Tag Archives: movie reviews

Gods and Monsters

Men

by Hope Madden

Alex Garland bats 1.000 with his third feature, Men, a terrifying look at the complicated aftermath of trauma.

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.

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?

All is left open to interpretation. An easy read, given Kinnear’s multiple roles, is simply that all men are the same. And while each of Kinnear’s characters represents a specific and common type of male threat, as bizarre reality begins tipping further into outright fantasy, it seems likelier we are seeing more of Harper than we are of men in general. She is putting a face—the same face—on a lifetime of traumas, large and small.

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.

Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s score meshes with Garland’s lush imagery, releasing a blend of music, ambient sound and, at its most eerily beautiful moments, Buckley’s voice. The result is powerful and unnerving.

Men is more of a head-scratcher than either of Garland’s previous films. Yes, even Annihilation. It’s far more of a horror film, for one thing, and far less of a clearly articulated narrative. 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.

Honky Tonk Angels

Torn Hearts

by Hope Madden

Heartbreak, hardship, hard living and broken dreams — that sounds like a country song.

How well does it work for a horror movie? Director Brea Grant (12 Hour Shift) finds out, with an assist from effortless badass Katey Sagal in the Music City thriller Torn Hearts.

Sagal plays Harper Dutchess, country music legend and what remains of the Dutchess sisters, a duo that made it big in the 90s, before tragedy hit. Now a recluse in her Nashville mansion, Harper is none too happy to see upstarts Jordan (Abby Quinn) and Leigh (Alexxis Lemire) show up at her door hoping to record a song with her that will put them on the path to stardom.

Screenwriter Rachel Koller Croft stumbled into something fresh with the country music angle. Horror is no stranger to rock music, disco, techno, metal, punk, but country? That’s new.

Unfortunately, she repackages a lot of familiar ideas inside that Western fringe. But Grant finds ways to keep things interesting.

An authentic soundtrack of music penned by Brittany Allen grounds Torn Hearts in authenticity, while Yaron Levy’s cinematography works the creepy Dutchess mansion for all its gothic, garish Nashville weirdness.

Both Lemire and Quinn fit their roles well. As Harper picks away at the young duo’s insecurities, each performer gets the chance to show some range, both physically and emotionally.

Sagal steals the show, though. The picture of hard living, Harper manipulates the young musicians with sometimes sadistic ease. Sagal relishes the contempt, crafting a formidable central figure and ensuring rapt attention, no matter what weaknesses the film has in store.

Torn Hearts layers its somewhat rote plot points with context about the harsh misogyny of country music, points Sagal’s performance drives home.

Evil Strange

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

by Brandon Thomas

Welcome back, Sam Raimi. 

The madcap director of the Evil Dead series, Darkman and the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films, makes a triumphant return to the big screen with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has battled other sorcerers, alien threats and even villains from alternate realities. All of them pale in comparison to the dark entity chasing young America Chavez (Xochil Gomez) across dimensions. As Strange fights to protect the young girl, he finds that the line between good and evil can easily be blurred – and sometimes even compromised by the best of intentions. 

The jump in quality between the first Doctor Strange film and Multiverse of Madness is more of a leap than a step. The first film sets it up well enough, but like many of the Marvel origin stories, it takes a while to get to the good stuff. Raimi’s film has no such issues. Cumberbatch is more comfortable in the role now, having appeared in two Avengers films and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Despite having a packed to the gills story, there’s still a lot of meaty character work for Cumberbatch to latch onto. 

Speaking of the story, yes this is another Marvel film with lots of tie-in to movies that came before and movies that will come after. Like the more successful Marvel Cinematic Universe endeavors, Multiverse of Madness delicately threads the needle and never feels too chaotic or unfocused. Raimi fought that battle and lost once before with Spider-Man 3.

There are plenty of surprises in the film. The marketing team behind the trailers should be commended for spoiling next to nothing – not even the main villain. Surprises are a big selling point for these MCU movies, and Multiverse has plenty of them up its sleeve.

Multiverse of Madness is Raimi firing on all cylinders. The movie absolutely crackles with the filmmaker’s energy and signature style. I nearly jumped out of my seat in delight when a couple shots of doors slamming in dutch angles appeared on screen. Few directors attack action sequences with the inventiveness and fun that Raimi does. You can feel the director’s personal flourishes coming through in those scenes instead of pre-visualized dreck from VFX artists in Vancouver.  

The film also leans into horror. Like his skill with action, horror carnage is a specialty of Raimi’s. Witches, demons and undead sorcerers pop up, and Raimi delights in tossing them at Cumberbatch’s Strange. I doubt the director tortured Cumberbatch like his friend Bruce Campbell in the Evil Dead films but it is fun to speculate. 

By embracing the character’s more horror-centric roots, and letting director Sam Raimi cut loose, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness offers up one of the most exciting – and different – films in the MCU so far. 

Free as a Bird

The Aviary

by Hope Madden

The pandemic — as crushing and debilitating as it was for so many people — also showed us how resilient people could be. Nowhere is that clearer than with art and, in particular, filmmaking.

To continue to create, filmmakers had to get creative in ways they may not have in the past. They limited themselves to small casts, tight locations, small crews — nothing terribly new to low-budget indie filmmakers. Sometimes that sparked something excellent, like Roshan Sethi’s 7 Days.

But there’s no room for weakness when an audience’s attention is focused so narrowly. Here’s where Chris Cullardi and Jennifer Raite’s mindbender The Aviary comes up short.

Malin Akerman and Lorenza Izzo are two friends escaping Seth (Chris Messina) and Skylight, a cult in the New Mexican desert. Each woman comes at the journey and the decision to break from their confines a bit differently. As the escape grows more and more complicated and terrifying, those differences breed distrust.

Akerman’s solid if uninspired as the more rugged and world-wise Jillian, once a high-ranking member of the organization. She lured Blair (Izzo) into the fold and now feels responsible to get her safely away.

Izzo’s performance stands out a bit more, ranging from shellshock to paranoia to mania as the journey wears on.

At its high points, The Aviary becomes a potent allegory for toxic relationships. Messina is particularly effective, his take on the cult leader somehow more insidious for its sincerity and tenderness.

Cullari and Raite, who co-write and co-direct, don’t have anything especially fresh to say, though. Their writing is fine, never exceptional. Their ideas are solid enough, not innovative by any means. The direction works but never excites.

That obviously leads to a palatable if forgettable cinematic experience. Worse though, it draws attention to flaws because there’s not much else to focus on. The film’s twists feel lazy, illogical rather than surprising. The disappointing payoff turns a relatively bland journey into an unfortunate slog.

Reconnecting

Unplugging

by Rachel Willis

When his UPS delivery driver unexpectedly dies, Dan (Matt Walsh) decides it’s time he and his wife “unplug” and reconnect with each other.

With Unplugging, co-written by Walsh and Brad Morris, director Debra Neil-Fisher attempts to find humor in a couple so plugged-in that a weekend without cell service becomes a disastrous nightmare.

The premise of the movie is applicable to plenty of people. Who doesn’t know someone who’s practically married to their phone? In this case, that’s Dan’s wife, Jeanine (Eva Longoria). The demands of her office are such that she’s typing emails and sending Jib Jabs at 3 am.

Dan and Jeanine’s daughter is just as connected as Jeanine, but this is apparently not a problem. Dan’s tech-free weekend getaway is just for Mom and Dad. His daughter, still looking at her phone as she says goodbye to her parents, is left behind with her grandmother.

Walsh and Longoria are adept at comedy, but the script never gives them anything to work with. Gil (Keith David) runs the local place where the only thing worth eating is the enchiladas, but the spot is so dead that Dan and Jeanine are his only customers. At least, until Perkins (Lea Thompson) shows up.

Thompson and David also have a knack for comedy, but David is underutilized, and Thompson’s drone-tracking, government-conspiracy-spouting rural nut is too over-the-top to land any jokes. Neither character make a lot of sense in the grand scheme of things, except to criticize rural people as “out there.” Perkins’s pet raccoon Lulu only belabors this point.

The film is unclear about its message. Is tech a bad thing? Or is it okay in moderation? Does getting lost in the woods make you appreciate your tech more, or less? Will a person’s constant disconnection from the “real” world make them suspicious of their neighbors? Or are your neighbors worthy of your suspicion? (If they live in the country, the answer seems to be yes.)

Like its characters, Unplugging gets lost about halfway through and never finds its way back. That it’s light on the humor only makes it harder for those of us who unplugged to watch the movie to keep our hands off our phones.

Days of Future Past

Memoria

by Hope Madden

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

You won’t be alone. Indeed, you’ll be much like Jessica (Tilda Swinton, perfect, of course). She’s awakened one dawn by a sound, a kind of “bong” that’s impossible to ignore. She assumes construction in a nearby building is to blame, but eventually, this sound follows her wherever she goes.

A desperate yet somewhat resigned curiosity drives Jessica to try to place the noise, or to identify its cause, whether natural or supernatural.

Her journey unfolds in gorgeously unconventional and profoundly cinematic fashion. Weerasethakul’s approach is simultaneously deliberate and dreamlike, and his tale rejects simplification or, indeed, proper summarization. It certainly avoids that comforting Hollywood structure, but Memoria offers a meticulous structure of its own, one that feels vague but supports the spell being cast.

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 travels through Colombia in search of answers 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.

No fan of simple solutions to life’s puzzles, Weerasethakul still leaves the story with an enigmatic but astonishing resolution. The spell he and his lead cast while bringing you to those final moments offers an experience more surprising and unique than anything else you’ll find onscreen this year.

Screening Room: The Northman, Massive Talent, The Bad Guys & More

Practical Magic

Marvelous and the Black Hole

by Hope Madden

Anybody who remembers Cheers knows Rhea Perlman can be tough as nails. But a magician hoping to befriend an angry adolescent? Well, that’s just masochism.

Still, that is the plot of Kate Tsang’s Marvelous and the Black Hole. Sullen Sammy (Miya Cech) is in trouble again. Her widowed father (Leonardo Nam) doesn’t know what to do with her, but the vandalism and angry outbursts — especially toward his new love, Marianne (Paulina Lule) — have got to stop.

The ultimatum: get an A in a summer course at community college or go to a religious boot camp.

But the course on entrepreneurship is lame and the teacher’s a moron so Sammy hits the bathrooms for a smoke. There she runs afoul of Perlman’s Margot, on campus to entertain a preschool. Margot sees something of herself in Sammy. Slowly, reluctantly, they pull friendship out of a hat.

Tsang’s got a history with whimsy, which certainly informs her feature debut. Animation, fantasy and magic spill together in sometimes inspired, sometimes ill-fitting ways to highlight Sammy’s tumultuous coming of age.

There’s an interesting clash of visual styles, but beneath that is a uniformly predictable story. Situations and characters are too broadly drawn, but just when you’re tempted to give up on the film, Tsang and gang hit a note of authenticity that pulls you back in. That’s particularly true with the way the film deals with grief.

What elevates Tsang’s tale no matter the scene is Cech’s performance. She anchors the story with a believably angry girl trapped between the tantrums of childhood and the self-destruction of adolescence. The performance feels authentic rather than angsty and it elevates even the weakest scenes.

Perlman’s a charmer as the lonely mentor and she and Cech share a sweet chemistry. The film boasts some laughs and some cringes, but uneven as it gets, Cech delivers.