by George Wolf
As you may have noticed, we’re living in extraordinary times. So when we’re looking back decades from now, what film commentaries will separate themselves as the most insightful of the day?
In the words of Sammy Hagar, only time will tell what stands the test of time. But there are two releasing just this week that seem like good bets to at least make the team picture.
Quinn Shephard’s Not Okay takes some satirical daggers to the social media age, while Vengeance broadens the focus for a lightly comical mystery with some hot button issues on its mind.
It’s the feature debut as writer and director for familiar face B. J. Novak, and it instantly marks him as a smart, sly, and entertaining storyteller.
Novak (Saving Mr. Banks, Inglourious Basterds, TV’s The Office) also stars as Ben, a writer for the New Yorker who wants to be more. He wants to be a “voice.” Fate steps in when he’s lured to West Texas after the fatal opioid overdose of his occasional hookup Abilene (Crazy, Stupid, Love‘s Lio Tipton). Abi may have been little more than a fling, but Abi’s family thinks she and Ben were a longtime committed couple.
They also think Abi was murdered, and when her brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook, terrifically nutty) proposes a teamup to avenge Abi’s death, Ben seizes the chance to pitch a “Dead White Girl” true crime podcast to his editor Eloise (Issa Rae, always welcome).
Early on, Novak gets laughs from throwing a “hundred percent, hundred percent” New York hipster into the home of an eccentrically red state brood who will teach him many things about Texas, including what makes Whataburger so great.
“It’s right there!”
But as Ben starts piecing together Abi’s last days, and glimpsing her dreams of stardom with a local record producer (Ashton Kutcher, understated and better than he’s ever been), Novak begins weaving some impressive and resonant layers.
Speeches are made and then refuted. Stereotypes are outlined and defended, only to be punctured as Novak and Ben dig deeper, searching for the heart of a “new American reality” that took shape when truth became unacceptable.
From podcasts, conspiracy theories and hot takes to the ideological divide between coastal elites and country bumpkins, Vengeance sure feels like an authentic national portrait.
It’s also a funny and entertaining mystery caper, self-effacing but not afraid to wander into some dark places, with a social conscience that Novak reveals in organic and endearing ways. We are more just the record of ourselves in and around new media, and our evolving societal challenges deserve more than convenient cop-outs.
Sounds like a good start to Novak’s transition into filmmaking.
by Hope Madden
In 2020, Rebecca Hall starred in The Night House, a nice little haunted house tale. That movie worked, partly because it was filmed gorgeously, but mainly because Hall herself elevated all the little contrivances with an awe-inspiring performance.
It’s 2022 and she does it again, this time in writer/director Andrew Semans’s psychological horror, Resurrection.
Hall is Margaret, and as the film opens, she’s sitting on her desk, looking benevolently at young intern Gwen (Angela Wong Carbone), patiently offering advice. Margaret’s wisdom feels earned, but it’s hard to imagine this competent and controlled woman was ever weak.
What follows is the unearthing of a backstory that might seem maudlin and ludicrous in other hands. In these hands, though, Resurrection becomes unnerving and horrifying.
Semans’s film walks that worn path: is she crazy or is this really happening? Has Margaret’s past finally found her? Or has the prospect of watching her daughter (Grace Kaufman) turn 18—Margaret’s age during her own trauma—fractured her psyche?
Kaufman, along with Michael Esper as harmless love interest/office bestie Peter, offer grounded, tender performances that strengthen the film’s “is she or isn’t she” vibe.
On the surface, The Resurrection is a stalker thriller, bearing all the markings of the subgenre. But there is a deeply weird story unraveling here and Hall’s performance ensures that it leaves a mark. The lingering monologue where Margaret reveals the source of her panic is the kind of material that would break a lesser performer. It builds, as the camera closes in, to a reveal so bizarre it could easily become grotesquely silly. But you believe Hall.
And that’s the heart of Resurrection’s effectiveness. The fact that both Hall and Roth take the story seriously, never play it for laughs, and remain so understated in their performances creates a diabolical atmosphere. You’re as unmoored as Margaret.
You will squirm and look away long before the film’s bloody climax because watching Margaret come undone is traumatizing. Semans’s wrap-up is not as successful, but the damage his film does can’t be undone.
DC League of Super-Pets
by Hope Madden
Y’all should have a pet. That’s the message of the feel-good, sometimes surprisingly dark, wildly well-cast animated feature DC League of Super-Pets.
It’s not a tough lesson, really. That’s why one pet has to learn something different. Krypto (Dwayne Johnson), Superman’s dog, doesn’t really know how to be a dog. He figures out something about pack animalhood when he’s robbed of his superpowers, Superman goes missing, and the shelter animals up the road develop their own special skills.
Who’s to blame? Is it evil Lex Luthor (Marc Maron)?
Oh, no. No, this villain is a far, far more dangerous creature. Look out for Lulu (Kate McKinnon), a hairless Guinea pig once saved from experimentation in Luthor’s lab!
Guinea pigs have not done this much animated damage since that South Park episode.
There are lessons aplenty in this film, but just one I want Hollywood to take away from it: McKinnon should voice all animated bad guys forevermore. She couldn’t be more perfect, couldn’t be more fun.
She’s not alone. The supporting voicework in this film delights. Other scene stealers include Keanu Reeves as a brooding (what else?) Batman and Natasha Lyonne as a cantankerous yet horny turtle.
Sure, the actual stars are Johnson and Kevin Hart, and they’re about as fun an odd couple when they’re cartoon dogs as they are when they’re CIA agents or board game buddies. But the real story here is the supporting cast, which also includes John Krasinski, Diego Luna, Jemaine Clement, Daveed Diggs, Vanessa Bayer, Dascha Polanco, Jameela Jamil and Olivia Wilde.
Wow, that’s a lot of people, which indicates that DC League of Super-Pets suffers from the same bloat as almost all DC films. There are too many characters, too many tidy endings, too little for everyone to do.
Co-directors Jared Stern and Sam Levine, along with co-writer John Whittington (writing with Stern) have collectively created a solidly unremarkable set of animated films and episodes. This is no different.
There’s a lot going on with not much really happening. It looks good, not exceptional. It’s fun and almost immediately forgettable. It does expose the diabolical side of the Guinea pig, though. Fear them!
by George Wolf
Wait, did that viewer discretion advisory before the opening credits just warn of “an unlikable female protagonist?”
Oh, Quinn Shephard, I wanna sit next to you.
Shephard, who at age 20 wrote, produced, directed, edited and starred in her 2017 feature debut Blame, returns with another sharply insightful look at young adults navigating expectations and judgement.
And this time, she brings along a wicked sense of humor tipped off by that early caveat.
Zoey Deutch stars as Danni, a self-involved New York twentysomething who lets us know right away that she’s longing to be noticed – for any reason. If she’s not getting the likes and follows, I mean what is she even doing?
What she’s doing is using photoshop to fake a trip to a writer’s retreat in Paris. And it’s all berets and baguettes on the ‘gram until Paris falls prey to terrorist bombings. That’s bad for the world, but pretty great for Danni’s social profile!
So she runs with it, playing the traumatized victim, launching #iamnotokay and managing to become besties with Rowan (Mia Isaac, also currently in Hulu’s Don’t Make Me Go), a school shooting survivor who’s a leader in the movement to combat gun violence.
We know from the start that Danni’s facade blows up in her face, and Shephard makes sure the rise and fall is deliciously fun. Don’t expect any sacred cows, as Shephard skewers nearly every player in our social media culture, even casting herself in a priceless cameo that ups the volume on exasperation.
She has the perfect vessel in Deutch, who proves again she is an absolutely natural comedic talent. From the way Danni answers “I will!” when her boss suggests taking a mental health day, to her chipper attitude at a support group, Deutch embodies the oblivious self-absorption needed for all these daggers to land.
Dylan O’Brien gives standout support as a white bread boy from Maine wearing a hardcore rap persona, but it’s Isaac who nearly steals the movie as a scarred young girl struggling with actual trauma. When Danni’s lie is revealed, Rowan’s hurt is palpable and heartfelt, with Isaac delivering a blistering spoken-word declaration that’s reminiscent of Daveed Digg’s powerful performance in the finale of Blindspotting.
And while Shephard’s defiant attitude toward her protagonist’s unlikability is refreshing, it only increases the curiosity over whether Danni will be learning something today.
Not Okay doesn’t toe this narrative line as expertly as, say, Young Adult, but it doesn’t fold all its cards, either. Shephard is a filmmaker with vision and voice, and she’s able to address the social media revolution with a better handle than most on juggling the serious and the satirical.
by Hope Madden
Drawn by common dreams, individuals from all around post-war Rwanda journey to a place, time and reality they can call their own in Anisia Uzeyman and Saul Williams’s Afrofuturistic musical, Neptune Frost.
The nightmare of war in the recent past, the oppressive religion, and the reality of the economy take shape on the screen. What is Rwanda today?
Williams and Uzeyman use something that feels like performance art to depict Africa’s place in technology’s journey to consumers. Tech’s raw materials—from the coltan (a raw material used in electronics) characters mine to computer refuse strewn and useless across the landscape—are woven into different character costumes.
Visually stunning, the aesthetic emphasizes the story’s earthy yet techno quality. Bursts of color and texture in costume design, in particular, along with surreal, day-glo dream sequences are gorgeous.
At the same time, the filmmakers braid together varying uses for the word binary. An obvious term in relation to the lo-fi tech landscape, the word takes a more complicated meaning with the fluid presence of Motherboard, played at first by Elvis Ngabo and later by Cheryl Isheja. The word is again reexamined as Motherboard is received by Innocent (Dorcy Rugamba), and then Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse).
Traveling from one age to another, one realm to another, one gender to another, Motherboard is an agent of transformation. They tell us they see through what blinds others, they see the past and present and future altogether.
In time, the very word binary becomes meaningless, a limitation. Frequent mention of binary crime theory, a concept deepened by the line “to imagine hell is privilege,” offers stark reminder that this is a Rwandan film.
For Neptune Frost, there is not one or the other, not past or future, not good or evil, not male or female, not miner or mine. This fluidity makes the film tough to properly summarize, and the ambiguous and ambitious plot structure becomes frustrating during the middle section. But Neptune Frost is never less than fascinating.
Rich with symbolism that brings past to present and reinterprets it for the future, the film speaks of resilience and power. And it does it like no film you’ve seen before.
My Donkey, My Lover & I
by Hope Madden
Unabashedly romantic and decidedly French, My Donkey, My Lover & I follows Robert Lewis Stevenson’s journey through Cevennes National Park as walked by Antoinette (Laure Calamy) and Patrick, her donkey.
Antoinette is no hiker, no trail-wizened traveler. She’s a schoolteacher smitten with a student’s father (Benjamin Lavernhe). When he cancels their romantic trip to instead vacation with his wife and daughter, Antoinette decides to crash.
She doesn’t find him immediately. What she does find is that very few people travel with a donkey nowadays, she’s ill-prepared to actually hike 220km with or without a donkey, and that early oversharing with other hikers will make her a bit of a celebrity along the journey.
Writer/director Caroline Vignal keeps it breezy, never vilifying the married Vladimir nor seeing Antoinette as a stalker. A bright, earnest turn from Calamy is hard to resist. She gives Antoinette a good humor that brings a little cheer to even the most embarrassing of situations.
The countryside is gorgeous, the cast of French vacationers and waylayers disarm, and Calamy charms her way through it all. On paper, Antoinette is a fool—a superficial, self-centered fool at that. But Calamy, whose game performance won a Cesar (the French Oscar), keeps the character open and vulnerable.
Still, the star here is Patrick. Vignal has remarkable instincts for animal-related comedy. Yes, we know from the first moment Antoinette can’t get the ass to move where we’re headed. They will reluctantly become best friends, she’ll learn something about independence and things will end well.
But by underplaying the donkey for so long, delaying the reaction shots and obnoxious braying, Vignal manages to swing from charming romantic trifle to slapstick comedy and back with weird grace.
The whole affair feels as slight and ultimately unessential as the one shared by Vladimir and Antoinette. But there’s something forgiving about it that’s appealing. Rather than judge or deny or even truly mock a middle-aged romantic’s starry-eyed quest for love, My Lover, My Donkey & I sees value in it.
Plus there’s a funny donkey.
by Hope Madden
“I’m an a**hole, JP, not a quitter.”
This, I think, is my favorite thing about director/co-writer Diego Hallivis’s sociopolitical horror American Carnage. Rather than setting up one-dimensional, morally impenetrable heroes, Hallivis—writing with his brother Julio—delivers likable but flawed, and therefore realistic, characters to root for.
Those characters are mainly the offspring of immigrants: JP (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), Camila (Jenna Ortega), Big Mac (Allen Maldonado) among them. Governor Harper Finn’s (Brett Cullen) election-friendly executive order not only deports all illegal immigrants, but also detains their US-born children for failing to turn their parents over to authorities.
Some of those kids can work off their sentence by providing elder care at the Alcove, an institution run by the benevolent Eddie (Eric Dane).
Though the comedic writing is never as sharp as it should be, Hallivis’s cast supplies charm and sarcasm in equal measure. Unsurprisingly, Ortega stands out as the group’s unofficial badass. Her scowl and unlikeable demeanor are the perfect offset to Lendeborg Jr.’s good-natured tenderness.
Maldonado works hardest to elevate tepid dialog, delivering the film’s most consistent comic relief with a jovial, lovable character.
The villains, on the whole, are not the over-the-top psychopaths of traditional horror. This is no doubt intentional. Racist danger, especially as it was uncovered and amplified during Trump’s reign (the film’s title comes from his inaugural speech), is a kind of walks in broad daylight, may be your neighbor, blends into the background reality.
Other than one little dance of evil, the villain performances are somewhat understated.
The villainy is not. There’s a metaphor at work, and though it doesn’t entirely work, the goodwill Hallivis’s cast generates keeps you interested in their journey and eager for comeuppance.
What starts off with a nearly The Forever Purge vibe takes a sharp turn into creepier John Hughes territory, then another dramatically Romero pivot. American Carnage looks good and performances are solid, but the movie can’t overcome those tonal shifts.
Endangered (aka Fox Hunt Drive)
by Brandon Thomas
Expectations are a hard thing to contend with when watching movies. Whether it’s the actors present or the filmmaker’s previous work, one can’t help but think something along the lines of, “Oh, well I know where this is going.” Many movies don’t subvert those expectations, but thankfully there are enough of them out there that do throw exciting curveballs at the audience. While not a new cinematic classic, Endangered offers up a compelling twist on the hostage thriller.
Alison (Natalie Zerebko) is making ends meet as a rideshare driver on the roads of Orlando, Florida. Most of her passengers are the standard fare of obnoxious young people, talkative oversharers, and silent couples. Alison’s monotony is doused one evening after picking up a secretive passenger (Michael Olavson). The passenger looks nothing like his account picture, and his stand-offish demeanor instantly puts Alison on the defensive. As the night wears on, these early red flags will only mark the beginning of a chaotic night.
From the start, it was hard not to think of Michael Mann’s Collateral while watching the first half of Endangered. There aren’t very many thrillers that predominantly take place in a car, but out of those that do, Collateral stands heads and shoulders above the rest. Thankfully, the setting is where the similarities cease and Endangered is able to carve out an identity all its own.
Circling back to expectations, director Drew Walkup wisely shakes things up early. We’ve all seen hostage thrillers like this before, and some well-placed surprises rocked me back on my heels just a little bit. These twists – if you will – never cheapen the narrative momentum and feel lock-step with where Walkup was driving the story from the beginning.
The chemistry between Zerebko and Olavson is the glue that holds the film together. Without their tandem captivating performances, the film simply wouldn’t work. Both are able to draw empathy and fear at different times. To say more would potentially spoil the back half of the film.
While maybe not the most technically polished thriller of the year, Endangered makes an impression through clever plotting and two strong leads.
In today’s episode, we celebrate Hope’s novel ROOST, plus the brand spanking new audiobook, recorded by George himself. ROOST is the story of twins in a small Midwestern town during the satanic panic of the 1980s.
To properly put us in the mood, we will run through the best smalltown horror. There is a lot! Partly because small towns come equipped with small police forces. So, in addition to this fuzzy math list, we recommend: The Mist, Children of the Corn, Tremors, Dead and Buried, The Fog, The Birds, The Blob, We Are Still Here, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, and Brotherhood of Satan (which always makes Hope think of her hometown).
6. I Am Not a Serial Killer (2016)
Billy O’Brien (Isolation) finds a new vision for the tired serial killer formula with his wry, understated indie horror I Am Not a Serial Killer.
An outsider in a small Minnesota town, John (Max Records) works in his mom’s morgue, writes all his school papers on serial killers, and generally creeps out the whole of his high school. But when townsfolk start turning up in gory pieces, John turns his keen insights on the case.
Records, who melted me as young Max in Spike Jonze’s 2009 masterpiece Where the Wild Things Are, serves up an extraordinarily confident, restrained performance. His onscreen chemistry with the nice old man across the street – Back to the Future’s Christopher Lloyd – generates thrills enough to offset the movie’s slow pace.
For his part, Lloyd is in turns tender, heartbreaking and terrifying.
Bursts of driest humor keep the film engaging as the story cleverly inverts the age-old “catch a killer” cliché and toys with your expectations as it does.
5. 30 Days of Night (2007)
If vampires can only come out at night, wouldn’t it make sense for them to head to the parts of the globe that remain under cover of darkness for weeks on end? Like the Arctic circle?
The first potential downfall here is that Josh Hartnett plays our lead, the small town sheriff whose ‘burg goes haywire just after the last flight for a month leaves town. A drifter blows into town. Dogs die viciously. Vehicles are disabled. Power is disrupted. You know what that means…the hunt’s begun.
Much of the film’s success is due to the always spectacular Danny Huston as the leader of the bloodsuckers. His whole gang takes a novel, unwholesome approach to the idea of vampires, and it works marvelously.
4. It (2017)
The Derry, Maine “losers club” finds itself in 1988 in this adaptation, an era that not only brings the possibility of Part 2 much closer to present day, but it gives the pre-teen adventures a nostalgic and familiar quality.
Bill Skarsgård has the unenviable task of following a letter-perfect Tim Curry in the role of Pennywise. Those are some big clown shoes to fill, but Skarsgård is up to the challenge. His Pennywise is more theatrical, more of an exploitation of all that’s inherently macabre and grotesque about clowns.
Director Andy Muschietti shows great instinct for taking advantage of foreground, background and sound. Yes, It relies heavily on jump scares, but Muschietti’s approach to plumbing your fear has more depth than that and he manages your rising terror expertly.
3. The Wailing (2016)
“Why are you troubled?” Jesus asked, “And why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself. Touch me and see — for a spirit does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
Though the true meaning of this quote won’t take hold until the final act, it presents many questions. Is this film supernatural? Demonic? Or, given the corporeal nature of the quote, is it rooted in the human flesh?
That’s what makes the quote so perfect. Writer/director Hong-jin Na meshes everything together in this small town horror where superstition and religion blend. The film echoes with misery, as the title suggests. The filmmaker throws every grisly thing at you – zombies, pustules, demonic possession, police procedural, multiple homicides – and yet keeps it all slippery with overt comedy.
2. Halloween (1978)
No film is more responsible for the explosion of teen slashers than John Carpenter’s babysitter butchering classic.
From the creepy opening piano notes to the disappearing body ending, this low budget surprise changed everything. Carpenter develops anxiety like nobody else, and plants it right in a wholesome Midwestern neighborhood. You don’t have to go camping or take a road trip or do anything at all – the boogeyman is right there at home.
Michael Myers – that hulking, unstoppable, blank menace – is scary. Pair that with the down-to-earth charm of lead Jamie Lee Curtis, who brought a little class and talent to the genre, and add the bellowing melodrama of horror veteran Donald Pleasance, and you’ve hit all the important notes. Just add John Carpenter’s spare score to ratchet up the anxiety. Perfect.
1. Jaws (1975)
A big city cop moves to tiny Amity, where one man can make a difference. Unfortunately, that one man is Mayor Vaughn.
Steven Spielberg cemented his legacy with this blockbuster masterpiece. The interplay among the grizzled and possibly insane sea captain Quint (Robert Shaw), the wealthy young upstart marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and the decent lawman/endearing everyman Brody (Roy Scheider) helps the film transcend horror to become simply a great movie.
Spielberg achieved one of those rare cinematic feats: he bettered the source material. Though Peter Benchley’s nautical novel attracted droves of fans, Spielberg streamlined the text and surpassed its climax to craft a sleek terror tale.
It’s John Williams’s iconic score; it’s Bill Butler’s camera, capturing all the majesty and the terror, but never too much of the shark; it’s Spielberg’s cinematic eye. The film’s second pivotal threesome works, together with very fine performances, to mine for a primal terror of the unknown, of the natural order of predator and prey.