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Back for Seconds

Food Inc. 2

by Rachel Willis

I’ll admit I didn’t watch 2008’s Food, Inc., but the first film is not a prerequisite for watching Food, Inc. 2—an updated, critical look at the system that feeds us.

What director Robert Kenner addressed in the first film is, in part, revisited—this time with co-director Melissa Robledo. Has much changed since Food, Inc. was released 15 years ago? What role did the COVID-19 pandemic play in exposing the weaknesses in our food system? And what is ultra-processed food doing to our health?

Producers Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser once again join Kenner in tackling the issues that come with food consumption in America. While farmer’s markets are now a staple in many American cities, and organic and free-range food is readily available in big chain grocery stores, much of what we eat is still controlled by only a handful of companies.

The point is made early that what was started with the original Food, Inc. wasn’t enough.

The filmmakers make a strong case for the fragile nature of our food supply. The COVID pandemic brought into sharp relief the problems with having so few suppliers for our food. Footage shows milk being dumped, pigs euthanized, and produce wasted while store shelves stand depleted. It’s a harsh fact brought to light: the food industry is based on predictability. When something unpredictable happens, people go hungry.

One issue highlighted is that 80% of the infant formula market is controlled by only two companies. When one of those companies had to shut down one of their factories in 2022, parents were left desperate to find the food necessary to feed their babies—just one of many examples that demonstrate the fragility of our most important system.

Several interviews focus on the exploitation of workers harvesting and producing crops for pityingly low wages in inhumane conditions. One man makes the point that “the work is essential, but we’re treated as disposable.” In the 100+ years since The Jungle was published, it seems little has changed.

Michael Pollan is quick to highlight the war between Big Ag and nature. Moving dairy farms to the desert is unsustainable, yet regulations are few and land is cheap. When cows need water from aquifers to produce milk, people go without water.

Food, Inc. 2 raises urgent issues. It’s essential that we listen.

No Place Like Home

Invader

by Hope Madden

Lean, mean and affecting, Mickey Keating’s take on the home invasion film wastes no time. In a wordless—though not soundless—opening, the filmmaker introduces an unhinged presence.

Cut to Ana (Vero Maynez). She’s sleepy, it’s late, the bus is empty except for the driver hustling her off, his voice constant, annoyed, and on repeat: Come on. Get off the bus. Last stop. You gotta go.

It’s 4:30 am. The bus was late, the station is deserted, and Carmilla—Ana’s cousin—is not answering.

Immediately Keating sets our eyes and ears against us. His soundtrack frequently blares death metal, a tactic that emphasizes a chaotic, menacing mood the film never shakes. Using primarily handheld cameras from the unnerving opening throughout the entire film, the filmmaker maintains an anarchic energy, a sense of the characters’ frenzy and the endless possibility of violence.

Keating strings together a handful of believably tumultuous moments early in the film—particularly a couple of run-ins with a horn-blaring cabbie—to work the nerves and leave you feeling as raw and vulnerable as Ana. Rather than dip and settle, Invader delivers relentlessly on that early sense of harried terror.

Scenes possess an improvisational quality that coincides with the rawness of the overall effort. Keating is spare with exposition—if you can’t figure out what’s going on without having it explained to you, you are clearly not paying attention. The verité style accomplishes what it’s mean to, lending Invader an authenticity that amplifies the horror.

Maynez carries that authenticity. Ana never feels written, she feels alive. Her confusion, anger, fear—all of it runs together in a way that reflects what the audience is experiencing in each moment. Her limited screentime with Colin Huerta introduces enough tenderness to give the sense of terror real depth.

Joe Swanberg, with limited screentime and even more limited dialog, crafts a terrifying image of havoc. His presence is perversely menacing, an explosion of rage and horror.

Invader delivers a spare, nasty, memorable piece of horror in just over an hour. It will stick with you a while longer. 

Queen of Pain

Sting

by Hope Madden

Is there a more reliable source of terror than the spider?

Well, maybe clowns, but spiders are a close second. Australian filmmaker Kiah Roache-Turner is giddy to elicit shivers and gasps with his delightfully horrifying arachnid adventure, Sting.

Roache-Turner’s love for sci-fi horror bursts gleefully from the dollhouse-set opening credits, a scene that efficiently outlines our backstory. This snapshot playfully predicts the film, even as it homages genre classics.

The Wyrmwood director goes on to use the air ducts of an old Bronx apartment building to lay out the land, introduce us to tenants and their habits, and show our hero shimmying and crawling, all spider-like, through the building.

Who is our hero? Malcontent 12-year-old Charlotte (Alyla Browne). Her baby brother is loathsome, her parents are tedious, no one pays attention to her, her old witch of a great-aunt/land lady blames her for everything. Ugh!

But then Charlotte comes across a very cool little spider. And with so many cockroaches in Charlotte’s building, surely the newly monikered Sting will never need to look elsewhere for food!

Boy, that is lucky.

Browne channels Lulu Wilson’s Becky (maybe a little less angry). Her performance easily withstands the demands of a lead, but she does receive nice support from a variety of personalities living in the building: Nona Hazelhurt, Robyn Nevin, Danny Kim, Silvia Colloca and Jermaine Fowler.

Fiona Donovan’s production design stands out, emphasizing the film’s distinctly Joe Dante vibe. Although instead of perverting some idyllic burb, Sting ravages a storybook version of the Bronx.

But make no mistake, this movie gets nasty. The creature design and CGI are a bit campy, but the damage Sting does is convincing and pitiless. (Pet lovers be warned.)

If you missed Roache-Turner’s 2014 post-apocalyptic thrill ride Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead, definitely check it out. With that film, his fondness for Mad Max flavored a delightful riff on the zombie movie. Here he channels affection for a wide range of creature features (he really loves Alien) but still manages to create something decidedly his own.

One Small Ember

Monkey Man

by George Wolf

A new hero has arrived. And with him, an exciting new filmmaker.

After directing just two short films, Dev Patel moves to features with Monkey Man, an assured and thrillingly violent story of heritage and revenge.

Patel (who also gets a story credit) is charismatic and commanding as “Bobby,” an underground fighter in India who takes dives for “Tiger” (Sharlto Copley) and cons his way into a job washing dishes at an exclusive club run by Queenie Kapoor (Ashwini Kalsekar).

But Bobby has a plan to get promoted to serving in the VIP room. Once in, he’ll get close enough to police chief Rana Singh (Sikandar Kher) to make him pay for crimes committed against Bobby’s mother (Adithi Kalkunte) years before.

Complications arise, leaving Bobby a very wounded and hunted man, until some mystical assistance from Alpha (Vipin Sharma) turns Bobby into a lethal leader for the common people.

Patel doesn’t run from his inspirations, even name-dropping John Wick early in the film. You’ll also see shades of martial arts masters, Winding Refn, Tarantino and more, but Patel is always ready to put his own stamp on a familiar march to a showdown. He favors quick cuts and close ups with scattershot POV shots to enhance the impressive fight choreography and striking color palettes at work.

Similarly, Patel teams with screenwriters John Colle and Paul Angunawela—plus producer Jordan Peele—to take some well known themes and move them progressively forward. Rebelling against the totalitarian tactics of Baba Shakti (Makrand Deshpandi) and the Sovereign Party, a forgotten and oppressed population turns to the Monkey Man for deliverance.

And as much as this feels like an origin story, it is a dark one. Patel has indeed delivered a statement, as much about his filmmaking prowess as it is about his worldview. But the statement is grim and bloody, so leave the little ones at home and strap in for the thrilling, visceral rise of Patel and the Monkey Man.

Sister Act Too

The First Omen

by Hope Madden

Just two short weeks ago, producer/star Sydney Sweeney’s Immaculate turned the threadbare “innocent nun bringing about the apocalypse” horror (it’s actually an incredibly common trope) into a potent and startling instrument of female rage.

Thanks, by the way.

But if all that remarkable sacrilege was a little too much for you, if you were looking for the exact same movie—just maybe not so hard on the patriarchy—can I interest you in The First Omen?

Arkasha Stevenson’s hands were a bit tied, of course, this being a direct prequel to Richard Donner’s 1976 classic. Donner’s film has already spawned three sequels and a remake, and now a reboot.

A lot has happened since 1976 that makes a “trust the priest” narrative tough to swallow. Stevenson, working from a script she co-wrote with Tim Smith and Keith Thomas, digs into the sketchy side of Catholicism hinted at back in ’76. You know, the burned convent. The shady hospital baby switch. The jackal.    

And yet, for all the Omen specificity Stevenson sews into her antichrist apocalypse tapestry, the movie still feels for all the world like a neutered Immaculate.

Margaret (Nell Tiger Free) is an American who grew up in Catholic orphanages and has come to an Italian convent to take her vows and become a nun. There’s a hospital wing at the convent. Margaret quickly decides things are unseemly but she’s powerless.

Why yes, that is the exact set up as Immaculate. There’s also a saucy best friend nun who doesn’t seem cut out for the veil, and of course, the involuntary vessel of the antichrist.

How do the films differentiate themselves? Well, Immaculate is not part of a decades-old franchise. The First Omen has a pretty great club scene. Other than that, they are essentially the same film. One just hits a lot harder.

Back in 2022, Daniel Stamm’s Prey for the Devil tried to breathe a little feminism into convent  horror. It wasn’t a great movie, but it was a nice try. Just two years later, a little feminism feels like a pulled punch.

Sleeping with the Enemy

Femme

by Matt Weiner

“Revenge thriller with a twist” doesn’t do justice to Femme, the tight feature debut from writers and directors Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping.

Based on their 2021 short film, Femme kicks off with a brutal and unflinching gay-bashing when Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) stands up for himself after being mocked for his drag attire by Preston (George MacKay) and his mates.

The attack leaves Jules traumatized for months. After a chance sighting of Preston in a bathhouse, Jules realizes that his attacker is deeply closeted—and the idea for an intricate revenge plot energizes Jules and gives him a new purpose.

The plan is to film revenge porn and out Preston, ruining his life in a social circle with little tolerance for homosexuality. To achieve this plan, of course, Jules has to actually record the revenge porn, which kicks off a high-wire secret relationship between the two as they fall in something resembling love despite the glut of secrets each man is hiding.

Freeman and Ping breathe fresh life into the self-loathing homophobe trope. The sexy (and seamy) sides of London nightlife elevate Femme into a taut neo-noir thriller. As Jules develops complicated feelings for Preston, his plan for revenge feels much closer to Hitchcock than Forster.

The movie also moves at a rapid pace, almost to a fault. It’s a sparse plot, which puts the full weight of the challenging emotional interplay on MacKay and Stewart-Jarrett. The two leads are both exceptional, and pull off their thorny affair with empathy on both sides. This is no small feat for MacKay especially, whose Preston starts the movie full of hate and nearly killing his soon-to-be lover.

MacKay humanizes Preston without letting go of a barely contained menace that could erupt at any moment. It’s clear that Jules is playing a dangerous game. And one that is unlikely to have any winners.

The Final Curtain

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Opus

by George Wolf

There’s that pivotal scene in Walk the Line, where a young Johnny Cash is failing his audition with Sun Records. Owner Sam Phillips is growing impatient, and finally tells Cash to play one song as if he were dying and wanted to tell God what he felt about his time on Earth.

For 103 glorious minutes in Opus, a dying Ryuichi Sakamoto delivers just such an elegy, a soul-stirring set of piano compositions that often seem to be speaking directly to the heavens.

Sakamoto, the Japanese composer and actor who earned Grammys, BAFTAs, Golden Globes, an Oscar and multiple other awards in his legendary career, was nearing the end of his long battle with cancer when he agreed to one final performance.

Director Neo Sora – Sakamoto’s son – presents his father’s farewell with minimalistic virtuosity. There is only Sakamoto, his piano, and his wonderful talent, as a cascade of musical beauty fills in all the colors needed against Sora’s rich black-and-white pallet.

Sora’s camera is often static, as if to respect and savor the moment. But when it does move it is with grace and purpose, to slowly focus on the master’s hands, his fulfilled facial expressions or the repeated bows of his head.

Sakamoto chooses original works from across his career, performing each with a depth of feeling that is transfixing and touching, reaching an almost ethereal level of expression. It is an experience that can be deeply moving for an audience, but it’s also one that requires a theater setting and uninterrupted silence to completely let it in.

Give Ryuichi Sakamoto: Opus your time and complete attention, and you will be rewarded. This is a man talking to God through his piano.

Just let your soul be enriched

Crooked Line

Glitter & Doom

by Rachel Willis

Being unfamiliar with all but one Indigo Girls song, I was still impressed with how well their music is worked into the romantic musical, Glitter & Doom.

Director Tom Gustafson weaves the tunes into the budding summer romance of Doom (Alan Cammish), an aspiring musician, and Glitter (Alex Diaz), a hopeful circus performer. These two are first drawn to one another while Glitter is filming an audition tape for clown school in Paris.

When the two meet again, the meet cute duet is a bit jarring at first, until we learn that our duo can sing. However, the scene is stolen by the choreography, which is a fun, entertaining highlight in what would otherwise be an underwhelming moment of connection.

There honestly isn’t much to this story, though. The characters seem made to encourage each other’s ambitions. And though they’re presented as opposites, their winning duets don’t help paint them as people with diametrically opposed life perspectives.

Sure, it’s hard not to notice Doom’s outlook matches his name. This is most obvious when he interacts with his mother (Missi Pyle). Glitter, on the other hand, radiates positivity, except when dealing with his loving but unsupportive mother (Ming-Na Wen, who has her own lovely singing voice). In fact, the mother-son relationships are the most interesting parts of the film—not exactly what you want when the focus of your story is a romance.

But when your two leads have the kind of chemistry that Cammish and Diaz have, it’s hard not to be pulled into their tale. Their ups aren’t very high, nor their lows very low, but it’s hard not to root for them – both as a couple, and as they pursue their dreams.

Not much really sets this movie apart except for the music, and each scene seems to drive you toward the next musical number. While it’s not entirely unappealing, it is a bit underwhelming.

Music Maker, Dreamer of Dreams

Remembering Gene Wilder

by Hope Madden

Maybe the smartest choice director Ron Frank made when putting together his affectionate documentary Remembering Gene Wilder was to pull audio from Wilder’s own autobiography. Sure, we hear from many who loved the comic actor—Mel Brooks, Carol Kane, Alan Alda among them. But everything they tell you about his authenticity, humility, humanity, and perfect comic timing you can hear for yourself as Wilder spills the beans on his life.

You remember the hair, of course. And probably those eyes. But that voice proves, in case you have forgotten, that there was something deeply, bubblingly, undeniably delightful about Gene Wilder. And he could act.

Frank, working with writer Glenn Kirschbaum, hand picks some of Wilder’s best scenes. Not necessarily the most iconic, but the most confounding, the scenes where he made a creative decision no one else would have considered, creating an indelible moment on screen.

This is a film that loves Gene Wilder, and it makes a pretty good case for that.

We hear about is childhood, about Willy Wonka, Young Frankenstein, Richard Pryor, Gilda. Each story showcases the gentle, charming creature that was Gene Wilder. Though Frank doesn’t break any new ground cinematically—talking head interviews flank home movies, film clips surround family photos—the mellow approach belies a deep emotional connection.

Remembering Gene Wilder is not just a greatest hits. Although the film does not delve into any of the actor/director’s box office or critical missteps—nor does it devote a single moment to anything that would make Wilder out to be anything other than a treasure—it acknowledges low times. Even those just make you want to hug him.

Not every film or character of Wilder’s has aged well, but his good nature and talent shine none the dimmer. Remembering Gene Wilder certainly does not unearth any ugliness, bares no startling truths. It’s clearly the product of a filmmaker who truly loves his subject.

He doesn’t seem wrong, though.