Nic Cage is going to keep on keepin’ on. This man will never stop making movies. His soul will forever dance. I will keep watching him.
Although Cage isn’t the sole focus of the sequel toThe Croods, he’s a big part of why it’s not a disaster. Since I’m willing to bet there are a lot of people who don’t remember the original (or never saw it), and are craving any interaction with the medium of film during a pandemic and thus are catching this sequel; it was smart of DreamWorks to include a recap here by default.
But just in case! Basically, The Croods are a prehistoric family that lived in a cave their whole lives; only to eventually discover the splendor of outdoor life. It was…odd and cute: two descriptors that also apply to A New Age. The first act is essentially a series of wacky montages. There’s even an extended sequence where the entire Crood family eats uncontrollably and laughs maniacally, then Nic Cage goes on an extended monologue about how good a banana tastes.
It’s lovely, but then we get to the crux of the sequel, the fish out of water story framework. The Croods are basically the Flintstones to the “Betterman’s” Jetsons: a more advanced family that evolved into flip flops and a more “civilized” society. Guy (Ryan Reynolds), the Crood’s potential son-in-law and beau of the patriarch’s daughter, is basically a Betterman. See what’s building here?
What follows is a very familiar familial tale with some talented vocal performances. Peter Dinklage doesn’t shy away from laying the sarcasm on thick with the holier than thou Betterman leader, while Leslie Mann matches his pride as Mrs. Hope Betterman. Cage, as usual, is brilliant as who I’ve dubbed “Mr. Crood.” He overacts, but it helps add some absurdity to his quick-to-anger character.
There’s a lot of quick barbs with great deliveries, then more montages and crazy gags that usually involve on-screen text. A lot of it straight up doesn’t make sense. The Croods sequel is not at all concerned with continuity or conflict, as it is quick to move on when a new joke would fit in its place. Things are resolved rapidly, even the central conflict that rears up all of a sudden and near the end of the flick. It’s commonplace for family films to adhere to this rapid-fire structure, especially in the last decade or so, but The Croods: A New Age doesn’t consistently sell it. You could do a whole lot worse if you need to pick out something new to watch during the pandemic though; and there are enough loud out loud moments to not label this as a miss.
I remember stumbling upon Stewart Ashens’ Youtube channel back during the infancy of the popular platform and immediately finding the channel to be charming in a strange, almost tacky kind of way. In a sense, this echoed the very subject matter often put on display, on the now iconic, brown sofa that has become the symbol of the channel itself.
Flash forward over a decade later, with a feature film already under his belt, I’ve come to realize that, no it wasn’t the brown sofa that made Ashens great, but the person behind the camera, the true Stewart Ashens. So in that regard, going into his second movie, Ashens and the Polybius Heist, I was hoping to see more of that charisma translate into the film.
Thankfully, not only is Polybius Heist, a better film than its predecessor, it also captures the essence of the channel in a way that I feel can appeal to both fans of the Youtube channel and those just looking for a campy and mostly lighthearted film.
The movie opens on Stewart, as an exaggerated version of himself, trying to break into the premises of a Collector who is in possession of a rare and vintage game. One that apparently does not belong to him. This scene quickly explains to the audience who Stewart Ashens is, referencing both his Youtube Ashens channel in addition to setting up his in-universe Collections Agency plot point.
Audiences are then greeted with the opening sequence for the film, which does its best job in parodying the aesthetics of the Bond films. Unfortunately, I found this sequence to be a tad too long, in which point I began to notice the stilted animations of the obscured figures, something that ultimately robbed the opening of its charm.
Fortunately, moments like these were limited to whenever the Polybius Heist relied on special effects. The film as a whole looked great, with lighting and makeup that completely eclipses 2013’s Ashens and the Quest for the Gamechild. The titular Polybius is based on a real-world rumour surrounding an arcade cabinet that is said to have been discontinued due to concerns regarding mental fatigue. The film uses this as its central crux, which is an apt choice as it naturally feeds into Stewart Ashen’s love for obscure videogames and tat.
In the movie, the Polybius first catches Ashen’s attention when his business partner Benny (Eli Silverman) mentions that he has begun looking into it, after finding some old documents that he obtained from the university. Of course, this intrigues Ashens in wanting to pursue what in essence is the nerdy equivalent of an Indiana Jones treasure. Furthermore, without going into spoilers, the audience soon discovers that Stewart himself is intrinsically tied to the fabled Polybius machine. This eventually ties into the latter half of the film and its conclusion and helps give the movie an overall sense of purpose, beyond just finding an obscure videogame.
The bulk of the film has Ashen’s break into the facility in which the Polybius machine is held, which happens to be inside the main base of the film’s antagonist, Antony Agonist (Stuggy). Agonist is portrayed as the literal antithesis to Ashens, in that he is staunchly against retro tech, due to having to put up with too many hand-me-downs, as he explains in the movie.
From here, Ashens and the Polybius Heist does its best Oceans impersonation by gradually introducing the rest of the cast and the core members for that make up the heist team. The cast ranges from real-life friends and fellow YouTubers, such as Berry Lewis, to Robert Llewellyn of Red Dwarf fame.
My favourite scene in the film takes place during the heist, in which Jarred Christmas, who I believe plays himself and is the Mole of the group, tries to buy some time by chatting up another character. This scene quickly devolves into the two revealing to the audience, their strange lawnmower fetish. Somehow, this fits the weird and eccentric world of Ashens and the Polybius Heist and makes the scene genuinely funny.
This mix of talent somehow comes together better than expected, although no one, in particular, seems to steal the show. Instead, everyone involved does their job well and to the point, delivering a fun movie that doesn’t overstay its welcome.
My biggest gripe with the Polybius Heist comes in how the feature depicts both gaming and the Polybius itself. Firstly, is the depiction of the Polybius machine which seems to take the form of a Raspberry Pi board, rather than a traditional Arcade PCB. Perhaps this was intentional, but I feel it would have been better suited as something more akin to a real arcade board, or even the polar opposite, in something abstract, rather than it resembling readily available, existing hardware.
Finally, during a scene just before the heist, the core cast is seen playing a game on an older CRT-style TV. The game on display seems to be a made-up sprite-based FPS, with each of the players using everything from NES pads to a tablet. Again, perhaps this was intentionally poking fun at how bad gaming tends to be depicted in films, however, considering that is an Ashens movie, maybe a reliance on a more authentic and retro gaming setup would have been a better fit.
The terror of relying on an untrustworthy caregiver is readily available for frights. Run, Aneesh Chaganty’s newest horror flick flips the terror of helplessness into a story of perseverance and capability, an important story of a wheelchair user who is anything but bound.
Chloe (Kiera Allen) lives with her mother, Diane (Sarah Paulson) in a rural house. She can’t wait to go to college and the only thing that seems to matter to the young budding adult is getting that acceptance letter and breaking free of the walls of her home. Diane is protective, something that seems reasonable for the mother of a child with special needs. Chloe is a wheelchair user shown to have asthma, diabetes, a heart issue, and a skin condition. Chloe is shown managing these things for herself in her daily routine, parts of which her mothers assists with, by preparing her food and doling out her medications. Wanting just a couple extra of the chocolates her mother meticulously divvies out to her, Chloe peeks into the grocery bags one day and discovers an unfamiliar medication prescribed to Dianne. When the mysterious green pill shows up in her cup later that day, Chloe grows uncharacteristically suspicious of her loving mother.
This sets off an intense game of panicked investigations and a lack of trust, that ultimately turns into a terrifying cat-and-mouse game between the two leads. Chloe, learning of what she is truly capable, attempts to best her mother without ever letting on that she might be suspicious.
This film wears its classic horror influences on its sleeve. The overbearing caregiver smells a lot like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? but it dives headfirst into classics when it not so subtly names the pharmacist “Mrs. Bates.” But though it leans on terror themes from films like Rear Window and Misery, Run is decidedly a modern feature that crafts scares we’re familiar with in more modern horror flicks, and uses the set differently by having it be accessible to our heroine, Chloe.
Again, while its influences are palpable while remaining its own thing, Run exploits paranoia in ways that will remind you of Hitchcock thrillers. Aside from the protagonist being a wheelchair user, Run also borrows from Rear Windowwith its use of confusion and unsurety that will have the audience questioning what is real as much as Chloe does. The power of gaslighting and the loss of control are where much of the horror comes from, Chloe slowly discovering how much power she has given to her mother and her adaptability in trying to steal in back.
Co-writer and director, Aneesh Chaganty, known for Searching, continues the hot streak of suspense building. Though this film is less packed with twists and turns than its predecessor, it still oozes tension and reveals that keep you nervously tapping the entire runtime. It doesn’t bother trying to deceive the audience too much and ultimately uses a few tired tropes for exposition, but if Joker can get away with it, so can Run. A refreshing fact about this flick is that it’s scary. Point bank. It scared me. Though our heroine never once waivers, the fear stems from losing faith in the one person she was meant to trust completely. Setting off a hunt full of frantic and desperate attempts to break free from what was once comfort and is now a prison, Chloe’s situation stays terrifying and tense the entire way through. It feels like a full feature of a person frantically waiting for a file to download in time to save the world.
Newcomer, Allen, is herself a wheelchair user, a refreshing casting choice for a plethora of reasons that brings extra realism to her performance. What’s more is that she absolutely demolishes the role of the sweet heroine whose world has been shattered. Allen is likeable and warm, delivering a well acted performance balancing her fear with a ‘never say die’ attitude that will have you cheering for Chloe at every turn. Paulson continues to prove why she has become a staple in horror circles by delivering a dual performance as the loving mother and the batshit villain. Chaganty’s visual storytelling combined with her performance brilliantly uses things like open car doors, long pans, and empty hand reveals that will make you gasp at this new take on Annie Wilkes. The standoffs between Chloe and Dianne are a blast, with the two plucking lies from the ether in ways that turn a breakfast table into a battleground.
Though it doesn’t break a tonne of molds in its storytelling and themes, by centering on the heroine who is never positioned as over-coming her disability, but instead using her abilities, Run blasts through tired tropes on how different types of bodies are often used for terror.
Munchausens by proxy has been explored in docuseries’ and dramatizations, most notably in the story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard and The Act. By centering this tale on the badass heroine and villainizing the abusive would-be caregiver, Run breathes new life into the trope that shows no mercy to the ill aggressor.
Vince Vaughn, post-Brawl in Cell Block 99, can sell me on imposing. So when someone told me he was going to be both a serial killer and a high school girl in the same film, I was in.
Freaky immediately gets the ball rolling with the killer (Vaughn’s Barney Garris) attacking the house. Literally four minutes in: BOOM, first kill. Around 25 minutes in, we get the “high school girl and killer” body swap between Vaughn and Kathryn Newton (as the victim turned killer, Millie Kessler). This is a film that knows pacing and knows what it is. When kids in a high school shop class get a smart phone alert for “brutally murdered teens,” you know you’re in for a ride.
It doesn’t hurt that there’s a very cool (albeit brief) supernatural element for the body swap, with plenty of levity from director Christopher Landon (who also co-wrote the script). I know what you might be thinking: these types of “swap” movies aren’t new. In fact, Jumanji was just resurrected on the back of swapping young women into older men’s bodies for comedic effect, and soared into two stellar box office gains.
With a clear focus on the two, we get plenty of time for some development on top of the antics. It’s funny to see where the other side lives. Each party wakes up in their respective bedrooms, fully swapped. So Millie is in her cozy home full of teen idol posters, while Barney wakes up in a creepy room full of horrors. It’s also great to see the actions of Millie’s tormenters coming home to roost now that the killer is in control.
Although it doesn’t show it in the most elegant way, the swap serves as an allegory for the meek Millie, as she greets everyone in her school with the confidence of a killer by proxy. Naturally, Millie requires a balance between her two states to really come into her own: her development arrested by the death of her father before the events of the film.
It’s just a shame that near the end, things start to go a little off the rails as the script tries to reconcile multiple plot elements. Not knowing how to end things isn’t unique to the horror genre, but even if you suspend your disbelief you might find yourself wanting more. Either way, Freaky could have leaned too far into the slasher or comedy angle and stumbled; but it’s a fun film that benefits from two strong leads.
Family, chosen and otherwise are breeding grounds for trauma, the same trauma that can be exploited for horror. Out of South Korea, a country known for stunning horror like The Host and Train to Busan, comes Lingering. Lingering (or Hotel Leikeu) is a twisted fright that looks at the comfort and horror that seeps out from in-between the bonds we have with family and friends, ones that shake up trust, history and reality.
Yoo-Mi (Se-yeong Lee) lives on her own within humble means. Unexpectedly, after the death of their mother, she’s informed that her child-aged sister is in need of a caregiver. She’s asked to take her in, as there are no further options or social services. Knowing she’s not equipped to be a caregiver, Yoo-Mi takes her younger sister to their mother’s friend’s home, a hotel where she once lived. A hotel where their mother died. The woman, who is still caring for the empty hotel which is closed for the off-season, insists they both stay until the youngest is acclimated. A reluctant Yoo-Mi attempts to settle into a place where she senses death and wretched memories. Before long, Yoon-Mi begins to cave to the old friends’ requests, and struggles with her instinct to leave up against her instinct to care for her sister, while the demons, natural or otherwise, begin to show themselves.
The story unravels a few threads as the film carries on, many that ultimately tie in together but not with much purpose. There’s discussion of another relative who came back from abroad quite ill. A story of a missing North Korean defector. A ghost and an alcoholic hotel staff member. While these moments come together the way a viewer would demand, it’s not with a tonne of payoff. While interwoven story threads are a common signature in Korean genre, these ones are more distracting than suspenseful. A clean up of some side stories might have left more time for scares and to develop more exciting elements of the ghosts and visions, to force the audience to wonder if what they were seeing was real or an extension of the mental illnesses mentioned throughout.
Yoo-Mi’s mother died by an apparent suicide after time struggling with mental illness. The film isn’t super forgiving with its language surrounding the death, but it does consider internal and external forces and their hands in mental illness, be it gaslighting, drugs, or genetics. Yoo-Mi’s visions of ghosts and of her mother raise questions about reality and allow for ghosts to metaphorically explore mental illness, but, again, this doesn’t get wrapped up clearly enough to decide either way, nor does it do so ambiguously enough to be abstract.
Writer and director Yoon Een-Kyoung has a stellar visual style. The hotel makes for such a fun horror movie location with endless hallways, empty space, multiple marked rooms, and an atrium reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The hotel is used expertly to make it feel endless and open while simultaneously like the walls are closing in. Harsh lines and angles are used stunningly so that every scene change looks like a photograph, and the use of colour, especially red and blue, creates a grounded reality that never lets on whether you should be afraid or comfortable.
Though Lingering has a few too many rising actions to feel focused, it’s ultimately a beautiful film. It does well with the Korean horror tradition of family focused stories and fear arising from familial relationships. The appearance of the simple scenes is certainly it’s strength in the creation of scares.
Lingering will be streaming on AMC’s service, Shudder, on November 12, 2020.
When the anime based on Akihito Tsukushi’s widely popular manga Made in Abyss first hit the scene in 2017, it drew countless fans into it’s deeply mysterious and captivating world. It is a story that mixes friendship, love and exploration with the brutal, unfeeling realities of the external world. Mixing breathtaking visuals, against the backdrop of terror and death, it built a world that many could not look away from, myself included. So when I got the chance to check out the follow up film Made in Abyss: Dawn of the Deep Soul, I was excited. It was a chance to continue the journey with the characters as they descend deeper into the Abyss , and while it was not always an easy watch, it is a film that any fan of the genre, or just a fan of storytelling needs to give a look.
For anyone not following the anime or manga, Made in Abyss is the tale of Riko and Reg, two young explorers looking to uncover the mysteries of the aforementioned abyss — a mysterious and monstrous pit that descends deep below the known world. Reg, a child shaped relic of another time, and Riko, the daughter of a famed explorer — are an odd pair. Though the previous Anime series, they found a balance of love, compassion and understanding that have given them the tools to survive in the harsh and unfeeling world they now find themselves. They are now joined by Nanachi, a bunny-like girl who lives in the Abyss -as they slowly journey to find the way to the seventh layer. Their journey taking them in the direct path of the foreshadowed antagonist Bondrewd, Lord of Dawn — the cause of much suffering and the person who forced Nanachi into the changed state she now finds herself in.
Following on the heels of the series, this is very much a tale made for people who have already watched up to this point in the story. The movie over its two hour runtime feels like a well flashed out sequel to the series. With animation that tops anything seen previously, and a darker, more adult tone, Made in Abyss: Dawn of the Deep Soul is a heart shattering watch that will shake many fans of the series to their very core. Mixing themes of love and sacrifice, Dawn of the Deep Soul is a tale that puts the series protagonists against Bondrewd and the results are as brutal, and tear jerking as one would expect.
Introducing Prushka, adopted daughter of Bondrewd, Made in Abyss: Dawn of the Deep Soul quickly grounds the characters, giving a more complex narrative and sense of morality then was originally hinted at. Despite everything, we have seen up to this point, the compassion and tone paints a cold, indifferent world finds hope. [Despite the cold, indifferent world that envelopes our lead characters, their compassionate relationship creates a feeling of hope in the midst of the ever-increasing challenges the Abyss presents them] It is this sense of hope and joy early on that makes the bitter reality that is to come later in the film seem more crushing, and even more inescapable.
Story wise, it was interesting to see how a series that has focused so heavily on the Man vs. Nature structure up to this point would transition to a man vs man narrative and if it would work. Thankfully, Akihito Tsukushi’s story deals with this masterfully, with Bondrewd working as a concept of science and exploration gone too far. He is a force of will, working to achieve his ends at any cost, existing as more a creature of the Abyss than a human to be reasoned with. Everything he is doing is done for the sake of advancement, displayinghis own twisted but relatable sense of love and compassion, even as he acts out on some of the most horrific things seen in film animated or otherwise.
Visually, this is the best Made in Abyss has ever looked. From the desolate wastes of “Sea of Corpses” to how the action is depicted, thanks to the talented animators at Trigger. From the beautiful landscapes, to the creatures lurking just out of sight, the Abyss is a place that juxtaposes beauty with an ever-present sense of doom. As often allure and danger not far apart, and Dawn of the Deep Soul captures this in striking detail and clarity. Even the gore and violence is increased for this outing, providing a true emotionally impactful and visceral experience and making the, horrific scenes shown in the anime seem tame in comparison.
Often feeling like a full series arc pushed to fit a feature length film, some pacing can feel rushed, or even tiring, but it all works to give a sense of the struggle the characters are facing as they traverse the unknown. Even the way the film builds character and establishes intimate relationships between the protagonists over few scenes works in its favour, quickly giving a sense of place and compassion, making the scenes that proceed and follow it filled with more impact and making some scenes near unwatchable due to the tragic nature shown within.
But despite all the trauma and pain the characters go through on screen, there is always a sense of hope and wonder. Made in Abyss: Dawn of the Deep Soul while hard to watch at times is one of the best films the medium has delivered in a while. It is a deep journey into discovery, offering wonder and pain in equal measure. It is a film that needs to be watched to fully take in the depth on display, and while not easy to endure, the final minutes make the journey worthwhile.
Filled with wondrous high, and some of the lowest lows you could imagine from an animated movie, Made in Abyss: Dawn of the Deep Soul is a film that delivers on the series promise, and ushers in one of anime’s most brutally chilling villains to date. With deep characters, breathtaking visuals, and some of the most heartbreaking scenes to date from the medium, this is a film that anyone who loves animated movies needs to watch. A striking reminder that Anime is still a powerful tool for storytelling, and that character and exploration don’t need to be simplified to make for an engaging watch.
The transformation of the self is a common theme that feels all the more real as we imagine ourselves letting loose and becoming that which we repress. For Amelia Moses’ Bloodthirsty, the repressed self is the werewolf that is stuffed inside an artist, an artist with an insatiable hunger for respected art.
Grey (Lauren Beatty) is a pop musician coming up on the creation of her sophomore album. With the pressure of her second release landing atop her, she shops for producers to help create the next big thing. She is excited when Vaughn Daniels (Greg Bryk), a notorious producer, wants to work with her, and quickly brushes off any hesitations in favour of great art. Grey’s girlfriend, Charlie (Katharine King So), expresses reservations when she comes across sinister details about Vaughn’s past, but the two ultimately head to his remote home to immerse Grey in the music creation process. As Vaughn drags beautiful music out of Grey, Charlie becomes more and more concerned about her and her mental health, knowing that Grey has been struggling with dark thoughts and hallucinations. As Vaughn dig his claws deeper into Grey, her primal urges start to surface, testing her relationship, her will, and her sense of self.
Written by Wendy Hill-Tout and her daughter, Lowell, and directed by Amelia Moses, Bloodthirsty showcases the beautiful work that can be done with limited resources. The story leans into supernatural elements without getting so caught up in them that it becomes lost in the film’s constraints. Where Moses really stands above the rest is in her ability to use simple shots and cuts instead of leaning on special effects. It smells like the type of small budget technique that could start a trend like the shakey cam in The Evil Deador the removal of frames in Saw. Moses shoots the all important “transformation” in simple ways, made better by the work of Beatty’s physicality that moves well past mere suggestion and reads like a well crafted moment. It’s inspiring and will make you want to grab a camera and shoot your epic.
It seems negative to say that the parts of this film are greater than the whole, but it’s only as a means of describing how there are stellar small pieces that rise above the so-so narrative. The songs, which were written by Lowell, are standout. Movies about music make a tall order when they commit to creating “popular music” outside real world popular music. It’s another huge task in and of itself that the movie manages to pull off. The titular track, Bloodthirsty, is an earworm and I’ll admit to be humming it aloud in this moment. Lowell, a musician, has worked with acts like Demi Lovato, Madison Beer, Hailee Steinfeld, so it’s both impressive and unsurprising that the music feels like it could stand on its own.
Hill-Tout was inspired by Lowell’s stories of art as martyrdom which is a theme woven throughout the narrative. It takes off in interesting ways, testing how audiences and producers demand so much from artists, sometimes to the artists’ detriment. Grey is struggling before she even begins, and Charlie can only protect her so much from her will to work on her craft, and Vaughn’s insistence that her pain will deliver stronger work.
Where this narrative gets lost is in the relationships the film creates and sidelines. Grey’s relationship with Charlie is very quickly pushed out of frame, and Charlie is reduced to a sparring partner for Vaughn. As the film switches focus to Grey and Vaughn’s relationship, the revelations are almost unnecessary in a way that they become distractions from an otherwise interesting story about intangible connections.
Bloodthirsty gets a but too caught up in the twist to let its subtleties breathe, but it’s a well crafted scary story about a hungry artist who chooses the version of herself she believes she needs to be.
When I first heard Penguin Bloom would be at TIFF 2020, I was excited. It was a film that garnered some buzz in the ramp-up to the festival, and it had a solid cast, and an interesting based-on-a-true-story premise. Telling the story of the Bloom family as they overcome tragedy with the help of a feathered friend sounds like it could be a winner. Sadly, despite some strong performances, Penguin Bloom falls flat, leaving little depth and a lot of wasted potential.
Following the events and story behind the real-life Bloom family, Penguin Bloom brings Naomi Watts and Andrew Lincoln (The Walking Dead) together as the parents of the Australian based family. An accident in Thailand leaves Sam (Naomi Watts) paralyzed from the waist down and her life is in tatters. As a lover of fitness and surfing, this accident crushes her motivation and drive to push herself in life.
Penguin Bloom starts by giving a sense of how her life has lost its meaning since the accident. When one of her sons finds a Magpie on the beach needing aid, the life of the Bloom family changes for the better, with Sam finally finding the will to push through her injury and find a new vigour she never thought possible.
Penguin Bloom takes what could be a memorable, and engaging story and squanders it under sappy concepts and half-baked ideas that never feel lived in or genuine. The story of the Bloom family has captivated countless people, yet director Glendyn Ivin crafts this movie as it if were made for the Hallmark channel, with all the corny false emotion that entails.
Even the titular Magpie, has little impact on the actual plot. While it is present and has some fun moments with the family, this is really Sam’s movie. It is a movie of her recovery, and her journey to push past her injury. There is nothing wrong with this fact, as her recovery and eventually finding success as a para-surfing athlete is exciting, and sadly more interesting than anything Penguin does throughout the runtime.
This is Naomi Watts’s movie, and it shows, she steals the scenes, and in a better movie could have delivered something exciting to watch. But, a flat, disjointed script and an inability to find a good tone, means that Watts is unable to elevate the rest of what is on offer. While there is some stunning cinematography, great concepts and loads of potential, it’s ultimately squandered in the end.
I walked into the Penguin Bloom wanting to like it, and with the cast and concept, it sounded like a winner. Unfortunately, not even Naomi Watts’ performance is enough to salvage this half-baked flick. The subject deserved better, but alas, this is a movie that is best saved for a mediocre streaming night, where you can enjoy the animal antics and the family drama but not expect much more than that.
Concrete Cowboy is the story of Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), a troubled teenager from Detroit. After getting expelled from another school for getting into another fight, his mother packs his bags and sends all the way to north Philadelphia in order for him to live with his estranged father Hark (Idris Elba). Hark is the leader of a group of urban cowboys and a man who spends more time tending to his horses and drinking with his posse than bonding with his son. He even makes Cole sleep in the living room, right beside a horse. Cole slowly starts acclimating to his father’s lifestyle, even forging a bond with a particularly aggressive horse. However, he also meets back with his old family friend Smush (Jharrel Jerome), now a drug dealer who places Cole in a dangerous conflict between his old ways and his new life.
There are amazing performances across the board in Concrete Cowboy. Both Caleb McLaughlin and Idris Elba work very well together. It’s clear that Cole and Hark have a complicated, terse relationship and the two convey their bond in a way that feels more grounded than most. The supporting cast delivers just as well. Jharrel Jerome, fresh off his Emmy win for When They See Us, brings an immediate layer of charm to a standard character like Smush. Method Man is also notably solid, albeit underused as the town’s sheriff.
The true beating heart of the film resides with its reverence to Black cowboys and culture. The history of Black cowboys is one that’s been very much ignored and downright erased from history, despite (according to the Smithsonian) approximately 1 in 4 cowboys being black in the 1800s. Most of Hark’s crew are played by real-life urban cowboys themselves, and the film’s most interesting segments are when the film stops to hear their stories and perspectives in a way that was natural. There was always a hint of disappointment whenever the plot had to move forward because these stories were just so fascinating.
On the negative side though, The film does run a bit long, and a few subplots feel a bit underdeveloped. There’s also a section about the cowboys’ stable being potentially shut down that would seem like it would be developed further throughout the film, but it’s more-or-less ignored until very late in the third act. The same goes for the subplot with Smush. Despite Jerome’s performance, the film hits all the same tired beats concerning his arc to the point where you know exactly how everything will play out before it even begins. It almost feels like the film’s constrained by having to tell the standard coming-of-age story instead of being a full-fledged modernized western it really wants to be.
Despite those faults, Concrete Cowboy is still an impressive debut from director Ricky Staubs. Despite the cliché story beats, it’s a well-acted drama that works as an introduction to a subculture that hasn’t really been explored cinematically before.
Unemployment and the decline of the American manufacturing backbone is a topic that is on the forefront of many people’s minds right now. With an election looming, and the factories closing more each month, it is a backdrop tailor-made for a harsh, modern coming of age story that puts in stark contrast to the now mythical American dream of achieving anything through hard work and perseverance. And this is where writer/director Nicole Riegel’s latest, Holler, comes to deliver a gripping film that is as stunning and engaging as it is bleak.
Jessy Barden’s Ruth (The End of the F***ing World) is a high school senior who has just found out she is accepted to college with no possible way to pay for her next stage in life. She and her brother Blaze (Gus Halper) work collecting scrap, along with a few other jobs to make ends meet. It is a sparse and brutal existence, fighting for every penny they can get. With no way to pay for school, and the little paychecks they do get barely enough to pay for living, the pair join a dangerous scrap metal crew run by shady scrap yard owner Hark (Austin Amelio) and find that easy money comes at a price.
Holler is a film about people struggling to get by, with everyone feeling like they have depth and character beyond what is seen on screen. There is enough humour and heart to make even the most bleak scenes feel like there is a slim ray of hope. These are people that don’t have time to live in self-pity, with the next job — and potential job — being the difference between starving or making ends meet.
The stunning cinematography works to paint the harsh cold winter of Ohio as the backdrop to the story. The rust covered factories and crumbling landscape gives a stark reminder to what the characters suffer though on a daily basis. What was once vibrant is now rusting away, only having value as they sell it off to China for scrap. Holler is a film set squarely in the modern American Rustbelt, where the once vibrant communities only have memories and hope to keep them moving forward.
Jessy Barden steals the show, giving a subdued, but engaging performance. It is a nuanced take on the role, painting a picture of both hope and resignation, and gives a sense of the struggle this character has gone through to reach the point we find her in. There are small hints at the struggles Ruth goes through, and the true fragility of her character, but thanks to Barden’s take it feels woven perfectly into how she acts, carries herself, and pushes for her dreams.
With amazing performances, and a stark take on modern American landscape, Holler is a film that is as powerful as it is harsh. It is a coming of age story that is not afraid to show the brutal truth along with the hope for a better future. Nicole Riegel directs a film that puts the class divide in stark contrast and is an engaging work from beginning to end.