Category Archives: New In Theaters

Reviews of what’s out now

Under the Influencer

Sissy

by Hope Madden

Horror is especially preoccupied with the doppelganger nature of social media – how you can lose yourself in the make-believe world of the “you” you present online. Co-writers/co-directors Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes dig into that duality with their Aussie horror, Sissy.

Sissy – or as she’d rather be called now that she’s a grown up, Cecilia (Aishe Dee) – feels blessed. Thanks to her 200k followers and the products she gets paid to work into her videos, she has a fulfilling life. She is loved. She is enough. She is doing her best.

Maybe she’s not really doing that well, actually. She even hides when she spies her childhood BFF at the grocery store, but Emma (Barlow, who also stars) sees her anyway. She even invites Cecilia to tonight’s big bachelorette party, and tomorrow’s drive out to the country for a weekend-long celebration!

If you’ve seen Bodies Bodies Bodies or, indeed, any horror movie, you know that second part is not going to go well for everyone. Like Halina Reijn’s gruesome comedy, Sissy plays around with genre expectations and spotlights the ins and outs of Gen Z.

Dee works wonders as a woman trying to practice what she preaches, earn from what she practices, and find fulfillment in online followers when friends IRL are less welcoming. The cast that surrounds her is universally strong, each one manipulating the sly, darkly funny script to shock and delight.

Barlow and Senes never entirely abandon the old-fashioned slasher, either. Sissy delivers starling gore FX that feel simultaneously in keeping with the black comedy and somehow too disturbing to fit. Well done!

The filmmakers tease the new terrain of a world populated with virtual personalities. Who’s the good guy? Who isn’t? Is anybody? Sissy doesn’t break new ground here, but thanks to a knowing script and a lead performance that sells itself, you’ll enjoy the show.

Coming of Age

A Love Song

by Hope Madden

Filmmaker Max Walker-Silverman’s feature debut A Love song blesses us with 81 minutes of Dale Dickey, a gorgeous western landscape, and not much else. It is enough.

Dickey is Faye, a solitary figure with a face full of longing at Campsite 7. She sets her crawdad traps, makes her coffee, studies birds and their calls by day, stars and their positions by night, and waits.  

Dickey’s performance is a master class in authenticity, as always. She’s been the grizzled Appalachian or the kindly townsfolk in countless films and shows. Rather than hide the years that stretch across her face, she looks out from behind them, eyes bright and observing. She wears a lifetime of experience, and that, along with her instinctive natural performances, creates depth and richness.

All that and more is called for in Walker-Silverman’s film because for about 80% of its running time, we’re alone with Faye and witness to Dickey’s achingly real performance.

Faye’s solitude is broken up here and there. A friendly couple a few campsites over invite her for dinner. An odd group of siblings arrives with a peculiar request. A kindly and encouraging mailman stops by.

Eventually, Faye’s patience pays off in the form of her childhood friend, Lito (Wes Studi). Decades of absence and years of meaning stand between Lito’s charming smile and Faye’s searching eyes.

There’s magic and nostalgia for old-fashioned love stories in Walker-Silverman’s script, but these veteran actors don’t bend to sentiment. Both know how to blend innocence with renewal, reimagining coming-of-age as they do.

Walker-Silverman’s camera lights on visual metaphors: hearty wildflowers bursting through dried earth, a transistor radio that always seems to know what to play. His film brims with the kind of beauty and type of characters reminiscent of Chloé Zhao’s work, but A Love Song is more meditative. It’s beautiful, touching and real.

Queen for Today

The Justice of Bunny King

by Hope Madden

“It’s our job to keep them safe.”

It is with deepest cynicism that writer Sophie Henderson puts those words into the mouths of social workers and police officers in director Gaysorn Thavat’s effecting The Justice of Bunny King. But it never feels forced. Nothing in the film does.

The Justice of Bunny King rides intimacy and Essie Davis’s fierce and tender performance to articulate a scathing indictment on the way the system, blinded by classism and misogyny, fails.

Davis plays a woman with a smile and a good word for everyone. That doesn’t change the fact that Bunny remains sometimes barely a step ahead of the rage that has upended her life. That rage is likely what’s kept her alive as well.

At the moment, Bunny’s cleaning windshields in traffic, cleaning house and babysitting at her sister’s place, and trying desperately to find a place of her own so she can have her kids back. She’s almost there, too. She can just about touch it. But she risks all of it to keep another woman from falling victim to the systems in society that make it so hard for poor people ­– poor women, in particular – to be safe.

Thavat’s film – like Nia DaCosta’s 2018 gem Little Woods and Courtney Hunt’s 2008 indie Frozen River – takes a clear-eyed look at modern poverty. Each film also benefits from powerful, human performances by two women working in tandem to tell the story of women who are more powerful when they work together.

Davis is a force of nature, delivering authenticity flavored with spirit and spite. Her fire finds balance in a quieter, more brooding turn from the wonderful (as always) Thomasin McKenzie.

Like Breaking, featuring an underappreciated powerhouse performance by John Boyega, Bunny King recognizes the wearying web of bureaucracy and antipathy that enforces a class system. But Thavat’s film finds comfort in community, allowing that there is help and hope. It may not come from those who can afford it, but those who best understand your plight.

“I’m not the police,” a woman tells Bunny at one point. “I’m here to help you out.”

Thavat allows an impeccable cast to take advantage of lines like that one. Her even hand behind the camera never forces drama, never wallows in suffering. Together with her team and through this story, she fights the power.

Dirty Story of a Dirty Man

The Infernal Machine

by Hope Madden

Guy Pearce works a lot. He has 90+ screen credits since debuting in 1990’s universally panned Aussie thriller Hunting. In the interim, he’s crafted unforgettable characters in remarkable films (Memento, The Proposition, Ravenous, Animal Kingdom, L.A. Confidential, Mildred Pierce, Lawless, Hateship Loveship, The Rover).

He’s also cashed some meaningless paychecks. Did you see The Seventh Day? Zone 414?

In the last five years, the veteran talent has indulged in too many low-budget thrillers. I hate to call them geezer teasers because Pearce is capable of so much more than the other actors associated with these straight-to-streaming punch-em-ups. Still, that’s what they are and that’s what I half expected with The Infernal Machine.

Pearce plays recluse author Bruce Cogburn in writer/director Andrew Hunt’s mind game of a thriller. Twenty-five years ago, a gunman inspired by Cogburn’s novel The Infernal Machine climbed a watch tower and took aim at the citizens below. Cogburn hasn’t written a word since.

Lately, his reclusive nature’s been tested by a very ardent fan who delivers letters daily to his PO box. When Cogburn terminates the box, the letters come by courier to his isolated home, regardless of the threat of being shot on sight or mauled by Sol, Cogburn’s dog.

Eventually, respect for the tenacity of this fan – an aspiring writer just wanting some advice – softens Cogburn and he agrees to a meeting.

Bad decision.

Hunt’s script takes wild twists and Pearce and his costars are game for the ride. Alice Eve is a lot of fun. Alex Pettyfer plays against type and mines excellent, sometimes chilling layers in limited screen time. But it’s Pearce, in sun-damage makeup, who carries each scene. He is, as he’s always been, an outstanding character actor. In his hands, Cogburn’s vanities and pretensions give the character needed depth and fit nicely with Hunt’s vision.

It is a fun flick full of surprises. Flashbacks weaken the satisfaction of piecing the mystery together, so the climax itself is not as strong as the adventure that precedes it. Still, it’s great to see Pearce making an effort in a film worthy of his time.

Sister Act

Carmen

by George Wolf

Before the end of the year, there are two Carmen films being released. This is the other one.

Writer/director Valerie Buhagiar isn’t interested in updating that classic opera. But she is interested in what happens when one repressed woman begins to indulge an impetuous nature that would make the legendary operatic gypsy proud.

It is the 1980s on the Maltese Islands, the middle-aged Carmen (Natascha McElhone – outstanding) has been serving as housekeeper for her brother the priest (Henry Zammit Cordina) since she was 16 years old.

The Monsignor (Paul Portelli) promises Carmen that she will indeed be rewarded for her years of service to the Church – when she dies. In this life, though, there is little joy until fate intervenes.

Carmen’s brother suddenly drops dead, and when a replacement is slow to arrive, Carmen herself is mistaken for the new priest. Slipping into the anonymity of the confessional booth, she dispatches advice that actually improves the lives of the locals (especially the women). Contented townsfolk mean an overflowing collection box, which Carmen dips into with a heavenly vow to repay.

She gets a new look, indulges herself, and soon catches the eye of men about town, including the younger Paulo (Steven Love), and the older Tom (Richard Clarkin).

It’s a wonderful lead role for the veteran McElhone, and she makes the most of it. Even early on, we get the sense that there is still a passionate spirit alive in Carmen, just one that’s been buried by years of serving both a country and a religion with little interest in a woman’s fulfillment.

McElhone reveals Carmen’s journey of self with a mischievous indulgence that feels both genuine and joyous, even if the opening “mistaken identity” setup lands as a tad contrived.

The character arc also seems personal to Buhagiar. A Malta native, she deftly uses Carmen’s backstory and her lifetime of longing to comment on the xenophobia she’s seen in her homeland, and the oppression she’s felt from her Church.

The film’s sense of awakening and romance is propelled by gorgeous photography (hat tip to cinematographer Diego Guijarro) and sly use of visual imagery.

Sure, that dove that’s following Carmen around can easily be seen as a religious symbol. But it’s also a reminder from Buhagiar that Carmen’s famous name is no accident. Much like the titular opera’s description of love, this Carmen’s heart is still “a rebellious bird that none can tame.”

And it sure is fun watching her follow it.

Stick ’em Up

Bandit

by Brandon Thomas

Career criminal Gilbert Galvan, Jr. (Josh Duhamel of Transformers) escapes from a Michigan prison and makes his way across the border onto the friendlier ground of Canada.

Although momentarily free from American authorities, Gilbert’s legitimate job prospects are not looking great as the recession of the 1980s comes into full swing. After falling for a local woman (Elisha Cuthbert of House of Wax, and TV’s 24), Gilbert panics about his lack of career opportunity and turns to robbing the inadequately guarded banks around Canada. 

Bandit director Allan Ungar is best known for a 2018 Uncharted fan film starring Nathan Fillion. The film itself was small in scale and certainly catered to no one but video game fans, but it did showcase what Ungar can pull off with a charming and talented lead actor. That same fun, playful tone runs through the entirety of Bandit, a film that owes much more to Soderbergh’s light-hearted Ocean movies than say the ultra-violent Bonnie & Clyde.

Ungar doesn’t get too caught up in moral finger-wagging. We all know robbing banks is bad, but the audience sympathizes with the thief’s panicked plight. Like Galvan himself, the film isn’t overly concerned with the eventual conclusion. Galvan is only interested in providing for his family and having fun in the moment. So is Bandit.

Duhamel isn’t an actor I’m normally excited to see. In Bandit, however, he steps up to the plate and delivers a confident and charming performance. There is a series of bank robbery montages that let the actor cut loose while wearing some purposefully bad disguises. This lighter side of Duhamel wasn’t something I was familiar with before, but will certainly welcome in the future.

The supporting cast does well enough, with Cuthbert unfortunately relegated to the “wife” character who spends much of the movie asking questions of the evasive Duhamel. The always dependable Nestor Carbonell (TV’s Lost, The Dark Knight) pops up as a Canadian cop trying to bust the costumed robber. One of the bigger surprises is the addition of Mel Gibson, who has spent roughly the last decade playing minor roles in cheapie action movies. While Bandit might be on the cheaper side, the light tone allows Gibson to dig into his comedic past. Gibson’s performance is a welcome breath of fresh air for the controversial actor. 

While not reinventing the bank robber subgenre, Bandit is a light-hearted heist flick that doesn’t get bogged down in bloody violence or moral grandstanding. You know, the kind you can show mom. 

Writer’s Horror

Blank

by Tori Hanes

Blank, the freshman feature from director Natalie Kennedy, follows successful author Claire Rivers (Rachel Shelley) as she struggles through a nearly debilitating spout of writer’s block. More desperate to appease her publishers than unlock her unwritten story, Claire enrolls in an AI-controlled retreat.

Here, Claire’s every concern that is not creatively driven is managed by her two AI helpers, Henry (Wayne Brady) and Rita (Heida Reed). After a system failure leaves her assistants less than primed to assist, Claire’s writer’s block turns from a professional detriment to a nearly fatal flaw. 

The film is immediately and consistently enthralling from a visual perspective. Kennedy and cinematographer James Oldham are determined to not fall into the dull, gray color pallets plaguing the 2010s/2020’s horror and thriller genre. While their palettes reflect the somber and intensive mood, they stay original and fresh – never allowing the eye to grow weary with dreaded slate monotony. 

Even when the script begins to fail the visuals remain interesting, sometimes dragging the narrative by the arm to keep up with audience expectations. This tactic succeeds. Even if you rack your brains post-film to recall the midsection of the narrative, the mood created by these stunning visuals sticks out. 

The story has a tendency to stumble over its ambition. Starting off with a solid swing, Blank engrosses with its interesting and eerie world right off the bat.

However, the meat of Stephen Herman’s script relies less on story than on thriller tropes: repetition, unsettling visuals, eerie background narrative. That is not to say Blank ceases to enthrall. Instead, the interest shifts to a confused unease, only to be resolved at the dramatic and anxiety-inducing climax.

Kennedy gets hung up on some clunky metaphors. Rita, Claire’s personal AI assistant, takes on a traditional 1950s housewife style. Her compliance and eventual resolution mirror obvious calls for morality in human-created intelligence. While it makes sense for Kennedy to approach this ethical dilemma, the lack of subtlety tarnishes the message. 

As most writers can attest, a bad case of writer’s block can leave you begging for an escape. Blank creatively and (most important) intriguingly shows why reopening your laptop and continuing your story may be the best choice.

No Bromance

To the Moon

by Rachel Willis

Written, directed by, and starring Scott Friend, To the Moon attempts to capture a tense weekend when a husband and wife are forced to spend time in the company of the husband’s estranged brother.

Dennis (Friend) and Mia (Madeleine Morgenweck) have retreated to the family cabin to help Dennis kick his numerous addictions. From what we gather, this isn’t the first time the couple has done this. An accident in Mia’s past, and a hinted miscarriage, compound the couple’s troubles.

To complicate matters, the two wake up one morning to find Dennis’s brother, Roger (Will Brill), performing a strange, yoga-like ritual in the yard. The dog seems just as confused by this newcomer as Dennis and Mia.

What works for this taut little thriller is the obvious tension between Dennis and Roger, as well as between Dennis and Mia. There is a lot going on beneath the surface of their dinner table conversations, and from the moment Roger arrives, something is in the air between the brothers. Mia does her best to keep up cheery conversation, but Dennis makes it difficult. Roger also has a bad habit of offering his opinion in places where it isn’t wanted.

However, when Dennis describes this very Zen Roger as malevolent, it seems like a strange choice of words. There isn’t a lot of information forthcoming regarding Roger’s back story. He mentions a hospital, but the we’re left wondering about Roger’s past.

WIthheld information makes Dennis’s mistrust seems ill-conceived. Hallucinatory moments don’t exactly help us put faith in Dennis. Though Roger is nosy, a bit creepy with his mannerisms, and a little “out there,” he doesn’t put off a vicious vibe. Unlike Dennis. Everything from his resting bitch face to his tone of voice suggests a potential for violence.

It can be hard to convey paranoia on film, but Friend manages with a few key moments. However, his streamlined script leaves too much unsaid and unexplored. As we approach the climax, it isn’t enough to leave the audience wondering if Dennis’s paranoia is justified or simply a result of his withdrawal.  

Battle Tested

The Woman King

by Hope Madden

If you thought the coolest thing in Wakanda was its army led by Danai Gurira’s Okoye, two thoughts. One: correct. Two: see The Woman King. See it now.

What you may not realize is that Wakanda’s Dora Milaje was patterned after the 17th and 18th Century West African Agoji, called the Dahomey Amazons by slave traders. Why?

Because they were badass!

They fought ruthlessly and relentlessly for the Dahomey state – a fact we should all have known for our entire lives. Thankfully, director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, The Old Guard) and legend Viola F. Davis have finally brought their war stories to our screens.

Is it a fictional story? Yes. They all are. Every beloved historical epic you’ve ever seen is fictional. But these warriors were real.

Davis – war worn and glorious – is their general, Nanisca. She has earned the ear of Dahomey’s King Ghezo (John Boyega), and she uses that privilege to show him that the Dahomey must no longer participate in the slave trade. They must never again sell their war captives to slavers.

Slavers have other ideas, but those will have to wait because Nanisca has a new crop of trainees, including the headstrong Nawi (Thuso Mbedu). The youngster more than holds her own in an army of veterans including the always welcome Sheila Atim as second in command. It is Lashana Lynch, though, who steals scenes and makes James Bond look like an armchair quarterback.

A script by Maria Bello and Dana Stevens plays on Prince-Bythewood’s strengths. The filmmaker’s work understands rather than displays the unending troubles connected to womanhood and the resilience and power of sisterhood.

Dahomey is no Wakanda. This world is unkind to women. (What world is not?) It is the castoffs who become Agoji, and they sacrifice as much as they endure. But the power they have as a unified whole is recruitment enough.

What many did not know before The Old Guard is that Prince-Bythewood knows her way around an action sequence. The Woman King is much more than training montages and battle scenes, but that doesn’t mean those set pieces disappoint.

In many ways, the film is an exceptionally well made, old fashioned historical epic. But as soon as you try to string together a list of similar films, you realize that there are none. This movie is the breathtaking, entertaining and wildly necessary new king of that genre.

And if there is any justice, everyone complaining today about a Black mermaid should run into an Agoji on their way out of Starbucks tomorrow.

Sound + Vision

Moonage Daydream

by George Wolf

Longtime David Bowie fans know of his early fondness for the “cut up” method to writing songs – literally cutting up lines of written lyrics and then shifting them around in search of more enigmatic creations.

Director Brett Morgen takes a similar approach to telling Bowie’s story in Moonage Daydream, a completely intoxicating documentary that immerses you in the legendary artist’s iconic mystique and ambitious creative process.

Bowie’s estate gifted Morgen with the key to the archives, and the celebrated documentarian (The Kid Stays in the Picture, Jane, Cobain: Montage of Heck) pored through the thousands of hours of footage for moments that could stand on their own while serving a greater narrative. The result is a glorious explosion of sound and vision, revealing Morgen’s choice to trust himself as film editor was also a damn good one.

Anchored by atmospheric bookends that evoke Bowie’s image as the ethereal “man who fell to Earth,” Morgen unleashes a barrage of concert sequences, still photos and interviews clips, interspersed with bits of old movies, news reports and pop culture references. It’s a luscious and cinematic (especially in IMAX) mashup, and one that slowly unveils a subtle but purposeful roadmap.

The music is thrilling and visceral, of course, but the interview footage reveals Bowie to be tremendously inquisitive and philosophical. We see him as a truly gifted artist who felt satisfaction when he “worked well,” but apprehension with new projects (such as painting) that didn’t yet meet his standards.

At first, Morgen’s approach may seem scattershot, as he appears more concerned with blowing our minds than chronological purity. But what becomes clear is that Morgen’s commitment leans toward grouping slices of Bowie’s life that speak to who he was (i.e. juxtaposing a “Rock and Roll Suicide” performance from the 70s with comments about his “sellout” 80s period). And by the time Bowie’s looking back fondly on his first meeting with wife Iman, an appropriate and touching timeline has emerged.

Though the last years of Bowie’s life are skirted just a bit, Moonage Daydream is like no music biography that you’ve ever seen. It’s a risky, daring and defiant experience, which is exactly the kind of film David Bowie deserves. Expect two hours and fifteen minutes of head-spinning fascination, and a sense that you’ve gotten closer to one Starman than you ever felt possible.