Bloom and Decay

She Watches Blindly

by Eva Fraser

She Watches Blindly, written and directed by Bryan Tran, invites us into a paranoia-tinged world of magical realism. Trapped by her ability to sense people’s thoughts, Beth Abrams (Emily Dunlop) lives surrounded by the lies of others, encased in a floral patterned tomb reminiscent of the Charlotte Perkins Gilman novella, The Yellow Wallpaper. This unsubtle concept of female hysteria medicated by isolation anchors many narratives, fueled by the frequent misunderstanding of women’s issues.

But, in this film, misunderstanding progresses into acceptance through one character: Dr. Abbott (Rick Andosca). Andosca’s conveyance of complex emotion through a grounded and thoughtful performance makes you believe in Beth even when she’s at her worst. She Watches Blindly complicates the narrative around mental illness, stepping outside its “thriller” label to introduce empathy.

There was no slacking in the mise-en-scène of the film. Everything feels intentional: the lighting, the color green, the heart imagery, the cloying floral patterns, the scattered toys that seem just a little creepy, and the clutter that comes with a lived-in house. This film was made to feel real — terrifyingly so— and it pays off. 

Visuals and sound collaborate to create an environment of reflection. In a film about mirroring observed behaviors, this seems pretty appropriate. When Beth is in her head or listening to others, the audience can always tell: a vignette is repeatedly introduced, narrowing the scene with black fuzzy edges; the audio also becomes muffled, echoing the undertones of dialogue. She Watches Blindly allows us to feel what it might be like to be Beth.

Surveillance becomes a cinematic theme, initiated by Beth’s husband Earl (Justin Torrence) and Dr. Abbott, but handled most masterfully by Beth. There are so many empty shots in the film: the vacant hallway outside the nursery, the curtain to Beth’s room, and the stairway in between. These spaces appear frequently, but with slightly different lighting each time. Tran creates suspense through this emptiness and lulling background noise. These little moments of emptiness reveal a more sinister undertone—we are being watched, too. 

Masterful in its presentation and storytelling, She Watches Blindly is a thriller with heart, fostering community out of tragedy.

Ride or Die

The Bikeriders

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Jeff Nichols has never made a bad movie.  Hell, he’s never made a mediocre movie. Nothing but glory with this guy. And The Bikeriders has everything a good Nichols film delivers—location, bruised masculinity, lyrical realism, Michael Shannon—but this time the writer/director has cast for days. Tom Hardy. Austin Butler. Jodie Comer. Shannon (natch). Columbus hometown hero Mike Faist, Boyd Holdbrook, Norman Reedus, Damon Herriman—all in top form, all clinging to camaraderie and connection and that fleeting American rebellion that is freedom.

Based on Danny Lyon’s 1968 book of photos and interviews of the Chicago-based motorcycle club the Vandals, Nichols’s tale catches a moment in history.

The setting—mainly areas in and around Cincinnati—captures the texture of the era, allowing this fine ensemble to transport you. Butler’s the James Dean to Hardy’s Brando. As gang leader Johnny, Hardy stalks the screen in a deeply felt performance full of pathos, tenderness and fear. His spiritual opposite, Butler (as Benny) haunts the film, a beautiful phantom forever outside anyone’s grasp.

But as Benny”s wife Kathy, it is Comer who drives The Bikeriders. As she warily enters this fringe existence, Kathy brings us along. And it is through her interviews with Danny (Faist, standing in for the actual photojournalist Danny Lyons) that the tales emerge, eventually interconnecting and expanding to mirror not only the Vandals’ evolution but a moment of cultural shift in American history.

Comer’s a force. Her Midwest accent is a strangely melodic storytelling device, but her impish facial changes tell us even more about Kathy. Marrying Benny barely a month after they meet, Kathy becomes the narrative lynchpin standing between Johnny and Benny’s undevided devotion.

This love triangle of sorts gives the film its magnetic center, but those oddballs who orbit the trio are almost as compelling. Shannon, with limited screen time, is transfixing and both Boyd and Reedus carve out memorable madmen.

Nichols’s character building and patient, lyrical pace combine with cinematographer Adam Stone’s gritty, gorgeous, picture postcard pastiche for an immersive experience that gracefully echoes the source material. Pages are turned and stakes are raised for these characters, their way of life and the country they call home.

And like most of us, that’s what these people are searching for: a place to feel like they belong. Weaving thematic threads from The Wild One, Goodfellas and even Shakespearean tragedy, The Bikeriders gives that search brutal beauty and compelling life.

All Who Wander

Cora Bora

by Hope Madden

“Cora, I don’t need you to fix it, I just need you to not break anything else.”

We’ve all had those friends. Some of us have been those friends. Director Hannah Pearl Utt’s generous and forgiving film Cora Bora—with a huge lift from a remarkable lead performance—empathizes with both sides.

Megan Stalter is Cora, and she is clearly delusional. She’s living in LA, playing her acoustic guitar and singing to sparce crowds at open mics and coffee shops; hitting parties where food, cocktails and pot might be on hand and free; and looking for hookups, despite her girlfriend Justine (Jojo T. Gibbs) back in Portland. But it’s OK because they have an open relationship. Although, since Justine isn’t returning calls much, maybe she’s using their “open” relationship to actually start another relationship.

Cora better plan a surprise trip home to double check.

Stalter is a perfect mix of vulnerability and avoidance, her performance never spinning into broad comedy that would lampoon the underlying pain Cora is dealing with. Rhianon Jones’s script wisely suggests that Cora’s behavior is not entirely new, but tremendously amplified since a tragedy hinted at but never belabored. This allows Stalter to be reasonably ridiculous—her actions becoming  “I can’t believe she did that!” in a way that  you do, indeed, kind of believe.

It’s the type of character the Clevelander has honed throughout her career as a comic, but it’s her skill as an actor that allows this to stretch to feature length without wearing out its welcome.

A nimble supporting cast, including Ayden Mayeri and Manny Jacinto in meaty roles and Chelsea Peretti and Darrell Hammond in fun cameos, offer ample opportunity for Stalter to draw you in to Cora’s chaos.

A number of plot threads feel pretty convenient and the resolution of Cora’s arc feels a bit like a cheat, but at no point does Cora Bora lose your interest. And when the time comes for Stalter to prove her dramatic mettle, she more than impresses.

Never Was a Cloudy Day

Robot Dreams

by Hope Madden

The dearest, most charming, heartbreaking delight to be found on screens this summer, Robot Dreams finally makes it to theaters. This 2023 Oscar nominee for best animated feature is an exploration of relationships, and though children will be entertained, you should go see it whether you have a family to bring along or not.

The less you know about the plot (based on Sara Varon’s graphic novel) the more filmmaker Pablo Berger can surprise you, and every frame of Robot Dreams holds a touching surprise. Set in New York City of the 1980s, the film travels with hopeful introvert Dog, who finds friendship with Robot. Thanks to a mechanical miscalculation, Berger takes the pals and you on an emotional and genuine look into what makes and breaks a relationship.

Berger wordlessly articulates what few films have managed: friendship, with all its joy and pain; and friends, with all their tenderness and failings. In many ways, it’s as much about love and couple-hood as friendship.

The animation and editing are so masterful, impish but emotionally honest, that you won’t miss the dialog. And the soundtrack is pure joy— Earth, Wind and Fire fans, delight.

Fun, visually rich moments on roller skate and sleds, bowling and trick-or-treating will engage children, but the emotional richness in this movie is aimed directly at adults. Berger’s film is endearingly forgiving—perhaps more than I am. You’ll be frustrated, elated, worried, wearied, and overjoyed because you feel so deeply for these characters. And the film takes on a wonderfully surreal quality as Robot dreams.

Slyly authentic in its examination of how we grow, sometimes apart, Robot Dreams honors the pain of losing the one you thought was your forever home, but it also celebrates the memories made with the one who got away.

It can be hard to make friends, and it can be just as hard to be a friend. In Pablo Berger’s skilled hands, lonesomeness takes on a magical quality and friendship becomes an evolving surprise.

Stop or My Grandma Will Shoot

Thelma

by George Wolf

Within the first few minutes of Thelma, writer/director Josh Margolin establishes two important things: 1) 90+ year-old Thelma (June Squibb) and her twenty-something grandson Danny (Fred Hechinger) share a sweetly authentic relationship, and 2) we’re not here to simply laugh at old people eating hot wings or talking dirty.

The laughs are here, but they are lightly organic and relatable across generational divides, consistently peppered around a kinda sorta heist caper and the search for a getaway scooter.

After getting computer lessons from her helpful and patience grandson, Thelma receives a convincingly scary phone call. The boy on the line sure sounds like Danny, and he says he’s been arrested. Then an authoritative voice (Malcolm McDowell) takes over, telling Thelma to cough up $10,000 for her grandson’s quick release.

Danny, and his parents (Parker Posey and Clark Gregg) eventually sort out the scam, but not before Thelma has dropped the cash in a mailbox. The police don’t offer much help, so Thelma sets out to “borrow” her friend Mona’s (Bunny Levine’s) gun and her other friend Ben’s (the late Richard Roundtree) tricked out scoot, and go get her 10k back.

Yes, Ben worries that they’re “old, diminished,” and Thelma laments that most or her friends are “dead, got sepsis or moved to Cleveland.” But they’re not the only ones struggling with their current phase of life. Danny is full of anxiety about his move into adulthood, his parents can’t seem to let go, and Margolin makes sure the message here is that we all have our good and bad days.

“And what’s today?” Ben wonders.

“We’ll find out!” Thelma is quick to reply.

Squibb is an absolute delight (shocker!), and her pairing with the distinguished Roundtree makes for an irresistible duo of vigilantes. Posey and Gregg supply some effective slapstick, and Hechinger (so good in News of the World) impresses again as a young man who worries that caring for his grandma may be the only thing he’s really good at.

Thelma is Margolin’s feature debut, and it displays a fine flair for madcap comedy that comes with a crowd-pleasing, easily digestible message. You’ll be laughing with Thelma, not at her, and that’s an important difference that Squibb rides all the way to the ATM.

Kisses Are Hers and Hers and His

Chestnut

by Rachel Willis

Writer/director Jac Cron offers a slice-of-summer in a young woman’s life in the skillfully written film, Chestnut.

Annie (Natalia Dyer) is on the verge of moving across the country when she meets Tyler (Rachel Keller) and Danny (Danny Ramirez) at a bar. Tyler is the first to approach, and what begins as a shared drink becomes a budding romance.

Cron’s script is a subtle take on young men and women stumbling toward their futures, one uncertain foot at a time. Danny and Tyler work shifts at a high-end restaurant, spending their nights drinking at bars or dancing in clubs. Annie is easily caught up in this world, as she struggles with her fear of the future.

Though Dyer is the core of the film, it’s the scene stealing Keller is who draws most of our focus. Tyler’s dynamic presence is tinged with the unexpected. She keeps Annie off-balance, stringing her along in a way that may feel familiar to anyone who’s faltered in a new relationship. Annie’s joy and confusion is understandable. Tyler is often unknowable.

While Keller draws us in, Dyer often leaves us floundering. Her acting veers too often toward melodrama, which doesn’t fit the tone of the film. The awkward flirtation is awkward for the wrong reasons. Instead of coming across as realistic, it feels unnatural. It’s unfortunate the camera work seems to mirror Dyer’s acting, as neither are particularly interesting.

As Danny, Ramirez is left with less to do than either Keller or Dyer. However, he imbues the character with a certain unease that suggests there is more to Tyler than Annie realizes. His own relationship with Annie comes across more naturally, more honest, helping the audience understand what draws Annie into their lives.

Additional characters pass in and out of the film, each offering more to the picture of who Annie is. There are no overt realizations or narrative moments of clarity. Something much simpler and more interesting happens as Annie’s summer comes to a close.

As a whole, the movie has some hard-to-overlook faults, but the writing is good enough that it doesn’t really matter.

Love Will Tear Us Apart

Banal & Adama

by Matt Weiner

A tale of star-crossed lovers gets a welcome refresh that’s equal parts tragic and enigmatic in Banel & Adama, the feature debut from Senegalese writer and director Ramata-Toulaye Sy.

Khady Mane anchors the film as Banel, a fiercely independent woman who wants to chart her own destiny in life rather than adhere to the traditions of her rural village. Building a new home together rather than staying in the village is seen as odd enough, but her strangeness goes too far when she persuades Adama (Mamadou Diallo) to give up his bloodline claim to village chief.

What the elders see as a spiritual sickness becomes manifest when a drought falls over the remote village. Sy’s arresting use of brightness and color gives way to a desiccated village. The growing unease and desperation are palpable, and made all the more visceral as the starving cattle succumb to the oppressive weather. And all of that before death comes for the villagers.

These languid middle sequences in the village are some of the most powerful shots in the movie. Sy’s treatment of Banel and Adama is part Shakespeare, but there’s a healthy dose of Melville too. What starts out in happier times as a romantic refrain—Banel whispering their two names over and over—turns into an obsessive mania. Banel drops hints that her union with Adama might be fate… but it also might have been caused by more direct and nefarious human intervention.

Sy’s script, along with Mane’s performance, adds a welcome layer of complexity to the otherwise slight story. Banel can be frustrating, but also sympathetic and enchanting. (Adama never stood a chance.)

The film’s allegorical explorations of fate and destiny become more deeply felt as the village suffers. For Banel, too, it becomes unclear if her true love is Adama, or the idea of a different life.

Sy doesn’t offer clear answers. Only stellar performances that welcome the inscrutable, even haunting contradictions of love and life.

A Quest for Vengeance

Queen Rising

by Eva Fraser

Sometimes the most intriguing part of a mystery is deciphering the power at play in every interaction. Queen Rising establishes a precedent of this power for the main character, Madison (April Hale), who must relive her past and her memories of the “college slayings” in order to save her family home. 

The film alternates between past and present with flashbacks to Madison’s childhood and collegiate life. These flashbacks boost the film’s emotional intensity, director Princeton James collaborating with the cinematography to create parallels that transcend time. These flashbacks and the formulaic plot structure helped to create a mostly entertaining and suspenseful 90 minutes.

However, many aspects of Queen Rising didn’t quite click. The acting was mediocre. The characters and the film itself lacked depth. Even Madison, who we have to analyze because she is the protagonist, feels superficial. Queen Rising would have benefitted from more character perspectives. 

Madison talks to herself in a few scenes, all that dialogue simply delivering background information to give us some insight into her character. But everything is too straightforward and obvious. 

If the film is supposed to be a mystery, why could I predict the end from the very beginning?

Regardless of its predictability, the plot, although simple, provides a commentary on childhood trauma and the dangers of idolization. Queen Rising does have a point, but it gets muddled in the clichés, loopholes, and corniness of a soapy teen TV show.

James’s film, written by Allison Chaney and Henry E. Reaves III, has the makings of an intriguing film with its gritty premise and flashbacks, but falls short in some of the most basic of areas.

Fright Club: Sleep Paralysis in Horror

Nightmares may be the source of all horror. There’s a theory that sleep paralysis may be to blame for history’s waking nightmares: ghosts, demons, specters. We dive into this horrifying complex and the horror films it has inspired.

5. The Night House (2020)

Director David Bruckner’s The Night House rests on a trusted horror foundation that’s adorned with several stylishly creepy fixtures. A remarkable as always Rebecca Hall plays the recently, startlingly widowed Beth whose grief combines with nightmares, sleuthing with doubt.

Though Beth’s neighbor (Vondie Curtis-Hall, always a pleasure) and best friend (Sarah Goldberg) both warn her not to fill the void in her life with “something dark,” the dark keeps calling. The more Beth digs into things Owen left behind, the more signs point to an unsettling secret life, and to the possibility that Owen may not have entirely moved on.

Beth’s sustained grief, and her indignation toward everyone who’s not Owen, carries an authenticity that gets us squarely behind Beth’s personal journey. And that pays dividends once the film relies on our belief in what Beth believes. Thanks to Hall, we end up buying in.

4. Insidious (2010)

Director James Wan and writer (and co-star) Leigh Whannell launched a second franchise with this clever, creepy, star-studded flick about a haunted family.

Patrick Wilson (who would become a Wan/Whannell staple) and Rose Byrne anchor the film as a married couple dealing with the peculiar coma-like state affecting their son, not to mention the weird noises affecting their house. The catch in this sleep paralysis film is that we are not with the dreamer. Instead, the dreamer is an innocent, helpless child, combining the hallucinatory imagery with child-in-peril tension.

But what makes this particular film so effective is that we get to go into The Further to reclaim the lost soul. It’s a risky move, but these filmmakers do what few are able to: they show us what we are afraid of.

3. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Teens on suburban Elm St. share nightmares, and one by one, these teens are not waking up. Not that their disbelieving parents care. When Tina woke one night, her nightgown shredded by Freddie’s razor fingers, her super-classy mother admonished, “Tina, hon, you gotta cut your fingernails or you gotta stop that kind of dreamin’. One or the other.”

Depositing a boogieman in your dreams to create nightmares that will truly kill you was a genius concept by writer/director Craven because you can only stay awake for so long. It took everyone’s fear of nightmares to a more concrete level.

The film was sequeled to death, it suffers slightly from a low budget and even more from a synth-heavy score and weak FX that date it, but it’s still an effective shocker. That face that stretches through the wall is cool, the stretched out arms behind Tina are still scary. The nightmare images are apt, and the hopscotch chant and the vision of Freddie himself were not only refreshingly original but wildly creepy.

2. Borgman (2013)

Writer/director Alex van Warmerdam delivers a surreal, nightmarish, sometimes darkly comical fable guaranteed to keep you off balance. It is meticulously crafted and deliberately paced, a minefield of psychological torment.

van Warmerdam offsets his mysterious script with assured, thoughtful direction, buoyed by a fine ensemble cast and crisp, sometimes remarkable cinematography.

Like its title character, Borgman is unique and hypnotic, leaving you with so many different feelings you won’t be quite sure which one is right.

1. The Nightmare (2015)

An effective scary movie is one that haunts your dreams long after the credits roll. It’s that kind of impact that most horror buffs are seeking, but even the most ardent genre fan will hope out loud that Rodney Ascher’s documentary The Nightmare doesn’t follow them to sleep.

Sleep paralysis is the phenomenon that inspired Wes Craven to write A Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s a clear creative root for InsidiousBorgman, and scores of other horror movies. But it isn’t fiction. It’s a sometimes nightly horror show real people have to live with. And dig this – it sounds like it might be contagious.

We spend a great deal of time watching horror movies, and we cannot remember an instance in our lives that we considered turning off a film for fear that we would dream about it later. Until now.