by Hope Madden
The past and present look a little too similar in writer/director Georgia Oakley’s quietly profound drama, Blue Jean.
This is true, regardless of the spot-on period detail. Jean (Rosey McEwen) teaches high school PE in Thatcher-era London. Protests over the conservative party’s push to enshrine anti-LGBTQ+ laws echo from radio stations and TV sets in the faculty lounge, greeted with reactions from colleagues that confirm Jean’s instinct to stay closeted.
McEwen’s riveting performance is almost entirely internal. A gesture, a breath, a blink holds meaning. And tears – forget it. Jean is too tightly wound, trying so hard to disappear, to draw no attention to herself so she can slip through her days unnoticed. But why did she get into teaching in the first place?
Without a hint of a heavy hand, Oakley brings us around to that question. She didn’t do it because she didn’t want to leave an impression. No one chooses to spend their days surrounded by adolescents, of all things, if they don’t want to offer some kind of value, provide some kind of guidance toward adulthood.
Jean doesn’t want to be a hero, but there comes a moment when she has to reckon with whether or not she’s willing to be a villain.
McEwen’s isn’t the only impressive performance. A vibrant and endlessly lovable Kerry Hayes makes love interest Viv a buoyant but levelheaded surprise. Young Lucy Halliday is raw vulnerability as Lois, balanced beautifully by the layered, roiling emotion of Lydia Page’s Siobhan.
It’s stunning that this is Oakley’s feature debut. The patient pacing pays off with a fully earned climax and not one note rings false. Every moment aches of heartbreak, but that only makes the pure joy of the final act that much more beautiful. Like the best queer cinema, Blue Jean makes the political personal. But even in the most oppressive climate, it is freedom.
by Daniel Baldwin
Scenario: You’re an ex-soldier turned cop. You are drowning in debt. You have a terminal medical condition that your benefits won’t properly cover. You’re worried that once your sickness claims you, you’ll leave your family destitute. You know that your job pays out handsomely if you are killed in the line of duty. What do you do?
This is the central hook of Confidential Informant, a crime thriller that also happens to be the first Mel Gibson geezer teaser of 2023. Dominic Purcell and Nick Stahl star as two dirty narcotics officers who magically only use corruption to the “benefit” of society and not themselves. They’ll bust down doors without warrants and conjure up whatever they need to make their reports look clean on the surface in an effort to take down the “bad guys”, but never bend the rules to help themselves out. Their boss (Mel Gibson) willingly turns a blind eye to all of it, again with no personal kickback, all for the good of mankind. Yeah, sure.
Purcell’s narco cop is dying, and he needs a way out that will best help his family. He and Stahl concoct a plan with a close friend/confidential informant (Erik Valdez) of theirs to do just that. Things go haywire, and they end up with an internal affairs investigator (Russell Richardson) on their tail. Can the lie be maintained, or will he discover the truth?
We’ve seen more than a few action thrillers tackle benefits issues for soldiers over the past half dozen years. Films like Den of Thieves, Triple Frontier, Wrath of Man, etc. all showcase how poorly we take care of our troops, leading them – at least in these tales – to lives of crime just to pay the bills. To now do the same for corrupt cops is ballsy, especially in today’s political climate. That’s not to say that it cannot be done, as Joe Carnahan’s brilliant Narc accomplished it two decades ago. This is no Narc.
Confidential Informant wastes a good cast (particularly Kate Bosworth in a beyond thankless wife role) on a mess of a script that tries its hardest to be both a neo-noir and a message film but fails at both. The writing simply isn’t up to the task of juggling these two ideas, so the whole thing buckles under the weight of its own ambitions. Stahl does what he can as the lead and Gibson tries his best in what is actually a small supporting role, but it’s not enough to compensate for a weak script and stiff dialogue. This snooze is for die-hards – sorry, lethal weapons – only.
by George Wolf
Chile ’76 is a stellar feature debut for director and co-writer Manuela Martelli. It’s assembled with the measured pace of a storyteller committed to her vision and confident in her approach.
And, as a native of Santiago who was a teenager in the mid-seventies, Martelli is clearly passionate about this very tumultuous slice of her homeland’s history.
The film is set less than three years into the dictatorship of Pinochet, when a constant layer of fear hung heavy in the air. Carmen (Aline Küppenheim) is buying a can of paint for some home redecorating when she overhears a woman crying for help as local authorities take her away.
We don’t see the abduction, either, and Martelli’s focus on Carmen’s silent reaction is the first of many instances where the film gains heft from Martelli’s elegant restraint.
As the wife of a respected doctor (Alejandro Goic), Carmen enjoys a life of means and free time. She volunteers reading to the blind, and it is precisely Carmen’s standing, schedule and conscience that spur Father Sanchez (Hugo Medina) to entrust her with a sensitive task.
The twenty-something Elias (Nicolás Sepúlveda) was badly wounded by Pinochet’s forces, but escaped. Could Carmen nurse him back to health, in secret, at her family’s beach house?
Martelli builds a solid foundation to support this intimate political thriller, leaning on meaningful visuals and Küppenheim’s terrific performance to consistently elevate the stakes. While Carmen’s rich friends cling to familiar accusations of “lazy traitors” who only “want to get things for free,” Carmen’s life becomes a series of hushed meetings, secret passwords, and aroused suspicions.
It may only run 95 minutes, but Chile ’76 fills all of them with an impressive ability to change colors. Hints of a standard melodrama fall away to reveal tense political intrigue, becoming the centerpiece of a talented filmmaker’s somber salute to the spirt of revolution.
by Rachel Willis
A man searching for his way in life is the subject of director Patricia Chica’s character study, Montreal Girls.
Though he arrives in Montreal to enroll in a pre-med program, it’s immediately clear that medicine is not a path Ramy (Hakim Brahimi) has chosen for himself. It’s an honor to study medicine at the university to which he has been accepted, but Ramy’s true passion is poetry.
Chica sets up a nice familial relationship for Ramy, establishing early that he is close with both his uncle (Manuel Tadros) and cousin, Tamer (Jade Hassouné). Tamer – a singer in a local punk band – introduces Ramy to the two women who will occupy most of his time in Montreal – Desiree (Jasmina Parent) and Yaz (Sana Asad).
Most of the film follows Ramy as he gets to know the women, all while reflecting on the last moments he spent with his mother before leaving for university. Her passing has had a profound impact on Ramy, and this is perhaps why he tries to cling so hard to the elusive Yaz.
While Desiree is more accessible, Ramy struggles to find his way with both women. It’s a mirror for the ways he struggles with his choice to study medicine. One offers safety and security; the other, passion and uncertainty.
While on the surface, it seems the Montreal girls are the driving influence behind Ramy’s choices, everything he does comes back around to the mother he has lost. Through brief scenes, we can sense the intimate relationship between Mother and Son.
At times, the film falls victim to clichés, but tenderness adds a layer of sincerity to those clichés. The film never feels trite, even while it treads familiar ground.
While most of the characters come to life, Yaz is relatively flat. Though this is how the character wants it – the persona she has created for herself – we never feel connected to her in a meaningful way. But this is part of the lesson Ramy learns as he navigates his new life. There are some people who will inspire you, even while they remain elusive. While this works to deepen Ramy’s character, it does leave a little to be desired for the audience.
Most of what the film does works to serve its purpose. The few moments where it stumbles almost feel necessary as it accurately reflects Ramy’s world.
by Hope Madden and George Wolf
How is this year half over?! Well, whether we want to believe it or not, it is. That means a look back at the movies that most impressed us over the course of the first six months. Here, in alphabetical order, are our favorites.
If you still need proof that Ben Affleck is a damn fine director, you’ll find it, right down to how he frames the multiple telephone conversations. But the real surprise here is the script. In a truly sparkling debut, writer Alex Convery brings history to life with an assured commitment to character.
And much like his success with the Oscar-winning Argo, Affleck proves adept at a pace and structure that wrings tension from an outcome we already know. In fact, he goes one better this time, inserting archival footage that actually reminds us of how this all turned out, before leaving Mrs. Jordan’s final ultimatum hanging in the air like a levitating slam from Michael.
As is so often the case, director Wes Anderson, writing again with Roman Coppola, painstakingly creates a world – colorful, peculiar, emotionally tight lipped – brimming with characters (equally colorful, peculiar and emotionally tight-lipped). Brimming. About 50 speaking characters stand or sit precisely on their mark, perfectly framed, each one doing their all to keep chaos at bay.
The wordplay is succinct and witty per usual, dancing through themes of science, art, and Cold War paranoia. But while Anderson’s last film, The French Dispatch, left its procession of indelibly offbeat characters to fend for themselves, this time they’re connected with the sterile humanity that buoys the best of his work.
So, a voice on the line says, “You have a collect call from ‘What the f%& is happening’!”
That’s not really the caller’s name.
He’s actually Jim Balsillie (a terrific Glenn Howerton), co-CEO of BlackBerry Limited, and he’s having yet another temper tantrum. The pairing of Balsillie’s bare-knuckled business sense with the tech genius of other CEO Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel, perfectly awkward) made the company an early leader in the cell phone game, but things have started to unravel. Fast.
The colliding of worlds is engaging enough, but the delightfully sharp humor and first-rate ensemble (also including Michael Ironside) turn these based on true events into a rollicking, can’t-look-away slice of history.
John Wick: Chapter 4
Chapter 4 is not just more of what makes the series memorable, it’s better: better action, better cinematography, better fight choreography, better framing and shot selection. Sandwiched between inspired carnage are brief moments of exposition set within sumptuous visions of luxury and decadence. This movie is absolutely gorgeous.
One of the reasons each episode of this franchise surpasses the last is that the franchise is not exactly about John Wick. It’s a love letter to a canon, a song about the entire history of onscreen assassins and their honorable, meticulous action. Genre legends arrive and we accept a backstory that isn’t detailed or necessary because the actors carry their cinematic history with them, and that’s backstory enough.
It’s hard to believe it took this many sequels to get us to John Wick v Donnie Yen, but it was worth the wait.
If you haven’t gotten to know filmmaker Colin West, it’s high time you correct that. The writer/director follows up last year’s surreal Christmas haunting Double Walker with a beautiful look at living a fantastic life.
The effortlessly affable Jim Gaffigan plays Cameron, an astronomer in suburban Dayton, Ohio hitting a very rocky path in his middle age. The kiddie show about science that he hosts is failing. Maybe his marriage is, too. New neighbors, a mysterious woman, and increasingly bizarre events have got him wondering. What does it all mean?
Return to Seoul
In Return to Seoul (Retour à Séoul), a trip “home” becomes a catalyst for one woman’s search for identity, as director and co-writer Davy Chou crafts a relentlessly engrossing study of character and culture.
In her screen debut, Park Ji-min is simply a revelation. Her experience as a visual artist clearly assists Park in realizing how to challenge the camera in a transfixing manner that implores us not to give up on her character. Her Freddie is carrying a soul-deep wound and pushes people away with a sometimes casual cruelty, but Park always grounds her with humanity and restraint.
Freddie begins to embody the typhoon that pushed her toward this journey of self, and Return to Seoul becomes an always defiant, sometimes bristling march to emotional release. And when that release comes, it is a rich and moving reward for a filmmaker, a performer, and all who choose to follow.
Visual poet of the day-to-day Kelly Reichardt returns to screens with a look at art as well as craft in her dramedy, Showing Up.
Michelle Williams is characteristically amazing, her performance as much a piece of physical acting as verbal. You know Lizzy by looking at her, at the way she stands, the way she responds to requests for coffee or work, the way she reacts to compliments about her work, the way she sighs. Williams’s performance is as much in what she does not say as what she does, and the honesty in that performance generates most of the film’s comic moments.
Chau knocks it out of the park yet again, and like Williams, she presents the character of Jo as much in her physical action as in her dialog. The chemistry between the two is truly amazing, simultaneously combative and accepting, or maybe just resigned to each other.
Like Nicole Holofcener and Claire Denis, Reichardt invests her attention in the small moments rather than delivering a tidy, obvious structure. The result feels messy, like life, with lengths of anxiety and unease punctuated by small triumphs.
Is there anything in all the world more satisfying than watching Nazis die? Perhaps not. Jalmari Helander, the genius behind 2010’s exceptional holiday horror Rare Exports, squeezes a lovechild from Leone and Peckinpah by way of Tarantino (natch). The result, Sisu, a kind of WWII-era Scandinavian John Wick.
Helander’s confident vision meshes majestically with the cinematography of Kjell Lagerroos, capturing the lonesome beauty of Lapland in one minute, the next minute bursting with the frenetic energy and viscera of action. The stunt choreography and editing in the dizzying array of carnage-laden set pieces are breathtaking. Knives, guns, fisticuffs, tank fire, regular fire, land mines, a hanging, airplanes – a seemingly endless string of magnificently crafted violent action keeps the pace breathless.
Clocking in at just 91 minutes, Sisu is perfectly lean, relentlessly mean, and consistently satisfying at every blood-soaked turn.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
A reminder that multiverse films can, indeed, be made well, this story is wild but never illogical, delivering a heady balance of quantum physics, Jungian psychology and pop culture homages while rarely feeling like a self-congratulatory explosion of capitalism. Heart strings are tugged, and it helps if you’ve seen the previous installment. (If you haven’t, that’s on you, man. Rectify that situation immediately.)
A star studded voice cast shines, but that wattage is almost outshone by the animation. Every conceivable style, melding one scene to the next, bringing conflict, love and heroism to startling, vivid, utterly gorgeous life.
If there is a drawback (and judging the reaction of some of the youngsters in my screening, there may be), it’s that Across the Spider-Verse is a cliffhanger. If you’re cool with an amazing second act in a three-story arc (The Empire Strikes Back, The Two Towers), you’ll probably be OK with it. Maybe warn your kids, but don’t let it dissuade you from taking in this animated glory on the biggest screen you can find.
You Hurt My Feelings
One of filmmaker Nicole Holofcener’s great talents is acknowledging 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.
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.
Thanks to these two excellent performances 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.
Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny
by Hope Madden and George Wolf
Should they have stopped after Last Crusade? Probably.
But is Dial of Destiny a more worthy sendoff for the iconic Indiana Jones than 2008’s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Most definitely.
Director James Mangold takes the whip from Spielberg and wastes no time reminding us why we have loved this character for decades. Impressively staged action and that familiar theme song combine for a thrilling 20-minute opening sequence set back amid Indy’s heyday, with the unusual combo of Harrison Ford’s de-aged face (pretty nifty) and 80 year-old voice (craggy) fighting to recover the blade that drew Christ’s blood.
Fast forward to the late 1960s, and Dr. Jones is ready for retirement when his past comes calling with a tempting opportunity. Indy’s goddaughter Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, bringing some welcome zest), whose father was Indy’s old partner Basil Shaw (Toby Jones), shows up with a tale about finally recovering the artifact that neither Basil nor Indy could ever pin down.
It is the Antikythera, a hand-powered orrery designed by Greek astronomer Archimedes that was said to produce “fissures in time.” Archimedes hid the two halves of the dial from the Ancient Romans, and now Indy can help Helena find the dial before it falls into the menacing hands of the mysterious Dr. Schmidt (Mads Mikkelsen).
The script, co-written by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, David Koepp and Mangold, allows our character to feel his age – the wisdom of his accumulated experiences and the losses, the absences, they’ve brought him. It also allows a bit of silliness to creep in before we’re done, which becomes the one last hurdle that Indy must overcome.
As a director, Mangold comes to the franchise with a terrific resume that includes Logan, Ford v Ferarri, Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma. But while he’s able to fill many action-packed set pieces with craftmanship and flair, Spielberg’s unmistakable layer of childlike wonder is noticeably missing.
But so is Spielberg, so that’s gonna happen.
What Mangold and his writing team can do is find a comfortable groove that, like our hero, leans more toward respecting the past than plundering its remnants.
Ford is a big reason for that. He steps back into that fedora not like he’s never left it, which is the point. He meets his character where he actually is – old, alone, grieving. Mangold’s Logan also grappled with the melancholy of our waning years (and beautifully). Ford makes the most of this opportunity to see the character’s arc through, right into a warm and satisfying sunset.
How can it be that we’re more than 250 episodes in and we’ve never done a podcast on Dario Argento? Well, we’d like to thank the Wexner Center for the Arts for inspiring this episode. We will introduce one of the films in their upcoming Dario Argento series, as will our podcast guest Scott Woods. But first, we’ll get together and hash out our personal favorites.
5. Inferno (1980)
The second of Argento’s Mother Trilogy, Inferno orbits Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness. She lives in a foul smelling but phantasmagorically constructed building in New York City, where Rose Elliott believes something diabolical is afoot.
A sequel to the filmmaker’s most lauded work, Suspiria, Inferno mirrors the stagey quality of the first in the trilogy. The architecture, the color scheme, the dizzying nature of the building itself give the film the surreal quality of a spell. This one takes on a neon soaked nighttime aesthetic that’s hypnotic. The opening underwater sequence is among Argento’s best set pieces.
Per usual, the Argento’s plot takes a backseat to the experience. A couple of these murders are especially grisly – appropriate, given that Mater Tenebrarum is the cruelest of the sisters.
4. Cat o’Nine Tails (1971)
Argento’s second feature delivers perhaps the most strictly giallo of his films, in that (before Argento reinvented the genre) a giallo is a mystery thriller. In this one, a blind former newspaperman (Carl Malden) teams up with a sighted but far less savvy newspaperman to figure out why so many murders are connected to the Terzi Institute.
Items that will become standards for the filmmaker: don’t trust what you see, science is a fun underpinning to a mystery no matter how ludicrous that science is, Hitchcock is cool – plus, the extreme close up eye balls and murderer POV that would become trademarks.
Surprises that he drops after this movie? Not only does one character deliver an insightful piece of feminism – “Whore equals liar equals murderer, perfect Italian logic!” – but the film actually murders more men than women.
Its color palette is a bit of a let down and it drags in parts, but it delivers a number of excellent set pieces and it’s really fun to see Carl Malden in an Italian horror movie.
3. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Argento’s first and arguably one of his best opens with a bang. Frustrated writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is killing time before he finally returns home to the States from Italy. But he witnesses an attack through the massive glass storefront of an art gallery.
It’s such a gorgeous frame for violence, and a perfect introduction to the maestro of sumptuous slaughter. There’s childhood trauma (the sort that turns a person toward mania), which will go on to become a go-to in the filmmaker’s arsenal. But what an introduction to his style!
2. Suspiria (1977)
American ballerina Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) moves to Germany to join a dance academy, but the other dancers are catty and the school staff are freaks. Plus, women keep disappearing and dying.
As Suzy undertakes an investigation of sorts, she discovers that the school is a front for a coven of witches. Suspiria is a twisted fairy tale of sorts, Argento saturating every image with detail and deep colors, oversized arches and doorways that dwarf the actors. Even the bizarre dubbing Argento favored in his earlier films works beautifully to feed the film’s effectively surreal quality.
It’s a gorgeous nightmare, bloody and grotesque but disturbingly appealing both visually and aurally (thanks to the second scoring effort by Goblin).
1. Deep Red (1975)
Maybe not the most traditional choice for Argento’s best, but it’s such a powerful step in his overall collection. He made three straight up gialli – The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Cat o’Nine Tails, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet – before taking a break from the genre with a dark historical comedy.
And then, Deep Red – a giallo, to be sure, but one that predicts the entirely surreal, aesthetic-over-plot supernatural thrillers he’d make next. Deep Red is gorgeous and bizarre, full of red herrings, childhood trauma, traumatizing children, tormented lizards as well as a number of themes he’s hit on since his first film.
David Hemmings (Marcus Daly) saw a murder, but he can’t be sure what exactly he saw. He’s sure if he can just remember it clearly, it’ll all make sense. This is a preoccupation of most of Argento’s films, but he’s never more curious than he is here. And the bloody, almost exquisite murders are more excessive and interesting here than in anything else he made.
by Hope Madden
An instinct for sound design, a grasp of the difference between telling a story and reading a story – this is the power of Aisha. The piece of short fiction performance leaves you with the impression of your own heart racing, a sense of place and sound, of scent and feeling.
Co-creators Cory Choy and Feyiṣayo Aluko deliver a brief but complete story. We live Aisha’s nightmare with her, hear what she hears, feel what she feels – the breath on her neck, the shrinking claustrophobia of a tunnel, the stench of the bodies, the nightmare of the woman in the blue hijab. As evocative and true as any nightmare while it happens, the story brims with imagery and metaphor without succumbing to either.
In telling the story the way they do, the authors ask you to become Aisha, a powerful way to pull listeners into an unknown world and make them feel part of it. Frightening without being truly horror, the poetry in the storytelling echoes a primal terror of loss of self while imagery places that terror within the misery of war. And yet, tantalizingly, it’s Aisha’s waking moments at the tail end of the story that feel most genuinely frightening.
The Tribeca winner for Best Independent Audio Fiction promises a fascinating character to follow on a longer journey.
Listen to Aisha now at tribecafilm.com.
by Christie Robb
In Catherine Hardwicke’s newest film, the title character, Maxine (Kate Beckinsale), is struggling. She’s got two jobs, but still can’t afford the epilepsy medicine her son Ezra (Christopher Convery) needs. The kid’s dad is no help. He’s a drug-addicted man-child squatting in what looks like an abandoned factory, showing up only to cause trouble and get Maxine fired by one of her managers.
So, when her prisoner father, Max (Brian Cox), is diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and offered compassionate release and house arrest for his last four months if his estranged daughter is up for it, Maxine agrees – but only if he pays rent promptly, stays out of the way, and keeps his exact relationship to her quiet around her kid. Ezra thinks his grandfather died before he was born, and Maxine doesn’t want her ruse upended.
Although Max, a former boxer turned enforcer/probable hit man, was a shit dad whose presence and absence from Maxine’s life during her childhood left her with many emotional scars, we are given to understand that he’s changed in the last 12 years, gotten sober, and been an asset to those prisoners trying to do the same. And, now that he’s back in his daughter’s life, he’s out to make some serious amends.
Much of the film is a thinly-written fairytale—the rekindling of a healthy relationship within an estranged family with minimal effort and no therapy required. Apologies are freely offered. Money is exchanged without strings. But strings are pulled to put Maxine’s career back on track. Whimsical adventures are had. And grandpa bonds with grandson, passing down valuable life lessons to help him navigate tough stuff that mom just doesn’t understand.
See, Ezra is being bullied at school. So, Max, the former boxer, is more than ready to step up and teach him to fight. The last act is interesting. but sometimes as heavy-handed as Max’s fists. And it makes you wonder what kind of legacy Max has passed on to the next generation and whether it’s really that easy to change oneself, much less stop the cycle of generational trauma.