THUNDER FORCE. Melissa McCarthy had already established a significant CV as a character by the time I took notice. That was 2011, the movie was Bridesmaids (of course) and I doubt I was the sole latecomer to her fan club. She made an indelible impression as the irrepressible, sweetly unhinged Megan, standing out in a movie that became a star-making phenomenon. If her name is attached, I'll watch it eventually. This has created a challenging, if not complex paradigm, because I love McCarthy best when the gloves are off and the comedy becomes a street-fight — in the moments of perceived loss of control, she approaches the sublime and it is impossible not to laugh. Her breakthrough was defined by this tonal violence; even her quietest moments suggest the coming of thunder. It is likely too much to ask of any performer to sustain that velocity throughout a whole performance, much less an entire career; such is the conundrum of an inimitable, self-defining breakthrough. I want to see McCarthy raging, balls to wall, a comedic destroyer of worlds. She doesn't always do that.
Thunder Force, written and directed by frequent collaborator (and life partner) Ben Falcone, gives us McCarthy in a heightened universe and a perplexingly muted, more accessible mode. It's enjoyable and it boasts a pretty remarkable cast. But for its occasional suggestions of an unchecked thing that might have been, I find it frustrating.
Set in Chicago, the movie posits a world terrorized by Miscreants, sociopaths imbued with superpowers by some sort of preternatural global event in 1983. Among the early victims of the scourge were the scientist parents of Emily Stanton — played as time passes by Bria Danielle Singleton, Tai Leshaun and, in adulthood, Octavia Spencer — a bookish kid who vows to continue their research and find a way to confer superpowers onto non-murderers. Her dedication to this path leads, in adolescence, to her parting ways with rough-around-the-edges best friend Lydia Berman (Vivian Falcone, Mia Kaplan, McCarthy). They remain estranged until the night of a high school reunion, when Lydia pushes her way into the offices of Emily's thriving tech company and accidentally gives herself a superhero injection. Crime-fighting and rekindling of friendship commence.
The movie is sweet, ultimately, almost saccharine. Bobby Cannavale and Jason Bateman stand out as villains, but it's almost as if they're in much goofier, more adult storyline altogether. The moments of absurdity and comic asides can't quite elevate the rest of the material, which is too safe and wholesome — not always a bad thing — to bear revisiting. PG13. 106M. NETFLIX.
PSYCHO GOREMAN. From a different part of the cinematic universe, one more frequented by iconoclasts and cinematic weirdos, comes Steven Kostanski's version of an '80s cult-horror-sci-fi mash-up, replete with insane make-up, winking asides and hilariously gruesome practical effects.
After Mimi (Nita Josee-Hanna) defeats older brother Luke (Owen Myre) in a game of Crazy Ball (copyright Mimi), he must dig his own grave and be buried alive. In the process, he discovers the tomb of an ancient, demonic space-warrior. Previously known as the Archduke of Nightmares (Matthew Ninaber, voiced by Steven Vlahos) and imprisoned after an intergalactic campaign of untold carnage, he was condemned to spend eternity entombed behind Luke and Mimi's house. Best laid plans. After liberating the beast and renaming him Psycho Goreman, Mimi takes control of the talisman containing his power and becomes his master. What ensues might be described as Stranger Things without the pretentiousness, filtered through the whole Troma catalog and Peter Jackson's Bad Taste (1987). (Forgive the unavoidable comparison.)
While not exactly in my top-five range, genre-wise, Psycho is clever, self-aware and well-enough executed to deserve a mention. It will be "too stupid" or "too bloody" for many, but those are among its many charms: It is pure entertainment from a line that seldom gets enough credit for its lasting influence. NR. 95M. AMAZON.
SHIVA BABY is a substantial, troubling, shockingly fully-formed debut from a very young creator. Writer-director Emma Seligmann is, I believe, still in her early 20s and this makes me optimistic as well as old and unaccomplished.
Reluctantly attending memorial services for a distant relative, Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is first troubled by the presence of her estranged best friend/girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon). They've drifted apart on difficult terms and Danielle is shamed by her own lack of direction in life, especially set against Maya's acceptance to law school. Bad enough but then Danielle's, well, sugar daddy Max (Danny Deferrari) arrives, with his seemingly perfect wife (Dianna Agron) and baby daughter to follow. Mortification abounds.
Seligmann's most impressive touch here is to render slapstick comedy as horror, establishing a precarious tone of claustrophobia and anxiety made more contritive by each one of Danielle's actions and interactions. She also understands that sometimes less is more, editing the movie down to a lithe, perfect 77 minutes and setting it all in one location over the course of one of those afternoons we've all thought would never end. This is intelligent, economical, exceptionally well-cast moviemaking, hopefully the beginning of a successful and fulfilling career. NR. 77M. AMAZON.
John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.