All posts by Brent Leuthold


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.


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

Five Nights At Freddy’s

Now streaming on Peacock, and reportedly making a killing in theaters, the new video game adaptation Five Nights At Freddy’s may work as fan service for those who love the source material but won’t work for those looking for a satisfying horror movie. It doesn’t seem like it should be difficult to make a creepy movie about murderous animatronic robots — after all, Nicolas Cage starred in one (Willy’s Wonderland) a couple years ago — but director and co-writer Emma Tammi just doesn’t give this film what it needs. Stifled by too much exposition and heavy-handed character work, this could have worked as a lean-and-mean R-rated slasher but it flounders as an overwrought PG-13 ghost story. Unless its wall-to-wall fan service is meant to register as scary, I can’t imagine many will be spooked by this, even during the spookiest of all the seasons.

Five Nights At Freddy’s follows Mike Schmidt (Josh Hutcherson), a troubled mall cop who loses his gig after a violent misunderstanding with a civilian during his shift. Desperate to look after his younger sister Abby (Piper Rubio) with their parents out of the picture and their aunt Jane (Mary Stuart Masterson) threatening a custody battle, Mike hastily takes a night guard position at an abandoned family entertainment center. Aside from a copious consignment of cobwebs, the Chuck E. Cheese facsimile sports a set of seemingly-defunct animatronic mascots, led by the top-hatted Freddy Fazbear. Mike’s first couple nights are uneventful, with fellow police officer Vanessa (Elizabeth Lail) showing up to keep him company, but eventually things go bump in the night and it’s up to Mike, Vanessa and Abby to investigate.

Scream alum Matthew Lillard pops up in a few scenes as a career counselor and serves as a sore reminder of a horror franchise that has an infinite amount of more humor and self-awareness than Five Nights At Freddy’s. Hutcherson does what he can to prop up the patchwork pathos behind his character but the childhood trauma material isn’t a good fit for a film that is supposed to revolve around killer robots. His repetitive dream sequences call to mind another horror series with a villain named Freddy at its center but the gloved nemesis of the Nightmare On Elm Street movies has a devilish persona that kept audiences coming back for decades. I’m not sure quite what this film has that will lead to that sort of longevity within the cinematic medium.

When Freddy and his autonomous crew do pop up, the film at least has more of a sense of menace than the ghost children that haunt Mike during his dream state and then his waking hours. Kudos to Blumhouse Productions and Tammi for getting Jim Henson’s Creature Shop involved with bringing the demented robo-critters to life. Even though the characters aren’t in the movie enough, the animatronics and puppeteering brings a tactility and presence to the Freddy’s foes that would have been lacking severely had they chosen CG effects instead. There’s a grueling sequence involving the spring locks inside one of the mascot’s outfits that was an effective piece of mechanical terror one may expect out of a Hellraiser entry. Sadly, the rest of Five Nights At Freddy’s is mostly anodyne by comparison.

If Blumhouse wanted to keep this film PG-13 to retain the core audience of teenage gamers, then I understand not making it an ultra-violent gorefest but is it too much to ask it to at least be creepy or unsettling? After all, not every horror movie has to be rated R and there are loads of examples that succeed with less severe ratings. I was shocked how little foreboding or tension there is in the build-up to the reveal of the Freddy’s crew, despite the film’s best intentions with a razor-sharp cold open. Regardless, Five Nights At Freddy’s has already made back quadruple its budget in box office sales, so there’s little doubt we’ll have more of these on the horizon. Perhaps they’ll find more clever and mischievous uses for the pizzeria-dwelling droids in the sequels but this inaugural entry gets things off to a creaky start.

Score – 2/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is What Happens Later, a romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan and David Duchovny about a pair of exes who, after bumping into each other when their flights get delayed due to a snow storm, spend the night at the airport reliving their past.
Premiering on Netflix is Nyad, a sports biopic starring Annette Bening and Jodie Foster about athlete Diana Nyad who, at the age of 60 and with the help of her best friend and coach, commits to achieving her life-long dream: a 110-mile open ocean swim from Cuba to Florida.
Streaming on Hulu is Quiz Lady, a comedy starring Awkwafina and Sandra Oh about a gameshow-obsessed woman and her estranged sister who work together to help cover their mother’s gambling debts.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Killers Of The Flower Moon

Now 80 years old, landmark filmmaker Martin Scorsese has spent the last 10 years of his career specifically making films and telling stories that he’s been itching to tell for quite some time. The development of 2016’s Silence dates back to the early 1990s, shortly after Scorsese read the book upon which the film is based, and he reportedly began discussions with frequent collaborator Robert De Niro about 2019’s The Irishman back in the 1980s. Now comes Killers of the Flower Moon, another American crime epic based on true events that also stars De Niro but also includes fellow Scorsese muse Leonardo DiCaprio. Both of the seminal actors give fiercely accomplished performances in a film that frustratingly and frequently feels that it’s taking the most pedestrian angle on this gripping and tragic true tale.

At the conclusion of World War I, veteran Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio) returns to rural Oklahoma, where his thriving but conniving uncle Bill King Hale (De Niro) helps him secure a job as a driver for the well-off Osage locals. After giving several rides around town to oil benefactor Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), Ernest finds himself falling for her and the two are soon married in a ceremony that reflects both of their respective Osage and Catholic backgrounds. But the honeymoon period is short-lived, as numerous Osage members of the community, including Mollie’s sisters Anna (Cara Jade Myers) and Minnie (Jillian Dion), turn up dead under mysterious circumstances. Despite her health problems, Mollie eventually gathers the strength to make the trip to Washington D.C. and bring the suspicious string of deaths to the attention of the Bureau Of Investigation.

Reportedly, the script, co-written by Scorsese along with veteran scribe Eric Roth, was originally centered around the BOI agent who is summoned from Washington and doggedly solves the Osage Indian murder case. DiCaprio, who was initially in talks to play Agent Tom White, pressed the screenwriters to revise the script to have Burkhart be the center of this story. So instead, Jesse Plemons shows up right around the 2-hour mark as the heroic agent and is framed as an antagonistic force to the murderous Burkhart, who is supposedly torn between the love of his wife Mollie and allegiance to his deceitful uncle Bill. Put simply, this is a mistake. DiCaprio does everything he can to make his Burkhart compelling main character but he’s just not nearly the most interesting facet of this fascinating crime saga. DiCaprio’s performance particularly stalls out in the final act, where less and less can be gleaned from the lugubrious grimace plastered on his face.

Fortunately, DiCaprio’s star power is still enough to win the day and he’s surrounded by actors — seasoned, untested and everything in between –who turn in incredible performances left and right. Obviously De Niro is a singular talent but after the string of forgettable work he’s had since The Irishman, it’s heartening to watch him really sink his teeth into the kind of role that made him a legend in the first place. Since making a splash in 2016’s Certain Women, Gladstone had so much trouble finding acting work that she was considering switching careers before getting an email about meeting with Scorsese to discuss this project. She is the quiet grace and stoic resiliency that serves as a poignant counterpoint to the greed and malice that surrounds her. It’s a powerfully rendered performance, one that I hope cements her as an actress we’ll be seeing pop up in many films for years to come.

Of course Scorsese has told stories of crime and corruption plenty of times in the past but with Killers of the Flower Moon, he still finds notes of wisdom and complexity anew within this sordid and blood-stained chronicle. At the outset, the movie has parallels to The Master, another tale of a clench-faced soldier returning from wartime to be taken under the wing of an untrustworthy father figure. But where that film fixates on man’s relationship to religious figures, Scorsese’s story ultimately comes down to the something men too often turn into a religion: money. Late into his career, Scorsese is telling the stories that matter to him the most and even if the results don’t quite match the level of brilliance found in his most defining work, they’re still better than what most other filmmakers are putting out at their peak.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Streaming on Peacock and playing in theaters is Five Nights At Freddy’s, a supernatural horror film starring Josh Hutcherson and Elizabeth Lail following a troubled security guard as he accepts a night-time job at a once-successful but now abandoned family entertainment center.
Premiering on Netflix is Pain Hustlers, a crime drama starring Emily Blunt and Chris Evans about a high school dropout who lands a job with a failing pharmaceutical start-up but soon finds herself at the center of a criminal conspiracy with deadly consequences.
Streaming on Shudder and AMC+ is When Evil Lurks, a horror movie starring Ezequiel Rodriguez and Demián Salomon about two brothers living in a rural small town who take arms against a resident who is about to give birth to a demon.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Royal Hotel

Following up her exceptional narrative feature debut The Assistant from 2020, Australian filmmaker Kitty Green is back with what could be described as another workplace thriller. Trading the frigid interiors of New York for the sweltering expanse of the Outback, The Royal Hotel is obviously rougher around the edges by comparison but still playing with the same themes of gender politics and power dynamics. Holding the center of both films is Julia Garner, a terrific actress familiar to many for her award-winning work as Ruth Langmore in the Netflix series Ozark. There’s never any guessing what’s on Ruth’s mind; she’s an emotionally explosive character and eminently watchable as such. But seeing Garner in this pair of films, it’s fascinating seeing how much she can drive the trajectory of a story even in more restrained performances.

In The Royal Hotel, Hanna (Garner) and her best friend Liv (Jessica Henwick) are a duo of young Americans who find themselves low on funds during their work travel program. Desperate for cash, they agree to a bartending gig in a remote Australian town populated mainly by unrefined miners;”you’re gonna have to be okay with a little male attention,” an employment officer cautions them ahead of their assignment. They’re driven to their new workplace/living quarters The Royal Hotel, a run-down pub run by the perpetually drunk or hungover Billy (Hugo Weaving) and his much more reliable cook Carol (Ursula Yovich). Hanna and Liv try to make the best of the unsavory situation, keeping their heads down while cracking open longnecks for roughnecks, but the advances of the male patrons push the undesirable circumstances into even more hostile territory.

One of the challenges in watching The Royal Hotel is in restraining oneself from asking the question “why don’t they just get out of there?” every five minutes. In that way, it may play more like a slasher movie than a traditional psychological thriller but along with co-writer Oscar Redding, Green comes with just enough justifications to sustain the film’s taut 91-minute runtime. Most of these are spoken by Liv, the more adventurous of the two travelers and the most seemingly oblivious with the squalor of their surroundings; “that’ll be us in a few weeks,” Liv jokes as an over-served female flasher is being pulled down from dancing atop the bar. Just because Hanna is the more level-headed of the two and more of an audience surrogate doesn’t mean that she isn’t given just as many chances to hightail it out of the dilapidated bar.

If The Royal Hotel is somewhat disappointing in comparison to The Assistant, it’s the fact that the subjects and threats here are a bit more shallow and less intellectually engaging. The toxic masculinity and permissible behavior on display at the film production company where The Assistant takes place lead to chilling conversations with startling subtext. Yes, it’s more believable that the surly men in The Royal Hotel would hurl salty language across the pub as opposed to sneaking veiled threats but there isn’t quite as much nuance in their menace. The most overtly intimidating of the patrons, an ironically named Dolly (played by Daniel Henshall), is highlighted in one of the movie’s best scenes where he spoils the wedding anniversary of a couple who mistakenly visits the bar. The sequence best demonstrates how quickly a sour situation can escalate and the film could have used a few more tactfully-deployed examples to match it.

Nevertheless, Green’s direction again displays her aptitude for simmering thrillers that get under our skin and slowly set up a final act with explosive outcomes. Garner proves key to the formula once again, her Hanna ever so slightly revealing degrees of separation between herself and the more free-spirited Liv. Knowing the kind of powder keg performances that she’s given in the past, it’s exciting to see how much pent-up rage Garner will let come through in her character. Henwick’s performance is the more laid-back of the two and when she’s not volleying sexist jabs from bawdy bar dwellers, she has some fun bits of levity; I was tickled by the moment where she treats a box of white wine like manna from heaven. It’s no tourist ad for the land down under but The Royal Hotel is worth checking into for a tense and thrilling trip.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Premiering only in theaters is Killers Of The Flower Moon, a Western epic starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro about a 1920s FBI investigation involving members of the Osage tribe in northeastern Oklahoma being murdered under mysterious circumstances.
Coming to Netflix is Old Dads, a comedy starring Bill Burr and Bobby Cannavale about three best friends who become fathers later in life and find themselves out-of-step with the millennial-invested modern world.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Silver Dollar Road, a documentary covering a hotly-contested waterfront property in North Carolina owned by a Black family who have been harassed for decades by land developers looking to claim it for themselves.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

No Sleep October: Trick ‘r Treat

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

Though movies of any genre can potentially be considered cult films, there’s something particularly exciting about scary movies that develop an undeniable cult following. Horror fans tend to be quite effusive when rallying behind overlooked releases and in the days and weeks leading up to Halloween every year, people are always looking for spooky titles that they haven’t seen before. October is the time of year when cinephiles and non-cinephiles alike trade horror movie suggestions with one another the same way that autumnal aficionados swap spooky stories around a bonfire. Screened at a few film festivals starting in 2007 before going direct-to-DVD in 2009, the anthology film Trick ‘r Treat is one of these word-of-mouth treasures that has earned its reputation as annual traditional viewing.

Split up into four chapters with a wraparound tale that brings everything together, Trick ‘r Treat is loosely structured around a diminutive demon named Sam (Quinn Lord) who oversees Halloween celebrants in small-town Ohio. He trick-or-treats at the house of school principal Steven Wilkins (Dylan Baker), whose candy isn’t as sweet as it would seem to be on the outside. Sam sees a group of teenagers recruit outcast Rhonda (Samm Todd) to join them for a ritual at a haunted quarry where a tragedy occurred years prior. Then he sees young Laurie (Anna Paquin) trying to find a date for a Halloween bash that her sister Danielle (Lauren Lee Smith) is hosting deep in the woods. Finally, Sam pays a visit to Principal Wilkins’ crotchety neighbor Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox) to “reignite” his Halloween spirit.

Written and directed by Michael Dougherty, who would later go on to create the similarly campy Krampus and Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Trick ‘r Treat is adapted from an animated short Dougherty crafted back in 1996 called Season’s Greetings. It’s here that the creature masquerading as a tiny trick-or-treater known as Sam made his debut, complete with orange footie pajamas and burlap sack covering his head. It’s not mentioned in the film but Sam’s name is short for Samhain, the Celtic pagan observance late into Halloween night that marks the “darker half” of the year. Naturally, it’s the perfect setting for a set of interweaving narratives where Sam seems to be watching events transpire from a distance and intervene if a Halloween tradition is being violated. Like Jason Voorhees’ machete or Freddy Krueger’s knife glove, Sam also has his signature weapon in the form of a broken (and especially sharp) jack-o-lantern-shaped lollipop.

Speaking of jack-o-lanterns, I would put the menagerie of carved pumpkins assembled for Trick ‘r Treat as one of the finest in cinematic history. The opening segment alone, which features Leslie Bibb and Tahmoh Penikett as a horny couple trying to take down decorations early, features the kind of ghosts and headstones you’d see in most front yards this time of year but also sports some particularly ornate jack-o-lanterns too. Before that, there’s a match cut from a 1950s-style instructional video about trick-or-treating that transitions into a glowing pumpkin akin to the one featured in the opening of Halloween. But the film really delivers the gourds in the final chapter, where Sam is called to teach Mr. Kreeg about the true meaning of Halloween. There’s a specific shot of a suddenly crowded porch that will give the “it’s fall, y’all” crowd the kind of giddy feeling that Christmas enthusiasts reserve for the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree.

It’s hard to pick a favorite segment in Trick ‘r Treat but if I had to offer just one up, it’d be the “Halloween School Bus Massacre” chapter towards the film’s mid-section. It so perfectly encapsulates the tropes that we associate with campfire tales while subverting some of the traditional story beats and providing some deeply creepy images along the way. We briefly meet the teenagers in this story during the “Principal” sequence, where they say they’re collecting pumpkins for charity, but we soon learn that they’re actually using them for a seance. The interaction between the kids is authentic and Rhonda is the kind of other-side-of-the-tracks protagonist whose glasses are just bound to get smashed one way or another. There’s an extended flashback that just oozes hazy dread and, once again, the set design is stellar for the fog-enraptured quarry where the kids must travel down a creaky elevator to place the pumpkins.

In weaving between these tales, Dougherty includes comic book bubbles like “earlier”, “later”, and “meanwhile” to clue us into the movie’s chronology. The opening credits also foreshadow events in the film by way of comic-style drawings and, fittingly, Trick ‘r Treat was adapted into a graphic novel after Warner Bros released the movie to home video in 2009. For having such an unceremonious release, the film nevertheless spawned a healthy line of merchandise that still seems to sell well to this day. Anecdotally, I’ve seen more youngsters dressed up as Sam every Halloween since Trick ‘r Treat has been released and if Dougherty is able to bring a sequel into fruition, it should only further cement the movie’s position in the frightgeist.

The Exorcist: Believer

With his Halloween trilogy now completed, director David Gordon Green now turns his attention to reviving another franchise that began in the 1970s with a smash horror hit. The Exorcist: Believer is the sixth installment in a film series that probably didn’t need much expansion outside the original chapter but since that film made over $400 million at the box office back in 1973, we continue to pay for the sins of curious moviegoers all those years ago. Universal, whose acquisition of the Exorcist rights was reported to have a $400 million price tag, is careful to follow the legacy sequel playbook they helped establish in 2015 with Jurassic World. Give the audiences plenty of elements they remember from the first film with enough new bits to feel like they’ve experienced something original. The formula this time around feels particularly hollow.

Similar to the Iraq-set prologue in The Exorcist, The Exorcist: Believer opens in a location apart from the rest of the story with a chilling preface. Victor (Leslie Odom Jr.) and pregnant Sorenne (Tracey Graves) are honeymooning in Haiti when a giant earthquake levels their hotel. This forces Victor to choose between saving either their unborn baby or Sorenne after the latter is severely injured in the cataclysm. 13 years later, Victor is doing his best to raise daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) by himself while making end’s meet as a photographer. After school one day, Angela and her friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill) go out to the woods and attempt to convene with the spirit of Angela’s deceased mother. The pair is missing for three days after being found in a barn miles away from the woods with no memory of the missing time. Victor is, of course, relieved to have Angela back home but her strange behavior following the incident points to something more ungodly as opposed to just unusual.

From here, The Exorcist: Believer plays the hits it presumes the audience will want to hear. Beds are wet, bodies are levitated and the fog machines kick into high gear. Prior to this, Green at least tries to establish a worthwhile story before the movie becomes possessed by franchise necessities and studio notes. Put bluntly, Odom Jr. is insanely overqualified to play this thankless role but, ever the professional, he puts his all into it nonetheless. He and Jewett have a very believable and fun chemistry as a father and daughter brought closer together by tragic circumstances. Sadly, their connection means less as the film proceeds, since the plotline has to make more room for secondary characters played by Ann Dowd and Ellen Burstyn, the latter reprising from the 1973 original.

If The Exorcist: Believer is more discouraging than Green’s Halloween films, it’s because the filmmaker doesn’t seem to have a grasp on what makes the original film remarkable. It’s ironic because he could have made his Halloween movies simply about Michael Myers and the people he stabs but, to his credit, Green goes deeper than that with the Laurie Strode character and the trauma she’s endured. Conversely, Green ultimately demonstrates that what’s important to him about The Exorcist is preteen girls using foul language and vomiting pea soup on priests. Not only were those aspects actually transgressive at the time, when they’re simply old hat by now, but that first film is, rightly, about the priests and their faith being shaken by such evil events. Believer has a priest character, portrayed by E.J. Bonilla, who barely registers as an afterthought when all is said and done.

If Universal is dead set on having demons like Pazuzu and Lamashtu being their new spooky baddie like Michael Myers, they need to find someone who will engage with the material better for the sequels. Truth be told, Green should be past this “one for them” part of his filmography anyway at this point. He’s had an interesting career, to say the least, alternating between blisteringly affecting indies like Joe and Snow Angels to goofy stoner riffs like Pineapple Express and Your Highness before getting stuck in this franchise horror milieu. I know Blumhouse is always looking to franchise but it feels like they’d have more luck with a M3GAN series at this point. Regardless, The Exorcist: Believer is a humdrum sequel that true believers in The Exorcist will likely find to be sacrilegious.

Score – 2/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour, the concert film documenting the cultural phenomenon that is the ongoing titular concert series from pop behemoth Taylor Swift.
Premiering on Amazon Prime is The Burial, a legal drama inspired by true events starring Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones about a lawyer who helps a funeral home owner save his family business from a deceitful corporation.
Streaming on Netflix is The Conference, a horror comedy starring Katia Winter and Adam Lundgren in which a team-building conference for municipal employees turns into a nightmare when a mysterious figure begins murdering the participants.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Fair Play

One of the very best film debuts of the year, Chloe Domont’s Fair Play is a bracingly taut psychosexual thriller that leaves an impact. Acquired by Netflix for a hefty $20 million sum after it screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January, it’s the kind of serious-minded adult drama that could gain gobs of traction if it doesn’t get lost in the algorithm after its release. Increasingly, Netflix’s content machine is more focused on producing disposable entertainment that checks off demographic or genre boxes rather than rewarding exceptional filmmakers with attentive audiences. It’s a common practice now for people watching TV at home to also have their smartphone out in front of their face at the same time, effectively creating a “two-screen” experience. Fair Play is a movie that demands your single-screen attention.

We meet Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) at the wedding of the latter’s brother, where the couple sneak off for an unexpectedly messy bathroom tryst. An engagement ring falls out of Luke’s pocket, a hasty proposal is carried out and the happy couple covertly leaves the wedding in lovedrunk bliss. But the 4:30 AM alarm comes all too soon and the two go about getting ready for their workdays, which we soon learn take place at the highly competitive firm Crest Capital. They’re keeping their relationship a secret from everyone at the office, desperate not to break company policy in front of their boss Campbell (Eddie Marsan). After the calamitous firing of a portfolio manager, analysts like Emily and Luke wait with baited breath to see who will fill the new opening but after Emily gets the promotion, Luke’s jealousies and insecurities bubble up and threaten their relationship.

Though there have been plenty of tense movies set in the world of high finance, what makes Fair Play especially fraught is the personal stakes atop the high pressure setting of the hedge fund world. Emily first hears a rumor that Luke is next in line for the coveted PM position and when she tells him, they’re both excited at the proposition. There’s implicit gender bias at play when Emily is expected to be happy for Luke and report to him with no issue but when the roles are reversed, he is clearly uncomfortable with her being the boss. He fakes excitement upon hearing the news but after just the first day of working under her, he’s clearly bitter and pouts at a bar when the work day is over. From there, the passive aggressive missives get less “passive” as the story steams ahead. Even though their relationship gets more toxic and twisted over time, I somehow still wanted things to be reconciled between the two of these characters.

The pair of performances at the center of Fair Play are nothing short of electric. Dynevor has a more complex role, given that she has the biggest shifts between how she represents herself in her personal life with Luke versus how she runs her professional life in the office. Emily puts a tremendous amount of pressure on herself not only to excel in her new position but to salvage a relationship that used to be filled with passion and understanding but is becoming more doomed by the day. Dynevor is incredible in so many scenes but the one in which she begs with Luke to try to refer him to another firm so that he can save his career and their engagement was particularly heart-wrenching. Ehrenreich has the less empathetic role as the rampantly petulant Luke but his unnerving level of ambition certainly makes him a compelling antagonist. Between this and his rewarding work in Oppenheimer back in July, Ehrenreich is continuing to carve quite a career out for himself.

As with many thrillers, the pace is critical to keeping the audience hooked and Domont along with editor Franklin Peterson assert a sprinter’s clip through the almost two-hour runtime. There are moments that mirror one another, as when a phone alarm first goes off early in the morning but each subsequent instance of it appearing finds one or both of the protagonists already wide awake, drearily looking at the phone in anticipation. I particularly loved a timbre match cut late in the film, where a character yelling an expletive merges seamlessly into a train brake screeching outside. Speaking of sound, there are also soulful doo-wop tunes embedded throughout the film which call to mind that this should be this couple’s honeymoon period instead of their unraveling. It may not be the easiest watch but in its ruthless examination of sexual politics and cataclysmic competition, Fair Play is riveting and unmissable.

Score – 4/5

More movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is The Exorcist: Believer, a supernatural horror sequel starring Leslie Odom Jr. and Ellen Burstyn, in which the parents of demonically possessed girls search for help by way of Regan MacNeil’s mother from the first The Exorcist.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Totally Killer, a horror comedy starring Kiernan Shipka and Olivia Holt about a teenager who accidentally travels back in time to 1987 determined to stop an infamous local serial killer before he can start his spree.
Premiering on Paramount+ is Pet Sematary: Bloodlines, a horror prequel starring Jackson White and Forrest Goodluck taking place 50 years before the original Pet Sematary, where a young boy first discovers a local cemetery where the dead can live again.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup