Academy Award-winning writer-director Emerald Fennell follows up her provocative breakout Promising Young Woman with another button-pusher in the new stately and seductive psychological dramedy Saltburn. Where Fennell’s previous effort targeted rape culture and male entitlement in the States, her latest takes place across the pond and focuses on class disparities and resentments in England. It’s an ever-shifting mirrorball of a movie, resembling a ritzier redo of The Talented Mr. Ripley one moment and then an especially twisted version of a Jane Austen tale the next. Though it can undoubtedly spin out of control at times, the performances and mise-en-scène ultimately sell its brash vision of sociopathic caste warfare.

Miles from his sweet and sensitive turn in The Banshees Of Inisherin last year, Barry Keoghan stars as Oliver Quick, a prickly undergrad struggling to make friends during his first year at Oxford University. After a serendipitous favor, he’s taken under the wing of the fantastically well-off Felix (Jacob Elordi) and invited to Saltburn, his family’s opulent estate, for school break. Braving the sweltering summer sun with them are Felix’s posh parents Lady Elspeth (Rosamund Pike) and Sir James (Richard E. Grant), along with his licentious sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) and his contumelious cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe). They spend the days donning tuxedos for pick-up tennis and the nights singing Pet Shop Boys karaoke, all with a full martini glass in hand for every moment. But underneath the hazy-minded fun, a more deviant game is afoot.

Holding over from Promising Young Woman, Carey Mulligan pops up in a brief role as an oblivious hanger-on of Elspeth’s who portends Oliver’s fate should he remain at Saltburn past his welcome. The stoic Paul Rhys rounds out the exceptional ensemble as the head butler, who seems to be holding back so much that he wishes he could say at every moment. But it’s ultimately Keoghan’s show and, indeed, he puts on quite the perverse spectacle; he’s played creepy before in The Green Knight and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer but this is his most unnerving performance to date. Though his frame is noticeably more diminutive than 6′ 5″ co-stars Elordi and Madekwe, Keoghan gives Oliver an imposing disposition that implies his threat is more psychological than physical.

Shooting with lurid colors in a more constrained aspect ratio, cinematographer Linus Sandgren contributes to the lecherous and voyeuristic vibe that Fennell aims to impart with Saltburn. Oliver is frequently framed as an outsider, peering through doorways and windows into a privileged life that he desperately desires for himself. The question is who will he become once he’s granted access inside such a life and the answer may turn off those who most enjoy movies where you can guiltlessly root for the protagonist. At the very least, Keoghan does everything to sell his character’s trajectory as the summer trudges on.

But like in Promising Young Woman, Fennell can’t help but hit us over the head with the messaging and plotting in the final act. In a way, it’s more disappointing in Saltburn, since there’s so much subtlety in the performances — by Keoghan and Elordi, in particular — that gets wiped out by Fennell’s garish storytelling instincts. I was gobstruck when she opted for a “what you didn’t see” montage in the final stretch; my hope is that Fennell starts to trust her audience a bit more her next time out. She does, at least, score a barnburner of a closing scene that doesn’t necessarily add much to the narrative but is irresistibly conceived and choreographed. Those who are in a naughty mood this holiday season may feel right at home within the confines of Saltburn.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this week:
Playing only in theaters is Silent Night, an action thriller starring Joel Kinnaman and Scott Mescudi following a grieving father as he wordlessly enacts his long-awaited revenge against a ruthless gang on Christmas Eve.
Streaming on Netflix is May December, a drama starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore about a married couple with a large age gap who buckles under the pressure when an actress arrives to do research for a film about their past.
Premiering on Amazon Prime is Candy Cane Lane, a Christmas comedy starring Eddie Murphy and Tracee Ellis Ross about a man who makes a pact with an elf to help him win the neighborhood’s annual Christmas decorating contest.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup


Thanksgiving is a superb slasher, one that does all the things that it’s supposed to do very well, in addition to doing other things that it wouldn’t necessarily need to do well but does anyway. Adapted from the best of the fictitious movie trailers that appear throughout 2007’s Grindhouse, the long-gestating feature is comparatively more straight-faced than its farcical predecessor but is still stuffed with just the right amount of camp. Given that this is directed by Eli Roth, who debatably hasn’t made a good movie since the original Thanksgiving short, and that it’s a Sony horror movie released after Halloween that was barely screened for critics, I did not go into this film with high hopes. Sometimes, lowered expectations can be a beautiful thing.

The outset of Thanksgiving covers a scenario that is sadly becoming more familiar: a crazed crowd forming outside a retail store (RightMart, a stand-in for WalMart) on Thanksgiving evening ahead of Black Friday. When a few shoppers get in early, the incensed mob pushes their way through the doors and carnage ensues. A year later, RightMart owner Thomas Wright (Rick Hoffman) waffles on whether or not to have a Black Friday sale, given the previous year’s riot. His daughter Jessica (Nell Verlaque) saw the violence firsthand with her friends Gabby (Addison Rae) and Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks), the latter of whom has been missing ever since. When members of the community who were also present that night start getting picked off in brutal fashion, it’s up to Sheriff Eric Newlon (Patrick Dempsey) to track down the killer.

While the original 2-minute Thanksgiving trailer is aiming for laughs with its corny line readings and increasingly improbable decapitations, the feature-length adaptation isn’t as much as send-up of slashers as it is a genuine student of their craft. Roth is obviously versed in horror filmmaking but this is his most exquisitely-enacted entertainment yet. The movie’s killer, who dresses in pilgrim garb and goes by the moniker “John Carver”, is a dynamic dispatcher who favors an ax but isn’t above a flashbang grenade or silenced pistol when the situation calls for it. Appropriately, Carver makes creative use of holiday meal props like pop-up turkey timers and corn cob forks as well. There aren’t a ton of Thanksgiving-set slasher movies out there but those kinds of festive touches immediately shoot this entry to the top of the list.

Even more than your average horror flick, Thanksgiving sports a sometimes overwhelming amount of primary and secondary players but the actors make the most of their screen time regardless. Verlaque is outstanding as final girl Jessica, smart and sensitive while no doubt tough enough to fight off Carver’s numerous ambushes. Joe Delfin is a hoot as McCarty, a Black Sabbath-loving hooligan whose impressive gun stash is concealed so ingeniously that it would make the arms hustler from Taxi Driver jealous. Dempsey is seemingly the only one in the cast who decided to be deliberate with their New England accent but I’m happy that he did nonetheless.

As both director and co-writer, Roth does an excellent job evoking the tropes embedded in the slasher subgenre while he reminds us how effective they still are. There’s the rival high school with their loudmouth football captain, the weird loner who wants to fit in, and the jock with a heart of gold. All potential victims and all potential suspects. It’s a tricky balance, getting the audience to care about characters who could either be killed one minute or revealed to be unspeakably evil the next. Masters of horror like Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven manage this expertly and while Roth doesn’t have the track record of those two, he does a pretty darn good job running at their pace with this one. Thanksgiving is a massively satisfying meal that will have horror buffs coming back to the table each year for seconds.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this week:
Playing only in theaters is Napoleon, a historical epic starring Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby depicting Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power in France through the lens of his volatile relationship with Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais.
Also coming only to theaters is Wish, an animated musical starring Ariana DeBose and Chris Pine following a young girl who wishes on a star and gets a more direct answer than she bargained for when a trouble-making star comes down from the sky to join her.
Streaming on Apple TV+ is The Velveteen Rabbit, a holiday special starring Phoenix Laroche and Helena Bonham Carter adapting the classic children’s book about a boy who unlocks a world of magic after receiving a new favorite toy for Christmas.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Next Goal Wins

There’s no mistaking the goofy sports biopic Next Goal Wins for anything other than the latest brainchild of filmmaker Taika Waititi. Ten years ago, few outside of the New Zealand film community knew his name but two Thor movies and multiple Oscar nominations later, Waititi has built up his own brand of idiosyncratic comedy that has seemed to resonate with audiences. He’s the first face that graces the screen in his newest film, doing double duty as both a hippie priest character and the occasional narrator for the story we’re about to see. With silly facial hair in unison with a silly accent, Waititi lays out the plight of the underdogs that we’ll be expected to cheer on for the next hour and a half. Though Waititi the actor sets up the groundwork, Waititi the director and co-writer doesn’t follow through with committed and focused storytelling.

Based on a 2014 documentary of the same name, Next Goal Wins centers around struggling soccer coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), who hasn’t been the same since the divorce from his ex-wife Gail (Elisabeth Moss). At the risk of being fired by his boss Alex (Will Arnett), he reluctantly accepts a position head coaching the woeful American Samoa soccer team, notable for being on the losing end of a brutal 31–0 defeat during a World Cup qualifier. Upon landing in the island territory, Rongen is greeted by the ever-jaunty club manager Tavita (Oscar Kightley) and introduced to the flailing players that make up their national team. The goal for the season, which is to score a single goal during a game, is sent down from the Football Federation American Samoa and Rongen sets about getting the squad up to snuff.

Throughout Next Goal Wins, Waititi demonstrates that he wants to have it both ways; he wants to lampoon underdog sports comedy tropes but embrace them when the story calls for it. Perhaps that’s why some of the humor fitfully works during the story but by the film’s conclusion, it doesn’t feel all that significant. Waititi fills his film with a colorful cast of characters that he doesn’t feel the inclination to develop much, outside of transgender player Jaiyah Saelua. Played by newcomer Kaimana, Saelua has bonding scenes with Rongen that predictably break down his prejudices around gender identity while building up his ardor for coaching the pitiable group. I understand why Waititi chose to focus solely on Saelua but unfortunately, it’s at the expense of almost all of the supporting cast.

Fassbender, who also stars in recently-released Netflix thriller The Killer, is simply better suited to play a stoic assassin in that movie as opposed to playing the hot-headed soccer coach that he portrays in Next Goal Wins. He’s an immensely talented actor and I appreciate him trying to stretch his acting chops into more comedic terrain but he’s just not a good fit for this role. In addition to his scenes with Saelua, there are sparks in the brief moments between Fassbender and Moss but they don’t get nearly enough screen time to develop their relationship. There’s also a teased-out bit about Rongen’s past that is supposed to play like a big character revelation towards the ending but it all feels too obvious. Kightley fares much better as the perpetually optimistic manager, who also has to wear different hats around the sparsely-populated island as the cameraman for a show and waiter for a beachside restaurant.

It probably helps that Kightley is channeling the same kind of goofball energy that Waititi infuses in his films both as a performer and a director. Fans of the filmmaker’s earlier work like What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople will no doubt find bits that work within Next Goal Wins. The movie’s finest occurs early on when Rongen is in the process of being fired; in an attempt to console him, an ex-colleague played by Rhys Darby tries to guide him through the 5 stages of grief with the help of an overhead projector and transparency slides. Rongen also demonstrates a streak of unintentionally parroting big speeches from movies like Any Given Sunday and Taken. There’s plenty of Waititi’s signature quirk in Next Goal Wins but not enough genuine pathos to balance out the field.

Score – 2.5/5

More movies coming to theaters this weekend:
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, starring Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler, is a prequel to 2012’s The Hunger Games which focuses on future Panem president Coriolanus Snow as he mentors a tribute for the 10th annual Hunger Games.
Trolls Band Together, starring Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake, is the third installment in the Trolls franchise centering around Poppy and Branch as they work to rescue one of Branch’s brothers after he is kidnapped by a band of pop star siblings.
Thanksgiving, starring Patrick Dempsey and Addison Rae, is a seasonal slasher following a mysterious serial killer, known only as “John Carver”, who comes to Plymouth, MA with the intention of creating a carving board out of the town’s inhabitants.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Holdovers

When winter creeps in and the days grow shorter, we gather close together for light and warmth. Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers is a movie that honors this primal instinct and helps clarify the importance of human connection during our darkest days. Like most of Payne’s other films, this one starts with characters who are sarcastic and snipe at one another but slowly reach a better understanding of each other through hard-fought vulnerability. Few in the business are better at this sort of character transition than Paul Giamatti, reuniting with Payne from 2004’s Sideways. In one of his best performances in years, Giamatti plays a stern instructor who’s so easy to hate that you have to imagine he has a heck of a redemption arc in him. Yes, this is a film that plays in some familiar narrative territory but it does so wonderfully.

It’s 1970 at the New England prep school Barton Academy and almost all of the kids are getting ready to head home for Christmas break. The few that remain — the “holdovers” — are those whose parents are planning to be out of town for holiday or have some other reason they can’t host their children over break. One such student is Angus (Dominic Sessa, in his first film role), a troubled teen who recently lost his father and gets the news that his stepparents have stepped away from the holidays, leaving him out in the cold. Similarly sideswiped is Paul (Giamatti), a history teacher who gets roped into supervising the holdovers after another professor comes up with a bogus excuse at the last minute. He’ll at least have some help with the school cook Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) present but besides that, he’s stuck with a group of kids who take exception to his strict demeanor.

The movie’s first act is its weakest, spending a little too much time with a group of ill-defined students who soon flee the picture, but The Holdovers really hits its stride when it’s down to Paul, Angus, and Mary. This is a terrific trio of performances, filled with empathy and humanity, upon which the entire film can cast its foundation. As good as Giamatti is, Sessa and Randolph play up to his level and similarly put in outstanding work. Sessa takes a character we’ve seen before — a snot-nosed punk who can’t stay out of trouble — and somehow makes him easy to love and care about as the story progresses. Randolph plays the most easy-going of the three main characters but also the one who has endured a terrible tragedy — the death of her son in Vietnam — that she’s trying to overcome. Even if the script was crummy, these performances would still shine.

Thankfully, the adroit screenplay from David Hemingson is far from crummy and serves up a cornucopia of both pithy one-liners and jewels of character insight. Paul is one of those obnoxious academics who is always trying to educate people who aren’t in the mood or mindset for a lesson, as when he (fittingly) lectures the kids about the origin of the word “punitive” over lunch. He repeats an adage equating life to a henhouse ladder that speaks to his worldview and the phrase “entre nous” is spoken several times between Paul and Angus, first played as a laugh line but gaining a momentum of meaning upon each repetition. Being the most good-natured of the three, Mary has little ways of cutting through the cynicism of her two male boarders. An episode of The Newlywed Game inspires conversation and when Paul shuts down his own hypothetical scenario of happiness, she laments, “you can’t even dream a whole dream, can you?”

Payne goes all-in on the early 70s aesthetic, filling the frame with a thousand shades of brown and beige while adding the occasional pop and click — replicating a spinning record — to the sound design. The excellent soundtrack includes usual suspects from Badfinger to Cat Stevens but also sports anachronistic selections from modern acts Damien Jurado and Khruangbin atop a menagerie of Christmas hits. Around the holidays, people look for movies like The Holdovers that not only take place around Christmas but capture what it feels like to spend more time indoors with people we aren’t near the rest of the year. Without being cloyingly sentimental, it’s a film that gives us hope that we can relate with each other not just during the cold months but the whole year through.

Score – 4/5

More movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is The Marvels, the latest MCU movie starring Brie Larson and Teyonah Parris continuing the story of Captain Marvel as she gets her powers with those of two other superwomen, forcing them to work together to save the universe.
Also coming to theaters is Journey To Bethlehem, a Christmas musical starring Fiona Palomo and Milo Manheim that weaves classic Christmas melodies with humor, faith, and new pop songs in a retelling of the story of Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus.
Streaming on Netflix is The Killer, an action thriller starring Michael Fassbender and Tilda Swinton following an assassin who battles his employers, and himself, on an international manhunt he insists isn’t personal.

Review reprinted by permission of Whatzup