Synopsis: After being abducted by a child killer and locked in a soundproof basement, a 13-year-old boy starts receiving calls on a disconnected phone from the killer’s previous victims. Stars: Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone Director: Scott Derrickson Rated: R Running Length: 102 minutes TMMM Score: (8/10) Review: In much the same way I implored you a few weeks back to see Top Gun: Maverick in theaters because I felt it was vital to watch it on the biggest screen possible to get the full effect, I’m going to strongly suggest another trip to your local venue for The Black Phone. Before my screening this past balmy summer night, I had forgotten how nice it was to be at a scare-packed movie with an attentive, engaged audience. Over 100 minutes, seats were jumped out of, popcorn tubs spilled in fright, & shrieks of all tones & timbre were heard. You can’t get that same experience at home, and some of the enjoyment derived from this adaptation of a short story comes directly from that audience energy.
Not that the film doesn’t stand up quite well on its own. It’s a sophisticated scare that director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) has in store for you, far removed from the cruddy slice and dice fare rushed to the screen or the lower-budget releases from the same producer, Blumhouse. No, The Black Phone has been treated with great care, and you can see how that level of attention yields a much better result in the end. Now, you have a movie that has you inching ever forward in your seat as you nibble at your nails, only to be jolted back with one good fright after another.
Set in 1978, it opens on a baseball game on a bright day in April. Young Finney (Mason Thames, quite impressive) desperately wants to strike out the player at bat, mostly to impress a classmate on the sidelines. The game’s fate is inconsequential because not everyone makes it home that day, the result of The Grabber, the name the children give to the individual abducting young boys in the area over the following months. Flashing forward to October, a handful of other adolescent boys have vanished into thin air. The police have little to go on, save for a new tip: Finney’s sister Gwen (Madeline McGraw, American Sniper) dreams about the crimes with details she can’t possibly know.
Living with their alcoholic and abusive father (Jeremy Davies, Twister) after the death of their mother, the siblings hold onto each other for sanity. Still, when Finney is taken suddenly by a masked madman, Gwen is left on her own to probe her visions for clues that will lead her to her brother. Meanwhile, Finney is trapped inside the basement of a psychotic (Ethan Hawke, Boyhood) whose calm demeanor gives way to violent rages that echo his terrifying shrouded face. His hopes of escape seem futile…until an assumed broken black phone on the wall starts to ring with someone on the other line that has an important message for the trapped lad.
The previews and marketing for The Black Phone have given away some of what happens next, but not quite all, so let’s leave the rest of the movie for you to discover. Based on Joe Hill’s short story, it shouldn’t surprise you that Hill is the son of Stephen King because The Black Phone feels like it could have been featured in one of King’s short story collections through the years. Its period setting with a lack of technology recalls a slower time for information to travel but a more viscerally violent one in the way people deal with problem-solving. Numerous scenes of kids being beaten (by adults or each other) are disturbing to watch, as are the implications you derive from the dominating games Hawke’s twisted character wants to play with the young boy.
It starts to get a little disjointed and messy as it approaches the finale, and once it gets where it’s going, it doesn’t feel like the payoff was worth it, but that realization only comes far later when you’re home, and the adrenaline rush has worn off. Before then, The Black Phone was an easy film to fall into and get scared over. It’s genuinely creepy, primarily due to Derrickson’s classy direction of the material and Hawke’s unnerving and against-type performance. Get to this one in the theaters and check beforehand to see that it’s nearly full – I think you’ll enjoy it more the greater the number of bodies in seats. All the better to scream along with.
Synopsis: A group of old friends reunites for a nostalgic evening of fun and games after a decade apart. After one too many, they decide to play a drinking game, but it’s quickly revealed that this game comes with supernatural stakes. Stars: Jim Mahoney, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Jon Bass, Sarunas J. Jackson, Shelley Hennig Director: Alberto Belli Rated: NR Running Length: 80 minutes TMMM Score: (7/10) Review: Blessed are the films that are sold on name recognition alone. If you are arriving in theaters boasting a recognizable title that audiences are not just familiar with but anticipating, most of the work has already been done for you. All others need to labor at snagging the eyes of the crowd over their way by coming up with something creative, and it’s oh so very hard for movies like Gatlopp: Hell of a Game. I think the filmmakers will face a severe uphill battle with getting people to give this comedic twist on the supernatural gameboard movie based solely on that title. The pleasant news is that if they get enough viewers to give it a shot, good word of mouth could propel this nicely done, short/smart/sweet flick forward into greater notoriety.
At 80 minutes (including a lengthy credit sequence with a slow crawl and lots of backers to thank), there isn’t much time to spend with set-up, so we go almost directly into those handsome titles leading into the introduction of four friends toiling through their lives in California, none of them meeting their potential. Actor Troy (Sarunas J. Jackson, Chi-Raq) hasn’t found that big break, and entertainment executive Samantha (Emmy Raver-Lampman, Blacklight) hasn’t done much to help her friend. They join their stoner friend Cliff (Jon Bass, Molly’s Game) to console Paul (writer Jim Mahoney, Klaus, yes the animated charmer on Netflix), still reeling from a divorce.
Finding the kitschy board game Gatlopp in an acquired piece of furniture, Cliff convinces his friends to play it, but with one roll of the dice, they learn this is no ordinary game. With questions designed to reveal deep secrets oddly specific to them and tasks leading to quirky consequences that only get more tenuous as the night goes on, the four friends realize they are playing for their lives. The more they reveal and are honest with each other, the further into the game they go…but how far will their friendship last before it breaks apart?
For a movie curated within a pandemic production schedule, Gatlopp: Hell of a Game makes the most of its four leads, all of whom could easily have drifted into the obnoxious territory. Usually, the stoner character is the first one I’d like to see exit stage left, but Bass makes Cliff an endearing soul, and he works with the other three to convincingly bring their friendship to life. The lone female, Raver-Lampman, has seemed right on the verge of stardom for some time and her showing here only demonstrates again that it will be any day now that she breaks big. As the writer, Mahoney is a bit more invested in the character development of Paul. While the character gets adequate time to grow, it would have been nice to see more energy put into fleshing out Troy as better than just another wannabe actor. Not that Jackson doesn’t give it a go.
Director Alberto Belli keeps the action moving at a good pace (remember, we’re dealing with a movie that has roughly 70 minutes of material) and takes the pauses at the right time. It’s never going to be in the big leagues due to budget constraints, but in a way, Gatlopp: Hell of a Game benefits from the smaller production under which it was filmed. I could easily see future installments of the movie as the game travels around to different groups, but for its initial outing in Gatlopp: Hell of a Game, it’s an enjoyable bit of gameplay.
Synopsis: Nancy Stokes, a 55-year-old widow, is yearning for adventure, human connection, and some sex–some good sex. Stars: Emma Thompson, Daryl McCormack, Isabella Laughland Director: Sophie Hyde Rated: R Running Length: 97 minutes TMMM Score: (7.5/10) Review: We talk a lot about a particular multiple Oscar-winning actress being the best of her generation and rave over every role she shows up in, but if only we could talk about someone equally lauded as Emma Thompson in the same breath as Meryl Streep. Thompson herself has two Oscars (one for Acting in 1992’s Howards End and another for adapting 1995’s Sense & Sensibility) and has taken many of the same eyebrow-raising risks Streep has had throughout her career. Thompson perhaps even has stepped further out of her comfort zone on occasion, never appearing to turn her nose up regarding genre or role. She definitely one-ups Streep for bravura in onscreen vulnerability in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande…but we’ll get to that later.
Now 63, Thompson (Cruella) collaborated with director Sophie Hyde for Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, a frank (and funny) exploration of sex and maturity with a definitive lean toward the mature, now streaming on Hulu after premiering at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Filmed almost entirely on one set with just Thompson and her costar Daryl McCormack (Pixie), with the two-handed nature of the dialogue and insular feeling of the mood, you’d swear this originated as a stage play. And who knows, it could be adapted as one in the future.
Nancy Stokes has rented an upscale hotel room for the afternoon so she can meet Leo Grande, a male escort. She’s never done anything like this before, and we can tell she’s nervous. Awkwardly chatting away, often saying the wrong thing (at least to our ears), Nancy is a widow that has only been with one man her entire life. With her two adult children out of the house, she is looking to explore her own sexuality now that she has the freedom to do so. She found Leo in her search, booked him, and now isn’t sure she can go through with it.
On the other hand, Leo is the epitome of cool, calm, and collected. He’s an experienced escort who is good at listening to his clients and lets Nancy feel her feelings, never judging. She’s paying, after all. Throughout four encounters, Nancy and Leo discuss various topics related to sexuality, with Nancy’s being the primary focus. Leo is more of an enigma by design, and their relationship changes when Nancy pushes for more.
What’s so refreshing about Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, is how it makes good on its promise to treat its subject matter with responsible intelligence. This is an adult movie because it speaks frankly about sexual situations but doesn’t trivialize them or use them (generally) as a punchline. Nancy comes to Leo with severe issues with her body and being comfortable with herself. More than any doors Leo opens up on the physical front, he helps her adjust her understanding of what it means to love yourself unconditionally at any age.
The film wouldn’t work if the actors weren’t fully interactive with the material, and that’s where Thompson and McCormack’s chemistry comes into the spotlight. The actors work so well together, and I’m not sure how much was filmed in sequence, but you can see Thompson get more comfortable with McCormack as the film progresses. There’s only one scene outside of the hotel room (the most comedic one, featuring Isabella Laughland as a memorably funny hotel lounge waitress), and so we have to believe the two characters would want to be spending all of that time together in a room and with Thompson and McCormack, we do.
You’ve likely heard the most prominent news about Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is Thompson’s fully nude scene, and I almost didn’t even want to mention it. First, it’s such a beautifully shot and crucial moment in the movie that I’m glad Thompson went for it…though I know it’s what she’ll be asked most about when promoting it and for years to come. The movie is so much more than that one moment, and to want to see it because of it (or avoid it for the same reason) would be to miss a rare honest take on promoting a healthy embrace of the message of self-love at any age.
Synopsis: While spending years attempting to return home, marooned Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear encounters an army of ruthless robots commanded by Zurg, who is trying to steal his fuel source. Stars: Chris Evans, Uzo Aduba, James Brolin, Mary McDonald-Lewis, Keke Palmer, Efren Ramirez, Peter Sohn, Dale Soules, Taika Waititi, Isiah Whitlock Jr. Director: Angus MacLane Rated: PG Running Length: 100 minutes TMMM Score: (6.5/10) Review: Strangely, in this age of audiences clamoring for the next installment of the big franchise film, the one studio that gets slapped on the hand for sequel-izing their big projects the most is PIXAR. I don’t know why it happens, but I consistently see upturned noses at the landmark computer animation studio taking their established work and branching them off in different directions. Heads were really spinning when Disney announced that PIXAR would be releasing Lightyear, a prequel (of sorts) to their first mega-hit Toy Story, which celebrates its 27th birthday in 2022. Perhaps it was the still fresh bruise of the arrival of Toy Story 4 in 2019 after many fans thought Toy Story 3 ended the series so well, but the advance anticipation of a new chapter in this universe was grim.
With the full disclaimer broadcasting to you that I’m over the age limit for being able to honestly grade these movies (if the screenings weren’t so late at night, I could bring a few younger critics that would really give their opinions), I’m pleased to report that Lightyear is a zippy ride into pre-Toy Story lore and one that shouldn’t ruffle too many feathers in the fandom. As the title card that preceded the film explains, Andy received his Buzz Lightyear action figure in the original Toy Story after he saw him in a movie. Lightyear is that movie. Wrap your head around that for a moment, adjust your bearings, and let’s move forward.
Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans, Knives Out) is a headstrong Space Ranger on a mission with his fellow ranger Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba, Miss Virginia) and a new rookie recruit (Bill Hader, IT: Chapter Two). They’ve landed on a mysterious planet, but fall under attack before they can accomplish their task. Buzz being Buzz, he tries to save the day but winds up stranding the three of them (as well as an entire crew back at the ship) on the desolate planet. Working to find a way off the planet takes time, and when Buzz and Alisha finally figure out how to return home, it comes with time-altering consequences. The more Buzz attempts the mission in space, the faster time moves back on the planet. Everyone ages except for Buzz.
As the years/missions pass, Buzz continues his trials, accompanied by SOX, a robot cat meant to stave off any psychological trauma of the time he’s losing but who winds up a valuable asset (to Buzz and the movie). Just as he figures out a way home, the evil Zurg appears and threatens to destroy the colony that has been built to sustain life for the crew while they await their home trek. Banding together with a multi-generational bunch of misfits, none of whom initially measure up to Space Ranger standard in the eyes of Buzz, the veteran ranger will need to trust his new team to have his back as he learns to let go and truly lead. Yet there are still secrets to be revealed about the origin of Zurg and once unveiled, will it change the mission goal or push Buzz and his team to go beyond the limits of their strength?
Director Angus MacLane keeps the action fast and, more importantly, fun for audiences that were kids when the original film came out and are probably taking their children to this new adventure. If I’m honest, the overall look of Lightyear comes off like a Disney+ film that tested well enough to get a theatrical run. I can’t say why a more earnest effort like Turning Red would get shuffled off to the streaming service…but it shouldn’t deter you from giving this one a go. It has a sizable amount of creative inspiration and inclusion (the mismatched gang Buzz has to lead is of varying ages and sizes), not to mention a fully formed same-sex relationship that isn’t the focus but isn’t pushed to the side as tokenism either.
Synopsis: After a particularly harsh winter, Brian goes into a deep depression; wholly isolated and with no one to talk to, Brian does what any sane person would do when faced with such a melancholic situation. He builds a robot. Stars: David Earl, Chris Hayward, Louise Brealey, James Michie, Nina Sosanya Director: Jim Archer Rated: PG Running Length: 90 minutes TMMM Score: (6/10) Review: Watching a film like Brian and Charles gave me a serious nostalgia trip back to the days in the early 2000’s when I frequented our local art-house cinema. It didn’t matter what was playing (or what you wanted to see); you just showed up and hoped your movie hadn’t sold out. If it did, something often played around at the same time, and you could shift gears and see that instead. I’m not sure Brian and Charles is the movie I would have come to see at the Lagoon Theater in Uptown, MN, but it wouldn’t have been a title I would have been disappointed with being my second choice either.
Expanded from a 2019 short film, also directed and co-written by Jim Archer and the film’s stars David Earl (Brian) and Chris Hayward (Charles Petrescu), this is a seemingly simple story filled with apparently simple characters who gradually reveal themselves to be more than the sum of their parts. While it’s not filled with any tremendous moral you haven’t heard a million times over or ends up traveling in a direction you couldn’t have bought a ticket for 90 minutes earlier, there’s a rough-hewn grace to it all that makes the entire experience resolutely charming.
A rural inventor lives a solitary life in North Wales and spends his lonely days tinkering away at creations that seldom do what they’re intended. Framed as a documentary of sorts, Brian speaks directly to the camera. He walks the audience around his farm, proudly showing off the gadgets with no actual use that have otherwise sprung from his wild imagination. Yet Brian’s growing need for a friend is starting to nibble away at him. While a local lass (Louise Brealey, Victor Frankenstein) shows interest in the eccentric inventor, he seems oblivious to her long-held admiration. It’s from his creativity (and a number of spare parts he gathers from ditches, dumps, etc.) that Charles is born. A robot that springs to life almost by accident, Charles may be Brian’s invention but soon becomes his own person.
Watching the relationship between Brian and Charles develop provided a sweeter fulfillment than I had expected. Quickly, Brian realizes that he has to be more of a parent to Charles than a chum, which comes with a set of complications he didn’t anticipate. Charles may speak with the monotone synth voice of a robot, but his petulant attitude suggests a teen going through typical pubescent growing pains. Fixated on traveling to Hawaii and with a devoted love of cabbage (?), Charles gives Brian a run for his money. When the head of a local family of bullies sets his sights on obtaining Charles for his own, Brian will need to come out of his shell to stand up for his loved one.
There’s a quaint charm to the droll Brian and Charles that I appreciated, but I’ll admit it’s not for everyone. The humor is of a particular bent, and if you aren’t on board with it and can’t give yourself over to what it is selling, it’s best to move on. For all others willing to devote a short sit with some unfamiliar faces in a far-off side of the world, check out what this creative team has crafted. Oh, and do stay through the end credits for a closing song from Charles himself.
Director: Alex Thompson Cast: Namir Smallwood, Sidney Flanigan, Michael Potts, Max Lipchitz, David Cromer, Cheryl Lynn Bruce Synopsis: When a motivated resident doctor transfers to a rural hospital for a fresh start, his demons follow him as he becomes consumed with the case of a young asthma patient. Thoughts: I was knocked out by writer/director Alex Thompson’s 2019 first feature Saint Frances (find it, watch it, you’re welcome), and eagerly put his follow-up Rounding on my shortlist as a must-see at Tribeca. Curious to see how the director would pivot from the hazy comedic wit of his golden-tinged debut to Rounding’s darker edges, I wasn’t disappointed in this story of a young resident trying to make a difference but quickly losing his balance when faced with a series of challenging setbacks in his personal life and professional career. Namir Smallwood (who I had the great fortune to see onstage when he acted locally in MN) is a captivating screen presence as doctor in training James, drawing you right into this demanding world of rapid decisions and necessary knee-jerk judgments. Rising star Sidney Flanigan is his patient suffering from an unknown ailment, maybe at the hands of her mother or perhaps being mishandled by the care team assigned to her. Either way, James is determined to prioritize her health but finds dead ends where there should be easy paths to transparent care. Though it begins to lose some steam after a gripping opening stretch, the strength of Thompson’s sophomore film rests with Smallwood selling us on James having a commitment to care and not an already troubled mind careening out of control. It’s the outside forces that conspire against him (and his patient) where the absolute horror of Rounding finds its best angles.
Director: Peter Hengl Cast: Pia Hierzegger, Nina Katlein, Michael Pink, Alexander Sladek Synopsis: Overweight and insecure, Simi spends Easter weekend with her famous nutritionist aunt. The hope is that it’ll help her get on a healthier track, but as the aunt’s family’s icy dynamics and an increasingly malevolent atmosphere leave Simi feeling uneasy, weight isn’t the only thing she’s about to lose. Thoughts: Looking over the calendar, the most widely celebrated holidays have some horror films to coincide with the festivities. The one that doesn’t always get its fair due is Easter, and while we wait for the inevitable evil Easter Bunny creature feature, why not try out this Austrian entry from writer/director Peter Hengl? It’s often hopping good and a nice treat for those starved to get their fill of creepy psychological dread. In Family Dinner, teenager Simi has made the surprising choice to spend the holiday away from her immediate family and opted to travel to the country home of her aunt, uncle, and cousin. She does have an ulterior motive, though. Hoping to ask her aunt Claudia, a famous health guru, to coach her on how to lose weight, when she finally musters the courage up, her aunt begrudgingly agrees with the caveat that she follows her strict rules. What the rules are, and the punishment for breaking them makes Hengl’s nervy nail-biter suspenseful and entertaining. I loved the performance of Pia Hierzegger as Simi’s aunt, applying the needed layers to give Claudia a daring depth. It isn’t hard to squint your eyes and see what’s being served up in Family Dinner, but it’s so filling and just the right temperature for its genre that you are more than eager to wolf it down.
Employee of the Month (L’Employée du mois)
Director: Véronique Jadin Cast: Jasmina Douieb, Laetitia Mampaka, Alex Vizorek, Peter Van Den Begin, Laurence Bibot Synopsis: In this mischievous dark comedy, an employee at a cleaning products company accidentally commits a messily bloody crime – and must figure out how to cover her tracks with the help of her young trainee. Thoughts: As far as ludicrous black comedies go, Employee of the Month is one of the more markedly silly and unbelievable but is saved by the committed performances and peppy direction. It’s not destined to be an unheralded classic, but for 78 fast-moving minutes, it manages to get the job done. As Inès, star Jasmina Douieb earns high marks for making it through the melee that transpires after her mild-mannered corporate flunky inadvertently offs her dunderhead boss while attempting to ask for her first raise. It’s one of those situations that could be fixed with a simple phone call to the police. However, a desperate panic causes supposedly sane people to act crazy and cover up their crimes, creating a domino effect that ropes others in. It’s all absurd, but Douieb and Laetitia Mampaka, as the new trainee dragged into the chaos, wring out a few sizable laughs from Véronique Jadin (who also directed) and Nina Vanspranghe’s screenplay. It’s fun for a bit but can’t sustain its premise.
Butterfly in the Sky
Director: Bradford Thomason, Brett Whitcomb Cast: LeVar Burton, Twila C. Liggett, Larry Lancit, Cecily Lancit, Dean Parisot Synopsis: For over 25 years, Reading Rainbow set the standard for literary children’s television. Thanks to its uncondescending approach, plus its immersive documentary-style adventures, LeVar Burton and the Reading Rainbow creative team instilled a love of reading in millions of children. Thoughts: Did I spend most of this joyful documentary about the creation and lasting legacy of Reading Rainbow with tears welling up in my eyes? You bet your butterfly I did. As any child of the ’80s will attest, this television show produced for PBS between 1983 and 2006 had a massive impact on their daily lives growing up, not just on fostering their early interest in reading but in expanding their view of diversity and the world around them. Revisiting the genesis of the show (of which I was previously unfamiliar) as an adult and seeing how it came to be was fascinating. I especially enjoyed learning more about host LeVar Burton and how his casting helped to steer the show in the direction we all remember. During his lengthy interview segments, Burton is candid about his feedback to producers; we see how he grew as a contributor over time. Directors Bradford Thomason & Brett Whitcomb don’t fill Butterfly in the Sky with a tremendous amount of flash but keep the content, creators, and other interviews the central focus throughout.
Billion Dollar Babies: The True Story of the Cabbage Patch Kids
Director: Andrew Jenks Synopsis: This is the unbelievable, but true story of the kids who stole America’s heart…the Cabbage Patch Kids and how they set the wheels in motion for modern-day Black Friday. Before Cabbage Patch Kids no one left a K-Mart with a bloody nose, nor could we have imagined a world where police would need to be called in to break up fights over dolls. Thoughts: I know it’s probably very wrong, but I love watching the old footage of suburban moms breaking down the barricades of K·B Toys in a clamor for the newest batch of Cabbage Patch Kids. There’s just something so out of whack watching people buying toys for children acting like complete maniacs that I can’t help but be amused. The desire to see more of this footage was just a tiny reason why I knew that I had to get a look at Billion Dollar Babies: The True Story of the Cabbage Patch Kids, but it represents a fraction of the complete story being told by director Andrew Jenks. The actual stuffing of the work is discovering more about creator Xavier Roberts and how he turned a fledgling business of handmade dolls into the multi-billion-dollar consumer mayhem it became. Always sounding like he’s on the verge of laughing with us, narrator Neil Patrick Harris walks the viewer through the early days of Roberts’s business and even tangents into the claims that he stole the idea from a neighboring folk artist. Worthy of the exploration, the film doesn’t seem to pass judgment significantly either way, but it’s hard to deny the similarities between the two products. Through interviews with distributors, employees, and famous faces, we get an idea of the dolls’ impact, so if you weren’t there, you feel like you can understand the zeal of the hype. The only person not included is Roberts, who notoriously shirks the public eye. Like the dolls themselves, this doc is pretty soft stuff but fairly cozy all the same.
A Wounded Fawn
Director: Travis Stevens Cast: Josh Ruben, Sarah Lind, Malin Barr, Katie Kuang, Laksmi Hedemark, Tanya Everett, Marshall Taylor Thurman, Leandro Taub, Neal Mayer Synopsis: It’s the perfect plan: A serial killer brings an unsuspecting new victim on a weekend getaway to add another body to his ever-growing count. She’s buying into his faux charms, and he’s eagerly lusting for blood. What could possibly go wrong? Thoughts: I need to tread extremely lightly with A Wounded Fawn because the set-up is devilishly devious. Revealing too much about what director Travis Stevens has in store for the viewer would spoil the clever effort that has gone into its creation, and these are the types of forward-momentum horror we should be demanding more of. Does it all work or even add up to perfect logic by the end? No. Well, I’m not sure, actually. I need to think about it some more. I just knew that by the time the credits were rolling, I was impressed with what Stevens could pull off. The briefest bit I can tell you is that a very bad man (Josh Ruben) lures women to his remote house as part of a loftier master plan. So far, he’s gotten away with the perfect crimes, but he’s brought home the wrong woman this time. A woman that isn’t content to merely turn the tables on her tormentor. Ok… that’s enough. No more. Buckle up for a wild ride because once Stevens has wound up the action in A Wounded Fawn and the last act gets underway, there’s no stopping it. It may not be for everyone, but it will please the genre fans begging for rarities like this.
All Man: The International Male Story
Director: Bryan Darling, Jesse Finley Reed Synopsis: A nostalgic and colorful peek behind the pages and personalities of International Male, one of the most ubiquitous and sought-after mail-order catalogs of the ’80s and ’90s. Thoughts: I came into All Man: The International Male Story expecting a bit of a naughty documentary that would feed into the cheeky charms for which its subject came to be known. The International Male catalog began as an easy way for men to shop for trendy clothes without being close to one of the major markets. You could peruse the pages to find hot new looks or pick out garments you would have been embarrassed to buy in a brick-and-mortar store. Those articles of clothing would be their vast array of underwear, and it was based on these pages the catalog started earning a reputation for its models that would put it at the center of gay culture. Subscriptions to the catalog peaked when the publishers got wise about what people wanted to see, so advertising clothing specifically often became secondary (and, in some cases, optional). As fun as it was to peek back at what was perking people’s interests 40 years ago, I’m not sure there was enough content provided by directors Bryan Darling & Jesse Finley Reed to complete a full-feature documentary. While there are attempts to tie the catalog to cultural touchstones of the era, the alignment doesn’t always ring true. Ultimately, it serves its purpose as titillating content, but you won’t be watching this one to learn anything new.
Attachment (Natten Har Øjne)
Director: Gabriel Bier Gislason Cast: Josephine Park, Ellie Kendrick, Sofie Gråbøl, David Dencik Synopsis: Maja and Leah’s new relationship is interrupted when mysterious things start happening in their London flat. It seems that Leah’s disapproving mother, who lives downstairs, is using Jewish folklore to come between them. Thoughts: One of the best titles I’ve seen at Tribeca this year is Attachment, a supremely spooky horror film that whips up a dynamite concoction of Jewish folklore, paranoia, and possession. Directed by Gabriel Bier Gislason, the film constantly changes shape and form to keep the audience on their toes and the hairs on the back of the neck adequately raised. Studying abroad in Denmark, Londoner Leah (Ellie Kendrick) falls for Maja (Josephine Park), a former actress now doing crummy gigs to pay the rent. The women become inseparable, and when the day comes for Leah to head home, the parting is truly sweet sorrow…until a medical ailment keeps Leah in Denmark and delays her return home long enough for Maja to decide long distance won’t do. She’s coming to London with her girlfriend. That’s great for the two of them but not for Leah’s ultra-Orthodox mother (Sofie Gråbøl), who lives in the downstairs flat of their shared home. A period of adjustment is difficult as both women vie to care for Leah, who remains strangely unwell. Trying to understand Leah’s faith more, Maja ventures into the community to learn more and realizes it’s her mother (or something conjured by her mother) keeping Leah sick. Trapped in a home where danger could come from any nook or cranny, how can Maja fight back against a power she doesn’t understand? The performances from Park and Gråbøl are excellent, and I appreciated that Gislason’s script is more intricate than making sparring partners out of women. There’s more to the entire film than meets the eye, making Attachment an excellent film to latch onto.
A Love Song
Director: Max Walker-Silverman Cast: Dale Dickey, Wes Studi, Michelle Wilson, Benja K. Thomas, Marty Grace Dennis, John Way Synopsis: An unconventional romance set against a timeless Colorado landscape, this tender heartbreaker of a directorial debut packs decades of memories, longing, and nostalgia into a fateful campsite reunion between two could-be lovers. Thoughts: If we lived in a perfect world, a performance like the one Dale Dickey gives in A Love Song would get express train-ed right to the Best Actress race at the Oscars. It’s so deeply felt and expertly delivered that it deserves the kind of wide recognition this prestigious honor can bestow, winner or not. Now, A Love Song is undeniably too small of a movie to climb up this great hill to Oscar glory (sad but true), so you’ll have to take my word that if you are a fan of salt-of-the-earth acting that is free from any artifice or guile, then you need to check this one out pronto. Chances are, you already have because A Love Song is targeted at a specific audience that longs for the same peaceful ambiance Dickey’s solemn character has come to an empty campsite near a body of water in the Colorado Mountains to find. She’s arrived with a small trailer and settled in…but for what? We’re not sure, and writer/director Max Walker-Silverman isn’t going to tell us. So much of A Love Song is just observing daily life – and it’s often rapturously engaging. The beautiful cinematography and score complement the sublime performances (the film also features Wes Studi and Michelle Wilson). Still, it’s Dickey’s show to pull the final curtain on in a breathtaking bit of natural wonder.
The Wild One
Director: Tessa Louise-Salomé Cast: Jack Garfein, Willem Dafoe, Peter Bogdanovich, Irène Jacob, Boby Sotto, Dick Guttman, Blanche Baker, Patricia Bosworth, Foster Hirsch, Geoffrey Horne, Kate Rennebohm Synopsis: Jack Garfein — Holocaust survivor, theater and film director, key figure in the formation of the Actors Studio — vividly, animatedly, passionately recalls a life where historical tragedy and personal art formed a unique, driving, uncompromising vision. Thoughts: In director Tessa Louise-Salomé’s documentary on Jack Garfein, viewers can open up a new chapter of Hollywood history they likely had never known about. I shamefully didn’t know Garfein’s name before starting this well-made and beautifully told doc. Still, I’m so grateful to have works like this that serve as important reminders about the pivotal contributors to the industry. More than just filling essential gaps in the timeline of Hollywood and dropping fancy names of celebrities, The Wild One illustrates Garefin’s life from his birth in Czechoslovakia to his survival in the concentration camps during World War II. After moving to New York, he created his own theater company and eventually joined the Actors Studio, where he taught many legendary names. Giving James Dean his first acting role and collaborating with Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg, Garfein directed for the stage and screen, married Carroll Baker, and was vigilant in his advocacy for minority rights. This was a man before his time that flew in the face of toeing the line in his business. How wonderful that Louise-Salomé was able to interview him and make him such an integral part of The Wild One before his passing in 2019 at 89. An essential documentary for film fans.
Director: Kathryn Ferguson Synopsis: Over the course of just six years, Sinead O’Connor went from an international superstar to a pariah. Nothing Compares tells the story of O’Connor’s life as a musician, mother, and iconoclast in her own words. Thoughts: When I hear the name Sinead O’Connor two images pop into my brain, and I’m sure it’s the same two that are in yours. The first is her iconic look from her video for her cover of the Prince track ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ from 1990, and the second is of her appearance in a 1992 episode of Saturday Night Live where she ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul II live on the air. Both cemented O’Connor in the history books but for very different reasons. Kathryn Ferguson’s documentary Nothing Compares (which will debut on Showtime later this year) is a robust and transparent look at O’Connor’s life. While it details her upbringing in some scope, the work focuses on her dramatic career ascent in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Through the documentary, audiences are exposed to the full strength of O’Connor’s talent and how her emotions (unbridled at times) made her such a creative force of nature. She refused to be put into a box long before it was fashionable to go against the grain, so most of the world used her SNL appearance to write her off completely, silencing a rising voice before it could be fully developed. O’Connor’s career never fully recovered, and though she’s continued to release music over the ensuing years, her reputation of erratic behavior has followed her. Ferguson keeps the lens trained in a non-judgmental space, letting O’Connor’s voice do most of the reflection on her time in the spotlight. It’s a raw look at her life and career and well worth the time spent.
Wes Schlagenhauf Is Dying
Director: Parker Seaman Cast: Devin Das, Parker Seaman, Wes Schlagenhauf, Aparna Nancherla, D’Arcy Carden, Mark Duplass Synopsis: An irreverent and eccentric road trip comedy that celebrates DIY filmmaking and bromances, Wes Schlagenhauf Is Dying follows two filmmakers who set out to make their masterpiece while on a journey toward an estranged, purportedly languishing friend. Thoughts: “Meta” doesn’t even begin to describe what’s going on in Wes Schlagenhauf Is Dying. Turning not just the COVID-19 movie on its ear but flipping the buddy-road-trip-comedy while they’re at it, Devin Das, Parker Seaman, and Wes Schlagenhauf play fictionalized versions of themselves that aren’t quite what they seem. In the film, as in real life, the trio are commercial directors finalizing their latest project. As the pandemic hits, production has halted, and Wes has returned home while Parker and Devin stay in Los Angeles. Then Wes calls to break the bad news. He’s contracted COVID-19 and is dying…or at least he thinks he is. Instead of feeding into their friend’s obvious hypochondria, they (somewhat insultingly) bypass his feelings and decide to visit him. Ever the filmmakers, and encouraged by Mark Duplass of all people (see, just like I said, meta), they plan to kill two birds with one road trip and film their adventure cross-country to see their friend. What follows is primarily silly stuff involving bro humor and occasional on-the-nose life observance. The apparent genuine chemistry shared by the friends and their understanding of film from a directorial standpoint helps to keep this one from feeling like an inside joke caught on home video and fashioned into a full-length feature.
The Year Between
Director: Alex Heller Cast: Alex Heller, J. Smith-Cameron, Steve Buscemi, Waltrudis Buck, Wyatt Oleff, Emily Robinson, Kyanna Simone, Rajeev Jacob Synopsis: Forced to return home from college after her erratic behavior alienates everyone around her, Clemence begrudgingly begins a new chapter in the suburbs, hell-bent on defying her mom, dad, younger siblings, therapist—and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Thoughts: The Year Between represents a successful film that could quickly have gone in the other direction. That’s because it’s exceedingly hard to get behind a leading role that’s completely insufferable. It takes no small amount of talent to change how an audience sees that character and actively change the narrative. Yet that’s exactly what Alex Heller has done as Clemence in her feature film debut, a semi-autobiographical look at family through a breakdown, the build-up, and all the mess in between. Of course, it helps that Heller writes, directs, and stars in the piece so she has some control over how Clemence comes across, but as the film opens and for much of its run time, she’s making it hard to side with as she acts like a bowling ball knocking down the pins of the lives in anyone she encounters. That includes her parents (the well-cast J. Smith-Cameron, and Steve Buscemi), sister (Emily Robinson), and brother (Wyatt Oleff), who do what they can to ease her transition back from college into finding a stable life. The Year Between is simple but observant, strong-willed but sensitive to those showing up to lend support because that’s all they are equipped to give. I don’t know the extent to which this piece is autobiographical for Heller, but its stark sincerity is a refreshing change of pace to brutal honesty – and yes, there is a difference.
Director: Lee Sunday Evans Cast: Marsha Stephanie Blake, Michael Braun, Kathleen Chalfant, Hannah Cheek, Michael Chernus, Michael Bryan French, Mick Hilgers, Linda Powell, Kristin Villanueva, BD Wong Synopsis: After mistakenly registering to vote, a Filipina immigrant faces deportation and permanent separation from her American husband and newborn child. Using actual transcripts from the court hearing, The Courtroom is a dramatic reenactment of one woman’s harrowing experience with the US legal system. Thoughts: For full disclosure, I started The Courtroom three times before I could truly get into its unique structure. You must be ready to sit down and pay attention to this film because its format and intention are just as important as the message it is trying to send about our country’s broken justice system. To help you out a bit, and what I wish I knew before, is that while The Courtroom is taken exactly from court transcripts from a case that made its way through the legal system (the actors were even required to properly place “uh” and “um” if they appeared), the characters are not always played by actors of the same race, age, or gender as those that initially said it. Aside from Kristin Villanueva as Elizabeth Keathley, a Filipina woman living with her American husband and newborn in the US, faced with deportation for mistakenly registering to vote even though she received mail requesting her to do so, you may have a black woman (Linda Powell) playing a white attorney or another black woman (Marsha Stephanie Blake) playing a white district court judge. This keeps Arian Moayed’s screenplay (originating as a stage play consistently performed across the country) elegant and symbolic of all Americans speaking as one, in a way. Director Lee Sunday Evans maintains a firm grip on the film, even in showing its theatricality by immediately revealing the actors entering the set on a soundstage. Your blood will boil appropriately at one of the best films available at Tribeca this year.
Synopsis: Dinosaurs now live—and hunt—alongside humans all over the world. This fragile balance will reshape the future and determine, once and for all, whether human beings are to remain the apex predators on a planet they now share with history’s most fearsome creatures. Stars: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Sam Neill, DeWanda Wise, Isabella Sermon, Mamoudou Athie, Campbell Scott, BD Wong, Omar Sy, Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, Scott Haze, Dichen Lachman Director: Colin Trevorrow Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 146 minutes Trailer Review: Here TMMM Score: (6/10) Review: Recently, I was asked to list a handful of my most memorable summer movie experiences. Seeing Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park in June of 1993 easily came in at #1. There was something so special about that time, a pre-internet era where all you had to go on before a movie was released were clips shown on entertainment news programs or movie magazines tailored to your interests. For this movie in particular, so much was kept under wraps beforehand that audiences truly had no little idea about what was in store for them. I miss having those unspoiled viewing pleasures, and in the decades since Jurassic Park opened its doors, the odds of walking blindly into a film have decreased every time society introduced a new social media platform.
When Universal Studios revitalized the Jurassic franchise in 2015 with the super-blockbuster Jurassic World, many of those same early feelings of excitement came back to me. New director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed), personally selected by Spielberg, took the reins with that same sense of fun and adventure. Even if nothing would match the spirit of the original visit to the park (including The Lost World: Jurassic Park in 1997 and Jurassic Park IIIin 2001), I was thrilled with what the creative team had worked up. Trevorrow wasn’t on hand for 2018’s Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom, which suffered as previous sequels did with being set in a climate that didn’t feel contained enough to create appropriate tension. I liked it better than my colleagues, but it didn’t move the dial like it should (or could) have.
For the supposed final film (at least in this trilogy), Trevorrow has returned and brought back the trio of original co-stars from Spielberg’s first outing. That alone is worth booking passage to Jurassic World Dominion, but audiences will have to wade through a fair share of thorny underbrush in this 146-minute finale ultimo. Boasting surprisingly less than cutting edge special effects, some downright silly contrivances, and performances from dinosaurs that often best the humans they are acting alongside, you’ll want to see it with a packed audience to get your maximum enjoyment. They’ll help smooth out the rocky ride between the star attractions if they’re anything like my enthusiastic crowd.
In the four years following the events of Fallen Kingdom, when the dinosaurs escaped their island and integrated into the ecosystem around the world, most of the population has grown accustomed to seeing these bio-engineered creatures roaming the globe. Exploited to varying degrees for their exotic appeal, they’ve gone beyond park attractions to curiosities you can own as a status symbol or wield as a tool against an enemy. That’s what a growing horde of pre-historic locusts is doing, decimating crops not planted with a synthetic seed from seemingly benign company Biosyn Genetics led by a character that will be familiar to trivia buffs of the first film. While Campbell Scott (The Amazing Spider-Man) didn’t play this part back then, it’s a wise choice to have an actor of his stature (and oddity) take over.
Researching the raging locusts is Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern, Little Women), who has been tipped off by old friend Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, The Grand Budapest Hotel) that Biosyn is behind the revived insects and gets her access to their private labs in the Dolomite Mountains. She needs an experienced witness to vouch for her findings and turns to former flame Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill, Dead Calm) to fly with her and provide a second set of trained eyes. Little do they know it, but Biosyn is also a sanctuary for many of the dinosaurs that have been rounded up from around the world, and they’re about to welcome another set of visitors to the facility under very different circumstances.
After escaping with the first human clone, Maisie (Isabella Sermon), Clare (Bryce Dallas Howard, Rocketman), and Owen (Chris Pratt, The Tomorrow War) are trying to keep her hidden in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Not only did she release the dinos into the wild to begin with, but her very existence is valuable to scientists seeking to do good and evil. Staying close by is Velociraptor Blue, still ornery but keeping an eye on a new baby raptor Maisie nicknamed Beta. When both Maisie and Blue are captured by Biosyn cronies, Clare and Owen team up with a non-nonsense former Air Force Pilot (DeWanda Wise, The Harder They Fall) to break into Biosyn and retrieve both precious assets.
Much of Jurassic World Dominion is spent with the two stories working separately from one another, and only one holds much interest. That would be the thread that follows Dern and Neill (and sometimes Goldblum) as they travel to Biosyn and get a lay of the mysterious lab/land. Meeting up with Scott and his team (including franchise stalwart B.D. Wong, The Space Between Us, still causing nefarious trouble and then feeling guilty after), one can’t help but be reminded of their trip to Jurassic Park…and Treverrow doesn’t let you forget it thanks to several Easter Egg callbacks to the original. These are fun, audience-pleasing moments that land with welcome warmth.
On the other side, Howard and Pratt are heading up the more action-heavy side of things, globe-trotting from the Sierra Nevadas to Malta before heading to Biosyn. All of this added movement does little to stir up much in the way of tension, despite some decent attempts from Howard to get into the action and shockingly little effort from Pratt to do anything more than the minimum required to move from one scene to the next. It’s like Pratt forgot what he liked about being in movies in the first place. He’s never been close to a movie star, but now he’s not even working to prove it anymore. His process is starting to show, never changing up his look or approach, and it’s never more evident here. Wise can get a few good moments out of him, but even her material is so weak that you can sometimes feel her wanting to roll her eyes and the tired dialogue she has to say.
Frustratingly non-committal in certain areas (count how many people get snacked on in comparison to how many dinosaurs get finished off) and tossing whatever light science was present early on right out the door (T-Rex suddenly loses all sense of smell here), Jurassic World Dominion has a handful of thrill-park esque sequences that are effective but double the number of slogs that could have been so much more. It feels like two partial movies that never got finished smashed into one…I wish more time were spent fleshing out the revisit with our old friends rather than trying to make time for the newbies. Then you’d have a movie worth waiting in line all day for.
Synopsis: Seven misfit students must unite against a growing gang of unhuman savages. Stars: Brianne Tju, Benjamin Wadsworth, Uriah Shelton, Ali Gallo, Drew Scheid, Lo Graham, Peter Giles Director: Marcus Dunstan Rated: NR Running Length: 90 minutes TMMM Score: (5.5/10) Review: Two short weeks ago, we talked about Torn Hearts, a Blumhouse Television and EPIX production that hit a dandy of a sweet spot melding horror and the country music scene. A low-budget effort that still had the flair and, most importantly, the ambition of a project with double its budget, that movie was an easy to recommend a bit of entertainment from the streaming service as well as the television branch of Jason Blum’s film production company. Never short on product, EPIX and Blumhouse Television are back with Unhuman, another offering drawing blood from the same ghoulish vein as Torn Hearts, albeit in an entirely different realm of the horror genre.
Cheekily positing itself as a twisted After-School Special, writers Patrick Melton (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) and Marcus Dunstan (Piranha 3DD, who also directs) get the film off to a rollicking start via an introduction of the stock characters. Nice girl Ever (Brianne Tju, 47 Meters Down: Uncaged) and not quite as nice best friend Tamra (Ali Gallo) join their classmates for a 4H field trip into the backwoods. You’ve got your jock (Uriah Shelton, Freaky) and his trophy girlfriend (Lo Graham, This Is the End) as well as the token minority friend (C.J. LeBlanc, Just Mercy), not to mention two teens ripe for bullying (Drew Scheid, Halloween and Lucy Burvant) and the brooding object of multiple affections (Benjamin Wadsworth). Chaperoning them is a wise-cracking teacher (Owen Wilson impersonator Peter Giles) and a grumpy bus driver.
We’ve barely met this troupe before an accident sends their bus careening off the road and puts them face to face with an outside danger no amount of extracurricular credit could have prepared them. Radio broadcasts drop few clues, but it’s clear they’re on their own for the immediate future, so staying on the bus to be picked off one by one isn’t an option. Not that the vicious creature circling the bus is giving them much of choice in that matter, either. As the class separates and begins to learn more about themselves and the events leading up to the day, they’ll see that while they have been fending off a multiplying horde of ghouls, the cause of it all might be one of their own.
For a good chunk of Unhuman, Dunstan has a good thing going, and it’s primarily attributed to a game cast who takes the material only as seriously as it will allow. Possessing several nicely placed twists along the way, I found it easy to stay engaged with the group. While all are playing specific archetypes of the teen genre, none entirely settle into comfortable ways of approaching these familiar characters. I especially liked Tju (so good in the upcoming Winona Ryder movie The Cow), who leads Unhuman with grit that carries it through the back half when its low-budget skeleton starts to show.
It’s disappointing that the filmmakers couldn’t land the ending, and if I’m being honest, it gets messy as it moves toward the finale. Almost feeling like there was a rush to complete the movie, there’s a mish-mash quality to those last moments, which are incongruent with the pleasant surprises presented up until that point. Unhuman is strong enough for me to offer it as a worthy suggestion as a 90-minute diversion, but you’ll need to level-set your expectations near the finish line.
Synopsis: Two friends live stream the most terrifying night of their lives on a horror-fueled road trip. Stars: Annie Hardy, Angela Enahoro, Amar Chandha-Patel Director: Rob Savage Rated: R Running Length: 77 minutes TMMM Score: (6/10) Review: When the pandemic was in full swing, independent filmmakers had to get creative if they wanted to continue to work without major studios’ backing and enhanced COVID measures. One of the best success stories to come out of this time was Host. This barely sixty-minute feature showed up on Shudder and quickly generated excellent word of mouth within its target genre audience and in the greater community. Savage made the story of a haunted Zoom séance look like it was all taking place on a computer screen (known as a ScreenLife film)…because that’s how actors shot it. With a small cast in charge of filming themselves and instructed on how to create many of their in-camera visual effects, director Rob Savage made one of the most genuinely scary films in quite a while. I watched the movie several times, and it retained its effective shrieks with each viewing.
It was a bit surprising to me how quickly Savage has turned his next project in, and while Dashcam isn’t Savage’s second feature in a literal sense, it does have your typical sophomore stumbling blocks as a follow-up ScreenLife film. Released under the Blumhouse Productions banner, Savage has attracted interest from essential names in the business. However, his movie doesn’t have as commercial a feel as you might expect from this label. Right off the bat, there’s a challenge you’re going to face, and that’s with the leading lady.
Going into the movie, I had no idea who Annie Hardy was. A California-born musician from the rock band Giant Drag, the 40-year-old was infamous for her quick (and profane) wit onstage and never pulling punches in interviews or online postings. While she’s playing a version of herself in Dashcam, viewers will have to decide whether they will be able to sit through sixty minutes with a character that can be severely grating most of the time. Little can be done to turn this version of Hardy off, not her friends and certainly not an unknown contagion turning ordinary people into raving monsters.
Let’s back up a moment.
In the film, Annie Hardy runs a popular online show from her car that viewers tune into to see her create a song from suggestions appearing in a chat box. While driving around the city, Hardy will draft foul-mouthed ditties that mostly have to do with body parts and fluids that amuse herself more than anyone. However, it’s rough right now as COVID rages through America. As an anti-vaxxer (supposedly like the real Hardy), she’s had enough of the government politics and decides a trip overseas to visit her old bandmate will clear her mind. Hardy isn’t in London long before Stretch (Amar Chandha-Patel) tires of her, and she takes off in his car for a UK version of her show.
As she’s out, she makes a stop that proves to be unwise, picking up an elderly passenger (Angela Enahoro) to transport across town. Hardy’s wild shenanigans with her new friend take a turn, and before she knows it, she finds herself in the middle of an outbreak she desperately needs to avoid. Involving Stretch and a believable host of others along the way, Hardy crashes through the city and countryside (even an abandoned amusement park) to escape a deadly predator and a cadre of vigilantes who seek not only to eliminate a deadly threat but her as well for unleashing it.
The entirety of Dashcam is filmed on multiple “screens,” which makes it quite the experience, and one must commend Savage and the cast for capturing it all so effectively. I mean, were I in that situation, holding a camera to film what was going on would be the least of my worries (I would have thrown my phone at the first thing that jumped out at me), but somehow it all gets documented in an easy to track way. The special effects used are sparse but spooky, and the make-up effects yield appropriately disgusting yucks from viewers. It’s not an easy film to watch for multiple reasons, but it’s energizing, nonetheless.
While Dashcam runs 77 minutes, the actual film is just a hair over an hour. The remaining time is taken up by Hardy doing her song-composing schtick…using the names of the cast and crew for inspiration. I’m not sure if some of these people would take being featured here as a tribute or takedown, but none of them should let their moms hear what Hardy has to say. It’s a strange ending to an oddly constructed film, but I did enjoy it all the same. I can see why Hardy would be a lot to take, and she is, but despite her views, I found her raw shock jock humor to be often quite funny. One thing I’m sure of is that had the lead character been a male, no one would come down as hard on the issue of likability.
Synopsis: A group of strangers sharing a ride has their trip interrupted when the driver hits a woman hiking in the dark of night. They decide to help her but quickly learn that something is wrong and that they shouldn’t have let her in at all. Stars: Ramiro Blas, Cecilia Suárez, Paula Gallego, Cristina Alcázar Director: Raúl Cerezo & Fernando González Gómez Rated: NR Running Length: 90 minutes TMMM Score: (5.5/10) Review: When so many horror movies look like they aren’t even trying, it’s easy to feel like throwing a little affection toward a film (and filmmakers) with a point of view and affinity for the genre. That’s why an offering like The Passenger (La pasajera) is so welcome while presenting a bit of a problem when reviewing at the same time. Is The Passenger a cut above the rest, the lame straight-to-streaming trash fests with poor effects, terrible acting, and no creativity around the plot? Sure. There’s a slickness to Raúl Cerezo & Fernando González Gómez’s gooey creature feature that is fun to watch unfold…just not for a full 90 minutes.
As we come out the other side of pandemic filmmaking, with projects that were greenlit before/during the global lockdown, I find that there is a healthy supply of “good idea” genre movies that can’t totally justify their feature run time. What starts as a great concept, with tight pacing and overly decent thrills, begins to lose air around the 50–60-minute mark, and the directors can do little to gather that momentum back. The Passenger is an excellent example of a package with all the right elements (unique make-up, lively cast, creepy location, inspired direction), just overstuffed with plot to the point of exasperation.
Were it not for his ‘dead-eye’ and dated views on dynamics between the sexes, mature rideshare driver Blasco (Ramiro Blas) might be the ladies’ man he envisions. Sadly, the former frontman of a rock band is relegated to lame flirtations with any female he encounters during long treks between towns in his retro caravan. On this trip, he’s ferrying a woman purporting to be visiting a loved one (though her wig masking a bald head indicates otherwise) and a scarred daughter being hauled between towns by her mother to her father’s home after typical teen behavior has made her unmanageable. All four won’t have to worry much about the final destination because the opening moments have shown us a strange presence has landed in the remote woods they are traveling through, slimy sediments that love warm hosts to latch onto.
Encountering someone on the side of the road that has met up with some of this goopy gross-ness, the caravan unwisely takes them in, hoping to get them medical attention, but, as all of these stories go, they’ve only made things worse. As the creature overtakes the group and sends them all sprawling through the unfamiliar terrain, defeating the initial organism will soon be a secondary concern when there is doubt about who among them might be infected and waiting to strike. Much flesh flinging and bloody business abound while running for safety, forming surprising alliances, and avoiding a growing mass of nasty parasites.
I can’t stress enough the goodwill I feel overall toward The Passenger. Even with a scaled budget, the filmmakers have made it look far better than movies made and released here with triple the money. I wouldn’t doubt this directing team gets nabbed by Blumhouse or another group to helm a project soon. The cast, especially Blas, is terrific, and that first hour is a **pun incoming** joyride. Then we get to that final half-hour, and there are problems. Cerezo & González Gómez start to gild that lily when it was already just fine the way it was. Most viewers will welcome that extra dose of creature mayhem but never underestimate the power of holding back a bit more. That would have made The Passenger a proper thrill ride.