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A Multi-Verse of Solid Movie Options

Hope Madden Hope Madden A Multi-Verse of Solid Movie OptionsSpider-Man: No Way Home - Photo via IMDb
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So, we know what movie you are probably planning to see this weekend, assuming you haven’t already been to your friendly neighborhood movie theater to catch it. And by all means, go. The latest Spider-Man is a charmer and a hoot. But here’s the thing: there are tons of really excellent movies to choose from this weekend. So save up and go twice, won’t you?

Spider-Man: No Way Home

In theaters

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Holy cow, how fun was that?!

Director Jon Watts, working again with writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, uses the third in their Spider-Man series to remind us why we all hope for the best whenever we watch a comic book movie.

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) was found out in the previous installment, Spider-Man: Homecoming. And what he’s learned is that life is more complicated for you and more dangerous for your loved ones when your true identity is known. It’s a lesson most all Spider-Men and most superheroes have to contend with at one time or another. (Except Iron Man. Narcissists, amirite?)

Things have gotten so bad for him, his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and his bestie Ned (Jacob Batalon) that he asks for help from a wizard with responsibility issues (Benedict Cumberbatch, having one hell of a year).

What happens next? We see lessons learned from the profound (and rightful) popularity of 2018’s animated treasure, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Portals open and Spider-Man characters come pouring in from across the multiverse.

So do other people, inside jokes, and constant opportunities to strengthen themes Spider-Man has spun since Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.

Oh, sure, it’s nostalgic. It panders. It also spills over with joy. This third installment showcases the naïve optimism and youthful sweetness that has made Watt’s first two episodes such a great time, that are so perfectly embodied by Holland.

Rather than feeling like those Marvel overreaches in defining their own universe, Watts’s film uses the opportunity of pulling in other movies to celebrate the hero, his roots, and what he stands for as an icon of comics, heroes, and childhoods the ‘verse over.

It’s a blast spending time with memorable characters, and each of these actors bring something charming to the screen. Watts and his writers fondly recall what’s gone before, even when ribbing some minor shortcomings.

When a superhero franchise gets far enough in that it requires a multitude of villains to one-up its prequel, things usually go south. Watts, on the other hand, gets stronger with each episode. Between his savvy filmmaking and his lead’s endless charm, he’s easily crafted the best set of superhero films in the Marvel (or Sony) universe. Given the excitement around Spider-Man: No Way Home, Peter Parker may not just save the multiverse. He may save the multiplex.  

Grade: A-

Nightmare Alley

At Drexel Theater and Gateway Film Center

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Step right up, folks, and witness a master of the macabre! See Guillermo Del Toro twist the familiar tale of ambition run amuck! Gasp at the lurid, gorgeous, vulgar world of Nightmare Alley!

Bradley Cooper stars as Stan, good lookin’ kid on the skids taken in by Clem (Willem Dafoe, creepy as ever) to carny for a traveling show. Stan picks up some tricks from mentalist Zeena (Toni Collette) and her partner Pete (David Strathairn), then lures pretty Molly (Rooney Mara) to the big city to set up their own mind-reading racket.

Things are going swell, too, until Stan gets mixed up with psychiatrist Lillith (Cate Blanchett) whose patient list includes some high rollers with large bank accounts ripe for the picking.

That’s already one hell of an ensemble, but wait there’s more! Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen and Tim Blake Nelson all add immeasurably to the sketchy world Stan orbits.

What Del Toro brings to the tale, besides a breathtaking cast and an elegantly gruesome aesthetic, is his gift for humanizing the unseemly. Edmund Goulding’s 1947 adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel (a solid slice of noir with Tyrone Power in the lead) dulled the edges of any seediness. Even Tod Browning’s Freaks – maligned as it was – found the unsettling carny life mainly wholesome.

Cinematographer Dan Lausten and composer Nathan Johnson create a delicious playground for Del Toro’s carnival to call home, one where even the most likable members of the family turn a blind eye to something genuinely sickening and cruel happening in their midst. The filmmaker plumbs that underlying horror, complicating Stan’s arc and allowing the film’s climax to leave a more lasting mark.

As usual, Del Toro wears his feelings proudly on his sleeve, with unmistakable but organic foreshadowing that ups the ante on the stakes involved. Anchored by another sterling performance from Cooper, Stan’s journey rises to biblical proportions. An actor whose gifts are often deceptively subtle, Cooper makes sure Stan’s pride always arrives with a layer of charming sympathy, even as it blinds him to the pitfalls ahead.

And Blanchett – shocker – is gloriously vampy. She swims elegantly through the sea of noir-ish light and framing that Del Toro bathes her in, as Lillith casts a spell that renders Stan’s helplessness a fait accompli.

Nearly every aspect of the screenplay (co-written by Del Toro and Kim Morgan) creates a richer level of storytelling than the ’47 original. The dialog is more sharply insightful, the finale more dangerously tense and the characters – especially Mara’s stronger-willed Molly – more fully developed. All contribute greatly toward the film rebounding from a slightly sluggish first act to render the two and a half hour running time unconcerning.

For Del Toro fans, the most surprising aspect of Nightmare Alley might be the lack of hopeful wonder that has driven most of his films. As the title suggests, this is a trip to the dark corners of the soul, where hope is in damn short supply.

So as much as this looks like a Del Toro film, it feels like a flex just from taking his vision to the sordid part of town. But what a vision it turns out to be – one of the year’s best and one of his best.

Don’t believe me? See it with your own eyes, step right up!

Grade: A-

The Novice

At Gateway Film Center

by Brandon Thomas

Those who know me best know that I don’t have a competitive bone in my body. Growing up, I was only interested in playing sports for fun. Once everyone started taking winning seriously, I was out. Even a more-than-casual game of Monopoly is enough to make me throw up my hands and say, “Pass.” 

Look, I get the allure of competitive sports. To a lot of folks, it’s like a drug and they constantly need that fix. In art, the competitive spirit has made for some wonderful films. RockyHoosiers, and Rudy highlight the best that sports can bring about in people. However, there is a dark side too. Competition can morph into obsession and even borderline addiction. Director Lauren Hadaway’s film The Novice is a riveting depiction of the obsessive lengths an athlete will go to reach their goals.

College freshman Alex Dall (Isabelle Furhman of Orphan) has set an almost impossible goal for herself: to make it onto the varsity rowing team as a first-year novice. Despite warnings from the coaching staff that novices rarely make varsity, Alex and another novice, Jamie (Amy Forsyth of Coda), devote themselves almost exclusively to training. Whether it’s obsessively eating healthy foods, rowing until they blackout, or solo training on the water before sunrise, the girls attain absolute tunnel vision toward their goal. As the season progresses, Alex’s physical and mental health begins to decline as the prospect of losing varsity becomes a possibility.

The Novice is one of the most confident feature debuts I’ve seen in a long time. Hadaway’s directorial finesse is on point as she keeps the film expertly drifting between sports drama, psychological thriller and tragic romance – all while never committing to any particular genre. It’s a choice that keeps audience expectations constantly fluid and on edge. 

That same sense of unpredictability extends to the film’s lead character, too. The early scenes where Alex is presented as the spunky underdog quickly give way to scenes of the character obsessively training, verbally accosting school staff and even mutilating herself. Hadaway’s excellent script doesn’t let Alex off easy, but it also isn’t a complete indictment of her behavior. 

The visual language of The Novice is another highlight. Hadaway’s camera does a lot of the heavy lifting as it lingers on Alex’s intense workouts. The focus on Alex’s sweaty, nearly exhausted body, conveys that there’s something not right with this. Again, it walks that fine line between competitiveness and obsession.

With an amazing script, an outstanding lead performance, and a laser-focused director, The Novice ends up being one of the absolute best films of 2021.

Grade: A

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

At Gateway Film Center

by George Wolf

If you think the word “porn” in the title is just for effect, the first few minutes of Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn will be a hardcore surprise.

We first meet Romanian married couple Emi (Katia Pascariu) and Eugen (Stefan Steel) as they’re ignoring knocks on the bedroom door to record their spirited relations on home video. They’re consenting adults, so fair enough.

Well, maybe not so fair enough. Emi is a teacher at a prestigious school in Bucharest and when her frisky business footage winds up online, some parents loudly cry foul. But Emi is defiant, and as she’s subjected to a public hearing about her “sins,” writer/director Radu Jude makes it the centerpiece of a wildly audacious, funny and free-flowing diatribe against hypocrisy and the rise of meanness.

Jude divides the narrative into chapters, and doesn’t waste much time in Part 1 worrying about how the tape became public in the first place. Emi’s plight is more a situation than a story and for Jude, the point is the aftermath.

But before Emi faces her critics, Jude breaks away for “a short dictionary of anecdotes,” filling his second act with a series of definitions, archival reels, and meme-worthy examples of everything from racism to explicit oral sex. Subtle, it isn’t, which Jude readily acknowledges by following the word “metaphor” with a child’s game that essentially grabs toy fish from a barrel.

And by the time Emi’s hearing plays out as an Act 3 “sitcom” with multiple endings going off various rails, you’ll be amazed by how much this Romanian import reminds you of any number of heated arguments here at home. Subjects such as FOX News and George Soros are thrown around while the matter at hand quickly devolves into wild conspiracy theories and whataboutism where “the more idiotic the opinion, the more important it is.”

Jude has some strong views of his own, about modern life and how cinema should best reflect it. He doesn’t hold much back in Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, a film that leans into its absurdity for a boldly extreme and worthwhile declaration.

Grade: B+

Mother/Android

On Hulu

by George Wolf

You think you’ve got a good handle on Hulu’s Mother/Android pretty quickly. Take some zombie basics that we’ve seen from Romero through The Walking Dead, replace the undead with some renegade robots, and away we go.

But while there is plenty here that’s familiar, give writer/director Mattson Tomlin credit for finding sly ways to surprise you, and ultimately subvert your expectations with an nifty metaphorical finale.

Chloë Grace Moretz stars as Georgia aka “G,” a young woman struggling to enjoy a party after the shock of finding out she’s pregnant. Her boyfriend Sam (Algee Smith) is saying all the right things, but she’s unsure about their future.

As A.I. servants dutifully attend to the party guests, G and a friend head to the bathroom for a private chat. But in an instant, a painful sonic blast drops the humans to their knees while rebooting the bots to a default “kill” setting.

Fast forward nine months, and Tomlin’s got a standard setup (survivors running toward a rumored safe haven while being pursued by a relentless menace) with the always convenient “savior” trump card (very pregnant woman).

Tomlin’s storytelling appears workmanlike but uninspired, often rehashing ideas and set pieces you’ll remember from Terminator, The Descent, A Quiet Place, and even The Empire Strikes Back. But when G and Sam get separated, and G meets up with a fellow survivor (Raúl Castillo) who once helped create the Android serving class, Tomlin finally gets around to rewarding all who stick it out for Act 3.

With foreshadowing that is effectively subtle and an affecting turn from Moretz that crafts G as both tortured and courageous, the film reveals its first twist in finely organic fashion while keeping you distracted from the true motive ahead. Once revealed, it arrives as a plea for global empathy that lands with some unexpected emotional pull.

The best science fiction tales succeed when their glimpses of the future help us reassess the present. Mother/Android gets there, eventually, with a measured pace that seems much more confident when the party’s over.

Grade: B+

Achoura

On Shudder

by Hope Madden

Children in peril, cool creature design and a monster that still feels new, even though it’s centuries old. Franco-Moroccan filmmaker Talal Selhami delivers all this and more in his latest effort, Achoura.

The tale bounces around three different time periods. Many years ago, a young girl and boy run away from her arranged marriage, taking shelter in an abandoned house. They are found, and not just by the husband.

Years later, four young friends playing in a cornfield wander into the same house and meet with tragedy. In modern-day Morocco, three of those four come to terms with just what it is they experienced.

Achoura is the third film I’ve seen in recent years focused on a djinn— a spirit of Middle Eastern folklore. Earlier this year, David Charbonnier and Justin Powell released their chamber piece, The Djinn, and back in 2016 came Babak Anvari’s terrifying sociopolitical treasure, Under the Shadow.

Selhami’s film lacks the power of the latter and the focus of the former, but it still brings the goods. The filmmaker is at his best working with children, establishing an unsettling vulnerability that gives his horror real punch.

The adult storyline works less well — certain head-scratching behavior begging too much suspension of disbelief — but Omar Lofti’s tender performance almost makes up for that. A bridge of sorts between the children and adults in the tale, he enlists your investment in solving the riddle and saving the day.  

Romain Paillot’s score conjures Ghostbusters as well as E.T., disconcerting choices given what’s in store for youngsters in Selhami’s film. Things don’t go well for them, and their suffering gets a tad lost in the narrative. It’s as though the film began as a metaphor about molestation but changed course somewhere and never properly righted itself. It gives the film a sense of thematic meandering.

Selhami scores points with the creature, though. The image, echoed throughout the film in drawings and artwork, is eerie and the monster itself looks great when handled practically. The VFX leaves something to be desired, unfortunately, marring a few scenes that would otherwise have been seriously unnerving.

Achoura also marks the second film this year to take inspiration from Moroccan folklore, after Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s KandishaAnd though Selhami’s cinematic storytelling shows some weak spots, he and his creepy film are part of a movement expanding the look and language of horror, and that’s worthy of applause.

Grade: B-

Follow George and Hope on Twitter @maddwolf and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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