Mind Games

Mother, May I?

by Hope Madden

I’m a Kyle Gallner fan. I’ve always appreciated his work, but Dinner in America sealed the deal. Always on board for a new Gallner-led horror flick, I was cautiously optimistic about Mother, May I?

Gallner is Emmett. Having just inherited a gorgeous old farmhouse from his estranged mother, Emmett and his fiancé Anya (Holland Roden) face some demons and a lot of packing if they’re going to have the house ready for the realtor.

And even if the film seems familiar on its surface, there’s something so weird going on underneath. Writer/director Laurence Bannicelli’s thriller feels like a premise born of either a therapy session or a bad relationship – or, more likely, a bad relationship born of group counseling.

The film swims in the vulnerability those in therapy contend with as they have faith in their therapists, or those wielding the same tricks and terminology, while they try to overcome their issues and/or childhood trauma.

Emmett, you see, barely even remembers this house because his mother abandoned him. Or did she? Because Anya – who transforms from bohemian poet to pristine, controlling matron overnight – keeps suggesting he doesn’t know everything he thinks he knows.

But how could she know?

Bannicelli introduces a parlor trick/therapy game early in the film where Emmett and Anya role play each other. It’s Anya’s way of forcing Emmett not to close her out, although it immediately reads as needy, smothering and controlling.

But Emmett doesn’t even know what he’s in for.

Often in these possession/haunting films you can’t help but wonder why so much time lags, why so few questions are raised, why everyone is so willing to quietly accept the weird behavior. Bannicelli and sets us up to believe while Gallner and Roden keep our faith alive.

She creates to distinct and recognizable characters, and his reactions to each is unnerving and raw.

There’s a grand total of 5 people in the cast, which suggests a Covid production (or at least a production very savvy about its budget), but you don’t feel it. It’s a gorgeous film, the exteriors the kind of “middle of nowhere” that does not feel foreboding. It feels like an invitation to peace, which is in keeping with the tension just below the surface for these two characters who cannot truly face their own reality.

Not everything works as well, though. However welcome veteran character Chris Mulkey may be – and he’s just as solid as ever – the character itself is the cliché stranger who can explain it all. And though the climax is powerful, the resolution feels a bit like a cynical joke.

It’s not enough to ruin this clever, odd duck of a thriller, though.

Death Becomes Him


by George Wolf

I love that “Barbenheimer” has become a thing. Why are people so excited that two films open in theaters on the same weekend? The polar contrast of tones is certainly a fun mashup, but it’s also the confidence we have in two uniquely visionary filmmakers.

Christopher Nolan reportedly became invested in making a film about “the father of the atomic bomb” when Robert Pattinson gave Nolan a collection of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s speeches. In adapting two source books, writer/director Nolan gives Oppenheimer an engrossing IMAX treatment that serves up history lesson, character study and mystery thriller during three unforgettable hours.

Cillian Murphy is simply mesmerizing and absolutely award-worthy as Oppenheimer, who – years after his Manhattan Project delivered the bomb that ended WWII – is facing the possible loss of his security clearance and thus, career. With his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt) seated nearby, Oppenheimer endures grueling interrogation on his past associates and activities from an Atomic Energy Commission security board led by Roger Robb (Jason Clarke) and Gordon Gray (Tony Goldwyn).

In the film’s first two acts, Nolan uses this questioning as the anchor to chart Oppenheimer’s rise through academia to become not “just self important, but actually important.” On the campus of Berkeley, he embraces revolution in both physics and the world, enthralling his students, supporting “left wing causes” and carrying on an intense affair with avowed communist Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) before being hand-picked by no-nonsense General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) to lead the team tasked with inventing a nuclear weapon before the Nazis do.

From the outset, Nolan and Murphy craft Oppenheimer as an endlessly fascinating creature, a man unable to turn off his mind from constantly questioning beyond this world. Murphy never shrinks from the close-ups that pierce Oppenheimer’s soul, and his body language and manner are often awkward and brusk, revealing an intellectually tireless man with little regard for alienating those not on his level, including AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr., never better).

But Oppenheimer’s commitment is total, as is Nolan’s. With strategic use of black and white (an IMAX film stock developed exclusively for the film) to contrast cinematographer Hoyt Van Hoytema’s eye-popping detail, Nolan utilizes impeccable visual storytelling that enhances his script’s ambition without overshadowing it. Ludwig Göransson’s score dances beautifully with production design from Ruth De Jong, totally immersing us in the manufactured town of Los Alamos, where three years of development finally led to a successful bomb test (a breathless sequence that alone should land sound designer Randy Torres an Oscar nod).

For two hours, the historical tale is assembled through precision and care by a master craftsman with the finest tools at his disposal (including a spotless ensemble that also includes Kenneth Branagh, Rami Malek, Casey Affleck, Tom Conti, Matthew Modine, Olivia Thirlby, David Dastmalchian, James Remar and Benny Safdie), and then Nolan digs into the human failings, moral ambiguities and philosophical grappling that surround a man and his mission.

As Oppenheimer realizes that “genius is no guarantee of wisdom,” and his superiors only want to expand America’s nuclear arsenal, the film’s final act becomes a dizzying mix of JFK, Amadeus and The Tell Tale Heart.

Haunted by the devastation the bomb brought to both the “just and unjust,” Oppenheimer ignores his wife’s pleas to fight back as his character is assassinated, and a naive senate aide (Alden Ehrenreich) starts to piece together the puzzle about who is pulling the strings.

As the film races toward a tense and satisfying reveal, some of the dialogue does flirt with needless explanation, but these sensational actors never let a word of it land as completely false.

Much like any film of this nature, Oppenheimer takes its liberties and leaves room for further study. But Nolan takes you inside the personal journey of one of the most important men in history, with resonant and challenging lessons on hubris, envy, blind faith and the search for redemption. And by the end of hour three, he leaves you drained but thankful for the experience

There’s no Barbie here, but you will find a cinematic dream world with so very much to offer.

Think Pink


by Hope Madden

The world today is split. On the one hand there is a rabid sect donning their finest sparkles in anticipation of Margot Robbie’s Barbie. On the other hand, there are those who cannot believe people are this unreasonably geeked over a movie about Barbie.

And then there are the Greta Gerwig fans, who perhaps have a complicated but mostly contemptuous relationship with the doll but will nonetheless stride through the pink boas and tiara glare to soak up whatever glorious wonder the filmmaker has to give us.

That was me, that last one. I’ve come to witness Gerwig’s hat trick.

Barbie, which director Gerwig co-wrote with Noah Baumbach (that slouch), delivers smart, biting, riotous comedy with more whimsy than anything this politically savvy has any right to wield.

It’s a role Robbie was clearly born to play. Barbie’s endless run of perfect days actually ends, and she has to seek the advice of Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon, perfection). You’ve seen the ads – she has to go to the real world to solve her problem. But there’s one hiccup. (That’s not true, there are plenty of them, but it all starts with this first one.) Ken stows away in the back of the Barbie Dream Car.

Ryan Gosling, the man behind the tan, plays Existential Crisis Ken and it’s possible he’s never been better. That’s a big statement because he was nearly perfect in Drive. Also, The Nice Guys. Also, Half Nelson. Plus, Blue Valentine.

He’s good. This is my point. But his Ken delivers all the self-effacing humor of The Nice Guys with sincere pathos and a vacuous tenderness it’s hard to describe.

And my god, that dance number!

Simu Liu, Michael Cera, Issa Rae and Alexandra Shipp also get to carve out some funny screentime, but the whole cast shines. Barbie does not work without a tightrope of a tone, and everyone walks it with their heels off the ground.

Gerwig’s lack of cynicism may be the thing that shines brightest in all three of her films. Lady Bird was the most open and forgiving coming of age film I’ve ever seen, and also probably the best. Who on earth thought we needed another Little Women until Gerwig mined it for the gorgeous feminism that always drove it?

Barbie is a brilliantly executed, incredibly fun, brightly colored, completely logical feminist statement that should be remembered come awards season.

Fright Club: Lovable Losers in Horror Movies

Sure, the Losers Club leaps to mind. But the truth is that horror films are littered with lovable losers – often their corpses. Why? It’s easy to root for an underdog, and nothing packs an emotional wallop like watching that bumbling, vulnerable sweetheart meet a grim end.

We love them all: Sean & Ed, Viago & Vladislav, Melvin Juno and 100 Bloody Acres‘s Reg & Angus Sampson. But these are our favorites.

5. Oskar, Let the Right One In (2008)

In 2008, Sweden’s Let the Right One In emerged as an original, stylish thriller – and the best vampire flicks in years. A spooky coming-of-age tale populated by outcasts in the bleakest, coldest imaginable environment, the film breaks hearts and bleeds victims in equal measure.

Kare Hedebrant‘s Oskar with a blond Prince Valiant cut needs a friend. He finds one in the odd new girl (an outstanding Lina Leandersson) in his shabby apartment complex. She, as it turns out, needs him even more.

This is a coming-of-age film full of life lessons and adult choices, told with a tremendous atmosphere of melancholy, tainted innocence, and isolation. Plus the best swimming pool carnage scene ever.

The unsettling scene is so uniquely handled, not just for horrifying effect (which it certainly achieves), but to reinforce the two main characters, their bond, and their roles. It’s beautiful, like the strangely lovely film itself.

4. Lionel Cosgrove, Dead Alive (1992)

Rated R for “an abundance of outrageous gore,” Dead Alive is everything the early Peter Jackson did well. It’s a bright, silly, outrageously gory bloodbath.

Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme) secretly loves shopkeeper Paquita Maria Sanchez (Diana Penalver), but she has eyes for someone less milquetoast. Until, that is, she’s convinced by psychic forces that Lionel is her destiny. Unfortunately, Lionel’s milquetoast-iness comes by way of decades of oppression via his overbearing sadist of a mother, who does not take well to her son’s new outside-the-home interests. Mum follows the lovebirds to a date at the zoo, where she’s bitten (pretty hilariously) by a Sumatran rat-monkey (do not mistake this dangerous creature for a rabid Muppet or misshapen lump of clay).

Braindead is so gloriously over-the-top that nearly anything can be forgiven it. Jackson includes truly memorable images, takes zombies in fresh directions, and crafts characters you can root for. But more than anything, he knows where to point his hoseful of gore, and he has a keen imagination when it comes to just how much damage a lawnmower can do.

3. Katakuri Family, The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)

Takashi Miike is an extremely prolific director. He makes a lot of musical films, a lot of kids’ movies, a lot of horror movies, and then this – a mashup of all of those things. Like Sound of Music with a tremendous body count.

The Katakuris just want to run a rustic mountain inn. They’re not murderers. They’re lovely – well, they’re losers, but they’re not bad people. Buying this piece of property did nothing to correct their luck, either because, my God, their guests do die.

You might call this a dark comedy if it weren’t so very brightly lit. It’s absurd, farcical, gruesome but sweet. There’s a lot of singing, some animation, a volcano, a bit of mystery, more singing, one death by sumo smothering, and love. It sounds weird, truly, but when it comes to weird, Miike is just getting started.

2. Evil Ed, Fright Night (1985)

Fright Night takes that Eighties, Goonies-style adventure (kids on an adult-free quest of life and death) and uses the conceit to create something tense and scary, and a bit giddy as well. The feature debut as both writer and director for Tom Holland, the film has some sly fun with the vampire legend.

Roddy McDowall got much deserved love at the time for his turn as a washed-up actor from horror’s nostalgic past, and Chris Sarandon put his rich baritone to campy, sinister use.

Still, everyone’s favorite character was Evil Ed, the manic, pitiful loser turned bloodsucking minion. Credit Stephen Geoffreys for an electric and, at least in one scene, heartbreaking performance.

1. Tucker& Dale, Tucker and Dave vs. Evil (2010)

Horror cinema’s most common and terrifying villain may not be the vampire or even the zombie, but the hillbilly. The generous, giddy Tucker and Dale vs. Evil lampoons that dread with good-natured humor and a couple of rubes you can root for.

In the tradition of Shaun of the DeadT&DVE lovingly sends up a familiar subgenre with insightful, self-referential humor, upending expectations by taking the point of view of the presumably villainous hicks. And it happens to be hilarious.

Two backwoods best buds (an endearing Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk) head to their mountain cabin for a weekend of fishing. En route, they meet some college kids on their own camping adventure. A comedy of errors, misunderstandings and subsequent, escalating violence follows as the kids misinterpret every move Tucker and Dale make.

T&DVE offers enough spirit and charm to overcome most weaknesses. Inspired performances and sharp writing make it certainly the most fun participant in the You Got a Purty Mouth class of film.

The Texas Chainsaw Leftovers Have Eyes

What the Waters Left Behind: Scars

by Daniel Baldwin

In 1974, master of horror Tobe Hooper unleashed The Texas Chain Saw Massacre upon the world, giving it one of the most influential films in the annals of cinema history. It wasn’t the first rural terror flick centered around folks poking their heads where they shouldn’t, but it set into place a permanent subgenre mold that much of what has come since has been cast from. This includes the Nicolas & Luciano Onetti’s 2017 slash and torture film, What the Waters Left Behind.

Five years later, Nicolas Onetti returns to the world of that film with a sequel, Scars. The first film followed a small documentary crew as they ventured into a remote, abandoned town in Argentina called Epecuen. This is a real town that was destroyed in a flash flood during 1985 and remained under water for decades, before the flood finally receded and left ruins in its wake. Both films were shot on location in Epecuen, with the resulting production value being their most striking aspect.

Scars trades in a film crew for a metal band, with our doomed musicians merely passing through their area as they finish their bar gig tour. Once they find themselves in Epecuen, they are quickly set upon by the same cannibal family that dispatched the documentarians in the previous entry. A couple cast members carry over on the villain front, with some fresh faces mixed in as well.

The Onettis’ initial claim to fame came in the form of a trio of neo-giallo films (Deep SleepFrancesca, and Abrakadabra) that have delighted many fans of that subgenre. Unfortunately, their grasp on rural slashers isn’t as strong. The good news is that if you were a fan of the first film, you’re likely to find a lot to enjoy within Scars, as it is a step up in almost every way. The bad news is that it’s effectively the exact same movie over again, so if you weren’t buying what the first was selling, you’re unlikely to want to partake in seconds.

Their stalking setpieces, torture sequences, and excessive rape scenes repeat over and over with little variation or visual ingenuity, leaving us with an 85-minute film that still feels like it is a solid 15 minutes too long. Scars is for the curious only. All others should stick with the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre or either version of The Hills Have Eyes.

Screening Room: Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, Obstacle Corpse, Black Ice, The Miracle Club, Quicksand, Once Upon a Time in Uganda

Movie Magic

Once Upon a Time in Uganda

by Rachel Willis

Cathryne Czubek’s film Once Upon a Time in Uganda might be the most fun you’ll have watching a documentary.

Centering her film around Ugandan filmmaker Isaac Nabwana (styling himself as Nabwana IGG), Czubek has fun bringing Isaac’s world to life for her audience.

Thrown into the mix is Alan Hofmanis, a New Yorker who became so enamored with Isaac’s work that he abandoned his life in New York (primarily a cat he left with his mom) and moved to Uganda.

The two struck up a partnership of sorts. Alan focuses on bringing international attention to Isaac’s films. Isaac focuses on the Ugandan side of the equation.

Once Upon a Time in Uganda’s only flaw is that it’s not sure where to fit Alan into the narrative. Though his role in Isaac’s success can’t be ignored, he has an overblown view of himself regarding Isaac’s creative process. The documentary places too much weight on Alan when this should be almost entirely Isaac’s story.

And what a story it is. A brick maker in Wakaliga, Kampala (restyled Wakaliwood by Isaac), Isaac’s dream is making action movies. The times we see Isaac behind the camera or at his computer in his living room working on special effects are a joy. His films are a community event. With a budget of $85 to $200, everyone, from the actors to the crew, volunteers to create action movies that are laugh-out-loud funny.

Also due to the low budget, the team works with what they have, welding prop guns and camera tracking arms whenever they need them. It’s a process unlike anything you’d see on a U.S. movie set, but the camaraderie of Isaac’s crew is what makes watching the documentary such a delight. It’s all hands on deck, and everyone is having a good time.

That’s not to say Isaac doesn’t have problems. Issues around money crop up from time to time. Even though it seems Isaac comes across some level of success, it isn’t monetary success. When he accepts a TV deal to create a series for Uganda’s largest media empire, it leads to strife with not only his crew, but with Alan as well.

But you will find yourself rooting for Isaac the entire time. Even if low-budget action movies aren’t your thing, Isaac’s enthusiasm for movie making is palpable. It makes Czubek’s documentary stand as one of the finest send ups to the joy that is movie making.

Portrait of the Artist as a Dead Man

Final Cut

by Hope Madden

Back in 2017, Shin’ichirô Ueda made a truly clever zombie comedy with no zombies or horror in it. It was a film within a film that delightfully hacked away at the undignified and thrilling process of moviemaking.

Between 2017 and 2023, two things have happened worth noting. 1) French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius has remade Ueda’s movie. 2) I made an independent film. The first point will be the focus, but the second is worth bringing up because Hazanavicius’s Final Cut is an entirely different experience for me now. It made my stomach hurt. Not in a bad way – I mean, that’s never pleasant, but Hazanavicius mines Ueda’s material to create the same compelling, queasying anxiety that likely all filmmakers know.

How charmingly insane is it that the writer/director behind the 2011 surprise Oscar winner The Artist has remade Ueda’s shoestring zombie insanity One Cut of the Dead? He seems such an odd match, with his very fluid, very French comic sensibilities. And his Oscar. But maybe this story compelled him because it’s every filmmaker’s living nightmare.

The screenplay, which he adapted, is almost exactly the same except for a handful of jokes that explain how very Japanese the content is. (The zombies, for instance, are the undead result of Japanese military experiments. “Japanese? Here?” asks one actress. “Improbable, but not impossible,” answers her co-star.)

Like Ueda’s original, Final Cut is split basically into two movies. In the first, the cast and crew of a low-budget zombie flick find their set under attack from real zombies. The zealot auteur (Romain Duris) films on, gleeful at the authenticity his movie has finally achieved.

It’s a clever way to deconstruct filmmaking, but it’s only the beginning. And even though Final Cut is a remake, the likelihood that you missed the original requires that I forego additional plot details. I’d hate to spoil the silly ingenuity to come.

Duris is wonderful in a lead performance that requires a lot. Finnegan Oldfield brings wonderful layers to his pretentious young actor character and the whole ensemble seems to have a blast.

Final Cut is missing the manic, raw authenticity of Ueda’s original, though. It feels too well constructed, its jokes too perfectly timed and placed. And yet it is otherwise so similar to One Cut of the Dead that it’s tough not to wonder over the point of remaking it.

If you have not seen One Cut of the Dead, this is a fun film but you should do yourself the favor of finding the original. If you have seen it, Final Cut a good time. If you’re a filmmaker, bring the Pepto.

Cruise Control

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1

by Hope Madden

How do Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise outdo Mission Impossible: Fallout? Because even the most impressive of the previous MI films couldn’t hold a candle to that one. I mean, the public restroom fisticuffs alone!

Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part I has big shoes to fill and bridges to blow up and buildings to scale and masks to wear and trains to stop and whatnot. Does it succeed?

Of course, it does.

Ethan Hunt (Cruise) accepts a mission from his sketchy government contact (Henry Czerny). But Ethan and his team will do what they do best: go rogue. Because this key is too powerful for any one man, any one nation.

We know Ethan will do the right thing because he’s a beautiful soul. Come on, have you not been paying attention? But this villain – sentient AI “the Entity” – constantly calculates odds and probabilities. It knows Ethan’s weakness and will use it against him.

It’s a clever script by Bruce Geller, Erik Jendresen and McQuarrie. By weaponizing AI and falling back on the old rubber mask disguises, MI: DR1 mines contemporary anxiety with old school solutions.

But McQuarrie et al know what’s made the best of these films stand out. It’s not the plot – although there’s nothing at all wrong with this plot. It’s not really the villains (that’s Bond’s territory). The MI franchise lives and dies on two things: Ethan Hunt’s humanity and Tom Cruise’s willingness to risk his own life for thrilling stunts.

Expect both – aplenty! – in Episode 7.

Incredibly fun and impressive car chases follow some nifty rooftop running before turning to a magnificent series of train-related set pieces. Plus, of course, that motorcycle/mountain thing they tease in the trailer. Lunacy!

The core team – Cruise plus Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames and Rebecca Ferguson – continue to share entertaining camaraderie. Franchise newcomers Esai Morales, Hayley Atwell and Pom Klementeiff bring varying degrees and styles of badassedness. But, let’s be honest, all eyes are on Cruise.

He sells it. There is something old timey about a runaway train, and yet, in Cruise and McQuarrie’s hands, it’s never looked more fun or more thrilling. It’s a long film ­– just a hair under 3 hours – and it tells only half the story. Part 2 is due out in 2024. Still, Cruise and company manage to exceed expectations yet again.

Sinking Feeling


by Hope Madden

Back in 2023, Chris Kentis crafted one of the most nerve-wracking explorations in tension ever filmed. Open Water dropped you in the middle of the ocean with a married couple and, eventually, as day turns to night and their scuba boat never comes back for them, a lot of sharks.

Few survival tales have stripped away so much and still left you so frazzled. Andres Beltran follows the minimalist tourism of doom path with his Colombian hiking misadventure, Quicksand.

Although Sofia (Carolina Gaitan) and Nick (Allan Hawco) are separated and heading toward divorce, they accept friend Marcos’s invitation to speak at his medical convention. During some down time, they go for a hike, run into trouble, and flee for their lives in the wrong direction – into a part of the rainforest known for quicksand.

Here is where we spend most of the film: stuck chest deep in Colombian mud with an unhappy married couple. No one will realize they’re missing for at least a day, and even then, they’re miles away from where anyone might look for them.

The quicksand isn’t their only problem, naturally. Trapped as they are, they’re vulnerable to predators – fire ants, snakes – but they’ll still have time to hash out their own issues.

A film this limited, done well, can keep you in the moment, your head on a swivel, your mind working along with the characters’ to find a solution. Adam Green’s 2010 skiing horror Frozen succeeded, as, to a degree, did the 2010 Ryan Reynolds date with claustrophobia, Buried.

Given the extremely limited cast, action and locations, a film like this lives and dies on performances since there’s almost nothing else to look at. Hawco delivers layered, vulnerable work that surprises.

Gaitan is less convincing, partly because the performance is superficial and partly because Sofia’s internal journey feels inauthentic and manipulative.

Beltran’s direction, though competent, lacks inspiration. He never manages to mine tension, and his actors rarely feel truly stuck. Uncomfortable, sure. Dirty and wet, definitely. Trapped and panicked, nope.

The fact that the film’s blandly obvious, wildly outdated message is all we get from our efforts doesn’t do Quicksand any favors, either.