All posts by Brent Leuthold

Love Lies Bleeding

Last month, Ethan Coen’s Drive-Away Dolls had a very brief theatrical run as a light-hearted queer romance that was zany and even cartoony at points. This month, we have Love Lies Bleeding, another movie about two young women falling in love but whose story is much darker and more intense by comparison. Incidentally, it also mirrors the Coen Brothers’ debut film Blood Simple, another country-fried neo-noir in which one criminal act seems to beget an escalating series of retributions. It comes courtesy of up-and-coming English filmmaker Rose Glass, whose feature debut Saint Maud mined religious iconography for nervy moments of creepy transcendence. For the most part, her follow-up is more grounded and more violent but, most importantly, it’s more confident and kinetic filmmaking.

It’s 1989 and Lou (Kristen Stewart) is managing Crater Gym when she spots the brawny Jackie (Katy O’Brian) putting up some serious weight on the machines. They talk, hit it off, and soon, a serious relationship begins. The two confide in one another their hopes and dreams, with Jackie aiming to win an upcoming bodybuilding competition in Las Vegas and Lou looking to get out from under her corrupt father Lou Sr. (Ed Harris). Lou’s sister Beth (Jena Malone) is also under the thumb of another man, her abusive and controlling husband J.J. (Dave Franco), who doesn’t even try to hide the fact that he beats her. When Beth ends up in the hospital due to J.J.’s violence, Lou is understandably furious and out of devotion to her, Jackie takes brutal action to make things right. As well-intentioned as her recourse may have been, it sets off a chain reaction that puts the two lovers in the crosshairs.

The opening shots of Love Lies Bleeding brilliantly foreshadow the thematic conflict at the center of the film. The piercing red of car tail lights barely make a dent in the vastness of an endlessly black ravine that the camera slowly travels down. Then, an image of bright stars playing off one another illuminates a serene summer sky that promises possibility. The movie always feels like a sweaty tug-of-war between the implications of these visuals, whether one’s reach for the stars is stronger than forces chaining them to the ground. In that sense, it’s a film that chances hope and optimism but also one that accepts the ruthless realities that the characters find themselves in. The seedy setting further drives home the mired circumstances that Lou and Jackie will need to fight through to get to their version of happily ever after.

Love Lies Bleeding features strong acting from top to bottom but sports a pair of central performances that are perfect roles for the actors that inhabit them. After terrific work in Spencer and Crimes Of The Future, Kristen Stewart continues her hot streak with another deeply felt rendering of a woman looking to move beyond the demons of her past. As good as she is, IU grad and Indiana-born Katy O’Brian is even more of a standout after a secondary role in last year’s Ant-Man sequel. Obviously her muscular frame is part of what sells her character and her moments of rage are genuinely intimidating but she shares such a vulnerability with Stewart in their quiet scenes together. O’Brian will also appear in the upcoming Twisters this summer and I’m hoping we’ll continue to see more of her in the future.

While Rose Glass and her co-writer Weronika Tofilska beef Lou and Jackie up with strong dialogue and character development, I wish they had spent a bit more time fleshing out some of the secondary female characters. Jena Malone does what she can with her role as a battered wife but there isn’t quite enough on the page to tie together Beth’s relationship with Lou. Anna Baryshnikov factors into the narrative as an unexpected point on a burgeoning love triangle but her character seems to be shoehorned into the plot as a source of tension rather than someone who would enter this story naturally. Though the character dynamics don’t always cohere, Love Lies Bleeding is a robust potboiler bolstered by two prodigious lead performances.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, a supernatural comedy sequel starring Paul Rudd and Carrie Coon continuing the adventures of the Spengler family as they move from Oklahoma to New York City to stop a powerful death-chilling adversary.
Also playing only in theaters is Immaculate, a psychological horror film starring Sydney Sweeney and Álvaro Morte about a young woman of devout faith who is welcomed into an seemingly illustrious convent that harbors dark and horrifying secrets.
Streaming on Netflix is Shirley, a biopic starring Regina King and Lance Reddick following the life of Shirley Chisholm as she makes a trailblazing run for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination after becoming the first Black woman elected to Congress.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Imaginary

Blumhouse made almost $300 million last fall with the sinister bear-fronted Five Nights At Freddy’s and they return to theaters on Oscars weekend with another bear in mind. The would-be frightfest Imaginary tries to wring creeps out of a stuffed teddy bear named Chauncey, who I fear will not go down in the annals of anthropomorphic animals out for blood. On the other hand, a teddy may actually be a perfect mascot for a horror movie that’s this limp, familiar and full of stuffing. After heading up back-to-back bro beatdowns Never Back Down and Kick-Ass 2, director Jeff Wadlow has more recently been behind Blumhouse-backed duds like Truth Or Dare and Fantasy Island. Sadly, Imaginary is just more of the same.

The film tells the story of children’s book illustrator Jessica (DeWanda Wise), working hard to form meaningful relationships with her stepdaughters Taylor (Taegen Burns) and Alice (Pyper Braun). With her musician husband Max (Tom Payne) out on tour, Jessica moves the girls into her childhood home after her father’s move to an assisted living facility. It’s there that Alice begins communing with an imaginary friend through a teddy bear she calls Chauncey, who seems to be helping her cope with the new living situation. But Jessica becomes concerned when Chauncey seems to command Alice to gather items in a scavenger hunt that gradually takes a turn for the disturbing. Alice’s dark imagination eventually ties into dark secrets from Jessica’s childhood that will take a collective journey through the metaphysical to resolve.

From its confused and confusing cold open, Imaginary borrows liberally from specific story beats of better horror fare from Poltergeist to It. In fact, Shudder put out a similarly-plotted horror film a few years back called Z about a child’s imaginary friend that was by no means a masterpiece but is The Shining by comparison to Imaginary. For much of its running time, this movie labors under the misapprehension that a glum looking stuffed bear could be scary. After some time, it teases shots of the bear moving on its own but, predictably, that’s still not frightening. Later on, it tries to pull out the big guns with a CGI bear creature that’s much larger than a normal teddy but the effects aren’t rendered coherently and thus, the moments of supposed terror simply don’t land. There’s also a twist involving the actual presence of the bear that’s so wrongheaded that I’m tempted to spoil it here but I won’t.

Wise does her best with the only character in the movie who seems to have any agency or plausible motivation but she can’t come close to solving Imaginary‘s myriad of problems. I’m not exactly sure why Payne is billed so high when he’s in the film for a total of maybe ten minutes and I certainly don’t know what the point of having his character here was in the first place. As for the young actresses Burns and Braun, I’m sure they’re doing their best but their performances are downright awkward and amateurish. Veteran actress Betty Buckley also turns up as a leering next door neighbor that the movie can’t determine if it wants to take seriously as an antagonistic threat or comedically as generational juxtaposition for the young stepdaughters. I laughed at several interactions she had with the kids, although I’m not sure Wadlow intended the lines to have humor in them.

There’s all sorts of ponderous dialogue scattered throughout Imaginary that’s made all the more head-scratching when you realize it took a trio of credited screenwriters to come up with it. This film is distributed by Lionsgate but Bing Bong, the imaginary friend character from Disney’s Inside Out, is name-checked half a dozen times at various points. I could understand maybe once or twice for a reference point that Alice might use to tie to Chauncey but the reprises made me half-suspect the filmmakers are on the take from the House Of Mouse. But the movie’s biggest issue is that it takes itself far too seriously. I’m not suggesting strained comic relief but fellow Blumhouse production M3GAN was also about a killer doll but had a much more dialed-in mix of camp and fun. Imaginary is an unbearable horror effort that ironically lacks any sense of imagination.

Score – 1/5

New movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Arthur The King, starring Mark Wahlberg and Simu Liu, is an adventure following a group of mountain climbers who compete in an endurance race and meet a surviving stray dog who becomes attached to the head of the climbers during their trek.
The American Society Of Magical Negroes, starring Justice Smith and David Alan Grier, is a satire about a young Black man who is recruited into a magical society of African Americans to follow their lifelong cause: to make the lives of white people easier.
One Life, starring Anthony Hopkins and Helena Bonham Carter, is a biographical drama depicting a young London broker who, in the months leading up to World War II, rescued over 600 children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ep. #80 – Dune: Part Two

I’m joined again by my friend Paul as we spice up our lives once more with Dune: Part Two, the latest sci-fi epic from Denis Villeneuve. Then we talk over other titles we’ve be watching at home, including The Zone Of Interest (which is now available for purchase through video on demand) and True Detective: Night Country (which is streaming in its entirety on Max). Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd.

Dune: Part Two

Denis Villeneuve’s DunePart One, for retroactive clarity — was originally due to come out November of 2020 but got pushed out almost a year, debuting October 2021 in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously. Now premiering exclusively in theaters, Part Two was originally slated to come out last October but was delayed several months due to the Hollywood labor disputes of 2023. Pandemics and picket lines may have affected the release schedules for these two sci-fi epics but fortunately, they certainly haven’t affected their quality one bit. If Part One was Villeneuve’s way to introduce us to the world of Dune and its densely layered mythology, then Part Two gives us a chance to luxuriate in its singular splendor and sophisticated storytelling.

Picking up where Dune left off, Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) continue to live among and learn from the desert-dwelling Fremen tribes. The evil Harkonnens, led by the corpulent Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård), attempt to capitalize on their coup of the House Atreides but their campaign to extract spice from the sands of Arrakis is thwarted by Fremen attacks. Desperate to regain control on the planet, the Baron recruits his bloodthirsty nephew Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler) to clamp down on the frequent ambushes of their spice production equipment. Though Paul is initially treated as an outsider by the Fremen, their leader Stilgar (Javier Bardem) begins to see signs of an ancient prophecy in Paul’s rapid assimilation to their ways.

We’ve seen the hero’s journey in other large-scale cinematic adventures like Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings but where Dune: Part Two deviates from the traditional narrative is in its moral complexity. Luke Skywalker and Frodo Baggins are humble exemplars who resist temptation from dark forces and remain good in their quest to achieve their respective goals. With respect to those trilogies and their protagonists, Paul Atreides goes through a much more complex character arc specifically in this section of the story that I found consistently fascinating. In the finest performance of his young career, Chalamet builds upon his work from the previous chapter and reveals the thornier sides of being a monomyth’s “chosen one”. With his character’s zealot-like devotion to Paul’s ascent, Bardem scores some unexpected laughs with how effusive he becomes in his convictions.

About as tactfully as any blockbuster I’ve ever seen, Dune: Part Two taps into how fear and faith are tools that are used to maintain control of the masses by ruling parties. Through gladiatorial combat shot in stupefying infrared cinematography by Greig Fraser, Baron Harkonnen asserts psychological dominance over his House with a display of brutality by his heir apparent. But through fundamentalist teachings carried out by Stilgar and his followers, we also see how the Fremen’s actions are restricted by the dogma of divinations that may or may not be true. The film doesn’t necessarily ask us to decide which of these is the “better” or morally upstanding method but rather to consider how the two may not differ as much as it would seem on the surface. Zendaya plays Paul’s Fremen love interest who grows more wary of his deification and finally declares “this prophecy is how they enslave us!” at a pseudo-religious gathering.

Chalamet and Zendaya are excellent in their central roles but like Part One, this chapter sports uniformly terrific performances from a deep roster of some of the most talented performers out there. Florence Pugh lends an ominous aristocracy to her Princess Irulan and Léa Seydoux is seductive perfection as one of the Bene Gesserit sent to proposition Feyd-Rautha. Austin Butler is another new face here and despite his much-discussed work in Elvis, he sheds the rock star affectation and hip-swinging in a performance that’s perfectly-measured menace. If there’s a weak link, Christopher Walken doesn’t register much in the important role of Emperor Shaddam. I think there were a number of actors who could’ve brought more to the character and sadly, I kept thinking how great the late Tom Wilkinson would’ve been for it. Small quibbles aside, Dune: Part Two is another home run from the strongest voice working in cinematic science fiction today.

Score – 4.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is Kung Fu Panda 4, an animated comedy starring Jack Black and Awkwafina continuing the adventures of the titular martial arts master as he searches for his successor as the new Dragon Warrior while fighting a new foe.
Also playing only in theaters is Imaginary, a supernatural horror movie starring DeWanda Wise and Tom Payne about a woman who returns to her childhood home to discover that the imaginary friend she left behind is very real and unhappy that she abandoned him.
Streaming on Netflix is Damsel, a fantasy film starring Millie Bobby Brown and Ray Winstone involving a sheltered young noblewoman who agrees to marry a handsome prince, only to discover that his family intends to sacrifice her to repay an ancient debt.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Drive-Away Dolls

When the Coen Brothers decided to amicably part ways in 2018 after their co-directed Western anthology The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, Joel chose to veer the Shakespearean route with 2021’s terrific The Tragedy of Macbeth. After heading up an uncompelling Jerry Lee Lewis documentary, Ethan now has his first solo narrative feature under his belt with Drive-Away Dolls, which is just about as diametrically opposed tonally from his brother’s solo debut as possible. Clocking in at 85 minutes, the film harkens back to sleazy B movies and exploitation camp of the 60s and 70s but retains the Coen crime components to which we’ve become accustomed over the years. There’s blackmail, kidnapping, misunderstandings, and eccentric characters; there’s even a pair of thugs similar to the ones in Fargo who give chase to the pair of lead ladies.

The film stars Margaret Qualley as Jamie, a frisky and free-wheeling fun-lover with a Southern accent so daffy that it calls to mind Nicolas Cage’s work in Raising Arizona. She’s just been kicked out of her girlfriend Sukie’s (Beanie Feldstein) apartment for sleeping around, so she crashes with her chaste friend Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) until things cool off. Short on cash, the girls opt for a drive-away plan, which will allow them to take a much-needed road trip down to Tallahassee without having to pay a rental fee for the car. Due to a mix-up, they’re given a car with sensitive payload in the back that was meant for a different duo driving south to Florida. A mob boss, played by Colman Domingo, slowly susses out the situation and tasks a couple henchmen with tracking down the car before Jamie and Marian find out what’s in the trunk.

The secret sauce in Drive-Away Dolls is the dialogue, particularly between the comedic foils of the gregarious, lascivious Jamie and buttoned-up, proper Marian. They begin the trip just as friends but along the journey, Jamie works tirelessly to pry Marian out of her shell and an intimacy between the two eventually arises. As they bounce around lesbian bars with names like The She Shed and The Butter Churn, their humorous exchanges are peppered with colorful language that also reveals something a bit deeper about who they are and what they mean to each other. Elsewhere, the criminal characters similarly get their share of quippy lines from the screenplay by Ethan Coen and his wife Tricia Cooke; at one point, Domingo’s kingpin character barks “stop saying words!” at his hapless subordinates over the phone.

At times, Drive-Away Dolls is more madcap than is advisable and there’s a zany, cartoony aspect to the movie that overplays its hand at some points. It’s most noticeable in the intentionally kitschy scene transitions, where the frame flips around or a new shot screeches on top of another like we’re watching an episode of Home Improvement. The tips of the hat towards cult road comedies like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Thelma & Louise work better because they more ably imply the spirit that Coen seems to be aiming for. Obviously this is a film that naturally evokes female empowerment and is so matter-of-fact in its optimism and devil-may-care attitude that the energy is infectious. Qualley and Viswanathan seem to be on the same page as well, crafting comic characters with forgivable foibles who charm us as the miles roll along.

Beginning with the ominous opening scene, a few familiar faces (I won’t spoil who) turn up during Drive-Away Dolls in small but memorable roles. One such performer appears in a few psychedelic flashbacks that seem narratively unrelated when they occur but their relevance is tied back as the movie’s conclusion draws closer. Though the movie takes place at the end of the 90s with Y2K bearing down, most of the soundtrack reflects the unbridled spirit of the 70s with cuts from Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” to Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou”. Qualley is still likely best known for her supporting role in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood as a hitchhiking hippie and here, as Jamie, she’s able to reprise some of those same notes with some extra licks thrown in. Drive-Away Dolls is a sapphic sex comedy that may not carry the significance of the Coens’ joint works but is a fun ride in its own right.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming only to theaters is Dune: Part Two, a sci-fi epic starring Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya continuing the journey of an exiled duke who becomes closer with a group of desert-dwelling nomads and joins them in their fight against the conspirators who destroyed his family.
Premiering on Netflix is Spaceman, a sci-fi drama starring Adam Sandler and Carey Mulligan depicting an astronaut who is sent to the edge of the solar system to collect mysterious ancient dust while trying to keep his psyche intact during the process.
Streaming on Peacock is Megamind vs. the Doom Syndicate, an animated superhero comedy starring Keith Ferguson and Laura Post about a reformed supervillain who assembles a new team to stop his former evil teammates’ nefarious plans.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Notes on the 2024 Oscars

Best Picture

Another very strong batch of films this year; I enjoyed all of them to varying degrees and don’t recognize a dud in the bunch. Each of my top 3 personal picks for best movie of the year are here, along with a couple more from my top 15. At this point in the race, it seems Oppenheimer is the clear frontrunner with Killers Of The Flower Moon as a distant dark horse. Its presence here with Barbie calls to mind the Barbenheimer craze that came to define 2023 in cinema. Awarding a box office juggernaut like Oppenheimer with Best Picture will give the Academy an opportunity to appeal to a broader audience, as they have been trying to do for years.

My Prediction: Oppenheimer
My Vote: Oppenheimer
Overlooked: All Of Us Strangers

Best Director

A strong batch of candidates here, with a similar narrative to Best Picture as Nolan is assuredly the one to beat with Scorsese — still one of our finest living filmmakers — firmly in second place. Nolan has been putting out such consistently high quality work for 25 years now that I’m personally very excited for him to be taking home his first Academy Award. That it’s for one of his most accomplished works in Oppenheimer is a nice cherry on top. It would have been nice to see Greta Gerwig or Sean Durkin here, who each have a trio of features under their belts that demonstrate a high watermark for quality.

My Prediction: Christopher Nolan
My Vote: Christopher Nolan
Overlooked: Sean Durkin – The Iron Claw

Best Actor

This category looks to be a two horse race between Murphy for Oppenheimer and Giamatti for The Holdovers. Two respected actors who have done excellent work for years but have yet to take home Oscar gold — though Giamatti was nominated as Best Supporting Actor in Cinderella Man. At this point, I think Murphy has the wind at his back and will be heading up to the stage for the Best Actor trophy. His haunted performance in Oppenheimer gives that movie so much of its undeniable power and while Giamatti is certainly affecting in The Holdovers, it doesn’t have the same level of impact.

My Prediction: Cillian Murphy
My Vote: Cillian Murphy
Overlooked: Nicolas Cage – Dream Scenario

Best Actress

Best Actress also seems to be coming down to two performers — Lily Gladstone and Emma Stone — who have been trading off awards this season. Regardless of who wins, Gladstone’s nomination marks the first time an Indigenous American actress has been nominated for an Academy Award. I’m sure she’ll give a heck of a speech if she ends up winning but I feel like Stone has the lead at this point. Her performance in Poor Things is likely my favorite acting in all of 2023 and I imagine the voting pool for Actress will also find it similarly irresistible.

My Prediction: Emma Stone
My Vote: Emma Stone
Overlooked: Phoebe Dynevor – Fair Play

Best Supporting Actor

My Prediction: Robert Downey Jr.
My Vote: Robert Downey Jr.
Overlooked: Charles Melton – May December

Best Supporting Actress

My Prediction: Da’Vine Joy Randolph
My Vote: Da’Vine Joy Randolph
Overlooked: Ayo Edebiri – Bottoms

Some fun choices here; I’m delighted the Academy felt Ryan Gosling was good Kenough to be nominated for Barbie. Supporting Actor is especially strong, with Ruffalo putting in career-best work for Poor Things and De Niro reminding us through a monstrous character why he’s still one of the greats. But Downey Jr. seems difficult to overcome in this category, shining brilliantly in a villainous role after playing the heroic Iron Man for numerous MCU entries. Sadly, Supporting Actress is more underwhelming this year and Randolph has virtually gone undefeated in this category during awards season, so her win seems like one of the strongest locks of the night.

Best Original Screenplay

My Prediction: The Holdovers
My Vote: The Holdovers
Overlooked: Afire

Best Adapted Screenplay

My Prediction: Oppenheimer
My Vote: Oppenheimer
Overlooked: Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse

Best Animated Feature Film

My Prediction: Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse
My Vote: Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse
Overlooked: Suzume

Best International Feature Film

My Prediction: The Zone Of Interest
My Vote: The Zone Of Interest
Overlooked: Fallen Leaves

Best Documentary – Feature

  • Bobi Wine: The People’s President
  • The Eternal Memory
  • Four Daughters
  • To Kill A Tiger
  • 20 Days In Mariupol

My Prediction: 20 Days In Mariupol
My Vote: 20 Days In Mariupol
Overlooked: Lakota Nation vs. United States

Best Documentary – Short Subject

  • The ABCs Of Book Banning
  • The Barber Of Little Rock
  • Island In Between
  • The Last Repair Shop
  • Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó

My Prediction: The ABCs Of Book Banning
My Vote: The Last Repair Shop
Overlooked: —

Best Live Action Short Film

  • The After
  • Invincible
  • Knight Of Fortune
  • Red, White And Blue
  • The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar

My Prediction: The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar
My Vote: The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar
Overlooked: —

Best Animated Short Film

  • Letter To A Pig
  • Ninety-Five Senses
  • Our Uniform
  • Pachyderme
  • War Is Over! Inspired By The Music Of John And Yoko

My Prediction: Letter To A Pig
My Vote: Pachyderme
Overlooked: —

Best Production Design

My Prediction: Barbie
My Vote: Barbie
Overlooked: Asteroid City

Best Cinematography

My Prediction: Oppenheimer
My Vote: Oppenheimer
Overlooked: Saltburn

Best Costume Design

My Prediction: Barbie
My Vote: Poor Things
Overlooked: A Haunting In Venice

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

My Prediction: Maestro
My Vote: Poor Things
Overlooked: Barbie

Best Original Score

My Prediction: Oppenheimer
My Vote: Oppenheimer
Overlooked: The Boy And The Heron

Best Original Song

  • “The Fire Inside” from Flamin’ Hot
  • “I’m Just Ken” from Barbie
  • “It Never Went Away” from American Symphony
  • “Wahzhazhe (A Song for My People)” from Killers Of The Flower Moon
  • “What Was I Made For?” from Barbie

My Prediction: “What Was I Made For?”
My Vote: “What Was I Made For?”
Overlooked: “Camp Isn’t Home” from Theater Camp

Best Sound

My Prediction: Oppenheimer
My Vote: The Zone Of Interest
Overlooked: The Killer

Best Film Editing

My Prediction: Oppenheimer
My Vote: Oppenheimer
Overlooked: How To Blow Up A Pipeline

Best Visual Effects

My Prediction: Godzilla Minus One
My Vote: Godzilla Minus One
Overlooked: Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

Enjoy the show!

Madame Web

Sony’s Spider-Man Universe — the one that, confusingly, doesn’t actually have Spider-Man in it — crawls forward with Madame Web, another ode to a tertiary comic book character that didn’t need the silver screen treatment. So poorly put together that it made me yearn for the comparative structural soundness and formal rigor of Morbius, the latest SSU entry doesn’t even seem interested in being a superhero movie in the first place. The lead character barely has superpowers and the character’s clairvoyance only seems to annoy everyone around her, including us in the audience since it’s confusingly rendered on screen. Throw in a ridiculously hokey villain and dialogue that sounds like it was translated to English from a dead language and you have one of the biggest afterthoughts in the modern superhero era.

After an Peruvian prologue set in 1973, we flash forward 30 years later to meet Cassie Webb (Dakota Johnson), a New York-based paramedic who works alongside her longtime friend Ben Parker (Adam Scott). While rescuing an injured driver from their car, Cassie falls into a river below and, when under the water, has strange visions of the future before Ben revives her. After several instances of memory overlap and visceral déjà vu, she discovers she can now see into the future, which is consistently being haunted by a violent man in a web-patterned costume. Cassie uses her power to save three teenagers — Julia (Sydney Sweeney), Anya (Isabela Merced) and Mattie (Celeste O’Connor) — before the figure can attack them on the subway and vows to keep the trio safe under her watch.

We’ve seen the reluctant superhero arc before, where an average person who doesn’t want the responsibility of heroism eventually accepts their position, but Madame Web is such an awkward contortion of that familiar storyline. Whether it’s in Johnson’s performance or how Cassie is written in the script, she barely seems interested in helping these girls and when the moment of transformation is supposed to come, it feels completely inauthentic and unearned. Because the three girls who are targeted by the shadowy figure don’t know Cassie or understand her ability, they spend most of the movie trying to get away from her and even try to get her arrested for kidnapping. Director S.J. Clarkson desperately tries to spin the narrative into one where Cassie takes on a maternal role for these three pupils but the effort feels hopelessly contrived.

It’s been said many times that superhero movies are only as interesting as their villains and the baddie this time around — Ezekiel Sims, as played by Tahar Rahim — is simply a terrible antagonist. He feels the need to dispose of these three kids because he says he has visions that they will one day team up in spider suits and kill him. Using technology that barely existed in 2023, much less 2003, he’s able to effortlessly track the teenagers down but gets thwarted in the most comically perfunctory ways. This character is supposed to have super speed and strength, in addition to the same kind of foresight that Cassie has, and yet he demonstrates a perpetual inability to evade moving cars. Of course it doesn’t help that he’s saddled with laborious lines like “each day that goes by, my appointment with death gets closer!”

Madame Web is also another Sony superhero slog that feels like it was ripped to ribbons in the editing room. The way that Clarkson depicts Cassie’s power is similar to the way it’s portrayed in Edge Of Tomorrow, although using the awful Nic Cage sci-fi actioner Next as an analog is more apt. But both of those movies were able to visually delineate what was really happening and what was in the protagonist’s head, where this film sadly doesn’t give us the luxury. That means it doesn’t really matter when something bad happens to the characters, because then we can assume the filmmaker will just roll it back like Funny Games and get a re-do. Perplexing psychic ability aside, there are basic composition issues throughout the movie, where the camerawork and cutting conspire to collapse whatever visual coherence the film barely has in the first place. Though it may look tempting from a “so bad it’s good” perspective, it’s not worth getting wrapped up in the tangle of Madame Web.

Score – 1/5

New movies coming this week:
Coming to theaters is Ordinary Angels, a drama starring Hilary Swank and Alan Ritchson telling the true story of a hairdresser who single-handedly rallies an entire community to help a widowed father save the life of his critically ill young daughter.
Also playing only in theaters is Drive-Away Dolls, a comedy road movie starring Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan about two young women in search of a fresh start who embark on an unexpected road trip to Tallahassee but things quickly go awry when they cross paths with a group of inept criminals.
Streaming on Netflix is Mea Culpa, a legal thriller starring Kelly Rowland and Trevante Rhodes which follows an ambitious criminal defense attorney that, in his aspiration to be named partner, takes on a murder case of an artist.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Lisa Frankenstein

The story of Frankenstein has been reanimated so many times before that it was perhaps inevitable that we would eventually get a 1980s-tinged variation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel. Fittingly, Lisa Frankenstein is a movie that feels mashed together not just from other monster tales but also from specific macabre 80s classics like Beetlejuice and Heathers. Screenwriter Diablo Cody, who won an Oscar for her sharp-tongued script for Juno, renders the sardonic patois from the misunderstood teen protagonists in those late-80s films and gives this update a spark of moody verbosity. While the story itself seems to lose its way the longer it lumbers along, it has enough period flourishes and well-earned eccentricities to make it worth recommending to those who gravitate towards horror comedies.

In Lisa Frankenstein, Kathryn Newton plays Lisa Swallows, a lonesome teenager who is finding it difficult to adjust to life after her mother is murdered in their home. Her dad Dale (Joe Chrest) is doing his best to move on, marrying yuppy nurse Janet (Carla Gugino) and acquiring step-daughter Taffy (Liza Soberano) in the process. Janet and Taffy do what they can to welcome the Swallows into their home but Lisa feels more comfortable spending time at the local cemetery, swooning over the grave of a young man (Cole Sprouse) who died long ago. Her pining is soon reciprocated when a bolt of otherworldly lightning strikes the headstone and brings the Victorian fellow back to life as a zombie who only has eyeballs for Lisa. Things take a dark turn when the pair realize they’ll need to steal body parts from the living to fill out the missing pieces of the reanimated corpse.

Lisa Frankenstein is the feature-length directorial debut of Zelda Williams — the daughter of late comic genius Robin Williams — and it can’t be said that she simply made the movie the studio wanted her to make. The film has loads of little touches, from its penchant for silent classics like A Trip To The Moon to its pitch-perfect goth rock needle drops, that allow Williams’ personality to shine through. She’s certainly taking a page or two from early Tim Burton projects — Edward Scissorhands in particular — carrying over the arc of a picture-perfect neighborhood getting flipped upside-down by the presence of a ghoulish creature. In the spirit of Beetlejuice and Scissorhands, Williams has a ball adorning her sets with props and textures that brilliantly evoke the artificial sheen of 1980s suburbia.

The aesthetic carries through in the costume design as well, which starts Lisa off in frumpy mismatched outfits and gradually transitions her to the goth chic look that Winona Ryder pioneered in her youth. Newton has good fun tailoring her performance around the wardrobe upgrades, allowing Lisa to become more confident as her adoration for her undead suitor grows. Sprouse has a more thankless role as the mute monster who finds himself drawn to Lisa; his body language and choreography are the main tools he has to tell her character’s story and he does an admirable job. Elsewhere, Gugino and Soberano are squandered in roles that the movie treats like it can’t wait to cut away from. While that’s more understandable for Janet being the “evil stepmother”, Taffy is kind to Lisa even past the point where it makes sense for her character to be.

If Williams and Cody don’t know what they want to do with these characters, it’s evident in how the storyline peters out as it staggers towards the neon-lit finish line. This is one of those horror comedies that doesn’t know how seriously it wants to take itself when it comes to doling out the consequences for its protagonist’s actions. Without giving away too much, it’s enough to say that the lovestruck couple get off way too easy when it comes to the moral and legal ramifications for what they get up to in this cheekily morbid tale. I’m not expecting the movie to turn into a just-the-facts crime drama in the third act but even a small helping of realism would have helped tie things up much better. As is, Lisa Frankenstein should still act as a lovesick siren song for weirdos past, present, and future.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this week:
Coming to theaters is Madame Web, a superhero movie starring Dakota Johnson and Sydney Sweeney about a paramedic in Manhattan who develops superpowers along with three other young women and creates a deadly adversary in the process.
Also playing only in theaters is Bob Marley: One Love, a music biopic starring Kingsley Ben-Adir and Lashana Lynch which follows the life and career of Jamaican singer-songwriter Bob Marley as he overcomes adversity to become the most famous reggae musician in the world.
Streaming on Netflix is Players, a romantic comedy starring Gina Rodriguez and Damon Wayans Jr. about a sportswriter who spends her time creating hook up schemes but unexpectedly falls for one of her targets.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup