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Lena Dunham’s ‘Sharp Stick’: Film Review | Sundance 2022

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Lena Dunham’s ‘Sharp Stick’: Film Review | Sundance 2022

Lena Dunham has always courted controversy — as a writer, director, actress and public figure. In the decade since she splashed onto the scene with her feature Tiny Furniture, Dunham worked consistently on both the large and small screen, becoming a much-debated fixture in pop culture. Every accomplishment and misstep has been discussed to death on and offline, with an intrusive focus on her work, body and personal life. Dunham wears many hats, and people have strong opinions about every single one of them.

It’s fitting, then, that her new feature, Sharp Stick, is as strange and provocative as its title and pedigree suggest. Written and directed by Dunham in the midst of the pandemic with a mainly female crew, Sharp Stick is an audaciously sexual film, marveling at the pursuit of feminine pleasure. For better or worse, this is Dunham at her most liberated in years with a freewheeling tone that shakes off years of silence and scrutiny.

Sharp Stick

The Bottom Line

Bold, messy and singular.

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Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

Writer-director: Lena Dunham

Cast: Kristine Froseth, Jon Bernthal, Scott Speedman, Lena Dunham, Taylour Paige, Jennifer Jason Leigh


1 hour 26 minutes

A caustic story of family and sexuality, Sharp Stick straddles the line between coming-of-age tale and sex comedy, creating an odd mix of irony and sincerity. But rather than make grand observations about What It Means to Be a Woman Today, Dunham simply observes a young woman entering the adult world in a grand, bizarre and purely unique fashion.

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The film tells the story of Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) a childlike 26-year-old woman living with her sister Treina (Taylour Paige) and mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in Southern California. Sarah Jo, bursting with wide-eyed optimism, is the kind of person who loves everyone, with a genuine desire to listen to their problems. There’s something almost old-world about Sarah Jo, who has the clothes of a 1950s teenager and the manners of an eager novitiate. She spends her days helping her landlord mother, shooting videos of her influencer sister and listening intently to their stories of romantic and sexual exploits.

Instead of dating or hanging out with friends, Sarah Jo only ventures out of the house to look after Zach (Liam Michel Saux), a young autistic boy with a busy, pregnant mother, Heather (Dunham), and unreliable father, Josh (Jon Bernthal). Sarah Jo genuinely loves her job, displaying a real warmth and natural maternal instinct with Zach.

Unfortunately, due to a radical hysterectomy in high school, Sarah Jo is unable to have children and seems to have skipped over the adolescent stage of sexual discovery entirely. She’s a virgin and demonstrates a shockingly limited understanding of love and sex. Everything changes when she sets her sights on Josh, latching on to his playful, easygoing nature while conveniently ignoring the dangerous risks involved with adultery.

Though he turns her down at first, Josh quickly succumbs to Sarah Jo’s strange charms, and they begin an enthusiastic affair. He takes her virginity, introduces her to hallucinogens and makes empty promises of leaving his wife and starting a new life with her and Zach. From early on, it’s obvious where the relationship is going, but it’s just the starting point to her awakening, not the destination. When Josh introduces Sarah Jo to porn, the film shifts into an exploration of sexual technique as she tries to rush through years of sexual exploration in a matter of weeks.

With her hit HBO series Girls, Dunham mastered the art of taking a basic set-up and spinning it into something uncomfortable and surprising. A warehouse party leads to Shoshana accidentally smoking crack. A dispute over trash leads Hannah to consider settling down with her hunky doctor neighbor. Many of the episodes had the structure of a short story, using small, odd occurrences to facilitate growth and changes in her characters.

In Sharp Stick, every little moment is integral to Sarah Jo’s evolution from a naive virgin to a more worldly, modern woman. Dunham’s camera looks on her with patience and understanding, balancing out the broader moments with tender heart-to-hearts and a story that recognizes her pain and sexual confusion as worth taking seriously. Much like in Girls, Tiny Furniture and even the ill-fated series Camping, Dunham’s greatest strength as a filmmaker lies in her ability to create achingly real, relatable characters within a heightened comedic framework.

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And yet, despite the empathy of Dunham’s narrative intentions, Sarah Jo’s characterization is troubling. Beyond the basic naïveté of being a virgin, her behavior is alarmingly childlike. When her mom and sister pass a blunt around, Sarah Jo eats ice cream. In one scene, she goes to a bar dressed like a girl on her way to Sunday school, complete with a large bow on her head. In her room, she has lists of sex acts displayed like something out of a kindergarten classroom. These elements are so pronounced that it’s impossible to separate them from her sex scenes, making them genuinely jarring to watch.

What is the significance of Sarah Jo being this way? Yes, she’s sexually repressed, but how can she be this naive considering the sexual openness of her mother and sister? How did she manage to glean nothing from her 26 years on Earth? It doesn’t help matters that Froseth — who was roughly the age of her character at the time of filming — looks much younger than she is, and the costume choices push her uncomfortably into fetish object territory. Much like Julia Garner in the underseen gem Electrick Children or Jennifer Hough in Diablo Cody’s ill-conceived directorial debut Paradise, Sarah Jo is extremely sheltered, but without the context of religion-based repression and isolation to explain it.

Underneath its provocative shell, Sharp Stick feels messy and singular, as if it burst fully formed from Dunham’s mind. In 2018, the director underwent a hysterectomy after years of struggling with endometriosis. Knowing this, her performance as a frazzled pregnant woman in the film comes off as especially bittersweet. Sarah Jo’s sexual awakening while grappling with her own infertility makes for a fascinating juxtaposition with Heather’s pregnancy and sexual isolation from her husband.

None of it adds up to a coherent thesis on love or sex, but it doesn’t really need to. And there’s something thrilling about Dunham’s refusal to give her film a clear social intent. Much like Sarah Jo’s sexual dalliances, Sharp Stick is ultimately about the excitement of exploration.

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Review: SAMARITAN, A Sly Stallone Superhero Stumble

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Review: SAMARITAN, A Sly Stallone Superhero Stumble

Hitting the three-quarter-century mark usually means a retirement home, a nursing facility, or if you’re lucky to be blessed with relatively good health and savings to match, living in a gated community in Arizona or Florida.

For Sylvester Stallone, however, it means something else entirely: starring in the first superhero-centered film of his decades-long career in the much-delayed Samaritan. Unfortunately for Stallone and the audience on the other side of the screen, the derivative, turgid, forgettable results won’t get mentioned in a career retrospective, let alone among the ever-expanding list of must-see entries in a genre already well past its peak.

For Stallone, however, it’s better late than never when it involves the superhero genre. Maybe in getting a taste of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) with his walk-on role in the Guardians of the Galaxy sequel several years ago, Stallone thought anything Marvel can do, I can do even better (or just as good in the nebulous definition of the word).

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The property Stallone and his team found for him, Samaritan, a little-known graphic novel released by a small, almost negligible, publisher, certainly takes advantage of Stallone’s brute-force physicality and his often underrated talent for near-monosyllabic brooding (e.g., the Rambo series), but too often gives him to little do or say as the lone super-powered survivor, the so-called “Samaritan” of the title, of a lifelong rivalry with his brother, “Nemesis.” Two brothers entered a fire-ravaged building and while both were presumed dead, one brother did survive (Stallone’s Joe Smith, a garbageman by day, an appliance repairman by night).

In the Granite City of screenwriter Bragi F. Schut (Escape Room, Season of the Witch), the United States, and presumably the rest of the world, teeters on economic and political collapse, with a recession spiraling into a depression, steady gigs difficult, if not impossible, to obtain, and the city’s neighborhoods rocked by crime and violence. No one’s safe, not even 13-year-old Sam (Javon Walker), Joe’s neighbor.

When he’s not dodging bullies connected to a gang, he’s falling under the undue influence of Cyrus (Pilou Asbæk), a low-rent gang leader with an outsized ego and the conviction that he and only he can take on Nemesis’s mantle and along with that mantle, a hammer “forged in hate,” to orchestrate a Bane-like plan to plunge the city into chaos and become a wealthy power-broker in the process.

Schut’s woefully underwritten script takes a clumsy, haphazard approach to world-building, relying on a two-minute animated sequence to open Samaritan while a naive, worshipful Sam narrates Samaritan and Nemesis’s supposedly tragic, Cain and Abel-inspired backstory. Schut and director Julius Avery (Overlord) clumsily attempt to contrast Sam’s childish belief in messiah-like, superheroic saviors stepping in to save humanity from itself and its own worst excesses, but following that path leads to authoritarianism and fascism (ideas better, more thoroughly explored in Watchmen and The Boys).

While Sam continues to think otherwise, Stallone’s superhero, 25 years past his last, fatal encounter with his presumably deceased brother, obviously believes superheroes are the problem and not the solution (a somewhat reasonable position), but as Samaritan tracks Joe and Sam’s friendship, Sam giving Joe the son he never had, Joe giving Sam the father he lost to street violence well before the film’s opening scene, it gets closer and closer to embracing, if not outright endorsing Sam’s power fantasies, right through a literally and figuratively explosive ending. Might, as always, wins regardless of how righteous or justified the underlying action.

It’s what superhero audiences want, apparently, and what Samaritan uncritically delivers via a woefully under-rendered finale involving not just unconvincing CGI fire effects, but a videogame cut-scene quality Stallone in a late-film flashback sequence that’s meant to be subversively revelatory, but will instead lead to unintentional laughter for anyone who’s managed to sit the entirety of Samaritan’s one-hour and 40-minute running time.

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Samaritan is now streaming worldwide on Prime Video.

Samaritan

Cast
  • Sylvester Stallone
  • Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton
  • Pilou Asbæk

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Matt Shakman Is In Talks To Direct ‘Fantastic Four’

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According to a new report, Wandavision’s Matt Shakman is in talks to direct the upcoming MCU project, Fantastic Four. Marvel Studios has been very hush-hush regarding Fantastic Four to the point where no official announcements have been made other than the film’s release date. No casting news or literally anything other than rumors has been released regarding the project. We know that Fantastic Four is slated for release on November 8th, 2024, and will be a part of Marvel’s Phase 6. There are also rumors that the cast of the new Fantastic Four will be announced at the D23 Expo on September 9th.

Fantastic Four is still over two years from release, and we assume we will hear more news about the project in the coming months. However, the idea of the Fantastic Four has already been introduced into the MCU. John Krasinski played Reed Richards aka Mr. Fantastic in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. The cameo was a huge deal for fans who have been waiting a long time for the Fantastic Four to enter the MCU. When Disney acquired Twenty Century Fox in 2019 we assumed that the Fox Marvel characters would eventually make their way into the MCU. It’s been 3 years and we already have had an X-Men and Fantastic Four cameo – even if they were from another universe.

Deadline is reporting that Wandavision’s Matt Shakman is in talks to direct Fantastic Four. Shakman served as the director for Wandavision and has had an extensive career. He directed two episodes of Game of Thrones and an episode of The Boys, and he had a long stint on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. There is nothing official yet, but Deadline’s sources say that Shakman is currently in talks for the job and things are headed in the right direction.

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To be honest, I was a bit more excited when Jon Watts was set to direct. I’m sure Shakman is a good director, but Watts proved he could handle a tentpole superhero film with Spider-Man: Homecoming. Wandavision was good, but Watts’ style would have been perfect for Fantastic Four. The film is probably one of the most anticipated films in Marvel’s upcoming slate films and they need to find the best person they can to direct. Is that Matt Shakman? It could be, but whoever takes the job must realize that Marvel has a lot riding on this movie. The other Fantastic Four films were awful and fans deserve better. Hopefully, Marvel knocks it out of the park as they usually do. You can see for yourself when Fantastic Four hits theaters on November 8th, 2024.

Film Synopsis: One of Marvel’s most iconic families makes it to the big screen: the Fantastic Four.

Source: Deadline

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Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase Star in ‘Zombie Town’ Mystery Teen Romancer (Exclusive)

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Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase have entered Zombie Town, a mystery teen romancer based on author R.L. Stine’s book of the same name.

The indie, now shooting in Ontario, also stars Henry Czerny and co-teen leads Marlon Kazadi and Madi Monroe. The ensemble cast includes Scott Thompson and Bruce McCulloch of the Canadian comedy show Kids in the Hall.

Canadian animator Peter Lepeniotis will direct Zombie Town. Stine’s kid’s book sees a quiet town upended when 12-year-old Mike and his friend, Karen, see a horror movie called Zombie Town and unexpectedly see the title characters leap off the screen and chase them through the theater.

Zombie Town will premiere in U.S. theaters before streaming on Hulu and then ABC Australia in 2023.

“We are delighted to bring the pages of R.L. Stine’s Zombie Town to the screen and equally thrilled to be working with such an exceptional cast and crew on this production. A three-time Nickelodeon Kids Choice Award winner with book sales of over $500 million, R.L. Stine has a phenomenal track record of crafting stories that engage and entertain audiences,” John Gillespie, Trimuse Entertainment founder and executive producer, said in a statement.

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Executive producers are Trimuse Entertainment, Toonz Media Group, Lookout Entertainment, Viva Pictures and Sons of Anarchy actor Kim Coates.  

Paco Alvarez and Mark Holdom of Trimuse negotiated the deal to acquire the rights to Stine’s Zombie Town book.

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