Tag Archives: Hope Madden

Mellow Yellow

Minions: The Rise of Gru

by Hope Madden

Gru is back, which means more minions. As long as you’re not sick to death of either of those things, Minions: The Rise of Gru is fine, moderately enjoyable family entertainment.

If you are sick to death of any of the above, it’s probably because you are an adult. For you, this second installment of the Minions franchise, fifth overall Despicable Me project, hopes to keep your attention with loads of nods to the Seventies. This probably means they hope the kids are going to theaters with their grandparents.

Why the Seventies? Because we’re watching young Gru (Steve Carell) try to break into the super villain biz. He’s but a wee thing, not yet jaded. Rather than Farrah Fawcett or Starsky and Hutch posters on his walls, though, his bedroom is adorned with The Vicious 6 paraphernalia.

The Vicious 6 are the most notorious supervillains in the world: Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin), Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson), Jean-Clawed (Jean-Claude Van Damme), Stronghold (Danny Trejo), Svengeance (Dolph Lundgren), and Nun-Chuck (Lucy Lawless).

Other newcomers to the series include Michelle Yeoh and RZA, joining returning performers Julie Andrews, Russell Brand and Steve Coogan.

Damn, that’s a lot of talent behind the microphone.

The animation’s great, too. This movie is gorgeous, especially the 3D rendering of San Francisco.  There’s an eye-popping Chinese New Year parade and a pretty great cross-country motorcycle ride a la Easy Rider that looks amazing.

Writing is a bit of a weak spot, though.

Part of the problem is that all that voice talent is given very little to do because Pierre Coffin (voice of the Minions en masse) gets most of the screen time.

You see, Gru is kidnapped and several of those little yellow pills set off to rescue him. They’re separated. One pulls a Nicholson to RZA’s Peter Fonda. The other three train in the art of Kung Fu with Master Chow (Yeoh).

Minions don’t make great primary characters. They are interchangeable and have no arcs. They’re wildly, suffocatingly popular, yes, but they can’t really carry a film. They’re a hell of a waste of a good cast, though.

Best Films, First Half of 2022

The halfway mark of 2022 is upon us. You know what that means! Well, maybe you don’t — it means a list! It’s at this point in the year that we look back and celebrate the best films we’ve seen so far. A Top 10, of sorts, except it’s really a Top Baker’s Dozen and it’s in alphabetical order.

Cha Cha Real Smooth

On Apple TV

Dakota Johnson is the unquestioned star of indie darling coming-of-age drama Cha Cha Real Smooth, but it’s writer/director/co-star Cooper Raiff who’s shining bright enough to blind you.

Solid support from Leslie Mann and Brad Garrett offers Raiff opportunities to subvert tropes with surprising compassion. There are also more than enough laughs to balance the drama.

Johnson’s greatest strength as a performer is the almost preternatural chemistry she shares with everyone else on screen. That connection with Raiff aches with human tenderness, as does the entire film.

Cha Cha Real Smooth, which won Sundance’s dramatic competition this year, overflows with charm and warmth. More than that, it points to a remarkable cinematic voice that’s just getting started.

Crimes of the Future

On Prime Video

In a dreary world where “surgery is the new sex,” two performance artists (Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux) turn one’s mutant organs into art.

If that doesn’t sound like a David Cronenberg movie, nothing does.

The film references, directly or indirectly, The Brood, Dead Ringers, The Fly, Naked Lunch, Crash, and most frequently and obviously, Videodrome. Like his main character, Cronenberg has long been an “artist of the inner landscape.” And after several decades of excising that tendency from his work, Cronenberg has come full circle to accept what was inside him all along.

Dinner in America

On VOD

It’s not often you watch a film about a fire starting, drug dealing, lying man on the run from police and his romance with a woman with special needs and think, this is delightful.

But it is. Dinner in America is a delight.

Writer/director Adam Rehmeier delivers an unexpected comedy, sometimes dark, sometimes broad, but never aimless. Simon (Kyle Gallner, remarkable) is a punk rocker hiding from the cops. Patty (Emily Skeggs) is a 20-year-old punk rock fan who lives at home and isn’t allowed to run appliances when she’s alone.

Rarely does a film feel as genuinely subversive and darling as Dinner in America, the punk rock rom-com you never knew you needed.

Emergency

On Prime Video

Take two longtime friends on the verge of going their separate ways, and throw in one night of epic partying before they graduate. There will be hijinks, conflict, feelings expressed, and resolution.

We know this formula, right?

Not so fast. Expanding their Emergency short from 2018, director Carey Williams and writer K.D. Dávila run those familiar tropes through a tense, in-the-moment lens that upends convention while still delivering a consistent layer of laughter.

So we get the two friends ready to explore the future, searching for their place in the world. But this wild night of partying holds more sobering lessons than we’re used to seeing.

For these young men, it’s about how quickly their perception of the world can change forever, and the unrelenting weight of navigating how the world sees them.

Everything Everywhere All at Once

In theaters and streaming

Directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert are back with their brand of sweet-natured lunacy for Everything Everywhere All at Once. The result is an endlessly engaging, funny, tender, surprising, touching maelstrom of activity and emotion.

This is a hard movie not to love.

At the heart of the insanity lurks Michelle Yeoh and a spot-on depiction of a midlife crisis. Yeoh’s Evelyn arcs as no character has arced before.

The real stars are the Daniels, though, who borrow and recast and repurpose without even once delivering something derivative.

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande

On Hulu

If we’re boiling down film narratives to heroes and quests, it won’t take long to define Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.

Nancy (Emma Thompson, glorious as always) is our hero, and sex is her quest. So she hires handsome young Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack) for a tryst.

Nancy’s journey is, of course, an intimate one, and director Sophie Hyde doubles down on the intimacy, rarely leaving the privacy of the hotel room. Regardless, the film is never claustrophobic and always cinematic, framing even the most sexual moments with a refreshing honesty that the characters (and these two impeccable performances) deserve.

And you know what? We deserve it, too. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is a simply wonderful look at embracing who you are and what you want.

Mad God

On Shudder

Phil Tippett’s demons take center stage in his stop motion head trip 30 years in the making, Mad God. It’s like a Bosch painting and a Tool video accusing each other of being too lighthearted.

Mad God delivers a nightmare vision like little else, overwhelming in its detail and scope. Tippett plumbs cycles of mindless cruelty. 

Mad World revels in Tippett’s vulgar, potent fantasy without belaboring a clear plotline. The world itself resembles hell itself. Tippett peoples this landscape with figures and images that also feel reminiscent: a doll’s befouled face, a fiendish surgeon, a cloaked figure.

Memoria

Traveling theatrically

If you are in the mood for something decidedly different, let Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s meditative wonder Memoria beguile you. Or bewilder you. Or both.

The film becomes a mystery of sorts, but one that dredges up more questions than answers. On the filmmaker’s mind seems to be concepts of collective memory and isolation, sensory experience and existence.

Jessica’s (Tilda Swinton) travels through Colombia in search of answers to a confounding sound following her becomes an entrancing odyssey. Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr’s sound design heightens the experience, almost becoming a second character in the way that the sound supports Swinton’s performance.

And what a performance. Quiet and precise as if always listening and careful not to disturb, Swinton once again disappears wholly into a role.

Men

On Prime Video

Jessie Buckley (flawless, as always) plays Harper, a woman in need of some time alone. She rents a gorgeous English manor from proper country gentleman Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) and plans to recuperate from, well, a lot.

Filmmaker Alex Garland unveils Harper’s backstory little by little, each time slightly altering our perception of the film. The more about Harper we learn, the more village folk we meet: vicar, surly teen, pub owner, police officer, and a naked man in the woods. Each is played by Kinnear—or by actors sporting Kinnear’s CGI face—although Harper never mentions this, or even seems to notice.

Is she seeing what we’re seeing?

Garland’s bold visuals—so precise in Ex Machina, so surreal in Annihilation—create a sumptuous environment just bordering on overripe. The verdant greens and audacious reds cast a spell perfectly suited to the biblical and primal symbolism littering the picture.

Rather than clarifying or summing up, the film’s ending offers more questions than answers. But if you can make peace with ambiguity, Men is a film you will not likely forget.

The Northman

On Peacock

Robert Eggers released his third feature this year, a Viking adventure on an epic scale called The Northman.

What you have is a classic vengeance tale: prince witnesses royal betrayal and the murder of his father. He loses his mother and his crown and vows revenge.

Alexander Skarsgård is cut to play a Viking. His performance is primarily physical: blind rage looking for an outlet. He’s believably vicious, bloodthirsty, single-minded and, when necessary, vulnerable. The entire cast around him is equally convincing.

Classic is exactly how The Northman feels. The story is gritty and grand, the action brutal and the storytelling majestic. As is the case with Eggers, expect a fair amount of the supernatural and surreal to seep in here and there, but not enough to outweigh the meticulously crafted period realism.

Poser

At Gateway Film Center

Directors Noah Dixon and Ori Segev, working from Dixon’s script, drop you into the indie music scene you may never have realized existed in Columbus, Ohio. Lennon (Sylvie Mix) wants to change that with her podcast. She may not have a lot of listeners, but she promises those who do listen a deep dive into the scene, with interviews and performances from the best bands you’ve never heard of.

Mix’s open stare and stealthy movement — a technique she used to great effect in her haunted Christmas flick Double Walker — here feels slyly deceptive. Lennon’s an introvert, a fan, an artist herself. Or is she?

Like a cagey, pink-haired Jena Malone, Kitten commands the screen playing a version of herself. The singer from Columbus-based indie band Damn the Witch Siren, Kitten performs along with bandmate Z Wolf, whose presence adds a fascinating air of whimsy, danger and apathy.

Turning Red

On Disney+

Turning Red – Pixar’s twenty-fifth – keeps the winning streak alive with a frisky, meaningful and culturally rich update of a well worn message.

Director Domee Shi (who also co-writes with Julia Cho) has much to offer in her feature debut. Here, the often generic moral of “be true to yourself” plays out with stakes that will feel authentic to both kids and parents. Pixar has a long history of finding true poignancy amid big laughs, but Turning Red feels like a turning point.

Not only is it the first Pixar film with a female director, women are also in leadership roles throughout most areas of the production. The mission was clearly to begin speaking to a slightly older target, with a tender honesty that adolescents – girls especially – could appreciate.

Respect the past, but embrace the possibilities of the future. That future is going to include parts of your true self that are messy, and that’s okay. In fact, accepting those awkward, messy parts is the first step to being okay.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

On VOD

It’s not just that it’s the role he was born to play. It’s also that it feels like precisely the right moment for him to be playing it, as if the cosmos themselves are aligning to deliver us some rockin’ good news.

How good? Well, for starters, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent gives him about a minute and a half just to name check himself as “Nic f’innnnnnnnnnggggggggow!WoahCage!”

And while we’re loving all manner of Cage, here comes Pedro! More natural and endearing than he’s ever been, Pascal starts by channeling the fan in all of us, and then deftly becomes the film’s surprising heart. Yes, there are nods to Hollywood pretension, but they’re never self-serving, and the film is more than content to lean all the way in to a madcap adventure buddy comedy spoof.

 

X

On VOD

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre meets Boogie Nights?

Yes, please!

Filmmaker Ti West delivers an utterly unexpected and absolutely inspired horror show like nothing he’s made before. A group of good-natured pornographers descends upon an out-of-the-way ranch to shoot a movie, unbeknownst to the owners. Mia Goth leads a thoroughly entertaining cast, each actor making the most of the humor crackling throughout West’s script.

West explores some common themes, upending every one without ever betraying his clear love of this genre. Blending homages of plenty of Tobe Hooper films with a remarkable aesthetic instinct, West fills the screen with ghastly beauty.

Best Horror, First Half of 2022

No way the year’s half over! Just you shut up with that nonsense!

To cheer ourselves up we decided to walk back through the best this half of the year had to offer us in terms of horror movies. And you know what? It’s already been one hell of a year. Listed in alphabetical order, here are our 10 favorite horror flicks of the first half of 2022.

The Black Phone

In theaters

Ethan Hawke plays the Grabber in Scott Derrikson’s take on the Joe Hill short story. With his top hat, black balloons and big black van, Grabber’s managed to lure and snatch a number of young boys from a small Colorado town. Finney (Mason Thames) is his latest victim, and for most of the film, Finney waits for his punishment down a locked cement basement.

Time period detail sets a spooky mood and Derrickson has fun with soundtrack choices. But the film’s success—its creepy, affecting success—is Hawke. The actor weaves in and out of different postures, tones of voice, movements. He’s about eight different kinds of creepy, every one of them aided immeasurably by its variation on that mask.

Derrickson hasn’t reinvented the genre. But, with solid source material and one inspired performance, he’s crafted a gem of a horror movie.

Crimes of the Future

On Prime Video

In a dreary world where “surgery is the new sex,” two performance artists (Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux) turn one’s mutant organs into art.

If that doesn’t sound like a David Cronenberg movie, nothing does.

The film references, directly or indirectly, The Brood, Dead Ringers, The Fly, Naked Lunch, Crash, and most frequently and obviously, Videodrome. Like his main character, Cronenberg has long been an “artist of the inner landscape.” And after several decades of excising that tendency from his work, Cronenberg has come full circle to accept what was inside him all along.

Mad God

On Shudder

Phil Tippett’s demons take center stage in his stop motion head trip 30 years in the making, Mad God. It’s like a Bosch painting and a Tool video accusing each other of being too lighthearted.

Mad God delivers a nightmare vision like little else, overwhelming in its detail and scope. Tippett plumbs cycles of mindless cruelty. 

Mad World revels in Tippett’s vulgar, potent fantasy without belaboring a clear plotline. The world itself resembles hell itself. Tippett peoples this landscape with figures and images that also feel reminiscent: a doll’s befouled face, a fiendish surgeon, a cloaked figure.

Men

On Prime Video

Jessie Buckley (flawless, as always) plays Harper, a woman in need of some time alone. She rents a gorgeous English manor from proper country gentleman Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) and plans to recuperate from, well, a lot.

Filmmaker Alex Garland unveils Harper’s backstory little by little, each time slightly altering our perception of the film. The more about Harper we learn, the more village folk we meet: vicar, surly teen, pub owner, police officer, and a naked man in the woods. Each is played by Kinnear—or by actors sporting Kinnear’s CGI face—although Harper never mentions this, or even seems to notice.

Is she seeing what we’re seeing?

Garland’s bold visuals—so precise in Ex Machina, so surreal in Annihilation—create a sumptuous environment just bordering on overripe. The verdant greens and audacious reds cast a spell perfectly suited to the biblical and primal symbolism littering the picture.

Rather than clarifying or summing up, the film’s ending offers more questions than answers. But if you can make peace with ambiguity, Men is a film you will not likely forget.

Nitram

On VOD

In 1996, Martin Bryant murdered 35 people, injuring another 23 in Port Arthur, Tasmania. The horror led to immediate gun reform in the nation, but director Justin Kurtzel is more interested in what came before than after.

Playing the unnamed central figure (Nitram is Martin spelled backward), Caleb Landry Jones has never been better, and that’s saying something. He is one of the most versatile actors working today, effortlessly moving from comedy to drama, from terrifying to charming to awkward to ethereal. There is an aching tenderness central to every performance. (OK, maybe not Get Out, but that would have been weird.)

Nitram looks at how nature and nurture are to blame. Socialization plus parenting plus bad wiring is exacerbated by the isolation and loneliness they demand. Everyone is to blame. It’s a conundrum the film nails.

But it’s Landry Jones you’ll remember. He’s terrifying but endlessly sympathetic in a bleak film that’s a tough but rewarding watch.

Scream

On VOD

Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett (Ready or Not) return us to Woodsboro for the franchise’s fifth installment. This go-round comments blisteringly (and entertainingly) not just on horror, but on the post-internet realities of cinema in general.

They really have a good time with that.

The filmmakers, along with writers James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, fill scenes with nostalgia too cheeky to be simple fan service. Their clear affection for the franchise (a surprisingly strong set of films, as horror series go) is evident and infectious.

You do not have to know the 1996 original or any of its sequels to enjoy Scream. It’s a standalone blast. But if you grew up on these movies, this film is like a bloody message of love for you.

The Watcher

In theaters and on VOD

If you’re a fan at all of genre films, chances are good Watcher will look plenty familiar. But in her feature debut, writer/director Chloe Okuno wields that familiarity with a cunning that leaves you feeling unnerved in urgent and important ways.

Maika Monroe is sensational as Julia, an actress who has left New York behind to follow husband Francis (Karl Glusman) and begin a new life in Bucharest.

Monroe emits an effectively fragile resolve. The absence of subtitles helps us relate to Julia immediately, and Monroe never squanders that sympathy, grounding the film at even the most questionably formulaic moments.

Mounting indignities create a subtle yet unmistakable nod to a culture that expects women to ignore their better judgment for the sake of being polite. Okuno envelopes Julia in male gazes that carry threats of varying degrees, all building to a bloody and damn satisfying crescendo.

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched

On VOD

Every so often you come across a movie and think it must have been made specifically for you. In our case, that film is Kier-La Janisse’s 3-hour documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror.

Yes, that does seem like a very big time commitment to folk horror, but Janisse’s film repays your undertaking with not only an incredibly informative documentary but an engaging, creepy and beautifully made film.

Janisse presents an intriguing global history that unveils universal primal preoccupations from England to Argentina, the US to Lapland and beyond.

Dry as that may sound, between the snippets of the movies themselves and the fluid, often creepy presentation, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched becomes as transfixing a film as those it dissects. And it digs deep, into obscure titles new and old. BorderWhite Reindeer! Onibaba! ViyPrevenge!

X

On VOD

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre meets Boogie Nights?

Yes, please!

Filmmaker Ti West delivers an utterly unexpected and absolutely inspired horror show like nothing he’s made before. A group of good-natured pornographers descends upon an out-of-the-way ranch to shoot a movie, unbeknownst to the owners. Mia Goth leads a thoroughly entertaining cast, each actor making the most of the humor crackling throughout West’s script.

West explores some common themes, upending every one without ever betraying his clear love of this genre. Blending homages of plenty of Tobe Hooper films with a remarkable aesthetic instinct, West fills the screen with ghastly beauty.

You Won’t Be Alone

On VOD

To suppose that filmmaker Goran Stolevski is a fan of Terrence Malick seems fair. His tale of 19th century Macedonian witchery offers the same type of visual aesthetic, whispery voiceover and absence of dialog in much of Malick’s work, especially 2018’s A Hidden Life.

You Won’t Be Alone follows Neneva (Sara Klimoska), a teenager raised in isolation, hidden from the Wolf-eatress (Anamaria Marinca) who’s claimed her. Freed from hiding, the teen shapeshifter takes on different forms (Noomi Rapace, Felix Maritaud, Alice Englert) and learns of life.

Klimoska’s physical performance reflects the primal beginnings of Neneva’s explorations. Rapace brings an awkward adolescence feel to the character’s early interpretations of normal human behavior. Englert carries the character into adulthood with quiet curiosity, never losing that animalistic inquisitiveness carried throughout the earlier performances.

Fright Club: Frightful Forests

We’re thrilled to welcome filmmaker George Popov back to Fright Club. His Sideworld docuseries explores different supernatural whatnot the world over, beginning with the Haunted Forests of England. So, we thought we’d comb through our favorite haunted forests together. Here’s what we came up with!

5. The Hallow (2015)

Visual showman Corin Hardy has a bit of trickery up his sleeve. His directorial debut The Hallow, for all its superficiality and its recycled horror tropes, offers a tightly wound bit of terror in the ancient Irish wood.

Adam (Joseph Mawle) and Clare Hitchens (Bojana Novakovic) move, infant Finn in tow, from London to the isolated woods of Ireland so Adam can study a tract of forest the government hopes to sell off to privatization. But the woods don’t take kindly to the encroachment and the interloper Hitchens will pay dearly.

Hardy has a real knack for visual storytelling. His inky forests are both suffocating and isolating, with a darkness that seeps into every space. He’s created an atmosphere of malevolence, but the film does not rely on atmosphere alone.

Though all the cliché elements are there – a young couple relocates to an isolated wood to be warned off by angry locals with tales of boogeymen – the curve balls Hardy throws will keep you unnerved and guessing.

4. Without Name (2016)

Haunting and hallucinatory, this Irish gem develops a menacing presence you cannot shake. Director Lorcan Finnegan (Vivarium) leads surveyor Eric (AlanMcKenna) into the Irish woods with no real hope of finding his way back.

Like The Hallow, this film braids ecological horror with the supernatural, all of it rooted in Irish folklore. The’s an understanding that not everything was pushed out once Catholicism took over, the two sides just kept their distance. But now that it’s big companies making the decisions, a lack of reverence in the presence of the past is more than one man can survive.

3. Antichrist (2009)

A meditation on grief and sexual politics, it’s not until Antichrist moves into its second act that you know the kind of film Lars von Trier has actually made. It’s a cabin in the woods horror show, and one of the very best.

Grief becomes something supernatural, a hellish nightmare perfectly suited to the type of woods Shakespeare wrote of. The forest is a lurking, magical place where danger and enchantment frolic.

In this case, they frolic perhaps too close to the tool shed.

2. The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Blair Witch may not date especially well, but it scared the hell out of a lot of people back in the day. This is the kind of forest adventure that I assume happens all the time: you go in, but no matter how you try to get out – follow a stream, use a map, follow the stars – you just keep crossing the same goddamn log.

One of several truly genius ideas behind Blair Witch is that filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez made the audience believe that the film they were watching was nothing more than the unearthed footage left behind by three disappeared young people. Between that and the wise use of online marketing (then in its infancy) buoyed this minimalistic, naturalistic home movie about three bickering buddies who venture into the Maryland woods to document the urban legend of The Blair Witch. Twig dolls, late night noises, jumpy cameras, unknown actors and not much else blended into an honestly frightening flick that played upon primal fears.

1. The Witch (2015)

Ideas of gender inequality, sexual awakening, slavish devotion to dogma, and isolationism roil beneath the surface of the film, yet the tale itself is deceptively simple. One family, fresh off the boat from England in 1630 and expelled from their puritanical village, sets up house and farm in a clearing near a wood.

Every opportunity writer/director Roger Eggers has to make an obvious choice he discards, though not a single move feels inauthentic. Rather, every detail – whether lurid or mundane – feels peculiarly at home here. Even the most supernatural elements in the film feel appallingly true because of the reality of this world, much of which is owed to journals and documents of the time, from which Eggers pulled complete sections of dialog.

You are trapped as they are trapped in this inescapable mess, where man’s overanxious attempt to purge himself absolutely of his capacity for sin only opens him up to the true evil lurking, as it always is, in the woods.

Call Me Maybe

The Black Phone

by Hope Madden

It can be tough to turn a short story into a feature-length film. Filmmakers wind up padding, adding needless plotlines, losing the pointed nature of the short. And Joe Hill’s story The Black Phone is short and to the point. It’s vivid and spooky, and it plays on that line between the grotesque and the entertaining that marks children’s lives.

Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Dr. Strange), adapting Hill’s story with longtime writing collaborator C. Robert Cargill, has his work cut out for him.

The first thing he does is change up the villain, which is generally a terrible idea. It works out well here, though, because Ethan Hawke and his terrifying assortment of masks are the stuff of nightmares.

Hawke plays The Grabber. With his top hat, black balloons and big black van, he’s managed to lure and snatch a number of young boys from a small Colorado town. Finney (Mason Thames) is his latest victim, and for most of the film Finney waits for his punishment down a locked cement basement.

Not much else down there besides a filthy mattress and an old, disconnected rotary phone.

Derrickson does stretch the tale with the kind of secondary plot you might find in one of Hill’s dad Stephen King’s books. Back at home, wearing a yellow slicker and rain boots, Finney’s little sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) dreams of the missing boys. Her dreams are so accurate they draw the interest of local police.

This is not the film’s strongest element, but it doesn’t play too poorly, either. Derrickson understands that a film’s hero needs some backstory, some arc to make their journey meaningful. He gets heavy-handed with Finney’s family drama, but he doesn’t overwhelm the primary creepiness with it. And he links the two storylines together smoothly with a shared bit of the supernatural.

The phone.

Time period detail sets a spooky mood and Derrickson has fun with soundtrack choices. But the film’s success—its creepy, affecting success—is Hawke. The actor weaves in and out of different postures, tones of voice, movements. He’s about eight different kinds of creepy, every one of them aided immeasurably by its variation on that mask.

Derrickson hasn’t reinvented the genre. But, with solid source material and one inspired performance, he’s crafted a gem of a horror movie.

Friend for the End

Revealer

by Hope Madden

The apocalypse really brings out the best and the worst in people, doesn’t it?

Take Sally (Shaina Schrooten), for example. She’s been waiting for the end of days for as long as she can remember, but now that it’s here, is she really happy?

And what about Angie (Caito Aase)? She was pretty angry to start with, working a peep show booth in a 1980s Chicago strip mall, dealing with leering customers, a cheap boss, and that judgy bitch Sally. You think she might embrace the end times.

Filmmaker Luke Boyce traps the two in the peep booth while trumpets of doom sound outside and they have to work through their nonsense, make sense of the situation and try to survive.

Tiny cast, minimal sets, distractingly fun set—the film has all the earmarks of smartly made low-budget horror. Solid creature effects help Revealer transcend financial limitations and a sassy turn from Aase elevates an often threadbare script.

Boyce co-writes, along with Michael Moreci and Tim Seeley, but they run out of things to say or ways to say them. A lot of time is spent with illogical action contrived to extend conversations. Those conversations unveil all backstory, context, character growth—and with few places for his characters to go, Boyce seems hard-pressed to invent ways to show us rather than tell us what’s happening.

What is happening is that two people rethink who’s really a saint and who’s really a sinner and whether it really matters while Chicago burns. There’s not a lot of subtlety.

Boyce shows instincts for making the most of the frame. His visual ideas pay off comedically, amplifying the frenemy vibe while creating a fun atmosphere. The time period seems an odd choice, given the actual apocalypse, but it’s executed well enough.

In fact, a lot of Revealer is done just well enough. It could have been a really fun short. But at feature length, Boyce’s film feels like a lot of filler.

Plot Plop Fizz Fizz

Flux Gourmet

by Hope Madden

There is something so delightfully confounding about trying to review a Peter Strickland film. Even summarizing the plot is a walk into absurdity. For example, Strickland’s latest, Flux Gourmet, takes us inside a culinary collective institute. Here, sonic caterers and a man documenting them struggle with artistic authenticity.

What are sonic caterers, you ask? Maybe you didn’t, but I did. They are sort of performance artists whose medium is food.

Elle (Strickland regular Fatma Mohamed), Lamina (Ariane Labed, The Lobster, The Souvenir) and Billy (Asa Butterfield, Hugo) are the collective who’ve earned this year’s residency. Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie) oversees the institute. Stones (Makis Papadimitriou) documents.

Stones also narrates the film, and while his voiceover does help to articulate the plot of the film, his main focus is his own humiliating and painful flatulence problem.

The film often plays a bit like Strickland’s 2012 treasure Berberian Sound Studio, where an amiable outsider — a normal, nice guy — finds himself trapped with hedonistic, narcissistic artist types. Can he escape with his goodness intact?

Both films fixate on sound design, but Flux Gourmet settles into lighter, more clearly comic territory. And, at the risk of trying to read too much into Strickland’s absurdities, the film seems to say a lot about filmmaking as art versus commerce—the vulgar act of consuming and producing.

Which brings us back to poor Stones. Papadimitriou’s sympathetic performance delivers a nicely human counterpoint to the narcissistic, shallow characters that surround him. Christie, lavishly costumed and made up, is especially entertaining. Her patronizing sparks with Mohamed’s dictatorial Elle create absurd comic gold, only outdone by the self-impressed in-house medic, Dr. Glock (Richard Bremmer).

Strickland’s carved himself a recognizable niche in modern absurdist filmmaking with his precise, eclectic visual instincts. Funnier than Yorgos Lanthimos, more biting than Quentin Dupieux, more accessible than Leos Carax, Strickland wallows in his own very specific preoccupations. But he does so with such panache that it’s tough not to let him convert you.

This story feels somewhat slight compared to the complicated plotlines of Strickland’s earlier films, especially his 2018 horror treasure In Fabric. But Flux Gourmet is the filmmaker’s funniest feature.

Screening Room: Lightyear, Spiderhead, Cha Cha Real Smooth, Mad God & More

Everybody Clap Your Hands

Cha Cha Real Smooth

by Hope Madden

Dakota Johnson is the unquestioned star of indie darling coming-of-age drama Cha Cha Real Smooth, but it’s writer/director/co-star Cooper Raiff who’s shining bright enough to blind you.

The twentysomething filmmaker, fresh off his tender and insightful feature debut Sh*thouse, spins another yarn defined by vulnerability.

Raiff plays Andrew, a recent college grad sleeping on a blow-up mattress in his little brother’s bedroom and working at Meat Sticks until he figures something else out. A surprising opportunity arises at a bat mitzvah he attends with his brother (Evan Assante). Andrew has a gift for making sure everyone has a great time—including lonely single mom Domino (Johnson) and her daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). The other moms are so impressed, they all hire him to host their kids’ events.

Sure, it pays, but it’s silly. Harmless. Pointless. How fun, and also tragic. It’s an apt metaphor for Andrew, who was so good at being young and is now a little lost. Gen X had Lloyd Dobbler. Gen Z has Andrew.

Solid support from Leslie Mann and Brad Garrett offers Raiff opportunities to subvert tropes with surprising compassion. There are also more than enough laughs to balance the drama.

Johnson’s greatest strength as a performer is the almost preternatural chemistry she shares with everyone else on screen. That connection with Raiff aches with human tenderness, as does the entire film.

As an actor, Raiff’s performance is open — a strength his direction capitalizes on with long, breathing takes and intimate close-ups. The plot isn’t rushed or forced. Raiff’s writing weaves through complicated situations and emotions without the need to tidy up. The anxiety and pathos feel all the more honest because no one is safe from them. But the film empathizes thoroughly with its characters, applauding every brave and awkward act of intimacy.

Cha Cha Real Smooth, which won Sundance’s dramatic competition this year, overflows with charm and warmth. More than that, it points to a remarkable cinematic voice that’s just getting started.