Review: ‘Monolith’ (2023), starring Lily Sullivan

March 2, 2023

by Carla Hay

Lily Sullivan in “Monolith” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Monolith” (2023)

Directed by Matt Vesely

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city Australia, the sci-fi horror film “Monolith” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asian people and one black person) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A disgraced journalist, who now works as a podcaster, gets caught up in the mystery of black bricks that have a bizarre power over people who own the bricks. 

Culture Audience: “Monolith” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching suspenseful horror movies where a lot is left up to interpretation and imagination.

Lily Sullivan in “Monolith” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

The ending of “Monolith” might be frustratingly vague to some viewers, but this sci-fi horror movie is a suspenseful labyrinth featuring a captivating performance from Lily Sullivan as a podcaster trying to uncover the mystery behind ominous black bricks. Sullivan is the only person seen talking on screen for the entire movie, since she portrays a podcaster who has isolated herself inside her parents’ home while attempting to solve the mystery. “Monolith” is not the movie for you if you don’t want to watch a film where the majority of it shows someone talking on the phone with other people who do not appear in the movie.

Directed by Matt Vesely (his feature-film directorial debut) and written by Lucy Campbell, “Monolith” had its world premiere at the 2022 Adelaide Film Festival in Australia and its North American premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival. “Monolith” was filmed on location in South Australia, but the city where the story takes place is not mentioned in the movie. The name of the central character portrayed by Sullivan is also not mentioned and is listed in the end credits only as The Interviewer. She is a journalist working as a podcaster because she has been recently fired from a high-profile newspaper (a publication called the Evening Journal) for mishandling a news story about someone famous named David Langley, who ended up suing for defamation.

Before the movie focuses on The Interviewer, “Monolith” begins by showing a blank, black screen and eerie voiceover narration of someone identifying himself as Jarad (voiced by Damon Herriman), who says: “I want to tell you something. Ever since I was young, there was something different about my family. A secret. Mom reckoned she had been followed her whole life.”

Jarad goes on to describe a childhood memory of being at a beach with his mother and seeing his mother yelling at a man who was taking her picture. The man told his mother, “I’m sorry. This is the way it has to be.” He ran into a nearby street and got hit by a car.

The camera he left behind had thousands of photos of Jarad’s mother and their family that made it obvious that whoever took the photos was stalking the family. Jarad says the camera was given to the police, who claimed they had no evidence of who this mystery stalker was. And then, the camera went missing. Jarad also mentions in this voiceover that the stalker was from the future.

The movie then shows The Interviewer making an apology video for her mistakes in her news story on David Langley. She admits to failing to corroborate the evidence and investigate the credibility of her sources. She concludes the apology by saying, “My actions do not reflect the Evening Journal’s operations or integrity.”

The scandal has resulted in David Langley’s fans harassing The Interviewer, so she is staying at her parents’ house to lie low until the turmoil dies down. The only work she’s been able to find is for a low-budget podcast called Beyond Believable, which covers unsolved mysteries, conspiracy theories and hoaxes. It’s a big step down from the prestigious journalist job that she had at the Evening Journal.

Her podcast boss Tyler (voiced by Chase Coleman) has been waiting patiently for The Interviewer to deliver her first story for Beyond Believable, but The Interviewer hasn’t come up with any ideas, and she knows she’s running out of time before she’ll get in trouble with Tyler for not doing the job she was hired to do. Feeling desperate, The Interviewers checks her email for story ideas and comes across a cryptic email with the subject heading “The Truth Will Out.”

The email has instructions to call someone named Floramae King at Floramae’s phone number and says that Floramae needs to be asked about a brick that Floramae knows very well. With nothing to lose, The Interviewer calls Floramae out of curiosity. Floramae (voiced by Ling Cooper Tang, with a photo of actress Janet Tan shown in the movie to depict Floramae) seems very surprised to get this phone call and is very reluctant to talk about the brick.

However, The Interviewer is very persuasive in explaining why she is calling and why Floramae needs to do this interview. The Interviewer says if The Interviewer received this email, then other journalists got the same email, but The Interviewer will be better than other journalists in getting Floramae’s side of the story told. Floramae agrees to be interviewed and is told that this phone interview is being recorded and will used on the podcast.

Floramae tells her story about the brick, which was in her possession about 20 years ago. She describes it as a black brick that size of a gold bar and “darker than anything I’ve ever seen.” Floramae also says about the brick, “It was very heavy. As soon as I held it, I felt like something was changing.”

Floramae says that 20 years ago, she was working as a live-in housekeeper for a wealthy family consisting of two parents who had a son and a daughter. Floramae was a single mother living with her daughter Paula, who was a child at the time. The employer family treated Floramae and Paula very well and offered to pay for Paula’s private education at an elite school. The brick appeared on the family’s property, but Floramae can’t remember exactly where on the property the brick was found.

One day, Floramae found deep scratches on the furniture in the house, with the biggest damage done to the dining room table. The family blamed Paula for this vandalism, but Paula and Floramae both denied that Paula caused any of the damage to the furniture. Even if it could be proven that Paula caused the damage, Floramae did not have the money to pay for the repairs.

Shortly after this incident, the family’s patriarch took the brick without Floramae’s permission and sold it to an art dealer in Germany. The patriarch said the money from the sale would be approximately the same amount to repair the furniture damage. Floramae complained to the patriarch that he stole the brick, and she was fired. Floramae bitterly says that the family cut all ties with Floramae and Paula.

It just so happens that when Floramae is doing this phone interview, adult Paula is at Floramae’s house for a visit. When Paula (voiced by Ansuya Nathan) overhears her mother Floramae talking on the phone about the brick to a journalist, Paula gets very upset and orders Floramae to get off the phone. The conversation is cut short.

The rest of “Monolith” follows The Interviewer investigating the mystery of the black brick by making numerous phone calls. She tracks down the art dealer who bought the brick that used to be owned by Floramae. He’s a Berlin-based art dealer named Klaus Lang (voiced by Terence Crawford), who has a collection of these black bricks.

The Interviewer also talks to a man with an African accent named John (voiced by Rashidi Edward), who tells how this mysterious brick affected members of his family. Another clues come from a woman in Ohio named Laura (voiced by Kate Box), who used to own one of the bricks. The Interviewer finds out that people who come in contact with the bricks start to lose their appetite and have suicidal thoughts or hallucinations. At one point in the movie, The Interviewer notices that a turtle in the house’s aquarium hasn’t been eating.

The Interviewer has a brother named Scott Evans (voiced by Matt Crook), who works in the linguistics department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Scott helps with the investigation. And so does a London-based journalist named Shiloh Lowden (voiced by Brigid Zengeni), who has also been trying to solve the mystery of these bricks.

The stories that The Interviewer hears in “Monolith” are strange, but they feel even more unsettling in large part because of the way the movie was filmed. Although The Interviewer is in a spacious house with a lot of glass windows for walls, the Interviewer stays in one room (which has the podcast equipment) for a great deal of the movie, thereby making the location look claustrophobic. In addition, the musical score by Benjamin Speed enhances the increasing tension in the story.

Viewers watching “Monolith” will be very curious to find out what’s the mystery behind these bricks, but don’t expect the movie to give all the answers. The last 20 minutes of the film turn into a lot of weirdness that mostly makes sense if viewers are paying attention to all the clues leading up to the climactic part of the movie. Still, some parts of the story remained muddled, as if the filmmakers didn’t bother trying to explain everything. The horror that viewers are supposed to be left with is the feeling of not knowing if an entity that is hard to understand is really good or evil.

Well Go USA released “Monolith” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on February 16, 2024. The movie was released in Australia on October 26, 2023. “Monolith” will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on April 23, 2024.

Review: ‘Evil Dead Rise,’ starring Lily Sullivan, Alyssa Sutherland, Morgan Davies, Gabrielle Echols and Nell Fisher

April 21, 2023

by Carla Hay

Gabrielle Echols, Nell Fisher, Lily Sullivan, Morgan Davies and Alyssa Sutherland in “Evil Dead Rise” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Evil Dead Rise”

Directed by Lee Cronin

Culture Representation: Taking place in California, the horror film “Evil Dead Rise” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A guitar technician/roadie goes to Los Angeles and gets thrown into the middle of supernatural terror when she visits her sister and her sister’s three children. 

Culture Audience: “Evil Dead Rise” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “Evil Dead” franchise and have a high tolerance for gory but effective horror movies.

Alyssa Sutherland in “Evil Dead Rise” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Evil Dead Rise” is a very back-to-basics horror story that is neither terrible nor outstanding. But there’s nothing basic about the overload of blood in the movie. People who easily get squeamish from the sight of bloody gore: You have been warned.

Written and directed by Lee Cronin, “Evil Dead Rise” had it world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival. It’s a continuation of the “Evil Dead” franchise that began with 1981’s “The Evil Dead.” Sam Raimi, who wrote and directed “The Evil Dead” and 1987’s “Evil Dead II,” is an executive producer of “Evil Dead Rise.”

One of the best things about “Evil Dead Rise” is that it doesn’t waste time with a lot of boring and useless scenes. The horror starts within the first 10 minutes of the movie. The story is set in California, but “Evil Dead Rise” was actually filmed in New Zealand.

“Evil Dead Rise” begins by showing three people in their early 20s on a getaway trip at a remote cabin near a lake. Yes, that sounds like the most cliché of horror story clichés, but “Evil Dead Rise” makes this opening scene memorably gruesome.

The three people on this trip are named Teresa (played by Mirabai Pease); her cousin Jessica (played by Anna-Maree Thomas); and Jessica’s boyfriend Caleb (played by Richard Crouchley), who is a bit of a prankster. Richard has a toy drone with him that he uses to scare Teresa while she is relaxing on a deck near the lake.

Teresa isn’t just annoyed with Caleb. She’s annoyed because she really didn’t want to be on this trip in the first place. Several friends of Jessica and Caleb were supposed to be a part of this trip, but they cancelled their plans to be there. And now, Jessica has been acting weird, by staying in bed when she should be in a party mood.

Teresa goes in the bedroom where Jessica is hunched over on the bed. Teresa begins reading Emily Brontë’s classic Gothic 1847 novel “Wuthering Heights” while complaining to Jessica that this party is dead and she wants to leave. And then, Jessica eerily starts reading the words from the book out loud. Jessica has a “possessed by a demon” voice, so you can easily figure out what will happen next. Viewers will find out at the end of the movie how Jessica got to be that way.

“Evil Dead Rise” then does a flashback to one day earlier. Beth (played by Lily Sullivan) is a guitar technician/roadie for an unnamed rock band that has been on tour of grungy clubs. Beth, who is a freewheeling bachelorette, is seen in a restroom of one such dumpy club, where she’s about to find out the result of a home pregnancy test. You can easily predict the result there too.

After Beth finds out if she’s pregnant or not, she makes an unannounced visit to her estranged older sister Ellie (played by Alyssa Sutherland), who is a tattoo artist in Los Angeles. Ellie has three children: Danny (played by Morgan Davies), an aspiring DJ, is about 15 or 16 years old. Bridget (played by Gabrielle Echols), an aspiring political activist, is about 13 or 14 years old. Kassie (played by Nell Fisher) is about 9 or 10 years old.

The tension between the Beth and Ellie is immediately apparent. Beth resents that Ellie, who likes to call Beth a “groupie,” doesn’t take Beth’s job seriously. Ellie resents Beth for dropping in and out of her life whenever Beth pleases.

It’s also a very bad time for Beth to visit. Ellie’s husband Jay abandoned the family two months ago. And to make matters worse, the apartment building where Ellie and her kids live is about to be torn down the next month. Ellie, who is struggling financially, has not found a new place to live yet.

Shortly after Beth arrives, an earthquake measuring 5.5 on the Richter scale happens while Beth and the kids are in the building’s parking garage. The family survives this earthquake, but the earthquake has opened up a hole in the parking garage of the building, which used to be a bank. The hole exposes a hidden bank vault, where Dan finds what “Evil Dead” fans will immediately recognize as the Book of the Dead.

And you can easily predict what happens next, even if you don’t know it’s already shown in the trailer and poster for “Evil Dead Rise”: Ellie gets possessed by a demon. Some of the building’s other residents—including a helpful young man named Gabriel (played by Jayden Daniels) and a shotgun-wielding, middle-aged man named Mr. Fonda (played by Mark Mitchinson)—encounter a possessed Ellie. The earthquake has destroyed the building’s stairs, while the elevator is unsafe. Who will survive and who will die? That’s the only real spoiler information for this movie.

“Evil Dead” makes a few major departures from previous “Evil Dead” movies, which include the 2013 “Evil Dead” reboot. First, most of the action takes place in an apartment building instead of a remote wooded area. Second, most of the characters involved in the action are female. (Original “Evil Dead” actor Bruce Campbell has an uncredited voice cameo as a priest heard on an old vinyl album that Danny plays backwards.)

“Evil Dead” borrows some ideas from the 1986 sci-fi horror movie “Aliens” but it’s not a complete ripoff. The performances are serviceable in “Evil Dead Rise,” which doesn’t have much suspense when it comes to jump scares or terrifying surprises. The movie’s real horror is about seeing a loved one transform into something demonic and knowing that it’s a “kill or be killed” situation. And that blood. So much blood. After seeing “Evil Dead Rise,” some viewers will feel nauseated and/or feel like taking a long shower.

Warner Bros. Pictures released “Evil Dead Rise” in U.S. cinemas on April 21, 2023.

Review: ‘Spirited’ (2022), starring Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds

December 24, 2022

by Carla Hay

Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell in “Spirited” (Photo courtesy of Apple Studios)

“Spirited” (2022)

Directed by Sean Anders

Culture Representation: Taking place in Minnesota, New York City and briefly in Vancouver, the musical comedy film “Spirited” (a reimagining of “A Christmas Carol”) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: The Ghost of Christmas Present is determined to redeem a corrupt media strategist who is considered irredeemable. 

Culture Audience: “Spirited” will appeal primarily to fans of “A Christmas Carol,” musical comedies, and stars Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds.

Octavia Spencer in “Spirited” (Photo courtesy of Apple Studios)

“Spirited” revels in being a campy, musical reimagining of “A Christmas Carol,” the classic 1843 novella by Charles Dickens. The movie combines formulaic comedy with unexpected plot twists and catchy songs. The cast members also look like they’re having fun, which brings some enjoyment to watching. With a total running time of 127 minutes, “Spirited” has a sluggish middle section that somewhat drains the movie of its lively musical energy with too much dialogue. However, “Spirited” recovers in the last third of the movie, with a tone that is expected but plot developments that might surprise many viewers.

Directed by Sean Anders (who co-wrote the “Spirited” screenplay with John Morris), “Spirited” begins by showing the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come, also known as Yet-to-Come (played by Loren G. Woods and voiced by Tracy Morgan), who looks like a Grim Reaper. Yet-to-Come is haunting Ms. Karen Blansky (played by Rose Byrne) in a graveyard. She has apparently been a mean-spirited person, who is about to be punished by the ghost. Before the ghost plunges her underneath the ground, she begs for mercy and promises that she will not yell at the neighbors’ children any more.

Luckily for Karen, the ghost only wants to scare her into redeeming herself. Karen wakes up to find out that her life has been spared. And she decides to turn her life around and become a friendly person. She’s seen playing outdoor hockey with the neighborhood kids, using a round Christmas ornament instead of a hockey puck. Now that Karen has become a better person, time temporarily freezes, and several ghosts from the afterlife appear to sanction this redemption.

The Ghost of Christmas Present (played by Will Ferrell), also known as Present, says in a voiceover: “That’s what we do: We haunt someone, we change them into a better person, and we sing about it.” The ghosts then go back to their afterlife “headquarters” to celebrate this successful redemption. The other ghosts who work at the afterlife “headquarters” include the Ghost of Christmas Past (played by Sunita Mani), also known as Past, who is fun-loving and somewhat sarcastic, and ghost supervisor Marley (played by Patrick Page), who is a no-nonsense taskmaster.

Present has been dead since the 1800s and has spent the past 46 seasons redeeming people. A human-resources employee named Margot (played by Lily Sullivan) asks Present if he will ever retire and suggests that he should, but he’s not ready to retire. Present later reveals what he will get if he retires: a watch, a Sephora gift card, and a chance to go back to Earth and relive his life as a human.

One of the reasons why he doesn’t want to retire yet is that he has his sights set on redeeming what the ghosts call a “perp” (short for perpetrator): Someone who is their next target to haunt and possibly redeem. His name is Clint Briggs (played by Ryan Reynolds), the owner/president of Briggs Media Group, a consulting firm whose specialty is creating toxic controversy for publicity and profits.

Marley looks at the file on Clint and thinks that Clint is irredeemable and says it’s not worth trying to save Clint. Present vehemently disagrees and threatens to quit and retire if the group doesn’t try to redeem Clint. Marley reluctantly agrees because he doesn’t really want to lose this valuable ghost employee. Clint’s work has a worldwide influence, so Present believes that if Clint can be redeemed, the new and improved Clint can do good deeds that will have ripple effects around the world.

And so, this ghostly group travels to a hotel in Vancouver, where Clint is making a speaking appearance at a convention for the National Association of Christmas Tree Growers, who are worried about the rising popularity of artificial Christmas trees. Instead of telling these tree growers positive things that they want to hear, Clint gives a cynical lecture about how people prefer artificial Christmas trees because they are lazy and desperate. He also says that the Christmas tree growers need to sell not only the trees but also sell the idea that a real Christmas tree is about continuing Christmas traditions.

Clint has an executive vice president named Kimberly (played by Octavia Spencer), who is loyal to her boss but also morally conflicted about the dirty tricks that the company uses to get what Clint wants. The Briggs Media Group frequently ruins people’s reputations with smear campaigns. Kimberly will eventually reach a point where she will decide if she will continue with this type of work or not.

The ghosts have done a background check on Clint and found out that he grew up in Minnesota’s Minneapolis-St. Paul area, as the middle child of a single mother named Wendy (played by Jen Tullock), who is later revealed in a flashback to be an irresponsible alcoholic. Clint’s older sister Carrie (played by Andrea Anders), who was a single parent, died six years ago. It’s revealed in a flashback that Carrie decided to become a mother through a sperm donation.

Carrie’s daughter Wren (played by Marlow Barkley), who is now 13 or 14 years old, is being raised by Clint’s younger brother Owen (played by Joe Tippett), who is almost the opposite of Clint. Clint is clean-cut, wears business suits, and has an intense, competitive personality. Owen is long-haired, wears jeans and flannel shirts, and has a laid-back, mild-mannered personality.

A big part of the “Spirited” plot revolves around Wren wanting to be elected her president of her eighth-grade class. Her biggest rival in the campaign is a popular kid named Josh Hubbins (played by Maximillian Piazza), whose parents own a charitable, non-profit group that does an annual Christmas dinner event for homeless people. Wren asks Clint for help in her campaign.

And you can easily guess what happens next: Clint, with Kimberly’s help, finds “dirt” on Josh. Two years ago, Josh made a TikTok video where he insulted the Christmas dinner event for the homeless. Josh deleted the video two years ago, but Kimberly was able to find it. Kimberly has mixed feelings about using this video to ruin Josh’s reputation, but she gives this video to Wren anyway. Clint encourages Wren to make the video public when the time is right.

There are some other subplots in “Spirited” that get varying degrees of development. Clint is supposed to be haunted by Past, but her judgment is affected, because she thinks Clint is attractive and quickly develops a crush on him. Meanwhile, Present shows himself to Kimberly by accident, and they have a mutual attraction that Present doesn’t know how to handle because he’s afraid to tell Kimberly that he’s really a ghost.

In between, there are some very entertaining song-and-dance numbers, with the movie’s original songs written by Oscar-winning “La La Land” composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The movie’s choreography (led by Chloe Arnold) is a very good complement to the peppy and frequently amusing original songs. No one should expect Ferrell, Reynolds and Spencer to be fantastic music artists, by they handle their musical performances with a lot of charisma and skilled emotional expressions.

Some of the original songs in the film include “Bringin’ Back Christmas,” “Tiny Ripple,” “The View From Here,” “Good Afternoon,” “The Story of Your Life,” “Do a Little Good,” “That Christmas Morning Feelin’.” Not all of the songs are meant to be comical or jolly. Spencer’s solo singing of “The View From Here” expresses Kimberly’s regretful contemplation that Kimberly got what she wanted in her career ambitions, but she worries that she could have lost her conscience in the process.

A running joke in the movie begins during a time-traveling segment going back to the 1820s, when the saying “Good afternoon” is supposed to be an insulting comment. The time traveling and flashbacks in “Spirited” aren’t always handled very smoothly. And the movie occasionally gets overstuffed with subplots, which leads the movie to go off on a few tangents that run a little too long before things get back on track. (Look for a very quick and amusing cameo from Judi Dench.)

One of the main reasons to watch “Spirited” is that the cast members have engaging chemistry with each other. Ferrell and Reynolds have a talented ability to deliver goofy comedy with some heartfelt moments, while Spencer and the other supporting cast members are also a compatible match in this ensemble. Unless someone watching “Spirited” is in a very bad mood, it’s the type of movie that can guarantee some laughs and good-enough entertainment that puts a unique spin on a Christmas classic.

Apple Studios released “Spirited” in select U.S. cinemas on November 11, 2022. The movie premiered in Apple TV+ on November 18, 2022.

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