Screening Room: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, The Boogeyman, Shooting Stars, Esme My Love & More


Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

by Hope Madden

Do you remember how cool Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was? It was the coolest! A film that celebrated everything a comic book film could be, everything a hero could be, and everything a cartoon could be.

Expect all that again as Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) returns, this time sharing screentime and character arc almost 50/50 with Spider-Woman Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), who starts us off with her own troubled tale of balancing great responsibility with great power. Things get so bad she has to abandon this universe, and her one real friend.

That friend has his own troubles. Mr. and Mrs. Morales (do not call them by their first names) know Miles is keeping something from them, a problem that’s only exacerbated by some goofy villain-of-the-week (Jason Schwartzman, priceless).

Or is Miles taking The Spot less seriously than he should?

He is! No matter, he gets to help Gwen and bunches of other (often hilarious) Spider-Men (and -Women and -Cats and -Dinosaurs). But it all goes to hell in a riotous celebration of animated style and spot-on writing that simultaneously tease and embrace comic book lore.

Schwartzman is not the only killer new talent crawling the web. Daniel Kaluuya lends his voice to the outstanding punk rock Spider-Man, Hobie; Issa Rae is the badass on wheels Jessica Drew; Karan Soni voices the huggable Pavitr, or Spider-Man India. Rachel Dratch plays essentially an animated version of herself as Miles’s high school principal, and the great Oscar Isaac delivers all the serious lines as Spider-Man Miguel O’Hara. Add in the returning Brian Tyree-Henry, Luna Lauren Velez and Mahershala Ali, and that is a star-studded lineup. Studs aplenty!

That wattage is almost outshone by the animation. Every conceivable style, melding one scene to the next, bringing conflict, love and heroism to startling, vivid, utterly gorgeous life.

Writers Phil Lords and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie, The Mitchells vs. the Machines) return, bringing Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings writer Dave Callaham along for the sequel. Their story is wild but never illogical, delivering a heady balance of quantum physics, Jungian psychology and pop culture homages while rarely feeling like a self-congratulatory explosion of capitalism. Heart strings are tugged, and it helps if you’ve seen the previous installment. (If you haven’t, that’s on you, man. Rectify that situation immediately.)

If there is a drawback (and judging the reaction of some of the youngsters in my screening, there may be), it’s that Across the Spider-Verse is a cliffhanger. If you’re cool with an amazing second act in a three-story arc (The Empire Strikes Back, The Two Towers), you’ll probably be OK with it. Maybe warn your kids, but don’t let it dissuade you from taking in this animated glory on the biggest screen you can find.


Shooting Stars

by George Wolf

It’s a good time for basketball stories. Ben Affleck’s Air landed as a vital addition to the Michael Jordan legend, White Men Can’t Jump got a serviceable update, Boston and Miami just finished a thrilling NBA semi-final while Denver routed LeBron and the Lakers to make it to their first NBA finals.

But King James is still in the game this year, at least on screen. Peacock’s Shooting Stars relives LeBron’s days with the Akron Fab Four on his way to being hailed by Sports Illustrated as “the Chosen One” while he was still a teen.

Based on the book by James and Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger, the film gives a dramatic treatment to much of the territory covered so effectively in the 2008 documentary More Than a Game.

James (Marquis “Mookie” Cook) and longtime friends Dru Joyce (Caleb McLaughlin from Stranger Things), Sian Cotton (Cobra Kai‘s Khalil Everage) and Willie McGee (Avery S. Willis, Jr.) grew up playing basketball together on teams coached by Dru, Sr. (Wood Harris). When it was time for high school, the Fab Four all eschewed local favorite Buchtel High and enrolled at Akron St. Vincent St. Mary, to ensure the diminutive “Lil Dru” would get a fair shot to play.

With no-nonsense coaching from college vet Frank Dambrot (Dermot Mulroney) and the addition of Romeo Travis (Sterling “Scoot” Henderson) to the inner circle, St. V’s Fab Five quickly became a national powerhouse.

Director Chris Robinson keeps things on a nice even keel, pulling solid performances from all with a good balance of off-court camaraderie and hoop excitement (the latter buoyed by future top-5 NBA pick Henderson and the Univ. of Oregon’s Cook – who has LeBron’s high school dunking pose down pat). Writers Juel Taylor (Creed II), Frank E. Flowers and Tony Rettenmaier do an admirable job of distinct characterizations, but with James and his business partner Maverick Carter as executive producers, a sanitized, almost after-school vibe starts to creep in, especially for anyone who enjoyed the home video authenticity of More Than a Game.

We know what became of James, but no matter where you stand on the GOAT debate, Shooting Stars will remind you that how he turned out continues to be taken for granted. In the public eye since adolescence, James is now the NBA’s all-time scoring leader, sends kids to college and speaks out on social justice while enduring the social media scrutiny MJ never imagined. And to this day, his biggest misstep has been an ill-advised television special.

Still, LeBron has been insistent that Shooting Stars “is our story,” which is indeed how the film ultimately feels. And while it’s rooted in one special team from Ohio that earned trophies and built some lifelong friendships, there are also healthy reminders of the universal life lessons that can come from organized sports and committed coaches.

That’s a winning combination.

Diary of a Mad Woman

The Attachment Diaries

by Hope Madden

Tell me you’re having a bad day without telling me you’re having a bad day.

Argentinian filmmaker Valentin Javier Diment knows how to articulate desperation with nothing more onscreen than a sidewalk, heavy rain, and a broken heel. From there, The Attachment Diaries sets up an eerie power dynamic between forlorn Carla (Jimena Anganuzzi) – pregnant, alone, very wet and in need of help – and Irina (Lola Berthet).

It’s 1970-something. Irina is a doctor willing to perform abortions, but Carla, is too far along. If she’s willing, Carla can stay with Irina, give birth and make some money with an arranged adoption.

Diment invests time in both characters, neither of whom is quite what she seems. The more we learn about each the less we really know, but trouble’s brewing, that’s for sure. And the greater the intrigue, the stranger the film.

The filmmaker wades hip deep into triggers: abortion, self-harm, sexual assault. And his approach unsentimental. No, it is blunt. Nothing is sacred, or to be honest, even interesting enough for Irina’s thoughtful consideration. Trauma and mental health are not treated delicately, either. No kid gloves, but loads of intentionality – Carla is often as shocked by Irina’s blasé attitude as we are, and Carla’s no delicate flower.

Berthet and Anganuzzi deliver everything a moviegoer needs from the heroes and villains of this twisted tale. Berthet is the hard candy shell to Anganuzzi’s messy middle, and neither character is easy to root for. But together, their almost hostile yet somehow tender chemistry fuels the human madness developing in the film.

Flashes of Hitchcock and Almodovar (that’s a fun pairing!) flavor the film’s aesthetic and movement, Diment blending inspiration with his own impeccable sense of detail to create a film full of intensity, eccentricity and style.

The filmmaker sets up gorgeous shots, both to keep you off balance and for the sheer odd beauty of them. His use of color is also fascinating. At first it feels a little too on-the-nose, but the truth is that, once again, he’s underscoring a change in the power dynamic.

The escalating lunacy nearly tips to melodrama or even parody, but the duo at the center of it all manages to hold it all together somehow. The Attachment Diaries is a dark, bizarre mystery thriller that flirts with B-movie status in a way that somehow makes the experience richer than it had any real right to be.

The Politics of Sin

Padre Pio

by Brandon Thomas

Shortly after the end of the first World War, a priest named Padre Pio (Shia LaBeouf) finds himself suffering an enormous crisis of faith. Having had health issues that kept him from the front lines of the war, Pio’s guilt is slowly consuming him.

Outside the walls of the monastery, a less internal battle is brewing. Many townspeople, upset with fascist landowners and their own working conditions, are drawn to the rising Socialist Party. They see the town’s first free election as a way to make their voices heard. When the old rulers see the tide turning against them, violence becomes their only way of holding onto power.

Director Abel Ferrara made a name for himself by directing some of the most notable exploitation movies of the late ‘70s, ‘80s, and early ‘90s. Films like Ms. 45 and Bad Lieutenant were cultural firestarters in their day, and might even draw the ire of Film Twitter in the present should it stumble upon those seedy gems. However, in the latter half of his career, Ferrara has been drawn to more contemplative works. Pasolini, Tommaso, and Siberia show the filmmaker at his most introspective. Instead of trying to provoke an audience with violence and graphic sex, Ferrara is now trying to get them to look inward through quiet but haunted protagonists. 

Padre Pio is Ferrara’s attempt to subtly blend religion and politics, though neither topic is given its due. Unlike Paul Schrader’s more recent First Reformed, Ferrara’s film is far too disjointed and muddled to prove his own point. The religious fervor found in LaBeouf’s scenes never coherently connects with the film’s political half. There are hints at Ferrara’s initial intentions, but unfortunately very little of that appears on screen. 

LaBeouf’s casting is a major blunder. The actor has turned in very good work in movies like The Peanut Butter Falcon, Fury, and American Honey, but as an iconic Italian priest, he is horribly miscast. While the entirety of the film is in English, the bulk of the cast is made up of Italian and other European actors. LaBeouf’s distracting American accent drags any discerning viewer out of the film immediately. His inclusion, and the messiness of the overall storytelling, makes Padre Pio feel like a bad movie-within-a-movie from an Apatow comedy.

Ferrara’s ideas here are compelling and might’ve worked in movies of their own. When crammed together as competing – not complementary – narratives, the film never finds its footing and feels like a slog even at a reasonable 1 hour and 44 minutes.

Lights On For Safety

The Boogeyman

by George Wolf

You see that a new horror flick is PG-13, and you might begin making some assumptions.

There will be jump scares, some dream sequence fake-outs, maybe a conveniently placed box ‘O clues. It’s hard to blame you for these expectations, and The Boogeyman does little to upend them.

Therapist Dr. William Harper (Chris Messina) recently lost his wife in a car accident. His teenage daughter Sadie (Yellowjackets‘ Sophie Thatcher) is withdrawing, while his younger one, Sawyer (supercute Vivien Lyra Blair from Bird Box and the Obi-Wan Kenobi series), has developed a strong fear of the dark.

And just when the family is trying to get back into some sort of routine, the troubled Lester Billings (David Dastmalchian) crashes the Dr.’s office with a wild claim.

Lester didn’t kill his three kids like the cops are claiming. A monster did it. A monster that lives in the darkness. A monster that follows you to places like home offices.

Writers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods help adapt a Stephen King short story with little of the tension or thrills that drove their script for A Quiet Place. Director Rob Savage (Host) has some visual fun with Sawyer’s round nite lite rolling through dark spaces, but it isn’t long before the familiar beats, questionable internal logic and middling creature effects bog the film’s 98 minutes down in tedium.

The cast (including Marin Ireland as a battle-weary Mrs. Billings) is strong and willing, but the darkened playground of The Boogeyman is only for the scaredy-est of cats. And for horror fans wanting another PG-13 gem like The Ring, or a grief metaphor as deeply felt as The Babadook, the long wait just gets longer.

Growing Pains

Falcon Lake

by Hope Madden

Co-writer/director Charlotte Le Bon crafts a melancholy poem to that fleeting moment of the last real summer of your childhood with her moody coming-of-age tale Falcon Lake.

Thirteen (almost 14) year-old Bastien (Joseh Engel) and his family go to visit friends on a lake for a couple of weeks over the summer. Bastien and his little brother will room with Chloe (Sara Montpetit), two years older, gorgeous, a little weird, a little bored. As Bastien tags along, Chloe is the one we see playing tug of war with adulthood.

The summer orbits these two kids, navigating the vanishing moments of childhood, blinking into the blinding future. Le Bon captures these moments perfectly, aided immeasurably by two truly wonderful performances.

Montpetit unveils something vulnerable beneath Chloe’s capricious behavior. But it’s Engel who mesmerizes. His smile, genuine as it can be, is uplifting and heartbreaking in equal measure. He punctuates a hauntingly quiet performance with bursts of joy, silliness and tenderness that make Bastien achingly lovable. But more than that, he’s authentic. As lovely and lyrical as Falcon Lake can be, rather than crafting a romantic nostalgia about innocence lost, Le Bon delivers a slice of life.

Cinematographer Kristof Brandl’s camera evokes the mood, lonesome silhouettes, isolating crowds, awkward intimacy. Le Bon exhibits a delicate if controlled touch to her tale of young love. Few topics are more oft tread in cinema, on stage, in print or in song. But Falcon Lake, though its honesty gives it the feel of familiarity, never seems tired or worn.

Can’t Go Home Again

Esme, My Love

by Hope Madden

We don’t know much about Esme (Audrey Grace Marshall) or Hannah (Stacey Weckstein), really.

Director/co-writer Cory Choy’s feature debut Esme, My Love keeps us in the dark about a lot of things. Choy leaves us to piece together what we can of the duo’s mysterious trip into the woods, just as Hannah leaves Esme to do.

More brooding mystery thriller than outright horror, Choy’s film plays on your imagination with gorgeous sound design and cinematography. An eerie mismatch of voiceover and image in the early going suggests that not everything with Hannah is A-OK.

Ostensibly, she’s taking her daughter to visit the old, abandoned family stomping grounds so the two can spend some time together. Esme, Hannah suggests, is sick. She doesn’t seem sick. She seems fine. Hannah, on the other hand…

The atmosphere Choy develops creates a hypnotic world perfectly suited to Hannah’s psychological unbending. Thanks to two malleable performances, that meticulously crafted atmosphere pays off.

Choy and co-writer Laura Allen refuse to spoon-feed you information. Their structure is loose, their explanations all but nonexistent. You’re left to parse through the images and sensations, determine what’s real and what isn’t, and decide things for yourself.

The ambiguity often works in the film’s favor. Esme, My Love possesses a brooding, nightmarish quality that, along with the two performances, keeps you guessing and interested. But to be honest, a touch more structure would have strengthened the film, which begins to feel lovely but unmoored before it’s over.

At a full 1:45, the film’s fluid storytelling and disjointed imagery flirt with self-indulgence.

Esme, My Love never offers any solid catharsis, any true clarity. Yes, you can guess the meaning of the climax, but with so much guesswork throughout, it feels less like ambiguity and more like a cheat. Or worse still, indecisiveness.

While frustrating, it’s not enough to sink a film that submerges you in a dark family tragedy and leaves you stranded.

Fright Club: Brothers in Horror Movies

Big thanks to filmmaker Jeremiah Kipp, whose exceptional horror Slapface inspired our topic. We look into the best brothers (or sometimes worst brothers!) in horror. Be sure to listen in because Jeremiah has some thoughts and recs you won’t want to miss.

5) The Lost Boys (1987)

Joel Schumacher spins a yarn of Santa Carla, a town with a perpetual coastal carnival and the nation’s highest murder rate. A roving band of cycle-riding vampires haunts the carnival and accounts for the carnage, until Diane Weist moves her family to town. While hottie Michael (Jason Patric) is being seduced into the demon brethren, younger brother Sam (Corey Haim) teams up with local goofballs the Frog brothers (Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander) to stake all bloodsuckers.

There are two obvious sets of brothers, one that’s falling apart and one that acts exclusively as a team, the band of vampires also represents a brother hood. This becomes clearest when Max (Edward Herrmann) makes it clear that his intention is to have Weist’s character play mother to all the boys.

4) Basket Case (1982) 

This film is fed by a particularly twin-linked anxiety. Can anyone really be the love of one twin’s life, and if so, where does that leave the other twin? More than that, though, the idea of separating conjoined twins is just irresistible to dark fantasy. Rock bottom production values and ridiculous FX combine with the absurdist concept and poor acting to result in an entertaining splatter comedy a bit like Peter Jackson’s early work.

When super-wholesome teenage Duane moves into a cheap and dangerous New York flophouse, it’s easy to become anxious for him. But that’s not laundry in his basket, Belial is in the basket -Duane’s deformed, angry, bloodthirsty, jealous twin brother – but not just a twin, a formerly conjoined twin. What he really is, of course, is Duane’s id – his Hyde, his Hulk, his Danny DeVito. And together the brothers tear a bloody, vengeful rip in the fabric of family life.

3) Goodnight Mommy (2014)

There is something eerily beautiful about Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s rural Austrian horror Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh, Ich seh).

During one languid summer, twin brothers Lukas and Elias await their mother’s return from the hospital. But when their mom comes home, bandaged from the cosmetic surgery she underwent, the brothers fear more has changed than just her face.

Inside this elegantly filmed environment, where sun dappled fields lead to leafy forests, the filmmakers mine a kind of primal childhood fear. There’s a subtle lack of compassion that works the nerves beautifully, because it’s hard to feel too badly for the boys or for their mother. You don’t wish harm on any of them, but at the same time, their flaws make all three a bit terrifying.

Performances by young brothers Lukas and Elias Schwarz compel interest, while Susanne Wuest’s cagey turn as the boys’ mother propels the mystery. It’s a hypnotic, bucolic adventure as visually arresting as it is utterly creepy.

2) Frailty (2001) 

“He can make me dig this stupid hole, but he can’t make me pray.”

Aah, adolescence. We all bristle against our dads’ sense of morality and discipline, right? Well, some have a tougher time of it than others. Paxton stars as a widowed, bucolic country dad awakened one night by an angel – or a bright light shining off the angel on top of a trophy on his ramshackle bedroom bookcase. Whichever – he understands now that he and his sons have been called by God to kill demons.

Paxton, who directs, leans on excellent performances from young Jeremy Sumpter as the obedient younger son and Matt O’Leary as our point of view character, the brother whose adolescent rebellion will pit him against the father he loves and the brother he’d like to protect.

1) Dead Ringers (1988) 

The film is about separation anxiety, with the effortlessly melancholy Jeremy Irons playing a set of gynecologist twins on a downward spiral. Cronenberg doesn’t consider this a horror film at all. Truth is, because the twin brothers facing emotional and mental collapse are gynecologists, Cronenberg is wrong.

Irons is brilliant as Elliot and Beverly Mantle, bringing such flair and, eventually, childlike charm to the performance you feel almost grateful. Like some of the greats, he manages to create two very distinct yet appropriately linked personalities, and Cronenberg’s interest is the deeply painful power shift as they try and fail to find independence from the other. The film’s pace is slow and its horror subtle, but the uncomfortable moments are peculiarly, artfully Cronenberg.

Hope Madden and George Wolf … get it?