It’s All Fun and Games Until You Stare Into the Void

The Spine of Night

by Christie Robb

The Spine of the Night is a rotoscope-animated feature that presents a pseudo-H. P. Lovecraft story of humanity’s cosmic insignificance in the visual style of a higher-budget He-Man cartoon.

The film is mostly the backstory of a formidable, almost-naked, swamp queen who has trekked up the face of a mountain. She’s come to swap tales with a Guardian sworn to protect humanity from confronting its own vulnerability in the face of a vast and indifferent universe.

He’s guarding a blue flower that makes folks trip balls and contemplate the cosmic void. But a seed got away from him and floated to the fertile earth of the swamp. With the knowledge of the void comes magic power.

And humanity’s quest for this power has caused no end of trouble.

Like Lovecraft’s stories, the Spine of the Night has a slow, dreamy pace. The art style pays homage to the otherworldly and provocative covers of vintage pulp fantasy/horror novels, but with a welcome understanding that not all women are proportioned like Barbie dolls, and with more diversity in the race/ethnicity of its characters.

The theme of humanity’s fragility is underscored in the movie’s violence. Skin parts and limbs break off with the ease of a tortilla chip placed under the pressure of a slightly viscous dip. Viscera are just waiting to pop out of the body’s private cavities like trick snakes in a can of faux potato chips. People are cleaved in half.

Writer/directors Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King have assembled a roster of voice talent that helps bring the characters to life. Is there a better choice to play a badass swamp queen who is impervious to frostbite than Lucy Lawless? I don’t think so. Joining Lawless are Richard Grant as the Guardian, Joe Manganiello as the beefy soldier Mongrel, Betty Gabriel as a warrior-librarian, and Patton Oswalt as the whiny and entitled Lord Pyrantin.

As a child of the eighties, I was left feeling swaddled in nostalgia by Spine of the Night, wanting to pair it with some cozy PJs and a bowl of sugary cereal.

Monster Mash

Horror Noire

by Hope Madden

Remember Shudder’s 2019 documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror from director Xavier Burgin? It was great, wasn’t it? And if you thought to yourself that you’d love a sequel, you should know that this week’s Shudder premiere Horror Noire is not that. Not exactly.

Instead, it is an anthology of six horror shorts made by Black filmmakers. Writers, directors, performers, ideas, perspectives, points of view — everything the documentary made us realize we were not getting – is delivered by the anthology.

Production values and performances in every film are solid. Familiar faces of veteran talent elevate the individual pieces. Tony Todd, Malcolm Barrett, Rachel True, Peter Stormare, Lenora Crichlow and others turn in memorable performances in creature features, Gothic horrors, psychological horrors and comedies.

Todd, True and Barrett star as a married couple pulled apart by a cult in one of the strongest entries, Rob Greenlea’s Fugue State, a sly comment on a common problem. Kimani Ray Smith’s Sundown is a fun reimagining of horror tropes led by Stormare’s characteristic weirdness and the action hero stylings of Erica Ash.

Julian Christian Lutz’s Brand of Evil reworks familiar ideas, turning them into an unexpected creature feature that’s both savvy and strangely touching.

Other shorts are a little less successful. Robin Givens’s Daddy digs into parental horror but can’t balance build-up with payoff. Zandashé Brown’s The Bride Before You brims with insight and style, but an overreliance on voiceover narration keeps the film from developing the kind of atmosphere it hopes for.

Joe West’s The Lake also falls just short of keeping you interested and guessing, although a fuzzy backstory allows for a more thought-provoking lead character than you might expect.

The full stash runs two and a half hours and might have played better as a short series. It’s a long commitment, and every film has weak spots, which makes the time really feel like a commitment. But there’s much to enjoy with each episode. Taken as a whole, there’s variety enough in style and substance to promise something for everyone.

Day by Day

No Future

by Matt Weiner

The title of No Future also serves as an emotional content warning for a film about heroin addiction, and it’s a warning to heed if you want this kind of narrative tempered with breezy redemption.

But it’s not without hope. Rather, directors Andrew Irvine and Mark Smoot avoid sentimentality and addiction cliches in equal measure, and what’s left is a lean, emotional gut punch delivered by the small cast all turning in top performances.

When an old friend dies of an overdose, Will (Charlie Heaton), himself in recovery from heroin addiction, begins a tumultuous affair with Claire (Catherine Keener), his dead friend’s mother.

The pair are drawn together by grief and guilt, a dynamic that quickly goes from sympathetic to parasitic as the two spurn the numerous more emotionally healthy therapeutic outlets available to process their loss.

Keener and Heaton are electric together, which is no small feat for characters that veer wildly between retreating alone into their own pain while showing a convincing attraction to each other. Keener in particular shines as a woman who goes from casual fatalism to incandescent rage as she comes to terms with losing her son Chris (Jefferson White).

The film flirts with thematic shortcuts, most notably in the form of No Future—a band that Will and Chris played in together. But the more Will and Claire wax philosophical about what brought them to this point in the present, it becomes clear that it’s less nihilistic than it sounds.

The film is populated almost entirely with people who don’t allow themselves the luxury of looking any farther ahead than their open wound of the day. It’s raw and bracing to watch it all unfold, but if nothing else the impact lingers well into the future.

Cat Fancy

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

by Hope Madden

Did you know that there was a time, at least in England, when cats were not a popular house pet? And it wasn’t really that long ago. How weird is that?

Not weird enough to stand out in the highly unusual and very endearing film The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.

The ever-reliable Benedict Cumberbatch plays Wain, artist whose drawings of adorably anthropomorphized cats took Victorian England, and then the world, by storm. Will Sharpe’s biopic looks to introduce us to the eccentric, charming, and ultimately tragic world of this friend of the feline.

Sharpe’s film is a swirl of color and energy led onward by the droll musings of narrator Olivia Colman, who gets all the best lines. (“Aside from its bizarre social prejudices and the fact that everything stank of shit, Victorian England was also a land of innovation and scientific discovery.”)

As Wain’s life unravels before us, wonderful actors populate the screen: Toby Jones as the publisher who sees great, if unusual, things in Wain; Claire Foy as the governess-turned-wife whose love would bring Wain joy and scandal; Andrea Riseborough, as the eldest sister far better suited to the world of business and awfully frustrated with her unsuitable brother.

At the center of everything is Cumberbatch, more than up to the challenge of creating a lovable outsider, a man so full of something wonderful and so destined to be eaten alive.

Sharpe has trouble with that balance, even if Cumberbatch does not. While Wain’s talent brought joy to many across the world, his gullible nature, wild lack of business savvy and likely mental illness made him an easy mark in a callous world. Sharpe, who co-wrote the script with Simon Stephenson, has a difficult time conveying the madness that would be Wain’s undoing.

He keeps us at arm’s length from Wain, even as Cumberbatch repeatedly invites in. The actor and performance are wonderful, outdone only by an underused Riseborough as the one character even more shackled by the realities of the world.

But Sharpe’s vision is not sharp enough, and he ties up Wain’s frantic and messy life with far too much tidiness, a cinematic shortcut that doesn’t suit the film or the subject. Too much effort goes into wrestling Wain’s madness into a coherent, cinema-friendly plotline and it feels like the artist is being cheated once again.

Waiting for the Worms

Dune

by Hope Madden

Denis Villeneuve’s vision for Frank Herbert’s Dune is as gorgeous and cinematic as you might expect from the filmmaker behind Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival. The worlds, the interiors, the exteriors, the space crafts, the spice, the worm — each articulated with a sense of wonder, as if the director himself was awestruck by what he saw.

That vision is hampered by a number of things, but the cast is not among its faults. Though Part One contains too many glorified cameos, even those are handled with care.

But let’s start at the top. Timothee Chalamet, whose genuine vulnerability makes him the perfect emo savior, is a natural for Paul. There is depth and almost humor to the performance. Even with only the first part of his journey completed by the end of the 2 hour and 35 minute film, his arc is clearly underway.

Oscar Isaac is so wonderfully Oscar Isaac as Paul’s noble but human father, and Rebecca Ferguson is exquisitely tortured as Paul’s mother. Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa and especially Javier Bardem all leave impressions with minimal screen time.

But the film has two problems, they are both pretty substantial, and they are both the story.

Problem #1 is that Dune Part 1 is half a film. You can make a multi-part story and still have several lovely, complete, standalone films. Kill Bill did it. Dune did not. It ends at the halfway point and that is exactly how it feels: 2 and a half hours to halfway there.

The second concern is that the source material is a white savior film. By casting almost exclusively people of color as the indigenous Fremen people of the conquered planet Arrakis, Villeneuve was at least facing the issue directly. That same laudable decision also exacerbated the situation, however, by turning Dune from a metaphorical white savior story into a literal white savior film, as the very white Chalamet takes on the mantle of messiah to lead the Fremen toward salvation.

He’s a dreamy messiah whose hair is forever mussed and hanging in his big, brown (for the moment) eyes, sure. But we know where this is going, even if we have no idea when we’ll get to see it arrive as Dune Part 2 is not yet filming.

It’s a lot of very attractive waiting for something to happen, which is maybe the best Dune synopsis I can think of.

Sweet Hats, Plenty of Cattle

The Harder They Fall

by George Wolf

Who doesn’t love a good Western?

If you’re the one, I’ve got two reasons not to saddle up with The Harder They Fall.

  1. It’s a Western
  2. It’s good

Ruthless Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) is getting out of jail, and that’s mighty interesting news to Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), who has no love for Rufus.

Nat has a serious score to settle, so he re-assembles his old gang, led by sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi), and sets out on horseback. Along the way, Nat rekindles a flame with saloon owner Stagecoach Mary (Zazie Beetz) and earns the trust of Mary’s silent-but-deadly bodyguard Cuffie (Danielle Deadwyler).

And even though Nat is a wanted man, Marshall Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) decides he’d rather be on the team that finally takes Buck down.

But Rufus has some pretty solid support in his corner, too. Treacherous Trudy Smith (Regina King) speaks softly but shows no mercy, while quick draw legend Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield) leads a posse of men helping Rufus kick Sherrif Wiley Escoe (Deon Cole) out of Redwood and take over the town.

And that town ain’t big enough for both Buck and Love.

Director and co-writer Jeymes Samuel (aka The Bullitts) plants his flag early, with onscreen text telling us that he may not be telling a true story, but these people did exist. So while you may be reminded of Tarantino (or his many shared influences), this film’s history isn’t alternative. Samuel and his committed ensemble are here to remind us that it’s the whitewashed Hollywood version of the Old West that’s fiction.

Yes, these dusty roads are well traveled and the dialog can be a bit musty (“love is the only thing worth dying for…”), but there’s so much stylish bloodshed, gallows humor and terrific acting in every frame that the film wins you over on pure entertainment value alone.

Plus, it looks fantastic. Samuel frames the landscape with gorgeous panoramas, while wrapping some nimble camera movements and pulsing rhythms around those steely stare downs, frantic shoot ’em ups, freshly-pressed hats and dusters and plenty of other delicious period details.

The Harder They Fall is big, bold, visionary fun. It takes characters, races and lifestyles that have been hijacked by history and reclaims them all with the brashness of an early morning bank job.

This crew ain’t shootin’ blanks, and they rarely miss.

Cop Shop

At the Ready

by Rachel Willis

At Horizon High School in El Paso, Texas, students have the opportunity to learn and train for careers in law enforcement. From Border Patrol to the El Paso PD, director Maisie Crow examines the opportunities and dilemmas the students face as they follow this path in her documentary, At the Ready.

The film follows three students, two seniors at Horizon and one recent graduate, keeping the focus on how these teenagers participate not only in the Law Enforcement classes, but the school’s criminal justice club.

Mason, a transgender youth, joins the club because it’s portrayed as a place where a student gains a family. Indeed, we see former members of the criminal justice club returning to the school to interact with and encourage current members. A family is something Mason is desperate to find, as he is mostly on his own. With divorced parents, and a father often away for his job, Mason struggles with his loneliness, as well as his inability to reveal who he truly is to his parents, classmates and teachers.

The familial aspect of the classes is conveyed through the actions of not just the students, but many of the teachers – those profiled are all retired law enforcement personnel. However, we see that for some of the teachers, there is a hypocrisy to what they teach. They struggle to convey the realities of a career in law enforcement: the stress on one’s family, the fear, and the trauma that comes with the territory.

Many of the students are children of immigrants. For them, working for Border Patrol is an opportunity to not only protect the border, but to help others trying to enter the country. The reality of the situation is another focus of the film: Trump’s border policy of separating children from their families is something many of the students struggle with. Christina, a recent graduate, finds herself questioning the ethical morality of such a policy. When the border policy changes with the whims of those in D.C., it’s the people on the ground who have to deal with the fallout of inhumane regulations.

Crow does a good job of keeping the focus on the subjects in the film without injecting too much bias. You’re encouraged to make up your own mind as you connect with people on screen.

Many well-done documentaries will not only hold your interest, but make you think. This one does both. 

Performing Without a Safety Net

Runt

by Christie Robb

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that high school students are dumb.

It’s not their fault. The part of the brain that supports decision-making isn’t fully developed until the mid-twenties. And that’s ideally why society surrounds the impulsive little beasties with grownups who can model positive behavior and counsel them about their choices.

Director William Coakley’s Runt shows a good kid, Cal, trying to navigate the tightrope of high school and arrive safely at art school. But he’s working entirely without a safety net.

His single-parent mom is either at work or asleep. His teachers are the kind of folks who will yell at him for being obvious when he breaks and lets the jocks cheat off him. His best friend is an increasingly self-destructive embarrassment. His manager at the supermarket is always on his butt. The only living being that has his back at all is his dog, Runt.

Right from the jump, you know this isn’t going to end well.

Over the course of the film, Cal’s relationship with the jock bullies becomes increasingly violent. The tea of toxic masculinity that they are all steeping in leaves no room for apologies. The cycle of violence feeds on the overall negative energy until, toward the end, it feels like you are watching the birth of a supervillain.

Cameron Boyce as Cal is fantastic. You can see all the nuances of the different emotions that play over his features. The mixture of pride, shock, and guilt that flash across his face after he impulsively does something that Cal never thought he would do is awe-inspiring. The entertainment industry truly lost a promising talent when Boyce died in 2019.

The film’s ending somewhat undercuts what seems to be the intended message. There’s a tinge of romanticism in the very final moments that gives Cal’s violence a more heroic feel than what the rest of the movie seems to be going for.

But as a portrait of what’ll make an art kid snap, it’s pretty good.

More than Gore

Smoke and Mirrors

by Brandon Thomas

The word “Savini” conjures up a lot of historic imagery in the minds of horror fans. From the zombies in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead to the ground-breaking slasher effects in the original Friday the 13th, Tom Savini has been involved in some of the most iconic horror movies of the last 40 years. In the documentary Smoke and Mirrors, director Jason Baker moves past the well-known effects work, and digs into the personal and the passions of the horror icon.

We’re living in a time where documentaries focusing on filmmakers and other notable TV and movie personalities have become ubiquitous. A lot of these are quite good, but usually end up checking many of the same boxes. Talking heads do a lot of the heavy lifting, and the main subject’s participation isn’t always guaranteed. Thankfully, Savini himself is front and center in Smoke and Mirrors

Having Savini so involved gives Smoke and Mirrors a larger sense of legitimacy. There’s also a notable difference in focus that might not have happened had the film relied solely on interviews and secondhand accounts. Instead of offering retreads of effects stories he’s told dozens of times before, the film gets deeply personal with Savini. From touching on tragedy he experienced as a child, to the horror he witnessed in Vietnam, Savini doesn’t hold back when discussing the trials he’s faced in his life. 

A particularly surprising bit for me was learning just how passionate Savini was – and is – about acting. He comes alive when talking about the stage productions he was a part of and how that opened doors he never dreamed of. There’s a twinge of “What if…” sadness surrounding Savini’s acting career that he delicately dances around due to personal obligations. 

Smoke and Mirrors goes out of its way to highlight Savini’s character over his career. The interviews that are peppered in all end up in the same place: talking about what an amazing guy Tom Savini is. The importance of his contributions to cinema is never forgotten, but the value of the man over the work takes center stage.

Tricks and Treats

Halloween Kills

by Brandon Thomas

Confession time: John Carpenter’s Halloween is my favorite movie of all time. After years of okay to terrible sequels, I was more than a little shocked when David Gordon Green’s 2018 legacy sequel turned out as well as it did. By slavishly adhering to Carpenter’s original mythology, Green made something that fit nicely alongside the 1978 original.

Halloween Kills is still Green doing his best Carpenter impression, but it’s Carpenter dialed to a brutal, bloody 11.

After a harrowing flashback to the events of Halloween night 1978, Halloween Kills picks up right where the 2018 film left off. Laurie Strode’s house is in flames and The Shape (James Jude Courtney) is trapped in the dungeon-like basement. Unfortunately, first responders don’t know that, and they free the murderous Michael Myers from his burning tomb. As the town of Haddonfield descends into chaos, survivors of The Shape’s original rampage – Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall, The Breakfast Club), Lindsey Wallace (Kyle Richards, Halloween), and Marion (Nancy Stephens, Halloween), lead a mob through the small town. Recovering in the hospital from her fight with Michael, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), her daughter, Karen (Judy Greer, Adaptation) and granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak, Halloween 2018) try to come to terms with the people they’ve lost. 

Halloween Kills is an astonishingly brutal film. The Shape rampages through scenes like he’s never done before. This brutality will probably turn off a lot of fans who enjoyed the relative tameness of Green’s first Halloween. I’m impressed with how effectively Green handles the on-screen carnage while still keeping The Shape in the shadows and scary. That air of mystery is important and keeps the character from becoming too humanized.

The new cast additions are fun but largely wasted. Hall runs around and shrieks his way through scenes like a kid after too many candy bars. Stephens and Charles Cyphers as Brackett are more or less glorified cameos. Only Kyle Richards manages to make any kind of positive impression. Like the rest, her scenes are brief, but Richards brings a better sense of gravitas and fear to her encounter with The Shape.

Greer is once again MVP and easily walks away with the movie. She carries all of the grief of the Strode women but none of the irrational rage. Curtis is regulated to the sidelines for the majority of the film – spouting off gobbly goop dialogue so nonsensical, it would make the late Donald Pleasence proud. It’s a cynical move that was clearly made so that Laurie and Michael’s final face-off can be the focus of the upcoming Halloween Ends.

The biggest problem with Halloween Kills is that it just moves too fast. Scenes begin and end without a chance for the audience to catch up. The pace makes it hard to simply sit with the new characters and get to know them. Their entire existence is to move the plot forward at breakneck speed.

I sound pretty sour on Halloween Kills, but the truth is that I admire a lot of the chances the film takes. It’s a mean movie that allows The Shape to be bloodier than ever. Kills also points a finger at our heroes and the residents of Haddonfield, as it implicates them as spiritual partners in these murders. This isn’t a deep film, but it is one with more than set pieces on its mind.
Halloween Kills will be divisive. One thing it isn’t, though, is boring.