Wanted: Friends with More Imagination

IF

by Hope Madden

Filmmaker John Krasinski—whose directorial output thus far has aimed at terrifying audiences soundless—turns his attention to something that’s never been scary in a movie: imaginary friends.

No, actually, except for the rare exception, every film about imaginary friends is horrifying. But Krasinski’s channeling Harvey, not Donnie Darko with his family friendly IF.

IF for Imaginary Friend, harmless beasties that are running rampant near Coney Island. You see, kids grow up and just forget all about their old, reliable imaginary friends. Once that happens, the IFs lose their purpose.

Bea (Cailey Fleming) is staying nearby with her grandmother (Fiona Shaw) while her dad’s (Krasinski) in the hospital. She keeps running into these IFs and decides to help their grumpy (if handsome) handler (Ryan Reynolds) find them new homes.

The whole affair has a throwback quality to it, which suits its unabashedly sentimental attitude about childhood and imagination. The existential crisis recalls Toy Story films, but Krasinski is more concerned with the humans in his tale.

Fleming does a fine job as the 12-year-old who’s decided she’s all grown up, and a dialed down Reynolds is sweet enough. The film boasts an assortment of vocal talent for the various IFs: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Steve Carell, Louis Gossett, Jr., Amy Shumer, Maya Rudolph, George Clooney, Jon Stewart, Sam Rockwell, Richard Jenkins, Blake Lively, Bradley Cooper, Matt Damon, Keegan-Michael Key, Bill Hader and Emily Blunt (wonder how he got her).

What IF lacks is a wild imagination. Everything is so very tame. The wholesomeness blunts any edges of the grief and fear at the heart of Bea’s story. And Krasinski’s story takes any number of turns without really deciding on a direction.

Krasinski’s movie looks good, but the tale he’s telling wanders in a lot of unfinished direction and leaves you with nothing to really remember.

Torch Song Tragedy

Back to Black

by George Wolf

Since Walk Hard gave the music biopic genre a well-deserved skewering nearly 20 years ago, new entries have scored with ambitious fantasy (Rocketman), pandered with crowd-pleasing safety (Bohemian Rhapsody) and curiously turned a superstar into a one note supporting player (Elvis).

Back to Black‘s biggest drawback is a failure to commit to one vision, rightly giving Amy Winehouse agency for her own destiny, but pulling some important punches that could have deepened the impact.

Marisa Abela (Barbie‘s “Teen Talk Barbie,” TV’s Industry) is sensational as Amy, ably capturing the wounded soul and the defiant train wreck while laying down some impressive lip sync performances. Her chemistry with an equally terrific Jack O’Connell (as Blake Fielder-Civil) fuels the film’s best moments, as the tortured lovers navigate between heartsick devotion and toxic co-dependency, sometimes reminiscent of Sid and Nancy.

Biopics usually benefit from narrowing the focus, but director Sam Taylor-Johnson and writer Matt Greenhalgh reach outside the romance for a rushed look at Amy’s journey to stardom and some seemingly sanitized takes on her relationships with Dad Mitch (Eddie Marsan) and “Nan” Cynthia (Lesley Manville).

Anyone who remembers the Oscar-winning doc Amy will notice a much different treatment of Mitch Winehouse here. How much of this was required for the family blessing is unclear, but the film does benefit from a depiction of Amy that finds a balance of forgiveness and accountability.

Taylor-Johnson’s hand is steady but fairly generic, with a tendency to revisit some obvious visual metaphors. And though you end up wishing Back to Black could have confidence enough to sharpen its edge, stellar performances flesh out the sad tragedy of a gifted life spiraling out of control.

Put On a Happy Face

Faceless After Dark

by Hope Madden

Back in 2016, Jenna Kanell made a horror movie, a low budget affair, the unofficial sequel to a very minor indie nearly no one saw. By that point in her career, Kanell had made half dozen or more low budget indie features, done loads of TV,  shorts, and a few music videos. In all likelihood, Terrifier didn’t register at the time as anything other than one more microbudget horror flick.

But that is not what Terrifier turned out to be, is it? The little clown killer that could undoubtedly changed Kanell’s career, perhaps not in all the ways the actor/writer/director/stunt performer might have wanted it to. What’s a not-final girl to do?

Kanell channeled the experience into the new feature, Faceless After Dark, which she co-wrote with Todd Jacobs. Directed by Raymond Wood, the film follows a disgruntled struggling actress named Bowie (Kanell) who pays more bills selling autographs at horror cons than through actual acting gigs—but the clown from her hit movie earns more.

Plus, her more famous girlfriend is still closeted about the relationship, and her longtime best friend’s film got greenlit—as long as he gives the lead to a different actress.

And, of course, you have the creepy fans.

It all gets to be too much one night, until Bowie taps into her own creativity and becomes the artist she was meant to be.

Meta can get very tiresome, especially in horror, but there’s something wearily honest about its application in Faceless After Dark. At its best, the film is a reflection of the maddening obstacles facing people—women, specifically—trying to survive Hollywood.

Kanell delivers a commanding performance and the writing is sound, even if the plotting is a little obvious and superficial and the psychotic break feels unearned. But as a showcase for Kanell’s charisma, and an often satisfying reaction to the rampant misogyny in cinema and particularly in fan culture, it’s fun.

Nature Boy

Evil Does Not Exist

by George Wolf

Two years ago, the magnificent Drive My Car became the first Japanese film to garner a Best Picture Oscar nomination, and earned Ryûsuke Hamaguchi well-earned noms for writing and directing.

Now, writer/director Hamaguchi rewards his wider audience with Evil Does Not Exist (Aku wa sonzai shinai), another thoughtful, gracefully intellectual tale that finds him in an even more enigmatic mood.

Takumi and his young daughter live in Mizubiki, a Japanese village near Tokyo. Father teaches daughter about the wonders of nature, and about her place in the village’s careful balance of give and take.

That balance is threatened when a big firm plans to build a ”glamping” (glamorous camping) site very close to Takumi’s own house. Two P.R. reps come to convince the villagers that the company will also be careful, but these townsfolk know manure when they smell it.

The reps try to curry favor by offering Takumi a job as caretaker of the glamping site, but the more time they spend with this pillar of the simple life, the more they start to see wisdom in his ways.

Hamaguchi delivers some salient points on ecology while showcasing his skill with probing character purpose, motivation and the different ways they interact.

At a town meeting, an older villager gently reminds the P.R. reps about the responsibilities that come with “living upstream,” and the speech becomes an eloquent metaphor that the film begins dissecting with sometimes abstract detail.

And though the one hundred six-minute running time might seem rushed for a filmmaker that has favored three, four, and even five-hour films, Hamaguchi’s storytelling here is more patient than ever. Yoshio Kitagawa’s exquisite cinematography often showcases nature’s beauty in wordless wonder, always buoyed by an Eiko Ishibashi score that is evocative and moving.

What Evil Does Not Exist doesn’t do is provide any easy answers for the dramatic choices Takumi makes once his daughter goes missing. The film ends as it begins, staring into the natural world and asking us to ponder how we best fit in.

Graveyard Shift

Nightwatch: Demons Are Forever

by Hope Madden

Thirty years ago, Danish writer/director Ole Bornedal made a taut thriller about the night watchman in a medical facility who stumbles into a lurid crime spree. Three years later, he made Nightwatch again, this time in English. And now, fully three decades hence, he hits those of us who remember either of the earlier films with a sequel: Nightwatch: Demons Are Forever.

Back in the day, Martin (Nikolaj Coser-Waldau) took a job as overnight security to help pay for law school. Today, his daughter Emma (Fanny Leander Bornedal) does the same. Yes, she needs the money—since her mom’s suicide, her dad Martin is mainly drunk or pilled up and hasn’t worked in ages. But Emma has added reason. She just learned that her dad was involved in the famous serial killer case that ended in the building morgue.

Emma now blames the trauma for her mother’s suicide and her dad’s inability to cope, but her digging around has opened up a whole mess of new problems. Or old ones.

The filmmaker moves ably from the existential crises that fueled his original film to the ripple effects of trauma. He treads enough of the same beats to create an eerie echo of the past, but veers in mainly sensible new directions.

We do get to spend time with the majority of the original cast, though most of them appear for a scene, maybe two. Coser-Waldau anchors the sequel. Far from the wide-eyed youth who was so malleable thirty years ago, Martin is now barely functioning but earnestly interested in doing right by his daughter.

The filmmaker’s own daughter cuts a compelling contrast as Martin’s daughter. Determined and a little raw, Emma makes some rash decisions, but they never feel like dumb choices in service of a thriller’s scares. They feel like passion and impatience.

The mystery itself begins strong with an increasingly interesting perpetrator (Casper Kjær Jensen, tender and terrifying), but eventually devolves into something too pulpy and familiar. Still, Ole Bornedal has not lost his touch with the claustrophobic terror of being trapped inside a medical facility.

If you loved the original (or ‘97s solid remake with Ewan McGregor), Nightwatch: Demons Are Forever delivers bittersweet closure. But it’s an entertaining if not fantastic watch for thriller fans new to the franchise as well.

Unfortunate Son

Adam the First

by Rachel Willis

A father (David Duchovny) takes his son into the woods to reveal that he is not the boy’s real father in writer/director Irving Franco’s film, Adam the First.

Jumping ahead in time, Adam (Oakes Fegley) still lives with the man who’s not his father and a woman whom he calls mother (Kim Jackson Davis), but a disruptive event sets the boy on a quest to find his real father. What follows is a dream-like odyssey through the rural forests and swamps of Mississippi.

An underlying tension follows Adam throughout his journey. He makes several bad decisions (and a few good ones) while meeting a colorful cast of characters – all of whom seem willing to help him.  

The lush Mississippi backdrop provides a splendid setting for the surreal quality of the film. Though rooted in reality, there are several unusual features in Adam’s quest, and it helps to build tension as we wonder what Adam will do when he locates his father. Despite that anxiety, Adam carries an undeniable sweetness to him. You want him to make better decisions; you want him to find what he needs.

Each person that enters Adam’s life offers him something that he uses to continue on. Some of dialogue feels more natural than other – some character’s offer a little too much wisdom, a stumble in an otherwise very naturalistic film. But even with these (very few) weaker moments, each character comes to life in their own ways, bringing something unique to the table.

Even though this is a quiet film that takes its time getting from one scene to the next, there is never a slow moment. You’re content to follow where Adam leads. That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have a few explosive moments, but everything unfolds in its own time.

Franco masterfully balances each element of Adam’s story. Some of the film is heartbreaking, as Adam faces challenges that would hinder a less-determined person. But what Adam is searching for is what many of us want: happiness, security, family. Adam the First is a outstanding examination of the indomitable human will.

Fright Club: Best Nicolas Cage Horror Movies

We love him. You love him. Once considered one of the greatest actors of his generation, later deemed a nut job with unusual spending habits who would take any role, Nicolas Cage has finally set the debate to rest. He is obviously both.

Whether his masterpiece performances—Raising Arizona, Moonstruck, Wild at Heart, Leaving Las Vegas, Adaptation, Pig—or his many other great, good, mediocre and outright terrible films, Cage is a guy you can’t take your eyes off of. But what are his best horror films? Let’s dig in.

5. Renfield (2023)

They totally made a movie with a very saucy Nic Cage as Dracula. And a saucy Nic Cage is the best Nic Cage.

There’s at least one bloody toe in waters that send up rom-coms, satirize narcissistic relationships and homage a classic horror character while it’s also modernizing the themes that built him.

But experiencing Count Nicula alone is worth it. Plus, Nicholas Hoult is perfect as the put-upon sad boy with access to anti-hero superpowers and Awkwafina can wring plenty of humor from simply telling a guy named Kyle to F-off.

Renfield might be bloodier than you expect, but it’s just as much fun as you’re hoping for. Call it bloody good fun.

4. Grindhouse (2007)

Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez deserved more eyeballs when they released their giddy mash note to low rent B-horror features. Both films were great, but what was really inspired were the fake trailers they wedged between the two features.

One of the best trailers, and possibly the fest film Rob Zombie ever made, was this gem that looks like a realistic evolution of an old Sybil Danning film. (Danning herself co-stars as one of the She-Devils of Belzac). The chef’s kiss is Cage, cackling maniacally over the end of the clip as Fu Manchu.

3. Mom and Dad (2017)

I brought you into this world, I can take you out of it.

It’s a joke, of course, an idle threat. Right?

Maybe so, but deep down, it does speak to the unspeakable tumult of emotions and desires that come with parenting. Wisely, a humorous tumult is exactly the approach writer/director Brian Taylor  brings to his horror comedy Mom and Dad.

So why do you want to see it? Because of the unhinged Nicolas Cage. Not just any Nic Cage—the kind who can convincingly sing the Hokey Pokey while demolishing furniture with a sledge hammer.

This is one of those Nic Cage roles: Face/Off meets Wild at Heart meets Vampire’s Kiss. He’s weird, he’s explosive and he is clearly enjoying himself.

2. Vampire’s Kiss (1988)

Sure, Nicolas Cage is a whore, a has-been, and his wigs embarrass us all. But back before The Rock (the film that turned him), Cage was always willing to behave in a strangely effeminate manner, and perhaps even eat a bug. He made some great movies that way.

Peter Lowe (pronounced with such relish by Cage) believes he’s been bitten by a vampire (Jennifer Beals) during a one night stand. It turns out, he’s actually just insane. The bite becomes his excuse to indulge his self-obsessed, soulless, predatory nature for the balance of the running time.

Cage gives a masterful comic performance in Vampire’s Kiss as a narcissistic literary editor who descends into madness. The actor is hilarious, demented, his physical performance outstanding. The way he uses his gangly mess of limbs and hulking shoulders inspires darkly, campy comic awe. And the plastic teeth are awesome.

Peter may believe he abuses his wholesome editorial assistant Alva (Maria Conchita Alonso) with sinister panache because he’s slowly turning into a demon, but we know better.

1. Mandy (2018)

Writer/director Panos Cosmatos’s 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 Cosmatos’s 2010 debut Beyond the Black RainbowMandy 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.

Screening Room: Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, Last Stop in Yuma County, The Dry 2 & More

Leaving Yuma Is Never Easy

The Last Stop in Yuma County

by Hope Madden

Writer/director Francis Galluppi was chosen to helm the next Evil Dead film. Don’t know him? Wondering what the visceral spew gods Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell see in him? The Last Stop in Yuma County may be your best chance to find out.

The filmmaker’s first feature boasts a collection of genuine talent, each playing a character who shows up one fateful morning at an out of the way diner known for rhubarb pie so good you’ll die.

They’re not there for the pie, though. Gas truck’s late and this is the last station for a hundred miles. They’re waiting: a knife salesman on the way to his daughter’s birthday party (Jim Cummings), an older couple with no place pressing to be (Gene Jones, Robin Bartlett), two bank robbers (Richard Brake, Nicolas Logan), plus Charlotte (Jocelin Donahue), keeping their coffee cups full.

It’s a potent setup, which is likely why so many films have settled into similar booths. While Galluppi works the tension afforded by his premise, he has surprises aplenty in store as well. Most of them spring from the characters that are established quickly and well by his cast.

Brake—reliable as ever in the coolly authoritative villain role—wastes no energy or dialog. He’s a menacing presence in every scene inside the diner. Logan, as his loose cannon younger brother, creates tension and relieves it comically in equal measure.

Characters come and go as we move toward the inevitable standoff, but each actor is able to carve out something memorable. But the one you never forget, no matter how little he does, is Cummings.

No one delivers earnest human weakness with as much awkward tenderness as Cummings, and even when he’s hiding under his table, you know something more is coming.

The Last Stop in Yuma County is a single-location film done extremely well, mining visual details in place of exposition, relying on character to enrich its slight premise, and delivering giddy tension. It’s full of fun, blood and surprises.   

Four’s a Crowd

Lazareth

by Rachel Willis

After a deadly virus strikes, a trio of women turn their home into a sanctuary, cut off from the outside and safe in director Alec Tibaldi’s film, Lazareth.

As years pass in this virus-plagued world, we watch Lee (Ashley Judd) and her nieces Maeve (Sarah Pidgeon) and Imogen (Katie Douglas) carve out rituals and chores to keep themselves going. With a truck that somehow still works, Lee makes trips into town for supplies, but as she warns the girls, things in town are bad.

There is a lot of information given in a small amount of time that stretches the thin cord of belief. After so many years, it’s hard to accept there are certain items still available. However, it’s interesting to see how these three women work together to maintain their fragile existence. As the film progresses, we get answers to several questions, but some things remain vague.

The two sisters, Maeve and Imogen, are the film’s strongest characters. Having little experience of the world prior to the pandemic, they rely on their aunt to keep them safe. Most of what they believe is taken on faith.

It seems as though writer/director Alec Tibaldi expects much of the same from the audience. It’s never clear what Lee’s motivations are. When Maeve’s eyes are open to various truths, her choices are unfathomable. Imogen never has much chance to develop as more than “girl smitten with new boy,” which, to be fair, isn’t too far out of the realm of possibility as she’s a teenage girl who’s never met a boy before.

The boy in question, Owen (Asher Angel), quickly threatens to upend Lee’s fragile world. The tightrope Lee has been walking threatens to fall from under her.

There is some tension after Owen arrives, but it’s never quite enough to make us fearful for our trio of survivors. We also don’t spend enough time getting to know who they are to care what happens to them, and the characters do things that contradict what we think we know of them.

If done well, these surprises can keep audience off balance, but when done poorly, it’s another thorn in a viewer’s side. Lazareth is an island surrounded by thorns, never giving anyone a chance to learn much of anything.

Hope Madden and George Wolf … get it?