Soul Power


Get On Up

by George Wolf


As a broke college student at Ohio State in 1985, I saved my pennies and stood in a line halfway down High St. to see Mr. Dynamite live at the Newport Music Hall.

My first cellphone ringtone was “Sex Machine.”

The point is, I love me some James Brown, and I really liked Get On Up.

It’s a bit of a relief, because with director Tate Taylor at the helm, I feared Brown’s story would get the same clichéd, soccer-mom-feel-good treatment Taylor gave The Help. Instead, buoyed by a meaty script from veteran writers Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow/Fair Game) he takes some chances that pay dividends.

Get On Up breaks the “fourth wall” early and often, as Brown (Chadwick Boseman) looks the audience in the eye and reminds everyone how big a musical influence he remains to this day. This ignites a swagger that anchors the entire film, which, considering the subject, is the absolutely perfect vibe.

It ain’t braggin’ if you back it up, and Brown, warts and all, was one of the most important musical and cultural figures of the 20th century.

Taylor shows us Brown’s rags to riches story – from growing up in a Georgia brothel to easing tensions after Martin Luther King’s assassination – in scattershot fashion, dropping in on different periods without regard to chronology. Not only does this offer a stylistic alternative to similar films such Walk the Line and Ray, but it presents Brown as a sum of equal parts while also ensuring that any overt sentimentality is never given time to add weight.

Boseman is flat-out terrific, serving notice that his fine performance as Jackie Robinson in 42 was just a warm-up act. Boseman has Brown’s speaking voice, cocksure attitude and his incredible moves down cold, combining them all for a portrayal full of an electric charisma.

Anyone who remembers Eddie Murphy’s classic “James Brown Celebrity Hot Tub” from SNL knows how easily a Brown impersonation could slip into parody, but Boseman avoids any hint of it. His is a completely authentic performance that needs to be remembered in the coming award season.

From the early “chitlin circuit” tours, to the Apollo Theater to the legendary T.A.M.I. show, Taylor frames the live performance sequences with the cracking, cold sweat-inducing urgency that music this great demands. Kudos, too, to the sound editing department, frequently mixing Brown’s original vocal tracks into new arrangements, enabling wonderfully seamless film recreations.

Okay, so Brown’s personal demons could have been given more gravity, and there are a few biopic crutches (soul- searching in a dressing room mirror, for instance), but Taylor and the Butterworth boys score with the humanity they bring to two profound relationships in Brown’s life:  his longtime friend Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) and his mother Susie (Viola Davis).

There’s true poignancy to the moments that find Susie, after a long absence, visiting her triumphant son backstage. It’s the film’s non-musical highlight, and yet another reminder of how little screen time Davis needs to be unforgettable.The same can be said for Brown’s music, and while this film will certainly thrill the fans, it’s good enough to win him plenty of new ones.

Get on up?

It’s pretty damn hard not to.




Summer SciFi Hits Keep On Coming

Guardians of the Galaxy

by Hope Madden

As a rule, August – like January – is the month studios sweep out their bin of movies that weren’t quite good enough to make the prime time cut. Usually we can expect little more than dregs until mid-autumn, when both holiday and awards season begins in earnest and studios once again proudly populate cinemas.

And yet, in what has been the summer of SciFi, James Gunn elevates our August with one of the most entertaining films of 2014, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.

An uneasy bond connects five interstellar losers, each needing another to 1) avenge, 2) cash in, 3) survive, and 4) save the galaxy. It has to do with an orb, is all very cosmic bounty hunter-y, and includes a raccoon that sounds remarkably like 2011’s Sexiest Man Alive.

Right there – casting Bradley Cooper as the raccoon – Gunn zigs when you expect him to zag. Cooper excels as the very angry varmint, joining an entirely inspired cast.

Chris Pratt, who beefcaked up a bit for the gig, shoulders the leading role in his second relentlessly enjoyable film this year, after January’s joyous The Lego Movie, here playing the American intergalactic scavenger and adventurer, and lover of easy listening jams.

Pratt’s endearing combination of humility and confidence charms, and with a casual goofiness he elevates every line of the admittedly clever dialog, all of it brimming with crisp pop culture humor made funnier by the context (in that no one but Pratt’s Peter Quill could possibly get the earth references). He makes a hero of Kevin Bacon in his dramatic retelling of Footloose, which only gets funnier from Zoe Saldana’s callback in the final act.

Saldana joins WWE’s Dave Bautista and the voice of Vin Diesel (as a tree) to fill out Peter Quill’s band of misfits, and together the crew offers endless amounts of ruffian charm.

As important, all evil doers – from Lee Pace’s zealot Ronan to Benicio del Toro’s creepy Collector to Michael Rooker’s dangerous Yondu – are delightfully diabolical.

Gunn nicely articulates the galaxy and its characters, keeps the humor light, the action quick and the palette colorful.


Countdown: Congrats, it’s Twins!

This weekend marks the Twinsburg, OH twin festival. We have a particular weakness for the idea of this festival, and for films about twins, likely because Hope is a twin and her sister is bat-shit insane. She’s a vicious, hard-hearted killer. Wherever she goes, carnage follows.

We’re lying. She’s a lovely person, as are George’s twin sisters (see the unfortunate haircut pic below).










We’ve noticed that a lot of onscreen twins are not so nice, though. Here are some of our favorites.

Dead Ringers (1988)

The film is about separation anxiety, with the effortlessly melancholy Jeremy Irons playing a set of gynecologist twins on a downward spiral. Director David Cronenberg doesn’t consider this a horror film at all. Truth is, because the twin brothers facing emotional and mental collapse are gynecologists, Cronenberg is wrong. Because of patient vulnerability, doctors who lose it are always scary, and Dead Ringers exploits that discomfort brilliantly. Irons brings such flair and, eventually, childlike charm to his performance you feel almost grateful. The film’s pace is slow and its horror subtle, but the uncomfortable moments are peculiarly, artfully Cronenberg.

Twin Falls Idaho (1999)

This is a lovely, haunting film clearly informed by Cronenberg’s twin flick, but the result is both slyer and more vulnerable. Written by, directed by and starring twin brothers Mark and Michael Polish, the film settles into a rundown motel where conjoined brothers seek their estranged mother, befriend a prostitute, attend a Halloween party, and separate to contend with the lonesome reality of individuality. It’s a hypnotic, weird but lovely ride.

The Other (1972)

Director Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird) is a master of slow reveal, feeding us information as we need it and pulling no punches in the meantime. It’s rural 1930s, and Ada (Uta Hagen), the sturdy German matriarch who’s been trying to run the farm since her son’s death last summer, is troubled. Sweet Niles seems terribly confused about his twin, Holland. Holland’s the rascal and Niles is always worried about his mischief getting them into trouble. So, Ada worries about Niles, Niles keeps himself busy around the farm, and bodies pile up like lumber. Mulligan twists to that same nostalgic, heartland approach he used so beautifully with Mockingbird to inform a stunningly crafted, understated film that sneaks up on you.

Basket Case (1982)

When super wholesome teen Duane moves into a cheap and dangerous NY flophouse, it’s easy to become anxious for him. But that’s not laundry in his basket, and it’s the lowlifes, thugs, and derelicts in his building who are in real jeopardy. Belial is in the basket. He’s Duane’s formerly conjoined twin. What he really is, of course, is Duane’s id – his Hyde, his Hulk, his Danny DeVito. And together the brothers tear a bloody, vengeful rip in the fabric of family life.

Stuck On You (2003)

Not all twin films are dark, brooding or horrifying. Stuck on You, for instance, follows a pair of amazingly well adjusted conjoined twins – optimistic ladies’ man Walt (Greg Kinnear) and supportive wallflower Bob (Matt Damon) – who decide to move to LA to follow Walt’s dream of acting. Expect Farrelly brother silliness, a good heart, fun cameos, and excellent onscreen chemistry from the twins.

Masters and Servants


Venus in Fur

by George Wolf


A director as accomplished as Roman Polanski doesn’t put anything on film by accident. His latest, Venus in Fur (La Vénus à la fourrure), is an intimate drama with just two, very deliberate cast members.

One is Polanski’s wife, and the other is a dead ringer for the director himself at a younger age, a combination which adds an eyebrow-raising layer of intrigue to what transpires on this psychosexual battlefield.

Polanski also co-wrote this adaptation of David Ives’s Tony award-winning play, which is set entirely within an empty theatre. Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) has finished auditions for a play he’s directing and is about to head home when Vanda (Emannuelle Seigner) appears, begging for a chance to show Thomas that she’s perfect for the lead role in his stage production of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel Venus in Furs.

And the play-within-the-play begins, as the brash, uncultured, seemingly unprepared Vanda dazzles Thomas with an uncanny understanding of the material and how best to present it onstage. The two read deeper and deeper into the script, as the line separating fact and fiction gets blurry and the balance of power between them begins to change.

Both performances are exceptional. Seigner gives her long career a new high water mark, effortlessly moving Vanda in and out of character, casting equal spells on Thomas, and on us. Amalric makes Thomas’s journey to subjugation a gradual, satisfying surrender, as he tries to keep up with Vanda in her brilliantly executed game of wits.

As with his Death and the Maiden and more recently, Carnage, Polanski seems to relish digging into these stories of psychological warfare. His touch again is masterful, keeping it light in the early going, and then twisting the screws with clinical camerawork that reflects the growing intensity.

What already was a devious essay on human nature takes on an even greater heft with Polanski at the helm. Lines such as “Maybe she wanted to be corrupted!” stop the wicked humor in its tracks, as you ponder the personal statement that may be at work here.

Is the director a master or servant? Which director exactly? Is this a feminist decree or merely a flimsy, perverse attempt to make “S&M porn” seem empowering?

Those are just some of the levels on which Venus in Fur succeeds. It’s an enthralling, almost dizzying spectacle.





Fright Club Fridays: The Orphanage

The Orphanage (2007)

Some of the world’s best horror output comes from distant lands – like this gem from Spain.

Laura (Belén Rueda) and her husband reopen the orphanage where she grew up, with the goal of running a house for children with special needs – children like her adopted son Simón, who is HIV positive. But Simón’s new imaginary friends worry Laura, and when he disappears it looks like she may be imagining things herself.

This looks like a well worn tale at first glance: Is the distraught mother losing her mind, as those around her assume, or is something supernatural afoot? But it’s director Juan Antonio Bayona’s understated approach, along with Rueda’s measured performance and Óscar Faura’s superb cinematography, that buoy the film above the ordinary ghost story.

A scary movie can be elevated beyond measure by a masterful score and an artful camera. Because Bayona keeps the score and all ambient noise to a minimum, allowing the quiet to fill the scenes, he develops a truly haunting atmosphere. Faura captures the eerie beauty of the stately orphanage, but does it in a way that always suggests someone is watching. The effect is never heavy handed, but effortlessly eerie.

The Orphanage treads familiar ground, employing such iconic genre images as the lighthouse, scary dolls, scarecrows, a misshapen child – not to mention the many and varied things that go bump in the night – but it does so with an unusual integrity. Creepy images from early in the film are effectively replayed in the third act to punctuate the very real sense of dread Bayona creates throughout the film. While most of the horror is built with slow, spectral dread, there are a couple of outright shocks to keep the audience guessing.

One of the film’s great successes is its ability to take seriously both the logical, real world story line, and the supernatural one.

Screenwriter Sergio Sánchez doesn’t shortchange his characters or the audience by dismissing Laura’s anguished state of mind, or by neglecting the shadowy side of his tale. The Orphanage is reminiscent of producer Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, as well as The Others, and even of the classic The Innocents.

The Orphanage has more than the unsettling spectral images of children in common with these films; it boasts a sustaining, powerful female performance. Rueda carries the film with a restrained urgency – hysterical only when necessary, focused at all times, and absolutely committed to this character, who may or may not be seeing ghosts. The realism and tenderness in her performance help one overlook flaws in the film’s storyline.

Examine it too closely and the backstory starts to crumble before you, but all is forgiven because of the final payoff – an ending that suits the characters, is faithful to the truth of the ghosts as Laura sees them, does justice to the exquisite atmosphere created in the film, and never feels inauthentic or obvious.

A good ghost story is hard to find. Apparently you have to look in Spain.

She’s a Brainiac..Brainiac!



by George Wolf


Nearly ten years ago, Wedding Crashers taught us the best response to “people use only ten percent of our brains” is…”I think we use only ten percent of our hearts.”

Still, writer/director Luc Besson bases his new film Lucy on that old urban legend, and what might happen if someone could suddenly flex four, five or even ten times more grey matter muscle.

A ridiculous premise doesn’t have to sink a film, and this one actually gets off to a solid start as Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) unwillingly becomes a drug mule for ruthless Korean kingpin Mr. Jang (the always fascinating Min-sik Choi).

Jang’s henchman surgically stash a bag of his new product into Lucy’s abdomen, but the pouch breaks when she suffers a beating. In just minutes, the drug settles into Lucy’s bloodstream and begins opening countless new cognitive horizons.

It doesn’t take long to realize how much better this film is because of Johansson. She provides the terror-filled vulnerability to make us care about her character early on, then projects the right amount of wonder and determination as Lucy seeks out a famed brain researcher (Morgan Freeman, straight from Transcendence) to assist in her transformation.

Besson gets busy from the outset, as quick cuts and frenetic action are interspersed with scenes of animals in the wild, reinforcing the changing roles we see between hunter and prey. While not exactly subtle, it is stylish, and downright abstract compared to what Besson brings to the film’s second act.

As his characters begin to lament how we’ve all become more concerned with “having than being,” Besson shamelessly parrots Malick’s Tree of Life and Kubrick’s 2001, apparently believing the film to be an equally eloquent statement on mankind’s past, purpose, and future.

It isn’t, but with about 50 percent less pretension, Lucy could have been a fun guilty pleasure.




Thumb Worthy

Life Itself

by Hope Madden

Whether you loved him or hated him, Roger Ebert was a massive cultural influence – particularly if you happen to be a film critic.

Arguably the most influential movie reviewer of all time, Ebert was also a far more unique and fascinating character than casual readers/viewers might realize. Life Itself, Steve James’s revelatory new documentary, unveils the highly complicated personality behind all those opinions.

Life Itself nearly bursts with intimacy and detail, embracing Ebert’s bawdy youth and epic ego as openly as his medical treatments and serene end. The minutia of Ebert’s life is a surprising thrill to take in, though James feels no compulsion to pretty it up. He asks an old friend at one point whether, deep down, Ebert was really a nice guy.

Yes, he says. But not that nice.

The sparring with his reluctant TV partner Gene Siskel, often taken directly from TV outtakes, is utterly hilarious, but James mines it for more than laughs. We are reminded that Ebert was a populist film critic before there was such a thing, and while we relive some of the highlights of the Pulitzer Prize winner’s eloquence, we also revisit some of his more questionable assessments, (as when he gave Full Metal Jacket a thumbs down, but pointed that digit skyward for Benji the Hunted).

James notes, sometimes hilariously and with absolutely no sugar coat, that Siskel & Ebert’s program was often derided by fellow reviewers as not being film criticism at all – at which time Ebert routinely pointed to his Pulitzer. By taking film criticism to the public, the show had more influence on ticket buying, film production, and the changing paradigm of the medium of film criticism than anyone could have predicted.

James spends a great deal of time with Ebert and his wife Chaz in the hospital during the last couple stays before Ebert’s death, detailing the medical treatments and witnessing more of the drive that motivated this prolific writer his whole life. More importantly, through these visits, as well as emails and excerpts from Ebert’s autobiography, James makes clear that he is not laying his subject naked before us, but that Ebert himself is the willing object of our scrutiny through this film – an act that takes on much power when you consider what the man did for a living.

With James, we wind and careen through Ebert’s personal and professional life and legacy, but the film never loses focus. It touches all the bases, and in the end not only offers a moving image of a life abundantly and uncommonly lived, but honors Ebert’s most enduring, most identifiable, and most tenacious attribute: his voice.



It Doesn’t Go So Well

And So It Goes

by Hope Madden

Michael Douglas turns 70 this year, and though, in younger years, he carved out some memorable characters, in his final lap he’s really found his niche. No longer dependent on the vain smolder of his unreasonably popular 90s output, the battle-tested pro has settled into a groove playing elderly scoundrels. And So It Goes offers him another opportunity, this time with Oren Little, widowed misanthrope.

Oren falls for lounge singing sweetheart Leah (Diane Keaton), but his abrasive personality and a mind-numbing series of contrivances stand in the way of true love.

Though Keaton simply recycles the same character she’s played with minor variations since 2003’s Something’s Gotta Give, the banter between these two vets is never less than charming.

But let me ask you something…when was the last time Rob Reiner made a good movie? Admittedly, he directed, bar none, cinema’s greatest mockumentary, as well as two of the best Stephen King adaptations on record. His whole Eighties catalog impresses and entertains.  A Few Good Men doesn’t suck outright.

After that, meh.

Even Douglas and all his geriatric charisma can’t overcome Reiner’s schmaltz or writer Mark Andrus’s insulting screenplay.

In 1997, Andrus wrote As Good As It Gets, a yarn about a curmudgeonly loner whose heart is warmed by a series of humanizing obstacles and the love of a good woman. In 2014 it’s the same story, different obstacles.

Conflict appears and conveniently disappears as soon as it’s served its purpose. One hollow plot device after another springs up to teach lessons and warm hearts, yet keep the two love birds apart. The lazy scripting is almost as offensive as the way the film casually embraces the stereotype that the elderly are racist. Reiner gives Andrus’s lines an eye rolling “oh those racist scamps” kind of spin that’s beneath the characters these actors are trying so valiantly to create.

The whole team is simply cashing in on the new market for old talent, films like Something’s Gotta Give and Best Exotic Marigold Hotel having proven that there is an audience for late life romances. The great thing about that revelation is that it allows talents like Keaton, Douglas and others the opportunity to lead films.

The unfortunate side effect – one felt in any proven cinematic market – is the soulless cash grab.

Like this movie.




Countdown: Supporting Characters that Need Their Own Movie!


They come into our lives quickly, yearning for a state football title that never was, yelling “put that coffee down,” or jamming to Sister Christian on an awesome mix tape.

Then they’re gone..but never forgotten.

Here are ten supporting characters we’d love to see come back and take the lead:


Megan (Melissa McCarthy), Bridesmaids

Yes, please. Melissa McCarthy crafted a fully realized person with Megan, someone we kind of recognized, someone we’d like to see in almost any situation.

Carl Spackler (Bill Murray), Caddyshack

Drop us into Carl Spackler’s life at any point at all, and just leave us there for a couple hours. That’s really all we ask.

Blake (Alec Baldwin), Glengarry Glen Ross

We must have more! Alec Baldwin seared right through the celluloid with his one big speech, leaving us wanting more from this ball buster.

Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence), American Hustle

Jennifer Lawrence so fully developed this relatively minor character that we were mesmerized, and we want to see more. Maybe show us her courtship with Irving, maybe take us to her new life with mafioso Pete. Hell, just leave us at home with Rosalyn, her son and her “science oven” – that would probably be entertaining enough.

Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), Barton Fink

Few filmmakers can pack a screenplay with more fascinating supporting characters than the Coens, and John Goodman’s had the great fortune of playing many of them. Walter? He could get a movie. Roland Turner, junky bluesman from Inside Llewyn Davis could probably shoulder a full film. But Goodman’s most mysterious and complex performance came as Barton Fink‘s unusual neighbor Charlie Meadows, and we’d like to know what made him tick.

Rahad Jackson (Alfred Molina), Boogie Nights

Indeed, almost every character in Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant Boogie Nights could hold our attention in a film of their own, but it’s Rahad Jackson, Night Ranger lover, who really piqued our interest.

Margie Hendricks (Regina King), Ray

Certainly Hendricks, longtime backup singer and secret girlfriend to Ray Charles, led a life fascinating enough to merit a film, but it was Regina King’s performance in Ray as the saucy, troubled chanteuse that compels her inclusion on this list. King ranks among the most underappreciated and versatile talents working today, but her turn in this biopic is her best.

Uncle Rico (John Gries), Napoleon Dynamite

What was high school like for Uncle Rico? Why is he living currently in that RV? What will his next business venture bring? Honestly, anything Uncle Rico does would entertain us.

Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe), Wild at Heart

The David Lynch universe is populated by dozens of fascinating characters, including, of course, Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth. But Bobby Peru is the one we just didn’t get quite enough time with. The most exciting item to hit Big Tuna since the ’86 cyclone, Bobby needs a full backstory movie.

Quint (Robert Shaw), Jaws

Here’s a guy who lived a life, workin’ for a livin’ and sharkin‘…right up until a shark ate him. We want to see some of his other adventures. You know, the ones he survived.

Whatever Gets You Thru the Night


The Purge:  Anarchy

by George Wolf


In case anyone didn’t catch last year’s not-so-subtle message in The Purge, writer/director James DeMonaco is back with The Purge:  Anarchy, this time wielding his class warfare sermon like a blunt instrument.

DeMonaco’s original premise – an American society that celebrates a yearly night of complete lawlessness – remains a solid one. And while the first chapter borrowed heavily from from various films (as does Anarchy), it offered enough visual style to offset the lack of nuance in the presentation.

Following the usual playbook for a sequel, it’s more of everything in round two.

The sirens that signal the start of the purge sound quickly, and we focus in on a group of five citizens who are out after dark for very different reasons. A mother and daughter (and ) are being hunted, a young couple ( and )  are on the run after suspicious car trouble, and one lone badass () is armed to the teeth with revenge on his mind.

DeMonaco again demonstrates his flair with a camera, offering several striking images of what the purge hath wrought – a bloody young woman’s desperate gaze or a flaming semi passing quickly in the background. Too often, though, his direction becomes obvious, muting any effect from a sudden scare or even a cloying red herring.

His script is worse, hammering home the plutocracy theme again and again until it is preached via a “bad guy to wounded guy” speech for the benefit of any audience members with a taste for Scooby-Dooings.

That’s not to imply DeMonaco’s grievances aren’t valid, they are, and there might even be a solid film buried in here somewhere, but success of The Purge lingers as a doubled-edge sword.

The path DeMonaco takes for Anarchy may seem the logical one, but it flirts with camp so often you wonder how much better it might have been with an outright satirical approach a la God Bless America.

By the time the morning sun brings this latest purge to a close, what began as a decent B-movie horror show becomes a sad imitation of The Running Man.