If director Alex Garland had any sense of humor at all, he would have titled the movie “Fear and Loathing in Cotson”.  As it is, Men is about how badly men behave, particularly when they are rejected by women.  Jesse Buckley plays Harper, a woman suffering in a marriage with the violent and emotional James (Paapa Essiedu).  When she says she wants a divorce, he threatens her with committing suicide.  He figures she would prefer to stay married over having to deal with the guilt of his death, but Harper is determined.  James dies suddenly, and it’s unclear whether it was intentional or an accident.  Some time afterwards, Harper decides to take a vacation.  She rents a house in the English countryside.  Once there, Harper meets proprietor Geoffrey, an overly polite English type.  On a walk, she’s stalked by a naked man.  Shortly afterwards, she is confronted by an angry child, an oily vicar, a dismissive policeman and assorted male dullards, all played by Rory Kinnear.   (“The Many Faces of Rory Kinnear” would also have been a better title.)

Each Kinnear starts out by being nice to Harper, only to reveal their true ugliness when she rejects their advances.  Yes, (some) men act like assholes when the object of their affection rebuffs them.  Unfortunately, that is all that Men has to offer thematically.  Garland has met the enemy, and it is men.  In his righteous hands, feminism is blunt instrument and the audience a set of nails to be pounded.  Problem is, the audience for this movie is likely full of converts.  Allegorical horror movies like these are easy to admire for their audacity and conviction.  I admire Garland’s guts with seeing his vision through.  Unfortunately, the movie is such an obvious and didactic affair that it becomes ridiculous very early on.  It’s a well crafted and well acted movie, but it lacks any subtlety and nuance.  The more serious it becomes, the more laughs it induces.  I smell a cult movie.   Not recommended.

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Antlers is a micro-budget horror movie that aspires to be much more meaningful than it is.  In a perpetually rainy town in Oregon, a young boy named Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) is trying to keep his family together while his meth-cooking father is in the throes of something that is turning him into an animal.  Lucas’s teacher Julia (Keri Russell) believes that Lucas’ disheveled state and withdrawn behavior are tell-tale signs child abuse, because she was abused as a child.  Her monosyllabic brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), the town sheriff, warns her not to intervene, but you know how this will turn out.  Graham Greene cameos as former Sheriff Warren who reveals that Lucas’s father was bitten by a Wendigo, a creature based in Native American legend.  From here on out, danger signs go unheeded, people get eaten and the movie’s big confrontation wraps up surprisingly quickly.

Russell and Plemons have been in much better movies than this, so their participation is curious.  Director Scott Cooper has made better films than this one, and hopefully this movie is just a bump in the road for him.  The movie’s reliance on the themes of child abuse and drug addition are just window dressing, a transparent way to garner sympathy for paper-thin characters.  Even more bothersome is how the movie uses a Native American legend as the basis for a cheap, CGI monster.  While the movie does establishes a depressing, gloomy atmosphere and generates a few modest scares, it ultimately is not worth the trouble.  Not Recommended.

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Lamb is a horror/fantasy/drama.  The story concerns Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), two Icelandic farmers.  They lost a child years ago, and their lives are now filled with the routine tasks of tending to their field and their flock of sheep.  One day, an ewe gives birth to a lamb that is not a lamb.  It’s part lamb, part human.  Seeing the lamb a second chance at motherhood, Maria takes it from the barn and cares for it as if it were her own baby.  The trio become a family, but the unexpected return of Ingvar’s ne’er-do-well brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) threatens their happiness.  Before long, Maria is forced to confront the tension between her and Pétur, as well as the ramifications of taking the lamb from its birth mother.

First-time director Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb is undeniably strange and weird. The story he tells is meditative and pensive, however, one that explores complex themes within a haunting, other-worldly landscape. Through Maria and Ingvar, Jóhannsson forces us to consider two seemingly disparate topics: humanity’s place in the natural world and the lingering effect of tragedy on motherhood. Rapace gives one of her best performances, one that utilizes her unique acting talents to their fullest. If you’re open to unique movie going experiences, Lamb is richly rewarding in unexpected ways.  Highly recommended.

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The Empty Man

The “creepy cult” subgenre of horror movies has been having a renaissance lately.  Films like  Hereditary (2018) and Midsommer (2019), both directed by Ari Aster, have breathed new life into a very familiar template.  David Prior’s The Empty Man isn’t in the same league as those films, but is a very effective horror movie nonetheless.

The movie begins in 1995 with a group of clueless and entitled Americans hiking through Bhutan, where they stumble upon an ancient evil.  Flash-forward to Missouri in 2018, where James (James Badge Dale), a former detective, looks into the disappearance of his young neighbor Amanda (Sasha Frolova).  After her high school friends commit suicide, James visits an organization Amanda was familiar with, a Scientology stand-in named the Pontifex Institute.  The more James learns about the Institute, the more nefarious the organization appears to be.  Even more troubling is that the group appears to know all about him.

Writer-director Prior expertly combines the story’s many locations and disturbing visuals to build an overwhelming sense of dread.  The acting is mainly serviceable, the exception being the wonderfully loopy Stephen Root (Barry) as a Pontifex lecturer.  The Empty Man incorporates many horror movie themes, but is a creepy cult movie at its core.  It doesn’t tie things together as perfectly as the aforementioned films, but it’s a good creepy cult movie regardless.  Recommended.

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Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley is director Guillermo del Toro’s follow-up to his Academy Award winning film The Shape of Water.  That movie, a love letter to the monster movies of the fifties (particularly 1954’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon) was infused with modern themes of inclusion and acceptance, took home the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director.  Del Toro’s latest is a remake of the 1947 film directed by Edmung Goulding and starring Tyrone Power.  If you’re seen it before, this version will feel very familiar.  (If you haven’t, I recommend watching it either before or after you see the current version as a fun film study exercise. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did!)

The movie is a mildly entertaining diversion, made with the care, craftsmanship and weird sensibility typical of del Toro’s films (Hellraiser, Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos).  Unlike his best work, the movie curiously fails to engage either the heart or the imagination.  Some of the blame can be leveled at Cooper’s lead performance as Stan, a drifter who latches onto a carnival and becomes a mentalist.  Fortunately, the movie has style to spare and several of the supporting performances (Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, David Strathairn) are very good.  Ultimately, Nightmare Alley is still little more than an eye-catching curiosity of minor consequence.  But nobody does eye-catching curiosities like del Toro.  Mildly recommended.

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Halloween Kills

Halloween Kills is the second entry in a trilogy of Halloween that takes the 1978 movie as their starting point and pretends that all previous sequels don’t exist.  That bit of artistic amnesia is certainly warranted, as pretty much every sequel that followed the original movie only served to cheapen what is generally considered a horror classic.  Halloween (2018), the first movie in the trilogy, was definitely guilty of raided the closest of the original.  There’s a tense opening credit sequence featuring a pumpkin, John Carpenter’s iconic film score, copious throwback scenes and a convincing performance by Jamie Lee Curtis.  Most importantly, that movie had an interesting story to tell.  Specifically, what impact did Michael have on Laurie Strode’s life from that point on, and how did Laurie’s reaction to that trauma affect her family?

Picking up immediately after the action of the previous movie, Halloween Kills shows Laurie heading to the hospital while firetrucks head in the opposite direction.  Twelve movies into the Halloween franchise, we all know that Michael will survive certain death yet again.  What we don’t expect is for this sequel to squander all of the goodwill earned from the previous movie.  Since Laurie is confined to a hospital for the entire run length of the movie, filmmakers David Gordon Green and Danny McBride fill out the story with a collection of flashbacks and various residents of Haddonfield, Illinois.  The flashbacks don’t add anything to the story except to turn the younger version of Officer Hawkins into The Shakiest Gun in Haddonfield.  The townies are an interesting bunch, curiously well drawn for a slasher movie.  Frustratingly, all of them eventually become cannon fodder for Michael Myers and his endless supply of kitchen knives.

The last movie in the trilogy, Halloween Ends, is due to arrive next year.  That movie will undoubtedly feature the last confrontation between Laurie and Michael.  Until then, Halloween Kills passes the time, existing only as the equivalent of cinematic padding between episode one and episode three.  Aside from one surprising death at the very end of the movie, Halloween Kills is inconsequential, irrelevant and completely superfluous.  If you wish to save yourself 1:45, scroll down past the included YouTube video where I reveal the name of the character who dies.  You can make use of the time you’ve saved by rewatching the original.  Not Recommended.

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Midnight Mass

Mike Flanagan, the creative force behind The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor, returns with Midnight Mass, a new limited series on Netflix.  Similar to his two previous series, Midnight Mass is a combination of earnest performances, thoughtful, introspective dialog and stealth horror elements.  This time around, Flanagan has decided to de-emphasize the scary stuff, and the result is incredibly underwhelming, to the point where the series should have been titled Tedium.

Unlike his previous two series, Flanagan declines to scare us and instead spends nearly all of its run time on a) dialog that would feel right at home in a Philosophy 101 class and b) Catholic religious practices.  I think it is the first horror series that feels like it was written for NPR.  While the acting is fine, and there are a few disturbing scenes here and there, the overall effect I got from watching it was an overwhelming urge to check how much time was left.  The only thing scary about Midnight Mass is how boring and self-satisfied it is.  Not recommended.

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