Tag Archives: 2024

The Fall Guy

Last summer, Ryan Gosling manifested Kenergy for the blockbuster phenomenon Barbie and this year, he’s doing his part to kick off the summer movie season with the similarly hilarious The Fall Guy. Loosely adapted from the 80s TV series about stunt performers who also dabble in bounty hunting, the film is a big-hearted action comedy that also functions as a valentine to the art of stuntwork. It comes courtesy of David Leitch, who cut his teeth as a stuntman on dozens of projects since the late 90s and has since risen the ranks as director of non-stop actioners like Atomic Blonde and Bullet Train. While he still struggles with storytelling skills like pacing and prioritization, Leitch taps into the weapons-grade charm of his lead actors and puts forth his most accomplished work from the director’s chair so far.

Gosling shines as stunt performer Colt Seavers, who doubles for hotshot action star Tom Ryder (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) until an on-set injury leaves Colt with a broken back and a broken spirit. 18 months later, the now-reclusive Colt gets a call from big-time producer Gail Meyer (Hannah Waddingham), who wants him to get back in the stuntman saddle once again for a new sci-fi epic called Metalstorm. Seavers balks at the opportunity, until Gail tells him it’s being directed by Jody Moreno (Emily Blunt), with whom Colt shared a brief romance when she worked as a camera operator on previous Hollywood projects. He makes the trek down to the set in Australia, only to find out that Ryder has gone missing and could be involved in shady dealings down under.

From there, The Fall Guy‘s overly-convoluted plot is mainly an excuse to get Gosling into as many stunt-reliant scenes — be they car chases, shootouts, brawls, or any combinations therein — as possible. Though they wear out their welcome a bit in the extended third act, these sequences are cleverly conceived and as skillfully executed as one would expect from a movie dedicated to stuntwork. The most memorable of these involves Gosling and a personal assistant (played by Stephanie Hsu) in peril, who pop in and out of a seemingly indestructible garbage truck as it tears through the streets of Sydney. Another fun setpiece finds Colt and his stunt coordinator (played by Winston Duke) as they use prop weapons to fend off a gaggle of henchmen. Duke is a hoot as he calls out action stars like Jason Bourne, the way a kid would while playing pretend mid-skirmish, as he puts the hurt on the bandits.

From the romance side of things, The Fall Guy doesn’t care much about creating believable tension that Gosling and Blunt’s characters won’t get together in the end but their chemistry is dynamite regardless. Much in the way that his Ken pined for Barbie last summer, Gosling plays persistent puppy dog in his affections for Blunt’s reticent moviemaker. As terrific as their banter is, my favorite scene between the two is a dialogue-free one set to The Darkness’ “I Believe In A Thing Called Love”, in which they choreograph and shoot an action montage in front of the Sydney Opera House. Their characters have a shorthand and playfulness in their interaction that is absolutely infectious and underscores the unique joy in shooting a film on this scale with people who are on the same wavelength.

On top of the character work, the film has plenty of showbiz in-jokes (be sure to stay through the credits) and meta commentary that occasionally hit harder than it needs to in an otherwise frivolous blockbuster. There’s a throughline about deepfake technology that not only feels relevant, given how often the technique is being used in videos we see all the time, but also makes one wonder how long Hollywood has used it to make stunt doubles look like their corresponding stars. Leitch also sneaks in an acute observation about how female directors can be unfairly pushed around by producers and actors on-set, based on the inference that they’re not as willing to stand their ground. But at the end of the day, this isn’t a treatise on gender inequality or the perils of AI; it’s a popcorn movie whose main duty is laughs and stunts, of which it has both in spades. You won’t see a movie all summer that works harder to entertain you than The Fall Guy.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Out in theaters is Kingdom Of The Planet Of The Apes, a sci-fi action movie starring Owen Teague and Freya Allan involving a young ape who goes on a journey that will lead him to question everything he’s been taught and make choices that will define a future for apes and humans alike.
Streaming on Disney+ is Let It Be, a recently restored documentary covering The Beatles’ attempt to recapture their old group spirit by making a back- to-basics album, which instead drove them further apart.
Premiering on Netflix is Mother Of The Bride, a romantic comedy starring Brooke Shields and Miranda Cosgrove about a mother who is surprised by her daughter’s spontaneous wedding and is even more surprised to find out that the groom is the son of the man who broke her heart years ago.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Challengers

When I first saw that Challengers, the latest from Italian auteur Luca Guadagnino, was being presented in IMAX, I admit to being thrown off balance a bit. After all, this is the director whose previous work was an unassuming indie about star-crossed cannibals on a cross-country journey through the States. But as it turns out, Guadagnino’s releases are perhaps better suited to a more pronounced presentation than most of the blockbusters that the studios decide can make a few extra bucks per ticket by leveling up. With releases like I Am Love and Call Me By Your Name, he’s established himself as one of the most sensuous filmmakers working today, whose work isn’t meant to simply be seen but to be felt with all the senses.

Challengers chiefly centers around the complicated relationship between three characters over a 13 year period. We begin in 2006, where high school tennis players Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O’Connor) have made it to the boys’ junior doubles championship match at the US Open. While at the tournament, they sit slack-jawed in the stands as much-touted phenom Tashi (Zendaya) continues to make a name for herself on the court. Art and Patrick are both instantly taken with her and inelegantly try to make passes at Tashi, with Patrick taking the first set as the initial winner of her affections. But as Art and Tashi move onto college ball at Stanford while Patrick goes pro, a palpable love triangle forms when Tashi suffers a career-ending injury and Art is there to pick up the pieces in Patrick’s absence.

Anyone who has watched a tennis match live is familiar with the back-and-forth head motion that one needs to participate in to keep up with the action and in several ways, Guadagnino replicates this experience. After establishing a critical event in 2019 that unexpectedly binds the three characters together, he sends us zig-zagging chronologically at points when both Patrick and Art seem to have the upper hand in either their careers or in their relationship with Tashi. Editor Marco Costa has a ball setting the rhythm of these sequences, with some exchanges between characters emulating a lightning-fast rally and other scenes playing out at a practice pace. Thankfully, the cinematography from Sayombhu Mukdeeprom isn’t non-stop whip pans the whole movie but he does judiciously utilize camera movements that evoke the motion of an exciting match.

It’s all set to a propulsive and unforgettable score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who broke onto the film composition scene together with their Oscar-winning work in 2010’s The Social Network. Like that film, Challengers uses a nonlinear narrative that builds up tension like strings on a racket as we throttle through time and gain more context for the individual plot points. I’ve said for years that the advantage with IMAX screenings is necessarily for the larger picture but rather for the more sophisticated sound setup and the music in this film alone is worth the upgrade from standard presentation. The tennis scenes here are among the most cinematic I’ve ever seen, with Guadagnino and his team constantly finding inventive angles to showcase the action, while Reznor and Ross keep our hearts pounding with their galvanic beats.

While Challengers more than holds its own as a sports movie, it mostly functions as a romantic drama between these three complex characters and is just as electrifying as such. Zendaya has been everywhere these days but this is the best place to see her, giving the best performance so far in her young career. It would be easy to see Tashi as a prize to be won by both of these boys but thanks to Zendaya’s boundlessly confident performance along with strong writing from first-timer Justin Kuritzkes, her character always feels in control of her situation and the story at large. One-dimensionally, Art could be viewed as the white knight while Patrick can be seen as a rapscallion but the two trade off between virtuous and wretched often enough that it’s hard to label one as “good guy” and the other as “bad guy”. Challengers is sinewy and sultry filmmaking that truly deserves to be seen in the largest format possible.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing in theaters is The Fall Guy, an action comedy starring Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt about a down-and-out stuntman who must find the missing star of his ex-girlfriend’s upcoming blockbuster film.
Streaming on Netflix is Unfrosted, a comedy biopic starring Jerry Seinfeld and Melissa McCarthy which is loosely based on the true story of the creation of Pop-Tarts as Kellogg’s and Post Cereal compete to see if they can produce a revolutionary breakfast pastry in 1963 Michigan.
Premiering on Amazon Prime is The Idea Of You, a romantic comedy starring Anne Hathaway and Nicholas Galitzine centering on a relationship that develops between a single mother and the lead singer of a popular boy band.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Abigail

Abigail is a movie that will play very differently for those who know nothing about it going in versus those who enter the theater having seen a trailer or ad for it ahead of time. The marketing for the film sensibly lets potential ticket buyers in on a twist that occurs around the halfway mark that changes the trajectory and tone from there on out. These days, I doubt anyone goes into a movie without vetting things a bit first but just in case, I’ll refrain from spoiling what happens then and focus on what occurs in the opening half. Regardless, even those who are in-the-know about Abigail will still have plenty of twists and fun developments await them as the story progresses past its pivot. There are logic jumps and plot holes that crop up along the way but none egregious enough to permanently throw this chiller off its balance.

In the opening moments of Abigail, we’re introduced to several criminals who are convening for an overnight job that should lead to a big score. After kidnapping young ballerina Abigail (Alisha Weir), whose well-connected father is likely to pay millions for her return, the crew meet the architect of the plan Lambert (Giancarlo Esposito) at a secluded mansion. He tells them they only need to keep the young girl safe for 24 hours to get their $50 million ransom and gives them Rat Pack-based aliases to conceal their identities. The smartest of the group seems to be Joey (Melissa Barrera), who is responsible for checking in on Abigail through the evening. Things go just fine for a time, until the crew realizes they’re actually locked inside the mansion and their abductee isn’t as innocent as she seems.

The first half of Abigail meets at the intersection of Reservoir Dogs and Don’t Breathe, where half the fun is getting to know the bandits in play and the other half is the anticipation that the rug will inevitably be pulled out from under them. Following up his fun turn in Godzilla x Kong last month, Dan Stevens is similarly terrific here as Frank, who is more sinister and cunning than the goofball he played in the aforementioned monster movie. In her second horror film this year after Lisa Frankenstein, Kathryn Newton reprises her winsome combination of charm and snark for the hacker character Sammy. Elsewhere, Kevin Durand and Angus Cloud, the latter of whom tragically passed away last year at just 25 years old, put their own unique spins on their dim-witted bandits.

Abigail comes courtesy of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, the filmmaking duo from Radio Silence Productions whose earlier feature Ready Or Not also took place almost exclusively inside a decked-out mansion. The two also helmed the most recent entries in the Scream franchise and with this new film now under their belts, it’s clear they’ve worked out a brand of campy horror that just works. This time, they evoke the rhythm of a heist movie like Panic Room at the outset, until the creepy mood of a haunted house film like Crimson Peak begins to set in. There’s also some vulgar zingers along the way that don’t push the comedy too hard; Frank has a hilarious reaction to Sammy bringing an incorrect item in from the kitchen and later, a seemingly climactic moment from Frank defuses with a humorous thud.

As can be the case with other horror offerings, Abigail occasionally falls prey to typical pitfalls of the genre. Some of the supernatural elements aren’t as clearly defined as they could be and sometimes, characters make irredeemably poor decisions that point more towards contrived screenwriting than intellectual shortcomings of the criminals. But Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett know how to move the story along and keep the plot elements spinning quickly enough to distract from deficiencies. Abigail is another hit from the Radio Silence crew, who continue their string of strong output in a genre where genuine surprises can be hard to come by.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Challengers, starring Zendaya and Josh O’Connor, is a romantic sports movie involving a former tennis prodigy turned coach, her tennis champion husband who’s on a losing streak, and his former best friend who used to date his wife.
Unsung Hero, starring Joel Smallbone and Daisy Betts, is a true story of how members from the Christian pop duo For King & Country moved from Australia to Nashville in the early 1990s.
Boy Kills World, starring Bill Skarsgård and Jessica Rothe, is an action thriller centering around a deaf man who escapes to the jungle after his family is killed and is trained by a mysterious mentor to enact vengeance on the murderers.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Civil War

To describe what Civil War is, it may be more helpful to first describe what it isn’t. It’s not a movie that’s interested in moralizing about how the United States could hypothetically end up in a 21st century civil war. It doesn’t get caught up in polemics of which side is right and which side is wrong in the conflict, nor does it try to directly tie the factions to current political allegiances. The film will almost certainly be a Rorschach test for viewers, who could come away with wildly differing experiences depending on how they’re inclined to receive the story. For me, it’s a movie about the importance of journalism and the power of images more than a political statement of some kind. Of course it’s political, in the sense that it involves how a government could fall, but it’d be difficult to view it as partisan.

In one of her finest performances to date, Kirsten Dunst stars as Lee Smith, a harried war photographer whose captivating images have made her legendary in her field. Unfortunately, the Colorado native doesn’t have to travel far for her latest assignment, which is to cover the conflict between the US government and secessionist forces originating from California and Texas. At a protest in New York, Lee’s quick thinking saves aspiring photojournalist Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) from a suicide bombing, which understandably makes her want to stick by Lee in the future. Along with reporter Joel (Wagner Moura) and veteran newspaperman Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), Lee and Jessie travel to Washington DC in an attempt to get an interview with the President before the potential governmental collapse.

It’s obviously fair to call Civil War a war movie but for most of its runtime, it registers more as something between a dystopian thriller and a road movie, though it’s not a conventional version of either. The four main characters are cut from separate archetypes meant to highlight the differences in each other but characteristics gradually overlap in surprising and nuanced ways. Aside from other actors who pop up along the journey, we spend the most time with the four journalists in the car and each of the performers do a stellar job fleshing out their characters. I was particularly taken with Dunst, who brings a completely believable world-weariness to her work here. The young photographer Jessie is a fantastic foil for Lee, whose altruism has been beaten down from the horrors she’s witnessed over the years. While developing film during a pit stop at a football stadium, Lee conjures up all the optimism she can muster to authentically compliment Jessie for a photo she’s taken.

Writer/director Alex Garland is so careful in choosing what to include and what to omit in his sobering tale of an empire in ruin. There are crumbs of exposition — we learn that the President is serving a third term and that the FBI has been disbanded, for instance — and we get flashbacks of atrocities that Lee has witnessed. But Garland doesn’t want to lecture us on “how we got here” or even necessarily treat this as a cautionary tale for a country that isn’t as divided as it’s depicted here. More than politics, he seems to be more interested in themes like desensitization to violence and the survivalist roles that one subscribes to when the chips are down. The quartet encounter horrors along their journey that test their moral and ethical compasses but above all, their journalistic instinct tells them it’s best to document rather than intervene.

What I found most valuable about Civil War is the conversation around what it means to be a journalist in the most dire scenarios. The chief conflict these characters face — itself its own civil war — is in being pragmatic in situations that necessarily call for an emotional response. If you see someone bleeding from a gunshot wound, how can you not act to save them? These photojournalists have to deny these instincts and we can see the toll it takes on them. The concept of centrists or pacifists or conscientious objectors is brought up several times in the movie; Lee and Jessie sound envious when they confide in each other that their parents are living on their farms waiting the war out. By capturing images of the war while not technically fighting it, are they actually taking a side? Civil War is a movie bound to stir up many such questions with no easy answers.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is Abigail, a horror movie starring Melissa Barrera and Dan Stevens centering on a group of criminals who kidnap the ballerina daughter of a powerful underworld figure but come to discover that she’s a vampire.
Also playing only in theaters is The Ministry Of Ungentlemanly Warfare, an action comedy starring Henry Cavill and Eiza González telling the story of a small group of highly skilled soldiers who strike against German forces behind enemy lines during World War II.
Streaming on Netflix is Rebel Moon – Part Two: The Scargiver, a sci-fi epic starring Sofia Boutella and Djimon Hounsou concluding the story of a band of surviving warriors who defend their new home world against the armies of a tyrannical ruling force.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Monkey Man

After an outstanding turn in 2021’s The Green Knight, Dev Patel makes his directorial debut with the visceral action vehicle Monkey Man, in which he also stars and co-write the screenplay. Though his level of involvement suggests that this seems to be a personal story for Patel, he seems stretched too thin through most of the film and could’ve benefited from limiting his role in the production somehow. If directing this story was the most important aspect to him, perhaps he could have focused on that and cast someone else in the grueling lead part. Having said that, Patel clearly got in great shape for this role and plays an action star convincingly, so he could’ve instead handed the directing reins over to a like-minded collaborator to focus solely on the acting. As is, it’s a compromised but competently-made actioner with a handful of moments that really pop.

Patel plays an unnamed protagonist, who goes by the alias “Bobby”, as we’re introduced to him competing in Mumbai’s brutal bareknuckle boxing circuit. As Bobby makes scratch from fight promoter Tiger (Sharlto Copley), we’re shown flashbacks that imply Bobby has more on his mind than simply taking blows in the ring for a “bleed bonus” incentive from Tiger. We learn that Bobby aims to take out the ruthless chief of police Rana (Sikandar Kher), who murdered his mother years ago, and the leader Baba (Makarand Deshpande), who gave Rana the order. To carry out his vengeance, Bobby works his way up the criminal underworld, starting as a dishwasher for mob boss and restaurant owner Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar) and eventually getting help from political refugee Alpha (Vipin Sharma).

In early scenes of Bobby’s childhood, his mother reads from the Hindu text Ramayana and gives special attention to the half-monkey god character Hanuman, which seems to be the inspiration behind Bobby’s Monkey Man boxing persona. The cultural touches in Monkey Man are what set it apart from similar action fare like Nobody and John Wick — the latter of which is name-checked specifically as the 800-pound gorilla in the action film world — that it’s aping. One of the best sequences finds Bobby later in his odyssey, at Alpha’s compound training with a heavy bag as a virtuosic tabla player riffs off his fierce movements. Another terrific scene finds Queenie’s stolen purse trading hands through the busy city streets, recalling the kinetic verve of City Of God or some of Danny Boyle’s early work.

Where Monkey Man gets bogged down is in trying to tie these inspired scenes together but instead coming up short with lugubrious storytelling that doesn’t adequately sell the hero’s journey. The movie’s runtime is just over two hours, not especially long for an action epic, but too much of the actual narrative feels like padding as opposed to worthwhile development. It doesn’t help that the cinematography and editing in some of the more lively sections, particularly the car chases, come across as shoddy and haphazard. There were a couple scenes with several moving parts that were borderline visually incomprehensible, which is disappointing for a film that has clearly been marketed as an in-your-face action experience.

Fortunately, when Bobby gets to the “final boss” portion of his quest, Patel and his crew put everything they have into making the combat stand alongside its peers. Clearly he was studying the Indonesian martial art filmographies of Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto when researching the fight choreography and the homework paid off. The ferocious last 20 minutes of Monkey Man alone will likely be worth the price of admission for those hoping for stellar, bone-crunching brawling. Along the way, there is a confused political message that reportedly scared Netflix off releasing it internationally on its streaming platform. While it could’ve played well alongside The Night Comes For Us and the Extraction movies on the streamer, Monkey Man playing in theaters will hopefully give Patel the resources that he needs to make his next feature even better.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is Civil War, a dystopian action movie starring Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny which follows a team of military-embedded journalists as they race against time to reach DC before rebel factions descend upon the White House.
Also playing in theaters is Sting, a horror film starring Alyla Browne and Penelope Mitchell involving a 12-year-old girl’s pet spider that rapidly transforms into a giant flesh-eating monster and forces its family to fight for their lives as a result.
Streaming on Hulu is The Greatest Hits, a romantic fantasy starring Lucy Boynton and David Corenswet about a young woman who is grieving the loss of her boyfriend when she discovers that listening to certain songs can literally transport her back in time.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire

In divisive times, it’s heartening to know that even the most gargantuan of monsters can put their differences aside and come together for the greater good. Case in point: after 2021’s Godzilla vs. Kong, we now have Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire, a MonsterVerse entry whose title promises a team-up as opposed to a conflict between the two mythical brawlers. Indeed, the collaboration does happen and manifests itself in another memorable CGI smackdown but the road to get there is still more cumbersome than it needs to be. Returning from Godzilla vs. Kong, director Adam Wingard has the requisite sense of play when it comes to the battle sequences but he doesn’t have the knack for weaving in plausible pathos for the human characters. The cast is streamlined a bit more this time, and they’re certainly capable of carrying a convincing narrative, but the writing is far too bland to care about nearly anything happening in the story.

With the events of Godzilla vs. Kong behind them, Godzilla and Kong have established a truce of sorts, with the former remaining on the surface and the latter residing in the subterranean space known as Hollow Earth. While continuing to raise Jia (Kaylee Hottle), Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) is tasked with monitoring the activity of the two creatures and keeping them separated. The peace is disrupted by a distress signal emanating from Hollow Earth, which causes Godzilla to go on the move for more nuclear energy to gobble up and Kong to venture further into uncharted regions of his new home. Andrews recruits podcaster Bernie (Brian Tyree Henry) and veterinarian to the monsters Trapper (Dan Stevens) to travel down to Hollow Earth to suss out what is making the titular titans act so unpredictably.

Various characters and actors have come and gone in the MonsterVerse franchise — the overqualified cast of Godzilla: King of the Monsters surely wasn’t going to stick around forever — and at this point, most of the humans in Godzilla x Kong are carryovers from Godzilla vs. Kong. The notable exception is Dan Stevens as Trapper, described by Dr. Andrews as “the weirdest vet in the world” and clothed in Hawaiian shirts to presumably give off Ace Ventura vibes. Reuniting with Adam Wingard ten years after tongue-in-cheek thriller The Guest, Stevens makes the most of his goofy character and is easily the most watchable of the human characters. The mother-adopted daughter dynamic between Dr. Andrews and Jia was one of the human highlights of Godzilla vs. Kong but the dialogue between them this time is very one-note and even the comic relief from Bernie wears out its welcome here.

The storytelling in Godzilla x Kong is basically separated into thirds and above the portions involving the humans and Godzilla, the most compelling section is the one that finds Kong venturing deeper into Hollow Earth. There are a menagerie of simian creatures, including a cute sidekick named Suko and an insidious tyrant named Skar King, who make up what is essentially its own Planet Of The Apes narrative squished between two other storylines. As one would hope, the visual effects are top-notch throughout and especially during the battle scenes but I also appreciated how expressive the ape characters were during the Hollow Earth scenes. Whether it was achieved through motion-capture or entirely through special effects, the faces and body language of the apes tell the most interesting story to be found in Godzilla x Kong.

Is it too much to ask, then, that Wingard finds something more worthwhile for the other characters to do while Kong moves the story along? Recent Oscar winner Godzilla Minus One is obviously going for a different sort of kaiju movie than what the MonsterVerse is trying to achieve but even still, it’s tough to see the big guy being treated like such an afterthought this time around. Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla: King of the Monsters made a case for standalone narratives for these iconic monsters but in his two outings, Wingard has yet to make the case that he’s the guy who can balance the spectacle and sentimentality in these stories. These MonsterVerse movies continue to be a dominating force at the box office and while they deliver on foundational terms, it’s also not wrong to expect more from them.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Opening in theaters is The First Omen, a supernatural horror film starring Nell Tiger Free and Sônia Braga following a young American woman who is sent to Rome to begin a life of service to the church but encounters a darkness that causes her to question her faith.
Also playing only in theaters is Monkey Man, an action thriller starring Dev Patel and Sharlto Copley about an anonymous young man who unleashes a campaign of brutal vengeance against the corrupt leaders who murdered his mother.
Premiering on Apple TV+ is Girls State, a companion documentary to 2020’s Boys State which follows teenage girls from Missouri navigating a week-long democratic experiment learning how to build a government from the ground up.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Immaculate

In 2021’s The Voyeurs, writer and director Michael Mohan mined the depths of trashy 90s erotic thrillers to create his own take on the subgenre that almost pulled it off. He re-teams with that film’s now-ubiquitous star Sydney Sweeney for Immaculate, which plays in the popular pocket of religious horror involving nuns and Catholic iconography. In fact, during the pre-roll before this movie, a trailer appeared for The First Omen, another nun-based supernatural shocker debuting in theaters just a couple weeks from now. Last fall, The Conjuring Universe entry The Nun II scared up $270 million at the box office, so clearly there’s still plenty of holy water left in the well for making those women in black robes even more intimidating. Despite its artsy intentions, Immaculate simply doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself from the packed crowd.

Sydney Sweeney plays Cecilia, a devout young woman who travels from Detroit all the way to the countryside of Italy to join a convent that also serves as hospice for dying nuns carrying out their last days. She finds friendship in the rabble-rousing Sister Gwen (Benedetta Porcaroli) and mentorship in the unassuming Father Tedeschi (Álvaro Morte), who extended Cecilia the initial invitation to the nunnery. Almost immediately, she begins having ominous visions and troubling nightmares, all made worse when it’s discovered that she’s somehow pregnant, despite never having sex. Unable to come up with an explanation, Cardinal Merola (Giorgio Colangeli) deems the occurrence a miracle and tasks the nuns with giving Cecilia everything she needs to welcome this miraculous baby to the world. But their care becomes constrictive on Cecilia and she begins to suspect something sinister.

Though director Michael Mohan seemed to make a meal of his influences previously with The Voyeurs, Immaculate is much more self-serious by comparison and doesn’t embrace any potential camp in the premise. That’s a perfectly reasonable tack to take with this material but the issue is that he doesn’t do enough new with the actual story beats to justify such a stone-faced attitude. From the portentous cold open that foreshadows the predicament of our protagonist, the film is one moment after another of visual or sonic clichés that we’ve been trained to sniff out through years of movie watching. If a character is holding a lantern to light a room, you can get sure the wick will somehow get blown out and if they’re using a flashlight to pierce the darkness, you can be sure the batteries will act up.

Undoubtedly, the biggest draw for most people to Immaculate will be the presence of Sydney Sweeney, who also serves as co-producer and worked for years to get the script by Andrew Lobel turned into a feature. She’s in nearly every scene of the film and is certainly acting her heart out but there’s always this nagging feeling that her commitment to the role would fare better in a movie that really deserved it. Between her star power and the actual quality of the performance, Sweeney is one of the primary aspects that makes Immaculate watchable for long stretches. She hasn’t done much horror yet in her career — although the Amazon Prime original Nocturne is worth going back to check out, if you haven’t already — but she certainly makes a case here that she could do plenty more. If one of the film’s concluding scenes isn’t an audition reel for “scream queen”, I don’t know what is.

I just don’t quite know what exists at the screenplay level that screamed for this story to be told. There’s some subtext about female bodily autonomy and the patriarchal hold on religious leadership but none of it is realized in a way that seems especially subversive or meaningful. The film’s grueling final scene could ruffle some feathers but it’s not a conclusion that feels earned on the merit of what came before it. Most of the runtime is made up of admittedly eerie setups with tacky jump scare punctuations, scored with detuned piano plinking by composer Will Bates. Sound design is an under-appreciated art in horror cinema and while there are moments of tension aided by some creepy cues, there are also other spots where stock sounds just don’t do the trick. Though its title suggests brilliance and excellence, Immaculate just doesn’t stack up.

Score – 2/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming to theaters is Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire, a creature feature starring Rebecca Hall and Brian Tyree Henry that focuses on previously untold origins of the Titans and Skull Island while finding the titular monsters uniting against a mysterious Hollow Earth threat.
Streaming on Netflix is The Wages Of Fear, an action thriller starring Franck Gastambide and Ana Girardot about an illicit crack team that has 24 hours to drive two truckloads of nitroglycerine across a desert laden with danger in order to prevent a deadly explosion.
Premiering on Apple TV+ is Steve!, a two-part documentary that chronicles the life and career of Steve Martin, from his early struggles and meteoric rise to revolutionize stand-up to the current golden years of his acting era.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

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