Shazam! Fury of the Gods
by Hope Madden
Filmmaker David F. Sandberg followed up the surprise horror hit Lights Out with a step into the Conjuring franchise, helming 2017’s Annabelle: Creation. And then in 2019 he took a sharp left turn to deliver the triumphantly adolescent superhero gem, Shazam!
This he followed with a literally four-hour film of himself flipping off the camera, titled I Flip You Off for Four Hours. I swear to God. And then back for the Shazam! sequel, Fury of the Gods.
Since he last saved the world and shared his superpowers with his foster siblings, Billy Batson has gotten clingy. Controlling, even. He’s about to turn 18 and age out of the foster system, and deep down, he’s afraid he’s going to lose his family.
Plus, there are these angry gods who want their power back, a power stolen from them by a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) and given away to a bunch of dumbass kids (Billy and those siblings).
Helen Mirren is a god. (I always expected as much.) And while the film suffers from the kind of superficial storytelling and sequel bloat that often plagues the second episode in a franchise, she’s glorious.
She’s also funny and badass – an excellent addition to the series. She’s joined by Lucy Liu as the angrier of the gods to look out for.
And even though there are multiple villains, the real problem is the multiple heroes and their multiple alter egos. Billy (Asher Angel) has five siblings, each of whom is now a hero, so that’s twelve characters to track. Plus mom and dad. Though the cast, Sandberg and screenwriters Henry Gayden and Chris Morgan offer clever shorthand characterizations, the result feels too slight.
Zachary Levi continues to shine, delivering the same infectious, boyish good nature that made the original such a charmer. And Sandberg’s direction continues to favor wonder over action, although the action continues to impress – not wow, but impress.
The result is a perfectly entertaining, thoroughly good natured opportunity to see Helen Mirren beat the tar out of some kids.
Funeral for a Friend
by Hope Madden
Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda like each other, this is clear. And mainly that’s meant good things for audiences. Their treasure 9 to 5 was smarter, funnier and more feminist than anything else 1980 was likely to see. They had seven solid seasons as besties on Netflix’s Grace and Frankie.
Yes, we did have to sit through 80 for Brady, but at least that got adults back into theaters.
For Paul Weitz’s Moving On, the pair tosses aside broad comedy showcasing the hilarity of getting old in favor of something more insightful and less insulting.
Fonda plays Claire, in town from Ohio to go to her best friend’s funeral and murder the widower (Malcolm McDowell, as reliable a villain as ever). At the service, Claire runs into another old friend with no love lost for the old man, Evelyn (Lily Tomlin).
Maybe Evelyn will help!
As contrived and zany as that sounds on paper, in action it’s a relatively nuanced look at modern problems that aren’t really that modern. And though the story is overstuffed, Weitz (who also writes) and his leads draw attention to subtler comedy laced with the melancholy realities facing seventy- and eighty-somethings.
Fonda dials down the horny hijinks she seems to bring to every new role, and the tender evolution of Claire’s love life is far richer for it. Tomlin is Tomlin: eccentric, unaffected, maybe stoned, easily the coolest person in the room.
Part of what makes this duo so fun to watch is the way they balance each other out, and though the characters are allowed more room to breathe than usual, the result is the same.
Richard Roundtree charms as Claire’s ex, while Sarah Burns is the glue holding the film together portraying the bereaved adult daughter and only rational thinker.
Weitz tacks on a side story about a kid who likes to visit Evelyn and borrow her earrings, but the result is undernourished and adds little to the narrative. Tomlin’s great in these scenes, though, but even better in scenes on her own illustrating loneliness as it’s rarely been done.
What a refreshing film Moving On is. Not a great film, but a genuine piece of entertainment made for actors who deserve a project like this.
The Write Side of History
by George Wolf
Writer/director Matt Ruskin wants us to remember that decades before the events of All the President’s Men, Spotlight or She Said, journalists – specifically women journalists – were heroically committed to finding the truth.
Wading through historical record with a detailed screenplay that’s surprisingly unaided by any source material, Ruskin crafts Boston Strangler as a salute to two dogged reporters and the mystery that still surrounds their biggest story.
In the 1960s, Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) was a lifestyle reporter for Boston’s Record American. She pressured editor Jack Maclaine (Chris Cooper, reliable as always) for a better beat, but got approval to work the Strangler story only on her own time. As Loretta’s promising leads met increasing roadblocks, street-wise veteran Jean Cole (Carrie Coon) had her back and the two “girl” reporters started lighting up the front pages.
Knightley and Coon make for a team just as formidable as their characters, highlighting the contrasts of the two women’s lives while making it clear how much they came to depend on each other. The always welcome Alessandro Nivola adds solid support as Detective Conley, a sympathetic cop who proves useful to the case.
And you might remember that case eventually led to the confession of Albert DeSalvo (David Dastmalchian). But Ruskin is arguing that bit of history is far from settled, and he methodically makes his case via the work of McLaughlin and Cole.
Ruskin’s storytelling is patient and assured, nicely mirroring the ladies’ work ethic and building a subtle bridge from past to present through the sexism and police corruption that made the truth even more evasive.
The film is more compelling than thrilling, striking a tone that fits the material. It’s not the splashy headline that’s important, it’s what kind of substance is delivered underneath. Boston Strangler delivers a relevant history lesson, and another salute to the ones that keep asking questions.
None More Black
by Hope Madden
A baby left in a cemetery grows up to search for answers. Why was she abandoned in such a place, wrapped in a blanket covered in satanic markings and wearing an inverted cross? She discovers her parents were in a Norwegian Black Metal band.
So, to be honest, that explains it. Common practice, probably, and yet Hunter (Alicia von Rittberg) wants to know more.
Wait, will there be Norwegian Black Metal in Alex Herron’s Leave? Nice!
Herron, bringing writer Thomas Moldestad’s mystery to the screen, pits what you think you know about good against evil as he uproots a New Englander for Norway’s shores and answers.
Von Rittberg’s American accent is spotty, but the performance isn’t weakened by it. Her vulnerable but determined performance ably captures Hunter’s existential dilemma. She’s polite, slightly needy, capable but a little desperate. And the smiling faces she finds may or may not really be her friends.
These faces belong to rock stars (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) and schizophrenics (Morten Holst), spoiled cousins (Herman Tømmeraas) and clingy aunts (Ragnhild Gudbrandsen).
Herron’s atmosphere makes the safe look seedy and the dangerous appear benign, but there is more depth to the tale than that. Yes, every character is a little slower on the uptake than they should be. And yet, somehow – thanks mostly to the film’s understatement – you don’t disbelieve any of the characters. Stig R. Amdam delivers a particularly nuanced turn as the family patriarch.
There are interesting themes here concerning patriarchy and “Christianity”, but Herron doesn’t belabor the point. His film is rarely showy, and even at its most obvious this light touch keeps it engaging.
Still, I think I was promised Norwegian Black Metal.
The Magician’s Elephant
by George Wolf
Anything is possible, just believe in your dreams.
That’s a fine moral for The Magician’s Elephant. But much like the film itself, it’s a bit generic and less than memorable.
Based on the children’s book by Kate DiCamillo, this Netflix animated adventure takes us to the land of Baltese, where strange clouds have rolled in and “people stopped believing.” Young orphan Peter (voiced by Noah Jupe) is being raised by an old soldier (Mandy Patinkin) to live a soldier’s life, which will be hard because “the world is hard.”
It gets harder when Peter uses meal money for a fortune teller (Natasia Demetriou) to tell him how his long lost sister can be found. The soldier told Peter the girl died at birth, but that’s not what he remembers, and a palm reading confirms that she is indeed alive.
To find her, Peter must “follow the elephant.”
But there are no elephants in Baltese, at least until a desperate magician (Benedict Wong) makes one fall from the sky. And after the magician and the elephant are both locked up for causing trouble, Peter begs the King (Aasif Mandvi) to let him care for the beast, as it is “only guilty of being an elephant.”
The King agrees, providing Peter can complete three tasks. Three impossible tasks.
Ah, but remember, nothing is impossible!
Director Wendy Rogers (a visual effects vet helming her first feature) and screenwriter Martin Hynes have plenty of threads to juggle, from animal cruelty to the costs of war to a Dickensian twist of fate. The resulting narrative ends up feeling overstuffed and convoluted.
The muted coloring no doubt reflects the village’s cloudy atmosphere, and the stiff animation may be intended to recall a children’s popup, but there is little in the film’s aesthetic that is visually inspiring.
Mandvi and Patinkin are the most successful at crafting indelible characterizations, while the rest of the voice cast (also including Brian Tyree Henry and Miranda Richardson) manages workmanlike readings that neither disappoint or standout.
Same for the film. The Magician’s Elephant pulls plenty from its crowded hat, but has trouble conjuring anything that is truly magical.
Tell Me Dear
Are You Lonesome Tonight?
by Rachel Willis
A distracted driver makes a series of bad decisions one dark evening, setting the tone for director Shipei Wen’s first feature, Are You Lonesome Tonight (Re dai wang shi).
This is a film you expect to go a certain way, so when it veers off in a different direction, it’s an intriguing but not necessarily satisfying choice. The film follows a predictable pattern even though it might not be the pattern you were initially anticipating.
The movie’s two leads, Xueming (Eddie Peng) and Ma (Sylvia Chang), are what’s most appealing. Though Xueming is a bit too similar to characters we’ve seen many times before, Ma is more complicated. Because Ma has lost both a husband and a son, you might expect her to put Xueming into the role of son – and in some ways, she does, but emotionally, she keeps him at arm’s length.
We don’t spend as much time with Ma as you might want. Instead, we follow Xueming as he makes questionable decision after questionable decision. His motivations are murky, but this works to underscore the darkness of both the film and human nature. He deals with guilt and uncertainty in increasingly violent ways, making the sensitivity he shows Ma especially touching. Though she may be using him to fill certain needs, there’s no doubt there’s something that connects these two.
There’s a lack of linear cohesion to the film that is surprisingly irrelevant to the whole. That we move around in time doesn’t increase tension or even really cause confusion. It simply is, and it’s a curious choice. A scene or two is repeated. One particular scene is shown from multiple perspectives, but the choice to work it into the film in two different spots is unnecessary. It would have worked as well – perhaps better – if we saw both perspectives at the same time.
There isn’t much going on in this film. The ethical dilemmas are overlooked in favor of a paint by numbers mystery. However, as a slice of Xueming and Ma’s lives, it’s worth watching to see how they react to the events unfolding around them.
As a character drama, it’s intriguing. As a languidly paced mystery, Are You Lonesome Tonight is a little underwhelming.
Fright Club: Drugs in Horror Movies
It wasn’t always bears, kids. In other movies, people use drugs, although the result – limbs akimbo and carnage aplenty – usually still follows. Here are our favorite druggie horror flicks.
5. Cabin in the Woods (2011) (weed)
There are countless reasons to love Drew Goddard’s 2011 horror mash note Cabin in the Woods. Not the least of which is Fran Kranz as Marty, pothead.
Easily the favorite character (inside the cabin, anyway), Marty not only provides the levity necessary for this particular trope to work, his weedy logic is all that actually makes sense in this world.
The entire film is a trip, but it’s Marty’s trip that’s most worth taking.
4. Cocaine Bear (2023) (cocaine, obviously)
The year is 1985, from what I can piece together from an inspired soundtrack of pop hits spilling out of speakers, and one Jefferson Starship fan is about to make a jump from his plane with an awful lot of coke. Things don’t go well, and next thing you know, drug kingpin Syd (Ray Liotta in his final screen performance) is sending his reluctant son (Alden Ehrenreich) and best guy (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to Blood Mountain to retrieve $14 million in missing blow.
As you may have guessed from the title, a bear found it first.
Inspired, manic carnage follows. Entrails spill, children fill their mouths with cocaine, skate punks lose their heads (well, parts of their heads), EMTs really earn their pay, and we all have an incredible, brightly colored, viscera covered good time!
3. Climax (2018) (LSD)
Oh, Gaspar Noe, you scamp! The provocateur returned to screens in 2018 with a bad trip full of percussive dancing and concussive beats that will leave you as bewildered, wrung out, unsettled and horrified as the characters.
Sofia Boutella leads an ensemble of dancers locked into a French warehouse post-production to just party. But there’s more in that sangria than fruit and soon enough, the party is an inescapable hellscape.
Noe has a way with pummeling an audience, overstimulating and punishing us into submission. Turns out, he can also choreograph a decent dance number!
2. Hagazussa (2017) (mushrooms)
Making a remarkably assured feature debut as director, Lukas Feigelfeld mesmerizes with his German Gothic poetry, Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse. Settled somewhere in the 15th Century Alps, the film shadows lonely, ostracized women struggling against a period where plague, paranoia and superstition reigned.
Albrun’s is a tragic story and Feigelfeld crafts it with a believable loneliness that bends toward madness. He’s captured this moment in time, this draining and ugly paranoia that caused women such misery, with imagery that is perplexingly beautiful.
He’s cast a spell and you should submit.
1. Mandy (2018) (LSD)
A hallucinogenic fever dream of social, political and pop-culture subtexts layered with good old, blood-soaked revenge, Mandy throws enough visionary strangeness on the screen to dwarf even Nicolas Cage in full freakout mode.
Not just Nic, either. Andrea Riseborough, cannibal bikers on LSD, The Chemist, and a religious sex cult led by a terrible folk singer. Plus a sword, an axe, a lot of blood, and did I mention the LSD?
Like director Panos Cosmatos’s 2010 debut Beyond the Black Rainbow, Mandy is both formally daring and wildly borrowed. While Black Rainbow, also set in 1983, shines with the antiseptic aesthetic of Cronenberg or Kubrick, Mandy feels more like something snatched from a Dio album cover.
It is as insane as any beautifully conceived, expertly executed film has ever been and you must give yourself to it.
Screening Room: Scream VI, 65, Quiet Girl, Champions, Oscar Predictions & More
I Got a Monster
by Tori Haines
An unrelenting look at the prescriptive police corruption plaguing Baltimore’s system, I Got A Monster stares the repeatedly topical topic straight down the barrel.
Director Kevin Abrams follows dogmatic defense attorney Ivan Bates’s journey of taking down the city’s most prolific group of badged criminals: Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force, headed by Sgt Walter Jenkins. Navigating the audience through the twists of the cold judicial system while Jenkin’s victims ride shotgun, I Got A Monster succeeds as a deeply educational piece.
The documentary’s strength is also its weakness. In its need to present information, the doc often loses sight of the angry, desperate, and necessary call-to-arms at the center of its message. The moments of true emotional catharsis come in the form of first-person testimonies from the lives Jenkins ruined at random. Devastated and infuriated, the victims recount their traumatic experiences with Baltimore PD’s racial profiling and corruption. These vignettes are the soul of the piece – where the film finds moments of true nuance, ethos, and bravery.
However, the balance of testimony offers scattershot cold legal expertise, with advisors desperate to spell out each step of Jenkin’s downfall.
The stark difference between the two testimonial styles feels left-footed, almost like audiences need to fully switch sections of the brain to properly interpret the speaker on screen.
I Got A Monster is not a documentary playing in the sandbox of multiple, shifting perspectives of opinion. To an extent, fans of documentaries expect and enjoy the feeling of whiplash. This piece is tough, in a way, because nary a soul alive would be able to justify the cruelty and corruption of Walter Jenkins. However, the complete unity of ideologies is what causes the awkward back and forth of ethos vs. facts. Finding some middle ground that gives audiences the touch of a differing perspective (for example, I would’ve loved to hear Jenkin’s legal defense team’s moral justifications) could’ve helped unify the important message as opposed to dissecting it.
I Got A Monster gives a voice to the handful of the men and women who had their agencies, freedoms, and, in some cases, beliefs of a just world ripped from them. The platform Abrams created for them is, in and of itself, worthy of praise and viewing.
While I Got A Monster often feels like a disjunct narrative, the people behind the Monster make it worthwhile.