by George Wolf
Take two longtime friends on the verge of going their separate ways, and throw in one night of epic partying before they graduate. There will be hijinks, conflict, feelings expressed, and resolution.
We know this formula, right?
Not so fast. Expanding their Emergency short from 2018, director Carey Williams and writer K.D. Dávila run those familiar tropes through a tense, in-the-moment lens that upends convention while still delivering a consistent layer of laughter.
Sean (RJ Cyler from Power Rangers and The Harder They Fall) and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins, Black Box and The Underground Railroad) have two months until they graduate Buchanan college. Their plan is to make history by becoming the first Black men to complete Buchanan’s Legendary Party Tour. They’ve managed to score all seven necessary invites, but a complication arises.
There’s a passed-out underage white girl in their living room.
Kunle’s instinct is to call 911, but Sean quickly reminds him that Black folks have been shot for far less than what it might appear is going on.
And so the two friends decide to deal with the situation themselves, adding their pal Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) to the plan while the unconscious girl’s sister (Sabrina Carpenter) and two of her friends stay in pursuit via phone tracking.
Williams does a masterful job juggling tones. Early on, the terrific performances from Cyler and Watkins get us invested in the friendship before Williams increases the pressure. He’s able to blend some terrifying dread into the ridiculous nature of the situation with a quiet confidence that deepens the real-world stakes.
Dávila, fresh off writing the Oscar-nominated short Please Hold, again mines law enforcement anxieties with deft precision. Her transition to a feature-length screenplay is seamless, sharpening the narrative with clever, organic plot turns and the characters with authentically grounded humor.
From clueless white allies to the distance between “Black excellence” and “thug,” Emergency covers plenty of socially conscious ground. And though a beat or two may seem less than subtle, the film never panders.
So we get the two friends ready to explore the future, searching for their place in the world. But this wild night of partying holds more sobering lessons than we’re used to seeing.
For these young men, it’s about how quickly their perception of the world can change forever, and the unrelenting weight of navigating how the world sees them.
Downton Abbey: A New Era
by Hope Madden
The Crawleys exit the roaring 20s a bit cash-strapped (can’t fix the roof but can holiday en masse, butlers in tow). Fans of the long-running series, now unleashing its second feature film, can rest easy. Heads held high, the family is ready to face a new decade with new leadership and the same old posh spirit.
Elegant escapism of the breeziest order, Downton Abbey: A New Era follows the idle rich through the travails of trying to remain both idle and rich. Now about that attic.
It seems a film producer hopes to shoot a movie in Downton. Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) wants no part of it, but Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is running the show now. She hates to seem common, but the fee will fix those leaks.
Of course, the servants are thrilled to have real-life movie stars in the building. All except Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), who can’t bear to see the family stoop so low. Why, the Queen of England sat right at that table!
Meanwhile, Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith, scene-stealing, as is her way) is surprised to have inherited a French villa from a man she knew many wistful years ago. Mysterious? Or is it scandalous?!
So, off half the family goes to investigate, leaving Lady Mary and the servants to contend with the handsome director (Hugh Dancy), charming actor (Dominic West) and dour actress (Laura Haddock).
The old gang has fun stretching their familiar characters a bit for the big screen, although director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) has a tough time staging the interior conversations as anything more than expensive TV set pieces.
Still, the expansive grounds are gorgeous and Nice is gorgeous, and it can be restful to spend a full two hours where the stakes are no higher than whether or not the world will remember granny as a tramp.
Downton Abbey is a really well-dressed, well-acted, well-produced, uptight soap opera. Droll dialog, stunning locales and exquisite costuming elevate each scene to something more than a guilty pleasure, but the film’s sites never veer from its target audience.
by George Wolf
For anyone who’s still wary of the Gaspar Noé sensory assault in full feature length form, Lux Æterna offers a slight variation.
Oh, he’s still beating us about the face and neck with psychedelic imaging, pulsating rhythms and immersive colors, he’s just keeping it to under an hour this time. And, even bringing along a dare-I-say lighthearted touch to this meta mashup of cinema and witchcraft.
Most everyone here is playing themselves, starting right at the top with Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg talking shop. They swap stories, laugh heartily at their “shit films” and eventually get down to the business of making “God’s Work,” a post-modern tale of witches.
Dalle is directing, Gainsbourg is starring, and once on set, the laughter gives way to a cascade of madness and hysterics, rendered even more disorienting by Noé’s consistent use of split screen formatics. Not only is following both sides often challenging, but anyone sensitive to flashing lights might well be overwhelmed.
The “God’s Work” producer is hatching a plan to get Dalle fired from the project. Gainsbourg is juggling trouble at home and unsolicited pitches from an aspiring director (Karl Glusman from Noé’s Love), while her female co-stars (including Abbey Lee and Clara Deshayes) face a string of indignities.
Noé intersperses it all with clips and quotes from films and filmmakers he admires, and when a lighting miscue becomes a flashpoint for total chaos on the production, Noé’s embrace of the breakdown is clear.
This is where his art thrives, and Lux Æterna finds Noé nearly winking at his own reputation. Longtime aficionados may feel a bit slighted, but any neophytes will get a healthy appetizer to help decide if you’re up for bigger portions.
by Hope Madden
Alex Garland bats 1.000 with his third feature, Men, a terrifying look at the complicated aftermath of trauma.
Jessie Buckley (flawless, as always) plays Harper, a woman in need of some time alone. She rents a gorgeous English manor from proper country gentleman Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) and plans to recuperate from, well, a lot.
Garland unveils Harper’s backstory little by little, each time slightly altering our perception of the film. The more about Harper we learn, the more village folk we meet: vicar, surly teen, pub owner, police officer, and a naked man in the woods. Each is played by Kinnear—or by actors sporting Kinnear’s CGI face—although Harper never mentions this, or even seems to notice.
Is she seeing what we’re seeing?
All is left open to interpretation. An easy read, given Kinnear’s multiple roles, is simply that all men are the same. And while each of Kinnear’s characters represents a specific and common type of male threat, as bizarre reality begins tipping further into outright fantasy, it seems likelier we are seeing more of Harper than we are of men in general. She is putting a face—the same face—on a lifetime of traumas, large and small.
Garland’s bold visuals—so precise in Ex Machina, so surreal in Annihilation—create a sumptuous environment just bordering on overripe. The verdant greens and audacious reds cast a spell perfectly suited to the biblical and primal symbolism littering the picture.
Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s score meshes with Garland’s lush imagery, releasing a blend of music, ambient sound and, at its most eerily beautiful moments, Buckley’s voice. The result is powerful and unnerving.
Men is more of a head-scratcher than either of Garland’s previous films. Yes, even Annihilation. It’s far more of a horror film, for one thing, and far less of a clearly articulated narrative. Rather than clarifying or summing up, the film’s ending offers more questions than answers. But if you can make peace with ambiguity, Men is a film you will not likely forget.
by Hope Madden
Heartbreak, hardship, hard living and broken dreams — that sounds like a country song.
How well does it work for a horror movie? Director Brea Grant (12 Hour Shift) finds out, with an assist from effortless badass Katey Sagal in the Music City thriller Torn Hearts.
Sagal plays Harper Dutchess, country music legend and what remains of the Dutchess sisters, a duo that made it big in the 90s, before tragedy hit. Now a recluse in her Nashville mansion, Harper is none too happy to see upstarts Jordan (Abby Quinn) and Leigh (Alexxis Lemire) show up at her door hoping to record a song with her that will put them on the path to stardom.
Screenwriter Rachel Koller Croft stumbled into something fresh with the country music angle. Horror is no stranger to rock music, disco, techno, metal, punk, but country? That’s new.
Unfortunately, she repackages a lot of familiar ideas inside that Western fringe. But Grant finds ways to keep things interesting.
An authentic soundtrack of music penned by Brittany Allen grounds Torn Hearts in authenticity, while Yaron Levy’s cinematography works the creepy Dutchess mansion for all its gothic, garish Nashville weirdness.
Both Lemire and Quinn fit their roles well. As Harper picks away at the young duo’s insecurities, each performer gets the chance to show some range, both physically and emotionally.
Sagal steals the show, though. The picture of hard living, Harper manipulates the young musicians with sometimes sadistic ease. Sagal relishes the contempt, crafting a formidable central figure and ensuring rapt attention, no matter what weaknesses the film has in store.
Torn Hearts layers its somewhat rote plot points with context about the harsh misogyny of country music, points Sagal’s performance drives home.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
by Brandon Thomas
Welcome back, Sam Raimi.
The madcap director of the Evil Dead series, Darkman and the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films, makes a triumphant return to the big screen with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has battled other sorcerers, alien threats and even villains from alternate realities. All of them pale in comparison to the dark entity chasing young America Chavez (Xochil Gomez) across dimensions. As Strange fights to protect the young girl, he finds that the line between good and evil can easily be blurred – and sometimes even compromised by the best of intentions.
The jump in quality between the first Doctor Strange film and Multiverse of Madness is more of a leap than a step. The first film sets it up well enough, but like many of the Marvel origin stories, it takes a while to get to the good stuff. Raimi’s film has no such issues. Cumberbatch is more comfortable in the role now, having appeared in two Avengers films and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Despite having a packed to the gills story, there’s still a lot of meaty character work for Cumberbatch to latch onto.
Speaking of the story, yes this is another Marvel film with lots of tie-in to movies that came before and movies that will come after. Like the more successful Marvel Cinematic Universe endeavors, Multiverse of Madness delicately threads the needle and never feels too chaotic or unfocused. Raimi fought that battle and lost once before with Spider-Man 3.
There are plenty of surprises in the film. The marketing team behind the trailers should be commended for spoiling next to nothing – not even the main villain. Surprises are a big selling point for these MCU movies, and Multiverse has plenty of them up its sleeve.
Multiverse of Madness is Raimi firing on all cylinders. The movie absolutely crackles with the filmmaker’s energy and signature style. I nearly jumped out of my seat in delight when a couple shots of doors slamming in dutch angles appeared on screen. Few directors attack action sequences with the inventiveness and fun that Raimi does. You can feel the director’s personal flourishes coming through in those scenes instead of pre-visualized dreck from VFX artists in Vancouver.
The film also leans into horror. Like his skill with action, horror carnage is a specialty of Raimi’s. Witches, demons and undead sorcerers pop up, and Raimi delights in tossing them at Cumberbatch’s Strange. I doubt the director tortured Cumberbatch like his friend Bruce Campbell in the Evil Dead films but it is fun to speculate.
By embracing the character’s more horror-centric roots, and letting director Sam Raimi cut loose, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness offers up one of the most exciting – and different – films in the MCU so far.
Spooky buddies! What’s what we’re talking about, that’s who we’re talking to.
5. The Ritual (2017)
David Bruckner has entertained us with some of the best shorts in horror today, including work from V/H/S, Southbound, and one of our favorites, The Signal. Directing his feature debut in The Ritual, Bruckner takes what feels familiar, roots it in genuine human emotion, takes a wild left turn and delivers the scares.
Five friends decide to mourn a tragedy with a trip together into the woods. Grief is a tricky, personal, often ugly process and as they work through their feelings, their frustration quickly turns to fear as they lose themselves in a foreign forest where danger lurks.
The film works for a number of reasons, but its greatest triumph is in making the woods scary again. That environment has become such a profound cliché in horror that it is almost impossible to make it feel fresh, but there is an authenticity to the performances, the interaction among the characters, and the frustration and fear that grounds the horror. And then there is horror—intriguing, startling, genuinely frightening horror. Yay!
4. The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
You know the drill: 5 college kids head into the woods for a wild weekend of doobage, cocktails and hookups but find, instead, dismemberment, terror and pain. You can probably already picture the kids, too: a couple of hottie Alphas, the nice girl, the guy she may or may not be into, and the comic relief tag along. In fact, if you tried, you could almost predict who gets picked off when.
But that’s just the point, of course. Making his directorial debut, Drew Goddard uses that preexisting knowledge to entertain holy hell out of you.
Cabin is not a spoof. It’s not a satire. It’s sort of a celebratory homage, but not entirely. What you get with this film is a very different kind of horror-comedy.
3. Tigers Are Not Afraid ( 2017)
Issa Lopez’s fable of children and war brandishes the same themes as Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, but grounds the magic with a rugged street style. One pack of feral children have only each other and their imaginations to keep them safe.
Tigers follows Estrella, a child studying fairy tales—or, she was until her school is temporarily closed due to the stray bullets that make it unsafe for students. As Estrella and her classmates hide beneath desks to avoid gunfire, her teacher hands her three broken pieces of chalk and tells her these are her three wishes.
But wishes never turn out the way you want them to.
2. The Descent (2005)
Adventuring buddies get together for a bit of spelunking. Writer/director Neil Marshall begins his film with an emotionally jolting shock, quickly followed by some awfully unsettling cave crawling and squeezing and generally hyperventilating, before turning dizzyingly panicky before snapping a bone right in two.
And then we find out there are monsters.
The grislier the film gets, the more primal the tone becomes, eventually taking on a tenor as much like a war movie as a horror film. This is not surprising from the director that unleashed Dog Soldiers – a gory, fun werewolf adventure. But Marshall’s second attempt is far scarier.
For full-on horror, this is one hell of a monster movie.
1. It Follows (2014)
It Follows is a coming-of-age tale that mines a primal terror. Moments after a sexual encounter with a new boyfriend, Jay discovers that she is cursed.
As Jay’s close-knit crew does what they can to help her evade the shapeshifting horror that follows her, Mitchell captures that fleeting yet dragging moment between childhood and adulthood and gives the lurking dread of that time of life a powerful image. There is something that lies just beyond the innocence of youth. You feel it in every frame and begin to look out for it, walking toward you at a consistent pace, long before the characters have begun to check the periphery themselves.
by George Wolf
Don’t worry, parents, the high schoolers in Hulu’s Crush don’t play Seven Minutes in Heaven anymore.
“That perpetuates a Christian narrative. We’re playing Seven Minutes in a Hotel Bathroom.”
Noted. So while the hormones here are as active as ever, the cage they’re raging in is awash in idealized hipness, as a trio of newbie filmmakers craft a feature debut full of genuine sweetness and winning humor.
Paige (Rowan Blanchard from TV’s Snowpiercer) is a Junior at Miller High, and being gay is the least of her drama right now. She’s struggling with the application to Cal Arts – her dream school – and she can’t find the courage to make a move on Gabby (Isabella Ferreira) – her dream girl.
That’s not all. Miller’s Ren Fest-loving principal (Michelle Buteau – a hoot) thinks Paige is behind the series of artful school vandalism murals signed by the mysterious “King Pun.” To avoid suspension, Paige agrees to become extracurricular active (Gabby runs track, so…) and work on outing the real vandal (king pun intended).
But just when it seems Gabby is interested, Paige can’t quit thinking about another track teammate (Auli’i Cravalho, voice of Moana) who never seemed like her type.
Director Sammi Cohen invites us into an upper-middle-class teenage dream where kids are accepted and their choices are trusted. None of the stakes or the heartbreaks feel particularly dramatic, but the film itself finds resonance in being purposefully sanitized.
Screenwriters Kirsten King and Casey Rackham develop a nice groove that is self-aware without any awkward pandering to the teen audience. There are plenty of wink-winks to the formula they’re upending, and while the film is never as authentically sexual as last year’s Plan B, the occasional bawdy zinger does land.
Both Blanchard and Cravalho are irresistible charmers, with scene-stealing honors split between Megan Mullaly as Paige’s Mom (“Don’t take edibles before school, we talked about this”) and Aasif Mandvi as the track coach (“I know 60 percent of you are queer!”)
Wait, are Mom and Coach talking dirty to each other? OMGLOL!
Underneath all the horniness is a feel-good formula that may remind you of last year’s Oscar-winning CODA. But the emphasis in Crush showcases a high school world where the queer kids drive that formula. The film itself becomes a 90-minute safe space, where kids can just stress about their crushes instead of the reaction to whatever gender they may be crushing on.