Movie reviews

Edoardo Vitaletti's debut feature "The Last Thing Mary Saw," set amid a New England Puritan community in 1843, is a case study in how to do more with less. This film about forbidden love between two teenage Puritan girls unfolds in and around a handful of structures that seem to have been built during the era in which the story is set. David Kruta's camerawork appears to use only natural light, even in scenes where candles provide the only illumination. The actors often speak in whispers, or in placid, even tones meant to hide emotion. It has a you-are-there feeling that's unusual in low-budget period pictures.

What are we looking at, though? This film debuted on Shudder, a channel specializing in horror, and it does boast a number of shocking images pertaining to the sadistic violence of the girls' community, which crushes any behavior that doesn't conform to their rigid norms. But there are relatively few instances of supernatural horror or more earthbound sorts of suspense, and in the end the movie feels more like a harsh, somewhat masochistic lesbian love story set in-period, with body horror closeups of mangled flesh and nasty wounds and scars. This critic doesn't usually get hung up on the kinds of definitions, but it's not hard to imagine a viewer coming away from this film thinking that if it's horror, then "Silence" and "Midnight Express" must be, too.

The story begins with the title character (Stefanie Scott from “Insidious 3”) in jail and blindfolded, being interrogated by a local constable (Daniel Pearce) about her crimes. We travel into the not-too-distant past and learn the details of the case: Mary began an affair with her family's maid Eleanor (Isabelle Fuhrman of “Orphan”) after a book of Sapphic woodcut illustrations was brought into the house. The idea that a book could impel a particular sort of sexual desire to take root where none otherwise existed is ludicrous, but such are the thought processes of these communities, where the most important thing is reinforcing patriarchal hierarchies of control through intimidation and terror. 

There's a bit of a community bait-and-switch going on, with the girls being rather elaborately blamed for the sinister energies coursing through the place even though they genuinely haven't done anything wrong (at least by 21st century secular Western standards). The bulk of the film's story is about what happens to the couple after Mary’s parents (Carolyn McCormick and Michael Laurence) seek "correction" from the community's matriarch (a terrifying performance by Judith Roberts, first seen by genre buffs in "Eraserhead"). 

What follows might be classified as a crude early form of "aversion therapy" techniques, from isolation to being forced to kneel bare-legged on dry rice for days at a time, a torture that cracks open and infects the skin. We're told this sort of thing is commonplace here in punishment for an array of crimes, including escape. The film takes a turn into "Heavenly Creatures" territory, with the girls considering a murder conspiracy to end their suffering; simply fleeing the place has too high a failure rate, as limping local perimeter guard explains. 

"The Last Thing Mary Saw" is so effective as a vehicle for performances, atmosphere, and period detail, and so convincing an examination of suffering under the boot-heel of a self-perpetuating cult, that one may wish that it added up to slightly more. One might also wonder if a case of mislabeling might engender avoidable resentment from horror fans who have  narrow taste in material, and might've come in expecting spectacular supernatural action or at least a few gory kills with farm implements. "Children of the Corn" this definitely ain't, but it feels like the opening installment in a filmmaking career worth following. 

On Shudder today.

Author: Matt Zoller Seitz
Posted: January 20, 2022, 2:09 pm

My high school senior year English teacher, Mr. Kilinski would be proud that I remembered every single stanza and line from Macbeth he made his students memorize. As Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, and others worked through the Bard’s words as adapted by director Joel Coen, I felt myself lip-syncing under my mask. I covered the greatest hits, and lines I didn’t even realize I knew. Keep in mind that I learned these words 35 years ago, yet they were as fresh in my mind as if I’d committed them to memory that morning. The Scottish Play holds a special place in my heart, because it forced me to do a complete 180 on William Shakespeare. After my freshman year run-in with Romeo and Juliet and my sophomore year’s Julius Caesar, I was through with this dude and his fancy writing about topics that put my adolescent self to sleep.

Macbeth made me reconsider. Back then, I couldn’t put my finger on why it spoke to me so powerfully that it made me want to read more Shakespeare. But, as an adult, I understood. This play is like a film noir and I was a budding noirista as a teen. “The Tragedy of Macbeth” visually leans into my noirish interpretation. It’s shot in silvery, at times gothic black and white by Bruno Delbonnel, has a moody score by the great Carter Burwell, and takes place on incredible (and obviously fake) sets designed by Stefan Dechant. It also has more fog than San Francisco, the setting for so many great noirs. This makes sense, as Coen and his brother Ethan visited neo-noir’s genre neighborhood more traditionally in their 2001 film, “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” One might consider their debut, “Blood Simple” a neo-noir as well.

Like those films, this one also features McDormand as a shady lady, namely Lady Macbeth. She’s married to Washington’s Macbeth, the Thane of Glamis. As the casting indicates, this couple is older than the one the Bard envisioned, which changes one’s perception of their motivations. Youthful ambition has given way to something else; perhaps the couple is way too conscious of all those yesterdays that “lighted fools/The way to dusty death.” At the Q&A after the free IMAX screening of this film, McDormand mentioned that she wanted to portray the Macbeths as a couple who chose not to have children early on, and were fine with the choice. This detail makes the murder of Macduff’s (Corey Hawkins) son all the more heartless and brutal, an act Coen treats with restraint but does not shy away from depicting.

Since The Scottish Play was first performed 415 years ago, all spoiler warnings have expired. Besides, you should know the plot already. Banquo (Bertie Carvel) and the Thane of Glamis meet three witches (all played by theater vet Kathryn Hunter) on his way back from battle. They prophesize that Macbeth will eventually be King of Scotland. But first, he’ll become the Thane of Cawdor. When that part of the prediction becomes true, Macbeth thinks these medieval Miss Cleos might be onto something. Though he believes chance will crown him without his stir, Lady Macbeth goads him to intervene. As is typical of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the stage will be littered with dead bodies by the final curtain, each of whom will have screamed out “I am slain!” or “I am dead!” before expiring. Coen leaves that feature out of the movie, as you can see quite graphically how dead the bodies get on the screen.

King Duncan’s murder is especially rough. Washington and Brendan Gleeson play it as a macabre dance, framed so tightly that we feel the intimacy of how close one must be to stab another. It’s almost sexual. Both actors give off a regal air in their other scenes, though Washington’s is buoyed by that patented Den-ZELLL swagger. He even does the Denzel vocal tic, that “huh” he’s famous for, in some of his speeches, making me giddy enough to jump out of my skin with joy. Gleeson brings the Old Vic to his brief performance; every line and every moment feels like he’s communing with the ghosts of the famous actors who graced that hallowed London stage.

The other actors are well cast and bring their own gifts to their work. Stephen Root almost walks off with the picture as Porter. Alex Hassel gets more to do as Ross than I remembered. And there’s a great scene with an old man played by an actor I will not reveal. (Look real closely when he appears.) As for McDormand, she has her usual steely reserve, but I don’t think she fully shakes that off once we get to that “out, damned spot” scene. I had a similar problem with Washington’s scene at the banquet when he is haunted by a familiar specter. Both seem too confident to be in the thrall of temporary madness.

This “Macbeth” is as much about mood as it is about verse. The visuals acknowledge this, pulling us into the action as if we were seeing it on stage. But nowhere is the evocation of mood more prominent than in Kathryn Hunter’s revelatory performance as the Witches. There’s an otherworldliness to her appearance and her voice, as if she came from a dark place Macbeth should fear. You will have a hard time forgetting her work. She’s fantastic here, and Coen’s depiction of her cauldron bubbling is a highlight, as is the narrow staging of Macbeth’s final battle. Hawkins holds his own against the behemoth that is Denzel Washington, and their swordplay is swift and nasty.

One note of caution: High school students who use movies instead of reading the play will, as always, continue to fail English class. If chance would have you pass, then chance would pass you without your stir. So read the play, kids! Your own personal Mr. Kilinski will thank you.

Now playing in select theaters and available on Apple TV+ on January 14.

Author: Odie Henderson
Posted: January 15, 2022, 12:24 am

Your gut tells you that the hero of "Shattered" is about to get into trouble when he goes to a supermarket after midnight and the only other customer is a gorgeous young woman, dripping wet from rain, who asks his advice on which wine to buy, accepts his offer of a lift home when her rideshare fails to materialize, and ends up having sex with him. This is a psychosexual thriller, a type of film in which naked bodies are a prelude to a body count. 

Indeed, like the high-tech security devices supposedly protecting the hero's palatial mountain home, this film from director Luis Prieto ("Kidnap") and writer David Loughery ("Money Train," "Lakeview Terrace") is a machine that promises to fulfill certain functions. Unfortunately, the craftsmanship is lacking. That's not a knock against the look or sound of the movie, which is appropriately glossy, or the sex, which is pretty boisterous for a film made in the neo-Puritan early 21st century, or the violence, which is more  spectacularly gruesome than non-horror films tend to allow. (One character looms before their prey bathed in blood like Carrie after the prom.) 

But there's no getting around the fact that several of the lead performances are stiff to the point of amateurishness (at least until the plot gets cooking about halfway through, and everyone gets to suffer, sweat, bleed and scream). And the script manages to be too much and not enough, gesturing clumsily in the direction of what the critic Anne Billson calls the Preposterous Thriller, while at the same time shoehorning in bits of social critique about the haves and have-nots that make "Shattered" come off as the movie "Parasite" could have been, were it possible to repeatedly drop a film on its head.

"Shattered" is a twist-driven film. But the twists don't follow real-world logic. Nor do they embrace the dream-world anti-logic of great psychosexual thrillers like "Fatal Attraction," "Body Double," "Basic Instinct" or the late-in-the-game classic "Gone Girl," the kinds of pictures where absurdities and outrages pile up to the point where the audience starts giggling with unhinged delight. Suffice to say if you're still interested in seeing ”Shattered,” you should check out of this review now. 

The man, Chris Decker (Cameron Monaghan of the American "Shameless") is a tech entrepreneur who recently sold his company for millions. He has a wife (Sasha Luss) and daughter (Ridley Bateman) from whom he's about to be separated by divorce. He lives in the aforementioned dream house, which looks down on the plebes in town like the home of the tycoon in Akira Kurosawa's far more politically cogent "High and Low." The young woman, who calls her herself Sky (Lilly Krug), lives in a residential motel run by an affable dirtbag named Ronald (John Malkovich, who gives one of the film's only two memorable performances) and has a self-destructive roommate (Ash Santos’ Lisa) whom she supposedly goes home with Chris to escape.

What ensues is a story that seesaws between exuberant nonsense and a sort of half-assed sociopolitical awareness, mixing resentment of amoral techno-fascist douchebros, fascination with their show-off houses, and a slightly pervy obsession with model-actress-whatever types who might not, factually speaking, be teetering on the edge of the age of legal consent, but are nevertheless made up and costumed to evoke a barely pubescent anime waif, or Lolita. Krug and Monaghan, I'm sorry to say, are terrible in this, though it's hard to blame them entirely or even partially, given the lumpiness of the script and the director's seeming incapability of steering into the skid and producing a glorious wreck of a movie, the kind audiences cheer lustily even though they know it's dumb. 

A lot of the issues come back to the question of whether you're watching the kind of film that cares about believable psychology or one that could not care less. It handles the distress of Sky's roommate more sensitively than one might expect, but it also has the hero getting his leg broken with a tire iron during an attempted car break-in and then gives us zero indication of how that shocking crime might've affected the victim's psyche (for the most part, he acts as if it was an inconvenience). 

Soon we realize we'll never figure out who Sky "really is" because there's nothing in her head but greed and evil. Kudos to the movie, kind of, for taking one more giant step into raw sleaze by bringing in character actor Frank Grillo (the film's other memorable performance) to play a preening, wiseass, thug-mastermind type. Grillo's smirky delivery, New York tough guy swagger, and retro-'50s pompadour read as an invocation of Mickey Rourke, the crown prince of screen debauchery in the late '80s and early '90s, and the star of Michael Cimino's remake of the home invasion thriller "The Desperate Hours," which the final third of the film sometimes resembles (along with both versions of "Funny Games"). 

"Shattered" is, as you might've gathered, a film history-literate work that blatantly pays homage to earlier movies: the house recalls both the bad guy's mountain fortress in "North by Northwest" and the place that Craig Wasson house-sat in "Body Double," and not only does Chris spend most of the film in a wheelchair, a la “Rear Window,” the director does his own version of the dreamy wake-up kiss between Grace Kelly and James Stewart. But the tributes achieve little, save for reminding you of better movies.

The picture at the top of this review, John Malkovich standing in front of a woodpile making a goofy face, does not reflect the tone of “Shattered,” but he's more interesting than anything that's actually in the film, so we put it up there as a treat for the reader. Malkovich only has a few scenes, but in every one of them, he indulges in little verbal and physical flourishes (such as giving a cut flower an insinuating lick) that liven up a dreary experience. That it never occurred to anyone involved that the film would've been greatly improved by putting Malkovich's loser-outsider character at the center of the story rather than on its periphery is just one more example of the production's failure to capitalize on the resources at its disposal.

Now playing in select theaters and available on demand.

Author: Matt Zoller Seitz
Posted: January 14, 2022, 4:51 pm

"Hotel Transylvania: Transformania," the fourth in the animated series about the vampire who runs a residential hotel for monsters, is the brightest, funniest, sweetest, and all-around best one yet. Roger Ebert liked to describe movies as “empathy machines.” “Hotel Transylvania: Transformania” is a good example. The struggle of monsters and humans to understand each other is taken to its ultimate stage by switching places thanks to a transforming ray that works and then breaks, leaving them stuck that way until they can find a replacement just in time for a happy ending. 

Devoted single dad Drac (Brian Hull replacing Adam Sandler) has never been comfortable with his human son-in-law Johnny (Andy Samberg). It is more than just the difference between monsters and humans. Drac is by nature restrained, anxious, and resistant to change while Johnny is ebullient, adventuresome, and impulsive. As the movie opens, the hotel is celebrating the 125th anniversary of the hotel and Drag is getting ready to turn the hotel over to his daughter, Mavis (Selena Gomez, now producer of the film as well as star) and Johnny. But Johnny’s enthusiastic reaction and plans for changes make him reconsider. Drac lies to Johnny, telling him he would give them the hotel, but. “real estate law” forbids transfer of property to a human. Johnny does not want to disappoint Mavis, so he impulsively visits the basement lab of mad scientist Van Helsing (Jim Gaffigan), who happens to have a transforming ray on hand. Prudently, he first tests it on an actual guinea pig. Satisfied with the monster-fied results, he trains it on Johnny, who is delighted with his new dragon-like monster self. 

When the ray accidentally hits Drac, though, the results are not nearly as welcome. No powers! No fangs! Receding hairline! And worst of all, a dad bod! Talk about terrifying! The magic monster-making crystal breaks, and the only way to return them to their original forms is to find another one, following a monster-ific GPS to a rainforest in South America. And so, it is a road movie, with two very different people, now suddenly different from their own selves as well as from each other, learning to work together along the way.

That is part of what makes it so much fun, because the characters are so far from their most fundamental sense of who they are. Drac goes from frustrated fury at not being able to fly or use mind control, to delight at experiencing what seems very ordinary to us—sunlight. He may be a vampire, but he is horrified when he is confronted by another species of blood-sucker—mosquitos.  

The animation is exceptionally detailed, supple and dynamic. The interplay of the images with the action and dialogue adds emphasis and clever twists that will reward a second and third viewing. There is a lively plasticity to the characters that is exaggerated enough to take advantage of the animator’s unlimited imagination while staying completely consistent with the internal reality of the world where, after three other movies plus shorts and video games with these characters, we feel at home. The gestures and facial expressions are hilarious but always in service of story and character. 

And the animators have a blast with the various transformations. After three movies, it's a lot of fun to see the human side of the other monsters. And that means “see” in the most literal sense. Griffin the Invisible Man (David Spade) had been nothing but a pair of glasses until his transformation; his friends are surprised to find out he’d been naked the whole time. For Griffin himself, the equally disconcerting surprise is that he is balding. We also learn what, or rather who, has been inside the thousands-of-years-old wrapping around Murray the Mummy (Keegan-Michael Key) and what Wayne the Wolfman (Steve Buscemi) looks like without all the fur (though still pretty hairy). The un-pieced-together Frankenstein (Brad Abrell) turns out to be a selfie-taking dreamboat. At least he thinks so. His wife, Eunice (Fran Drescher) is not convinced. 

Gomez’s wry, understated delivery made her a perfect foil for Steve Martin and Martin Short in the Hulu series “Only Murders in the Building.” Here it works well as the voice of reason in the midst of all of the insanity, and she adds enough warmth to show her love for both Johnny and Drac. She and Ericka Van Helsing (Kathryn Hahn) bring the other wives to chase after the monster/humans and human/monster (in a zeppelin!) to find the crystal before it's too late to transform back.

With its Indiana Jones-style adventure, "Hotel Transylvania: Transformania" combines monster powers lost and found (love those innumerable wolf cubs), pure joyous silliness, and surprisingly touching insights into family relationships. My Yelp review for this hotel is “would do business again.”  

Now playing on Amazon Prime. 

Author: Nell Minow
Posted: January 14, 2022, 2:12 pm

Mamoru Hosoda’s animated film “Belle,” a modern reimagining of “Beauty and the Beast,” sees an outcast by the name of Suzu (voiced by Kaho Nakamura), discovering community and love on a virtual reality platform called U. Through lush graphics, Hosoda’s fairytale charts the highs and lows of online stardom, and how we act out our innermost selves in the safety of an online world rather than at the behest of a crueler, realer universe. It’s a meticulously crafted, albeit not totally original critique of internet culture, bursting with color and melodramatic teen angst.  

The reserved, lonely Suzu lives in an idyllic countryside, where the bus line, following this summer, will soon be discontinued. Apart from school, where few take notice of her, U is her outlet to the outside world. The brainy, cynical Hiro (voiced by Ikura) is her best friend, her only friend. When she was a child, Suzu’s mother died while trying to save a stranded girl from a raging river. As a result, the now 17-year-old struggles to sing in public and is distant from her father. Only on U, where she becomes the radiant Belle, the platform’s most popular star, can she find the strength to sing.

We soon discover how Suzu is playing a role. See, every avatar on this body-sharing app is created from each user’s unique biometric information. When Suzu created her profile she uploaded a group picture that included Ruka (voiced by Tina Tamashiro), the most popular and attractive girl at her school, making Belle in her image. 

Hosoda, in the early going of “Belle,” includes “Beauty and the Beast” references in simple ways. Suzu’s online popularity rises until a bruised, caped creature named The Dragon, followed by a cadre of authorities known as the Justices, barrels through her U concert. The justices, a band of muscular bullies dressed like superheroes, want to unveil The Dragon’s true identity because of the way he fights, seemingly punching opponents in the U’s Martial Arts Hall out of rage rather than sport. Sensing an inner-hurt that’s fueling him, Suzu becomes enamored with Dragon, and puts herself in direct opposition to the Justices.      

“Belle” wraps the classic myth in familiar tropes concerning teenagers navigating high school crushes: Suzu’s childhood friend, the handsome and popular Shinobu (voiced by Ryô Narita), for instance, is one such flame whose warmth always seems just out of reach (it doesn’t help that he nauseatingly sees himself as her protector when she doesn’t need one). Any commentary the film tries to give about online culture never rises above the common: The internet exists for some as a therapeutic repository for healing pain and loss, and a toxic landscape for gripes and bullies.  

Rather the draw of “Belle” is its lush animation. At times, it’s cartoonish; in others, it’s hyper-realistic. At most points, the aesthetics morph into fantastical and whimsical shapes. Some images lodge in your brain like a rainbow on a puddle: The modern, virtual recreation of the Beast’s castle, a kind of crystal palace is one. Belle, adorned in a flowing rose-colored dress, singing atop a whale mounted with speakers as millions of avatars in all shapes and sizes surround her, represent another. The most sincere scene: A golden glittering sea of voices outstretched in pure kindness, featuring Suza’s best song, in a movie composed of an ocean of plaintive melodies.  

The way Hosoda’s grandiose script retools “Beauty in the Beast” is equally transfixing. The basic building blocks, its visual odes to the fairy tale, certainly form a sturdy foundation. But Hosoda thoughtfully adds new, emotionally fertile soil to the vintage narrative. From it sprouts a difficult subject whereby the acute pain felt by the voiceless arises. Suzu must learn how her inner strength can also be her outer strength. And how her talent, apart from her spellbinding singing voice, resides in the empathy she shows, not in the popularity others give her.

Hosoda doesn’t offer a wholly new take on either the teenage romance format or online culture, and it's sometimes grating that Suzu must learn to embrace her sense of agency while making room for a love interest that equally believes in her fragility. But the captivating animation and the potent meditations on emotional and physical trauma give “Belle” an aching, gentle spirit worth experiencing.

Now playing in theaters.

Author: Robert Daniels
Posted: January 14, 2022, 2:12 pm

The 2022 version of “Scream” is a film for viewers raised on the 1996 version of “Scream” and its three sequels. Whereas the first script by Kevin Williamson turned the kind of conversations that fans had about John Carpenter and Wes Craven in school cafeterias and coffee houses into something daring and riveting, the new script by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick exists in a world where those conversations happen on a much larger scale in Discord chats, Reddit threads, and fan conventions. It's a horror film for a world in which everyone has an opinion on horror films. Luckily, it smartly balances references to the original movies in a way that (mostly) avoids the self-aware smugness that has killed many a “re-quel,” delivering a product that feels consistent with the first four movies but distinct enough to have its own voice. Some of Craven’s craftsmanship and skill with performers is lacking here, but by the time the film is rising to the rafters in its bonkers final act, I don't think any of the true horror fans in the audience will care.

Of course, “Scream” opens with a phone call—and, yes, it’s still a landline. Once again, a young woman home alone is forced to play movie trivia with a psychopath, but the manner in which this “Scream” will update the original is apparent early as Tara Carpenter (Jenna Ortega) says her favorite horror flick isn’t a slasher classic but an “elevated horror” film like “The Babadook.” How we define the horror genre has changed significantly in the last 25 years, as has the relationship between filmmakers, viewers, and even "true story" subject matter that creators mine for escapist entertainment. The characters in the new “Scream” don’t just all have the same genre movie knowledge of the original’s Randy Meeks, they would destroy him in a trivia contest.

Tara is attacked by someone wearing the Ghostface outfit from the in-universe “Stab” franchise, based on the Woodsboro murders committed by Stu Macher and Billy Loomis, but she survives, bringing her estranged sister Sam (Melissa Barrera) back from Modesto to their hometown. Much like Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) from the original, Sam has some dark family drama that forced her to leave her sister behind, but it feels like this new killer attacked Tara to get the big sis to come home. She brings her new beau Richie (Jack Quaid of "The Boys") along for the ride, even though he’s never seen a “Stab” movie. By the way, they’ve made eight “Stab” movies and the last one was particularly loathed by the fan base for reportedly betraying what worked about the franchise in the first place. Of course, Rian Johnson directed. 

Before Tara can even get out of the hospital, Ghostface is on a rampage, leading Sam and Richie to the man who they think can help them figure out who’s behind the mask this time: Deputy Dewey (a very effective David Arquette, given more dramatic beats than usual. I hope it leads to more work like it.) He calls Sid and texts Gale (Courteney Cox), and the world-famous trio is back in town before you know it, but directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett wisely don’t let them take over the narrative. They’re flavoring, a nod to the past instead of the whole meal like in some other re-quels. Think of them like the legacy characters in the Star Wars sequels—essential but not driving the story. 

No, the focus here is again on a group of young people who have seen enough “Stab” movies to know that the killer is probably one of their own. It doesn’t help that almost everyone in town has a connection to the original characters—ask the Strodes how well that usually goes in horror movies—such as Wes Hicks (Dylan Minnette), the son of Judy Hicks (Marley Shelton) from “Scream 4,” or Mindy Meeks-Martin (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Chad Meeks-Martin (Mason Gooding), related to poor Randy. And then there’s Amber (Mikey Madison), the one who seems most protective of Tara and distrusting of Sam. As for Samantha, she has such a close relationship to one of the original characters that she hallucinates conversations with him (that have some dodgy CGI that make them less effective than they probably were on paper). One of these young people is probably a killer. Given the track record of this series, probably more than one.

What really matters to the success of this “Scream” is the manner in which Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett build to their truly effective set pieces. One in a darkly lit hospital has the violent energy of John Carpenter and the extended party sequence/climax—it always ends at a party—is wonderfully constructed, shot with fluid camerawork by Brett Jutkiewicz and tightly edited by Michael Aller. Brian Tyler’s score elevates the brutal violence in death sequences that don’t feel as casual or tongue-in-cheek as a lot of nostalgic horror tends to feel. So many movies like “Scream” wink at their audience and forget to be remotely scary. The new “Scream” tries to be an actual horror movie instead of just a meta reference to the genre.

While this may not be a fair game to play, it’s impossible not to consider how the film would have differed if Craven had lived to make it himself. I do think that he would have drawn a few better performances from the young cast, who are all good enough but nowhere near as distinctly memorable as the original crew, sometimes leaning into melodramatic emotions in a way that Craven would have dialed down. On the other hand, the original trio are excellent, conveying the trauma of having to go through this nonsense again in a way that feels genuine. And what really matters is how much Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett have learned from the Craven originals in terms of craft. Whereas Craven used visual references to masters like Hitchcock and Carpenter, the new filmmakers have Wes himself to use as a role model, and they undeniably get to the core of a lot of what he did best in both craft and genre deconstruction. After all, there’s a reason the film’s dedication reads “For Wes” and a scene near the end even uses the phrase “passing the torch.” I’m not sure about the latter but I’m confident that Wes would be impressed enough to consider it.  

Author: Brian Tallerico
Posted: January 14, 2022, 2:12 pm

The House” is an animated anthology with an inspired narrative focus, as it tells the history of one building, across time and species. Written by Enda Walsh and directed by different filmmakers for each one, "The House" hones in on the anxieties that come with a home, whether it’s the control that others have over it, the critters inside the walls, or the attachment that could lead to one's demise. With its rising directors each employing a surreal style, it creates a rich balance of ethereal, existential storytelling with stop-motion animation that’s so detailed and alive you can practically feel it on your fingertips. 

The foundation for the anthology is established by the gothic cloth animation of Emma De Swaef & Marc James Roels, who previously orchestrated the colonization mini-anthology short “This Magnificent Cake!” Their eye for towering sets, intricate stark detail, and characters with tiny eyes and mouths continues here, with a slow burn tale about a family that suffers from a Faustian homeowner bargain. The father Raymond (Matthew Goode) makes a deal with “an architect of great renown” that he runs into the woods named Mr. Van Schoonbeek (Barney Pilling), who offers them a new mansion and furnishings, for free. The only catch, that they are aware of at least, is that they must give up their current home. Raymond jumps the opportunity as a means of status, to have the nicest house in the area, and make others jealous. 

The family is quickly seduced by the extravagant amenities—the food that appears on massive dining room table, the electricity that provides full illumination. But young daughter Mabel (Mia Goth) has more trepidation, as she starts to witness the stranger aspects of its construction, like the zombified workers, who toil in the darkness, and suddenly take away the staircase at night. Things get even stranger, and more visually striking, when the parents are gifted clothes that look a lot like pieces to an ornate couch. It’s an effectively spooky short, one that gets a great deal of intrigue out what is unfolding in the shadows, prefacing the house as a nonsensical trap. 

“The House” doesn’t continue this more horror vibe in the rest of the story, but rather plays upon nightmares of discomfort. In the second short, by Niki Lindroth von Bahr, a rat developer (Jarvis Cocker) is trying to prepare the home for showing, fixing it up room by room. In spite of his upbeat attitude and his best intentions, he’s shown to be a pushover, who runs into massive problems along the way, like an infestation of fur beetles that parallels the hopelessness of his pursuit. Even the food that he orders for the showing leads to the wrong order, making him improvise with hot dogs and ramen. Things get especially weird when two intimidating characters express interest, in seeing the room and then staying over night. They placate him with the repeated words that become freaky each time they're growled: “We are extremely interested in the house.” This short also nonetheless makes space for a grandiose and creepy-crawly musical number. 

Jump to the last chapter, by Paloma Baeza, and the world has gotten even more chaotic but quieter. The house is now marooned on a nondescript body of rising water, surrounded by a pink mist. But the current cat landlord Rosa (Susan Wokoma) is obsessed with refurbishing the place, and has a whole plan charted out. Meanwhile her two current tenants, Elias (Will Sharpe) and Jen (Helena Bonham Carter), don’t pay rent with money but they do share a type of family bond with each other. As the least bleak of the three shorts, this one shows how the promise of a house has a seductive power, representing a desire to cling to the past even when the floor below you is slowly flooding. It’s also another striking feat of stop-motion animation, with lifelike sets and clothes that practically breathe as the furry characters move. 

“The House” proves to be a consistent anthology, in that it’s always just about the same level of surreal, playful, sadistic, and entertaining. Across its different styles and species, “The House” never holds the audience’s hand when it comes to the poetic flourishes from its mighty gradual pacing; it prefers to be odd, like with the logic behind changing from humans to rats to cats. There might be a little clue in the end credits, as Cocker sings a moody ballad: “This house is … oh, I don’t know what it is.” The stories want you to wander its halls; to notice how things have changed over time, and how they have not. 

Now playing on Netflix.

Author: Nick Allen
Posted: January 14, 2022, 2:11 pm

Losing all recollection of the past would be like returning a person to factory settings. One would have the standard qualities of humanity, but not the lived-in experiences that come from success, failure, and being around other people. 

Vanessa Kirby is challenged with manifesting such an experience in the mildly auspicious if ultimately disappointing “Italian Studies.” From writer/director Adam Leon, this nebulous drama follows a woman (Kirby) incapable of remembering her name and all other details about her identity. 

One mundane day, she walks into a hardware store. By the time she steps out, it's as if a switch has been flipped and she has forgotten everything. Disoriented, she then wanders through the city directionless for what could be a single night or several days. As Kirby’s character walks the streets, sometimes her endless stride is captured from afar and from above, as if being watched over, while there’s a sense of being close with her amid the over-stimulating urban chaos. The soundscape that accompanies the imagery, of voices and noises overstepping each other’s sonic boundaries, heightens our confusion. Flaring nightlights pair with the energetic and eclectic camera movements by cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz, whose transfixing work enshrouds the story.

Even if the inebriating effect of these choices wears out after the first few scenes, the way the editing team (four editors are credited) create what can be described as cinematic synapses with a stream-of-consciousness type of fluidity makes for something more compelling as an experiential piece than a narrative one.

As a blank slate with no past and none of its baggage, the woman responds to impulses, to the impetus of spontaneous interpersonal connections, and to her biological needs. She ignores all socially dictated apprehensions of speaking with strangers, and, furthermore, she agrees to hanging out with them. With her cleared head comes a level of reckless freedom, of constant reinvention; she catches up with the lies she has made up along the way, making us wonder if memory has only been a burden to our enjoyment of life all along. 

Considering how Kirby’s character behaves throughout the ordeal due to her cognitive condition, one realizes that the compassion and understanding granted to her might not be the same if the lead had been a person of color. Being a white woman in trendy clothing, those around find her eccentric, not threatening, even as she acts erratically.

But will she, even on a subconscious level, recall this equally frightening and exhilarating privilege to go with the flow? An early scene confirms that this lapse might be only temporary, but offers no other details. Yet, as tantalizing as piecing the misleading information together can be, Leon’s commitment to ambiguity isn’t enough to convince one to surrender entirely to sensations and worry not about what it all means.

Halfway through, Kirby’s woman discovers that she might be Alina Reynolds, the author of a collection of short stories titled Italian Studies, which changes her perception of herself. Though effective in conveying uncertainty and bewilderment, her performance is, unfortunately, rendered one-note since she rarely comes out of the perpetually hazy mode: staring into the distance. The film's scene-stealer is Simon Brickner, who plays a teen from a troubled household that crosses her path and brings her into his clique. Brickner's performance has a goofy and vulnerable charm.

As this episode progresses, now with the pretense that she may be a writer, Leon begins to alternate between Kirby and a younger iteration of the character. Leon also intersperses interviews with Simon’s friends, working through their feelings. These passages are emotionally gratifying though schematic; the lines between memory and reality have been crossed too many times at this point, achieving a deliberate lack of clarity. 

Frustrating in its repetitiveness, Leon’s third feature is like a narrative exercise fascinated by both memory and youth. "Italian Studies" relentlessly experiments with form, but fails to fully congeal. 

Now playing in theaters and available on demand. 

Author: Carlos Aguilar
Posted: January 14, 2022, 2:11 pm

“We have decided to move into our house because my father—my father—he earned it for us, brick by brick.”—Walter Lee Younger (Sidney Poitier) in Lorraine Hansberry’s masterpiece, “A Raisin in the Sun”

A recurring visual utilized by speaker Jeffery Robinson in Emily and Sarah Kunstler’s sobering documentary, “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” is that of a ball reaching a tipping point, mere centimeters away from achieving real progress until it is forced to slide backward. One of the key historical instances of this recurring setback is the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which occurred in Robinson’s hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, before the civil rights leader had the chance to deliver a speech entitled, “Why America May Go to Hell.” Soon afterward, the homes in the Black neighborhood where Robinson’s family lived were bought up, prompting his father to make a deal with the developer. This resulted in Robinson’s family, not unlike the one in Hansberry’s play, purchasing a new house in a white community, thus ensuring that he and his brother would receive the good Catholic education their parents desired for them. Robinson vividly recalls how their next door neighbor was about to bring them his cherished dessert of chocolate chip cookies, until she realized that his family was not, in fact, “the help.”

It was his “unicorn parents” combined with pure luck that Robinson credits for the road that led him to graduate from Harvard Law School and serve as a deputy legal director of the ACLU. Despite receiving the best schooling that the American education system could offer, Robinson was shocked by just how much was left out of the history books, thus inspiring his titular one man show, which we see him performing on Juneteenth 2018 at New York City’s Town Hall Theater. Just as Al Gore detailed the inconvenient truth of global warming and the devastating impact it is currently having on our planet, Robinson is sharing a mightily uncomfortable one that the subsequent years have only magnified. Both “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Who We Are” call for urgent foundational changes in how we live our lives, and neither film is the dry lecture it might seem to be upon initial glance. Robinson is matter-of-fact, thoughtful and enormously compelling in illustrating hidden chapters of our shared history, such as the 1921 ethnic cleansing in Tulsa, which many people first heard of thanks to HBO’s brilliant 2019 series, “Watchmen,” with its bold yellow lettering that was later echoed in Black Lives Matter street art. 

Emily Kunstler’s editing effectively juxtaposes Robinson’s presentation with footage of him visiting subjects in various corners of the country, including the delightful Lessie Benningfield Randle, a 107-year-old survivor of the violence in Tulsa, which was sparked by the attempt of citizens in Greenwood, an enclave dubbed “Black Wall Street,” to prevent a lynching. Only the steps to the city remain, a chilling reminder of a trailblazing community that was never rebuilt. Robinson argues that such atrocities, including the estimated 4,000 racial lynchings that occurred in the century following emancipation, could only have been allowed as a result of “acquiescence or direct involvement” on the part of law enforcement. His observation that modern day police departments were originally formed as slave patrols serves as a segue to his interview with the mother of Eric Garner, who believes her son to be a sacrificial lamb. His murder at the hands of officers is one of countless modern tragedies that affirm how the law relieving the killing of an enslaved person from being deemed a felony is still being upheld. 

The film is guaranteed to leave you questioning why a slaveholder like Andrew Jackson remains on the $20 bill, why Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner”—a verse of which celebrates the murder of enslaved people—is our national anthem and why the request for reparations are ever questioned, especially in light of Lincoln’s Compensated Emancipation Act, which compensated slaveholders to the tune of $1 million for their “lost property.” One of my favorite images in the film is that of a few appropriately withered flower bouquets sympathetically affixed in the fence surrounding the space where a statue of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was removed, thanks to the efforts of activist Tami Sawyer. Robinson reminds us that John Ehrlichman of the Nixon administration did not mince words when admitting that the notorious “war on drugs” was simply meant to disrupt communities that the government felt was a threat, linking hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin. What prevents this film’s stomach-churning history lesson from numbing our senses is Robinson’s ability to make himself a vulnerable human presence on camera, such as when he admits to being disappointed by his own results in Harvard’s Implicit Association Test, which indicated that he has a negative impression of Black men like himself. 

An emotional highpoint of the picture occurs during Robinson’s trip back to his former St. Louis Memphis Catholic School, where he and his brother became the first Black students to be enrolled there. His former basketball coach, Richard Orians, tearfully recounts how he attempted to protect Robinson from the racist vitriol being voiced in Walls, Mississippi, after they travelled there for a game. Robinson even gives a Confederate Flag-waving man in South Carolina the chance to state his case, thus removing any shadow of a doubt that his convictions have trumped any threat of knowledge. Viewers who are skeptical that white supremacy is being normalized in U.S. classrooms should look no further than the proposed Indiana State Senate Bill 167, which removes the right of instructors to teach that the Nazis and similar political parties are “of a low moral character.” “Who We Are” should be made required viewing in every American school as we find ourselves perched, once again, at a pivotal tipping point. The hope found in activists of all races demonstrating together in the midst of a pandemic is underlined by the joyous gospel music over the end credits. It is Robinson’s aim to guide our eye in seeing the truth of our past that is so often overlooked. This is perhaps most indelibly expressed by the fingerprints left in walls throughout Charleston by the enslaved people who built our cities, our economy and our country, brick by brick.

Author: Matt Fagerholm
Posted: January 14, 2022, 2:11 pm

Depending on how you look at it, “The Pink Cloud,” an eerily atmospheric yet understated science fiction parable, either represents a case of fortunate or unfortunate timing. A claustrophobic drama of humanity stuck in quarantine following the sudden and inexplicable appearance of toxic pink clouds, "The Pink Cloud" was shot in 2019, before anyone could have any idea how relevant a story about an endless quarantine was about to be. 

The film centers Giovana (Renata de Lélis), a young woman who finds herself stuck for the foreseeable future with Yago (Eduardo Mendonça), a man who was only ever supposed to be a one-night stand. Instead, he becomes her only human connection, first for weeks, then months, then years. Yago manages to make a sort of tired peace with the situation, albeit not without the occasional bouts of yearning and lamentations for the world as it used to be. Giovana is unable to do the same, and instead goes through cycles of trying to force herself to accept the situation, suppressing her anger and desperation until it inevitably explodes to the surface and the cycle repeats. Her spiraling is the engine that propels the film. 

Though made prior to the pandemic, it is incredibly difficult to not view "The Pink Cloud" through the lens of the past few years. The coincidences can be striking, like when a friend of Giovana’s, stuck facing the years of quarantine all alone because her boyfriend happened to be running errands when the cloud arrived, laments, “How come no one has a solution? A mask, something that allows us to go out, you know. To see people.” There are moments like these where the uncanniness is rather fascinating. Unfortunately, on the whole, particularly later on, these similarities instead become disengaging—an abstraction of a reality we are all overtired of engaging with in any context, even if it's coincidental. 

“The Pink Cloud” is the debut feature of writer/director Iuli Gerbase, and the Brazilian filmmaker demonstrates a definite eye and a distinctive voice as a visual storyteller. The imagery rings with intentionality; no shot feels taken for granted as far as aesthetics are concerned. Unfortunately, the exact opposite could be said about the narrative—this is the sort of film where aesthetics trump all other concerns to the point of becoming a flaw. “The Pink Cloud” ultimately plays out as a collection of scenes united by a coherent tone and themes as opposed to feeling like a narrative that builds on itself into something greater than the sum of its parts. 

Characters are tragically distanced from each other in the eternal quarantine of “The Pink Cloud,” but they are also held too far from the audience for that tragedy to resonate on an emotional level. It is a film that is easy to admire aesthetically and presents some interest to engage with intellectually—even if it does grow repetitive on that front—but for all its claustrophobic imagery, you ironically cannot get close to Giovana or Yago. 

This is a gorgeous feature, but there is also a gorgeous short that could easily be cut from this feature which would have the exact same impact in a third of the runtime. The intentionality and editorial eye that make the style of this film so compelling feels sorely lacking from the script, which is at once scattered and repetitive. It obsesses and then loses interest, perhaps best illustrated by the usage of Giovana and Yago’s child, who is incredibly convenient in all the ways a real child is not. The child is present when the film wants to demonstrate the central couple playing happy family—or desperately unhappy family—and handily absent when not relevant to the sequence in question, even when the sequence in question involves turning the house into a pretend night club, strobe lights and blaring music included. 

While some filmmakers, especially early in their career, can have a tendency to over-explain plot points and do too much exposition, Gerbase goes too far in the opposite direction. There are a lot of sequences here that come across like thesis statements too impatient to flesh out these claims with supporting evidence, not to mention taking the time to render the characters with enough clarity that a viewer might be able to get particularly invested. The film technically flows well, and could be a calling card for a filmmaker with a distinctive eye, but the story ultimately feels less like a journey and more like it’s pacing in circles until it tires itself out. 

“The Pink Cloud” opens at the Quad in New York on January 14 and the Laemmle Monica Film Center in Los Angeles on January 21. The film will debut on digital and VOD on March 1.

Author: Ciara Wardlow
Posted: January 14, 2022, 2:11 pm