The Break Bones Club


by Hope Madden

Bottoms essentially follows a traditional teen comedy path, from the first day of senior year (with the high expectations of finally turning your popularity and romantic luck around) through that fraught homecoming football game. Our underdogs hatch a scheme to win the affections of the hot cheerleaders.

But if you saw co-writer/director Emma Seligman and co-writer/star Rachel Sennott’s uncomfortably brilliant 2020 comedy Shiva Baby, you have some idea of what you’re in for. Expect a chaotic, boundary pushing satire unafraid to offend.

PJ (Sennott) and Josie (Ayo Edebiri, so funny earlier this summer in Theater Camp) are their high school’s ugly, untalented gays. PJ is always scheming to get some cooch, and this will be their year. Her idea? Start a fight club for the girls in the school. Or, you know, a self-defense club. Where you wrestle around and hit and get excited and sweaty and close.

Josie is not down with this, but PJ usually gets her way and the next thing you know –well, you saw Fight Club, right? Because those men were only convincing themselves they were being pushed around, bullied and disempowered.

Part John Hughes, part Jennifer Reeder, part Chuck Palahniuk, Bottoms exists in a bizarre world of deadpan absurdism so littered with smart, biting commentary that you’ll need to see it twice to catch all of it.

Sennott and Edebiri are as fun a set of besties as Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever in Booksmart. Maybe even as fun as Beanie Feldstein and Saiorse Ronan in Lady Bird. Nicholas Galitzine is a riot as the quarterback, Jeff, and Ruby Cruz delivers as the one earnest lesbian hoping to empower and create solidarity with this club.

Seligman’s tone, her image of high school and high school movies, is wildly, irreverently funny and fearless. It’s hilarious, raunchy, and so much fun.

Family Matters

The Good Mother

by George Wolf

As a thriller, The Good Mother is an odd bird. But then, I can’t really say for sure it wants to be a thriller. Maybe it’s a character study, or a cautionary tale. There’s nothing here to seal any of those deals, which means the possibilities for engagement are always just out of reach.

The cast is solid, led by two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank as Marissa, a top reporter for a newspaper in Albany, NY circa 2016. Her paper is struggling with the digital revolution and could use her writing skills, but Marissa can’t be bothered. She’s been in a spiral since her husband Frank’s death and her son Michael became a junkie, and now Marissa only wants to drink, smoke, and mindlessly edit other people’s work.

Things only get worse when her older son Toby (Jack Reynor), an Albany cop, gives her the news that Michael has been shot and killed. And though Marissa blames Michael’s pregnant wife Paige (Olivia Cooke) for introducing him to drugs, the two join forces in hopes of tracking down Michael’s killer.

Swank (also an executive producer) is on cruise control with a righteous determination arc, but director/co-writer Miles Joris-Peyrafitte never lets her truly dig in to Marissa’s edges. Instead, she moves through a succession of steely eyes and furrowed brows as an unlikely duo has even more unlikely success uncovering secrets of the drug trade.

There are good intentions here, mainly aimed at how the opioid epidemic can devastate lives. But the story beats are often overwrought amid an aesthetic of heavy-handed grit, while Joris-Peyrafitte mutes any dramatic tension with flashbacks and quick cutaways. And when he does introduce a promising new direction (like a scene-stealing Karin Aldridge as another grief-stricken mother), it is too soon abandoned for the comfort of well-traveled paths.

Take away this cast, and there’s just enough here for a made-for-cable time waster. But some big league talent got The Good Mother bumped up to the big screen, and earning its place there is a mystery the film just can’t figure out.

How It Happens


by Hope Madden

A confounding, beautiful, effective feat of visual storytelling, Astrakan delivers a poignant study in the creation of a troubled youth.

Samuel (Mirko Giannini) has recently come to stay with foster parents Marie (Jehnny Beth, Paris, 13th District) and Clément (Bastien Bouillon, Night of the 12th) and their two sons. Director David Depesseville opens on the family’s zoo trip. All seems well until they stop at Marie’s parents’ farm for some milk.

Marie’s exhausted from chasing the boys around. Clément is angry at the amount the family spent. Samuel’s to blame, but there’s not much they can do, they need the pension he brings in. It’s a conversation ­– one of many – where a quiet, observant Samuel witnesses with some confusion his place in this world.

There’s nothing preachy or maudlin about Depesseville’s film as it shadows a year or so in the life of a boy who wants to feel loved, a boy who’s simultaneously drawn to and revolted by sex because of its confusing sense of powerlessness. Of a bullied boy, never self-pitying, who longs for some kind of protection and, without it, little by little finds ways to feel powerful and noticed.

The entire cast is sublime, but young Giannini captivates attention every moment he’s on screen.

Depesseville’s approach, based on a scrip he co-wrote with Clara Bourreau, delivers a sensitive exploration of a very rocky coming-of-age. There are few real villains here, and fewer still heroes. The physical manifestations of Samuel’s untold prior traumas are seen by Clément as rebellious outbursts requiring a beating, while Marie enlists the help of some kind of family aura reader. If Children’s Services thought the family was not doing well together, they might take Samuel from them. She immediately points out that they need the pension.

The film amounts to a series of beautifully filmed, emotionally moving sketches, tender, empathetic and tragic. The gorgeous cinematography, though welcome, feels almost at odds with the realism of the content, but Depesseville brings the entire vision to an unusual and somewhat mystical conclusion that benefits immeasurably from the almost impressionistic beauty of the entire tale.

Astrakan is an impressive, moving slice of life that understands what turns a child into something troubling.

Live to Work, Work to Live

Between Two Worlds

by George Wolf

You’ve probably already guessed that Juliette Binoche is excellent in Between Two Worlds (Ouistreham). Her turn as Marianne is effortlessly human and engaging while she keeps the cliched trappings of a “brave” performance at bay.

The Oscar-winner doesn’t bother with her hair and makeup! And, she’s often seen scrubbing toilets as part of a “commando” cleaning crew. Earning only minimum wage, Marianne and her co-workers have only 90 minutes to clean rooms on the cruise ships that dock in the port city of Caen, France.

Marianne is the newbie on this crew, as her life of leisure ended when her husband left her for a younger woman, forcing her to return to the workforce after more than two decades. Marianne becomes a trusted member of the work family, forming an especially tight bond with the gritty Chrystèle (Hélène Lambert, excellent) a single mother with unwavering drive to provide for her kids, whatever it takes.

Chrystèle doesn’t have time for indulgences like the side trip to the beach that her new friend insists upon, which should have been the first clue that Marianne is not what she’s pretending to be.

She – just like French journalist Florence Aubenas, author of the source work – is an accomplished author, posing as a working stiff to conduct first-hand research for a book on the rising uncertainty of the French economy. That book became a best-seller, and director/co-writer Emmanuel Carrère brings it to the screen with a strange mix of empathy and tone deafness.

Carrère and his authentic ensemble make sure we feel the desperation of the workers, and share in their happiness when one of their own lands a better opportunity and leaves the nest. And though we also share in the hurt when Marianne is found out, the film itself never holds her truly accountable.

Sure, she’s sad, but mainly because her friend Chrystèle won’t forgive the abuse of trust. Credit Binoche for giving Marianne enough layers to make the question of “ends justifying the means” even plausible, but how the film works for you may ride on your own experience with both of the lifestyles.

Are the “invisible people” fair game as long as you feel bad about it? Even if Aubenas still thinks so, Between Two Worlds could have put a little more trust in the audience rank and file.

Crazy Political Thriller

Ernest and Celestine: A Trip to Gibberitia

by Christie Robb and Emmy Clifton

This follow-up to the Academy-Award nominated 2012 movie Ernest and Celestine and an animated television series, all based on works by writer/illustrator Gabrielle Vincent, has the beloved duo of bear and mouse on a quest.

They have returned to Ernest’s hometown of Gibberitia to have his violin (a stradabearius) repaired by its creator, only to find that his formerly enchanting land filled with bears playing music has become a repressive regime. A new law has banned music with more than one note. Children are forced to take on the careers of their parents regardless of their personal inclination. And a masked hero of the underground resistance periodically pops up to protest with impromptu saxophone solos.

I had the chance to watch the movie with my nine-year-old-daughter. Here’s our take.

Mom Says:

The animation is beautiful, like watching a moving watercolor. The quest to find joy and individual purpose in a society determined to force one into a predetermined course is important. However, the film seems a bit spare. The relationships between the characters could have used some more fleshing out. But, I am coming late to this franchise having missed the previous installments.

The conflict spoke to my daughter who paused the film periodically to voice her suggested solutions to Ernest and Celestine’s problems. Impressive that the production team managed to tackle the ideas of fascism and political overreach in a low-stakes, nonviolent, way that speaks to children. It’s quirky and charming with some great visual gags and a musical theme that will keep you humming long after you’ve walked away from the film.

Kid Says:

I loved everything about the movie, except that, if you look really closely, all the animals have human hands. I did not like that.

The cute art style reminded me of Studio Ghibli movies.


Nandor Fodor and the Talking Mongoose

by Hope Madden

In the 1930s, the Lock Ness Monster had a competitor for the attention of the world’s most gullible. On the Isle of Man, one seemingly normal family claimed that a talking mongoose lived on their property. His name was Gef (sounds like Jeff, which is just funny).

This really happened.

A psychologist named Nandor Fodor traveled to the Irvin family’s farm to prove or disprove these claims. His visit is the basis of writer/director Adam Sigal’s dramedy, Nandor Fodor and the Talking Mongoose.

Simon Pegg plays Dr. Fodor with a mixture of insecurity and vulnerability that’s appealing. Fodor is a skeptic, naturally, although – like probably all who investigate the supernatural – he wants to believe. He wants to prove that something beyond us is possible. Not that he’d admit it.

He certainly wouldn’t admit it to his assistant, Anne (Minnie Driver). Driver’s performance is delightfully bright, logical and yet open. Fodor may see this farce for what it is, but the experience is letting Anne see Fodor for what he is.

The film feels most relevant and transgressive when working as a clear theological allegory.

“All anyone wants in this world is to be happy,” the Irvin estate manager tells Fodor. “Maybe you’d be happy if you let people believe what they want to believe. People love that mongoose.”

“The one that doesn’t exist?” Fodor responds cynically.


As religious metaphor, Nandor Fodor delivers a tale far more empathetic and compassionate ­than you might expect. But Sigal changes focus from “what makes people choose to believe in Gef” to “what makes someone create such a fabrication?”

Both questions have merit in an investigation or an allegorical film. But Sigal pivots so quickly that the “why believe?” question feels entirely unresolved and the “why lie about it?” resolution seems almost patronizing.

But a cast of eclectic, sometimes weirdly melancholy characters , Pegg’s angry befuddlement and Driver’s charm are almost enough to make up for it.

Under Construction

The Fallen Bridge

by Rachel Willis

The first images in director Yu Li’s latest film, The Fallen Bridge, are of a bridge collapsing on CCTV. It’s a compelling introduction to the unknown that lays at the film’s center.

The bridge collapse is the start of a deeper mystery – one of murder and corruption. After a skeleton is found inside one of the fallen bridge’s supports, Xiaoyu (Sichun Ma) is drawn home from college. She wants to know who murdered her father.

Xiaoyu’s main support comes not from her godfather and friend to her father, but a mysterious man, Meng Chao (Karry Wang), who claims to know what happened.

It’s not too hard to figure out what happened, and the film doesn’t keep you guessing. Without a mystery, there is no tension. We watch Xiaoyu talk to people who knew her father. All of them tell her who is responsible, but as Xiaoyu has no evidence, she keeps searching.

The film’s strongest element is Sichun Ma, but even she can’t seem to muster the outrage or grief necessary to allow the audience to connect or care about her character’s journey. Chao feels like a sidekick with very little to flesh out. He carries his own sins, but we’re only told what happened. We’re never allowed to see how his crimes weigh on him, or how helping Xiaoyu redeems him (or why he continues to help her at all).

Detectives wander in and out of the story; they slowly piece together the tale that the audience already knows, making each of their discoveries ring hollow. While Xiaoyu has all the cards in her hand, the detectives are left to bumble after leads. There’s a sense that the situation might have been resolved in a more compelling way if we weren’t left to wonder why Xiaoyu acts the way she does.

As the film reaches its climax, the focus seems to shift from Xiaoyu to Chao, a truly odd decision. We don’t get the satisfaction of seeing Xiaoyu right wrongs of the past or get her revenge on those responsible. Instead, Chao takes over, a stunning disappointment in a film already floundering to find its way.

There is a sensitivity to Xiaoyu and Chao’s relationship that would have strengthened the film had it been further explored. The lack of mystery might have been less bothersome had the two main characters been allowed to explore the grief that binds them. Unfortunately, what could have been an interesting character study is instead a lifeless mystery.

Teenage Dream


by Hope Madden

Jennifer Reeder is preoccupied with missing girls. Her 2019 gem Knives and Skin watched a town fall to pieces around one such absence. Where that film was full of melancholy absurdities, Reeder’s latest, Perpetrator, is a little bolder, a little angrier. 

As Jonny (Kiah McKirnan) approaches her 18th birthday she goes a tad out of control. Her dad (also in some kind of crisis) doesn’t know what to do with her, but an out-of-town aunt (Alicia Silverstone, a sinister delight) offers to take her in. So, Jonny goes from a fairly anonymous, if reckless, urban life to something far more noticeable in her aunt’s small town.

And there is something deeply amiss in Jonny’s new hometown. Girls just go missing. All the time.

McKirnan’s fish out of water performance is so much fun here because Reeder forces the audience to identify with this feral creature. The rest of the town is so odd, almost willing victims after a lifetime of systemic herding. Jonny’s humor, cynicism and enjoyable streak of opportunism give the film a constant sense of forward momentum, though the just-this-side-of-surreal atmosphere has a dreamlike quality.

Silverstone’s prickly, unpredictable performance is nothing but twisted fun, and all the supporting turns contribute something simultaneously authentic and bizarre to the recipe. (That’s a cooking metaphor because of Aunt Hildie’s birthday cake, an ingenious and foul plot kink worth acknowledging.)

Reeder’s work routinely circles back to peculiar notions of coming of age, but John Hughes she ain’t. Goofiness and seriousness, the eerie and the grim, the surreal and familiar all swim the same bloody hallways, practice the same open shooter drills, and speak up at the same assemblies honoring the latest missing girl.

Reeder’s interested in the way women are raised to disregard one another, to compete with each other, to be adored and consumed, sexualized, victimized and vilified. Her reaction to this environment amounts to a reclamation of blood. Perpetrator swims in blood and gore and humor and terror and feminism galore.

Can We Talk About Your Car’s Extended Warranty?


by George Wolf

Retribution marks the third remake of the Spanish thriller El desconocido, just in the 8 years since the original’s release.

What is it about this bandwagon that has made it so tempting to jump aboard?

If the latest version is any indication, it’s most likely the easily digestible stakes amid a standard thriller framework that offers plenty of room for tweaks without altering the chances for purely surface-level satisfaction.

So when you’ve got such a ready-made template for an English language thrill ride, the Neeson hotline is sure to be lighting up.

But this time, Liam plays Matt Turner, a banking executive living in Germany whose particular skills mainly involve ignoring his wife Heather (Embeth Davidtz), son Zach (The Way of Water‘s Jack Champion) and daughter Emily (Lilly Aspell, young Diana from the Wonder Woman films).

Matt picks a bad day to begrudgingly take the kids to school, because a disguised voice calls to tell Matt his car has been rigged with bombs. And the bombs have been rigged with pressure plates under the seats that will trigger those bombs if anyone gets out of the car.

So, what does the caller want? Is it just a ransom demand, or maybe revenge for some bad investment advice that wiped out a client’s life savings?

Shut up and drive!

Director Nimród Antal (Machete, Predators) tries his best to bring some style to the automobile setting, grabbing any opportunity he can for a new POV angle or mirror reflection. His instincts are understandable, but the approach often lands as just showy desperation.

Neeson’s on phone-yelling/time racing cruise control. But, the kids are good and both Matthew Modine and Noma Dumezweni (The Little Mermaid) provide strong support with limited screen time.

No one in the cast is given much chance of character development from Christopher Salmanpour’s script, but you can expect a surprise or two while he makes some promising edits to the original mystery. And though the final showdown does shake off a very Scooby-level unmasking to eventually better El desconocido, any hopes for mining something meaty from this derivative premise are erased when the film all too eagerly reverts to “Liam defends his daughter” factory settings.

Time to put this one in “park,” it’s on E.