Don’t Look Down

Fall

by Hope Madden

YouTubers are stupid. I think that’s the basic theme of Fall, the story of influencers proving their erroneous sense of immortality and bone-deep need for attention.

Lessons are learned and lunches are lost as two friends scale a defunct radio tower 2000+ feet into the sky. Becky (Grace Caroline Currey) is trying to overcome grief and find a reason to live again. Her best friend Hunter (Virginia Gardner) is the one who convinced her to face her fears, but if Hunter can impress her online fanbase while they’re at it, all the better.

It’s all superfluous, telegraphed nonsense because what’s the real point here? How well can director Scott Mann and cinematographer MacGregor (Vivarium) capture fit young women in gut-churning danger?

Pretty well.

Strong supporting performance by Garner’s bra, by the way.

The story itself is cobbled together from other sources–a touch of The Descent here, a whole scoop of The Shallows there, plenty of Open Water, lots of Frozen (no, not the “Let It Go” Frozen). Essentially, dumbasses get themselves into serious danger and we sit with them until they probably die.

Believable? No. Thrillingly shot? Yes.

Fall delivers gorgeous, stomach-churning action. The footage is really quite stunning, so if you’re going to watch it, find a big screen.

A story this spare can be and has been effective when done well, which is to say, when done lean and mean. Fall’s biggest downfall is not the acting (entirely competent), not the cloying emotional underpinnings (forgivable), not the leaps in logic. It’s not the dream sequences (the laziest plot device in all of cinema). It’s not even that one surprise twist that we all saw coming. Or the other one.

It’s the running time.

Fall clocks in at an hour and 45 minutes, which is far too long for this film. Mann and company can’t sustain the tension through the middle section well enough to merit the length. The Shallows ran under 90 minutes. Open Water delivered its powerful blow in less than an hour and twenty minutes. Shave half an hour off this film and you have yourself a brisk, dizzying effort worth a trip to the cinema.

Ashikaga Rhapsody

Inu-Oh

by Matt Weiner

Inu-Oh is one of those movies where the less you know going in, the more of a delight it becomes as the story unfolds. Stop right now, go see the movie and you won’t be disappointed.

To call director Masaaki Yuasa’s take on feudal Japan a Noh rock opera undersells the delirious places the movie goes, even for Yuasa (although if you watched his Devilman Crybaby on Netflix, you know what you’re in for). What starts with a ghost story and a brief history of the birth of Noh in 14th century Japan becomes a rollicking, righteous homage to the likes of Queen and Bowie.

The animation is as fluid and rhythmic as the music, and Inu-Oh is always beautiful to look at. But the music is where the film soars—along with its almost relentlessly on-message theme. The story focuses on the friendship between Tomona (Mirai Moriyama), a blind biwa player looking to avenge his father, and Inu-oh (Avu-chan), a demonic child who can only exorcise his curse through storytelling.

But these aren’t just any stories. Tomona and Inu-oh form a band and start staging modern rock performances that inspire crowds but anger the shogun and the more traditional troupes that will become the highly regimented Noh.

For Tomona, there is a creative imperative to be yourself and decide who that is, even under threat of execution. And for Inu-oh, their new form of expression is even more essential. As he tells these forgotten stories of dead Heike warriors, he slowly becomes more and more human.

The message isn’t subtle, and just in case, it’s spelled out explicitly by Tomona and Inu-oh. The songs are a way to honor memories. If our stories are forgotten, what do we have left?

Still, it’s hard to argue. And harder still to resist when delivered in the form of Yuasa’s brilliantly conceived stage performances that blend traditional, modern and downright trippy into something wholly new. It’s about as joyful a movie as you’re likely to get for a feudal ghost story about curses and family tragedy. It’s also a movie that manages to be both epic and immediate. History for Inu-oh is alive. And art needs to be as well if it’s going to have any lasting relevance for an audience

Days of Future Past

My Old School

by George Wolf

Brandon Lee was a mystery wrapped in an enigma inside the body of an awkward Scottish high schooler.

Or, maybe he was something else. My Old School revisits those teenage days for a light and entertaining look at a head-scratching scammer.

Brandon’s story was set to be told in a Mid-90s movie starring Alan Cumming. That project never got off the ground, but now Cumming finally gets his chance to play the part, lip-synching Brandon’s interview audio because the real guy won’t show his face.

And why is Brandon still hiding?

Well, that’s one of the mysteries writer/director Jono McLeod hopes to unravel.

Talking to Brandon’s former classmates and often re-creating their memories through animation, McLeod introduces us to the boy his peers first knew.

In 1993, Brandon enrolled as a 16 year-old at Bearsden Academy, a secondary school in an upper class section of Glasgow. His intelligence and behavior made him a favorite of the staff, but the kids found him weird.

Getting cast as Lt. Cable in the school’s production of South Pacific changed Brandon’s social status. And soon there were friends, holidays, brushes with the law, multiple passports and…oops.

Obviously, knowing as little as possible about this case benefits how the film will hit you, but even the biggest revelations don’t land quite as hard as McLoed seems to think they will. There are no jaw-on-the-floor twists on the order of 2012’s The Imposter, but some interesting questions are raised about selective memory and a belief in Jedi mind tricks.

An animation style that recalls MTV’s “Daria” and the laugh-it-off vibe of Brandon’s old classmates only fuels the feeling that the film is a little too forgiving of its subject.

Looking back, most everyone involved now admits that they should have looked closer at Brandon Lee. Entertaining a yarn as it may be, My Old School might have been more compelling by doing the same.

You Wanna See a Dead Body?

Summering

by Hope Madden

We’re invited to a turning point for four best friends. This is the last weekend of summer. On Monday, Daisy (Lia Barnett), Lola (Sanal Victoria), Dina (Madalen Mills) and Mari (Eden Grace Redfield) will be middle schoolers.

The first moments of Summering communicate the film’s strengths and weaknesses simultaneously. Heavy-handed, stilted voiceover narration sinks what is otherwise a jubilant, funny and very authentic opening.

Daisy, in voiceover, as we watch four adorable youngsters walk and talk through their suburban neighborhood: Summer has no walls. You can go anywhere.

Mari, on-camera dialog about that time her mom made her use the men’s room because the line for the women’s room was too long: Pee was everywhere. It was like a lake of man pee.

Summering walks that weird balance for its entire run time. One moment beams with the authentic lunacy of pre-adolescence. The next, adult male writers wax poetic and pretend that poetry sprung from the mind of a 12-year-old girl.

Director James Ponsoldt (The Circle, The Spectacular Now) and co-writer Benjamin Percy set the kids on an adventure before school and life changes the delicate balance of their circle. It amounts to a modern retelling of Stand By Me, with lower stakes, less ground to cover, and a wild lack of logic. Ponsolt and Percy seem desperate to capture the raw honesty of Reiner’s classic King adaptation, but their result’s a cloying mess.

The performances – especially Redfield and Megan Mullally as Mari’s mom – charm and endear with authenticity. Victoria and Mills succeed in crafting individuals, girls with backstories and personalities. Barnett, paired with an effective if woefully underused Lake Bell as the mom who drinks, struggles with the heavy emotion of an arc that’s clearly telegraphed.

It’s another way the storytelling rings false scene after scene.

Helicopter parents and cell phones, cartwheels and nostalgia, Ponsolt brings together all the elements for a modern ode to the last moments of childhood. And he tries really hard. But he’s unconvincing.

Let Them Hit the Floor

Bodies Bodies Bodies

by Hope Madden & George Wolf

In a way, we’ve seen Bodies Bodies Bodies before. A group of good-looking, rich young people gathers in a remote home to imbibe and play stupid games that turn deadly. Think April Fool’s Day, Truth or Dare, Ouija.

A24’s latest horror film isn’t a straight reimagining or a satire of the sub-subgenre. It’s barely a part of the subgenre. Instead, B3 delivers an insider’s skewering of the sociology of a generation.

The result never condescends or patronizes. Not that it’s kind.

Director Halina Reijn’s clever (if slight) film roots its comedy and horror in Gen Z culture. Sophie (Amandla Stenberg, who also produces) brings her new girlfriend Bee (Maria Bakalova, Oscar nominee from Borat 2) to a rich buddy’s mansion for a hurricane party.

That buddy (Pete Davidson) and the rest of Sophie’s inner circle didn’t really expect her to show up, let alone bring a plus-one. And Bee’s more than a little out of her element with this group of spoiled rich kids.

When the weather finally hits, they decide to play a game with the lights off where one “killer” taps a player on the back, they play dead, and the one who finds them shouts “bodies bodies bodies.” Then you try to figure out the killer.

This is also the plot of the rest of the movie. Reijn and writers Sarah DeLappe and Kristen Roupenian are essentially predicting what happens when this generation finds themselves trapped without internet: Lord of the Flies.

A wicked script buoyed by smart visuals—particularly the use of lighting—emphasizes the social anxiety strangling these characters. Agatha Christie turns Agatha Bitchy as paranoia, self-absorption and toxic douchebaggery spoil the party games.

Reijn works the dark corners and vast emptiness of the estate setting for an effective undercurrent of tension as the beats and bodies keep dropping. And though the bloodletting is often offscreen, every new discovery becomes a chance to sharpen suspicions, reopen old wounds and hurl new accusations, with each partygoer struggling to navigate both offense and defense.

The compact cast sparkles with young talent, led by Stenberg and Bakalova. We essentially come to party with them, and it is the breakdown in their characters’ trust that keeps us off balance and fuels our anxieties. Davidson has fun riffing on his own bad boy image, and Shiva Baby‘s Rachel Sennot delivers the biggest smiles as the dim-witted Alice (“guys, doing a podcast is haaaaard!”).

The social commentary here is a bit tardy to be profound, and the 95-minute running time gets filled out via some repetition, but Bodies Bodies Bodies finds an entertaining sweet spot between gore and guffaws.

There’s just enough humor and horror to make the whodunnit less vital, so even solving the mystery early won’t spoil the party. The fun comes from just riding out the storm, and the film’s deliciously deadpan final line reveals that was the plan all along.

Screening Room: Bullet Train, Prey, Thirteen Lives, Luck & More

First Time Long Time

Prey

by George Wolf

Well-crafted memories of the mid-80s helped Top Gun Maverick blow up the box office this summer. And while Prey skips the big screens for a rollout on Hulu, the film is not shy about its plan for more crowd-pleasing nostalgia.

It’s also not shy about the carnage.

Director Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) takes the reins for installment number five in the Predator franchise, teaming with writer Patrick Aison to rewind 300 years, when a tribe of Comanche hunters suddenly found themselves among the hunted.

Naru (Amber Midthunder) thinks she has the skills to join the hunt and help provide for her tribe, but her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) isn’t so sure. And when Taabe has to come to Naru’s rescue in the wild, she’s urged to stand down.

But Naru has glimpsed something large and lethal in the woods, and when that something begins making bloody sport of Comanche nation, she’s eager to prove just how lethal she can be.

Midthunder (The Wheel, TV’s Legion) is a fine heroine, more than capable with the role’s physicality and Naru’s stubborn resolve. And she’s able to keep the character compelling when Aison’s character arcs and “the hunter is now the prey” themes seem hurried and obvious.

Trachtenberg compensates with a string of arresting visual set pieces. As his camera dives deep into the trees and then high above, Trachtenberg crafts the Predator’s first Earthly battlefield as a home suddenly and violently unknown to its natives, a metaphor for the Native American experience that lands with resonance.

Those well-known monster calls fuel the tension, the action is thrilling, and the blood is splattered with pride, complete with unmistakable callbacks to the original 1987 film through both movement and dialog.

And about that dialog…

Trachtenberg and producer Jhane Myers (of both Comanche and Blackfeet heritage) have clearly taken great care with the film’s cultural representation and depiction. In fact, you can choose a version of Prey that is dubbed by the cast in the Comanche language (becoming the first film to offer this option).

It’s a wise choice, because as distracting as dubbed audio can be, the English dialog in Prey is even more so. It’s not just that the Comanche characters speak English, but the phrasing and delivery is so very present day, it’s hard to stay grounded in the film’s otherwise impressive world-building.

Word is that before making the decision to dub, Trachtenberg and Myers considered filming exclusively in the Comanche language. Damn, that would have been a great action film.

Prey is a good one.

The Odd Couple

Ali & Ava

by Rachel Willis

In the years since the 1974 release of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s masterful Fear Eats the Soul, it’s quite depressing to realize so little has changed. The evidence is there in Clio Barnard’s poignant and relevant film, Ali & Ava.

Treading similar ground as Fassbinder, Ali & Ava charts the growth of a relationship between Ava, an older, white, working-class woman, and Ali, a 30-something, middle-class man of Pakistani descent. However, Barnard carves a fresh story, the West Yorkshire city of Bradford serving as the setting for the racial and economic tensions permeating the couple’s relationship.

The most winning aspect of the film is the charm and natural chemistry shared between the two leads, Claire Rushbrook’s Ava and Adeel Akhtar’s Ali. Though their backgrounds are quite different – Ava is a teacher’s aide with several children and grandchildren, while Ali is a landlord who befriends his tenants, many of them immigrants who speak little English – the two find a connection through music.

The film’s soundtrack works as a third character, serving as an emotional backdrop to the growing attachment between Ali and Ava. Though Ali professes to hate folk when Ava declares her enjoyment, he spends time listening to Bob Dylan, trying to perfect one of his songs on the ukulele. It’s little touches like this that draw the viewer into the couple’s relationship.

Like similar films, the biggest obstacles to the new couple’s happiness are family. Ava’s son, Callum (Shaun Thomas) — his recently deceased father a skinhead — professes his disgust in a dramatic scene that rings a little false in light of the film’s subtler moments. Meanwhile, Ali’s sister employs a classist slur akin to white trash.

The one thing that doesn’t seem to work against the couple is their age difference, which in films with similar themes has often been as shocking as the class or race differences. Perhaps we’ve made a little forward progress in one respect.

Despite the roadblocks to the couple’s happiness, Barnard doesn’t give up hope. The soundtrack remains upbeat, connecting not just Ali and Ava, but Ali to a handful of kids who throw rocks at his car. (Why they do this is yet one more subtle moment highlighting the issues still facing us.)

Perhaps not as profound as thematically similar films, Ali & Ava serves as a nice reminder that sometimes love is more powerful than hate.

Station to Station

Bullet Train

by Hope Madden & George Wolf

It took us decades to embrace it, but Brad Pitt is really funny. We all saw those acceptance speeches, right? Burn After Reading? And he was easily the funniest thing about the Sandra Bullock/Channing Tatum romance adventure The Lost City.

But those were acceptance speeches and supporting turns. Pitt’s comedic stylings are front and center in David Leitch’s highly advertised Bullet Train.

He’s not alone. There are about 100 other people on this train, most of them for the same reason.

Hitman twins Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are on a job for the mysterious Japanese gang lord known as White Death. Prince (Joey King) is a young woman with more plans for the trip than just finishing her book. Kimura (Andrew Koji) will do whatever it takes to keep his kidnapped son alive, and Wolf (Benito A Martínez Ocasio aka Bad Bunny) just wants to settle an old score with Ladybug.

Pitt would be Ladybug, an adorable code name given to him by his handler (Sandra Bullock). His first job back from sabbatical is a quick, easy one: grab a briefcase off a train and then get off that train. But there are so many other stories and bandits and snakes and whatnot, and that automatic door just keeps closing station after station before Ladybug can make his exit.

Leitch can stage action. You’ve seen Atomic Blonde, right? And since the director’s official 2017 feature debut (he gets an uncredited nod for the original John Wick), his focus has been on slight, action-heavy comedies: Deadpool 2 and Hobbs & Shaw.

His Bullet Train continues that tradition: it’s slight, action-packed, silly fun. He and screenwriter Zak Olkewicz adapt Kôtarô Isaka’s novel via a mishmash of styles, blending a spoonful of Edgar Wright with a heaping helping of Guy Ritchie and a smidge of Tarantino. It’s bloody and hyperactive with witty banter and surprise dot connecting, all trying their best to distract you from the lack of tension and bloated run time.

The cast sure seems to be having a blast with it, especially Pitt. He makes Ladybug an endearing mix of daily affirmations and lethal force (with an unusual interest in lavatory facilities).

Throw in a couple other big star cameos, and Bullet Train is a stylish concoction that never finds the right balance of hip action and self-aware absurdity. It’s clever but not really funny, full of high gloss stuck in economy class. The ride may seem fun while it lasts, just don’t expect anything memorable waiting at the destination.

Gone Fishing

I Love My Dad

by Brandon Thomas

We live in an era where cringe-comedy reigns supreme. From HBO’s Eastbound and Down to the American remake of The Office (so many cringe-inducing episodes), modern comedy seems hellbent on making us uncomfortable. While these two examples and many others only tend to dabble in discomfort, the new film I Love My Dad uses it to full effect while going places many movies could only dream of.

Chuck (Patton Oswalt of Ratatouille and Young Adult) has a terrible relationship with his son, Franklin (I Love My Dad writer/director James Morosini). Chuck was an absentee father who missed birthdays, made empty promises, and disappointed his son every chance he could. After Franklin blocks his dad on social media and won’t take his calls, Chuck decides to “borrow” the online identity of Becca, a waitress at a local diner, to catfish his way back into his son’s life. 

The premise of I Love My Dad is enough to make most people go, “Wait, what?” 

The execution though? 

Well, that’s something even more anxiety-riddled. 

Morosini knows exactly what he’s doing with this subject matter and carries it out through the entire running time. I Love My Dad is like a cinematic car accident you can’t help looking at as you drive by. However, in this case, the car accident is a very well-made movie.

Morosini cleverly brings to life the text conversations between Franklin and “Becca” by using the real actress (Claudia Sulewski) to act them out alongside him. It’s an impressive way to show how connected Franklin feels toward Becca and only helps ratchet up the tension. By the time the inevitable truth is revealed, even the audience feels invested in this fraudulent relationship that Chuck has conjured between him and his son.

So much of the success of I Love My Dad hinges on the casting of Chuck. Make no mistake, Chuck is a scumbag of the highest order, but having someone as likable as Patton Oswalt play him sets up certain expectations. Even as Chuck digs himself deeper and deeper, it’s difficult to completely root against him. Oswalt’s naturally affable demeanor is hard to get past even when the character he’s playing is so deplorable. It’s perfect casting that makes you think, “Well if HE’S the bad guy, what else can happen?”

The supporting cast is peppered with some fun faces. Lil Rel Howery (Get Out) shows up as Chuck’s work friend who gives him the catfishing idea. And the always-on-fire Rachel Dratch (Saturday Night Live) nearly walks away with the entire movie as Chuck’s very horny girlfriend. 

I Love My Dad explores some dark and taboo territory but still manages to wring out a lot of laughs along the way. Maybe don’t watch it with your parents, though.