Candyman

★★★★½

Full Admission: I hadn’t seen Bernard Rose’s “Candyman” in full prior to the other night. Sure, I’d seen bits and pieces of it on cable, but never the whole enchilada. I liked but didn’t love the movie. Tony Todd has a great presence as the titular “villain” powered primarily by his booming voice. (My wife Jamie astutely noted that he sounds like Frank Welker voicing Megatron on “Transformers.”) Virginia Madsen’s good in the movie too. Xander Berkeley is sleazily entertaining. I really liked DeJuan Guy as Jake. Rose is such a terrible actor that he makes Quentin Tarantino look like Laurence Olivier by comparison. Philip Glass’ score is killer. The commentary concerning race in this country is welcome but somewhat limited.

Nia DaCosta’s “Candyman” (now playing exclusively in theaters) is the rare sequel that’s not only better than its predecessor, but elevates its forebear simply by existing. I was genuinely surprised by how directly “Candyman” sequelizes the 1992 original while simultaneously being very much its own thing. DaCosta’s made a movie that has a lot on its mind. It’s equal parts funny, angry and scary. It delves into gentrification, police brutality, the exploitation of black artists by white critics and consumers and a litany of other topics. An awful lot is crammed into the movie’s scant 91 minute runtime. This is one of the rare instances where I feel the picture would’ve benefitted by being longer to further extrapolate on all its themes and subplots.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II of HBO’s “Watchmen” stars as Anthony McCoy, a talented Chicago-based artist who’s been in a bit of a creative rut. He shares a chic apartment in what used to be the Cabrini-Green housing project with his gallery director girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris, late of “WandaVision”), who’s footing the bills and has the means to further his career once inspiration strikes. Anthony receives guff about he and Brianna’s living situation from both her brother Troy (the hilarious Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and his mother.

Inspiration comes in the form of Cabrini OG and laundromat owner William Burke (ace character actor Colman Domingo), who tells Anthony the tragic tale of Candyman. Looking to maintain his artistic relevance, Anthony uses the Candyman mythology as the basis for a series of paintings and an installation. Despite being energized and far more prolific than he’d been of late, Anthony’s works bring about a horrifying wave of violence, drive a wedge between he and Brianna and leave him teetering on the brink of insanity.

It’s insanely impressive that DaCosta made “Candyman” at the tender age of 31 and that it’s only her second feature. I meant to see her debut “Little Woods” at the Heartland International Film Festival a few years back, but didn’t get around to it. I’ll need to track it down on streaming ASAP and I’m hyped as hell for her Marvel Cinematic Universe debut “The Marvels” in 2022. She’s an incredibly exciting and assured new cinematic voice. She eats Dan Gilroy’s lunch in doing art horror by comparison to his stilted Netflix effort “Velvet Buzzsaw” and one ups Rose at every turn in making a “Candyman” movie.

There’s so much to dig here. The movie’s rife with Jeff Goldblum references what with its instances of “The Fly”-esque body horror and an awesome “Jurassic Park” quote. The primary cast is uniformly excellent. It’s rad to see Domingo and Parris reunited after having played father and daughter in Barry Jenkins’ brilliant and underrated “If Beale Street Could Talk.” The script by DaCosta, Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld is sharp and insightful. My only real quibbles are that I could’ve gone for more development of Domingo’s character and his story and a subplot concerning Brianna and Troy’s Dad should’ve been fleshed out further.

“Candyman” ultimately seems to suggest that Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Botham Jean, George Floyd and countless others are all Candymen. I’d love to see DaCosta or another promising young filmmaker of color make “Candymen” … and “Candyman” certainly gives ‘em the leeway to do so. I just sincerely wish this country would stop sequelizing the exploitation, marginalization, incarceration and eradication of its black citizens … a sentiment that the makers of “Candyman” undeniably echo.

No Man of God

★★★★

“No Man of God” (available in select theaters and on VOD beginning Friday, Aug. 27) isn’t necessarily the Elijah Wood/Robert Patrick “The Faculty” reunion I was expecting, but it’s the one we got … and it’s a pretty damned good one at that.

Wood stars as Bill Hagmaier, one of the FBI’s first criminal profilers who’s been tasked by his boss Roger Depue (Patrick) with getting notorious serial killer Ted Bundy (Luke Kirby) to talk. This is no small feat as Bundy hates feds and enjoys toying with them, but the work is important as the intel Hagmaier collects could provide closure to the families of Bundy’s victims and give insight into the minds of other maniacs.

Over the course of many years and innumerable more visits, Hagmaier and Bundy build a rapport and even a friendship of sorts. Bundy goes so far as to refer to Hagmaier as his best friend. The men bond over their roles as fathers and engage in exercises of intellectual one-upmanship. A parallel is drawn between the two where it’s suggested that either man could be sitting on the other side of the table.

As directed by Amber Sealey and written by C. Robert Cargill (who wrote film criticism under the pseudonym Massawyrm at Ain’t It Cool News and scripted the “Sinister” pictures and “Doctor Strange”), “No Man of God” isn’t sensationalistic in its execution nor does it flashback to show graphic depictions of Bundy’s multiple crimes. The movie’s scariest and most impactful moment has Bundy holding hands with Hagmaier and verbally walking him through a particularly memorable murder. This is a simple two-hander that excels through Cargill’s thoughtful words and Wood and Kirby’s deft performances.

Wood is ideal casting as Hagmaier. He brings the same wide-eyed innocence he brought to Frodo Baggins in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” so you believe Hagmaier when he earnestly prays to God that he has the strength to pull the trigger not one second too soon nor one second too late. Much like “LOTR” Wood’s character is strengthened and hardened by the task to which he’s been assigned. This stands alongside “LOTR,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Sin City” as some of the best work of Wood’s career.

As good as Wood is, Kirby’s even better in an admittedly showier role. I’m not nearly as familiar with Kirby’s filmography as I am with Wood’s. I mostly know him as one of Michael Myers’ victims from “Halloween: Resurrection” and as the dude who cucked Seth Rogen’s character in Sarah Polley’s “Take This Waltz.” Kirby’s absolutely magnetic here. Cargill’s words and Kirby’s performance convey Bundy’s intelligence and charm – they even flirt with showing empathy for him – but they don’t for a minute let the audience forget that Bundy’s a monster. Kirby presents us with a searing portrait of toxic masculinity run amok.

Even though this is ultimately a two-hander, Wood and Kirby are ably supported by the likes of Patrick, “Boardwalk Empire” actress Aleksa Palladino as civil rights attorney Carolyn Lieberman (whom many believed engaged in sexual impropriety with Bundy despite no evidence and her actual feelings to the contrary) and aces “There’s Something About Mary” and “Deadwood” character actor W. Earl Brown as Warden Wilkenson, who oversaw Bundy’s time at Florida State Prison.

There’s been a bit of strife between Sealey and director Joe Berlinger, who directed the Netflix-based Bundy double shot of “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” and “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” (in which Zac Efron played Bundy). Berlinger via e-mail accused Sealey of trashing his works in order to promote her own. I don’t believe Sealey did so explicitly and it’s certainly not there in the text itself. I will say this much – I did prefer “No Man of God” to “Extremely Wicked” and also preferred Kirby’s Bundy to Efron’s. I don’t think either film purposefully glamorized Bundy. Additionally, Sealey came at the story from a different enough direction that there was still a surprising amount of meat on these bones.