The Bikeriders

Based on an evocative photobook of motorcycle club members from the 1960s, The Bikeriders works best as a mood movie if nothing else. Writer-director Jeff Nichols conceived of a story around the images from Danny Lyon’s photojournalist chronicle but the narrative mainly serves to weave together punctuated character beats. It’s a film fixated on faces, how they move and how they linger from moment to moment. We often talk about blockbusters or big action movies as those that demand to be seen on the big screen but this is an instance where a “smaller” production benefits from the larger format. The gorgeous cinematography from Adam Stone allows images from a specific subculture and setting to wash over us with a power uniquely tailored for the theatrical experience.

Set between 1965 and 1973 in Chicago and the surrounding areas, The Bikeriders centers around three central figures involved with the motorcycle gang known as the Vandals MC. The outlaw group is led by Johnny (Tom Hardy), a wild card who rarely speaks without a cigarette tucked between his lips. Johnny treats younger member Benny (Austin Butler), who puts up a tough front but hides a sensitive side, like a younger brother and a protégé who can keep the club roaring forward once he bows out. When Kathy (Jodie Comer) sets foot inside their bar one evening, everyone sets eyes on her but it’s Benny who takes her home on his bike at the end of the night. Things in the Vandals are good for a time, until unwieldy expansion and culture clashes threaten to tear the group apart for good.

Using a framing device in which Danny Lyon is actually a character in the movie (played by Mike Faist) documenting the events, The Bikeriders shares DNA with the more modern crime saga Hustlers. Both feature a similar structure, where an interview chronologically after the events of the movie sets the scene, even if the criminals they’re depicting have entirely different backgrounds and motivations. As much as Hustlers was influenced by Scorsese’s seminal Goodfellas, The Bikeriders similarly bears the master’s mark and also draws inspiration from Casino as well, with its focus on a trio of two men and a woman witnessing the slow decline of a criminal enterprise. If you’ve seen any of these films already, you’ll likely be ahead of Nichols as he tells his years-long story but the foibles of these characters keep things relatively fresh.

Though the roles they’re playing aren’t always the most three-dimensional, each of the actors bring an entrancing and even endearing quality to their ne’er-do-wells. Jodie Comer is best known for playing characters who also sport her native British tongue but she pulls off a rapturously authentic Chicago accent here and has all the trophy wife mannerisms down pat too. Never one to shy away from a dialectical challenge, Tom Hardy carries over the accent he learned to play midwest-based gangster Al Capone and also brings his unpredictable propensity for violence. Reprising the animal magnetism he culls from playing Elvis Presley a couple years ago, Austin Butler is effortlessly cool as a wayward scamp who needs more guidance than he knows.

A charge has been brought against both movies and TV shows of the past several years that dialogue has gotten more unintelligible, forcing many to opt for subtitles when available. There are several potentially guilty culprits for this concerning trend: poor sound mixing or stylized sound mixing that favors effects over dialogue, more understated performances or smaller speakers in the case of home viewing. Regardless, I need to give kudos to the sound team on this project for working hard to capture dialogue on-set — or after the fact with lines that weren’t obviously voiced over — that was never difficult to understand. Butler and Hardy are two actors who certainly aren’t known to project or enunciate in a good amount of their roles but it was a relief to hear them loud and clear. The engines may roar in The Bikeriders but thankfully, they don’t drown anything out.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is A Quiet Place: Day One, a horror prequel starring Lupita Nyong’o and Joseph Quinn rewinding back to events before the first Quiet Place when bloodthirsty alien creatures with ultrasonic hearing first invade New York City.
Also playing in theaters is Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1, an epic Western starring Kevin Costner and Sienna Miller which chronicles a multi-faceted, 15-year span of pre-and post-Civil War expansion and settlement of the American west.
Streaming on Netflix is A Family Affair, a romantic comedy starring Nicole Kidman and Zac Efron about a young woman, working as the personal assistant to a self-absorbed Hollywood star, who discovers that her boss is having a secret romantic relationship with her widowed mother.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Inside Out 2

Insofar as the covid pandemic turned everything inside out, fewer studios took a harder hit than Pixar. Onward‘s March 2020 theatrical run was abruptly cut short, their next three movies debuted on Disney+ and their theatrical return with Lightyear in summer 2022 drastically underperformed at the box office. Even Elemental‘s sleeper run last year after a weak opening weekend cast doubts on the Pixar brand as the money-making juggernaut that it’s been for almost 30 years. A sequel to one of their best films certainly seems a reasonable way to get things back on track and while I have no doubt Inside Out 2 will put Pixar in a better place financially, it’s a strong achievement artistically as well. This is the studio’s best follow-up to an original IP since Toy Story 2, one that unpredictably builds on the magic of its predecessor in exciting and enchanting ways.

Two years after Inside Out, our protagonist Riley (now voiced by Kensington Tallman) is officially a teenager, which spells trouble for the five anthropomorphized emotions in her head. Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (now voiced by Tony Hale), Disgust (now voiced by Liza Lapira) and Anger (Lewis Black) seem to have a good system down, until a “Puberty Alarm” on the mind console blares out the night before Riley heads to hockey camp. Suddenly, new emotions pop up in headquarters and start taking over, the most quarrelsome being Anxiety (Maya Hawke). Less bothersome but still impactful are others newcomers Envy (Ayo Edebiri), Ennui (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser). Anxious to take over, Anxiety banishes the original five from the control room, who spend most of the film working their way back to balance out Riley’s emotional state.

As much as Inside Out was a coming-of-age story about the value of the basic emotions in the human experience, Inside Out 2 examines the more complicated feelings that crop up as we get older. Anxiety, then, is something of a perfect antagonist this time around, as it’s not simply happy or sad as it’s ceaselessly energetic. Maya Hawke does a terrific job at capturing the manic and infectious timbre that approximates the sounds anxiety would make if it could be personified. Amy Poehler is excellent again as Joy, who tries to align her goals with Anxiety but demonstrates that the paths to get there are drastically different. Of course, the ideal would be to have a balance of all these emotions but the teenage years are all about things being thrown out of whack and the bustling power struggle between Joy and Anxiety is a superb cipher for this stage of life.

Just as Inside Out 2 makes room for more complex emotions and thornier narrative implications, it also deepens the original’s adroitness for visualizing psychological concepts. Building on the lessons learned from that chapter, Joy creates a “Sense Of Self” section of Riley’s head, where the multi-colored memory orbs introduced in Inside Out float on a translucent lake where elegant strands spring out of the water. When plucked, these strings echo affirmations like “I’m a good person” and analogize one’s self-esteem. After Anxiety takes the wheel, these threads turn jagged and contain thoughts like “if I make the hockey team, I won’t be alone.” Now, a more simple animated movie would have these be purely negative thoughts that obviously need to go but “if I’m good at hockey, I’ll have friends” isn’t a bad sentiment on its own. The issue is how Anxiety applies these thoughts to Riley’s psyche, beautifully capturing how logical fallacies, thought loops and cognitive biases can crop up in our brains.

Building upon the incredible “abstract thought” section of Inside Out, the sequel implements different animation styles for several new characters that pop up during Joy and company’s journey back to headquarters. 2D remnants from a TV show Riley watched when she was younger, Bloofy and Pouchy (voiced by Ron Funches and James Austin Johnson, respectively), toss out questions to a non-existent audience in the back of Riley’s mind. There’s also the Final Fantasy-influenced Lance Slashblade and ominous Deep Dark Secret, who incidentally looks like the Paul Walter Hauser-voiced character from this year’s Orion And The Dark. There’s also a frantic setpiece involving a house-of-cards cubicle farm of Projections that sneaks in clever references to both 1984 and the “distracted boyfriend” meme. As much as I love Inside Out, I didn’t expect to enjoy a sequel to it quite this much but Inside Out 2 is a fully-realized successor that delights and surprises with its imagination and ingenuity.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing in theaters is The Bikeriders, a crime drama starring Jodie Comer and Austin Butler which tells the true story of the Chicago outlaw motorcycle club known as the Vandals MC as their club evolves over the course of the 1960s.
Also coming to theaters is The Exorcism, a supernatural horror film starring Russell Crowe and Sam Worthington about a troubled actor who begins to exhibit a disruptive — and possibly demonic — behavior while shooting a supernatural horror film.
Streaming on Netflix is Trigger Warning, an action thriller starring Jessica Alba and Anthony Michael Hall following a skilled Special Forces commando who takes ownership of her father’s bar after he suddenly dies and soon finds herself at odds with a violent gang running rampant in her hometown.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Marvelous Mrs. Meryl: The Deer Hunter

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

At this point, it’s difficult to imagine that another performer will top Meryl Streep’s record for Oscar nominations in the acting categories. Over the past 45 years, she’s been nominated for either Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress a combined 21 times. It’s a mind-blowing figure and while acting awards don’t mean everything, they certainly contribute to Streep’s status as one of the most gifted actresses in film history. Her first Oscar win came in 1980 for her work in the divorce drama Kramer Vs. Kramer but her first nomination came the year prior for a film that had nominations in 8 other categories and wins in 5. Though The Deer Hunter can be seen as a movie dominated by masculinity, Streep provides a crucial counterbalance in a role that helped shoot the young actress into stardom.

Set during the late 60s in the Southern Steel Valley near Pittsburgh, The Deer Hunter centers around the relationship between three close friends before, during and after their deployment in Vietnam. The leader of the trio is Mike (Robert De Niro), who everyone seems to instinctually follow out of the steel mill when the 5 o’clock bell has rung. Right by his side is Nick (Christopher Walken), who is housemates and likely best friends with Mike as well. Then there’s the soft-spoken Steven (John Savage), who may not have Mike or Nick’s assertiveness but has loyalty to spare, evidenced by the fact that he’s marrying Angela (Rutanya Alda) even though she’s pregnant with another man’s baby. Shortly after Steven and Angela’s spirited wedding, the three men go off to war and what they experience together alters their relationship with each other and their community forever.

Streep plays Linda, whose soft features and warm demeanor have captured the affection of both Mike and Nick. She’s introduced in The Deer Hunter adorn with a lovely bridesmaid’s dress while anxiously preparing a meal for her alcoholic and abusive father. In an attempt to flee from his monstrous presence, she asks Nick if she can stay at their house while they go on a hunting trip and later when they go overseas to fight. Later at the wedding, Nick returns the favor and hastily ups the ante with an even more serious question: asking if she’ll marry him. Even though glances across the dance floor imply that she also has feelings for Mike too, she excitedly says “yes” to Nick’s proposal and awaits their return home so they can have a wedding of their own.

The second act of the film largely centers on the three brothers in arms during their time in the Vietnam War, which leave each of them broken in different ways. Steven loses both of his legs due to a fall from a helicopter, while a PTSD-ridden Nick goes AWOL and recklessly drifts from one Chinese gambling den to another. Mike returns to his small hometown of Clairton and while Linda is overjoyed to see him, she is understandably worried about her absent fiancé. The final act is where Streep’s performance really shines, imbued with quiet yearning and shattering heartache that realigns the emotional core of the film. After Mike finds Linda crying in the grocery store where she works, Linda laments “did you ever think life would turn out like this?” to him in the car a moment later.

As it turns out, Streep may have been mining from ongoing personal experiences when crafting her Oscar-nominated performance. During the filming of The Deer Hunter, Streep was in a committed relationship with John Cazale, who also stars in the movie as one of Mike’s hunting buddies in his final film role. Tragically, Cazale was diagnosed with lung cancer that quickly spread to his bones, a fact that he withheld from the production studio EMI because he was worried he would be pulled from the production for insurance reasons. Robert De Niro was fully behind his friend and co-star, threatening to walk if the EMI dismissed him from set and, as it was finally revealed just a few years ago, De Niro was the one who paid Cazale’s insurance premium so he could stay on. Since the clock was ticking, director Michael Cimino shot all of Cazale’s scenes first and sadly, Cazale passed shortly after filming wrapped.

Even though Streep and Cazale don’t share many scenes together in The Deer Hunter, the real-life events give both of their performances an added layer of sorrow even independent of one another. ”I was so close that I hadn’t noticed his deterioration,” Streep later said of Cazale. ”John’s death came as a shock to me because I didn’t expect it.” In the film, Linda doesn’t deal with the same circumstances that Streep had to travail off-set but her character does suffer heartbreak and loss all the same. When Linda first embraces Mike upon his arrival home, she lets out such a cry of relief and surprise that it hits the senses like a thunderbolt. But when she realizes that Nick isn’t going to make it back, her spirit sinks as high as it rose when Mike hugged her at their door. Streep doesn’t have an abundance of screen time in The Deer Hunter but she pours her heart into every second that she’s on screen.

The Watchers

This summer, one Shyamalan simply isn’t sufficient. While M. Night Shyamalan has the concert-set thriller Trap due out this August, his daughter Ishana Night Shyamalan has struck first blood with The Watchers, a supernatural horror offering based on A.M. Shine’s breakthrough novel. Though she’s worked as second unit director on her father’s recent films Old and Knock At The Cabin, while also writing and directing a handful of episodes for the Apple TV+ series Servant, this is Ishana’s first time writing and directing for the big screen. Her directorial debut displays promise from the outset with a tantalizing hook and properly spooky atmosphere but eventually comes undone with inconsistent pacing and telegraphed third-act developments.

The Watchers centers around Mina (Dakota Fanning), a young American stuck in the haze of her troubled past while working at a pet shop in Ireland. Tasked with delivering a prized parrot to a customer hours away from the store, Mina finds herself lost in the deep Irish forest with a broken down car. Soon night falls and worrisome noises draw her to the only building in the area and a woman called Madeline (Olwen Fouéré), who is standing by the open door offering Mina shelter. The situation doesn’t get any less strange when Madeline demands that Mina stand with her, along with two other lost forest dwellers Ciara (Georgina Campbell) and Daniel (Oliver Finnegan), in front of a one way mirror so the quartet can be observed by an unseen entity. Can the four of them find their way out of the woods before the creatures they call “The Watchers” penetrate their bunker?

Like her father’s most memorable movies, Ishana Night Shyamalan’s The Watchers has a high-concept premise perfect for an enticing teaser trailer, which fittingly debuted before fellow Warner Bros release Dune: Part Two earlier this year. From a marketing perspective, it’s fortunate that the clip features the most accomplished stretch of filmmaking front-and-center. The four members of “The Coop”, the characters’ name for the enclosure they find themselves in, kill time playing records and DVDs until the sun goes down and ritual dictates that they gather in front of the glass to be “watched”. It’s a juxtaposition between mundane domesticity and paranormal ceremony previously employed by similarly grabby entertainments like Lost and 10 Cloverfield Lane.

It’s never an easy thing to follow up on such a persuasive pitch with a narrative that cleverly unpacks the opening gambit and that’s where The Watchers predictably falters. The more we learn about the titular observers, the less interesting the story at large becomes. Instead of focusing on the troublesome and tense aspects of sharing a confined living space with three other strangers, Shyamalan decides to press forward with the more generic horror elements of her tale instead. It’s not necessarily that the reveal of who The Watchers are is disappointing but as a director, Shyamalan can’t exactly figure out where she wants to take things from there. Once the bird flies the proverbial coop, it doesn’t land in territory we haven’t seen dozens of times before.

That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have appealing aspects. It’s exceptionally well shot by cinematographer Eli Arenson, who beautifully captures both the haunting beauty of the Irish countryside and the chilly interiority of The Coop. The shots of Mina and the others interacting with the one way mirror are aided by gorgeous computer-generated effects that gorgeously render reflections that point to the movie’s theme of doubles and competing halves of one’s identity. It’s also nice to see Dakota Fanning in a starring role again after a smaller part in last year’s The Equalizer 3. Even if her character’s personal journey isn’t quite as interesting as the supernatural elements at play, Fanning makes Mina a protagonist with whom it’s easy to sympathize. The Watchers isn’t the strongest start for Ishana Night Shyamalan but there are still seeds of a promising storyteller to watch for.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing exclusively in theaters is Inside Out 2, an animated sequel starring Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith following the personified emotions of a teenage girl as new feelings like Anxiety and Envy enter the mix.
Screening at Cinema Center is Tuesday, a fantasy drama starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Lola Petticrew about a mother and her terminally ill daughter as they’re visited by a size-altering macaw that’s the personification of death.
Streaming on Hulu is Brats, a documentary about the Brat Pack, a group of young actors who frequently appeared together in coming-of-age films in the 1980s, and the impact on their lives and careers.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

In A Violent Nature

Years ago, GEICO had an ad spoofing the stupidity of horror movie protagonists where a group of teens on the run from a killer opt to hide behind a wall of hanging chainsaws over hopping in a running car. Following their decision, we get a close-up of the killer standing right behind them, who lifts up his mask to reveal how befuddled and somehow disappointed he is by their idiocy. The new Canadian slasher film In A Violent Nature hinges on a hook left hanging by the ad: what if we spent a whole horror movie following the deranged murderer instead of the clueless campers? There have been so many Friday The 13th sequels, it’s a wonder they hadn’t tried it before but now that it’s finally here, I only wish that it had come sooner; it’s the best movie of its subgenre since last year’s Thanksgiving.

We open on a static shot of a locket hanging on a beam in a deep woods abandoned shed, where voices talk out of frame and a hand belonging to Troy (Liam Leone) reaches out to nab the jewelry. Little does he know, that necklace is all that was keeping the decades-old corpse of Johnny (Ry Barrett) buried in the ground and moments after Troy departs with his buddies, the zombified Johnny wriggles free from his earthy prison. We stick with him as he wanders through the forests of Ontario, silently watching over a campfire where the group of friends swap scary stories. They eventually bring up the White Pine Slaughter, an urban legend where an unseen force allegedly got brutal revenge on a group of loggers who covered up the murder of the “mentally hindered” Johnny when he was just a boy. Unfortunately for them, the revenge isn’t quite over yet.

After this bit of exposition, In A Violent Nature doesn’t bother to explain much more along the lines of character motivation as, in one sense, we’ve seen this movie before. Once Johnny claims his first victim, the survival instincts of the remaining campers reliably kick in and they attempt to take actions that won’t instantly doom them. By keeping the perspective on the zombified killer as he lumbers through nature, it could be said that Johnny is the closest thing the film has to a true protagonist. We aren’t exactly rooting for him to kill everyone in this group…but aren’t we? He’s modeled very similarly to Jason Voorhees, the hockey-masked face of the Friday The 13th series who drowned as a boy at Camp Crystal Lake due to the negligence of the staff. If Jason can be seen as the “hero” of that franchise, then it’s not difficult to view Johnny in the same way here.

Though In A Violent Nature has long takes and a slower pace, don’t let that fool you into thinking that the movie takes itself too seriously. Some of the kills here are the most gloriously over-the-top that I’ve seen in a slasher, including a cliffside slaughtering that is so immoderate that it’s difficult not to chuckle. That’s not to say that this is a horror comedy but it certainly knows where it came from and leans into the camp of its predecessors. In his debut, writer/director Chris Nash has clearly done his homework, thought about what we’ve already seen before in these films and then commits to how to give us a new perspective. Plot-wise, this movie is hardly reinventing the wheel but in terms of direction, it’s pretty much one-of-a-kind.

Another way that In A Violent Nature carves out its own path is in its audio presentation, which forgoes a musical score for the eerie sounds of the deep forest and the detailed sound design during the slayings. It’s another way that the movie is a subtractive exercise, taking away the conventions upon which audiences typically rely to heighten the overall experience. In a brief sequence that is reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project, one of the characters is running fast enough that her white shirt is barely visible and her screams are barely audible over the ominous symphony of cicada chirps. It sets up a denouement that is more tense and unnerving than the brutality that precedes it, capping off In A Violent Nature as appointment viewing for horror fans.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is Bad Boys: Ride Or Die, a buddy cop action comedy starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence reuniting a pair of Miami PD’s finest as they investigate corruption in the department but subsequently find themselves on the run.
Also playing in theaters is The Watchers, a supernatural horror film starring Dakota Fanning and Georgina Campbell following a young artist who gets stranded in the forest and becomes trapped alongside three strangers, who are stalked by mysterious creatures each night.
Premiering on Netflix is Hit Man, a romantic action comedy starring Glen Powell and Adria Arjona involving a professor moonlighting as a hit man for his city police department who finds himself attracted to a woman who enlists his services.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup