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Big Stars, Lotta Movies

George Wolf George Wolf Big Stars, Lotta MoviesThe Dig - Photo via IMDb
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Denzel Washington, Colin Firth, Carey Mulligan, Jared Leto, Rami Malek, Ralph Fiennes, Stanley Tucci—this week is a celebration of some of the most reliable talent working in the industry today. Not all the movies are great, but the performances sure are. Plus an absolute haul for horror fans. Here’s what we got:

The Little Things

In theaters and HBO Max

by Hope Madden

When you see a film whose plot synopsis exactly mirrors hundreds of other movies, it is the little things you have to look for to set it apart.

Writer/director John Lee Hancock’s The Little Things introduces plenty of those small details: a massive cross high in the Hollywood hills, a gun casing, a barrette, a radio station, a dog. Like the 1990s setting, though, they mostly amount to little more than understated flourish.

Hancock (who wrote and directed The Blind Side, but I will try not to hold that against him) introduces two cops. One, Deke (Denzel Washington, always a pleasure), is a Kern County sheriff’s deputy with bad blood back in LA. The other, Baxter (Rami Malek), is a climbing homicide detective hot-shot in the big town.

When Deke is sent to the city to retrieve some evidence for a county case, Baxter inexplicably pulls him into a serial killer investigation, and there you have it: haunted veteran cop, ambitious newcomer, cold blooded killer (who may or may not be Jared Leto).

Again, that barebones description could be about 300 movies and TV series, including Netflix’s current true crime mini The Night Stalker (who is mentioned once during this film). How to elevate it?

Well, four Oscars among your three leads is a start. Perhaps that’s why this police procedural turns character study so quickly.

Washington’s worn out crime fighter offers a low-key emotional center, which is a needed respite from the odd Baxter. Malek’s characterization of the by-the-books half of this duo is curiously manic, and Hancock spends frustratingly little time digging into Baxter’s motivation. Still, Malek and Washington offer quick chemistry that gives their scenes some depth.

Leto delivers a characteristically tic-heavy performance—perhaps also a tad overdone. Both he and Malek help generate a little energy with their accumulated weirdness, but it’s not enough to overcome the film’s general lack of momentum or purpose.

It doesn’t help that the color, period and low boil bring to mind two wildly superior Fincher efforts—Seven and, even more clearly, Zodiac. And however competently made (and it is) or impressively cast (obviously), The Little Things just can’t distinguish itself from the pack.

Grade B-

Supernova

In theaters

by George Wolf

Sometimes, just watching two master actors at work is worth the price of admission. And though Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci are not all that Supernova has in the win column, they are what keeps the film engaging throughout a fairly familiar narrative.

Firth is Sam and Tucci is Tusker, two longtime partners who have hit the road with their beloved dog, traveling across England in an old RV.

The two men have been in a committed, loving relationship for over 20 years. Now, after Tusker’s diagnosis of early onset dementia, they’re taking the time to catch up with cherished family and friends while they revisit some favorite spots from their past.

For his second feature, writer/director Harry Macqueen is on familiar ground as well, returning to some of the themes that drove Hinterland, his 2014 debut.

Like that film, Supernova becomes a road trip through wonderfully picturesque landscapes, as two souls appreciate the chance to share the beauty – and the heartbreak – that life brings.

But here, with older characters connected by more than just friendship, Macqueen adds a layer that is made beautifully resonant by the warm chemistry and fully formed characterizations of Tucci and Firth.

Every glance and subtle movement between them reflects the preciousness of the time that Sam and Tusker have left. And though its predictability has you wishing Supernova had something a bit more luminous to say, the two shooting stars in the lead are not to be missed.

Grade: B-

The Dig

On Netflix

by Hope Madden

Indiana Jones made archeology look thrilling and dangerous. Director Simon Stone’s The Dig makes it look positively British.

Back in 1938, as England sat on the precipice of WWII, an informally trained excavator named Basil Brown unearthed an ancient Saxon ship in a mound around back of the widowed Edith Pretty’s land. Journalist/novelist John Preston’s aunt Margaret Piggott was part of the larger archeological crew at Sutton Hoo that would mine the site for its cultural riches. Many years later, Preston would mine that story for a novel.

Refined and marked by the proper restraint of the English, Moira Buffini’s adaptation of the source material remains keenly interested in the difference between what we unearth and what we leave buried. Stone’s film shadows two romances and the emotions they choose to excavate as well as those they do not.

Brown and Pretty are played by Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan, respectively. Fiennes finds a sweetly vulnerable center to Brown’s guarded stoicism. Meanwhile Mulligan reminds us again of her limitless range, playing essentially the opposite character of her bitingly brilliant Cassandra in Promising Young Woman.

Watching the gentle dance these two impressive talents engage in as their characters come to understand one another is hypnotic. There’s rarely an excuse to miss the opportunity to see either Mulligan or Fiennes act, and their delicate chemistry here is gorgeous.

Stone flavors his film and this relationship with notes of longing and melancholy that balance the overall theme of discovery. And then a sudden development—the arrival of Basil’s amiable and thoroughly loyal wife May (Monica Dolan, irresistible)—does more to sever their tale than complicate it.

This odd second act shift – just when we’ve really begun to invest in the primary relationship – turns Mulligan and Fiennes into supporting players in their own movie. Johnny Flynn and Lily James take it from here, he the attentive young RAF man in waiting and she the spunky archeologist/unsatisfied newlywed.

Both actors are solid, as is the entire and sizable ensemble of support, but the film feels out of sorts the moment the youngsters arrive.

It’s a lopsidedness The Dig never quite recovers from. Of course, had Mulligan and Fiennes not shone quite so brightly, it may not have been a problem at all.

Grade: B+

#Like

On VOD

by Brandon Thomas

One only needs a fleeting familiarity with social media, message boards and comment sections to know that the internet is a breeding ground for toxicity and abuse. Everyone becomes a target at one point or another. Young women, especially, can become the focal points for violent, disturbed predators who want only one thing: satisfaction through cruelty. 

Rosie (Sarah Rich) and her mother aren’t doing so well. It’s been one year since Rosie’s younger sister, Amelia (Samantha Nicole Dunn), died by suicide. The pain of the loss is made worse as Amelia was goaded into taking her own life by an online abuser. This abuser used his perverse coercion to worm its way into Amelia’s day-to-day life. Rosie’s depression and guilt morph into rage as she believes she’s uncovered the identity of the man responsible for Amelia’s death.

Like many of cinema’s greatest thrillers, #Like leans hard into discomfort. Director Sarah Pirozek pulls no punches when examining how young women are treated not only online, but in their every waking moment. The sexual adoration that men – young and old – direct toward women such as Rosie is shown for what it truly is – villainous and scary. Outside of being a damning portrait of male behavior, this also complicates Rosie’s search for the truth behind her sister’s death. How can she find the man responsible when so many are capable of this reprehensible behavior?

#Like isn’t all hard truths. There’s a throughline of ambiguity in the film that creates an ever-present sense of unease. The audience is sure Rosie has her man…until she doesn’t. Like the aforementioned online cruelty, Pirozek doesn’t shy away from the ugly side of Rosie’s anger. All good revenge movies grapple with the cost of vengeance, and this one is no exception.

Rosie is a great showcase for Sarah Rich. This is a character who is a ball of guilt, depression, rage and sadness – sometimes all within the same scene. Rosie should be your typical teenager, but the grief boiling inside of her won’t allow that. Rich plays Rosie’s loss of innocence as the film’s ultimate tragedy. 

On the other side, Marc Menchaca (Ozark, Alone) impresses as The Man (the only title given to this character), the focus of Rosie’s ire. Menchaca has the hardest role in that he can’t simply play The Man as a mustache-twirling villain without steamrolling the movie’s overall theme. Menchaca’s portrayal of The Man runs the gamut from suspicious to sympathetic. 

#Like could’ve easily gone for pure pulp and still have been a successful film. But by investing in theme, both storywise and through character beats, #Like manages to stand out by challenging the audience.

Grade: A-

The Night

On VOD

by George Wolf

Come on, it’s been forty years, can’t we get a new haunted hotel flick without you screaming bloody redrum?

That’s fair, but what if the new take unveils a slow shower curtain reveal and turns to a golden oldie for creepy soundtrack effect?

Oh. Well then the film’s going to have to work even harder to avoid the dustbin of shameless Shining wannabees.

The Night does just that, and ultimately manages to find its own voice with a goosebump-inducing tale of a frantic family’s sleepless night away from home.

Babak (Shahab Hosseini) and Neda (Niousha Noor) are an Iranian couple living in the U.S. They have a new daughter, who is pretty well-behaved during their game night with some friends.

Neda’s not happy that Babak knocked back a few shots during the evening, so when the GPS starts acting crazy on the drive home and the baby is fussing, Neda suggests they find the nearest hotel and start fresh in the morning.

But from the moment the clerk at the Hotel Normandie (George Maguire – perfectly weird) greets Babak with tales of all the death he’s seen in his life, things ain’t right.

They get worse.

Director/co writer Kourosh Ahari proves adept at spooky atmospherics, with long, not-quite-Kubrick hallways around many turns and unsettling, not-exactly Serling paintings hanging about. Things go bump, voices carry and wandering souls appear, with Hosseini (The Salesman, A Separation) and Noor proving terrific vehicles for selling the scare.

Babek was hoping the booze would dull his toothache, but now he’s just exhausted from being kept awake by what he’s seeing…or just thinks he’s seeing. While Neda, increasingly desperate just to keep her child safe, begins to suspect the key to escaping may lie in revealing some long-held family secrets.

As a simple device with plenty of easy fright potential, the haunted house has served horror well for decades. But elevating it to a metaphor for something deeper is only as successful as the weakest pillar involved.

The Night shows strength all around, and by daybreak a pretty well-known blueprint builds to a satisfying reminder on the cost of deception.

Grade: B+

The Queen of Black Magic

On Shudder

by Hope Madden

Filmmaker Kimo Stamboel resurrects 70s exploitation horror with The Queen of Black Magic. Not a remake or really a sequel or reboot of the Indonesian cult classic, Stamboel’s film is more inspired by its namesake.

Fun throwbacks to Liliek Sudjio’s original over the end credits do more to remind you how comparably tame this one is.

Not that it is without merit. Or gore.

Hanif (Ario Bayu) returns to the orphanage where he grew up. The man who raised him is dying, and now Hanif and his two childhood friends reunite, families in tow, having come home to pay their respects.

But bad things haunt the old orphanage.

Of course they do! What are you, new?!

Stamboel and writer Joko Anwar can’t come up with anything particularly new when deciding what, exactly, is the problem with this orphanage. But they populate their scenes of carnage with actors who generate some empathy, and put those actors into scenes that are pretty compelling. Especially if you have a thing about crawly creatures. Or a sensitive gag reflex.

Anwar is a master of conjuring nightmarish environments, complete with nightmare logic. His 2017 remake Satan’s Slave and his 2019 original Impetigore throw narrative logic aside in favor of a denseness of dread punctuated with unseemly carnage.

The Queen of Black Magic makes more narrative sense, but somehow that seems to flatten it out a little. It feels less magically horrific and unsettling as the films Anwar directs. But strong, dimensional performances elevate every scene.

And both filmmakers know gore. They know what sounds make you wince, what sights make you look away. Between that, the performances, and a tight enough screenplay to keep your interest, they’ve pieced together a tough little horror flick worth a genre fan’s time.  

Grade: C+

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

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