Nerd Wanted

It Takes Three

by Rachel Willis

The time seems apt for another modern adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac. But throw in a few social media-obsessed teens, and you might wonder if It Takes Three isn’t exactly what Edmond Rostand had in mind when he wrote his play.

That’s giving the film a little too much credit for its cute update to a classic work.

Director Scott Coffey, working from a script penned by Blair Mastbaum and Logan Burdick, uses our current social media reality to craft a film one part Cyrano and one part every other teenage rom-com.

Today’s world, where people painstakingly craft the perfect online persona, lends itself well to the story of a man (in this case, teen) who uses the words of another to woo his lady love.

Chris (David Gridley) – star of the internet sensation HiYA! – is enamored with feminist art lover, Roxy (Aurora Perrineau). Realizing his action star/ bro persona doesn’t mesh with Roxy’s, Chris offers to pay awkward teen, Cy (Jared Gillman) to create a new, “nerd” online persona for him. Cy wants the money for plastic surgery (though the filmmakers chose not to affix any kind of embarrassing nose to Cy’s face), so he agrees.

Predictable hijinks ensue as the real Chris tries to reconcile who he is with who Cy has created online. The scenes where he spends time with Roxy offer some awkward hilarity.

But this isn’t merely Cyrano retold, and we spend plenty of time with Cy, who, when he isn’t pretending to be someone else, spends his time with best friend, Kat (Mikey Madison). But as Cy falls deeper into his role as Chris’s online ego, he loses track of who he really is.

Because of so many elements, the movie spreads itself too thin. Cy’s moms have quite a bit of screen time during the film’s first half (mostly to reassure Cy that his face is perfect), but then they are gone. Coffey relies on numerous teen rom-com tropes, which is good for a chuckle or two, but leaves the audience following characters never given much depth.

Perhaps it’s a commentary on the unreality of modern teenage life, but more likely it’s just an oversight. Still, there’s a sweetness to the characters, and you find yourself hoping they’ll figure out how to embrace who they are in a world obsessed with perfection.

Family Matters

The Gateway

by George Wolf

Opening his film with a quote from Charles Dickens, and closing it with a statistic about foster care, director/co-writer Michele Civetta wants us to know he has serious issues on his mind.

There are children out there hurting. If no one cares enough to help them, there’s little hope of breaking a sad cycle of dysfunction.

True enough, and fair enough. The problem is the 90 minutes of heavy handed cliche that fall between quote and quotient.

Shea Whigham pulls the weight here as Parker, a social worker in St. Louis who’s – you guessed it – battling some personal demons. After fighting his way out of a troubled childhood via a promising boxing career, Parker now grapples with booze and blow, looking for redemption through his caseload of damaged souls.

Parker is particularly drawn to Ashley (Taegen Burns), a bright young teen whose mother Dahlia (Olivia Munn) requires frequent checkups to keep on the straight and narrow. Her path gets rockier when Ashley’s father Mike (Zach Avery) comes home from prison a bit earlier than expected.

If Mike can give his boss “The Duke” (Frank Grillo) one last big score, he’ll be set up with a cushy job running some strip joint instead of risking his life in the streets.

Just one more, then he’s out! That always goes exactly as planned, right?

It’s great to see the veteran support player Whigham get a lead role, but the script doesn’t give him – or anyone else – much chance to develop a character with any authentic layers. True, social worker as avenging ass-kicker is a wrinkle, but nearly every other role is either interchangeable with countless other crime dramas or a familiar face (Keith David, Taryn Manning) in a distracting cameo.

Whigham, Munn and even the legendary Bruce Dern (as Parker’s estranged father) can’t do much to elevate the material, or the film’s occasional slapped-together feel (at least two dialog dubs are badly mismatched).

And once even the core message about the social safety net picks up sidebars on the military industrial complex and government-sponsored drug trafficking, The Gateway becomes an overwrought and overwritten mess leading to little that is satisfying.

The Gateway hits VOD on Friday

Fright Club: Librarians in Horror

It’s back to school time, which makes it the perfect time to check back in with the Reel Librarian, Jennifer Snoek-Brown. With her help and deep reserves of information, we count down the very best librarians horror has in store.

5) The Monks  (Necronomicon: Book of the Dead, 1993)

Not a great movie, which is especially disappointing considering its pedigree. Segments in the Lovecraft anthology are directed by Christoph Ganz (Brotherhood of the Wolf), Brian Yuzna (Society) and Shûsuke Kaneko (Death Note).

Still, the wraparound story The Library – directed by Yuzna and starring that filmmaker’s favorite and ours, Jeffrey Combs – is much fun. Combs plays Lovecraft himself, visiting a very private library run by peculiar monks. He’s doing research. Or is he stealing the librarian’s key with hopes of finding the Necronomicon?

That is totally what he’s doing, and it’s a blast. Combs is great, but Tony Azito as the bemused/annoyed librarian is the real star here.

4) Edgar – Laurence Payne (The Tell-Tale Heart, 1960)

Are you a Poe fan? Well, it won’t matter because Ernest Morris’s period thriller bears little resemblance to Edgar’s classic.

So why include it? Because the murderer is a librarian! Laurence Payne plays brittle Edgar, a reference librarian who’s taken with his new neighbor, Betty (Adrienne Corri). He doesn’t know how to talk to women, but his best friend Carl (Dermot Walsh) sure does! And my, how Carl’s heart does beat loudly.

Corri’s exceptional in this film, but Payne is unlikable, entitled, perverted gold. This is an incel movie before we even knew what incel was.

3) Evan – Tomas Arana (The Church, 1989)

Michele Soavi’s dreamy gothic Giallo, co-penned by Dario Argento and co-starring a very young Asia Argento – is no masterpiece. It is endlessly watchable nonsense, though.

Evan (Tomas Arana) shows up late for his first day as cathedral librarian, stopping to flirt with fresco restorer Lisa (Barbara Cupisti) before heading into the library where he will be brazenly lazy and more than a little creepy.

The film takes on the dreamlike logic of a Fulci without losing the more pristine visuals that mark Argento’s earlier films. Its underlying themes are kind of appalling (wait, we’re good with the inquisitors who murdered that village?), but it looks great.

2) Evie – Rachel Weisz (The Mummy, 1999)

Is it a horror movie? Well, it is a monster movie, so close enough. Stephen Sommers’s 1999 swashbuckler boasted fun FX, an excellent villain, the newly beloved Brendan Fraser, and one kick-ass librarian.

Rachel Weisz, more attractive than ought to be allowable, plays Evie Carnahan. Her opening segment of destruction in the library itself is sheer visual poetry, but she’s more than brains and clumsiness. Evie stands up for herself, outsmarts bad guys, accidentally reanimates ancient evil, and really loves her job.

1) Halloway – Jason Robards (Something Wicked This Way Comes, 1983)

There’s a reason Evie Carnahan and Charles Halloway top our list of librarians in horror. Because they are heroes, as are all librarians.

Jack Clayton’s take on Ray Bradbury wields nostalgia with melancholy precision, recognizes time as the enemy, and boasts exceptional performances from its villain Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Dark, and its hero, Jason Robards as town librarian and all-around good guy, Charles Halloway. The fact that the final showdown takes place right in the library is the icing on the cake.

Screening Room: Candyman, Vacation Friends, Together, No Man of God & More

Evil (Corporate) Empire

Behemoth

by Brandon Thomas

The intersection of corporate greed and evil incarnate feels like a match made in cinematic heaven (I know, I know). While the idea itself is teeming with possibilities, the execution in director Peter Szewcyck’s Behemoth leaves a lot to be desired.

Joshua Riverton (Josh Eisenberg) was once a top sales rep for a massive chemical company. When his daughter became mysteriously ill, Joshua believed his employer to be responsible and became an outspoken whistleblower. As his daughter gets sicker, Joshua’s need for answers intensifies into obsession. After a chaotic altercation with his former employer, Dr. Luis Woeland (Paul Statman), an injured Joshua is forced to hide out in a seedy motel with two friends and a captive Woeland. As the night progresses, Joshua begins to lose his grip on reality and question whether his horrific visions are in his head or caused by the malevolent Woeland.

First thing’s first: Behemoth is a mess. Szewcyck and co-writer Derrick Ligas’s script erratically bounces back and forth between corporate thriller and demonic sfx extravaganza at a moment’s notice. The problem is that the movie doesn’t do either sub-genre very well. The thriller side is preachy in a “college freshman discovering politics for the first time” kind of way, but lacks subtext surrounding corporate America. 

The horror elements aren’t any stronger. There’s a notable attempt to create interesting creatures throughout the film, but the dodgy effects work does more harm than good. The creatures have interesting designs and might have worked if made practically, but as they are, these digital counterparts look silly and don’t fit within the film’s more serious tone. 

As flimsy as the material itself is, the acting isn’t any better. The majority of the cast delivers the script’s clumsy dialogue with a mix of histrionics and forced exasperation. Chemistry is wholly absent between the main trio. Only Statman knows how to handle the material he’s working with. He walks an impressive line between corporate sleaze and evil minion with grace. 

Behemoth makes a noble attempt at infusing a standard-ish creature feature with timely real-world issues. However, the weak script and subpar acting never allow the film to live up to its aspirations. 

Profiler and the Mad Man

No Man of God

by Hope Madden

True crime is quite a phenomenon, isn’t it? It’s been a staple of watch-at-your-own-risk entertainment for generations, but podcasts have set a genre fire that seems unquenchable. Filmmakers have taken notice.

Still, do we need more Ted Bundy? Joe Berlinger made a miniseries (2019’s Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes) and a feature (Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, also 2019). Then there was 2020’s miniseries Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer, which, like Extremely Wicked, told the Bundy tale with the voice of a former girlfriend. And in a few weeks, Daniel Farrands kicks off his American Boogeyman serial killer film series with a feature on Bundy.

Is it even possible for filmmaker Amber Sealy to tell us anything fresh? And even if she could, is there any legitimate reason to continue to rehash the behavior of such human garbage?

Working from a script by Kit Lesser, Sealy attempts to demystify Bundy, focusing not on his crime spree at all, but on his final years on death row. No Man of God spends most of its time in a confined, colorless chamber where Bundy (Luke Kirby) and FBI profiler Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood) converse.

Both actors deliver nuanced, unnerving performances. Their interplay and the evolving relationship help Sealy overcome the limited action, institutional color palette, and dialog-heavy run time.

Hagmaier is essentially the vehicle for the audience. Why is he spending his time with this heinous being? He just wants to understand.

That’s our excuse too, right? And that’s also the danger — at least it is in every movie ever made concerning an FBI profiler trying to get into the head of a serial killer, and No Man of God is no different. Is good guy Bill really Bundy’s opposite, or is he capable of the same acts of violence against women?

There are flashes in Sealy’s film where she nearly punctures her rote though well-acted tale with genuine insight about misogyny. But the film is never as interested in the women harmed by Bundy’s narcissism, insecurity and psychosis as it is in those traits he bore.  

Say His Name

Candyman

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Sweets to the sweet, indeed.

This new Candyman is the most delicious brand of horror sequel. Thanks to the startling vision of director/co-writer Nia DaCosta and producer/co-writer Jordan Peele, it is a film that honors its roots but lives so vibrantly in the now that it makes you view the 1992 original from an urgent new angle.

We go back to Chicago’s now-gentrified Cabrini Green housing project with up-and-coming artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), whose works have taken a very dark turn since he learned of the Candyman legend from laundromat manager William Burke (Colman Domingo).

Anthony’s obsession helps spark the interests of curious doubters, which means blood will soon be shed. Suspicions about Anthony’s possible role in the killings begin to grow, leading his girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris) to worry about her own promising career in the art world – and eventually her own safety.

Research on the legend reacquaints us with events from the first film, gloriously reenacted through the paper and shadow puppet work first seen in the film’s trailer. Without dismantling the backstory, only shifting the point of view from white storyteller to Black, DaCosta takes ownership of the narrative—which is, itself, the point the film makes. Own the narrative.

DaCosta’s savvy storytelling is angry without being self-righteous. Great horror often holds a mirror to society, and DaCosta works mirrors into nearly every single scene in the film. Her grasp of the visual here is stunning—macabre, horrifying, and elegant. She takes cues from the art world her tale populates, unveiling truly artful bloodletting and framing sequences with grotesque but undeniable beauty. It’s hard to believe this is only her second feature.

Compelling performances throughout draw you into the saga. Abdul-Mateen II delivers terrifying layers while Parris gives the filmmaker a vehicle for outrage and satire. The always reliable Domingo (having a banner year) brings the film’s institutional knowledge — important in any sequel (somebody has to tell the protagonist what’s already happened), but invaluable in a film about the legacy of trauma.

And then there’s Vanessa Williams, whose return to the franchise is heartbreaking perfection.

Fans of the preceding films will find no reason to be disappointed, but that’s about the least of what this Candyman accomplishes. By the time a brilliant coda of sadly familiar shadow puppet stories runs alongside the closing credits, there’s more than enough reason for horror fans to rejoice and…#telleveryone.

O Brave New World

The Colony

by Christie Robb

Director/co-writer Tim Fehlbaum’s The Colony (originally titled Tides) is a new entry into science fiction’s grand tradition of working out issues of the past and present in imagined future contexts.

In this one, Earth’s elites packed into spacecrafts and blasted away from a planet wrecked by climate change, pandemics and war. (Imagine!)

They settled on a planet called Kepler 209, which provided a temporary refuge. While they could survive there, radiation had an impact on fertility and, two generations in, no children were being conceived by a now-aging population.

So, once the Keplerians got some data from beacons they’d left back on Earth that their home planet may have healed somewhat, they sent a reconnaissance party called Ulysses 1 to scout out the situation and see if Earth was safe to return to and, hopefully, procreate on.

They never heard from U1.

Some years later, they scraped together the resources and sent U2 with a small crew including Louise Blake (Nora Arnezeder), the now-grown daughter of a missing astronaut from U1. Blake’s crash to Earth is where the Colony begins.

From the moment she impacts the surface, things are grim. Crewmembers are inured. Some die.

There’s a perpetual and inhospitable fog that obscures the landscape rendering Blake unable to get a clear picture of her surroundings. And this thematically fits, as this initial slow-burn of a movie is all about Blake charting the lay of the land on this new Earth.

She’s not alone.

But exactly who she is sharing space with and whether their interests are aligned is something that Blake has to explore and uncover. As the movie progresses, the pace increases incrementally and the stakes get higher as Blake needs to decide what she stands for and whose side she is on.

It’s interesting how it works with the themes of colonization in a tweaked context.

The Colony is a good offering. It’s not perfect. Communication between different groups is managed with way too much ease. The plot is somewhat predictable. One character is so much without agency that he may as well be a Force ghost urging Blake to heroic action. And, for a movie that mentions pandemics in the intro, it really missed an opportunity to add a novel disease transmission subplot.

But the cinematography, particularly the play between extreme wide shots emphasizing the characters’ vulnerability in the forbidding landscape and the close-up point of view shots giving us Blake’s limited access to snippets of the action, is wonderful. As is Arnezeder’s portrayal of Blake’s full emotional range.

Of special note is Iain Glen (as Jorah Mormont), who manages to effortlessly show the violence lurking just beneath the veneer of civilization.

I Hate Your Face

Together

by George Wolf

We’re living in unprecedented times – that’s no news flash. But the daily process of navigating the minefield of consequences from this pandemic can beat down our psyche until acceptance is required for survival.

While it may be decades until we can fully fathom the extremes we’re going through right now, filmmakers have been showing impressive instincts for adapting to on-set constraints, and reflecting on our currently shared experience.

Enjoying Together may depend upon how much you welcome the reminder.

Filmed in under two weeks with a cast of just three in a single location, the film finds humor and poignancy while mining both the intimate and more universal aspects of a nationwide lockdown.

The nation is Great Britain, where we meet He (James McAvoy) and She (Sharon Horgan) at the beginning of the quarantine, when onscreen text begins keeping track of the days and the casualties.

He’s a bootstrap conservative just fine with buying privilege, while she’s a power to the people “communist.” They were splitting up even before lockdown, so now that they’re forced to stay together, he hates her face, she wants to feed him poison mushrooms, and they both speak directly to the camera while trying to keep the worst of their vitriol away from son Artie (Samuel Logan).

Directors Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours, The Reader) and Justin Martin (debut feature) use the broken fourth wall and the multiple extended takes to draw us in and make us part of the conversation.

Writer Dennis Kelly provides McAvoy and Horgan with funny, biting barbs and heartfelt monologues, and the two actors consistently find authentic levels of humor and emotion – even in the moments when it starts to feel we’re being talked to instead of with. He and She are demanding, intense roles, and both McAvoy and Horgan respond with fiery, nuanced turns that alone make the film worthwhile.

In between the mounting death toll and the promise of a vaccine, Together glimpses how our lives have been changed in small, inconvenient ways and larger, heartbreaking ones. And as an impressionable child waits in the next room while his parents get closer to their true feelings, American audiences may especially notice the missing chapter on pandemic death cults.

But in our darkest days, art has always been there to help us question, laugh, cry and heal. So while using a welcome night out to spend time back in lockdown may seem as entertaining as a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, this film just wants you to know there’s hope if we just stay…

You know.

Bzzz

Mosquito State

by Hope Madden

Right from its scientifically precise and profoundly unsettling opening, Filip Jan Rymsza’s Mosquito State is almost unwatchable. The film, about Wall Street analyst Richard Boca (Beau Knapp) and the 2008 financial collapse, takes on an upsetting metaphor.

Richard, brilliant and socially awkward in equal measure, brings two bodies home with him one evening: the poised and lovely Lena (Charlotte Vega) and a thirsty mosquito. Thanks to Richard’s intimacy ineptitude, things don’t go well with Charlotte, but that mosquito gets all she came for.

Though the buzzing of the bloodsuckers that soon breed in Richard’s apartment may suggest those Wall Street parasites whose appetites will soon collapse the market, Rymsza has something less obvious on his mind.

Any underlying themes about benevolence versus predation serve the filmmaker’s somewhat confounding allegory, but his aesthetic is as pointedly horrific as they come. My god, that whining buzz! The sound threatens to overwhelm you as certainly as the insects themselves overwhelm Richard, who becomes utterly submissive, offering his naked body to the unholy swarm.

Rymsza orchestrates a certain ghastly beauty, but first he has to immerse you in sounds and sights that trigger an automatic, primal revulsion and need to swat and flee.

Knapp’s performance suggests a bloodless Nicolas Cage as Elephant Man — bloodless not just because he’s made Richard the mosquitos’ feast, but because Knapp drains his character of charisma and flamboyance. Richard’s as unpredictable and difficult to enjoy as the film itself, but that makes him —and Mosquito State — no less distressingly intriguing.

Rymsza’s anticlimactic finale will leave many unsatisfied with his film. But for a wild combination of revulsion and beauty, Mosquito State is worth a look.