Swimming in Romance


by George Wolf

Christian Petzold is a filmmaker with an almost casual mastery of storytelling. Those stories may seem simple at first, but he fills them with deeply felt narrative shifts, taut editing and pristine shot selections that make every frame feel imperative, and propels them with characters full of mysterious obsessions.

And for anyone unfamiliar with Petzold (Barbara, Phoenix, Transit), Undine (oon-DEEN-uh) is a wonderful entry into the writer/director’s hypnotic style.

Undine (Paula Beer, simply terrific) works in Berlin, delivering tours and lectures on the city’s urban development post WWII. But when her boyfriend Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) leaves her, Undine pledges unity with an ancient myth.

She must take the life of this man who has betrayed her and then return to the water as a nymph.

Undine’s water obsession only gains more fuel with her next relationship. Christoph (Franz Rogowski, also stellar) is an industrial diver, and while he and Undine develop a deep, almost supernatural connection, she never truly lets go of Johannes, who has also moved on with another love.

As Christoph’s dives become more dangerous and Undine’s lectures begin to link the personal and historical, Petzold shapes the romance into a head-swimming mix of mythology, thrills and humor.

Like much of Petzold’s work, Undine is anchored by exquisite framing and lush cinematography (the underwater scenes are especially impressive), and driven by characters drawn with easy fascination. The film’s magic and mystery meet the romance and realism with undaunted confidence, delivering a tale that satisfies via the conventional and the celestial.

Painful History

American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally

by Hope Madden

A film about Mildred Gillars—better known as Axis Sally, American broadcaster based in Berlin during WWII—could be interesting. Gillars was an Ohioan and thwarted entertainer who found herself in Berlin just before the war. She threw her talents to Goebbels’s propaganda efforts and became one of the most popular radio announcers in the world, even in the U.S.

She was eventually tried for treason. But was it treason if she was no longer an American citizen? Was it treason if she was simply a voice talent, not the writer of the content? And even if she stood behind what she had to say, wasn’t that just free speech?

So much to dig into! And the director is Michael Polish, whose career is littered with underseen treasures like Twin Falls, Idaho, Northfork, and For Lovers Only.

Those gems were penned by Polish’s brother Mark. American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally was not. Michael co-wrote this script with first-time screenwriter Darryl Hicks, as well as Vance Owen, co-author of the book on which the film is based.

They do not possess Mark Polish’s poetic gifts.

They do have Al Pacino, though. As defense attorney James Laughlin, Pacino is Pacino—disheveled, fun, scrappy. He gets to deliver one of those passionate closing arguments you find only in movies. And he mines this dog meat of a script for a character.

Every moment he is off-screen is unendurable.

Meadow Williams takes the approach opposite Pacino’s, delivering an entirely superficial turn as Gillars. Part of this performance could pass for stoicism, but in flashback sequences of levity, she is painful. During her emotional breakthroughs, you may need to look away.

So, she fits right in. Aside from Pacino, the cast is uniformly awful. Some are worse than others. Thomas Kretschmann and Carsten Norgaard do not embarrass themselves as Goebbels and Gillars’s beau Max, respectively. As Laughlin’s in-court right-hand man Billy Owen, Swen Temmel does.

Pacino’s in his eighties and still makes about three films a year. Before this, it was The Irishman and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Two out of three ain’t bad.

City of Secrets

Port Authority

by Brandon Thomas

Something about the magnetic attraction between opposites has captivated audiences for centuries. Whether it’s warring families, societal taboos, or just plain differing personalities, these stories stir up emotions as few others do. Port Authority might not end up being talked about in the same breath as Romeo & Juliet, Brokeback Mountain or The Notebook, but it’s a noble effort to tell a fresh and inclusive story.

An emotionally and physically battered Paul (Fionn Whitehead, Dunkirk) arrives in New York City fresh off the bus. One of the first people he sees outside of the Port Authority is Wye, pronounced like the letter Y (and played by trans actor Leyna Bloom), voguing with her friends. Alone in an unfamiliar city, Paul falls in with a rough crowd that performs questionable evictions and not-so-questionable shakedowns. After running into Wye again, Paul is unable to contain his attraction for her and they fall into a whirlwind romance. After finding out that Wye is trans, Paul must contend with his own feelings of inadequacy in regards to his family and his own identity.  

Thematically, Port Authority is simultaneously commenting on the idea of family and identity. Paul’s bruised appearance when we first meet him perfectly mirrors his equally battered psyche. The film gives us brief nuggets about Paul’s past with his mother, and his upbringing in various foster homes. Through Whitehead’s performance, it’s more than enough to know how damaged and untrusting this young man is. 

On the opposite end, Wye shows incredible comfort in her own skin – at least on the surface. Scorned by her biological family, Wye has surrounded herself with the family she’s created. It’s a wholesome glimpse at what Paul could have if he allowed himself to look inward. Her character comes dangerously close at times to only serving Paul’s growth, but Bloom’s captivating performance brings much passion and power to a slightly underwritten role. 

The success of Port Authority hinges primarily on the chemistry between Whitehead and Bloom, and they more than rise to the challenge. The two young actors bring a passion that any good romance needs to jump off the screen. The trauma both characters have experienced through their short lives is brought to life with a simmering intensity that both actors tackle so differently. They are subtle performances in a film that’s not always so.

Writer/director Danielle Lessovitz knows the story she wants to tell even if it’s a little bumpy getting there. The predictability in its structure (we all know Paul is going to get caught in his web of lies) doesn’t sink the film, but it does strike a certain, “Oh, we’re doing THAT?” chord. Her taut understanding of character arcs and casting help overshadow some of the more clunky story beats. 

The wonderful lived-in New York aesthetic (it’s executive produced by Marty Scorcese for Pete’s sake) helps the movie achieve a level of visual authenticity. The best NYC movies make the city itself a character – this one is no exception. The subways, the street corners, and the fire escapes all feel like extensions of Paul and Wye. 

Port Authority is a film that means well and mostly does well with its characters and cast. The story gets a little clumsy at times, but the genuine care shown for the characters more than makes up for any script blunders.

Senior Discount

The Amusement Park

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

This long-lost film from the legendary George A. Romero is an awkward, clumsily-assembled metaphor with a glaring lack of subtlety.

And armed with the proper context, you should probably see it anyway.

In 1973, Romero was far from a legend. He had lost the copyright to Night of the Living Dead, and he was a nearly broke filmmaker that needed work. So he was more than happy to accept a commission from right in his own hometown. Pittsburgh-based Lutheran Services wanted a film to explore societal discrimination of the elderly, and turned to the local boy who’d hit it big a few years back.

But they weren’t at all interested in the Twilight Zone treatment that Romero and first time (only time) screenwriter Wally Cook gave the subject, so they passed. Each party put the film behind them, and it sat unreleased for nearly fifty years.

The 52-minute feature stars Lincoln Maazel (who would co-star in Romero’s classic Martin four years later) as an affable, white-suited man who greets a beaten down and disheveled version of himself in an empty waiting room. The out-of-breath Maazel advises the energetic one not to go outside.

“There’s nothing out there. You won’t like it!”

The warnings go unheeded, and the nattily-clad Maazel begins his day at the amusement park, where he is subjected to nothing but torment, ridicule and abuse.

Some of the vignettes are rooted in solid ideas. The grim reaper wandering the park and riding coasters is a striking juxtaposition, and a fortune teller’s unpleasant premonition for a couple of young lovers manages to deliver confrontational cynicism with a somewhat lighter touch.

The elderly gentleman’s metaphorical trip through the carnival of agism is flanked by footage of Maazel, as himself, explaining what we are about to see, and later, what we have seen. No doubt someone thought a late-addition prologue/epilogue would help an audience make sense of the narrative’s structureless string of abuses, but the Serling-on-steroids material is so lengthy and so at odds with the otherwise experimental nature of the core content that it only serves to make the entire film even less enjoyable.

For completists, The Amusement Park is available in select theaters and on Shudder, and merits consideration. For anyone thrilled by the idea of George A. Romero siccing amusement park horror on unsuspecting old people, be warned: you will be sorely disappointed.

The Rubber Meets the Road

Plan B

by George Wolf

Even before theaters shut down, there was no shortage of solid R-rated comedies getting woefully ignored. One of those was the wonderful Booksmart – which put a female friendship at the center of a Superbad-type coming-of-age romp.

Hulu’s Plan B takes the Booksmart model, mixes in some trusty road movie hijinx and even more sexual honesty than Blockers to concoct a teen sex comedy with plenty of smarts and sustained laughs.

South Dakota teens Lupe (Victoria Moroles) and Sunny (Kuhoo Verma) are best friends on slightly different social levels. The confident, outgoing Lupe is, ahem, “dating,” while the reserved Sunny has zero prospects and just pines for her crush to come over for a “Disney Plus and thrust.”

But then Sunny’s Mom goes out of town, so party! After Lupe’s cheery advice to “make good choices!” an impatient Sunny wants to get it over with already, leading to a very awkward bathroom hookup and an unfortunate condom accident.

Trading puke buckets and talking it over the next morning, the girls decide the best thing to do is get Sunny the morning after pill. This turns out to be a lot harder than they expect.

Moroles and Verma are both terrific, each finding distinct ways to give their characters authentic levels of the angst, curiosity, self-doubt and cautious confidence that are perpetually bouncing off teenage walls.

Once the search for Plan B involves a road trip to Rapid City, the script from Joshua Levy and Prathiksha Srinivasan delivers welcome surprises alongside inspired silliness and moments of outright hilarity (like the bit about Footloose and a doll museum).

There are some dry stretches along the way, but director Natalie Morales shows good instincts for when to pivot, and for making sure this teen sex comedy ends up speaking to some mighty serious issues.

So expect Rachel Dratch teaching abstinence by way of driver’s ed, but also young women exploring their sexuality amid an onslaught of mixed messages, double standards and threats to their freedom of choice.

Don’t let the dick jokes fool ya, there’s heart and brains here, too, and a sweet friendship illustrating the importance of unconditional love from your family, as well as the ones that feel like family.

And also dick jokes.


Skull: The Mask

by Hope Madden

Practical effects, hallucinatory sequences and a throwback exploitation vibe keep Skull: The Mask interesting enough to watch.

The film’s opening is its strongest segment, a grainy video portrayal of a 1944 political bloodbath with the goal of enacting an ancient pre-Columbian ritual. Directors Armando Fonseca and Kapel Furman bring a retro violence to the effort that makes the most of limited resources.

Flash forward 60 years or so and we move from the Amazon to Sao Paulo and a convoluted police procedural led by a one-note performance from Natallia Rodrigues as Det. Beatriz Obdias. She’s bad news! Damaged goods!

She also has no idea how to treat a crime scene, but there’s a lot of questionable policework going around, with no real leads to connect these corpses strewn from one end of town to the other. All of their hearts are missing. Sometimes their guts. Once in a while their faces.

The best thing about Skull: The Mask is Furmam’s extensive background in gore effects. You’ll find plenty of it here, some of it inspired, all of it bloody. The goregasm is in support of a story of a marauder in a stone skull mask, the same cursed mask from the 1944 massacre.

Brought to Sao Paolo by nefarious men with nefarious intentions, it falls into the wrong Goth girl’s hands early on and soon there’s a housecleaner ripping the hearts and guts out of club kids, drug dealers and priests all over town.

Does it make sense? Not really. Does it have to? Probably not. The film is a callback to a style and brand of movie that didn’t need an airtight plot or convincing performances as long as it did very nasty things in novel ways to the human body.

Skull: The Mask is a pretty dumb movie. Hell, even the title is dumb. But it knows where to invest its energy and money, and you cannot say it skimps on the goods.

No Evil Thing Will


by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Disney possesses more of the greatest villains than any other studio or property in existence, more than Marvel, more than DC, more than even Universal and its set of classic monsters. By more we don’t mean quantity necessarily, but quality: Maleficent, Cinderella’s evil stepmother, Snow White’s evil queen, Scar, Ursula, Jafar, Madam Medusa (seriously, if you haven’t seen the original 1977 The Rescuers, you need to do so at once), and of course, Cruella De Vil.

That’s a stash of villains to covet or to celebrate, so why does Disney hate them so?

Cruella is the mouse’s latest attempt to give a villain the Wicked treatment with an origin story that offers insight into the root cause of their villainy. As these things go, Cruella does have a few really bright spots.

Emma Stone has honestly never been bad in anything. She brings a charmingly conflicted Jekyll/Hyde to a character who is working against her own instincts to be a good person. Joel Fry and Paul Walker Hauser are endlessly endearing as her cohorts Jasper and Horace, respectively. But can we talk about Emma Thompson for a second?

The definition of glorious, Thompson delivers a delightfully droll Baroness Von Hellman – the fashion icon nemesis who brings out the wicked in Cruella. Scenes between the Emmas elevate the entire project, allowing Thompson to radiate devastating narcissism and Stone to mine her character’s emotional and intellectual landscape.

And who doesn’t like to see Mark Strong? He’s one of maybe a dozen performers in tiny, mainly pointless roles decorating the dozens and dozens of scenes that should have been purged from a film that runs two hours and fifteen minutes but feels twice that.

My God does this movie need trimming. You will have aged noticeably by the time it’s over. It meanders for the better part of an hour before actually hitting the catalyst for the story, then stages heist upon gala upon big reveal upon public comeuppance upon more big reveals before actually getting to the point.

Some of these are interesting and fun, but most of them serve no real purpose. Director Craig Gillespie, working from a script by committee (there are 5 credited screenwriters), belabors everything. This not only leaves his film almost structureless, but it also guarantees that nothing sticks with you, not even individual scenes that absolutely should be memorable. No scene or plot point is allowed any real emphasis or import.

It’s curious that Gillespie – who proved a master of tone with I, Tonya – can never find a consistent one here. It doesn’t help that a nearly endless parade of pop/rock hits are jammed into the soundtrack with questionable regard for cause or effect.

And still, there are fun-filled stretches that seem desperate to claw out from under all the dead weight. Cut a full 45 minutes from this film and you may have something. Instead, we get a pointless mess that can’t decide how it even feels about Cruella de Vil.

Walk Softly

A Quiet Place Part II

by George Wolf and Hope Madden

For a few well-placed and important seconds, there it is: the much-discussed nail from A Quiet Place. And like most everything else in writer/director John Krasinki’s thrilling sequel, the nail’s return carries weight, speaking visually and deepening our investment in these characters’ terrifying journey.

But before we see that the Abbotts have learned to avoid that nail, we go back to how it all began on “Day 1.” And Krasinski knows it doesn’t make sense now to tease us with monsters we’ve already seen up close, so beginning right from that pulse-pounding prologue, he keeps ’em coming.

So while there’s no shortage of exhilarating, squirm-inducing and downright scary moments, Krasinski instills it all with an impressive level of humanity.

As Evelyn (Emily Blunt), Regan (Millicent Simmonds), and Marcus (Noah Jupe) continue traveling on foot with baby Abbott in tow, they enter the fortified compound of old friend Emmett (Cillian Murphy), who is not nearly as welcoming as they hoped.

But when Regan heads out alone to find the permanent safe haven she’s sure exists, Evelyn convinces Emmett to follow, and bring her daughter back to the family.

From that point, the film splits into two parallel narratives that Krasinki layers with some nifty intercutting and clever, crowd-pleasing plotting. As the threats keep coming for Regan and Emmett in the wild, and for Evelyn, Marcus and baby back at the compound, the tensions build simultaneously via storytelling that’s primarily visual and wonderfully economical.

The editing gives the enterprise a welcome retro feel and Krasinski’s flair for visual storytelling has only strengthened since the last film.

Jupe is tenderly terrific, and it’s no surprise that Blunt and Murphy—two exquisite actors who never let you down—carry their own, but the one who carries the most weight in Part II is Simmonds. Regan is the film’s believable and capable hero this time, in a narrative choice that underscores the entire film’s optimism for our future and Krasinski’s reminder that there are always “people worth saving.”

AQPII is lean, moves at a quick clip, thrills with impressive outdoor carnage sequences and yet commands that same level of tension in its nerve- janglingly quiet moments. Krasinski had a tough task trying to follow his 2018 blockbuster, one made even tougher now having to prove the sequel was worth saving for a theaters-only release.

On both counts, we’d say he nailed it.

Fright Club: Dolls in Horror

Hard to believe we’ve been doing this so long and have never gotten into creepy doll horror! Well, with help from our friend Phantom Dark Dave, we do just that. Here is our salute to creepy-ass dolls!

Our focus is on the best movies with creepy dolls (rather than the creepiest dolls themselves), and we have a bunch to cover! Dave brings his list, we have ours, and of course, there are also-rans and left-overs. Take a listen!

5. Dead Silence (2007)

Somewhere between their career-defining Saw and their even leggier Insidious and Conjuring franchises, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell dropped a plastic-headed thud with this ventriloquism horror.

It’s kind of a shame because although the story meanders in and out of consciousness, the actual dolls are creepy as hell.

Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts) had all 100 of her “children” buried with her. So why does Buddy keep showing up? And why does Donnie Wahlberg insist on this weird Columbo impression?

No matter. We somehow end up crossing a moat into a gloomy old haunted house filled to bursting with ventriloquist dummies of every shape and description. Dead Silence pays tribute to their own Jigsaw doll as well as that creepy clown in Poltergeist while predicting Goosebumps and Toy Story 4 scares.

Are all those movies better than this one? Yes, but it gets points anyway.


4. Pin (1988)

Who wants something weird? Because, man, does Pin deliver on weird.

Leon and Ursula have always felt close to their dad’s anatomically correct anatomical dummy. Sure, he uses it for doctor’s office stuff (and his nurse uses it as she sees fit!), but to the kids, he’s kind of a member of the family.

He means an awful lot to lonely recluse Leon (David Hewlett), who’s no hit with the ladies. It doesn’t help matters that Ursula (Cynthia Preston) is his favorite lady. I wonder what kind of advice Pin might have? He’s got a real knack with Dad’s nurse…

The point is, people die, people have sex with medical dolls, and Terry O’Quinn (The Stepfather) is again really not showing any natural paternal instincts.

3. Annabelle Comes Home (2019)

Writer Gary Dauberman, who’s penned every installment (as well as It, which seriously amplifies his credibility), takes on directing duties for the first time with the third film in the standalone franchise.

From that opening gag by the cemetery, the movie brings the high-spirited, popcorn-munching goods. It is fun, with generous writing that does not ask us to root against any of the kids, and performances that are far superior to the content. Plus a couple of real laughs, mostly thanks to a randomly hilarious pizza delivery guy.

2. Magic (1978)

Anthony Hopkins has made more horror movies than you realize, and no matter how much you may assume that a ventriloquist horror will be dumb, Magic is actually pretty creepy.

It helps that Hopkins is so effortlessly creepy. It also helps that the film was penned by William Goldman (Marathon Man, The Stepford Wives, All the President’s Men) and directed by Richard Attenborough (Gandhi).

It’s still goofy as all hell. Burgess Meredith sees to that. But Hopkins is fully on board, Ann-Margret was still a dream, and there is just something not right about Fats.

1. Child’s Play (1988)

Let’s be honest, it could probably have been any of the films in the original series, but Chucky had to be on this list. Hell, he had to be #1.

We went with Tom Holland’s original because that’s what it was—original. Brad Dourif and writer Don Mancini evolved the character over the next half dozen installments, but the original benefits from newness as well as Holland’s focus on the peril of little Andy (Alex Vincent). With a maniacal doll on one side and an unrelenting cop (Chris Sarandon) on the other, this kid’s in big trouble.

Still, it all begins and ends with that freckle-faced devil.