Tag Archives: Madd at the Movies

Chicas Malas

Piggy (Cerdita)

by Hope Madden

Mean girls are a fixture in cinema, from Mean Girls to Carrie, Heathers to Jawbreaker to Napoleon Dynamite and countless others. Why is that? It’s because we like to see mean girls taken down.

Writer/director Carlota Pereda wants to challenge that base instinct. But first, she is going to make you hate Maca (Claudia Salas), Roci (Camille Aguilar) and Claudia (Irene Ferreiro). In one tiny Spanish town, the three girls make Sara’s (Laura Galán, remarkable) life utterly miserable. Like worse than Carrie White’s.

And though Sarah’s relationship with her mother (Carmen Machi) is a rose garden compared to the one Carrie shares with her wacko mom, things could be better. Sarah’s mom veers from unobservant to dismissive to defensive. Even when she’s trying to be helpful, that aid comes with a heaping dose of insensitivity.   

But it’s those pretty, skinny high school girls whose contempt nearly kills Sarah. In a scene that’s difficult to forget, cruelty blossoms into something brutal and horrifying as Sarah tries to take advantage of a nearly empty swimming pool.

Traumatized by the afternoon, a dazed Sara makes a choice that she will wrestle with for the balance of the film. Pereda doesn’t present a simple, single reason for what Sarah does. Or, more to the point, does not do.

In this scene and all others, the filmmaker complicates every trope, all the one-dimensional victim/hero/villain ideas this genre and others feast on. Redemption doesn’t come easily to anyone. Pereda also seamlessly blends themes and ideas from across the genre, upending expectations but never skimping on brutal, visceral horror.

Much of that horror would feel unearned were it not for substantial performances from every member of the cast. But Sarah is the most complicated character by far, and Galán performance is a reckoning. She’s utterly silent for long stretches, Sarah trying to make herself invisible. It’s in those still moments that Galán shines most fiercely.

Piggy is a tough watch, there’s no doubt. It’s also a ferocious and stunning piece of horror cinema.

Finding Pieces

Missing (Sagasu)

by Hope Madden

Shinzô Katayama learned from the best, filling the role of Second Unit Director on Bong Joon Ho’s startling Mother. He applies much of that film’s family drama/murder mystery theme for his own thriller, Missing.

Kaede (Aoi Itô) is a little fed up looking after her father, Harada (Jirô Satô). His depression and debt have only worsened since her mother’s suicide. She’s tired of being the grown-up. So tired of it that she dismisses his plot to track down the serial killer “No Name” for the reward money. When he disappears, she wishes she’d taken him more seriously.

Missing plays in parts, and Part 1 takes on the frustration and fear of Kaede’s story. Itô convinces as the child maneuvering in an adult world, complete with the frustrations, condescension and outbursts that involves. The performance never leans toward sentiment, never asks for our sympathy, and is the more fascinating for it.

Veteran Satô has no trouble finding an empathetic approach to a character in over his head. Satô complicates this questionable but lovable father figure. Harada is never an outright simpleton, always a loving family man. But he’s very, very flawed.

We get Harada’s side of the story, too, but between the two we see a bit from the perspective of No Name (Hiroya Shimizu). After establishing a layered, tense drama, Katayama, who co-writes with Kazuhisa Kotera and Ryô Takada, pulls the tale back toward horror.

Shimizu’s oily performance glides from apathy to curiosity to insincerity to sadism with unsettling ease. You root for the separated daughter and father, clearly out of their depth, but Katayama’s vision is more complicated than that.

Katayama allows moral ambiguity to enrich the film, knocking you off balance and unsure of your alliances. Three strong performances keep you intrigued and guessing, but the filmmaker surrounds them with an assortment of oddities. No character in the film is truly flat, everyone is a surprise.

Buried in this heady mystery is a thread about justice in the face of self-interest and the surprising joy of ping pong. It’s an engrossing feature debut from a director who knows how to play you.

Resting Witch Face

Hocus Pocus 2

by Hope Madden

Thirty years ago (more or less), Disney released a family friendly seasonal comedy that underperformed and was forgotten. Forgotten, except by every 8-year-old who watched Hocus Pocus then or would go on to rewatch it annually during spooky season.

The entertainment behemoth finally realized what it had and commissioned a sequel. Hocus Pocus 2 reunites willful witches Winnifred (Bette Midler), Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Mary (Kathy Najimy) with Salem, the town that hates them.

What is it that reawakens the evil Sanderson sisters? A somewhat convoluted storyline, actually, but it involves female empowerment and community and it’s charmingly, inoffensively told.

Halloween’s here, and with it, Becca’s (Whitney Peak) 16th birthday. She’ll celebrate this year as every year by sharing a little spookiness in the woods with her bestie, Izzy (Belissa Escobedo). It’ll be the first year that the third in their trio, Cassie (Lilia Buckingham), doesn’t join because she’s hanging out with her boyfriend. Meh!

Anyhoo, the Sandersons are accidentally conjured. Somehow the local crystals and essential oils purveyor (Sam Richardson, likable as ever) is mixed up in things. And Cassie’s dad – kindly Mayor Traske (Tony Hale) – is in mortal danger!

Director Anne Fletcher (The Proposal) hits enough nostalgic notes that adult fans of the original will feel seen. Its contemporary story allows for brand new witch-out-of-water scenarios to explore, and, of course, the sisters are always up for a musical number. But this is definitely a kids’ film.

The original was a kind of sibling to Fred Dekker and Shane Black’s 1987 family film Monster Squad. Both showed poorly at the box office and went on to become beloved seasonal fixtures. Hocus Pocus brought the sensibilities into the nineties by, for one thing, recognizing that boys can also be virgins. HP2 modernizes further.

To begin with, not every citizen of Salem is white. And though it’s impossible to entirely redeem three characters looking to eat children, at least the sequel skims the ideas of systemic misogyny. But mainly it offers campy, scrappy, bland but amiable fun.

Midler, Najimy and Parker reinhabit the old trio well enough to remind us why so many kids loved the original. Whether HP2 can strike the same chord with today’s youth is tough to tell, but at least there’s a Halloween flick everyone can watch together.

Why So Serious?

Smile

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Man, It Follows was a great movie. It was a film that saw coming-of-age as its own type of horror, a loss of innocence that you either pass on or let kill you.

It’s a conceit that will never feel as fresh as it did then, but writer/director Parker Finn has a go with Smile.

Sosie Bacon is Dr. Rose Cotter, a therapist working in an emergency trauma unit. A woman is brought in, lashed to a gurney and screaming. Rose evaluates her in a safe space where Laura (Caitlin Stasey) can be comfortable, free. Rose listens to her paranoid, anxious story of a smiling, malevolent presence and tells Laura, as calmly as she can, that as scary as these ideas may feel, they can’t harm her.

Rose is wrong. And so begins a very borrowed and yet often powerful meditation on the nature of trauma and the state of mental health stigma.

Bacon delivers a believably brittle performance as the character who knows she’s right, even if everyone believes she’s crazy. But there’s more to this genre trope, given that Finn’s entire theme is an exploration of mental health. As a therapist and also a woman suffering from trauma, Rose can see her current situation more clearly than most.

There’s honesty, depth and empathy at work here, a 360-degree look at mental health and the systems and norms that affect people. Smile is also a clear metaphor for trauma and its insidious ripple effect.

It’s also a showcase for a fine supporting cast, and a few good, if borrowed, jump scares and freaky images. Kyle Gallner is particularly solid, and both Robin Weigert and Rob Morgan deliver traumatizing performances in small roles.

Turning something as inherently harmless as a smile into a threatening gesture carries a primal creepiness that Finn exploits pretty effectively throughout the film. Even so, the nearly two-hour running time feels bloated as Rose’s search for the origins of her curse begins to drag.

Her detective work – plus one very familiar shot – make Smile an easily recognizable marriage of It Follows and The Ring. Credit Finn for not hiding his intentions, and crafting some thought-provoking frights in the process.

Dangerous Method

Devil’s Workshop

by Hope Madden

I hate to admit this, but my first thought upon screening Devil’s Workshop was that we don’t need another low budget exorcism movie – or worse yet, another ghost hunter demonologist movie. I am pleased to report that writer/director Chris von Hoffmann’s latest horror offering is not “just another” anything.

The premise seems garden variety enough. Struggling actor Clayton (Timothy Granaderos, Who Invited Them) auditions for the part of a demonologist in a new low-budget indie. His competition, Donald (Emile Hirsch), is a social climbing douche who gets whatever he wants. To sharpen his edge for the callback, Clayton hires a real demonologist to train him for the performance.

That demonologist is played by Radha Mitchell, who’s both wonderful and evidence that von Hoffman has something unusual up his sleeve.

The filmmaker cuts between earnest, insecure Clayton undertaking his eerily authentic preparation, and narcissist Donald, preparing in his own way. As von Hoffman does this, he comments on the main theme of his film: a knowing, sly analogy of the process of acting, from ridiculous to pretentious to dangerous.

What emerges is a cheeky, cynical but not hateful application of the mantras and exercises meant to break an actor down and open them up to the demons that will create a better performance.

Two things are necessary for Devil’s Workshop to pull this off: stellar acting (or the metaphor falls apart) and genuine horror (or the metaphor overwhelms the story).

The acting is stellar, beginning with Mitchell. Her giggles and offhanded terms of endearment, hand gestures and facial expressions create an elusive character. Granaderos, so impressive as the sinister partygoer in Who Invited Them, adopts a wide-eyed insecurity that suits von Hoffman’s style.

Rather than drawing our eye to the speaker, von Hoffman’s camera lingers on the listener. The choice captures Clayton’s discomfort, sometimes for a troubling length of time, creating unease.

The horror does well enough for nearly long enough. A couple of times it’s effective, but it never rises to true scares. Worse still, the payoff doesn’t land. In the end, von Hoffman’s insiders-view of the dangers in submitting entirely to a part falls just short of success.

Girl Walks NOLA Alone at Night

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon

by Hope Madden

In 2014, filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour made her magnificence known with the lonesome, hip, bloody black and white treasure A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. She followed that up in 2016 with the heady dystopian nightmare The Bad Batch.

Both films busy themselves with the survival and camaraderie of outcasts. They have this in common with Amirpour’s latest, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon.

On the surface, it may appear that the vampire fable, post-apocalyptic yarn and Big Easy thriller lack any other unifying thread. Untrue. Each is about a singular female making surprising choices across an imaginative – if sometimes bloody – adventure.

Though eventually awash in NOLA neon, Blood Moon’s opening glides hypnotically through bayou waters, the night sky reflected so perfectly in the water you can’t tell up from down.

Jeon Jong-seo (Burning) is Mona Lisa Lee. For at least a decade she’s been nonresponsive in a facility for adolescents. (Is that so? Why the straight jacket, then?) But on this very night, as the moon rises red and round over the bayou, Mona taps into a strange power and the first of many flavors emerge in this strange gumbo. It appears we’ve stumbled into the origin story of some superhero – or super villain?

Whichever, don’t get too comfortable because soon enough Amirpour’s aesthetic weaves together influences and notions from a broad and colorful menu. The next thing you know, you’re witnessing a side of Kate Hudson you wish more filmmakers had unveiled.

Mona stumbles upon the Bourbon Street stripper in a late-night hamburger joint. One quick look at Mona’s talent and Bonnie Belle has dollar signs in her eyes. It’s a performance so brash and human that it grounds an otherwise fantasy tale in the stinky glitter of New Orleans.

A welcome Craig Robinson gives the film the feel of a noir-ish mystery, while the delightful Ed Skrein steals scenes and hearts as dealer/dj Fuzz.

Once Mona befriends Bonnie’s latchkey son (Evan Whitten), sentimentality becomes a worry. No need! Amirpour offsets every sweet moment with a surprise of brutality, every bloodletting with a bit of tenderness, all of it bathed in neon and EDM. It’s a dizzying mix, but that makes three for three for this filmmaker.

Endurance Test

Blonde

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Andrew Dominik felt like an odd choice to bring Joyce Carol Oates’s epic fictionalization of Marilyn Monroe’s life to the screen. His films up to now, though excellent, wouldn’t necessarily suggest an aptitude for a female focused biopic.

Most recently, the filmmaker’s crafted two magnificent documentaries on singer/songwriter Nick Cave. Prior to that, he made two woefully underseen Brad Pitt dramas (Killing Them Softly, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) after his Aussie breakthrough, Chopper. Each of these films is excellent, and each of them is broodingly, tenderly, decidedly masculine.

If Dominik was an unconventional pick, Cuban performer Ana de Armas seemed a downright peculiar choice for the lead role. She’s no doubt beautiful enough to play the legendary stunner, and her work in Knives Out and Hands of Stone have shown her versatility as an actor.

And why not get a little nutty? Monroe’s story has been told more times than Dracula’s – at least seven features and TV movies have been made about Marilyn, and she’s figured prominently in countless other flicks. Can they give us something we haven’t seen?

Yep. They give us nearly 3 hours of NC-17 wallowing.

Dominik’s film, which he adapted himself from the source novel, does little more than fetishize Monroe’s suffering.

De Armas fills the role well enough. Yes, her accent takes you out of scenes from time to time, but that’s not really the trouble with the character. Monroe gets a single opportunity to stand up for herself in two hours and 46 minutes. It’s fun. It’s great to watch the character who’s been abused and misused the entire film finally feel a quick surge of pride.

This one sequence – the one moment of agency given Monroe in the film’s entire running time ­– becomes the catalyst of her downfall, of course. Prior to this moment, de Armas is asked only to hover on the verge of tears. Nearly every instant after is degradation for a character rendered nearly inhuman by broadly brushed daddy issues and mental instabilities.

While the film’s visual style is often intriguing, Dominik’s aggressive approach feels borrowed. He channels Lars von Trier with wave upon wave of punishment, then recalls Gaspar Noe through extended takes featuring shock-value POVs. And the irony of that NC-17 rating is that it’s not earned the old-fashioned way. The scene that almost certainly drew the most ire from the ratings board does not feature one second of nudity, yet lands as excess most wretched. If it all doesn’t add up to an abuse of de Armas, then it amounts to abuse of an audience.

The point of Blonde seems to be that the almost global objectification of Marilyn Monroe meant an unendurably tragic life and death. To prove the point, Dominik objectifies Marilyn Monroe to a point that is nearly unendurable.

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.