Tag Archives: Brandon Thomas

The Truth Shall Set You Free

Unsilenced

by Brandon Thomas

Based on real events, Unsilenced follows a group of students as they navigate the political turmoil around the 1999 Chinese ban of religious movement Falun Gong.

As the crackdown against Falun Gong practitioners intensifies, the students find themselves in the crosshairs of the Chinese government through their refusal to adhere to the ban. American journalist Daniel Davis (Sam Trammell of True Blood) begins to dig into the torture and suppression surrounding the Falun Gong ban when the students go into hiding. When their paths meet, both the students and Daniel have to make a choice about how important the truth is.

Hard-hitting political movies aren’t a new phenomenon here in America. From All the President’s Men to JFK and Selma, movies depicting real-life political events and movements are a part of our cinematic DNA. The same can’t be said for places such as China, which is now one of the top movie-going countries in the world. Films challenging China’s political history never come out of the country itself, and even those foreign-made films face increased scrutiny and push-back from the Communist nation.

Despite the potential “touchiness” of the subject matter, director Leon Lee has made a film that is almost devoid of subtlety. The direct messaging feels purposeful, as Lee crafts a film much more interested in delivering a message than telling a strong story. The story still resonates, but through a guise of a TV movie-of-the-week with on-the-nose performances and flat photography.

Even with the narrative clumsiness, Unsilenced manages to have some thrilling moments. The segments featuring Trammell as the American reporter work the best as they threaten to take the story into more of a political thriller than a drama. The shoe-horning in of a Western white guy isn’t the best of looks these days, but it’s interesting how Lee’s focus as a director narrows during these scenes.

Although Unsilenced suffers somewhat from that lack of subtlety, the message being conveyed comes through a lens of genuine caring. Lee’s entire filmmaking career to this point has focused on human rights. While most of that work has been through documentary film, Lee’s few segues into narrative features have kept the spotlight on the issues that are important to him as an artist. Even if the final product isn’t a home run, it’s impressive to see a filmmaker tackle an issue over and over with the same fiery passion.

Alone in the Dark

See for Me

by Brandon Thomas

There’s nothing better than a thriller with a great hook. Sometimes it’s as simple as a private investigator with a fear of heights being used as a pawn in a murder, such as Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Sometimes the hook is much more elaborate like the narrative and truth-bending nature of Christopher Nolan’s Memento. In director Randall Okita’s See for Me, the hook falls somewhere in the middle as a blind housesitter is pitted against three thieves. 

After a skiing accident leaves her visually impaired, Sophie (Skyler Davenport) is hired to house sit for a wealthy client. After the sun sets, Sophie is surprised by three intruders looking for a massive cash score from the home’s safe. While able to call 911, Sophie needs immediate help and uses an app called “See for Me” to connect with a technician who can relay what they’re seeing through Sophie’s phone. Luckily for Sophie, Kelly (Jessica Parker Kennedy) is a former combat vet. As the intruders become aware of Sophie’s presence, Jessica uses her expertise to direct the at-risk Sophie out of harm’s way.

Great hook or not, See for Me is a fairly simplistic movie in execution. Okita never tries to jazz the picture up with crazy camera work or elaborate set pieces. Panic Room this movie is not (and more so for budget reasons, one would think). Okita uses the frame wisely as the suspense of Sophie’s predicament slowly plays out. The house is one of the stars of the movie with its large rooms, high ceilings, and exposure through floor-to-ceiling windows. Okita makes sure we’re allowed to see so much of what’s happening within the house while Sophie cannot, a strategic move that naturally increases the tension.

Davenport commands every second of her screen time. A visually impaired person in real life, Davenport’s approach to Sophie is one of complexity. There’s a stubbornness to the character as she refuses to be seen as anything less than capable in the eyes of those around her. Sometimes that comes out as hostility toward family, friends and even clients. This stubbornness becomes an important asset as Sophie barters with her would-be captors, and uses Kelly’s guidance to fight back. 

The use of the “See for Me” app threatens to strain believability at times, mostly in how Sophie is turned into an expert marksman with little to no guidance. For a film so grounded for most of its running time, these bits in the movie’s back half tend to stick out and betray its smarter elements. 

Through a clever hook and a great lead performance, See For Me becomes one of 2022’s first stand-out thrillers. 

25 for 2021

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Looking back, what will we remember about the 2021 year in film? Musicals, black and white palettes, smoking, ensembles and impressive debuts are the trends we’ll think of first. But more specifically, we’ll remember these 25 favorites:

1. Licorice Pizza

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is loose, forgiving, and along for the ride as 15-year-old entrepreneur Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) woos life, Hollywood and, in particular, Alana Kane (Alana Haim), his much older paramour.

Danger edges but never fully punctures the sunshine of youth that brightens every scene of the movie. But that darkness is there, looming like the creepy guy staring at your office window, or the cops who arrest you mistakenly, or the volatile Hollywood producer who may or may not smash your window (or your head) in with a crowbar. (Thank you, Bradley Cooper, by the way, for that brief but unforgettable performance.)

It’s nostalgic. It’s uproarious, dangerous, just-this-side-of-innocent fun. It’s a near-masterpiece.

2. The Power of the Dog

Even if you haven’t read the celebrated source novel by Thomas Savage, director Jane Campion’s adaptation unfolds with enough subtle poetry to convince you that it must be a wonderful read. Onscreen, the Oscar-winning Campion (The Piano) contrasts the vast majesty of the American West (kudos to cinematographer Ari Wegner) with delicate details that shift the nature of love, trust and strength within a family.

Kodi Smit-McFee, Jesse Plemmons, Kirstin Dunst and a particularly brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch bring her story to life. The Power of the Dog finds its own power in what it shows but never truly tells. It’s a film that is hauntingly lyrical and masterfully assembled, with a beauty that lingers like an echo in the Montana wilderness.

3. The Tragedy of Macbeth

Coen brother Joel delivers a vision that’s both decidedly theatrical and profoundly cinematic with his solo directorial effort. Filmed in Bergman-esque black and white to glorious ends, Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand play the Lord and his Lady and this, friends, is a dream team. Two of the most celebrated and talented actors of modern cinema square off, and the veterans give an inconic relationship a depth that tinges the eventual madness with touching grief.

A uniformly brilliant ensemble (kudos in particular to Kathryn Hunter’s inspired turn as the witches) gives this dreamy take on the Bard its life.

Coen’s venture into Shakespeare, though it strips away the humor and quirk you may associate with Coen Brother filmmaking, stands as a strikingly Coen film. And that has never one time been a bad thing.

4. Summer of Soul

According to director Amir “Questlove” Thompson, the first time he saw some of the digitized footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival concerts, he nearly wept.

You might, too.

From the gospel of Mahalia Jackson to the blues of B.B. King, from the 5th Dimension’s smooth pop to Sly Stone’s psychedelic funk, the musical styles blend gloriously in the summer sun and the goosebump moments mount. But even more impressive than Thompson’s musical direction is the way he frames the entire festival through a deeply effective context of time, place, and population.

5. West Side Story

Right from the opening minutes, Steven Spielberg’s camera seamlessly ebbs and flows along with the street-roaming Sharks and Jets. From one musical set-piece to the next, Spielberg’s touch is smoothly precise, starting wide to capture the breadth of Justin Peck’s homage to Jerome Robbins’s iconic choreography, zooming in for intimacy, and then above the dancers and rumblers for gorgeous aerials set with pristine light and shadow.

It just looks freaking fantastic.

And in bringing his own vision to a classic story, Spielberg gently adds a perspective that makes Tony and Maria’s quest soar with a renewed, more universal vitality.

Just like most everything else in this West Side Story.

Christie Robb’s favorite film of 2021: Luca

Pixar/Disney’s Luca fosters self-acceptance and bravery in kids who were in the process of transitioning back to in-person school.

6. Flee

Like so many other headlines of numbing enormity that we regularly scroll past, stories of the worldwide refugee crisis rarely come with an intimacy that makes the stakes feel palpable. Flee brings an animated face to the discussion, using one man’s incredible story to re-frame the issue with soul-stirring humanity.

Using that man’s actual voice in the conversations with director Jonas Poher Rasmussen adds startling depth to the reenacted memories, and as our childlike comfort with animated scenes clashes with the uncomfortable scenes depicted, Flee‘s bracing resonance only intensifies.

7. Nightmare Alley

What director Guillermo Del Toro brings to this remake of a 1947 noir classic, besides a breathtaking cast and an elegantly gruesome aesthetic, is his gift for humanizing the unseemly. As usual, Del Toro wears his feelings proudly on his sleeve, with unmistakable but organic foreshadowing that ups the ante on the stakes involved. Anchored by another sterling performance from Bradley Cooper as Stan, the journey rises to biblical proportions. An actor whose gifts are often deceptively subtle, Cooper makes sure Stan’s pride always arrives with a layer of charming sympathy, even as it blinds him to the pitfalls ahead.

For Del Toro fans, the most surprising aspect of Nightmare Alley might be the lack of hopeful wonder that has driven most of his films. As the title suggests, this is a trip to the dark corners of the soul, where hope is in damn short supply. As much as this looks like a Del Toro film, it feels like a flex just from taking his vision to the sordid part of town. But what a vision it turns out to be – one of the year’s best and one of his best.

8. Drive My Car

Adapting a short story into a three-hour class on screenwriting, writer/director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi turns a seemingly simple premise – a visiting theater director begrudgingly accepts a chauffer from festival organizers – into a sprawling study of the human soul.

As secrets are revealed and burdens lifted, Drive My Car becomes a soaring testament to grief, forgiveness, moving on and the unending lure of a fine automobile.

9. Riders of Justice

Men will single-handedly gun down an entire biker gang rather than go to therapy. That’s the premise from prolific writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen, as he reunites with Mads Mikkelsen in this dark comic revenge fantasy.

But Jensen isn’t nearly as interested in the physical mayhem as the emotional wreckage his oddball characters are all coping with. Riders of Justice treats its characters with such forgiving empathy that it’s easy to forget that the group is also almost certainly responsible for the most murders in Denmark since the Vikings.

Matt Weiner’s favorite film of 2021: Riders of Justice

It’s the feel-good Christmas comedy that brings the whole family together with good cheer, redemption, philosophical detours on the meaning of life and a body count that puts Die Hard to shame.

10. Wild Indian

As angry a movie as you’re likely to see, Wild Indian pushes you to hope compassion and tenderness come to the most unlikeable man onscreen.

Writer/director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. refuses to lean on stereotypes that would make the central performance more comfortable viewing. Makwa (a stunning Michael Greyeyes) is neither victim nor noble wiseman. Not entirely a villain, he’s nonetheless ill-suited as antihero or, God forbid, hero. He’s a survivor bound up in his own guilt and shame, taking advantage of whatever he can and hating himself and everyone around him because of it.

It’s a desolate world Corbine Jr. creates, but no less remarkable for its bleakness. A character study unlike anything else on screen this year, Wild Indian gives longtime character actor Greyeyes the opportunity to command the screen and he more than rises to the occasion.

11. Pig

This touching film—a tale of love, loss, authenticity and a good meal— is essentially the anti-John Wick. And we are better for it.

Nicolas Cage is almost always the center of attention in every film he’s in. It’s tough to look away from him because you’re afraid you’ll miss some insane grimace or wild gesture, but also because filmmakers love him and never pull away. Here, co-writer/director Michael Sarnoski asks you to wait for it. He gives Cage time to pause, breathe, and deliver his most authentic performance in ages.

Brandon Thomas’s favorite film of 2021: Pig

Pig is a beautiful commentary on grief while also serving as a reminder that Nicolas Cage never stopped being one of our finest actors.

12. Passing

Making her feature debut behind the camera, Rebecca Hall adapts Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel about women unable to find a place to truly belong. Hall mines Larsen’s insight and longing to produce a visually stunning, melancholy period piece.

The languid beauty and comment on class play like a more delicate take on Gatsby, Hall subtly drawing attention not only to the racial divide but to the socioeconomic divide within Irene’s (Tessa Thompson) home and life. Never showy, never heavy-handed, the film’s themes prick at the audience just as they slowly, cumulatively wound Irene.

Thompson delivers an introspective performance unlike anything thus far in her impressive career. Likewise, Ruth Negga is superb as Irene’s friend/nemesis Clare, just incandescent and haunting as a damaged, elegant survivor.

13. Belfast

Belfast is a man’s reminiscence of his own childhood, informed by the movies and songs that bleed together with memory and saturated in the wonder of youth.

Director Kenneth Branagh has yet to make a film with such precise visual purpose or style. Every black and white frame, every movement or lack of movement from the camera carries the vision of the film. 

It is sentimental. It is nostalgic. It is unapologetically sincere. But by taking the perspective of a 9-year-old boy (a magnificent Jude Hill) trying to make sense of a suddenly and profoundly confusing and frightening world, the film gets away with it.

14. The Green Knight

Lutes and mead, chainmail and sorcery—director David Lowery’s Camelot is just as rockin’ as ever in his trippy coming-of-age style The Green Knight. The story itself may be more than 700 years old, but credit Lowery, who adapted the old ballad for the screen, with finding fresh intrigue in the old bones. He’s slippery with symbolism and draws wonderful performances from the ensemble.

His visual storytelling has always been his greatest strength as a director and this tale encourages his most fanciful and hypnotic style to date. The Green Knight is gorgeous. The color and framing are pure visual poetry. Together with a never-better Dev Patel and an exceptional ensemble, Lowery’s created a magical realm where you believe anything could happen.

Cat McAlpine’s favorite film of 2021: The Green Knight

The Green Knight is a visual spectacle that matches the scale of journeying within oneself, masterfully portrayed by a wide-eyed and constantly wet Dev Patel.

15. C’mon C’mon

A man’s changing relationship with his young nephew mirrors his deepening bond with his estranged sister. That man, Johnny, is played by Joaquin Phoenix, particularly endearing in this film. Nine-year-old Woody Norman soars as the nephew, his chemistry with Phoenix couldn’t be more charming or genuine. Gaby Hoffmann is wonderful as well as Norman’s mom, Johnny’s sister Viv.

C’mon C’mon wraps the messy, awkward, disappointing realities of being human in a blanket of hope. As cloying as that sounds, the film is so sincere it’s hard to deny its warmth.

16. The Lost Daughter

Unnerving intimacy marks Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut as a feature director. Luckily for all of us, Gyllenhaal’s uniformly subline cast meets the challenge.

Adapting Elena Ferrante’s novel, Gyllenhaal challenges romantic preconceptions about motherhood (sometimes quite bitingly, thanks to lines delivered with acidic precision by the remarkable Olivia Colman). The film acknowledges what is given up, what is lost, when you essentially transfer ownership of yourself—your time, your attention, your future—to someone else, to your children. The theme is deeply and honestly felt, and that, too, is unnerving.

17. The Humans

Two of 2021’s most prominent film themes – impressive debuts and stellar ensembles – come together in rookie writer/director Stephen Karam’s The Humans.

Adapting his own stage play, Karam displays wonderful instincts for how his story of a family reunion could move from stage to screen with relevant new layers. Buoyed by a first-rate cast including Richard Jenkins, Steven Yeun, Amy Schumer, Beanie Feldstein and Jayne Houdyshell, The Humans slowly revels itself as a domestic horror show, with familiar tensions and deep-seeded fears becoming more frightful than anything going bump in the night.

18. The Worst Person in the World

Led by a revelatory performance from Renate Reinsve, the latest from Norwegian writer/director Joachim Trier effectively fuses coming-of-age sensibilities and romantic drama.

As one woman navigates what she wants in a career, in a relationship, and ultimately what she wants out of life, Trier crafts small, indelible moments that bind together for a refreshingly honest look at how, as John Lennon once said, life happens when you’re busy making other plans.

19. Zola

Is it surprising that movies are now born from Twitter threads? Maybe, for a minute. But you’ll find good stories on Twitter, and with Zola, director/co-writer Janicza Bravo tells a ferociously good story, even if some of it may not be exactly true.

Bravo, Taylor Paige and Riley Keough (with solid support from Colman Domingo, Nick Braun and Jason Mitchell) all bring indelible talent to Zola, and the sheer buzz of this wild ride becomes irresistible.

Is it truth? Fiction? A bit of both?

It matters only in that it doesn’t matter at all. Because whatever truth still exists in the digital age, Zola speaks it.

Rachel Willis’s favorite film of 2021: Adventures of a Mathematician

Adventures of a Mathematician offers devastating insight into why some of the world’s most brilliant scientists lent their skills to the creation of the deadliest weapons in history.

20. Spider-Man: No Way Home

This third installment of Jon Watts’s Spidey franchise showcases the naïve optimism and youthful sweetness that has made his first two episodes such a great time, that are so perfectly embodied by star Tom Holland.

Rather than feeling like those Marvel overreaches in defining their own universe, No Way Home uses the opportunity of pulling in other movies to celebrate the hero, his roots, and what he stands for as an icon of comics, heroes, and childhoods the ‘verse over.

Oh, sure, it’s nostalgic. It panders. It also spills over with joy.

21. Spencer

The opening credits of Spencer include a declaration that the film is “a fable from a true tragedy.” Indeed, this look at the final weekend in the marriage of Princess Diana and Prince Charles is draped in sadness and longing, but it’s one that uses what you already know about its subject to its advantage, completely enveloping you in an otherworldly existence.

If you haven’t been keeping up with Kristin Stewart’s string of fine performances since the Twilight films, don’t be surprised when she starts collecting the award nominations this performance richly deserves.

Filmmaker Pablo Larrain chooses the word “fable” at the start for a reason. This film is no fairy tale, but Larraín’s committed vision and an achingly poetic turn from Stewart make Spencer a completely fascinating two hours of story time.

22. Saint Maud

Maud (an astonishing Morfydd Clark) has some undefined blood and shame in her recent past. But she survived it, and she knows God saved her for a reason. She’s still working out what that reason is when she meets Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a former choreographer now crumbling beneath lymphoma. Maud cannot save Amanda’s body, but because of just the right signs from Amanda, she is determined to save her soul.

As a horror film, Saint Maud is a slow burn. First-time writer/director Rose Glass and crew repay you for your patience, though, with a smart film that believes in its audience. Her film treads the earth between mental illness and religious fervor, but its sights are on the horror of the broken-hearted and lonesome.

23. Candyman

This new Candyman is the most delicious brand of horror sequel. Thanks to the startling vision of director/co-writer Nia DaCosta, it is a film that honors its roots but lives so vibrantly in the now that it makes you view the 1992 original from an urgent new angle.

DaCosta’s savvy storytelling is angry without being self-righteous. Great horror often holds a mirror to society, and DaCosta works mirrors into nearly every single scene in the film. Her grasp of the visual here is stunning—macabre, horrifying, and elegant. She takes cues from the art world her tale populates, unveiling truly artful bloodletting and framing sequences with grotesque but undeniable beauty. It’s hard to believe this is only her second feature.

By the time a brilliant coda of sadly familiar shadow puppet stories runs alongside the closing credits, there’s more than enough reason for horror fans to rejoice and…#telleveryone.

24. The Last Duel

This is a brooding, brutal, violent and sexually violent film, one that utilizes a Rashomon-style narrative to frame an often debated moment in history around a centuries-old struggle that continues today.

Director Ridley Scott presents the tale with exceptional craftsmanship and spectacle, getting big assists from Dariusz Wolski’s gritty, expansive cinematography and Michael Fentum’s detailed sound design. Scott’s remarkable cast — Jodie Comer, Adam Driver, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck — digs in to these old ideas to find startling relevance.

The Last Duel aims for more than just a gripping history lesson. It’s ultimately able to use that history to remind us that the way society treats women generally – and women’s sexuality specifically – has changed little since the freaking Middle Ages. 

25. No Time to Die

Opening with a tense and expansive 26-minute prologue, Cary Joji Fukunaga unveils thrilling set-pieces and gorgeous visuals that beg for a big-screen experience. Aided mightily by a soaring, throwback score from Hans Zimmer, Fukunaga infuses Daniel Craig’s final Bond film with a respectful sense of history while it marches unafraid into the future.

The one-liners, callbacks and gags (like Q’s multi-piece tea set) are well-placed and restrained, never undercutting the nearly three-hour mission Fukunaga clearly approached with reverence.

Where does James Bond go from here? Hard to say, but this 007 doesn’t care. Five films in 15 years have changed the character and the franchise for the better, and No Time to Die closes this chapter with requisite spectacle and fitting emotion.

Daniel “Schlocketeer” Baldwin’s favorite film of 2021: No Time to Die

No Time to Die is a fantastic action adventure epic, a pitch-perfect ending to the Daniel Craig era of James Bond and a wonderful modern encapsulation of the writings of Ian Fleming.

Almost Made It:

Lamb

Beta Test

The Harder They Fall

Mass

Shiva Baby

CODA

Gently Down the Stream

The Novice

by Brandon Thomas

Those who know me best know that I don’t have a competitive bone in my body. Growing up, I was only interested in playing sports for fun. Once everyone started taking winning seriously, I was out. Even a more-than-casual game of Monopoly is enough to make me throw up my hands and say, “Pass.” 

Look, I get the allure of competitive sports. To a lot of folks, it’s like a drug and they constantly need that fix. In art, the competitive spirit has made for some wonderful films. Rocky, Hoosiers, and Rudy highlight the best that sports can bring about in people. However, there is a dark side too. Competition can morph into obsession and even borderline addiction. Director Lauren Hadaway’s film The Novice is a riveting depiction of the obsessive lengths an athlete will go to reach their goals.

College freshman Alex Dall (Isabelle Furhman of Orphan) has set an almost impossible goal for herself: to make it onto the varsity rowing team as a first-year novice. Despite warnings from the coaching staff that novices rarely make varsity, Alex and another novice, Jamie (Amy Forsyth of Coda), devote themselves almost exclusively to training. Whether it’s obsessively eating healthy foods, rowing until they blackout, or solo training on the water before sunrise, the girls attain absolute tunnel vision toward their goal. As the season progresses, Alex’s physical and mental health begins to decline as the prospect of losing varsity becomes a possibility.

The Novice is one of the most confident feature debuts I’ve seen in a long time. Hadaway’s directorial finesse is on point as she keeps the film expertly drifting between sports drama, psychological thriller and tragic romance – all while never committing to any particular genre. It’s a choice that keeps audience expectations constantly fluid and on edge. 

That same sense of unpredictability extends to the film’s lead character, too. The early scenes where Alex is presented as the spunky underdog quickly give way to scenes of the character obsessively training, verbally accosting school staff and even mutilating herself. Hadaway’s excellent script doesn’t let Alex off easy, but it also isn’t a complete indictment of her behavior. 

The visual language of The Novice is another highlight. Hadaway’s camera does a lot of the heavy lifting as it lingers on Alex’s intense workouts. The focus on Alex’s sweaty, nearly exhausted body, conveys that there’s something not right with this. Again, it walks that fine line between competitiveness and obsession.

With an amazing script, an outstanding lead performance, and a laser-focused director, The Novice ends up being one of the absolute best films of 2021.

Standoff

The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain

by Brandon Thomas

Movies set in a single location have always been a favorite of mine. The intimacy and the claustrophobia can almost become unbearable. Like a stage play, this kind of film also becomes a showcase for the actors. The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain is no exception.

Set in the wee hours of the morning, The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain follows the events that led to Chamberlain being killed by White Plains, New York, police. Chamberlain (Frankie Faison, Do the Right Thing, The Silence of the Lambs) is an elderly veteran with bipolar disorder who lives alone. After accidentally setting off his emergency medical alert system, Chamberlain is awakened by police sent to perform a welfare check. Afraid and agitated, Chamberlain refuses to let the police into his apartment. Events escalate after the initial officers call in backup, and maintain that they will enter Chamberlain’s apartment by any means necessary. 

There’s no secrecy around what’s eventually going to happen in The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain – I mean, it’s in the title. However, that doesn’t make the entire 83-minute running time any less anxiety-inducing. Director David Midell does a terrific job allowing the tension to slowly and excruciatingly build as the situation between Chamberlain and the police deteriorates. It’s one of the most uncomfortable, but riveting, films I’ve watched in ages. 

The ripped-from-the-headlines storyline feels only all too real in the latter half of 2021. Midell’s film is certainly a commentary on police misconduct, but also how even the most trivial situation can escalate unnecessarily. Knowing that the film is based on a true story only makes it more frustrating and upsetting. 

Faison is mesmerizing as the titular character. We only meet Kenneth Chamberlain for a short period of time, and Faison brings the character’s humanity to the forefront from the beginning. It’s a high-energy performance that never loses any ground and commands the audience’s attention from the get-go. On the flipside, Enrico Natale does a wonderful job playing a conflicted rookie officer. It’s a character that goes back and forth with audience sympathy, and Natale seems to know that. Despite being one of the few officers with a conscience, his character still toes the line and Natale beautifully conveys the guilt, hesitancy and fear the character feels throughout the film. 

Through deft use of the setting and a handful of outstanding performances, The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain materializes as one of the more powerful dramas of the year. 

Vicious Cycle

Night Raiders

by Brandon Thomas

Good science fiction has always held a mirror up to humanity’s failings. The complex ways we continue to make bad decisions that impact society, our families and the planet have been fodder for incredible storytelling for decades. The genre has routinely used the present to paint a complicated future. With Night Raiders, Canadian director Danis Goulet looks backward – to North America’s bloody genocidal past – to make a statement about free will, colonization and identity in a dystopian future. 

Night Raiders opens with Niska (Elle Maija-Tailfeathers) and her daughter, Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart), living an isolated and dangerous existence in the wilderness. In their war-ravaged world, children are taken from their parents so that they can be thoroughly conditioned to become soldiers. When Waseese is injured, Niska is forced to take her to the city for treatment. The film then jumps forward nearly a year and finds Niskia with a group of rebels, while Waseese has ended up in a “children’s academy,” which is really a reeducation camp. 

On paper, Night Raiders doesn’t sound all that different from countless other dystopian sci-fi movies. However, the film’s details make it truly shine. Making this an indigenous story featuring indigenous leads gives Night Raiders the kind of gravitas it wouldn’t have had any other way. The colonization metaphor isn’t subtle, but Goulet doesn’t beat the audience over the head with it. It’s impossible to tell this story in this manner without connecting those dots. 

Goulet wisely lets a sense of mystery hang over large portions of the story. There aren’t any characters providing lengthy exposition dumps to help the audience catch up. No, this is simply a world where something terrible happened, and the bad guys won the day. Night Raiders trusts the audience to fill in the gaps where needed, while knowing that not every last detail needs an exclamation point after it. 

Night Raiders is an exciting and fresh bit of sci-fi that succeeds largely by telling a well-traveled story through a compelling point-of-view.

Pixel Wars

Eternals

by Brandon Thomas

The Marvel formula continues to chug along 13 years after the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born in 2008’s Iron Man. The popular studio has had some major highs with The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and Black Panther, and some major lows with Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World, and Black Widow

How does Marvel’s latest, Eternals, stack up with the rest of their catalog? 

Well, it might be time for Kevin Fiege and company to go back to the drawing board when it comes to their origin stories. 

Eternals is a sweeping, millennia crossing story that follows a group of immortal beings sent to Earth to protect it from the Deviants. After spending thousands of years fighting the Deviants – and finally destroying them – the group goes their own way until the time comes for their return home. As present-day arrives, an old enemy begins stalking the group one by one, and they must reunite for a final battle. 

Eternals is Marvel going full cosmic. The story is big – one that stretches over space and time – and seeks to be the most grandiose MCU movie to date. However, the film stumbles over itself time and time again with a story that never really knows where it wants to go. Eternals spends too much time reuniting characters we barely know. It’s difficult to become invested in the overall struggle when our heroes haven’t even made an impression. 

Director Chloe Zhao was an interesting choice for Eternals. Her films have always felt especially grounded and personal. Characters have always been her focus with the story a distant second. And those quieter moments in Eternals are the ones that work best. The large cast is more than game to bounce off one another with the ridiculous dialogue, and those become the moments where Zhao’s work feels most prominent, along with the gorgeous cinematography that has become a staple of her films. 

Speaking of the cast – wow, there’s plenty to speak of, including Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Brian Tyree Henry, Kumail Nanjiani and Richard Madden. At 2 hours and 37 minutes, most of them get time to shine even if those moments feel like they came out of half a dozen previous Marvel movies. There’s no real breakout star the way Downey, Pratt, Hemsworth or Bosman were. 

Even the spectacle ends up disappointing. Marvel has a bumpy track record with the action in their film ranging from great (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) to downright boring (Thor: The Dark World). The action sequences here feel emotionless and lack even an ounce of excitement. It’s hard to get invested in what feels like a bunch of pixels bouncing off one another. 

I remember when it was exciting to see lauded filmmakers like Sam Raimi or James Gunn get a shot at one of these giant franchise movies. Now, when a respected filmmaker like Chloe Zhao gets thrown into the comic book movie mix, I can’t help but wince at what the final product might be. 

More than Gore

Smoke and Mirrors

by Brandon Thomas

The word “Savini” conjures up a lot of historic imagery in the minds of horror fans. From the zombies in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead to the ground-breaking slasher effects in the original Friday the 13th, Tom Savini has been involved in some of the most iconic horror movies of the last 40 years. In the documentary Smoke and Mirrors, director Jason Baker moves past the well-known effects work, and digs into the personal and the passions of the horror icon.

We’re living in a time where documentaries focusing on filmmakers and other notable TV and movie personalities have become ubiquitous. A lot of these are quite good, but usually end up checking many of the same boxes. Talking heads do a lot of the heavy lifting, and the main subject’s participation isn’t always guaranteed. Thankfully, Savini himself is front and center in Smoke and Mirrors

Having Savini so involved gives Smoke and Mirrors a larger sense of legitimacy. There’s also a notable difference in focus that might not have happened had the film relied solely on interviews and secondhand accounts. Instead of offering retreads of effects stories he’s told dozens of times before, the film gets deeply personal with Savini. From touching on tragedy he experienced as a child, to the horror he witnessed in Vietnam, Savini doesn’t hold back when discussing the trials he’s faced in his life. 

A particularly surprising bit for me was learning just how passionate Savini was – and is – about acting. He comes alive when talking about the stage productions he was a part of and how that opened doors he never dreamed of. There’s a twinge of “What if…” sadness surrounding Savini’s acting career that he delicately dances around due to personal obligations. 

Smoke and Mirrors goes out of its way to highlight Savini’s character over his career. The interviews that are peppered in all end up in the same place: talking about what an amazing guy Tom Savini is. The importance of his contributions to cinema is never forgotten, but the value of the man over the work takes center stage.

Tricks and Treats

Halloween Kills

by Brandon Thomas

Confession time: John Carpenter’s Halloween is my favorite movie of all time. After years of okay to terrible sequels, I was more than a little shocked when David Gordon Green’s 2018 legacy sequel turned out as well as it did. By slavishly adhering to Carpenter’s original mythology, Green made something that fit nicely alongside the 1978 original.

Halloween Kills is still Green doing his best Carpenter impression, but it’s Carpenter dialed to a brutal, bloody 11.

After a harrowing flashback to the events of Halloween night 1978, Halloween Kills picks up right where the 2018 film left off. Laurie Strode’s house is in flames and The Shape (James Jude Courtney) is trapped in the dungeon-like basement. Unfortunately, first responders don’t know that, and they free the murderous Michael Myers from his burning tomb. As the town of Haddonfield descends into chaos, survivors of The Shape’s original rampage – Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall, The Breakfast Club), Lindsey Wallace (Kyle Richards, Halloween), and Marion (Nancy Stephens, Halloween), lead a mob through the small town. Recovering in the hospital from her fight with Michael, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), her daughter, Karen (Judy Greer, Adaptation) and granddaughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak, Halloween 2018) try to come to terms with the people they’ve lost. 

Halloween Kills is an astonishingly brutal film. The Shape rampages through scenes like he’s never done before. This brutality will probably turn off a lot of fans who enjoyed the relative tameness of Green’s first Halloween. I’m impressed with how effectively Green handles the on-screen carnage while still keeping The Shape in the shadows and scary. That air of mystery is important and keeps the character from becoming too humanized.

The new cast additions are fun but largely wasted. Hall runs around and shrieks his way through scenes like a kid after too many candy bars. Stephens and Charles Cyphers as Brackett are more or less glorified cameos. Only Kyle Richards manages to make any kind of positive impression. Like the rest, her scenes are brief, but Richards brings a better sense of gravitas and fear to her encounter with The Shape.

Greer is once again MVP and easily walks away with the movie. She carries all of the grief of the Strode women but none of the irrational rage. Curtis is regulated to the sidelines for the majority of the film – spouting off gobbly goop dialogue so nonsensical, it would make the late Donald Pleasence proud. It’s a cynical move that was clearly made so that Laurie and Michael’s final face-off can be the focus of the upcoming Halloween Ends.

The biggest problem with Halloween Kills is that it just moves too fast. Scenes begin and end without a chance for the audience to catch up. The pace makes it hard to simply sit with the new characters and get to know them. Their entire existence is to move the plot forward at breakneck speed.

I sound pretty sour on Halloween Kills, but the truth is that I admire a lot of the chances the film takes. It’s a mean movie that allows The Shape to be bloodier than ever. Kills also points a finger at our heroes and the residents of Haddonfield, as it implicates them as spiritual partners in these murders. This isn’t a deep film, but it is one with more than set pieces on its mind.
Halloween Kills will be divisive. One thing it isn’t, though, is boring.

Dangerous Deutschland

Demigod

by Brandon Thomas

We know we’re in for a good time when a couple of hapless Americans venture into rural Europe. I’ve lost count of how many of these movies have been released over the years, but they’re almost always worth a casual look. I consider myself a well-traveled fella, but there’s always been something about the backwoods of Europe that sends a shiver down my spine.

I’m sure Europeans feel the same way about Kentucky.

Robin (Rachel Nichols, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and TV’s Alias) and her boyfriend, Leo (Yohance Myles), travel from the U.S. to a rural part of Germany after Robin’s grandfather, Karl (Jeremy London, Mallrats), dies. Robin and her father left Germany when she was young, and she hasn’t been back since. As she and Leo explore the cabin and its grounds, they are soon confronted by a strange cult, and find themselves scrambling through the region’s famed Black Forest, fighting for their lives. 

For a film that has folklore at the forefront, Demigod never gets bogged down by too much world-building exposition. Director (and co-star) Miles Doleac keeps the film moving at a snappy pace. The action sequences are well shot and edited, with a delightful level of energy.

The majority of the production value is found in the cinematography and how it captures the vast, isolated forest. But when the Demigod himself makes his eventual appearance, the result is borderline disappointing. Having your titular character look like a distant cousin of the laughing deer head in Evil Dead II isn’t going to set the word of mouth on fire. Thankfully, the sheer brutality of the character helps keep the chuckles away.

The film’s cast is pretty solid from top to bottom. Nichols makes for a strong heroine, selling the vulnerability of the character better than she does physicality. Director Doleac himself makes the biggest impression as German woodsman, Arthur. It’s a well-written character that allows Doleac to dance back and forth from a good guy to a bad guy to every gray area in between.

Demigod doesn’t have a lot of narrative surprises up its sleeve. However, what it lacks in story twists and turns, it more than makes up for with exciting, bloody carnage.