Tainted Love


by Brandon Thomas

As disheveled loner Neal (Micah Spayer) sits at his work desk scanning through dating site profiles, it’s hard not to immediately think of other cinematic losers. Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, One Hour Photo’s Seymour Parrish, and Joker’s titular character spring to mind first. However, as Christopher’s Fox feature debut Rub plays out, our expectations are slowly thrown out the window and the film unfolds into something completely different.

Neal leads an isolated life. His coworkers don’t take him seriously, his relationship with his family seems to exist only over the phone, and any attempt at a romantic relationship is dismissed. At the urging of a co-worker, Neal visits a tawdry massage parlor where he meets Perla (Jennifer Figuereo). As Neal’s humiliation at the hands of his co-workers boils over, he makes another visit to the parlor – a visit that will wind up with both Neal and Perla on the run.

The way Rub nimbly dances between sub-genres really allows it to surprise. Just when you think it’s going to become Maniac, the film veers off into Taxi Driver territory. However before Rub can fully commit to homaging Scorsese’s anarchic opus, the film takes another hard right into Badlands. Director Fox never lets his film get comfortable in any of these genre-defining areas. Instead, the tone and tenor of the film follows the characters and their journey, not the other way around.

Spayer has the flashier role of the two roles, and he handles himself quite well, but the real fireworks happen when both Spayer and Figuereo are sharing the screen. They are an unlikely pair but their vulnerability shines through to something deeper and more meaningful. Both characters have been discarded by those around them – to be used only as things of either enjoyment or ridicule. It’s a pairing that begs for a happy ending, but the mounting suspense and tension only point to one inevitable outcome.

Rub is the kind of character-centric genre outing that evokes the electric and gratifying cinema of the 1970s. Sure, it’s a low-budget film that’s rough around the edges, but any shortcomings on a purely production level are soon erased by the commitment to surprising storytelling.

Grip It and R.I.P. It

Talk to Me

by George Wolf

Talk to Me doesn’t waste much time before escalating the conversation.

And while the shocking prologue isn’t the only reminder you’ll get of similarly structured films such as The Ring or It Follows, Australian brothers Danny and Michael Philippou carve out a timely teen horror update that is often chilling and consistently engaging.

BFFs Mia (Sophie Wilde from The Portable Door) and Jade (Alexandra Jensen) are eager to hang out with the edgy kids at the local parties. And lately, that means getting in the room with Joss (Chris Alosio) and Hayley (Zoe Terakes), because they let you talk to the hand.

Where did Joss get it? Was it the hand of a satanist, or maybe a long dead medium? Details are sketchy. But if you’re game, you grip it, say “talk to me” and take the ride. And everyone else, of course, films the experience.

The Philippou brothers (both direct, Danny also co-writes) worked in TV, YouTube videos and on the camera department for The Babadook before this first feature, and it’s a debut that shines with a confident vision. We’ve seen some of these threads before, but this fresh take is able to capture the current zeitgeist without any desperation for hipness.

Viral fame isn’t the lure here, it’s the high of glimpsing the other side and the enlightened feeling it gives you. But for Mia, it’s also the gateway to a very personal journey that could answer questions from her past while saving the life of Jade’s little brother Riley (Joe Bird).

The script smartly stays a step or two ahead of contrivance, and is able to find some impressive psychological depth as it touches on grief, trauma, and the anxieties of leaving childhood behind.

Plus, come on, the creepy “embalmed hand” gimmick is effective from the start. It gives the Philippou brothers a great anchor for building an aesthetic of ethereal dread while they score time and again with wonderful practical effects.

This is R-rated horror, refreshingly light on the jump scares and false alarms, leaning instead on a parade of visual images that can truly terrify. And even when we don’t see what the game players are seeing, the fact that we’ve already had a hellish glimpse feeds a devilishly fun game within our own imaginations.

Talk to Me somehow feels familiar, but uncomfortably so. It’s a horror show always eager to deface the rulebook, and leave you with a wonderfully organic sign that this game is not over.

Rolling Thunder, Raging Vengeance


by Daniel Baldwin

DTV action maven William Kaufman (Sinners and Saints) returns for the third time this summer with a south-of-the-border extraction/revenger combo, Shrapnel. This time around, Kaufman is playing in another insanely tropey sandbox: “Dad has a special set of skills”.

Jason Patric plays military veteran Sean Beckwith, who lives on a Texas ranch with his wife and two daughters. The oldest of which, as per a frantic voicemail overheard at the start of the film, made the mistake of sneaking across the border into Mexico with a friend to party. Anyone who watches action flicks or TV shows already knows where this is going: she’s been kidnapped.

Beckwith attempts to go through proper legal channels to retrieve his firstborn, but there’s no help to be found. When pleas for mercy on TV just piss off the cartel responsible and result in them sending a hit squad to silence the family, Sean realizes that the only hope he has is to take the fight to them. Luckily, in true Rolling Thunder fashion, he has a former soldier buddy named Vohden (Cam Gigandet) who simply needs to be told to get his gear and tagalong for an assault on the cartel boss’s (Mauricio Mendoza) compound in Juarez.

What we have here is a pretty meat and potatoes modern Mexico-set action thriller. For better or worse, this is an inherently problematic subgenre that often centers around white vengeance (i.e. Rambo: Last BloodSicario, etc.). If you are willing to overlook that, Shrapnel does have some things to offer.

Patric is compelling as the ever-troubled Beckwith, who has doubts from the outset that his daughter is still alive and knows that even if she is, she’ll never be the same. Nor will his wife and other kid, after the ranch assault. Nor will he, for that matter. All of this plays on his face throughout.

Gigandet carries himself well as our Tommy Lee Jones but isn’t required to do much more than that. Other performance highlights include Kesia Elwin as Sean’s wife Susan, Guillermo Ivan as the main henchman, and the aforementioned Mendoza as the big bad.

It’s not the most original low budget actioner and it’s a step down from Kaufman’s own The Channel earlier this month, but if you’re in the mood for a solid little “Dad movie”, it’ll get the job done. While no Sicario, it’s certainly better than Rambo: Last Blood.

Structural Damage

Haunted Mansion

by Hope Madden

My favorite thing to read when I was a child was Disney’s Haunted Mansion. I had the book with the 45 record and fold out, suitcase-looking record player. I listened to it relentlessly, and could recite it still today.

The Disney theme park ride is still my favorite ever.

But The Mouse has had a time trying to figure out how to turn that ride into anything worth watching. Rob Minkoff’s 2003 film stunk up the place, and even 2021’s Muppet version was only mildly entertaining. And it starred Muppets!

Still, I held out hope for the latest adaptation for a number of reasons, starting with the cast. LaKeith Stanfield is a remarkable actor. Tiffany Haddish is funny as hell. Rosario Dawson, Owen Wilson, Jamie Lee Curtis and Danny DeVito – while often in bad movies – never let you down themselves.

But mainly it was director Justin Simien I trusted. The director behind 2014’s Dear White People and 2020’s Bad Hair has yet to let me down.

Had yet to.

Stanfield plays Ben Matthias, a nonbelieving scientist convinced by Father Kent (Wilson) to bring his equipment and help a mom (Dawson) and her young son (Chase Dillon) clear their new mansion of ghosts. Out of their depth, the pair eventually enlist the aid of a medium (Haddish) and haunted house expert (DeVito).

Katie Dippold’s screenplay picks up on some of the most memorable elements of the ride – ghosts that follow you home, for instance – but most of the spooky fun gets little more than glimpsed. Worse still, the filmmakers miss what makes a haunted house movie compelling – namely that you can’t leave. Everybody keeps leaving. They come back, but this traveling breaks any spell the film begins to cast and leads to a disjointed, sprawling storyline. Unimpressive ghost FX don’t help the film regain its sense of spooky wonder.

Stanfield gives his all, delivering a tender hearted, emotional performance that honestly feels out of place surrounded by such superficial camp. Curtis lacks the comedic timing her character requires – especially disappointing in scenes with Haddish (funny as ever).

Owen Wilson is Owen Wilson, but watching him give a pep talk to a bunch of poorly designed but nonetheless impressionable ghosts is one of the film’s high points. The other is a surprise cameo from Winona Ryder. But it’s not enough.

I cannot figure out why it’s so hard to mine the dozens of ghosts mentioned in this ride and book for a decent haunted house story, but I’ve definitely learned to stop getting my hopes up. If Justin Simien can’t do it and the Muppets can’t do it, it’s probably time to give up.

Get In the Game


by George Wolf

Right from the opening minutes of Afire, we know that Leon (Thomas Schubert) isn’t very perceptive. But if you know anything about writer/director Christian Petzold, then you know Leon’s plight is only a means to a deeply resonate end.

Leon and his friend Felix (Langston UIbel) have come to a vacation home by the Baltic Sea for a working holiday. Leon must put the final touches on his latest book before a meeting with his publisher, while Felix needs to ready his photo portfolio for art school.

But the boys find they are not alone on the spacious property. Nadja (Petzold favorite Paula Beer) is staying there as well, and keeping Leon awake via vocal late night trysts with Devid (Enno Tebbs), a lifeguard at the nearby beach.

So the three become friends, while Leon keeps to spying from a distance and declining all offers of fun or relaxation because “work won’t allow it.”

Except, Leon’s never really working. He spends the days as the pooper of this party, too self-absorbed to notice anything outside of his own sad sack, not even the increasing threat of nearby wildfires.

For a time, Petzold (Transit, Undine, Phoenix) crafts an amusing dramedy of awkwardness, one that’s noticeably lighter than his usual fare. But as Leon’s publisher (Matthias Brandt) arrives, more personal details are revealed and the fires grow closer, the film’s third act becomes heavy with timely resonance.

A creative life – a fulfilling life – requires participation. Fear of failing is fear of living, and even the deepest heartaches can come to serve a greater purpose. Indeed, the film itself may be Petzold’s answer to unprecedented recent history.

The small ensemble (stellar) and remote location are common traits of a pandemic production. Are the fires here a winking nod to Leon’s blindness to every forest around him, or a more direct metaphor to the worldwide plague?

The film works either way. Petzold excels with characters like these, yearning to break from whatever may be holding them back. Afire finds him working on a smaller, more comedic scale, but never lacking the keen insight we’ve come to expect.

Greasepaint Is the Word

Theater Camp

by Hope Madden

There are certain comedies that feel lovingly, mockingly plucked from experience. The School of Rock. Wet Hot American Summer. Theater Camp.

The premise of the latter is relatively familiar: a summerlong theater camp will be foreclosed on or snapped up by a spendier competitor unless somehow, some way, a little inspiration and a little fairy dust help the lights and the show go on.

At the center of the crisis: Amos (Ben Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon, who also co-writes and co-directs). Amos instructs in drama, Rebecca-Diane reads auras, conducts seances, and teaches musical theory. The pair has been inseparable since childhood – a conceit made all the more believable with the actual archival footage of wee Gordon and Platt, both 4-years-old, dancing together onstage.

Touches like this help to develop the feeling that this is a lived-in love, a mash note to the awkward, petty, ridiculous, glorious, accepting, embracing, creative community that forms artists.

Both Platt and Gordon deliver touching, flawed, funny performances. The balance of the ensemble shines as well.

Jimmy Tatro nails the earnest dumbass bro pegged to run the camp while his mother (Amy Sedaris – genius as always) is in a coma. Co-writer Noah Galvin offers a sneaky comic presence from his opening moments and eventually steals the show (and the show within the show).

I would have loved to see the Janet (Ayo Edebiri) side story developed. Edebiri’s every moment of screentime is an understated riot. Likewise Sedaris, with little more than a cameo, was missed when she was off screen. But the large cast, most with limited screen time, manages to craft memorably eccentric characters who come together to create a community.

This is the film’s real magic, something the cast and filmmakers – including Gordon’s co-writer and co-director, Nick Lieberman – convey with mockery borne of familiarity and love.

Theater kids are bound to see themselves here, and the loose structure and inside jokes may weaken the experience for everyone else. But underneath the affectionate mockery lurks a moving testament to the nurturing effect of belonging.

Fins to the Left, Fins to the Right


by George Wolf

How much do we love Sharks?

Mother’s only get one day, but it’s Shark Week.

And from Megs to ‘Nados to super sharks eating Samuel L. Jackson in the middle of a Samuel L. Jackson speech, we clearly cannot get enough shark movies.

Shudder’s Sharksploitation takes a…wait for it…deep dive into the titular subgenre, building a scattershot timeline for how sharks have been depicted in cinema, both BJ (before Jaws) and AJ (after Jaws.)

First-time director Stephen Scarlata rolls out a respectable array of film historians and pop culture commentators, interspersing the requisite film clips, and sometimes bunching several together via split screens.

Scarlata doesn’t always follow a strict chronology, which can be a bit distracting as the approach sometimes groups the shark films by era, and other times by a similar theme.

Still, there is some solid info here, such as the progression of sharks being held as Gods in the 1931 Murnau film Tabu, to being held by evil geniuses in Bond films, to being hunted for harassing a small New England town over 4th of July weekend.

And, of course, once Jaws practically invented the “blockbuster” as we know it, shark mania was cranked up to eleven while stoking a fear that wasn’t exactly based on fact. Jaws author Peter Benchley came to regret this, and the film is careful to show how he later would devote his time and energy to ocean conservation.

But in the decades since, the laws of shark physics (“shar-sics”!) have been willingly ignored by shark films, and Scarlata achieves a fun sense of mischief by often following a film synopsis with a quick cut to an increasingly exasperated marine biologist.

There’s also an enlightening and funny look behind that infamous line from Shark Attack 3: Megalodon, a revisit to the influx of sharks on 70s TV (lookin’ at you, Fonzie), and a nod to the relative “cooling off” period before an eventual rebirth via 1999’s Deep Blue Sea and the emergence of SyFy channel originals

But along with the low-budget “mockbusters” of The Asylum and the intentional ridiculousness of the Sharknado franchise, Scarlata reminds us that there are more recent entries (Open Water, The Shallows) that found ways to thrill with new rules for an old game.

The film’s a little rough around the edges, and it suffers from a wandering nature that can seem like treading water, but Sharksploitation is an entertaining trip through the history of a beloved subgenre. And ultimately, it feels both welcome and overdue.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to shop for Mom’s Shark Week gift.



by Hope Madden

Like some sort of bourgeoise, European Napoleon Dynamite, the diabolically deadpan Amanda (Benedetta Porcaroli) is a weird, mesmerizing mess (the character, not the film). Writer/director Carolina Cavalli’s feature debut delivers on the weird and mesmerizing, but the vision is intentional and its delivery confident.

The titular character, a 25-year-old with no friends or job who rails against nonexistent oppressors while sponging off her parents, is as off-putting as any narcissist would be. At the same time, thanks to Cavalli’s witty script and Porcaroli’s surprising wealth of vulnerability, you can’t help but root for Amanda.

Her only friend is the family’s middle-aged maid who doesn’t mind so much, but she’d rather spend time with her own kids than get dragged to another rave. Afraid she’s a loser, will always be a loser, Amanda decides to become besties with Rebecca (Galatéa Bellugi), the daughter of a family friend. This is not something Rebecca will accept voluntarily.

Cavalli’s fills dining rooms, bedrooms, gravel paths and cinemas with a dark whimsy that’s hard to pull off. Her film borders on the absurd but never fully crosses over – kind of a Yorgos Lanthimos (particularly Dogtooth), but with more heart and less devastating cynicism.

Amanda is the embodiment of a generation of lonely people unable to form human connection, but her charm is her sincere desire to find that one person who connects with her – regardless of her profound selfishness, interest in nothing, and desire to do nothing except save up enough supermarket store points to win an electric fan.

Cavalli populates Amanda’s world with a few equally odd characters. Rebecca’s self-imposed isolation becomes a fascinating counterpoint to Amanda’s involuntary version. Giovanna Mezzogiorno, playing Rebecca’s mother, offers a liltingly bizarre turn.

Margherita Missoni is a delight playing Amanda’s pharmacist sister, a woman so weary of Amanda’s irresponsible divadom that she appears to melt.

It’s a perversely lovely, lonely world. Cavalli lenses an environment simultaneously elegant and bucolic, a kind of fairy tale where nobody’s feeling very optimistic of a happy ending but are unready to embrace reality quite yet. It leaves a little room for hope.