Category Archives: New In Theaters

Reviews of what’s out now

Trip of a Lifetime

Io Capitano

by George Wolf

The destination may be Italy, but the Oscar-nominated Io Capitano unfolds like a classic Greek fable. Director and co-writer Matteo Garrone crafts a stirring and often gut-wrenching modern Homeric tale, with a young African refugee enduring multiple hardships while refusing to surrender his character or humanity.

16 year-old Seydou (Seydou Sarr) and his cousin Moussa (Moustapha Fall) have been planning for months to leave their home in Senegal for the hope of a better life in Europe. The locals warn against the dangerous trip, and Seydou’s mother (Ndeye Khady Sy) forbids it, but the boys take the stash of money they’ve been saving and head out in secret.

The journey will not be kind. From Niger to Libya to the unforgiving Sahara (presented with breathtaking scope) and beyond, the boys will face shakedowns, bribes, arrest and torture, while subtle twists of fate conspire with glimpses of human kindness to keep them moving forward.

Sarr is absolutely terrific in a highly emotional and physical role, allowing Garrone (Dogman. Gomorrah) to strategically build empathy for the young man and his mission. With brutality all around him, Seydou must ultimately defend his humanity with stirring defiance, cementing his standing as a true and just wanderer.

But though Seydou’s odyssey may have a classic structure, the subtext here is never in doubt. Io Capitano succeeds on both fronts, bringing stark intimacy to the global refugee crisis, along with realization that stories can often speak so much more clearly than statistics.

The Doctor Is Real In

Dr. Cheon and the Lost Talisman

by Hope Madden

Modern horror is littered with fake ghosthunter tales, films about scammers who come face to face with the evil they’re certain doesn’t exist. Kim Seong-sik’s Dr. Cheon and the Lost Talisman begins down a similar path.

Dr. Cheon (Gang Dong-won) leads his assistant/technician In-bae (Lee Dong-hwi) into the garden of a wealthy family whose bitchy teenage daughter they presume is possessed. She is, of course, just teenaged. Dr. Cheon convinces the family that it’s the house, he exorcises the house, tells the family what they want to hear, and all’s well that ends well.

But the truth is, Dr. Cheon is looking for more than the next gullible family to scam.

He finds it when Esom (Yoo-gyeong) dumps a bag of cash on his desk and asks him to follow her to her village, where her sister is possessed. Of course, though, this time the possession is real.

Don’t expect the same old routine of con artists being outed, learning a valuable lesson before bleeding out. Dr. Cheon is ready for this supernatural nemesis.

There’s a frenetic charm to the film’s main action sequence, where the demon leaps from one villager to the next as it chases Doc and Esom through town. Electric blue FX have a delightfully cheesy, throwback feel that balances the handful of gruesome moments.

Though never laugh out loud funny, levity throughout the film keeps it from ever crossing over truly to horror. Gang’s haunted straight man benefits nicely from Lee as a comedic sidekick, and veteran actor Huh Joon-ho menaces laudably as the evil mace, Beom-cheon.

Kim never fully lands on a tone. What begins as a lightweight horror show develops a kind of Saturday morning TV vibe before turning into an action adventure. Think Korean Dr. Jones meets Scooby Doo, or something along those lines. There’s a weird charm to it that might particularly delight those who like their scary movies not too scary.

The Worm Will Turn

Dune: Part Two

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Never trust the white guy.

Is that the theme of Denis Villeneuve’s second installment of the Frank Herbert sci-fi epic? A colonizer twists religion to convince a huge population to act in their own worst interests? Sounds more like modern times, but maybe the blandly named Paul (Timothée Chalamet) really is The One.

Dune: Part Two is as breathtaking a vision as Villeneuve’s 2021 Part One. And it’s a better film, benefitting immeasurably from the freedom of exposition that weighed down Part One. The sequel rides intensity and action from its opening segment.

Having taken refuge with his mother (Rebecca Ferguson, still the most interesting performance in the film) among the Fremen, Paul tries to understand his visions while fighting alongside Chani (Zendaya), the woman he loves, to take back the spice-rich planet Arrakis from the evil and extremely pale Harkonnen.

Villeneuve’s world-building is again a wonder to behold. He immerses us in this world of sand and savagery, providing fully realized reminders of how much Herbert’s original vision has influenced iconic sci-fi tentpoles such as Mad Max and Star Wars.

And, in turn, this Dune isn’t shy about its own inspirations. From the conversion of Paul to the schemes behind the throne, from the cries of “false prophet!” to the bloodline surprises, Villeneuve and returning co-writer Jon Spaihts bob and weave the narrative through a fertile playground of Biblical and Shakespearean roots.

The ensemble is again large and mighty, sporting a litany of heavyweights (Javier Bardem, Florence Pugh, Josh Brolin, Charlotte Rampling, Christopher Walken, Léa Seydoux, Stellan Skarsgård, Austin Butler, Dave Bautista) who are all able to leave unique impressions amid the battle of screen time.

And that tells you how many characters are populating this adventure, because there is no shortage of screen time. But while Part Two‘s 2 hours and 45-minutes eclipse the first film, you’ll also find more meat on the bone. Yes, the second act does bog down a bit, but the finale sticks a damn fine landing. Overall, there’s just more earned tension, more thrills (get ready for the worms!) and more character arc to keep you invested in this fight.

Part Two also feels like the complete film that its predecessor did not, and it begins to pick the scab off that “white savior” issue, although we’ll need to get to Part Three to really do it justice. Even if there is not a third installment (and let’s be honest, there’s going to be), Dune: Part Two delivers a satisfying and complete adventure all its own.

Coen My Way?

Drive-Away Dolls

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Is the flattery still sincerest if you’re imitating yourself?

Because about 15 minutes into Drive-Away Dolls, the first installment of a lesbian B-movie trilogy from director/co-writer Ethan Coen and co-writer Tricia Cooke (Coen’s longtime producer/editor/wife), you can’t ignore how much this film reminds you of Coen Brothers movies.

And yes, better Coen Brothers movies.

Like The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading, Barton Fink and A Serious Man, all of which get subtle and not-so-subtle nods in a twisting story of two young women and a mysterious, valuable briefcase.

Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) are queer best friends in 1999 Philadelphia. Marian is sexually conservative, and the free-spirited Jamie hopes to get her friend some action while they accept a drive-away job down to Tallahassee and hit every lesbian bar they can find.

What the girls don’t know is that the car they’ve been given has two very important items in the trunk, and it isn’t long before “The Chief” (Colman Domingo) and his two hapless henchman (Joey Slotnick, C.J. Wilson) are on their tail heading South.

The cast is indeed impressive (with appearances from Pedro Pascal, Bill Camp, Beanie Feldstein and Matt Damon), but while the film serves up a handful of LOL moments, the vast majority of the nuttiness lands with more desperation than inspiration.

It all feels so forced, except for Viswanathan, whose earnest delivery points out the artifice in Qualley’s. The Foghorn Leghorn-y of pre-millennium lesbians, Jamie’s every line draws attention to its own zaniness. It calls to mind The Ladykillers—and that’s never the Coen movie you want to make people remember.

Much of the ensemble works magic, though. Camp is particularly, dryly memorable. But this script, and the unsteady direction, suffers from high expectations. Drive-Away Dolls is fine. It’s fun enough. It’s nutty. But if Coen and Cooke weren’t awkwardly chasing their own family history, it would have been more satisfying.

Community Organizer

Ordinary Angels

by George Wolf

It’s understandable if Ordinary Angels seems familiar. Hilary Swank playing a tireless do-gooder in a based-on-true-events drama with a vaguely inspirational title is probably going to feel that way.

And while the film does rely on plenty of broad-brushing, it ultimately mines enough nuance to find some genuine feels, as well.

Swank plays Sharon Stevens, a hard-partying beauty salon owner in Kentucky who’s hoping one day to mend the relationship with her estranged son, Derek (Dempsey Byrk). While waiting at the grocery store checkout, a local newspaper story gives Sharon’s life new meaning.

Five year-old Michelle Schmitt (Emily Mitchell) has a rare disease and needs a liver transplant to survive. Her father Ed (Jack Reacher‘s Alan Ritchson), still hurting from his wife’s fatal battle with Wegener’s disease, is facing a mountain of medical debt while struggling to raise Michelle and her older sister Ashley (Skywalker Hughes) as a single parent.

After so much heartache, Ed admits to his mother Barbara (Nancy Travis) that he’s losing his faith. Could this hardscrabble hairdresser at their door be a Godsend? The few thousand dollars she raises from a salon fundraiser is a darn good start.

Two-time Oscar winner Swank is perfect for the role, even if the script from Kelly Fremon Craig (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret) and Meg Tilly (the veteran actress with her first feature writing credit) doesn’t provide many edges, at least early on. Sharon is all “hush my mouth” spunk, smiling through her accent as she imposes her will on multiple situations and begins to feel interchangeable with similar characters from The Blind Side to Swank’s own Conviction.

Ritchson is fine and shares sweet chemistry with the two adorable young girls, though Ed also lacks the depth to move the character beyond any number of faith-based dramas following a basic heart string-tugging playbook.

Ordinary Angels does find a unique voice in the third act, when Ed’s patience wears thin, and Sharon is finally forced to confront the life she’s really trying to save. Plus, director Jon Gunn (The Case for Christ, The Week) moves away from the formulaic to develop some respectable tension when the call for Michelle’s life-saving transplant comes during a monster snowstorm.

That really happened, and the true story here does provide an inspiring example of the good that humans are capable of. No doubt we need that right now, and Ordinary Angels manages just enough extraordinary moments to please more than the choir.

Glad I Spent It With You

Perfect Days

by Hope Madden

Wim Wenders is having a year. Though his epic 3D documentary Anselm somehow regrettably missed out on a Best Documentary nomination from the Academy, his unhurried slice-of-life Perfect Days caught their attention.

Nominated for Best International Film, Wenders’s lovely drama tails Hirayama (Koji Yakusho, perfection) through about two weeks in his life. Hirayama doesn’t have a lot to say, but he misses nothing in his days driving from public restroom to public restroom with Tokyo Toilet written on the back of his pristine blue jumpsuit.

Tools in rubber-gloved hand, Hirayama is meticulous as he works. He has a routine that suits him—brings him joy, even—and Wenders cycles us through that routine day after day after day. At a full two hours, Perfect Days begs your indulgence with this montage of minutely changing events.

The cumulative effect is, at first, lulling. As days pass, some small change draws attention and we try to predict a plot—will this turn into a love story, will that create financial chaos, is a tragic backstory of abuse about to come to light?

Not the goal of this movie. The film actually began as a commissioned short film meant to celebrate Tokyo’s pristine public toilets. I swear to God. It blossomed from there into a lithe, meditative character study shouldered by an impeccable Yakusho.

Though there are moments in the film that feel orchestrated—today, this happens; today, this happens—but not one breath, smile or nod of Hirayama’s head betrays the fiction. His is a mainly solitary, nearly silent life that can be surmised as a middle-aged man’s intentional creation. Hirayama has left something behind, has stripped himself of something, and what remains is what he finds vital: work where you can see a result; floor to ceiling shelves of books; a tidy and enormous collection of cassette tapes; a room full of tiny plants taking root, thanks to his tender care.

You could fit Hirayama’s dialog on less than a single page, and there are times when his silence feels forced and almost comedic. But Yakusho’s brilliantly nuanced, heartbreakingly felt performance makes up for any flaws in the film. Wenders punctuates scenes with joyously on-the-nose song choices—minus the cassette hiss—and the final few singalong minutes showcase one actor’s transcendent work.

A Walk in the Woods

Lovely, Dark, and Deep

by Hope Madden

What is the draw of the deep woods? Ticks? High likelihood of injury with haphazard chances of rescue? Cocaine bears?

Even the obvious reasons to steer clear of the woods can’t deter a lot of people. Writer/director Teresa Sutherland’s Lovely, Dark, and Deep links two risks that have haunted writers and creators throughout existence. Some people go crazy in the woods, and many get lost in there and never come out.

“And into the forest I must go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” John Muir said that. The “father of the National Parks” may not have predicted Sutherland’s translation.

Sutherland drops new ranger Lennon (Georgina Campbell, Barbarian) in the National Park back country, where she will spend the season mainly alone in her ranger hut. Does she know that Ranger Varney (Soren Hellerup) disappeared last season?

Likely it wouldn’t dissuade Lennon, who has a past to reconcile and some podcasts on missing people to listen to.

Campbell’s performance shifts as Lennon’s determination makes way for absolute confusion and terror. What begins as single-minded pursuit shows itself to be desperation in disguise. Willfulness gives way to horror as Lennon’s investigation turns up wooded weirdness and wickedness she did not predict.

Wide shots and drone work keep Lennon dwarfed by an increasingly claustrophobic forest, though Campbell never lets the character feel overmatched by nature. Not nature. But a disorienting woods as deep as these (it’s actually Portugal) can easily conceal a lot that is far from natural.

Sutherland’s film is a bit of a slow burn, but once it hits its stride, she throws an unsettling assortment of hellish visions at you. You don’t have to have a natural (and really healthy, I think) fear of the woods to know it’s time to get the F out of Jellystone.

Holy Sanctimony

God & Country

by George Wolf

When Rob Schenck was a young pastor, he was told never to prepare a sermon without consulting the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel.

Years later, Schenck learned that Kittel was also the man who gave Hitler a Christian blessing for his Final Solution.

“That was an eye opener,” Schenck admits. The point—that there is no limit to what radical Christianity can be used to justify—is what drives God & Country. And much of the film’s success comes from how it combats that fanaticism with a measured, confident deconstruction.

Director Dan Partland doesn’t insert himself into the conversation, but has no problem crafting a spirited one. Yes, he has a clear agenda, but includes enough footage from news reports, political speeches and televangelist messaging that the film’s worldview becomes the “other side” getting a chance to be heard.

Partland relies on historians, authors, and theologians to trace the rise of Christian Nationalism, it’s deviation from actual Christian teachings, the quest for power over values that earns a rebranding as “White Religious Nationalism,” and how the true believers have been convinced that America has a God-ordained role in human history.

And if democracy gets in the way? See January 6th, 2021.

The attack on the Capitol is what bookends the film, and in between, Partland actually elicits sympathy for the attackers, who have been fed a calculated diet of lies, fear and outrage. The resulting echo chamber creates an alternative reality bubble, one that was always designed to burst.

If you noticed the proudly theocratic ruling from the Alabama Supreme Court last week, you know that the threat to democracy is only becoming more dangerous. Partland makes it clear that the biggest hope is awareness, so that those led astray by the fervor (like Schenck) can experience a new awakening.

Christian Nationalism has nothing to do with Christianity. And God & Country finds a useful tone between sermonizing and condescension that can help us see that light.

Fantastic Mr. Fox Corpse

Stopmotion

by Hope Madden

There will be moments when you’re watching Robert Morgan’s macabre vision Stopmotion that you’ll think you see the twists as they’re coming. That’s a trick. Morgan, writing with Robin King, assumes you’ll catch the handful of common horror twists, but he knows that you won’t predict the real story unfolding.

Although you should because he’s given you every clue.

Aisling Franciosi (The Nightingale) is Ella. She’d like to make her own stop-motion animated film, but instead she’s helping her mom finish hers. Ella’s domineering mother Suzanne (Stella Gonet, very stern) is a legend in the field, and she makes Ella feel as if she has no stories of her own to tell.

But when Suzanne is hospitalized, Ella determines to finish her mother’s film. Her boyfriend Tom (Tom York) sets Ella up in a run down, empty flat where she can work and he can check in on her, bring dinner and take care of her.

Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? Unless Ella really has no stories to tell, or the story she tells is too scary, even for her.

Stopmotion delivers a trippy, uncomfortable, and deeply felt tale of a struggling artist. This is a descent into madness horror of sorts, but it’s also the story of an artist coming to a realization about what scares her most. Franciosi’s turn is brittle and often internal. Ella’s insecurities float to the surface, and Franciosi’s unafraid to make the protagonist frequently unlikeable.

The dual storylines—live action and animation—are both well told, but the real pleasure is in the gruesomely tactile movie Ella is making. Her characters—wax and feather, bone and blood and ash—come to life in a lumbering, grotesque way that hints at any number of possible horrors.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen Morgan’s animated shorts, including “D Is for Deloused” in ABCs of Death. The animator sees the monstrous possibilities in his medium, clearly. But his feature debut balances that with an existential ugliness in Ella’s real life, and thanks to committed and nuanced performances from the whole small ensemble, both sides keep you riveted.

Eugénie’s Feast

The Taste of Things

by Matt Weiner

You know you’re in for a hell of a meal when the appetizer is a 15-minute cold opening that lingers on every small detail of cooking a feast to a degree that borders on pornographic.

This scene from writer and director Anh Hung Tran sets the mood—and pace—of the rest of his latest feature, The Taste of Things.

Eugénie (Juliette Binoche) prepares these elaborate meals for Dodin (Benoît Magimel), a famed gourmand and restaurateur who has relied on Eugénie’s unique blend of skill and intuition to bring his culinary visions to life.

The bright, airy kitchen where these feasts are prepared might as well be one of the film’s co-leads. Binoche is spellbinding as Eugénie, who must be played as equal parts enchanting muse and aloof lover to Dodin. It’s a delicate balance, especially in a film with Tran’s subtle direction where the emotional connection between the pair comes out as much in the physical acts of cooking food as in the dialogue.

The two seem to have forged an idyllic life together that caters to their passions. Their kitchen is an insular one—debates over French culinary giants like Caréme and Escoffier are as political as Dodin gets, even as outside the kitchen modernism is poised to upend European society and tradition.

But within this narrow setting, Tran’s light touch and genial script centers the story on Eugénie and Dodin’s love and respect for one another, and how the two intersect personally and professionally. Dodin is determined to get Eugénie to marry him, formalizing the intimacy they already share.

A drawn-out challenge to turn a paramour into a wife may sound like a lucky problem to have. But in The Taste of Things, such stakes are life and death. And why shouldn’t they be? Dodin and Eugénie’s mutual affection for one another isn’t just around cooking, but in the vanishing conviction that craft elevated to art is in itself a monumental—and rare—achievement.