By Lynn Venhaus

Ambitious and intriguing, “Landscape with Invisible Hand” takes an absurd concept and revels in its strangeness as a suburban horror story.

It’s 2036. Most of the remaining Earthlings are impoverished and unemployed after an alien species, the Vuvv, has occupied the planet for five years. Their advanced technology was promising but their labor-saving ways and bureaucratic rule have wreaked havoc on the American way of life.

For their struggling families’ survival, 17-year-old artist Adam Campbell (Asante Blackk) and his classmate Chloe Marsh (Kylie Rogers) take their budding romance to a livestream reality dating show format that earns them cash and restores their families’ livelihood. But their love story hits a bump in the road, throwing them back into chaos and mounting debt, forcing life-altering changes.

How much is art and truth worth in a topsy-turvy world? What sacrifices would you be willing to make if aliens took over, nearly rendering everything that shapes our society obsolete? What is it about adversity that brings out the worst in some people?

These are big philosophical questions raised, yet on a small canvas, and while the Americans go through the motions, depicting a dreary way of life and adapting to a drab environment, the curiosity level never rises to compelling.

This quirky sci-fi hybrid should be funnier and more heart-tugging. The economic and environmental implications are damning, and yes, the blame is on us. And while it’s never predictable and always unusual, there is just something that prevents the film from totally clicking. I am not familiar with the book, though.

Yet, there are sharp, witty barbs and some amusing visuals in writer-director Cory Finley’s adaptation of M.T. Anderson’s 2017 young adult novel. The aliens are peculiar-looking – flesh-colored squishy rectangle blobs who have weird features, bordering on the grotesque. Everything, from their voices, vocabulary, and views are out of sync with humans, and the interactions are odd. The awkwardness is always played for laughs.

Yet, as good as this ensemble is, the plot’s constraints regarding the depressing behaviors of humans during colonization make it hard to connect with the characters, rather something to admire for its sharp criticism instead of an emotional response.

Finley centers the story on a pair of smart entrepreneurial teens, who fall in and out of love, and their vastly dysfunctional families at a time of great duress.

Now a New York-based playwright and filmmaker, Finley grew up in the Clayton suburb of St. Louis and graduated from John Burroughs School in 2007. Burroughs hosted their heralded alumnus last spring to speak to students, staff, faculty, and the community. The theatre department also produced his play, “The Feast,” in the black box. St. Louis Actors’ Studio had presented the horror-comedy-drama in 2017.

Finley, who went on to Yale, has made three feature films, demonstrating a flair for dialogue, a keen eye for detail, and an affinity for satire and dark comedy. While different, his projects have a common theme, focusing on high school students, and this one is by far the most bizarre.

His first film, “Thoroughbreds,” starred Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy and Anton Yelchin, and became an arthouse darling that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017, earning him an Independent Spirit Award nomination for best first screenplay.

His next was the 2019 HBO movie “Bad Education,” based on a true story, and starred Hugh Jackman as a Long Island superintendent whose epic $112 million embezzlement was uncovered by a student reporter. It won the Emmy Award for best television movie in 2020.

In his third, which premiered at Sundance in January, Finley is willing to take risks, but perhaps the frustrations of this heartless story are too much of a dead overcome.

Like last year’s “White Noise,” it has so many layers that it’s overly complicated. Although it’s worth investing the time to figure it out, mainly for its sheer audacity, but it does take a while to unpack.

A Vuvv

Production designer Sue Chan has given us an unsettling portrait of occupation and oppression, aided with meticulous work by art director Erik Louis Robert and set decorator Lynne Mitchell. Cinematographer Lyle Vincent matter-of-factly captures the situation’s bleakness, with editor Louise Ford focusing on the off-kilter aspects.

Promising young stars deliver solid performances – Blackk’s defiance and desire to push through all the hardship rings true. The young actor, first noticed on “This Is Us” as Randall’s daughter Deja’s boyfriend Malik, is one to watch.

So is Rogers, who plays the young Beth on “Yellowstone” and reminds me of a young Chloe Grace Moretz. Her financial motivations become apparent, and there is hell to pay for deceiving those aliens. The Vuvv may be incapable of love, but they can spot phonies easily.

Each has a surly sibling in this – Chloe’s sullen brother Hunter Marsh is portrayed by Michael Gandolfini, who doubles down on ‘doesn’t play well with others’, and Brooklynn MacKinzie is Natalie, a typically annoying sister, who finds fault with what Adam’s up to – usually drawing or painting.

Tiffany Haddish is credible as out-of-work attorney Beth Campbell, who is an exasperated but tough mother trying to hang on to her homestead as her world crumbles all around her/ Josh Hamilton has the most fun as a desperate dad willing to do whatever it takes to fit in with the Vuvvs and has some key scenes sucking up to the superiors.

Nevertheless, the laughs become intermittent and the points on race, class and gender seem less effective as the film winds down its 1 hour, 45-minute runtime. With all its flaws, it is still thought-provoking, but interest wanes. What started strongly as something with a different point of view doesn’t draw us in enough to satisfy.

“Landscape with Invisible Hand” is a 2023 sci-fi comedy-drama directed by Cory Finley and starring Asante Blackk, Tiffany Haddish, Kylie Rogers, Josh Hamilton, Michael Gandolfini, and Brooklynn MacKinzie. It is rated R for language and brief violent content and 1 hour, 45 minutes. It opens in theatres Aug. 18. Lynn’s Grade: C+

Note: this review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.

By Stephe Raven

The Unbearable Weight of Being Nicolas Cage

To say that Nicolas Cage is a deep actor may be a stretch. I mean, he has actually won a few awards. To say that he is a versatile actor would be closer to the truth. Don’t get me wrong, he has made some great movies (“Raising Arizona” will always be one of my favs!). He is definitely an actor not afraid to take a chance on a role, and more importantly, to be able to laugh at himself. Being an actor who is known for his quirky characters, he really does know how to let us laugh along him on any crazy ride.

That being said, when you sit down to watch “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” you have no idea what you are in for, but I have to tell you, it’s a ride worth hanging on to. Cage plays a loose version of himself as a down-on-his -uck actor looking for that next film that will showcase his talent. 

His agent (a nice cameo of Neil Patrick Harris) gets him a gig being himself for a rich super fan, the job paying him a cool million just to appear at this guy’s birthday party and even reading a script that the guy wrote himself just for, yep you guessed it, Nic Cage. 

The fan is played quite charmingly by Pedro Pascal. He is such a fan that he has his own Nicolas Cage museum, which goes off the deep end but has to be experienced to see what an avid junkie he is. 

The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent Nicolas Cage and Pedro Pascal Photo Credit: Karen Ballard/Lionsgate

They seem to be in such a sweet bromance that your teeth start to hurt and you are waiting for a big smooch…no but seriously, they seem to find this perfect comedic timing together and you want them to be best buds.

The antics with these two were fun to watch for sure.It doesn’t seem like it will work, but as the plot moves along it just does. You seriously think it’s a total cheese fest, but it works!

All that gets ruined for you when the CIA (hello Tiffany Haddish, you sure are busy this year!) decide they need need help taking down Nic’s new bestie, who appears to be an arms dealer. Every time you think it can’t get any more unbelievable, it does…but not in a bad way. 

Hilarity and LSD take us down the rabbit hole and actually all makes for a silly, but fun movie. And let me tell you, there are so many Nic Cage Easter eggs, you may have to see the movie a few times to catch them all!  Not gonna win any awards here, but it was a lot of fun seeing on the big screen. 

We all need some Nicolas Cage to get us out of the leftover pandemic fog we have been in. Go have some fun and get those laugh muscles back in shape!

Pedro Pascal as Javi and Nicolas Cage as Nic Cage in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. Photo Credit: Katalin Vermes/Lionsgate

“The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is a 2022 comedy-action film directed by Tom Gormican and starring Nicolas Cage, Nicolas Kim Coppola, Pedro Pascal, Neil Patrick Harris, Tiffany Haddish, Ike Barinholtz, Lily Sheen and Sharon Horgan. It runs 1 hour and 47 minutes and is rated R for language throughout, some sexual references, drug use and violence. It opens in theaters on April 22.

By Lynn Venhaus
William Tell (a shortened surname) is a broken man, but he hides it well. With his well-groomed appearance, this sharp-dressed man looks every bit a winner when he walks through casinos across the country.

But cracks in his icy façade start showing in “The Card Counter,” once we view his austere existence, his penchant for staying at nondescript motels, his OCD-like tendencies, and the flashbacks to his grisly military service.

This revenge thriller shows how an ex-military interrogator turned gambler is haunted by the ghosts of his past.

Tell served in the Iraq War, and afterwards, spent 8.5 years in military prison for torturing the enemy at the Abu Ghraib prison, near Baghdad. The abhorrent behavior of the interrogators and the squalid living conditions are well-documented and glimpsed here.

Isaac is convincing as a man trying to come to terms with the lives he destroyed emotionally and physically. But the mental turmoil has clearly taken a toll, and he seeks redemption – despite not being able to forgive himself.

Wrestling with demons is a specialty of writer and director Paul Schrader, whose last film in 2017, “First Reformed,” was about a guilt-wracked pastor (Ethan Hawke, in his best work to date).

The quintessential outsider, Schrader finally received his first Oscar nomination for the “First Reformed” screenplay but has been part of such highly praised films as “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “American Gigolo” for five decades.

He’s not afraid to explore the dark side, and neither is Isaac, who is most well-known as the heroic pilot Poe Dameron in the new “Star Wars” chapters. But he has impressed with edgy portraits in “A Most Violent Year,” “Ex Machina” and “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

This film is dark and disturbing, but also haunting and hypnotic. That is largely due to the cast’s interpretation of this material as well as first-rate production elements.

The fine young actor Tye Sheridan (“Mud,” “Joe”) plays Cirk, who is hell-bent on revenge. He hooks up with Tell at a law enforcement convention, where their mutual enemy, a retired major turned security consultant, Gordo (customary good work from Willem Dafoe), is the keynote speaker. Cirk blames Gordo for his father’s suicide, and he was Tell’s superior officer.

Tell decides to take Cirk under his wing on the casino trail, where he has met the intriguing La Linda, a keen observer who runs a gambling stable for corporations. She has her eye on Tell. He’s wary of this mysterious financier – Tiffany Haddish, playing against type – but he’s in. The trio’s goal is the World Series of Poker.

Like Rev. Toller in “First Reformed,” Tell writes his innermost thoughts in a diary. He has determined that Cirk is too undisciplined to control, and things will go from bad to worse – let’s leave it at that.

While the garish confines of casinos speak volumes about the people who flock there for refuge, entertainment and competition, it is a fitting backdrop for this drama. Alexander Dynan’s cinematography and Ashley Fenton’s production design add to the bleak atmosphere.

The throbbing music score composed by Robert Levon Been adds to a feeling of urgency and is a superb component to the escalating tension.

This is a tough watch. There is an inescapable sadness to it all, but if you are familiar with Schrader’s work, you would know what you are getting. His themes, as always, are his view of the country we live in, and the vulnerable way we all feel under duress.

“The Card Counter” is a revenge thriller directed by Paul Schrader and starring Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan and Willem Dafoe. It is rated R for some disturbing violence, graphic nudity, language and brief sexuality and the run time is 1 hour, 51 minutes. It opened in theaters on Sept. 10. Lynn’s Grade: B