REVIEW: “Nocebo” (2022)

In “Nocebo”, Eva Green plays a fashion designer who’s suffering from a unexplained illness. She’s seen several doctors and has been prescribed numerous medications, but nothing has seemed to help. Her husband (played by Mark Strong) is growing impatient which has put a strain on their marriage. But when a mysterious woman shows up at their door, the story moves from a family drama to something darker and far more twisted.

That might be the basic setup for the movie, but “Nocebo” has quite a bit going on under its surface. It’s a creepy and sometimes gnarly psychological horror film. Yet at times it plays like a socio-political thriller, especially in its sly digs at class, greed, entitlement, and corporate oppression. Director Lorcan Finnegan finds room in his film for both genre and commentary. And while I’m still not sure how well all of the pieces connect, Finnegan, along with screenwriter Garret Shanley, craft something that’s both entertaining and surprisingly thought-provoking.

Image Courtesy of RLJE Films

Christine (Green) has enjoyed a successful career designing children’s clothing. She lives in a posh home in an upscale neighborhood with her marketing strategist husband, Felix (Strong). Their daughter Bobs (Billie Gadsdon) attends an expensive private school. Without question it’s a comfortable life of plenty, but that suddenly changes. While presenting her latest clothing line at a fashion show, Christine is jarred by a frightening vision (or is it a vision?). She sees a mangy, milky-eyed dog covered in large clumps of blood-gorged ticks. I won’t spoil the details of this genuinely creepy and deliciously gross scene, but it ends with her snapping back as if from a dream yet with one pretty nasty tick bite on the back of her neck.

Shortly following her ghastly vision, Christine begins suffering from an assortment of symptoms such as headaches, tremors, trouble sleeping, and absentmindedness. Eight months pass and her condition has only worsened, affecting her life at work and at home. But then she’s suddenly surprised when a petite Filipina caregiver named Diana (Chai Fonacier) shows up at her door seemingly unannounced. The mysterious and unassuming woman says Christine hired her and this was to be her first day. Fearing she’s having another memory lapse, Christine invites Diana in and gives her a room upstairs.

Image Courtesy of RLJE Films

So did Christine hire Diana and forget or is there something more sinister going on? That’s a key question and we feel we know the answer pretty early on. But much of the fun comes from watching Finnegan and Shanley carve in the details as they unpack the truth. And the cast gets some good material to work with, especially after Diana arrives. Her creepy yet cryptic presence drives a wedge between Christine and Felix. He quickly grows suspicious of Diana’s strange medicines and folk remedies while Christine slowly grows more dependent on them. Green, Strong, and Fonacier are a proficient trio with each filling in certain pieces of the overall puzzle. Green is especially good, especially in the second half as her character begins to completely unravel.

“Nocebo” earns points for it’s underlying message which comes to the surface through Diana’s interwoven backstory. It’s a well shot and well incorporated addition even if it doesn’t quite pack the final punch it could have. Still, the message in itself is potent and makes us look at the story through a new lens. And while most of the film relies on the audience’s patience, it loses some of that trust in a final act that’s a touch on-the-nose. But none of those things lessen the fun or dull the film’s psychological edge. And Lorcan Finnegan shows himself to be a compelling craftsman, using folk horror (yes, the ticks return) and evocative symbolism to dole out some genuinely unsettling scenes. “Nocebo” opens in select theaters this Friday, November 4th and on VOD November 22nd.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “9 Bullets” (2022)

Lena Headey plays a recently retired burlesque dancer named (yikes) Gypsy. She’s spent years dancing in a hole-in-the-wall club and now all she wants to do is finish writing her book and take a cruise (I know, just go with it). But her blissful retirement hits a snag after she finds herself in the middle of hilariously hokey crime boss and his hunt for a young boy.

Written and directed by Gigi Gaston, “9 Bullets” can best be described as a movie full of pieces that don’t fit. None of the emotions feel sincere, and the characters are so constricted by formula that they barely seem human. It’s a movie of ideas, and some of them are well-meaning. But “9 Bullets” ends up needing far more than good intentions to make us connect with what we’re given.

I’ll give it to Headey, she really commits to her character. But with dialogue this bad and plotting this terrible, it would be impossible for anyone to make Gypsy or her story compelling. It’s made even worse by the glaringly phony central relationship between Gypsy and a young kid named Sam (Dean Scott Vazquez). The movie heavily relies on the overused ‘sweet kid meets a hard-boiled adult’ trope, dumbing it down and leaving us with nothing to latch onto. And no amount of schmaltzy music can make us care.

The scattershot story sees Gypsy and Alex crossing paths after the boy witnesses his family gunned down by the henchmen of a redneck crime boss named Jack (Sam Worthington). It turns out Alex‘s dad swindled some money from Jack. And of course the penalty is execution, not just of him but women and children as well. But when Jack’s laughably dumb thugs realize they missed Alex, they set out to hunt the boy down.

Thankfully Alex is taken in by Gypsy who has this opaque and barely defined past connection with Jack and his gang. We learn Gypsy and Jack were once an item, and their relationship might have been worth exploring. Instead Jack is yet another cookie-cutter toxic slug. Except here he’s also a licorice-munching psychopath who will travel all over the American West to murder the child and his dog. And that’s basically what the movie becomes – a bland cat-and-mouse thriller full of silly, implausible twists as Gypsy and Alex run for their lives.

Of course, Gaston’s intent is much different. She wants this to be about two lost souls running from their pasts and finding a future together. But it’s so hard to take them seriously, especially when they’re forced to utter such cornball lines as “You better let someone love you before it’s too late.” or “I want someone to love me.” My favorite may be Worthington saying with a straight face “Do I look like a rabbit?”

These are only some of the film’s problems. There’s a shameless sex scene that’s shot in a way that’s completely inconsistent with the story. There’s a final act music montage that’s one of the corniest things I’ve seen in years. And then you have the ending itself which is utterly preposterous. I’m guessing it (somehow) looked a lot better on paper. Actually, you could probably say that about the movie as a whole. “9 Bullets” is streaming now on Hulu and is available on VOD.

VERDICT – 1 STAR

REVIEW: “Not Okay” (2022)

Did you ever want to be noticed so badly that you didn’t even care what it was for?“ Those opening words cut to the heart of “Not Okay”, the new social satire from 27-year-old writer-director Quinn Shephard. This is yet another feature-length roast of modern digital culture and internet celebrity. That isn’t a bad thing considering how much time we spend marinating in viral videos, clickbait, hashtags, the latest memes, and 280-character hot takes.

The problem is “Not Okay” spends too much time taking easy shots at the most obvious targets rather than exploring what drives the obsession for web-based celebrity and our insatiable appetites for instant notoriety. It gives lip service to symptoms such as self-loathing, insecurity, loneliness, and depression. But it never treats any of those things as causes worth examining. Instead the movie bops around with an admittedly entertaining energy. If only it had more weight.

A really good and thoroughly committed Zoey Deutch plays Danni Sanders, a photo editor and wannabe writer working for a New York-based magazine called Depravity (fitting). She’s no hero which the movie lets us know through a pretty hilarious opening content advisory that reads “This film contains flashing lights, themes of trauma, and an unlikable female protagonist.” As it turns out, “unlikable” is massive understantment. But thanks to Deutch’s charisma, unlikable never turns to insufferable.

Image Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Danni may say she wants to be writer, but her true dream is to be noticed. Danni craves attention and she sees writing as a way to gain notoriety rather than to say something of value. She’s the kind who always has her face glued to her smartphone and who measures worth by someone’s follower count. So it’s no surprise she doesn’t connect with the people she works with. She often clashes with her boss (a really funny Negin Farsad) and is frequently snubbed by the office cliques. The lone exception is her eccentric cubicle partner, Kelvin (a funny and underused Karan Soni) who she’s quick to brush off.

It also makes sense that she would have a crush on her co-worker and dedicated pothead Colin (Dylan O’Brien). He’s a big-time Instagram personality whose ludicrous persona, ever-present vape cloud, and “weedboiiicolin” online handle tell you all you need to know. Colin is basically an avatar for the shallowness of internet celebrity. He delivers some good early laughs before dwindling into nothing more than a punchline in the second half.

In a spur-of-the-moment attempt at impressing Colin, Danni gins up a story about attending a writer’s retreat in Paris. Rather than following the wisdom of that great sage Barney Fife and nipping it in the bud, Danni embraces the lie. She begins photoshopping pictures to make it look like she’s in the City of Lights and then posting them online. Before long she has created one big elaborate ruse, and all to earn the attention of a flake who can’t even remember her name.

But the scheme blows up in her face after a string of coordinated terrorist attacks strike Paris, targeting major landmarks across the city. It’s not the most sensitive or empathetic choice from Shephard considering the real-life deadly attacks the city has faced in recent history. Nonetheless the movie goes with it and soon Danni finds herself faced with a dilemma. Does she come clean and admit her lies or does she roll with the scam and bask in the attention it brings. She chooses the latter.

Image Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Morally oblivious and shockingly self-centered, Danni becomes in instant social media star, milking her faux survivor status for every follower she can get. She becomes the toast of her swanky but superficial workplace where she’s given her own office and unlimited “mental health days” which she abuses without shame. But her most detestable act involves a school shooting survivor turned fireball activist Rowan (Mia Isaac). I won’t spoil it, but the two develop a friendship built around Danni’s lie. And while Rowan offers Danni some much-needed perspective, she also exposes Danni’s most vile proclivities.

“Not Okay” is a hard movie to size up. In one sense it’s a gutsy film that goes to some unexpectedly icky places. Unfortunately it doesn’t go far enough. Danni is clearly a disgusting person (the movie even tells us so in case we missed it), but there’s still a nagging empathy for her that keeps the movie from going as far as it could have. And while Shephard’s messaging is sincere, she occasionally veers into preachiness that seems aimed solely at the choir, leaving the movie without the insight it desperately wants to have.

To its credit, “Not Okay” has some good things to say about influencer culture, our twisted fascination with tragedy, and the dehumanization of social media and web culture in general. And you can’t knock Deutch’s performance, especially her incredible management of energy and tone. But just as Danni tries incredibly hard to be noticed, so does the movie. And while she often comes across as tone-deaf, so are some of the story choices. It makes the film hard to fully embrace, despite the many things it does well. “Not Okay” is now streaming on Hulu.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Nope” (2022)

Few filmmakers have been greeted with as much fanfare as Jordan Peele. His directorial debut, 2017’s “Get Out”, has been universally lauded despite its noticeable first-feature blemishes. He followed it up with 2019’s “Us”, a better film with an eerie premise that’s anchored by an outstanding Lupita Nyong’o performance (How the Oscars failed to nominate her is beyond me).

Peele has called his new film “Nope” his most ambitious and it sees him working with his biggest budget yet. Peele both writes and directs this big screen spectacle that just so happens to be about our seemingly inherent obsession for spectacle. “Nope” sees Peele reteaming with his “Get Out” star Daniel Kaluuya. But the more intriguing cast members are Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, newcomer Brandon Perea, and the always great Keith David.

But despite its tantalizing premise, “Nope” is a case of a film teasing more than it delivers. It’s a movie that spends a lot of time building towards something big, but too much of that time is spent spinning its wheels (there’s a tighter and more tension-filled version to be had if you shave off around 20 minutes). And while you can’t help but recognize (and enjoy) the influences of Hitchcock, Carpenter, and Spielberg, Peele’s efforts to put his own stamp on the movie comes at the expense of character development, narrative cohesion, and story momentum.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Otis Haywood Sr. (David) owns Haywood Hollywood Horses, a Southern California ranch that trains and handles horses to be used in movie and television productions. When Otis is mysteriously killed by a shower of debris falling from the sky, his son OJ (Kaluuya) decides to keep the ranch going while his super-chatty sister Emerald (Palmer) tries to strike it big in Hollywood.

Six months pass and after losing a big TV commercial contract, OJ is forced to sell some of his father’s stock to Ricky “Jupe” Park (Yeun), a former child actor who now runs a small Old West theme park just down from the Haywoods’ ranch. Jupe has a wild history of his own. He was the young star of a 90’s sitcom about a chimpanzee named Gordy. During a shoot, Gordy went on a violent rampage, brutally attacking members of the cast and studio audience (we see it unfold in two flashbacks which are easily the film’s most unsettling yet disappointingly inconsequential scenes). Jupe witnessed the entire ordeal but survived. Now he uses his notoriety from that experience to entice tourists to his park.

Back at the ranch, OJ and Emerald begin noticing a series of strange unexplainable occurrences – horses tearing off in mad panics, sudden losses of power to the house, vehicles, even cell phones, a mysterious cloud in the distance that hasn’t moved an inch in days. But then OJ sees it – a flying saucer slipping in and out of the clouds. Rather than contacting the authorities, he and Emerald decide to capture it on camera. After all, if they can snap that “Oprah shot” then certainly fame and fortune will follow.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

So OJ and Emerald start working on a plan to capture their money-making shot, inadvertently recruiting the help of an electronics store techie named Angel (Perea). At first it all seems pretty light and playful. But the more they learn about their otherworldly invader, the darker and more sinister things get.

Along the way we get plenty of eye-catching imagery from the great DP Hoyt van Hoytema (the use of 65mm and IMAX cameras at times makes the movie pop off the screen). And there are several instances where the score from composer Michael Abels combined with the sound design ratchets up the tension to near nerve-racking levels (this is seen clearest in the film’s best sequence as two characters are trapped in the ranch house as the terrifying visitor hovers overhead).

But rather than taking form, the story extends itself in too many directions, introducing subplots but never bringing them together in a satisfying way. There’s plenty for us to sort through and perhaps Peele wants us to wrangle with the many threads. But in doing so, things bog down and I found myself tired of waiting for the climax. In one sense you can’t help but admire Peele’s restraint. Seemingly taking to heart the lesson of “Jaws”, Peele keeps his secret threat hidden, only giving us brief glimpses and choruses of disturbing sounds (often in the frightening form of human screams) until he’s ready to pull the curtain back. Unfortunately by then, I was already checking my watch.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

As for the performances, Kaluuya remains a puzzle to me. Many often praise his steely intensity. But there’s often a blank emotionlessness in his performances that verges on detachment. In “Nope”, there are times when Kaluuya is so jarringly expressionless that it clashes with the moment. And there are several scenes where the movie desperately needs him to sell the tension but he just can’t do it. Palmer is exactly the opposite – a perpetual burst of energy that you learn to tolerate. As for Perea, his character flutters around aimlessly for a while. But once Peele finds his place, Perea becomes a welcomed presence.

When soaking in the entirety of “Nope”, it’s easy to think of things worth commending. As expected, it’s a thematically rich movie. Again, take its critique of spectacle, not just our hunger for it, but the lengths (no matter how morally icky) that Hollywood will go to feed our cravings. And Peele doesn’t let his audience off the hook. After all, we are the ones watching – the rabid consumers who will turn a blind eye to all kinds of injustices and exploitations just to get our fill.

At the same time, it’s hard to shake the movie’s shortcomings. Whether it’s overambition or overindulgence (or maybe a combination of both), “Nope” too often strays off its path. As a result, the main story stretches itself out longer than necessary while seeming to go nowhere. And Peele’s rush to bring everything together in the end leaves too many question marks. Some might be quick to overlook its blemishes. But for a filmmaker with the heralded status of Jordan Peele (warranted or not), it’s not unreasonable to expect more than what “Nope” ultimately delivers. “Nope” is no showing in theaters.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Northman” (2022)

(CLICK HERE for my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

“The Witch” (2015) and “The Lighthouse” are two movies that undeniably bear the same marks of their creator, Robert Eggers. Both are rooted in Eggers’ interests in folk horror. Both show off a near obsessive level of period detail. And both feel completely original and unlike anything else that may fall close to their ‘genres’. “The Northman” is what you get when those very distinct creative signatures are used to tell a bigger story with a bigger cast and with a much bigger studio budget (in this case nearly $90 million).

Penned by Eggers and Icelandic screenwriter, poet, and novelist Sjón, “The Northman” is a brutal and at times bonkers Viking revenge epic based on the same Scandinavian legend that inspired Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. Set in the North Atlantic at the turn of the 10th century, Eggers sits us down in a brawny and violent world, caked in mud and stained with blood. It’s a world where human savagery is more commonplace than anything resembling compassion. And where the supernatural and occult co-exist, allowing the director to veer down some dark and twisted paths.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

It’s based on the legend of Amleth and opens up with a table-setting prologue that sets this revenge-soaked tale in motion. In it, 10-year-old Prince Amleth (played by Oscar Novak) enthusiastically greets his father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) who is returning home from battle. Wounded and weary, Aurvandill decides it’s time to begin preparing his son to take his throne. With the help of the wild-eyed shaman Heimir (Willem Dafoe), Aurvandill leads his son through a gonzo ritualistic right of passage involving blood oaths, trippy visions and flatulence (it’s the first of several scenes sure to test mainstream audiences).

The next morning, after a night of unconventional bonding, the course of Amleth’s life is forever changed after he witnesses his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) butcher his father and kidnap his now widowed mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). With Fjölnir’s bloodcurdling command “Bring me the boy’s head!” still echoing through the thick air, Amlith flees by boat repeating to himself a mantra that will burn into his soul and fuel his hate for the rest of the film, “I will avenge you father. I will save you mother. I will kill you Fjölnir”.

The screen fades to black and many years pass. When the image returns we see a much older Almith (played by a hulking Alexander Skarsgård), now a member of a barbaric Viking clan who ravage the Land of the Rus like a pack of ravenous wolves. Here we get one of the film’s more spectacular moments – an incredible single uninterrupted take of the berserkers raiding, pillaging and slaughtering a Slavic village. The intensely difficult and complex sequence sees Eggers and his go-to DP Jarin Blaschke weaving their camera through the chaos and carnage, sucking us into the sheer savagery of the scene. It’s gruesome and unflinching. It’s also incredible filmmaking.

Upon getting word that Fjölnir has now settled in Iceland with Gudrún as his captive wife, Almith stows away on a boat posing as a slave. There he meets a fellow captive who introduces herself as “Olga of the Birch Forest” (Anya Taylor-Joy) and the two form an immediate bond. They arrive at Fjölnir’s settlement and are immediately put to work. But rather than killing Fjölnir and his men like a rabid beast, Almith begins a methodical campaign of physical and psychological terror, brutally picking off his prey one-by-one in the dark of night and sending waves of fear throughout the commune.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

While Eggers is clearly the architect and his fingerprints are everywhere, the movie succeeds thanks to a fine collective effort. Blaschke’s camera not only captures the ferocity of the action, but also the beautiful yet harsh textures of the Icelandic landscape. There’s also the amazing period richness of Craig Lathrop’s production design and Linda Muir’s costumes. Add to it the pulse-pounding propulsion of Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough’s score.

Of course you also have the cast ably led by Skarsgård. He’s an imposing mix of cold primal rage and quiet intensity. And though aptly (and somewhat comically) described as a “Beast cloaked in man-flesh”, Skarsgård also reveals Almith’s pain and vulnerability. Kidman is a blast, Hawke is as wily as ever, and Claes Bang is pure villain material. They all deliver in spades, but ultimately it’s the creative juices of Robert Eggers that gives “The Northman” its unique identity, from the impeccable detail and design to the wild flourishes and overindulgences. Now where will such a movie land with audiences? That’s the $90 million question. “The Northman” is out now in theaters.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “No Exit” (2022)

The battle for streaming service supremacy has never been more competitive (or lucrative) as it is right now. Netflix remains the top dog by a pretty significant margin (around 220 million subscribers at last check). Amazon Prime Video (175 million subs) and Disney+ (120 million subs) are next in line. Further down is the Disney owned Hulu (43 million subscribers), one of the first real competitors to Netflix, but one who hasn’t been able to keep pace.

While Hulu has a sturdy subscriber base, it could finally be getting a much-needed boost thanks to 20th Century Studios. Also owned by Disney, 20th Century and its sister studio Searchlight Pictures will be releasing a chunk of their 2022 movies on Hulu (Hulu will likely have exclusive rights starting in 2023 after the current stream-sharing deal with WarnerMedia expires). That’s a healthy slate of exclusive movies coming to the service. Just recently it was announced that the Sundance hit “Fresh” will premiere on Hulu on March 4th. And this week we get “No Exit”, a taut suspenseful thriller that’s only available on Hulu.

Image Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Originally slated for a theatrical release, “No Exit” proves to be a good get for Hulu. It’s an adaptation of a 2017 novel by Taylor Adams with Damien Power directing from a screenplay by Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari. The movie is a crafty genre stew that’s part chamber piece, part old-fashioned whodunnit, and part crime thriller. There’s even a small dash of horror that adds to the second half tension.

Havana Rose Liu plays a young woman named Darby who we first meet during her seventh stint in drug rehab. Darby’s troubled and self-destructive history has led to her being shunned by her family. But when she gets a call that her mother has been rushed to the hospital with a brain aneurysm, Darby determines to go see her. So she bypasses the clinics strict protocols by busting out, stealing a nurses car, and heading off into the snowy night bound for Salt Lake City.

On the way, her GPS takes her off the main highway (don’t ever trust those things in movies) and up through the mountains. But as the weather worsens, she’s forced to stop at a visitor center where four travelers are waiting out the storm. There’s Ed (Dennis Haysbert), a former Marine who loves to gamble. There’s Sandi, (Dale Dickey), a former nurse and Ed’s wife. There’s the hunky and well-mannered Ash (Danny Ramirez). And lastly there’s the jittery and slightly neurotic Lars (David Rysdahl). Five people, each with something to hide in an isolated setting. Now all we need is a crime.

While in the parking lot trying to get a phone signal, Darby is startled by the muffled scream of a little girl (Mila Harris) who she finds tied-up with her mouth taped in the back of a van. With the roads closed and no way to call the police, Darby has to play it cool. Who kidnapped the little girl? Who does the van belong to? Someone in the visitor center is not who they say they are. But who?

Image Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

In classic whodunnit fashion, the filmmakers set our eyes on the four suspects, giving us reasons to be suspicious of each of them. Then surprisingly, the film seems to tip its hand a mere 30 minutes in. But not really. Actually there are plenty more twists and turns awaiting us as the movie steams towards its violent and bloody final act. While some of the revelations are a little hard to swallow, the pacing is so propulsive that we never have time to sit and dissect it. And to be honest, I really didn’t care about a seamless resolution. I was having too much fun watching it all play out.

“No Exit” makes great use of its location, harsh setting, and small cast to deliver a crafty and surprisingly enthralling genre film. It may get a little carried away in its gnarly final 20 minutes or so, but it does such a good job keeping its audience locked into every crazy (and in some cases blood-soaked) new twist. And Liu, an actress I wasn’t familiar with before, really sinks her teeth into this character, both physically and emotionally. By the end of it all, I couldn’t help but be surprised and impressed. “No Exit” premieres Friday on Hulu.

VERDICT – 4 STARS