by Brandon Thomas
Having already made a strong impression in last year’s Evil Dead Rise, Lily Sullivan delivers an even more impressive performance – and one where she’s the only actor on screen – in Monolith. Sullivan’s command of the screen for the entire 94 minute running time is a testament to her understanding of the material, and how that allows us, the audience, to recognize her character’s (known only as The Interviewer) complex motivations.
Monolith begins with Sullivan’s former journalist holed up in her parents’ luxury vacation home. Nursing an enormously bruised ego after having been fired from her previous job for not fully vetting a source, the Interviewer is desperately hoping for that next big thing that will find her career redemption. The answer is an anonymous email that leads the Interviewer to a woman who once had in her possession a mysterious black brick. As the Interviewer digs deeper, she finds that multiple people in various parts of the world also have these bricks. The more the Interviewer reveals about the bricks and their owners, the more she also starts to succumb to a mysterious force. Is it the influence of the bricks or is the Interviewer’s own hubris and vanity causing her to spiral?
Director Matt Vesely and writer Lucy Campbell are able to wring so much tension out of a single location and a lot of phone interviews. As already noted, much of Monolith’s success rests in Sullivan’s hands. Her isolation as an actress informs the same isolation that the Interviewer is feeling. The audience begins to slowly match the Interviewer’s paranoia and discomfort with the bricks and the strange influence that they seem to have over people. Vesely’s command of tone and mood syncs up perfectly with Sullivan’s captivating performance.
Monolith is the kind of film that teases that it might show its cards but never actually does. For movies that are high on plot this might be a problem, but Monolith is character-centric through and through and the ambiguity only serves the Interviewer as she sinks further and further into obsession with the bricks. In fact, while the finale itself retains that overall ambiguity, it also reveals just how deeply personal the Interviewer’s journey ends up being. It’s a satisfying reveal that isn’t treated as some sort of Shyamalan “surprise,” but instead acts as the final piece to understanding Sullivan’s character and her true motivations.
Monolith is the best kind of slow burn: one that trusts the audience to come along for a satisfying ride, but also delivers enough twists and unsettling scares that even the tiniest amount of boredom never sets in.
by Brandon Thomas
Guy Laury (Jay Duplass of TV’s Transparent) is eight years removed from the release of his successful first novel. Drowning in self-doubt and a healthy dose of writer’s block, Guy accepts an offer to travel to Nantucket Island for an isolated writing retreat. As Guy’s artistic inspiration remains elusive, he begins to wonder if there’s something sinister occurring in the house he’s staying in or maybe even with the entire island community itself.
So much of Ghostwritten’s success is found in mood and atmosphere. The gorgeous black & white cinematography brings the remote coldness of Nantucket Island to life in a way that chills to the bone. Bursts of color appear randomly to signify Guy’s splintering state of mind–whether it be hallucinations or vivid dreams. It’s an interesting approach to highlight the lack of cohesion surrounding Guy’s perception of what’s real and what isn’t. The abstract weirdness of the film helps keep the audience on its toes and continually asking if Guy is an unreliable narrator or is something kooky really going on.
Duplass plays Guy as a man constantly at war with his own desires. One can almost see Guy’s ego swell on screen when an Island’s residents tells him that they loved his first book. He loves the idea of being a writer and the praise it brings him, but actually putting the work in to write seems almost insurmountable to Guy. That the supposed haunting and other strange occurrences might be an elaborate way for Guy to put off writing is both depressing and mischievously funny.
Given Duplass’s non-acting work (he co-wrote Jeff, Who Lives At Home, Cyrus, and Baghead with his brother Mark), the abundance of comedy in Ghostwritten shouldn’t come as a surprise. Yes, there are legitimate attempts at scares and an unnerving tone, but the charming quirkiness of the film is undeniable and ultimately what makes the film stand out from this type of isolated genre fare.
Ghostwritten wades into a lot of familiar territory (The Wicker Man being an easy homage), but it does so with a quirky lead performance and an oddball approach to mood an atmosphere.
by Brandon Thomas
Darkly funny neo-noirs hit my cinematic sweet spot more often than not. The satisfaction of laughing at outrageous bursts of violence or complex plans that go awry is second to none. And throughout these entertaining narratives are classic aesthetic tropes that give filmmakers the opportunity to lean into equally satisfying visuals.
While the plot of Bad Hombres never enters complex territory, the characters and genre beats are more than enough to make up for it.
Felix (Diego Tinoco) has just arrived in the U.S. from Ecuador. Looking to send money home to his impoverished family, Felix and his cousin go to the local hardware store in the hopes that they can pick up work as day laborers. After his cousin is picked for a job but he isn’t, Felix is approached by a twitchy Australian (Luke Hemsworth, TV’s Westworld, Next Goal Wins) with an offer for an easy day’s work. Also on the job is gruff handyman Alfonso (Hemky Madera, Satanic Hispanics, Spider-Man: Homecoming).
Felix and Alfonso quickly realize the gig is more than basic labor after arriving to the job site to find several bodies and the Australian’s wounded partner (Paul Johansson, TV’s One Tree Hill).
Early on, Bad Hombres feels like it’s going to be your standard direct-to-streaming action thriller. The title alone doesn’t do much to dispel that initial gut reaction, either. However, once Hemsworth’s borderline lunatic character appears on screen, the dynamic shifts ever so slightly in favor of something a bit more interesting – and dare I say, chaotic. Director John Stalberg Jr. wisely paces himself and lets the crazy of Bad Hombres blossom naturally.
While it’s fair to say that Bad Hombres is a lower budget film, that never really comes across on screen. Stalberg’s direction is methodical and focused with a strong emphasis on visual storytelling. Despite having moments of explosive action, the film mostly consists of scenes of people having conversations. Even in these more “mundane” moments, the film’s energy never drops.
Along with Stalberg’s direction, the other secret ingredient in Bad Hombres is the cast. Madera is especially notable as the unapproachable Alfonso. As the film progresses and the layers of Alfonso’s backstory is revealed, Madera’s performance becomes so much more nuanced and exciting.
Hemsworth is having a blast playing a murderous madman who likes to portray himself as more politically progressive than he probably is. Even the always reliable Thomas Jane (The Punisher, The Mist), Tyrese Gibson (Fast & the Furious series), and Nick Cassavettes (best known for directing The Notebook) pop up in supporting roles.
Bad Hombres is a lean and mean bit of modern day neo-noir that manages to deliver well past its budget and defy expectations all at the same time.
by Brandon Thomas
With Clear Mind, director Rebecca Eskreis and writer Seanea Kofoed craft a darkly comedic tale of revenge while also poking fun at new age therapy.
After losing her daughter in a freak drowning accident, Nora (Rebecca Creskoff) finds herself adrift in grief. Her marriage over and dropped from her friend group, Nora seeks solace in a new form of virtual reality therapy. In the virtual world, Nora gets to exact revenge against the family and friends who have wronged her. Unfortunately the violence doesn’t stay virtual.
Despite presenting itself as a horror thriller, Clear Mind is surprising light on frights. As the carnage begins to splash across the screen later in the film, it’s only after Eskreis has subjected the audience to round after round of uncomfortable confrontations between Nora and her former friends. While the kills and gore gags might not wow horror fiends, the tension and seat-squirming anxiety created in the lead up more than makes up for it.
Despite being high-concept, Clear Mind is not a plot heavy film. The bulk of the movie features characters simply talking to one another around a table. It’s a testament to Kofoed’s writing that while the movie is overly chatty, it’s never boring. Only when the movie stops to propel the plot forward does Clear Mind stumble.
Eskreis and Kofoed’s commentary on therapy and the people found in Nora’s friend group is so well established through character relationships that any push to highlight it through plot seems disingenuous and clunky. The genre hook of the movie feels like the part the filmmakers were the least interested in.
Despite somewhat pulling punches with its genre elements, Clear Mind is still a well written jab at pseudo-science and the people in its orbit.
Everyone Will Burn
by Brandon Thomas
Ten years after her bullied son died by suicide, Maria (Macarena Gomez) looks to end her own life on a lonely bridge in the Spanish countryside. Before she can make the decision, Maria is approached by a small girl covered in soot and dirt. The girl, Lucia (Sofia Garcia) has achondroplasia, which is a form of dwarfism and also the same condition Maria’s son had. As Maria and Lucia’s bond intensifies, so does Lucia’s desire to rid the small town of the people who tormented Maria’s son and have continued to antagonize his suffering mother.
Director David Hebrero throws a lot at the wall with Everyone Will Burn and amazingly, most of it sticks. Most prominently is the exploration of how people with certain mysterious health conditions are treated as “other” or even “evil”. It’s an ugly part of humanity we all believe to be in the past, but Hebrero puts the spotlight on how fear and misunderstanding can bring out the worst in even the most well-intentioned people.
Hebrero’s visual language is hypnotic and often dream-like throughout. As Lucia dispatches members of the community (the highlight being the opening few minutes that leaves a policeman engulfed in flames), the nightmarish events taking place are fully realized through the expert camerawork. Similar to American filmmaker Ari Aster, Hebrero wrings a copious amount of tension out of seemingly mundane scenes around a dinner table or after a funeral. These are the scenes that left me squirming in my seat – not the ones involving carnage.
Gomez is mesmerizing as the haunted Maria. There’s a lot of emotional weight to this performance and Gomez seamlessly transfers Maria’s grief and guilt from earlier in the movie, to wrath and righteous anger in the back half. It’s a performance so captivating that, despite Maria’s spiral into bloody vengeance, you can’t help but cheer her on.
Everyone Will Burn starts strong and never lets its foot off of the gas pedal for the entire 2 hour running time. Visually, emotionally, and viscerally, this is a film that will stand tall and proud alongside the other excellent horror films of 2023.
by Brandon Thomas
A good creature feature is hard to do on an indie budget. Many filmmakers have tried – and failed spectacularly – to bring monsters to life with little money and even worse, little imagination. The Beast of Walton Street bucks that trend by delivering thrilling monster mayhem and a steady supply of wit and heart.
In a nameless Ohio town, a beast is roaming the Christmas decorated streets and picking off the most vulnerable: the unhoused. Friends Constance (Athena Murzda) and Sketch (Mia Jones) live on the fringes of society – barely scraping by and living in an abandoned auto repair shop. As the two notice more and more of the city’s at-risk residents disappearing, they decide to take matters into their own hands and defend their town from the ravenous beast.
There’s a palpable level of energy that flows through the entirety of The Beast of Walton Street. Director Dusty Austen’s competency behind the camera is evident and admirable. The level of care and skill shown toward the craft of filmmaking is immediately recognizable in the editing, blocking, lighting, and shot composition. Craft is something that unfortunately falls to the wayside in many indie films, but in The Beast of Walton Street it’s on full display.
Austen is wisely economical when it comes to showing the titular beast (which is actually a werewolf). How Austen chose to shoot and edit around the beast is truly impressive. This reviewer was reminded of Ridley Scott’s Alien on more than one occasion. The ferocity of the werewolf is never lost on the viewer and so much of that is due to Austen’s confident handling of craft.
On the flip-side, the human element of Beast of Walton Street is just as impressive. While Murzda carries the film as the lead, both she and Jones have a delightfully charming chemistry that makes the beast-less scenes just as fun. While neither actor has a long resume (yet!), their comfort and flexibility in front of the camera is evident.
The Beast of Walton Street doesn’t reinvent the werewolf wheel, but what it does is offer up an Amblin-esque punk rock creature feature, and that is more than enough for me.
by Brandon Thomas
To give their crumbling relationship one last shot, Jamie (Ellen Adair) and Alex (Mitzi Akaha) head into the wilderness for a weekend of camping. After a canoeing accident leaves Alex injured, the two make their way out of the woods in search of medical help. Instead, the couple finds that society in their immediate area has crumbled due to a localized outbreak. Infected people are roaming the countryside, murdering and spreading the infection.
The idea of a zombie movie with a message feels like a drinking game at this moment in time. Take your first drink when the surprised heroes stumble upon the outbreak already in full effect. Toss back that second drink when the movie muses that – gasp – mankind might be the real monster. Then make sure you have a hangover in the morning by polishing off the six-pack when one of the main characters hides that they’ve been bitten or scratched by the infected. Movies in this subgenre are basically about checking boxes at this point, and Herd is unfortunately no different.
The film opens promisingly enough by focusing on Jamie and Alex’s relationship. The two actors are more than up for the challenge even if the writing isn’t. Both Adair and Akaha handle the emotional tension with ease well before anything horrific begins. It’s a shame that the film becomes too preoccupied with 3 or 4 other plot threads later in the film to truly give these characters their due.
Herd never quite knows what it wants to do other than offer up reheated ideas and sequences from better films. The drama within the human survivors is telegraphed a mile away – or longer depending on how many seasons of The Walking Dead you’ve seen. Even the zombies – or infected? – feel like a much too recent rip-off of The Last of Us. The lack of originality makes for the worst kind of horror movie: a boring one.
Director Steven Pierce does at least deliver an aesthetically pleasing film. It’s well-shot, the assembled cast is professional, and Herd even has a few decent action sequences. However, a polished exterior isn’t enough to hide a script full of incomplete thoughts.
The one bright spot is the inclusion of rising genre favorite Jeremy Holm (The Ranger, Brooklyn 45). Holm’s presence in the film produces certain audience assumptions early on, so it’s doubly satisfying when the character ends up being one of the more morally upright in the movie.
With a half-baked script that relies too heavily on decades-old ideas, Herd is another recent zombie movie that’s D.O.A.
by Brandon Thomas
Emily (Phoebe Dynever of Bridgerton) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich of Solo: A Star Wars Story) are several years into a whirlwind romance. Despite being madly in love – and newly engaged to boot – they have to be careful about how public they are with their relationship. See, Emily and Luke work for a cutthroat hedgefund firm where relationships among staff are frowned upon. After Emily earns a valued promotion in the firm – and also finds herself Luke’s boss – things between the young couple take a dramatic turn for the worse.
Workplace gender politics have been explored on film for decades and through many different lenses and genres. Films like His Girl Friday, 9 to 5, and Norma Rae all used the interplay between the sexes to craft timeless stories. Some films showed more interest than others in actually commenting on the complexities of these relationships in a place of work. Most, however, just mined it for obvious dramatic or comedic content. In more modern times, movies like Fair Play attempt to make a more complex statement on the mixing of personal life and work life and often from the perspective of female filmmakers.
So much of Fair Play’s success or failure rides on the relationship between Dynever and Ehrenreich. Thankfully, both bring their A game and end up absolutely sizzling on the screen. There’s a lived-in element to their relationship that feels genuine and passionate.
Equal attention must be given to writer/director Chloe Domont’s intense screenplay. Her patience as both a writer and director pays dividends in many of the film’s longer scenes – allowing the actors and the writing to shine concurrently. For most of Fair Play’s running time, the story never outpaces the characters and that’s a testament to Domont’s handling of the narrative.
While not at all flashy, Domont’s direction is specific and has an intriguing point of view. Set amongst the hustle-and-bustle of New York City, there’s never a lingering shot of Manhattan’s gorgeous skyline. The direction is often kept tight and claustrophobic – keeping scenes focused on the characters and the chaos bubbling up around them.
It’s all the more disappointing when Fair Play stumbles late. The complex drama is jettisoned in favor of a more standard thriller that might’ve starred Michael Douglas sometime in the 1990s. The need to make one of the characters a cliched villain feels tacked on and not spiritually in line with the thoughtful nature of the film’s first two acts.
Despite a less than thrilling conclusion, the majority of Fair Play is a taut drama that puts character before plot.
by Brandon Thomas
Most time travel movies don’t get into ethical dilemmas that going into the past – or future – might cause. The plot is usually too confusing anyway so adding moral problems to the mix might send audiences screaming from the theaters. With Aporia, director Jared Moshe makes the ethics of time travel the centerpiece of the movie and to riveting results.
It’s been 8 months since Sophie (Judy Greer of 13 Going on 30, Ant-Man, and 2018’s Halloween) lost her husband, Mal (Edi Gathegi of X-Men: First Class and Gone Baby Gone) to a drunk driver. Mal’s loss has had a devastating impact on Sophie and her daughter Riley (Faithe Herman). As the two try to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, Mal’s close friend Jabir (Payman Maadi) confides in Sophie that he has been working on a device that could potentially bring Mal back but that it would involve killing someone else in the past.
Aporia slowly reveals its cards, or genre trappings, if you will. Stylistically the film skews closer to an indie drama than it does sci-fi. This is also the film’s greatest strength. As Sophie and Jabir’s changes to the past take form in the present, it’s not through fancy CGI set-pieces. Clever changes in production design or the cast’s appearance are utilized to showcase the ripple effect in time. These easy gags help keep the film grounded. Moshe refuses to get lost in the complex mechanics of the story, instead leaning into the characters and the roller coaster of emotions they ride through the film.
The deeper Aporia questions the ethics of changing time, the more interesting the film becomes. Using these characters to ask complex questions about grief and responsibility was clearly where Moshe felt most inspired when making the film. Movies use the scenario of going back in time to kill baby Hitler as the ultimate moral time travel question. Aporia theorizes that this question – and many like it – doesn’t always have simple answers or solutions.
Greer continues to show that she deserves to be seen as more than “Hey, that girl!” Her relatability and charm help keep the character lighter than the subject matter might have allowed. Like the character of Sophie herself, Greer delicately dances between emotions – sometimes in the same scene. Given the small size of the cast, the chemistry between the core three is important and both Gathegi and Maadi also bring a natural gravitas to the film.
Aporia asks a lot of interesting and important questions but it’s the kind of film that isn’t necessarily interested in following through with answers. Here that isn’t a detriment as the journey through asking those questions makes for one of the smartest time travel films in recent memory.