Sister’s Grimm

Gretel & Hansel

by Hope Madden

It’s still early, but 2020 has not been great in terms of horror.

First came Nicolas Pesce’s pointless reboot of The Grudge.

Yikes. And I do not mean that in a good way.

And then last week we had Floria Sigismondi’s boldly wrong-headed reimagining, The Turning.

In keeping with a trend, this week Oz Perkins revisits an existing story. Gretel & Hansel pick on the bones of that old fairly-tale—the one that actually did scare the shit out of me as a kid. Two kids are turned out into the woods because their parents can’t feed them. Things go from bad to worse once they’re left to fend for themselves and soon cannibalism comes into play, as I assume it always does when you get lost in the woods.

Perkins, working from a script by Rob Hayes (East Meets Barry West), abandons much of the original bits (fewer breadcrumbs). His spookier imagination is more interested in Gretel’s burgeoning womanhood.

Sophia Lillis (IT) narrates and stars as Gretel, the center of this coming of age story—reasonable, given the change of billing suggested by the film’s title. The witch may still have a tasty meal on her mind, but this is less a cautionary tale than it is a metaphor for agency over obligation.

Alice Krige and her cheekbones strike the perfect mixture of menace and mentorship, while Sammy Leakey’s little Hansel manages to be both adorable and tiresome, as is required for the story to work.

Perkins continues to impress with his talent for visual storytelling and Galo Olivares’s cinematography heightens the film’s folkloric atmosphere.

It’s unfortunate, though, that Perkins doesn’t also write. The two films he both writes and directs, I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House and, in particular, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, sidestepped predictability while mining primal anxieties to produce excellent, memorable horror.

The writing here doesn’t quite reach the heights of the storyline told through imagery. Gretel & Hansel loses itself too often in a dreamscape horror without rectifying or clarifying, which leaves the metaphor foggy and the horror muted.

But there’s no escaping this spell. The whole affair feels like an intriguing dream.

Good Beat, You Can Dance To It

The Rhythm Section

by George Wolf

The sexy assassin. The beautiful killing machine.

The Rhythm Section plays a tune that’s lately been as popular as Taylor Swift at the high school talent show. But hey, there’s still a ways to go before it catches up to the macho men, so have at it ladies, the right arrangement can always find some swing in the mustiest of standards.

Blake Lively is Stephanie, a top student at Oxford who falls hard after losing her family to an airplane bomber. How hard? She’s an addict and a prostitute, but her destructive spiral finds a new avenue when an investigative reporter seeks her out.

He’s on the trail of the terrorist responsible for the bombing, and Stephanie’s cooperation sets a chain of events in motion that quickly lead to an ex MI-6 operative (Jude Law) training her to be a killer.

And why would he do that, exactly?

Keep that question at bay and you’ll find a serviceable thriller that hits plenty of familiar beats, but is always kept watchable through Lively’s committed performance.

Screenwriter Mark Burnell adapts his own novel as a globe-trotting exercise in exorcising your demons. And while multiple character motivations can get murky, the relationship between Stephanie and her mysterious mentor is always engaging.

Director Reed Morano (I Think We’re Alone Now, TV projects such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Halt and Catch Fire) can stage a nifty fight scene and breathless car chase, but she too often seems desperately in search of a definitive style that never finds a groove.

While soundtrack choices and soft focus flashbacks feel forced, Morano’s detached treatment of Lively’s physical appearance may be the most original pillar in the film. Though her role is plenty physical and Lively never shrinks from it, even the obligatory “red sparrow” sequence offers an overdue counterpoint to the usual leering camera served up by Morano’s male counterparts.

Expect the usual questions of “who can I trust” and the usual fine performance from Sterling K. Brown (that guy’s busy), who shows up as an ex-CIA agent with valuable contacts.

But most of all, expect Lively to keep The Rhythm Section humming, even when it’s set on repeat.

Glass Houses

The Edge of Democracy

by George Wolf

Documentaries can often be judged by how successful they are at showing us unfamiliar worlds.

But for the Oscar-nominated The Edge of Democracy, it is the familiarity of the story it tells that makes it so heartbreakingly urgent, as it wraps a personal memoir around a first hand account of Brazil’s fragile hold on democracy.

Veteran documentarian Petra Costa (Omar & the Seagull, Undertow Eyes), whose own parents risked their lives protesting Brazil’s military dictatorship, narrates the film with much personal insight, starting with her feeling that she and Brazilian democracy “have grown up together.”

Taking power through a U.S.-backed coup in 1964, a succession of generals ruled Brazil until 1985, when the Workers Party began to take hold, thanks in large part to union leader Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, who was finally elected president in 2002.

Costa, backed up by a string of working class Brazilians, speaks in glowing terms of the economic progress made under Lula, and we see no less than Barack Obama dub him “the most popular politician on Earth.”

Indeed, Lula left office in 2010 with an 87 percent approval rating, when his hand-picked successor, former militant Dilma Rousseff, won the presidency. Three years later the economy stumbled, Dilma announced a crackdown on corruption, and the knives came out.

Even then, not many would have thought it possible for the democracy Brazilians long fought for to succumb so easily to primal populism, or for Jair Bolsonaro, a bigoted, hostile, “fake news” decrying candidate who began as a joke, to be elected president in 2018.

But here we are.

Costa’s passion for her cause is weary but evident, and her earnest narration often asks us to assume much without pausing to consider any contrasting evaluations of what she dubs “the coup of 2016.”

That’s not to say Dilma’s ouster doesn’t stink to high Heaven – it does – but it also isn’t hard to find accusations against the Workers Party that don’t seem that flimsy, and while the one-sided approach is in line with the film’s personal journey, it leaves the documentary side wanting.

But Costa’s ultimate success comes from weaving her family’s story into the political tumult of her homeland, and in turn mirroring a more global struggle. We get a stark illustration of the rising tides of authoritarianism, leaving the Edge of Democracy a film that should be pretty damn personal to all of us.



by Hope Madden

Be honest, when you saw the list of Oscar nominated animated films, did you wonder whether Klaus was somehow the international title for Frozen 2?

I have excellent news! It is not. Instead, it’s a clever, not-too-sentimental Hatfields v McCoys take on the legend of Santa Claus.

Co-directors Sergio Pablos and Carlos Martinez Lopez develop the story of a coddled would-be mailman named Jesper (Jason Schwartzman, perfect). His Postmaster General father tires of Jesper’s spoiled ways and sends him on a make-or-break assignment to the nether reaches of the north, Smeerensburg.

All Jesper has to do is collect and deliver 6000 parcels this year and he can go back to his warm, self-indulgent, cushy little home.

Naturally, there are obstacles. There’s a decades-long feud, for one. It’s so bad the school teacher has turned her school house into a fish market (parents won’t send their kids anywhere they might have to fraternize with the other clan). And then there’s that creepy, disproportionately large, old woodsman.

At times, the twisty tale threatens to collapse under its own weight, but it does not. Instead, it takes risks you don’t often see in family films and those risks mainly pay off. For a Christmas film, the movie manages to mainly avoid schmaltz. It offers clever explanations as to how many of the Santa Claus myths are born, affects just enough of a sense of wonder, and entertains from start to finish.

The vocal talent certainly helps. Flanking Schwartzman are the always welcome JK Simmons as the big guy himself, as well as Rashida Jones, Joan Cusack and Norm MacDonald as a smarmy boatman.

The animation itself is beautiful, but not especially showy. The images won’t disappoint, but they won’t make your jaw drop, either. Instead, Klaus relies on the perfect blend of sentimentality and wit to delight children and entertain their parents.

Animal Farm

American Factory

by Hope Madden

When filmmakers Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert documented the last days of Moraine, Ohio’s GM plant for their Oscar nominated 2008 doc The Last Truck, they probably did not foresee a second nomination coming nearly a decade later for what amounts to a sequel.

And yet, American Factory returns to the same scene, this time to provide a fly-on-the-wall peek at the Fuyayo Glass Factory, a Chinese/American experiment taking place inside those same walls.

The first film released by Michelle and Barak Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, American Factory is a case study in cross-cultural miscommunication and national personality clash.

After Moraine’s GM plant closed, the town sank into economic disaster—something Dayton’s own Bognar and Reichert certainly witnessed daily since the short film. Looking to expand their production in the States, China’s Fuayo Glass Industry Group purchased the old GM plant and instantly created quite a buzz.

What Reichert and Bognar capture is astonishing and unnervingly honest. Chinese workers in Ohio are given a crash course in what to expect from Americans, as management tutors them to expect blunt honesty and the Americans’ belief that they are somehow special no matter who they are. Meanwhile, American managers are treated to a company meeting in China where the orderliness and productiveness of the workers inspires awe, the propaganda-riddled pageantry alarms, and the sight of employees sifting through broken glass to find pieces worth salvaging horrifies.

The human struggle at the plant mostly comes down to an attempt to unionize, which Chinese management sees as an opportunity for lazy Americans to gut productivity while the American labor sees it as an opportunity to institute legal protections concerning safety, health code regulations, wages and benefits.

It truly is as if the parties speak different languages.

Bognar and Reichert strive to provide a balanced point of view. Any finger- wagging is directed at both sides of the argument, but even that’s somewhat limited. The filmmakers and their film are more interested in the human side of the exchange. The film sheds light on the loneliness of the Chinese workers biding their time until their families can be brought overseas. We’re also privy to the early optimism and then heartbreaking disappointments faced by the Ohioans hoping for another chance to make an honest living.

While the cultural wreckage offers a fascinating sociological experiment, the film ends far more ominously as automation proves to eliminate all concerns over wages, hours, productivity, quality, jingoism, racism and any other human frailty you can think of.

What the filmmakers encapsulate about humanity, culture and the future of labor is equal parts enthralling and frightening.

Dead Lands, Episode 3

The Kingdom at the Edge of the World

by Rachel Willis

After a tense, fast-paced second episode, the third episode of The Dead Lands is a bit of a come down.

It’s not surprising that the show runners would choose to follow an action-paced episode with a slower focus on world-building. However, The Kingdom at the Edge of the World comes off more like a placeholder than an opportunity to further the series arc.

Searching for more information about how to right the wrongs in Aotearoa, Mehe and Waka seek out three sister witches. When they find two of the three, we learn more about what’s happening to the world, but not enough to justify devoting two-thirds of the episode to these characters. Much of the dialogue feels like riddles designed to confuse rather than enlighten, and it becomes tedious trying to keep track of what is important information and what’s merely filler.

Though we’re treated to more of the Maori style martial arts, Mau Rākau, there is a scene between Waka and one of the witches that comes off a bit silly. Their choreographed moves are beautiful, but the interaction never feels real. 

It’s only during the last third of the episode that the pace picks up and a few truly tense moments occur, reminding us why this show is worth watching.

Even though the pacing falters, the character development is some of the series’ best yet, with a strong focus on trust. Many times, Mehe is advised not to trust Waka by both by her friends and by those who sense his dangerous nature. Waka is similarly advised to keep his guard up around Mehe, that she will use him to suit her needs and then betray him. This is the first time Waka truly feels like a danger, and to Mehe in particular. 

Despite the obvious threat Waka might pose to her, it is clear Mehe trusts him – she even says as much while they’re training. However, Waka seems to punish her for that trust. It begs the question: will his deadly, distrustful nature threaten their developing bond?

When he gives her a test, she passes it – in the audience’s eyes. Waka, on the other hand, seems to make a decision that reveals his true feelings. However, we’re left hanging as to how Waka will act as the show progresses. The end of The Kingdom at the Edge of the World promises greater conflict to come.

Portrait of the Artist


by Hope Madden

What does true art require of its maker? It’s an incredibly common theme in film (and books and sculpture and painting and any other kind of art) because, for an artist, it’s a common point of introspection. Why am I doing this, why aren’t I better than this, what would I give to be really great?

There’s such an underlying element of the diabolical and desperate in these questions that it’s only sensible so many horror flicks have sprung from this well. From Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood in ’59 to Sean Byrne’s Devil’s Candy in 2015, horror movies love to explore what we’re willing to become if only our art could be great.

Joe Begos returns to the concept with Bliss, an unrelenting attack on the senses that equates artistic obsession with addiction and monstrosity.

Frenetically paced and entirely reliant on Dora Madison’s impressive performance, Bliss works like a hypnotic pulse. Madison plays artist and malcontent Dezzy, who opens the film dodging her landlord, tooling LA in her convertible caddy and panicking. She can’t finish her latest piece, her agent wants to drop her, she’s about to lose her exhibit space.

Why isn’t her dealer answering the goddamn phone?

When she does catch up with him, he has something potent for her. She goes a little overboard and by the time she’s semi-conscious again, a house party is in full rage, the drugs, beat and sexy look from an old friend propelling Dezzy into a hypnotic night of excess and debauchery. But somewhere in the stew and slurry of the night, her painting starts to take shape.

It’s intriguing that the more minor the character, the more likable the performance. Begos seems not to want you to care about the lead or those closest to her, and that’s always an intriguing approach to a film.

The only real problem with Bliss is its lack of originality, but that’s a pretty big problem. Quick cuts and quicker tempo, nimble performances and concussive beat, like Gaspar Noe’s Climax, Bliss leaves you feeling worn out. But with little new to say, it mainly leaves you feeling more hung over than entertained.

I Don’t Want to Go Out—Week of January 27

Excellent week in lazybags theater. Stay inside and watch the best film of 2019, one hell of a performance, and an unreasonably underseen action flick in which Schwarzenegger gets off the funniest line of his career.

Do it.

Click the film title to link to the full review.



Terminator: Dark Fate

Fright Club: Skeletons in the Closet, 2020

It’s the hap-happiest time of the year! Oh, our favorite thing about Oscar nominations is the excuse it gives us to dredge up those old horror flicks lingering in every good and bad actor’s past. This year’s crop was especially ripe, too. Here are the handful that made the final cut.

5. Al Pacino & Charlize Theron: The Devil’s Advocate (1997)

A guilty pleasure, this one. Theron’s screen debut just two years earlier came from an uncredited role in the clearly inferior Children of the Corn 3, but she has no lines in that and how do we pass up a two for one like this movie?

Al Pacino plays to type as Satan, disguised as NY lawyer John Milton who invites unbeaten Florida lawyer Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) to join the firm (after Lomax knowingly gets a child molester acquitted). Lomax and his saucy wife Mary Ann (Theron) head north, but Milton keeps Kevin working late and Mary Ann becomes isolated and then paranoid and then possessed.

Theron’s performance is solid throughout and Pacino’s a lot of fun chewing scenes and spitting them out. Reeves is Reeves. But this is such a ludicrous, over-the-top morality play—one that Theron plays for drama and Pacino plays for camp—that Reeves’s goofball in the middle feels somehow right.

4. Tom Hanks: He Knows You’re Alone (1980)

Tommy’s first show biz performance came by way of Armand Mastroianni’s bride stalker, He Knows You’re Alone.

The first problem with the film is the plot. It is absolutely impossible to believe that any knife wielding maniac is scarier than a bride just 24 hours before her wedding. She’d kick his ass then slit his throat, all the while screaming about seating arrangements.

The bride thing is a weak gimmick to introduce a slasher, so we watch a shiny knife catch the light just before slicing through some friend or acquaintance of bride-to-be Amy (Caitlin O’Heaney).

In the film that’s little more than a smattering of ideas stolen from Wes Craven and John Carpenter, surrounded by basic stock images and sounds from early 80s slashers, the only thing that stands out is Hanks. In an essentially useless role, Hanks introduces the idea of comic timing and natural character behavior. Too bad we have to wait a full hour for his first scene, and that he only gets one more before his girlfriend’s head finds its way into the fish tank and he vanishes from the film.

3. Renee Zellweger: Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1995)

Written and directed by Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper’s co-scriptor for the original, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation amounts to one bizarre cabaret of backwoods S&M horror. You’ll think for a while it’s a regular ol’ slasher, what with the unlikable teens, broken down car, and bad decision-making. But if you stick it out, you’ll find it tries to be something different – something almost surreal, kind of madcap. It doesn’t work, but it counts that they tried, doesn’t it?

A profoundly unconvincing set-up involves Renee Zellweger as well as several colleagues no longer in the acting profession. They deliver teen clichés while wandering into a truly weird situation. The four prom-goers are terrorized by Matthew McConaughey, now leader of Team Leatherface, and his bizarre band. It’s not necessarily weird in a good way, but weird is rarely ever entirely bad.

There’s a visit from a limo-driven S& M maestro of some kind, paranoid delusions of Big Brother control, a more clearly cross-dressing Leatherface, but absolutely no tension or terror, and shocking little in the way of horror, either, regardless of Freaky Limo Guy’s line: I want these people to know the meaning of horror.

(Hint: they should watch the original.)

2. Brad Pitt: Cutting Class (1989)

Someone’s killing off folks at the nameless high school where Pitt, as Dwight Ingalls, portrays the horny, popular basketball star repressing rage concerning his overbearing father. Perhaps he’s bottling up something more?

Sexual frustration, no doubt, as he spends every second on screen trying to get somewhere with girlfriend Paula (Jill Schoelen, frequent flier on bad 80s Horror Express).

Usually, when you look back on a superstar’s early career and find low-budget horror, one of two trends emerges. Either the superstar stands out as clearly the greatest talent in the film, or else they just cut their teeth on a very small role. Sometimes both. In Pitt’s case, well, at least he looks like Brad Pitt.

Still, it’s fun to see him try on some tics and idiosyncrasies he’ll come to rely on in later, better roles. (Like Pitt’s Oceans character Rusty Ryan, Dwight eats in every scene.)

The freakishly uneven tone, the film’s episodic nature, each scene’s seeming amnesia concerning other scenes’ actions, and the whiplash of comedy to psychological thriller to comedy all add up to an exercise in incoherence.

1. Laura Dern: Grizzly II: The Concert (1987)

Here’s the crowning jewel for nearly any Skeletons in the Closet feature. It features not just a current nominee, but one past winner and ever-the-winner Charlie Sheen. It’s hard to come by and even harder to watch. The sequel to William Girdler’s 1796 forest-astrophe Grizzly was filmed in 1983 and never completed, but sort of, kind of released anyway in 1987. Every death scene ends just before the death itself, because the bear side of the struggle was never shot. So, we get a lot of bear’s eye view of the victim, but never a look at the bear side of the sequence. It’s surreal, almost.

Sandwiched somewhere between the non-death sequences is a never ending faux-eighties synth pop concert. The concert footage is interminably long, nonsensical enough to cause an aneurism, and awful enough to make you grateful for the aneurism. You will lose your will to live. So, why bother? Because this invisible grizzly puppet kills Charlie Sheen, Oscar nominee Laura Dern, and George Clooney. (Dern and Clooney are making out at the time, which actually probably happened).