Damn, a lot of movies are coming out this week. Whether you’re looking for spooky nostalgia to share with the kids, something a little more adult for the season, beautiful indies or one punishing biopic, you will find it. What is worth your time, though? We have thoughts.
Hocus Pocus 2
by Hope Madden
Thirty years ago (more or less), Disney released a family-friendly seasonal comedy that underperformed and was forgotten. Forgotten, except by every 8-year-old who watched Hocus Pocus then or would go on to rewatch it annually during spooky season.
The entertainment behemoth finally realized what it had and commissioned a sequel. Hocus Pocus 2 reunites willful witches Winnifred (Bette Midler), Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Mary (Kathy Najimy) with Salem, the town that hates them.
What is it that reawakens the evil Sanderson sisters? A somewhat convoluted storyline, actually, but it involves female empowerment and community and it’s charmingly, inoffensively told.
Halloween’s here, and with it, Becca’s (Whitney Peak) 16th birthday. She’ll celebrate this year as every year by sharing a little spookiness in the woods with her bestie, Izzy (Belissa Escobedo). It’ll be the first year that the third in their trio, Cassie (Lilia Buckingham), doesn’t join because she’s hanging out with her boyfriend. Meh!
Anyhoo, the Sandersons are accidentally conjured. Somehow the local crystals and essential oils purveyor (Sam Richardson, likable as ever) is mixed up in things. And Cassie’s dad – kindly Mayor Traske (Tony Hale) – is in mortal danger!
Director Anne Fletcher (The Proposal) hits enough nostalgic notes that adult fans of the original will feel seen. Its contemporary story allows for brand new witch-out-of-water scenarios to explore, and, of course, the sisters are always up for a musical number. But this is definitely a kids’ film.
The original was a kind of sibling to Fred Dekker and Shane Black’s 1987 family film Monster Squad. Both showed poorly at the box office and went on to become beloved seasonal fixtures. Hocus Pocus brought the sensibilities into the ’90s by, for one thing, recognizing that boys can also be virgins. HP2 modernizes further.
To begin with, not every citizen of Salem is white. And though it’s impossible to entirely redeem three characters looking to eat children, at least the sequel skims the ideas of systemic misogyny. But mainly it offers campy, scrappy, bland but amiable fun.
Midler, Najimy and Parker reinhabit the old trio well enough to remind us why so many kids loved the original. Whether HP2 can strike the same chord with today’s youth is tough to tell, but at least there’s a Halloween flick everyone can watch together.
by Hope Madden and George Wolf
Man, It Follows was a great movie. It was a film that saw coming-of-age as its own type of horror, a loss of innocence that you either pass on or let kill you.
It’s a conceit that will never feel as fresh as it did then, but writer/director Parker Finn has a go with Smile.
Sosie Bacon is Dr. Rose Cotter, a therapist working in an emergency trauma unit. A woman is brought in, lashed to a gurney and screaming. Rose evaluates her in a safe space where Laura (Caitlin Stasey) can be comfortable, free. Rose listens to her paranoid, anxious story of a smiling, malevolent presence and tells Laura, as calmly as she can, that as scary as these ideas may feel, they can’t harm her.
Rose is wrong. And so begins a very borrowed and yet often powerful meditation on the nature of trauma and the state of mental health stigma.
Bacon delivers a believably brittle performance as the character who knows she’s right, even if everyone believes she’s crazy. But there’s more to this genre trope, given that Finn’s entire theme is an exploration of mental health. As a therapist and also a woman suffering from trauma, Rose can see her current situation more clearly than most.
There’s honesty, depth and empathy at work here, a 360-degree look at mental health and the systems and norms that affect people. Smile is also a clear metaphor for trauma and its insidious ripple effect.
It’s also a showcase for a fine supporting cast, and a few good, if borrowed, jump scares and freaky images. Kyle Gallner is particularly solid, and both Robin Weigert and Rob Morgan deliver traumatizing performances in small roles.
Turning something as inherently harmless as a smile into a threatening gesture carries a primal creepiness that Finn exploits pretty effectively throughout the film. Even so, the nearly two-hour running time feels bloated as Rose’s search for the origins of her curse begins to drag.
Her detective work – plus one very familiar shot – make Smile an easily recognizable marriage of It Follows and The Ring. Credit Finn for not hiding his intentions, and crafting some thought-provoking frights in the process.
by Hope Madden and George Wolf
Andrew Dominik felt like an odd choice to bring Joyce Carol Oates’s epic fictionalization of Marilyn Monroe’s life to the screen. His films up to now, though excellent, wouldn’t necessarily suggest an aptitude for a female-focused biopic.
Most recently, the filmmaker’s crafted two magnificent documentaries on singer/songwriter Nick Cave. Prior to that, he made two woefully underseen Brad Pitt dramas (Killing Them Softly, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) after his Aussie breakthrough, Chopper. Each of these films is excellent, and each of them is broodingly, tenderly, decidedly masculine.
If Dominik was an unconventional pick, Cuban performer Ana de Armas seemed a downright peculiar choice for the lead role. She’s no doubt beautiful enough to play the legendary stunner, and her work in Knives Out and Hands of Stone have shown her versatility as an actor.
And why not get a little nutty? Monroe’s story has been told more times than Dracula’s – at least seven features and TV movies have been made about Marilyn, and she’s figured prominently in countless other flicks. Can they give us something we haven’t seen?
Yep. They give us nearly three hours of NC-17 wallowing.
Dominik’s film, which he adapted himself from the source novel, does little more than fetishize Monroe’s suffering.
De Armas fills the role well enough. Yes, her accent takes you out of scenes from time to time, but that’s not really the trouble with the character. Monroe gets a single opportunity to stand up for herself in two hours and 46 minutes. It’s fun. It’s great to watch the character who’s been abused and misused the entire film finally feel a quick surge of pride.
This one sequence – the one moment of agency given Monroe in the film’s entire running time – becomes the catalyst of her downfall, of course. Prior to this moment, de Armas is asked only to hover on the verge of tears. Nearly every instant after is degradation for a character rendered nearly inhuman by broadly brushed daddy issues and mental instabilities.
While the film’s visual style is often intriguing, Dominik’s aggressive approach feels borrowed. He channels Lars von Trier with wave upon wave of punishment, then recalls Gaspar Noe through extended takes featuring shock-value POVs. And the irony of that NC-17 rating is that it’s not earned the old-fashioned way. The scene that almost certainly drew the most ire from the ratings board does not feature one second of nudity, yet lands as excess most wretched. If it all doesn’t add up to an abuse of de Armas, then it amounts to abuse of an audience.
The point of Blonde seems to be that the almost global objectification of Marilyn Monroe meant an unendurably tragic life and death. To prove the point, Dominik objectifies Marilyn Monroe to a point that is nearly unendurable.
Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon
At Gateway Film Center
by Hope Madden
In 2014, filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour made her magnificence known with the lonesome, hip, bloody, black-and-white treasure A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. She followed that up in 2016 with the heady dystopian nightmare The Bad Batch.
Both films busy themselves with the survival and camaraderie of outcasts. They have this in common with Amirpour’s latest, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon.
On the surface, it may appear that the vampire fable, post-apocalyptic yarn and Big Easy thriller lack any other unifying thread. Untrue. Each is about a singular female making surprising choices across an imaginative – if sometimes bloody – adventure.
Though eventually awash in NOLA neon, Blood Moon’s opening glides hypnotically through bayou waters, the night sky reflected so perfectly in the water you can’t tell up from down.
Jeon Jong-seo (Burning) is Mona Lisa Lee. For at least a decade she’s been non-responsive in a facility for adolescents. (Is that so? Why the straight jacket, then?) But on this very night, as the moon rises red and round over the bayou, Mona taps into a strange power and the first of many flavors emerge in this strange gumbo. It appears we’ve stumbled into the origin story of some superhero – or super villain?
Whichever, don’t get too comfortable because soon enough Amirpour’s aesthetic weaves together influences and notions from a broad and colorful menu. The next thing you know, you’re witnessing a side of Kate Hudson you wish more filmmakers had unveiled.
Mona stumbles upon the Bourbon Street stripper in a late-night hamburger joint. One quick look at Mona’s talent and Bonnie Belle has dollar signs in her eyes. It’s a performance so brash and human that it grounds an otherwise fantasy tale in the stinky glitter of New Orleans.
A welcome Craig Robinson gives the film the feel of a noir-ish mystery, while the delightful Ed Skrein steals scenes and hearts as dealer/DJ Fuzz.
Once Mona befriends Bonnie’s latchkey son (Evan Whitten), sentimentality becomes a worry. No need! Amirpour offsets every sweet moment with a surprise of brutality, every bloodletting with a bit of tenderness, all of it bathed in neon and EDM. It’s a dizzying mix, but that makes three for three for this filmmaker.
My Best Friend’s Exorcism
by George Wolf
It’s the late 1980s in South Carolina, where Abby (Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade) and Gretchen (Amiah Miller, War for the Planet of the Apes) are BFFs. Even though Abby’s family is a bit more hardscrabble while Gretchen’s “hamburgers don’t need help,” the girls have been inseparable since waaay back in the early ’80s.
Now they’re sophomores at a Catholic high school, facing a bummer of an upcoming summer. Gretchen and her family will be moving away.
But there’s lots of fun to be had before that day, and it starts with joining their other friends Margaret (Rachel Ogechi Kanu) and Glee (Cathy Ang) for a girls’ getaway at a secluded cabin by the lake.
Oh, great, Margaret’s boyfriend Wallace (Clayton Royal Johnson) shows up, too, which means plenty of PDA and sex talk. But scary talk soon takes over, as the gang heads off to investigate a creepy old building where a girl was supposedly sacrificed in a satanic ritual.
Once inside, Gretchen gets separated from the group, and by the time she catches back up, Abby’s best friend has changed.
Director Damon Thomas and writer Jenna Lamia adapt Grady Hendrix’s novel with charm and zest, bringing together a variety of tropes for a mashup just out for some fun.
And they have it. From ’80s music to religion to possession movie staples, the barbs keep coming, delivered with an alternating mix of sarcasm, satire, raunch and projectile vomiting.
Fisher and Miller are wonderful together, cementing the film in a friendship that rings with the authenticity needed to effectively raise the stakes of survival. The insecurities about zits, weight, sex and peer pressure are sweetly heartfelt, and Abby’s uncertainty about the best way to help her friend brings a nice balance of humanity to the inhuman.
And for a while, it does seem Thomas and Lamia are on the way to making a big metaphorical statement about leaving childhood behind, repression, and chasing imagined demons while evil is right in front of you.
But by the time Christopher Lowell is stealing scenes as one-third of a hilariously lame “faith and fitness show” who also fancies himself a demonologist, the nuttiness has won out for good.
And that’s okay. My Best Friend’s Exorcism is the teenage sex comedy religious satire devil flick we didn’t expect. No need to aim higher when it pretty much nails the bullseye.
What We Leave Behind
by Daniel Baldwin
When What We Leave Behind opens, we witness star Julian Moreno making a trip he has made countless times. For 15 years, he has taken a bus from his home in Mexico to visit his family in the U.S. Every single month. He only stays for a few days at a time, but he’s been there like clockwork for a decade and a half. Now that he’s 89, however, he’s making his final trip, as he no longer has the stamina for it.
With his monthly visits ending, he instead turns his attention toward building a new house on a plot of land that he has purchased beside his current abode. This new home is not meant for him, but instead for whatever family member will want it once it’s finished. Iliana Sosa’s What We Leave Behind might be showcasing a family separated by a border, but it doesn’t have macro socio-political issues on its mind. What worries the film is simply what worries the aging Julian: Will his family be all right once he is gone? Will they remain close and get along?
This is all Julian wants. He brings up his age and mortality often, but never in a negative light. He’s not searching for sympathy or wishing for more time but is instead deeply pragmatic about it all. His time on this world is shortening and he wishes to spend it building a place where his family can live and congregate together long after he passes away.
We follow Julian from the moment the foundation is being laid up until his death, when all that’s left to accomplish are some finishing touches on the inside of the completed home. We also get to know his family along the way, spending many a quiet moment with them, in addition to quite a few long conversations. If you’re in the mood for drone shots and sweeping looks at the countryside, you’ll find none of that here. This is a deeply personal documentary about an aging family; one that focuses on small and intimate moments, as well as day-to-day struggles and events.
It’s an achingly beautiful piece of work that will hit home for anyone who has watched their older loved ones near their end, as well as worried about what might happen to their younger loved ones when they themselves pass on. What do we leave behind? The people that we love, be they friends or family. Julian Moreno would have told you they are what’s best in life and he’s right.
A Love Song
by Hope Madden
Filmmaker Max Walker-Silverman’s feature debut A Love song blesses us with 81 minutes of Dale Dickey, a gorgeous western landscape, and not much else. It is enough.
Dickey is Faye, a solitary figure with a face full of longing at Campsite 7. She sets her crawdad traps, makes her coffee, studies birds and their calls by day, stars and their positions by night, and waits.
Dickey’s performance is a master class in authenticity, as always. She’s been the grizzled Appalachian or the kindly townsfolk in countless films and shows. Rather than hide the years that stretch across her face, she looks out from behind them, eyes bright and observing. She wears a lifetime of experience, and that, along with her instinctive natural performances, creates depth and richness.
All that and more is called for in Walker-Silverman’s film because for about 80% of its running time, we’re alone with Faye and witness to Dickey’s achingly real performance.
Faye’s solitude is broken up here and there. A friendly couple a few campsites over invite her for dinner. An odd group of siblings arrives with a peculiar request. A kindly and encouraging mailman stops by.
Eventually, Faye’s patience pays off in the form of her childhood friend, Lito (Wes Studi). Decades of absence and years of meaning stand between Lito’s charming smile and Faye’s searching eyes.
There’s magic and nostalgia for old-fashioned love stories in Walker-Silverman’s script, but these veteran actors don’t bend to sentiment. Both know how to blend innocence with renewal, reimagining coming-of-age as they do.
Walker-Silverman’s camera lights on visual metaphors: hearty wildflowers bursting through dried earth, a transistor radio that always seems to know what to play. His film brims with the kind of beauty and type of characters reminiscent of Chloé Zhao’s work, but A Love Song is more meditative. It’s beautiful, touching and real.
The Justice of Bunny King
by Hope Madden
“It’s our job to keep them safe.”
It is with deepest cynicism that writer Sophie Henderson puts those words into the mouths of social workers and police officers in director Gaysorn Thavat’s effecting The Justice of Bunny King. But it never feels forced. Nothing in the film does.
The Justice of Bunny King rides intimacy and Essie Davis’ fierce and tender performance to articulate a scathing indictment on the way the system, blinded by classism and misogyny, fails.
Davis plays a woman with a smile and a good word for everyone. That doesn’t change the fact that Bunny remains sometimes barely a step ahead of the rage that has upended her life. That rage is likely what’s kept her alive as well.
At the moment, Bunny’s cleaning windshields in traffic, cleaning house and babysitting at her sister’s place, and trying desperately to find a place of her own so she can have her kids back. She’s almost there, too. She can just about touch it. But she risks all of it to keep another woman from falling victim to the systems in society that make it so hard for poor people – poor women, in particular – to be safe.
Thavat’s film – like Nia DaCosta’s 2018 gem Little Woods and Courtney Hunt’s 2008 indie Frozen River – takes a clear-eyed look at modern poverty. Each film also benefits from powerful, human performances by two women working in tandem to tell the story of women who are more powerful when they work together.
Davis is a force of nature, delivering authenticity flavored with spirit and spite. Her fire finds balance in a quieter, more brooding turn from the wonderful (as always) Thomasin McKenzie.
Like Breaking, featuring an under-appreciated powerhouse performance by John Boyega, Bunny King recognizes the wearying web of bureaucracy and antipathy that enforces a class system. But Thavat’s film finds comfort in community, allowing that there is help and hope. It may not come from those who can afford it, but those who best understand your plight.
“I’m not the police,” a woman tells Bunny at one point. “I’m here to help you out.”
Thavat allows an impeccable cast to take advantage of lines like that one. Her even hand behind the camera never forces drama, never wallows in suffering. Together with her team and through this story, she fights the power.
by Hope Madden
I hate to admit this, but my first thought upon screening Devil’s Workshop was that we don’t need another low-budget exorcism movie – or worse yet, another ghost hunter demonologist movie. I am pleased to report that writer/director Chris von Hoffmann’s latest horror offering is not “just another” anything.
The premise seems garden variety enough. Struggling actor Clayton (Timothy Granaderos, Who Invited Them) auditions for the part of a demonologist in a new low-budget indie. His competition, Donald (Emile Hirsch), is a social climbing douche who gets whatever he wants. To sharpen his edge for the callback, Clayton hires a real demonologist to train him for the performance.
That demonologist is played by Radha Mitchell, who’s both wonderful and evidence that von Hoffman has something unusual up his sleeve.
The filmmaker cuts between earnest, insecure Clayton undertaking his eerily authentic preparation, and narcissist Donald, preparing in his own way. As von Hoffman does this, he comments on the main theme of his film: a knowing, sly analogy of the process of acting, from ridiculous to pretentious to dangerous.
What emerges is a cheeky, cynical, but not hateful, application of the mantras and exercises meant to break an actor down and open them up to the demons that will create a better performance.
Two things are necessary for Devil’s Workshop to pull this off: stellar acting (or the metaphor falls apart) and genuine horror (or the metaphor overwhelms the story).
The acting is stellar, beginning with Mitchell. Her giggles and offhanded terms of endearment, hand gestures and facial expressions create an elusive character. Granaderos, so impressive as the sinister partygoer in Who Invited Them, adopts a wide-eyed insecurity that suits von Hoffman’s style.
Rather than drawing our eye to the speaker, von Hoffman’s camera lingers on the listener. The choice captures Clayton’s discomfort, sometimes for a troubling length of time, creating unease.
The horror does well enough for nearly long enough. A couple of times it’s effective, but it never rises to true scares. Worse still, the payoff doesn’t land. In the end, von Hoffman’s insiders-view of the dangers in submitting entirely to a part falls just short of success.
by Hope Madden
Horror is especially preoccupied with the doppelganger nature of social media – how you can lose yourself in the make-believe world of the “you” you present online. Co-writers/co-directors Hannah Barlow and Kane Senes dig into that duality with their Aussie horror, Sissy.
Sissy – or as she’d rather be called now that she’s a grown-up, Cecilia (Aishe Dee) – feels blessed. Thanks to her 200k followers and the products she gets paid to work into her videos, she has a fulfilling life. She is loved. She is enough. She is doing her best.
Maybe she’s not really doing that well, actually. She even hides when she spies her childhood BFF at the grocery store, but Emma (Barlow, who also stars) sees her anyway. She even invites Cecilia to tonight’s big bachelorette party, and tomorrow’s drive out to the country for a weekend-long celebration!
If you’ve seen Bodies Bodies Bodies or, indeed, any horror movie, you know that second part is not going to go well for everyone. Like Halina Reijn’s gruesome comedy, Sissy plays around with genre expectations and spotlights the ins and outs of Gen Z.
Dee works wonders as a woman trying to practice what she preaches, earn from what she practices, and find fulfillment in online followers when friends IRL are less welcoming. The cast that surrounds her is universally strong, each one manipulating the sly, darkly funny script to shock and delight.
Barlow and Senes never entirely abandon the old-fashioned slasher, either. Sissy delivers starling gore FX that feels simultaneously in keeping with the black comedy and somehow too disturbing to fit. Well done!
The filmmakers tease the new terrain of a world populated with virtual personalities. Who’s the good guy? Who isn’t? Is anybody? Sissy doesn’t break new ground here, but thanks to a knowing script and a lead performance that sells itself, you’ll enjoy the show.
After She Died
by Rachel Willis
I always expect a certain level of weird when watching an Australian horror film, and writer/director Jack Dignan’s After She Died doesn’t disappoint in that regard.
When Jen’s (Liliana de la Rosa) Mom, Isabel (Vanessa Madrid), dies, it’s not very long before Dad (Paul Talbot) is introducing his new girlfriend, Florence. As if it’s not bad enough that dad’s moved on so quickly, Flo turns out to be the mirror image of Isabel.
Finding out your dad is dating your dead mom’s look-alike would be disturbing enough, but the film adds extra levels of horror: bleeding eyes, a landscape ravaged by fire, a man (possibly demon) in an animal mask. Dignan keeps you off-balance with these layers of mystery.
The problem is the level of confusion that comes with each new piece of this puzzle. It keeps you from sinking into the story. Any tension that could be built through Jen’s reaction to Dad’s disturbing choice of girlfriend is erased as more alarming images haunt the screen. Confusion can be scary, but only if done right. Otherwise, it becomes frustrating.
Thankfully, there’s little time to wonder too long about too much.
However, additional problems crop up with the introduction of too many characters and too many threads. Some characters serve little to no purpose. It all serves to further distract and frustrate.
Visual horror is the film’s strongest feature. The fires that burn off and on in the background add extra unease, and a few scenes send shivers down the spine. Dignan’s understated enough with gore to keep you from looking away. His approach is effective, never overboard.
Unfortunately, he can’t match imagery with an equally unsettling story. It’s clear Dignan wanted to tell a broader tale, one with far-reaching repercussions, but the elements don’t add up to a satisfying whole.
It’s disappointing because After She Died had the makings of an intriguing tale about the price to be paid when a loved one is buried in ground gone sour.
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