Chauncey in Imaginary


Almost no one, in retrospect, likes a misleading trailer, and I don't know anyone who enjoys a trailer that seems to give away a narrative's contents from points A to Z, making you feel like you've seen the movie months before you actually see it. (Ordinary Angels, anyone?) Yet I reserve a special kind of irritation for trailers that wind up almost exhaustively descriptive of the eventual experience simply through the predecessors they choose to plug.

In the preview for Blumhouse's horror flick Imaginary, we're informed, through title cards, that director Jeff Wadlow's PG-13 freakout is by the studio that brought us M3GAN, Five Nights at Freddy's, The Black Phone, and 2020's The Invisible Man. No untruth-in-advertising here – those were certainly all Blumhouse releases. But the company's latest cash grab will indeed remind you of M3GAN, and Five Nights at Freddy's, and The Black Phone, and The Invisible Man … and make you wonder if there's a single original idea in the whole of the film's occasionally amusing, largely tiresome 100-plus minutes. Actually, had it also name-checked Insidious, Sinister, Paranormal Activity, and a bunch of additional Blumhouse offerings, the two-minute ad would've been even more on-the-nose about what it was providing. But by then, the trailer would've lasted longer than the actual movie.

With Imaginary, we find ourselves in the upper-middle-class suburbs of Louisiana – a locale evidenced by a license plate, and not by anyone onscreen having even a whiff of an accent. DeWanda Wise's lauded children's-book author Jessica is the relatively new stepmon to stereotypically surly teen Taylor (Taegen Burns) and her grade-school sister Alice (Pyper Braun), their dad being a British musician (Tom Payne's Max) who has no discernible personality and doesn't need any, as the story quickly scoots him off on tour for the remainder of the film. (A blessing, really, considering that Max's presence might've led to all sorts of uncomfortable May December vibes, as Payne looks 10 years older than Burns tops.) Wanting to give her stepkids a happy home environment after their birth mother went mad for undisclosed reasons, Jessica gets the clan to move into her childhood home where her father Ben (Samuel Salary) apparently also lost his mind. Despite Jessica's tetchy relationship with Taylor, all appears normal enough until Alice finds an abandoned Teddy bear in the basement – a plaything the girl immediately christens “Chauncey,” seemingly as though the bear itself told her that was its name. Alice chats with her brown-furred, black-eyed pal, and voices Chauncey's responses, and is apparently invited to embark on a very questionable scavenger hunt. And what happens next? Well, it's a little M3GAN, and a little Five Nights at Freddy's, and a little … . You get the picture.

Maybe it's due to advancing age and having seen dozens of these things over the years, but I've all but given up hope that Blumhouse horror yarns will ever be truly scary – that way I can be delightfully surprised whenever an unsettling winner such as January's Night Swim manages to sneak through. To my eyes, Imaginary wasn't at all frightening or disturbing, and also may not have been to the kid of about 10 who followed me out of the auditorium alongside one of his parents. (Their entire post-screening conversation as I heard it: “That was so awesome! Did you like it, Dad?” “Ummm … yeeeaaahh … .”)

Pyper Braun and DeWanda Wise in Imaginary

Wadlow's requisite “Gotcha!” effects – faces popping out from under the bed, shadowy figures briefly glimpsed in background shots – have already been overused hundreds of times, and as always, the more that characters try to rationalize or, God forbid, understand the supernatural goings-on, the less inherently freaky they become. Once we glean that this whackadoodle setup is destined to lead to Jessica and her new charges learning to love and accept one another, all hopes for suspense and anything legitimately startling fly out the window. And poor Betty Buckley, here, is basically a one-woman exposition dump, her de rigueur Elderly Neighbor Who Knows Things obligated to deliver reams of backstory explaining Jessica's blocked childhood trauma and its relevance to her new role as stepmom.

But still: It's Betty Buckley! View enough moderately priced Blumhouse terrors and you know what to anticipate even if you're also pretty certain that the results won't be as satisfying as you want – those perks being underemployed character actors, unexpectedly topnotch child portrayals, and at least one juicy plot turn you didn't see coming. Borderline-crummy though most of Imaginary is, I'm pleased to report that Wadlow's movie gives us all three.

Performance-wise, Wise is solid but uninteresting, the lovely Burns is constantly waylaid by her bitchy dialogue, and Matthew Sato, as sketchy teen neighbor Liam, isn't allowed to make good on his memorably icky intro, except maybe when a bathroom fright causes him to piss on the floor. (Not only does this d-bag not clean up the spill, but Liam wipes his hands on a folded bathroom towel without washing them first. Not cool, dude!) Yet given only one scene, the deep-voiced Verónica Falcón makes a sizable impression as Jessica's childhood therapist. And even better, young Braun is a total hoot after Alice takes a fancy to Chauncey, doing a high-comic spin on Danny's interactions with Tony in The Shining, and earning deserved laughs for suggesting that she perhaps didn't need a malevolent Teddy to one day become a raging psychopath. (Alice keeps reminding us that Chauncey is always hungry, and after one unpleasant encounter with Liam, she whispers to her bear, “Maybe you should eat him first.”)

By the picture's end, we've practically run the gamut of Blumhouse clichés: imperiled children; disorienting dream sequences; intimations of sequels and prequels; visits to an upside-down make-believe world that is probably The Further but not, because of possible copyright infringement, actually called that. Yet I'll readily admit that one completely unanticipated storyline spin that landed about halfway through made me reflexively giggle – a subversion devoted to the whole idea of whether a physical Teddy bear can be “imaginary” that made me think Wadlow and co-writers Greg Erb and Jason Oremland were conceivably one step ahead of us. (They weren't, but I still appreciated the twist.) And if Wadlow did nothing else right with Imaginary, he at least had the good sense to cast 76-year-old Buckley as that pushy neighbor, her natural wit and wholly unpredictable line readings at full force and her eccentricity deliciously unbound. I won't spoil what Buckley's loco character trajectory leads us toward, but if the Tony Award winner broke out into a glorious crooning of “Memory,” I wouldn't have been at all surprised.

Christiana Dell'Anna in Cabrini


Angel Studios must have one hell of a mailing list. That was my thought, at least, when I just barely secured a ticket to a Friday-morning screening of Cabrini, the distribution company's biographical drama about Catholic missionary Francesca Cabrini and her calling that led to the native Italian becoming the first American saint, as well as the global patron saint of immigrants. I saw one preview for the film maybe two months ago, giving it roughly a 1-15 ratio for the number of times I was assaulted by the trailers for Argylle. But whether it was due to a mailer, efforts by local church groups, or those who now stan everything by director Alejandro “Sound of Freedom” Monteverde, my 11:45 a.m. Davenport screening was packed, and the film was greeted with the appropriate gentle laughs, tsks of shame, and muted applause whenever Cabrini did or said anything that a woman shouldn't have done or said between the late-19th and early-20th centuries. I swear I'm not judging; For its subject matter alone, Monteverde's movie largely deserves a reverent crowd. Yet I still left the film feeling a little … off … as though everyone surrounding me was preordained to love the movie regardless of what was actually onscreen.

What was onscreen was, I thought, perfectly fine, and kind of invaluable as a history lesson. I'm not naïve enough to ever take anything I see in a bio-pic as Unquestionable Truth – especially here, considering that so much of Rod Barr's screenplay concerns a prototypical Whore with a Heart of Gold (Romana Maggiora Vergano's Vittoria) who joins forces with Cabrini and her fellow nuns and becomes instrumental in their journey toward building hospitals and orphanages worldwide. But Monteverde's presentation of Cabrini's day-to-day struggles is just low-key enough to be persuasive, and our heroine's portrayer Christiana Dell'Anna is a marvelous presence, precisely as steely and inwardly conflicted as you could want. Given the film's relatively meager budget of around $50 million, Cabrini also looks unexpectedly terrific, with both the poverty and the bustling metropolis of 1900's spiffier New York dwellings appearing admirably, realistically lived-in. We also have David Morse around as the NYC archbishop who both helps and hinders Cabrini's plans for aiding impoverished Italians and, more specifically, homeless children, and his delicate readings help make up for the subtlety that Monteverde's movie is otherwise generally lacking.


To date, no one I've talked to disliked last summer's $250-million-grossing sleeper smash Sound of Freedom. That's because no one I've talked to saw Sound of Freedom. Literally no one. (The people I know who were planning to see it were all waiting for streaming, and I haven't checked in with them about their opinions since.) I did see Monteverde's unanticipated blockbuster and thought it was effective enough, even though the film did share a lot of Cabrini's failings. There's way too much manipulative focus on endangered and abused children to arouse the easily teary-eyed, and I count myself in that group. Nearly all of the villainous characters – nearly all of them, in this case, Irish – are presented as one-dimensional devil's minions, including New York's Satanic Mayor Gould, whom John Lithgow plays just a mustache-twirl away from Snidely Whiplash. At 142 minutes, the movie is grotesquely overlong while it keeps repeating the same beats over and over. And as Sound of Freedom was, when it's not quiet, Monteverde's latest is punishingly loud, as though you're trapped in an auditorium while parts one and two of Denis Villeneuve's Dune play simultaneously.

Yet I won't argue that this biographical drama doesn't work, nor that it doesn't work even given Cabrini's strangely sidelined fellow nuns (I think the five of them may have four lines of dialogue between them), and the seemingly specious chronology, and the lack of even one figure with the inner fire and personality of Sound of Freedom's Bill Camp. I learned a lot at Cabrini, and it was learning that didn't feel suspect regardless of exact historic fidelity, and the experience itself, while bloated, was satisfying. I will, though, throw a brief complaint into the ether. Because prior to the movie's start, there were two previews for forthcoming Angel Studios projects that ended with requests for patrons to aim their smartphones at the screen and capture the projected QR codes to receive special discounts for future cinematic offerings. Near as I could tell, few folks at my Friday-morning showing elected to take part. But that didn't make me less queasy about this admittedly shrewd, aesthetically noxious marketing campaign, or make me bristle less at the notion that we should encourage more glowing cell phones at the cineplex. If I'm seeing Universal's Oppenheimer, I don't want to be pressured into getting cheap seats for Universal's Argylle. Or, for that matter …

Kung Fu Panda 4


I recently posited to a friend that there are no good third sequels to popular movies. He reminded me that I placed John Wick: Chapter Four on my 10-favorites list a mere two months ago. Realizing that he was right, I told him to shut up. But let's go with the idea that JW4 is the exception that proves the rule, because director Mike Mitchell's Kung Fu Panda 4 is almost insultingly bland – hardly a debacle, but definitely a series low point, and all but indistinguishable from a 90-minute yawn.

You kind of know what you're in for when, in the very first minutes, Jack Black's lovably butt-kicking Po literally explains to an audience of young fans – as well as the audience shelling out money for this thing – why they won't be hearing or seeing the previous installments' Furious Five voiced by Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, and David Cross. This is like when they resurrected The Brady Bunch as the '70s variety show The Brady Bunch Hour and Eve Plumb was wise enough not to be involved. In a nutshell, Po now has to fight a new adversary (a shape-shifting chameleon voiced by Viola Davis) while hunting for his nemesis alongside a debuting sidekick, and I'm sorry, but Awkwafina really needs to take a break on voicing lovably antagonistic animated critters. I'm losing interest in seeing her as a human.

Beyond that, the slapstick is typically manic but nowhere near as cleverly choreographed as it was in parts one through three. The plotting is formulaic to the point of tedium – and, I'm guessing, that's true even for the pre-K set at my screening, as the tyke patrons appeared unusually rambunctious. And while it's always nice to hear the gravelly tones of returning participants Bryan Cranston and Dustin Hoffman (the latter of whom could now be replaced by Harvey Fierstein with no one noticing the difference), the only vocal performer who manages to score a chuckle this time around is James Hong, reprising his beloved role as Po's adoptive father and Chinese goose Mr. Ping. Ninety-six-year-old Hong has more than 600 credits on his film, TV, and video-game résumé, and so it's both heartening and upsetting that Kung Fu Panda 4 wouldn't land on an achievement list of the icon's top 500.

20 Days in Mariupol


Three hundred and 62 days ago, my last review prior to the televised Academy Awards ceremony was a quick analysis of the movie I predicted to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature: Navalny. The film did indeed win that trophy, and as we know, its subject, Russian opposition leader Alexi Navalny, died this past February 16. So I pray that I'm not acting as any kind of jinx by repeating my praise in 2024 by saying that my predicted winner for tomorrow's Best Documentary Feature Oscar, writer/director Mstyslav Chemov's 20 Days in Mariupol, is a staggering achievement that deserves all the laurels in can get – and praying equally that Chemov and his similarly intrepid journalists and their families are allowed to view the ceremony (or not) from a place of utter calm and safety. God knows there's none to be seen onscreen.

Originally an episode of PBS' Frontline that's available via both PBS and YouTube, 20 Days in Mariupol is precisely what its title suggests: a recording of fewer than three weeks as seen from the Ukrainian Associated Press journalists who watched the city's demise during Russian attacks even after every other reporter from global-news outlets was forced to flee. Let's not mince words: Chemov's achievement is achingly sad, and would accurately be termed “unbearable” if the rigor and passion behind the journalists' truth-documenting mission weren't forcing you to bear it. I started sobbing not even 10 minutes into the film, and basically didn't stop until the closing credits. (It was my obligation to see this through to the end, but it's easy to imagine how anyone averse to the sights of crying and dying children and parents weeping over their babies' corpses might end their screening long before the finale.) Yet it's something that needs to be seen, and by as many people as possible, and this understanding turns out to be the entire “plot” of 20 Days in Mariupol – Chemov and his fellow heroes on the ground desperate to find enough electricity and Internet service to share their images of horror with the rest of the world who, without those captured missives, would know nothing about this specific Ukrainian suffering. “This is painful to watch,” says Chemov in his post-filing voice-over narration. “But it must be painful to watch.”

Support the River Cities' Reader

Get 12 Reader issues mailed monthly for $48/year.

Old School Subscription for Your Support

Get the printed Reader edition mailed to you (or anyone you want) first-class for 12 months for $48.
$24 goes to postage and handling, $24 goes to keeping the doors open!

Click this link to Old School Subscribe now.

Help Keep the Reader Alive and Free Since '93!


"We're the River Cities' Reader, and we've kept the Quad Cities' only independently owned newspaper alive and free since 1993.

So please help the Reader keep going with your one-time, monthly, or annual support. With your financial support the Reader can continue providing uncensored, non-scripted, and independent journalism alongside the Quad Cities' area's most comprehensive cultural coverage." - Todd McGreevy, Publisher