Monthly Archives: May 2023
You Hurt My Feelings
by Hope Madden
One of filmmaker Nicole Holofcener’s great talents is to acknowledge within a film that there is no reason to feel for her characters, and then making you feel for the characters. She’s a master of the relatable if tedious angst of the privileged. In her hands, these primarily insignificant tensions are humanized and often hilarious.
Such is the case with her latest, You Hurt My Feelings, a story about a well-off couple, truly compatible and in love, who fall on hard times when one overhears the other’s honest opinion.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who was so magnificently flawed and empathetic in Holofcener’s 2013 film Enough Said, stars as Beth, a novelist. Well, she wants to be a novelist, but her memoir only did OK and now her agent doesn’t seem that thrilled with her first ever novel. Maybe it sucks?
No, supportive-to-a-fault husband and psychologist Don (Tobias Menzies) assures her. But secretly, honestly, maybe that’s not how he feels.
And that’s Holofcener’s next great talent – casting. Louis-Dreyfus is characteristically flawless. Her humanity, comic timing, and self-deprecating yet narcissistic humor make her every character endlessly watchable. Menzies–in many ways the emotional anchor for the film–equals her. Both face the wearying revelation that truth really does hurt, right as their midlife insecurities are at their highest.
Arian Moayed and the always amazing Michaela Watkins play a mirror couple, Beth’s sister – a discontented interior designer for the very wealthy – and her insecure if lovable actor husband. They are both tremendously endearing and funny. Capping the ensemble is Owen Teague (To Leslie), Beth and Don’s 23-year-old only son who’s coming to terms with the fact that he was raised to believe he was more special than he really is. Also, he’s a writer.
Hilarious cameos from Amber Tamblyn and David Cross as an angry couple in therapy help to clarify Holofcener’s themes and push the comedy value higher. But it’s with the core couples that the filmmaker delivers her finest moments, creating a lived-in world, a true microcosm that pokes fun at our insecurities and the little white lies that keep us happy.
Evil in Oils
by Rachel Willis
Haunted objects are never creepier than when they have eyes that can stare back at you – even follow you as you move around the room. Such is the premise of director Surapong Ploensang’s film, Cracked.
When her father dies, Ruja (Chayanit Chansangavej) travels from the U.S. to Thailand to sell two of his paintings, both of a woman in a red scarf with gold snakes encircling her body. Though it’s clear that Ruja is uncomfortable in her childhood home, she braves the journey to oversee the restoration of the paintings because their sale will pay for a needed eye surgery for her daughter, Rachel (Nutthatcha Padovan).
It’s a reasonable premise for horror, but Cracked never creates the right atmosphere to generate fear. The paintings at the center of the film aren’t very disturbing – although, as cracks begin to appear, they do become a little creepier. The use of snakes and their imagery result in the most success, mostly by playing on phobias. But a wrestling match with a white bed sheet is more humorous than scary. Ploensang’s attempts at jump scares are too heavy handed, and there isn’t enough tension to keep you on edge.
Most disappointing are missed chances for horror when we see through Rachel’s eyes. The camera work in these sequences is blurry, representing her deteriorating vision. Ample opportunity for creepiness, yes? Unfortunately, not in this film.
Cracked shifts between present day and flashbacks. Used more carefully, sequences of Ruja’s childhood could have added to the mystery of terror of her childhood home. Unfortunately, Ploensang flashes back too rarely in the beginning and too often at the climax.
Though supporting performances are uneven, ancillary characters add texture to the solid lead turns. In fact, the acting is the film’s strongest component. Chansangavej convinces, and Ruja’s fear might have been contagious if the surrounding elements had been more believable. And when Rachel is being terrorized, Padovan’s dread is heart wrenching.
It’s not enough, though. Within the subgenre of artwork horror or object-oriented horror, Cracked is one of the less memorable entries.
Smells Like Teen Sequel
The Wrath of Becky
by Hope Madden
Back in 2012, Lulu Wilson carved out a frighteningly believable pissed-off adolescent in Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion’s Becky. As had been the case with the filmmakers’ 2014 horror Cooties, the duo indulges a subversive fantasy that makes you laugh and turn away in equal measure – often at the same moment.
Wilson returns with new directors Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote in The Wrath of Becky, playing the slightly older, no less angry youngster.
Becky and her trusty hound Diego have been on the lam for several years. They’ve found a kind of peace living off the grid with elderly misanthrope Elena (Denise Burse) and making a living at a nearby diner. That peace is shattered when some Proud Boys – I’m sorry, some Noble Men – come to town.
Last time around, Becky did serious damage to a handful of neo-Nazis. Seeing her gut and dismember Proud Boy stand-ins promised to be very fun. Cathartic, even. And it sometimes is, but too often the sequel gets lazy.
Seann William Scott (Goon, American Pie) leads up the contemptible group of baddies with a quietly sinister performance that carries a lot of weight. Jill Larson (The Taking of Deborah Logan), though underused, brings a sassy surprise to the villainy and Aaron Dalla Villa is spot on as the slacker smartass of the group.
Last time around, writers Ruckus and Lane Skye and Nick Morris offered their game cast a bit of intrigue and plot. The sequel’s script, penned by Angel, Coote and Becky’s Morris, misses any of the depth beneath the murder spree.
Gone, too, is the tentative logic behind Becky’s bloodbath logistics. Millot and Murnion showed you how a 12-year-old managed not only to outwit the bad guys, but to physically annihilate them. Angel and Coote do not. They cut away, then cut back and miraculously Becky has accomplished something that defies not only reason but the laws of the known universe as well as the actual story itself.
In fact, every character makes a series of choices that defy the very storyline the film itself is trying to establish. Once or twice is forgivable, but eventually this lapse in internal logic becomes a real burden.
Wilson’s schtick lacks some of the vibrance of the original film, partly because watching a pre-teen on a murder spree is simply more novel, shocking and funny than witnessing another angry teen on a rampage. It would have helped if the filmmakers tried a little harder to convince us Becky could do it.
Follow You, Follow Me
by George Wolf
It’s taken awhile, but it seems more filmmakers have gotten a grip on how to handle this social media thing. Just last year, B.J. Novak’s Vengeance and Quinn Shephard’s Not Okay found smart and savvy new angles to explore, and now director/co-writer Kurtis David Harder does the same with Influencer.
Harder’s approach leans more Neo-noir thriller, as the cold and calculating CW (Cassandra Naud – outstanding) spins a dangerous web for an unsuspecting social butterfly.
Madison (Emily Tennant) is a media maven who is making sure her followers see nothing but an amazing trip to Thailand. But the real real is lonely and boring, thanks to a boyfriend who bailed on her and no friends in sight. So, Madison is only too happy to chat up fellow traveler CW, and to accept her offer for a tour of the most IG-ready spots around.
But there will be no friend requests, and Madison will be the only one posing. CW has no online presence at all, and in fact seems very insistent on avoiding photographs. Weird, right?
Maybe. Or maybe creepy. Suspicious, even.
Harder and cinematographer David Schuurman create an absolutely gorgeous pot for boiling this mystery. From atop deserted island beaches to below crystal clear waters and inside lavish vacation homes, Harder’s nimble camera and visual aesthetics reinforce the notion that pretty pictures don’t always tell the whole story.
And once Madison’s friend Jessica (Sara Canning) slides into these DMs, events take even more deliciously twisty turns, with CW scrambling to juggle her many different versions of just what Madison is doing and just why she is suddenly such a big part of it.
Naud sells it completely, evolving CW into a compelling combination of chameleon and parasite. She’s an absolutely in-the-moment creature, and Naud crafts the perfect vessel for Harder and co-writer Tesh Guttikonda to upend conventions while they pull at our cultural strands of misinformation, envy and objectification.
You won’t find the satirical humor that both Novak and Shephard wielded so effectively, but Harder’s approach is no less effective. With sharp dialogue, skillful plotting and simmering dread, Influencer is plenty worthy of that “Like” button.
B-Side: For Taylor
by Hope Madden
A plucky YA drama that embraces the messiness of grief, identity and general adolescence, B-Side: For Taylor sidesteps cliché in favor of nuance.
Jeannine Vargas is the titular Taylor, and she’s not having a great year. Her grades have slid to near failing since her adoptive mother died last year, and her adoptive father (Dave Huber) is so wrapped up in his own grief that he doesn’t know what to do about it. On top of that, every time Taylor stands up to the neighborhood bully (Dexter Farren Haag), her dad blames her, and she ends up in even more trouble.
Enter Da-Young (Jacky Jung), a new neighbor whose family has just emigrated from Korea. Da-Young needs help with her English. Taylor needs help finding her Korean birth parents.
The strength in writer/director Christina Yr. Lim’s film is the way it forgives its wounded and often unpleasant characters. There are no one-dimensional characters, even those whose stories remain unresolved and on the periphery. The result is a more authentic tale.
Vargas is especially strong, but Lim surrounds her lead with able support. Esther Moon, playing Da-Young’s demanding mother, delivers a performance that breathes humanity into what could easily have been a trope.
Jung’s upbeat teen brightens a film that deals with some pretty heavy material, and her comic sensibility is welcome. Huber struggles somewhat in the depressed father role, but he gives the character a vulnerability that adds depth to the film’s more emotional moments.
Lim doesn’t pretend that families are easy, or that fixes come quickly if at all. The families in this film struggle, each member trying to find their fit. The lonesome heartache of questioning your worth to those who should love you haunts the entire film. But B-Side: For Taylor is about resilience, forgiveness and acceptance.
The Little Mermaid
by Hope Madden and George Wolf
After knocking it out of the park early with The Jungle Book, Disney’s been hit-or-miss with the live-action reboots of its classic animation tales, especially the nearly shot-for-shot reimaginings. But there was plenty of reason for optimism when it came to Rob Marshall’s The Little Mermaid.
Halle Bailey shines as the irrepressible adolescent Ariel. She’s in fine voice, and thanks to some script updates from writer David Magee, the character has agency. She’s utterly charming, and – again thanks to some updating to the material – Jonah Hauer-King has an actual character to dig into. His Prince Eric has depth and personality. Both characters mirror each other in their longing and belief that they don’t into their own worlds. It’s easy to root for them.
But how is Ursula, one of the best Disney villains of all time?
Happy to report that Ursula the Sea Witch is still delightfully, deliciously evil. And the casting! Melissa McCarthy drips villainy as poor, unfortunate Ariel’s dastardly auntie. Her Ursula is campy, gloriously over the top and yet drolly above it all. The look is perfection, and her voice is magnificent. This villain is the highlight of the film.
And while we’re on casting, Javier Bardem makes a majestic King Triton, and some delightful voice work from Daveed Diggs as Sebastian and Awkwafina as Scuttle brighten scenes both in and out of the water.
Behind the camera, director Rob Marshall brings an impressive musical resume. From the Oscar-winning Chicago to the visionary Into the Woods to some dazzling sequences in the otherwise disappointing Nine, Marshall has proven he knows what makes a musical number pop onscreen.
Strangely, though, the film’s first big music moment, “Part of Your World,” seems a bit muted, leaving us wanting at least one more big crescendo for Bailey’s wonderful voice. Similarly, “Under the Sea” is rollicking fun, if not quite truly magical.
“Kiss the Girl” makes things right with a completely enchanting treatment, while Marshall and McCarthy both shine in a mischievously satisfying “Poor Unfortunate Souls.”
And while these numbers will remind you of the legendary talents of composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman (who sadly passed in 1991), the additional of Lin Manuel Miranda will be unmistakable. Miranda not only brings some timely lyrical updates, he also teams with Menken for original songs, including “Scuttlebutt,” a showcase for Awkwafina full of Miranda’s typically snappy wordplay.
The look of the film is mainly strong. Underwater sequences are not quite as impressive as they were in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, but still better than Aquaman. Above the water line set pieces – including a thrilling shipwreck – are beautifully executed. But Marshall struggles with scenes that break that barrier. When he can’t rely entirely on CGI for water scenes – when characters are partially submerged and the magical quality afforded by FX is missing – you feel it.
And as Ariel and her Prince struggle to find each other, you also feel the karmic beauty of the film’s culturally diverse cast – starting right at the top. Themes about different worlds living in harmony resonate more deeply when everyone doesn’t look the same.
This isn’t a revelation, and the film doesn’t treat it as one. It’s one of the many things The Little Mermaid gets right, and another example of how Marshall and his terrific ensemble manage to navigate the spotty squalls and bring this one home.
by Hope Madden
Who’s up for Polish vampire mermaids?
You do not have to ask me twice!
Gold (Michalina Olszanska) and Silver (Marta Mazurek) are not your typical movie mermaids, and director Agnieszka Smoczynska’s feature debut The Lure is not your typical – well, anything.
The musical fable offers a vivid mix of fairy tale, socio-political commentary, whimsy and throat tearing. But it’s not as bizarre a combination as you might think.
The Little Mermaid is actually a heartbreaking story. Not Disney’s crustacean song-stravaganza, but Hans Christian Andersen’s bleak meditation on the catastrophic consequences of sacrificing who you are for someone undeserving. It’s a cautionary tale for young girls, really, and Lure writer Robert Bolesto remains true to that theme.
The biggest differences between Bolesto’s story and Andersen’s: 80s synth pop, striptease and teeth. At its heart, The Lure is a story about Poland – its self-determination and identity in the Eighties. That’s where Andersen’s work is so poignantly fitting.
Not that you’ll spend too much time in the history books. The context serves the purpose of grounding the wildly imaginative mix of seediness, hope and danger on display.
The film opens with a trio of musicians enjoying themselves on a Warsaw waterfront before hearing a siren song. Cut to screaming, and then to a deeply bizarre nightclub where a kind of Eastern European burlesque show welcomes its two newest performers – mermaids.
From there we explore a changing Warsaw from the perspective of a very fringe family. Mystical creatures play nice – and sometimes not-so-nice – among the city’s thrill seekers and the finned sisters need to decide whether they want to belong or whether they are who they are.
But that’s really too tidy a description for a film that wriggles in disorienting directions every few minutes. There are slyly feminist observations made about objectification, but that’s never the point. Expect other lurid side turns, fetishistic explorations, dissonant musical numbers and a host of other vaguely defined sea creatures to color the fable.
In fact, Olszanska’s film is strongest when it veers away from its fairy tale roots and indulges in its own weirdness.
Whatever its faults, The Lure will hook you immediately and change the way you think of mermaids.
Screening Room: Fast X, Master Gardener, White Men Can’t Jump, Carmen & More
by Hope Madden
We are ten films into the Fast and Furious franchise. So let’s just start with some obvious points. #1, Vin Diesel is easily the most uninteresting thing about 9 of the 10 films (he’s not in #3).
The most interesting thing continues to be the set pieces – the fisticuffs, city explosions, flying car shenanigans. Director Louis Leterrier had some big tires to fill stepping into the tenth episode, and those two Transporter films are not pedigree enough. But he more than holds his own, even if the ridiculous nature of most of these will have you laughing out loud.
I laughed out loud many times. This is probably the funniest movie I’ve seen this year – mainly unintentionally, but how fun!
And then the other reason to like this franchise: the villains. Most of them wind up falling to Dom’s charms and joining his cult, but still! And a ton of them are back for this one: Statham, Mirren, Cena, Theron, and now, Momoa.
Jason Momoa has a ball, all swagger and silliness as the devil – a foe so evil that all previous villains (even those who sought to end the world; even those who actually killed members of Dom’s beloved family) quake in his presence. His every moment onscreen is a joy, but I honestly think one particular scene with toenail polish might have been added late just to show us how amazing he can be.
The core group – the family – of course returns, although the adventure splits them up to allow opportunities to bloat the run time. I mean, to give each of them arcs and storylines. Tyrese Gibson and Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges lead the comic relief squad. They head one way while Uncle Jakob (John Cena) takes Dom’s precious son a different direction.
Most interesting, per usual, is whatever Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) does. It mainly involves Oscar winner Brie Larson (making her F&F debut as Mr. Nobody’s daughter) and Oscar winner Charlize Theron (who, once again, delivers a performance far better than the material deserves).
Cameos galore, plus a stinger you’ve heard about but probably still want to stick around to see, add to both the run time and the fun.
Somewhere around Justin Lin’s Fast 5 (ironic, given the Fast X storyline), Dom and his family just became superheroes, flying, impenetrable, imperturbable superheroes. Yes, you will hear the word family more often than every other word in the script combined. No, Diesel never acts.
I mean, he can. We all saw Saving Private Ryan once up on a time. He just doesn’t do it here. He’s a gravelly voiced Buddha, as he always has been. And he’s the least compelling element in the film or the series, as he always has been. It takes nothing way from the film. It never has.
Fast X. Dumb as hell. Thumbs up all around.