Practical Magic

Marvelous and the Black Hole

by Hope Madden

Anybody who remembers Cheers knows Rhea Perlman can be tough as nails. But a magician hoping to befriend an angry adolescent? Well, that’s just masochism.

Still, that is the plot of Kate Tsang’s Marvelous and the Black Hole. Sullen Sammy (Miya Cech) is in trouble again. Her widowed father (Leonardo Nam) doesn’t know what to do with her, but the vandalism and angry outbursts — especially toward his new love, Marianne (Paulina Lule) — have got to stop.

The ultimatum: get an A in a summer course at community college or go to a religious boot camp.

But the course on entrepreneurship is lame and the teacher’s a moron so Sammy hits the bathrooms for a smoke. There she runs afoul of Perlman’s Margot, on campus to entertain a preschool. Margot sees something of herself in Sammy. Slowly, reluctantly, they pull friendship out of a hat.

Tsang’s got a history with whimsy, which certainly informs her feature debut. Animation, fantasy and magic spill together in sometimes inspired, sometimes ill-fitting ways to highlight Sammy’s tumultuous coming of age.

There’s an interesting clash of visual styles, but beneath that is a uniformly predictable story. Situations and characters are too broadly drawn, but just when you’re tempted to give up on the film, Tsang and gang hit a note of authenticity that pulls you back in. That’s particularly true with the way the film deals with grief.

What elevates Tsang’s tale no matter the scene is Cech’s performance. She anchors the story with a believably angry girl trapped between the tantrums of childhood and the self-destruction of adolescence. The performance feels authentic rather than angsty and it elevates even the weakest scenes.

Perlman’s a charmer as the lonely mentor and she and Cech share a sweet chemistry. The film boasts some laughs and some cringes, but uneven as it gets, Cech delivers.

From the Land of the Ice and Snow

The Northman

by Hope Madden

Robert Eggers releases his third feature this week, a Viking adventure on an epic scale called The Northman.

You had me at Robert Eggers.

On display once again are the filmmaker’s aesthetic instincts, his mastery of framing, and his ability to squeeze every ounce of brutal beauty from a scene. This film is gorgeous, simultaneously broadcasting the wonder and unconquerable ruggedness of its Nordic land and seascapes.

There are also familiar faces. Anya-Taylor Joy plays Olga, a spoil of war too cunning to remain long in bonds. She’s joined in smaller roles by Eggers favorites Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, and Willem Dafoe as a wizened court jester.

Now, if you’re not a fan of the director’s two previous features, 2015’s The Witch and 2019’s The Lighthouse, that does not necessarily predict your feelings about his latest effort. Eggers is working in a different genre with a different, far larger cast and scope this time around.

Alexander Skarsgård is the film’s titular hero; Claes Bang, his uncle and foe.

What you have is a classic vengeance tale: prince witnesses royal betrayal and the murder of his father. He loses his mother and his crown and vows revenge. You’ve seen the trailer.

I will avenge you, father.

I will save you, mother.

I will kill you, Fjolnir.

Skarsgård is cut to play a Viking. His performance is primarily physical: blind rage looking for an outlet. He’s believably vicious, bloodthirsty, single-minded and, when necessary, vulnerable. The entire cast around him is equally convincing.

Nicole Kidman – who played Skarsgård’s wife in the HBO series Big Little Lies, graduates to mother here, while Ethan Hawke plays his father, King Aurvandil War-Raven.

That’s a good name.

Oh, plus Bjork because Iceland. In fact, Egger’s co-writer here, beloved Icelandic novelist and screenwriter Sjón, penned not only last year’s gorgeous folk horror The Lamb, but also Bjork’s early work with Lars von Trier, Dancer in the Dark.

Classic is exactly how The Northman feels. The story is gritty and grand, the action brutal and the storytelling majestic. As is the case with Eggers, expect a fair amount of the supernatural and surreal to seep in here and there, but not enough to outweigh the meticulously crafted period realism.

Platinum Status

Stanleyville

by George Wolf

Every once in a while, a film comes along that has no hope of fitting inside those “every once in a while” constraints.

Because if you’re looking to sum up Stanleyville in such generic terms, good luck to you.

It’s a weird movie. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

In his feature debut, director and co-writer Maxwell McCabe-Lokos serves up an offbeat comedy that is equal parts exaggerated and restrained, one that’s anchored by the quiet existential dread of Maria (Susanne Wuest from Goodnight Mommy).

Startled by a hawk flying into her office window – and the lack of a reaction from her co-worker – Maria walks off away from her job, her family and the few material things she’s carrying with her. Slumped and staring blankly ahead from a massage chair at the local mall, Maria’s approached by older gentleman in an ill-fitting suit. Oh, and his name is Homunculus (Julian Richings).

What’s this? Maria’s been chosen from among “hundred of millions of candidates” to compete in a contest. And not just any contest, a “platinum level exclusive contest!”

The prize: a brand new habanero-orange compact SUV.

Maria’s in, and she reports for duty to find four other contestants (with names like Bofill Pancreas and Manny Jumpcannon) ready to battle for that sweet habanero ride. As Homunculus explains the ten rounds of competition (“Uh, there’s only eight up there.”), check that – eight rounds of competition, contrasts are drawn between Maria and her opponents.

She’s up against a hedge fund d-bag, a muscle bound jock, the fame whore and the badass bitch. McCabe-Lokos fits all four into clearly purposeful stereotypes, while Maria is reserved and harder to read.

The eight rounds are bizarre and abstract, with the microcosm of society breaking down along familiar lines as desperation grows to get the grand prize, along with the validation of conquering “the very essence of mind-body articulation.”

The brand of satire is indeed fascinating and ambitious, it’s just never more than dryly clever. Even at barely 90 minutes, a sense of drag seeps into the film, and though McCabe-Lokos shows definite promise for the future, Stanleyville hits the final bell more of a curiosity than a champion.

Ch-ch-ch-ch Changes

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair

by Brandon Thomas

It’s hard to imagine any filmmaker creating something exciting and fresh inside of the found footage subgenre in the year 2022. Since The Blair Witch Project burst onto the scene over 20 years ago, found footage has touched on haunted houses, monster invasions and even alien abductions. Honestly, if you name it, there’s probably been a found footage movie made about it. In We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, director Jane Schoenbrun dials back the visual trickery, and instead crafts something much more intimate, yet equally terrifying.

Anna Cobb is Casey, an isolated teen who has become obsessed with an online role-playing horror game. Dividing her time between her attic bedroom, the detached garage on her property, and the nearby woods, Casey begins to document what she thinks are changes to her body and mind due to the game. 

Schoenbrun allows many scenes to play out in long, uninterrupted takes. Whether it’s Casey talking to the camera, or a static shot of her sleeping, this approach wrings the tension out of even the most mundane. We’re always waiting for something to happen. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. The not-knowing is the worst.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair also cleverly plays with form. Schoenbrun isn’t afraid to leave found footage behind and take a more traditional narrative approach. The filmmaker still expertly keeps the movie tapped into the immense isolation Casey and her online friend JLB (Michael J. Rogers) feel. Outside of other online testimonials, Casey and JLB are the only two characters we clearly see in the entire film.

There’s always the question of whether what’s happening to Casey is real or just a byproduct of internet obsession. It’s easy to point to this young character and say, “See! Teens are soooo addicted to the internet,” yet, the film wisely juxtaposes Casey with JLB and his equally monotonous existence. The film leaves so many tantalizing questions dangling, but any answers offered up would never satisfy the ones in our head.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair plays with theme and character much more than it does with on-screen carnage. However, it doesn’t take shadows dancing in the corner of the frame to create chills and thrills.

Dark Night

Surviving Theater 9

by Rachel Willis

Tim McGrath survived the shooting at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. He shares his story in the docudrama, Surviving Theater 9.

McGrath not only wrote and directed but also plays himself in a film that focuses on what transpired before and after the event. Keeping his runtime to a brisk 49 minutes, McGrath narrows his focus to three survivors: himself, a teenager who went to the screening with his brother, and a woman whose brother was killed in the shooting.

The most affecting moments are the scenes that focus on what happens after. Some of it is appalling to consider: a neighbor who accuses a woman of exploiting her brother’s death; a law school committee that listens heartlessly as a student tries to appeal their decision to suspend him; a teacher who doesn’t understand her student just needs a moment alone.

Though the Before moments want to give the audience a chance to get to know these three, perhaps the shortness of the film’s runtime is to blame for the lack of depth. Surviving Theater 9 might have been more poignant if the survivors had been allowed to speak for themselves in a documentary, but you can see that this story might be easier to tell through another person’s point of view.

McGrath might have been wiser to restrict the timeline to a chronological retelling. Instead, he skips from After to Before and back again, creating gaps in the timeline. You’re left wondering about the fate of a cousin who accompanied McGrath to the theater, because it’s hard to recall if he appears in the After sections or only the Before sections.

McGrath’s goals are understandable, but flaws in the filmmaking detract from the experience.

Wisely, McGrath does not focus on the shooting itself. We’re given only minor moments of the chaos and terror that happened inside theater 9 because this isn’t the shooter’s story. Nor is it the story of the event. It’s about the survivors and the story they need to tell.

Influencer Pay

Follower

by Tori Hanes

It’s a classic setup: three girls, an annual camping trip, a sadistic killer. Reminiscent of an 80’s horror flick, the antagonistic stalker is set on making girls pay for the crime of being female. With the added stomach-turning twist of the dark web community, director James Rich’s Follower establishes itself within the modern-day horror genre. 

Early in the film, the promise of an interactive experience is teased. Subsequently, within the first scenes, the audience is prompted to follow “Heather’s” real Instagram page. While a fun moment, it can only be defined as that- a moment. 

The interactive portion is forgotten until midway through, when the audience is encouraged to follow the killer’s page. With that, the interactive portion is complete. Ultimately, there was a heightened expectation for interactivity to be a prevalent part of the narrative fabric. The inclusion of the Instagrams with no correlation to the plot, though interesting in theory, was a disappointment in practice.

In a genre plagued by inauthentic and uneven performances, this indie horror shows shimmers of talent- specifically in leading ladies Revell Carpenter and Molly Leach. While it did take the characters a moment to ground themselves, once they achieved steadiness a natural buoyancy emerged. 

Even with these breakthrough examples, many performances left something to be desired.  It’s not uncommon to see actors derailed by the unevenness of their co-stars. Carpenter and Leach never fell victim to this – just the opposite. Whether subconscious or intended, they heightened their performances in response.

The film prides itself on women taking back the narrative from patriarchal horror films of the past. Whenever watching films that put the onus on the victims to reclaim their power, there is always the underlying hope that vengeance will somehow be inflicted tenfold. 

This is not only to claim revenge for the protagonists but justice for every bikini-clad teen who wasn’t given a chance in your favorite slasher flick. Follower fell short in this regard, not quite able to break the skin of what makes female vengeance so unique and deserved. 

Though set with a postmodern twist, Follower feels like a relic of horror movies past. 

Pleased to Meet Me

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

by George Wolf

It’s not just that it’s the role he was born to play. It’s also that it feels like precisely the right moment for him to be playing it, as if the cosmos themselves are aligning to deliver us some rockin’ good news.

How good? Well, for starters, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent gives him about a minute and a half just to name check himself as “Nic f’innnnnnnnnnggggggggow!WoahCage!”

It’s a film that nails a joyously off the rails tone early and often, as Nic goes after the role of a lifetime with a public rage reading for David Gordon Green, but comes up short. The letdown has Nic considering walking away from the business altogether, until his agent (Neil Patrick Harris) calls with an attention-getting offer.

Attend one birthday party for a superfan, collect one million dollars.

So it’s off to Spain and the lavish compound of Javi (Pedro Pascal), where Nic is blindsided by two federal agents (Tiffany Haddish, Ike Barinholtz) staking out the place. Seems Javi is actually a drug kingpin who’s holding a young girl hostage in an effort to influence an upcoming election.

Sounds funny, right?

Not really. Which makes it even more of a kick when there’s no defense against giving in to the gleefully meta madness.

Director and co-writer Tom Gormican (That Awkward Moment) taps into the cult of Cage by both exploiting the myth and honoring how it took root. There are multiple, non-judgemental callbacks to the Cage filmography, while the young Nic (via hit or miss de-aging) drops in to remind his older self just who the F they are!

And while we’re loving all manner of Cage, here comes Pedro! More natural and endearing than he’s ever been, Pascal starts by channeling the fan in all of us, and then deftly becomes the film’s surprising heart. Yes, there are nods to Hollywood pretension, but they’re never self-serving, and the film is more than content to lean all the way in to a madcap adventure buddy comedy spoof.

Would it shock anyone if we eventually get a tell-all book revealing that Cage actually was a CIA operative? Or that he won Employee of Every Month? Nope, and Massive Talent is a fun, funny salute to a guy who’s improved a host of movies by never forgetting who he is.

WoahCage!

28 Zombies Later

Virus: 32

by Hope Madden

It’s nearly impossible to watch a zombie film without seeing pieces of this, pieces of that. Virus: 32 does call to mind a handful of other genre flicks. 28 Days Later is all over it. Sequences call to mind Rammbock: Berlin Undead. The film’s claustrophobic, spook-house vibe might conjure Rec from time to time.

Still, Gustavo Hernández (The Silent House) braids these ideas into something unnerving, tense and moving.

Iris (Paula Silva), living an extended adolescence in Uruguay with her roommate, finds herself saddled with her young daughter for the day. She’d forgotten and picked up a shift, which means Tata (Pilar Garcia) will join her today at “the club.”

The club is an old, abandoned sports club. Iris is on security patrol. Tata can occupy herself in an old gym with some basketballs while Iris makes her rounds and keeps an eye on things from the security footage she accesses through her phone.

No sweat.

Unbeknownst to the two, a virus has infected Montevideo, turning people insatiably violent.

Sweat.

The title comes from the brief reprieve the illness offers. The infected become catatonic for 32 seconds after quenching their bloodlust. It’s contrived, but Hernández — writing again with Juma Fodde — enlists the pause button effectively.

Fermin Torres’s sometimes creeping, sometimes soaring camera generates anticipation and dread in equal measure. Security footage — often a lazy gimmick in a horror movie — gets real purpose and style here. Likewise, the poorly lit passages, shadowy staircases and rooms reflecting leakage and rot create an atmosphere of decay that suits the effort.

Nothing works harder or more forcefully, though, than Silva. Her believable tenderness, drive and instability combine to create a hero you root for, understand and worry about. She’s brilliant.

Daniel Hendler joins the cast at about the midway point, injecting a needed sense of calm and purpose. His presence pulls the narrative out of its chaos and points things toward resolution. He and Silva elevate scenes that could feel perfunctory. Their talent and Hernández’s skill turn even the most zombie-eaten tropes into riveting action.

Virus: 32 can’t entirely overcome its set of borrowed notions, but it grips and tears nonetheless.

Fright Club: Best Horror Movies of the 1930s

We dig deep into the history of horror to pay tribute to some of the true cinematic breakthroughs – films that defined horror and are still imitated and adored today.

5. Dracula (1931)

Oh, Bela. When Lugosi took the screen in 1931, no one was yet tired of Dracula. It was still a literary property only made once into a film, albeit illegally and under a different title by F.W. Murnau. (If you haven’t seen the masterpiece that is Nosferatu, please do.)

Bela, alongside director Tod Browning, got to create the image that would forever define the most mimicked, reworked, revamped – if you will – monster in cinema.

4. The Black Cat (1934)

Rocky Horror owes a tremendous debt to Edgar G. Ulmer’s bizarre horror show. The film – clearly precode – boasts torture, tales of cannibalism, and more than the hint of necromancy.

Plus Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff?! What is not to love? It looks great, as does Karloff, whose lisp is put to the most glorious use. What a weird, weird movie. So good!

3. Vampyr (1932)

The well-groomed if aimless dreamer wanders with what appears to be a fishnet to a secluded little inn. But trouble’s afoot.

And dig those crazy shadows!

The great Carl Theodor Dreyer co-wrote and directed this gorgeous black and white fantasy. The painterly quality of Dreyer’s frames and the bizarre character behavior give the film a surreal atmosphere you can’t shake. His decision to limit dialog to a minimum and craft the movie with traditional silent film gimmicks benefitted the dreamscape atmosphere.

2. Freaks (1932)

Short and sweet, like most of its performers, Tod Browning’s controversial film Freaks is one of those movies you will never forget. Populated almost entirely by unusual actors – midgets, amputees, the physically deformed, and an honest to god set of conjoined twins (Daisy and Violet Hilton) – Freaks makes you wonder whether you should be watching it at all. This, of course, is an underlying tension in most horror films, but with Freaks, it’s right up front. Is what Browning does with the film empathetic or exploitative, or both? And, of course, am I a bad person for watching this film?

Well, that’s not for us to say. We suspect you may be a bad person, perhaps even a serial killer. Or maybe that’s Hope. What we can tell you for sure is that this film is unsettling, and the final, rainy act of vengeance is truly creepy to watch.

1. Frankenstein (1931)/Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

James Whale’s brilliant take on Mary Shelley’s novel looked at Frankenstein’s monster and saw the cruelty humanity was capable of committing. For him, the monster was the central and most interesting figure. Unlike Shelley’s antihero, Whale’s creature was utterly sympathetic, an oversized child unable to control himself, making him simultaneously innocent and dangerous.

Barons and aristocracy, the European setting – the film distrusts scientists and public officials as fools unable to reign in their own ambitions no matter the dire consequences.

Four years later, James Whale and Boris Karloff – with tag along make-up man Jack Pierce – returned to Castle Frankenstein for another tale of horror. What makes this one a stronger picture is the dark humor and subversive attitude, mostly animated by Frankenstein’s colleague Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger).

The sequel casts off the earnestness of the original, presenting a darker film that’s far funnier, often outrageous for its time, with a fuller story. Karloff again combines tenderness and menace, and Elsa Lanchester becomes the greatest goth goddess of all film history as his Bride.

Fly Me to the Moon

Linoleum

by Hope Madden

If you haven’t gotten to know filmmaker Colin West, it’s high time you correct that. The writer/director follows up last year’s surreal Christmas haunting Double Walker with a beautiful look at living a fantastic life.

The effortlessly affable Jim Gaffigan plays Cameron, an astronomer in suburban Dayton, Ohio hitting a very rocky path in his middle age. The kiddie show about science that he hosts is failing. Maybe his marriage is, too. New neighbors, a mysterious woman, and increasingly bizarre events have got him wondering. What does it all mean?

West, expanding his award-winning 2018 short Here & Beyond, writes a meticulous script that folds in on itself in fascinating ways, keeping you guessing and engaged.

Gaffigan is a far more nuanced actor than you might realize. While his dual roles appear at first to provide comedic opportunities, both Gaffigan and West have more up their sleeves than that.

Gaffigan’s performances and West’s approach are primarily earnest, and it’s that simple grounding that allows the absurd flourishes in the film to take flight without cynicism or irony. The supporting cast, including a wonderful Katelyn Nacon, and Rhea Seehorn, Amy Hargreaves, Tony Shalhoub and Gabriel Rush, surrounds Gaffigan’s turn with sincere, often tender but simultaneously comical performances.

West and cinematographer Ed Wu give the environment a nostalgic, lovely, tactile quality that allows it to feel lost in time. All of these elements — the performances, nostalgia, absurd moments and kitchy aesthetic — blend with the story being told in ways that become clear and powerful by Act 3.

Linoleum’s conclusion is a savvy surprise, one that capitalizes on the investment the audience is sure to make in Cam, his family and his happiness. Thanks not only to those performances but to West’s masterful storytelling, a movie that feels like a light-hearted jaunt becomes an emotional powerhouse that leaves you reeling.

Hope Madden and George Wolf … get it?