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.

Chump Change

Dumb Money

by Hope Madden

Do you remember when GameStop stock became newsworthy? I, Tonya director Craig Gillespie does, and he thinks you will enjoy learning a bit more about that slice of American economic history.

Channeling Adam McKay’s rage with none of his snark, Gillespie spins Dumb Money into a laid-back tale of sticking it to the rich guy.

Which are always the best stories.

Paul Dano plays Keith Gill, an underemployed new dad who took a shine to GameStop and shared his lowkey enthusiasm via videos on Reddit. His earnest goofiness, absolute transparency and love of cats drew an audience. That audience grew into a revolution.

Gillespie cuts nimbly from storyline to storyline, introducing us to many of the Average Joes who took Gill’s advice. Anthony Ramos is the most fun, playing Marcus Barcia, a GameStop employee who liked Megan Thee Stallion and did not like Brad (Dane DeHaan), his manager. America Ferrera gets another righteously indignant character to bring to vivid life, while Seth Rogen, Nick Offerman, Vincent D’Onofrio and Gillespie favorite Sebastian Stan relish the rich dick roles.

The film never talks down to its audience, doesn’t over-explain or under-explain its financial underpinnings. We understand about as much as our main characters. Writers Lauren Schunker Blum, Rebecca Angelo and Ben Mezrich may be a bit precious about the long-term impact of the revolution, but they stay focused on character without losing the financial specifics that make the justice that much sweeter.

Dumb Money is a crowd pleaser, partly because the writing team keeps the script simple, and partly because Gillespie keeps the energy high. But mostly because it’s never not fun to see somebody stick it to the man.

When Irish Eyes Are Private


by George Wolf

The marketing for Barber tells us that “everybody has a secret.”

True enough. And there are indeed secrets being kept in this Irish mystery, but none quite as momentous as the film would like us to believe.

Veteran actor Aidan Gillen stars as Valentine (Val) Barber, a former Dublin “guard” (cop) who got tossed from the force and now, in the recent past of masks and sanitizer, works as a private investigator. Barber’s P.I. beat usually involves insurance fraud or cheating spouses, but he can’t refuse the sudden offer that comes from a worried grandmother with deep pockets.

Her 20 year-old granddaughter Sara is missing, and though other family members aren’t too concerned, Grandma suspects kidnapping.

So Barber is on the case, and while he’s learning more about Sara, director and co-writer Finton Connolly makes sure we learn plenty more about Barber.

This character study arc is really where the film is most effective. Barber has a complicated relationship with his ex-wife, his teenage daughter and his former colleagues, and the reliable Gillen (Game of Thrones, Bohemian Rhapsody, Queer as Folk, the Maze Runner franchise) makes the mussy-haired mick a sympathetic lug.

And with this solid ensemble and gritty detective aesthetic, wanting more from Barber seems to be the point here. But while the film covers some important issues (#metoo, homophobia, powerful men abusing power), the stakes all play out as a bit dated and less than thrilling. Tack on an awkward third act twist, and the future cases that Barber clearly teases might be more fitting for episodic TV.

Return to Sender

Condition of Return

by Daniel Baldwin

There aren’t too many movies out there that focus on mass shooters. You’ve got the occasional one that tackles it, such as Runaway Jury or the more recent Run Hide Fight, but they are few and far between. It’s not hard to see why, given both the frequency and severity of mass shootings in the United States. One might even call it a taboo cinematic subject. Taboos are, of course, the domain of genre and exploitation cinema. These are the corners of cinema where – when done right – we can find catharsis through art.

Tommy Stovall’s Condition of Return aims right at that taboo and pulls the proverbial trigger. Our protagonist is a churchgoing woman (AnnaLynne McCord) who, one day, shoots up said church, leaving over a dozen dead and even more injured. Why did she do it? That’s for the psychiatrist (Dean Cain) brought in to evaluate her ahead of sentencing to decide. Well, that and to professionally analyze whether or not she is sane enough to even stand trial. After all, she claims that the Devil (Natasha Henstridge) made her do it!

Normally what we would have here would be a battle of wits between a perpetrator and a medical professional as the latter sets about unravelling the mystery in front of them. Is she crazy? What’s the reason behind the reason for such a horrible act? Condition of Return is not interested in any of this. In fact, it makes it clear early on whether or not she is crazy. The answer is deeply troublesome. What we have here is a film that doesn’t put a whole lot of thought into the subtext behind the filmmakers’ storytelling decisions. And that’s not even getting into its problematic depictions of race.

There’s nothing wrong with making a film where the supernatural is real and inhuman beings are playing games with human lives for fun. Horror is filled with such fare. Angel Heart and The Devil’s Advocate come to mind. Religious horror is an important foundation of the genre. It only becomes a problem when evil acts by humans – especially topical epidemic ones – within such narratives are scapegoated upon such powers. Want my professional cinematic analysis? Stick with the Heaven & Hell thrillers that don’t blame mass shootings on anything other than the people pulling the trigger. As for McCord and Stovall, if you’re wanting horror fare featuring the talents either, seek out Excision and Aaron’s Blood instead. Mark this one as “return to sender.”

Fantasy V Reality

The Latent Image

by Christie Robb

When thriller author Ben rents a remote, isolated cabin so he can get away and focus on writing his latest manuscript, his writing time is interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious stranger. Fascinated and a little attracted to the tall, dark, and brutally handsome man, Ben begins collaborating with him on the plot. Really trying to get in the head of the villain. Trying to figure out how he might get away with murder. Eventually, the lines between fantasy and reality start to blur.

Director Alexander McGregor Birrell, in collaboration with co-writer Joshua Tonks (who also plays Ben), creates an unnerving tale based on his 2019 short of the same name.  At the start, the movie drags at bit, but once it gets going, this new Latent Image keeps the audience guessing all the way until the end. It’s a movie of creeping unease rather than jump scares or gore.

The evolving relationship between Ben and “the Man” is the heart of the film. Jay Clift’s performance as the Man is unsettling in all the best ways. Tonks and Clift are both theatre performers, so you might assume that they would skew into the more broad style of acting that plays well even to the cheap seats in the back. But, except for the very occasional misstep, they really deliver on the subtleties necessitated by film.

If you are planning on a cabin trip this spooky season, consider adding this one to your watch list. Just make sure to lock the doors and windows at night and try to avoid any drifters.