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Candyman, Lockdown Conflicts, Insect Horror & More in Theaters

Hope Madden Hope Madden Candyman, Lockdown Conflicts, Insect Horror & More in TheatersCandyman - Photo via IMDb
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We are going to say his name. In fact, we’re going to tell you that you should go see Candyman. There are other fine cinematic choices this week, some on the big screen, but there are horrors and sci-fi thrillers lurking at your very home, too. Plus James McAvoy, and he’s always charming. Here’s the lowdown.

Candyman

Drexel, Gateway Film Center and other theaters

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Sweets to the sweet, indeed.

This new Candyman is the most delicious brand of horror sequel. Thanks to the startling vision of director/co-writer Nia DaCosta and producer/co-writer Jordan Peele, it is a film that honors its roots but lives so vibrantly in the now that it makes you view the 1992 original from an urgent new angle.

We go back to Chicago’s now-gentrified Cabrini Green housing project with up-and-coming artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), whose works have taken a very dark turn since he learned of the Candyman legend from laundromat manager William Burke (Colman Domingo).

Anthony’s obsession helps spark the interests of curious doubters, which means blood will soon be shed. Suspicions about Anthony’s possible role in the killings begin to grow, leading his girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris) to worry about her own promising career in the art world – and eventually her own safety.

Research on the legend reacquaints us with events from the first film, gloriously reenacted through the paper and shadow puppet work first seen in the film’s trailer. Without dismantling the backstory, only shifting the point of view from white storyteller to Black, DaCosta takes ownership of the narrative—which is, itself, the point the film makes. Own the narrative.

DaCosta’s savvy storytelling is angry without being self-righteous. Great horror often holds a mirror to society, and DaCosta works mirrors into nearly every single scene in the film. Her grasp of the visual here is stunning—macabre, horrifying, and elegant. She takes cues from the art world her tale populates, unveiling truly artful bloodletting and framing sequences with grotesque but undeniable beauty. It’s hard to believe this is only her second feature.

Compelling performances throughout draw you into the saga. Abdul-Mateen II delivers terrifying layers while Parris gives the filmmaker a vehicle for outrage and satire. The always reliable Domingo (having a banner year) brings the film’s institutional knowledge — important in any sequel (somebody has to tell the protagonist what’s already happened), but invaluable in a film about the legacy of trauma.

And then there’s Vanessa Williams, whose return to the franchise is heartbreaking perfection.

Fans of the preceding films will find no reason to be disappointed, but that’s about the least of what this Candyman accomplishes. By the time a brilliant coda of heartbreakingly familiar shadow puppet stories runs alongside the closing credits, there’s more than enough reason for horror fans to rejoice and…#telleveryone.

Grade: A-

Together

At Gateway Film Center

by George Wolf

We’re living in unprecedented times – that’s no news flash. But the daily process of navigating the minefield of consequences from this pandemic can beat down our psyche until acceptance is required for survival.

While it may be decades until we can fully fathom the extremes we’re going through right now, filmmakers have been showing impressive instincts for adapting to on-set constraints, and reflecting on our currently shared experience.

Enjoying Together may depend upon how much you welcome the reminder.

Filmed in under two weeks with a cast of just three in a single location, the film finds humor and poignancy while mining both the intimate and more universal aspects of a nationwide lockdown.

The nation is Great Britain, where we meet He (James McAvoy) and She (Sharon Horgan) at the beginning of the quarantine, when onscreen text begins keeping track of the days and the casualties.

He’s a bootstrap conservative just fine with buying privilege, while she’s a power to the people “communist.” They were splitting up even before lockdown, so now that they’re forced to stay together, he hates her face, she wants to feed him poison mushrooms, and they both speak directly to the camera while trying to keep the worst of their vitriol away from son Artie (Samuel Logan).

Directors Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours, The Reader) and Justin Martin (debut feature) use the broken fourth wall and the multiple extended takes to draw us in and make us part of the conversation.

Writer Dennis Kelly provides McAvoy and Horgan with funny, biting barbs and heartfelt monologues, and the two actors consistently find authentic levels of humor and emotion – even in the moments when it starts to feel we’re being talked to instead of with. He and She are demanding, intense roles, and both McAvoy and Horgan respond with fiery, nuanced turns that alone make the film worthwhile.

In between the mounting death toll and the promise of a vaccine, Together glimpses how our lives have been changed in small, inconvenient ways and larger, heartbreaking ones. And as an impressionable child waits in the next room while his parents get closer to their true feelings, American audiences may especially notice the missing chapter on pandemic death cults.

But in our darkest days, art has always been there to help us question, laugh, cry and heal. So while using a welcome night out to spend time back in lockdown may seem as entertaining as a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, this film just wants you to know there’s hope if we just stay…

You know.

Grade: B+

The Colony

On VOD

by Christie Robb

Director/co-writer Tim Fehlbaum’s The Colony (originally titled Tides) is a new entry into science fiction’s grand tradition of working out issues of the past and present in imagined future contexts.

In this one, Earth’s elites packed into spacecrafts and blasted away from a planet wrecked by climate change, pandemics and war. (Imagine!)

They settled on a planet called Kepler 209, which provided a temporary refuge. While they could survive there, radiation had an impact on fertility and, two generations in, no children were being conceived by a now-aging population.

So, once the Keplerians got some data from beacons they’d left back on Earth that their home planet may have healed somewhat, they sent a reconnaissance party called Ulysses 1 to scout out the situation and see if Earth was safe to return to and, hopefully, procreate on.

They never heard from U1.

Some years later, they scraped together the resources and sent U2 with a small crew including Louise Blake (Nora Arnezeder), the now-grown daughter of a missing astronaut from U1. Blake’s crash to Earth is where the Colony begins.

From the moment she impacts the surface, things are grim. Crewmembers are inured. Some die.

There’s a perpetual and inhospitable fog that obscures the landscape rendering Blake unable to get a clear picture of her surroundings. And this thematically fits, as this initial slow-burn of a movie is all about Blake charting the lay of the land on this new Earth.

She’s not alone.

But exactly who she is sharing space with and whether their interests are aligned is something that Blake has to explore and uncover. As the movie progresses, the pace increases incrementally and the stakes get higher as Blake needs to decide what she stands for and whose side she is on.

It’s interesting how it works with the themes of colonization in a tweaked context.

The Colony is a good offering. It’s not perfect. Communication between different groups is managed with way too much ease. The plot is somewhat predictable. One character is so much without agency that he may as well be a Force ghost urging Blake to heroic action. And, for a movie that mentions pandemics in the intro, it really missed an opportunity to add a novel disease transmission subplot.

But the cinematography, particularly the play between extreme wide shots emphasizing the characters’ vulnerability in the forbidding landscape and the close-up point of view shots giving us Blake’s limited access to snippets of the action, is wonderful. As is Arnezeder’s portrayal of Blake’s full emotional range.

Of special note is Iain Glen (as Jorah Mormont), who manages to effortlessly show the violence lurking just beneath the veneer of civilization.

Grade: B+

No Man of God

On VOD

by Hope Madden

True crime is quite a phenomenon, isn’t it? It’s been a staple of watch-at-your-own-risk entertainment for generations, but podcasts have set a genre fire that seems unquenchable. Filmmakers have taken notice.

Still, do we need more Ted Bundy? Joe Berlinger made a miniseries (2019’s Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes) and a feature (Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, also 2019). Then there was 2020’s miniseries Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer, which, like Extremely Wicked, told the Bundy tale with the voice of a former girlfriend. And in a few weeks, Daniel Farrands kicks off his American Boogeyman serial killer film series with a feature on Bundy.

Is it even possible for filmmaker Amber Sealy to tell us anything fresh? And even if she could, is there any legitimate reason to continue to rehash the behavior of such human garbage?

Working from a script by Kit Lesser, Sealy attempts to demystify Bundy, focusing not on his crime spree at all, but on his final years on death row. No Man of God spends most of its time in a confined, colorless chamber where Bundy (Luke Kirby) and FBI profiler Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood) converse.

Both actors deliver nuanced, unnerving performances. Their interplay and the evolving relationship help Sealy overcome the limited action, institutional color palette, and dialog-heavy run time.

Hagmaier is essentially the vehicle for the audience. Why is he spending his time with this heinous being? He just wants to understand.

That’s our excuse too, right? And that’s also the danger — at least it is in every movie ever made concerning an FBI profiler trying to get into the head of a serial killer, and No Man of God is no different. Is good guy Bill really Bundy’s opposite, or is he capable of the same acts of violence against women?

There are flashes in Sealy’s film where she nearly punctures her rote though well-acted tale with genuine insight about misogyny. But the film is never as interested in the women harmed by Bundy’s narcissism, insecurity and psychosis as it is in those traits he bore.  

Grade: C

Mosquito State

On Shudder

by Hope Madden

Right from its scientifically precise and profoundly unsettling opening, Filip Jan Rymsza’s Mosquito State is almost unwatchable. The film, about Wall Street analyst Richard Boca (Beau Knapp) and the 2008 financial collapse, takes on an upsetting metaphor.

Richard, brilliant and socially awkward in equal measure, brings two bodies home with him one evening: the poised and lovely Lena (Charlotte Vega) and a thirsty mosquito. Thanks to Richard’s intimacy ineptitude, things don’t go well with Lena, but that mosquito gets all she came for.

Though the buzzing of the bloodsuckers that soon breed in Richard’s apartment may suggest those Wall Street parasites whose appetites will soon collapse the market, Rymsza has something less obvious on his mind.

Any underlying themes about benevolence versus predation serve the filmmaker’s somewhat confounding allegory, but his aesthetic is as pointedly horrific as they come. My god, that whining buzz! The sound threatens to overwhelm you as certainly as the insects themselves overwhelm Richard, who becomes utterly submissive, offering his naked body to the unholy swarm.

Rymsza orchestrates a certain ghastly beauty, but first he has to immerse you in sounds and sights that trigger an automatic, primal revulsion and need to swat and flee.

Knapp’s performance suggests a bloodless Nicolas Cage as Elephant Man — bloodless not just because he’s made Richard the mosquitos’ feast, but because Knapp drains his character of charisma and flamboyance. Richard’s as unpredictable and difficult to enjoy as the film itself, but that makes him —and Mosquito State — no less distressingly intriguing.

Rymsza’s anticlimactic finale will leave many unsatisfied with his film. But for a wild combination of revulsion and beauty, Mosquito State is worth a look.

Grade: B

Echoes of Violence

On VOD

by Rachel Willis

Alex (Heston Horwin) is having a terrible day. While trying to sell a leasing office in the middle of the Sedona desert, he hears a gunshot. When he hears a second shot, rather than calling the police, he runs off to investigate.

This is the first of several bad calls that Alex makes.

However, we might be able to get on board with this terrible decision because the lead-up to this moment is intriguing. From a funny opening, we’re then placed in this jarringly violent moment. Alex, endearing in his suit, waiting for his clients, is the right kind of naïve to help the film get underway.

It’s too bad this great opening is followed by such a weak story. But what writer/director Nicholas Woods delivers in Echoes of Violence is a juvenile take on the humanitarian crisis of human trafficking.

Upon meeting Marakya (Michaella Russell), Alex makes one more dumb decision after another as he’s caught up in her violent existence. A sex slave on the run from her immigration lawyer/human trafficker (another good idea that fails in the execution), Marakya enlists Alex’s help on a mission of revenge.

We never quite understand why Alex is so taken with Marakya, which is a problem. There’s no reason or explanation why he doesn’t call the police – or even just walk away – as it’s clear he’s in over his head.

Another poor choice on the film’s part is an attempt to create a sympathetic character out of a man who is part of the sex trafficking ring. Though we’re given reasons why this guy is ‘okay,’ it feels like a gut punch to root for someone who previously ignored the horrors around him. That his redemption arc is given the same weight as Marakya’s story is as unsurprising as it is disappointing.

But the film’s weakest element is the dialogue. Some of it is so bad it’s funny, but mostly it’s just bad. There’s too much needless exposition, too many lines that try to offer profound wisdom (when no one talks like that), and not enough time to let the characters come to life.

The actors are good, particularly Russell, but even the best actors will stumble around clumsy dialogue. And Sten Olson’s cinematography is spectacular, but there isn’t much else holding up this movie.

A weak script will nearly always tank a film, and this one is no exception.

Grade: C-

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

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