Terrific Texas Trio

Cold in July

by Hope Madden

Pulpy, seedy and hot with hidden dangers, Cold in July is that uniquely Southern crime drama that moseys at its own pace as it unveils its lurid details.

Michael C. Hall turns in his Dexter lab coat  in favor of a mullet and short-sleeved button down as Richard Dane, the Texan family man who startles a burglar and accidentally puts a bullet in his head.

Thus begins our investigation of Texan ideas of manhood.

Hailed a local hero, Dane is troubled by his own actions, but even more troubled when the dead boy’s ex-con father (a delightfully salty Sam Shepard) shows up looking for revenge.

Nothing’s as it seems in this twisty yarn that weaves through corruption, deception and the elusive honor in masculinity.

Here and in several other recent turns, Hall has proven a cagey character actor able to slip on the skin of wildly different characters and find an authentic human heartbeat. Shepard, a seasoned pro, also performs admirably, but both are routinely outshone by the sheer joyous swagger Don Johnson brings to his role as a flamboyant  Texas P.I.

With Johnson comes some much needed wry humor. His character’s entrance also alters the trajectory of the story, and while the film benefits from the change of course, it also never fully resolves the questions brought up during its first act.

Paternal anxiety fuels the sometimes questionable decisions made by the threesome, and the sordid, conspiracy-riddled mess they find themselves in is pure Joe R. Lansdale (Bubba  Ho-Tep!).

That great (and often mediocre) purveyor of pulp wrote the source material that’s adapted here by director Jim Mickle and his creative partner, co-star Nick Damici.

The duo have honed a storytelling style that never ceases to compel, with previous efforts (Stake Land and We Are What We Are, in particular) worth seeking out. This effort takes too long to find its path and its pace, feeling in the end like two separate films sewn together. Questionable character motives don’t help matters. But, together with a gripping trio of performances, the filmmakers have crafted a potent, unwholesome little thriller.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

No Badass is Safe

Maleficent

by Hope Madden

Hey, thanks a lot Wicked.

For those of us who love a good villain for their terrifying villainy, the popularity of the stage musical Wicked has created a bit of a problem: the neutering of the greatest of the greats. Gregory Maguire started it when he gave the Wicked Witch of the West a political backstory that exposed her self-sacrifice and good nature.

Now Disney wants to turn their greatest and most terrifying villain, Sleeping Beauty‘s Maleficent, into another role model.

Bah!

I’ll give them this. They can cast a lead.

Angelina Jolie has always cut an imposing, otherworldly figure, and Maleficent’s horns and leather look right at home. She offers the chilly elegance, dry humor and shadowy grace needed to bring the animated evildoer to life.

Plus, she looks great. And the film looks great – we’d expect nothing less from first-time director, longtime visual effects and set design maestro Robert Stromberg. But it’s not enough to save the effort.

The truly talented Elle Fanning struggles in an anemically-written role while Sharlto Copley flails, saddled with a character whose descent into madness is articulated with little more than overacting.

The basis of the problem is a toothless script by Linda Woolverton. Less the girl-power theme that elevated Frozen (another Wicked rip off) and more a bitter pill about untrustworthy men, the film feels mean in all the wrong ways. Woolverton’s also littered the enchanted landscape with forgettable or annoying characters – the three pixies of Disney’s ’59 animated film devolve from adorable, amusing pips to annoying, useless caregivers.

Stromberg’s plodding pace helps little. He forever undercuts any tension he builds, and the film suffers immeasurably from lack of momentum.

He and Woolverton could have learned a lot from the flawed but watchable Snow White and the Huntsmen (2012), a film that sought to update the old fable with a larger focus on its great villain without de-fanging her bite. Instead, Maleficent takes the very strongest element of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale and weakens it.

Look out, Darth Vader. At the rate Hollywood is corrupting our great villains, you’ll be singing show tunes in no time.

 

Verdict-2-0-Stars

 

Shooting from the Lip

 

 A Million Ways to Die in the West

by George Wolf

 

Picture Seth MacFarlane cracking wise as he watches an old western, and you’re probably not far from the inspiration for A Million Ways to Die in the West.

So how well do MacFarlane’s modern comedy cow patties work when dropped into a pasture of Old West cliches?

Pretty dang well, pardner.

MacFarlane, who co-writes and directs, also stars as Albert, a timid sheep farmer who’s brokenhearted over losing Louise (Amanda Seyfried) to the dashing Foy, owner of the town mustache emporium (Neil Patrick Harris).

Things start looking up when Anna (Charlize Theron) rides into town, and as she and Albert get friendly, Anna conveniently forgets to mention she’s already married to Clinch (Liam Neeson), the most feared gunslinger in the land.

With MacFarlane, you pretty much know what’s coming:  cutaway gags to reinforce a line, toilet humor, and sex jokes (turned up a notch here by the always-demure Sarah Silverman as a town prostitute). But the film also has good fun with the historical setting, as Albert often reacts to his world like a wiseass who just arrived from the future.

Even so, MacFarlane is wise enough not to resort to outright mockery, always keeping the door cracked open just enough to let some homage shine through.

The chemistry between MacFarlane and Theron helps loads. You saw it when she helped him with a bit during his stint as Oscar host in 2012 and you see it here:  they really like each other, and she thinks he’s really funny. Together, they’re a charming pair.

The middle suffers a bit from comedy drought, but the laughs come faster as Albert nears his final showdown with the evil Clinch. Expect a cast more than ready to poke fun at themselves, some very clever songs, a few inspired cameos and two extra scenes after the credits start rolling.

A Million Ways to Die in the West is a big, broad idea that’s thrown on the screen with more frenzy than focus. But will you laugh?

Darn tootin’.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 

They’re Bad, They’re Nationwide

This weekend, Angelina Jolie gets the chance to prove her worth as she brings the best animated villain – Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent – to life. Among the greatest villains of all time, Maleficent shines brightest even among Disney’s early, magnificent villain output. And that drag she can turn into?! Get out!

It put is in the mood to celebrate cinema’s great villainy with a countdown of the 15 best villains in film.

 

15. Pinhead

Hellraiser in 1987 might have been a forgettable Eighties horror flick were it not for the imagination of Clive Barker, whose sado-masochistic Cenobites journeyed from hell at curious humans’ mistaken request. Chief among them, the elegantly sadistic Pinhead strikes quite a figure with his leather and perfectly placed metal.

Quote: The box. You opened it. We came.

Hellraiser_B2_Pinhead-4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

14. Max Cady

Whether Robert Mitchum in 1962 or Robert DeNiro in 1991, this tattooed, backwoods psychopath leaves an impression and a cloud of cigar smoke.

Quote: Come out! Come out wherever you are!

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13. Urusula

One of the reasons Disney bounced back from decades of anemic cartoon output with their 1981 Hans Christien Anderson reboot The Little Mermaid was that they finally remembered the value of a good villain, and the sinister, baritone sea-witch Ursula fit that bill.

Quote: Come in, my child. We mustn’t lurk in doorways, it’s rude. One might question your upbringing.

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12. Buffalo Bill

The Silence of the Lambs was the  most honored, most celebrated film of 1991, and yet the miraculous Ted Levine went strangely unnoticed. Dr. Lecter was not the only figure to terrify us in the film, and Levin’s savage menace perfectly offset Lecter’s cool headed danger.

Quote: It rubs  the lotion on its skin. It does this whenever it is told.

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11. Keyser Soze

This one actor managed to play two different iconic, anonymous killers in 1995, establishing an award-winning career that has bloomed again just recently. The Usual Suspects spins a yarn about a puppet master boogeyman who is everywhere, controls everything, and is willing and capable of doing anything.

Quote: Who is Keyser Soze?

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10. Samara

Gore Verbinski’s 2002  J-horror remake The Ring opened a genre floodgate with dozens of immediate copycats. His skill as a director and his cast certainly helped, but it was the terrifying central villain – the shadowy, sinister, wet and slimy cherub Samara in the well – that made the lasting impression.

Quote: Everyone will suffer.

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9. Cruella de Vil

Disney’s 1961 animated puppy-napping tale was hardly one of their finest efforts, but it did boast one of Walt., Inc’s wickedest villains. Bony, pasty and brandishing a cigarette in a long, sleek holder, Cruelle de Vil epitomized the evils of money. Sort of an early Monty Burns, if you will.

Quote: I worship furs! Is there a woman in this wretched world who doesn’t?

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8. Anton Chigurh

Javier Bardem spooky, tenacious psychopath in No Country for Old Men had such a magnificently twisted sense of purpose, you almost admired him. As long as he wasn’t looking for you.

Quote: What’s the most you ever lost in a coin toss?

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7. Hans Gruber

Alan Rickman did every bit as much to make Die Hard the unforgettable Christmas romp as Bruce Willis. Ever the disdainful straight man to John McLane’s walkie-talkie wise cracker, Rickman brought an irritated elegance to the role of mastermind.

Quote: Do you really think you have a chance against us, Mr. Cowboy?

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6. Wicked Queen

Walt Disney understood the relevance of a good villain perhaps better than any filmmaker of his time, and he proved that right from the get go. Snow White’s ageless Wicked Queen and her bulbous-eyed old hag alter ego both remain the best reasons to dust off the old 1937 classic.

Quote: Wait til you taste one, dearie. Like to try one?

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs The Evil Queen 1937

 

 

5. The Joker

The Joker is a great villain regardless of the actor, but in 2008, Heath Ledger took ownership of the role. Dangerous, charismatic, darkly unpredictable, he wasn’t interested in money or power, just  chaos. It was a terrifying, sinister place he took the evil clown, and the role will never be the same again.

Quote: I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.

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4. Maleficent

Jolie has big shoes to fill, taking on the character that, let’s be honest, is the only reason to sit through Disney’s 1959 animated flick. All angles and cloaks, she’s seriously evil. She casts a spell of death, then turns into a dragon and calls on the powers of hell. Of hell! In a Disney movie. That’s hard core.

Quote: Why so melancholy?

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3. Hannibal Lecter

Anthony Hopkins’s restrained, poised, well-postured psychopath offered the kind of chilly, flesh-crawling terror we hadn’t really seen before 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. Never flamboyant or showy, the performance felt genuine, which made it that much more terrifying. He was a brand new kind of nightmare, one who was way smarter than you and had a taste for flesh.

Quote: Ready when you are, Sergeant Pembry.

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2. Darth Vader

At this point in history, it’s as if Darth Vader has always existed, but in 1977 – holy shit! That voice and that crazy breathing thing,the cloak and the helmet – coolest looking villain ever! Was he a dude? Was he a machine? A dude with a machine for a head? The Dark Lord was such a unique, powerful villain. James Earl Jones can make any dialogue sound important and impressive, meanwhile, David Prowse’s imposing physicality gave him the presence of a dark god. And a franchise was born.

Quote: Don’t underestimate the Force.

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1. Wicked Witch of the West

It’s tough to top Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter, but Margaret Hamilton did it. Her iconic look served her beautifully in the jazz-hands glamour of Oz. She looked amazing, plus she had flying monkeys to do her  bidding! She was a glorious image of evil, and because she was in relentless pursuit of a little, lost girl, she became the stuff of nightmare for generations of children.

Quote: I’ll get you, my pretty!

 

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Put That Popcorn Down!

 

Fed Up

by Hope Madden

Today’s children will be the first generation with a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

With that sobering piece of information, Katie Couric and director Stephanie Soechtig explore America’s obesity problem, poking holes in conventional wisdom and exposing a culture far more concerned with profit than with our kids’ life expectancy.

Despite our culture’s twisted fascination with thinness, the market saturation of fitness products and low-fat food alternatives, and a First Lady committed to getting our kids in shape, America still leads the world in obesity and diabetes. According to this documentary, the numbers will only keep growing.

Likening the American food industry to the tobacco industry of just a few years ago, Fed Up points to a willful, frighteningly slippery misinterpretation of facts, burying of evidence, and corporate spin to account for our catastrophic rise in obesity rates.

First of all, Couric and Soechtig, along with a host of nutritionists, doctors, scientists, and Bill Clinton, want you to understand that the old adage that to lose weight you need to take in fewer calories and burn more calories is nonsense.

I know!

But they systematically point to evidence of cause and effect to actually back up their claim, and then they go on to unveil the corporate wheeling and dealing, governmental complicity and savvy marketing that has turned unprecedented numbers of our elementary school children in to diabetics.

The film is startlingly eye-opening, even for those who consider themselves fit.

Though her film is a well crafted, truly effective call to action, Soechtig missteps here and there.

Surprisingly, though Soechtig spends plenty of time on the almost oppressive availability of junk food – a fact that makes breaking the sugar habit potentially impossible for children and adults – she never really talks about the role convenience plays in our eating habits.

She also, and rightly, points to the fast food and soda conglomerates’ hold on our public school cafeterias as the younger generation’s involuntary indoctrination into a life of awful eating habits. She suggests we all call our principals and tell them to turn down junk food money. Maybe instead she should tell us to vote for some levees so our public schools wouldn’t be so desperate for funding that they get into bed with Pizza Hut, Coke and McDonalds.

Faults aside, the expose that emerges is one with unfiltered, confrontational information to share. It’s not infotainment, but a call to action, and one that we truly must heed.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNqymWYB-18

 

 

Portrait of a Lady

 

Belle

by George Wolf

 

A scandalous affair. An innocent child. A society obsessed with money, power, and its own prejudices.

Belle is the latest historical drama to remind us that sometimes, the past looks pretty familiar.

It’s based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, born in the 1700s as the bi-racial daughter of a slave and an Admiral in the British Navy. She was raised by members of her father’s aristocratic family, standing alone as an anachronistic mix of wealth, prestige, and brown skin.

Actually, the story of how writer Misan Sagay came to find Belle could be a movie in itself.

Inspiration leapt from a painting of Belle and her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, that Sagay (who adapted Their Eyes Were Watching God for TV) encountered while in Scotland as a college student. After years of research, Sagay’s screenplay mixes fact with poetic liberties to make Belle’s story truly compelling.

The cast is letter-perfect. In the lead, Gugu Mbatha-Raw delivers a breakout performance, infusing Belle with an effective mix of intellect, wonder, spirit and hurt. As family patriarch Lord Mansfield, Tom Wilkinson is…well, Tom Wilkinson, an actor who’s seemingly impervious to missteps.

Director Amma Asante not only gives the film a fitting majestic sheen, but delicately balances Jane Austen-style period romance with serious social commentary and historical heft. At times, Belle flirts with overplaying its hand on both fronts, but Asante displays fine instincts for restraint before the storytelling takes too obvious a turn.

It is a fascinating story and a completely satisfying film. When Asante finally throws her trump card and you glimpse the inspirational portrait, it’s clear that, whatever barbs historians may throw, they can’t keep Belle from hitting a bullseye.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

 

Benefitting from Low Expectations

 

Blended

by Hope Madden

In 1998, Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore and director Frank Coraci made The Wedding Singer, one of Sandler’s more charming comedies. While Barrymore’s meandering career path has had its hits and misses since then, Coraci’s films have gotten progressively worse. Meanwhile, Sandler’s produced two Grown Ups installments, Jack and Jill, and That’s My Boy, among other affronts to both cinema and good taste.

Can a reunion with the romantic lead and creative drive behind an earlier, moderately enjoyable film rekindle enough chemistry to craft another passably entertaining flick?

Almost.

The group reunites for Blended, an impossibly contrived mash-up of The Parent Trap and Sandler’s 2011 debacle Just Go With It.

Sandler plays Jim, the schlubby but loving widowed father of three girls. Barrymore is Lauren, divorced mom to two boys. As the film opens, Jim and Lauren are on a blind date. They do not like each other at all.

I know – where could this possibly be going?

Do you suppose Jim’s daughters need a make-over…er…I mean mother?

And what about Lauren’s boys? Who will teach them to hit a baseball?

But wait! What if both families wind up accidentally sharing a suite in a South African resort – and during that resort’s Blended Families Celebration?

Do you believe in magic?

If you look beyond the ludicrous premise, and the themes that were relevant in the Seventies, and if you’re not too bothered by the mildly racist depictions of the hotel staff…all right, it’s no gem, but it’s no Jack and Jill, either.

Barrymore’s effortless likability helps a lot, as do relatively sharp cameos from Kevin Nealon, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Jessica Lowe.

Perhaps more importantly, there are no cameos from David Spade, Kevin James or Rob Schneider, so we can at least be thankful for small mercies.

You won’t laugh, but you might offer an anemic chuckle here and there. The film’s heart seems to be in the right place, more or less.

Seriously, did you see Jack and Jill? It’s really hard not to be grateful for Blended.

 

Verdict-2-0-Stars

 

 

Cbus Filmmaker to Premiere Short at Gateway

 

by George Wolf

 

As Ali Milo prepares for the debut of My Being is Bond, his first filmmaking effort, he talks about the inspiration that drove the project.

“I wanted to make a film that shows what Columbus, Ohio can locally produce. I also wanted to make a soundtrack to accompany the film that features local artists in different genres like rap, R&B, and spoken word. Inspiration comes loosely from my life and the circumstances and realities that many young African Americans deal with, not only in Columbus, but wherever they might be.”

My Being is Bond, written and directed by Milo, will premiere Tuesday, May 27th at the Gateway Film Center. The film follows Darren Hill (Anthony West), a young man facing various pressures in life who suddenly has an epiphany about his future.

Milo is a Columbus native with degrees from both Full Sail University (a music and entertainment school in Florida) and Ohio State. He found his actors by posting notices at various places around Columbus, as well as online, and then holding auditions to make his final selections. Milo displays a nice touch with his inexperienced cast, and West shows some raw, natural acting ability in the lead role.

The premiere event will begin at 7pm, will a brief  introduction from Milo. He will also conduct a Q&A session following the 35-minute film.  Tickets are $10 and can be purchased online at https://www.movietickets.com/purchase/perf_id/741552314 or at the theater.  More information can also be found on the film’s Facebook page.

 

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Creature Feature Countdown

Godzilla made a pretty impressive return last weekend, thanks mostly to director Gareth Edwards‘s ability to spectacularly realize monster fight chaos. The old reptile deserved it, really, having been hashed and rehashed in dozens of ways since his birth in 1954. It put us in the  mood for other great creature features, so here is a perusal of some of our modern favorites.

5. The Host (2006)

In 2006, Korea’s Joon-ho Bong took his own shot at the Godzilla fable. The sci-fi import The Host, which tells the tale of a giant mutant monster terrorizing Seoul, has all the thumbprints of the old Godzilla movies: military blunder, resultant angry monster, terrorized metropolis. The film’s often comedic tone gives it a quirky charm, but seriously diminishes its ability to frighten. Host does generate real, claustrophobic dread when it focuses on a missing child, though. Along with its endearing characters, well-paced plot, and excellent climax, it makes for a worthy creature feature offering.

4. King Kong (2005)

That’s right, we are dismissing the 1933 original and, obviously, the 1976 debacle in favor of Peter Jackson’s remarkable feat of intimacy and CGI. Andy Serkis offers a stunning heartbeat for the giant ape, and Naomi Watts performs better with a green screen than most actors do with flesh and blood colleagues. Even Jack Black proves his mettle in an effort that reminds audiences of the surprising universality of the old tale.

3. The Thing (1982)

Another reboot makes the list. In 1982, John Carpenter reconsidered the old SciFi standby The Thing from Another World from a Cold War terror into a claustrophobic, icy bloodbath. A beard-tastic team of scientists on expedition in the Arctic takes in a dog. The dog is not a dog, though. Not really. And soon, in an isolated wasteland offering barely enough interior room to hold all the facial hair, folks are getting jumpy because there’s no knowing who’s not really himself anymore.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WC_teYGNxvE

2. Alien (1979)

After a vagina-hand-sucker-monster attaches itself to your face, it gestates inside you, then tears through your innards. Then it grows exponentially, hides a second set of teeth, and bleeds acid. How much cooler could this possibly be? Ridley Scott married haunted house tropes with SciFi creature feature scares to create maybe the greatest alien horror of all time.

1. Jaws (1975)

Thanks to a cantankerous mechanical shark and a relentlessly effective score, twentysomething Stephen Spielberg was able to create mounting dread like no one before him by relying on the audience’s imagination and showing little of his creature. It may have been partly unintentional, but the effect – along with maybe cinema’s greatest buddy threesome of Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss – created the most beloved, most influential creature feature of all.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CCjDa44S3kI

A Road Trip Like No Other

Locke

by Hope Madden

Give him the chance and Steven Knight will restore your faith in low budget filmmaking. All you need is a well written script, a car, hands free mobile, and Tom Hardy.

Actually, maybe all you really need is Tom Hardy.

In writer/director Knight’s Locke, Hardy plays Ivan Locke, and he and Knight invite you to spend 85 minutes in the car with him. The entire duration of the film takes place inside that car, alone with Ivan, who handles a crisis at work and a crisis at home simultaneously, all on the phone. Roll credits.

While it may sound boring as hell, please give it a chance, because Tom Hardy – and probably only Tom Hardy – has the natural charisma and bone-deep talent to keep every second of the film riveting.

Lucky Knight’s such a fine writer. Having penned the Cronenberg masterpiece Eastern Promises as well as Stephen Frears’s darkly winning Dirty Pretty Things, Knight’s proven to be a nimble storyteller. Locke offers none of the sinister, international dread that saturates those other efforts. Rather, like the driver of the car himself, we are trapped and yet propelled forward in a story confined to the immediate decisions and potentially disastrous effects spilling at the second.

It doesn’t just give Locke a powerful sense of immediacy. The simplicity of conversation and traffic and moments of silence between calls offer an undiluted image of action and consequence situated in such a familiar setting that it can’t help but feel universal.

Ever the chameleon, always an actor who leaves himself behind and utterly inhabits a character, Hardy’s performance here is nothing short of an education. He reveals more with less than any performer you’ll see this year.

He feeds off the talent of the ensemble – all vocal talent only – and it’s truly like nothing else onscreen. He establishes a character, authentic and whole, and though you are ostensibly trapped with him as he grapples with the collapse of his painstakingly crafted life, you cannot look away.

I can imagine no better antidote to a summer of monsters, mutants, super-this and exploding-that than a film so simple and powerful as Locke.

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars