can be more immersed in the story. A specific frame captures what Rúnarsson wanted to say with the film. He aligns two characters between a glass door, one in front and the other behind; their faces align, signifying how we all, despite our differences, go through this process the same way internally. It is a beautiful image that speaks louder than words. If only the film could have more vivid, striking imagery to have a stronger sentimental backbone. 

Grade: C

Movie Review: ‘The Garfield Movie’ is Lazy, Standard Family Fare

Director: Mark Dindal
Writers: Paul A. Kaplan, Mark Torgrove, David Reynolds
Stars: Chris Pratt, Samuel L. Jackson, Hannah Waddingham

Synopsis: After Garfield’s unexpected reunion with his long-lost father, ragged alley cat Vic, he and his canine friend Odie are forced from their perfectly pampered lives to join Vic on a risky heist.

Since the boom in nostalgia culture that has ravaged all of mainstream entertainment, there has been a culling of the depths to find familiar properties to make new again. It’s branded entertainment and the saddest aspect is it’s working. People are spending their money, or worse their time, with entertainment that has no value other than the profit the company makes off our stupidity. That’s what The Garfield Movie is. It’s a cash grab with a familiar face on it.

Nostalgic adults who read the comic strip, enjoyed the “Garfield and Friends” cartoon show, or even thought the live action Garfield: The Movie from 20 years ago was all right, are going to waste their time. This Garfield is unrecognizable from the 46 year old fat, lazy Monday hating, lasagna loving cat. It feels like writers Paul A. Kaplan, Mark Torgrove, and David Reynolds wrote a script for an animated movie and while they pitched it to Sony, the executives said, “You know who would be great for this? Garfield.”

The plot is finely tuned. It has all of the elements of a basic story with a nice tidy bow of a wrap up. It’s just not actually a Garfield story. It’s overly and unnecessarily saccharine. It has none of Garfield’s bite or wit. The characters are the shallowest interpretation of their familiar selves. Odie is mentally and emotionally intelligent. Jon has no personality or presence. Liz the veterinarian shows up for two scenes and Nermal is a blink and you miss it cameo. The new characters are all stock animated archetypes. The absent father, the jilted crime partner, the hapless henchmen, the overzealous security guard, the beaten down hero of the hero. It’s nostalgia without the actual nostalgia. It makes one wonder if they hired Chris Pratt because he seems to have no interest in doing a familiar inflection to a well known character.

It’s hard to get excited to see Chris Pratt’s name on an animated film. He just doesn’t do anything new with his voice to get into the character. It worked for him when he was cast in The Lego Movie because that’s a new character in a new universe and his vocal style worked for the enthusiasm of the character. It worked again for him in Onward because before he got into great shape, he used to exude that sort of going nowhere, older brother energy. But with last year’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie and now The Garfield Movie, he’s just not getting the assignment. His voice is a distraction from what’s going on in the film. 

Though it’s a bad film for child free, nostalgic adults, it’s a decent film for families. It’s a movie that any kid who doesn’t know Garfield from Heathcliff can enjoy. The animation is very slick with every pet and animal looking like they are very fuzzy and pettable. The environments are colorful and intriguing. The food looks so good you’ll wish the film had smell-o-vision for those parts. The action is engaging and the jokes are familiar, but can land with the right audience with some for the adults and some for the kids. 

That is the trouble with thrashing a film like The Garfield Movie. The film does no real harm in the world and is something for families to enjoy being at together. Nostalgic adults should try much harder not to be nostalgic adults and let the kids have their new version. This version isn’t for anyone who wants to see a real Garfield movie. It’s a sort of split between a C grade family comedy and an F grade adaptation of a well known character. It’s really not worth it either way unless you just can’t find anything else to do for the long weekend.

Grade: D

Chasing the Gold: An Early Look at Best Animated Feature

The award for Best Animated Feature has been one of my favorites to follow over the past few years. Every year, some of the best films have been awarded in this category, and we even saw a battle that came down to the very end this past season, with The Boy and the Heron besting the favorite, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. This year is no different, with some big-name sequels being released from the giants of animated film studios; however, as we’ve seen over the past few years, maybe those giants aren’t as big anymore. While there are bound to be some under-the-radar films that are released and gain momentum—who saw Robot Dreams coming last year—this is my early look at how the Oscar race for Best Animated Feature could play out. 

  1. The Day the Earth Blew Up: A Looney Tunes Movie (Warner Bros. Animation)

    Director: Pete Browngardt
    Cast: Eric Bauza, Candi Milo, Peter MacNicol
    Synopsis: Daffy Duck and Porky Pig try to save the Earth from an alien invasion.
    Release: Fall 2024

The Looney Tunes series has never done well in terms of the Academy Awards, making this film a massive wildcard. So, while this movie might be good, will it be enough to tear down that barrier? The Day the Earth Blew Up: A Looney Tunes Movie could follow a path similar to that of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles last year; while Mutant Mayhem was one of the best animated films of 2023, it missed an Oscar nomination.

  1. Despicable Me 4 (Illumination)

    Director: Chris Renaud
    Cast: Steve Carell, Kristin Wiig, Joey King, Miranda Cosgrove
    Synopsis: Maxime Le Mal escapes from prison to enact revenge on Gru, who is now living peacefully with his new son, Gru Jr.
    Release: July 3, 2024

I do not think a nomination for Despicable Me 4 is a real possibility; however, the minion craze shows no signs of slowing down at the box office. Notably, no film from this franchise has made it into the final Oscar 5 since Despicable Me 2 in 2014. So, will the fourth installment of this series bring them back to the Dolby Theater? There’s at least a chance.

  1. Fixed (Sony Pictures Animation)

    Director: Genndy Tartakovsky
    Cast: Adam DeVine, Idris Elba, Kathryn Hahn, Fred Armisen
    Synopsis: A blue bloodhound finds out he will be neutered in the morning.
    Release: 2024

An argument could be made that, had there been a Best Animated Feature category back in 2000, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut would have been nominated, given that it still came away with a nomination for the song “Blame Canada.” However, since the introduction of the category, there has never been an adult R-rated comedy in the Oscar 5. Fixed has a stacked cast, but will it be monumental enough as a film to change the “kid” narrative that has plagued this category for years?

  1. The Garfield Movie (Sony)

    Director: Mark Dindal
    Cast: Chris Pratt, Hannah Waddingham, Samuel L. Jackson
    Synopsis: Garfield reunites with his long-lost father, who draws him into a high-stakes heist.
    Release: May 24, 2024

While I highly doubt a nomination for The Garfield Movie is likely, it would be ignorant not to include it on this list. Over the past few years, films similar to The Garfield Movie have garnered awards buzz, like Minion: The Rise of Gru and The Super Mario Bros. Movie. While neither film performed exceptionally well critically, both had massive box office earnings, keeping them in the conversation, and with the film already making $50 million, there’s a chance for a massive turnout. Time will tell with The Garfield Movie, but if the money is there, so is the possibility. 

  1. Inside Out 2 (Pixar)

    Director: Kelsey Mann
    Cast: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Tony Hale
    Synopsis: Riley is now a teenager and is experiencing all-new emotions.
    Release: June 14, 2024

Pixar is in a lull regarding the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. The 11-time winning studio has gone without a win since 2020’s Soul. Inside Out was a massive hit; however, no sequel has won this award since Toy Story 3 and 4— and technically Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. While Inside Out 2 has a clear advantage, it’s still an uphill battle. But, if we have learned anything, it’s not to count out Pixar.

  1. Kung Fu Panda 4 (DreamWorks)

    Director: Mike Mitchell, Stephanie Stine
    Cast: Jack Black, Awkwafina, Viola Davis
    Synopsis: Po is positioned to be the next Spiritual Leader of the Valley of Peace, which means he must find a new Dragon Warrior.
    Release: March 8, 2024

There is precedent here, as both Kung Fu Panda and Kung Fu Panda 2 were nominated for an Oscar; however, it seems unlikely, given the tepid response to the film and the early release date. It is still important to mention it as a possibility, but as you will see with a movie later on this list, DreamWorks might have more on its mind.

  1. The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Rohirrim (Warner Bros. Animation)

    Director: Kenji Kamiyama
    Cast: Brian Cox, Miranda Otto, Shaun Dooley
    Synopsis: The untold story of Helm’s Deep and its founder, Helm Hammerhand.
    Release: December 13, 2024

There has been a resurgence in Lord of the Rings properties over the past few years. First, the Amazon Prime series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power broke records for being the most expensive TV show ever made. It was also just announced that Andy Serkis will direct a new live-action film, The Hunt for Gollum, releasing in 2026 with Peter Jackson set to produce. 

This could be a perfect time for one of the most awarded franchises, including a film that went 11/11 at the Oscars, to return to the Oscar stage. While no anime outside of Miyazaki has ever won the animated feature Oscar, name recognition for the Lord of the Rings could be a big selling point.

  1. Moana 2 (Disney)

    Director: David G. Derrick Jr.
    Cast: Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Alan Tudyk
    Synopsis: An older Moana ventures deep into Oceania after receiving a mysterious call from her ancestors.
    Release: November 27, 2024

The announcement of Moana 2 shocked most people, given that a live-action remake of the original was announced in early 2023, and this sequel was only announced at the beginning of this year. Still, the original Moana was a remarkable film that maybe should have won the Oscar back in 2017. Will this be the time to fix that? Or will this be another close call? No matter what, I’m looking forward to seeing how far they’ll go.

  1. Orion and the Dark (Netflix)

    Director: Sean Charmatz
    Cast: Jacob Tremblay, Paul Walter Hauser, Colin Hanks
    Synopsis: A boy with an active imagination faces his fears alongside a new friend: Dark.
    Release: February 2, 2024

Netflix released Orion and the Dark in February, and it opened to generally positive reviews (91% on Rotten Tomatoes). Even though the release seems a bit early, Netflix has proven to be a force when it comes to the Best Animated Feature category. They have garnered five nominations (I Lost My Body, Klaus, Over the Moon, The Sea Beast, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio) and one win (Pinocchio).  Along with those five nominations, two additional nominees were distributed by the streaming service (Mitchells vs the Machines and Nimona)  I don’t think Orion and the Dark will break into the Oscar five, but you can’t count Netflix or screenwriter Charlie Kaufman out yet.

  1. Spellbound (Netflix)

    Director: Vicky Jenson
    Cast: Rachel Zegler, Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem
    Synopsis: Princess Ellian must go on a daring quest to save her parents and kingdom after her parents are transformed into monsters.
    Release: 2024

Vicky Jenson is directing Spellbound, and if that name isn’t familiar to you, then let me just say she also directed a movie by the name of Shrek. Yes, the director of the first-ever Best Animated Feature winner is now taking her talents to Netflix in a brand new animated musical with a stacked cast of Javier Bardem, Nicole Kidman, and one of the hottest young actresses in Hollywood, Rachel Zegler. This film has been tossed around for years, bouncing from studio to studio, but it looks like Netflix will ultimately reap the rewards that come from it—if it manages to be a good film.

  1. Thelma the Unicorn (Netflix)

    Director: Jared Hess, Lynn Wang
    Cast: Brittany Howard, Will Forte, Jon Heder
    Synopsis: After Thelma the Pony is covered with glitter and stuck with a carrot, she becomes pop sensation Thelma the Unicorn.
    Release: May 17, 2024

The trailer for Thelma the Unicorn didn’t wow me in any way, but the movie looks cute enough to be a possibility, and the Netflix name doesn’t hurt. There is also a massive cast attached to it. Will Thelma be unique enough to break into the Oscar 5?

  1. Transformers One (Paramount Animation)

    Director: Josh Cooley
    Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Brian Tyree Henry, Scarlett Johansson
    Synopsis: The untold origin of Optimus Prime and Megatron.
    Release: September 20, 2024

Something intriguing about Transformers One is that it has been quite some time since this franchise has returned to its animated roots. However, the big question is, is it too little too late? Transformers as a brand has been all over the place in the years post-Michael Bay, with films like Bumblebee resetting the timeline once again. It is unclear where this franchise is going, and while Transformers One could be a hit and follow a similar path to that of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles last year. Doing yet another origin story is a considerable risk that might not pan out as well awards-wise as it might at the box office.

  1. Ultraman Rising (Netflix)

    Director: Shannon Tindle, John Aoshima
    Cast: Christopher Sean. Rob Fukuzaki, Hiro Nakamura
    Synopsis: A superstar baseball player returns to Japan to carry the mantle of Ultraman.
    Release: June 14, 2024

Once again, I am including this because of the Netflix factor, but Ultraman: Rising at least has a level of wonder because it is based on a long-running Japanese character. This film could gain enough worldwide attention to make it into the Oscar lineup, or it could be an interesting Netflix release made for fans.

  1. The Wild Robot (DreamWorks)

    Director: Chris Sanders
    Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Pedro Pascal, Catherine O’Hara
    Synopsis: An intelligent robot named Roz is stranded on an abandoned island after a shipwreck.
    Release: September 27, 2024

DreamWorks has not released an awards contender in quite some time, with its last win coming in 2006 for Wallace and Gromit: the Cure of the Were-Rabbit. Puss in Boots: The Last Wish was a major surprise in 2022, but Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio was just too strong a contender. That being said, the trailer for The Wild Robot looks breathtaking and genuinely feels like something new to DreamWorks. It will have stiff competition, especially from a few sequel projects from major contending studios. Still, if the film is as good as the trailer showed it could be, we could be looking at something extraordinary.

  1. Untitled Wallace and Gromit (Aardman Animations)

    Director: Merlin Crossingham, Nick Park
    Cast: Ben Whitehead
    Synopsis: Gromit is concerned that Wallace has become over-dependent on his inventions.
    Release: 2024

    Don’t ask me why, but the academy loves what Wallace and Gromit have been doing. Aardman Animations has picked up four nominations, including a win for Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. This will be the first mainline film in the series since 2008, and since both spin-offs of Shaun the Sheep: The Movie and Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon picked up nominations, I feel pretty confident that the academy enjoys these films.

There are always bound to be surprises throughout the year, but now, this is where I see the race. I think it will be heavy on the sequels and IP-driven projects, but ultimately, The Wild Robot will capture hearts like Wall-E did years ago.


  1. The Wild Robot
  2. Inside Out 2
  3. Moana 2
  4. Untitled Wallace and Gromit
  5. Spellbound

Next Up:

  1. The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Rohirrim
  2. The Day the Earth Blew Up: A Looney Tunes Movie
  3. Orion and the Dark
  4. Transformers One
  5. The Garfield Movie
  6. Despicable Me 4
  7. Fixed
  8. Thelma the Unicorn
  9. Ultraman Rising
  10. Kung Fu Panda 4

Movie Review: ‘Atlas’ is Mindless and Forgettable

Director: Brad Peyton
Writers: Leo Sardarian, Aaron Eli Coleite
Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Simu Liu, Sterling K. Brown

Synopsis: In a bleak-sounding future, an A.I. soldier has determined that the only way to end war is to end humanity.

While watching Brad Peyton’s Atlas at home, the power went out twice in the span of five minutes. Now, I don’t much believe in higher powers, but I can’t help but think this was a sign from above to tell me to stop watching before my brain turned to complete mush. With all the issues I had during the film’s beginning in the hopes that my WiFi would reset before resuming the movie, my viewing ended much later than expected and I immediately went to sleep after the credits finished rolling. 

I woke up the next day not remembering a single frame out of Atlas, as if the movie only existed in a fever dream and I hallucinated the entire thing. That can be the only explanation to muster up any comment on Peyton’s most listless film yet, an action sci-fi package that likely would’ve been pitched by Menahem Golan at the Cannes Film Festival, as he frequently told the plot synopsis of movies based on scenarios he would completely make up in his head without any intention of actually filming the damn thing. 

It’s a shame, because Peyton has proven in the past that he can direct good action in films like San Andreas and Rampage, and there’s a scene in its opening moments that proves he has the juice, with cameras hooked on machine guns and first-person shots of a tactile fistfight. That sequence put in my head that maybe this movie won’t be so bad after all, but it gets immediately hampered by barely-finished VFX with no sense of scale or depth as we get introduced to our titular character (played by Jennifer Lopez), a recluse scientist who fears the rise of AI after a sentient robot, Harlan (Simu Liu), killed her mother as a child. 

Colonel Elias Banks (Sterling K. Brown) is assembling a team to apprehend Harlan after his location was revealed, and Atlas becomes an integral part of the mission. However, each member of the team is using an AI-powered spacesuit known as “Smith” (Gregory James Cohen), which Atlas does not want to use, or be close to. 

Predictably enough, the team gets ambushed by Harlan and Atlas is forced to board a Smith to ensure her survival. The rest of the movie is an After Earth ripoff of Atlas being guided by Smith to arrive at Harlan’s base and destroy it, alongside him. Now, of course, After Earth wasn’t particularly good, but Shyamalan is far more willing in presenting interesting ideas to the screen, even if it doesn’t fully work, than Peyton, who wants to talk about AI without talking about AI. Let me explain: Artificial Intelligence is the subject of the moment, and the very rise of the technology in our everyday lives poses a real threat not only to our workforce, but also to humanity as a whole. 

Exploring this in a movie is ever-timely, as the technology keeps evolving and taking much grimmer turns. AI is omnipresent during the opening moments of the movie, but the effects on such a technology is never fully developed, other than we know how much Atlas despises it, while everyone else embraces it. Peyton doesn’t develop this idea beyond that surface-level conflict, whether Atlas’ disdain of the technology or the reason why everyone decided to blanket embrace AI. That’s an interesting idea in and of itself, and one even wonders why someone would trust a technology that no one actively understands (even some of the most proponent supporters of AI, including Elon Musk and Yoshua Bengio, have asked for a pause on developing new AI experiments, though others like Yann LeCun have fully embraced it). 

The only ‘real’ comment we get out of the proliferation of AI are that some softwares have humanized traits (such as one who specifies their pronouns being “she/her” and not “it”), and that AI is everywhere. Atlas thinks AI bad. Others think AI good. She will, at the end, think that AI is bad, except for Smith, because they will learn to (literally and figuratively) bond inside a Spy Kids 3D: Game Over-like spatial environment with shoddy-looking visual effects and a complete lack of proper shot composition. 

There isn’t a single image of note in Atlas, and the film will never once overcome its “fake movie” allegations, with characters so thinly-developed and poorly acted you would think they signed up to do an elongated SNL parody, which would be the only way to describe the out-of-body experience you’ll have watching this. There would be no other way to qualify Liu’s stilted, hysterically awful performance as Harlan, a villain whose motivations can only be summed up to “blow up the world and kill Atlas,” instead of something far more psychologically active, which the best AI villains have always been. He does kick some ass during the finale’s Dragon Ball Z-inspired fight scene, but it’s not enough to make him a fully-fledged antagonist, whereas Lopez completely phones it in through its green screen-laden environments and action scenes directed by its visual effects team. 

There’s no rhythm or energy in anything going on. We barely learn who these people are for us to truly latch onto them and create a meaningful connection with the protagonists, which are at the heart of every good science-fiction story. If we’re going to spend TWO HOURS of our time, and most of it with one character, I expect the titular protagonist to be developed, or at least as relatable as possible. But we’re a long way off Lopez’s incredible performance in Hustlers, knowing full well this will be another cog in the Netflix algorithm that will be as easily forgotten as her previous actioner, The Mother

At least that movie had some bold narrative swings that made the entire experience feel surreal, whereas Atlas has virtually nothing of note to offer. None of the acting is particularly interesting, the visual effects are completely unconvincing, the action continues the CGI blob pandemic that’s unfortunately been plaguing most of our blockbusters, and Peyton never delves into some of the ideas that could make this piece of science-fiction feel excitingly relevant, asking pertinent questions on the use of Artificial Intelligence in our everyday lives and how we can examine its arrival in a less frightful, but apprehensive light. 

AI isn’t all bad – I certainly enjoy using to transcribe interviews (especially in this busy Emmy FYC season), but it’s also not all good. This moral grey area seems to be at the center of Atlas, yet Peyton never has the guts to do anything with it. He would rather fill the screen with mind-numbing images that never look real enough for me to care and immediately forget as soon as I begin to fall asleep. I’ll only remember the time I had watching it, with two divine interventions telling me to stop before I continued on and felt absolutely nothing for two very long, very dull hours. 

Grade: F

Movie Review (Cannes 2024): ‘Emilia Pérez’ is the Trans Cartel Musical You Didn’t Know You Needed

Director: Jacques Audiard
Writer: Jacques Audiard
Stars: Karla Sofía Gascón, Zoe Saldaña, Selena Gomez

Synopsis: When a Mexican cartel leader kidnaps criminal lawyer Rita and hires her to help him become a woman, a journey begins for both characters that changes them both, taking them face to face with the very essence of the country in which they live.

What should a musical about a Mexican drug lord looking to become a woman look and sound like? Whatever your answer to that question is, think again: you are not prepared for the deliriously subversive, savagely fun ride Emilia Pérez is about to take you on.

Writer-director Jacques Audiard’s (Paris, 13th District) new film, presented in competition at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, takes place in Mexico City, where disillusioned lawyer Rita (Zoe Saldaña) is getting tired of helping criminals get away with murder. Rita knows that complying with her boss’s requests to do just that is the only way to survive in her corrupt country, but that doesn’t stop her from expressing all her frustration in a song. “¿De que hablamos hoy y ahora?” (“What are we talking about, today and now?”), she sings, highlighting the issues in Mexico’s criminal justice system, and we are mesmerized by a performance that’s as spectacular as the most grandiose Broadway show and yet retains the immediacy of an intimate theater play.

Just when we think we have Emilia Pérez all figured out, something else happens that subverts our expectations all over again. Suddenly, Rita is kidnapped and taken to infamous cartel leader Manitas (Karla Sofía Gascón), who has a request for her. “Yes,” Rita responds, before the man has even begun explaining what he wants – knowing all too well that, just like at her daily job, she doesn’t really have a choice. But Manitas’ next words take her by surprise. “I want to be a woman,” he states, matter of factly. And just like that, Rita realizes that there’s a lot she doesn’t know about the most feared gangster in Mexico City.

Soon, Rita leaves the constraints of her daily routine and starts traveling around the world, looking for the right clinic for her client, having been given access to Manitas’ unlimited resources. The more she learns about her new employer’s upcoming surgeries, the more excited she becomes, and it all culminates in a delirious, wildly liberating musical number that sets the tone for what’s to come. “Nanoplasty?,” asks a nurse, to which Rita enthusiastically answers, “Yes!”.  “Vaginoplasty?” “Yes!”, “Laryngoplasty?” “Yes!”, “Chondrolaryngoplasty?” “YES!”

If you’re able to get on board with the madness, this is also a point when you’ll immediately fall in love with Emilia Pérez, a film that you, quite simply, won’t be able to take your eyes off of. The combination of perfectly timed routines that seem to take place almost by chance, Saldaña’s flawless delivery and physical acting, and infectious songs that blend musical conventions with the unmistakable vibe of mariachi music will have you dancing in your seat, as you eagerly anticipate the next scene of a movie that will take you to truly unpredictable places. And on top of this, the film is both hysterically funny and surprisingly poignant, depending on the scene.

Our protagonists’ real journeys effectively begin after the transition, when Manitas becomes Emilia Pérez. With her new identity comes a new sense of morality, since it was never her desire to be a gangster: she was born into that life. When we next meet her, years later in London, she has tracked down Rita again, to ask for her help one more time. Emilia needs Rita to help her move back to Mexico and reunite with her family, as she cannot live without her kids – only, her two children and her wife Jessi (Selena Gomez) think she’s dead, as “Manitas” had to die in order for Emilia to be born.

Together, the two women find a way to get both Emilia and her wife and kids in Mexico, but that means that her family cannot know who she really is. And so, Emilia hides her true self once again – this time, assuming the identity of a relative. This version of Emilia is generous and kindhearted: on top of welcoming them all into her family, she starts a charity with Rita to help families whose loved ones are among the many desaparecidos in Mexico – people who simply “disappeared” due to organized crime, which to this day could be as many as 100,000 – get closure. The paradox is that, back when she was Manitas, Emilia was herself responsible for these disappearances, which usually resulted in bodies to get rid of. 

Is becoming the real you and deciding that you want to do good enough to cancel all the evil you’ve done in the past and grant you redemption? This is one of the questions Audiard and co-writers Thomas Bidegain, Nicolas Livecchi, and Léa Mysius ask in the film, and the answer is not so simple. 

Emilia Pérez is ultimately a tragedy, but it’s a grandiose one that’s drenched in the culture in which it takes place. From the start, we are shown a society whose many sides often clash with one another. It’s a patriarchy where women are often voiceless and have to endure a great deal of violence, yet, at the same time, they are also the ones who hold everything together with their love, empathy, resilience, and, ultimately, hope. The fact that Manitas wants to become a woman encapsulates these very contradictions, making this an unequivocally Mexican tale – one that embodies the very essence of the country, both in narrative and form, and raises complex, even controversial questions.

“When you were born to strive and raised to kill, you’d better dance or die,” reads one of the film’s most poignant song lyrics, which perfectly sums up its protagonist. Emilia Pérez isn’t defined by heroes and villains, but by multilayered humans who are who they are because of the context in which they were raised. It’s no coincidence that the movie often feels like a soap opera, with its use of melodrama and abundance of dramatic twists, which aren’t usually associated with the crime thriller genre: Emilia Pérez is ultimately a snapshot of a country defined by its contradictions, and a cry for forgiveness within the chaos.

Grade: A-

Movie Review (Cannes 2024): ‘Anora’ Has a Star in the Making

Director: Sean Baker
Writer: Sean Baker
Stars: Mikey Madison, Mark Eydelshteyn, Yura Borisov

Synopsis: Anora is a comedy about a sex worker shot in New York City and Las Vegas.

During his short yet acclaimed film career, Sean Baker went from grounded to hyper-extended. But that doesn’t remove how the indie-cinema darling is known to depict the lives of people who are frowned upon by the upper class. His characters always hold onto that promise that “the American Dream” has sold to them – looking for that moment to change their lives. It is a false advertisement that many people continue to follow. Yet, it gives them hope, even if their chances of moving into their dream house or having an easy life are slim. 

The reason Sean Baker’s cinema works and why many have grown attached to his filmmaking is because he explores their world with curiosity, empathy, and sincerity. You genuinely sense how much research and deep dives he does before writing his characters. In his latest work, Anora (which won the Palme d’Or in this year’s Cannes Film Festival), Baker remains with his current trend of delivering portraits of the “American Dream” through the lens of sex workers, hoping to remove the stigma around them. Here, we see it through the perspective of the young titular character, who has possibly her one-way ticket to a more lavish life that she’s been aching for. 

Halfway through the movie, Baker shifts the screwball comedy texture (don’t take the comedy part of it too literally) into one with heavier dramatic weight. A big heart is lingering around the film, intertwined with sadness, benignity, and hopelessness that help broaden the emotional scope of Baker’s storytelling. With great confidence, he maneuvers through all of those feelings, even when the narrative garners some less-than-realistic swings – keeping the project in balance and its crux intact. This is a director growing into a tone technician right before our eyes. 

The stellar Mikey Madison plays Anora, who prefers to be called Ani. She’s a twenty-three-year-old exotic dancer at a New York City strip club named Headquarters. She dances for her clients, and if it is convenient for her, Ani works as a sex worker late at night. She is in full command of her life; Ani knows precisely what she is doing and wants in life – always maintaining her head high even in the most dire situations. It is a tough life, yet Ani is more than determined and proud of how she makes her earnings. But she would drop everything if there was a chance to get the life of her dreams. Who wouldn’t? I think everyone would do the same thing if given the opportunity. 

Well, for Ani, that moment is right around the corner with the appearance of Ivan Zakharov (Mark Eydelshteyn), a twenty-one-year-old Russian big spender and son of an oligarch. Ivan, who is living freely doing whatever he likes with his parents’ endless supply of cash, requests a dancer who can speak Russian for the day. Out of mere luck, Ani fits that billing, even if her grasp of the language is limited. He becomes enamored with the dancer, spending a few paid nights together. The two begin to click, nearly breaking the relationship between client and customer. Then, Ivan gets a crazy idea that will cause him much trouble with his family. 

Since he has to return to Russia soon to work with his father, Ivan takes Ani on a week-long trip to Las Vegas, with all of her days being paid, to not only get one last taste of freedom but also marry the dancer he has fallen in love with so he can stay in the U.S. Ani immediately accepts; she now has her way into the secured life where she’s wealthy and happy, having taken a liking to the oligarch’s son. But everything comes crashing down in a Safdie Brothers’ manner when Ivan’s parents get a notice about the whole thing. As a means to get the marriage annulled, they send Toros (Karren Karagulian) and his goons (Yuriy Borisov and Vache Tovmasyan) to handle the situation one way or another.

To avoid them, Ivan runs away, leaving Ani to deal with the three men, who have nowhere to go until everything is resolved. And so, a search for him begins. Emotions are all over the place collectively. Ani is worried and anxious about how everything is going to go down. The goons are obligating her to follow suit, or they’ll take matters into their own hands. This creates a parallel between her life previously and post-meeting Ivan, where before, she was in full command of her life, and now, men are trying to control every aspect of it afterward. But Ani is resilient and defiant, not indulging in what they set her up to do so easily. 

That’s one of the many reasons we, as an audience, begin to care for and want to protect Ani at any given turn. This is a statement about Baker’s writing, which seems to improve with each feature due to the nuance he gives to his characters and the understanding behind their decisions, as well as Mikey Madison’s astonishing (and hopefully star-making) performance, which will have everybody raving. Madison is effortlessly magnetic, oozing confidence – matching Baker behind the camera – in the way she does a balancing act of desperation, feistiness, and vulnerability amidst the screwball and thriller-like tension that shifts Anora into a place of cinematic appraisal. There’s a light that shines in her presence, even in the alarming situations that occur; this makes sense since the meaning of her character’s name turns out to be honor and grace. 

Although not to the same degree, her acting partner, Mark Eydelshteyn, doesn’t shy away from the spotlight. Eydelshteyn has a complex role in his hands, too. The young actor has to find a way to channel his character’s youthfulness and the intricacies of his lingering pain – the sadness within his timed freedom and the happiness that arises amidst his recklessness. It is all an escape for him. This can be seen more prevalent during the scenes where Ivan and Ani are intimate and open with one another. Both of them, even if they are content with their lives, have fractures in their soul that, with this new companionship, can be fixed to some degree. In Madison and Eydelshteyn’s performances, you see the depth of these characters, who initially looked thin-layered and uninteresting. 

The authenticity that Sean Baker brings to the project makes everything tick. From the sweet romantic comedy and zaniness in the likes of The Lady Eve to the moments of tension that come into play later on, you get a test of the city, its people, and the outsiders who now bask in it. Baker takes time to capture the heart of Coney Island and Las Vegas, both in its liveliness and the gutter. They are their characters, part of the play in genre and tone Baker crafts and maintains steady. If you have read about his scouting process, you know how much time he takes to pick up local places that draw out the essence of the cities within the confines of his respective stories. And once again, he does such with great attention to detail. 

Anora keeps an eye on the marginalized, as expected with Baker’s work, yet with a more playful and equally tactile touch. It is less distancing from the mainstream audience than before, but Baker doesn’t sacrifice what makes his films unique in appealing to a broader scope.  He maintains everything in his wheelhouse while being kittenish in his direction. We don’t know if this will be a hit at the cinema. However, Anora has many fun moments and reflective breathing spaces to captivate the viewers – immersing them in Ani’s journey and fighting for her right to a better life.

Grade: B+

Movie Review: ‘What You Wish For’ is Deviously Charming

Director: Nicholas Tomnay
Writer: Nicholas Tomnay
Stars: Nick Stahl, Tamsin Topolski, Randy Vasquez

Synopsis: A down-on-his-luck chef with gambling problems flees to a Latin American villa, where he assumes the identity of another man.

In What You Wish For, Ryan (Nick Stahl) and Jack (Brian Groh), once flatmates in culinary school, have gone down very different paths over the past 12 years. Ryan is drowning in debt and on the run from a dangerous pursuer, seeking refuge in Latin America with his old friend, Jack. Meanwhile, Jack enjoys a lavish lifestyle, cooking for the world’s elite, but he’s secretly discontent with his life. When Ryan arrives, envious of Jack’s apparent success, he stumbles into an opportunity to take over Jack’s identity. However, Ryan soon discovers that Jack’s glamorous job involves more than just preparing exquisite meals, revealing hidden dangers and complexities behind the luxurious facade.

Nicholas Tomnay’s sharp-edged black comedy What You Wish For skillfully taps into the current trend of culinary arts in film and television, epitomized by films like The Menu. While it departs from the typical professional kitchen setting, the film maintains a strong focus on the culinary craft through protagonist Ryan. Early scenes highlight Ryan’s cooking prowess, starting with a simple yet expertly made omelette and escalating to a high-stakes risotto challenge with Jack to impress their friend Alice (Penelope Mitchell). As secrets unfold and the story darkens, the introduction of a flirtatious Australian traveler (Penelope Mitchell) and a keen local detective (Randy Vasquez) sets the stage for escalating tension. 

The agency handling Jack is accustomed to trouble and swiftly steps in to ensure the smooth continuation of their event once Ryan assumes Jack’s identity. Imogene (Tamsin Topolski), with her impeccable English demeanor and unthreatening yet elegant wardrobe, instructs Ryan on his new responsibilities and the severe consequences of failure. Throughout, Tomnay integrates discussions on ingredients and cooking techniques, adding authenticity and engaging food enthusiasts without being didactic.

What You Wish For plunges into the ageless notion of hidden complexities, akin to an iceberg with most of its mass concealed beneath the surface. Jack’s job initially seems like a dream come true for Ryan, but beneath this enticing exterior lies a tumultuous and perilous reality. The film deftly reveals the harsh truth that one can never fully comprehend another’s struggles without living their life. As Ryan assumes Jack’s identity, he also inherits his dangerous circumstances, causing the audience to wince as he spirals from one calamity to the next. This relentless descent creates a gripping narrative, as viewers, much like Ryan, search desperately for a way out of the chaos.

Yet, amid the swirling turmoil, there are flickers of hope and self-discovery. Ryan’s initial conversations with Jack highlight his dissatisfaction and frustration with his culinary career. However, in the crucible of his new situation, Ryan discovers a latent passion for cooking, culminating in the meal of his life. This newfound skill poses a troubling question: should he embrace this opportunity and pursue his culinary calling, or should he escape the looming dangers? What You Wish For weaves a story of aspiration, desperation, and the bittersweet taste of success, leaving the viewer contemplating the true cost of dreams realized.

Nick Stahl’s portrayal of Ryan is nothing short of exceptional, reaffirming his prowess as an actor who shines brightest in the independent film arena. Under the meticulous guidance of director Nicholas Tomnay, Stahl undergoes a remarkable transformation, presenting a performance so fresh and nuanced that it feels like we are witnessing his talent for the first time. He sheds any traces of his previous roles, fully immersing himself in the character of Ryan. Stahl expertly captures the dual facets of Ryan’s persona: his adeptness in the culinary arts and his escalating sense of desperation and fear. What stands out is Stahl’s restraint; he avoids melodrama, instead opting for a subtle approach that conveys depth and authenticity. As a chef well-versed in handling high-pressure situations, Ryan maintains a calm exterior even as chaos envelops him. Stahl’s ability to sustain this composed demeanor, while hinting at the turmoil beneath the surface, adds a compelling layer to his character and keeps the audience deeply engaged.

Ryan’s ability to think quickly and adapt to challenging situations is captivating, ensuring that the audience remains engaged throughout What You Wish For. If he were to react hysterically to each escalating crisis, the film might risk becoming farcical. Instead, Stahl’s portrayal of Ryan as outwardly composed, yet with an underlying tension, injects a subtle, almost incredulous humor that provides a welcome release from the film’s intensity.

What You Wish For offers a thought-provoking exploration of the dangers of chasing aspirations without considering the consequences. It presents a fresh take on the age-old warning to be cautious about what one wishes for. As a darkly entertaining thriller, the film skillfully reveals that the allure of a seemingly better life often conceals deeper complexities. Ultimately, it serves as a compelling reminder that things aren’t always as they seem, leaving audiences both satisfied and reflective.

Grade: B+

Movie Review (Cannes 2024): ‘The Shrouds’ is a Moving Portrait of Cinematic Grief

Director: David Cronenberg
Writer: David Cronenberg
Stars: Vincent Cassel, Diane Kruger, Guy Pearce

Synopsis: Karsh, an innovative businessman and grieving widower, builds a device to connect with the dead inside a burial shroud.

In David Cronenberg’s world, everything is tangible, from his plastic, carnal creations to his characters’ emotions deep inside their hearts, even when the narrative seems somewhat distant from reality. You can grasp everything in his mind the same way you have dreams and nightmares about David Lynch’s oeuvre. Cronenberg does many things with the body, but his films also haunt the mind and soul of the viewer – his career is divided into those two halves – which traverses them into a state of shock and awe. And it is an experience like no other. He has often tested Cannes Film Festival attendees with these distinct, disturbing experiences that yield them until numb. In his latest work, The Shrouds, the Canadian filmmaker has done it again. 

David Cronenberg has decided to retain the mysteriousness and eroticism prevalent in his cinema while being more restrained in his horror elements and inquisitive prodding. It is one of his most refined works, cut from the same cloth as what came before, yet with a different, more intimate pattern. Switching the grisly for the abstruse and philosophical, The Shrouds is Cronenberg’s most contemplative work to date, using the grief he still holds after the death of his wife of forty-three years, Carolyn (who passed away in 2017 after battling cancer), to create a story about our own conspiracies while dealing with loss – our search for answers as we’re in our mourning processes. 

He draws from his own life – the lead, Vincent Cassel, mirroring his image and persona to offer a glance into the filmmaker’s psyche and soul – and pain to curate an intentionally estranged and cold atmosphere so the viewer can sense, both in front and behind the camera, that lingering dread that has haunted every one of us who have been struck with the death of a person held dear. This is all seen through the eyes of the melancholy-drowned Karsh (Cassel, or, to put it in Cronenbergian terms, the director’s dead ringer), who yearns and longs to be next to his passed wife, Beca (Diane Kruger in one of three roles). Karsh cries for her and yells to the void to have her back. 

You see how Karsh’s insides are gnawed, but, on the outside, there’s no abreaction. There’s no emotional release. Visions about her continue to haunt him to the point of being fixated on her presence. These necrophilic nightmares, not in the way that Jorg Buttgeirat did in the cheap sleaze that is Necromantik, about his wife, serve as some more tactile exploration into Karsh’s psyche. He sees the image of the past he’s holding onto in his mind and the decomposing one he can see via his skeptical technological creation. He has founded a revolutionary and provocative gadget called GraveTech. This company allows people to grieve in a different, more tangible manner by putting cameras in the burial so they can see a clear image of their loved ones. 

The headstones, a connective tissue between life and death, demonstrate the body’s materiality. This image of a body without a beating heart being readily available at all times, rotting as time passes, adds another layer. Cronenberg, known for deconstructing and reconstructing the body, explores with this new technology how we tend to hold onto that perfect image of a person once they are gone. However, he does so uniquely, where both the rotting flesh and youth intertwine, creating a potent coldness that puts chills down the viewer’s spine. In this world where Karsh is doing acts that service his emotions, the body, now ridden with everything human, comes as an everlasting image that stains and relives. 

Just as the body turns inside out, Karsh’s obsession increases; his world revolves around that shroud—that vision planted in his mind that time destroys while he remains wounded yet enamored. Even when he matches with a woman on a dating service, he brings her close to the memory of his passed wife; they walk around the graves and bask in what is left –  to quote Eva H. D.’s poem ‘Bonedog’: “Everything you see now, all of it… bone.” Even through these perilous thoughts across his mind, Karsh remains calm, as if nothing fazes him. This calmness maintains him as a complex, meditative character we want to dissect. 

We all have had to put on a poker face during our worst times. But Karsh doesn’t seem to have one; he just wanders lost in life at this point, staggered and impenetrable. He goes to the void and awaits a response; in his visions, Beca comes up with some answers that leave Karsh meditative. However, everything begins to change once the cemetery is broken into and vandalized; a hacker has also blocked the images from the corpse. Who is trying to do the deed? Is it someone who is against what Karsh has created? Or is it just a person tired of seeing people like him remain broken? He enlists the help of his brother-in-law, Maury (Guy Pierce), so they can find the culprit. 

This creates a conspiracy theory about why this has happened, reflecting on how we, while facing grief, turn to plays of deception and neglect to make sense of something deemed untenable. We create alternate realities and conclusions to try to make sense of life’s biggest hardship, death. Instead of looking for answers, we ignore our realities for a second as we riddle ourselves with questions about every single detail, action, and choice as a coping mechanism. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But grief is something that everybody goes through differently – depending on our fears about the great beyond and how attached we were to the person. David Cronenberg comments on topics that translate from his decade’s worth of material, like sex, the rise of technology (and our dependence on it), and artificial intelligence. 

Cronenberg does so via his usual visually hypnotizing measures. However, those are the crucial focus this time, even though they are very present in the film. The Shrouds is not precisely autobiographical, but it uses many details in the director’s life to forge a compelling, spine-chilling story. Cronenberg doesn’t just translate real-life situations into the canvas. Cinematographer Douglas Koch, who worked on Crimes of the Future, highlights the light lurking within the darkness, even when the atmosphere is most opaque. This is reflected in a more literal manner when Karsh gazes up his cemetery at night, with the screen lighting up as beacons of the love we had for our dearly departed – which is a powerful image that is quite angelic in its Cronenbergian way – and the visions he has about his wife. 

There’s a luminescent glow amidst the decomposing flesh. Yet, the dark shadows of melancholy continue to march on every scene, creating that fight between light and darkness, life and death (or even isolation and companionship) that’s so incredibly moving in a way that you can’t experience with the rest of Cronenberg’s work. Some narrative swings might not work in their totality, especially when the exposition dumps are on and about. However, the conspiracy theory element has many philosophical layers to peel that intrigue you, and later perturb, about his cinematic approach to healing his wounded soul. It is fascinating to see how these nihilistic scenarios have a duality, like a mirroring effect that coats the film in a shroud of its own, where Cronenberg uses cinema as a gateway to his questions, doubts, and anxieties. 

Cinema is indeed a shroud for life in its complexities and hardships. That drapery symbolizes the parting of the veil between this world and the next. And, like so, the director uses (and watches) such to visit the dead and have conversations with the living about it. David Cronenberg said something very striking in a recent interview before The Shrouds at Cannes premiere: “I’m often watching movies to see dead people. I want to see them again; I want to hear them.” He also said, “cinema is, in a way, a shrouded post-death machine.” And while that perspective is genuinely depressive, it is also very accurate. 

Glancing upon a film from the 1920s, and even though you are immersed in its totality, the thought of seeing ghosts goes through your mind. Seeing a creation, a piece of art and history, through that lens adds a mysticality to the picture. You start pondering about their lives, both in and out of the screen, almost like a conspiracy theory, except there’s nobody to answer your questions. It is cinema as a cemetery, much like The Shrouds, and it is an exploration of the living brooding, lamenting, and interrogating about the people we wish they’d be next to us. And an ever-transfixing one, even though challenging to approach, much like death itself.

Grade: A-

Movie Review: ‘The Beach Boys’ Lets the Sun Shine on a Great American Band

Directors: Frank Marshall, Thom Zimny
Writer: Mark Monroe
Stars: Janelle Monáe, The Beach Boys, Lindsey Buckingham

Synopsis: A celebration of the legendary band that revolutionized pop music and created the harmonious sound that personified the California Dream.

The new Disney+ documentary The Beach Boys is one of the more informative films on a famous person or group for millennials or young people in recent memory. Frank Marshall and Thom Zimny’s engaging new feature reveals the band’s influence and goes beyond the band’s surfer boy, free spirit image. Not to mention uncovering (more like a good dusting off) fascinating details across decades of changes in the American landscape.

The Beach Boys were most likely your parents’ or grandparents’ band. Considering their well-known touring prowess, you probably accompanied them to see an outdoor concert during their resurgence in the ’80s and ’90s across major and minor league baseball parks across the United States. They may seem corny because they focus on their earlier hits, which sell. But The Beach Boys’ story is an all-American one of evolution, redemption, and timeless, lasting impact.

The documentary’s outline is uneven, but that doesn’t make the band’s journey any less fascinating. The first act follows the formation of the band, a group of sandy blonde teenagers singing songs of positivity, even though most of them hated the water. The Beach Boys were practically a family business. Started by Brian Wilson along with his brothers Dennis and Carl, they were encouraged to sing and write songs by their overbearing and alcoholic father, Murray.

Along with their cousin Mike Love and close friend Al Jardine, the band found a niche with songs of a sunny disposition during peacetime in American culture. However, as the film progresses, we learn about the songwriting process and why the band kept turning over members more than The View. Brian Wilson had no formal training or education in music. Still, he was recognized as a genius in emotional depth, melodic arrangement, harmonization, and innovative techniques that changed pop music forever.

The flip side of that genius comes from a place of trauma. The elder Wilson wielded a large stick without a carrot. History has shown how Murray protected the teenagers with his burly and boundary-breaking style. However, his unrealized dream as a musician involved being overbearing toward his sons and band members. That led to Murray being demoted as the manager, but he was never taken off as head of publishing. This was Brian Wilson’s biggest mistake because a bitter Murray sold the entire band’s catalog for 500,000 dollars. Those songs are now estimated to be worth eight figures or more.

The documentary’s second act draws more amazing parallels (and offers terrific insight and experts such as Janelle Monáe). For one, The Beatles landed on Ed Sullivan while touring Asia. They are known as the world’s biggest band, and they stole the group’s momentum. The bitterness in some members’ voices, particularly the elder Wilson brother, is eye-opening and even comical. Brian Wilson says that the Beatles record “I Want To Hold Your Hand” is “not that good of a record.” They were even said to be “crude,” and The Beach Boys were more “refined.” The film also includes a recording of Sir Paul McCartney discussing the rivalry.

Even in a clip of Ed Sullivan introducing Wilson and his band (which is weird after seeing the famous clip of their arch-nemesis for decades), critics had to debate which song was better, “Fun, Fun, Fun” or the now iconic “She Loves You.” Even though The Beach Boys were popular for years (they were even more popular in England when Lennon and Company broke onto the scene), they became known as the “American Beatles.” Yet, an even more shocking revelation is how Charles Manson wrote a song on the B-side of the band’s album “Bluebirds Over the Mountain” after befriending Dennis Wilson called “Never Learn Not To Love.”

The Beach Boys excels at using a narrative structure of historical linear threads through the iconic band’s timeline, which continues to astonish if you are a novice to the band and the era. It may seem far-fetched, but this is very similar to films like Forrest Gump or The Butler (and yes, I realize those are fictional). Since these are real-life figures, it makes the nonfiction film even more interesting and engaging.

While you would like The Beach Boys to offer a more precise and detailed picture of Brian Wilson’s struggles, his breakdown and childhood are kept at arm’s length, and you cannot possibly ignore the Beach Boys’ journey to their place in American music history. While striving to reinvent themselves to regain the respect they lost in some circles, their “positivity” ultimately became their salvation. In an era where mental health is now at a premium today, their music is as relevant as ever.

Grade: A-

Movie Review: ‘Laugh Proud’ Breaks Barriers and Lightens Hearts

Director: Quentin Lee
Stars: Jazzmun, Jason Stuart, Kit DeZolt

Synopsis: Nine diverse LGBTQ+ comics each perform a short set connected by a hostess with the mostest in an orgiastic one-night stand starring fresh comics to veteran comic Jason Stuart and the world’s first intersex comic 7G.

Laugh Proud is a stand-up comedy film – a set of nine vignetted LGBTIQ+ performers, each with their own comedy brand. Filmed in July 2023 at the Los Angeles LGBT Centre, actor and performer Jazzmun hosts a diverse and eclectic range of queer artists. Irreverent and mostly funny – this is a light-hearted affair with a focus for queer voices.

With a zippy pace, Laugh Proud begins with an opening text crawl depicting the expansion of the Nazi’s criminal code against homosexuality in 1934 – archive footage rolling in the background. By the time of World War II, branded with the ‘Pink Triangle,’ queers were easily identifiable by the SS throughout concentration camps – over 10,000 German and Austrian men were arrested, and many killed. As an introduction intended to feel dour, the tone quickly changes gear.

The ‘Pink Triangle’ now lights the neon backdrop of the film’s title as a vivacious montage introduces the nine performers who will take the stage – a call back to the reclamation of self-identity by the queer liberation movement from the 1970s onward. Director Quentin Lee makes the audience instantly aware that pride and laughter are at the forefront of the film – subverting the idea that LGBT+ performers only have a traumatic history in their repertoire.

From Jason Stuart, Christian Cintron, Amanda Alvich, Juno Men, Asha ‘August’ Hall, Brian Clark, Rowan Niles, and the first intersex stand-up comic ‘7G,’ the diversity on display is hard not to notice. Whether it be the hell hole of gay dating apps, lesbian emotional turmoil, navigating the world as a trans person of color, or even just complaining about children – the entire gamut of queer experiences is open to amusement or relatability. It is also an excellent achievement to give voice to an intersex artist who brings something new and unique to the comedy world.

Most of the comics use anecdotal or observational humor, and for the most part, this brand of comedy works to their talents. The opener, Kit DeZolt, introduces the woes of losing your virginity in embarrassing ways, the life of being an adopted queer – “I got my first rejection when I was born”, and the power of humor from a lived experience. Juno Men offers a noteworthy bit about not living up to your parents’ expectations as a trans comic—”you will be no son of mine” is given a funny new meaning. 7G makes the audience howl with a story about how hard it is to “play with a non-binary, trans masc dude” before making everyone chant a word you’ll never expect. It can get absurd at times, but it is unapologetic.

Unfortunately, the film can feel disjointed and rushed. The original recording seemed to clock in at the 2-and-a-half-hour mark, and this truncated 90-minute special sometimes feels like a tasting of multiple dishes rather than a full meal. The editing is particularly jarring and noticeable—Jazzmun abruptly cuts off numerous times, which is evidently to reduce the runtime. It’s not a serious detractor, as portmanteau stand up shows by design can get messy and run with a quickened pace.

At worst, some comics’ time allotment is far briefer than others. At best, it is a springboard that inspires us to seek out these artists if people want to follow their careers elsewhere. There is a specific power in giving a comprehensive platform to many marginalized voices – strictly without making their marginalization the butt of every joke. These are real experiences, and it is willing to make humor out of everything from the benign to the serious aspects of life. Sometimes though, you want a bit more time to listen.

Laugh Proud achieves precisely the sort of tone the title expects of it. As the special’s anthological format can inspire, some stand-up comedians are bound to make people laugh more than others, but that is okay – there is something here for everyone in the queer community. It is an at-times too brief introduction to some of America’s funniest LGBTIAQ+ comics, but it is not without many laughs and a penchant for telling proudly quirky stories.

Grade: B

Movie Review: ‘#MoCrazyStrong’ Tells An Inspirational Story of Resilience

Directors: Jamie MoCrazy, Mark Locki
Stars: Jamie MoCrazy

Synopsis: The story of Jamie MoCrazy’s career, life, injury, and fight to return.

All sports-themed documentaries start with the same subject. An Icarus, a person who flew too high for their good, until they came crashing to the ground, but never gave up. #MoCrazyStrong is no exception. 

The 2023 short documentary follows the gut-wrenching story of former pro skier Jamie MoCrazy, most famous for her double-flip in a slopestyle ski run at the X Games which -for those who don’t know- are a series of action sports events including skateboarding, skiing, and snowboarding, among other things. The documentary also sheds light on the invisible struggles that athletes go through, not just the physical but also the dark places they go to when things get harder. For example, their bodies not answering to their commands or their injuries turning out to be scarier than they may have anticipated.

Jamie MoCrazy has been ranked #1 for three consecutive years, a bold, fearless skier. Watching her fly through the air and then glide on the snow beneath her like a mythical figure, a person larger than life and closer to Greek gods and deities, is a work of wonder, a symphony that testifies to the power of sports as an art form in its own right. Then the film shifts tone and we watch with our hearts caught in our throats as Jamie suffers a traumatic brain injury (TBI) after trying a trick she hasn’t tried before and her head whiplashing into the snow.

That feeling of conquering the laws of gravity suddenly becomes a morbid sensation of being earthbound. One couldn’t help but wonder how Jamie’s bravery and that of her family helped her through the aftermath of the catastrophe. One of the strongest elements of #MoCrazyStrong is how intimate it feels as if the MoCrazy clan is letting us in on a secret that no one else knows. Though a short recount of what happens, the soul put into this film is what makes it shine. It is told through quotes from family and friends, in addition to a huge amount of footage, both of Jamie’s pre-injury and throughout her healing journey.

The tough thing about healing is accepting the present. A here and now becomes an eternity, consequences become facts rooted in the growth journey. Jamie experiences pain, despair, and uncertainty with every step into maturity. Her whole identity has been built on her being a skier, so for that to be ripped from her is bound to cause an identity crisis even in the bravest of hearts. But she becomes an inspiration to others. She surpasses her role as a survivor and becomes an active participant in the global process of reaching out to others, offering her support as a TBI ski injury survivor. 

The documentary works as a bandaid that soothes her pain, and in that process, the pain of others. No one has to feel lonely going through an experience like that. Jamie hasn’t. Her rise up from the ashes and decision to climb, putting behind all her skiing dreams, are the highlights of her arduous journey through physical and emotional distress, forming smiles on our faces and driving us to follow her lead.

#MoCrazyStrong aims to raise awareness for those who have suffered from a TBI, but it goes beyond a list of complications and treatment routes. It’s a family’s call out for support, a hand extended in peace to draw in other athletes who may not be as aware as they are on the subject. Instead of lingering on the pain and the hardship, it focuses on the travel, rather than the outcome. It only wants to progress with love and awareness, and it perfectly succeeds in capturing that.

As the documentary came to an end, I began to wonder about the invisible challenges faced by athletes and TBI survivors, and whether we’ve been inside Jamie’s head long enough to grasp the full intensity of what she has gone through. Still is maybe. No one can answer that but Jamie, but we’ll always be grateful for her generosity in allowing us a portal into one of the most critical stages of her young life.

Grade: B+

Movie Review (Cannes 2024): ‘Block Pass’ Nearly Crashes in the Back Half

Director: Antoine Chevrollier
Writers: Berenice Bocquillon, Antoine Chevrollier, Faiza Guene
Stars: Damien Bonnard, Mathieu Demy, Leonie Dahan-Lamort

Synopsis: Willy and Jojo are childhood friends who never leave each other’s side. To beat boredom, they train at the Pampa, a motocross track. One evening, Willy discovers Jojo’s secret.

The Cannes Film Festival always has an array of coming-of-age stories lined up in their slate, whether in competition for the Palme d’Or or their independent sections, such as the Semaine de la Critique (Critic’s Week). Many directors are given the opportunity to concoct their near-adulthood tales that, one way or another, reflect their own lives. Antoine Chevrollier is one of those filmmakers in this year’s festival, presenting his latest work, Block Pass (La Pampa) – a genuine yet poorly structured story about two best friends’ trials and tribulations, as one of them deals with the loss of his father, while the other has his most kept secret revealed. 

Block Pass begins with a dare between friends – a dangerous antic that might kill someone in the worst-case scenario. Jojo (Amaury Foucher) must cross the busy highway on his motorbike at top speed. His best friend, Willy (Sayyid El Alami), is highly preoccupied with what might happen if Jojo doesn’t make it or crashes into a vehicle. Everything goes well. Willy recognizes that it was a risky move on his part yet celebrates this stunt, as he deems it entertainingly maddening. After this maneuver, we get a glimpse of their life as off-road circuit racers, where the adrenaline rush fuels each turn and jump. These scenes reminded me of Lola Quiveron’s Rodeo, which coincidentally also played at the Cannes Film Festival two years ago. 

The viewer is placed at the center of this subculture, but instead of dirt riders in Quiveron’s film, Chevrollier uses motor cross. Unlike the aforementioned film, Block Pass doesn’t focus on this daredevil, thrilling lifestyle’s specifics and ins and outs. It gives hints during the first act to get you in the headspace of the lead characters – the reasons why they do the sport. I would have appreciated seeing more of this life, not to the extent that Quiveron did in great detail, but something of that nature. It adds more personality to the film and provides glances at a side of the world that most people don’t know about. Instead, Chevrollier focuses on the dramatic elements rather than drawing up the environment. 

When the races are finished and the duo is tired from celebrating, Willy and Jojo return to their respective homes, dealing with their family troubles and demons. Willy is still emotionally wounded by the death of his father. He hasn’t been able to move on, hence the aggression and hostility toward his mother’s new partner. Meanwhile, Jojo is trying to reach the standards that his father has for him, as well as keeping his sexuality a secret from the people around him. The reason why Jojo hides this big secret is because this subculture is very masculine, and he knows that they won’t look at  once they hear about his sexuality, they won’t look at him the same way – treating him with disrespect and malice. The only person who will be there for him is his best friend.

Block Pass struggles with how Chevrollier handles the intertwining between Willy’s grief and his relationship with Jojo, sometimes making it feel like two different projects. When Chevrollier focuses on one side of the story, the other is sidelined for a very long period of time, making each narrative intersection between the two have a lesser impact than it should. Each of these topics, grief, and acceptance, needed more time to be examined. They remain incomplete; the audience wants to learn more about the characters and their respective angst. Willy and Jojo suffer plenty, yet they aren’t given many moments of brevity so that we can know them better. While the emotions are palpable, the notions about understanding are somewhat short-sighted. 
Halfway through Block Pass, Chevrollier pivots the story into a Close territory.

And that transition in dramatic tone doesn’t contain the emotional potency or subtlety that Lukas Dhont provided his film with when approaching that heavy emotional turn. During that section of the film, the story is handled with care yet in a loose manner that makes each scene afterward feel a tad distant. However, when Block Pass is nearing its end, Chevrollier delivers one final punch that is very effective. It is a short and slight moment that not only makes up for the poor management of the narrative beats in the film’s second half but also encapsulates the beautiful friendship that Willy and Jojo have in a single frame. But this moment arrives so late that it makes you wish that Chevrollier had delivered the same emotional potency to the rest of the story.

Grade: C-

Movie Review (Cannes 2024): ‘Ghost Trail’ Goes Cold For Too Long

Director: Jonathan Millet
Writers: Jonathan Millet
Stars: Adam Bessa, Tawfeek Barhom, Julia Franz Richter

Synopsis: Hamid joins a secret group tracking Syrian regime leaders on the run. His mission takes him to France, pursuing his former torturer for a fateful confrontation.

Jonathan Millet’s feature-length debut Ghost Trail (Les fantômes) is a neatly crafted film that explores the psyche of a Syrian refugee via a spy-genre model. Millet uses an exciting way of exploring the tensions and angst a refugee goes through during and after the significant changes in their lives, especially when encountering ghosts of the past. However, such deconstruction of the espionage subgenre tends to drag across the film’s fascinating premise. Ghost Trail begins in 2015, when we see a man named Jamid (Adam Bessa, an underrated, talented actor) waiting exhausted alongside some other men in the back of a truck. They look worn out and tired of having to face these injustices daily. 

The camera focuses on the sun burning the Syrian desert as they head toward the light until there is no return. The film flashes forward to when Hamid lives in Strasburg, France, two years later. In this time that we miss, Hamid has been very busy – doing various jobs, talking to other Syrians from exile circles, as well as trying to find a person who he deems is his lost cousin from the war. It is slowly revealed that our protagonist is hiding secrets, so his life is very isolated; he even lies to his mother about living a successful life in Berlin. Hamid is part of a “clock-and-dagger” European-based organization that tracks down war criminals responsible for the atrocities that occurred under Bashar’s regime. 

These people Hamid and company are searching for use fake names and disguises, hiding themselves within all of Europe – camouflaging to begin their new lives. With these details known, you realize that Hamid is not looking for his cousin. Instead, he is searching for a man named Harfaz, his torturer from the time he was imprisoned in Sednaya. This is an intriguing premise with many possibilities as the spy games begin and the tension rises. Miller doesn’t indulge in the flash and action that modern spy films tend to use; instead, he takes a more grounded approach to the genre, focusing on Hamid’s perspective during his search for the man who tormented him.

We get plenty of close-ups of Hamid’s stone-cold expressions in the process, further adopting the persona of a lone wolf captured with ease by Bessa throughout the film. Ghost Trail begins to go into a darker territory thematically when Hami thinks he has found Harfaz near Strasbourg. Hamid only has a blurry picture of him and can’t rely on facial recognition, as Harfaz put a bag over his head when torturing him. But his presence still puts a chill down his spine; the way the man talks, smells, and walks reminds Hamid of Harfaz. However, the key is in the details. Hamid notices the man has an injured hand, a mark he recognizes immediately. That’s when he questions what his next move will be. 

The man Hamid believes is his torturer goes by the name of “Hassan” (Tawfeek Barhom), who lives a comfortable life devoid of any complications. This makes Hamid even more furious, as “Hassan” is living a life that he couldn’t have – one taken away from him forcefully. The audience feels his pain through Bessa’s solid performance. The man was robbed of a prosperous life with his wife and daughter, who died during the war. But he now lies deep in isolation; his PTSD haunts his daily living. Through this isolation, MIllet reflects on how the world moves on from these severe problems worldwide. He questions if the world wants, or is interested, in bringing these war criminals to justice instead of letting them go on with their lives as if nothing has happened. 

When Hamid finally decides how to approach the situation, Ghost Trail then plays off as a game of cat and mouse, where Hamid is slowly trying to get closer to “Hassan;” it even reaches a point where he can smell him, which has the audience worried about his actions. During these moments, you get the best and worst assets that MIllet offers in his feature debut. Ghost Trail, unfortunately, ends up dragging a lot when developing this hunt. By the last act, you feel pretty tired of the lone wolf procedure of catch and follow, and the film’s strong ending doesn’t manage to hit as hard as one would like. 

Sometimes, Miller’s direction hints at Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation via sensory clues and details revealed instead of lots of violence, which would have the film go to an unwanted exploitative territory. However, Millet runs out of ideas to keep the audience completely hooked on the narrative. For the most part, Ghost Trail remains engaging enough to make us intrigued about where it is heading and the exploration of a refugee’s broken psyche thanks to the solid performances and the aforementioned sensory element. I think there should have been a more crafty or savvy manner in which everything came to a close in the last few minutes.

Grade: C+

Movie Review: ‘Kidnapped: The Abduction of Edgardo Mortara’ is an Impeccable Creation

Director: Marco Bellocchio
Writers: Marco Bellocchio, Susanna Nicchiarelli, Edoardo Albinati
Stars: Paolo Pierobon, Fausto Russo Alesi, Barbara Ronchi

Synopsis: A Jewish boy is kidnapped and converted to Catholicism in 1858.

Marco Bellocchio’s Kidnapped: The Abduction of Edgardo Mortara uses the case of the titular character, a young Jewish boy who was taken from his family in 1858 by the Catholic Church, as the conduit to investigate zealotry informed by the idea of Papal supremacy. A protracted battle to have the child (Enea Sala) returned to his family became a lightning rod through which Pope Pius IX’s (Paolo Pierobon) position as temporal ruler became seen as no longer viable.

Bellocchio and co-writer Susan Nicchiarelli are less interested in the facts of the case than they are in what it revealed about the Catholic Church and law at the time. Even with that focus, they refine further to make it a psychodrama where the mind of a child is emblematic of the splintered states around the period of Italian Unification. 

In Bologna, the prosperous Jewish Mortara family live quietly. Momolo (Fausto Russo Alesi) and Marianna (Barbara Ronchi) have a large and happy family. They practice their religion at home as there are no synagogues. A possible (but unlikely) baptism by a young domestic servant of the baby Edgardo later leads to the local Inquisitor Gaetano Feletti (Fabrizio Gifuni) sending Papal soldiers to take the child to Rome to live as a Christian. It is an act which not only violates parental rights but is also forced conversion – a practice which was increasingly frowned upon. 

There is little doubt that, for Feletti, it is motivated by antisemitism as he makes it impossible for Momolo to fight the proceedings. He calls them “perfidious Jews” and not so subtly threatens Molomo and his brother-in-law. Even sympathetic Catholics cannot stop Edgardo being ripped from his home. Momolo does all he can to stop his son panicking. The child asks, “Will they chop off my head, Papa?” Momolo responds, “No, they won’t hurt you.” What Edgardo goes through is beyond hurt – it is a complete erasure. 

There is a deliberate surrealism in Edgardo’s journey via canals and waterways to Rome. He sees a funeral parade and encounters the crucifixion for the first time. He is told Jesus was a Jew who converted and then was killed by Jews. The Christ figure becomes a terrifying symbol for the child as he cannot understand the violent sacrifice of the body. Nothing makes sense to a six-year-old who was playing with his siblings one day and was then a pawn for the Church to prove baptism cannot be undone.

When Pope Pius IX is introduced, it is as a man who is increasingly obsessive and illogical. Surely the fact he partially liberated the Rome ghetto is proof enough that the Jews should be grateful for his largesse? He repudiates Rothschild and the amount of money the papacy owes. He has nightmares that he will be circumcized by force in his bedchamber brought on by European and American political cartoons lampooning what they see as his overstepping his authority with Edgardo and other Jewish children housed in the ‘orphanage’. Marco Bellocchio’s vision of the church is one which is decadent and crumbling – the wealth is undeniable – and that is seen as obscene. 

Pius and his council are psychologically coercive. The child Edgardo follows the example of Elia (Christian Mudu) a young boy from the Rome ghetto who tells him he must pretend to pray the way the priests require or else he will never be free. When the priests note that Edgardo is co-operating, they make the narrative that he is happy as a Christian and wants to convert his family. Edgardo becomes a pet for Pius who reads his conversion as a personal triumph over those questioning the role of the Holy See and dogmatic practices.

Marco Bellocchio moves between artificiality and realism in an attempt to cement the symbolic nature of the film. It is impeccably designed and shot. Sometimes the perfection masks his intent, and the audience is lulled into the sense that Kidnapped is a straight historical drama – something the director of Fists in the Pocket (1965) is not setting out to create. Bellocchio and Nicchiarelli (Miss Marx) provide a history lesson but do so with their own brand of cynicism towards the Catholic Church and those who wield power over others based on protecting their own interests.

Ultimately, Kidnapped is a satirical tragedy. As it shifts from the constant struggles Momolo, Marianna, and Edgardo’s eldest brother Riccardo (Samuele Teneggi) undertake to get Edgardo back to years later where Edgardo (Leonardo Maltese) is a young man in 1870 and a fervent Catholic priest who is quite literally forced to lick the ground where Pius walks. The Papal states topple under Garibaldi, Pius dies years later, and the damage to Edgardo and his family is never repaired because he is so brainwashed he tries to baptise his mother on her deathbed.
Kidnapped is perhaps a little too polished to be the punch Marco Bellocchio is aiming for. Strange but not as strange as it needs to be to convey how absurd the kidnapping was, especially as it benefitted no one. A single line spoken by the child Edgardo after the death of another kidnapped child, Simone, is vital; “We must have not prayed enough. Was it all pointless?” For in the end none of the Mortara family find reconciliation with their lost son, Pope Pius IX ends up as a corpse Father Pio Edgardo contemplates throwing into the Tiber – but history sees him beatified in 2000 by Pope John Paul II. Bellocchio stops short of making a masterpiece with Kidnapped – but nevertheless makes a striking film about a child lost to his family and himself.

Grade: B+

Movie Review: ‘The Strangers: Chapter 1″ is the Beginning of an Unwatchable Trilogy

Director: Renny Harlin
Writers: Alan R. Cohen, Alan Freedland
Stars: Madelaine Petsch, Froy Gutierrez, Richard Brake

Synopsis: After their car breaks down in an eerie small town, a young couple is forced to spend the night in a remote cabin. Panic ensues as they are terrorized by three masked strangers who strike with no mercy and seemingly no motive.

This year, audiences will be treated to two ambitious projects told in “chapters,” with Kevin Costner’s Horizon: An American Saga and Renny Harlin’s The Strangers Trilogy. Perhaps they’re not as ambitious as we think. Still, it takes guts for studio executives to greenlight a franchise of films when the reception can’t be gauged compared to the plethora of superhero movies that have (mostly) been winners for cinemas. 

The Strangers is more of a niche property than Kevin Costner’s Western saga since none of the previous films from the franchise were particularly well received. Certainly not enough to warrant a trilogy of reboots/prequels shot back-to-back to pull back the curtain on the origins of the titular strangers. It did, however, develop a cult following, and part of the thrill of Bryan Bertino’s 2008 original and Johannes Roberts’ The Strangers: Prey at Night is that the antagonists have no motivations. They stalk and kill the people they find in houses simply because they were there. That makes it even more terrifying, even if both films are horrendously written and executed, teetering on the lines of exploitative rather than actually scary, regardless of their blunt – and sadly realistic – ending. 

Harlin’s first chapter in his trilogy opens with a text stating that “seven violent crimes have happened since you started watching this movie,” and proceeds to…not follow through with this interesting mise-en-abyme by introducing two of the most listless characters in a modern horror movie this year, with Maya (Madelaine Petsch) and Ryan (Froy Gutierrez). The two are traveling across the country and stop for a bite to eat. When Ryan attempts to start his car, it’s no longer working, with the not-so-friendly and incredibly suspicious mechanic telling them it’ll take a day to fix it. 

The two rest up at an Airbnb, waiting for their car to be ready, and are immediately stalked by the trio of strangers known as Scarecrow (Matúš Lajčák), Dollface (Olivia Kreutzova), and Pin-Up Girl (Letizia Fabbri) as they break into their home and attempt to kill them. It’s a typical Strangers scenario without any of the aesthetic flair that made Roberts’ sequel somewhat fun to watch. 

Harlin and cinematographer José David Montero shoot each ‘scare’ sequence, in which the strangers are in Maya’s house, with no proper blocking, with most of its visual cues seen coming a mile away (Ryan hears noises in the background, shotgun in hand, thinking it’s one of the strangers. The audience doesn’t see who’s making the noise, having constantly seen the strangers roam around Maya’s Airbnb throughout. Who do you think it is?). While Bertino unpredictably played with space in The Strangers, and Roberts used split diopters and crash zooms to exacerbate tension in Prey at Night unnaturally, there’s no formal exercise to be had here. 

Rather, most of the core action set pieces are poorly shot and lit, with zero sense of tension in their depth of field or a willingness for Harlin to at least give his own cinematic language to the material. The Finnish genre filmmaker has never been this lazy, almost as if he’s contractually obligated to do this instead of wanting to bring his own flair to The Strangers, compared to when he succeeded at giving John McClane a fun sequel with Die Hard 2: Die Harder, or capture Sylvester Stallone in his most death-defying picture ever with Cliffhanger. We’re a long way off those two, or even The Long Kiss Goodnight, with a picture that’s never interested in its characters and aesthetic, which is likely what made the first two Strangers films gain a cult following. 

But Harlin has never had the sauce with horror, having bastardized Paul Schrader’s Dominion with his reshot Exorcist: The Beginning and his follow-up, The Covenant, in 2006. Atmospheric horror does not equal action. It doesn’t have the same pace and energy as a Cliffhanger (or even a Cutthroat Island). In The Strangers: Chapter 1, the pace is all out of whack – most of the scenes are comprised of characters meandering around the Airbnb until a sudden jumpscare amps up the pace for just a minute before it dials down again in complete lethargy. Rinse and repeat until the joke of a cliffhanger ending, which gives audiences the promise of more, but how can you make three films out of such a paper-thin, lackadaisical script like this? 

The thrill of The Strangers is the randomness of its antagonists, who don’t explain why they do what they do, and the protagonists are unfortunately caught in the middle of it. Had they been fully formed, perhaps it would have been somewhat better. However, the two protagonists we’re unfortunately stuck with continuously do the exact opposite of what they should be doing. You could practically hear me scream at the cinema screen (don’t worry, I was alone in the auditorium) going TELL HER TO PUT THE KNIFE DOWN IDIOT! as Ryan holds a shotgun on the head of Pin-Up Girl without telling her to put her large-ass knife down. What do you think is going to happen there? Jesus. 

Or how about the scene in which they attempt to leave using the Airbnb owner’s truck but are being chased by Scarecrow’s own vehicle? Ryan and Maya literally STARE AT HIS TRUCK instead of, I dunno, moving out of the way? Even in such a situation like this, where you don’t have much time to think, you know that if a truck is coming straight at you, the survival reflex in your mind does not compel you to sit around and do nothing. What the hell is this? Do you seriously expect us to believe that the characters are this shortsighted and have no idea what to do when faced with such a situation? 

No matter, we’re stuck with these people for over ninety minutes. After they inevitably discover exactly why their shortsighted decisions ultimately lead to a potential demise, the film ends and asks us to come back when Chapter 2 eventually releases, after a post-credits stinger that raises far more questions than answers. At this point, if I were reading a book, I’d throw it in the garbage bin before I’d even make it to Chapter 2. And that’s a promise.

Grade: F

Movie Review (Cannes 2024): ‘Simon of the Mountain’ Lacks Definition and Focus

Director: Luis Federico
Writers: Tomas Murphy, Federico Luis Tachella, Agustin Toscano
Stars: Lorenzo Ferro, Pehuen Pedre, Kiara Supini

Synopsis: Seeking change, 21-year-old Simon finds purpose by befriending two disabled children who teach him to embrace life’s joys. Together, they navigate a world not designed for them, inventing their own rules for love and happiness.

Simon of the Mountain (Simón de la montaña), Federico Luis Tachella’s pretty frustrating picture (screening at this year’s Cannes Film Festival in the Semaine de la critique), is built like a coming-of-story that we all know – a type of narrative that we tend to see at the festival. However, Federico Luis Tachella focuses more on the aspect of trying to find a place or group in the world where he could feel special and cared for. The film is groundbreaking in its casting choices and subject matter, as we haven’t seen it depict disabled people. However, even though it covers an important topic, it feels ever so distant due to some narrative decisions. 

The film begins abruptly, introducing us immediately to the twenty-one-year-old titular character, Simon (Lorenzo Ferro). He claims to be a moving assistant; he knows how to make a bed but nothing else. Simon can’t cook, clean, or lift heavy objects; so the viewer hesitates to believe him during the film’s first segment. At first glance, he is a complex character to read because the director places us in the middle of an encounter between him and a stranger who asks about his past experiences. The first few minutes contain a sense of mystery; the narrative is unclear as we go through a series of vignettes that capture Simon’s life after that encounter. 

Simon remains mostly silent during these scenes; he stays in the background like the viewer watching the film unfold. The only narrative tissue connecting these scenes is the love story between Pehuen (Pehuén Pedie), the stranger from before, and a girl named Angelica. The two meet in secret; the hospice of the disabled where they stay prohibits sexual relations. One day, Pehuén asks Simon to cover for him as he meets Angelica in the showers. But they all get caught, with Pehuén and Simon being sent to the director’s office to discuss the situation. In this scene, we get some clarity within the narrative and some background to Simon as a character. 

We meet his mother, who has been worried sick as she searches for him everywhere. She starts to notice that her son is acting differently. Simon has apparently lost his ID and disability certificate, yet his mother states that he has never had the latter. At this point, multiple questions pop into the viewer’s mind. Is Simon lying to this three-week-old friend about his condition? What are his intentions? Is he being genuine or mocking them? You don’t exactly know, and the film doesn’t make the search for these answers easy. His mother believes he doesn’t have the best intentions, yet Simon remarks that he has always felt that way, just like Pehuén and Angelica. 

That’s why Pehuén helps him to get the disability certificate; he does so by teaching him how to walk, talk, and react just like him. During Simon of the Mountain, the titular character goes through a couple of discussions that make him think about why he feels he belongs alongside his friends. Simon, as well as the audience watching, questions whether or not he is disabled, and if so, why would his mother reject him like that instead of seeking help. This is Simon’s journey of self-discovery, hoping the people around him accept him into this place he deems special. While well-intentioned and good-hearted, the film fails to transmit the character’s emotions to the viewer. 

We watch as he immerses himself in this new life, yet the viewer is not entirely captivated by his journey. Federico Luis Tachella doesn’t take much time to provide details about Simon’s background. Instead, he has him in different scenarios that don’t develop his character to a compelling degree. Simon of the Mountain is a fairly acted drama that leaves more questions in your mind than answering the ones established throughout the narrative. That isn’t a particular issue that ruins the viewing experience. I prefer that films leave room for ambiguity rather than having an immediate answer for everything or sugarcoating the story to avoid doing so. 

However, when you don’t have a fully defined character in the lead role, and he doesn’t grow much during the story being told, significant problems arise. I would like to revisit the film later to see if my thoughts would change, given that I know how Simon’s journey concludes. But as of now, I think the film lacks the brevity to showcase its beating heart properly.  It has been one of the most strenuous watches at the festival, not because of how Federico Luis Tachella handles the subject matter but because of the procedure he used to tell this story.

Grade: C-

Movie Review: ‘The Blue Angels’ Screams Across the Big Screen

Director: Paul Crowder
Stars: Brian Allendorfer, Bobby Speed Baldock, Bryon Beck

Synopsis: Follows the veterans and newest class of Navy and Marine Corps flight squadron as they go through intense training and into a season of heart-stopping aerial artistry.

If you’ve ever felt the need—you know, the need for speed—then the new documentary feature, The Blue Angels, is the movie experience you’ve been clamoring for! Filled with jaw-dropping visuals and artistry, this Prime Video film is like no other on the subject you’ve ever seen before. However, perhaps what Paul Crowder’s film does best is capture the poetry of the matter when it comes to these performers’ journeys through boundless baby blue skies in the hopes of touching God and the hearts of those below.

From producer Glen Powell, director Paul Crowder, an award-winning editor of such acclaimed documentaries as Dogtown and Z-Boys, and The Beatles: Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years, take on a new challenge with The Blue Angels. This isn’t exactly familiar territory for the filmmaker, whose best work has often involved rebels, like Riding Giants, a film about a skateboarder turned surfer conquering waves the size of small buildings. As Crowder transitions from the depths of empty pools in Santa Monica and Venice Beach to the peaks of foamy waves, it’s only natural that the lens of his camera continues to reach skyward.Image from new documentary film The Blue Angels (2024) | Image via Amazon Studios

While some may view The Blue Angels as a political stunt for military recruiting, even the staunchest skeptics are likely to be captivated by the film, not to mention a live demonstration. The group has been thrilling audiences for nearly a century. This documentary follows veterans and recruits of the Navy’s Elite Flight Demonstration Squadron. Where dramatized films like Top Gun: Maverick or limited series like Band of Brothers depict the grueling nature of forming such a unit, Crowder immerses the viewer in the trainees’ experiences through grueling training, protocols, and testing that are eye-opening. 

When you combine these scenes with jaw-dropping aerial stunts, The Blue Angels takes on an arm-rest-grabbing thriller quality that’s thrilling and hard to shake with its g-force grip. I was given a screener for the Prime Video documentary, but considering what I saw on television, I went to see the film in IMAX for a second viewing. The IMAX technology is a game changer for Crowder’s film. The film is simply spectacular in its elevated format. Yes, I will use the same tired cliché every critic churns out in hopes of getting a quote on a poster or BluRay jacket: You need to see this film on the biggest screen possible. The experience is guaranteed to make the hair stand up on your neck.

And much of that credit should go to the cinematography team, including Lance Benson, Michael Fitz Maurice, and Jessica Young. Along with the courageous determination of the camera operators (something I have come to appreciate more after The Fall Guy, for what that is worth) gives Crowder’s immersive experience its poetry in motion, lyrical, endearing feel. Along with the character study of pilots such as Brian Allendorfer, Bobby Speed Baldock, Bryon Beck, and Lance Benson, along with the hundreds of crew members on the ground, the film takes time to give you a glimpse of their hard work, make The Blue Angels a community experience and the power of teamwork.

Simply put, go for the breathtaking, spectacular, and adrenaline-pumping visuals and stay for the lessons The Blue Angels teaches cinephiles of all ages.

Grade: A-

Movie Review (Cannes 2024): ‘The Substance’ is an Uncouth Jewel

Director: Coralie Fargeat
Writer: Coralie Fargeat
Stars: Margaret Qualley, Dennis Quaid, Demi Moore

Synopsis: A fading celebrity decides to use a black market drug, a cell-replicating substance that temporarily creates a younger, better version of herself.

Body horror is the house for mad creatures to concoct their carnal visions, dreams, and nightmares. The exploration of the body is endless in this canvas. Why would filmmakers limit themselves when crossing into this subgenre when it is all about venturing into the unknown? There are many ways you can tie these bloody brigades with everything in life, not necessarily limited to the classic theme of trauma. Filmmakers like David Cronenberg and Julia Ducournau – the king and queen of body horror (and two of my favorite directors of all time) – have found fascinating, unique ways to implement these elements to a plethora of themes, whether it is the 80s obsession with violence on the media in Videodrome or finding unconditional love in Titane

The two have revolutionized what can be done with the horror genre. However, a new name is emerging that can be placed on that short list. That is Coralie Fargeat, known for her excellent debut, Revenge, in 2017. The French filmmaker had dabbled before with the subgenre, although it was just passing moments rather than complete focus on it. But in her follow-up, The Substance (screening in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival), she decides to go all out, to degrees that both Cronenberg and Ducournau would be proud of. As grizzly as her previous work, yet more audacious, The Substance has Fargeat not wanting to hold back. 

She tests the audience to see if they can stomach the brutal beast she has created. And if they can’t, well… good luck then! The procedure Fargeat uses is similar to how two-time Palme d’Or-winner Ruben Östlund creates satires: having the subtlety of a sledgehammer and putting the audience through an array of loud scenarios that provoke and detach. But unlike him, Fargeat isn’t blindsided by the fact that she has done this; it is a part of the aberrant painting she has covered in bodily fluids, in all of its cinematically delightful carnage that will leave gore-hounds and horror freaks enamored by its madness. 

The Substance centers around Elizabeth Sparkle (a magnificent Demi Moore who has never been better). She is a veteran actress and a top talent of her time whose name immediately hints at the sledgehammer-wielding Fargeat’s unsubtle satire. Elizabeth is a star fading away from the spotlight that used to caress her face with a soothing luminescence. Even with the trophies that ensure she doesn’t vanish from the ostentatious world of Hollywood – an Oscar for a movie that nobody remembers and a now cracked star in the “honored” Walk of Fame, which Fargeat shows from its installation to the stepped-on present during the film’s first-minutes – none of that is stopping the cruelty of how this society focused rejuvenation value women when they are young, leaving them to roost once they are not youthful. 

This is Fargeat’s crux, seen early in the film as a more grounded (in comparison with what the rest of the film has to offer) and unsubtle critique. However, she doesn’t want to stop there. You already might get the point, yet Fargeat intends to construct a carnal attraction of her own. And it is a thing of horrific beauty. The once A-lister is now turned fifty, looking for a way back into the bright lights after the TV executive, Harvey (Dennis Quaid, ever so despicable in his performance, tuning into the material perfectly) lets her go from the dance workout show she hosted, Sparkle Your Life, because he wants a young face in the poster. Elizabeth doesn’t know what to do; in Hollywood’s eye, her glamor is fading. 

With a string of back luck on her side, the day gets worse. She gets into a car accident that sends her to the hospital, even though no injuries were suffered. It is here where she has an encounter with a stranger, a moment that might seem insignificant if it wasn’t for the USB she has now in her possession. Arriving as a “guardian angel” at first, later revealed as a “be careful what you wish for” devil, the hard drive has information about a procedure that will make her young again via a cloning process. As explained in the USB, the experiment involves injecting a serum called “The Substance”, which will allow the user to live a new life in a young, beautiful body for seven days at a time. 

The two women can’t be conscious simultaneously, as they are one person, just separated into two different bodies. Intrigued by the idea, Elizabeth decides to proceed with the unorthodox experiment since she doesn’t have another idea. Out of her spine, she hatches a younger version of herself, Sue (Margaret Qualley), in an amusing, disgusting way. She can’t believe it; right before her eyes lies a new creation. “The Substance” plays a god-like role, breaking the rules and notions of the body and its capabilities. Sue then follows to audition for the role Elizabeth has lost and gains immediate stardom, the slimy Harvey rejoicing as the fresh meat earns him money. But a huge problem arises. Sue doesn’t want to share her time in the world; meanwhile, Elizabeth is comatose in a private room, her life slowly draining and decaying as the starlet gains vivacity. The arrangement fractures as time passes and spinal fluid is removed.

This ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ meets ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’-like story develops into an amalgamation of gory inventions, referencing multiple cinema legends (Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg, Lucio Fulci) as well as some of the genre’s cult classics (Society, The Stuff). You immediately notice not only how well-versed Coralie Fargeat is in cinema history but also her great confidence behind the camera. The film oozes, both literally and figuratively, in style and flash, adopting hallucinatory and gruesome techniques that make each horror set piece have a great force of cinematic prowess. Consequently, it feels like a breath of fresh air, a unique addition to a vast genre filled with many ideas and concepts that are as striking as they are thrilling. 

Fargeat demonstrated in Revenge how she could take a subgenre such as rape revenge-thriller and make it her own via her unique feminist methodology in her filmmaking, which lines up with what Carol J. Clover said about the victim-hero and final girl in her excellent book ‘Men, Women, and Chainsaws’. And the French filmmaker, who might win an award at the end of the festival, does the same thing with body horror. It is a movie that is influenced, yet savvy and prolific, made within the confines of a subgenre that hasn’t seen much reinvention since the aforementioned Cronenberg and Ducournau. Fargeat is in full command, never letting the boat she’s sailing go close to sinking. 

In terms of horror, The Substance is a work of sheer expertise. You are perplexed by the tastelessness in the brutality, in awe of the vision in her creations, and captivated by the approach to this damning story. When it comes to the satire, that’s where some audience members might find the most faults. The whole ordeal is more than obvious; the joke that “The Substance doesn’t have much substance” will be thrown around many times in cheap one-sentence Letterboxd reviews. The mechanics of the narrative and the world the film builds revolve around that on-the-nose laughability. The comedy and horror elements are heightened due to the hollowness of the film’s casing, catching the viewer easily off guard when the director mutilates and deconstructs the body of her characters. With a blood bath that emerges later in the story, it might be possible that the Grand Auditorium Louis Lumière might be strained in crimson red for a very long time. The Substance, a beast of its own, is a total uncouth jewel.

Grade: A

Movie Review: ‘Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga’ is Both Transcendent and Indulgent

Director: George Miller
Writers: George Miller, Nick Lathouris
Stars: Anya Taylor-Joy, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Burke

Synopsis: The origin story of renegade warrior Furiosa before her encounter and teamup with Mad Max.

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga begins with the same voices which open Mad Max: Fury Road, sans Max. The audience is welcomed back to the Wasteland before seeing it. The voice over instead speaks of Imperator Furiosa – who, like Mad Max before her, has reached the status of legend. Furiosa is the story of a child of the Vuvalini of Many Mothers – daughter of Mary Jabassa (Charlee Fraser), Protector of The Green Place.

Furiosa (Alyla Browne) is reaching for a peach with young Valkyrie when she hears voices. Men from a motorcycle horde have invaded the protected oasis. Furiosa attempts to cut the gas lines of their bikes but is caught. From that moment, Furiosa’s home is a paradise lost but never forgotten.

George Miller throws the gauntlet down immediately. Mary Jabassa gives chase felling Furiosa’s lack witted kidnappers with the assistance of a sniper’s eye, her black thumb skills (mechanic), and Furiosa’s training. The physical health of the full life Vuvalini has transferred to quick thinking and problem solving. Furiosa might be small but she’s mighty. Mary is, as Furiosa recalls in time, magnificent. 

The child is taken to the scavenger warlord Dementus (Chris Hemsworth, as you have never seen him before). Dementus is a cruel grifter who uses ultra-violence to get his way. Unable to cajole the location of the place of abundance out of Furiosa, his method turns to crucifixion and motorcycle quartering. Furiosa is made to witness the death of her mother. Within three days, Furiosa is caged and muzzled, listening with rage to Dementus’ idiotic ramblings and taking in lessons from the History Man with his tattooed skin and position as ersatz historian.

History and myth are as important to Miller and co-scribe Nicos Lathouris as guzzolene and V8 engines. Pageantry and symbolism rub shoulders with broken war-addled and fallout brains of the mostly male survivors. While Dementus sees himself as a politician, Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme) sees himself as a God. A War Boy tells Dementus about The Citadel. They spy a chance for supremacy Dementus threatens Immortan Joe and his sons Rictus Erectus (Nathan James), Scrotus (Josh Helmen), and Immortan Joe’s human calculator The People Eater (John Howard). Dementus’ attempt to start an uprising among the wretched, treadmill rats, and other denizens of the citadel is almost immediately quelled by the zealotry of the War Boys and War Pups faithful to Immortan Joe.

To avoid an all out war which he will lose as War Boys kamikaze into his followers, Dementus is forced to give up young Furiosa to the breeding program and make a play for Gas Town using the kind of subterfuge that only works once. Furiosa, in the space of a few years, sees the very worst of Dementus and his motorcycle pulled chariot, and Immortan Joe with his sickly breeding program in which he is trying to sire a healthy heir (she narrowly avoids being raped by Rictus Erectus which leads her to cut her hair and live as a boy).

Time passes and the silent Furiosa blends in as a Black Thumb and Dogman – working her way onto the War Rig driven by Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke doing a passable Australian accent). Furiosa (now played by Anya Taylor-Joy in a near seamless transition from Browne and in an uncannily believable embodiment of the woman who will become Charlize Theron) survives a fraught road battle on a run to Gas Town where the convoy is attacked by other warlords who were double-crossed by Dementus. For the first time, we encounter a woman whose steel is forged through a mixture of hope and vengeance.

Miller’s prequel moves between being some of the most powerful and potent road warrior imagery put to screen, and some of the most bloated. The Gas Town sequence on Fury Road is a distillation of the high-octane action direction of Miller at his most accomplished. Sean Duggan’s camerawork and the editing by Margaret Sixel and Eliot Knapman are almost seamless here. The stunt work with parachutes, grappling, guns, gas, bombs, and metal piercing flesh is balletic. All of which highlights how uneven the rest of the film is marrying the, at times, patently ugly CGI with practical effects and action.

Chris Hemsworth is giving the performance of his lifetime. A wheedling sadist whose insanity is comparable to Wez (Vernon Wells in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior). As Dementus he has the lion’s share of the dialogue, and he relishes every second of every broad ocker line. Anya Taylor-Joy slips into the Road Warrior protagonist skin so perfectly it is astonishing. The template which works best for any Max Rockatansky or Wasteland legend (which Furiosa is) is intense silence punctuated with lines that have weight.

The runtime of almost two-and-a-half hours is indulgent and threatens to make the audience disengage. Considering the barebones nature of the plot, action is king. Yet the action becomes at times repetitive, and the visual language muddied by raggedy and uneven effects and second unit direction. Furiosa could lose half an hour and be a compact action spectacle. 

No one quite knew what to expect of Mad Max: Fury Road when it appeared in 2015 so Miller’s grand risk had huge rewards. Furiosa suffers from somewhat diminishing returns in trying to up the ante. Nevertheless, Miller’s spectacle is transcendent when he has the pedal to the metal and the messy seams of Furiosa don’t undo the whole. Solid second gear action that could go faster to be more furious.

Grade: B-

Movie Review (Cannes 2024): ‘Oh, Canada’ is an Honest and Moving Confessional

Director: Paul Schrader
Writers: Paul Schrader, Russell Banks
Stars: Richard Gere, Jacob Elordi, Uma Thurman

Synopsis: Leonard Fife, one of sixty thousand draft evaders and deserters who fled to Canada to avoid serving in Vietnam, shares all his secrets to de-mythologize his mythologized life.

Paul Schrader’s cinema has always delved into the depths of death and existentialism, with some films more overtly exploring these themes than others. The characters he crafts, whether they be taxi drivers, drug dealers, gigolos, or boxers, all grapple with a profound sense of dread. They transform their trauma into a vocational obsession, constructing a facade that conceals their past struggles and perturbations. Schrader’s works, particularly those in the latter half of his career, serve as a confessional for these characters as they introspect on their lives and strive for redemption. You are invited to listen to their revelations and delve into their fractured psyche. The contemplation of broken men on a canvas has become more simplistic, yet no less intriguing to explore, even when these introspections are not entirely successful. 

This self-analysis and exploration by the characters are now prevalent in a more literal form in Schrader’s latest work, Oh, Canada, an adaptation of Russell Banks’ novel ‘Foregone’ from two years ago. After a series of tragic events for him, like the passing of his friend Russell Banks, his health scares, and caring for his wife after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Paul Schrader is now, more than ever, thinking and reflecting on mortality. A string of events made him ponder what’s next for him and how much time he has, both in and out of cinema. Feeling like death was near, he decided to make a movie about that same predicament: running out of time. 

“If I want to make a film about death, I’d better hurry up”, said Schrader in an interview with Le Monde. This is why Oh, Canada has a sense of urgency. Even though his previous work covered prevalent and important topics, they often lacked the immediacy that adds emotional depth to a film. Schrader taps into a manner of storytelling that we haven’t seen from him before; he is reflective and more personal, which amounts to a moving portrait of a flawed man looking back at his life and coming to terms with his mistakes and regrets. Oh, Canada tells the story of the fictional documentarian Leonard Fife (Richard Gere, returning to work with Schrader after 44 years, delivering his best performance in a very long time). 

In 1968, he dodged the draft that was going to send Leonard to the Vietnam War by fleeing to Canada, marrying one of his students, Emma (Uma Thurman), so that he could permanently stay, ridden of the atrocities that occurred at the time. To this day, he feels the pain of his choices, burdened by the effect of what happened during the war, where thousands of young men were sent out to die. And as he has aged, this feeling has increased. Leonard doesn’t show that guilt outwardly; it is mostly internal. But when he agrees to do an interview with two of his old students, Malcolm (Michale Imperioli) and his partner, Diana (Victoria Hill), these emotions are given a time in the spotlight. 

What was initially considered a celebration of his work becomes a confessional. Leonard is questioned about everything that happened in his life, including the partner and child he left behind when he fled to Canada. Leonard isn’t resistant to revealing his past; as a matter of fact, he is insistent on doing so. Leonard wants Emma to know what he has done and who he really is. But the man can’t seem to piece together every memory of that neglected past. The crew and companions around him blame it on his cancer treatment, which has increased due to his condition worsening. This is where Schrader cuts back and forth between the present and the concealed past. The audience slowly learns about what Leonard has been hiding for decades. 

Via flashbacks, we see a young Leonard (played by Jacob Elordi) gearing up to leave his humble life in Virginia, living with a caring wife and a son, to enroll as a teacher in Vermont. In these scenes, you notice the differences in Leonard’s persona. When he was young, the man was charismatic and visionary; meanwhile, he is now pompous and egotistical. He packed his bags on moral grounds and unpacked everything for the first time in public. It brings a haunting sensation of existential regret and hindrance to the film. Leonard continues to share as everyone begs him to stop confessing his hard choices – pouring his heart and soul into the camera recording him. The people in the room and the audience watching are now asked to decide whether or not to judge Leonard for all that he has admitted. 

Evidently, through the project’s backstory and narrative, Oh, Canada is Paul Schrader’s most personal film to date. He takes parts of his own life to plant inside the scripture of Banks’ novel as an ode to his dear friend and a way to be vulnerable with the audience. This is why we get a sense of familiarity in the company of Leonard. We see a bit of the influential American director in him, which both Gere and Elordi bring to life remarkably. Schrader reflects on his worries, offenses, and struggles to ensure the film has that genuine feeling of a confessional – a filmmaker who has been quite indulgent in doing an open testimony. Via the power of cinema, these emotions get transmitted to the viewer on multiple levels. 

Oh, Canada contains a sense of honesty that Schrader hasn’t seen before. Like Francis Ford Coppola in Megalopolis, Schrader puts his thoughts on the passing of time and our inability to stop it on a cinematic canvas—although the director of Apocalypse Now was less successful at doing so with his thematic exploration. Both veteran filmmakers who have graced the screen with masterpieces of their own in the 70s and 80s have endured many hindrances across their careers. Somehow, Oh, Canada and Megalopolis arrive not only in unison (both screening in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival), but at the perfect time. They are at a point in their life where they notice more of the remaining sand in the hourglass. And it is fascinating how the two intersect. 

Schrader’s latest is thematically tragic, cinematically moving, and, most importantly, filled with hope, yearning for us who still have time on our hands to self-reflect on our lives before it is too late. As grim and anxiety-inducing as it may sound, that’s the thought that lingers in your head after watching Oh, Canada. Through the puzzle Leonard is trying to assemble, we slowly come to our own conclusions about where we are headed, at least at this point in time. It is missing a couple of pieces to complete the picture, just like Leonard’s confession is just a part of it – a human element that holds onto you. Instead of gnawing and unforgiving notions about death, we get a more evocative one. Oh, Canada is more than a gateway into Schrader’s psyche; it is a candid divulgence, rampant Facebook comments and all.

Grade: B+

Movie Review (Cannes 2024): ‘Bird’ Wanders Without Rhythm

Director: Andrea Arnold
Writer: Andrea Arnold
Stars: Barry Keoghan, Franz Rogowski, James Nelson-Joyce

Synopsis: Bailey lives with her brother Hunter and her father Bug, who raises them alone in a squat in northern Kent. Bug doesn’t have much time to devote to them. Bailey looks for attention and adventure elsewhere.

Andrea Arnold’s characters, often trapped in isolation, grappling with loneliness, and facing desperate circumstances, are not mere wanderers across their rural or coastal settings. They are souls yearning for love and acceptance, seeking open arms that will never let them go. Arnold’s direction skillfully brings out their emotional depth, evoking a profound empathy in us. Whether it’s Star in American Honey or Cathy in her mossy adaptation of Wuthering Heights, she compels us to want to protect them as they navigate their respective hardships. After premiering her documentary Cow in the 2021 Cannes Film Festival (in the Cannes Premiere section), Arnold is now back in competition with her latest work, Bird. Arnold combines these elements with a touch of anthropomorphic, magical realism, a signature feature in some of her previous works (recall the white horse in Fish Tank). 

This time, these elements are more refined and prominent than ever before, adding a unique layer to the narrative. Bailey (the fascinating Nykiya Adams) is at the story’s heart, a twelve-year-old from northern Kent. She shares her home with her half-brother, Hunter (Jason Buda), and father, Bug (Barry Keoghan) who seamlessly fits with Arnold’s storytelling style). He is adorned with insect tattoos, including a scorpion, spider, beetle, and butterfly, among others. Like the exoskeletons of the animals tattooed across his body, Bug uses these marks as a shield, concealing his emotions from his penury. Meanwhile, Hunter, alongside his friends, is taking justice into their own hands. They do weekly raids where they do damage to some local abusers, filming it and putting the videos online. 

This family tries to hold itself together through harsh means – wishing they get out of the gutter. They live in a city that, in the captivating lens of cinematographer Robbie Ryan, reeks of hopelessness, adding to the British filmmaker’s pet topic of social miserabilism. Arnold frames this city with trash strewn around each corner of the street and the walls covered with graffiti, some with uplifting messages (which feel quite trite) and others with profanities (which don’t contribute to the film). And with the meticulous attention that Arnold tends to put to the setting, in Bird, it never feels that this setting is a character, less even one that is realistic. 

Bug later reveals to Bailey and Hunter that he will marry his girlfriend of three months, Kayleigh (Frankie Box), in the coming week. Bailey disapproves of this decision, even though she has no say in the matter. She doesn’t think this is a good decision on his part; she sees her as an addition to his problems; rather than a salvation or a pairing that will make him happier in the long run. That’s why Bailey decides to rebel against it. She makes her half-brother’s girlfriend cut her hair, starts wearing black eyeliner, and even joins Hunter on one of his raids. During one of these, Bailey decides to step out and wander across an open field, later laying on the grass until she falls asleep. 

Upon closing her eyes, Andrea Arnold performs a cinematic trick, showering the film with magical realism. This reminds me a bit of how Alexandre Koberidze did in What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? but with a broader stroke rather than a discreet one. When she opens her eyes, Bailey sees a strange man approaching her named Bird (Franz Rogowski), who is introduced to us by a gust of wind that blows through the plains; his name, just like Barry Keoghan’s character, hints at the first glimpses of anthropomorphic story elements. His appearance seems crafted from the mind of a dreaming child; Bird looks like a drifter. Where has he come from? Scared, Bailey’s first reaction is to take her phone out, grabbing it as if it were a weapon. But Bird doesn’t mean any harm, going along his way after a freeform dance. 

Curious about his presence, Bailey follows him to the council block’s housing project beside her. Bailey then asks her what he’s looking for. Bird says he is searching for his parents, who used to live there. Bailey wants to help him because they are two sides of the same coin; both are lost in a world deemed without aspirations, wanting a pair of open arms to go to when things are at their lowest. This reflective mirror forges a strange bond between them, one of understanding and acceptance of each other’s desolation and isolation. The only person Bailey knows who can maybe help him out is her mother, Peyton (Jasmine Johnson). 

This search for Bird’s lost parents opens a closet of misgivings. The two begin to get involved in their messes, helping each other along the way and, when in deep sorrow, are there for each other. Bird plays a significant role in her life during this journey, being a guardian angel of some sort – overseeing her every move from the rooftops of the housing complexes, just like a stark or seagull. There are many attempts at magical realism here, with Franz Rogowski’s character being the main one, followed by Bailey’s father, who, at a certain point in the film, sings two “drug toad” songs by Blur and Coldplay to potentially extract its psychedelic slime. 

Arnold has played with similar elements, primarily by using animals as metaphors for the characters’ imprisonment, being stuck, and wanting to run away. Although, these are seen in ways that aren’t too in your face. This is why it doesn’t work this time around. These elements are used to blend within the setting, swiftly put together with plenty of brevity, which the viewer latches onto. But in Bird, they come off as strange oddities; instead of enhancing the experience and making the emotions feel grounded, the anthropomorphic elements take you out of the spell that Arnold wants to put the audience under. Somewhere along the lines of the film’s palpability lies a beating heart, which is pumped by the touching performances of the cast, notably Adams and Keoghan. Both seem to be in sync with delivering the emotional tenure in Arnold’s previous work. As for Rogowski, just like in his previous performances, he offers plenty of nuance to let us into the magic. But, rather unfortunately, the screenplay takes us away with on-the-nose dialogue and miscalculated narrative choices. 

This is definitively Andrea Arnold on her most playful side in a narrative sense, as visually, it remains more on her wavelength. She piles up many ideas about love, forgiveness, and friendship, yet they all come across quite like the characters – wandering until they find their place in the world. But they never find the right place to fit in the narrative. Bird comes off as a meretricious attempt at making a slightly feel-good picture due to the mishandling of the story within the confines of the magical realism that Arnold wants to place forcefully. And the audience leaves with the notion of not knowing what to get out of it all. As an Andrea Arnold fan who thinks American Honey was one of the best films of the previous decade, I am very disappointed.


Grade: C-

Movie Review (Cannes 2024): ‘The Other Way Around’ is Cinematic Therapy

Director: Jonás Trueba
Writer: Jonás Trueba
Stars: Itsaso Arana, Vito Sanz

Synopsis: After 15 years as a couple, Ale and Alex decide to throw a party to celebrate their separation, leaving their loved ones perplexed.

In his latest work, The Other Way Around (Volveréis), Spanish filmmaker Jonás Trueba delves into the emotional depths of a marriage potentially meeting its end. He navigates through some regularly seen tropes, gradually unfolding a metatextual ode to love in union and separation—the beginning and end of a beautiful relationship. Trueba’s exploration of the heartwarming and cruel nature of bonds and their necessity for personal growth resonates deeply. By blending reality and fiction, as well as wishes and desires, he transforms a standard narrative into a touching feature with many intertwining details, providing the film with a beating heart that captivates from start to finish. 

“We should do as your dad suggested” are the first words spoken in The Other Way Around. A couple – husband actor Alex (Vito Sanz) and wife filmmaker (Itasa Arana) – are now at a point in their life together where they believe there’s no return. Love has been lost from both sides or at least to some degree where they haven’t decided if they should (or shouldn’t) separate. This is where Ale’s father and his unique perspective on love come into play. He once talked about doing a party that celebrates a couple’s separation rather than union, or as Alex refers to it, a wedding but the other way around – saying the film’s title and coincidentally, one of the many winks at the camera that Trueba places from time to time. 

Ale says that this “celebration” can only be done if both parties are at the same emotional point, an answer that reveals to the audience that one of them is still holding on to the love they once had. We don’t know who the one out of the two who feels this particular way is, but there’s this hesitance beneath their breath when speaking about the topic. Sadness lingers as they laugh through the uncertainty and treat the party as a joke. Their minds aren’t clear; they don’t know what to do with their lives after all this. So, the two rush things and seek the opinions of others to see what they think of this weird scenario.

The reactions from their close friends and family range from “I don’t understand the concept” and “Did you both agree on this?” to “You will get back together eventually”. Of course, these aren’t the responses they seek – leaving them even more perplexed and in doubt about the whole thing. Is repentance going through their minds? Or are they just putting their emotions aside so that they can’t face their true feelings about their fifteen-year-long relationship? Their discussions may not even relate to the matter, but somehow it returns to the “celebration of separation”. An example of this is seen when they talk about a film they just watched. Alex and Ale differ on whether or not the film is an elegy of matrimony or a caricature of it. 

Their frustrations wiggle their way in if they should feel repentant about their current status and sights emotionally. The two actors got their teeth way too sunk in the material that it seems they were in love with one another before. Every single emotion they transmit comes off as palpable. Sanz and Arana aren’t doing screaming matches or melodramatic tenures for their performances; instead, they come off as grounded portrayals of a broken bond. Even if there are moments where fiction and reality intertwine, as Ale’s film continues to shoot, The Other Way Around remains true-to-life instead of relying too much on its self-referential elements regarding depicting the emotions felt by the characters. 

This makes each narrative beat feel full of vigor, with some necessary touches of gloom, as most relationships contain. The narrative so far has been pretty repetitive, with the two asking different people about the party and their thoughts. But this repetition gets a new meaning when Ale breaks the news to her father. He says that the idea of celebration separations doing good to both sides of the couple was told in passing. And that doesn’t mean they have to go through it. The man who came up with the idea has now backed away from it, leaving Ale feeling an array of emotions. 

It is here when, through Ale’s father, Trueba starts to meddle with the film and peel away the layers in the same way that Mia Hansen-Løve did in the brilliant Bergman Island.  The man recommends that she read a couple of books to ease her mind. One of them is ‘Repetition’ by Søren Kierkegaard. The Danish philosopher (under his pseudonym Constantine Constantius) talks about whether repetition is actually possible and the difference it has with recollection. Later in the film, a line is repeated from the book: “Repetition’s love is, in truth, the only happy love.” Kierkegaard mentions that what has been recollected has already been, hence the sadness that lingers upon remembrance. Meanwhile, repetition is recollected forwards. 

Trueba combines this line with the structure of the film. Each time Ale and Alex ask a person about the party, it is repetition. However, when they were alone, the two thought back to their early years, the “good old times”, subjecting themselves to recollection – threading backward and unable to solve their anguish. It is a brilliant tie-in that makes The Other Way Around go past its by-the-numbers procedure during the first act, done on purpose so that the film blooms into something rather moving. The second book is called ‘El Cine, Puede Hacernos Mejor?’ (translated as ‘Cinema, Can it Make Us Better?’) by Stanley Cavell. 

Ale’s father explains that Cavell’s arguments are based on classic comedies from Hollywood’s Golden Era – like The Philadelphia Story, The Lady Eve, and His Girl Friday (my favorite of the ones mentioned) – where the couples in these films give themselves a second chance. They don’t want to make the same mistakes but do things differently, better. Much like Walter Burns and Christy Colleran or Charles Pike and Jean Harrington, the man wants Ale and Alex to reconcile. The audience watching knows they are meant to be together; Ale and Alex complement each other perfectly, even more so than the characters from these screwball comedies. Trueba, just like Cavell, believes that cinema can help us be better people and heal our wounds. 

The film that Ale is making reflects her relationship with Alex. In this fictitious struggling marriage, one doesn’t want to continue the relationship (the character being played by her husband) while still having doubts about his decision. And it all circles back to the initial thought of doing what Ale’s father suggested. It is with this performance that Alex thinks clearly about the situation. Alex’s character and him intersect for one moment; reality and fiction meet at the point where this love story reaches the point of remorse. It is like a double-sided cinematic therapy session where the film and the movie insider help uncover the crux of their problems. Trube ties every narrative beat that felt loose or disjointed before and provides a new lens through which to see them. 

Both Ale’s and Trueba’s works have the same purpose and are constructed in the same manner. They are broken and without a correct rhythm until the inner workings of the narrative find their place. It is a brilliant execution of self-referential techniques and fourth-wall breaks. Jonás Trueba has always been quite experimental with his movies. But in The Other Way Around, he is more playful than before. The Spanish filmmaker develops a premise that seems simple on paper and begins to disorganize everything in a clutter that the characters must clean for themselves. It is pretty moving once you see the complete picture, the repair of something deemed broken – a comedy-drama combination about whether or not separation should be the first (and immediate) response to a relationship slowly failing.


Grade: B+

Movie Review (Cannes 2024): ‘Universal Language’ is a Hidden Gem With a Big Heart

Directors: Matthew Rankin
Writers: Ila Firouzabadi, Pirouz Nemati, Matthew Rankin
Stars: Matthew Rankin, Mani Soleymanlou, Danielle Fichaud

Synopsis: Two women find frozen cash, try to retrieve it. A tour guide leads confused tourists around Winnipeg sites. A man quits his job, visits his mother. Storylines intertwine surreally as identities blur in a disorienting comedy

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Quinzaine de Cineastes’ lineup is the discovery of talented filmmakers who could be the directors of tomorrow. This unique side section of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival often goes unnoticed, as the spotlight is understandably on the films competing for the Palme d’Or. However, having covered this section for the past couple of years, I can attest to the wealth of surprises it holds. This year, Matthew Rankin’s latest work, Universal Language (Une Langue universelle), is a shining example.  It is a deadpan, structurally weird, and heartful piece that beautifully explores the theme of connection.

Rankin tells a tale that ties three cities together. He captures the longing for belonging and solidarity via a poetic Matryoshka doll concoction that doesn’t make sense at first but slowly blossoms into a thing of beauty. Introduced to us with a VHS tape educational video presentation meant for the youth of Winnipeg and done “in the name of friendship,” Universal Language begins with a scene in a classroom. Rowdy children are awaiting their teacher, who is running late after his bus broke down and had to walk through the snow to get there. He’s mad at them because of their bad behavior – disappointed that they misbehaved in his absence. The teacher later starts mocking their answers when he asks them what they want to be when they grow up.

The teacher picks on Omid (Sobhan Javadi) the most, a young kid behind in his studies due to his myopia; the youngling lost his glasses when a runaway turkey attacked him on his way home. Of course, nobody believes him, especially his teacher. So, he then decides that there will be no more education until Omid can see properly. In this scene, Rankin begins the pattern of intertwining stories and presenting hints at the sadness behind the comedic elements. You immediately point out that the teacher’s rant isn’t just about his string of bad luck that day; there’s more than meets the eye. These emotions are carried over from another incident.

The film then switches scenery, and we follow two of Omid’s classmates, Negin (Rojina Esmaeili) and Nazgol (Saba Vahedyousefi), who find an Iranian banknote worth five hundred riels stuck on the frozen floor. Instead of thinking about themselves, the two want to help poor Omid by buying him a new pair of glasses. The two friends take off into a small venture to try and take that money out of the ice by any means possible. They seek help from strangers, ask vendors to borrow ice picks and axes, as well as get sent from one place to another to do quick favors like mini sidequests in a videogame. At the same time, two other concurrent stories take place.

A tour guide leads a group of people through Winnipeg’s monuments and historic sites. There are a couple of important spots to look at, but the city itself doesn’t seem that interesting. Not even the tour guide seems to sell the monuments as grand. The other story centers around a man named Matthew (played by the director himself, Matthew Rankin), who has quit his job in Quebec and now travels to Winnipeg to visit his ailing mother. These stories might seem very different from one another, as they have different tones and pacings. But in how Rankin intertwines them, they come together in quite surprising ways. Everyone is connected. Every single character is tied to one another, even in the slightest details imaginable.

At first, it is hard to truly get into the movie due to the viewer’s uncertainty about where these stories will intersect narratively and thematically. We go from the past to the present and vice-versa; time splits as the stories shift. But when you notice how beautiful and captivating the webbing is, everything is seen and perceived in a new light. Rankin purposefully entangles the narrative for two-thirds of the film to reveal his film’s proper form later. The viewer patiently waits as the two kids, the angry teacher, the man visiting his mother, and even the runaway turkey with Omid’s glasses are tied together. And it is all so fascinating to watch.

Stylistically, Matthew Rankin takes inspiration from some filmmakers who use deadpan comedy in brilliant ways, giving their respective works personality and uniqueness. The works of Roy Andersson and Wes Anderson inspire Universal Language. Rankin uses the former’s blend of “laughing through the pain” existentialism and melancholia, as well as the muted colors in the background and locations. Meanwhile, you can see the centric shot compositions and vivacity from the performances of the latter demonstrated. Because of these two influences, Rankin gives his film multiple emotional layers that sneak into the viewer’s soul as everything comes together.

Everything is odd and cluttered initially, yet it still intrigues you with how it develops. Matthew Rankin mentions in the press notes—where he hilariously interviews himself—that one line from The Color of Pomegranates was crucial for this film’s creation. “We were looking for ourselves in each other”. In relation to the Universal Language, Rankin reflects on how each of these characters on-screen has deep humility and compassion for them all by the end of the film. They acknowledge that they have, in some way, shape, or form, done the same actions and went through similar situations. So, a feeling of understanding is created in the process.

Somehow, that is the universal language that unites us all, holding us on tenterhooks and tranquility. Everyone goes through hardships that make each day feel like a living hell. Yet, compassion can be transmitted through that understanding via dialogue or even a quick glance. That is the beauty that emerges from the ending of Universal Language. Matthew Rankin creates a deadpan comedy that has many layers once the stories begin to meet. It is a true demonstration of the talent that lurks in the Quinzaine des Cineastes; the film is a little hidden gem that holds a big, delicate heart.

Grade: B

Movie Review: ‘Babes’ are the Best Buddies in Years

Director: Pamela Adlon
Writers: Ilana Glazer, Josh Rabinowitz
Stars: Ilana Glazer, Michelle Buteau, Hasan Minhaj

Synopsis: It tells the story of Eden who becomes pregnant from a one-night-stand and leans on her married best friend and mother of two to guide her.

A buddy comedy is only as good as the chemistry between the two leads. They have to be in sync and play off each other’s strengths. Often that means an odd couple, but it’s even better if they have their moments of balance between wild and reserved. There is such an alchemy in the performances of Ilana Glazer and Michelle Buteau. These two take every emotion and play it out between each other so superbly. They are the best buddies the buddy comedy has had in a while.

Babes takes everything that’s changed about comedy in the last 20 years and makes it work. The film is charming, heart warming, and hilarious. Not only is it a top notch buddy comedy, but it’s also a great body comedy. There have been several comedies about pregnancy and they have the pain, the screaming, the frustration; but they rarely go farther than one note into the nitty gritty. Babes takes us all the way through and then some. We get a pregnancy comedy that not only gives us one birth, but two, and builds on what happens after the baby is out while balancing everything that happens while the baby is still in. The good, the bad, and the gross things the human body goes through.

In a grossly funny scene, Eden (Ilana Glazer) is teaching her yoga class and morning sickness strikes. She doesn’t run to the bathroom, she doesn’t stop class, she doesn’t even stop talking, she pretends like nothing is happening. Eden takes her class through the poses as she does everything to keep her stomach contents in her body. She even goes far enough to have to swallow it back down, much to the disgust of the student directly in front of her. It’s a terrific work of physical comedy.

There’s a lot of terrific physical comedy in Babes, but its comedic heart is in the story penned by Ilana Glazer and Josh Rabinowitz. The two writers do the hardest work of a comedy in making this type of story fresh. It comes in the combinations of plots that all come together seamlessly. It’s the lifelong best friends trying to figure out how to be with each other as adults. It’s the new love blossoming. It’s the married couple trying to understand how they can really do this even if they have nothing but each other. It’s in the ludicrously funny C plot of an OB/GYN, Dr. Morris (John Carroll Lynch), who just can’t figure out how best to be bald. Glazer and Rabinowitz have found a great balance within this work.

The balance of this complex, but not convoluted, story is held intact by the superb direction of Pamela Adlon. Her eye for the comedic is unmatched. There’s a series of scenes in Babes that are utterly terrific, with Adlon putting her own spin on the New York City walk and talk. She stages a sit and chat on the subway. Eden travels a long way from her apartment to visit with Dawn (Michelle Buteau). She’s got to change trains three times. After good samaritan, Claude (Stephan James), keeps her from being trapped on a line going the wrong way, the two of them strike up a conversation because it turns out they live in the same neighborhood and have the same commute to make. Their chemistry is off the charts and results in the two of them spending the night together. It’s a terrific sequence with cinematographer Jeffrey Kim giving us different passenger points of view on the pair and editors Annie Eifrig and Elizabeth Merrick cutting together the best bits of this delightful sequence in tandem with Dawn’s troubles post birth. It’s a sequence that sets up so much of the film and the layers in between everything that’s to come.

There are some very predictable moments and Babes hardly reinvents the genre. It falls a bit toward that habit of late ’00s and early ’10s comedies that think there needs to be a lot of alternate improv takes within the same sequence, dragging the story down while we watch a sort of gag reel. Yet, there’s enough freshness and boldness that we can ignore the small voices in our heads and just revel in it. Babes is a hilarious, heartwarming, and empowering film. It’s the kind of comedy you need on the big screen. It demands laughs and tears among a room full of strangers having the same experience.

Grade: A

Movie Review: ‘Thelma the Unicorn’ Adds Sparkle To Substance

Directors: Jared Hess, Lynn Wang
Writers: Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess, Aaron Blabey
Stars: Brittany Howard, Will Forte, Jon Heder

Synopsis: When a rare pink and glitter-filled moment of fate makes Thelma the Pony’s wish of being a unicorn come true, she rises to instant international pop-superstar stardom, but at an unexpected cost.

Netflix animation cartoons, the majority of the time, can be cute, but the animation lacks a certain flair and individuality. For every Klaus, you have a dozen or so Pets United or The Magician’s Assistant. However, Thelma the Unicorn has that “it” factor, and vibrant animation that always falls short of Pixar, Disney, and DreamWorks is finally captured. It may not quite reach those lofty standards, but the artistry finally matches the inner beauty of its wonderful characters.

Based on Aaron Blabey’s children’s book series of the same name, Thelma the Unicorn follows Thelma (Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes fame), a talented and adorable miniature pony who dreams of singing professionally with her friends. Thelma’s best friend, Otis (a very funny Will Forte), is a sweet donkey who amps up a mean electric guitar. Along with their affable drummer, a llama named Reggie (Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Heder), they are The Rusty Buckets, a country-rock band destined for stardom. The only problem is that Thelma and The Rusty Buckets lack that “it” factor that is so popular nowadays.

That becomes all too apparent to Thelma when the band is not even allowed to perform during their farm community’s big bash, “The SparklePalooza.” It happens when the three-judge panel automatically votes in a trifecta of majestic horses who are all style and have little to no substance. It’s devastating to Thelma, who we see going back to hitching a wagon to her back to move manure over the past. However, soon, that wagon, without knowing it, will be hitched to a rising star.

That’s because while lamenting the chance that slipped through their fingers with Otis, a crusty trucker (Zach Galifianakis) with terrible driving skills and etiquette, transporting paint and glitter, takes a sharp turn and douses Thelma with a nice coat of sparkling stuff. Oh, and it just so happens that Thelma had a long, crooked carrot stuck to her forehead at the moment, making her look like a unicorn with that “it” factor those judges were talking about. Soon, she becomes a social media star, and Thelma gets a shot at stardom, but will she bring her friends with her?

Thelma the Unicorn is from Jared Hess, of Napolean Dynamite and Nacho Libre fame, who co-directed the film with Lynn Wang (Teen Titans Go!). They represent a new union of sorts of animation, where a live-action director teams up with an experienced creator of animation to offer a steady hand. (In this case, Don Hall and Blindspotting’s Carlos López Estrada in Raya the Last Dragon or The Week Of’s Robert Smigel pairing himself with Robert Marianetti and David Wachtenheim with Leo.) This offers a simple collaboration of specializations with comedy and artistry. 

Thelma the Unicorn is very funny while offering vibrant visuals and wonderful themes for parents and their children. There is a deep bench of experienced voice actors who display pitch-perfect comic timing. The trio of Edi Patterson and Jermaine Clement, who play an assistant and agent to a malicious Norwam (Ally Dixon), take turns garnering the most belly laughs as exaggerated versions of the Hollywood elite. You then have a series of ongoing gags with a group of four pool boys constantly dancing around, reminding me of Meekus and friends lighting a cigarette at a gas station in Zoolander

The message is substance over style regarding integrity, character, and inner beauty, rather than faux style and material possessions that can lead to issues of body image, self-esteem, and self-worth. The film also offers the rewards of resilience, friendship, and inner connections, as the characters will do anything to make a buck and keep their careers afloat. That’s the core of most mainstream animated family films, and Hess and Wang manage to evoke the essence of Blabey’s book series beautifully.

That said, Thelma the Unicorn is supported by a strong and dynamic voice performance, especially by singer Brittany Howard in her rousing musical numbers. Her soulful, gritty, and emotionally resonant voice and sassy comic delivery make her a remarkably versatile performer. 

While this animated film may lack the elevated artistry of the big animated studios, Thelma the Unicorn has more than enough going for it to bring humor and substance to the genre, uniting families and friends to enjoy together.

Grade: B

Movie Review (Cannes 2024): ‘The Hyperboreans’ is Filmmaking At Its Most Surreal

Directors: Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León
Writers: Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León
Stars: Antonia Giesen, Francisco Visceral Rivera, Natalia Medina

Synopsis: A woman’s storytelling and illusions bring to life the controversial figure of Miguel Serrano, a Chilean writer who propagated esoteric Neo-Nazi philosophies, prompting contemplation about his place in history.

The Quinzaine de Cineastes (Directors Fortnight) is the perfect space for the filmmakers of tomorrow, the new voices that will shape the future of cinema. Many established and influential directors have brought their films to the Cannes Film Festival’s side program, stamping their names in one of the most underrated selections in all big European festivals. The committee in charge of choosing which films to play in the Quinzaine always tends to offer a variety of pictures with fascinating and creative ideas. But they always leave a spot or two for some heavily experimental, bold, and quite weird pictures that provoke the audience while leaving them astonished by the creativity and vision of the directors attached to these projects. 

In the past couple of years, we have had films by Bertrand Mandico (his gender-flipped version of Conan the Barbarian, She is Conann), Alex Garland (the imagery-focused and folk horror-inspired MEN), and Panos Cosmatos (the surrealistic revenge-thriller starring Nicholas Cage, Mandy). There are many other notable examples of these types of films. But these examples alone should let you know of the artistry and boldness at play here. This year, this “sacred” spot belongs to what may feasibly be the most inventive and surrealistic feature to screen at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, not only in the Quinzaine. That film is the sophomore outing by the Chilean directing duo Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña, The Hyperboreans (Los Hiperbóreos). 

León and Cociña present a captivating and enigmatic exposition of modern imaginative filmmaking at its most surreal state. The directing duo, known for their excellent stop-motion nightmare, The Wolf House, now take us on a more mind-bending journey. In The Hyperboreans, you’ll find yourself questioning what is real and what is not in the story, but one thing is certain: it’s a cinematic experience unlike any other. This work solidifies them as two of the industry’s most original and innovative minds today. Explaining, or even doing a brief synopsis, The Hyperboreans is a very arduous task, as reality and imagination, dreams and nightmares, and narrative and documentary filmmaking begin to blend as the film runs its course. But I will try to make it seem cohesive so the ready can follow along. 

A hypnotherapy-like image introduces us to the film; it feels like a portal that makes the viewer travel from their seat at the cinema to León and Cociña’s mad minds, where everything is intertwined and impossible to separate. After the image dissipates, we advance to a film studio covered in muted-colored drapes with an array of period costumes and puppets hanging from them. An actress is wandering around the large yet equally cramped room; practicing her lines before presenting herself to us. She seems nervous about what will happen; she is dithering, indecisive about whether it is a good idea or not to go on with the show. But she holds her chin up and sets herself in front of the camera. 

This can be described as Alice’s first step into the rabbit hole, yet instead of finding wonders and beauty, you get concoctions from purgatory. “Welcome to the set of The Hyperboreans”, the actress says via one of the many fourth-wall breaks and self-referential antics León and Cociña pull in this project. In a brief introduction about her life, she reveals herself as, well… herself, Antonia Giesen. The Chilean actress says that she is recognized for her work on the big screen, like Pablo Larrain’s underrated Ema and Leo Medel’s La Veronica, but most people don’t know that she is a clinical psychiatrist. As she continues her introductory monologue, Giesen tells us the story of the stolen negative of a film she starred in. The project was shot on celluloid, and the print was stolen before the director could digitalize the negatives. 

The police couldn’t find any evidence of the robbery, so the case never was solved. But the film we are watching is an opportunity to bring the lost film to life through the memories left of it. As soon as she says that, another step is taken into the rabbit hole. Giesen continues the story while changing the scenery behind her, making it look like a therapy room. It is an odd concoction that draws immediate intrigue due to reality and fiction colliding to form another story running concurrently with the one she’s telling the viewer. Giesen recalls a time when she was meeting a patient, known throughout the film as “El Metalero” (the Metalhead), who was struggling with his psychiatric treatment. 

As a last possibility to help him, she recommends that he write his thoughts down each day in a journal. During his daily scribes, he wrote a screenplay about a police officer in a sci-fi fantasy version of Chile. Intrigued by his ideas, Giesen makes the script a feature film. She turns to her filmmaker friends Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña, the directors playing more frenetic versions of themselves, to direct it, with Giesen playing the lead role. They all smile and are full of excitement to start production. But this is the point of no return; nobody is safe, not even the audience watching. If this description were two steps into the rabbit hole, only covering the first ten minutes of The Hyperboreans, then what’s next is an uncontrolled freefall into the abyss. 

Everything changes drastically; the tone, structure, stylistic approach, and atmosphere, amongst other things, alternate to a more surrealistic and experimental design. Men are turned into stop-motion puppets; bodies are transformed into different figures; there are stories within stories, psychoanalytic exploration of the effects of cinema, and a pitch-black version of a ‘Tale of Two Cities’. And that doesn’t cut it. León and Cociña create an array of weird, stirring machinations that feel tangible; you can grasp the scenery and everything around it with your fingertips, which shows the viewer how immersive this experience is on a technical side. They showed us their impressive talents in The Wolf House a few years ago. However, the expertise and attention to detail here, considering that they mix live-action with stop-motion animation and documentary filmmaking, is just an act of two cinematic magicians. There are many original films released year-round. But none of them manage to feel like this; those films don’t feel nearly as inspired as this. 

Unorthodox storytelling procedures being able to work out is always a thing that people should champion, especially in this manner. However, the immersiveness of the story also comes from an emotional side, which is a different ride on its own. While sometimes confusing and, in others, utmost inexplicable, the viewer senses a chill down their spine as the story progresses. The Hyperboreans is about one thing at first: the curious screenplay that “El Metalero” has written and how making it helps him mentally. Yet, it rapidly switches its gears and covers more ground than before; life, death, loss, and separation mix into a Molotov cocktail of pure gloom. This amalgamation takes a toll on you, feeling every inch of the atmosphere in your mind, body, and soul. 

The damnation clouds your head. And once it gets you, it never lets go. León and Cociña’s latest feels like the theater-play scene in Ari Aster’s Beau is Afraid, which they helped create, mixed with David Lynch’s Rabbits online series (also seen in his film Inland Empire) if they were a metatextual documentary on a crazy occultist. All of this may seem like a huge red flag for many viewers. But I felt captivated by it in every way possible, even if it’s hard to follow occasionally. This is some of the most creative and bold direction I have seen in a long time. I know that nothing at the festival could stand up to this in terms of cinematic innovation and despondency.

Grade: A-

The Story of ‘Eight Deadly Shots’ And Its Unintended Consequences

Thanks to the Criterion Channel and Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, I was exposed to a miniseries that I had never heard of and a talented writer/director/actor buried in Finland’s cultural history. It was also based on a crime that, as sad as that is, while somewhat common in the United States, was beyond comprehension in Finland in 1969. It caught the eye of one of the country’s most talented filmmakers because he had known this life and could have easily fallen into the same trap if it weren’t for his passion for drama. 

Real Life Shots

Eight Deadly Shots is based on the tragic events of March 7, 1969, when four police officers were shot dead in a tiny village called Pihituputa. Tauno Pasanen, a farmer with a family, flew into a drunken rage, another in a string of cases that forced his family to flee for their safety and call the police. The officers went to calm Pasanen rather than arrest him, but the still-intoxicated Pasanen responded to their presence by firing his rifle from his home at each of the four officers. It lasted a minute before he told his neighbor to call the police and “pick up those carcasses.” Pasanen later said he had no motive or reason to shoot the police.

The crime shocked all of Finland and the four officers were buried together in a time of national mourning. Meanwhile, Pasanen was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for the quadruple homicide. His background was scrutinized and exposed a very horrible reality: rural poverty where Pasanen and thousands lived was rife and the use of illegal moonshine sold supplemented incomes. People like Pasanen drank their moonshine as a way to cope, leading to deadly results. Someone familiar with that life was Mikko Niskanen, who grew up in similar circumstances before attending drama school. 

Shooting Shots Of A Snowy Loneliness

Niskanen found success in his home country with films including The Boys (1962) and Under Your Skin (1966), winning Finland’s version of the Oscars, the Jussi, six times for Best Director. He was a major star already when he decided, against the wishes of many, to create a fictionalized version of the killings. The budget for his four-part film (it was planned to be 80 minutes) was less than what he wanted, and after almost killing his cinematographer during the recreation of the shooting, the studio was ready to end the project. Niskanen was able to convince them otherwise and finished the film on time.

In 1972, three years after the real-life tragedy, Eight Deadly Shots was released to universal acclaim. The story follows Pasi, married with a wife and kids trying to make ends meet while working on the farm, but he falls more and more into debt as crops begin failing. With his fellow neighbors, Pasi makes moonshine to sell, but is harassed by the police who disrupt their work. Taking to moonshine personally, he begins arguing with his wife on what are small issues, but causes more and more anguish before a drunken fight turns into a violent event.

The miniseries is a piece of social realism, shooting on location and using non-professional actors with some professional ones to capture a more realistic portrayal. Niskanen even followed a method acting tactic by drinking like his character and slept in similar accommodations which affected his sleep and normal functions while working. The crew was small and Niskanen would shoot some scenes alone while members of the crew made the drive up from Helsinki to a tiny town in central Finland. Sound mixing in the elements was found to be a lot harder due to continuous winds which interrupted the filming. It was, like Tauno Pasanen, made under the influence when Niskanen fired live rounds – not blanks – which almost caused production to be totally scrapped. He was forced to shoot the rest in the controlled environment in Helsinki where he could be watched.

Upon release, it was universally acclaimed in Finland. Among those who watched the film was then-President Urho Kekkonen with Niskanen at a private screening and praised the film. A copy was shown to Pasanen in prison and said of it, “This is so true that it makes me laugh and cry at times. That is how life was back there. My fate in life was so accurately portrayed that it is like ripped from my soul.” Those who spoke negatively of it were families of the deceased police officers who saw it as being too sympathetic to the man who was a mass murderer. 

A Twist Ending

Years after the killing, Pasanen and others wrote letters of support for clemency as people began seeing the acts caused by circumstances rather than outright evil. In 1982, Pasanen was given a pardon by President Mauno Koivisto and moved to a new town to be closer to his ex-wife, who divorced him while he was imprisoned, but remained close. The home where they lived and the scene of the massacre had been demolished. Per all accounts, things were fine for Pasanen, despite strong protests by law enforcement that a multi-cop killer had been freed and neighbors of their new town were weary to have Pasanen around them.

Then, in 1996, an intoxicated Pasanen called the police to his home. After a drunken argument, Pasanen had strangled his ex-wife to death, but had no memory of the killing. Understandably, this brought back memories of his first deadly killings and anger as to why such a convict was given freedom despite the heinousness of his actions. Pasanen only served seven years for manslaughter and, as of May 2024, is still alive and living very quietly back home near his adult children. 

Follow me on Twitter: @brian_cine (Cine-A-Man)

Movie Review: ‘Sunrise’ is Too Many Movies In One

Director: Andrew Baird
Writer: Ronan Blaney
Stars: Alex Pettyfer, Guy Pearce, Crystal Yu

Synopsis: A man, Fallon (Alex Pettyfer) roams the land as a creature of the night as he comes to terms with tragic loss of his family at the hands of a brutal demagogue, Reynolds (Guy Pearce).

After harassment from the ruthless, racist baron Joe Reynolds (Guy Pearce), Yan (Crystal Yu) takes in the mysterious and hungry for blood Fallon (Alex Pettyfer). Years before, Fallon was also terrorized by Reynolds and his mother (Olwen Fouéré) and left as an offering to The Red Coat – a cryptic figure said to roam the local wilderness. Yan’s son Edward (William Gao) intends to take revenge on Reynolds, but not before Fallon has a chance for his own bloody vengeance thanks to The Red Coat.

Director Andrew Baird (Zone 414) opens the 2024 horror drama Sunrise with warnings of First Nations demons and sacrificial appeasement to the forest evils demanding blood. I appreciate that this small production means there’s no period prologue, but dang I would have liked to have seen this history. After a disturbing hate crime and strong arming a farmer into a crooked deal and ultimately worse, Sunrise jumps to three months later and continues restarting as we meet everyone amid reports of dead animals and fears that The Red Coat has returned. Some of the rowdy men cursing and daring the meek to do something is hammy, but the rah rah speeches and big man over the top feel accurate as they readily draw guns and abuse authority. Bills pile up on the table, the bullying escalates, and chickens are killed to provide fresh blood, yet the horror and the hazing remain disjointed. Early on it’s quite apparent that Sunrise is at least two stories in one and there’s not enough time for everything. Is this about the vampire rescued by the immigrant family, The Red Coat giveth and taketh undercurrent, or the real world horror commentary that could have been a straight drama without anything supernatural?

The point of view struggles between our Asian family and the bad guys whilst also showing Red Coat flashbacks from our vampire drifter – first with the bloody feedings, then intercut with “ten years earlier” onscreen notations, which are definitely needed because everything looks the same. Unlike other independent productions that endeavor with a one and the same writer/director and no second eye, perhaps Baird and writer Ronan Blaney (Love Bite) simply needed more time to cohesively polish this framework. The individual dramas and horrors are not necessarily confusing, but the noticeable juggling makes the audience pause, clarify, and ask; why wasn’t the story just told in order? Sunrise should have opened with the supernatural Red Coat horror that allows the subsequent revenge to take place so viewers can appreciate the delirium in the woods and bloody comeuppance without deflating, contrived detours. Seemingly natural deaths force villains to remember their killer part as subtle visions of The Red Coat come back to haunt them. One’s usual drink doesn’t taste right after a bite on the neck, but why The Red Coat kills one and imbues another with his blood is not important – only the fear, anger, and just desserts.

The Loi Family is obviously struggling without their father, and Crystal Yu (Casualty) objects to the suggestion that her husband has left her. Yan has the rifle at the ready, for she isn’t afraid but knows she can’t trust the police. Teen son William Gao (Heartstopper) is bullied on the school bus, but they agree to help this drifter in their barn until he’s well. The youngest daughter brings her tea set and doctor kit to help him, adding innocence to the bittersweet conversations. Yan recounts being stigmatized since her family’s arrival in America, telling of a deceased family member written off as just another thing on the nurse’s to-do list. The Lois continue to face go back where you came from apathy, and Sunrise simply does not give them enough time when this should be their story. 

As the brooding Fallon hides in the corner as daylight slivers across the room, top billed producer Alex Pettyfer (The Infernal Machine) should have actually received the “and” credit. His past connection to The Red Coat is only given piecemeal to the audience; even when the bullied Edward tells Fallon he doesn’t know what it’s like and wants to take revenge on Reynolds and asks for Fallon’s help, the teen receives nothing but platitudes. Fallon inexplicably never tells anyone who he is and what has happened to him and his Black wife at the hands of Reynolds, unfairly withholding the reasons for his own vengeance from characters who could benefit from them. Setting Fallon’s story ten years prior compared to perhaps a more immediate ten months makes viewers wonder what he’s been doing for the past decade. Why is he helping on the farm, defending The Lois, keeping watch, and taking the sheriff’s gun now? If Sunrise is Fallon’s story, why didn’t we begin with him? He asks The Lois to trust him when he tells them to leave and pursues Reynolds at the church and ultimately to the forest but his vengeance only happens because the movie is over, not because Fallon took any proactive action. Sunrise has too many characters when our strong Chinese Woman or the harassed immigrant son could have teamed with The Red Coat themselves.

Ma Reynolds Olwen Fouéré (Zone 414) drinks her medicine in the back of their bar, admitting they aren’t peace loving, reasonable people and she’ll take action over her belief in The Red Coat. She thinks he laughs at them, lingering in the wilderness while their petty fears feed him. Her son Guy Pearce (Memento) disagrees, but he buttons up her shirt for her and kisses her a little too long on the lips – a subtle indication of how nasty and insular The Reynolds are. 

Joe says trouble is caused when people are where they aren’t supposed to be, and his good kinfolk don’t mix with “you people” and he will make “them” understand, quoting the Bible as he washes his hands. Reynolds even praises the hard working immigrants and their smartness compared to his lazy hangers-on – oozing his perceived superiority with demented slurs, vile insults, and such ingrained, deep seeded ease. He wears a seemingly suave suit but looks the hooligan, blabbing that he knows everyone’s secrets, affairs, and crimes. Joe picks and chooses chapter and verse, smiling as he threatens to cut the throat of the next person who disrespects him. He’ll look after his own, yet Sunrise under-utilizes Reynolds’ daughter, a quiet teen afraid to be touched for obviously icky reasons who’s more a plot point than a fully realized character. From the pulpit, Joe spouts his self-appointed ideology to keep people in their place because the system is broken when it benefits others freely without serving him first. Sunrise‘s best scenes are when Reynolds’ evil meets the horror as he delivers a disturbing eulogy and gory consequences. Unlike other pandemic projects where Pearce has had a smaller role but still participated in numerous virtual press interviews and podcasts, I understand why he didn’t for Sunrise, for he already said all that’s needed in this despicably effortless characterization. What’s most horrifying is you know damn well there are such backwoods people and places in America like this – probably a lot closer than we’d like to think.

The Irish production stands in well for the Pacific Northwest thanks to the misty forest and rural buildings, and it’s a pity small ninety minute films like this can’t be made unless there are fifteen a production of/in association with companies listed in the open credits. There’s thirty-two producers listed, too, which is a lot. The red imagery among the rustic greenery is a little on the nose, yet it’s also welcome amid the otherwise mellow palette thanks to blood, red trucks, the shadowed moon, neon signs, and firelight suggesting the Chinese positive red as well as our Republican negative. Radio exposition and deer heads displayed in the general store hit home the back country. 

However, the interior scenes are too dark and mood lighting should not call attention to itself. It’s noticeably jarring when we cutaway to sunny dream flashes, overhead meandering drives through the woods, and unnecessary incidental shots of animals. Transition shots are also slow, panning too long over coloring books when not every scene has to have an establishing shot. Repeated shots of smoking, lighters, and ashtrays likewise seem to be edgy cool foreshadowing, yet they come off as unnatural, and rapid horror flashes don’t look cool – they just remind us the picture is out of order. Herky jerky camerawork reflecting delirium prevents us from seeing the character’s struggle, and shaky cam, swirling haze during the one on one fighting feels low budget, cutting corners so we don’t see the action. Excess heavy breathing sounds and every single footstep creaking are a bit much, but fortunately, the low heartbeat we hear even with a toy stethoscope and tolling church bells provide gothic touches. Sunrise also shrewdly does not rely on gore, providing choice blood drops, neck bites, dead birds, and dipping hands in the bloody bowl.

Despite imminent danger, the pace in Sunrise is uneven, drawn out in some scenes before everything seems easily resolved with an ironic staking and fiery finish. Although The Red Coat is a minor supernatural element allowing the vengeance to happen, the narrative framework is frustrating with poor editing and not enough time to tell the whole story. Montages and piecemeal tellings don’t develop an emotional feeling the way a linear structure would build justice. Sunrise never decides which one of the good guys done wrong we should invest in – viewers know where our hate is because the real world horrors are more recognizable. The farmer seeking the American dream finds out that not only does it not exist, but it’s actually a nightmare, and he’s blamed for the violence because he didn’t leave when he was told. It’s interesting that a non-American production has that handle on all our flaws, but Sunrise doesn’t hone in on the straightforward drama nor can you expect all out horror – leaving viewers to notice mistakes in the narrative. This is certainly watchable several times for the performances and the social commentary, but Sunrise doesn’t quite put it all together, trying to do too much and rushing what could have been a chilling examination.

Grade: C

Movie Review: ‘Poolman’ is a Disaster Better Off Down The Drain

Director: Chris Pine
Writers: Chris Pine, Ian Gotler
Stars: Chris Pine, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Danny DeVito

Synopsis: Darren Barrenman is an unwavering optimist and native Angeleno who spends his days looking after the pool of the Tahitian Tiki apartment block and fighting to make his hometown a better place to live.

At the opening of Poolman, there is a sequence that lulls and cradles us into a process. The process is testing and maintaining a small pool. We watch Darren (Chris Pine) in this process and it shows dedication to a craft. The craft of filmmaking is on display here, as well, with Pine as director leading his craftspeople into a stellar sequence. Matthew Jensen as cinematographer builds the sequence capturing several points of view to help us understand the process. Editor Stacey Schroeder cuts the sequence into a beautiful flow that speeds up and slows down like the waves in the tide. It’s a tremendous shame the rest of the film doesn’t live up to this potential.

The tragedy about this comedy is that the script’s an absolute mess. Chris Pine and Ian Gotler obviously wear their influences on their sleeves with the overlapping dialogue of Robert Altman, the comedic ensemble tenor of the Coen brothers, and the convoluted, twisting plots of Robert Towne. The problem is that none of that works in concert with each other. That overlapping dialogue is nonsense and aggravating, Darren (Chris Pine) isn’t anywhere near The Dude’s charming slacker, and to have a complex convoluted plot you need to come up with your own instead of cribbing all the answers from Towne’s masterpiece, Chinatown.

It’s ridiculous that an L.A. noir pastiche would twist itself in so many knots referencing Chinatown so overtly. So overtly in fact that Darren himself begins to just tell everyone else how much like Chinatown this situation is. Poolman almost begs its audience to walk out of this film and watch a much better one instead. It’s likely because Poolman doesn’t know what it wants to be. It is a comedy, but it’s not funny in a laugh out loud kind of way. It’s funny in that way in which you recognize the comedy of a scene and can nod along noting the humor inherent there.

It’s likely that the film loses its way because its protagonist is so unlikeable. Not unlikeable like a Diablo Cody heroine, like most people in a Yorgos Lanthimos film, or a Paul Schrader diarist. He’s unlikeable because he’s a tremendous narcissist in the most uninteresting of ways. Darren masquerades as an activist, a person who cares about making Los Angeles better for people, but only wants to make Los Angeles better for his own nostalgia. He cares so little about the actual feelings of the people who surround him, is so lost in his head about everything around him, that the character actually sucks the charm out of any performance Chris Pine could give and that man has more charisma than two of the four currently famous handsome white guy Chrises combined. Which is why it’s sad that the only scene where Darren isn’t steamrolling over someone else and actually listening ends without him learning the true lesson underneath.

Yes, there is a pointedly good scene within Poolman. It comes as Stephen Toronkowski (Stephen Tobolowsky) finishes a performance of his secret passion project and Darren confronts him in the dressing room. Darren is thinking he has it all figured out. Toronkowski, Darren’s foil on the L.A. city council, sits the poolman down and has an intimate talk with him. They share a beautiful moment of honesty and humanity. It’s an actual conversation with give and take. It’s a breath of fresh air the way it is because of the genius of Tobolowsky’s performance style. Even in an out of character outfit, the actor can find a beautiful slice of character work. It’s cut way too short because Darren has to get back to his Chinatown shenanigans, but it gives a tiny glimmer of hope that the film could have had a point or something under its surface. When taken as a whole, it’s obvious Poolman is just window dressing.

Poolman is anachronistic, derivative, pointless style over substance. The most irksome affectation isn’t in the cars from the early 20th century or the fact that they use outdated physical media, but in that there are two tough guys with no lines dressed exactly like Crockett and Tubbs from the “Miami Vice” TV show. Is this a reference to police corruption? Is this a nod to a great detective show? Are these characters detectives of some kind? It’s never made explicit and the answer is probably inane. Poolman is full of tedium like this. It dives deeply into unfunny absurdity, wanting us to wade in with it, so it can drag us to the deep end and dunk us into a passionless film full of uninteresting noodles of ideas. It has so much potential, but, like its main character, it is too full of itself to actually want to succeed.

Grade: D

Movie Review: ‘The Idea of You’ is Saved By Hathaway

Director: Michael Showalter
Writer: Robinne Lee, Michael Showalter, Jennifer Westfeldt
Stars: Anne Hathaway, Nicholas Galitzine, Ella Rubin

Synopsis: Solène, a 40-year-old single mom, begins an unexpected romance with 24-year-old Hayes Campbell, the lead singer of August Moon, the hottest boy band on the planet.

If there’s one thing the world needs more of, it’s solid, sweet films that allow big name actors and actresses to show off great chemistry and individual charm. That’s not a facetious statement, we genuinely need more of this. So often, the middle of the road romance and rom-com lacks the kind of star power to attract a big audience. Fortunately Michael Showalter’s The Idea of You, starring Anne Hathaway and Nicholas Galitzine, delivers just that. The film sees Solène (Hathaway) as an art gallery owner in Silver Lake have to last minute chaperone her daughter and her friends at Coachella where one of the bands is August Moon, with heartthrob Hayes Campbell as the band’s centerpiece. After a chance encounter in Hayes’ trailer (featuring an all time Mr. Pibb product placement), he and Solène have several interactions throughout the festival and it’s clear that Hayes is quite smitten with her. 

Much of the film’s early tension revolves around the fact that Solène is 16 years older than Hayes, the former having just celebrated her 40th birthday. The implications of this kind of age gap, particularly an older woman with a younger man, are seen throughout the movie. The reactions from certain people as they discover the love affair are less than positive, and, at times, outright antagonistic. This not only affects the couple themselves, but many of the people they are closest to in the world. 

The best thing The Idea of You has going for it is the chemistry between its two leads. They are incredibly believable as love interests, and you can feel the tension rise from the second they meet. Anne Hathaway is great as always, and truly blows everyone else out of the water. She has no need to give as good of a performance in this as she does, but it truly is remarkable. Nicholas Galitzine’s star continues to rise as he gives a decent Harry Styles-infused popstar performance. With well received turns in the Netflix quick hit Purple Hearts and the over-the-top comedy Bottoms in recent years, Galitzine continues to show promise as both a leading man and a supporting character. While there are some side characters, this really is a two person show with not much coming from outside the leads. 

The script and direction from Jennifer Westfeldt and Michael Showalter are where the film starts to unravel. Showalter is known for his intentionally over-practical visual style, and it doesn’t quite work here. There’s a blandness that can be seen all throughout the movie, even when we are whisked away with Solène to New York and extravagant places in Europe. None of the locations pop off the screen or feel special or romantic in any way. In addition to this, the way the script approaches the driving conflict between Solène and Hayes’ age gap is not really earned or even realistic. Once people in the world find out about their relationship, all kinds of derisive social media comments are shown that feel as if they were generated by a bot. They may be mean or have a similar opinion, but these just feel made up to make the conflict bigger than it actually is. The Idea of You does pose the interesting question of whether the difference in age would matter as much if the genders were swapped, but doesn’t follow through on exploring that to the depth it deserves. 

Without Anne Hathaway’s star power and incredible performance, this movie would come across as another lazy romance from a streamer that knows it will get views from a particular demographic and not much else. She elevates a below average script and helps it to far exceed its potential had there been any lesser actress in the role. While her performance is stunning, it is not enough to save the otherwise plain and contrived storytelling that unfolds as the film inches closer to its climax. Hopefully more stars like Hathaway will come to the aid of these borderline Hallmark films and turn out similarly stellar turns to make them more widely seen by bigger audiences.

Grade: C+

Chasing The Gold: This Year’s Hair and Makeup and a Multiverse of Freaks

With every awards conversation comes the inevitable question: Where will this film go? Where will film institutes and guilds place it? What is its most striking aspect? 

Hair and Makeup award recognition is a frustrating category. For one, you have the likes of Dune: Part Two or Sasquatch Sunset, where actors spend hours in the makeup chair, wearing a full-body suit or foam latex prosthetics to enable their movement but also enhance their performance as freaks, creatures of unearthly worlds and spaces.

Or is it Challengers? It is a film that uses the hair of its characters to make bolder statements on their age, power, and social status while manipulating sweat beads to intensify the action on the court and heighten the sexual tension. Would Abigail be a player in the game? An ancient vampire, prosthetic teeth, and contacts that bring out the scariest Evil Seed-like vampire child? The hair and makeup teams take viewers to extremes, from athletic skin and hair to bloody faces and greasy locks. In a heated year boasting thousands and thousands of bloody faces and knuckles, actors grossing people out with all kinds of fluids covering them from head to toe, how deserving is a film to enter the conversation?

Scanning past Academy Award nominees and winners, some notable wins include The Fly in 1986, and with Love Lies Bleeding entering the game, one can see how the wonderful transformation of Jena Malone’s character alone may garner award buzz. The characters in Rose Glass’s lesbian erotic bloodbath go through all kinds of disfigurements, their faces and features distorted by fluids and bruises. Makeup artists enjoy having actors’ faces as their tapestry on which they place their most creative, gruesome works of art.

The Hair and Makeup category may also recognize the more traditional role of an actor transforming into multiple characters using different hairstyles and prosthetics. Among those films will be Hit Man, starring the new Hollywood square-jawed leading man Glen Powell. Here, hair and makeup work is only elevated by the actor’s natural ‘rizz’ or suave movie star aura. 

Some films will walk the fine line between realism and fantastical. Evaluating the Hair and Makeup work will be insane and unbelievably complex for movies on polar ends. Surely, a film like Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is a favorable contender, but what about In a Violent Nature? How are they comparable or on a familiar scale of assessment? It seems unfair that work on a film starring everyday people can be placed on the same pedestal as a biopic or a period piece. -shudders-

Hair and makeup nominations seem like a foregone conclusion for many 2024 titles already released. But, with the exemption of Dune: Part Two and Love Lies Bleeding, the hair and makeup work on many of those films haven’t caught my attention. I say this with apologies to the likes of Monkey Man, Atlas, Immaculate, Back to Black, and Abigail. The meat of this category lies in the second half of the year, when Furiosa, Nosferatu, Joker: Folie à Deux, The Crow, and MaXXXine will be released in cinemas. It’s a year with an obvious knack for the theatrics, and one can only expect more from films released later. But as far as an award race goes, lights are dimmed, and expectations are subdued, as that spark of a visually exciting, stunning, and sensual film is yet to be seen by hungry cinephiles and film critics alike.

‘Challengers’: The Tragedy of Cat Zimmerman

Note: This piece contains major plot spoilers for Challengers

The most widely seen shot in Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers is Zendaya on a hotel room bed, flanked by her co-stars Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor. It’s the most talked about part of the movie’s hype cycle, featured in many articles and social media posts for the film. I’ve seen Challengers twice in packed theaters, and you can feel the anticipation for the scene to play out, with the promise of homoeroticism being fulfilled. Yes, the scene on the bed is quite fascinating to behold in its depiction of sexual manipulation and euphoria. For me, however, it’s the previous part of the sequence that holds my interest. And I wonder if it’s the key to understanding the dynamic between Tashi (Zendaya), Art (Faist), and Pat (O’Connor). 

Tashi sits in a triangle on the floor with Art and Pat, probing about their obvious bromance. They play together, went to a tennis academy together, and are rooming together. She asks about their dating life, knowingly teasing out their mutual attraction to her and testing them. Tashi then asks if either of the two of them ever… She gives a look and, at first, Art and Pat staunchly deny anything ever happened between the two of them. But Pat reveals, much to Art’s embarrassment, the time Pat taught Art how to masturbate when they were pre-teens. They were both talking about a girl in their class, Cat Zimmerman. Tashi asks who got to date Cat Zimmerman after. No one, because a week later she got injured and had to quit tennis. It doesn’t matter anyway, because “she sucked.” And so the homoerotic tension between Art and Pat was born. Whatever happened to poor Cat Zimmerman is left a mystery, but one can assume that her tennis career ended there. 

Cat’s unfortunate injury is repeated years later when Tashi suffers what turns out to be a career-ending injury. Right before that fateful match, she and then-boyfriend Pat have a vicious fight. They’re about to have sex; Tashi is talking about tennis and his game, mentioning Art in between their moans. But Pat doesn’t want to talk about tennis, and resists Tashi’s coaching. They stop and fight about their roles in the relationship, with house music blaring so loud you can barely hear the dialogue. Some might read this as Tashi being distracted by their fight enough to lose focus and injure herself. However, I don’t think that’s the whole story. 

Right before that fight scene, you have the churro scene between Pat and Art. They discuss Art inserting himself into Tashi and Pat’s relationship, which he denies. Pat seems amused by the whole thing, essentially proud of Art for showing some kind of passion and self-interest. It makes his relationship hotter, Pat says, knowing that his best friend is pining over his girlfriend. Again we see Art and Pat project their bromance onto a woman they are both attracted to. Their body language is intimate: Pat using his foot to scoot over a stool for Art, or their shared churros. Again, sex is a somewhat shared experience between them, even if vicariously. And again some time later, their shared object of desire is injured on the court. Only this time that woman is Tashi, a tennis prodigy whose entire life revolves around the sport. Tashi, in turn, projects her own relationship to the sport onto the men in her life. We saw this already in that fight scene with Pat and the earlier beach scene. But with Pat rejecting her role, she and Art get closer. Art not only longs for her, he wants her coaching and her approval. 

Is this unresolved queer tension between Art and Pat some kind of curse? One can say, well, athletes injure themselves all the time and you can’t blame anyone for that. Accidents happen, of course. There is something fascinating to me about Cat Zimmerman and her parallel with Tashi. Cat was used as a sexual fantasy then discarded because she couldn’t play as well. Tashi, however, has the boys–and the audience–completely hypnotized both on and off the court. Her injury takes her off the court, but opens her up to coaching. Tashi projects her lost career onto Art as his wife and coach.  And let’s add a third woman to this theme: Anna, Tashi’s opponent when we first see her play. Anna is a racist sore loser, according to Tashi. Later we hear that she’s had a successful pro career. Art and Pat barely were watching her. They had their attention squarely on Tashi. It’s an interesting little detail in the film, a bittersweet “what if” moment. 

In the climactic final section of the movie, Art and Pat’s tension reaches its boiling point. But through their match, they seem to resolve their tension–finally reaching that “true tennis” zenith that Tashi was always chasing. Some have read this ending as the boys getting over their rivalry and Tashi being screwed as now Art knows about her secret dalliances with Pat throughout their marriage. And sure when Pat gives Art the “signal” he used when he dated Tashi and they have their unspoken standoff, Tashi is unaware, for once, of what is happening between them. But I’m not so ready to imagine that her life comes crashing down post-credits. Guadagnino chooses to end the movie on a moment of triumph for her, releasing a guttural “come on!” at their display of raw athleticism. 

Pat and Art need each other; and they need Tashi in a way they didn’t need Cat Zimmerman or Anna or any other coach. These guys became pure tennis players through their fixation on and relationships with Tashi, and she needs them to realize her own vision of tennis. Tennis is a relationship, Tashi says, and through the game Tashi, Art, and Pat can overcome their unspoken jealousies, attractions, and conflict. 

Interview: ‘The Idea of You’ Production Designer Amy Williams

The Idea of You is not your typical rom-com.

I kindly ask that you not judge this movie by its admittedly soapy premise—a mom who falls for a much younger pop star. Anne Hathaway’s performance is so warm and empathetic that she immediately elevates this sweet story beyond standard streamer ‘fluff.’ Add in sizzling chemistry with co-star Nicholas Galitzine and a sharp script from director Michael Showalter and Jennifer Westfeldt, and you’ve got a fantastically fun summer romp with a lot of heart.

And that’s precisely why Amy Williams was the perfect choice to serve as The Idea of You‘s production designer—she puts her heart into every project, packing each set with expertly planned craftsmanship, carefully chosen pieces, and layers of rich, character-driven details that visually elevate the spaces she transforms.

Williams used her art gallery experience to build an artist’s dream California home for Hathaway’s character, Solène. She also showcased pieces from local artists when staging art shows. Plus, she recreated Coachella and managed to bring St. Tropez to Savannah

Exploring Williams’ work is to better understand the art of production design in general. Read on to learn more about Williams and her approach to “dream job,” The Idea of You.

Shadan Larki: Amy, I know you were at SXSW for The Idea of You‘s world premiere. You’ve also supported the film at various screenings and events. What’s it like to see the audiences’ reactions? 

Amy Williams: The energy has been amazing! It was such a collaborative, family-like feel as far as how we prepped the film, how we all worked together, and how everything evolved. The actors and director, Michael Showalter, were involved.

Seeing people respond to that was really fun because we all poured our hearts into this movie, which felt rare. It’s been really fun to see the response. 

SL: This is how much of a nerd I am, but when I was watching The Idea of You at SXSW, and I saw Anne Hathaway’s apartment. I was like, ‘I have to ask Amy about creating this because it’s perfect, and it’s exactly what you would picture your cool, artsy older sister’s space to look like. So, how did you put that all together?

AW: We always liked to toe the line between what the book described and how you were reshaping and how Michael wanted to reshape things as far as the character is concerned.

So, they wanted her to be in Silver Lake, and we talked about how she would have this classic craftsman house she and her husband bought as a starter house. But then, because she has such impeccable taste and is charmed by the beautiful, ugly details of things, she would have embraced the house and brought it to life.

And then, because she was an art dealer. She studied art history, so we wanted to give her an eclectic mix of artwork. And we got really into it. Annie was really into it, Michael was really into it. We used all real artists. And we pulled artists. We wanted to focus on female artists, artists from Silver Lake, and local artists from Atlanta just because we were working and filming there and we had access to real artists there. The gallery’s philosophy was this nurturing, boutique art gallery where she would take these artists and work with them through their careers. For the interior of the house, we used a lot of collections, gifts, items of interest, and ceramics. 

We found an exterior house in Atlanta, all gray and white inside. It was boring. The outside looked good, so we renovated the whole interior. We worked for two months to add what looked like original detail. All the molding you see in the house, all the trim, was all white. So, we had scenic artists come in and make a faux wood grain for it. We added stained glass. We just got to build kind of the craftsman California dream home with many feelings of love, texture, and history. We just wanted to feel that history, too. 

SL: You mentioned the moldings. Are there any details or things that you were able to sprinkle in there that you’re just glad made it into the movie? Or something that, when you watch it now, just makes you smile?

AW: It’s a lot of things. There’s the mirror that she looks into when she sees the watch. 

There were a lot of risky choices that we made, sometimes the director wasn’t sure about or Anne wasn’t sure about, and that mirror was one of them. I think it was successful, and it looked really great.

We also made this stained-glass dining room lamp, which you see quite a bit in the film. We put a lot of work into adding wooden beams to the ceiling, and I just kept bugging the director and Jim Frohna, the D.P., the entire time, like, ‘Shoot wider, shoot wider. I want to see the ceilings.’ And so those barely made it in there, but they’re in.

SL: Risky choices; tell me about that. What were some risky design choices that you made?

AW: Well, I think it’s really fun to make idiotic choices. I think it’s really fun to include things that are not predictable but aren’t so insane that they draw too much attention. And especially for Solène’s character, because she’s friends with so many artists and she’s creative and loves beautiful things, we could stretch the limit of being very eclectic.

She has a bit of everything, and it was really fun for me because that’s how I am. I really related to the character because I was an art history major, and I had all these interests, and I didn’t know what I would do with them. I went the art gallery route, but luckily, I found filmmaking. [Laughs]. So I could relate to the fact that she loved a ’70s chair in one corner. And then maybe there’s a turn-of-the-century style, stained glass piece that’s original or a mid-century piece that she saw. Everything has meaning to her in selection. And I think that’s how the set decorator, Melisa Jusufi, and I approached selecting the pieces. Everything was a discussion, a choice, and intentional, and I love how it kind of all marries together. 

SL: With Anne Hathaway’s character, Solène, we see her house, her gallery, and even her artist hideaway, but then with Nicholas Galitzine’s Hayes, we don’t see personal space at all. He’s always in hotels and on the road. How did you sprinkle in some character development and personality in production design that could otherwise feel mundane?

AW: Yeah, it’s tough. Hayes talks about how he has this big, huge loft, and there’s nothing in it. And it’s very telling of where his character is at that moment in his life. He is a young man in his twenties. There were points in the script and even in the process of prepping the movie where we were going to show that he had a London flat. We were going to dress it and make it a little more character-specific, but it got cut. It became a little bit more about her world than his. His world was the big public spaces, Coachella, hotel rooms, and traveling in the private jet.

One set where we could bring in the essence of Hayes was the recording studio, which had a bit more warmth and character when he finally decided to go solo. And you see him in LA, and it’s a little bit messy and not glamorous, but it’s conducive to being creative. So, I think that was one moment we could show more of him. And I think Jacqueline Demeterio, our costume designer, did an amazing job with his costumes too, because I think the texture and the color in that was really what makes the character so charming, like that fuzzy sweater, you just want to cuddle up to him.

SL: Tell me about Coachella because that’s such an interesting thing to try to recreate. What did that mean on your end? 

AW: It was scary. It was daunting because we were in Atlanta, nowhere near Palm Springs or a desert. It was a really big, beautiful collaboration between visual effects and set design. We worked with real-stage vendors, sound mixers, and lighting designers. And we created some of the graphics for the show; my art director, Kat Rich, was where I had her most of the time. She was out at a racetrack in Georgia, about an hour away from the office. And there were a lot of big flags and art pieces and a big, huge meet-and-greet tent and trailers. It was very elaborate and really big. And I think we were always afraid that the budget couldn’t support it. I think the visual effects take it to the next level and make it feel believable— just some palm trees in the background and some mountains. 

But it was so fun. It was one of those things. I’d never thought I’d be designing a stage for a boy band. [Laughs]. It turned out to be super fun. 

SL: I thought they shot those scenes on location at a music festival. 

AW: I love hearing that!

SL: You sold me. Another set I loved is the vacation house they go to in Europe because, again, it’s exactly the kind of place that you imagine a group of 20s-somethings going to. How did you approach that? I loved the juxtaposition of the coldness versus Hayes’s warmth and the light Solène brings.  

AW: Going on a private jet to all these places is a fantasy. And we scouted Savannah for most of our European exteriors and some of the interiors. And we filmed it all within two days. So, everything you see at the beach in St Tropez is in Savannah. You see Barcelona, you see Paris with a lot of signage and movie magic. We made that happen. Then, regarding the interiors, we found a few locations here in Atlanta that had a good vintage look.

I forget the name of the building, but it had four different rooms, and because of scheduling, we had to move from room to room. So one room was Barcelona, one room was Paris, and one room was London. Then, downstairs, we shot the music video that she watches on her laptop.

There was a scene at one point where they were at an art museum, so we created a bit of an art museum, and it was really fun. But it was crazy to think, ‘Okay, we’re going to do six different countries in two days and shoot it all.’ 

SL: What’s it like when you’re working on something that will be a part of a montage? You have to make it distinct enough, but you won’t have the screen time to develop it. It’s not like her apartment, right? We’re not spending much time there, so how do you make it pop while knowing you don’t have production time or screen time to spend on it?

AW: Yeah, I mean, you’re always working under restrictions, whether it be budget, time, access to European items, some of the things we had to create from scratch just to kind of bring in the world. We built one of those neon green pharmacy signs and just stuck it in the back, like a little hint. 

It was also really fun regarding set decoration and production design because it was supposed to be glamorous, gorgeous, and rich. So, we did very distinct color palettes for each suite, and they didn’t all make it in the movie. I don’t think the Paris suite made it in, but it was still great. The other one, I’ll say, just going back to your Hayes question because I think that was a really good one, is the hotel room where she first visited him in New York. I think it was really important that we made it a place where a rock star would stay and not necessarily a place she would pick. It had a little bit of a bite and an edge to it. 

SL: What other set pieces did you enjoy working on?

AW: I think some things that go unnoticed with production design are the green work and the landscaping we do to transform the world. The director, D.P., and I all scouted in L.A. twice because we planned to shoot there for three days to get all of the Silver Lake scenes, the reservoir, and everything authentic. Time was running short, and we made the decision, I think, in the last week of filming that we weren’t going to go to L.A.; we were going to try to pull it all off in Atlanta.

Some of that is done with the help of visual effects, but a lot of it is getting the foliage right and the outside world right. We put a lot of research and attention into that, but hopefully, no one notices it because it should feel like L.A.

SL: That’s why I love talking to you; that never would have occurred to me.

AW: Yeah. There’s so much that you just don’t want people to notice. But I’m really glad that people do notice the artwork. 

I think it’s also really important [to note] that Anne Hathaway was the producer of this. She was so all-encompassing about her commitment to the character that we had huge conversations about certain things that should be in her home. And there was a lot of back-and-forth communication. I would show her references, ideas, and colors. It was a unique experience to have with an actor who was so involved in the production design process and cared about the artwork and what was in the art gallery. 

The only other thing would be the art gallery, where we communicated with over 200 artists, obtained permission from them, and selected their artwork.

We had to create three distinct gallery shows in that gallery, all within three days. So, that was a lot of logistics, but it was really fun to return to my gallery days. I also got to curate a real show for a film, have everything authentic, and have an arc and meaning.

SL: How does The Idea of You fit into the arc of your career as a production designer? What lessons will you take away from this experience?

AW: Working with Michael Showalter was a very heightened, collaborative experience. I felt like I got to be myself as a designer. But I was also challenged by the process. And I think the growth came in collaborating with people that are geniuses like Anne Hathaway, Michael Showalter, and Jim Frohna, the DP, and having us challenge each other and accepting one another’s ideas when they’re good and shutting them down when they’re bad ideas.

When I watched this film, I saw that everybody brought their best work, and it harmonized beautifully. We’re all doing it again right now; I’m in Atlanta prepping Michael’s next movie. It was such a rich experience. 

SL: Are you allowed to tell me what it is?

AW: Yeah, it’s already been announced. It’s called Oh. What. Fun. It’s a Christmas movie with Michelle Pfeiffer.

SL: Oh, I can’t wait to see what Amy Williams Christmas production design looks like!

AW: I know, I haven’t done one yet!

It overlaps a bit, but I’m doing a really intense mini-series called Long Bright River, which is a completely different subject matter. It’s very heavy and emotionally intense, occurring in December during Christmas. The Michelle Pfeiffer-Showalter project is a Christmas movie about family. It’s about moms during the holiday season and how they’re often taken for granted.

SL: Is it hard to move from project to project? You become so intimately involved in this world that you built it. And then you have to leave it behind and go to the next one.

AW: Yeah, it’s heartbreaking. But then It’s like the dream job for me. Amazingly, I get to build all these worlds and do things I never thought I would do. I didn’t think I would do a rom-com about a boy band, and it would become one of the most favorite things I’ve ever done. What was really fun about it is that it’s a genre that doesn’t often get recognized for things like production design, cinematography, or acting. Still, I think everybody really brought great work to it and elevated what some consider ‘fluff.’ I think it resonates with people, and people can relate to it and has depth. 

SL: I love that you get to have a voice and be a part of the creative process.

AW: You feel like a filmmaker, and when you have that respect, you can really, as I say, ‘spread your wings,’ but it just comes down to the stories are also interesting. I’ve been lucky enough to do TV and film and different genres. It’s like playing, getting to be a kid, exploring all these worlds, and telling stories with a really weird mixed media.

I’m just so lucky. I’m so happy to do it. And it’s so hard, too. It’s exhausting. This past summer, I made a film called Death of a Unicorn in Budapest. That will be a really fun to talk to you about when it comes out. It’s with A24 and has a great cast. And one of my close friends, Alex Scharfman, was his first film directing. I’m excited about that one, too, because we got to make unicorn puppets! 

Movie Review: ‘Mother of the Bride’ is Lifeless and Predictable

Director: Mark Waters
Writer: Robin Bernheim
Stars: Brooke Shields, Miranda Cosgrove, Benjamin Bratt

Synopsis: Lana’s daughter Emma returns from London and announces that she’s getting married next month. Things become more complicated when Lana learns that the man who stole Emma’s heart is the son of the man who broke hers years ago.

Mother of the Bride is not precisely what you think it’s going to be. In fact, it’s so much worse. That’s because the film is like a copy of the classic romantic comedy genre. It’s like a copy—of a copy, of a copy—copied so many times that the film becomes so nakedly transparent that it’s lazy. This is purely recycled material, with dozens of tropes weakly stitched together that are like watching beautiful people scrape their nails across a chalkboard.

Every basic scene is cliche and always comes with a double dip of exposition. There is absolutely zero chemistry between the cast, including the leads, and a laughable attempt to pair Brooke Shields with a former WB/CW star. Any cute or comedic moments are forced, unnatural, and lazy. I would say this is the cinematic streaming equivalent of the Milgram experiment—testing the obedience of the audience, the cast, and mine.

The story starts with a young couple, Emma (Miranda Cosgrove) and RJ (Sean Teale), and the latter has just asked her to marry him. It’s a grand gesture, with an entire restaurant emptied and filled with thousands of roses. Emma says yes, and they hug. The first thing Emma does is talk about how she has to tell her mom about him. Yes, Emma has not told her mother that she is in a committed relationship. The scene is flat, and there is no celebration. Again, this is a disjointed attempt to move the story forward.

The script attempts to make the case that Emma and her mother, Lana (a stiff and lifeless Brooke Shields), are close. That is mainly because they formed a bond when Emma’s father and Lana’s husband were killed in a car accident when she was eight years old. However, from the start, I was surprised that this mother-daughter duo knew each other’s names. Lana has no idea that her daughter is in a relationship because she is so wrapped up in her work. The other issue is that Lana does not know what her daughter does for a living. Do they not have an unlimited phone plan or access to social media or WhatsApp? Do they lack the resources for postage, or is using carrier pigeons to deliver the mail illegal?

Of course, we soon find out this is all a way to create an awkward run-in of a romance that has been dormant for years. It turns out RJ’s father is Lana’s college boyfriend and her long-lost love, Will (Benjamin Bratt). At first, you are afraid that Will may be Emma’s father, but sadly, as the film goes on, you will wish the film took that turn to feel any emotion other than paint-by-numbers boredom. Yes, the rom-com playbook is pulled out, the dust is blown away, and the script follows the genre rules step-by-step.

Cosgrove is relegated to that role of annoying, anxious, and weak female stereotype who keeps asking inane questions after they have already been asked. For example, after it has been made clear that Will and Lana used to date, she asks Will, “How do you know my mom?” Teale has virtually nothing to do as if he was told to stand there and look like Oscar Isaac’s long-lost child. Likable comedic actors like Rachael Harris and MadTV’s Michael MacDonald are relegated to over-the-top sidekicks who spew out one-liners out of nowhere as if they were wooden dolls, where some inexplicably pulled the string.

However, I would like to commend whatever physical trainer (or VFX special effects) was used to carve out the beach bodies of 60-year-old Benjamin Bratt and 43-year-old Chad Michael Murray that made me think if stunt coordinators are under consideration for Oscars, then the Hollywood trainer surely should be as well. Now, excuse me while I work on my third love handle.

Mother of the Bride lacks the charm and stamina to be an effective crowd-pleaser. Vapid and tiresome, this Netflix streamer is strictly for diehard fans of the genre or anyone going through a bad breakup in the hopes of finding love again.

Grade: D-

Movie Review: ‘Hit Man’ is Sharp and Sexy

Director: Richard Linklater
Writers: Richard Linklater, Glen Powell
Stars: Glen Powell, Adria Arjona, Austin Amelio

Synopsis: A professor moonlighting as a hitman of sorts for his city police department descends into dangerous, dubious territory when he finds himself attracted to a woman who enlists his services.

There’s an age-old debate in the modern film sphere on the question of sex in movies, on whether or not it’s socially acceptable to showcase sex scenes in modern cinema because there’s allegedly no “point” to them. Yes, the sex scenes in Tommy Wiseau’s The Room were fairly pointless and stretched the runtime of that movie to no end, but that’s one very bad example of a very bad movie. 

But when a serious movie decides to be sexy and showcase a pure liberation of the human body, either through “furious jumping” in Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things or through the psychosexual relationship the protagonists have with a tennis court in Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers (two recent examples), most audiences prefer to shrug at its apparent “endless” depiction of sex instead of engaging with what it’s presenting on screen. This results in a culture that’s afraid of even talking about sex, labeling it as a taboo subject when it is indeed a natural part of life and a form of liberation for many. 

But why are we so afraid, or why do we care at all? Responsible adult viewers should be able to stomach the realities of life, including sex, in motion pictures, and yet talk about how “children will be exposed to this,” when none of the movies that talk about (or showcase) sex are marketed (or rated) for them. This creates a problem for the sexiest genre of all – romantic comedies, which have grown to become more sexless and glossy even when two hot people share the screen and create a decidedly passionate (and sexy) chemistry.

This is incredibly apparent in Red, White & Royal Blue, which stars two good-looking individuals with zero chemistry and erotic tension and is shot in the vein of a Hallmark picture. It’s particularly insulting when you find out that the cinematographer, Stephen Goldblatt, shot two of the greatest gay motion pictures of all time, Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, to which he was nominated for an Oscar for his work in the former, directed by a queer cinema legend, the late Joel Schumacher. 

People may be conditioned to hate those movies, but the sexually charged frames Goldblatt creates are enough to entice intense homoerotic energy through Val Kilmer/George Clooney’s Batman and Chris O’Donnell’s Robin (the “not just a friend, a partner” hand-clasp in Batman Forever remains one of the most powerfully erotic images in all of comic book cinema), stuff that is no longer produced in mainstream cinema, except for when Luca Guadagnino decided to make cannibalism and tennis sexy in Bones and All and Challengers

But a new challenger has arrived in the ring with Hit Man from Richard Linklater, perhaps one of the most sauceless and overhyped filmmakers working today (I said what I said). I rarely vibe with his movies because his style is so rudimentary that it rarely has room to breathe, and his actors don’t have much leeway in making their performances feel natural. It’s probably why I hated Boyhood so much and have only enjoyed a limited amount of his work, which includes School of Rock, A Scanner Darkly, Bad News Bears, Dazed and Confused, and its spiritual sequel, Everybody Wants Some!! 

So consider me skeptical when massive raves for Hit Man occurred when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year and a subsequent festival premiere at TIFF, where Netflix acquired its U.S distribution rights for $20 million, calling it one of the sexiest films of the year, and one of Linklater’s finest achievements. With such a usually flat visual aesthetic permeating most of his filmography, how could Linklater create romantic tension, even if he has two of the hottest stars leading his picture through Glen Powell and Adria Arjona?

Simply put, he lets them be hot and in charge of their tension as the story progresses. From the minute Arjona is introduced in the picture, there’s an indelible sense of a potential romance blossoming between the two, even if they may not know it yet. Madison (Arjona) shows up at a restaurant in the hopes that Gary (Powell), under the hit man alias Ron, will kill her abusive husband (Evan Holtzman), and is willing to pay a large sum for it. But she doesn’t know that “Ron” does not exist and isn’t even a hitman. Gary, a professor of philosophy, has been doing part-time undercover work for the police to set up sting jobs to arrest people who demand the services of a hitman after undercover cop Jasper (Austin Amelio) was suspended for 120 days. 

It not only turns out that Gary is very good at creating façades and disguises to lure potential clients in, but he enjoys the thrill of appearing to give people the opportunity of hitman services before they are ultimately arrested. But when Madison appears, everything changes. He begins to see her more frequently, through his Ron façade, and the two build one of the sexiest on-screen romances seen in a Linklater picture, and perhaps the most interesting romantic story of his career (yes, more intriguing than Jesse and Céline in the Before trilogy). 

It’s not hard for Linklater to slightly make the romance feel sexier through his lens, and he carefully calibrates his frames as their relationship evolves. Look at the way Madison is introduced as an example – a massive departure from the clinical style Linklater adopts when focusing on Gary (but in the case of this film, it makes sense because Gary is, himself, a clinical guy). Instead, he blurs the frame so that we only see her shadow until she shows up in the foreground and sits down. The tension is already palpable, but when she eats a piece of “Ron’s” pie, the energy cranks up a notch and never lets up. 

The rest of the film sees Linklater play with this hypersexual energy as the two take their relationship to a more serious level, without Madison knowing that “Ron” isn’t a hitman. This creates some impeccably timed comedy as Jasper gets back into the field and learns that things aren’t what they seem between Gary and Madison, setting the plot in motion full of well-paced twists and turns that are best left to be discovered on your own. 

The chemistry between Powell and Arjona is the only reason why Hit Man is so deliciously entertaining, with the two fully leaning into the characters’ façades they want to put out to one another (Linklater tries to parallel these impulses to the work of Nietzsche, but the philosophical subtext is far less interesting than the psychosexual game the two play with each other). The two expand their façades as they get to “know” more about their personality and, in turn, give the most romantic (and, at times, erotic) performances of their career. 

Powell is no stranger to romantic comedies after starring in 2023’s Anyone but You, but he takes the persona he created in this film to a completely different level here, as he’s matched with an actor of equal talent and charm with Arjona, a highly skillful actor who can perfectly modulate her emotional response to Powell’s Gary, whose multiple personalities deftly showcase his versatility. You can definitely tell Arjona’s evolution as an actor in a post Six Underground, Andor, and Irma Vep environment, capturing the sexy thrills of a blossoming romance with an incredible sense of timing and rhythm. The centerpiece scene, in which Madison has to ‘act’ for Gary, confirms her as a singular talent with a breadth of dramatic and comedic range that completely obliterates whatever Sydney Sweeney was doing in Anyone but You

If anything, Hit Man pushes the tension introduced in Anyone but You much further because it’s far more potent in its eroticism without ever showing it through sex. The implicit looks and exchanges Gary and Madison give to each other have enough powerful sexual energy to make the case for more sex in movies. In such a sexless era of romantic filmmaking, here’s a movie that reminds audiences exactly why sex in movies isn’t a bad thing and will actually make its romance between the two leads far more exciting than if it’s filmed at a Hallmark level with no emotional attachment between the potential couple. 

Hit Man shows exactly how modern-day romantic comedies should be: incredibly funny (with a keen eye on society’s warped priorities, through sharp jokes on cancel culture and America’s f–ed up obsession with the Second Amendment) and impeccably sexy, with two impossibly beautiful leads giving the romantic tension needed for us to keep wanting to spend time with them. Yes, it helps that Powell and Arjona know how to act and modulate emotions, which makes their characters feel far more alive in the hands of Linklater than in some of his previous (failed) efforts. As a result, Hit Man is Linklater’s best movie since School of Rock, his greatest achievement. Here’s hoping his next project (including the upcoming Paul Mescal musical he’s currently shooting for twenty years…as if twelve wasn’t enough) will be of equal measure. 

Grade: A

Chasing the Gold: The Brash and Bold Cinematography of ‘Challengers’

If you showed someone tennis for the first time and then asked them to explain the sport, the observational description would be very apt. At face value, it involves a ball being hit back and forth over a net. On the surface, most sports can be reduced to something rather trivial. But there’s obviously much more to be derived by fans of the sport, whatever sport it may be. As a disclaimer, this piece will not spoil any plot revelations in regard to Challengers but will discuss certain cinematic techniques and how they are used in the film to elicit audience reactions and emotions.

 Luca Gudagnino’s Challengers revolves around tennis, a sport that doesn’t often get the cinematic treatment. Some recent examples are Battle of the Sexes, King Richard, and the particularly wonderful 7 Days In Hell. So, how does one get audiences enveloped in a world that keeps many at a distance? Obviously, it helps to have three of the most exciting actors working today. But Guadagnino and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom also inject a wildly stylized energy into this film. However, it’s not utilized in a basic fashion. On the contrary, Challengers’ cinematography often elevates the film’s tone and forces the viewer to truly grapple with framing. It might seem on the surface that these are two very basic components of cinematography, but the way it is used here contains more complexity.

Obviously, we are meant to reach certain conclusions and emotions based on the imagery we see and how it appears to us in the film. But we seem to be in a time when the very fundamentals of cinema are questioned or even balked at. The mere idea of criticizing basic lighting techniques or asking for more than simple shot/reverse-shot dialogue is met with hostility. Every scene, no matter how mundane it may appear, can be beautiful—that’s an idea no longer shared by many. So it feels refreshing to see a film so daringly utilize point-of-view framing to bring the viewer directly into the characters’ minds. Dialogue scenes from films this decade have arguably never been as exciting or jumped off the screen more.

Often, at least in the case of bigger-budget films, it appears the camera is merely pointed at the subject. Pre-visualization, also known as pre-vis, is also heavily utilized. It’s a technology essentially utilized by studios and filmmakers as a more three-dimensional way of storyboarding. A team can show up to any given shoot where pre-vis has been used, and a computer can visualize where the camera should be placed and what it will roughly look like in any given space, and it can render any upcoming CGI. It’s a tool that can be utilized particularly well, but oftentimes, certain big-budget blockbusters appear to use it more lazily. So in a world where pre-vis rules and both performers and directors might not know where exactly a particular scene takes place, it doesn’t allow much room to explore a given space. 

With Challengers,  Mukdeeprom doesn’t have that problem. There’s no idea too visually grand for this film. Spaces are envisioned to the maximum potential and capitalized upon. It all culminates in a sequence that is marvelous and bold. But Challengers takes its time building to its visual crescendo. And that isn’t to say that the rest of the film isn’t aesthetically exciting. The ways in which Mukdeeprom slowly sets the stage for his bombastic finale is quite brilliant. It’s the perfect example of repeatedly using certain techniques, such as whacking tennis balls directly at the camera, over the course of the film. By the end, when he begins unleashing cinematic mayhem, the audience is honed into the style he’s using.

Challengers isn’t interested in merely capturing the actions of its lead trio, as much as it wants to force us into their minds. And these are messy individuals. Isn’t that where the most compelling cinema lies, though? In the boundaries between right and wrong? Justin Kuritzkes’ screenplay clearly understands that and Guadagnino and Mukdeeprom seem to feed off the palpable volleys in which each character finds themselves entangled. Every inch of Challengers simmers with tension, and the ways in which it visually approaches this tension is fascinating. 

For example, a particularly steamy conversation between Patrick (Josh O’Connor) and Art (Mike Faist) takes place in a sauna. Aside from the tantalizing framing, Mukdeeprom chooses to capture both barely-clothed men. The way he captures the two individually highlights the internalized idea of their power dynamics regarding one another. Patrick makes a rather ominous statement rather than cut immediately to Art’s reaction. We witness a moment of play within Patrick’s memory before then being treated with an even greater close-up. Only then do we see Art’s reaction. This is one of the many times Mukdeeprom inadvertently tricks us into accepting a first-person point-of-view shot without any gimmick to reveal it as such. The same is then done from the reverse effect. We, as the viewer, through Mukdeeprom’s lens, begin scowling at each character from the perspective of their scene partner. It makes objectivity and impartiality impossible. Instead, it draws us into the world of Challengers— a world that is continuously collapsing in on itself— and the characters that inhabit it. And this collapse occurs not with a whimper but with a bang. Mukdeeprom’s use of this first-person POV only makes the more blatant use of it later on all the more exciting. It reveals the beauty of Challengers’ visuals. Whether subtle or screaming in your face, cinema has a place for all of it. By the end of the film, we’re immersed in the characters’ high-octane world of tennis. Under the court, in the tennis ball, directly behind their eyes. What I can only describe as a dual split-diopter catapults itself onto the screen, and any sense of standard cinematic storytelling is thrown out the window. By ways both abstract and built upon, Challengers heralds the arrival of its new form with such tenacity and vigor that you can’t help but want to applaud and shout in your seat. And that’s what the movies are all about. Or is that what tennis is all about?

Movie Review: ‘Gasoline Rainbow’ is Achingly Gorgeous

Directors: Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross
Writers: Davey Ramsay, Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross
Stars: Tony Aburto, Micah Bunch, Nichole Dukes

Synopsis: Follows 5 teenagers from small-town Oregon who, with high school in the rearview, decide to embark on one last adventure: to make it to a place they’ve never been -the Pacific coast, 500 miles away. Their plan, in full: “F**k it.”

A rapturous odyssey, Gasoline Rainbow boldly reaffirms Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross as American cinema’s most essential boundary-pushers. Their audacious vision flows like an impressionistic reverie, with fledgling teen actors blooming under the siblings’ liberated lens. Unvarnished moments of ennui and revelation unfurl across boundless landscapes, with disembodied vocals soaring in a hypnagogic interplay of sight and luminous sound. This latest provocation cements the Ross duo’s singularly fearless ingenuity, their intrepid artistry deepening with each successive, convention-shattering immersion.

In the quintessential coming-of-age tale woven into the fabric of Americana, Tony Aburto, Micah Bunch, Nichole Dukes, Nathaly Garcia, and Makai Garza stand as the intrepid protagonists poised at the precipice of adulthood. Their academic endeavors behind them, they stand at the crossroads of responsibility and adventure, yearning for one last hurrah before the weight of adulthood fully descends upon their shoulders.

In a nod to the timeless journey of self-discovery, they conceive a daring escapade: a cross-country voyage from the familiar confines of their hometown to the enigmatic shores of the Ocean for the End of the World party. Hidden in this seemingly whimsical quest lies a deeper resonance, reminiscent of timeless explorations of the human spirit. Much like those who traversed a labyrinth of trials and tribulations in their quest for homecoming, our modern-day adventurers embark on a journey where the destination may pale in comparison to the transformative journey itself.

Bound by the ties of camaraderie forged over years of shared experiences, they navigate the highways and byways of the American landscape with a sense of wonder and anticipation. Each roadside attraction, each chance encounter, becomes a chapter in their collective saga, enriching their lives with a rich weave of memories and lessons.

Yet, beneath the surface of their seemingly carefree adventure lies a poignant truth: perhaps the true essence of their journey lies not in reaching the fabled End of the World party, but in the bonds they strengthen and the selves they discover along the way. In the tradition of the great cinematic journeys, theirs is a tale of friendship, resilience, and the unyielding spirit of youth in search of meaning amidst the vast expanse of the open road.

Gasoline Rainbow is a rambling yet insightful road movie that finds soulful truth in the journey of five young Hispanic friends leaving home. Like the great road films, it understands the purpose is not the destination but the experiences along the way. Bill and Turner Ross have crafted a remarkably naturalistic portrait, capturing revelatory moments of honesty, humor and melancholy with an intimate, fly-on-the-wall shooting style that allows us to become immersed in the lives of the vagabond protagonists. An unrehearsed quality pervades each scene as they speak with disarming candor about worries, jokes, opinions and their immigrant backgrounds. Home is a nebulous concept, but their makeshift family bond represents the deeper exploration – an honest, unflinching and deeply soulful evocation of that bittersweet time when childhood’s end is in sight.

The Ross Brothers employ a masterful use of sound and music that imbues Gasoline Rainbow with an irresistible sense of intimacy. Their dynamic camerawork floats effortlessly between the quintet of friends, enveloping us in their temporary nomadic existence. Michael Hurley’s folk compositions and other timeless melodies provide an atmospheric backdrop, accompanying these wayward souls on their transcendent journey.

No matter where they roam – van, boat, train, or on foot – their surroundings take on a lived-in, homey quality. The film’s depiction of modern teenage life in America emerges not in navel-gazing downtime, but through candid conversations achieved in perpetual motion. Profound observations about identity, purpose, and the world around them pour forth with remarkable ease and honesty, softening each new landscape be it desert, forest or lonely stretch of highway. The Ross Brothers’ aesthetic sensitivity elevates the seemingly mundane into something profound and unforgettable.

The Ross Brothers weave a hypnotic tapestry in Gasoline Rainbow, their resplendent strands of dialogue floating across the boundless American canvas like wisps of cirrus clouds buoyed upon an amber-hued sky. Disembodied yet intimately crisp teen voices punctuate the journey, unfurling in gossamer ribbons that dance gracefully even as the characters recede into the distance. This diaphanous counterpoint of sound and image achieves a transcendent, anti-documentary quality that paradoxically envelops us in their cares and confessions.

Intermittent snippets of raw, unvarnished monologue extracted from interviews bloom like wildflowers amid the sun-dappled meadow, never disrupting the reverie. Rather, they arise organically as heartfelt testaments to the “creative treatment of actuality,” an ethos deeply ingrained in the documentary tradition. The filmmakers overlay these layered petals of youthful perspective atop the endless expanse, a masterful post-sync composition that elevates transient teen murmurings to an elegiac ode upon the nameless American landscape.

In this achingly gorgeous mosaic, the Ross Brothers extend a profound generosity of spirit and empathy to a generation bearing the weight of the world. Their delicate, kaleidoscopic reverie beckons – nay, insists – that these nascent souls enjoy the waning vistas of childhood while their journey remains unspent.

Grade: B+

Movie Review: ‘Wildcat’ is a Risky Biopic

Director: Ethan Hawke
Writers: Shelby Gaines, Ethan Hawke
Stars: Maya Hawke, Laura Linney, Rafael Casal

Synopsis: Follows the life of writer Flannery O’Connor while she was struggling to publish her first novel.

When you watch Ethan Hawke’s directorial effort, you see the sense of authenticity in the world and the characters he views through an unvarnished lens. His new film, Wildcat, is full of the Bible-thumping zealots, war-weary veterans, and dixie tricksters that formed American writer Flannery O’Connor’s work. Ethan Hawke uses the famous writer’s renowned ability to counter the supposed faith and morals with the evil they support.

Wildcat stars Hawke’s daughter, Maya Hawke (Stranger Things), examining where inspiration lies in the world around her by drawing from real life and then forming story or character arcs from genuine experiences. The people Flannery meets are patently absurd, and are brought to life by her willingness to see how the trauma of violence and pain can transform us all; real people and literally characters alike. Unsurprisingly, she, as anyone would, struggles to see this in herself.

Hawke co-wrote the film with Shelby Gaines and does a superb job folding in and interconnecting both Flannery’s present-day and her inspirations that involve famous scenes from her short stories that include “Good Country People,” “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “Revelation,” and others. Ethan Hawke, as a director, specializes in southern backwoods tales. His 2018 feature, Blaze, differs in time and place but is still a superb example of artists rebelling against the Southern era and setting. In Wildcat, O’Connor’s writing is inspired by the conflict of religious upbringing. For one, she lives in an environment of rigid orthodoxy and literal religious interpretation promoting traditional roles and moral standards.

This brings us back to how characters view the world and what is actually going on around them. Throw these values against poverty and racism, and then the cracks of a crisis of faith begin to show. A perfect example of this is Laura Linney’s character, Regina, who attempts to be a “white savior” by offering a penny to a small black child (immediately after becoming embarrassed because she’s wearing the same hat as the boy’s mother). Regina is almost sickened that she wears the same church crown as someone she views as beneath her. That scene is an example of how Hawke can underscore that type of hypocrisy. 

Flannery can be a controversial figure for most, as her Southern Gothic fiction is littered with racial stereotypes and offensive language. In addition, according to numerous reports, she was quoted as refusing to let James Baldwin visit her southern estate. This is my main complaint and issue with Hawke’s Wildcat; this subject is largely ignored.

However, the way Hawke has Flannery laughing at some of these characters may subtly show a belief the writer is a truth teller, making no apologies and leaving honest examples of despicable behavior on the page for all to see. Yet, the issue of race is far too often left out of the film altogether. You have to ask yourself; can a work of art be truly great if there is an inherent lack of honesty, especially with negative aspects of the main subject.

That’s one of the reasons I have an issue with biographical films based on a subject’s source material: they view others without a rosy filter that they use on themselves. The writer and director choose to filter out blemishes from the main subject. Despite this, Maya Hawke gives a wonderful performance. There is a scene so tender and heartbreaking where she finds love and loses it just as quickly is spectacularly devastating as she looks on with sorrowful eyes that conveys something we haven’t seen from the young actress before. Then, to master and put her own spin on the subject’s quirks and intricacies, Maya Hawke puts her stamp on a character that is the best of her career and one of standouts of the year so far. 

Yet Wildcat is about the writing process and a somewhat limited reflection of religious fervor. The structure is clever yet not original, similar to Nocturnal Animals, utilizing one world to influence and create another. So much so that, quite intentionally, it may be hard to decipher which is real and isn’t at times. Hawke’s film could have easily been wildly pretentious and gone off track, but his growth as a filmmaker over the past twenty years shows a steady hand that’s hard to ignore. 

What you’ll be struck by most is Ethan Hawke’s ability to challenge the viewer narratively and connected to artistic ideology. Whatever you think of Flannery O’Connor, you cannot argue that this is a biographical film (if you can call it that) that takes real chances. It offers beautiful moments and melancholy notes of introspection and reflection that blur the lines of the question: Is life imitating art, or art imitating life?

Grade: B

Interview: ‘The Idea of You’ Composer Siddhartha Khosla

Shadan Larki interviews composer Siddartha Khosla about creating a modern. pop-inspired score that echos the empathy and romance of the Anne Hathaway and Nicholas Galitzine-starring drama, The Idea of You.

Photo: Alden Wallace

Shadan Larki: The Idea of You is packed with songs. How was scoring for a very music-heavy film different from your typical process?

Siddhartha Khosla: It’s not that much different. Certain parts of the film are now covered musically, so I don’t have to touch them. In terms of finding a thematic thread for the film, it doesn’t change much. I’m still trying to write themes based on the script and the characters I see.

The only time the songs in the film have an impact on [the score] is if one of my themes turns into an original song, and then it’s like, ‘Oh, okay, we’ve been teasing this theme the whole time, and now it’s a song.’

In that sense, the score and songs need to work hand in hand. For this particular film, you do want the song and the score to feel that they exist in the same world. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’d have to be super genre-specific about it, but the songs are modern pop songs, right? So, the score can be a modern-ish score. That’s the throughline between the score and the songs. If I did a classical film score, that would have just orchestra and nothing else. It felt more old-timey, and it would feel weird against the songs that August Moon was performing. My score was synth-y and pop-y, and it had a bit more of a modern edge. 

SL: At what point did you enter into the process? Were the songs already written? 

SK: The songs were already written when I came in. My job was to now be the film score. 

The songs didn’t play into [my process] at all. It was a completely separate idea. The song and the score don’t bleed into each other. There’s maybe one point in the film where I have a piece of score that goes over an August Moon performance, and they’re performing. And I just had to make sure that they blended into each other seamlessly. The songs are written by Savan Kotecha, who did a nice job. 

SL: Tell me about your instrumentations. You mentioned the synths, but then there are also times when the music is more melancholic and romantic as we move through Solène and Hayes’ relationship.

SK: Yeah, the core of the score was a very synth-forward score. This amazing singer, Kotomi, sang on the score. You hear female voices in the score that reverb out, creating an ambiance and atmosphere. There was also a live orchestra on the score. We added a live orchestra to the score just to widen it all at the end. So, it was a mix of classic but modern in that sense.

SL: How did your ideas for the score shift as your work on The Idea of You progressed? 

SK: Yeah, that always is part of the process. What you write at first time for a certain scene may not be right for that scene, but it could be right for a later scene, and you go through variations. 

But there was an arc to the score. As the story unfolded, there were moments when the score got super tense. There’s also a warmth to the score. The main idea [of the score] was that it felt like longing. I wanted it to feel like longing, whatever that meant.

SL: It’s so interesting that you mentioned longing because there’s also a note of hopefulness that runs through the score.

SK: Yeah, it feels hopeful, too, for sure.

SL: The Idea of You stands out amongst your work it’s music-heavy like I mentioned, and feels lighter in tone, too.

SK: Yeah. I mean, I think it just had a very specific perspective. It was more stylish. The synths make it feel a little cooler and interesting, and stylish. It was a more stylized score. The score is all about a feeling, you know.

Sometimes, the combination of those notes and the sounds you’re using creates a vibe. It’s a vibe score. It’s a feeling. I think that’s what this was. You know, this one was like, I wasn’t scoring. I was scoring to the picture, but I wasn’t scoring too tightly to the picture. I was always scoring to the underbelly of this world that they were in, the feeling of the world, the vibe of it all. 

SL: Have you gone online to see the reaction? People are going crazy for this movie, and you’re getting many mentions. 

SK: Oh, really? I didn’t know I was getting mentioned. I know that there are a lot of great reviews out there, and people are saying great things about the film, but I didn’t know that I was getting mentioned.

SL: Your score is being played a lot with the other songs. People are loving it.

SK: Oh, that’s awesome. Yeah, I’ll check it out. That’s good to know. 

SL: Let’s talk a little bit about your TV work. Tell me about kind of coming back into Only Murders in the Building. Then you have Elsbeth—doing a spinoff is interesting because you have this pre-existing thing that you’re expanding upon. How do you do it all?

SK: I’m constantly working. I’m busy like hell.

But I also have a great team of people who help me, composers who will work with me sometimes, and great musicians. So, it’s a team effort all around to make all of it happen from a logistical standpoint. 

But I feel like the thing that I have a good sense of is the tone for things. That’s, maybe, the thing I do best, I think, is find the tone of something. 

Elsbeth had this quirky, fish-out-of-water tone. Only Murders, as you know, is somewhere between comedy and murder and melancholy. It’s all those things. I like to play in that world of not knowing if something is supposed to be funny. 

You know, The Idea of You is not a rom-com. It’s not at all. It’s a character study. It’s a drama. It’s an emotional drama. It’s a sexy, emotional drama is what The Idea of You is. 

SL: It’s so interesting you mentioned that because as I was listening to your answer, I was thinking about how all of your projects have an emotional core. Your scores always match and elevate that. I’m assuming that’s something you are actively looking for, but how do you tap into that? 

SK: I think that’s what I’m always mindful of, “What is the emotional center of these characters, what is that, and what does that sound like.’

Once I find that, I will find Solène’s theme. Her theme is what you see permeating through the whole thing. It’s pretty clear that a lot of it is coming from her perspective. This woman who’s in a position she never imagined she’d find herself in. We also want to respect her position. We don’t want to judge it because she’s not doing anything wrong. We live in this world where if the roles were reversed, men would be high-fiving men who are having affairs with younger women, but the second it gets reversed, and it’s the woman having the affairs, the older woman having an affair with the younger man, our society judges that differently, unfortunately.

So, I thought it was very important for me to acknowledge her sensitivity, emotion, trauma, and the sort of numbness she begins to feel when she’s doing what she’s doing. It was important for the score to acknowledge that her emotions are real and that she should be able to feel them. And try to create a score that also helps sell the fact that the lesson in this is that we should not be judging her for any of this. And I think that’s important. When I found that emotional center, that cue, these themes that you’ll hear for her, it’s almost like it’s giving her the freedom to be who she wants to be in these moments.

And I think the score also helps sell that. It helps push her into the sexual euphoria she feels when she’s with him. There’s the tension she feels. She feels something euphoric and emotional. And the score is doing all those things.

SL: How does the score represent Hayes and his musical journey?

SK: Well, in his case, creating Solène’s theme sort of became their theme throughout the film. It’s sort of like. To me, it almost made it feel like he could feel things, too. You can look at it from his perspective; people of his celebrity are made to feel like their emotions and relationships aren’t real sometimes. They’re like, ‘Oh because you’re a celebrity, you feel like you can go hook up with an older woman.’ It’s not real, ‘you’re still a kid in a band. You don’t know what you’re doing.’ That sort of thing. But he’s like, ‘No, but I do.’ And that’s his struggle too of being like, ‘No, I feel something for this woman.’ He’s teased because he played ‘Closer’ for her at the concert.

He’s not doing what he’s doing with Solène’s for any other reason besides that he deeply cares for her. And I think bringing that thematic score gave credence to her emotions if he was also was colored with that same score, it meant we were also acknowledging that he has real emotions and shouldn’t be judged for having those feelings either.

SL: Earlier we were discussing vibes, what do you think a score set to your life and work would sound like?

SK: What would it sound like? Quirky, probably. 

SL: And what about the whole creative genius thing you’ve got going on? [Laughs].

SK: I don’t know; some sort of signature melody running through it. I’m always thinking in terms of melody, so something that was hummable.

SL: And what are you working on right now? 

SK: Well. The Idea of You just came out, which is exciting. I have a new Nicole Kidman film called A Family Affair. We’re still early days, but I’m going to be working on Michael Showalter’s next film as well, which he’s shooting now.

With TV, I have a new Dan Fogelman series, Paradise City, with Sterling K. Brown that I’m excited about. Along with Only Murders in the Building, of course. 

Movie Review: ‘Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes’ is the Dawn of a New Era

Director: Wes Ball
Writers: Josh Friedman, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Stars: Freya Allan, Kevin Durand, Dichen Lachman

Synopsis: Many years after the reign of Caesar, a young ape goes on a journey that will lead him to question everything he’s been taught about the past and make choices that will define a future for apes and humans alike.

When 20th Century Fox announced a reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise, it was met with little fanfare. And with James Franco attached, expectations were even lower. However, Rupert Wyatt’s original was a pleasant surprise. Stylish, evocative, and thrilling, Rise of the Planet of the Apes became the unlikeliest franchise success. Then, when Matt Reeves signed onto the following sequels, the bar on what the Planet of the Apes world could be was raised. Dark and ominous, Reeves’s smart and emotionally resonant follow-ups were different from Wyatt’s because, simply, the world had changed, the way it can when you go to war with a bunch of dirty but beautiful apes.

After rewatching the trilogy before my screening of Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, I was struck by one of the great characters in film history, Caesar (Andy Serkis). His gravitas and influence could still be felt in the stand-alone sequel. That’s because the story picks up 300 years and a half later, following Noa (You Hurt My Feeling’s Owen Teague), a likely descendant of Caesar. This is not only because Noa has extraordinary empathy and wisdom beyond his years, along with hints, nods, and some Easter eggs; but, frankly, he looks just like him. I was struck by Teague’s turn, similar to Serkis, which can evoke such impassioned performance and depth considering the high bar the original motion capture master perfected.

Josh Friedman wrote the script, and Noa became a hero of the story when it was thrust upon him. After running across a human they call Nova (Gunpowder Milkshake’s Freya Allen), Noa breaks an egg he was supposed to care for from an eagle’s nest (they are known as the Eagle clan, after all) and sneaks out at night to locate another one. However, he runs across a group of coastal clans, full of bloodthirsty apes who use human technology, the ape version of a stun gun attached to spears, to attack the Eagles Clan in the name of the order of Caesar. After Noa’s family, best friends, and community are put into slavery under Proximus Caesar (Abigail’s Kevin Durand), he goes on a journey to locate them, learning about the ape’s history and beginning to question the past and where he came from.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is now under the direction of Wes Bell, perhaps best known for helming the Maze Runner trilogy. This is his first film outside of that franchise, but it was a solid choice because of his history with special effects-driven action films and his ability to build worlds within an established story. The theme of race is still very prevalent, with Noa and his Eagle clan representing Caesar’s almost pacifist stance in working with those trying to eradicate them. At the same time, another group uses violence to accomplish their goals. In this case, Proximus wants to harness human technology to enslave others, including any straggling humans left to fend for themselves.

That’s an interesting concept. Bell and Friedman toy with something called the allegory of oppression as humans regress to animal-like states. There is an amusing scene where humans, slimed with grime and dirt and wearing simple loin cloths, flock to the river where zebras gather. The visuals make their intentions obvious. If you’ve ever seen a nature video where a lion chases down a gazelle, and Proximus’ thugs roam the terrain, you know what will happen next. Teague’s Noa has preconceived notions about humans, whom he calls “echoes,” mirroring the racist thoughts of the ones in power over the oppressed. Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes flips that script a bit, asking the viewer to consider those with a history of influence as now on the wrong end of power dynamics.

The VFX special effects are breathtaking. I saw the film in IMAX, and I recommend seeing it on the biggest screen possible because of the size and scale of the world Bell is building upon. Motion capture technology has only improved with age. And while no one will ever be able to move you as Serkis did with that single tear before his demise in War for the Planet of the Apes, you would be hard-pressed to find a more talented young actor than Teague. He can superbly use body language and physicality to communicate his character to the audience.

While I did find Friedman’s script exciting, even poignant, and with the right amount of comic relief, the story and payoff rely on the character of Mae (Freya Allan) fostering a connection with Noa. This was never as well established and completed as I’m sure Friedman and Bell intended, and I’m sure it has been lost in its VFX-soaked and indulgent film experience. The story leads to a big payoff at the end, and while I do appreciate the outright duplicity of Mae’s character, the story acts as if they earned that face-off when they hadn’t.

If anything, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is the first and necessary step to a reboot of a reboot and one that is never slow and always entertaining. Bell’s film is a setup for bigger showdowns, conflicts, and impending battles that will surely set up the franchise for future success.

Grade: B+

Movie Review: ‘Meet Me Where I Am’ Opens Up The Conversation

Directors: Grant Garry
Writers: Grant Garry
Stars: Anthony Rapp, John Farley, Cynthia O’Neal

Synopsis: Meet Me Where I Am explores the topic of grief through individual stories of loss, love, and hope. The film aims to normalize grief in our culture and explores how we can actively participate in helping others through grief.

Grief is, perhaps, the most important topic that almost nobody talks about. It is a fact of life that we will all go through it and, eventually, be the source of it for people we love. And yet, it feels impossible to grasp. It is an important topic to not only broach, but to delve into deeply. Grief is difficult to talk about for many reasons, and maybe the most important is that it is more cyclical than it is linear. Many intelligent people have spoken about this in a clinical, scholarly way but precious few have made it truly personal. The new documentary, Meet Me Where I Am, attempts to make things a little easier on all of us in our most difficult moments. 

This is a documentary for those who are terrified to talk about their grief and pain. And let’s be honest, that is a big audience. In western culture especially, we are taught that there is a right way to process loss. The film points this out in the discussion of The Stages of Grief from Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. Many of us, either through education or internet research, are aware of this, but not of the actual path. The movie makes it clear that these stages are not distinct, or even necessarily in order. Rather, they are experiences that many people who grieve tend to go through.

Luckily, the film is not entirely scholastic. It also focuses on real details of intense loss that range across the life course and type of death. It also features at least a few people who are very used to talking in front of a camera. Anthony Rapp, star of the Broadway musical and feature film, Rent, details the loss of both Jonathan Larson (creator of Rent) and his mother. The most moving moments of the entire documentary are between Rapp and Cynthia O’Neal, who met through their grief. While Rapp was dealing with his mother’s illness, Larson recommended he attend a support group called “Friend in Deed.” This group was founded by O’Neal, as she dealt with her husband’s death from cancer. The two have formed a lifelong friendship, and their care and consideration for one another is gentle, aware, and apparent.

But there are many other stories to be told throughout the documentary. The hardest to watch is a pair of older parents, whose daughter was murdered. Watching the two look at old photographs and talk about their loss is difficult to process. It feels almost too intimate, but there is a sense of honor in watching their brutal honesty about this unfathomable loss. It also feels important to meet them now, where they are, and not immediately following the incident. There is a grace inherent in their experience, along with honesty about their appropriate level of anger. 

The documentary, written and directed by Grant Garry, is remarkably well balanced. A discussion about grief from both the scholarly and persona angles is tremendously difficult. He manages this by not only involving experts, but asking them to tell their stories of personal grief. This allows us not only a view into what grief is, but also the myriad of ways that it can be experienced and expressed. What happens when a grief researcher loses a child? How does it impact a future expert in the field when they endure the loss of a sibling? If grief is different for everyone, how do we help others? Importantly, the film also focuses on what not to do. As people supporting loved ones, what we say is more important than we imagine. So, it can be helpful to not simply offer platitudes, which involves undoing decades of cultural training.

Meet Me Where I Am is an important starting point for dealing with an issue that is truly unavoidable. It starts the conversation in an empathetic, giving, kind way. If you are searching for depth about the science or emotion of grief, you will likely be disappointed. But if you have a lack of scholarly or real world knowledge about grief, it is a lovely, open way to begin the process.

Grade: B+

Movie Review: ‘Tarot’ is Visually Unique, But Deeply Lacking

Directors: Spenser Cohen and Anna Halberg
Writers: Spenser Cohen and Anna Halberg
Stars: Harriet Slater, Avantika, Jacob Batalon

Synopsis: When a group of friends recklessly violates the sacred rule of Tarot readings, they unknowingly unleash an unspeakable evil trapped within the cursed cards. One by one, they come face to face with fate and end up in a race against death.

Is the horror movie genre washed? Beyond the fun but exhausting Abigail, mainstream horror movies have made nothing other than drawn-out jumpscare festivals this year. Even I couldn’t vibe with The First Omen, which played as a ripoff of far better movies (Zulawski’s Possession, in particular) while filling the screen with endless jumpscares in the process. And as I’ve said repeatedly, nothing is interesting or cinematically exciting about loud noises and a slightly creepy face popping on the screen for two seconds. Sure, it raises the heartbeat, but once you see it coming, it’s hard to elicit any emotional connection with what’s on screen. 

And whaddaya know? There’s another jumpscare festival in theaters right now to begin the summer movie season, alongside David Leitch’s The Fall Guy, in Spenser Cohen and Anna Halberg’s Tarot. The fact that the film didn’t screen for the press may be very telling of its quality, but some high-profile movies that ultimately received good reviews also did not screen for the press (in my area), so you never know if it just skipped the market or if it’s truly the disaster the studio think it is. While it may not be the worst movie in the world, it’s also one of the most pointless studio pictures you’ll waste your time on all year. 

Who is this movie for? Who will actually find enjoyment in this? Funnily enough, a deadly tarot deck sounds like a potential for something great, especially considering that each main character gets stalked by the astrologer, one by one, Final Destination-style. That’s a recipe for something at least enjoyable, especially in the horror landscape. But the film makes two cardinal mistakes right from the get-go, which ensures it’ll never recover as it progresses toward its finish line. 

Mistake #1: The film is rated PG-13. While there are movies where this rating is acceptable, a Tarot card of doom, killing off protagonists through one gratuitous setpiece after another warrants a full-fledged, hard-R rating. Filmmakers Cohen and Halberg continuously cut away from the violence every time something interesting happens, such as a scene set inside a ‘Magician’s Box.’ Paige (Avantika) is kidnapped by a demonic magician and stuck inside a box as the magician prepares his “trick” of sawing her in half. Of course, this is extremely violent, but just as his saw enters the box, the movie cuts away from the scene completely, moving on to another scene and alluding to the audience that something bad has happened. 

This completely hinders the film’s pacing and visual style, which is surprisingly more evocative than I would’ve thought. There are some legitimately good compositions here, particularly during a bravura setpiece inside a commuter train – the closest we’ll get to an R-rated kill – where the use of shadows is particularly effective, as Lucas (Wolfgang Novogratz) sees a vision of the astrologer closing in. But it’s not enough to make every major moment pop off the screen because none of the scenes go deep enough in their images, whether from the undercooked creatures the filmmakers introduce or in the gore. 

Mistake #2: The protagonists the audience spends time with are pitifully underdeveloped and make inane decisions that no sane human being ever would, even if stuck in their situation. Literally. Everyone who has seen a horror movie knows how shortsighted most protagonists are, but Tarot takes it to another level. For example,  Haley (Harriet Slater), the one who has the ability to read Tarot cards, tells Madeline (Humberly González) that she will want to run away from her troubles but should resist when the opportunity arises. When she’s stalked by the astrologer, a stick figure image of her being hanged is drawn on a foggy car window, with the words RUN at the bottom. 

Of course, smart audience members know that’s the moment where she resists and does not run. Oh, wait, no, this is a horror movie. She gets out of the car and (predictably) runs to somewhere she probably didn’t want to go. The film is rife with character decisions that completely disregard rationality and logic so they can lead in setpieces filled with cheap jumpscares and gotcha! moments, instead of developing its characters and going beyond the faux-thrills that plague seemingly every mainstream horror movie made these days, devoid of any creativity and soul. 

Yes, low-budget horror movies usually make a quick buck in cinemas, and that’s why we get plenty of stuff like Tarot. But we, as a society, deserve far better than this. There wasn’t a single person who reacted strongly to any of the film’s scenes in my audience (other than a joke involving Jacob Batalon’s character that was the only time its audience was vibing with the film), and the muted reactions after the credits roll spoke volumes. Audiences want original horror. They want to be scared and enthralled with images that stick with you so long after the credits have rolled that you can’t sleep at night. 

While Tarot is an adaptation of Nicholas Adams’ Horrorscope, its onscreen treatment may definitely feel unique. However, the direction both Cohen and Halberg take from the get-go is so unimaginatively inept that no actor, no matter how talented and skillful they may be (Olwen Fouéré is particularly wasted here), can save it. As an audience member, you can play with the deck and perpetuate more listless, unfulfilling films like these, or choose not to touch it and ensure horror movies have something of value to bring to society again. I’d choose the latter, but since most characters in this film make shortsighted decisions, a sequel will probably be announced in a few days from now. *sigh*

Grade: D-

Movie Review: ‘Unfrosted’ is Cluttered and Unfunny

Director: Jerry Seinfeld
Writers: Jerry Seinfeld, Spike Feresten, Andy Robin
Stars: Isaac Bae, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rickett

Synopsis: In 1963 Michigan, business rivals Kellogg’s and Post compete to create a cake that could change breakfast forever.

I remember hearing about Unfrosted for the first time last year when Jerry Seinfeld finished his set at Caesar’s Palace. Seinfeld’s material ran short, so he talked about how Netflix bought his new Pop Tart movie script, Unfrosted, about the birth of the toaster pastry. Then, he stopped in the middle of the question about the film from someone in the audience and walked out. I guess the uber-rich and famous comedian thought less was more. 

If only he felt the same way about Unfrosted’s cluttered script. 

Unfrosted’s story follows a rivalry as old as time—the breakfast cereal wars between Kellogg and Post. Both companies are located in the aptly named Battle Creek, Michigan, trying to, uh, pop the secret formula for a new compact cereal product that will set the breakfast market ablaze. Helming that product for Kellogg’s is executive Bob Cabana (Seinfeld), who discovers Post has stolen their research when he finds two children eating the pastry goods from the Post dumpsters. 

Cabana alerts his boss, Edsel Kellogg III (Jim Gaffigan), who is furious that his rival, Marjorie Post (Amy Schumer), will not fight fair, not to mention their sexual attraction to each other, which keeps things at a simmering boil. In order to beat Post to the finish line, think of it as the great toaster pastry race, replacing the period’s mission to reach space. Cabana brings back Stan (two-time Academy Award nominee Melissa McCarthy), an innovative genius when it comes to the breakfast space. 

The only question left is: Should they put their flag on “Breakfast Cereal Hill” first, and which one will the public embrace?

Unfrosted was directed by Jerry Seinfeld, who, at 70, is making his directorial feature film debut. Seinfeld wrote the script with long-time Seinfeld writer Spike Feresten, along with the help of Bee Movie and Saturday Night Live scribes Andy Robin and Barry Marder. After watching Unfrosted, you will immediately think there are too many cooks in the kitchen, as the script is cluttered, albeit with clever gags about breakfast cereal and the mascots they represent. Nevertheless, the movie is overwrought with these references to the point that it becomes a gimmick and quickly loses some of the smart “jerk store” humor.  

Two bits in the film are funny and enjoyable. The one that will make you laugh the most is an inspired gag by Kyle Dunnigan, who plays a boozy and passive-aggressive Walter Cronkite who is going through some things at home. Then, an inspired cameo from two classic characters that pair well with the era and the story, which I will not ruin here. Otherwise, the film is filled with guest stars, including the likes of Hugh Grant, Christian Slater, Bill Burr, and James Marsden, over bloating the nonsensical script to the point of bursting. 

Another issue is that Seinfeld and Jim Gaffigan are the leads, and they cannot act, with the creator of Unfrosted even more awkward in the role than usual. I admire the attempt to oversaturate the story with a barrage of cartoonery, kind of like Kramer overshadowing everyone in Jerry’s ‘90s sitcom, but it’s evident here. The one real actor, McCarthy, does what she can with the paper-thin character, but the film desperately needed to add her for more screen time to help move the film along to its conclusion. 

The point is that this is all a distraction from the fact that Unfrosted isn’t funny enough and cannot build on its creative and original premise. This is disappointing because there is so much unoriginal material in Hollywood today. The comedy is too cluttered with gags and ideas that try too hard as if they need a standing ovation at how smart the script is but forget the funny instead. 

My colleague, InSession Film critic Andy Punter, may have said it best. The film starts wanting to be Seinfeld + Madmen, + 30 Rock before evolving into adding additional comedy ideas from Veep and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, trying to capitalize on the trend of movies obsessed with tangible mass market inventions instead of acts of genius.

Seinfeld should have known that Unfrosted would have been more with less.

Grade: C-

Movie Review: ‘Boy Kills World’ is an Ambitious Failure

Director: Moritz Mohr
Writers: Tyler Burton Smith, Arend Remmers, Moritz Mohr
Stars: Bill Skarsgård, Jessica Rothe, Michelle Dockery

Synopsis: A fever dream action film that follows Boy, a deaf person with a vibrant imagination. When his family is murdered, he is trained by a mysterious shaman to repress his childish imagination and become an instrument of death.

Boy Kills World is a film that might have benefited immensely from multiple factors, including its impressive actors and a rising movie star like Bill Skarsgård at the center of its action. Instead, it falls into the fact that it’s too brutal to be lighthearted action, and too silly to be a bloody, action-packed feature. This film was supposed to be  Skarsgård’s introduction to movie stardom, but it falls short of its ambition. It tries to incorporate multiple elements from the gaming world but also from hyperviolent, silly ‘90s action flicks. The difficulty of becoming a bridge between two worlds works against it rather than in its favor.

Proper introductions first. This film is the story of an unnamed boy (Skarsgård’), rendered deaf and mute -ouch, too much honestly- by the totalitarian regime head that also killed his mother and little sister, cut his tongue, and rendered him deaf. A shaman saves him and turns him into a killing machine with only one target in sight: Kill Hilda Van Der Koy.

My first issue with Boy Kills World started with the rendering mute and deaf part. It was tough to watch because they never fully explained why they did that to Boy. Why not just kill him like his mother and sister? As the events progress, things get even more complicated to swallow. And as the conclusion is revealed, it makes it even more of an “oh boy” moment than an “Aha” moment.

If not for Skarsgård’s performance, the film would have fallen way behind and lagged in the forgotten recesses of the brain. With his stunning features and sensitive facial expressions, he takes Boy’s inner turmoil to the tautest rope, without losing sight of his action prowess. However, even Jessica Rothe –a delight since her impressive turn as horror movie queen in the Happy Death Day franchise- cannot save shabby storytelling and poor worldbuilding. The world building is one of the key missing elements in this feature. While a film like Monkey Man has benefited extensively from the blend of the myth and the present and the idea of a dystopian, semi-modern society and a tale of revenge, Boy Kills World loses its integrity and structural cohesiveness. 

The story seems rushed at times, then painfully slowed down at others. It may be attributed to the fact that Boy’s view of the world is distorted and chopped due to his inability to read lips at all times, but Tyler Burton Smith’s and Arend Remmers’ script fails to convey that through a clean narrative. Instead of outlining that for the viewer, the viewer becomes as confused as Boy; not in an interesting, immersive storytelling experience way, but as in the film itself becomes a quilt made of mismatched fabric.

One of the elements that is underdeveloped in this film is the narration. Bringing in comedian H. Jon Benjamin –most famous for Archer– as Boy’s inner voice and his clever, twisted monologue could have taken the film to another realm. Instead, they use a comedic voice, which is an entirely different beast than the average writer’s voice. It’s what makes low-key films and series go through the roof because their writers are totally in command of their inner cynicism. Unfortunately with this film, the writers needed a funnier, comedic virtuoso.

It will take more than a fascination with kung-fu movies and video games to make Boy Kills World the ambitious action film it aimed to be; a clear, decisive roadmap, solid world-building, and distinctive character design. It serves as Skarsgård’s introduction into becoming one of the next action heroes but still lacks the proper movie star polishing for his full capabilities to shine.

Grade: C-

Movie Review: ‘Turtles All The Down’ is More Snappy Than Sappy

Director: Hannah Marks
Writers: Elizabeth Berger, Isaac Aptaker, John Green
Stars: Isabela Merced, Hannah Marks, Felix Mallard

Synopsis: A teenager with OCD tries to solve a mystery surrounding a fugitive billionaire.

John Green tends to write books about himself even when they aren’t about himself. An awkward but intelligent teen seeks something more than the suburban life they are living – and suburbia is given an elegiac farewell. That is, if the teen in question lives long enough – but even if they do die, they say goodbye somehow. Beginnings, endings, new beginnings. Thus far, his books have been adapted by men. Josh Boone directed the positively received 2014 film The Fault in Our Stars and Jake Schreier the less successful Paper Towns in 2015. 

His most personal work is Turtles All the Way Down which draws on his experiences with anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). It also features a young woman, Aza Holmes (Isabela Merced) as the protagonist. In Hannah Marks’ directorial hands, Aza’s struggles dealing with illness, her lasting grief, and her inability to define what is driving her is elevated by Marks’ perspective as much as it is by Green’s.

Aza is a high school student who has a combative relationship with her therapist, her mother, and herself. Her OCD manifests as fear of infection. Her internal narrative is dominated by statistics and facts about bacteria replication and cell structure. The noise (stylized as noise and static) in her brain only needs a tiny trigger and she goes into meltdown mode. Aza can’t stop picking at her scabs, she also can’t manage her compulsions. She doesn’t want them to be her defining characteristic. The push and pull between accepting she is different, rejecting her difference, and externalizing that conflict has bled into most of her relationships. Aza resents her mother (Judy Reyes) because it is easier to target someone who unconditionally loves her than it is to admit her own anxiety about the future. Plus, her mom is the parent who is still around after her dad died suddenly when she was a child. 

Aza is bolstered by her best friend since childhood, Daisy Ramirez (Cree) who is freewheeling but also aware of Aza’s illness. Aza feels the most “normal” when hanging out with the slurpy sipping firebrand whose devil may care attitude complements her own incertitude. Aza feels less like a “microbial fiction and bacteria factory” when she’s driving Daisy around in Harold the car singing to OutKast, or taunting the local Applebee’s waitress, Holly (Hannah Marks) with their coupon ordered meals. 

It’s Daisy’s bluster and confidence which gets Aza involved in solving the disappearance of corrupt Indianapolis industrialist Russell Davis Pickett because there is reward money on the line. Aza met the billionaire’s son Davis (Felix Mallard) at “sad camp” when they were younger, and he was grieving the loss of his mother. Their clumsy attempt to Nancy Drew the mystery leads to Aza genuinely reconnecting with the increasingly smitten and gentle dreamboat who is stuck in an expensive purgatory. There is no inheritance for Davis or his much younger brother Noah because their father left all his money to Tuatara research.

Davis fits into the conventional non-conventional “Prince Charming” of a lot of recent young adult-oriented romances. His shared trauma and disaffection with the state of his life that makes Aza feel more comfortable sharing her hopes and dreams and honesty about her condition with him. They connect because their “hearts are broken in the same place.”

Davis is wealthy enough to just hand Aza the equivalent of the reward money to her in a box of Pop Tarts for her to share with Daisy. Aza isn’t rich – she and her mom get by despite things not being fancy. For Daisy, whose family is poor, it’s a life changing amount. 

Turtles All the Way Down is smart enough to treat its “conduit” characters with respect. It’s Aza’s story, but Daisy and Davis aren’t reductive plot devices who exist solely for Aza to communicate how overwhelmed she is by her fixations. Yes, it’s handy that Aza’s boyfriend has a private jet and can fly her across the country so she can meet a professor (J. Smith-Cameron) she wants to study with one day who helpfully explains infinite regress via the titular analogy. And, yes, Davis’ respect for her boundaries, intellectual, and emotional generosity towards her does border on him being in the “too good to be true” category. However, the film doesn’t forget he is suffering. He and his brother have been made pariahs because of their father’s deeds and, whether they like it or not, they have inherited the Pickett name. Davis must fight for his own survival and that of Noah.

Daisy’s patience is not infinite for Aza. Her romance with Mychal (Maliq Johnson) means the original friendship trio gets unbalanced but she reminds Aza that for years she has done things Aza’s way without Aza even realizing she has been doing it. Aza’s OCD has made her often incurious about other people’s feelings because her feeling are too big. Aza had never read Daisy’s immensely popular Star Wars fanfic, and she didn’t want to support Mychal’s art show because of its location and her disgust with having to interact with “other teens” in a potentially unsanitary environment.

Mental health, especially for teens, can be a difficult topic for filmmakers and writers to discuss with nuance. OCD itself is a complex condition. Turtles All the Way Down manages to explain and destigmatize one of the ways it manifests while admitting that it also makes life hard for the people close to someone with it. Aza’s reality and subjective experience is not dismissed by extending empathy to the people who love her. Aza is greatly loved, but she’s also at times a straight up pain in the ass. The two things co-exist in life. Aza says, “I’d kill to be like normal people,” but some normal people have prisons that are also not of their making. 

Hannah Marks’ direction and excellent performances by Merced, Marks, and especially Cree, who is quite the revelation, provide extra substance for Green’s bildungsroman. Turtles All the Way Down is a good yardstick measure for young adult dramas. Get a good cast, try to minimize the cliched dialogue, provide balance – let it be as funny, scathing, messy, sad, and imperfect as the characters are. Daisy tells Aza, “Love, Holmsey, is how you become real.” Real talk? Being real means life is never going to be a breeze, but it will probably be mostly okay if you work on it and you.  

Grade: B-

Chasing the Gold: Best Original Screenplay is Full of Dark Horses and ‘Challengers’

Late winter and early spring are often a time when studios will toss films that aren’t summer blockbusters, four quadrant pleasers, or fall prestige dramas into theaters and hope they stick. Many original sci-fi, action, and horror films rule the box office, especially if the February superhero movie is a bit of a dud like last year’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania or Sony’s desperate move to keep their hold on some Marvel cash, Madame Web

Luckily, it’s also a time for some possible awards darlings. After all, both the Sundance and South by Southwest films can finally start trickling into the theaters to see how they play in limited release with actual audiences. Some of the most inventive films of the festival have an opportunity to pop into theaters and capture a little magic. 

This year, a quartet of festival films found distribution and varied wildly in tone, technique, and story. It is always exciting for theaters to show general audiences something slightly different than the usual fare. All four are potential dark horses when it comes to the Best Original Screenplay category.

Problemista, a holdover from 2023, is by beloved comedy writer Julio Torres. It’s inventive and playful; fans of Torres’ strange sense of humor will be immediately satisfied. More importantly, it also touches on the tremendous anxiety immigrants face in the morass that is the U.S. immigration system. Awards bodies tend to support a comedy with a message. Even with that important message, Problemista could be too outlandish even for dark horse status. 

Similarly, The American Society of Magical Negroes, written by Kobi Libii, is a film that has a very intriguing concept. A group of Black people are endowed with magical powers in order to try and calm the fears of White people. Unfortunately,there’s also a romantic subplot thrown in. The film tries to balance its message and the chemistry of the two romantic leads and never quite finds its footing. The opposite of Problemista, it is too simple and crowd-pleasing to be an actual dark horse for awards consideration.

A film that is likely the strangest of the year, Sasquatch Sunset, written by David Zellner, has a chance to sneak into the conversation at year’s end. The odd story focuses on a family of sasquatches attempting to survive in a world run by humans. It accomplishes storytelling without dialogue, which, while impressive, will likely hinder it in this category.  However, because of the lack of exposition, it may draw attention to the performance of the actors under the makeup. As an outside chance for nominations, it’s a doozy and could be comparable in surprise to “The Fire Inside” as Best Original Song from last year’s nominations. 

The most intriguing of all the potential dark horses has to be Love Lies Bleeding, written by Rose Glass and Weronika Tofilska. The screenplay has a little bit of everything. It’s part twisted crime story, combined with both a lesbian romance and a complex father-daughter relationship. It’s rightly getting comparisons to the fantastic work of the Coen brothers for its dark humor and tangled metaphysics. Never count out a head trip of a movie in this category. I just hope it keeps its stamina as it is still very early in the awards year.
The likeliest of the early 2024 releases to make it all the way is Challengers. Written by Justin Kuritzkes, partner of 2023 nominee Celine Song (Past Lives), Challengers is smart, layered, and crackling with sexual chemistry. Maybe the most impressive thing about the screenplay is the creation of Kuritzkes’ characters. There’s the constantly maneuvering Tashi Duncan, the love-sick Art Donaldson, and the roguish Patrick Zweig. They’re characters that defy stereotyping in a game that’s complicated but easily followed back and forth. It’s tense, teasing, and oh-so sexy. It would be surprising if five other films could usurp the prime position Challengers is in. But it is a very long year, so we shall see what summer and beyond has in store.

Movie Review: ‘The Fall Guy’ is Mindless, Charming Fun

Director: David Leitch
Writer: Drew Pearce
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Emily Blunt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson

Synopsis: A down-and-out stuntman must find the missing star of his ex-girlfriend’s blockbuster film.

The Fall Guy seems to have caused an epidemic of random masses of people grabbing their stomachs and laughing from their guts to their hearts’ content. Now, some of the jokes in The Fall Guy by Ryan Gosling do work; he always had an underappreciated comic delivery. It’s like when good-looking people make a joke, and you laugh because they are beautiful and want their eyes to keep piercing your soul. For example, if Jennifer Connelly told me a joke, I’d proclaim her the next Miriam Maisel.

However, Drew Pearce’s script is not as amusing or clever as he thinks it is or can be. The final product has its moments, but for all intents and purposes, it is a bombastic misfire that’s a recycled effort of ’90s action film plots, thinly bearded with a constant barrage of stunts that lack the visceral quality you would expect from a director who cut his teeth as a stunt work coordinator, David Leitch. The special effects look more like Leitch’s Hobbs & Shaw than his (uncredited) work on John Wick.

If The Fall Guy is a love letter to stunt men and women, then it is a spurious one.

The story follows Colt Seavers (Gosling), a stuntman who has the world on a string. The man loves his job. Colt is primarily a stunt double for the world’s biggest action star, Tom Ryder (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). He is also dating a beautiful camera operator and aspiring director, Jody Moreno (Emily Blunt). All three are working on Rider’s latest action spectacular when Seavers suffers a terrible accident and quits the business for good.

Colt is now parking cars at a restaurant for all the free burritos he can eat. That is until he gets a call from a big Hollywood producer, Gail Meyer (Ted Lasso’s Hannah Waddingham), who needs his help. Jody is now helming her first feature film, and Ryder has gone missing. Gail tells Colt he must locate Ryder within 48 hours, or the studio will shut down the movie for good. This means that Jody, the love of his life, may never get another chance to realize her dream.

Now, please repeat the plot of The Fall Guy to yourself again. Then ask yourself, why does a prominent Hollywood studio executive want to call a former stuntman from halfway across the world to investigate, in a foreign land, with zero investigative skills, to find a Tom Cruise-level actor before the studio does? This is, I do not know, uh, yeah, the word I think would be stupid. Why did Gail not hire a private investigator on her own? Has it ever crossed her mind? 

This is a contrived plot, but if you have seen almost any ’90s mystery action thriller, the plot is so well thought out that you know precisely who the yet-to-be-unveiled villain will be almost immediately. And yes, the film never connects the television plot where Colt moonlights as a bounty hunter in the film’s script. This makes that mistake even more galling, even if the director is banking on audiences not to question it because of the action and star wattage on screen. I’m sure this part was left out in case they want to make a sequel for franchise purposes.

The Fall Guy is about a good 30 minutes too long. There are a few mirror-scene transition issues; you don’t necessarily need to learn about stunt work. The audience is smart enough to realize that several scenes begin to become apparent fillers and distractions due to the lack of story and plot. For instance, the scene with Teresa Palmer fighting Gosling’s Seavers for no reason is a waste of time. Academy Award nominee Stephanie Hsu pushes a minor plot point but introduces the scene-stealing Aussie Kelpie. Surprisingly, the recurring joke with the canine comic doesn’t get old fast and is more of a satirical commentary on the stunt work of dogs in movies. 

The Fall Guy is not without its charms, especially the chemistry between Gosling and Blunt, even comedically. Frankly, Gosling has chemistry with everyone, including the banter between the star and Nine Day’s Winston Duke and begging Taylor-Johnson’s Ryder to eat some fat and glucose to help with his cognitive skill set. The film has a wonderful comic energy and attitude that can be infectious, but in this case, less would have been more. The soundtrack is stellar, with a meticulously inspired needle drop placed in almost every big action scene. 

The big scene the film leads up to captures the film’s essence, and the wink to the industry joke before the credits with a special guest star will draw laughs and cheers. I even enjoyed the teamwork of stunt team workers behind the scenes to help Colt and Jody accomplish their goals. Yet, it comes back to the plot that makes the film unbalanced. 

For instance, there is a clever scene with a piece of evidence where Hollywood technology is used to frame someone. Yet, everyone is so focused on silencing the “patsy” that no one bothers to ask themselves how they would silence the ten witnesses to the issue, making the effort pointless. There’s also a plot point where bad guys are looking for a witness hiding but then working in plain sight, yet the bad guys never think about looking for them in the exact spot where they would be.

If you like your films with some thoughtless errors but still some mindless and charming fun, The Fall Guy will most likely scratch that itch. If you need something smarter from Hollywood popcorn films, The Fall Guy will be an amusing diversion that ultimately will leave you disappointed.

Grade: C

Criterion Releases: May 2024

For the month of May, we have six releases in total with two re-editions and a third coming a trio of works from an African legend. The other three releases are new and from this century, including a newly-anointed Academy Award-winner, one that may stand the test of time. This is a big month with a total of nine films from these directors spanning ninety years apart. Here are those special releases, courtesy of Criterion. 

A Story of Floating Weeds/Floating Weeds (1934/1959)

Japanese auteur Yasujiro Ozu made his original film in black-and-white and as his last silent film, then remade it twenty-five years later in color. It is a melodrama of an actor coming back home with his traveling company and reuniting with his lover and their son, only to see his  new lover turn very jealous and seek to destroy them. Continuing his humanist tradition, Ozu does not stray very far from his original story, but is recreated at Ozu’s highest form. It is a remaking that is refreshing and with more depth. 

Peeping Tom (1960)

Michael Powell’s first film since the splitting up of The Archers was a film that damaged his career permanently, but would later be re-evaluated as a masterpiece. A photographer who works on a soundstage is a serial killer who loves filming his crimes with a camera. He falls for a beautiful woman, but the dark secrets of his psychopathy are nearly impossible to contain. It is considered one of the first slasher films with its shocking violence for the time, depicting sadomasochism and indecency of women half-naked when the moral police were still around early 60s Britain. Very tame by today’s standards, but so censorable during the period that it was almost banned outright. 

Three Revolutionary Films by Ousmane Sembène (1971-77)

Thanks to films like Black Girl and Mandabi, Senegal’s Ousmane Sembène made post-independence African cinema a reality and one the whole world could appreciate. In the 1970s, Sembene continued his sensational efforts on the damage from colonialism, corruption, and religious conflict with a trio of stories: Emitaï, Xala, and Ceddo. In Emitaï, he takes viewers to Senegal in World War II with French forces trying to bring in Black soldiers to fight for them, even though they are still going to be colonized. Xala is a daring satire on massive corruption and authoritarianism through a man with an unfortunate problem upon getting married. Ceddo is a story about the conflicts between Christian and Muslim factions as French colonialists settle in and mirrors conflicts that remain even today in numerous African countries. All three films are Sembene’s way of standing up to the continuing problems in the face of being censored himself.  

Girlfight (2000)

Writer/director Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body) made her debut at Sundance with this hard-hitting sports drama of a troubled girl (Michelle Rodriguez) who trains to become a boxer despite objections from her family and others who are skeptical of a woman in a male-led sport. The film was made for $1 million thanks to assistance from director John Sayles, who Kusama had worked for previously, and his longtime partner, producer Maggie Renzi. It is a more gritty look than Million Dollar Baby, which came out four years later, and made Rodriguez a major star as someone who had never acted before. 

All That Breathes (2022)

Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, two brothers in India work to help birds known as black kites, who are injured from pollution. Director Shaunak Sen follows them in their painstaking work to help these birds, while lamenting the downslide of their environment becoming dirtier by the year. It is a poetic story of human-animal interaction with the daily fears of anti-Muslim violence that threaten the brothers as much as much as the rapid urban development is endangering their black kites. 

Anatomy Of A Fall (2023)

From the moment it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Justine Triet’s Oscar-winning courtroom drama was destined to join Criterion. It is a mystery from beginning to end that always keeps its cards close to the chest and forces us to think more deeply about who this woman really is, even if she is innocent. Sandra Huller is an actress who doesn’t need anymore written about her performance. Nor does Messi (Good boy!), nor the performances of Swann Arlaud or the young Milo Machado-Grier, but for Triet and her real-life partner, Arthur Harari, they now have our attention for future films.

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Interview: Carlos Tejera and Jordan Sarf of ‘Manicure’

Manicure is a dark female body horror short film that explores body dysmorphia, mental illness, and the pressure the modern person (in this case a 30-year-old protagonist) puts on themselves through the lens of a manicure gone wrong when Eleanor’s anxiety and demand for perfection turns her perfect manicure session into a bloody mess.​

Writer Jaylan Salah interviews Carlos Tejera (Carluccio), co-writer and director, as well as Jordan Sarf, writer and producer of Manicure.

Jaylan Salah: The first shot was spectacular, almost like a ritual. I didn’t know if it was a sushi bar or a manicure salon. How was the shot established?

Jordan Sarf: When you have that pressure on yourself, everything needs to be a certain way. Like you said, as if it’s a ritual. Having Eleanor –the character of the film- lying about all the tools in a specific way was a powerful thing to say. She’s just doing her nails, why is she going the extra length? There’s something different going on. So with the opening shot, it was as if we were saying: this is something people do every day but we’re gonna see it through a completely different light.

Carlos Tejera: The first shot mimics the evolution of the narrative – slowly pushing in, getting more intense until her flow is interrupted and we get the first edit. The angle sets the voyeuristic tone of the film; she’s being judged by her alter ego. I always loved the idea of introducing the character’s shaky, manicured hands before revealing her face. On a technical level, the camera was on a dolly, facing down 90 degrees while the two ACs pulled focus and zoomed in remotely. 

JS: Jordan, how did you and Carlos get together and decide to start working on this film?

Jordan Sarf: I met Carlos 10 years ago by accident during a film program in LA. The following summer –I hadn’t talked to him, and we each went to another class- I coincidentally ran into him. I knew this was someone I wanted to work with. We each went to college, then started working on [separate] projects. This is a project [Manicure] I wrote probably 8 or 9 years ago. It was important for me to talk about how people have these internal pressures and how sometimes it could be so excessive that we’re taking them out on ourselves in a physical way. I knew it was something I wanted to tell and Carlos was the guy to bring it to life. I worked on the script, he polished it, and we worked together to make it happen.

JS: Carlos, How did you achieve the look of the film with your cinematographer? The coloring, the framing within framing? Blocking actors?

CT: Before pre-production began, I worked with visual artist Manny Rodriguez to storyboard every shot from beginning to end: this included the angles, the blocking, and the editing. 

Then, the insanely talented Nona Catusanu came on board to shoot the film and she created several fascinating mood boards for each moment. We both wanted the camera to be as meticulous as the character and we referenced films like Phantom Thread, Spencer, Rear Window, The Shining, and most thematically obvious, Black Swan throughout the process. 

Similar discussions took place with Violet Morrison, our fearless production designer, about the set design and colors – there was a friendly battle among the three of us (Violet, Nona, and I) on whether the room would be red, green, or the final blue. These conversations are always fun to have with passionate artists like them. Ultimately, the character’s room is inspired by Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Bedroom,” painting a parallel between the character’s mental health and the tragic life of Van Gogh. Violet did a phenomenal job!

JS: Jordan, I love that you picked a female body horror story to tell. This is one of my favorite genres. So why did you choose this feminine detail [manicure gone wrong] to flesh out your story?

Jordan Sarf: Now and then I get a manicure because I think it’s a soothing thing. My sister and my mom would get their nails done regularly and I would look at them and think, “Wow, their nails are nice,” but they would reply, “No, this is chipped.” Or “This nail got messed up.” So I wouldn’t know that part but women like my sister and my mother would know. When I noticed their behavior, I thought: wow this is something really small but what if it’s really important to someone that the slightest infraction could set them off and completely ruin the whole experience? At the end of the day, it’s a relaxing thing, not a massage but it’s nice. So I thought why don’t you take something so-called peaceful and show it in a completely different light?

JS: Carlos, How did you manage to capture awkwardness so perfectly on screen?

CT: On a technical level, most of the feeling is conveyed through sound design and music –I owe immense credit to Alex Wakim, our incredible composer for creating such an iconic atmosphere. 

However, the real answer is Stef Dawson’s exhilarating performance; her behavior as the character sells it. If she had been relaxed in the space, the audience would’ve likely felt relaxed too. The film set was very cold the weekend of the shoot, so Stef took that and used it for the character. She is visibly shaking throughout the film and it added another layer to her character. 

JS: Jordan, how did you use Eleanor’s tale [the manicure gone wrong] to comment on mental health or mental problems that people go through or how they could escalate beyond control?

Jordan Sarf: Like I said, I don’t get manicures too often. But seeing someone go through a routine every day, and showing how somebody not only puts too much pressure on themselves to be perfect in that situation, but takes it out on themselves when they aren’t could be relatable to anybody. And we used the manicure as the medium for that so that people would relate to it their feelings. We went to film festivals, most recently the Woodstock Film Festival, and an old woman came to me after the screening and said, “I connected with that film. I don’t get mad about my nails but I felt exactly the way she feels.” A lot of guys also came to me and said they feel those pressures. So it’s not about the act of a manicure itself but the feelings she feels towards herself and what is happening around her are universal to people now.

I also have to give Carlos a lot of credit. I have been writing this script for so long. Originally, I started writing it when I was in high school because using my high school self [for inspiration] was easier as I was going through more of the fitting-in pressures than when I went to college. It was originally going to be more of a student-style film where the main character would be a student working on homework. Then as I got older, it transitioned to a different story because the older version felt more specific and I wanted to be more universal. The manicure thing clicked with me immediately.

Carlos did a great job. I worked with him for about 6 months to a year. We talked about the idea and how we needed it to look. We got funding together and eventually landed Stef Dawson who stars as our lead actress. She fell in love with the project. Her background is The Hunger Games so it was cool working with someone of that caliber. She brought her personal collection to the film as well when we told her about the idea and why we were making it.

JS: Carlos, How do you guide your actors through these tense situations and how do you ensure a safe environment for your actors?

CT: I have extensive conversations with my actors before shooting. We explore what’s at stake, the weight of each moment, the relationship among characters and things (even details that are not explicitly referenced in the final product), and ultimately, we get to connect as people on a more philosophical level so that they feel safe with our team and so that there is no barrier or fear to communicate on set. These early conversations allow a flow while shooting, in which actors arrive with a solid idea of what they want to do. So my sets tend to be quiet and calm; everyone knows the game plan and focuses – I’m extremely grateful for this cast and crew!

JS: Jordan, do you ever consider directing or are you just interested in the writing process?

Jordan Sarf: I’d love to direct. I do it on the side for fun. I know my strengths are in the writing/producing sides of things. So after I wrote the script and handed it to Carlos, I said, “Alright, I’m gonna set up the Ferrari but I’m gonna give you the keys to drive the race.” He hit the ground running and did a great job. I love to direct, though. I just knew that with a film this serious, Carlos –a really strong filmmaker with very good visual ideas- was the guy to bring this to life. I didn’t mind handing it to him because he did a great job. There are other projects I’ll direct myself and we balance back and forth.

JS: Jordan, is it true that you don’t like horror movies? Do you envision Manicure as a horror short?

Jordan Sarf: Yes, I don’t like horror movies. When I watch a film like Paranormal Activity I love to research everything beforehand regarding how they made the film [etc.] That way when I watch the film, I’m not as scared. I still haven’t seen Hereditary and Midsommar, and I don’t plan to. But I’ve seen some old-school horror movies like Rosemary’s Baby, and one of my favorite movies of all time is John Carpenter’s The Thing.

We didn’t envision our film to be a horror, but more of a psychological drama. But it was so horrifying after watching it, that we fell in that genre. I embraced it. We went to a lot of horror film festivals and I was scared most of the time. I got over it and what helped me was talking to horror filmmakers afterwards about how they made their films which opened my eyes to the genre and how great it is.

JS: Finally, Jordan, are you planning on turning this film into a feature or are you working on an entirely different project?

Jordan Sarf: So we’re working with two streaming platforms right now to house the great film. Some people approached us about making it a feature. And I have written a couple of ideas. But it [Manicure] is meant to be a short.

We’re working on two new projects, one we’re shooting now in April and the other in June, the one that’s shooting in April is a sports-comedy while the June shoot is a drama that Carlos will direct.

Interview: Francis Galluppi, Director of ‘The Last Stop in Yuma County’

Breaking News with Francis Galluppi! The Last Stop in Yuma County is on its way!

Francis Galluppi is the kind of cinema freak wunderkind audiences adore. He’s funny, humble, and just wants to share all his abundant passion for movies.

Galluppi’s debut feature, The Last Stop in Yuma County, gives Quentin Tarantino a run for his money with homages to genre cinema wrapped up in a delectable package. A tight and darkly comic script leans into visual cues that are familiar but reconfigured to provide maximum bang for your buck. Even better, it isn’t at all pretentious. 

Nadine Whitney chatted to Francis before the debut of his film last year at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas.

To give the reader an idea of who Francis Galluppi is there were several places where the asides began to overrun the interview such as the mutual appreciation of Francis’ Hausu t-shirt. “That shit is wild! I fucking love that movie!” he says. Nadine laughs about how it was originally pitched as a Jaws rip-off, but Obayashi let his young daughter shape the narrative… and voila! School girls, a house that eats them, a wicked witch, a weirdo cat. Sometimes, it is good to let your kids do your homework for you.

The synopsis for Last Stop in Yuma County is: While stranded at a rural Arizona rest stop, a traveling salesman is thrust into a dire hostage situation by the arrival of two bank robbers with no qualms about using cruelty-or cold, hard steel-to protect their bloodstained fortune.

Nadine Whitney: The Last Stop in Yuma County is your first feature, but you’ve done shorts. How did you get the production off the ground?

Francis Galluppi: Oh, wow… that’s a long story. The short version is that one of my shorts played in Cincinnati in 2018 or 19 and I met James Claeys, the executive producer, there. Basically, he offered me $50,000 to make a feature. So, I was trying to write something really contained in a single room. But obviously it needed more than $50,000. I thought oh shit, we can’t do this for that little. The script went through different variations and, in the end, James ended up selling his house to finance the movie.

We did it completely independently. It was just James and me there so nobody was looking over our shoulders to tell us what to do. We were on our own and it gave us a lot of freedom, but we were also really, really, lucky to end up with what we made.

NW: It’s a great movie and I have to say I laughed so much. Please tell me I am allowed to find it funny considering the scorched earth nature of the film.

FG: Yes! You finding it funny makes me so happy. I’m terrified that people aren’t gonna find the humor in this movie as I’m constantly pitching it as a dark comedy and I’m hoping people get that. 

NW: It is ultra-violent, but I was cackling through it. The little off hand references such as “My grandson just moved to Waco to start a ministry.” Miles and Sybil thinking they are a version of Bonnie and Clyde or Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugit with Miles styled as Martin Sheen in Badlands. Plus, genius casting to have Jim Cummings as the star because he is a comedian and he’s done his own horror/genre work. 

Which brings me to the cast, which is a smorgasbord of genre icons. You’ve got Barbara Crampton, Alex Essoe, Gene Jones, Richard Brake, and Jocelin Donahue. How did you get those people on board?

FG: I got incredibly lucky. I’ve been a huge fan of every single one of these actors for the longest time. They really were my dream cast. A lot of the actors I already had in mind when I was writing the characters. I had an amazing casting director, David Guglielmo.

I wrote them all personal letters and, thankfully, they read them, and we jumped on Zoom and somehow, we convinced them to do the movie. First, we got five and I was like holy shit like this is crazy. Maybe we can keep it going further. I thought there was no way Barbara Crampton is going to just play a receptionist, but we talked, she looked at the script, and committed to it. Every time we kept stacking another name on there it was like surreal, because, like I said, I just am a huge fan so there wasn’t a single person in the movie that I didn’t already love. With Jocelin, I think the first time we jumped on a zoom I pulled out my House of the Devil merch and showed her that I had it. I embarrassed myself a little bit.

NW: They are all pitch perfect – one of my favorite pieces of casting is Connor Paolo as the mostly clueless cop, Gavin. I swear Connor hasn’t aged a day since Gossip Girl. I also did a double take when I saw Sierra McCormick as Sybil.

FG: I saw that switchboard scene in The Vast of Night I was like this girl is incredible! I wrote a letter to her asking her to play Sybil. Sierra asked me, “Why did you think I could play this character it’s like night and day from Fay in The Vast of Night.” I said if you can do what you did in that film it means you can do fucking anything! Just amazing.

NW: The film is shooting across so many genres it’s dizzying. It’s intense, funny, and self-aware as a moral quandary crime-doesn’t-pay narratives that hits the mark.

FG: I wanted to do my version of the neo-noir slash western. For me, it is a neo-noir but in the daylight. A lot of people didn’t see how it could be noir – but noir is about more than an aesthetic, it is a storytelling tool with loads of ideas which fit into it. Purists might disagree.

NW: Purists would be wrong! Noir isn’t just a gumshoe and femme fatale template. Kathryn Bigelow made a vampire-western-neo-noir with Near Dark. There are science fiction noirs. The wonderful thing about storytelling is the process of creating a mashup to give people recognisable motifs that draw them in to a bigger narrative. 

The Last Stop at Yuma County finds the sweet spot where it is a bit meta, but it’s also its own thing. It’s not a copy paste job at all, more an exuberant “We all dig this stuff, yeah?!”

FG: I adore ’70s cinema too, and the movie was sort of my love letter to Don Seigel and Sam Peckinpah. There are heaps of little references like where Miles talks to Sybil about his idea for a heist which he stole from Rififi, which is one of my favorite movies. They also discuss Badlands and Bonnie and Clyde. I just threw together some of my most cherished movies into the mix. 

NW: I wanted to talk to you was about the shooting process. You have single location work (mostly in and around the diner and gas station) but there are some other set pieces that are quite expansive. 

FG: We had a twenty-day shooting schedule, so it was really tight. Plus, we were in the desert, so the weather was just completely unpredictable. There were days where it was just squalls and rainstorms and our equipment was blowing over and we had to pivot. 

I work really closely with Max Fisken, my cinematographer, and we prepped extensively. We had the shot design and a shot list we had photo boarded previously. Every day we got something because it was planned. We’d be ready to do an A shot or a B shot at short notice and move between locations. Nothing could be left on the cutting room floor ’cause every shot was necessary. You need at least an hour to plan a lot of scenes but with the time and budget restraints, we couldn’t fuck around. We had to find and take advantage of every moment. But the cast and crew were amazing and synced with the timing we committed to. We always had to work precisely because everyone was ready to go and use the daylight to our advantage thankfully it was mainly a little easier to get everything. 

NW: The film looks slick and more expensive than it was. There are some incredibly smooth shots like what I was calling “low car cam” where the camera was moving in tandem with all the classic cars – bumper cam where it closes in on a car reversing and moves with it. You made reversing or parking a car suspenseful. 

The way you build the film is brilliant. You front load so many clues and cues which lead to great pay offs. You also do some classic misdirection. Because of the diner setting being somewhat static, where you point the camera is what immerses the audience. Often you follow eyeline POV for the characters as they try to silently communicate and other times you have the “Hitchcock pact” where the audience knows more than the characters because they have seen more. 

The movie is set in 1981 but it has that time stopped still feeling where it could be much earlier because the diner itself is already antiquated. 

FG: It is supposed to have that vibe. You only get a specific date a couple of times. If you look at the newspaper closely or notice things like Earline and Robert’s comment about Waco. That was an easter egg because 1981 was when Vernon (aka David Koresh) moved in with the Branch Davidians. I wondered if I could get away with some of the things I put in the script. 

NW: Francis, you get away with it because it’s all done so brilliantly. The whole package is top notch. You have created a certified masterstroke as your first feature. It’s pulpy but intelligent. It’s hilarious but also has emotional gravitas. You know the rules of the game so you can break them. I was sold within the first five minutes with the establishing shots and the first joke. I haven’t even mentioned the best part… but that’s something other people can experience. 

I’ve done enough selling now it’s your turn. 

Why should people see The Last Stop in Yuma County?

FG: I’m a bad salesman, but I’ll try.

The Last Stop in Yuma County is a fucking blast. It’s so much fun. If you want to see violence and comedy and just go on a fun ride with a bunch of fantastic actors that you’re gonna fucking love.

Movie Review: ‘Consecration’ is a Disappointing Parable That Can’t Be Taken Seriously

Director: Christopher Smith
Writers: Christopher Smith, Laurie Cook
Stars: Jena Malone, Danny Huston, Will Keen

Synopsis: After the alleged suicide of her priest brother, Grace travels to the remote Scottish convent where he fell to his death. Distrusting the Church’s account, she uncovers murder, sacrilege and a disturbing truth about herself.

Non-believer Grace (Jenna Malone) travels to an isolated Scottish convent for answers upon the suspicious death of her priestly brother – leading to warped discoveries about Grace’s own past, more disturbing deaths, and rituals to contain the evil responsible in director Christopher Smith’s (Black Death) 2023 nunsploitation thriller, Consecration.

Unfortunately, Consecration gets off on the wrong foot thanks to opening narrations about guardian angels, ophthalmology bad news, and home alone ominous with flickering lights, rattling walls, and a figure in the hallway that makes viewers wonder where this is all going. The police phone with news about the murder-suicide, but Grace insists her faithful brother would not kill himself or anyone else. His extreme fire and brimstone order, however, has nuns seeing the devil and cutting out their eyes while the Mother Superior claims a demon is responsible. Local inspectors are worried about treading lightly in Vatican jurisdiction, but Grace defies the police tape across the abbey ruins and goes to the rocky shoals where the bodies were found for herself before coroner examinations and visions of the deceased. Again the audience’s attention is drawn to why incoherent fainting spells and other’s arguments outside Grace’s point of view are supposed to be significant amid meandering flashes of past warnings, childhood memories of masks and stone circles, and medieval dreams of knights on horseback.

Explanations about her mother being dead and her father being in prison for having killed her mother are better to the point than unnecessary phone calls to her doctor mentor, and Grace sees the cliffside ruins restored with plummeting initiates in white. The nuns say the battle between God and Satan is more important than what’s considered a crime, but brief existential interrogations cut away to reflections that aren’t there, Grace’s nonsensical playing detective, and her brother’s phantom voiceovers about how special she is. She explains his journal is written in their childhood code, saying that he discovered the convent previously tried to adopt them – yet the viewer never saw this research amid numerous walking around the chapel exposition scenes and a nun popping up to say peekaboo. Convenient flashes within flashes and dream transitions happen as rumors of knightly treasures and earthquakes revealing secret crypts are tossed on top of the brotherly MacGuffins. Trips to the dark basement for more contrived visions, violence inducing car accidents, and reading montages of mystical tomes; of course written in their childhood code. Talk of bumping bellies with a dirty man once and seeing visions of black snakes with him lead to slit wrist suicides so the sin will leave you, yet Consecration has no real religious horror or church commentary. A humorous one eyed nun trying to stab people compounds the inexplicable, largely absent inspectors and insufferable characterizations as realizations the audience already knew happen instantly for those now humble and willing to be cleansed. The ineffectual police finally bother to do something but the nuns so active in the crowd surfing ritual minutes before,  cower as the evil whooshes and cool flashes show how it was all done complete with blind patients healed by evil and a gun toting nun hit by a car. Unlike Christopher Smith’s most impressive Triangle, the cockeyed Interstellar twists here are reduced to embarrassing silliness.

Father Danny Huston (The Proposition) is called in from The Vatican to investigate but he has two sins: cake and coffee. Though obviously a seemingly ominous figure with young nuns scurrying away in his wake, Father Romero appears reasonable, willingly sharing church history and admitting that the lack of transparency is a constant stain on the institution. He offers Grace their full support and cooperation yet shouts at the nuns in Latin that it is God, then him, in that order, and he will decide Grace’s fate. Romero admonishes creepy Mother Superior Janet Suzman (Nicholas and Alexandra) for trying to fool police and attacking Grace when they need to gain her trust. While there he’s to reconsecrate the grounds, but Father Romero says they’re better off getting rid of all the relics and rumors that give the church a bad reputation – and he’ll do what must be done. It’s more humorous than sinister, however, that he has to shoo away the one eyed nun who’s always underfoot, and our Mother Superior gets more pissy with Grace’s every objection. She runs a harsh regime because we must face the devil and the darkness lest we come under his grip, but what could have been an interesting theological debate grows laughable as our Mother meddles with the police and chants in her jail cell while the peekaboo nun sings.

Forced to dress in their novice white, Grace stomps about the crosses and statuary shouting, for as a woman of science, she doesn’t believe in miracles or backward steps to forgive sins. Jena Malone (Love Lies Bleeding) has an uphill battle as our kind of/sort of doctor cum amateur investigator. She refuses to accept the circumstances of her brother’s death, doesn’t believe in demons, and won’t apologize for her know it all behavior. Grace demands no one pray for her and intrudes upon the convent for an explanation even when told the twelfth century church history. It’s apparent to the audience almost immediately why Grace is so unlikable, and we have no sympathy as the deaths around her escalate. She still wears the white habit when she goes to see her dad in prison, and this scene should have come much sooner upon learning of her brother’s death, perhaps opening the film. Unlike all the flashbacks, the backstory is compelling here. Her dad says she is the devil, asking her what it’s like to bring death everywhere she goes. He caged Grace so she could do no harm, but Grace still doesn’t consider she may be the problem, and therein is what’s wrong with Consecration.

This scene is the core of the story, and the rest of the movie is padding while Grace gets a clue. The nuns lay her on the chapel floor in their absolution ritual as the film unravels further by intercutting everything at once, tying Grace’s entire story from medieval times to being found on the beach wet and looping back to the beginning – hitting the viewer over the head too many times with what we already easily deduced. Because of the unintended humor, Consecration also lacks a certain gothic, ecclesiastic atmosphere with no sense of the ancient good versus evil despite the arches, robes, and chapels. Brief daytime scenes of nuns in white hoods going in circles while singing in Latin lend an inkling of the weird and medieval, however the poorly lit dark filming and contemporary blue gradient negates the Isle of Skye ruins and rustic Scottish locales. When pausing at one point, the screen looked entirely black; tight camera shots and frustrating, tough to see scenes make Consecration feel rushed and low budget. The distorted, fuzzy point of view haze and darkness manifested coloring may be a deliberate metaphor, but we aren’t always in the same viewpoint, calling the audience’s attention to how we would structure the picture differently. Despite lengthy end credits meaning this is less than its listed ninety minutes, Consecration is over long, going round and round in a surprisingly insipid mess with inexplicable editing and poor narrative flow exacerbating the windblown story.

Grade: F

Please see my much more positive review of Christopher Smith’s The Banishing

Miami Film Festival: Capsule Reviews of ‘Auction,’ ‘Close Your Eyes,’ and ‘Queen of Bones

At the 41st annual Miami Film Festival, Thelma starring June Squibb, the late Richard Roundtree, and Parker Posey kicked off the weeklong party. While it is not a major festival for the studio films, it does open itself to a number of independent and foreign films that do not reach the major film festival market. Of course, it is a very Miami festival with local films and documentaries, but opening itself to more notable films in the past, including The Good Boss, Crip Camp, Dogville, Black Book, and Wild Tales makes it more attractive for a North American debut. Here are three capsule reviews from the festival this year. 

Auction (France)

Working for a world famous auction house in Paris, Andre (Alex Lutz) is given the honor to sell off a rare painting considered lost but now found. When the painting appears in the hands of a young French factory worker (Arcadi Radeff) and is found to be authentic, it stirs off a battle for the upper hand in attaining the painting through deceptive methods. Andre’s intern (Louise Chevillote) has her own mysterious past and isn’t sure if she can be trusted while his co-worker (Nora Hamzawi) is also his ex-wife. With ramifications everywhere, he  must control the deal by staking his whole reputation and not letting a once-in-a-lifetime artwork fall through their grasp. 

Writer/director Pascal Bonizer (co-writer of Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta) puts out the politics of art with not enough intrigue to carry the story through to the end, even though Lutz and company give solid performances. While art dealing is a highly profitable business that symbolizes status and power, Bonizer fails to really put up on his own canvas the variables that move the chess pieces on claiming history. It is too weak as it is for a story which could’ve gone on longer with a stronger backbone and clearcut views from all who have a hand in the loot made from paint.

Grade: C

Close Your Eyes (Spain)

Actor Julio Arenas (Jose Coronado) suddenly disappears from a film set virtually without a trace and is now presumed dead. Twenty years later, his friend and the film’s director, Miguel, (Manolo Solo) gets invited to a program series looking into the story and sets off on his own search. Contacting Julio’s daughter, his ex-lover, and the film’s editor, Miguel struggles to trace Julio’s possible whereabouts until an unexpected tip from an unlikely place changes everything.

Fifty years after his sensational debut, The Spirit Of The Beehive, director Victor Erice makes his return thirty years after his last full-length feature. It may have debuted last year at Cannes (and was shortlisted to be Spain’s representative for the Oscar but lost to Society Of The Snow), but Erice’s return is worth the wait. It is a slowburner, building up the past moments with Miguel’s current state until his sudden discovery, allowing him to finish the movie he started all those years ago. Solo, Coronado, and company each give a piece of their memory in their characters leading up to an emotional conclusion within the power of a single gaze printed on film.

Grade: A-

Queen Of Bones (Canada/USA)

In Depression-era Oregon, a widowed, religious father (Martin Freeman) and his two teenage children (Julia Butters and Jacob Tremblay) live in isolation in the woods. When the children find a book about witchcraft belonging to their dead mother, they start to have questions about her death, who allegedly died after giving birth to them. The two begin to look into it themselves, following the clues and dangerously getting close to the truth while trying to avoid the wrath of their father. It is the family secret that seeks to come out.  

Director Robert Burdeau (Stockholm) taps into the folk horror genre with carefulness, not trying to overdo the supernatural nature of it all. But, it feels too safe and does push for a more terrifying mood and to go in depth with the story. It is two-dimensional when this Gothic story of foreign folklore should easily have been more developed and more connected to the main source within the story to make it even more creepier. The quality reminded me of the 90s Nickelodeon show, Are You Afraid Of The Dark? It just felt somewhat juvenile, not willing to take risks and push those boundaries. 

Grade: C

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Op-Ed: ‘Locke’ 10 Years Later

Locke is celebrating its 10-year anniversary this year. It’s one of A24’s most underrated movies and features a Tom Hardy that should have been in the Oscar conversation more in 2014. It’s a film that deeply resonated with me at the time, and arguably holds even more power today. There’s something about its simplicity that allows for its writing and central performance to keenly emulate an ideal that almost feels superhero-esque in the modern landscape. 

In a world that is deeply divided, Ivan Locke feels like an alien. He’s the poster child of a bygone era, especially in the film world. We so often encounter despicable characters doing despicable things because their outlandishness is cinematic. Looking at you Jordan Belfort. If not despicable, characters that have prickly qualities or a brazen personality. And look, I get it. Who wants to see the simple man who calmly lives his life and seemingly has it put together? Well, not many. Unless you’re Wim Wenders (Perfect Days is a masterpiece). 

Of course, Ivan doesn’t have it all put together. He isn’t despicable. He’s a far cry from the Jordan Belfort’s of the world. He doesn’t have prickly qualities. No brazen personality. There really isn’t much to him that screams cinematic. He’s a concrete foreman who is highly respected by everyone around him. He’s married with two kids. Everyone seems to be fond of Ivan. On its face, he’s a normal guy with a normal life and a good job. So why are we trapped in this car with him? 

Film doesn’t have to be a barometer of morals and ethics. It’s not there to reflect your politics and fundamental ethos. It’s why characters like Belfort, Henry Hill, Michael Corleone, Amy Dunne and (literally) countless others are still heralded as incredible figures of cinema. We don’t agree with their choices. Our moral compass isn’t aligned. Art doesn’t pander to righteousness. At least, not all of the time. The best characters are infused with great complexity that sways our allegiances with them. But that’s exactly why Ivan Locke stands out. 

Instead of lingering in the gray areas, Ivan is an affable person that you probably would love and respect, which is why Hardy’s performance is crucial in the film. He needs to give that credence, and he does so with incredible rigor. Because there comes a point when we learn that Ivan’s life is at a crossroads. On one hand, it’s vividly clear that he loves his family. The conversations he has with his sons are very endearing. But on the other hand, he’s made a mistake. A mistake that many would likely try to run from. An idea that looms heavily given that he’s in the car and driving away as if he’s avoiding something. 

However, it becomes clear that Ivan isn’t running away. He’s not hiding or avoiding consequence. In fact, it’s the opposite. He’s running toward the problem. He’s embracing the ramifications of his choices. There are several, rather potent, soliloquies throughout the film where we learn that Ivan’s childhood wasn’t ideal. His father had abandoned him. Something that clearly shaped his paternal foundations. We see in the car that it still affects him, but for Ivan, his father’s choices are not going to define him as a father, himself. He made a massive error in judgment that put him in this position, but he’s not going to make the same mistake as his father. He is completely and thoroughly owning his mistake. Imagine watching Jordan Belfort or Henry Hill just turn themselves in to the authorities. Bonnie and Clyde taking a detour to the police station and admitting they messed up. Yeah, that just doesn’t happen. In cinema or in real life. But that’s exactly what Ivan does. 

It sounds simple. It doesn’t make for the most captivating drama. Yet, there’s something about Ivan risking his job and family to do the right thing, all while helping his co-workers complete a pivotal job (despite being ultimately fired), that feels like an aberration outside of superhero movies. It’s just a movie about a man owning up to his (admittedly significant) mistake. And there are consequences. The moments when he tells his family the truth hit with like a sledgehammer. They’re very moving. And look, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for seeing Jake Gyllenhaal rob a bank and steal an ambulance as he runs from cops across LA. It’s just rare; very, very rare, to see the other side of that coin. And personally, I find that extremely refreshing. 

10 years later and Locke still carries a potency that I deeply love. It’s one of Hardy’s best to date. It might not have the intense drama of a Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg film, but it has the same level of conviction. That, to me, goes a very long way. 

Chasing The Gold: Best Picture Outlook

Unlike in many other years, 2024 starts with a slate of films that were in Best Picture conversations last year. Films that had solid release dates and critical anticipation were removed from the schedule due to the ongoing strikes of both the Writer’s Guild of America and the Screen Actor’s Guild. That could be to those film’s benefit, though. Production shut down for roughly four months when writers and actors were on strike and many of the films that may have been contenders later this year have had to readjust and may not be ready in time. The late season buzz may have to wait until we can see who makes it to post-production before the year is out. That’s good news for early 2024 releases like Problemista, Challengers, and Dune: Part 2, all of which were considered as part of a possible 2023 slate of nominees. 

It’s tough to say what will survive in the hearts and minds of voters until they cast their ballots at the end of this year. It’s likely that the only one to survive will be the one that can spread itself into a host of other categories. The easiest pick there would be Dune: Part 2, a special effects juggernaut that will likely be competitive in every technical award imaginable. Though, Dune: Part 2 might suffer the same fate as The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

With the Lord of the Rings trilogy, voters knew that there was going to be a sequel. They knew that the sequel would be made by the same people who made the previous films. They knew that with a capper on a tremendous work that made millions of dollars for their friends, they could award the third film with all the laurels as a sort of, “thanks for the money,” these count for all three movies, type of award. Thus, Dune: Part 2 may be hampered by the fact that there will be a Dune Messiah. It’s unlikely, though, that the Dune franchise has a real endpoint as there were six books in Frank Herbert’s original series, but with his son Brian’s and author Kevin J. Anderson’s additions, there are twenty-three Dune books so far. Eventually that cash cow will dry up, with or without a series capper.

A sequel, even a sequel in a series, or a reboot, reimagining, or spinoff, isn’t what it used to be when it comes to awards voting bodies anymore. In fact we shouldn’t be surprised if either or both Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga and Joker: Folie à Deux join Dune: Part 2 on the ballot. Both are franchise films that have major pedigrees from their predecessors. They are also films that, love them or hate them, will do major box office and garner conversations about their craft. More on those as they release.

And what a release Civil War has had. As the dust settles and the think pieces become more biting, we’ll see if A24’s pivot toward higher budget filmmaking can be the indie darling studio’s major contender this year. Civil War, though, does have several historical strikes against it. The first is that awards bodies more often than not like their speculative films to have a dark comedy edge, see Don’t Look Up and The Triangle of Sadness. American awards bodies especially may nominate, but they don’t appreciate, an outsider attempting to expose the raw nerve of American Exceptionalism, see Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. The last strike is that A24 will likely toss much more of their marketing muscle toward their tender prison drama, Sing Sing, which will likely play far better amongst voting bodies.

We’ll now look to Cannes to see what the international set has to offer as they have become far more of a presence in each successive award season since ten Best Picture nominees became the norm. Last year, Anatomy of a Fall went a very long way after its Cannes laurels. There may be something we can’t stop talking about just on the horizon.

Movie Review: ‘Abigail’ is a Bloody, But Delayed Crowdpleaser

Directors: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gilletti
Writers: Stephen Shields, Guy Busick
Stars: Melissa Barrera, Dan Stevens, Alisha Weir

Synopsis: After a group of criminals kidnap the ballerina daughter of a powerful underworld figure, they retreat to an isolated mansion, unaware that they’re locked inside with no normal little girl.

Along with its three free reservations per week, waived online booking fees, rewards system, and snack discounts, an AMC Stubs A List membership also promises a con amidst its many pros: You’ll have to see the same trailers over and over again. Despite there being plenty of titles to be excited about — especially as we inch closer to a summer season that, while noticeably strike-impacted, remains populated with buzzy must-sees — one can only watch the trailer for A Quiet Place: Day One so many times. Audiences around the world could be heard collectively groaning late last year every time previews for Argylle, Madame Web, and Bob Marley: One Love played in excruciating succession; perhaps it’s no coincidence that those three films are among the worst this year has offered.

Thankfully, the trailer for the third entry in the A Quiet Place saga is relatively wordless, much like its predecessors, so its preview doesn’t reveal too much beyond the Day One’s basic prequel setup. The same can’t be said for most horror trailers, partially because it’s hard to get mainstream audiences to buy in on an original genre film without massive stars, and also because the hook for most horror films is the twist. That doesn’t make it any less frustrating when the trailer for Universal’s Speak No Evil, an upcoming remake of a Danish hit from 2022, includes a number of the original’s most unsettling revelations in its ostensible “preview” for a movie filled with twists. It’s not something you’d clock if you haven’t seen the new film’s source text, but it may become a cause for irritation once you’ve purchased a ticket.

Such is a common grievance when it comes to Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s Abigail, though I’m not sure the same sort of criticisms apply. Let’s just get it out of the way: Abigail (Alisha Weir) is a vampire. That “wrinkle” revealed in the film’s trailer, a terrifying stumper for the band of would-be crooks who thought they’d merely abducted a 12-year-old ballerina with an uber rich father from whom they’d demand millions in ransom money. No, this motley crew of criminals, given Rat Pack-inspired nicknames by their boss for the night, Lambert (Giancarlo Esposito), has seemingly been tasked with a chore that is much more ominous than meets the eye. Not only must they keep this preteen alive for 24 hours until her billionaire daddy’s check clears, but they, too, must survive. Not quite the smash-and-grab job they all had in mind.

Sure, the idea of Joey (Melissa Barrera), Frank (Dan Stevens), Sammy (Kathryn Newton), Peter (Kevin Durand), Rickles (Will Catlett), and Dean (the late Angus Cloud) kidnapping a little girl and drinking their way through an evening that will result in the swelling of each of their bank accounts isn’t much of a sell. But there are a few back channels I wish Abigail’s promotional campaign would have considered taking. For one, the soft-if-unsurprising tease that the members of this crew do, indeed, mysteriously killed off, one by one, “mysteriously” being the operative word. Sure, an amateur detective likely could have deduced that the titular kidnapee might have something to do with it, but the “how” doesn’t need to be unveiled so easily. It’s worth noting that the movie’s big, vampirical reveal doesn’t arrive until it’s one-third of the way over, a choice that undoubtedly works on those unfamiliar with the film’s ads, but leaves AMC’s most dutiful soldiers wondering, “Hey, when’s this kid gonna bare her fangs?”

Part of the problem with this extended prologue is its overly general build-up, one that is frustratingly summarized in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it monologue from Joey, who pins down the defining characteristics of her fellow conspirators with startling immediacy (Not that the script Barrera is working with does her any favors in this department). Joey ascertains that Frank is a former cop turned corrupt criminal; Sammy is a hacker, but a teenage runaway first and foremost; Peter is all muscle, but his bulk hides an emotionally-stunted interior; Rickles is ex-military, the soulful type; and Dean is a driver, but he’s hardly a pro. Frank does his part by reading Joey like a book, spotting a candy affectation that screams “ex-junkie,” and her matronly ways with Abigail, the sign of a mother itching to get the child she abandoned back. We spend so much time on exposition that its feather-light delivery — and its contrived callbacks later in the film — make it all feel a bit wasteful. 

Thankfully, the fun is right around the corner, handcuffed in the other room. Once Abigail makes her intentions (and abilities) clear, Abigail delivers on the comedically-gory promises that Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett have been cashing in on ever since 2019’s Ready or Not launched them into this overdone genre hybrid’s pantheon. Though the duo, known professionally as “Radio Silence”, started out by contributing to the original V/H/S anthology in 2012, it was Ready or Not that branded them with the reputation for mastering the blend between humor and horror without relying too heavily on either element. Now, for better or for worse, they’re saddled with it, and while Abigail occasionally seems to be hell-bent on recreating the laughs and scares of Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett’s 2019 hit — not to mention its hide-and-seek elements — it does just enough to pave a way of its own.

Much of that is due to how game its central players are to take part in its hijinks, even if the schtick inches its way towards being tiresome after a while. Barrera and Stevens, top-billed and thus getting the most time to cook here, are perfectly fine foils for one another; Joey’s earnest, level temperament contrasts nicely with the brash, albeit grating style of Frank’s alpha mentality. Plus, in addition to their trademark genre-fusion, Abigail’s directing partners have a knack for infusing their heroines with an offscreen arc that narrowly escapes universality, Joey’s being her aforementioned hopes to rebuild a relationship with her son. Newton and Durand take on their roles in an “Odd Couple” pairing that goes down with a refreshing zest; imagine Jerry remaining a mouse while Tom took the form of a lion. But it’s Weir’s show, a performance as… well, as campy as mainstream horror tends to offer these days, as if M3GAN’s titular robot spent her whole movie twirling around in that hallway.

That a portion of this review turned its attention to the film’s mismarketing — er, its over-marketing — is no fault of Radio Silence, nor their collaborators. What they have with Abigail is a crowd-pleaser coated in blood and guts, overflowing with likable misfits, and carrying enough emotional weight to interest those less interested in seeing heads roll. What I wish their studio had trusted them to do is another story, similar to the one Bettinelli-Olpin, Gillett, and co. are telling here: Gathering a group of strangers in a dark place with one common goal, only to watch them discover, one by one, and to their surprise, that something sinister is afoot. What a concept.

Grade: C+

Movie Review: ‘Nowhere Special’ is a Masterpiece of Compassion

Director: Uberto Pasolini
Writer: Uberto Pasolini
Stars: James Norton, Daniel Lamont, Carol Moore

Synopsis: When John, a thirty-five-year-old window cleaner, is given only a few months to live, he attempts to find a new, perfect family for his three-year-old son, determined to shield him from the terrible reality of the situation.

Uberto Pasolini’s Nowhere Special could have fallen into many “poverty tourism” traps. Yet through sheer sincerity, boundless love, and the strength of community which surrounds John (James Norton) and his precious son Michael (Daniel Lamont), the film makes every tear shed a diamond.

John is a window washer and single father. His life is looking into worlds he has no access to. Apartments he could never afford. Shops filled with goods which are beyond his financial reach. Most significantly, a kind of life he is trying to imagine for his four-year-old son. John is only thirty-four, but he is dying of an aggressive brain stem cancer. A child of foster homes himself and without family, he is Michael’s entire world. And soon he will be gone.

Photo Credit: Cohen Media Group

Nowhere Special takes place over the space of approximately eight weeks. John’s sudden diagnosis and circumstances pushed him to the front of the line with social services and the foster and adoption system in Belfast. He needs to find Michael a home — a forever home, ideally with two parents. John wants what he didn’t have, an opportunity for a better life. While that is essentially what many parents wish for their children, they don’t have a clock ticking forcing them to make what they perceive as life altering decisions for their child.

The focus is on John’s relationship with Michael — played with a naturalism which proves that James Norton and Daniel Lamont formed a bond during filming which carries over onto the screen. Never for a moment does the audience doubt that the pair are father and son. John is tender, emotionally present, and filled with pride for his boy. He is also getting increasingly weak and although he is trying to hide his illness from Michael, he is aware that the sensitive youngster is acting out because he knows something isn’t right.

Over a series of meetings in which social worker Shona (Eileen O’Higgins) acts as a quiet intermediary, John introduces Michael to potential adoptive parents. From a well-to-do couple who could provide Michael with a grand house and private education, to working class people who feel they have room in their hearts and homes for a child. John is dragging his feet on making a decision because he believed he would be able to distinguish almost immediately who the right people would be. Is it the blended family with a raucous household filled with other adopted and fostered children? Or is it a single woman, Ella (Valerie O’Connor) who was forced to give up her own baby at the age of sixteen and due to complications with that pregnancy was unable to have another child?

As much as John feels he is carrying the sole  burden of choice for Michael, he is not left alone to emotionally deal with what his impending death means. His elderly friend Rosemary (Stella McCusker) speaks of her own grief in losing her husband of fifty years. Her wisdom about how we are never truly without the ones we love when they are gone gives John the vocabulary to speak to Michael about what is happening. 

Photo Credit: Cohen Media Group

Trying to balance the toughness of his upbringing with the tenderness he feels for Michael, John believes that when he breaks down with exhaustion, grief, and frustration he has failed. Rosemary reminds him, “That’s not weakness, my angel, it’s love.”

When anyone asks John what he would like Michael to remember of him he baulks at the question. His answers range from “I’m just a window cleaner,” to “I created him but robbed him of a family.” Michael’s birth mother left to return to Russia months after he was born leaving no forwarding address. In John’s mind, he doesn’t want Michael to remember him at all. To do so would mean Michael would have to confront the kind of continual abandonment John felt through his life. 

Uberto Pasolini’s screenplay and direction eschews cheap and manipulative sentiment. John and Michael’s small house is already a shrine to their love for each other. On almost every wall Michael’s art takes pride of place. Michael mirrors his father. Drawing texta tattoos on his skin to be like Dad. Bedtime reading, discussions of puppies, a birthday party just for two, cutting grapes so they will be exactly right, a temper tantrum about the wrong pajamas, a child quietly and instinctively nursing his father. Laughter and adoration create a halo of warmth.

James Norton is an under-the-radar talent, and Nowhere Special proves his versatility and commitment to imbuing the right role with exactly what is required to make the character unforgettable. Every time the camera moves to John’s point of view, the audience experiences his own grief. John is angry he is dying because he will not be there to watch his son grow. Every family he sees, often through windows, has time — the one commodity no one can buy nor bank. 

Daniel Lamont as Michael is a revelation. Films about the relationship between child and parent often live or die on the performance of the child in question. Daniel’s rapport with James is perfect. Daniel’s eyes searching for answers but also hiding from them are once again windows into an infinite world — that of what a small boy knows.

Ably supported by O’Higgins, McCusker, and O’Connor; Norton and Lamont are placed inside a drama which doesn’t shy from just how arbitrary and unfair life can be. Despite the melancholy of the situation, Nowhere Special is celebrating the people whose contributions to a life, or lives, are filled with kindness. There are people who leave little behind but blurred and sometimes bad memories — but there are also those who continue to exist in the air, the water, the sun which warms you, or an evocative sense memory.

Nowhere Special is a masterpiece. Pasolini along with his cast and crew earn every moment of investment in John and Michael’s story. A profoundly compassionate film which is both heartbreaking and hopeful.

Grade: A+

Chasing the Gold: Will Dev Patel Carve his Best Actor nomination in Blood?

I still remember the first day I watched Kickboxer. I was 10, back from a day on the beach with my family after unbearable cramps and unpredictable Alexandria weather. That night, Kickboxer was on TV, my mother’s all-time favorite. I sat through the whole thing, mesmerized, heart pounding, body shaking with hunger and intense (childish) desire as Van Damme kicked Thai Pads and banana trees with his shins, doing a deep split to a full extent. Having coconuts dropped on his stomach, sticks swung at his face, and praying in the temple, finding his spirit animal. When it was time for the final in-ring fight, my feelings heightened as the fiery fight scenes reached a culmination, and then…boom! Van Damme won and I got my first period. Talk about a rite of passage.

As a film critic always searching for that feeling, wanting to capture and relive it again for the first time, it’s always difficult to find it in today’s elusive filmmaking scene. With Van Damme on screen, fighting and flexing his muscles, moving his limbs underwater, and raising his pain tolerance, it didn’t feel like I enjoyed Van Damme’s performance or had a crush on him, I wanted to be him. I wanted to have that body that you could use to crush your enemies or get hit by a blunt object, then emerge unharmed, whole, and powerful.

It wasn’t until I watched Monkey Man directed and starring a bloody-knuckled, grimy, and angry Dev Patel, that I realized, “That’s Kickboxer on steroids because, unlike JCVD, Dev Patel is a great actor.”

Monkey Man is an action-packed, bloody, revenge tale; a man takes matters into his own hands, exerting punishment on the elites of the city. It’s The Punisher meets Kickboxer, with a touch of that Slumdog Millionaire vibe that must have influenced Patel subconsciously at some point. Instead of glamorizing and romanticizing the fight, Patel brings viewers to the gritty, sloppy, dirty, and messy background of the violence in the ring. Fighters’ hands shake and they spit their teeth. Their bodies, though glistening with sweat, are also covered in sand and grossness. But Dev Patel’s eyes are feral. There’s not a hint of docility or warmth in them. As his eyes are accentuated by black kohl, his body revels in the grease and bruises of the fight. Then, magic happens and I am immediately transported to that time when I was watching Kickboxer for the first time.

As the movie progresses, I want more. I am cheering on Patel to receive and inflict pain, to be flushed and drenched in it, and soothed by the gravity of its intensity. No modern action film has brought me to the chaotic, somewhat flawed intensity of the heydays of ‘90s action movies like this one. Patel is both potent in the monkey mask and without it. Since he’s the director as well, he knows exactly the keys to his performance, how detailed it is, and how he can pull all the threads to bring out the best in Kid, the main character. As if the god of vengeance transcends the power to him and he yields it to his benefit in every possible way.

Patel took me on a thrill ride of wanting to be Kid/Bobby the Bleach master. I wanted to be Monkey Man, getting beat up but also crushing enemies and plotting to sabotage their empires built on blood and corruption. Steering the wheel himself as director of the film, Patel allows himself the creative liberty to exist in every form of a man tormented by poverty, trauma, and ambition. He has become his own Bruce Lee and his version is layered with multiple acting chops and influences thrown around.

Will Patel’s performance garner award nominations? It would be too early to judge although his performance is no less deserving than many other actors who have garnered more attention whether in this lukewarm season or earlier award seasons.

What stands in the way of Patel’s nomination are two things: first, he is not White, and there is no argument that White performers are granted better exposure and better award recognition, even if lately things have been more optimistic and inclusive. Second, this is an action movie, even if it is more of a bloody, revenge drama, but it is still an action movie and the prestigious award institutes and entities have been less than kind to action films in the acting categories. Action stars or even serious -and I use that term loosely- dramatic actors who venture into action film territory are rarely rewarded for their performances, even deserving ones. 

But that doesn’t take away from the greatness and the depth of his performance. If it were for me in a somewhat sleeper-hit season, Dev Patel would be my first Best Lead Actor award contender.

Movie Review: ‘The Old Oak’ Stands Strong and Provides Hope

Director: Ken Loach
Writer: Paul Laverty
Stars: Dave Turner, Elba Mari, Claire Rodgerson

Synopsis: The future for the last remaining pub, The Old Oak, in a village of Northeast England, where people are leaving the land as the mines are closed. Houses are cheap and available, thus making it an ideal location for Syrian refugees.

Ken Loach is the United Kingdom’s most steadfast social realist. He is, at his core, the master of documenting the working class. He understands their contradictions, their fear, and their material and psychological oppression. His position has always been that being poor is not a moral failure but being cruel is. The Old Oak is a distillation of his decades-long themes. 

Set in a Durham mining town which has suffered years of neglect from the powers that be, the film explores blue-collar xenophobia. A Brexit Tory driven divided kingdom where people don’t know where to direct their resentment, disappointment, and social disenfranchisement.

When a group of Syrian refugees are housed in the town it creates a schism between the “locals” and the newcomers. The site of the battleground is TJ Ballantyne’s (Dave Turner) pub – The Old Oak and it’s also social media. Ken Loach and his regular collaborator Paul Laverty send out an ardent plea for empathy and openness.

It is 2016 and already the country is divided by the upcoming referendum. The film begins with angry voices – and via Robbie Ryan’s incredible cinematography, photographs of the people who are yelling. They are pounding at the windows of a bus wherein a group of traumatized and exhausted refugees are being dropped off to their new homes. The photographs are being taken by Yara (Ebla Mari) who, with her mother and three siblings, has made it out of the camps and has finally been granted asylum in the United Kingdom.

The rabble are shouting “You ragheads, you shot my mate in Iraq.” For the Durham locals the Middle East is a monoculture. Syria supported Iran at the time which tangentially made them allies to Britain. Their knowledge of the oppression faced by people under Bashar al-Assad is limited. For a mining town that has been perpetually screwed over by the Tories, and where many people live below the poverty line, solidarity is less important than when they will be able to buy a steak.

The Old Oak is the last public house. In many ways it is the final remnant of a dying community. Due to unscrupulous overseas investment conglomerates buying up the houses, the generational families are trapped in their terraces. There is little to no work and people can’t sell up and leave. They are victims of economic and social neglect. People who have known each other all their lives are fighting each other for scraps – and no one is winning. What they worked for so they would be secure has become a prison.

TJ is at heart a good man, but he is defeated and no longer brave. He has made mistakes, mostly stemming from increased depression and emotional absence. He lost his father to an offshore accident. His mother is gone. His wife and son are gone and although he loves his lad, he is hated by him. Friends have left. The only thing that keeps him going is the routine of caring for his beloved dog who rescued him in a time of desperation.

When Yara enters his life with her clear eyes and silent pain, he sees a kindred soul. Her camera was broken that first day by a hooligan and she needs to get it fixed. Not replaced but fixed. TJ realizes it has a particular meaning to her. It is the last thing she has of her father who was swept up by the secret police. He allows her into the closed off back room of the pub which was once the social and political hub for the miners and their families but has since fallen into disrepair.

Inside, there are pictures covering the history of the community. From the Easington Colliery tragedy to the 1984-1985 miner’s strike where everyone rallied together to ensure they could down tools and survive with no income. “When you eat together, you stick together” is a motto on the wall written by TJ’s mum. The principles died as the mine closed. Yara and TJ tentatively share their own “war stories.” TJ realizes that, along with his friend Laura (Claire Rodgerson) and his bartender Maggie (Jen Patterson), the pair can bring people together under the auspices of “Solidarity, not charity.”

However, in doing so TJ will risk estranging his regulars. If he loses the pub, he has nothing. TJ sees the grace that the Syrian community bring and their generosity considering they have nothing beyond a few cobbled together items they were able to keep while in the camps and charity donations he helps Laura deliver. Adversity taught them to share. Adversity has taught TJ to say “nowt.”

Little by little, members of the community embrace Yara with her honest concern for others. She helps Linda (Ruby Bratton), a pre-teen who is at risk of delinquency. Linda is mouthy and putting up a good front, but her home life is a shambles. When Linda passes out from hunger Yara takes her to her house. She is shocked to see that there is nothing in the cupboard and Linda’s diet is packets of crisps and cheap candy. 

There are stalwarts who refuse to interact with Yara and the refugees. They are the drunken and nasty Vic (Chris McGlade), Eddy, Garry, and Charlie (Trevor Fox) – his friend since childhood. Charlie and TJ were “marra” (the mining term for the one who will forever have your back and ensure your safety). TJ has become the butt of jokes from Vic and the others, and he is watching Charlie airing his legitimate concerns about his future and that of his sick wife turn into group-think hatred. 

When TJ decides to not open the back room for them to hold a community meeting about how they feel their town has become a dumping ground for what the toffs in Chelsea don’t want to look at – he makes a mistake. In their minds, he has turned traitor.

The fatal mauling of his little scrappy mutt, unexpectedly named Marra, reopens up his deep well of grief. Yara and Fatima (Anna Al Ali) bring him food. “Sometimes there is no need for words. Only food.” He feels ashamed. “There is no shame in loss, Mr. Ballantyne. We understand loss.”

Everyone in the film understands loss of some kind. A loss of confidence, connection, culture, and dignity. The people of the forgotten town have become beggars in their own country. When the spark of alliance reignites through a blending of the two communities via sustenance it is snuffed out by antipathy.

TJ takes Yara to Durham Cathedral – a wonder of Norman architecture and a farrago of evolving styles. The hymns of William Byrd and Thomas Tallis echo – and TJ explains just a small part of the history of the cathedral, a history which was created by the hands of stonemasons. Yara talks about the loss of her country’s history to ceaseless wars and occupations. Syria is nestled in the ancient cradle of civilization – “Built by the Romans, destroyed by the regime. When I see a place like this, I feel hope. When the world does nothing, that’s when the regime wins. It takes strength to hope. It takes faith to hope. I have a friend who calls hope obscene. Maybe she’s right. But if I stop hoping my heart will stop beating.”

Yara’s hope is her photographs. She documents the people of the village and shows that they are worthy of being seen. She shows images of Syria accompanied by music written and performed by Saied Silback. It is a moment of cinematic reflection from Loach whose films have seen him politically blacklisted in certain places or winning Palme D’ors and career honorariums.


Loach is a proletarian filmmaker who chooses non-professional actors to populate many of his films. He gets to street level in his contemporary work. By filming in real locations he has created an archive where the unseen are seen.

The Syrians honor  their new neighbors by creating an intricate Miner’s Banner combining their heritages – the town is healing until a betrayal brings it tumbling down. TJ feels he has let people down by making promises he couldn’t keep. But it wasn’t him that broke the trust. A conversation TJ has with Charlie gets straight to the point. “Whenever our life goes to shit, we never look up, we only look down. Blame the poor bastards beneath us. It’s always their fault. That makes it easier to stamp on the poor bastards’ faces, doesn’t it?”

Yet, The Old Oak chooses not to judge the people but the system. Despite the misinformation and hatred being amplified in online echo chambers, there is offline shared humanity. There is camaraderie born out of looking into the eyes of people who are targets of mistrust and hatred and changing the point of view. Molly (Michelle Bell) goes from chasing Yara out of her home, to introducing her to women at a hair salon where she photographs the clients. Bashir (Yazan Al Sheteiwi), who was cruelly beaten at school where Max (Alex White) was a bystander, ensures the penitent lad has food from the Old Oak dining room. 

At eighty-seven The Old Oak is expected to be Loach’s last film and completes a loose trilogy containing I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You. The Old Oak uses dialogue and stories given to Laverty and Loach and showcases a version of the Durham Miners Gala where the insults that opened the film convert into pride filled cheers. 

The final signatures on Loach’s long petition for betterment are bold. Hope is not obscene. Hope is what will keep the heart of the United Kingdom beating. Shukran, comrade Loach. The Old Oak is an acorn seeding united growth.

Grade: A

Movie Review: ‘Rebel Moon – Part Two: The Scargiver’ is an Explosive Mess

Director: Zack Snyder
Writer: Shay Hatten, Kurt Johnstad, Zack Snyder
Stars: Sofia Boutella, Djimon Hounsou, Ed Skrein

Synopsis: Kora and surviving warriors prepare to defend Veldt, their new home, alongside its people against the Realm. The warriors face their pasts, revealing their motivations before the Realm’s forces arrive to crush the growing rebellion.

This review brings me no pleasure, I promise you. I can’t quite say the same about Rebel Moon – Part Two: The Scargiver. It’s not that there is no pleasure, it’s simply that the film hammers the viewer into a kind of submission in which it is difficult to feel much of anything. I somewhat enjoyed the first film in this series, even if in a mildly bemused fashion. You can see my thoughts here. The largest sin from director Zack Snyder shown in this new film is essentially tossing away any fun from the first film.

Although I did rewatch the first, it proved more than useless, for a few reasons. First, this one opens up with an elongated sequence of narration from Anthony Hopkins. Don’t get me wrong, I love to hear that man talk, but he basically sums up the first two hours of this fantasy story in about 2-3 minutes. While I understand the purpose is to catch people up who didn’t bother with the first, it immediately brings the idea of “content” to the foreground. There is clearly no care for story (even if it is just Seven Samurai with lasers), if it can all be described this quickly. So, essentially, it makes the original film shrink in your estimation as the opening credits begin. Secondly, if you thought that original film provided a lot of exposition, oh boy, buckle in.

So anyway, The Scargiver picks up where the last film dropped us off, they were victorious and killed the villain, or so they thought. They quickly figure out that he is still alive and on the way back to the peaceful village to kill them all. That’s right, besides picking up some cool heroes, the movie starts…where the first movie started. I hope you enjoyed that circle around the universe, because now we’re back. This is where the Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven comparisons get extra on the nose. It’s fine to have similarities, but to make that same movie with different weapons? I have questions for you, Netflix.

But these, strangely, are all things I can get past. Sadly, these are not the only problems. There is legitimately a scene in which one of our characters, previously imprisoned Titus (Djimon Hounsou) leads a discussion around a table imploring each and every one of them to tell their story. He starts with his flashback and they literally go around the table elucidating their individual motivations and willingness to fight and die. This is truly the mark of a weak screenplay. Clearly, they could not figure out how to make us understand these character’s desires within the bounds of naturalistic conversation, so hey, its your turn to talk. Tell us why you hate the Empire, err Motherworld. These scenes are exhausting and also fail to make you care about these histories.

There are a few saving graces, though. Our lead warrior Kora (Sofia Boutella) with yet another more detailed tragic backstory, managed to come out mostly unscathed by the messy script and direction. Now, that doesn’t mean that her burgeoning romance with farmboy Gunnar (Michael Huisman) works, but hey, you can only do so much. Hounsou also is able to perform in a way that not only preserves his honor as a hero, but allows him to emote effectively. Of course, Snyder cuts away from his face trembling with emotion so we can see another flashback action sequence, but what do we really expect at this point?

And yeah, the action. It’s definitively cool, and it seems like Snyder can do this in his sleep. The final climactic, one-on-one battle 100% works. Of course, there is a glut of slow motion sequences, but if you’re going to get hung up on that, I’m not sure why you’re watching a Snyder flick to begin with. I will say that, unlike many action directors, the violence is well plotted, easy to follow geographically, and is ultimately satisfying. It’s just a real shame about…well, the rest.

Unless you love every, and I mean every, movie that Snyder has ever created, Rebel Moon – Part Two: The Scargiver will be an exercise in patience and frustration. The film could make a great 15-minute sizzle reel, but that’s where the entertainment ends. It is rare that a sequel can make a first film worse in retrospect, but here we sit. The fact that Snyder has stated that he wants to make six (!) films in this universe (not to mention endless director’s cuts), shows us that storytelling is not paramount for his work or for certain streamers. Content has become king, even if all of us poor subjects are the ones who suffer.

Grade: D

Chasing The Gold: What to Watch For At Cannes 2024

It’s that time of the year again where all eyes are on the Mediterranean coast for arguably the most glamorous film festival of them all. It is time for Cannes and, after the debut of Anatomy Of A Fall and Zone of Interest, both of whom won here and stormed their way to Oscar gold, the anticipation is high for these next releases. Major names are attached, some with winning history at Cannes (Jacques Audiard, David Cronenberg), are part of the competition, out of competition (Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga) with other notables coming through Un Certain Regard. The glitz of the red carpet and the very judgmental nature of the audience raises the stakes for all of these films, especially in front of a jury of their peers led by Greta Gerwig. Here’s a sample of what will come out.

The Apprentice – Dir. Ali Abbasi, CAN/DEN/IRE/USA

There’s a good reason Cannes accepted this film into competition. With the Presidential election months away, Donald Trump continues to be relevant and writer Gabriel Sherman wrote a script focusing on the early years of Trump’s career under the eyes of his lawyer, Roy Cohn, and raised under his influence alongside his wife, Ivana, and father, Fred. Sebastian Stan, Jeremy Strong, Maria Bakalova, and Martin Donovan star in director Ali Abbasi’s (Holy Spider) biopic of the man who played a massive role in Trump’s career and how Trump was shaped after the 1980s. 

Kinds of Kindness – Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, USA/UK

Instead of going to Venice as he did with The Favourite and Poor Things, Yorgos Lanthimos has his immediate follow-up here with an anthology piece starring Emma Stone, Jesse Plemons, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qually, and Hong Chau. Reteaming with his fellow countrywoman, co-writer Efthimis Filippou, it is back to a modern tale of that surreast feel Lanthimos is known for. What exactly to expect here is unknown, but it doesn’t matter. Only thing to do is hold on for the ride that Lanthimos loves to bring us on as with films like Dogtooth and The Lobster. 

Limonov: The Ballad – Dir. Kirill Serebrennikov, FRA/ITA/SPA/RUS

Ben Whishaw plays the Russian writer and politician Eduard Limonov from his years as an exile from the former Soviet Union and now spending his life in the United States and France. While not a complete portrait of the controversial author (who died in 2020 in Russia as a neo-fascist advocate), Limonov tracks the life of this radical who found his footing in subcultures and made himself into a well-known literary figure. It was co-scripted by Pawel Pawlikowski, who at one point was going to also direct the film before passing it onto the Russian-born Serebrennikov, whose last film, Tchaikovsky’s Wife, played at Cannes in 2022. 

Megalopolis Dir. Francis Ford Coppola, USA

This is probably the biggest film to come out this year because it has been the 85-year-old’s pet project for decades. After many stalls, Coppola independently made what probably will be his last film with Adam Driver, Giancarlo Esposito, Jon Voight, Laurence Fishburne, Jason Schwartzman, and Talia Shire leading an ensemble cast. It is a science fiction story of a city being rebuilt by an ambitious architect conflicting with the corrupt mayor and the mayor’s daughter (Nathalie Emmanuel) deciding to go out on her own to discover what she hasn’t seen. Coppola is two-time winner of the Palme d’Or with The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, cementing him as a legend at Cannes. If he releases one last masterpiece, he may become the first director to win a third. 

Parthenope – Dir. Paolo Sorrentino, Italy

Following his semi-autobiographical The Hand of God, Sorrentino stays in Naples with a story about the titled woman who, in Greek mythology, drowned herself and washed up on a rock in Naples. But, according to Sorrentino’s story, she is not a myth, and it follows her life from the 1950s through today. Gary Oldman stars alongside an ensemble including Celeste Dalla Porta, Silvia Degrandi, Isabella Ferrari, Silvio Orlando, and Luisa Ranieri as the mystery of the non-mythical woman is traced throughout the decades. 

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Movie Review: ‘LaRoy, Texas’ is a Pale Imitation of Better Black Comedies

Director: Shane Atkinson
Writer: Shane Atkinson
Stars: Steve Zahn, John Magaro, Dylan Baker

Synopsis: When Ray discovers that his wife is cheating on him, he decides he’s going to kill himself. His plans suddenly change when a stranger mistakes him for a low-rent hitman.

LaRoy, Texas is a Coen Brothers-inspired black comedy noir. It has all the elements for that particular mix to succeed; a hot and unbothered blonde, a down-on-his-luck reluctant protagonist, a sneaky detective, and a smug villain. But it lacks one of the most important elements of this specific sub-genre, and that is a captivating script. 

The feature starts with a simple premise, a driver picking up a hitchhiker. What could go wrong? With that simplicity on the table, LaRoy, Texas starts with an expected conversation that fails to build up the tension to the ensuing crime. The film soon moves to another world; a bored former beauty queen wife and her loser husband, his emotionally abusive brother, and a murder in between. Both worlds collide and we find ourselves watching as the husband flees the city with the help of a friend.

The hitman shows up in the film, oozing a presence that promises menace but borders on cheesy, overt wickedness. Dylan Baker plays him with an in-your-face performance, not as subtle as I would have preferred, but still enjoyable to watch, although in more than one instance I sensed a Steve Buscemi impact underneath the surface. John Magaro shows a major departure from his Past Lives self, and here he plays a character that is difficult to sympathize with, or at least, he lacks the tools to bring him the proper sympathy. 

The scene stealer, however, is Steve Zahn as Detective Skip. He’s funny and sly. He brings to the role the perfect blend of goofiness and pseudo-confident masculinity. Other actors are somehow forgettable, as the script doesn’t allow particular moments to shine, and the characters’ growth is inhibited by the attempts to tie in different storylines and revolve them around the central anticipated crime.

The film tries so hard to belong to the world that it is displaying. It is more or less a spectacle of these characters and how they navigate a worn-out world. Small-town motels and family dynamics share the spotlight with the main plot, competing for the center stage.

I found The Velvet Saddle Motel the true hero of the story. It’s the place where people cheat, murder, conspire, and attempt suicide. With its pink neon sign and seedy vibes, The Velvet Saddle brings out the best and the worst in our heroes and villains, especially in a world where there’s neither of these simple classifications. Writer-director Shane Atkinson ties an invisible thread between all major and minor plotlines and despite The Velvet Saddle not being that impressive of a Chekhov’s Gun, it carries some weight that adds to the presence of the film location.

This is an overall enjoyable feat, heavily influenced by the Coens and Noah Hawley’s American desert-town-world in Fargo (the series) where the good and the bad seem to blur, creating a large portion of grey that has nothing to do with either. Atkinson doesn’t try to condemn or commend any of the characters. He allows them a breather amidst the insanity and the ridiculous turn of events. 

LaRoy, Texas doesn’t leave audiences hungry but also doesn’t satisfy the senses like other black comedy/noir dramas do. There’s still a lot that could’ve been cut through, a lot that stalled and lingered especially when it comes to dialogue -Atkins’s weakest link- but if anyone is in the mood for a film with a bowl of popcorn and a cold drink.

Grade: C+

Movie Review: ‘Challengers’ is an Erotic Ace

Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writer: Justin Kuritzkes
Stars: Zendaya, Mike Faist, Josh O’Connor

Synopsis: Tashi, a former tennis prodigy turned coach is married to a champion on a losing streak. Her strategy for her husband’s redemption takes a surprising turn when he must face off against his former best friend and Tashi’s former boyfriend.


Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers is sweaty, sizzling, and so sexy. It pumps and throbs with desire and power –through the lens of professional tennis. The opening shots establish we aren’t just watching a spectator sport, we are watching the spectator; Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) and what she’s seeing is intercourse. We are voyeurs and Luca Guadagnino trains our eye to the hyper-erotic. Challengers is the love triangle film of the year and possibly one of best films about carnal and professional drive, ever.

Utilizing a non-linear narrative, Challengers feeds the audience all they need to know about what motivates the characters, but also leaves certain aspects unexplained. The first shot is the ‘now’ (2019) the country club challenger match in New Rochelle sponsored by some random tire shop – where the three protagonists metaphorically come together to consummate their decades long love affair, not only with tennis, but with each other. Love and hate co-exist between all of them, for the sport and for each other. Justin Kuritzkes’ clever Ménage à trois drama uses the tennis court as the space for them to expend their galvanizing chemistry.

In the lead up to the grimy match we see Tashi Duncan push her now burned out former Grand Slam winning husband Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) through a punishing training regime. He has been injured (scars and calluses show that professional tennis is brutal) and his confidence is gone. He doesn’t particularly want to play any longer and is being beaten by people who are not even on the seeded table. He’s sliding down the ATP rankings. Despite Tashi, who is both his manager and trainer, telling him to “crush that little bitch,” Art is having trouble dealing with the pressure to always come out on top. 

Flashback to a young Art Donaldson and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) playing the junior doubles at the US Open. The best friends are in sync and playing with, and for, each other. That is until they see rising star Tashi and her intense balletic match with a bad-tempered opponent. For the first time, they become rivals trying to one up the other in a battle for Tashi’s attention. The boarding school rich kids see what tennis is for an up and comer like Tashi. It’s not just sponsorship or riding the high of serotonin and endorphin release – it’s a relationship and commitment to a life-changing beast. 

Tashi becomes a siren luring the two into a world where she is the locus for their repressed desires. She sizes them both up in seconds and pits them against each other by being the acceptable heterosexual avatar for Patrick’s bisexuality. She tells them tennis is about connecting and good tennis is about almost being in love with your opponent on the court (the Goldilocks dose of noradrenaline). Despite her comparative youth, there is nothing innocent about Tashi. She is already power playing. She is already in control. Tennis is life – because everything is about sizing up your opponent and using whatever means you can to unbalance them and force errors. Advantage, Tashi.

A visit to their shabby hotel room has Patrick and Art admitting their own sexual awakenings as boarding school roomies happened at the age of twelve where Patrick taught Art how to beat off. Art is embarrassed by the story, Patrick is proud. Tashi is immediately clued in as to how Patrick feels about Art. An almost threesome happens where Tashi makes out with them both simultaneously and then leans back when she has ensured Patrick and Art are passionately kissing each other. She has them hooked. Whoever wins the match the following day gets Tashi’s number and attention. Despite saying she’s not a “home wrecker” — she is. 

Initially, Patrick comes out on top. But in Tashi’s eyes he’s not a tennis player. His arrogance, swagger, and dilettantism (plus enormous downstairs package) make him an excellent lover. But his lack of understanding the true rules of the game means he’s excited about the wrong things. He went pro too early and isn’t winning. He jokes about Tashi and Art slumming it at Stanford playing college tennis. He’s turned on when Art begins to make active plays for Tashi (you’ll never forget Patrick chomping on Art’s churro). 

An argument ensues in which Art has managed to psych out his opponent even if Patrick finds it amusing. Tashi knows that she is beautiful – she has her own devoted fan club. Every match she plays is an event. Patrick chafes at her suggestions that he could be better. “I’m your equal, your peer,” he screams. But deep down he knows he’s not. It’s all bravado. He storms out of her room wearing her “I Told Ya” t-shirt. Later that afternoon, Tashi suffers a career ending accident on court. Art is the one to pick her up because he has been waiting in the wings to openly worship her. Patrick is the one who is forever expelled from their lives.

Tashi’s immense intelligence and acumen becomes affixed on building Art into a world class player. She’s savvy, she knows that now she can’t play; she can train and create a champion. But her simmering resentment for looking after her “little white boys” is barely concealed. Tashi and Art are a power couple – sponsorship darlings, but Justin Kuritzkes’ script reveals their competing obsessions. Art loves Tashi. Tashi loves tennis. She says she’d murder to have an injury recovery like his. “I’d kill an old lady or a child,” with her mother (Nada Despotovich) and her daughter, Lily (A.J. Lister) chattering and ignored in the background. You have to wonder how much of a joke it is.

Josh O’Connor’s down and out Patrick in the present is the essence of hubristic failure. He’s broke, he’s hungry, he’s a bed hopping player but he’s just using sex to ensure he doesn’t have to live in his car. When he realizes he has the opportunity to have a rematch with Art – the man he thinks stole his life, he truly starts playing the “game” again – both on and off the court. Tashi plays it too. The only person who seems to be mostly in the dark is Art until he sees on the court through his secret language with Patrick what has been happening behind his back.

Guadagnino’s direction along with Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography and Marco Costa’s editing creates a masterpiece of erotic cinema. Zendaya is stunning but even with her lithe and beautiful body she’s not the main event; she’s the conduit. The main event is the mostly clothed “fucking” on the tennis court between Art and Patrick. The sex is there, and it is queer as hell. All the other sex in the film has been a tease – ended up in coitus interruptus or never shown reaching a climax. 

Challengers is a masterpiece of hyperbole. It’s hilarious, deliberately over the top, and forces people to get into its deliciously perverse groove. The soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is employed to amp up the crowd, but also to camp up the film. Sticky short shorts, wet designer tennis shirts being discarded to reveal the male form, banana eating in one bite. Slow motion, tennis ball camera, Josh O’Connor in ruffled beast mode, psychosexual tension in spades and the final “money” shot bring Challengers to its orgasmic ending. Love is a blood sport and Guadagnino’s titillating tennis is game-set-match. Juicy, sticky, and horny as hell – Challengers is dynamite.

Grade: A+