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Oscar Contenders, Fun Horror & Mel Gibson as Santa in Theaters

George Wolf George Wolf Oscar Contenders, Fun Horror & Mel Gibson as Santa in TheatersAmmonite - Photo via IMDb
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So, for the first time in months, most of the big new releases are hitting theaters only this weekend. They’re worth seeking out, too, so pack a mask. There is at least a 50% chance one of them will piss you off, though. 

Not ready to hit theaters yet? No problem! Several of the best films of the week are also streaming. A couple of the bad ones, are, too. Let us help you sort it out.

Freaky

Only in theaters, including Gateway Film Center

by Hope Madden

Nobody has more fun with the slasher genre than writer/director Christopher Landon. (Well, maybe his writing partner Michael Kennedy.)

Three years ago, the duo created a time loop to allow one victim to return from the dead again and again and again and again until she stopped the marauder. Happy Death Day was so much more fun than it had any right to be, thanks, in part, to a giddy appreciation of the genre and some great casting.

Landon and Kennedy are at it again, and this time the premise and casting might be even better.

What if Freaky Friday met Friday the 13th?

That’s gold right there.

Freaky is as upbeat and lesson-filled as any Disney coming-of-age film, and its body count is as high and as messy as anything in the Voorhees universe. It’s a bloody riot, and Vince Vaughn hasn’t been this much fun since Old School.

Vaughn plays the Blissfield Butcher—at least for a while. But the boogeyman who haunts Blissfield teens right around Homecoming each year steals a cool looking dagger while dispatching nubile youth at an art collector’s house. When he uses the weapon on Millie (Kathryn Newton, Blockers), their souls magically reassign. The evil menace wakes up inside the body of a 5’5” high schooler while Millie wakes up looking like Vince Vaughn.

Oh, the hijinks.

Part of the subversive fun is watching Landon and Kennedy’s wish fulfilment, as the now-evil high schooler dispatches bully teachers, catty bitches and would-be gang rapist jocks. But most of the joy is in watching Vaughn.

He doesn’t overdo it, either. His gestures aren’t wildly feminine—he never feels like a caricature of a high school girl. It’s still funny, but the humor is far less built on a man playing a girl as it is on a petite female inhabiting the body of a really enormous man. That’s mainly the terrain Vaughn and Landon mine for physical comedy, and it is fertile ground.

And the fact that Vaughn so believably conjures the heart of a teenage girl makes any number of scenes—especially the romantic ones—delightfully sweet and tender.

And also, a lot of people die. This is not a PG-13 comedy. But it is a hoot.

Grade: B+

Fatman

Only in theaters, including Gateway Film Center

by George Wolf

Talk about a brand new bag.

As an entry into the Holiday season, Fatman gives us a Santa with serious issues and some high-powered heat to unpack. This is a movie that’s going to piss plenty of people off, starting right at the top of the cast list.

Starring as Chris Cringle himself, Mel Gibson is the antithesis of holly and jolly. Times are tough at the workshop, since Chris’ government contract pays by the present and kids seem to get more naughty every year.

One of those is Billy (Chance Hurstfield from Good Boys), an entitled rich boy who makes servants do his school projects and threatens torture to any classmate who might beat him out of a blue ribbon.

Santa knows who’s been bad or good, and Billy gets a big ‘ol lump of coal. Billy, for badness sake, decides that Santa must die.

Ruthless assassin Skinny Man (Walton Goggins) has his own grudge against the Fatman, so when the call from Billy comes in, he’s only too happy to make the long trek to the North Pole and stain the snow with Santa’s blood.

It only takes minutes to realize casting Gibson and his baggage was the perfect harbinger of what writers/directors Eshom and Ian Nelms (Small Town Crime) are bringing home for the holidays. This is no bad Santa, this is a dark and confrontational Santa, in an ambitiously unfocused and often bitingly funny takedown on everything from Trumpism to the military industrial complex to capitalism itself.

Gibson delivers with a gritty, committed performance that’s aided tremendously by the glorious Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Ruth Cringle. The two share a wonderful chemistry, as Ruth consistently brings the measured, cookie-baking wisdom to calm Chris’ gruff cynicism.

Workshop shortfalls force the Cringles into accepting a government contract to manufacture military hardware, which lets the Nelms brothers show just how far they’re willing to go in depicting Santa as a struggling businessman weary from the fight. Indeed, they go far enough to threaten the precision of their own barbs.

When the foreman elf comments, “It’s the giving that keeps him young,” the sudden deadpan underscores the clash of goals that muddies the road leading to the film’s final showdown. A little more lean in either direction – coal black humor or grim metaphor – might have upped the accessibility and impact.

But why would two filmmakers use uncomfortable realities, casual obscenities, wanton gunplay and blood-soaked violence to blaspheme the pristine legend of Santa Claus in the first place?

That’s a good question. The Nelms boys are glad you asked, and if you’re open to it, Fatman has a wholly unexpected, brazenly unapologetic and pretty satisfying answer.

Grade: B+

Ammonite

Only in theaters, including Gateway Film Center

by Hope Madden

Writer/director Francis Lee’s Ammonite is a beautiful, insightful, lonesome film about European women falling in love in a time when patriarchal society only allowed that to happen because they weren’t paying attention. It boasts beautiful cinematography and two utterly stellar performances.

And it suffers by comparison to Celine Sciamma’s similarly summarized 2019 masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing—it absolutely is. Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan—simply two of the most talented humans ever to grace a film screen—play, respectively, British paleontologist Mary Anning and the married woman she falls for, Charlotte Murchison.

Anning is, in fact, among the most influential scientists in British history. Being a woman in Victorian England, her work was accepted while she herself was not. There’s an interesting tale to tell right there, but Lee chose that repressive cultural landscape as more of a backdrop, like the forbidding English Channel coast town of Lyme where Anning did her fossil hunting.

There’s no historical evidence that Anning was gay. There’s also no historical evidence that she was not, and filmmakers have told Emily Dickinson’s story dozens of times, only once actually addressing her sexual preference. If it’s OK for them to fictionalize, why not Lee?

The telling gives Winslet opportunity—partly thanks to excellent support from Fiona Shaw, Gemma Jones and Alec Secareanu—to present a woman so ill-used by and out-of-step with the world around her that she sees a miscarriage of justice in every exchange. Winslet is sharp and brooding, superior and insecure. It’s another quietly outstanding performance.

Aglow and lilting, Ronan is all warmth, offering a swoon-worthy counterpoint to Winslet’s chill. But there is something rushed about her attraction, and the deep, risky longing never feels authentic.

The affection, however, feels painfully true, and that’s at the core of a story about limited possibilities. Lee’s no Tarantino, but keep an eye out for bare feet and (less Tarantino-esque) insects. There is something slightly melancholy in these images of freedom and vulnerability that suit the effort.

Lee doesn’t try to answer every question he raises or resolve every conflict he presents. Instead, he brings us into a story of outsiders trying to define their own realities, however limited they may have to be.

Grade: B+

Dirty God

Streaming now

by Hope Madden

There is an unerring authenticity about the slice of life that is Dirty God. Co-writer/director Sacha Polak sugar coats nothing, wallows nowhere, and dares you to judge Jade (a breathtaking Vicky Knight), regardless of her behavior.

The film opens on Jade, barely out of her teens, as she stares toward the camera, her face partially covered by a clear plastic mask. What you can see is badly scarred. This is her last day in what appears to have been a very long stint in the hospital. The reasons are fairly obvious.

Back at the flat she shares with her own mother and toddler, Jade doesn’t adjust well. Business as usual bumps up against wounds—physical and emotional. No one, Jade included, seems to be dealing with the issue at hand.

What follows is a downward spiral, Jade making one self-destructive decision after another. You’d think that “rock bottom” had been hit when  her ex threw that acid in her face, but the  ugly truth is that there was a lot farther Jade had to fall. It isn’t fun to watch, but thanks to Knight’s understated performance and Polak’s unflinching gaze, you never want to look away.

In other hands, this could feel maudlin or worse. But Polak doesn’t fetishize Jade’s suffering. She bears witness, but the overriding tone is of empathy, not sympathy.

The approach is provocative because Jade’s torment is almost inconceivable. Few of us could honestly imagine it. Polak doesn’t soft peddle, and she doesn’t let the viewer off the hook with a pitiable or noble character.

Knight, herself a burn victim, has never acted before. Her performance here, obviously informed by her own experience, is a minor miracle. There’s not a wasted gesture, not an overwrought emotion. The impact of that is jolting.

Dirty God—a film about self-image and the unfair reality of limitations—makes other “coming of age” style films feel like soft drink ads.

Grade: A

Dating Amber

Streaming on Amazon Prime

by Hope Madden

Awkward teens pretend to date each other to sidestep the school bullies, only to find a deep and genuine bond. That sounds pat enough, but writer/director David Freyne (The Cured) and a stunning cast have something far messier and human in mind.

Welcome to County Kildare in the mid-Nineties. Divorce is still illegal, homosexuality a curse, the Irish army or the hair salon are the likeliest post-graduation vocations. As Amber (Lola Petticrew) says frequently, “This place will kill you.”

Amber should know. She found her father hanging in the forest near the trailer court where she rents out spots to horny teens, which she does to accrue enough dough to head to London the minute she graduates.

But to survive between now and then, she proposes the “let’s pretend we’re dating” con to Eddie (a remarkable Fionn O’Shea). Because Amber is gay. Gay gay gay. And so is Eddie.

No. No, he definitely is not gay. Not at all. But still…it isn’t a terrible idea.

So begins Freyne’s semi-satirical look at the perils of high school generally and sexual conformity specifically. There are delightful, early, broad-stroke comic moments that simply feel like a cheeky Irish upending of John Hughes tropes.

But that’s not Dating Amber. Not at all. The brightly familiar comedy trappings serve to lull you into a comfortable space so the film can unveil something beautifully untidy and really heartbreaking, something simultaneously devastating and resilient.

Freyne mixes darkness and forgiveness in equal measure. Everyone has their own shit to deal with, and a depressed, small town full of frightened people lacking in any real opportunity or choice is bound to take its toll—on the gay kids, on the parents who probably don’t want to be married anymore, on the younger brother who just wants to feel like his family is normal, and on everyone facing graduation and whatever likely dismal future lies ahead.

But mainly, Freyne is interested in how Amber and Eddie contend with things. Luckily, Petticrew and O’Shea share a truly lovely chemistry, creating the kind of bond you long to see for every desperate and lonely teenager.

Their honesty gives every scene an extra punch—of laughter or heartbreak. Coming of age still looks like it seriously sucks, but Dating Amber is a keeper.

Grade: B+

All Joking Aside

Streaming

by Rachel Willis

All Joking Aside is an appropriate title for director Shannon Kohli’s first feature. Because it seems writer Brian Pickering left out most of the jokes from a film centering around a woman who dreams of becoming a stand-up comic.

Charlene (Raylene Harewood) has her work cut out for her if she wants to be a comedian. Heckled off the stage at her first open-mic night, she then decides to seek out the man who heckled her, a former comedian named Bob (Brian Markinson), to get his advice on how to achieve her dream.

It’s a bit of a stretch, even if there are a few pieces involved to get these two together. Bob is a cynical, down-on-his-luck alcoholic. Charlene is a broke young woman who sleeps on the floor of her apartment. You can see where this story is going; the curmudgeon and the promising young talent’s relationship is telegraphed from the start.

Added into the mix are several clichéd elements: cancer, an estranged mom, a dead father who also dreamed of being a comedian, an estranged wife and child. Pickering piles on the misery, but it doesn’t add much to the overall story. The film would have been better served by closer attention to the jokes peppered throughout. Or on building a more believable, or even a more unexpected, relationship between Bob and Charlene.

There are a couple of funny moments, some of Charlene’s jokes provide a minor chuckle. But much of the dialogue is delivered like a training video: Comedy 101. Or worse, if there was a retail store for comedy, this is the video they’d show you on your first day.

Markinson is the film’s highlight, which is disappointing since this should be Raylene Harewood’s show. But even he seems to be phoning in his lines and resembling a poor man’s Marc Maron. Not a bad actor to emulate, but Markinson lacks Maron’s acerbic charms. And Harewood just can’t muster the pluck to make the audience root for her.

This isn’t entirely the fault of the actors, as the film splits its focus across too many elements. Predictability may help to pull ideas together, but it does nothing to create a satisfying comedy.

Grade: C-

Lingering

Streaming on Shudder

by George Wolf

So there’s a big, old hotel that’s creepy now that it’s off-season and no guests are around. There’s a little kid who likes to wander the halls of this empty hotel, and there’s one specific room that’s off limits.

This hotel’s in South Korea, though, not Colorado, so Lloyd the bartender must have had an expired passport.

Shudder premiere Lingering (originally Hotel Leikeu) finds Yoo-mi (Se-yeoung Lee) coming to the aid or her young half-sister Ji-yoo (So-yi Park) after the death of their mother. Yoo-mi has no means to look after the child, so they head to Hotel Lake, which is run by “Auntie” (Ji-Young Park), their mother’s oldest friend.

The plan is to drop Ji-yoo off quickly, but Auntie invites Yoo-mi to stay awhile, where she’s quickly drawn into a mystery of missing persons, murder and one surly, drunken maid (Park Hyo-joo).

Writer/director Yoon Een Kyoung’s feature debut is light on originality, but heavy on common K-horror tropes and the usual superficialities of jump scares, music stabs and hallucinations.

The director’s camerawork is occasionally fluid and effective, but most of the set pieces are more noteworthy for the atmospheric cinematography and sharp sound design that manage to punctuate the dark, empty rooms.

Lingering feels like it’s doing just that, hanging around after its welcome has worn. Holding attention becomes a problem, as does the lackluster payoff waiting at mystery’s end.

Maybe a guy in a bear suit would have helped.

Grade: C-

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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