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Good Flicks at Home, in Theaters and Drive-Ins

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Aside from a couple of stinkers, this weekend offers a bunch of solid viewing options at home, on the big screen and at the drive-in. It’s a particularly good week for people looking to start spooky season a little early, but thrillers, family dramas and much-needed upbeat fare also awaits.

Antebellum

Available via VOD.

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

The past is not dead. It’s not even past.

That Faulkner quote gets a lot of action in writers/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s social nightmare Antebellum.

The titular term describes the period in American history just prior to the Civil War. That’s where this thriller finds its horror, and where a prominent, present day African American sociologist/activist/author wakes up to find herself trapped.

Janelle Monáe crafts an impressive lead as Veronica, a PhD beaten, branded and forced to accept a slave name in a film that plays out like a disturbingly relevant Twilight Zone episode.

Enslaved on a reformer plantation, “Eden” works to stay alive long enough to plan an escape and outsmart two Confederate officers (Eric Lange, Jack Huston) and the mysterious mansion mistress (Jena Malone).

The hideous rise of white nationalism is the true nightmare here – fertile and bloody ground for horror. From Godzilla to Get Out, horror has always brimmed with social commentary and anxiety, so it should come as no surprise that a genre film tackles America’s racist shame this directly.

And while this approach certainly grabs your attention with its boldness, Bush and Renz can get too caught up in obviousness and speech-making. The second act suffers most from these heavy hands. The modern day shenanigans with Veronica and two friends (Gabourey Sidibe, Lily Cowles) push too hard, last too long and say very little.

But as much as Spike Lee has recently connected the past and present of racism with layered nuance, Bush and Renz go right upside our heads. Pulpy exploitation? It goes there. It’s a horror movie.

Horror movies exist so we can look at the nightmare, examine it from a distance, and come out the other side, unscathed ourselves. Antebellum is acknowledgment and catharsis, and not only because all those Black people being terrorized on the screen are fictional, instead of real victims in another cell phone crime scene. The film’s true catharsis – a highly charged and emotional payoff – lies in Act 3: comeuppance.

And it is glorious.

There are stumbles getting to the fireworks, but for sheer heroic tit for tat, Antebellum delivers the goods.

Grade: B+

The Nest

Now playing at Gateway Film Center.

by George Wolf

If you saw the quietly unnerving Martha Marcy May Marlene nine years ago and have had the name Sean Durkin filed away since then, you’re not alone. Good news for both of us then, as Durkin finally returns as writer and director with The Nest, another precisely crafted examination of family dynamics.

This time, though, it’s a nuclear family, one that’s slowly imploding before our eyes.

Hotshot commodities trader Rory O’Hara (Jude Law) has news for his wife Alison (Carrie Coon): they need to move. Business in New York is drying up, but his native London is “booming.” Alison isn’t loving the idea of uprooting their two kids – and her horse training business – for the fourth time in ten years, but can’t help but be impressed by the 15th century manor Rory has secured in the English countryside.

The place is legendary (“Led Zeppelin stayed here!”), and huge. And from the moment the O’Haras move in, the spaces between them only grow larger.

Though it lacks the sinister edge of MMMM, Durkin’s storytelling here still carries a chill, assembling precise details with a subtlety that often betrays a focused narrative. With a microscope trained on the minutiae of finding a work/life balance, Durkin gives his stellar leads plenty of room to dig indelible, often heartbreaking layers.

Law shows all the easy charm that makes Rory an office favorite, while slowing revealing the cracks in his entitled, high roller facade. Pretending can be harder to sustain than success, and Rory is wearing down.

And Alison – thanks to a wonderful performance from Coon – becomes the weary embodiment of a last nerve exposed. She’s facing the reality of who her husband really is – and grasping for the best way to react. Fortunately, not giving a fuck is one of the options, and Coon makes all of Alison’s frayed edges irresistible.

Still, even as this family breaks down before us like some sort of clinical exercise, Durkin brings a darkly humorous undercurrent to the O’Haras’ way forward that feels like a first step toward honesty.

A house isn’t always a home. The Nest may rarely be comfortable, but it’s strangely inviting, and once you’re inside, plenty hard to look away.

Grade: A-

The Secrets We Keep

Now playing at Gateway Film Center.

by George Wolf

Anyone who saw the original The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo knows if you get on the wrong side of a score with Noomi Rapace, she’ll have no problem settling it.

As Maja in The Secrets We Keep, Rapace has a similar mindset. Settled into post-war Suburbia in an unnamed town, Maja and her physician husband Lewis (Chris Messina) run the local medical clinic while raising their young son, Patrick.

On one fateful afternoon, the Romanian-born Maja is shaken to her core by the sight of a man (Joel Kinnaman) she believes committed heinous war crimes against her and her family years before. After setting a successful trap, Maja kidnaps the man and holds him captive in her basement, finally detailing to Lewis the horrifying ordeal she has never spoken of.

Director and co-writer Yuval Adler sets an effective hook despite some forced visual cues (a literal bubble bursting, North by Northwest on a theater marquee). Rapace delivers the right mix of confused trauma, making Maja’s indecision between murder and interrogation ring true (much more so than the petite Rapace’s ability to maneuver the dead weight of Kinnaman).

Is the suburban hostage a Swiss immigrant named Thomas, as he claims, or is he the former Nazi Karl, whose war crimes haunt Maja’s dreams?

Adler seems to sense the need to distance the film from Death and the Maiden (and, to a lesser extent, Big Bad Wolves), but as events move further from the basement, an air of B-movie pulp emerges.

A visit from the neighborhood cop seems to exist only for contrived tension, while Maja’s burgeoning friendship with her captive’s wife (Amy Seimetz) and daughter can never quite move the shadow of secrets over the entirety of picket-fence Americana the way Adler intends.

And despite a terrific performance from Messina, Lewis lands as a frustrating and sometimes distracting presence. While Lewis’ struggle to believe Maja – even without a confession – is one of the film’s most resonant strengths, the bigger struggle concerns the film’s commitment to defining Maja on her own terms.

When it does commit, The Secrets We Keep rewards the investment. But when it cops out, there’s little here we haven’t already been told.

Grade: B-

Alone

Now playing at the South Drive-In and available on VOD.

by Hope Madden

“Do you think you’re the first one to say that?”

That is a good, sinister question when posed by the mustachioed traveler responding to his captive’s promise to remain silent if he lets her go. It’s good because it clarifies to her and us that this is not his first prisoner rodeo, an unsettling fact that increases tensions and moves the story forward.

It’s also a good question to ask director John Hyams as his road trip horror Alone serves up a very familiar premise.

Jessica (Jules Wilcox), her beat Volvo station wagon and hitched U-Haul trailer are making a cross-country trip. Nobody else, just them. Sure, Mom keeps calling, but Jessica just can’t right now.

It’s beautiful, wooded country, but a little treacherous—more so once that black SUV starts following her around.

You know where this is going from the opening scene, so the only hope is that the execution delivers some thrills. Drone shots of trees may be a little tired by this time, but they are pretty and they give the sense of isolation. Screenwriter Mattias Olsson makes subtle changes to the predictable story, giving each character an unexpected layer or two to keep you guessing.

Wilcox’s no-thrills performance suits the project beautifully. Though frustrating in the early going (don’t pretend you wouldn’t do some stupid things in that situation, too), Jessica’s resolve and tenacity are proven with a focused, physical performance.

Marc Menchaca, known only as Man, is a delight in the role of the villain. That ‘stache! Nary a false note creeps into his menacing demeanor. His is the saucier of the two characters and the hateful chemistry between the actors drives the thrills and commands attention.

Anthony Heald also makes a welcome appearance at about the halfway point, and the action takes an effective turn with him. But mainly, Alone benefits from two truly savvy performances. It just doesn’t have much to say that we haven’t already heard.

Grade: B-

Lost Girls and Love Hotels

Available on VOD.

by Brandon Thomas

“I tell myself…there’s no happy ending.”

Cinema revels in emotion. It’s why the artform has lasted well over a century. We love to experience films that make us laugh, make us afraid, and make us examine even the darkest of our decisions. Lost Girls & Love Hotels is an exploration of these painful, disorientated choices.

Margaret (Alexandra Daddario) is an American ex-pat living in Japan. By day, she teaches at a training academy for Japanese stewardesses. By night, Margaret loses herself in booze and random rendezvous in the red light district. Her life of debauchery softens after she meets a brooding Yakuza (Takehiro Hira).

Margaret’s pain and self-loathing are apparent from the opening frames: she drunkenly stumbles through a subway entrance, tears brimming in her wide eyes as she realizes a man is lurking behind her. Fear is less apparent in her distant gaze. What I saw was more akin to someone finally succumbing to their demons. This was rock bottom.

Lost Girls & Love Hotels isn’t looking to break new ground. There’s no way this movie could. What’s interesting – and original – is how this kind of movie is told through the point of view of a female character. We’ve seen self-destructive dudes do this for eons. Let the ladies have a turn at spiraling out of control! 

Daddario turns in an impressive performance as Margaret. She walks a fine line – showing the character’s high-highs and low-lows with ease. Her wide-eyed, all-American look helps her stand out in a mostly Japanese cast. One would expect a person with such outwardly beauty to harbor very little in the way of pain. For a character like this one, believability is key, and Daddario delivers. 

Director William Olsson and writer Catherine Hanrahan (adapting her own novel) haven’t set out to make a salacious sex drama. While Margaret’s BDSM escapades inform who her character is, Lost Girls & Love Hotels is more interested in a person who has latched onto numbing behavior. Isolation, even with a core group of friends and co-workers, is ever-present in Margaret’s condensed world. 

There’s a simmering sense of danger running through the entire film. Olsson never wrings false drama out of it, but that subtle feeling is there nevertheless. When Margaret does find herself in a precarious situation, it feels more like an eventuality, not the tacked-on payoff to a sleazy thriller.

Grounded with an outstanding lead performance, Lost Girls & Love Hotels is a look at how sadness and isolation isn’t something you can run away from – even if you run halfway across the world. 

Grade: A-

Blackbird

Available on VOD.

by Darren Tilby

Based on his own Danish-language film Silent Heart, writer Christian Torpe partners with director Roger Michell for the Anglo-American remake, Blackbird. You likely know the story already: an ailing matriarch invites her fractured family around to stay for one last weekend of joy and festivities before she plans to end her life through euthanasia. But, as is so often the case in films like this, everyone’s a long way from even pretending to play happy family.

Susan Sarandon stars as Lily, the head of the family unit. Sam Neill puts in a career-high as Paul, Lily’s husband, who proceeds with a stoic, removed air about his wife’s illness and impending self-death.

Kate Winslet’s Jennifer is the first to arrive, early, along with husband Michael (Rainn Wilson) and son Johnathan (Anson Boon). Straight-laced and proud, Jennifer is the polar opposite of her younger sister, Anna (Mia Wasikowska); a flighty young woman who traipses in late, “looking like shit,” with girlfriend Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus) in tow.

Completing the family unit is Liz (Lindsay Duncan), Lily’s oldest and dearest friend.

As you can probably tell, the film’s main attraction is its star-studded cast. A sea of riveting performances is what awaits us and Torpe’s well-written, character-establishing (and building) dialogue make these people come alive and feel genuine—even if some of their actions don’t. Indeed, Michell relies heavily on the strength of his actors to deliver the emotional clout the movie promises. There’s no denying the cast is up to the task, although other aspects of the film feeling like an afterthought.

The plot mechanics are hackneyed and unoriginal, while Peter Gregson’s score feels generic and uninspired. Mike Ely’s crystalline visuals, though, are an absolute delight, and effortlessly reflect the beauty and tragedy of both life and death.

It’s unoriginal, and it’s certainly not perfect, but this is a beautiful piece of filmmaking about the celebration of life, love and family, rather than the sadness of death and loss. And it brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion.

Grade: A-

H is for Happiness

Available on VOD.

by Cat McAlpine

H is for Happiness navigates grownup tensions and trauma from the perspective of an optimistic 12 year-old named Candice (Daisy Axon). Candice’s class is given an assignment to recount their life via a narrative based on the letters of the alphabet. On the same day, a new student arrives.

“Can you keep a secret?” newcomer Douglas asks her.

“No.” Candice chirps back with cheerful honesty.

Douglas (Wesley Patten) claims he’s from another dimension, but it doesn’t faze Candice. Little bits of mystery and magical realism like this make Candice’s world deeper and more fantastical, even when the magic ends up being rooted in reality.

Brightly colored and fun, exaggerated moments make the film’s world seem vibrant and alive in a storybook kind of way. But it has its dark moments too. Candice may be hopelessly optimistic but everyone around her is miserable. Her grieving, depressed mother stays in a room deeply saturated in blue. Her father and uncle, at odds, exist in opposite landscapes. Her father works in a tiny garage office. Her rich uncle sails a picturesque sailboat on a bright blue sea.

While H is for Happiness is told through Candice’s eyes, it’s not just a watered-down children’s story. The way it unfolds is enjoyable to all ages. Instead of going for easy laughs, the film explores the frustration of trying to fix a broken family with silly hijinks that simply don’t work. The heavy dose of realism creates continued tension throughout and motivates Candice to continue exploring what her role in the world might be as she turns 13.

Director John Sheedy frames his shots with whimsy and beauty, showing adults struggling through Candice’s eyes. Bright colors are always caught just off in the corner to show how the world continues beyond the screen. Candice’s broken-spirited father is perfectly framed by pastel balloons at a fateful birthday party. Its images like these that meld nostalgic memories with the realities behind them.

Making her film debut, Axon is fantastic as Candice, showing a precocious can-do attitude will make you fall in love with her immediately. Her partner in crime, Patten, is charming and equally likable as Douglas from Another Dimension.

H is for Happiness is a beautifully crafted coming-of-age movie that teeters on the edge of childhood innocence and the next step beyond it.

Grade: A-

Luz: The Flower of Evil

Available on VOD.

by Hope Madden

As colorful as a dream, Juan Diego Escobar Alzate’s feature film debut Luz: The Flower of Evil looks like magic and brims with the casual brutality of faith.

Set inside a religious community in the mountains of Colombia, the film drops us into ongoing struggles with the group’s religious leader, El Señor (Conrad Osorio). No one knows the devil as he does, he reminds his daughter Laila (Andrea Esquivel).

She lives contentedly, devoutly, along with her two adopted sisters. El Señor and the villagers consider the trio angels—just as they believe the little boy chained up out back is the Messiah who will deliver the community from its recent calamities.

Though never entirely detailed, the internal logic of the film and the community is clear enough to feel simultaneously familiar and horrifying. The way the filmmaker wrestles with what is and is not real, with forgiveness and the morally ambiguous nature of man, and with our tendency to blame God or the devil for our own shortcomings is frustrating and intoxicating.

Alzate gets maximum impact for minimum budget thanks in large part to Nicolas Caballero Arenas’ cinematography. His breathtaking visuals add spooky richness, turning this Western of sorts into a beautiful, lyrical, macabre Columbian folktale.

Lovely as it is, the film echoes of loss. The title itself conjures what is absent. As time wears on and the “angels” lose confidence in their father figure, remembered stories of the late mother figure Luz (Spanish for light) take the space for them that El Señor’s tales of God take for the rest of the community.

Luz: The Flower of Evil surprises as often as it relies on expectations to deliver its message. The film is more atmospheric than cautionary, its resolution a fitting end for characters’ whose own logic doesn’t likely reflect that of the audience. It is a vision, from its opening musical notes to its closing image, though, that marks a filmmaker worth discovering.

Grade: B+

Spiral

Streaming on Shudder.

by Hope Madden

How many films, horror or otherwise, open as a moving van leaves a fresh faced family unpacking in their new dream home? Kurtis David Harder and his new Shudder thriller Spiral welcome you to the neighborhood.

What feels like your typical suburban paranoia film, this time given a fresh coat of paint with the introduction of a same-sex couple at its center, turns out to be something else entirely.

Even as Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Aaron (Ari Cohen) try to convince Aaron’s teenaged daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte) that she really won’t miss the big city, Malik is seeing some things around the cul-de-sac that worry him.

But Aaron isn’t ready to believe the neighbors are homophobes (or racists, for that matter, even if Tiffany across the street assumed Malik was the gardener).

Spiral quickly falls into a very familiar pattern. Malik, who works at home as a writer, begins to let his research get the better of him. Writer’s block has him paranoid—or maybe there’s a trauma in his past that’s to blame? Is he really seeing something strange in his neighbors’ windows? Is Aaron right, did he go overboard with that new home security system?

It sounds familiar—so much so that the film sometimes just figures your brain will fill in blanks left open. And while Spiral’s internal logic is never air tight, screenwriters Colin Minihan (It Stains the Sands Red, What Keeps You Alive) and John Poliquin are more interested in bigger patterns. Their social allegory doesn’t achieve the breathless thrills of Get Out, but Spiral swims similar waters.

The filmmakers see patterns in political hatred and the continuing reaffirmation of the status quo, and those patterns are horrifying. While horror has always been an opportunity for the collective unconscious to deal with social anxiety in a safely distant way, Spiral is less interested in creating that comforting fictional buffer. It’s as if the filmmakers want you to see the holes in their plot so you’re more able to see the nonfiction it’s based on.

Grade: B+

I’ve Got Issues

Available on VOD.

by George Wolf

Toward the end the nearly 20 vignettes that make up I’ve Got Issues, a mournful woman proclaims, “The world is absurd. I’ve lost all my humor. But I must continue.”

That’s when you realize how deeply the lede has been buried.

Because that’s exactly what writer/director Steve Collins serves up: a host of absurdity that soldiers on, no matter how few laughs are generated.

Featuring occasional narration from Jim Gaffigan, bare-bones production values and an ensemble of actors in ever-changing roles, the film wallows in the lowest of keys and the shaggiest of dogs. From a KKK recycling program to a self-help guru who’s of very little help, from a woman caught on a tilt-a-whirl to a singer sending out a demo tape addressed only to “Hollywood,” this film strings together segments on absurd futility that begin to make the title feel more like a cry for help.

Those with a very particular sense of humor may enjoy this film very much. God bless them.

Grade: D

Summerland

Available on VOD.

by Rachel Willis

It’s hard to sympathize with a catfish – someone who pretends to be someone else online to develop a misleading relationship.

Yet, in the film, Summerland, directed by Lankyboy (the nickname for directing duo Kurtis David Harder and Noah Kentis), we’re asked to do just that.

Bray (Chris Ball), who is pretending to be Victoria online, has made a connection with Shawn (Dylan Playfair) via a Christian dating site. Bray/Victoria has plans to meet Shawn at the music festival, Summerland.

Along for the road trip to Summerland is Oliver, Bray’s best friend, and Oliver’s girlfriend, Stacey. The problem? Bray has been using Stacey’s pictures to construct Victoria online. Once the trio gets to Summerland, will Bray be able to find Shawn before he finds Stacey?

Miraculously, as the film progresses, we do begin to sympathize with Bray. As a gay teenager, he is not accepted by his parents and struggles with his identity. He wants to meet someone, to have a relationship, and be himself. Despite the fact he has lied about his identity, he’s managed to be as open with Shawn as he has with anyone.

However, the film doesn’t let Bray off the hook entirely. We’re repeatedly reminded that he’s constructed a relationship around a lie. We must ask ourselves if some lies are forgivable when the liar struggles with what it means to be himself.

Most of the film is centered around the road trip to Summerland. Bray is anxious to get there so he can finally meet Shawn in person. Oliver wants to enjoy the journey. Stacey is rebelling against a stepdad she doesn’t like.

Lankyboy wants their movie to be quirky, but it’s a conventional road trip/relationship movie with some weird extras thrown in. Those weird moments are forced, don’t contribute much, and end up making a short movie feel intolerably long.

There are also far too many montages for such a short film.

The actors aren’t terrible in their roles. They’re not the worst trio to spend time with on a road trip movie, and the film does have one or two funny moments. But too much of the movie is focused on what it wants to be rather than effectively embracing what it is.

Unfortunately, what is ends up being is an unmemorable experience.

Grade: D

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

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