Getting Jiggy with It

Saw X

by Hope Madden

Whenever someone states specifically that they do not like horror movies, there is a better than average chance they’ll namedrop Saw as what’s wrong with the genre.

Of course, the Saw franchise is not really that typical of horror, especially today. But you wouldn’t know that if you didn’t like horror, would you? And to be fair, most of the films in the series are awful. James Wan’s 2004 original was clever and grim. But then a sequel came out every Halloween, each less clever and more grim until they became lazy, threadbare embarrassments. And then in 2021, an infusion of money and star power threatened to turn the tide with the refocused Spiral, which was so bad it felt more like a parody than a retooling.

So why bother with the tenth installment, Saw X?

  1. Badass poster
  2. That AMC ad

Yes, some marketing genius got behind this episode in a big way, but how’s the movie?

If you hate the Saw films, Saw X will not convert you.

If you don’t, it’s probably the best since Wan’s original.

Director Kevin Greutert, who directed the mediocre-at-best Saw VI, is back working with franchise writing regulars Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger (responsible for two of the worst: Spiral and Jigsaw).

Also returning, Tobin Bell as John Kramer. You may know him better as Jigsaw, but he spends the majority of the film as the tender if zealous life coach, if you will. Series favorite Shawnee Smith returns as acolyte Amanda Young, and suddenly you may be wondering if there is anything fresh or new about the tenth episode.

Yes and no. Though the tenth installment, the timing of this film would technically be the third in the cinematic timeline (after 2017’s unbearable Jigsaw, followed by the 2004 original). John’s no novice when it comes to traps, but he takes a break – may indeed have a complete change of heart – when he finds a miraculous clinic that may be able to cure his terminal brain cancer.

It turns out to be an elaborate con. Can you guess what happens when you con Jigsaw? It ain’t good.

But the movie’s not bad. It is bloody AF, with organs and limbs and eyeballs and brains, self-mutilation, others-mutilation, general nastiness and an abundance of bad behavior.

Saw X spends nearly half its runtime leading up to the carnage with John (except for one fake-out early trap) in a kind of character study that doesn’t really pan out because we don’t dig very deep. Worse, Smith is painfully underused.

It’s not the reawakening it may want to be, but for fans of the franchise, it’s finally an installment worth watching.

Adult Education

The Re-education of Molly Singer

by Hope Madden

I feel a little sorry for The Re-education of Molly Singer because No Hard Feelings exists. Not that we don’t need multiple tales of helicopter parents paying aging party girls to help their socially awkward sons prepare for adulthood and college.

OK, we may not. But that JLaw one was funny as hell, so maybe?

There are definite pluses. For one, Britt Robertson has genuine talent. She was the best thing about both Tomorrowland and The Space Between Us. And she’s quite good here as an ambitious lawyer saddled with college debt and an obvious drinking problem. Molly manages to miss a court date and lose her job on the same day that her boss Brenda (Jamie Pressley, highlight of the movie) drops her only son off at college.

Brenda needs to simultaneously fire Molly and help her son, so why not hire the now-unemployed Molly to handle the latter task? Molly will go back to college and nudge Elliott (Ty Simpkins) out of his shell.

There is some funny dialog – mainly throwaway lines and pseudo sports commentary – but Todd M. Friedman and Kevin Haskin’s writing is otherwise a bit stale. It’s no No Hard Feelings.

Director Andy Palmer delivers a hodgepodge of moments from Eighties comedies, each one drawn out to a painful length. Molly Singer feels too traditionally staged, almost like a reimagining of Revenge of the Nerds, minus the homophobia and rape.

In the end, the biggest disappointment is not that it devolves into a hodgepodge of obvious hijinks but that it does not tell Molly’s story. The film opens on a montage that clarifies the obstacle she must overcome during the course of the film, but by the time the credits roll, the film has lost its way and its focus, and we have no real idea who she is, why she does what she does, or whether she’s in any real way changed.

Horny Little Devil

Deliver Us

by George Wolf

On the heels of that evil nun’s return to theaters, Deliver Us arrives with a sexy nun, a horny priest, one ancient prophecy and two incredible claims.

In a Russian convent, sister Yulia (Maria Vera Ratti) is pregnant – with twins. Not only is Yulia claiming immaculate conception instead of virgin birth (remember kids, the immaculate conception was of Mary, not Jesus), but she says one of her unborn children is the Messiah, and the other is the Anti-Christ.

The Church promptly reaches out to the handsome Father Daniel Fox (Lee Roy Kunz) for an investigation (Father Joseph McDreamy was apparently busy). Though the American priest has a history of success with these “demonic” cases, he also has a high level of skepticism and a belief that most can be explained through natural science.

Father Fox is also expecting a child with a prominent Russian bussinesswoman, and is planning on leaving the Church to start a family. Still, he accepts this last assignment, and soon uncovers a secret society’s plan to kill sister Yulia before her twins can fulfill that centuries-old prophecy.

The ancient order/prophecies fulfilled stuff is fertile ground for horror films. And though Kunz – who also co-writes and co-directs – is shaky on religion (the film also has a Catholic bishop trying to talk Father Fox out of leaving the Priesthood by arguing that celibacy is merely a “tradition”), a brutal opening sequence and the resulting mystery combine to set an intriguing hook.

Cinematographer Isaac Bauman gives the film a dark, gorgeously foreboding aesthetic, using stark confines and snowy landscapes to great effect. Candlelit rooms and steam heat in winter air are framed with a fine construction that adds to the feeling of isolation once Father Fox, sister Yulia and the twins set out on the run.

Sacrifices are demanded, and blood is spilled, but as the mystery unfolds, the unfortunate layer of silliness that plagues many films in this demonic subgenre begins to creep in. Even worse, two incredulous Shining references appear to nearly comedic effect, derailing the mood in an instant.

The writing and directing teams also seem overly concerned with the lack of eroticism in the exorcism game. And though Deliver Us can be a horny little devil, some fine production elements are ultimately let down by a script too distracted to satisfy.

Work Hard, Love Hard

Fair Play

by Brandon Thomas

Emily (Phoebe Dynever of Bridgerton) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich of Solo: A Star Wars Story) are several years into a whirlwind romance. Despite being madly in love – and newly engaged to boot – they have to be careful about how public they are with their relationship. See, Emily and Luke work for a cutthroat hedgefund firm where relationships among staff are frowned upon. After Emily earns a valued promotion in the firm – and also finds herself Luke’s boss – things between the young couple take a dramatic turn for the worse.

Workplace gender politics have been explored on film for decades and through many different lenses and genres. Films like His Girl Friday, 9 to 5, and Norma Rae all used the interplay between the sexes to craft timeless stories. Some films showed more interest than others in actually commenting on the complexities of these relationships in a place of work. Most, however, just mined it for obvious dramatic or comedic content. In more modern times, movies like Fair Play attempt to make a more complex statement on the mixing of personal life and work life and often from the perspective of female filmmakers. 

So much of Fair Play’s success or failure rides on the relationship between Dynever and Ehrenreich. Thankfully, both bring their A game and end up absolutely sizzling on the screen. There’s a lived-in element to their relationship that feels genuine and passionate. 

Equal attention must be given to writer/director Chloe Domont’s intense screenplay. Her patience as both a writer and director pays dividends in many of the film’s longer scenes – allowing the actors and the writing to shine concurrently. For most of Fair Play’s running time, the story never outpaces the characters and that’s a testament to Domont’s handling of the narrative.

While not at all flashy, Domont’s direction is specific and has an intriguing point of view. Set amongst the hustle-and-bustle of New York City, there’s never a lingering shot of Manhattan’s gorgeous skyline. The direction is often kept tight and claustrophobic – keeping scenes focused on the characters and the chaos bubbling up around them. 

It’s all the more disappointing when Fair Play stumbles late. The complex drama is jettisoned in favor of a more standard thriller that might’ve starred Michael Douglas sometime in the 1990s. The need to make one of the characters a cliched villain feels tacked on and not spiritually in line with the thoughtful nature of the film’s first two acts. 

Despite a less than thrilling conclusion, the majority of Fair Play is a taut drama that puts character before plot.

Murder by Number

Head Count

by Rachel Willis

A freak occurrence while working on a prison chain gang allows Kat (Aaron Jakubenko) the chance to run. It’s a opportunity he takes, only to end up on the wrong side of his own gun in the film Head Count, directed by the Burghart Brothers.

Flashing back, Kat runs through the past few days, wondering where each of the six bullets in his gun’s barrel have gone. Are there any left?

A running tally as we move through Kat’s memories removes any guessing on the audience’s part. I did feel there were one too many bullets left in one scene, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if I miscounted, even with the handy on-screen ticker. Unfortunately, removing the audience’s job of keeping count of the bullets over the course of the film’s runtime eliminates any tension.

Each flashback is accompanied by on-screen text that lets us know where we are in Kat’s life. Unlike the bullet count, the solid placement in time is useful. Throughout the flashbacks, we continue to jump back to the moment where the gun is trained on Kat’s head, an unnecessary reminder of the stakes as we tally each bullet.

Still, the film’s biggest flaw is the dialogue. There’s too much exposition and too much filler. Many conversations ring false, particularly those between Kat and his would-be killer.

The acting helps strengthen the flimsy dialogue, mostly because it’s delivered with conviction. Jakubenko especially works hard to bring Kat’s predicaments (which just keep coming) to life.

Not everyone gets as much to work with – yet another of the film’s weaker elements. The ancillary characters, especially the ones Kat cares about, don’t bring a lot to the table. The lack of depth means we don’t much care what happens to them, even as Kat tries to convince us to do just that.

There are a few humorous scenes that help balance the film’s weaker moments, but even these successes aren’t enough to completely negate the less interesting scenes. However, it’s a decent premise and the Burghart brothers bring their own take to this western thriller. There’s enough to keep one entertained if not completely satisfied.

Mama Mia


by Hope Madden

What happens if a woman reconsiders Rosemary’s Baby?

This is not to say that writer/director Kjersti Helen Rasmussen’s Nightmare is the masterpiece of Polanski’s 1968 Oscar winner. It is not. But this Norwegian horror delivers an intriguing pregnancy nightmare, one that benefits from a somewhat merciless female perspective.

Eili Harboe (Thelma) is Mona. She and boyfriend Robby (Herman Tømmeraas, Leave) just bought an apartment. It needs a lot of work, but it’s all theirs and now they can be grown-ups. Mona isn’t sure she and Robby have the same definition of grown up, though, and here’s where things begin to break down.

Mona begins having nightmares that escalate into sleepwalking, sleep paralysis and hallucinations. Could it be stress over abandoning a burgeoning career to focus on renovations and – if Robby has a say in things ­– starting a family? Or maybe it’s the creepy neighbors and their screeching infant?

Whatever the case, Robby’s sexy, shirtless doppelganger comes to Mona every night. The relentlessness of it all has Mona questioning reality.

So do we. Rasmussen rarely clarifies what is really happening and what is nightmare. She mines the dreamy fact that what we see in our sleep is often an image of our waking troubles, particularly those we hide from ourselves. Mona wants to please, as so many women do, and the men around her take casual advantage of this. One scene in a doctor’s office pinpoints the moment Mona finally is moved to begin to act on her own.

Microagressions blend into bigger dangers as Mona’s life blurs with her nightmares. Rasmussen fills the reality with details and beautifully executed moments that fully outline Mona’s struggle. The darker fantasy world of the nightmares is given far less attention, and the medical world that bridges the two feels slapped together.

But Harboe’s understated turn, particularly in a handful of breathtaking scenes, helps Rasmussen blisteringly articulate an everyday horror women face.

You Know, Billy, We Blew It


by Hope Madden

Anchorage invites you on road trip through a depleted America, ghost town upon ghost town, as two drug-riddled brothers follow their destiny from Miami to Anchorage, Alaska. What’s left of Miami amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of opioids in the trunk of Jacob’s (Scott Monahan, who also directs) car. What awaits Jacob and John (Dakota Loesch, writer)? Fortune and glory, kid.

Anchorage has been likened to Easy Rider, and the comparison is valid. A wild cross-country ride through the American Dream inevitably exposes it as a nightmare.

Monahan’s structure is deceptively sound, though his film plays like an improvisational string of sights and blights to see. But themes introduced early only strengthen as the duo spiral toward destiny. Hyper aware of their own mortality yet playing at being immortal, the brothers’ drug-fueled mania that fuels the journey turns more and more desperate with each rest stop.

The actors wade into that bleary real estate between playfulness and danger. Each mile they make toward northern glory wears on them, changing their dynamic and tainting the spirit of their journey. The 4954-mile drive from Miami to Anchorage analogizes addiction in much the way Burt Lancaster’s back yard swims did in Frank Perry and Sydney Pollack’s 1968 classic The Swimmer. It’s all a party at the start, but reality can’t be kept at bay long enough to make it home.

Aside from a handful of extras and one additional speaking role (Christopher Corey Smith), the entire film belongs to Monahan and Loesch. The slow, inevitable arc the characters take is authentically delivered, tense and heartbreaking. Monahan dwells in Jacob’s waning innocence, while Loesch’s performance is a celebration of innocence lost.

The two make a fascinating cinematic pairing and their film slips easily into your memory to stay.

Stranger In My House

No One Will Save You

by George Wolf

No One Will Save You gives Brynn Adams – and us – just 12 minutes before uninvited friends come calling.

And in those 12 minutes, writer/director Brian Duffield utilizes some fine visual storytelling to set the stage.

Brynn (Kaitlyn Dever) lives by herself in a lovely country home. Brynn’s a simple homebody who likes simple charms like rotary phones and making beautiful crafts to sell. But in her small town of Mill River, Brynn is a pariah. Something very painful occurred there years ago, and the townsfolk are not shy about reminding Brynn that she was – and still is – to blame.

Brynn soon finds out that what’s worse than no one stopping by is a sudden alien invasion. Hide and seek soon turns to fight or flight, with Brynn struggling to stay alive and find anyone to help her. But as the title implies, Brynn has only herself to rely on.

Duffield (screenwriter for Underwater and The Babysitter, among others) rolls out story beats that recall Signs, It Follows, and The Babadook, while upping the A Quiet Place ante for a film that is 99.9% dialog-free.

In place of conversation, we get some very effective SFX work from James Miller’s sound department, and the always-welcome Dever delivering a physically demanding, sympathetic performance that wordlessly evokes desperation, sorrow and courage.

But as Brynn’s nightmare plays out, a stale air begins to creep in. The creature design is fairly generic, and more effective before we start to see them up close. Duffield’s extended metaphor has been done before and with more subtlety, though it’s rescued somewhat by a final twist from that Twilight-y Zone place.

Most of all, Hulu’s No One Will Save You is another example of a film that seems structured exclusively for a streaming algorithm. The action comes early, it’s repeated often enough that you can go feed the dog and not feel like you’ve missed anything, and the themes are obvious and easily digested.

Once again, it’s a formula that is tasty in spots, but far from filling.