Unhappy Homemaker

Don’t Worry Darling

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

There’s drama, scandal, ghosting, possible spitting – Don’t Worry Darling is known for it all. And none of it’s even in the movie!

So, if you separate Olivia Wilde’s sophomore effort behind the camera from its pre-launch baggage, what do you have? An absolutely gorgeous if somewhat superficial critique of how little progress women – especially married women ­­– have made in terms of agency and control.

Its main recommendation is Florence Pugh, which should surprise no one. Her performances are always fiercely intimate and human; Alice is no different. Lovely wife of Jack Chambers (Harry Styles), Alice cocktails with the ladies, hums while she cleans, prepares a mean roast, and enjoys a healthy sex life with her devoted Jack.

Jack, that’s a manly name. You know what else is? Frank. And manly Frank (Chris Pine) is the force behind the town of Victory. He’s the visionary, the gatekeeper, the Great and Powerful Oz – and Pine relishes every scene-chewing moment on the screen. He is particularly effective when sparring with and menacing Pugh. Their spark is so strong it only makes the rest of the cast appear dimmer.

But we know something is amiss in Victory because nothing screams “something is amiss” to viewers as quickly as a colorfully wholesome late 50s vibe. But man, does Wilde and her production designer Katie Bryon nail that vibe. It’s like Mad Men meets Better Homes and Gardens with cool cars and fabulous costumes to boot, all of it choreographed to flow like the synchronized dance numbers forever punctuating the narrative.

What Wilde shows us is slick, stylish and well-constructed. What she’s telling us is fine, too, it’s just that none of it is as profound as Wilde and screenwriters Katie Silberman, Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke seem to think it is.

They make salient points about testosterone-laden rabbit holes and the inequalities that many demand of a “great” America, but their hand is rarely subtle. And when it comes, even the Twilight Zone moment lands with more shaky logic than well-earned resonance.

But Don’t Worry Darling isn’t worthy of gossip column dismissal, either. There is talent spread throughout the community here, just nothing in the collective effort that’s truly memorable. And like those hot new developments built on remnants of old ones, the film ultimately feels like a shiny new makeover of familiar ideas.

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.  

Screening Room: The Woman King, Pearl, Moonage Daydream, Confess Fletch, See How They Run & More

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.

Devotion

The Altruist

by Hope Madden

You will not see this one coming.

A fascinating amalgamation of absurdism, visual storytelling, mystery and body horror, Matt Smith’s short The Altruist alarms and entertains in equal measure. Menacing images — metal hooks hanging from a ceiling, filthy cellar walls, a woman in a befouled metal framed bed — to set a mood he will puncture in the most remarkable, unexpected and weirdly humorous ways.  

Sound design, too, keeps telling you that you know what is about to happen. And yet, with every passing scene, you are bound to wonder What the hell is going on?

There is a layer of wild absurdity just beneath the expertly crafted horror environment, but Smith has more in store than cheeky sleight of hand. The story of Daniel (Smith) and his lady love (Elizabeth Jackson) mines a revulsion that, though extreme in this case, hits a nerve. And even that doesn’t go where you expect it to go.

Both actors deliver peculiarly lived-in and rounded characters. Jackson, who essentially repeats one line in varying degrees of neediness, defies limitations. Smith, who benefits from more space and dialog to work with, creates a tight mix of anxiety, guilt and longing.

By the time the film turns playfully sexual, well, just try not to be disturbed.

Set design, shot choices and Cronenberg-level viscera demand your constant attention. But more than anything, the film is a masterpiece of imagination. Icky, glorious imagination.

The Altruist begins screening on Bloody Bites from Bloody Disgusting and Screambox on September 19.

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.

Hope Madden and George Wolf … get it?