Tag Archives: movie reviews

Screening Room: Bullet Train, Prey, Thirteen Lives, Luck & More

The Odd Couple

Ali & Ava

by Rachel Willis

In the years since the 1974 release of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s masterful Fear Eats the Soul, it’s quite depressing to realize so little has changed. The evidence is there in Clio Barnard’s poignant and relevant film, Ali & Ava.

Treading similar ground as Fassbinder, Ali & Ava charts the growth of a relationship between Ava, an older, white, working-class woman, and Ali, a 30-something, middle-class man of Pakistani descent. However, Barnard carves a fresh story, the West Yorkshire city of Bradford serving as the setting for the racial and economic tensions permeating the couple’s relationship.

The most winning aspect of the film is the charm and natural chemistry shared between the two leads, Claire Rushbrook’s Ava and Adeel Akhtar’s Ali. Though their backgrounds are quite different – Ava is a teacher’s aide with several children and grandchildren, while Ali is a landlord who befriends his tenants, many of them immigrants who speak little English – the two find a connection through music.

The film’s soundtrack works as a third character, serving as an emotional backdrop to the growing attachment between Ali and Ava. Though Ali professes to hate folk when Ava declares her enjoyment, he spends time listening to Bob Dylan, trying to perfect one of his songs on the ukulele. It’s little touches like this that draw the viewer into the couple’s relationship.

Like similar films, the biggest obstacles to the new couple’s happiness are family. Ava’s son, Callum (Shaun Thomas) — his recently deceased father a skinhead — professes his disgust in a dramatic scene that rings a little false in light of the film’s subtler moments. Meanwhile, Ali’s sister employs a classist slur akin to white trash.

The one thing that doesn’t seem to work against the couple is their age difference, which in films with similar themes has often been as shocking as the class or race differences. Perhaps we’ve made a little forward progress in one respect.

Despite the roadblocks to the couple’s happiness, Barnard doesn’t give up hope. The soundtrack remains upbeat, connecting not just Ali and Ava, but Ali to a handful of kids who throw rocks at his car. (Why they do this is yet one more subtle moment highlighting the issues still facing us.)

Perhaps not as profound as thematically similar films, Ali & Ava serves as a nice reminder that sometimes love is more powerful than hate.

Gone Fishing

I Love My Dad

by Brandon Thomas

We live in an era where cringe-comedy reigns supreme. From HBO’s Eastbound and Down to the American remake of The Office (so many cringe-inducing episodes), modern comedy seems hellbent on making us uncomfortable. While these two examples and many others only tend to dabble in discomfort, the new film I Love My Dad uses it to full effect while going places many movies could only dream of.

Chuck (Patton Oswalt of Ratatouille and Young Adult) has a terrible relationship with his son, Franklin (I Love My Dad writer/director James Morosini). Chuck was an absentee father who missed birthdays, made empty promises, and disappointed his son every chance he could. After Franklin blocks his dad on social media and won’t take his calls, Chuck decides to “borrow” the online identity of Becca, a waitress at a local diner, to catfish his way back into his son’s life. 

The premise of I Love My Dad is enough to make most people go, “Wait, what?” 

The execution though? 

Well, that’s something even more anxiety-riddled. 

Morosini knows exactly what he’s doing with this subject matter and carries it out through the entire running time. I Love My Dad is like a cinematic car accident you can’t help looking at as you drive by. However, in this case, the car accident is a very well-made movie.

Morosini cleverly brings to life the text conversations between Franklin and “Becca” by using the real actress (Claudia Sulewski) to act them out alongside him. It’s an impressive way to show how connected Franklin feels toward Becca and only helps ratchet up the tension. By the time the inevitable truth is revealed, even the audience feels invested in this fraudulent relationship that Chuck has conjured between him and his son.

So much of the success of I Love My Dad hinges on the casting of Chuck. Make no mistake, Chuck is a scumbag of the highest order, but having someone as likable as Patton Oswalt play him sets up certain expectations. Even as Chuck digs himself deeper and deeper, it’s difficult to completely root against him. Oswalt’s naturally affable demeanor is hard to get past even when the character he’s playing is so deplorable. It’s perfect casting that makes you think, “Well if HE’S the bad guy, what else can happen?”

The supporting cast is peppered with some fun faces. Lil Rel Howery (Get Out) shows up as Chuck’s work friend who gives him the catfishing idea. And the always-on-fire Rachel Dratch (Saturday Night Live) nearly walks away with the entire movie as Chuck’s very horny girlfriend. 

I Love My Dad explores some dark and taboo territory but still manages to wring out a lot of laughs along the way. Maybe don’t watch it with your parents, though.

Secret Chords

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song

by George Wolf

For longtime fans of Leonard Cohen, the continued pop culture embrace of “Hallelujah” can sometimes feel bittersweet. Other times it just makes you want to scream.

Jeff Buckley didn’t write it! It’s not a Christmas song! And for God’s sake, stop messing with the lyrics!

And even though that’s satisfying to yell when another TV talent show contestant attacks Cohen’s masterpiece with more bluster than feeling, you can’t deny you’re guilty of an equally false claim of ownership. As singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile rightly points out, by now the song “Is its own person. It has a life of its own.”

So, how’d that happen? Back in the early 80s, “Hallelujah” was DOA, buried on a Cohen album that Columbia Records dismissed outright as unworthy to release.

Alan Light first tracked the song’s ascent in his 2012 bestseller “The Holy or the Broken,” and Light serves as a consultant to co-directors Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine for their documentary examination. Straddling the line between biopic and expose, the film gives the uninitiated an overview of Cohen’s background while indulging veteran admirers with a deeper dive into his most acclaimed composition.

Geller and Goldfine interview fans, friends and journalists, tracking Cohen’s unique troubadour life alongside the gradual wave of “Hallelujah” cover versions. It seems only right that Bob Dylan was one of the first to recognize the song’s genius, and it’s a treat to hear his interpretation set the stage for the mainstream breakthrough that came via Jeff Buckley and Shrek (John Cale in the film, Rufus Wainwright on the soundtrack).

But the film’s strongest moments come through the intimacy of hearing from Cohen himself, and getting closer to his often tortured songwriting process (“If I knew where songs came from, I would go there more often”). We see notebook after notebook full of lyrics, while handwritten lines appear and disappear as guesses are made as to just how many verses (100? 180?) Cohen wrote for “Hallelujah” alone.

At times Geller and Goldfine lean back on biography just when the musical detective work is cooking, but A Journey, A Song ultimately connects the two with a resonant thread.

Leonard Cohen was a seeker, always striving to reconcile the primal with the spiritual. The process may have taken several years, but he wrote a song that lays that search bare with unparalleled eloquence. And though Cohen himself admitted before his death that “too many people sing it,” Geller and Goldfine are smart enough to include plenty of footage of Cohen performing the song himself, and to close with k.d. lang’s goosebump-time version that Cohen hinted was his favorite.

Father Knows Best

What Josiah Saw

by Hope Madden

Just when you think you know where director Vincent Grashaw’s Southern Gothic What Josiah Saw is going, you meet Eli.

One at a time, Grashaw introduces us to the Graham children. At first, it’s poor Tommy (Scott Haze), a simple fella living at home with Graham patriarch, Josiah (Robert Patrick). Josiah doesn’t think much of Tommy. He doesn’t think much of God, either, but he’s having a change of heart.

Then Grashaw switches gears and introduces us to Tommy’s brother Eli (Nick Stahl), who lives hard. He’s run afoul of some bad people (including Jake Weber in a welcome cameo) and is in some pretty desperate straits. Finally, we meet sister Mary (Kelli Garner), whose trauma sits far nearer the surface and strengthens our unease about the inevitable family reunion.

The Grahams reunite, drawn by the lure of oil money: the Devlin corporation hopes to drill on their land. The money could mean a fresh start for everyone. But some details need to be handled first.

Moving from story to story, What Josiah Saw keeps you on your toes. Grashaw glides easily from one style to the next, although Eli’s gritty thriller storyline is the most intriguing. It feels more complete, less bait and switch, and benefits from Stahl’s naturalistic, resigned performance.

Not every episode works as well. The stones left unturned and strings left untied from one tale to the next, though, give the film a rich, dark present-day. From the outset it’s clear there’s a traumatic backstory waiting to be revealed, so it’s to Grashaw and writer Robert Alan Dilts’s credit that the messy present keeps pulling our interest.

Patrick delivers a strong turn, mean-spirited and commanding. He’s at the center of the mystery, the center of everybody’s trauma in a film mainly concerned with how you live with the marks left by your childhood.

Ambiguity in the third act is becoming a theme in horror this year. Alex Garland’s Men, the recent stalker horror Resurrection, and now, What Josiah Saw. Sometimes it’s brave to let the audience own the experience and make the call. More often, it feels indecisive or muddy. I’m not sure all the clues are here to help make the determination for What Josiah Saw, but even without proper closure, Grashaw paints a creepy picture.

Scary Sea Shanty

Sideworld: Terrors of the Sea

by Hope Madden

Inspired by the British folklore they’ve explored in two features, Hex and The Droving, director George Popov and writer Jonathan Russell turn away from fiction, delivering spectral dread in truer tales.

Their second documentary in less than a year, Sideworld: Terrors of the Sea swims dark waters alongside ghost ships and sea monsters.

Popov’s voiceover establishes a Twilight Zone quality: Truth and lies do not relate in such a simple equation when the line between fact and fiction is enshrouded in mist and shadow. Beyond that threshold is a place that can change our perspective on everything we think we know. I call this place the Sideworld.

Earlier this year, Popov and Russell led us into this mist and shadow with the first installment of their doc series, Haunted Forests of England. Their second effort opens with more of their characteristically haunting cinematography.

The film breaks into four chapters: Ghost Ships, Sea Monsters, Spectral Sailors and Mermaids. Each chapter consists of a number of tails, always highlighting one in particular with some primary or secondary source material to mine.

Though the Flying Dutchman has its fame, the majority of the stories spilled on these shores are little known legends with historical documents for basis. The Wildman of Orford and other tales offer fascinating historical curiosities, while outright ghost stories delight in their sad, scary way.

Popov’s voiceover remains somber throughout, avoiding the campfire fright style of storytelling and instead rendering his tales with reverence. In fact, Popov and Russell’s sympathetic point of view continually asks whether the monsters in these tales are not actually the humans.

Brisk, informative, creepy fun, Sideworld: Terrors of the Sea uncovers welcome treasures of haunted folklore.

Screening Room: DC League of Super-Pets, Vengeance, Not Okay, Resurrection and More

Woman on the Verge

Resurrection

by Hope Madden

In 2020, Rebecca Hall starred in The Night House, a nice little haunted house tale. That movie worked, partly because it was filmed gorgeously, but mainly because Hall herself elevated all the little contrivances with an awe-inspiring performance.

It’s 2022 and she does it again, this time in writer/director Andrew Semans’s psychological horror, Resurrection.

Hall is Margaret, and as the film opens, she’s sitting on her desk, looking benevolently at young intern Gwen (Angela Wong Carbone), patiently offering advice. Margaret’s wisdom feels earned, but it’s hard to imagine this competent and controlled woman was ever weak.

What follows is the unearthing of a backstory that might seem maudlin and ludicrous in other hands. In these hands, though, Resurrection becomes unnerving and horrifying.

Semans’s film walks that worn path: is she crazy or is this really happening? Has Margaret’s past finally found her? Or has the prospect of watching her daughter (Grace Kaufman) turn 18—Margaret’s age during her own trauma—fractured her psyche?

Kaufman, along with Michael Esper as harmless love interest/office bestie Peter, offer grounded, tender performances that strengthen the film’s “is she or isn’t she” vibe.

Enter Tim Roth as the mysterious David. Roth channels the understated approach he used to great effect in Sundown and Bergman Island. Only here, the result is chilling.

On the surface, The Resurrection is a stalker thriller, bearing all the markings of the subgenre. But there is a deeply weird story unraveling here and Hall’s performance ensures that it leaves a mark. The lingering monologue where Margaret reveals the source of her panic is the kind of material that would break a lesser performer. It builds, as the camera closes in, to a reveal so bizarre it could easily become grotesquely silly. But you believe Hall.

And that’s the heart of Resurrection’s effectiveness. The fact that both Hall and Roth take the story seriously, never play it for laughs, and remain so understated in their performances creates a diabolical atmosphere. You’re as unmoored as Margaret.

You will squirm and look away long before the film’s bloody climax because watching Margaret come undone is traumatizing. Semans’s wrap-up is not as successful, but the damage his film does can’t be undone.

Not Bird nor Plane nor Even Frog

DC League of Super-Pets

by Hope Madden

Y’all should have a pet. That’s the message of the feel-good, sometimes surprisingly dark, wildly well-cast animated feature DC League of Super-Pets.

It’s not a tough lesson, really. That’s why one pet has to learn something different. Krypto (Dwayne Johnson), Superman’s dog, doesn’t really know how to be a dog. He figures out something about pack animalhood when he’s robbed of his superpowers, Superman goes missing, and the shelter animals up the road develop their own special skills.

Who’s to blame? Is it evil Lex Luthor (Marc Maron)?

Oh, no. No, this villain is a far, far more dangerous creature. Look out for Lulu (Kate McKinnon), a hairless Guinea pig once saved from experimentation in Luthor’s lab!

Guinea pigs have not done this much animated damage since that South Park episode.

There are lessons aplenty in this film, but just one I want Hollywood to take away from it: McKinnon should voice all animated bad guys forevermore. She couldn’t be more perfect, couldn’t be more fun.

She’s not alone. The supporting voicework in this film delights. Other scene stealers include Keanu Reeves as a brooding (what else?) Batman and Natasha Lyonne as a cantankerous yet horny turtle.

Sure, the actual stars are Johnson and Kevin Hart, and they’re about as fun an odd couple when they’re cartoon dogs as they are when they’re CIA agents or board game buddies. But the real story here is the supporting cast, which also includes John Krasinski, Diego Luna, Jemaine Clement, Daveed Diggs, Vanessa Bayer, Dascha Polanco, Jameela Jamil and Olivia Wilde.

Wow, that’s a lot of people, which indicates that DC League of Super-Pets suffers from the same bloat as almost all DC films. There are too many characters, too many tidy endings, too little for everyone to do.

Co-directors Jared Stern and Sam Levine, along with co-writer John Whittington (writing with Stern) have collectively created a solidly unremarkable set of animated films and episodes. This is no different.

There’s a lot going on with not much really happening. It looks good, not exceptional. It’s fun and almost immediately forgettable. It does expose the diabolical side of the Guinea pig, though. Fear them!

Non Binary

Neptune Frost

by Hope Madden

Drawn by common dreams, individuals from all around post-war Rwanda journey to a place, time and reality they can call their own in Anisia Uzeyman and Saul Williams’s Afrofuturistic musical, Neptune Frost.

The nightmare of war in the recent past, the oppressive religion, and the reality of the economy take shape on the screen. What is Rwanda today?

Williams and Uzeyman use something that feels like performance art to depict Africa’s place in technology’s journey to consumers. Tech’s raw materials—from the coltan (a raw material used in electronics) characters mine to computer refuse strewn and useless across the landscape—are woven into different character costumes.

Visually stunning, the aesthetic emphasizes the story’s earthy yet techno quality. Bursts of color and texture in costume design, in particular, along with surreal, day-glo dream sequences are gorgeous.

At the same time, the filmmakers braid together varying uses for the word binary. An obvious term in relation to the lo-fi tech landscape, the word takes a more complicated meaning with the fluid presence of Motherboard, played at first by Elvis Ngabo and later by Cheryl Isheja. The word is again reexamined as Motherboard is received by Innocent (Dorcy Rugamba), and then Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse).

Traveling from one age to another, one realm to another, one gender to another, Motherboard is an agent of transformation. They tell us they see through what blinds others, they see the past and present and future altogether.

In time, the very word binary becomes meaningless, a limitation. Frequent mention of binary crime theory, a concept deepened by the line “to imagine hell is privilege,” offers stark reminder that this is a Rwandan film.

For Neptune Frost, there is not one or the other, not past or future, not good or evil, not male or female, not miner or mine. This fluidity makes the film tough to properly summarize, and the ambiguous and ambitious plot structure becomes frustrating during the middle section. But Neptune Frost is never less than fascinating.

Rich with symbolism that brings past to present and reinterprets it for the future, the film speaks of resilience and power. And it does it like no film you’ve seen before.