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Curses, Sea Shanties and Science – Movies Have It All

Hope Madden Hope Madden Curses, Sea Shanties and Science – Movies Have It AllRadioactive - Photo via IMDb
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In the mood for some sea shanties? Cursed objects? Cursed villages? Cursed Airbnbs? (Those sea shanties sound more charming now, don’t they?) How about science? Yes to science, thank you, and actually a pretty decent crop of flicks to stream or check out at the drive-in this weekend.

Radioactive

Streaming via Amazon Prime.

by George Wolf

Honestly, I’m not digging this title, yet it somehow fits.

For the story of an intellectual giant, Radioactive seems too easy, too cheesy, and a bit dismissive. Similarly, the film itself becomes a sum of often conflicting parts, flirting with greatness while chasing too many bad pitches.

Rosamund Pike stars as Marie Sklodowska Curie, the Warsaw-born scientist who became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, the first person to win it again and the only person to win it in two different scientific fields. Her groundbreaking work in France with husband Pierre Curie identified two new elements (polonium and radium) and the theory of radioactivity itself, leading to world-changing advancements in medicine and, of course, warfare.

Director Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis, The Voices) seems intent on honoring Curie’s spirit via the most experimental film treatment she can get away with. Animated graphics attempt to illustrate Curie’s theories on atomic movement, while tones are jarringly shifted with futuristic vignettes that glimpse the more devastating consequences of radioactivity.

Too often, Satrapi is hamstrung by screenwriter Jack Thorne’s overly broad and simplified adaptation of Lauren Redniss’s source book, which is itself a work of original art, photographs, graphics and text. Bringing such hybrid energy to the screen demands a unified vision from writer and director, but Satrapi and Thorne seem at odds whenever they try to expand their scope.

Pike is the unifier here, with an instantly engaging and fully formed portrait of a genius understandably ferocious about defending her work from being usurped or dismissed by male colleagues. Pike humanizes Curie with a mix of defiance and insecurity, frank sexuality and a fierce commitment to husband Pierre (Sam Riley, in a thoughtfully understated and effective turn).

The third act addition of Anya-Taylor Joy as the Curie’s eldest daughter Irene (who would also win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry) only cements the film as being most resonant when it is the most personal.

And it can’t go unnoticed that in these science-denying times, Curie’s story is a needed reminder of the importance of pursuing knowledge, of research and researchers.

Curie was one for ages. Radioactive does suffer from scattered elements, but ultimately turns in watchable, satisfying results.

Grade: B+

The Rental

Playing at South Drive-In and traditional streaming services.

by Hope Madden

Dave Franco has made a movie. James Franco’s younger, less creepy brother has been a welcome, smiling face in films since his teens. Directing his first feature, he sidesteps the more obvious choice of a comedy – given his background – and instead delivers a tense horror about jealousy, deteriorating relationships, and the dangers of Airbnb.

Dan Stevens stars as Charlie, handsome and successful older brother of Josh (Jeremy Allen White). As if Josh doesn’t have enough to live up to, his beloved and brilliant girlfriend Mina (Sheila Vand) is Charlie’s work partner and the two just really click.

Together Mina and Charlie land a big deal. To celebrate, they and their significant others—Josh, plus Charlie’s wife Michelle (Alison Brie, Franco’s real life wife)—rent a gorgeous, off the grid place for a weekend getaway.

If you’re thinking this is an incredibly common premise jazzed up with a couple of impressive actors, you are correct. But there’s a lot to be said for a good cast.

All four convey a lived-in chemistry that gives the relationship conflicts more resonance. Brie and White, in particular, deliver believable warmth as big sister-in-law/little brother-in-law. Both are dealing with some jealousy, each lending support and guidance to the other. Secondary characters in indie horror are rarely given this kind of opportunity to breathe, but drawing the audience into these relationships benefits the tensions Franco is working to create.

Stevens and Vand work wonders as the morally conflicted central characters. Vand (exquisite in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night—see it!) blends righteous indignation with guilty conscience. This helps her build believable motives for what could, in lesser hands, feel like conveniently poor decision making.

Liberal guilt, entitlement, questionable morality and selfishness rarely come packaged as sympathetically as Charlie, but Stevens is a solid character actor and here he creates a nicely complex character.

Rounding out the small ensemble, the always welcome Toby Huss also finds layers in a character that could easily have been one note.

So, performances are solid and Franco delivers a decent sleight of hand by Act 3. The film feels imbalanced by then, though, as if it wasn’t until the 11th hour that Franco decided this was a horror movie. There’s enough suffering in the final reel to clarify The Rental’s genre, but that doesn’t mean it entirely works.

Grade: B-

Yes, God, Yes

Available to stream from Gateway Film Center.

by Hope Madden

A few years back, Gillian Robespierre and Karen Maine co-wrote Obvious Child, a whip-smart subversion of rom-com tropes that went on to be our nation’s first and still best mainstream abortion comedy.

How did it succeed? It lived in a low key, non-sentimental world and gifted a remarkable comedic talent (Jenny Slate) with an outstanding character.

Fast forward half a dozen years and Maine has moved on to directing the solo writing effort Yes, God, Yes. But she’s clearly learned from the previous experience, crafting an unsentimental but tender coming-of-age film—a teen sex comedy, if you will—from the female perspective.

And again, she relies on a genuine talent to deliver the goods.

Natalia Dyer (Stranger Things) is Alice, a Catholic high school junior who has done absolutely nothing (regardless of one persistent rumor), but still thinks she may be a budding pervert hurtling toward eternal damnation.

It seems a lot of people may harbor that same suspicion of Alice.

Alice, like basically everyone in high school, is in for some awkward times. Dyer is wonderfully expressive, especially in her most quiet moments. Her understated comedic energy belies a gawky sweetness that makes Alice easy to root for.

Maine’s script is equally insightful, funny and tender. The humor rarely gets too crude, although there’s no question of the film’s R rating. Still, the film never loses its relatively innocent sensibility.

Yes, God, Yes is occasionally hampered by broad stroke depictions and the story ends up feeling fairly slight.

What Maine principally points out, though, is not the insidious problem of sexual repression festering inside Catholic education (because that’s too easy a target). Rather, the filmmaker offers a clear-eyed if forgiving picture of human beings, each one struggling to “figure out their own shit.”

Honestly, I can think of no lesson more important for a teen to learn (although that bit of advice about protecting your online passwords is solid, too).

Grade: B+

Amulet

Available via traditional streaming services.

by Hope Madden

It’s a comforting notion, the idea that we each need to forgive ourselves for the wrongs we’ve done in order to heal and move forward. Everyone deserves to be happy, right?

But is that forgiveness ever really ours to give? Tomaz (a remarkable Alec Secareanu) doesn’t think so.

Making her feature debut as writer/director, Romola Garai delivers an entrancing horror show concerned with sexual politics, cowardice and proper punishment.

Tomaz is living a destitute existence as a day laborer in London, picking up gigs as he can and sheltering at night with others like him—mainly refugees wordlessly sharing space in an abandoned building. He used to live in an unnamed but war-torn European nation, and his dreams are still haunted by the experience.

A chance encounter puts Tomaz in the path of Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton, relishing her small role). She introduces Tomaz to Magda (Carla Juri, Wetlands), who needs help with the house that’s falling down around her and her ailing, bedridden mother.

From there, Garai toys with familiar horror elements—the decrepit building as metaphor, the horrifying relative hidden away—but you can never predict Amulet’s secrets.

Juri is hypnotic as the reluctant, wearied, lonesome Magda and her slow growing chemistry with Tomaz creates a quietly seductive force for the film. Clearly Tomaz should leave, there is something powerfully unhealthy happening in this house. But maybe this is his path to happiness? Maybe he can help?

That’s how the film traps you, because Secareanu is terribly empathetic and because it is his point of view we share. His performance is full of understated power and, paired with Juri’s resigned sensuality, it holds your interest.

Garai braids two mysteries together, the one Tomaz is living and the one he’s keeping from us. That second secret haunts his dreams and, little by little, he convinces himself that unraveling the mystery in this house might free him from his past.

The delivery is measured and creepy, and though the final act feels simultaneously tidy and nonsensical, the mysteries themselves—not to mention a trio of excellent performances—more than satisfy.

Grade: B+

Fisherman’s Friends

Available via traditional streaming services.

by Seth Troyer

If you’re looking for a low stakes, feel-good film to watch with your family, you could do a lot worse than Fisherman’s Friends.

The film is loosely based on the true story of a men’s a capella group consisting of tough-as-nails men of the sea who were eventually signed to Island Records and became a surprising success.

Witnessing the transformation of a group of old men who like to sing traditional music while drunk at a pub on a Friday night into performers with sold out shows is undeniably interesting. The a cappella performances in the film mix the voices of original members and the actors portraying them, and the results are surprising. Even if it’s not your thing, Fisherman’s Friends will remind you that a cappella music can send shivers down anyone’s spine.

Names have been changed and the story is clearly expanded and fictionalized to better suit the arc of a feel-good movie. One of the real events left out is the 2013 stage collapse that resulted in the deaths of member Trevor Grills and promotor Paul McMullen. The film is respectfully dedicated to these men and seems to be an attempt to celebrate the good times before the tragedy rather than letting it define the band.

I can’t help thinking that a more honest and candid portrayal may have made for a more engaging film, but the choice to avoid the tricky task of translating such a painful event into cinematic drama is understandable.

In the end, director Chris Foggin succeeds in doing what he sets out to do. The film is a charming story of friendship and ambition—nothing more, nothing less. It follows all the familiar narrative beats, with a sweet but predictable love story thrown in, and plenty of montages that will make more cynical viewers roll their eyes. But honestly, this simply isn’t the film for a cynical viewer.

If you want Ingmar Bergman, go watch The Seventh Seal (it, of course, rules). But if you want to watch something with your extended family and maybe smile a bit, what you have here is some Cornish cinematic comfort food that will do the trick just fine. 

Grade: B-

Retaliation

Available via traditional streaming services.

by Seth Troyer

Written by Geoff Thompson, a survivor of sexual abuse, Retaliation is a loosely autobiographical descent into the pain and violence that can come in the aftermath of trauma. Orlando Bloom steps up to this challenging material with surprising ease.

Any Lord of the Rings jokes you may want to make will be silenced within the first few minutes as you see Bloom fully embody the character of Malky. He has been tormented all his life by the memory of being molested as a child by a local priest.

Malky is a powder keg ready to blow, attempting to channel this energy into his construction job, demolishing dilapidated churches with vengeful satisfaction. Where the film truly amps up is when he realizes his abuser has returned to preaching in Malky’s hometown.

What follows almost feels like Ingmar Bergman making a John Wick film (in a good way, for the most part). Bloom and the film itself may not perfectly execute every complex maneuver they attempt, but they often reach heights that are undeniably moving.

Brothers Ludwig and Paul Shammasian are a competent directing duo, though they make some choices that threaten to turn the film into an exploitive, bass pulsing thriller that doesn’t suit the material. In addition, several characters—Malky’s girlfriend Emma (Jane Montgomery) among them—often feel less like characters and more like plot tools despite the actors’ best efforts. 

In the end, what does shine through is the writer’s personal story, offering a brooding character study rather than a simple revenge thriller.

Thompson has stated on his website that, like Malky, he struggled with a thirst for violence and revenge. His demons are clearly being exorcised here.

The film’s intense conclusion, where Malky and his old priest finally cross paths, has been understandably divisive for audiences. Regardless, the questions this showdown raises are well worth discussing.

While you will probably never find a Retaliation DVD for sale at a Christian book store, the film’s sentiment seems far from atheistic. It unflinchingly condemns the corruption that can come from organized religion, but also appears to have a strange sort of reverence for the idea of God and biblical teachings. It’s a brutal concoction that makes for a fascinating and unique experience.

Grade: B+

Impetigore

Streaming on  Shudder.

by George Wolf

In a remote Indonesian village, a garden of small headstones marks the effectiveness of a Shaman’s curse. Newborn after newborn dies, the one survivor growing to endure a mysterious, painful existence.

Creepy, right?

Shudder’s Impetigore scores some definite points there, which help to offset a narrative often hampered by convenience and confusion.

Maya (Tara Basro) and Dini (Marissa Anita) are best friends trying to make a go of it in the city. With no family to speak of, they scrape by with menial jobs while dreaming of a better future.

Though raised by her aunt, Maya learns of a spacious home left behind by her wealthy parents. Maya could very well lay claim to this valuable property through inheritance, so she and Dini make their way to the remote village, unaware of the curse and their place in it.

Writer/director Joko Anwar (Satan’s Slaves), an Indonesian genre veteran, seems to know he’s got some solid benchmarks here while not worrying too much about the strength of what binds them together.

Dialogue can range from awkward to WTF-worthy, amid a few convenient plot turns and one humdinger of extended curse explanation that strains coherence.

But when Anwar hits his creepy marks, Impetigore can leave one. The atmospheric isolation in the village feels authentic, and once blood begins letting, the tension is well-paced, bolstered with some satisfying visual payoffs.

There will be eyerolls, but if you’re keeping score, also enough frightful eyebrow-raising to make Impetigore a winning dive into twisted family values.

Grade: B-

Read more from Hope and George at MADDWOLF and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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