Synopsis: John Wick uncovers a path to defeating The High Table. But before he can earn his freedom, Wick must face off against a new enemy with powerful alliances across the globe and forces that turn old friends into foes. Stars: Keanu Reeves, Donnie Yen, Bill Skarsgård, Laurence Fishburne, Hiroyuki Sanada, Shamier Anderson, Lance Reddick, Rina Sawayama, Scott Adkins, Ian McShane Director: Chad Stahelski Rated: R Running Length: 169 minutes TMMM Score: (8/10) Review: Life events got in the way of seeing the previous two installments of the John Wick franchise, which is how I wound up taking a weekend to revisit the three films that lead into John Wick: Chapter 4. This Wick-a-thon allowed me not just to reexamine the original from 2014, which I greatly admired when I first saw it, but to witness then how star Keanu Reeves (Toy Story 4) and director Chad Stahelski (Reeves’s former stunt double) went on to take what began as a simple revenge story and mold it into a true evolving saga. It could have been easy to rinse, wash, repeat, and collect their money, but the star and director harnessed a rare energy that pushed each new sequel into bigger and better territory.
I’ll assume that moving forward, you are enough of a fan that you won’t need much hand-holding to bring you up to speed, or spoilers from the three preceding films won’t bother you. I’ll keep the twists and turns writers Shay Hatten (Army of the Dead) and Michael Finch (The November Man) have cooked up to a low boil, but anyone worth their Wick salt knows to expect the unexpected, and everyone is fair game to become a turncoat or go toe up before the end credits roll.
When we last left John Wick, he’d been betrayed by New York Continental Hotel manager Winston Scott (Ian McShane, Hellboy) in a seemingly callous attempt to save his neck. Not even being shot and falling from a rooftop could stop our hero, though, and he’s spent the time between chapters making plans to take his vicious revenge on the High Table. His plans are set into motion at the same time Scott and concierge Charon (the late, great Lance Riddick, White House Down) meet up with the High Table’s newest New York big wig, the Marquis Vincent de Gramon (Bill Skarsgård, Barbarian) and get new orders to clean up the mess they’ve left behind.
Not satisfied that one party alone can stop Wick, the Marquis enlists the help of blind assassin Caine (Donnie Yen, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), who is also being forced into service as a consequence of past actions. Caine will get his first crack at Wick in Osaka, where the knuckle-bound one-man army has taken refuge with an old friend (Hiroyuki Sanada, Bullet Train) and his daughter (recording/visual artist Rina Sawayama), both of whom have certain specific duties for the High Table. In Osaka, the film gets its initial surge of adrenaline, pushing it past the first hour as Wick goes up against an endless supply of bad guys/gals.
In typical franchise fashion, these action sequences aren’t your ordinary kick-punch-punch-and-scene feuds but extended combat (often hand-to-hand) that showcases just how much of the incredible stunt work is being done by the cast. In many films, these battles could feel dragged out and self-indulgent. Still, in the hands of Stahelski and cinematographer Dan Laustsen (not to mention editor Nathan Orloff, Ghostbusters: Afterlife), they become triumphantly tense, brilliantly conceived works of deadly art.
While the series has parted ways with original writer Derek Kolstad, Hatten and Finch carry on the established tone well. We’re in Chapter 4 now, and while I appreciate the consistency in characters from movie to movie, I wish important people introduced from each installment weren’t dropped so wholly with every subsequent film. Several characters from Chapter 3 that proved to be intriguing additions are absent here without much explanation. I get that it’s part of the overall structure of the world of Wick and that some of the fun in these films is to have recognizable actors drift by in surprising cameos – but could at least a few of them come back around now and then?
You may think the film has bitten off more than it can chew at nearly three hours. While it can be argued that Stahelski could make some cuts here and there (an easy way to shave off 5-10 minutes is anytime a camera is following McShane walking anywhere – the man isn’t in a rush to do anything), the overall experience of John Wick: Chapter 4 is so uniformly satisfying that I wouldn’t know what could go that wouldn’t make another piece of the puzzle fall apart. The last hour is the edge-of-your-seat, popcorn-gnoshing stuff of dreams. It’s when Lausten (Nightmare Alley) is given the most freedom to get creative (read: fancy) with his camera work and when Stahelski (Deadpool 2) removes all excess material to reveal a lean, mean machine of a thrill ride.
Until now, this franchise has done well because each film has felt like it arrived at the right time. You can tell Reeves (as monotone as ever) has an affinity for the character and the bonus of doing the stuntwork, but he’s shown up because there’s more story to tell. A spin-off, Ballerina starring Ana de Armas (Blonde) and a few other familiar Wick faces, is currently in production, and it’s rumored the events of that film will serve as a bridge between Chapter 3 and Chapter 4. Whether or not a Chapter 5 is possible will require deeper discussion because all parties have certainly outdone themselves with this fourth feature.
I’ve learned my lesson from past festivals that you simply must not ignore the shorts. That’s where the real gems can be found and where you can maximize your pass to see the more interesting/experimental projects that have been brought to audiences. They may not all work (or make sense) but there’s an artistic electricity that keeps these tiny marvels a joy to devour. SXSW 2023 had a diverse selection for the virtual viewer, something I was incredibly grateful for. Here’s a swift journey through what I was able to see.
Director: Javier Devitt Synopsis: With a mysterious string growing from her eye and questionable advice from a hotline service, Veronica is led on a strange quest for answers. Thoughts: Short, sweet, scary. That’s the best way to describe director Javier Devitt’s mighty little fright, with a great title and a poster that won a Jury Award at this year’s festival. In Eyestring, Veronica relays her latest troubles to a telephone support service when she notices something strange in the corner of her eye. Thinking it’s a hair, she pulls on it…and keeps pulling because it seems to have no end. What is this mysterious “eyestring,” and what will it take to remove it? At first, the answer might be confusing…but wait. I’m waiting for someone to give Devitt a few more bucks to turn this into a full feature.
Director/Screenwriter: Bethiael Alemayoh Synopsis: A former bride-to-be attempts to sell her wedding dress. Thoughts:Dressed starts with such a promising premise and impressive performance from Ann-Kathryne Mills that I had high hopes for what would come next. Sadly, the six-minute short about a woman trying to get rid of a wedding dress she has no use for anymore squanders its potential with a less than satisfying third act (can a short this, uh, short have three acts?). I was left to wish Mills would show up in something else soon that could showcase her better.
Directors/Screenwriters: Nicole Daddona, Adam Wilder Synopsis: Get to know the Mundanes, a faceless suburban family with an unusual appetite. Thoughts: This one will please a particular crowd who digs its mod weirdness. Part of the Midnighters series at SXSW, The Mundanes has the creepy vibe going for it, what with its faceless family living in their pseudo-dollhouse. Of course, as the film progresses, what appears to be a ‘normal’ family is broken down by ominous narration, an omnipresent atonal score, and a few hair-raising visuals that might make you lock up your Barbie and Ken dolls for the evening. Creative and executed well, but not a lot to grasp onto either.
We Forgot About The Zombies
Director/Screenwriter: Chris McInroy Synopsis: Two dudes think they found the cure for zombie bites. Thoughts: One of the three shorts so good that I watched them twice. Three minutes is all it takes for writer/director Chris McInroy to take the traditional zombie trope and send it laughing in the other direction. On the run for their lives and barricaded in a barn, two men come across what looks to be a lab containing several full syringes with hard-to-read labels. The only letters they can make out are C and then an E. One assumes it’s “Cure,”…but you know what they say when you assume something… We Forgot About the Zombies is a fast, fun, gooey, gory, funny watch. If not all the jokes work perfectly, it zips by so quickly that you barely notice if a punchline hasn’t landed totally on target.
Roger J. Carter: Rebel Revolutionary
Director: Justin Fairweather Synopsis: Follows the Chicago portrait artist as he creates staggering images of black revolutionaries using hundreds of toy soldiers, representing the wars the marginalized face as they dismantle an established system. Thoughts: Stop what you’re doing and look up the unbelievable works of art that Roger J. Carter has created using an array of toy soldiers. His pieces symbolize social sentiment in our modern era and speak to more significant issues facing generations of underserved minorities and the disenfranchised. Carter is a fascinating artist, but I found director Justin Fairweather’s documentary a bit aimless, more well-shot advertisements for Carter’s work instead of being a portrait of the artist as well. Maybe there’s a more extensive documentary on Carter coming down the line – that I would want to see. This feels like it’s painting on too small of a canvas.
Directors: Courtney Loo, David Karp Synopsis: Feeling the pressure of an important meeting with a potential music manager, Kiki struggles with her identity as an outsider in the Chinese-American community, a culture vulture in the hip-hop world, and a potential sellout for mainstream success. Thoughts: I’m unsure what to report about Slick Talk. It’s a bundle of ideas and statements that never form a comprehensive sentence. I wish directors Courtney Loo and David Karp had been able to focus their short into something with a sharper edge because lead Jess Hu is a real find who could capably hold her own in a more extended feature. For these nine minutes, though, it’s never apparent via the script that the takeaway is beyond resistance to the pressure of changing your identity for art’s sake. That feels too simple of a premise for what is presented by Hu to be a complex character.
Director: Scott Lazer Synopsis: Behind the scenes of the US Open Ball Crew tryouts. Thoughts: I’m not a tennis person, but I got excited when I saw this documentary arriving at SXSW. Perhaps it’s the actor in me, but I love seeing films with people vying for a limited number of spots and having just a few scant chances to make an excellent first impression. For the most part, Ball People, centered around the US Open Ball Crew selection process, fulfilled that sweet spot. You have the expected candidates that aren’t qualified, are too skilled, desperately hope they get it, and are ambivalent. There are the typical scenes of those making the choices silently murmuring their thoughts to one another. And, finally, there are scenes of joy or brave acceptance when the ultimate decision is made. Director Scott Lazer perhaps lingers too long after all this is over, showing what the job is like for those selected. Without getting to know any of the subjects that well, these scenes feel unnecessary and filler.
Director/Screenwriter: Dustin Waldman Synopsis: Amid the high anxiety of post-9/11 NYC, a struggling post-production house is hired to remove a shot of the Twin Towers from the intro to a hit TV show. Thoughts: Writing, directing, and acting. These are the essential components of any movie, and when they are all in alignment, a filmmaker has already won more than half the battle. Never Fuggedaboutit has strong direction; I’ll give it that, but the writing and especially the acting leave much to be desired. It’s a bizarre story of a post-9/11, tightly wound, pro-America man, pushed over the edge when asked to remove a shot of the Twin Towers from the opening credits of The Sopranos. Let’s be clear, this doesn’t feel like a “Make America Great Again” fueled film, so I’m not entirely clear where the motivation behind the furor of our lead character is generated from all these years later. What could have been an exciting discourse is broadly played with over-the-top performances. Fuggedabout this one.
Director/Screenwriter: Daniel Sinclair Synopsis: Jane and Teddy are on the brink of divorce – but when their marital problems come to a sticking point, they have an unexpected breakthrough. Thoughts: My favorite short I watched at SXSW; I also watched The Breakthrough twice, thanks to its clever, often-acerbic writing by Daniel Sinclair and awesomely fun work being done by stars Greta Lee (about to have a good 2023, I think, with her new film Past Lives) and Ben Sinclair. I want to say as little about this one as possible because it veers into the kind of curve you will never see coming…even after I just told you not to expect it. We’ve seen bickering couples on film before (still never topped by Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey in 1994’s The Ref), but Lee and Sinclair manage to throw some humanity into their squabbling pair while they navigate a difficult situation. I don’t know how/where this will be seen, but I hope many eyes get on this one.
Director/Screenwriter: Chaconne Martin-Berkowicz Synopsis: The night of a sorority hazing event, a college freshman learns just how far she’s willing to go to impress an older girl. Thoughts: Aside from feeling like I’ve seen films like Scotty’s Vag before, I also didn’t want to see films like Scotty’s Vag again. The whole “shy girl pushes her limits to impress a popular girl” thing is overbaked for me, and nothing about this short did much to change my mind about it. If anything, it just reinforces my distaste that hazing practices a) continue on college campuses and b) are featured in films that glorify them in some way. It feels irresponsible and reductive, even with a writer/director possessing a clear voice like Chaconne Martin-Berkowicz overseeing the proceedings. Films with the same subject/theme have already been done and done better, and they didn’t have to feature a troubling loss of virginity through peer pressure as their centerpiece.
Director/Screenwriter: Sam Shainberg Synopsis: Carol begins a typical day only to discover that her heart medication has doubled in price. Afraid but not without hope, she sets out to find a solution, but her journey doesn’t lead to salvation, only a desperate act of revolution. Thoughts: Speaking of themes done to death (see Scotty’s Vag above), Endless Sea features a woman pushed to the breaking point by her economic status, forced to choose her health over a potential loss of freedom. However, unlike the film mentioned above, this takes that premise and infuses it with interesting subjects that give it a feeling of immediacy and importance and actors who find honesty among broad contrivances. It’s all packaged too neatly by writer/director Sam Shainberg, but star Brenda Cullerton is the chief reason to seek this out. I’m shocked Cullerton only has two credits to her name on IMDb because her work here is powerhouse stuff. Though the script calls for her to wind up in several eye-rolling situations (a mother begs at the doorstep of a disappointed daughter? Hold me back!), she rises above it with frankness and believability. If Shainberg wants to expand this to feature length, I’d gladly return to see where this character goes next (or where she came from.)
F**k Me, Richard
Directors: Lucy McKendrick, Charlie Polinger, Synopsis: Recovering from a broken leg, a romance-obsessed loner is swept up in a passionate long-distance love affair. Richard is perfect in every way, except he may be a scammer. Thoughts: Pardon me while I blush at the name of this film from star Lucy McKendrick & Charlie Polinger. Ok, I’ve recovered. Eye-catching title aside, this intriguing short takes a little longer than it should to sink its hooks into you, but once you are in its grasp, it holds on tight. McKendrick stars as a woman confined to her home in a leg cast who starts an online romance with a man who isn’t who he says he is. The pity we take on her for her lack of catching on that she’s being duped into sending him money only goes so far, and it’s right about that time when the film does a neat little rug pull and shows that deception isn’t a one-way street.
Directors: Fidel Ruiz-Healy, Tyler Walker Synopsis: A disaffected gas station clerk finds out why they call it the “graveyard shift” after oil drillers set loose an ancient race of mind-controlling parasites. Thoughts: You’ll get major Tremors vibes (with a dash of Matinee) from Fidel Ruiz-Healy & Tyler Walker’s kooky Dead Enders. That’s a significant endorsement from me, knowing those are two of my favorite films that trade in creature feature fun and are sending up the schlocky horror movies that drove audiences crazy sixty years ago. Dead Enders hits the ground running with a wave of icky parasites released from their underground dwelling and descending upon a nearby small convenience shop. Employees and customers become heroes and victims quickly, but the tongue is always planted firmly in cheek. There’s much room here to develop many aspects of the film (script, effects, ending, etc.), but the performances (save for a few weak supporting roles) are almost there. I could see this one coming down the pike as a full-length title.
Pennies from Heaven
Director: Sandy Honig Synopsis: Two eccentric twin sisters (Annabel Meschke and Sabina Meschke) stumble upon a pickup truck full of pennies and follow the adventure wherever it takes them. Thoughts: Rounding out my Top Three of the shorts I saw at SXSW, I will admit that Pennies from Heaven is one of those Your Mileage May Vary selections. How much you get out of the film will likely rest entirely on how you respond to stars Annabel Meschke & Sabina Meschke. The identical twins co-wrote this absurdly funny crime comedy with director Sandy Honig, and it’s a downright joy to watch the twins be let loose and get into mischief. The Meschkes play bored convenience store clerks who get a surprise after they scare off a pair of robbers attempting to steal from their store. The robbers left behind a truck full of pennies, and, newly rich, the sisters head off for a day of adventure even Pee-Wee Herman would find a little too kooky for his tastes. I found it charming more than anything (which is why I watched it twice) and think we’ll be seeing more of the Meschkes soon.
Director/Screenwriter: Luchina Fisher Synopsis: When five fathers of trans kids join Dennis Shepard, the father of slain gay college student Matthew Shepard, for a weekend fishing trip in rural Oklahoma, they find a common purpose across races, generations, and experiences. Thoughts: I like to finish strong at SXSW, and that’s why I wish I hadn’t ended on The Dads. While writer/director Luchina Fisher’s short documentary about a group of fathers who gather to bond over their trans children is a noble effort, it’s relatively unbridled and adrift in its emotional mining of the issues. Throwing in the father of Matthew Shepard feels like an odd addition to the group, and, let’s just be honest, the discussion is more about the men’s feelings about themselves rather than discussing how to parent a trans child. I’m sure these conversations did occur over the time these fathers were together, but Fisher didn’t include them in the documentary. That leaves us with another frustrating talky piece where cis men are afforded another arena to act as vocal representation for a population still struggling to be heard.
Synopsis: When the pandemic hit, everyone went back to the drive-in, but behind the scenes, it’s been a struggle for the resilient owners determined to keep their unique drive-ins alive. Stars: D. Edward Vogel, Dwight Grimm, Leigh Van Swall Director: April Wright Rated: NR Running Length: 105 minutes TMMM Score: (8/10) Review: I honestly remember my first drive-in experience like it was yesterday. It was 1988, and my parents packed us up in our Chevy Suburban Scottsdale with the bench seats. Blankets were laid down in the gigantic carpeted back area, snacks were smuggled in, and lawn chairs were set up in front of the rear doors that swung open. The stage was set for the evening movie: Crocodile Dundee II. Okay, so not the most amazing of selections, but over the ensuing years, I had my fair share of fun experiences at our local drive-ins.
Being from the Midwest, our “interesting” weather patterns didn’t allow for the four-season enjoyment of the drive-in experience, so it was a May-September (October if we were lucky) love-it-while-you-can situation. As our populous cities grew into prosperous suburbs, the vast undeveloped farmlands perfect for the drive-ins suddenly became crowded with new buildings and housing. Land prices became premium, and the advent of cable, VHS/DVD rentals, and streaming made it easier for long-time drive-ins to close up shop. Our last drive-in near our metro area didn’t open this past summer, going out with a whimper. RIP Vali-Hi.
In the new documentary, Back to the Drive-In, director April Wright takes viewers on a tour of eleven drive-ins nationwide. While it isn’t entirely a comprehensive look back at the history of the drive-in theater, it’s a showcase for the hard work and passion the business requires. Throughout the film, Wright lets the owners and employees speak to the importance of the experience of seeing a movie under the stars and provides a glimpse back at the past while keeping an eye on an uncertain future.
As the world was kept in lockdown in the middle part of 2020, one of the first venues that opened to the public was the drive-in. Here, customers could get out of the house but keep a comfortable enough space from others. The opportunity was there to watch a movie on a giant screen and be outdoors visiting (albeit socially distant) with friends and neighbors who had also been craving a break from the sameness of the indoor pandemic restrictions. This led to a drive-in surge in late 2020 and into 2021, with several businesses previously seeing dwindling numbers finding themselves with booming sales night after night. On a Missouri road trip in August 2020, we opted to trek 30 minutes away from our hotel to a drive-in to see 1984’s Ghostbusters instead of spending another night watching TV. Later that same month, I drove an hour outside of town to see The New Mutants. Let that sink in. The New Mutants.
Wright visits the drive-ins featured in her documentary around the time theaters were starting to open back up slowly, and more films were being released “day and date” (the same day on streaming services as they were in theaters) and talks to the workers about the impact that has had on their momentary thriving sales. We repeatedly hear that the public utilized an undervalued resource when there were no other options but just as quickly abandoned a unique entertainment experience when more accessible alternatives were available. It’s a sad story for viewers, and the disappointment in the owners’ voices is palpable. (The one semi-amusing recurring bit is how many of the drive-ins were playing the same double feature of Space Jam: A New Legacy and Boss Baby 2)
Yet, overall, Wright has done clever work in Back to the Drive-In by featuring drive-ins operating for decades with newer businesses that have opened (or re-opened) within the last few years. This shows that some entrepreneurs have a vision for what could come next and hope there will be a return to this shared tradition of watching a film outdoors. My only regret is that I didn’t live closer to some of these drive-ins because I’d be first in line to snag a ticket. Perhaps another summer road trip is in order?
Wrapping up my time at the 2023 SXSW film festival, I figured it would be best to split up my reviews into a few Volumes.
The first looks at a few of the full-length features I’ve seen.
Director/Screenwriter: Anna Zlokovic Cast: Hadley Robinson, Emily Hampshire, Brandon Mychal Smith, Kausar Mohammed Synopsis: After hitting a breaking point, Hannah’s inner thoughts physically change into a monstrous creature threatening to upend her life. Thoughts: Last October, Hulu brought two of its previous Huluween shorts to feature film life, and while the results of those efforts (Grimcutty and Matriarch) were uneven, to put it mildly, they’ll be giving it another shot this year with Appendage. Writer/director Anna Zlokovic expands her brief shocker that saw budding fashion designer Hannah hampered by self-doubt, manifesting her fears as a vile little creature who grew out of her. The premise was crazy enough to work in a blink and you missed it creep out, but how would it fare with 85 more minutes to fill? Zlokovic hasn’t gone back and reinvented her story but instead, um, fleshed it out, delving into the origins of Hannah’s issues and how it has followed her around like a curse. Hadley Robinson replaces Rachel Sennott as the lead and drafts a believably live wire bundle of nerves, pushed further to the breaking point when her hang-ups express themselves as a gooey monster that feeds on her sadness. I was sad to see Eric Roberts not stay with the film as her tyrannical boss, especially because his replacement plays the role as a sort of cross between the less successful aspects of King Herod and Miranda Priestly. Zlokovic does good work with a limited budget and brings the whole looney-tunes story to a fine wrap-up that eschews fantasy for honesty.
The Long Game
Director: Julio Quintana Cast: Jay Hernandez, Dennis Quaid, Cheech Marin, Julian Works, Jaina Lee Ortiz, Brett Cullen, Oscar Nuñez, Richard Robichaux, Paulina Chávez Synopsis: Banned from playing at the club where they caddied, a group of Mexican-American high schoolers form their own golf team, build a one-hole course in the fields, and win the 1957 Texas State Championship against all odds. Based on a true story. Thoughts: It didn’t surprise me to learn after the fact that director Julio Quintana had Oscar-winning director Terrence Malick as a mentor as he began in the film industry. To look at The Long Game is to take in a serene postcard of a movie that’s a visual feast to the eyes, and it’s almost a bonus that Quintana has a compelling story to tell on top of it all. Not that he hasn’t already had some practice with an inspiring tale of underdogs mentored by Dennis Quaid defying the odds and proving their worth to a sea of doubters. He’s done that movie already, and it was called Blue Miracle, a Netflix film from 2021 that turns out to be precisely the type of movie you think it is. The same could be said about The Long Game too. It follows a time-honored formula of movie tropes that sets the audience up to dab their eyes by the end when they aren’t cheering on the <insert sports team here> to victory. Co-starring Jay Hernandez (Bad Moms) as a new superintendent and veteran in a Texas town that sees links potential in the Mexican-American boys who have only been allowed to caddy at the same country club he wants to join; what fascinated me about this one is how well it works the formula in its favor. The cast is uniformly charming, the pacing is deliberate but not slow, and the message is delivered not in a sugary deluge but in slow drops that make it easy to digest. This is one of those Sunday afternoon crowd-pleasers that come along rarely.
Director: Lina Lyte Plioplyte Synopsis: This an eye-opening documentary that examines science, politics, and the mystery of the menstrual cycle, through the experiences of doctors, athletes, movie stars, journalists, activists, and everyday people. Thoughts: This striking documentary about the mystery of women’s “time of the month” (ugh, I know, it pained me to write it too) is, in my estimation, something every male (or male-identifying) person should have to see. Indeed, viewing for any politician serving in any capacity should be required. OK…I’ll fully admit that as a white male watching this film, I was embarrassed by the amount of information I didn’t know going in, not about the base facts on what is going on ‘inside’ but on the radical injustice that has been dealt toward women as it relates to laws, taxes, discrimination, and so on. Interviewing everyone from a young woman going from state to state to appeal the tax applied to tampons (classified as “luxury items” in many states) to women going through menopause (including Oscar-nominee Naomi Watts), Lina Lyte Plioplyte’s carefully organized deep dive is easy to follow and rich with informative points for those needing different levels of insight. It’s the kind of radical documentary that could, with enough push, take off significantly.
I Used To Be Funny
Director/Screenwriter: Ally Pankiw Cast: Rachel Sennott, Olga Petsa, Jason Jones, Sabrina Jalees, Caleb Hearon, Ennis Esmer, Dani Kind Synopsis: Sam, a stand-up comedian struggling with PTSD, weighs whether or not to join the search for Brooke, a missing teenage girl she used to nanny. Thoughts: Bursting onto the scene with 2021’s Shiva Baby, I first caught up with Rachel Sennott in 2022 when the horror-comedy Bodies Bodies Bodies landed. Nearly walking away with the film thanks to her expert deadpan line delivery, Sennott instantly went on my list of actors to keep an eye out for, and I didn’t have to wait too long for her next project to arrive. Here at SXSW, we’re treated to a strong Sennott performance in I Used To Be Funny, a dramedy boasting a unique format built upon sequences in the present and flashbacks to the past that fill in the gaps to a mystery we reconstruct along the way. Usually, this kind of storytelling can get a bit frustrating. Still, writer/director Ally Pankiw has gifted us with Sennott’s ace leading performance and surrounded her with a solid supporting cadre of interesting Canadian actors. If it drifts off center ever so slightly near the end and doesn’t fully right itself before arriving at its destination, I can forgive it for the first 90 minutes delivered with such an effortless air of confidence. Sennott is clearly on track toward the role that will truly launch her into the next level, and we’ll be able to point to films such as I Used To Be Funny as solid examples of full-package entertainment.
Synopsis: Two old friends reconnect at a funeral and decide to get revenge on the widower who messed with them decades before. Stars: Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Malcolm McDowell, Richard Roundtree, Sarah Burns, Catherine Dent Director: Paul Weitz Rated: R Running Length: 85 minutes TMMM Score: (7/10) Review: When something works, you stick with it, and obviously, the chemistry between stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin hasn’t waned since they (re)joined forces in 2015 for their popular Netflix show Grace and Frankie. Not long after that show finished its run in early 2022, the two were on to 80 for Brady, bringing Oscar winners Sally Field and Rita Moreno along for the ride. That film was the low-grade hit it was intended to be, especially among its target audience (matinee crowds). Those same viewers will likely be interested in what shenanigans Tomlin and Fonda are up to now.
It should be noted that Moving On is being marketed as a much different film than it is, and that’s too bad. To look at it, a paying customer might think it’s a comedy with an edgier premise allowing the duo to play to their usual schtick when in reality, it’s more of a darker drama the women approach with a far more serious stance. Of their collaborations from the past decade, this denotes their best work together (as flimsy though it may be) and, in the case of Tomlin, some of her most resonant screen representation in decades.
Attending the funeral of her best friend from college she hasn’t seen in years, Claire (Fonda, Peace, Love & Misunderstanding) has come to do more than grieve. She has a score to settle with Howard (Malcolm McDowell, Bombshell), the late woman’s husband, and she believes the only way to make him pay is to murder him. As she’s working out the finer details of her plan, Evelyn (Tomlin, Admission), another college friend, also appears with a revelation of her own. It’s from shared grief that Evelyn and Claire pick up where they left off years ago, alternatively planning Howard’s murder while evaluating their lives and missed opportunities.
Writer/director Paul Weitz has had quite the rollercoaster career. Starting by co-directing American Pie with his brother Chris in 1999 and recently directing Tomlin in her award-worthy performance in 2015’s Grandma, I’d be willing to bet he wrote Evelyn with her in mind. How else would it feel perfectly tailored to Tomlin’s strengths as both a wry comic and an actress able to draw deep emotion from unique line readings? Fonda’s role is a nice change of pace (but not a nice change of wig, I must say), even if it’s once again mainly centered around her relationships with men. It’s frustrating to see Fonda still playing roles that have her sitting around figuring out why her marriages don’t work out. Her scenes with an ex-husband (Richard Roundtree, Shaft) are pleasant enough but feel like distractions.
When the film takes wild shifts in tone (earning its R rating with some out-of-left-field blue dialogue), the viewer can feel like they are getting whiplash, and the last half of Moving On is hard to nail down. Weitz loses the thread when trying to tie everything together, but at least Fonda and Tomlin are there to do what they can with the pattern that’s been woven so far. It’s a nice image if overall incomplete in design.
Synopsis: Loretta McLaughlin was the reporter who first connected the murders and broke the story of the Boston Strangler. She and Jean Cole challenged the sexism of the early 1960s to report on the city’s most notorious serial killer. Stars: Keira Knightley, Carrie Coon, Alessandro Nivola, David Dastmalchian, Morgan Spector, Bill Camp, Chris Cooper Director: Matt Ruskin Rated: R Running Length: 112 minutes TMMM Score: (7.5/10) Review: It will always be a mystery why 2007’s Zodiac didn’t get more recognition the year it came out. Directed by David Fincher, it was a frightening look at the killing spree between 1968 and 1985 in San Francisco from the perspective of civilian reporters and police. Epic in design and solid performance, it received no significant awards but has gone on to be a blueprint for many procedural detective shows. Its aesthetic look was copied for numerous true crime dramas.
I mention Zodiac so thoroughly in my review of 20th Century Studios Boston Strangler (premiering exclusively on Hulu), not just because it skillfully focuses on reporters/police tracking a well-known serial killer throughout the ’60s but because it’s impossible not to compare the two films. It’s not disparaging writer/director Matt Ruskin’s new endeavor, produced by Ridley Scott, to say that one could imagine this being part of the “Zodiac Universe” because both movies are a systematic, even-keeled approach to the subject. And both present the violence of the crimes from an emotionally removed place. This is what happened; it was ugly, and a human committed it; you can look away if you want, but it won’t change the fact that it happened.
After two women are murdered in short succession, reporter Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley, Silent Night) asks her boss (Chris Cooper, Little Women) to be assigned to look into the deaths and see if there is a connection. Unhappy with her job writing fluff pieces and wanting more serious work, Loretta considers this an opportunity to level up and prove her worth. It takes some convincing, but she can finally dig around to see what she can find. Eventually, paired with the more experienced (but still often just as undermined) Jean Cole (Carrie Coon, Gone Girl), Loretta pieces together the pattern of a serial killer that won’t be stopped.
Facing opposition from the police and politicians who don’t want to be seen as foolish, Loretta and Jean are often forced to go the extra mile, putting their lives and reputations at risk, to prove their theory is correct before the Boston Strangler strikes again. Facing pressure from the public, who grow increasingly terrified as bodies of innocent women are routinely found viciously murdered, the reporters follow their leads and instincts to go beyond the headlines and newsprint to help take down a deadly predator.
I deliberately didn’t do my homework before watching Boston Strangler, purposely not reading up on the case’s history and passing on the chance to watch director Richard Fleischer’s 1968 film version of The Boston Strangler starring Tony Curtis. I wanted to let Ruskin’s film tell the story to me, and for the most part, it was an informative retelling of the events with the apparent glossing over of the finer particulars to bring the movie in under two hours. That gives the film a swift pace and little time to linger anywhere for very long, which is where we get the trade-off.
When you have a movie like Boston Strangler with enough details to keep you thinking and a nice gait to ensure you stay engaged, you only realize later that you didn’t learn much about the people milling about the movie. We know Loretta and Jean as crackerjack reporters. Still, their personal lives are paper thin, aside from Loretta’s husband (Nanny‘s Morgan Spector, who, ironically, plays Coon’s husband on HBO’s The Gilded Age) going from supporting his wife to a “You’re never home to make dinner!” kinda guy pretty quickly.
Nevertheless, this is a slick film made with evident skill and care. I can understand why it is better suited for a streaming debut than making a go of it in theaters; it just plays better on a smaller screen for at-home digestion. That allows for the frightening details of the case to creep their way into your brain as well. Boston Strangler is crafted nicely for a weekend watch or stormy night viewing. Don’t be shocked if you leave a light on at bedtime…and please, always check the peephole before opening the door!
Synopsis: In the 1970s, young Greg Laurie is searching for all the right things in all the wrong places: until he meets Lonnie Frisbee, a charismatic hippie street preacher. Together with Pastor Chuck Smith, they open the doors of Smith’s languishing church to an unexpected revival of radical and newfound love. Stars: Joel Courtney, Anna Grace Barlow, Jonathan Roumie, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Kelsey Grammer Director: Jon Erwin, Brent McCorkle Rated: NR Running Length: 120 minutes TMMM Score: (3/10) Review: Some movies can act as Trojan horses, bringing in messages you weren’t expecting or unplanned feelings. I’ve started several films assuming one experience but receiving the opposite. Thankfully usually a pleasant surprise, these movies make me edge a little further up in my seat, wondering what could happen next. However, some films work against the good tidings they offer, becoming problematic as you delve deeper into their origins.
I’m skirting around my issue with Jesus Revolution, and not very elegantly. I’ve been attempting to write my review for a few weeks but wasn’t sure how to approach it. I suppose we should start with the good, and that’s to say that directors Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle have turned into a far more agreeable and entertaining film than I had guessed after watching the initial trailer. After I saw an old-school billboard advertising it (when was the last time I saw a billboard advertising a movie? In MN?) I was intrigued enough to give it a spin, and I turned off the TV two hours later with a little more knowledge about a piece of history than before going in.
Something bothered me about it, though, and I couldn’t put my finger on precisely what. It wasn’t the performances, as earnest and eager-to-please as they all were. High-schooler Greg Laurie is desperate to find his place in the world, and Joel Courtney (The Empty Man) makes Laurie an engaging presence. Watching his journey from lost soul to identifying his purpose is one many can embrace and, I think, relate to. I didn’t even mind Kelsey Grammar (The God Committee) playing Chuck Smith, a pastor that teams with a hitchhiking hippie named Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie) to form a movement that would revitalize not just his failing church but make religion more welcoming to a younger generation that felt alienated during a time of war and crisis.
Eventually, I found out what was gnawing at me. The film wasn’t telling the full facts of the story that was allegedly about finding the truth.
I have to take a deep breath and move past some obvious personal (and fundamental) issues I have supporting a film about a church that evangelizes against certain minority groups and look away from the actors that participated in making the film. (Or should we? Maybe we shouldn’t.) Personal issues aside, to keep it professional, let’s point out that Erwin’s script is based on Laurie’s novel and omits essential details about the life (and death) of Lonnie Frisbee that could change how audiences (particularly the target audience for these faith-based films) viewed one of the first leaders of this revolutionary movement. By hiding these essential facts, the result is a skewed picture scrubbed clean of what the church deems dirty when Laurie and Smith both became enormously successful, even with the unfortunate downfall of Frisbee.
Look, I know these religion-positive films do big business at the box office (made for $15 million, Jesus Revolution has, as of this writing, grossed $41.5). Still, there’s something to be said about presenting the facts and letting intelligent audiences decide if the material suits them. Sanitizing history doesn’t change anything; it only hides it in some shady spot when time has shown it’s best to come clean from the start. Jesus Revolution isn’t a poorly made film, just an ill-advised one hiding under the guise of truth.
Synopsis: After a drug run goes bad, two friends must survive a nightmarish ordeal of drugs, bugs, and horrific intimacy in this backwoods body-horror thriller. Stars: Jena Malone, Cooper Koch, Mark Patton, Jose Colon Director: Carter Smith Rated: R Running Length: 92 minutes TMMM Score: (4/10) Review: The one good thing about getting COVID and being isolated from my partner was that it allowed me time to binge a few random shows I’d been lining up to watch on my own. One was Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Stories for FX on Hulu. I missed the entire first season, and the second season was beginning as I was in the deepest part of the corona-mania, so, not wanting to venture into a whole AHS season (I’m so behind), I thought these little one-off episodes would be fun. While not all winners, there were enough of the typically over-the-top Ryan Murphy and Ryan Murphy adjacent stylings to keep me entertained as I coughed and radiated heat from my fever.
While watching the new horror film Swallowed, I wondered what an excellent episode of American Horror Stories it would have made. It’s campy and creepy to be in alignment with the mission of this weekly horror anthology, filled with enough toned boys in various states of undress to be the non-threatening eye candy for young women and objects of lust for horror queens. It preys on some fairly abject terror of eating the wrong thing and paying a deadly price. Perfect, right?
The problem with Swallowed being a television episode is that at 92 minutes, Carter Smith’s feature film is unfathomably long and can’t justify taking up so much of your time after a critical turn of events around the sixty-minute mark. Until then, though, Smith has let the film cast an awesome skin-crawling vibe over the viewer. Friends Dom (Jose Colon) and Benjamin (Cooper Koch, They/Them) enjoy a last night out together before Benjamin heads out West to begin an adult film career. Dom wants to send his friend off with a little bit of money, so he agrees to assist in transporting what he thinks are drugs, which turns out to be far more trippy.
Delivered by Alice (Jena Malone, Consecration), the little packets must be muled (swallowed and excreted) to safety, and when Dom can’t take them all, Benjamin is forced at gunpoint to take one as well. All would likely have worked out fine, except the men make a pit stop at a rest area, where they get into an altercation, and Dom is injured, causing one of the packets to break inside him. What has been released into his stomach is more than your usual illegal substance and is more than he, Benjamin, Alice, or the demented head smuggler (Mark Patton, Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street) bargained for.
Swallowed is a complex film, not just for its subject matter but for its general griminess. You get the sense that everything in the movie has a greasy feel, so there’s no way ever to feel settled. That’s likely Smith’s intention, and the effect makes that first hour genuinely electric. Unfortunately, the power gets turned off during the last thirty minutes when Swallowed shifts into an all-together different gear, more languid and seedy, skirting on the edge of exploitative. It’s not particularly well-performed or well-filmed either, adding to its growing inertia as the minutes slowly tick away. The lasting result is more than a bad taste in your mouth and a sour stomach…the film gets to be a real pain in your butt as it grasps its way to a crude finale.
Synopsis: Brilliant but disgraced detective John Luther breaks out of prison to hunt down a sadistic serial killer who is terrorizing London. Stars: Idris Elba, Cynthia Erivo, Andy Serkis, Dermot Crowley, Jess Liaudin, Lauryn Ajufo, Natasha Patel, Henry Hereford Director: Jamie Payne Rated: R Running Length: 129 minutes TMMM Score: (6/10) Review: Over twenty episodes between 2010-2019, star Idris Elba led audiences through the dark world of Detective Chief Inspector John Luther in the eponymous television series for the BBC. Tracking serial killers and other sordid criminals, Luther also dealt with demons from his past and a slinky psycho who became obsessed with him and took their cat-and-mouse game to terrifying extremes. As Elba’s fame began to heat up, there was little time for more Luther, and eventually, creator Neil Cross announced that the series was over. Ah, but you can’t keep a good DCI down, and now Cross and Elba have reteamed, returning for Luther: The Fallen Sun, a feature-length trek through another sadistic nightmare.
As we rejoin the world of DCI Luther, he’s promised a young mother that he’ll find the person responsible for the brutal murder of her son. The young man’s body was found among a group of deceased individuals, and we already know that David Robey (Andy Serkis, The Batman) is the mastermind behind it all. Still, just as Luther is getting close, his rival finds a way to send him to prison, allowing his devious game to continue. As more victims pile up and Robey toys with Luther stuck in a cell, Luther attempts to work through his old friend DSU Martin Schenk (Dermot Crowley, Octopussy) and current lead investigator DCI Odette Raine (Cynthia Erivo, Harriet) before breaking out and doing it his way. The ensuing pursuit will test Luther’s limit beyond anything he’s encountered before because Robey is curiously one step ahead of them all.
For his part, Elba (Concrete Cowboy) slips effortlessly back into the recognizably comfy coat Luther sports and plunges back into his psyche. Nominated for four Emmys (and winning the Critics’ Choice Television Award, Golden Globe Award, and Screen Actors Guild Award for his performance), this is truly the role of Elba’s career, and he knows it. I think Cross has come up with a dandy script too. Often tense and gruesome, frequently scary, because we identify Robey early on, it’s perhaps less of a puzzle than previous Luther chapters have been. I ultimately missed the crackle of Luther having a genuinely equal opponent or partner to work with. As strong supporting players, Serkis and Erivo do what they can, but something is missing in their limited time to develop.
Ultimately, what keeps Luther: The Fallen Sun from rising too high is its director. Jamie Payne is most notable for his work in television, and there’s an odd lack of energy as the film moves into its final act, just when it should be picking up its most significant momentum. It’s too bad, too, because there’s a nifty location set-up for Luther’s confrontation with Robey, but Payne stages it with such a clumsy hand that there’s never much excitement to draw from.
Four years was a long time to wait for another check-in with Luther, and I hope we don’t have to sit around as long for the next case to come in. Now that this feature has been produced by Netflix and streamed on the service, perhaps Elba can be talked into a few more films or a limited series again. For now, I’m grateful to bask in the warm rays of Luther: The Fallen Sun, even if it occasionally has a few clouds roll by.
I’d say that traditionally, this is my favorite category each year. It was my gateway into wanting to watch every Oscar-nominated film and realizing it was possible with a little extra effort. My category let me down a bit this year because these aren’t the strongest selections. In fact, I’m not sure I’m in love with any of them enough to be actively invested in which wins. Though I am thankful once more for the range of topics (now there’s only one nominee that’s directly related to a war of some kind), I wonder what tiny films were passed over for these mostly unremarkable entries. Don’t get me wrong; there are a few here you’ll want to check out, a definite winner and one I absolutely don’t want to win…but I didn’t feel I learned as much this year as I have in the past.
Haulout(Directed by Evgenia Arbugaeva, Maxim Arbugaev) Synopsis: On a remote coast of the Siberian Arctic, in a wind-battered hut, a lonely man waits to witness an ancient gathering. But warming seas and rising temperatures bring an unexpected change, and he soon becomes overwhelmed. Review: Watching these shorts at home is a great benefit; honestly, it’s important to see them in whatever format is available to you. However, certain shorts definitely would benefit from being seen projected on a massive screen, and Haulout is the one title across all three shorts categories that I would have loved to see in theaters. Its scale is astounding, showing a man in a small Artcitc shack at Cape Heart-Stone in the Chukchi Sea who prepares every year for the ‘Haulout’ of migrating walruses desperate for land to rest due to the decrease in ice formations. His task is to count (estimate?) their numbers and then tally the dead left behind when the event is over. Shot by the man and his unseen wife, it’s a staggering short that again puts the effects of global warming into perspective.
How Do You Measure a Year?(Directed by Jay Rosenblatt) Synopsis: For 17 years, filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt filmed his daughter Ella on her birthday in the same spot, asking the same questions. What results is a unique chance to watch time, to see a young woman come into focus physically, mentally and emotionally. Review: Nominated just last year for the controversial When We Were Bullies, director Jay Rosenblatt is back in the race again with How Do You Measure a Year? his even more personal project involving his daughter Ella. Starting with her 2nd birthday, Rosenblatt asked Ella the same series of questions and documented her answers, and put the footage away until she turned 18. The result is an insightful progression of a child from a toddler into a young adult with the expected rough areas along the way. As with his previously nominated film, this one cannot help but come off as somewhat self-indulgent, feeling like Rosenblatt might get rewarded for what’s essentially a home movie. Still, watching the years fly by in a matter of minutes is undeniably fascinating. Stranger at the Gate(Directed by Joshua Seftel) Synopsis: From Executive Producer Malala Yousafzai. After 25 years of service, a US Marine filled with hatred for Muslims plots to bomb an Indiana mosque. When he comes face to face with the immigrants he seeks to kill, the story takes a shocking twist toward compassion, grace, and forgiveness. Review: Hm. I don’t know what to say about this one. I found Stranger at the Gate to be the weakest of all the nominees and a head-scratcher that it even made the shortlist. It’s pat-on-the-back cinema, finding a redneck jarhead with pride for his country deciding to bomb a local Islamic mosque…and then not going through with it once he meets the people that go there. I kept waiting for Joshua Seftel to pull back some astounding discovery that would make the emotional journey (that everyone being interviewed clearly went through) into something notable, yet the short simply sits there. The final message we’re left with is to get to know the people you think you don’t like before you make up your mind. It might bear repeating on some scale, but is it worth this large and clumsy of a platform? The Elephant Whisperers(Directed by Kartiki Gonsalves) Synopsis: The Elephant Whisperers follows an indigenous couple as they fall in love with Raghu, an orphaned elephant given into their care, and tirelessly works to ensure his recovery and survival. Review: This documentary, currently available on Netflix, follows a couple in South India that works in Mudumalai National Park caring for orphaned/abandoned elephants, nursing them back to health so they can be integrated back with the elephant population on their protected land. The obvious cute factor is a majorly at play here. Still, director Kartiki Gonsalves doesn’t let the undeniable tenderness of the elephants and their caregivers overtake their profile of the dedicated work being done. Small glimpses into the couple’s personal lives (Gonsalves is there to document their beautiful wedding ceremony) are touched on. Slivers of how their outside life influences their work with the elephants are key to understanding why they are so successful. Bring Kleenex for this one.
The Martha Mitchell Effect(Directed by Anne Alvergue, Debra McClutchy) Synopsis: She was once as famous as Jackie O. And then she tried to take down a President. The Martha Mitchell Effect is an archival documentary portrait of the unlikeliest of whistleblowers: Martha Mitchell, a Republican cabinet wife whom the Nixon Administration gaslighted to keep her quiet. It offers a female gaze on Watergate through the woman’s voice. Review: The Julia Roberts-Sean Penn limited series Gaslit, based on the life of Martha and John Mitchell, came and went without much incident in 2022, and as much of a fan of Roberts as I am, I admit I also skipped it because I wasn’t into the politics of it all. After watching this fascinating documentary, I’m far more inclined to add Gaslit back into my watch queue because Martha was the kind of spitfire who kept people on their toes, if not always on their best behavior. Unknowingly becoming a key pawn in the Watergate scandal, Mitchell turned the game around and refused to be a throwaway piece of a larger puzzle. This profile of the woman doesn’t cover as much of the entirety of her life but slices off a chunk of her political involvement; however, what’s there is incredibly (ful)filling.
Final Thoughts: For entertainment value, The Martha Mitchell Effect will give you the most bang for your buck. That one and The Elephant Whisperers are both available on Netflix, which might tell you how both tend toward the more commercially appealing selections. I found both to be rousing watches, slickly made, but not the kind of compelling winner you want to root for. How Do You Measure a Year? felt like a home movie that somehow found its way into the hands of the right Academy voters — it honestly doesn’t belong here at all. I also think Stranger at the Gate shouldn’t be here either; it’s an unconvincing examination of an event that was planned to happen and then didn’t. The lesson learned from it feels too arbitrary and oft-told to be impactful. That leaves Haulout, which becomes more powerful the longer I think about it. Even though it’s a Russian title, it would be unfair to hold that country of origin against the filmmakers who have assembled a nearly wordless short that speaks volumes about the climate change affecting wildlife.