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Stranger Than

American Fiction

by Hope Madden

Boyz in the Hood is a great movie. In 1991, the same year 23-year-old John Singleton’s feature debut made box office and Oscar history, Julie Dash released the beautiful, generational drama, Daughters of the Dust. No guns, no cops, no real violence to speak of, Dash’s film nabbed a Sundance grand jury prize nomination and cinematography award.

Daughters of the Dust was essentially forgotten upon its release. (It has, thank God, in recent years been rediscovered, restored, and added to the National Film Preservation Registry.) But Boyz in the Hood immediately reshaped movies.

Writer/director Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction takes aim at fiction – print or cinematic – and its problematic relationship with Black trauma. But to say that Cord’s film would like to see movies move beyond Boyz in the Hood and other films that revel in suffering would be to simplify, even miss its point. The filmmaker complicates the discussion with debate over a Black creator’s right to simply pursue success, as any other creator might. Even if that means catering to a white audience’s thirst for Black trauma.

“White people think that they want the truth, but they don’t. They just want to feel absolved.”

You might not expect a film that floats this truth so effortlessly to be a laugh riot, but American Fiction delivers an awful lot of laugh-out-loud moments.

Jeffrey Wright plays cantankerous college professor and literary writer Thelonious “Monk” Ellison. His latest manuscript is not being picked up for publication, his students hate him, and suddenly he needs to look after his mother, who will need round-the-clock care. Which costs money. The kind of money you can make if you pander to exactly the readership he loathes.

Monk does, incognito, and soon he’s pretending to be something he’s not at work and pretending not to be something he is at home. Buried within this are a couple of really lovely, sweetly complex middle-aged romances. Those are rare in films, so they deserve a mention here.

Issa Rae and Sterling K. Brown offer remarkable supporting turns as characters you want to dislike but simply cannot – part and parcel of a film that forever asks you to rethink what you believe you know. And maybe laugh bitterly as you do.

Adam Brody is also a hoot as that same smarmy douche he always plays, but he does it so very well. Jon Ortiz and Erika Alexander both bring warmth and humanity to a story essentially about a man who is not quite sure how to be warm and human.

Wright – an underappreciated genius of an actor if ever there was one – does what he always does. He conjures a fully formed human being, flawed but forgivable and endlessly earnest. Buoyed by a delightful ensemble and cuttingly hilarious script, he delivers one of the finest performances of his career.

The Horror of Microagressions

Raging Grace

by Christie Robb

When Filipina illegal immigrant Joy (Max Eigenmann) has to come up with an extra five thousand pounds to fund her quest to obtain a work visa, she’s thrilled to get a job offer that pays one thousand a week under the table. It’s a live-in housekeeping gig at a swanky British estate that hasn’t been given a once-over in quite a long time.

There are few downsides. First, she’ll have to hide her young daughter Grace (Jaeden Paige Boadilla) from her employers. Second, she’ll have to look after the dying old white guy upstairs. And that involves following orders barked at her by the dying guy’s total Karen of a niece. Only, maybe the niece’s intentions aren’t entirely well-meaning. And then there’s the racism…and the classism…and the sexism. But, while Joy may be stressed, she’s also stoic and resilient.

This updated Gothic thriller helmed by debut director Paris Zarcilla and co-written with Pancake Zarcilla effectively suspends the viewer in a state of wary suspicion. Dim lighting, spooky old sheet-draped antiques, a discordant musical score, and a kid with a penchant for pranks and squeezing into tight spaces provides ample opportunity for jump scares.

But it’s not the long shadowy corridors, or the judgmental eyes of the family portraits on the walls, or the suspicious locked doors that spook Joy. It’s the worry that her kid is going to get her in trouble with the boss and she’ll end up getting deported.

Toward the end, the social-critique/Gothic horror gets a little bit too complicated and hard to follow for a few minutes with character choices that seem alternatively forced or not dialed up enough, but ultimately it was an effective take on the traditional atmospheric horror.

Could have used more rage, though.

Electric Ladyland

Love Virtually

by Rachel Willis

With Love Virtually, director L. E. Staiman explores what it means to be in a relationship in a virtual world.

Staiman co-stars as Kalvin. Spurned in love at a young age, Kalvin turned himself into a VR sensation as a form of revenge.

Sharing the screen with Kalvin are down-and-outs Roddy (Peter Gilroy), Barry (Ryan O’Flanagan), and La Monte (Vince Washington). Barry’s wife is in love with a chat bot; La Monte is responsible for spreading a virus around the world; and Roddy has lost his one true love to his video game obsession.

The women in their lives are equally pitiful, but each has been affected in real life by their online personas (or the personas of their partners).

A significant portion of the film is set in the virtual world, which is populated by avatars with a distinctly 90s feel. Characters dress up to slip into their VR headsets to hit the hottest clubs. It’s not clear why the characters need to dress their physical bodies for VR clubs since the beauty of an avatar is that it can be whoever you’re not. It’s simply one of many aspects that don’t quite make sense.

There are several side plots that fit the film in a strange yet satisfying way. What you think is a rom com turns into an action espionage video game movie (of sorts). It takes the film in an unexpected direction that makes it different from what you’ve seen before. And while most of the humor feels forced, there are a few scenes that elicit genuine laughs.

Unfortunately, the overall affect is that, aside from Roddy, none of the characters come to life (as real people or as avatars). Their wants and needs are shallow, which isn’t entirely out of place in a film where people spend more time with each other online than they do in real life.

For a film that relies heavily on its animated scenes, the animation is outdated – both as a style and as a representation of what virtual reality is. Avatars look not too far removed from Lara Croft in the original Tomb Raider video game. We’ve come a long way from 1996.

If you’re in the mood for something different, Love Virtually might satisfy that craving, but not for very long.

Boy Coloring Outside the Lines

Story Ave

by Christie Robb

The debut feature film from director/co-writer Aristotle Torres feels familiar. Talented young Black man in New York City, paused for a moment at one of life’s crossroads. One road heads toward safety and higher education, another leads into gang life and violence. But, we need a continuous supply of coming-of-age stories ’cause…well, kids just keep coming of age.

In Story Ave, talented teenage artist Kadir Grayson (Asante Blackk, This Is Us) is a wreck. His brother recently died in an accident for which Kadir blames himself. His mom is lashing out and looking for someone to blame. He escapes into the found family of his graffiti gang led by the mercurial Skemes (Melvin Gregg). But he can only gain full membership by bringing back some cash. So, armed with Skemes’s gun, he hits the streets. It is during an attempted mugging that he meets Luis (Luis Guzmán), an MTA worker that acts like the world’s chillest alcoholic guardian angel.

While the story might be familiar, Torres’s movie is a visual delight, which makes sense given his background directing music videos. Often bathed in neon primary shades or strobing color fluorescing in blacklight, the shot composition echoes the poppy style of the bubble letters the characters are applying to the sides of buildings.

Asante Blackk is just a gift. His performance is perfectly understated. He manages to show the complex range of Kadir’s shifting emotions, but he keeps them on a tight leash, avoiding the histrionics and sentimentality that the script could have easily lead him into. Guzmán, too, is good. But he’s given less to work with. One look at him wincing and holding his side and you know exactly how his character arc is going to end.

The ending of the film, too, feels predictable and like it comes too easily. It is wrapped up neatly in a college application essay voiceover that feels as if tacked on in postproduction. But as this is Torres’s first feature, I’m excited to see more from him as he comes of age as a feature director.

Poor Career Choice

Five Nights at Freddy’s

by Hope Madden

Two years ago, director Kevin Lewis essentially made the live action horror film based on the video game Five Nights at Freddy’s. He did not have a license, but he did have Nicolas Cage. Lewis’s 2021 flick Willy’s Wonderland is an eccentric lock-in with one silent janitor (Cage), and a bunch of Chuck E. Cheese style animatronics out for blood.

It’s not very good. But Cage is very Cage in it – kicking animatronic ass, taking regular breaks to rest up and play some pinball, and uttering not a single word.

Director Emma Tammi (The Wind) does have the rights to the video game IP. But she does not have Cage.

What Five Nights at Freddy’s misses more than anything is the sense of macabre humor that seems a requirement for a film about, essentially, a blood thirsty Country Bears Jamboree.

Josh Hutcherson is a down-on-his-luck big brother. He needs a job, or his wicked aunt (Mary Stuart Masterson) is going to take custody of his little sister, Abby (Piper Rubio). So, he’s desperate. Just desperate enough to take an offer from a sketchy career counselor (Matthew Lillard) for security detail at the long-shuttered kids’ entertainment pizzeria.

Though Masterson’s storyline is predicably moustache-twirling evil, she’s fun. Lillard is reliably, weirdly creepy and his every moment onscreen is a twisted delight.

I like Hutcherson. He was a hoot in Tyler McIntyre’s 2017 gem Tragedy Girls. He has no opportunity to do anything with Mike the Forlorn. Hutcherson grimaces and looks pained for 90 minutes.

Tammi – who’s horror Western The Wind delivered a spare, spooky descent into madness – cannot land on a tone for this one. The script she co-wrote with Seth Cuddeback is a plodding predictable dirge. Game writer Scott Cawthon gets a credit as well, but it’s unclear how much he might have contributed to the screenplay.

The film builds no momentum, most scenes cut short in favor of an emotional flashback, a contrived family moment, or a dream sequence that can’t conjure the eeriness needed to push the film into horror territory.

There’s meanness in the kills, but certainly no blood, and no macabre delight, either.

Willy’s Wonderland was a weak, predictable, dumb film but at least it had Nicolas Cage.

Sister Sleuth

The Nun II

by Hope Madden

The Nun II has at least one thing going for it. If someone could figure out what to do with her, that villain is creepy as hell.

Why? Partly because no one cuts a terrifying figure quite like Bonnie Aarons. And partly because, let’s be honest, nuns are scary. Like clowns. It’s just true.

We first ran into this Bad Habit in James Wan’s adequate 2016 sequel The Conjuring 2, but the film divided its villains up: old coot in a rocking chair (“I’m Bill Wilkins!”), the Crooked Man and – well, best not to say her name. But her screentime was very limited.

Then there was the tease in another middling sequel, Annabelle: Creation (a mediocre film, but miles better than the first in that particular franchise). She finally got her own story in 2018, with Corin Hardy’s wildly mediocre The Nun.

Can this excellent idea for a villain be put to good use, finally, with Michael Chaves’s sequel, The Nun II?

Meh.

It’s fine. It’s rated R, so that’s a start, although I’m not certain how it was deemed so problematic as to deserve the “keep the kids away” rating. There are a few creative deaths, almost elegantly macabre.

Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) is back on the trail of the demon nun after a series of disturbing deaths. Most of our time is spent in a monastery-turned-winery-turned-boarding school where Sister’s Irene’s old friend Maurice (Jonas Bloquet) has a job as a handyman and a crush on a teacher.

And, if memory serves, an inverted cross seared into the back of his neck. That smells like trouble (and burnt skin).

The setting is spooky, stagey and often quite atmospheric. Several of the set pieces are designed gorgeously. Bloquet continues to charm, and we not only get a nun this time but a very alarming goat-man. Nice!

The perversion of religious imagery continues to be the downfall of the series. It’s hard to take seriously, of course, because the Catholic church has a history of doing that itself. (The diocese of Syracuse claimed bankruptcy this summer due to the $100 million it owes to victims of sexual abuse.) This series would be more effective if the evil nun represented the decay within the church rather than a rogue demon weakened by an emissary of the Vatican.

Alas, Chaves settles for a bit of theoretical silliness bolstered by a nice touch of feminism, which feels delightfully heretical. So at least there’s that.

Bad Dog

Strays

by Hope Madden

Have you seen the trailer for Strays, the live action dog movie about a sweet mutt (voice by Will Farrell) abandoned by his terrible owner, Doug (Will Forte)? He’s taken in by other dogs off the leash who join him on a journey to return home and bite Doug’s dick off.

If that trailer did not make you laugh, you will not laugh during Strays.

If that trailer made you laugh, savor it, because it represents all the laughs to be found in the entirety of Strays. Unless you’re a huge, huge fan of couch humping and feces. If so, then by all means, nab a ticket.

Farrell’s Reggie is in a toxic relationship, and new friends Bug (Jamie Foxx), Maggie (Isla Fisher) and Hunter (Randall Park) want him to see that he deserves better than Doug. And he deserves to bite the man’s dick off. So, it all becomes a sort of homicidal Homeward Bound, if you will, and that’s a funny idea.

The film is very definitely R-rated, taking unexpected detours that sometimes go where you just don’t want them to go. Other times, they go to a carnival so they can make fun of “narrator dogs” (voiced by A Dog’s Journey’s Josh Gad, which is honestly ingenious).

But these sparks of fun are few and far between and the meanspirited humor overwhelms the odd bits of inspired comedy. And then there’s all that dog shit.

Director Josh Greenbaum was mainly successful in finding a balance for the zaniness of his 2021 effort, Bar and Star Go to Vista Del Mar. Mainly. But the bright points were brighter and the rest of it was just weird.

Strays, written by Dan Perrault, is the laziest kind of “road picture” – a series of unrelated sketches. There’s a Point A (the scary city block where Doug abandoned his dog) and Point B (Doug’s penis), but those steps in between are random skits about red rockets and chew toys. And those moments are just not funny enough to merit a full feature.

The Texas Chainsaw Leftovers Have Eyes

What the Waters Left Behind: Scars

by Daniel Baldwin

In 1974, master of horror Tobe Hooper unleashed The Texas Chain Saw Massacre upon the world, giving it one of the most influential films in the annals of cinema history. It wasn’t the first rural terror flick centered around folks poking their heads where they shouldn’t, but it set into place a permanent subgenre mold that much of what has come since has been cast from. This includes the Nicolas & Luciano Onetti’s 2017 slash and torture film, What the Waters Left Behind.

Five years later, Nicolas Onetti returns to the world of that film with a sequel, Scars. The first film followed a small documentary crew as they ventured into a remote, abandoned town in Argentina called Epecuen. This is a real town that was destroyed in a flash flood during 1985 and remained under water for decades, before the flood finally receded and left ruins in its wake. Both films were shot on location in Epecuen, with the resulting production value being their most striking aspect.

Scars trades in a film crew for a metal band, with our doomed musicians merely passing through their area as they finish their bar gig tour. Once they find themselves in Epecuen, they are quickly set upon by the same cannibal family that dispatched the documentarians in the previous entry. A couple cast members carry over on the villain front, with some fresh faces mixed in as well.

The Onettis’ initial claim to fame came in the form of a trio of neo-giallo films (Deep SleepFrancesca, and Abrakadabra) that have delighted many fans of that subgenre. Unfortunately, their grasp on rural slashers isn’t as strong. The good news is that if you were a fan of the first film, you’re likely to find a lot to enjoy within Scars, as it is a step up in almost every way. The bad news is that it’s effectively the exact same movie over again, so if you weren’t buying what the first was selling, you’re unlikely to want to partake in seconds.

Their stalking setpieces, torture sequences, and excessive rape scenes repeat over and over with little variation or visual ingenuity, leaving us with an 85-minute film that still feels like it is a solid 15 minutes too long. Scars is for the curious only. All others should stick with the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre or either version of The Hills Have Eyes.

Here Endeth

The Lesson

by Hope Madden

There is something elegantly old school about the slow burn literary mystery afoot in Alice Troughton’s feature directorial debut, The Lesson. Its overt, unyielding structure suggests a familiar, even predictable thriller.

However zealously screenwriter Alex MacKeith subscribes to the traditional three act story, theme stated on page 5 and all that, Troughton and a superb cast still manage to mesmerize you. You’re given every piece of evidence you will need, and yet you’ll wonder ceaselessly where it will all lead.

Troughton’s direction evokes a tense thriller, even though the story itself never feels as if danger’s around the corner. Still, the camera angles and shot choices – gorgeous though they are – leave you on edge. With her creeping camera and gorgeous location Troughton blurs the line between intellectual drama and mystery thriller.

Her stellar cast helps. Richard E. Grant plays renowned writer J.M. Sinclair, whose son Bertie (Stephen McMillan) is in the market for a tutor to help prepare him for Oxford’s entrance exams. Aspiring writer and massive Sinclair fan Liam (Daryl McCormack, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande) gets the job.

Julie Delpy also stars as family matriarch Hélène, whose aloof demeanor strikes the perfect chord against Grant’s vibrance. It would be wrong to say Grant chews scenery, but you certainly can’t look away from him. A charming narcissist, viciously insecure and competitive, his Sinclair is a big presence, which allows the balance of characters to quietly observe, connive even.

McCormack, who was so impressive in the two-person revelation of Leo Grande, delivers another introspective and surprising performance. At times Liam seems to mirror Sinclair’s insecurity and artist’s fragility, but this is not that story.

The conclusion feels a little tidy, but the intricate ballet of character study and mystery that precedes it is so tight you’ll forgive the minor misstep.

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