Express Yourself

And Then We Danced

by George Wolf

Despite its title, And Then We Danced uses the art form as more metaphor than setting, as a young dancer fights for the freedom to express himself beyond performance stage or rehearsal studio.

Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), a dancer in the Georgian National Ensemble, is unsettled by the arrival of Irakli (Bachi Valishvilli), a replacement for a male ensemble member who has been banished amid scandalous rumors.

Irakli is blessed with more natural talent and assured charisma, and a subtle rivalry with Merab soon gives way to a mutual attraction. When a spot in the main ensemble opens up, both men vie to be chosen, even as the danger of their feelings draws increasingly close.

Writer/director Levan Akin unveils the romance in graceful but familiar fashion, keeping the political undertones evident without becoming overbearing. It’s well-crafted and well-acted (especially by Gelbakhiani), but you begin to wonder just when the film will up its ante with a uniquely resonant statement.

And then Akin (Cirkeln, Certain People) and Gelbakhiani demand the spotlight with a finale of intimate defiance. As Merab grapples with societal expectations as both a Georgian Ensemble dancer and a man, the film finally reveals Merab’s soul, speaking to the beauty of liberation in just the way you were hoping it would.

Fright Club: Shut-In Horror

Misery loves company, yeah? So let’s hang out with some other folks whose stir-craziness leads to even worse decision making than our own. For the first time ever (to avoid a salt-in-the-wound effect), we are sticking strictly to movies you can stream right now—which means The Lodge didn’t make it, although we do really love that movie.

6. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

More of a second cousin than a sequel to 2008’s Cloverfield, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a claustrophobic thriller. No found footage. No shaky camera. No perturbed kaiju.

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes from a car crash handcuffed to a pipe in a bunker. Howard (John Goodman, top-notch as usual), may simply be saving her from herself and the apocalypse outside. Good natured Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) certainly thinks so.

First-time director Dan Trachtenberg ratchets up the tension as the film progresses, finding the creepiness in even the most mundane domestic activities, as an award-worthy performance from John Goodman reminds us monsters come in many forms.

*Cheapest on YouTube, Google Play, Vudu

5. Rammbock: Berlin Undead

Why does this film work?

Michael (Michael Fruith) arrives in Berlin to visit his recently-ex girlfriend. She’s not home. While he waits in her apartment, Berlin falls prey to the zombipocalypse.

It’s actually the rage virus, and it’s how well Rammbock plays like the Berlin equivalent of 28 Days Later or Quarantine that helps it excel.

Michael finds himself trapped inside his ex’s apartment building, scheming survival tricks with the plumber hiding out with him. The team work, strategy, human kindness and pathos all combine with really solid acting and more than a few well-choreographed action bits to help this film more than transcend familiar tropes.

You love these guys. You believe in them, and the idea that they won’t make it through this is dreadful. Director/co-writer Marvin Kren, blessed with a stellar cast, works your sympathies and your nerves.

*Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, iTunes

4. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford? Yes, please!

The two then-aging (just barely, if we’re honest) starlets played aging starlets who were sisters. One (Davis’s Jane) had been a child star darling. The other (Crawford’s Blanche) didn’t steal the limelight from her sister until both were older, then Blanche was admired for her skill as an adult actress. Meanwhile, Jane descended into alcoholism and madness. She also seemed a bit lax on hygiene.

Blanche winds up wheelchair bound (How? Why? Is Jane to blame?!) and Jane’s envy and insanity get the better of her while they’re alone in their house.

Famously, the two celebrities did not get along on set or off. Whether true or rumor, the performances suggest a deep, authentic and frightening hatred borne of envy that fuels the escalating tension.

Davis is at her unhinged best in a performance that earned her an Oscar nomination. Crawford pales by comparison (as the part requires), but between the hateful chemistry and the story’s sometimes surprising turns, this is a movie that ages well, even if its characters did not.

*super cheap on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play

3. It Comes at Night (2017)

Deep in the woods, Paul (Joel Edgerton, solid as always), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) have established a cautious existence in the face of a worldwide plague. They have boarded their windows, secured their doors, and enacted a very strict set of rules for survival.

At the top of that list: do not go out at night.

Writer/director Trey Edward Shults explores the confines of the house with a fluid camera and lush cinematography, slyly creating an effective sense of separation between the occupants and the dangers outside. But what are those dangers, and how much of the soul might one offer up to placate fear itself? In asking those unsettling questions, It Comes at Night becomes a truly chilling exploration of human frailty.


2. Housebound (2014)

Gerard Johnstone writes and directs, though his brightest accomplishment may be casting because Morgana O’Reilly’s unflinching performance holds every moment of nuttiness together with brilliance.

O’Reilly plays Kylie, a bit of a bad seed who’s been remanded to her mother’s custody for 8 months of house arrest after a recent spate of bad luck involving an ATM and a boyfriend who’s not too accurate with a sledge hammer.

Unfortunately, the old homestead, it seems, is haunted. Almost against her will, she, her hilariously chatty mum (Rima Te Wiata) and her deeply endearing probation officer (Glen-Paul Waru) try to puzzle out the murder mystery at the heart of the haunting. Lunacy follows.

Good horror comedies are hard to come by, but Johnstone manages the tonal shifts magnificently. You’re nervous, you’re scared, you’re laughing, you’re hiding your face, you’re screaming – sometimes all at once. And everything leads up to a third act that couldn’t deliver any better.

*free on Tubi; also on iTunes

1. The Shining (1980)

It’s isolated, it’s haunted, you’re trapped, but somehow nothing feels derivative and you’re never able to predict what happens next. It’s Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece rendition of Stephen King’s The Shining.

A study in atmospheric tension, Kubrick’s vision of the Torrance family collapse at the Overlook Hotel is both visually and aurally meticulous. It opens with that stunning helicopter shot, following Jack Torrance’s little yellow Beetle up the mountainside, the ominous score announcing a foreboding that  the film never shakes.

The hypnotic, innocent sound of Danny Torrance’s Big Wheel against the weirdly phallic patterns of the hotel carpet tells so much – about the size of the place, about the monotony of the existence, about hidden perversity. The sound is so lulling that its abrupt ceasing becomes a signal of spookiness afoot.

*cheapest on YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, iTunes

Come to the Lab, See What’s On the Slab

The Autopsy of Jane Doe

by George Wolf

An unidentified body is found buried in the dirt at an unusual crime scene. The county coroner and his assistant/son begin an autopsy, immediately discovering unsettling things. As they dig for more answers, unsettling gradually turns to terrifying.

In 2010, director Andre Ovredal made Trollhunter a fresh blast of B-movie fun. He brings a similar vibe to The Autopsy of Jane Doe, a film with enough wry smarts and acting chops to deliver more satisfying scares than you might expect.

Ovredal, along with screenwriters Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing, knows the payoff is weaker than the premise, so he makes sure you’re plenty invested early on, earning some capital that will be spent when things get a bit silly. Talented leads don’t hurt, either.

As Coroner Tom Tilden and his son Austin, Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch display an easy chemistry and deliver a solid anchor of believability to build upon. We trust these guys, and we don’t doubt they truly want to do right by the young victim through science, and learn the source of her painful death.

That there is plenty of gruesome body horror should be no surprise, but the under-reliance on a bevy of special effects is a nice one. Even better is Ovredal’s treatment of his lead actress (Olwen Kelly). Yes, the female body on the slab is young, attractive (at least to start) and constantly nude, but the director seems careful not to further exploit that fact with a leering camera, focusing instead on making it increasingly difficult to look her way.

Once the Tildens realize they’re in a literally bloody mess, Jane Doe becomes an adult version of Lights Out, delivering jump scares and red herrings with a knowing, playful touch that says “Why so serious? Let’s have some fun!”

You will, right down to the final shot.


Speak No Evil


by George Wolf

In the opening minutes of Resistance, a young Jewish girl asks her parents, “Why do they hate us?”

Then, just before the end credits, stark onscreen text reminds us of the magnitude of Nazi atrocities, and just how much of that was inflicted on children.

And during the nearly two hours in between, writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz tells an incredible story you probably don’t know about an iconic figure you most likely do.

Legendary mime Marcel Marceau was born Marcel Mangel. And while taking a stage name is hardly unusual, Mangel’s motivation was: joining the French Resistance and helping save thousands of children orphaned by the Nazis in WWII.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Marceau, and it’s a perfect vehicle for his offbeat strengths as an actor. Though Eisenberg’s French accent is shaky (he’s not alone), he nails the layers most important to making Marceau’s astonishing arc an authentic one.

Early on, Marceau is afraid of his father’s reaction to his ambitions on the stage, and seems most interested in entertaining children as a way to impress the lovely Emma (Clemence Poesy).

Eisenberg may never be an action hero, but his delicate, appeasing nature is a valuable tool for Jakubowicz to subtly reinforce how the Nazi threat was (and still is?) underestimated. Marceau’s hardening edges are never overplayed by Eisenberg, just as Jakubowicz wisely steers clear of any overt, Life is Beautiful sentimentality between Marceau and the children he is trying to shield from the horrors of war.

Indeed, the film is at its most gripping when juxtaposing the touching and the profane. Gentle moments appear and are quickly countered, never betraying the ever-present threat often personified by the sadistic Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer). Marceau and Barbie’s face to face meeting – historically accurate or not – is played with fine cinematic tension, demonstrating a passion and assured vision often lacking in Jakubowicz’s 2016 feature debut, Hands of Stone.

Marceau ultimately gave his first major performance in front of thousands of WWII troops. And although framing his story around a speech from General George S. Patton (Ed Harris) seems a bit misplaced, it also feels born of the sincere desire to convey the depth of Marceau’s heroism.

Resistance is a film built with passion and sincerity, employing a story that will be new for most of us to deliver a timely reminder meant for all of us.

I Can’t Go Out—Week of March 23

About half of this week’s new releases are hot off their truncated theatrical releases. The other half is the set of movies we’d already expected to come out this week. The result? A boon in home entertainment! (Well, some of these are pretty bad, but still – boon!)

Click the title to link to the full review.



Birds of Prey

The Gentlemen


The Grudge

The Song of Names

I Am Luke’s Broken Heart

Daniel Isn’t Real

by Hope Madden

Director Adam Egypt Mortimer’s stylish image of mental illness takes a kind of demonic Fight Club angle, hits some mildly homoerotic notes (like Fight Club didn’t?), and offers a quick and absorbing- if hardly new- horror show.

Co-writing with Brian DeLeeuw an adaptation of DeLeeuw’s novel In This Way I Was Saved, Mortimer drops us mid-mom scream into an average afternoon in the life of poor little Luke (Griffin Robert Faulkner, painfully adorable).

As Luke wanders away from home to avoid his mother’s psychotic episode, he witnesses the aftermath of a gruesome murder, but finds a new friend: Daniel.

Quickly enough, Daniel is helping Luke cope with his personal trauma, taking his mind off his problems, and maybe encouraging some truly evil behavior.

From here Mortimer directs us to an effectively creepy doll house (such a great prop in nearly any terrifying film or terrifying child’s bedroom), which will become (as it does in Hereditary and The Lodge) a fine symbol for the madness of the mind.

Mortimer’s film looks great and benefits from a trio of strong performances.

Mary Stuart Masterson, playing Luke’s paranoid schizophrenic mother, gives a brave and believable performance in a role that can easily be overdone.

More importantly, Mortimer’s besties/worsties Luke and Daniel (Miles Robbins and Patrick Schwarzenegger, respectively) create complete characters and offer an uneasy chemistry that keeps the film intriguing.

As Luke’s life spins inevitably out of control, Daniel’s clothing takes on a more and more Tyler Durden style, and I can get behind that. And a certain point near Act 3, Daniel Isn’t Real takes a weird and welcome Clive Barker turn, which is when elements stop being so stylishly predictable and become sloppily fascinating.

The unfortunate Magical Negro trope that will not die surfaces here. It doesn’t entirely sink the film, but it does its damndest to do just that.

Even so, Daniel Isn’t Real is an Olympic-sized leap forward from Mortimer’s previous feature, Some Kind of Hate, the director here showcasing an unpredicted visual flair and storytelling finesse. Though his film treads some well-worn ground, the way Mortimer and team balance the supernatural and psychological push and pull creates an unnerving atmosphere.

Unwanted Guests

Under the Shadow

by Hope Madden

A few years back, Aussie filmmaker Jennifer Kent unleashed the brilliant and devastating single parent nightmare, The Babadook. As much subtext as text, the film vibrated with the anxiety of a parent torn between resentment and the powerful fear that something demonic might harm her only child.

Fast forward two years, and first-time feature filmmaker, Iranian Babak Anvari, treads familiar ground yet manages to shift focus entirely and create the profound and unsettling Under the Shadow.

Here the social commentary sits even closer to the surface. The tale is set in Tehran circa 1988, at the height of the Iran/Iraq war and just a few years into the “Cultural Revolution” that enforced fundamentalist ideologies.

Shideh (a fearless Narges Rashidi) has been banned from returning to medical school because of her pre-war political leanings. Her husband, a practicing physician, is serving his yearly medical duty with the troops. This leaves Shideh and their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone in their apartment as missiles rain on Tehran.

What begins as a domestic drama suitable for fellow Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) turns slowly into something else entirely as Anvari dips into the horror trope toolbox to shake up our expectations with familiar devices.

When a dud missile plants itself in the roof of the building (shades of del Toro’s Devil’s Backbone), Dora starts talking to a secret friend. Maybe the friend would be a better mommy.

Frazzled, impatient, judged and constrained from all sides, Shideh’s nerve is hit with this threat. And as external and internal anxieties build, she’s no longer sure what she’s seeing, what she’s thinking, or what the hell to do about it.

The fact that this menacing presence – a djinn, or wind spirit – takes the shape of a flapping, floating burka is no random choice. Shideh’s failure in this moment will determine her daughter’s entire future.

Anvari casts the political climate meticulously, as forces beyond Shideh’s control – some supernatural, some cultural, all dangerous – surround her.

Though the strength of the cultural context sometimes undercuts the spookiness of the ghost story being told, Under the Shadow builds a strong case for itself as a horror film. Bursts of creepy imagery punctuate the increasingly tense atmosphere. It’s here that Anvari’s film is most effective, as you realize Shideh is better off dealing with ghouls than turning to neighbors or authorities for help.