Double Trouble

Venom: Let There Be Carnage

by Hope Madden

An unusual note about comic book movies is that the sequel is often, perhaps usually, superior to the original. Why? Because the original can be so burdened by telling an origin story – usually one we already know.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage is one such film, superior to the original not because we already knew the symbiote antihero’s origin tale, though. Rather, director Ruben Fleischer’s much-maligned 2018 blockbuster suffered from a choppy first act and uninspired direction.

With director Andy Serkis (this guy knows how to motion capture) at the helm and a streamlined writing team (Kelly Marcel is the only writer from the original film to return, this time sharing the pen with star Tom Hardy), Let There Be Carnage determines its tone and pace from the opening scene and, for better or worse, rides that through to its concluding, post-credit moments.

The tone runs far closer to horror-comedy than the original, a theme that suits the story of frenemies, one trying to keep the other from eating human brains.

Hardy returns as Eddie Brock, a one-time superstar San Francisco reporter who ran afoul of his fiancé (Michelle Williams), his news outlet and the law last go-round, but found a life partner in the flesh-hungry extra-terrestrial parasite, Venom (also voice by Hardy). They have inadvertently infected cannibal serial killer Cletus Kassidy (Woody Harrelson) with symbiote blood, and now he, too, has a little voice and big alien inside of him.

Harrelson and his slightly digitally modified eyeballs offer villainous fun — though, to be honest, Riz Ahmed’s evil genius in the previous film was not only underappreciated but superior to Harrelson’s lunatic menace.

Still, Hardy is the reason to see the film. His Eddie is put upon and weary while his Venom is boisterous and often very funny. Through the two performances, Hardy delivers the type of lived-in animosity needed to sell any odd-couple story.

Though the CGI was sharper last time, the overall aesthetic Serkis creates is far campier and Goth, which feeds the film’s spooky season vibe. Williams, in a smaller role, finds her stride, though Naomie Harris’s underwritten character is a shame.

The result is a mish-mash of messy, frenetic fun with a higher body count than you might expect. Plus a post-credits stinger worth sticking around to see.

Games of Chance

Bingo Hell

by Hope Madden

Sometimes a title really hits you, like Bingo Hell. Maybe because the idea of playing this game makes me lose the will to live.

Co-writer/director Gigi Saul Guerrero has a slightly different use for the image of folks hunched over their boards hoping to win something from the community chest. A veteran of the horror short film, Guerrero pulls together conflicted thoughts about gentrification and neighborhood loyalty, poverty and affluence, and the sketchy influence of organized gambling for her first feature.

Speaking of veterans, Adriana Barraza — reliable as ever — leads the film as Lupita, the aging but spunky heart of her community, Oak Springs. She doesn’t dig gentrification. Watching members of her community take the cash and bail because they don’t have the cash to pay newly exorbitant rents doesn’t break her heart, it fuels her rage.

Lupita is a spitfire and Barraza’s relish with her outbursts drives the film’s energetic, campy outrage. Bingo Hell has social commentary to spare, but it’s not preaching. It’s attacking.

Guerrero’s film, part of Amazon Prime’s 2021 Welcome to the Blumhouse program, doesn’t oversimplify causes and solutions. Still, it delivers its recommendations as more of a blunt instrument than a surgical tool.

It is much fun to watch Barraza and other mature actors (L. Scott Caldwell, Grover Coulson, Clayton Landey) inhabit characters with agency and some degree of complexity, but it’s Richard Brake who offers Barraza the best sparring partner. Effortlessly sinister, the underappreciated character actor delivers another memorable baddie.

With characters to root for, violence to spare, and a healthy acceptance of chaos, Bingo Hell is pretty fun.

Undead American Summer

Black As Night

by George Wolf

“That was the summer I got breasts and fought vampires.”

Yes, a lot is happening in Shawna’s life, but Black As Night never loses that matter-of-fact teenage perspective even as it broaches some plenty familiar horror terrain.

Shawna (Asjha Cooper) and her BFF Pedro (Fabrizio Guido) uncover a ring of vampires in their New Orleans precinct, and it’s going to take some help from the hunky Chris (Mason Beauchamp) and a privileged Twilight fan (Abbie Gayle) to track down the lead bloodsucker and take him out.

Black As Night is part of 2021’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” collaboration with Amazon, and it continues last season’s focus on films by and about women and/or people of color.

Director Maritte Lee Go and writer Sherman Payne mix Candyman‘s themes of gentrification and disposable populations with the surface level adventures of Buffy and The Lost Boys for a vampire tale that is most noteworthy for its fresh cultural lens.

The message isn’t unique or particularly subtle, production values can be shaky and there’s a hearty helping of exposition shortcuts, but these kids have spunk. Cooper makes Shawna’s journey from insecure wallflower to confident vampire killer an endearing one, and Keith David is here to lend his always welcome gravitas.

And though it often feels like Black As Night is content to just jump on a crowded ride, it consistently finds small moments to call its own. Plus, large numbers of vampires to kill!

So, how was your summer?

Dropping a Bombshell

Wife of a Spy

By Christie Robb

Wife of a Spy really tested the limits of my historical knowledge, which is lamentably focused on Western Civ. I probably studied the American Revolution five separate times and know quite a bit about the British Empire and what we erroneously call the “Age of Exploration,” but as for what was going on in Asia in the 20th century? Shoot.

My knowledge is pretty limited to some communist revolutions and America dropping bombs.

In order to get Wife of a Spy, it’s useful to understand:

  1. Japan invaded northeast China and Inner Mongolia in the 30s and set up a puppet state (the State/Empire of Manchuria), which they more or less controlled until the end of WWII.
  2. The Japanese army in Manchuria conscripted millions of people as slave laborers and subjected them to medicalized torture, including vivisection without anesthesia.
  3. They also spread fleas carrying the bubonic plague from low-flying airplanes over villages and cities and dropped typhoid germs into wells to test out biological weapons.

Wife of a Spy starts in 1940 as Japan becomes increasingly nationalistic. The wealthy and cosmopolitan businessman Yusaku Fukuhara faces scrutiny as to his loyalty from childhood friends who are now in the military. Yusaku and his wife Satoko (Yu Aoi) wear Western dress and conduct business with American and British citizens. They draw criticism for drinking foreign whiskey and forgoing kimonos.

On a trip to Manchuria to search for trade goods and cheap medicine, Yusaku discovers evidence of the atrocities being conducted there. He is determined to blow the whistle internationally. He says his allegiance is to “universal justice” rather than to his country.

Satoko senses her husband’s distress and growing alienation and uncovers the evidence that Yusaku has been hiding in his office safe. But is she willing to risk her blissful domestic life and creature comforts to become the wife of a spy/traitor? Or will she turn Yusaku over to the authorities?

Wife of a Spy doesn’t waste a lot of time explaining the historical context of the film (thus the exposition dump above), but it does a beautiful job of visually immersing us in the historical period. Director/co-writer Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film focuses on the ripple effect that these atrocities have on the lives of the everyman/woman.

For the most part, the reactions of the characters seem realistic. They are haunted or traumatized or incredulous. Satoko’s reaction is a little harder for me to accept. I’m with her until she makes her biggest decision. What follows seems entirely too sunny and chipper.

Regardless, the quiet menace present in the air at the beginning of the movie grows throughout and, as in any good spy film, we’re left wondering if we put our trust in the right people and if we truly understood what just happened.

Manhattan Math

Adventures of a Mathematician

by Rachel Willis

Adventures of a Mathematician, based on the memoir of the same name by Stanislav Ulam (Philippe Tłokiński), offers a fascinating look at one of the main players behind the Manhattan Project and the building of the hydrogen bomb.

Writer/director Thor Klein lacks interest in Ulam’s entire life, instead narrowing his film’s focus to the years the scientist spent in Los Alamos, Nevada, working for the U.S. Department of War. The moral and ethical dilemma of building the atomic bomb – the use of science to wield total destruction – is the heart of Klein’s film.

Aspects of Ulam’s world outside of his work are woven into the film – primarily his relationships with wife Françoise (Esther Garrel), brother Adam (Mateusz Więcławek), and best friend/fellow scientist John van Neumann (Fabian Kociecki).

The movie’s weakest component is the flatness of some of these characters, but because Klein seeks not to simply tell Ulam’s life story, the shallow characters don’t sink the effort. They still serve a purpose as they give voice to the ethical arguments inside Ulam.

In that role, Tłokińksi is flawless, bringing depth to every scene. He infuses every word, every movement with the emotion necessary to tackle such large moral quandaries.

The desolate, dusty landscape of Los Alamos plays its own role in the film – a stark reminder of what’s at stake. The film’s minimal score highlights the scientist’s inner conflict and heightens tensions as the movie draws closer to the devastating moment when the bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Adventures of a Mathematician offers no easy answers, nor is it likely to change anyone’s mind. However, it offers insight into why some of the world’s most brilliant scientists lent their skills to the creation of the deadliest weapons in world history.

Bitter Kiwi

Coming Home in the Dark

by Hope Madden

I have always counted myself among the major fans of Kiwi horror filmmaking. Peter Jackson may mean Middle Earth to others, but to us he is king of splatter-gore comedy, and a generation of New Zealand horror filmmakers has embraced that same sense of viscous fun.

Not James Ashcroft. Nope, making his feature debut with the road trip horror Coming Home in the Dark, the filmmaker is carving out a very different style.

Not long into Hoaggie (Erik Thomson) and Jill’s (Miriama McDowell) weekend outing with their teenage sons, two armed drifters approach. The family is miles from anywhere, and it isn’t until they all stand by and let a car pass without incident that Ashcroft lets us in on two things.

“Looking back on today’s events, I think this will be the moment you realized you should have done something.”

The moment Mandrake (Daniel Gillies, chilling) utters this sentence, Ashcroft lets you know that this story will not go well for the family. He also introduces the general theme of this film: do something while you have the chance.

Mandrake is the more talkative of the two villains, though friend Tubs (Matthias Luafutu) cuts an impressive figure. And in a style closer to that characteristic of Australian horror, Coming Home in the Dark offers a spare but unblinking span of gritty, punishing thrills.

Ashcroft, who adapted Owen Marshall’s short story for the screen along with writer Eli Kent, crafts a deceptively layered drama. The trickiest bit comes near the end, but it would be unfair to give that away.

Unfortunately, the audience has to be patient enough to wade through what feels like preachiness to get to the sucker punch. Performances are exceptional, loose ends are welcome, but with little in the way of visual panache and lots in the way of discomfort, not everyone will stick it out.

I should confess that I firmly believe terror awaits anybody who wanders out into the wilderness. I am the audience for this movie.

Maybe you are, too?

Born Under a Bad Sign

The Many Saints of Newark

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Murmurs, complaints, and whispers come in and out of focus as a camera meanders through an empty cemetery at midday: we hear souls telling the stories of their lives. We stop over the resting place of Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli). He has a tale to tell.

It’s a beautiful opening, spooky but with a bitter, familiar humor about it. With it, director Alan Taylor sets the mood for a period piece that lays the groundwork for one of the best shows ever to grace the small screen. The Many Saints of Newark brings Christmas early for Sopranos fans, but this is not exactly the story of Tony Soprano. In uncovering the making of the future, Taylor and writer Lawrence Konner invite us into the life of Uncle Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola).

Nivola makes for an ideal choice to play the beloved “uncle.” The always reliable actor depicts the film’s central figure as the struggling, complicated result of his circumstances – an excellent theme given the film’s long game to uncover the forces that forged a future boss. In many ways, Uncle Dickie’s weaknesses, indulgences, strengths and goals create a mirror image of the Tony Soprano we would come to know over eight years and six seasons.

Longtime fans will have a bada bing blast recognizing familiar characters in their youth. Vera Farmiga is characteristically excellent as Tony’s formidable mother. John Magaro is a spot-on and hilarious Silvio, matched quirk for quirk by Billy Magnussen as Paulie Walnuts. Corey Stoll brings a younger but no less awkward Uncle Junior to life beautifully.

Of course, the one you wait for is young Tony, played with lumbering, melancholic sweetness by James Gandolfini’s son Michael. The resemblance alone gives the character a heartbreaking quality that feeds the mythology, but young Gandolfini serves Tony well with a vulnerable, believable performance that only expands on our deep investment in this character.

But the film is really more interested in those we never got to know: Tony’s father Johnny Boy Soprano (Jon Bernthal), Dickie’s father Aldo and uncle Sal Moltisanti (Ray Liotta, in two exceptional and very different roles), and stepmother Guiseppina Moltisanti (Michela De Rossi).

De Rossi and Leslie Odom Jr. (who plays colleague-turned-competitor Harold McBrayer) offer some of the most intriguing complexity and context in the entire film. The first half pokes holes in the “woe is me” backstory of the entitled white male Mafioso figure by spending some time with two characters who actually did have a tough go making a life for themselves in this community.  

Taylor (Thor: the Dark World, Terminator Genisys, GoT) helmed nine Sopranos episodes, winning an Emmy for one, while Konner penned three solid episodes of his own, although his decades of work for the big screen has been mediocre at best.

But here the filmmakers combine for extended family drama that, despite one major plot turn landing as entirely illogical, weaves themes old and new in a ride that is often operatic and downright Shakespearean.

If the Sopranos family feels like family, turning back the clock on these indelible characters is just as giddy and delightful as it sounds. But The Many Saints of Newark impresses most by the balance it finds between fan service and fresh character arcs.

It’s an often cruel and bloody tale of wanton crime, treacherous deceit, family dysfunction and cold-blooded murder. And it just might be the most fun you’ll have at the movies all year.

Fright Club: Fathers and Daughters in Horror

Familial relationships can be a killer – especially in the hands of horror filmmakers. This week we look at the fraught relationships between fathers and daughters in horror movies.

5. We Are What We Are (2013, American)

As in Jorge Michel Grau’s original, one family’s religious custom is thrown into havoc when the family leader dies unexpectedly, leaving the ritual unfinished and the children left to determine who will take over. Both films look at a particularly religious family as a sort of tribe that evolved separately but within the larger population. Grau has better instincts for mining this paradigm to expose the flaws of the larger population, but Mickel takes an American Gothic tone to create an eerily familiar darkness that treads on common urbanite fears.

The always exceptional Michael Parks plays a gentle, rural doctor heartbroken over the years-old disappearance of his daughter and intrigued by some grisly bits unearthed by the recent flood. Meanwhile, the devout and desperate Parker family prepares for Lamb’s Day.

The film sets a tone that sneaks up and settles over you, like the damp from a flood. Mickel proves adept with traditional horror storytelling, casting aside any flash in favor of smothering atmosphere and a structure that slowly builds tension, and the impressive climax is worth the wait.

4. Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

Dad himself isn’t even in this film, but what Dracula’s Daughter does well is to depict the hold parents can have on us – if taken to beautifully melodramatic and metaphorical extremes.

Gloria Holden is the hypnotic and almost despondent daughter, Countess Marya Zaleska. After Von Helsing (spelled with an “o” in this movie for some reason) kills the Count, the Countess travels to London to steal the body, hoping to perform a ritual that would cure her of her own awful thirst.

Holden is wonderful, as is Nan Grey as the Countess’s first victim. Lambert Hillyer’s film suggests lesbianism as the shameful curse that can’t be cured – as many a Dracula film has pointed toward homoeroticism as the true curse of vampirism. Thanks to Holden’s melancholy performance, though, instead of feeling like some unwholesome threat, Marya’s desire for women feels more like something her father and now society has made her believe is shameful.

3. Train to Busan (2016)

We are always, always interested when a filmmaker can take the zombie genre in a new direction. Very often, that direction is fun, funny, political—but not necessarily scary. Co-writer/director Sang-ho Yeon combines the claustrophobia of Snakes on a Plane with the family drama of Host, then trusts young Su-An Kim to shoulder the responsibility of keeping us breathlessly involved. It works.

Kim plays Soo-an, a wee girl on a train with her overworked, under-attentive father (Gong Yoo). They are headed to her mother’s. The filmmaker will teach Dad what’s important in this life.

Sometimes funny, sometimes shocking, always exciting and at least once a heartbreaker, Train to Busan succeeds on every front.

2. Oldboy (2003)

A guy passes out after a hard night of drinking. It’s his daughter’s birthday, and that helps us see that this guy is a dick. He’s definitely not much of a father. He wakes up a prisoner in a weird, apartment-like cell. Here he stays for years and years.

The guy is Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi). The film is Oldboy, director Chan-wook Park’s masterpiece of subversive brutality and serious wrongdoing.

Choi is unforgettable as the film’s anti-hero, and his disheveled explosion of emotion is perfectly balanced by the elegantly evil Ji-tae Yu.

Choi takes you with him through a brutal, original, startling and difficult to watch mystery. You will want to look away, but don’t do it! What you witness will no doubt shake and disturb you, but missing it would be the bigger mistake.

1. The Host (2006)

Visionary director Bong Joon Ho’s film opens in a military lab hospital in 2000. A clearly insane American doctor, repulsed by the dust coating formaldehyde bottles, orders a Korean subordinate to empty it all into the sink. Soon the contents of hundreds of bottles of formaldehyde find its way through the Korean sewer system and into the Han River. This event – allegedly based on fact – eventually leads, not surprisingly, to some pretty gamey drinking water. And also a 25 foot cross between Alien and a giant squid.

Said monster – let’s call him Steve Buscemi (the beast’s actual on-set nickname) – exits the river one bright afternoon in 2006 to run amuck in a very impressive outdoor-chaos-and-bloodshed scene. A dimwitted food stand clerk (Joon Ho regular Kang-ho Song) witnesses his daughter’s abduction by the beast, and the stage is set.

What follows, rather than a military attack on a marauding Steve Buscemi, is actually one small, unhappy, bickering family’s quest to find and save the little girl. Their journey takes them to poorly organized quarantines, botched security checkpoints, misguided military/Red Cross posts, and through Seoul’s sewer system, all leading to a climactic battle even more impressive than the earlier scene of afternoon chaos.

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Low-Stakes Road Games


by Hope Madden

I never thought I would miss mumblecore, but here you have it. Co-writer/director Sean Daniel Cunningham transports us back to that time of slight, meandering plots, awkward vulnerability, and low-stakes white people problems.

The thing is, Hudson is pretty great.

As low-key as they come, Hudson follows two estranged cousins on a brief but somewhat eventful road trip one autumn day through Upstate New York. I mean, they don’t really leave the area – they go maybe a couple of hours from home, tops. A game of putt-putt becomes one of the most major events in the adventure. It’s not an edge-of-your-seat thriller is what I’m saying, but it is laid back, sweet and lovely.

Much of that is due to a spot-on performance in the title role by David Neal Levin. Hudson is lovable, sweet and tender due to the recent death of his mother. A middle-aged man still living at home, he mostly writes haiku now, feeds his bird, maybe gets out a remote-control car. Levin’s performance never mocks or belittles the character, never makes him the butt of a joke.

Then Hudson’s cool cousin Ryan (co-writer Gregory Lay) shows up. He’s waiting to do some reshoots for his latest movie, has some time to kill, missed the funeral but wants to hang out now.

The movie sinks or swims on the lived-in relationships. It’s like we’ve dropped into these lives mid-relationship until the cousins pick up a new friend who knows how to get them where they’re going.

Sunrise (played by producer Mary Catherine Greenawalt) gives the film, if not a jolt of energy, then maybe a quiver of it. Her presence allows the writers to explore the cousins’ personas and relationships more deeply, and offers more opportunities for good-natured if not gut-busting humor.

It’s a lovely film. It looks great, performances are solid in a very mellow way, and the resolution feels like a long-coming hug from a buddy. It’s nice.