A Day at the Beach

The Lost Daughter

by Hope Madden

Unnerving intimacy marks Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut as a feature director, The Lost Daughter.

The veteran actor moves behind the camera to capture a weeklong holiday in Greece. Leda (Olivia Colman) lounges seaside and scribbles notes for another book. Little work gets done, though, thanks to the very large, very wealthy, very rowdy family that crowds the beach each day, but one member of that family sends Leda’s mind reeling back to her own youth.

Jessie Buckley’s young Leda captures the rich and volatile version of the woman Colman delivers on the beaches of Greece. The two performances never mirror or mimic each other. Rather, Buckley’s frustration and passion inform the reflective but still impetuous middle-aged woman taking stock of her life.

An actor whose unerring talent feels effortless, though no doubt it is not, Gyllenhaal draws that same kind of vulnerable, raw performance from her leads. Both versions of Leda surprise with a balance of moments, both ugly and dear. Anger lies behind their eyes, as well as longing and the regrettable loneliness of an outsider.

Colman conveys enormous emotional weight with her physical performance. The way she holds herself, the expressions that linger on her face, the changes in her gait—all of it articulates the particular suffering of this human in a way dialog never could.

Gyllenhaal frames the film as if to point out that the story is there, and is important, but of equal value is the way Leda sees the life unfolding around her. The approach is genius but unforgiving. A lesser cast could peter out with this level of attention. Luckily for all of us, Gyllenhaal’s uniformly subline cast (which includes Dakota Johnson and Ed Harris, both marvels) meets the challenge.

The deliberate camerawork in The Lost Daughter crafts a disquieting spell. Whether so close to an embrace you can almost smell the baby shampoo, or holding a distant glance at a stranger long enough to ensure its discomfort, Hélène Louvart’s cinematography disconcerts — as it did in Eliza Hittman’s 2020 treasure Never Rarely Sometimes Always.

Adapting Elena Ferrante’s novel, Gyllenhaal challenges romantic preconceptions about motherhood (sometimes quite bitingly, thanks to lines delivered with acidic precision by the remarkable Colman). The film acknowledges what is given up, what is lost, when you essentially transfer ownership of yourself—your time, your attention, your future—to someone else, to your children. The theme is deeply and honestly felt, and that, too, is unnerving.

Hearing Voices

Sing 2

by Hope Madden

Are you ever absolutely slain by the voice talent in a cartoon? I find this especially true of a middling animation like Sing, or more to the point, writer/director Garth Jennings’s sequel, Sing 2.

Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Taron Edgerton, Bono, Nick Kroll, Bobby Cannavale, Pharrell Williams, Halsey, Letitia Wright, Eric Andre and Chelsea Paretti round out the set of vocal stylists bringing this animated animal talent show to the big screen. Was there any budget left for animators?

Well, sure. This is an Illumination animation—the good people behind the Minions and all that—and its visual style is bright, colorful and well suited to the animal antics afoot.

What antics, you ask? Well, big dreamer Buster Moon (a koala voiced by McConaughey) wants to take his enormously popular smalltown song and dance troupe to the big time! But are they ready? Will the man in charge of their destiny (a nasty wolf named Jimmy Crystal voiced by Cannavale) choose to murder Buster? And can they find the famous singer Clay Calloway (Bono) in time for the big show?

Who’s to say? What they won’t do is sing originals. Unlike your typical Disney musical, Sing 2 puts recognizable pop songs into characters’ mouths, so it plays a bit like one of those TV talent shows, except less annoying.

Halsey is memorable as spoiled Porsha, and Jennings himself shines voicing the character of theater assistant Miss Crawly.

Still, there’s not a lot new to see here—I think we’re all familiar with “the show must go on” stories. There’s even less new to hear. Characters are likable enough (aside from that wolf), and very solid lessons are learned and themes encouraged.

Plus, some fun song choices keep scenes lively and it is very hard to go wrong with this talent pool.

Not one memorable thing happens. Not one. But Sing 2 is light-hearted, good-natured fun while it lasts.  

Metapocalypse

The Matrix Resurrections

by Hope Madden

December is the month for outrage on the big screen. Whether Adam McKay’s latest blistering comedy Don’t Look Up, Radu Jude’s audacious indictment Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, or Lana Wachowski’s return to the power grid that made her famous, movies this December are really, really angry.

And who can blame them?

As the filmmaker resurrects her Matrix series, Wachowski makes sure to point out just how prescient her pleather & action groundbreakers really were.

Back in ’99, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) had to make a choice. He woke up to the fact that reality itself was harsh and inconvenient and you couldn’t just say what you wanted to hear and convince others that was reality. In 2021, Thomas Anderson is a rich video game designer living in a reality where people insist that their own narratives are the truth regardless of the facts.

Anderson’s story involves, once again, waking up to harsh truth and finding true love. There are battles, action sequences, grudges and nostalgia aplenty—more than enough to delight fans of the trilogy looking for a little pandering.

But that plot, slight as it is, creates a frame on which Wachowski can hang a lot of indignation. The strange synergy between the logical evolution of Anderson/Neo’s story and Wachowski’s rage is what makes The Matrix Resurrection strangely satisfying.

Take Act 1’s monologue from Anderson’s video game business partner (Hamilton‘s Jonathan Groff, priceless) as to why they have to make another Matrix video game: Warner Brothers wants a sequel to the trilogy and they own the rights and will make it with or without us.

That’s not an explanation about Wachowski’s return to the cinematic franchise she thought she put to bed in 2003, it’s dialog. Well, it’s both.

Her film goes on to reiterate the danger in a false world. “If we don’t know what’s real, how do we resist?”

Most often she uses a diabolically smug Neil Patrick Harris to voice her wrath, but again, the context she created about living in two realities could not possibly lend itself better to this treatment.

The film looks good. It’s too long, but all of them are. (All of the Matrix films, or all films in general? Both.) The action doesn’t entirely live up to the originals, but how could it? Carrie-Anne Moss is still a force of nature, Reeves is better at being confused than any actor working today, and the balance of new faces, old faces, and younger replacements for familiar faces works.

Resurrections hits a level of meta that risks alienating core Matrix fans, but whether Wachowski wins on her own terms with a box office success or she sinks her franchise into obscurity with a bomb, there’s little doubt she’s the one making the choices here.

Screening Room: Spider-Man: No Way Home, Nightmare Alley, Swan Song and More

Chapter and Multi-Verse

Spider-Man: No Way Home

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Holy cow, how fun was that?!

Director Jon Watts, working again with writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, uses the third in their Spider-Man series to remind us why we all hope for the best whenever we watch a comic book movie.

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) was found out in the previous installment, Spider-Man: Homecoming. And what he’s learned is that life is more complicated for you and more dangerous for your loved ones when your true identity is known. It’s a lesson most all Spider-Men and most superheroes have to contend with at one time or another. (Except Iron Man. Narcissists, amirite?)

Things have gotten so bad for him, his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and his bestie Ned (Jacob Batalon) that he asks for help from a wizard with responsibility issues (Benedict Cumberbatch, having one hell of a year).

What happens next? We see lessons learned from the profound (and rightful) popularity of 2018’s animated treasure, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Portals open and Spider-Man characters come pouring in from across the multiverse.

So do other people, inside jokes, and constant opportunities to strengthen themes Spider-Man has spun since Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.

Oh, sure, it’s nostalgic. It panders. It also spills over with joy. This third installment showcases the naïve optimism and youthful sweetness that has made Watt’s first two episodes such a great time, that are so perfectly embodied by Holland.

Rather than feeling like those Marvel overreaches in defining their own universe, Watts’s film uses the opportunity of pulling in other movies to celebrate the hero, his roots, and what he stands for as an icon of comics, heroes, and childhoods the ‘verse over.

It’s a blast spending time with memorable characters, and each of these actors bring something charming to the screen. Watts and his writers fondly recall what’s gone before, even when ribbing some minor shortcomings.

When a superhero franchise gets far enough in that it requires a multitude of villains to one-up its prequel, things usually go south. Watts, on the other hand, gets stronger with each episode. Between his savvy filmmaking and his lead’s endless charm, he’s easily crafted the best set of superhero films in the Marvel (or Sony) universe. Given the excitement around Spider-Man: No Way Home, Peter Parker may not just save the multiverse. He may save the multiplex.  

Gently Down the Stream

The Novice

by Brandon Thomas

Those who know me best know that I don’t have a competitive bone in my body. Growing up, I was only interested in playing sports for fun. Once everyone started taking winning seriously, I was out. Even a more-than-casual game of Monopoly is enough to make me throw up my hands and say, “Pass.” 

Look, I get the allure of competitive sports. To a lot of folks, it’s like a drug and they constantly need that fix. In art, the competitive spirit has made for some wonderful films. Rocky, Hoosiers, and Rudy highlight the best that sports can bring about in people. However, there is a dark side too. Competition can morph into obsession and even borderline addiction. Director Lauren Hadaway’s film The Novice is a riveting depiction of the obsessive lengths an athlete will go to reach their goals.

College freshman Alex Dall (Isabelle Furhman of Orphan) has set an almost impossible goal for herself: to make it onto the varsity rowing team as a first-year novice. Despite warnings from the coaching staff that novices rarely make varsity, Alex and another novice, Jamie (Amy Forsyth of Coda), devote themselves almost exclusively to training. Whether it’s obsessively eating healthy foods, rowing until they blackout, or solo training on the water before sunrise, the girls attain absolute tunnel vision toward their goal. As the season progresses, Alex’s physical and mental health begins to decline as the prospect of losing varsity becomes a possibility.

The Novice is one of the most confident feature debuts I’ve seen in a long time. Hadaway’s directorial finesse is on point as she keeps the film expertly drifting between sports drama, psychological thriller and tragic romance – all while never committing to any particular genre. It’s a choice that keeps audience expectations constantly fluid and on edge. 

That same sense of unpredictability extends to the film’s lead character, too. The early scenes where Alex is presented as the spunky underdog quickly give way to scenes of the character obsessively training, verbally accosting school staff and even mutilating herself. Hadaway’s excellent script doesn’t let Alex off easy, but it also isn’t a complete indictment of her behavior. 

The visual language of The Novice is another highlight. Hadaway’s camera does a lot of the heavy lifting as it lingers on Alex’s intense workouts. The focus on Alex’s sweaty, nearly exhausted body, conveys that there’s something not right with this. Again, it walks that fine line between competitiveness and obsession.

With an amazing script, an outstanding lead performance, and a laser-focused director, The Novice ends up being one of the absolute best films of 2021.

Master and Servant

Mother/Android

by George Wolf

You think you’ve got a good handle on Hulu’s Mother/Android pretty quickly. Take some zombie basics that we’ve seen from Romero through The Walking Dead, replace the undead with some renegade robots, and away we go.

But while there is plenty here that’s familiar, give writer/director Mattson Tomlin credit for finding sly ways to surprise you, and ultimately subvert your expectations with an nifty metaphorical finale.

Chloë Grace Moretz stars as Georgia aka “G,” a young woman struggling to enjoy a party after the shock of finding out she’s pregnant. Her boyfriend Sam (Algee Smith) is saying all the right things, but she’s unsure about their future.

As A.I. servants dutifully attend to the party guests, G and a friend head to the bathroom for a private chat. But in an instant, a painful sonic blast drops the humans to their knees while rebooting the bots to a default “kill” setting.

Fast forward nine months, and Tomlin’s got a standard setup (survivors running toward a rumored safe haven while being pursued by a relentless menace) with the always convenient “savior” trump card (very pregnant woman).

Tomlin’s storytelling appears workmanlike but uninspired, often rehashing ideas and set pieces you’ll remember from Terminator, The Descent, A Quiet Place, and even The Empire Strikes Back. But when G and Sam get separated, and G meets up with a fellow survivor (Raúl Castillo) who once helped create the Android serving class, Tomlin finally gets around to rewarding all who stick it out for Act 3.

With foreshadowing that is effectively subtle and an affecting turn from Moretz that crafts G as both tortured and courageous, the film reveals its first twist in finely organic fashion while keeping you distracted from the true motive ahead. Once revealed, it arrives as a plea for global empathy that lands with some unexpected emotional pull.

The best science fiction tales succeed when their glimpses of the future help us reassess the present. Mother/Android gets there, eventually, with a measured pace that seems much more confident when the party’s over.

Hot For Teacher

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

by George Wolf

If you think the word “porn” in the title is just for effect, the first few minutes of Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn will be a hardcore surprise.

We first meet Romanian married couple Emi (Katia Pascariu) and Eugen (Stefan Steel) as they’re ignoring knocks on the bedroom door to record their spirited relations on home video. They’re consenting adults, so fair enough.

Well, maybe not so fair enough. Emi is a teacher at a prestigious school in Bucharest and when her frisky business footage winds up online, some parents loudly cry foul. But Emi is defiant, and as she’s subjected to a public hearing about her “sins,” writer/director Radu Jude makes it the centerpiece of a wildly audacious, funny and free-flowing diatribe against hypocrisy and the rise of meanness.

Jude divides the narrative into chapters, and doesn’t waste much time in Part 1 worrying about how the tape became public in the first place. Emi’s plight is more a situation than a story and for Jude, the point is the aftermath.

But before Emi faces her critics, Jude breaks away for “a short dictionary of anecdotes,” filling his second act with a series of definitions, archival reels, and meme-worthy examples of everything from racism to explicit oral sex. Subtle, it isn’t, which Jude readily acknowledges by following the word “metaphor” with a child’s game that essentially grabs toy fish from a barrel.

And by the time Emi’s hearing plays out as an Act 3 “sitcom” with multiple endings going off various rails, you’ll be amazed by how much this Romanian import reminds you of any number of heated arguments here at home. Subjects such as FOX News and George Soros are thrown around while the matter at hand quickly devolves into wild conspiracy theories and whataboutism where “the more idiotic the opinion, the more important it is.”

Jude has some strong views of his own, about modern life and how cinema should best reflect it. He doesn’t hold much back in Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, a film that leans into its absurdity for a boldly extreme and worthwhile declaration.

Fright Club: Scary Santas

This season has inspired so much horror. You have classics like Black Christmas, foreign masterpieces like Inside, Calvaire and Sheitan, and tons upon tons of guilty pleasures. Today we narrow the focus to the best of the Santas – those fur coated, black booted terrors that can really ruin a festive noel. Here are our favorites.

5. Christmas Evil (1980)

Lewis Jackson’s yarn about a damaged boy growing up to be a murderous Santa may sound like every third holiday horror to come out in the 80s, but because it was one of the first to do it, it doesn’t fit the predictable pattern. More importantly, Brandon Maggart’s sympathetic performance elevates this film above schlock horror like Silent Night, Deadly Night (and its sequels) to something considerably better.

Yes, childhood memories of Dad and Mom getting cozy under the mistletoe while Dad’s dressed as Father Christmas have had an ill effect on Harry. His zealotry concerning the season, the ribbing he takes from people he knows, and the naughtiness he sees all around him finally push him over the edge. Predictable enough, and with a low budget that allows for very few jingle bells and whistles. Still, Jackson’s script goes unexpected places and Maggart delivers more than standard fare as the marauding Claus.

4. A Christmas Horror Stor ( 2015)

A trio of Canadian directors – Steve Hoban, Brett Sullivan, and Grant Harvey – pull together a series of holiday shorts with this one. Held together by Dangerous Dan (William Shatner), the small-town radio announcer who’s pulling a double shift this Christmas Eve, the tales vary wickedly from three teens trapped in their own wrong-headed Nativity, to a family who accidentally brought home a violent changeling with their pilfered Christmas tree, to a dysfunctional family stalked by Krampus, to Santa himself, besieged by zombie elves.

Yes, there is a second film out this holiday season with Krampus in it. You know what? This one’s better – in fact, it’s almost patterned after Krampus director John Dougherty’s cult favorite Trick r’ Treat and it offers more laughs and more scares.

Plus Shatner! He’s adorably jolly in the broadcast booth, particularly as the evening progresses and his nog to liquor ratio slowly changes. This is a cleverly written film, well-acted and sometimes creepy as hell. Merry f’ing Christmas!

3. Deadly Games (1989)

That mullet! That house! Rene Manzor’s 1989 holiday horror predates Home Alone by one year, but both films have the same idea in mind. What if an incredibly rich family leaves a kid to defend himself against home invaders on Christmas Eve?

Except in this case, rich doesn’t begin to cover it and the home invader isn’t a couple of suburban thugs, it’s a psychotic dressed as Santa. Patrick Floersheim brings layers of tragic man-chid mental instability to the role, and that gives the film a lot of depth. Alain Lalanne is adorable as the mulleted boy who believes in Santa, and Louis Decreux – as his go-along-with-anything grandpa – is equally precious.

The editing leaves a lot to be desired, so the action sequences and montages lack propulsion. But the set decoration is amazing. This is a fun one.

2. Saint (Sint) (2010)

What is every child’s immediate reaction upon first meeting Santa? Terror. Now imagine a mash-up between Santa, a pirate, and an old-school Catholic bishop. How scary is that?

Well, that’s basically what the Dutch have to live with, as their Sinterklaas, along with his helper Black Peter, sails in yearly to deliver toys and bag naughty children to kidnap to Spain. I’m not making this up. This truly is their Christmas fairy tale. So, really, how hard was it for writer/director Dick Maas to mine his native holiday traditions for a horror flick?

Allegorical of the generations-old abuse against children quieted by the Catholic Church, Saint manages to hit a few nerves without losing its focus on simple, gory storytelling.

1.Rare Exports (2010)

It’s not just the Dutch with a sketchy relationship with Santa. That same year Saint was released, the Fins put out an even better Christmas treat, one that sees Santa as a bloodthirsty giant imprisoned in Korvatunturi mountains centuries ago.

Some quick-thinking reindeer farmers living in the land of the original Santa Claus are able to separate naughty from nice and make good use of Santa’s helpers. There are outstanding shots of wonderment, brilliantly subverted by director Jalmari Helander, with much aid from his chubby-cheeked lead, a wonderful Onni Tommila.

Rare Exports is an incredibly well-put-together film. Yes, the story is original and the acting truly is wonderful, but the cinematography, sound design, art direction and editing are top-notch.

Found In Translation

Achoura

by Hope Madden

Children in peril, cool creature design and a monster that still feels new, even though it’s centuries old. Franco-Moroccan filmmaker Talal Selhami delivers all this and more in his latest effort, Achoura.

The tale bounces around three different time periods. Many years ago, a young girl and boy run away from her arranged marriage, taking shelter in an abandoned house. They are found, and not just by the husband.

Years later, four young friends playing in a cornfield wander into the same house and meet with tragedy. In modern-day Morocco, three of those four come to terms with just what it is they experienced.

Achoura is the third film I’ve seen in recent years focused on a djinn— a spirit of Middle Eastern folklore. Earlier this year, David Charbonnier and Justin Powell released their chamber piece, The Djinn, and back in 2016 came Babak Anvari’s terrifying sociopolitical treasure, Under the Shadow.

Selhami’s film lacks the power of the latter and the focus of the former, but it still brings the goods. The filmmaker is at his best working with children, establishing an unsettling vulnerability that gives his horror real punch.

The adult storyline works less well — certain head-scratching behavior begging too much suspension of disbelief — but Omar Lofti’s tender performance almost makes up for that. A bridge of sorts between the children and adults in the tale, he enlists your investment in solving the riddle and saving the day.  

Romain Paillot’s score conjures Ghostbusters as well as E.T., disconcerting choices given what’s in store for youngsters in Selhami’s film. Things don’t go well for them, and their suffering gets a tad lost in the narrative. It’s as though the film began as a metaphor about molestation but changed course somewhere and never properly righted itself. It gives the film a sense of thematic meandering.

Selhami scores points with the creature, though. The image, echoed throughout the film in drawings and artwork, is eerie and the monster itself looks great when handled practically. The VFX leaves something to be desired, unfortunately, marring a few scenes that would otherwise have been seriously unnerving.

Achoura also marks the second film this year to take inspiration from Moroccan folklore, after Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s Kandisha. And though Selhami’s cinematic storytelling shows some weak spots, he and his creepy film are part of a movement expanding the look and language of horror, and that’s worthy of applause.