Tag Archives: Hope Madden

Under the Influencer

Sissy

by Hope Madden

Horror is especially preoccupied with the doppelganger nature of social media – how you can lose yourself in the make-believe world of the “you” you present online. Co-writers/co-directors Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes dig into that duality with their Aussie horror, Sissy.

Sissy – or as she’d rather be called now that she’s a grown up, Cecilia (Aishe Dee) – feels blessed. Thanks to her 200k followers and the products she gets paid to work into her videos, she has a fulfilling life. She is loved. She is enough. She is doing her best.

Maybe she’s not really doing that well, actually. She even hides when she spies her childhood BFF at the grocery store, but Emma (Barlow, who also stars) sees her anyway. She even invites Cecilia to tonight’s big bachelorette party, and tomorrow’s drive out to the country for a weekend-long celebration!

If you’ve seen Bodies Bodies Bodies or, indeed, any horror movie, you know that second part is not going to go well for everyone. Like Halina Reijn’s gruesome comedy, Sissy plays around with genre expectations and spotlights the ins and outs of Gen Z.

Dee works wonders as a woman trying to practice what she preaches, earn from what she practices, and find fulfillment in online followers when friends IRL are less welcoming. The cast that surrounds her is universally strong, each one manipulating the sly, darkly funny script to shock and delight.

Barlow and Senes never entirely abandon the old-fashioned slasher, either. Sissy delivers starling gore FX that feel simultaneously in keeping with the black comedy and somehow too disturbing to fit. Well done!

The filmmakers tease the new terrain of a world populated with virtual personalities. Who’s the good guy? Who isn’t? Is anybody? Sissy doesn’t break new ground here, but thanks to a knowing script and a lead performance that sells itself, you’ll enjoy the show.

Coming of Age

A Love Song

by Hope Madden

Filmmaker Max Walker-Silverman’s feature debut A Love song blesses us with 81 minutes of Dale Dickey, a gorgeous western landscape, and not much else. It is enough.

Dickey is Faye, a solitary figure with a face full of longing at Campsite 7. She sets her crawdad traps, makes her coffee, studies birds and their calls by day, stars and their positions by night, and waits.  

Dickey’s performance is a master class in authenticity, as always. She’s been the grizzled Appalachian or the kindly townsfolk in countless films and shows. Rather than hide the years that stretch across her face, she looks out from behind them, eyes bright and observing. She wears a lifetime of experience, and that, along with her instinctive natural performances, creates depth and richness.

All that and more is called for in Walker-Silverman’s film because for about 80% of its running time, we’re alone with Faye and witness to Dickey’s achingly real performance.

Faye’s solitude is broken up here and there. A friendly couple a few campsites over invite her for dinner. An odd group of siblings arrives with a peculiar request. A kindly and encouraging mailman stops by.

Eventually, Faye’s patience pays off in the form of her childhood friend, Lito (Wes Studi). Decades of absence and years of meaning stand between Lito’s charming smile and Faye’s searching eyes.

There’s magic and nostalgia for old-fashioned love stories in Walker-Silverman’s script, but these veteran actors don’t bend to sentiment. Both know how to blend innocence with renewal, reimagining coming-of-age as they do.

Walker-Silverman’s camera lights on visual metaphors: hearty wildflowers bursting through dried earth, a transistor radio that always seems to know what to play. His film brims with the kind of beauty and type of characters reminiscent of Chloé Zhao’s work, but A Love Song is more meditative. It’s beautiful, touching and real.

Queen for Today

The Justice of Bunny King

by Hope Madden

“It’s our job to keep them safe.”

It is with deepest cynicism that writer Sophie Henderson puts those words into the mouths of social workers and police officers in director Gaysorn Thavat’s effecting The Justice of Bunny King. But it never feels forced. Nothing in the film does.

The Justice of Bunny King rides intimacy and Essie Davis’s fierce and tender performance to articulate a scathing indictment on the way the system, blinded by classism and misogyny, fails.

Davis plays a woman with a smile and a good word for everyone. That doesn’t change the fact that Bunny remains sometimes barely a step ahead of the rage that has upended her life. That rage is likely what’s kept her alive as well.

At the moment, Bunny’s cleaning windshields in traffic, cleaning house and babysitting at her sister’s place, and trying desperately to find a place of her own so she can have her kids back. She’s almost there, too. She can just about touch it. But she risks all of it to keep another woman from falling victim to the systems in society that make it so hard for poor people ­– poor women, in particular – to be safe.

Thavat’s film – like Nia DaCosta’s 2018 gem Little Woods and Courtney Hunt’s 2008 indie Frozen River – takes a clear-eyed look at modern poverty. Each film also benefits from powerful, human performances by two women working in tandem to tell the story of women who are more powerful when they work together.

Davis is a force of nature, delivering authenticity flavored with spirit and spite. Her fire finds balance in a quieter, more brooding turn from the wonderful (as always) Thomasin McKenzie.

Like Breaking, featuring an underappreciated powerhouse performance by John Boyega, Bunny King recognizes the wearying web of bureaucracy and antipathy that enforces a class system. But Thavat’s film finds comfort in community, allowing that there is help and hope. It may not come from those who can afford it, but those who best understand your plight.

“I’m not the police,” a woman tells Bunny at one point. “I’m here to help you out.”

Thavat allows an impeccable cast to take advantage of lines like that one. Her even hand behind the camera never forces drama, never wallows in suffering. Together with her team and through this story, she fights the power.

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.

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.

Your Friends and Neighbors

Speak No Evil

by Hope Madden

There’s little as uncomfortable as a good horror of manners—like a comedy of manners, but the social discomfort makes way for grim, horrifying death. Michael Haneke did it best with Funny Games (either version). Just last month, Shudder released the lighter but no less bloody Who Invited Them.

Denmark comes knocking with co-writer/director Christian Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil, a terribly polite tale of Danes and Dutchmen that veers slowly but relentlessly toward something sinister.

Bjørn (Morten Burian) is facing a crisis of masculinity. He’s too polite to articulate it, which only exacerbates that strangling sensation.

It’s a testament to Burian’s performance that he remains sympathetic throughout the film, however selfish and weak his actions. Playing his wife, Sidsel Siem Koch easily embodies the proper but awkward and easily cowed Louise.

Their adversaries? The good-looking, fun-loving, demonstrative Dutch couple Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders). The two families — each with a youngster in tow — run into each other on holiday and become pals. Sometime later, when Bjørn & Louise receive a postcard inviting their family to visit, Bjørn is anxious to go.

It takes some quiet, polite maneuvering, but before long, he, Louise and little Agnes (Liva Forsberg) are face to face with their hosts and the escalating tension grows almost unendurable. Speak No Evil quickly becomes a sociological experiment that questions our tendency to act against our own instincts, side with the cool kids, and lose who we are.

Van Huêt ably maneuvers Patrick’s manipulations, his about-faces, and his indefatigable charisma.

Sune Kølster’s score works deliriously against cinematographer Erik Molberg Hansen’s beautiful images to create dissonance (again, in much the same way Haneke did, but if you’re going to copy someone, he’s as good a place to start as any).

Tafdrup’s script, co-written with Mads Tafdrup, is sneaky in the way it treads on social anxiety, etiquette, politeness. You see how easily gaslighting alters the trajectory of a conversation, the course of action.

There is a resignation that feels unearned, even contemptuous. But actions throughout are believable enough, each couple’s interactions authentic enough, and the tensions palpable enough to forgive slight lapses. Speak No Evil is a grim trip, but there is no question that it’s well made.