Movie reviews

If an episode of “Dateline” were run through the Lifetime channel filter, the result would be “The Secrets She Keeps.” In its overall plot, the Australian thriller miniseries—adapted from the same-named novel by Michael Robotham, which was itself based on a true story in the UK—resembles an installment of the former long-running investigative newsmagazine. A beautiful family hit by an unspeakable tragedy; spouses lying to themselves and to each other; an entire country serving as voyeurs of betrayal. In its performances, though—in particular that of "Downton" Abbey actress Laura Carmichael, going way against type—“The Secrets She Keeps” skews toward the melodrama on which the Lifetime network was built, with extravagant reactions, venomous exchanges, and purposeful obfuscation. The combination results in a very watchable, albeit slightly shallow, exploration of how femininity and motherhood intertwine and toxify.

“The Secrets She Keeps” follows two women living in a suburb outside Sydney, Australia. Although similarly aged as 30somethings and similarly pregnant at 9 months along, Meghan (Jessica De Gouw) and Agatha (Carmichael) are otherwise quite different. Meghan is an aspiring influencer, a mommy blogger with 90,000 followers of her Mucky Kids blog. On it, she posts and vlogs about her two children with husband Jack (Michael Dorman), a TV sports reporter, and about her “oops baby pregnancy.” Jack and Meghan didn’t plan to have a third child—and her excitement far outweighs his—but by all appearances, their lives seem perfect. They live in a gorgeous home; their children are healthy; and Meghan’s blog is increasingly popular.

But this series is a thriller, after all, and so there must be flies in the soup of Meghan and Jack’s relationship. She dislikes how much time he spends with best friend Simon (Ryan Corr), who also works at the TV network. While they go out for lunch and drinks, Meghan is at home with the children, handling the majority of the domestic labor. Jack, meanwhile, has been trying for years for a promotion and raise at work, but he keeps missing out on anchor jobs; the strain of his one salary supporting a growing family is beginning to show. Meghan’s blog brings in a few hundred dollars a month, but she’s also plagued by a troll who leaves comments threatening her and her baby on every single Mucky Kids post. And the baby is another wedge in Meghan and Jack’s already askew marriage: “We need to find our intimacy again,” Meghan complains to her younger sister Grace (Cariba Heine), but she’s not sure if Jack is willing to meet her in the middle.

While Meghan and Jack struggle to keep up a flawless façade, she’s being watched. Whenever Meghan visits the grocery store, she’s trailed by store clerk Agatha, who also follows Mucky Kids. Is Agatha starstruck? She is a little overly giggly after engineering a conversation with Meghan about their pregnancies, and about their similar due dates: the first week in June. But she’s also quite prickly, pushing away an old friend, ignoring her mother’s phone calls, and dropping the pregnancy bombshell on ex-boyfriend Hayden (Michael Sheasby) after months of no contact. Agatha is erratic, Meghan is aggrieved, and the two of them are on a collision course, the terms of which “The Secrets She Keeps” heavily suggests by the end of its first episode.

For a series that is being billed as a noirish thriller, it’s slightly frustrating that “The Secrets She Keeps” doesn’t really deviate from a certain narrative that is established in its first hour; it plays things relatively straight. Writers Sarah Walker and Jonathan Gavin, each of whom pens three episodes of the series, pack each installment full of plot, with the usual soapy elements like infidelity (shown through lips-parted, against-the-wall flashbacks) and murder. Directors Catherine Millar and Jen Leacey set a solid pace, building a slow-burn tension and sprinkling in moments of jarring surprise. There’s a dark humor running throughout that is consistently amusing: a man’s self-effacing laugh when his romantic partner asks, “How many other women are pregnant with your baby?”; Meghan’s mother, irritated with her influencer affections, asking of a fruit basket gift, “What am I meant to do with a pomegranate?”; an online shopping cart full of items that practically scream, “I am planning something felonious!”

But the greatest shortcoming of “The Secrets She Keeps,” which becomes clearer with each episode, is how the series fails to progress Agatha and Meghan forward in terms of interior development. Traumatic backstories abound, including a particularly unsettling one that nods toward how often we dismiss the pain of young women. The series does explore, to a limited degree, how motherhood acts as a unifier, instilling in women an immediate trust in others who also have children. Meghan and Agatha have barely had a couple of conversations when Meghan says of Agatha’s labor, “I want all the gory details,” an assumption of sharing that Agatha is all too eager to provide. Is this all that female friendship becomes after a certain age, the series wonders: bonding over children? “The Secrets She Keeps” dares to ask whether such a connection could be meaningless instead of meaningful, and there’s a refreshingly subversive quality to that query.

Yet there is an ultimate dissatisfaction to the series that is perhaps caused by its lack of reflection for what certain choices mean for these characters. The focus on cliffhangers and subterfuge means that Agatha and Meghan become defined by one secret each, and the series doesn’t expand their personalities much past that. De Gouw and Carmichael are solid performers—the former communicating ambition as a way to mask resentment, the latter balancing frailty and ferality—but the work they do on a scene-by-scene basis increasingly feels irrelevant given where the narrative needs these characters to go. This becomes most clear in the series finale, when one of the women realizes that she’s overlooked a significant element of her personal life. “I would have known. I would have sensed it,” she insists, and the desperate tenor of her claim makes an impact. By the end of the episode, though, there’s no further mention of this self-doubt, and no indication of how the character’s behavior will be shaped by or transcend past that uncertainty. “The Secrets She Keeps” is well-acted and tightly woven, but the broader points it aspires to make about maternal desire as social capital and motherhood as performance end up overshadowed.

Whole series screened for review. “The Secrets She Keeps” premieres on AMC on April 19. 

Author: Roxana Hadadi
Posted: April 19, 2021, 1:20 pm

"In the Earth" is a film made for midnight showings. It's ominous, brutal, pretentious, and often stirring. Even though some sections feel rushed and it falls apart at the end, every part of it is memorable. Set mostly in gloomy fairy-tale woodlands, where representatives of science are terrorized by forces both human and uncanny, this is a low-budget thriller that carries itself with the swagger of a larger production. Writer/director Ben Wheatley combines science fiction, horror, and the supernatural, with nods to milestones in cinema style, particularly Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "The Shining." But the unifying inspiration appears to be that of a grungy, icky 1970s horror flick—the kind that doubles as an endurance test—a film like "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," "The Last House on the Left," and "Halloween" that viewers leave feeling exhilarated or brutalized, depending on their tolerance for cinema of extremes. 

Dr. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry), who has been isolated during a pandemic and craves human contact, goes into the woods with park ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia) to locate his colleague Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), who shares an undiscussed, deep bond with Martin, and has been unreachable since switching off her radio. Olivia's work is meant to improve crop growth efficiency. She is convinced that all plant life is interconnected through a sort of psychic neural network and can talk amongst itself, and to us.

The mission goes bad immediately. Alma and Martin are brutalized and knocked unconscious in the woods soon after their arrival, with Martin suffering a foot wound that will get worse and more disgusting as the story unfolds. Much of the film is a hostage drama, with the duo falling into the clutches of a creepy loner named Zach (Reece Shearsmith), who brutalizes them with the aplomb of Leatherface's family or Jigsaw from the "Saw" movies. When the movie brings Olivia into the story, following a protracted, almost Kurtz-like buildup, she turns out to be as unsettling as Zach. You can tell by Squires' unnerving line delivery and facial expressions (somehow, she's both droll and menacing) that in her own way, Olivia is just as unhinged.

Without disclosing specifics, let's call this one a wilderness survival drama, with elements of slasher and body horror cinema and undercurrents of pre-Christian mythology and ooga-booga bedtime stories. The first act feels a bit like a European arthouse cinema head-scratcher that aims to ponder the fate of humanity in the age of extinction-level threats (most of them being our own collective fault) but that makes sure to throw ultra-violence and gnomic mysticism into the mix, as an audience engagement insurance policy. It's as if Wheatley had seen Andrei Tarkovsky's "Stalker" (one of the great lost-in-the-magic-woods movies, as well as a towering work of philosophy and ethics) and thought, "This film would be even better if it had an actual stalker in it." And so the fragility of flesh takes center-screen and we're treated to many closeups of bleeding, torn, mangled body parts. The visuals are obsessed with openings and orifices and eye-like shapes, many discovered in woodland panoramas, others created within the landscape of the body itself.

We're also warned from the start that Olivia's work focuses on the uncommonly fertile soil in the forest, so we prime ourselves for the possibility that we're going to get invasive fungus action (the hero even tells us that he had ringworm recently). The film delivers on this promise, though not in the way you might expect. One character rephrases the famous observation that, to members of primitive civilizations, high technology is indistinguishable from magic. 

From that point on, "In the Earth" conflates modern scientific research and theory with ancient rituals meant to communicate with (and appease) Parnag Fegg, an ancient eldritch force that may have summoned all the humans to the woods in the first place. There's a touch of John Carpenter's "Prince of Darkness" in the script's exposition-heavy lore, which postulates that science might eventually find a way to perfect the approximations of scripture, ritual, and spell-casting.

All of this stuff connects rather glancingly, or vaguely. For the most part, that's good cinema praxis (better to leave the audience guessing or a bit confused than explain every little thing to death), but still there are times when it seems as if Wheatley is fudging things, like a magician who asks "Is this your card?" and then takes it away just fast enough that you can't be sure. Razzle-dazzle flash-cuts, disorienting jump cuts, and incessant strobe effects amplify dread and confusion in the film's most intense scenes. There's a lot of screaming and crying and lot of pain, and it would all be unbearable if Wheatley didn't exhibit such mordant wit. He's constantly setting up scenes where you know exactly which horrible thing might happen to one of the characters, then making you wait for it, and wait for it, through false starts, digressions, and clumsy mistakes that require a do-over. And when it finally does happen: wow.

Where the film fails as a substantive statement about this or that or the other thing, it succeeds as a visceral exercise in audience torment. Throughout, Wheatley observes a horror movie version of Chekhov’s principle, where you can assume that the rifle hanging on the wall of a set isn't just there for atmosphere. This movie features Chekhov’s Hatchet, Chekhov’s Bow and Arrow, Chekhov’s Fungus, and Chekhov’s Guitar (used to lull characters to sleep through repetitive phrases that hit them like incantations). Like another low-budget 2021 film, "Lapsis," it uses nature's splendors to give a small movie an epic feeling, and its skill at making you squirm suggests that, for all its poker-faced wonderment over the machinations of the universe, Wheatley identifies most strongly with Zach, a grandiloquent sadist who has a captive audience where he wants them and revels in that fact. After a certain point, I stopped finding the ostentatious, close-up brutality funny and started howling at it, and my experiences with some of Wheatley's other movies (particuarly "Kill List" and "Free Fire") confirm that not only is he OK with that sort of reaction, he thrives on it. 

Special citations are due to cinematographer Nick Gillespie, whose widescreen images use expressionist  primary colors (particularly verdant green and purgatorial red) and put fog and flame to brilliant use; and to Clint Mansell's synthesized score—one of the best he's ever done, and so clearly indebted to director-composer John Carpenter's scores for his own films that when you see the soft-spoken lunatic Zach trudging across fern-carpeted earth, his long, greying locks swaying around his face, it momentarily seems as if the characters are being pursued by John Carpenter himself. 

Now playing in select theaters. 

Author: Matt Zoller Seitz
Posted: April 17, 2021, 12:31 am

Barbara Crampton got her start in the mid-'80s with a regular role on the NBC soap opera "Days of Our Lives," and she continued to work in various soaps through the years. But it is through horror films that she became an icon, with "Re-Animator" (1985), "Chopping Mall" (1986) and "From Beyond" (also 1986). At a certain point, those roles stopped coming. Her recent comeback period, with "You're Next" "The Lords of Salem," and "We Are Still Here" was gratifying for horror fans who had missed her presence. After 40-odd years in the business, Crampton is now developing her own projects, and if the witty "Jakob's Wife" is any indication this is a very exciting development. In “Jakob’s Wife,” the classic vampire theme is looped into an insightful and often very funny commentary on marriage and the limitations placed on women. When Crampton's Anne, a submissive pastor's wife, gets bitten by a vampire, she finds the change exhilarating. Her husband, played by another horror icon, Larry Fessenden, is not so exhilarated. The marriage's status quo is threatened. Hijinx ensue.

With script by Kathy Charles, Mark Steensland, and Travis Stevens (who also directed), "Jakob's Wife" teeters on that horror-comedy line, a line many directors find difficult to navigate. But Stevens is aware of the comedic possibilities as well as the dramatic. The film sacrifices neither. The stakes (wooden and otherwise) could not be higher. Both Fessenden and Crampton play their roles with dramatic intensity, managing to be comedic and poignant, while also creating three-dimensional characters. Amateurs need not apply! This is what it looks like when you have two very experienced actors dig into a script worthy of them. Both Crampton and Fessenden approach their roles with utter seriousness, giving a sense of a real and complicated relationship between the pastor and his wife. Fessenden's Pastor Jakob is first seen sermonizing to his congregation about marriage, warning men and women to assume the roles as laid out in the Bible. Outside of the pulpit, he is insufferable and controlling. He never lets his wife finish a sentence. He expects hot breakfast every morning. He barely looks at her.

Anne, meanwhile, simmers and seethes. She sits in the pew, listening to her husband bluster on about marriage, and the look in her eyes could turn water to ice. When he brushes his teeth, she watches him with a look of such contempt you fear for his safety. Everything changes when Anne meets up with an old flame (Robert Rusler), and encounters an unseen something in an old abandoned mill. She comes home a changed woman. She can lift a sofa by herself. She is sexually alert. She has a sudden unquenchable thirst for blood. She wears gigantic Gena Rowlands-esque sunglasses. She takes the reins of her relationship. No More Mrs. Nice Wife.

Vampires, typically, are not just immortal beings. They come with a lot of sexual baggage, and "Jakob's Wife" has fun with that idea. Vampires don't just hunger for blood: they exist in a state of sexual anticipation, seeking satiation, endlessly hungry. Maybe the sexual connotations come from the bite-marks on the neck—it is such an erotic way to "turn." Poor Pastor Jakob does not know what to do with this new wife, confident, outspoken, rebellious.

"Jakob's Wife" takes a turn, just as Anne has taken a "turn." When Jakob finds out what his wife has become, in the most horrifying way possible, he clumsily assumes the role of heroic vampire hunter, and the two of them set out on a quest to find "The Master," the vampire who "turned" her. Jakob proclaims, with no sense of irony whatsoever, "I am a Minster of the Lord. This is what I was trained for. To fight Evil." If Anne has been transformed, so has Jakob.

Because Crampton and Fessenden so expertly play the rhythms of this repressed couple, two people who barely know how to deal with each other outside of Biblically-prescribed roles, there's no need for the final-act monologue about the limits placed on women's self-expression. Crampton has already shown us the glories of her liberation in that deliberate glamorous stalk through the grocery store, and Fessenden has already shown us the heady blend of fear and excitement Jakob feels when confronted with this new unpredictable creature he's married. He's not entirely displeased with who she's become, even though he is terrified of her too. When Anne says to Jakob in a moment of distress, "You don't know how to fight for me because you've never done it," we have the whole story right there.

How they get to the end, though, is the fun of it. There are a couple of very well-conceived and well-executed sequences where Jakob and Anne try to solve the problem on their hands. Stevens really pushes the absurdity in an almost slapstick fashion, and then Fessenden and Crampton play it real. "Jakob's Wife" is part "The Hunger," part "Scenes from a Marriage."

Now playing in theaters, on demand, and on digital platforms.

Author: Sheila O'Malley
Posted: April 16, 2021, 11:49 am

Sebastian Stan and Denise Gough have wild, spontaneous sex all over the place—on the beach, in a truck bed, on a ferry—in the whirlwind Greek romance “Monday.” But while that sounds passionate and exciting, director and co-writer Argyris Papadimitropoulos’ film is actually a repetitive slog.

As the couple’s once-thrilling romance quickly wanes, so does the movie. And maybe that’s the point, but it doesn’t justify making us suffer, too, for nearly two hours. We’d feel more invested in their highs and lows, their will-they-or-won’t-they, if the characters were better defined. Stan’s Mickey is an easygoing and charismatic party boy with a Peter Pan complex; Gough’s Chloe is a captivating and pragmatic lawyer who’s the steadier one in the relationship (as in, she owns actual furniture). There’s not much to either of them individually beyond a few simple traits, and they barely evolve as a couple over the course of the film, which spans several months. They seem doomed from the start, and all we can do is watch and wonder why they ever bothered beyond the giddy rush of great sex.

Stan and Gough enjoy a fun flirtation in the beginning, though, as ex-pats in their mid-30s meeting cute during an Athens summer dance party. The fact that they kiss intensely before they even learn each other’s names, as music thumps and bodies bump all around them, is a great indication of the volatility that’s in store (and Papadimitropoulos puts us right in the center of the action through a long and immersive tracking shot). Mickey has been DJing in the city for the past seven years, having fled New York just as his band was on the rise. Chloe is an immigration lawyer who’s on the verge of returning to the United States after 18 months. But when they meet on that fateful Friday, it seems highly unlikely that they’ll say goodbye and go back to their normal lives by the following Monday.

The script from Papadimitropoulos and Rob Hayes uses a series of Fridays as its structure—some joyful, some painful, but all eventful in some way to mark the passage of time as this unlikely relationship lives on, with the inevitable return to reality on a Monday lurking in the distance. Hence, the title. But that sensible breakup remains at bay, and we keep wondering why as it grows clearer that these two people truly aren’t meant for each other. A party they throw to meet one another’s friends goes amusingly, horribly wrong as it becomes obvious just how different Mickey and Chloe are based on the company they keep. Both groups are obnoxious, to be sure, but in contrasting ways: Her pals are posh jerks, his are brash boors. There isn’t a single person in this movie you’d want to spend a significant amount of time with, and yet, here we are.

But a couple of scenes do shed some light on who these characters are—or rather, who Stan’s is. The Irish theatre actress Gough, for all her vibrant physicality, is more of a passenger, which is odd given that she’s playing the responsible go-getter of the two. One of them occurs when a former bandmate of Mickey’s (Dominique Tipper)—who’s now achieved some measure of solo success—comes to town to play a gig and makes him doubt his hedonistic lifestyle. Stan, best known for his role as the Winter Soldier in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Jeff Gillooly in “I, Tonya,” gets a rare chance to show some romantic-lead magnetism as well as dramatic subtlety, so much so that it makes you wish for stronger material for him.

The other scene, which is the film’s best, occurs when Chloe meets up with Mickey’s ex-girlfriend, Aspa (Elli Tringou), who’s also the mother of his six-year-old son, whom he never sees because he’s such a flake. (His feelings toward fatherhood, an attribute that’s supposed to give him depth, remain frustratingly ill-defined.) Chloe arrives at the restaurant on Mickey’s behalf to help negotiate some sort of joint custody agreement, both as a lawyer and as his current girlfriend, and the tension and brutal honesty between them gives “Monday” a much-needed jolt of energy. “Mickey’s a baby,” Aspa tells Chloe. “He’s a little boy.”

Despite the dazzling, sun-soaked scenery, the long nights of partying and the sight of these attractive actors stripping themselves bare—physically and emotionally—for their roles, the harsh truth of Monday, and its accompanying hangover, comes all too soon for us.

Now playing in select theaters and available on digital platforms and VOD.

Author: Christy Lemire
Posted: April 16, 2021, 11:49 am

At one point in Maria Sødahl’s superb drama “Hope,” which concerns a woman facing the onset of an illness diagnosed as terminal, a doctor describes treating cancer as “like peeling an onion.” The same might be said for the film itself. Though the story’s medical premise is quickly announced, what follows peels back layer after layer of human realities that science can’t begin to describe, beginning with the shock and disorientation the diagnosis initially provokes and continuing through the deeper realizations and understandings gradually faced by the woman, her partner, their kids, friends and extended family. These carefully unveiled discoveries make “Hope,” Norway’s submission for this year's Best International Feature Film Oscar, one of the year’s richest and most rewarding contemporary dramas.

The story comes from writer/director Sødahl’s own life. Several years ago, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, putting a sudden stop to a promising career. Obviously, she not only survived but used the rupture in her life to look back on the experience and what it taught her about herself and her closest relationships. That real-life basis helps give “Hope” a palpable aura of authenticity that extends down to its smallest emotional details. It also no doubt accounts for the grace notes of humor and lyricism that add to the artistic power of Sødahl’s achievements as writer and director, and her work with two extraordinary actors, Andrea Bræin Hovig and Stellan Skarsgård.

Set around the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, “Hope” probes the relationship of two successful creative types. Anja (Hovig) is an acclaimed choreographer who’s just returned from her first foreign success when her doctor delivers the bad news: though she survived a bout of lung cancer the year before, she now has a tumor in her brain. It is certain to be terminal, she’s told, though it may still be operable (further tests and consultations with doctors will crowd the following week). While the diagnosis surprises and upsets Anja, it seems to stun her partner, theater director Tomas (Skarsgård), into a frozen, disbelieving silence.

The unmarried couple oversee a brood of six children ranging in age from ten to mid-twenties: the older three are from his previous marriage, the younger three from their union. Not least among the film’s accomplishments is Sødahl’s way of deftly describing these young people in ways that make them individually distinctive yet also part of a believable family structure. And they are paramount in Anja’s concerns when she begins to process the doctor’s news. Even as she gets buffeted by the effects of drugs that make her both high and volatile, she begins to agonize over the question of who will care for the kids when they lose their mother. 

More pressing still is the dilemma of when and how to tell them the news. Last year this time, she revealed she had lung cancer but the doctors were hopeful of treating it. This year, the news offers far less room for hope. If she’s forthcoming, she wonders half-jokingly, will it ruin Christmas for these kids forever after?

In peeling away the layers of Anja’s concern for the children and also her aged father, who’s visiting, Sødahl zeroes in on the heart of this emotional crisis: the relationship between Anja and Tomas. The more we learn of it, the more brittle it seems. At one point, she reveals that she was on the verge of leaving him a year before, only to be stopped by the previous cancer diagnosis. Told that she probably has only a few months left to live, she now seems zealous to probe her bond with Tomas to see what truth it contains, what lies. Have they been faithful to each other, or not? She admits to loving a man she didn’t pursue. Tomas sheepishly confesses to one long-ago “fling,” but says her real rival was his work.

That seems to be the most accurate diagnosis of what ails this union at is deepest level, and the fault is clearly not on his side alone. Both partners have allowed careers and kids to draw them away from each other, to the point that their life together ends up being all too perfunctory, with each one dissatisfied yet unable to express or overcome that unhappiness. But now a seemingly incurable disease forces them to face their deepest feelings for each other, and to ask whether there’s real love behind the charade of love they’ve been living.

In some ways, “Hope” calls to mind searing Bergman marital dramas like “Scenes from a Marriage,” but Sødahl’s touch is altogether lighter. Her pleasingly naturalistic style, abetted by Manuel Alberto Claro’s beautifully nuanced cinematography, gives scenes and moments room to breathe, allowing viewers to absorb the textures and flavors, moods and rituals of Anja and Tomas’ spacious Olso apartment, with its never-ceasing flux of people, meals, and silences. Most of all, her directorial skills undergird the power of two of the most remarkable performances I’ve seen in a film this year.

I’d never encountered Hovig’s work before, but here it’s striking for both the vulnerability and the gut-level strength she gives Anja. There’s an essential physicality to her performance—you believe the affliction’s effects on her body—that grounds the emotional rollercoaster ride her situation takes her on. And while Skarsgård’s excellence is a dependable virtue in his distinguished career, playing Tomas brings out his most subtle skills, his ability to convey a wealth of complicated emotions in a glance, a shrug, a wince.

To be sure, cancer may not sound like an inviting cinematic subject, especially to families and individuals who—like this writer—have been faced with its sometimes-overwhelming trials. Yet the effect of “Hope” is anything but depressing; it’s reassuring proof of art’s ability to comfort as it clarifies. For my money, it’s a better film than the Scandinavian comedy that seems destined to win this year’s international feature Oscar. But Thomas Vinterberg’s “Another Round” has the advantage of being one for, by and about “the boys,” while Sødahl’s triumph belongs to a more forward-looking story—the ascent of brilliant female auteurs. It should not be missed.

Now playing in select theaters.

Author: Godfrey Cheshire
Posted: April 16, 2021, 11:49 am

Break ups are never easy, but a break up right before a sibling’s wedding? That’s the pickle the couple finds themselves in Jeff Rosenberg’s romantic dramedy “We Broke Up.” Do they announce their big sad news before the wedding? Or, do they pretend to stay together so not to overshadow the couple getting married? That tension keeps the action volleying from one side to another as both Doug (William Jackson Harper) and Lori (Aya Cash) struggle to figure out what the right move is for them, or even if they’re truly over at all. A longtime couple everyone expected to get married, when Doug finally popped the question, Lori balked in a way that brought up more questions and eventually, Doug called it quits before Lori’s sister’s big summer camp-themed wedding. 

While the romantic uncertainty plays out, the movie has the ridiculous set-up of this strange themed wedding to lean on for jokes. Rosenberg, who co-wrote the script with Laura Jacqmin, digs deep into summer camp lore, giving the sisters many memories to reminiscence over. The film returns to the spot where the sisters enjoyed so many adolescent hijinks and re-imagines the place as a fancy resort with some old school amenities still intact, like cabins, but noticeably better pools and outdoor evening seating than your typical sleepaway camp. But to really get in the old camp spirit, the soon-to-be-wed couple Bea (Sarah Bolger) and Jayson (Tony Cavalero), insist their wedding party play the Paul Bunyan games, a series of drinking and skills competitions (in that order) that inadvertently bring out Lori and Doug’s wounded feelings. Not wanting to be outdone by the other, they throw themselves into the boozy fray. On the sidelines, mom Adelaide (Peri Gilpin) expresses some doubt about Bea’s decision to marry Jayson after only a month, adding yet another stick into the fire. 

Even though their characters may play on opposing teams, Cash and Jackson Harper’s performances are united in their doubts and feelings for each other. At different points in the movie, the injured party changes. Sometimes it’s Doug who walks away in anger. Other times, it’s Lori who has the downcast, hurt expression on her face. It’s a volatile dynamic, even if sometimes it feels as if things unnaturally escalate too quickly. "We Broke Up" holds onto a sliver of hope that the title will not come to ultimately pass, leaving a slight tinge of suspense of whether they will or won’t make it. Bolger and Cavalero’s characters have their own issues, but they’re the chaotic good spirits trying to make sure everyone is as happy as they are. They seem too bubbly and cheerfully talking nonsense, creating quite the dichotomy between the two couples. 

Both Rosenberg and Jackson Harper have the TV show “The Good Place” in common, where Rosenberg worked as an assistant director for a number of episodes and Jackson Harper was one of the series’ stars. It seems like the collaboration has benefitted “We Broke Up” in other ways as well. The movie has a measured sense of balancing existential questions like “What are we doing? What are we?” questions with some fairly silly scenarios. There’s space for anger and betrayal as well as a bride with a burgeoning scrunchie business. It strikes a subtle symmetry with its competing stories and emotions. 

Although the relationship at the heart of “We Broke Up” may be messy and complicated, Rosenberg ties all of the story’s elements together into a neat, bittersweet package. With cinematography by Andrew Aiello and production design by Amelia Steely, the movie really hones in on the upscale, semi-rustic wedding and the characters that either come alive in this environment or those that feel out-of-place in it. Relationships may not always be bliss, but “We Broke Up” is also a reminder that it’s worth salvaging the good moments from the wreckage. 

Now playing in select theaters and available on VOD on April 23.

Author: Monica Castillo
Posted: April 16, 2021, 11:49 am

You can tell some things about the gory hostage thriller “For the Sake of Vicious” just by looking at its title. That exploitation-friendly name is a giddy declaration of intent. For 80 minutes, you watch a series of explicit, slowly escalating acts of violence set in or around one central location: the nondescript two-story home of Romina (Lora Burke), an overworked nurse who, at the end of a long shift, discovers that her home’s been invaded. For reasons that barely make sense, blood-soaked stranger Chris (Nick Smyth) has attacked and subdued Romina’s whiny landlord Alan (Colin Paradine) in her kitchen. 

There’s not much psychological realism holding down this particular genre exercise, but there is a fair bit of horror-movie-specific surreality, as you might hope for given the movie’s title. Because as its name suggests, “For the Sake of Vicious” is a Tarantino Lite tribute to the grindhouse cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. Unfortunately, the quality of storytelling here often isn’t strong enough to hold one’s interest throughout such a diminutive runtime. Still, you might enjoy yourself if you don’t expect much character development, but do look forward to some creative uses of improvised weapons, like a hammer and a septic tank lid.

I wanted to love “For the Sake of Vicious” because of its title alone. A low-stakes action/horror mashup, one whose violence is periodically treated with all of the self-seriousness of a Grand Guignol spectacular? Count me in. I have a very soft spot for contemporary genre movies that focus on stuntwork and magic trick-style splatter effects. And I especially like that writer Reese Eveneshen’s script, which he adapted from a story by Gabriel Carrer, is more about situational peril (and therefore melodramatic plot twists) than realistic character development. I’ll always root for a hyper-focused and sometimes tongue-in-cheek B-movie, especially if it’s not too self-referential.

Problems inevitably arise if that B-movie isn’t relentless enough to keep a cocktail napkin plot moving from one confrontation to the next. For starters: Chris’s beef with Alan isn’t that interesting. He claims that Alan raped his daughter while Alan says that Chris is misrepresenting what happened. Romina’s caught in the middle, not only because she’s Chris and Alan’s reluctant host, but also because she previously treated Chris’ daughter at her hospital. Oh, and also: a mysterious group of masked killers roll up to Romina’s house partway through the film, which forces her and Chris to team-up a little faster.

That clunky set-up isn’t really important though—and I’m not sure it has to be—given how uneven Eveneshen’s pulpy dialogue often is. Sometimes it’s refreshingly clipped, and boils down to a series of cool declarative statements. I especially like when Chris tells Romina that “You don’t have to stay here … for this. You can just go.” To which she responds: “Yeah, I think it's a little late for that. I'm invested now. Besides … ” she says before picking up a nearby crowbar: “this is my house.” I wasn’t as wild about sputtering back-and-forths like when Chris tells Alan that “you’re dragging this off-base,” to which Alan says: "What base? I don't even know what grounds you're trying to stand on.” Then Chris screams: “Truth!” That was a bit much.

I was also somewhat disappointed by the movie’s generally slack action filmmaking. Most of the film’s gore scenes are choreographed and presented like a series of messy knockabout brawls, an approach that only really pays often when Carrer and Eveneshen, who also co-directed “For the Sake of Vicious,” happen upon a gnarly kill scene or two. I like geysers of blood and ocular trauma as much as the next guy, but “For the Sake of Vicious” is often not visualized or paced dynamically enough to keep one’s pulse up. So while Lucio Fulci fans may be delighted to see where Romina sticks her hammer, everyone else might struggle to get in the mood.

Still, “For the Sake of Vicious” is slightly more memorable for what Carrer and Eveneshen try to do than for what they fail to deliver. They’ve got (some of) the right ideas, but aren’t polished or as ruthless as they need to be yet. It’s probably telling that my favorite image from “For the Sake of Vicious” isn’t anything gross, but rather an almost screwball-style bit of physical comedy. During an especially heated fight scene, Chris and Romina bump elbows while trying to disentangle themselves from a pair of the above-mentioned masked killers. Weapons are put to good use, shower curtains are torn down ... and in the heat of the moment, Chris and Romina bump into each other like they’re competitive dancers in an unexpectedly cramped ballroom. That’s just a brief moment between bloodlettings, but it’s also light and canny enough to leave you wanting more.

Now playing in select theaters and available on digital platforms.

Author: Simon Abrams
Posted: April 16, 2021, 11:48 am

To be an accomplished artist, especially one considered an "outsider artist," is to be the master of one's own language. The self-taught painter Bill Traylor was clearly such a master, with his abstract depictions of his life experiences during the Reconstruction and Jim Crow America; memories articulated with long-limbed human figures, oval dogs, sketched out crowds, and squabbling couples, fondly described by an art expert here as "beautiful simplicity." It's entirely true with Traylor's case that one person can look at a painting and see a few shapes, colors, and maybe some faces, while others see a full text. 

Getting someone to understand that language can be a whole other deal. "Chasing Ghosts" has a great idea in showcasing as much of Traylor’s work as possible, and next to the creations of other Black artists, but its talking head presentation is fairly didactic. Traylor’s abstract paintings don’t so much come to life through this documentary but are lovingly promoted, and the filmmaking’s own artistic approach can contradict the verve that Traylor’s fans associate with his work.

Given Traylor's status as an artist whose work was more promoted after his death than during his life, his paintings requires the fullest picture possible, and a great deal of context. How else to best understand these rectangular torsos, the triangular teeth, or the one-dimensional locations? Wolf's interviewed experts provide some compelling insight, like how the color blue on a figure's legs referred to the emotional doldrums of the blues itself, or how the relationship dynamics to be found within how a woman and a man are shown clashing, pointing in different directions. But an airy description like "beautiful simplicity" echoes throughout, and Wolf's documentary favors bulky historical context more than it does analysis when it comes to making Traylor accessible. It can't decide if its main audience is a celebrated art gallery or a school trip, though both have their merits. 

Traylor created hundreds and hundreds paintings in his 80s, a type of final chapter after initially being born into a family of slaves that shared a long-time bond with the white family who owned them (which is where the last name Traylor came from). His paintings, many of which he drew on the back of cardboard or any paper scraps he could find, were completed in Montgomery, Alabama, a resting place after decades of being a sharecropper, and dancing, carousing, and taking care of his growing family as America supported and terrorized people just like Traylor. Taken as a whole (the documentary displays dozens and dozens of them, though countless were lost over time) the paintings are like fascinating journal entries from a perspective of Black America not as thoroughly documented, with some of Traylor's takes more mystical or playful than others. 

In bringing this story to light, Wolf is working with a small amount of specific archival material—an understandable part of this production, along with its budgetary constraints. There’s certainly not a lot of photos of Traylor or his upbringing, and his life events seem mostly charted by the few remaining written spreadsheets. But Wolf tends to create a larger American history background with flourishes that brings out its more History Channel-like inclinations: voiceover reenactments from the words of leaders and ex-slaves, slow scans over art of historical clashes, and generic B-roll footage. Paired with its talking head interviews which are already aesthetically rough-around-the-edges themselves, the presentation runs dry in spite of its valuable information. 

Wolf’s sharper choice is to emphasize this historical context by supplementing Traylor's creations with other Black artists; their expressions are like practical special effects that add more depth to this larger story of Black art, discovered and shared. Wolf gives time for the words of Zora Neale Hurston or Langston Hughes to wash over us in brief meditative passages, their observations reflecting the most recent discussed point in Traylor's life. Stoic monologues by actors Russell G. Jones and Sharon Washington dominate a minimal stage, sharing bits of Traylor’s saga to an unseen audience; the furious silhouette of tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith vividly accompanies a passage about how backwards limbs and curled legs represent dance in Traylor's work. It becomes clear that if the doc isn’t going to stretch itself too far with its own storytelling tactics, its vision of the past is at least chock-full of Black artistry. 

A sincere doc like this nonetheless has to be persuasive, to help us fully feel what the experts do as they speak with great reverence about its subject. “Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts” gets more stuck when it comes to its own expressions, and I would have appreciated more to take away regarding how Traylor's compositions themselves could stand on their own. But Wolf’s film captures what feels most important: it’s successful in getting one to understand the vitality of this artist’s language, and why it demands more visibility in history. 

Now playing in select theaters and via virtual cinemas.

Author: Nick Allen
Posted: April 16, 2021, 11:48 am

You know how watching a bad action movie can sometimes feel like watching somebody else playing a video game? Watching George Gallo's “Vanquish,” on the other hand, is more like watching someone beta testing an exceptionally buggy game for a system that's soon to be phased out. This is a rehash of genre cliches that is so dull, threadbare, and bereft of thrills that the one time that its one moment of genuine excitement comes when our heroine enters a bar where danger is allegedly afoot, and the television in the background is showing curling. This, I hasten to add, is not a cheap shot at that beloved sport in the slightest—by the time our heroine is leaving the place with guns drawn, my guess is many viewers will be thinking “You go ahead—I’m good.”

The aforementioned heroine is Victoria (Ruby Rose) and as she enters the picture, she's arriving at her job providing evening care for Damon (Morgan Freeman—yes, Morgan Freeman), a retired and wheelchair-bound cop in his palatial estate with her adorable moppet daughter Lily (Juju Journey Brener) in tow. Lily, it turns out, is ill and Victoria confesses to Damon that she cannot possibly afford the necessary treatment. Damon magnanimously offers to pay for the treatment but he will require a service. As his digs probably suggest, Damon was a corrupt cop engaged in all sorts of illicit deals around town. And in the wake of a recent double cross, he decides to pull his money from five associates around town and asks Victoria to put her own former skill set—she once worked with her late brother as a drug courier for the Russian mob—to use by making the pickups over the course of that night. At first, Victoria refuses—she has left that life behind and such—but when it turns out that Lily has vanished, and Damon won’t return her until the job is done, she reluctantly agrees.

Any hopes that this will just be a quiet and nondescript series of pickups and drop-offs pretty much goes out the window when Victoria arrives at the first destination, recognizes the criminal she is collecting from as being the guy who killed her brother, and slaughters him and a roomful of his minions. (She also helps a sex worker escape, so I guess the karmic scales are even.) From there, things go downhill as each new trip brings an encounter with allegedly colorful criminals (including one who clearly thinks he's playing Alfred Molina in “Boogie Nights” and greets Victoria with the deathless line “I hear you killed more people than Quentin Tarantino. Mint julep?”) that ends in either a fight scene, gunplay, or a chase before heading back to Damon’s place for yet another enigmatic conversation (while never just going from room to room in search of her daughter). Meanwhile, Victoria's activities capture the attention of an array of crooked cops, feds, and government agents—at least one of whom actually gets to say that a piece of information is “above your pay grade”—who all try to stop her in equally ineffectual ways.

As you may have surmised by this point, "Vanquish" is a very bad movie. But more than that, it's a supremely lazy one—the kind that almost makes the DTV drivel that Steven Seagal has been churning out for the last couple of decades seem focused and committed by comparison. To describe the characters and the narrative as being “paper-thin” would be an insult to your average ream of copier feed and at least that is guaranteed to have a higher brightness rating than the murky cinematography on display throughout. Of course, one does not watch a film like “Vanquish” for those particular qualities, but they actually come off better when compared to the dreadful action beats that are listless as can be throughout. The only thing that's interesting about them—and the whole movie, by extension—is that the film is oddly bereft of extras throughout. Strip clubs, freeways—you name a location and it is weirdly devoid of anybody other than the specific characters necessary to move that particular scene along. Hell, “Swimming to Cambodia” had more extras than can be found here—not to mention better fight choreography.

Although “Vanquish” is otherwise as forgettable as can be—that may be the closest thing that it has to a virtue—there's still one thing about it that I cannot immediately shake, and that is the presence of Morgan Freeman in a role that requires so little effort it's a wonder that Bruce Willis didn’t take it. Throughout his career, Freeman has, to put it charitably, made his share of bad movies—some perhaps even worse than this one (as those who made it through the likes of “Dreamcatcher” and “The Bucket List” can attest)—but I cannot for the life of me understand what could have compelled him to sign on for this one. Aside from a couple of face-to-face scenes with Rose and one bit where he tucks little Lily in for the night, his role consists almost entirely of sitting in his wheelchair and watching the action unfold on his computer screen via the body cameras that Victoria is wearing. In what is either the high or low point of the film, he observes her dropping a hand grenade in order to get away from the bad guys surrounding her, and as everyone scatters, he starts imploring to her to “Get out of there!” I have no idea if Freeman ever plans to publish his memoirs but if he does, I dearly hope that he shares exactly what was going through his mind when he shot that particular moment because I, for one, am desperately curious to find out. Who knows—maybe he was focusing on the curling as well.

Now playing in theaters, and available on Apple TV+ on April 20.

Author: Peter Sobczynski
Posted: April 16, 2021, 11:46 am

The phrase “trigger point” refers to the parts of the body which actually trigger pain; so if you’ve got a lower back condition, you may get an injection at the “trigger point” of your affected area. As is customary for many hack films, the writer or producer or whoever it was that nailed down the title “Trigger Point” for this cinematic bag of pain didn’t/doesn’t care what the phrase actually means, or whether it applies to anything that actually happens in the movie; they just thought it sounded cool. Also, there’s a lot of shooting in this ostensible spy thriller, and, you know, guns have triggers, and so on. 

The movie opens with a slim woman wearing a bolero hat at least two sizes too big for her head blowing away a bunch of people who seem to be minding their own businesses. We then cut to “One Year Later,” and to Poor Barry Pepper as Nick, who’s got a well-appointed cabin in some attractive woods and an elaborate home security system monitoring said cabin. It’s the same set-up you’ve seen in “The Mechanic” and maybe 7,000 other movies. And so too, the dialogue—including such gems as “I have a message,” “She’s determined to find the killer,” “”Nobody knows who Quentin is … that’s what makes him so powerful,” “The world doesn’t work that way anymore,” and “I thought you were dead”—consists of words you have heard very often before. 

Pepper’s character was a top guy at “the Agency” and now that he’s out of the assassination game or whatever it was—said agency is so vaguely defined that it’s entirely possible that all the characters here are just involved in an elaborate and very self-serious RPG, honestly—he’s the world’s nicest guy, rescuing pregnant stray cats and such. He regularly gets "special orders" at his local bookstore—um, huh—and eventually he’s tracked down by an old boss. Those folks minding their own business in the opening scene were all in Nick’s agency team. He’s the only one who eluded the assassin with the bad hat. Also, Nick underwent torture and can’t remember what happened. So he may in fact be the guy who gave up his colleagues. Anyway, his old boss, Poor Colm Feore’s Elias, wants Nick to not only find a crucial file but rescue his—Elias’, that is—daughter from kidnappers.

This picture, directed by prolific television helmer Brad Turner from a script by Michael Vickerman, is talkier than the average Cheap Thriller That Usually Features Bruce Willis Somewhere, and eventually—actually not TOO eventually—one is apt to stop asking “So what exactly is going on” and start asking “Who cares.” In between gab fests Pepper shoots oodles of black-clad, ski-masked men whose squibs squirt crimson as they fall backwards, or frontwards, or sideways, and Pepper never misses. Lucky him. 

The capper is a reveal so ludicrously offensive that it only could have been conceived by a white male Hollywood screenwriter nurturing some deeply-held racial and sexist resentments he wants to be somehow clever about. And after doing that, the movie has the nerve to set up its own sequel. Which nobody, least of all the filmmakers, ought to hold their breaths for. 

Now playing in theaters and available on demand.

Author: Glenn Kenny
Posted: April 16, 2021, 11:46 am