Film Review: Promising Young Woman

I can’t stop thinking about Batman. The protagonist/anti-hero of Emerald Fennell’s divisive debut feature, Promising Young Woman, has so much in common with Gotham’s most famous resident. Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan, An Education, Drive) is haunted by the loss of a loved one. Her anger regarding the violence of that loss consumes her to the point that her entire life revolves around taking elaborate, non-lethal retaliation against the portion of the population she deems responsible (mostly CIS, straight, white dudes). As such, her life has stalled. She is incapable of getting close to anyone. She leads a double life. By day she works at her friend’s coffee shop and dresses in youthful pastel florals. She pretends to be OK. But after dark, she dons her costume: rumpled black and white business suits and carefully smeared YouTube tutorial makeup. She hunts the bad guys with an elaborate ruse and then teaches them a harsh lesson.

Cassie has a pretty good system going, too. She feigns blackout drunkenness in order to capture the attention of “nice” guys who want to make sure she “gets home safe.” They inevitably bring her back to their place and wait for her to “pass out.” Once they’re holding the smoking underpants, she breaks character and launches into a lecture on consent. In the morning, she records her encounters in a color-coded journal wrapped in a scrunchie. Though she never explains the key, there are clues to cracking it. Some names are black, some are blue, and some are red. It has something to do with how they respond to her ruse. We never see a red encounter, but there’s no way she’s come out unscathed every time. There are so many names. Page after page of tally marks. Lest we forget the incident that led us here…

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Film Review: Happiest Season

Talented multi-hyphenate Clea DuVall (The Intervention) has achieved nothing short of a miracle with her sophomore feature, Happiest Season. She has made me love a Christmas movie. If you know me, you understand just how grand a feat this is. I have literally said “Bah, Humbug” out loud on more than one occasion. I’m not a full-on Grinch, mind you. Because I have kids, I’ve had to find things to love about the holidays. But you’ll never catch me watching a Hallmark holiday movie marathon. I think A Christmas Story and It’s A Wonderful Life are outdated and overrated. I’d rather roast my own chestnuts than watch Love, Actually or A Christmas Prince. On the other hand, if you told me someone was playing a marathon of Clea DuVall’s queer holiday rom-com, Happiest Season, I would be there with bells on.

Happiest Season follows Abby (Kristen Stewart, Personal Shopper) and Harper (Mackenzie Davis, Tully), a fun, co-habitating couple who are nevertheless fresh enough in their relationship that they have unspoken plans to spend the looming holidays apart. Abby’s parents died when she was 19 and she’s pretty much ignored Christmas ever since. Harper’s parents live in an idyllic town 50 miles outside Pittsburg where her conservative family celebrates the holidays in a major way. In the heat of a romantic moment, Harper invites Abby to come home with her, only to backpedal the next morning. But Abby remains so moved by the invitation that she insists on following through…

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Film Review: A Place Among the Dead

Fans of TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer will forever remember Juliette Landau as Drusilla, the willowy, unhinged cockney vampire who named the stars and played rough with her dollies. The thing about playing a vampire on screen is that, after a few decades, the performer is no longer able to reprise that role convincingly. No amount of Hollywood self-care truly stops the aging process (Paul Rudd, notwithstanding). But Landau comes as close as she can to revisiting Drusilla in her writing/directing debut, A Place Among the Dead. Landau plays Jules, a fictionalized version of herself, who becomes immersed in investigating a string of murders which may or may not have been committed by a vampire. Landau (and, thus, Jules) uses her Hollywood connections to collect testimonials from vampire-adjacent celebrities. These interviews punctuate the true crime documentary she’s crafting about the killer. A Place Among the Dead is an ultra-meta exploration on the ways in which pop culture glamorizes death and destruction whilst trading youth and beauty as currency. The daughter of actors Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, Landau seasons the brew with a dash of Old Hollywood pathos…

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Film Review: The Mothman Legacy

Fans of Cryptozoology will find much to enjoy about Seth Breedlove’s latest documentary film, The Mothman Legacy. This film marks his second dive into the pervasive Mothman myth (Mothmyth? Mythman?). The first was 2017’s The Mothman of Point Pleasant, which focused on the accounts of a group of children on one fateful bus trip. Breedlove returns to the West Virginia town which remains the epicenter of Mothman sightings and mythology, and is also home to the world’s premiere museum on the subject. Breedlove interviews “eyewitnesses”, and the family behind the museum who have their own chilling encounter stories.

There are indeed many similarities between accounts, including height (it’s always said to be at least 6 feet tall), vast wingspan (between 10 and 20 feet), and glowing red eyes. It always leaves by shooting straight up into the air at a high speed. More troubling, every person who reports an encounter, also tells of a personal tragedy occurring weeks, or sometimes just days later. Is the Mothman a harbinger of doom, like the Banshee of Celtic lore? As one of the interviewees wisely states, “An absence of evidence doesn’t necessarily indicate evidence of absence.”…

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Film Review: Fully Realized Humans

After I had my first baby, I remember thinking that I’d wished people had been more forthcoming with me about what to expect. There are so many ugly surprises along the way to parenthood. Instead, it was a lot of “it’s the hardest job you’ll ever love.” But Joshua Leonard’s (The Lie) latest directorial outing, Fully Realized Humans, shows what happens when friends who are indoctrinated into parenthood decide to be brutally honest with the parents-to-be. Turns out, it might be better to discover the horrors for yourself.

Starring Leonard (The Blair Witch Project) and an actually eight-months-pregnant Jess Weixler (Teeth), the film explores what happens when brutal honesty sends the impending parents, Jackie and Elliot, into a sort of mid-pregnancy crisis in an attempt to work out all their shit before their baby arrives. In other words, they want to become “fully realized humans” in order to raise their offspring in a functional environment.

It all starts at a hipster co-ed baby shower, where Jackie and Elliot’s friends follow up gift-opening with a whole lot of opinionated oversharing. You should breast feed, but you shouldn’t tell people they need to breast feed. You should co-sleep but you also should never co-sleep, and don’t even worry about that because you won’t sleep at all. You’ll be too busy worry about crib death. Be ready with a birth plan but know that your birth plan is useless and prepare yourself for having your nethers torn from stem to stern. “But you guys are gonna kill it,” they say, as Jackie and Elliot struggle to catch their breath…

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Film Review: The Nest

Sean Durkin’s long-awaited follow-up to 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene begins with a static shot of an unassuming suburban car port circa 1980-something and an ominous score. The family who dwells inside the house are indeed about to have their lives turned upside-down, but it’s not because of a ghost, demonic possession or a violent home invasion. The monster that terrorizes the family in The Nest is capitalism, and it’s a most insidious foe because it is pervasive, amorphous, and so, very real.

Jude Law (The Talented Mr. Ripley) stars as Rory, a British business man in the nebulous field of “finance”, who feels he has spent enough time wallowing in American mediocrity so that his horse-loving wife, Allison (Carrie Coon, TVs Fargo, The Leftovers) can be close to her family. He longs to return to the lucrative and fast-paced office life he enjoyed in London before he became Husband of the Year. He’s had enough of bringing Allison coffee every morning and getting the kids off to school so she can go to work at the local stables. When we first meet Rory, he’s schmoozing it up on the phone with an old colleague, and definitely trying too hard. If you wonder how well Rory’s schtick goes over in the London office, you’ll find out soon enough that most people see through his shit immediately. They keep him around because he seems “a nice enough chap” or perhaps because it’s because he looks like Jude Law. Regardless, Rory manages to carve a space for himself in his old office, and has already planned out everything before saying word one to Allison…

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Film Review: I’ve Got Issues

The landscape of film and television is about to change. Robert Pattinson made it two days on a big-budget movie set before contracting COVID, which means the entertainment world is nowhere near ready to return to “normal”. We simply can’t have that many people in a room together without endangering each other’s health. Now is the time for directors like Steve Collins to shine. His latest effort, I’ve Got Issues, is a low-budget collection of existential vignettes starring an average of no more than 2-3 characters at a time. What could be safer to shoot? You don’t even need to gather a bunch of effects artists together for post-production. Someone in a basement with a single laptop could handle that job. Wham, bam, cinema!

Of course, you’d have to be into the premise. With I’ve Got Issues, Collins posits that day-to-day life of regular folk is a lonely, emotionally draining, seemingly pointless uphill battle. (At the moment, I reckon he’d have a hard time finding someone to argue this notion.) Collins handpicked a cast of character actors with a capitol C to embody his Joe and Jane Does in their Sisyphean lives. Among them, Macon Blair (I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore), Maria Thayer (TVs Eagleheart) Paul Gordon (The Happy Poet), Sam Eidson (Zero Charisma), Byron Brown (Mustang Island), and John Merriman (Sister Aimee). Comedian Jim Gaffigan provides occasional narration with a bleak, deadpan delivery that’s nonetheless tinged with hope. The actors are all fully committed to their scenes which helps sell the absurdity…

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Film Review: I Used to Go Here

Kris Rey (formerly Swanberg) follows up 2015’s Unexpected with similarly-themed story about a woman who is coming to terms with the fact that her best-laid plans have gone awry. Kate Conklin (the always sublime Gillian Jacobs) is a writer experiencing the fallout of an ill-received debut novel. Following the cancellation of her book tour and a broken engagement, she attempts to plug the bursting dam of her heart by accepting an invitation to visit to her alma mater in Carbondale, IL. The host is her former mentor/crush David (Jemaine Clement) who invites her to do a reading for his class and spend a couple of days meeting with his students. Kate seizes the opportunity to immerse herself in the last place where she felt full of creative possibility. She relishes the chance to feel like a successful writer for a bit before facing the music. Unfortunately for Kate, the old adage, “you can’t go home again” isn’t just for childhood.

I love Rey’s approach to titles (Rey has an earlier film called It Was Great But I Was Ready to Come Home).  In I Used to Go Here, Kate never utters the titular line, but the sentiment is present whenever she interacts with people in Carbondale. Rey’s story is peppered with many characters who feel fleshed out despite their minimal screen time. One such character is Kate’s pregnant friend Laura (Zoe Chao) who talks Kate through her various crises on the trip while sitting around at home in Chicago about to pop. The film is produced by the Lonely Island which means that Jorma Taccone predictably pops up to act unexpectedly creepy…

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Film Review: The In-Between

Mindy Bledsoe writes, directs, and co-stars in The In-Between, her first feature, a road trip drama about complex friendships and dealing with grief. Junior (Bledsoe) and Mads (Jennifer Stone, TVs The Wizards of Waverly Place) are extremely close, bonding over shared tragedies and chronic illnesses. They embark on a multi-purpose road trip toeing plenty of baggage (both psychical and emotional) as they go the long way from L.A. to Portland. What sets this film apart from other road trip dramas is the fact that Mads and Junior both suffer from chronic illnesses that color their lives and make adulting a challenge. Bledsoe’s debut is a beautiful tribute to sisterly bonds and learning to let go.

Mads, a diabetic, likes to return to her childhood home in South Dakota every 4 years to renew her drivers’ license and ruminate over her upbringing. For Junior, the trip is a sort reenactment of one she took with her sister, Victoria, that ended in tragedy just short of their final destination. Only Junior survived the car accident, but she came away with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (Type 2) – a chronic condition that painfully debilitates her arms and hands without a steady diet of painkillers and weed…

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Film Review: Babyteeth

babyteethThe plot of Shannon Murphy’s debut dramatic feature, Babyteeth is familiar: A spirited teen is diagnosed with terminal cancer and then falls in love with an eccentric boy who renews her lust for life or whatever, while her dysfunctional parents look on disapprovingly. But Murphy’s film, based on the hit play by Rita Kalnejais, is basically the antithesis of melodramatic schmaltz like A Walk to Remember or The Fault in Our Stars.

Eliza Scanlen (Sharp Objects, Little Women), utilizes her resume to play the terminally-ill daughter of Henry (Ben Mendelsohn, Captain Marvel, Rogue One), a psychiatrist and Anna (Essie Davis, Game of Thrones), a former piano prodigy. The story unfolds in the non-postcard parts of Sydney, Australia. A hand-held camera lends a home movie vibe to the proceedings (if your home movies were shot by a professional DP).

The film opens with a tooth falling into a glass. We eventually learn that it belongs to a fifteen-year-old girl named Milla Finlay. She has a bleak cancer prognosis and a baby tooth that’s holding on for dear life. Her middle-class life has been rather uneventful so far and now it’s almost over. Perhaps that’s what’s she’s contemplating en route to school one morning, when a hot young vagrant named Moses (Toby Wallace, Romper Stomper mini-series), nearly knocks her into an oncoming train. He sports a face tattoo and a haircut that looks like it was done by a toddler. He’s what the pop artist Two Thangs would call a “Dirtbag Pinup.” When Milla’s nose starts bleeding, Moses removes his shirt, pulls her into his lap, and places it oppressively over her nose and mouth. Afterward, he asks her for money. Milla is immediately smitten…

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