Under Pressure

Free Skate

by Christie Robb

That being a professional athlete is not all fun and games probably doesn’t come as a surprise these days. Just look at all the flack Simone Biles took for withdrawing from competition at the Tokyo Olympics, or the years of sexual abuse perpetrated by the U.S. Gymnastics team’s doctor against team members.

Director Roope Olenius’s (Bunny the Killer Thing) Free Skate focuses on the athletes of elite figure skating. It follows an immensely talented young unnamed female skater (Veera W. Vilo, also the film’s writer) as she flees an abusive situation in Russia and attempts to rebuild her life and career in her native Finland.

Olenius and Vilo have elected to tell the story in non-linear fashion, bouncing between the skater’s time in Russia and her new life. There is a bit of a failure in the visual storytelling here, making it tricky to differentiate between the two timelines. There is also the occasional flashback to the skater as a child and her relationship with her mom, but superficial physical similarities between the skater and her mother make these scenes difficult to parse as well. Now, the film does use Russian, Finnish, and English and I’m guessing that folks more familiar with Russian and Finnish would have a much easier time orienting themselves in the story’s timeline. (So, really, I’m just criticizing my own inability to differentiate Russian and Finnish.)

Vilo, who was an elite gymnast, plays the skater with a polished exterior veneer barely covering a fractured center. It’s difficult to assess her overall acting ability as she plays the skater as emotionally disassociated. But Vilo definitely has the physical ability to portray this level of athlete without Olenius having to cut away to a body double very often—super impressive as figure skaters bend in impossible ways while basically balancing on knives.

Slow to begin, the movie increases in tension until it starts to resemble a horror movie toward the final act as almost everyone in the skater’s life demands more and more from her—wanting more cheerful facial expressions, wanting her to lose weight on a frame already too skinny to menstruate, wanting her to share stories about her past, wanting her to let rich men fuck her for sponsorship.

The last act, perhaps, veers a bit too hard toward melodrama, but overall Free Skate is a solid film exploring the unhealthy power dynamics and overwhelming pressures in elite sport.

Fright Club: Skeletons in the Closet, Oscar Nominees, 2023

It’s our favorite time of year! This is when we take the Way Back Machine (or this year, the Not-So-Way-Back Machine) to unearth 2023 Oscar nominees’ bad horror movie past.

Some nominees have made exceptional horror films. We’re looking at you, Brendan Gleeson (28 Days Later), Bill Nighy (Shaun of the Dead), Austin Butler (The Dead Don’t Die), Andrea Riseborough (Possessor, Mandy), and let’s not forget the queen, Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween, duh).

Of course, JLC has also made enough bad horror for her own entire Skeletons podcast. But today, we’re focused on other people. Why? Because these guys made some bad, bad choices.

5) Knock Knock (2015), Ana de Armas

In 2015, Eli Roth remade Peter S. Traynor’s 1977 cult horror Death Game for the uber generation. Ana de Armas and Roth’s then-wife Lorenza Izzo play two wayward strangers, drenched and looking for a party but their uber driver dropped them off at the wrong place. Won’t Keanu Reeves let them in for just a minute to use his laptop and figure things out? Their phones got all wet!

And he does. Where Trynor’s film was a belated entry into the “what’s with these damn hippie kids” horror, Roth only barely taps into the paranoia and tension around generational differences in the social media era. Instead, he digs into midlife crisis and male weakness as Keanu’s devoted dad Evan caves to the pair’s mocking seduction.

You don’t believe it for a minute. De Armas is fine (in her first English language film), but Roth doesn’t find anything to say and the slight premise feels stretched well beyond its breaking point.

4) The Grudge (2020), Andrea Riseborough

Oh, Andrea Riseborough! Oh, Nicolas Pesce!

One of the most reliable character actors of her generation teams up with Eyes of My Mother filmmaker to revisit the haunted world of Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On: The Grudge. The result is spectacularly unspectacular.

Riseborough is a detective in what amounts to an anthology film, each short a quick look at a haunting. Pesce, who co-wrote the screenplay, revisits a lot of Shimizu’s threads but breathes no new life into anything. Transitions from one short to the next are choppy, the imagery is never compelling, shocking or fun, and worst of all, that creepy sound design that made all the previous installments memorable is absent.

None of the talented cast members – Riseborough, Demian Bishir, Lin Shaye, Betty Gilpin, John Cho or Jacki Weaver (who seems to be acting in an entirely different film) – elevates the listless material.

3) The Intruders (2015), Austin Butler

It’s an iCarly reunion! Miranda Cosgrove and her sometime co-star Austin Butler co-star in this “your new house is probably haunted or something” thriller.

Cosgrove is Rose, and she has stopped taking her meds, so her dad (Donal Logue) doesn’t believe her wild stories about the house being haunted. And maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s that creepy yet dreamy handyman (Butler).

What it is not is good. Plot holes could swallow you whole, contrivance and convenience are the primary narrative devices, but Butler’s as cute as can be and his little smirk fits both the character and the film itself.

2) I, Frankenstein (2014), Bill Nighy

Good lord, who greenlit this mess? Aaron Eckhart is Frankenstein’s monster, unintentionally drawn into the ongoing war between demons and gargoyles because no one cares. On planet earth. Nothing could be less interesting.

Oh, wait. The CGI is less interesting. Everything looks like the pre-play opening to a 1990s video game. And the gargoyle queen gives the monster a name: Adam. Why? Because co-writer/director Stuart Beattie thinks so little of viewers that he assumes no one will realize Adam is his name. It’s in the book. He thinks we are illiterate morons.

He’s hoping so, anyway, because even the great Bill Nighy cannot do anything to help this turd.

1) Critters 4 (1992), Angela Bassett

So, what’s worse than I, Frankenstein? Worse, sure, but also far more charming, Critters 4 sends those Gremlin/Ghoulie ripoff fur balls to space with Angela Bassett, Brad Dourif and a terrible script.

Cheaply made and far too slight on carnage, the film still benefits from Bassett’s undeniable badassedness. Her lines are garbage, and yet you believe her. (Same with Dourif.) And it’s the kind of stupid that can, if you’re in the right frame of mind, almost be fun. What Bassett is doing in it is too puzzling to consider, but she got her Ripley moment and that’s all that counts.

Hell of a Drug

Cocaine Bear

by Hope Madden

As misbehaving bears go, Elizabeth Banks’s Cocaine Bear puts Winnie the Pooh to shame. The laughs are intentional, for one thing, but the outright carnage outstrips anything I’ve seen in a genre film this year. And it’s not even a horror movie!

The year is 1985, from what I can piece together from an inspired soundtrack of pop hits spilling out of speakers, and one Jefferson Starship fan is about to make a jump from his plane with an awful lot of coke. Things don’t go well, and next thing you know, drug kingpin Syd (Ray Liotta in his final screen performance) is sending his reluctant son (Alden Ehrenreich) and best guy (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to Blood Mountain to retrieve $14 million in missing blow.

As you may have guessed from the title, a bear found it first.

It’s barely (bear-ly?) accurate to say that Jimmy Warden’s screenplay is based on true events. In fact, a smallish black bear overdosed on drugs dropped into a Tennessee wilderness, only to be stuffed and displayed in a mall. That’s just sad no matter how you look at it. So, Warden says to himself, what if the bear was like three times bigger? All hell might break loose.

We meet an assortment of folks trying to stay out of the bear’s way, as well as those trying to track down the cocaine. One mom (Keri Russell) is looking for her errant daughter (Brooklynn Prince) and her buddy, Henry (Christian Convery, scene larcenist).

The great Margo Martindale as Ranger Liz is hysterically deadpan opposite three skate punks (Aaron Holliday, J.B. Moore and Leo Hanna, all superb). And even with as little time as we get to spend with the paramedics (Scott Seiss and Kahyun Kim of the badass blue eyeshadow), you’ll miss them.

That’s really Banks’s trick. The film offers little more than a loose assortment of national park visitors/bear meat, but the filmmaker and her comedically able cast invest enough in each character that you like them. You root for them, despite the fact that most of them are bad people. And bound to die.

For a very dark comedy, Cocaine Bear is light entertainment. It’s hard to imagine expecting anything more.

Not every animal lover is going to appreciate the comedy in this film, FYI. An enormous black bear is high out of her mind for 90 minutes and, in that deranged state, does some funny things but mostly tears humans to pieces to the delight of the crowd. If this doesn’t sound entertaining to you, maybe don’t see Cocaine Bear.

You Say You Want a Revolution?

The Jesus Revolution

by Matt Weiner

In 1966, TIME Magazine captured the tumultuous era with a bleak cover question: “Is God Dead?”

One answer to that question was in the form of a countercultural movement that arose in the following years. The “Jesus Revolution” is less incongruous than it first sounds, placed among the backdrop of Vietnam, sex, drugs and rock & roll and a general spiritual ennui. The long-haired, sandal-wearing “love the stranger” Jesus spoke not just to some of the more soul-searching hippies but a wider generation trying to find its own voice.

At least that’s the message that Jesus Revolution wants to focus on. The film, written and directed by Christian film powerhouse Jon Erwin, falls more on the mainstream spectrum like Heaven Is for Real than the pricklier polemics like God’s Not Dead.

But for all its gloss, Jesus Revolution is a confounding movie. The production itself is a savvy, just saccharine enough dramatization of Pastor Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammer) and the countercultural rise of the “Jesus freaks” in the late 60s and early 70s.

It’s a feel-good story, and the shiny treatment it gets here seems like a perfect match. But it’s also a story and a movement that deserves a more critical look than it gets here from the true believers.

Smith is a pivotal figure whose Calvary Chapel movement has influenced evangelical Christianity and the modern megachurch. Jesus Revolution wisely centers on an avuncular, befuddled version, with Grammer perfectly cast to deliver profundities like “It’s not something to be explained, it’s something to be experienced” in his soothing baritone.

It’s not until Smith meets the radical Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie) that he comes to see that the Jesus of the Bible has a lot more in common with the growing hippie movement, and his unlikely partnership with Frisbee is part of a momentous time in evangelical history.

What the film omits from this “all are welcome” version of Smith, however, are any edges that might clash with a wider audience. Most notably, the pastor’s strident views against homosexuality. And while the script hints at Lonnie Frisbee’s split with Calvary and Smith, this is chalked up to doctrinal differences with no mention of Frisbee’s semi-open homosexuality.

At what point does the reality of a biography subject veer so far from the adaptation’s message that it becomes disingenuous? This friction-free adaptation goes well beyond that line. Which is curious, given that director Jon Erwin also wrote and directed the exceptional documentary The Jesus Music in 2021.

It’s a low bar to clear, but that sweeping look at contemporary Christian music from the era of Smith and Frisbee to artists today takes a more frank look at internecine debates and controversies, both within the movement and alongside secular culture at large. As someone whose personal history with religion starts and stops with the Old Testament, I feel confident recommending The Jesus Music as the better choice—both as film and agitprop—for those not already in the movement.

Where does that leave Jesus Revolution? To say it’s a Hallmark movie with better production values undersells how watchable the movie is. But if the film succeeds in standing on its own, with a goal of preaching beyond the choir, it also deserves to be judged that way. And that means bringing in the messy earthly politics that the script assiduously avoids. The likely reality is that church viewings will get an extremely competent adaptation of a historical era that continues to shape the country.

Secular audiences get a decent airplane movie that’s worth it for Kelsey Grammer completists. It’s win-win—unless you’re gay, in which case you might be incurring divine wrath, if you ask Pastor Smith. Better not to dwell on that part of Smith’s theology for a mainstream movie, though, and instead rely on the Old Testament and split the baby.

Lock, Stock, and a Barrel of Laughs

Three Day Millionaire

by Daniel Baldwin

What would you do if, after being handed a big paycheck, you found out that it might be your last? That your bosses had conspired to do away with your job? If you’re a character in the latest film from Jack Spring (Destination Dewsbury), you’d find yourself in a British heist comedy!

Three Day Millionaire follows a gaggle of “Trawler-men” from the port town of Grimsby, England as they come ashore to have themselves a good time with their latest hefty batch of wages, only to find themselves in a bit of a pickle. Their world is about to move on without them, leaving them with only hope and desperate measures. It’s a tale as old as time: the smalltown little guy versus the unflinching, uncaring machine that is corporate “progress” and greed.

Director/producer Spring takes this premise and fashions a dark comedy around it, imbuing the all-too-familiar plight of the working man with all the British crime comedy tropes that we have come to love throughout the decades. As well as a few that maybe should have been allowed to die off. The resulting concoction presents itself as a smaller, more regional riff on the works of Guy Ritchie, Danny Boyle, and Edgar Wright.

The good news is that this is filled with a lot of personality, which can go a very long way in films of this type. The bad news is that sometimes it goes a bit too far into pastiche, particularly when it comes to the freeze-framed “character bio” introductions.

Three Day Millionaire never truly finds an identity purely its own, instead leaning on the aforementioned auteurs to get its tale across. Its Ritchie-ness is thick, but also shallower than Guy. Its party-hard Boyle-isms are never as biting as Danny’s. It’s Wright-ings never fully measure up to the wittiness of Edgar. Despite all of this, as well as some pacing issues, it still manages to be a laugh-filled good time.

If you’re in the mood for a quainter British black comedy caper picture, it’ll get the job done. Not every film needs to rewrite the rule book, as sometimes you just want something that will deliver what’s on the box. Jack Spring’s Three Day Millionaire does just that.

No Regrets


by George Wolf

So you’ve got the final draft of your first full screenplay, which you plan to develop for your debut feature as a director. It’s a solid script, but it treads some familiar ground, and there’s never much doubt about where it will lead in act three.

What’s the smart play? Cast esteemed talent that’s capable of elevating that material at every turn. And writer/director Matthew J. Saville is no dummy, letting the great Charlotte Rampling leave a memorable mark all over Juniper, a family drama blessed with fine performances across the ensemble.

Rampling is Ruth, an alcoholic and former war photographer who has moved in with her estranged son, the recently-widowed Robert (Marton Csokas), as she recovers from a broken leg. But Robert must attend to some business out of town, leaving his teenage son Sam (George Ferrier) to assist Nurse Sarah (Edith Poor) every time Ruth rings that damn bell.

She rings it often, and Sam is not amused by this grandmother he’s never met before suddenly barking orders at him.

But Sam isn’t amused by much. The death of his mother is still a fresh wound, his father seems clueless to his needs, and the young ladies aren’t too interested lately. Plus, Sam’s been suspended from school, which gives Robert an excuse to punish him with elder-sitting duties.

Can this resentful teen and his feisty granny find some common ground in their anger at the world, maybe even develop a begrudging respect on their way to learning from each other, and cherishing this new family bond?

The things Ruth has seen have hardened her to pretense and empty gestures, and she’s only too happy to dig into everyone around her as she searches for those with substance and a zest for living. Rampling brings all of this to the screen with wonderful authenticity, sometimes needing only a steely glare to get the job done. She’s a treasure.

And kudos to the young Mr. Ferrier. He doesn’t let Rampling’s shadow block him out, and the two share a natural chemistry that fuels the organic melting of the ice between their two characters.

Saville’s storytelling is sound and well-intentioned, it’s just not overly profound. Much like nearly every romantic comedy you’ve ever seen, the trick for Juniper is how well it gets to where you know it’s going. And thanks to Rampling and her solid support, the trip is constantly engaging.

Sick Thinking


by Hope Madden

There’s a lot to recommend in Lorcan Finnegan’s new film, Nocebo. It depicts the horror of corporate and personal greed, which is not only currently popular but horrifyingly timeless.

It boasts four admirable performances. Eva Green is Christine. Christine designs clothing for children, and right as she’s launching a new line, she gets some kind of terrible news. Simultaneously, she runs afoul of something seriously foul and finds herself, some months later, debilitated by a mysterious illness.

Her husband Felix (Mark Strong, always welcome) and daughter Bobs (Billie Gadsdon, terrific) are surprised to come home and find Diana (Chai Fonacier) has been hired as live-in help. Honestly, Christine is surprised, too, but she just can’t trust her memory anymore.

It’s a solid setup. Fonacier and Finnegan, whose Without Name (2016) offered excellent and underseen “into the woods” horror, keep you guessing as to Diana’s motives. Fonacier grounds her character, finding a balance between a number of rote horror options, which invites constant curiosity.

Still, without giving away any major plot points, it’s the character of Diana that makes the film so problematic. Writer Garret Shanley, who collaborated with Finnegan on both Without Name and the 2019 sci-fi horror Vivarium, leans into stereotypes and dated tropes to tell his tale.

That’s unfortunate because it’s a big problem for the film.

Finnegan does what he can by investing in both Christine and Diana’s points of view, which also keeps viewers off balance in terms of the likely outcome of the story. Strong injects the proceedings with a genuinely sympathetic perspective in a role that rarely benefits from such a thing. And Gadsdon is more than just adorable, although adorable she is.

But Nocebo doesn’t pack the punch it intends to, the point-of-view sleight of hand limiting the impact. It’s not the body horror promised by the catalyst, either. Instead, it’s a muddled if well-performed tale that leans heavily on an idea that needs to die.

Friends to the End


by George Wolf

Belgium’s Close is one of two current Oscar nominees for Best International Film (along with Ireland’s The Quiet Girl) to draw its emotional power from the sensational debut performance of a teenager.

Director and co-writer Lukas Dhont met young Eden Dambrine on a train ride, ultimately offering him an audition after watching his facial expressions from a few seats away.

Dhont’s instincts were spot on. Dambrine proves a natural at communicating complex emotions with understated effort, propelling the film’s tender and sweetly heartbreaking take on friendship and innocence lost.

Thirteen year-olds Léo (Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele) are best friends with a wonderfully expressive and joyous bond. But their first year in a different school brings whispers from new peers, leading to a disruption in the boys’ relationship. Slowly, Léo begins reaching out to Rémi’s mother Sophie (Émilie Dequenne), in hopes of reconciling his mix of feelings.

There is no shortage of films reflecting on the years when two young friends begin to explore different paths. Dhont reinforces that theme with subtle details, such as when the boys choose different routes on a bike ride home. But Dhont is also interested in how the path to adulthood has changed, and how today’s young people must often grapple with emotional questions that should never be asked of them.

And as heartbreaking as the film can be, it’s careful to retain a sense of tenderness. From bathing Léo in a field of golden flowers, to the patience with which Sophie waits for Léo to include her in what he’s feeling, Dhont’s second feature displays an assured command of tone. Sad but never maudlin, telling an intimate story with universal resonance, Close becomes a small miracle of healing.

Hey, Soul Sister


by Hope Madden

Wuthering Heights was always a conundrum of Gothic literature. It is mean, its tragedies ugly, its heroes selfish and boorish. It’s a dark and misanthropic piece of fiction often mistaken as romance.

Lucky for all of us, Frances O’Connor appreciates the twisted nastiness of the novel and suggests a vividly unusual inner life for its author in her feature debut, Emily.

Emma Mackey stars with an understated but authentic weirdness as the misfit Brontë sister. Emily doesn’t seem suited for teaching, or for much of anything. The stories she tells are childish and they embarrass her sisters, and she won’t let anyone read what she’s writing. She seems to disappoint everyone around her except her brother, Branwell (Fionn Whitehead).

In O’Connor’s loose biopic, Emily finds the space to explore once her sisters are gone off to teach and she is alone with Branwell. The filmmaker slyly inserts memorable scenes from Brontë’s novel as moments, here more innocent, between brother and sister. These moments work on many levels, but mainly because writers draw from their own lives.

The dynamic complicates and Emily’s transformation deepens as an unexpected, almost involuntary suiter comes into the picture. Untethered by the judgments of her sisters, Emily is free to determine her own course and the journey is intoxicating to witness. Mackey glows as her character slowly, finally comes into her own, giving us a dimensional, tender and delicately genius young woman you yearn to know better.

Whitehead charms in a slightly underwritten but nonetheless poignant role. Oliver Jackson-Cohen – so different than the unrelenting narcissist of The Invisible Man – delivers the greatest arc of any character as assistant parson William. His performance is never showy, but moments of vulnerability give the film its heartbeat and heartbreak.

O’Connor breathes life with all its chaos, misery and joy into the Brontës’ 19th century. Emily feels less like the vision of a newcomer than the product of a passionate kindred spirit.