Texas Two-Step For Your Queue

It’s new release Tuesday, and we recommend something pulpy for your queue. Start off with the newly available Cold in July from filmmakers to watch Jim Mickle and Nick Damici. With three outstanding performances – Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and especially Don Johnson – they weave a lurid Southern tale of the elusive honor in masculinity.

You couldn’t go wrong by pairing this with either of the filmmakers’ prior efforts, both horror: We Are What We Are or Stake Land. But if this puts you in the mood for something else a little pulpy and a lot Texan, may we recommend Blood Simple, the genre masterpiece from then-novice filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen? Twisty, surprising and gorgeously filmed, benefitting immeasurably from M. Emmet Walsh’s unforgettable performance, it is a film that predicted genius.

Freaky Twin Stuff

The Skeleton Twins

by Hope Madden

I once trapped myself down my vacationing neighbors’ basement, having let myself in to snoop around and then snagging my hair inside a piece of exercise equipment. The other neighborhood rugrats who’d accompanied me on this B&E left me there to die. But my twin sister marched next door to our dad and said, “Come with me. Bring your tools.”

Why? Because twins have each other’s backs. We have no choice.

That nugget of wisdom and others – like the healing power of Halloween costumes and terrible 80s pop songs – fuel the surprisingly intimate and articulate indie flick The Skeleton Twins.

Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader co-star as estranged twins reunited under tough circumstances. Their strained relationship slowly, sloppily warms as they remember how uniquely and irreversibly bound they are to each other.

The premise has overwrought family dramedy written all over it, and in the wrong hands it could have been August: Osage County or even This Is Where I Leave You. But there’s nothing profound or obvious about Skeleton Twins. It unveils its damage as necessary, tidies up nothing, explains little – so basically, it looks just like family.

This must be partly credited to the writing team of Mark Heyman (Black Swan) and Craig Johnson (who also directs). They refuse to bold face the problems or solutions, preferring instead a more lived-in and recognizable world where pain and emotional need aren’t chalked immediately up to one cause or remedied with one solution. And they don’t judge, which is important because I don’t think these people could withstand that. They’re much too hard on themselves to begin with.

Mainly, though, the success of Skeleton Twins is owed to its leads. Kristin Wiig channels some of the same woebegone tone she used to create her first memorable dramatic character in this year’s Hateship Loveship. Her battle with self-loathing is quietly complicated and deftly crafted.

Bill Hader, though, is the reason to see the film. His turn is filled with vulnerability, humor and wisdom. He gives the human experience of the film its pulse.

Predictably, he and Wiig share obvious chemistry and a great rapport. Luke Wilson’s earnest good guy is the perfect, heartbreakingly goofy offset to the cynical twosome.

There are a lot of laughs here, but the emotion is dark and usually honest. This season will bring us grand strokes of drama aimed at nabbing Oscar, but right this minute, be glad for the intimate little treasures like The Skeleton Twins.

And stay out of your neighbor’s basement.


Fright Club Friday: Dumplings

Dumplings (2004)

A great deal different than the typical supernatural Asian horror film, Fruit Chan’s Dumplings satirizes the global obsession with youth and beauty in taboo-shattering ways.

Gorgeous if off-putting Aunt Mei (Bai Ling) balances her time between performing black market medical functions and selling youth-rejuvenating dumplings. She’s found a customer for the dumplings in Mrs. Li (Miriam Yeung ChinWah), the discarded wife of a wealthy man.

With darkest humor and sharp insight, Chan situates the horror in a specifically Chinese history, but skewers a youth obsessed culture that circles the globe.

The secret ingredient is Bai Ling, whose performance is a sly work of genius. There are layers to this character that are only slowly revealed, but Ling clearly knows them inside and out, hinting at them all the while and flatly surprised at all Mrs. Li (and you and everyone else) hasn’t guessed.

Gross and intimate, uncomfortable and wise, mean, well acted and really nicely photographed, Dumplings will likely not be for everyone, but it’s certainly a change of pace from ordinary fare.


Stylish Vengeance


The Equalizer

by George Wolf

The title The Equalizer probably should have been used in a late 80s Schwarzenegger flick, with a catch phrase like “You plus me equals..dead!”  Instead, it was a late 80s guilty pleasure TV series, with Brit Edward Woodward starring as an ex-covert op specialist helping those with nowhere else to turn.

Actually, the big screen version may remind you more of Taken, with Denzel Washington as the new hero with a particular set of skills. No offense to Liam Neeson’s ass-kicking resume, but if Liam is bad then Denzel is superbad, and he and director Antoine Fuqua make The Equalizer a ton of fun.

Be aware, though, it’s plenty violent, as gentle hardware store employee Robert McCall (Denzel) awakens his mysterious past after befriending a young hooker (Chloe Grace Moretz, redeeming herself well after the If I Stay disaster). When she’s badly beaten, Robert takes very bloody revenge, and that doesn’t sit well with the Russian mob controlling the prostitution ring.

Washington and Fuqua again prove a formidable team. But while their Training Day was infused with a gritty mean streak that story deserved, The Equalizer‘s violence is all about style, with Fuqua using slow motion techniques and flashy panning shots to offset the brutality.

Denzel is equally effective bringing some humanity to his role as vigilante. McCall is picky and meticulous in his personal life, with a caring interest in his coworkers. Yes, there’s some cheesy humor and a few clunky metaphors (a chess game, reading The Old Man and the Sea) but Denzel absolutely sells it. Did we really think he wouldn’t?

Though the film is a tad long at 131 minutes, Fuqua’s pacing is on the money. He knows how to build palpable tension before an oncoming beat down, and he knows when it’s more effective to skip the fight altogether, letting a single “after” shot (bloody eyeglasses) do the talking.

It can’t go unmentioned that intended or not, cliched moments in The Equalizer gain more heft from memories of recent news headlines. What might have otherwise fallen a bit flat ends up reinforcing the entire theme of justice for the common folk.

The ending certainly leaves the door open for sequels, and as long as the Denzel/Fuqua team is intact, I’m in.




What’s In the Box?

The Boxtrolls

by Christie Robb

If you’re looking for a quick Halloween costume for your kid and don’t have any skills, fling ‘em in the car and go see the Boxtrolls immediately. Even if you’ve achieved the Martha Stewart merit badge for craftiness, buckle them in the booster seat. This movie is adorable.

The town of Cheesebridge comes to life after curfew. The Boxtrolls, a group of cavorting wee beasties who wear boxes like turtle shells, roam the streets in search of mechanical doodads to drag back to their underground lair. These guys upsycle trash into musical instruments and fantastical inventions.

But they have a bad rep—accused of binging on babies, they are rounded up by a red-hatted crew whose leader, Archibald Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kingsley), hopes to be promoted to a white hat once he captures the last of the trolls.

The trolls are harboring a small boy they’ve dressed in an egg carton (Isaac Hempstead Wright). Raised to think he’s a troll, Eggs realizes he’s a boy when confronted by the daughter of the city’s big cheese and head white hat Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris). Together Eggs and Winnifred (Elle Fanning) quest to discover Eggs’s true identity and prove to the townsfolk who the real bad guys are.

The stop-motion animation from the creators of Coraline and ParaNorman is glorious and filled with bug-eating gross out humor and pratfalls that will delight the younger members of the audience. But there are enough cheese-based puns and ruminations on the nature of good and evil to please the adults.

Certain scenes might be a bit too scary for the very small.



Gritty Aussie Imports For Your Queue

Aussie filmmaker David Michod proves his mettle with his second effort, The Rover, releasing today for home viewing. A spare, brutal, deliberately paced dystopian adventure, the film marks another in a string of fine performances from Guy Pearce, and more interestingly, a worthwhile turn from Robert Pattinson. Michod knows how to get under your skin, how to make the desolate landscape work, and apparently, how to draw strong performances.

An excellent pairing would be Michod’s phenomenal first effort, Animal Kingdom. This 2010 export follows a newly orphaned teen welcomed into his estranged grandmother’s criminal family. Unsettlingly naturalistic, boasting exceptional performances all around – including the Oscar nominated Jacki Weaver – and impeccably written, it’s a gem worth seeking.


The Kevin Smith Movie, Evolved


by Hope Madden

In 2010, I had the chance to interview writer/director Kevin Smith. The proposed subject was Smith’s SModcasts – comic podcasts co-hosted by Smith and his buddy Scott Mosier – but I had other ideas. I knew Smith, a filmmaker most known for his juvenile comedies, was putting the finishing touches on his first horror film, Red State, and I was giddy to find out more about that.

Smith told me, “For years I’ve called myself a filmmaker, but it’s not really true. Really I just make Kevin Smith Movies. I’m at that stage where I could make a Kevin Smith Movie with my eyes closed. Let me see if I can make another movie.”

Too few people saw Red State, a flawed but fascinating film that boasted an absolutely mesmerizing performance by Tarantino favorite Michael Parks, but Smith knew he had something great in this actor. Wisely, when the filmmaker returned to horror with this year’s Tusk, he did so with Parks in tow.

Though Tusk is a surreal, utterly bizarre horror comedy, it is without question Smith’s most personal work as a filmmaker. The film follows a podcaster (Justin Long) who travels to an isolated cabin in Canada to record conversations with a recluse (Parks). The podcaster hopes to bring a good story of a weirdo back for the next show, but this story proves a little too weird.

The basic idea, in fact, comes from one of Smith’s actual SModcasts. He found online a letter from a man seeking a lodger, and he and Mosier read it aloud and mocked the man and giggled – the general MO for the show. But somewhere in all that, Smith found the story of man losing his humanity.

Yes, Tusk is a comic riff on The Human Centipede. It’s also an insightful kind of stress dream, so close to home for Smith that, even with all its utter ludicrousness, it feels almost confessional.

Once again, the greatest strength in the film is a hypnotic performance by Parks as the old seafarer with nefarious motives. He’s magnificent, and Long’s work is strongest when the two share the screen.

Smith’s tone shifts wildly from absurd comedy to real terror, but given the film’s insane premise, the approach works because nothing is ever what you expect. Like Johnny Depp as a French Canadian Inspector Clouseau.

There is no film quite like Tusk, certainly not in Smith’s arsenal, which, I suppose, means this is not a Kevin Smith Movie. And yet, there’s more Smith in this film than in anything else he’s made.


Countdown to Celebrate Leonard Cohen’s 80th

Do you remember the 21st night of September? Earth, Wind and Fire obviously can. So can we – George turned 50! And he wasn’t the only one blowing out candles (though he was definitely the cutest one). Bill Murray turned 64, Stephen King turned 67, and the great Leonard Cohen turned 80.

To celebrate these milestones, we decided to listen to some Cohen, who can fill any number of soundtracks. From Natural Born Killers to Shrek and dozens more, you’ve undoubtedly heard more Cohen in the movie theater than you ever have on the radio. Given the melancholy beauty of his work, it’s hardly surprising that filmmakers routinely turn to Cohen’s distinctive sound to provide ambiance, atmosphere, and often even an aid to characterization.


McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

Robert Altman’s foray into Westerns produced the beautifully off-kilter McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a tale of love, progress, naiveté, opium, and snow. In creating the most human Western until Eastwood’s Unforgiven, Altman used haunting songs by Cohen to mirror the film’s melancholic poetry. Cohen gave the director permission for several songs from his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, because he’d been a fan of Altman’s earlier film, Brewster McCloud, but the songwriter didn’t at first care for McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Cohen’s first reaction notwithstanding, the music, Vilmos Zsigmond’s glorious photography, and the stellar performances from what would become the Altman stock company of actors came together to create an entirely unexpected genre film.

Quote: If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn/They will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem


Secretary (2002)

Steven Shainberg’s charmingly subversive, sadomasochistic romance picture boasts, above all, a single, perfect performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal. Every other remarkable element – darkly clever script, strong casting, crisp visuals, and excellent soundtrack including the Cohen track “I’m Your Man” – takes a backseat to the role that made audiences wake up to the presence of this winsome-yet-naughty actress. The film – which manages to be diabolically humorous, emphatically politically incorrect, and yet entirely appealing – benefits in one quick scene from Cohen’s ability to capture all the same energies in lyrical form.

Quote: If you want a lover, I’ll do anything you ask me to/And if you want another kind of love I’ll wear a mask for you


Shrek (2001)

I’m not a huge fan of any entry in the Shrek franchise, but the first film gets big props for taking one of animation’s more bizarrely profound turns when mirroring the big ogre’s existential turmoil with the world’s most perfect piece of pop poetry, Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. The film used John Cale’s mournful version (which is also features on the Basquiat soundtrack), while the soundtrack made Rufus Wainwright’s take popular. Whichever the version, including the song gives Shrek the appearance of depth and edginess unexplored in any Disney film.

Quote: And even though it all went wrong/I’ll stand before the Lord of Song/With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah


Natural Born Killers (1994)

Natural Born Killers is a kind of psychedelic reimagining of Terrence Malick’s Badlands. The film boasts just glimpses of the brutal, clever, verbal script only Quentin Tarantino can produce, primarily because his screenplay was rewritten and, unfortunately, directed by master of cinematic hyperbole, Oliver Stone. Though the product is an over-the-top, trippy but captivating mess lacking the raw energy of anything Tarantino would go on to direct, it’s not entirely without appeal. Mashing together amped-up ideas from Bonnie and Clyde to Morton Downey, Jr. to some of the most magnificently brutal films in Hollywood’s closet, this picture certainly nails its tone. Just a little assistance in this venture comes from Cohen’s pessimistic premonition “The Future”.

Quote: When they said repent, repent/I wonder what they meant


Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man (2005)

Given the volume of Cohen’s work sprinkled across films, it seems fitting to fill the screen and the theater with an entire picture dedicated to his work, as Lian Lunson has done with her documentary. Leonard Cohen emerges from his tower of song to share thoughts about poetry and stories about those elements that informed and propelled him. All the while some his most talented and devoted followers – whether it’s Rufus Wainwright’s playful cynicism with “Everybody Knows” or Antony Hegarty’s earnest energy with “If It Be Your Will” – treat us to his songs like prayers to something other than God.

Quote: But you’ll be hearing from me baby, long after I’m gone/I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the tower of song



Fright Club Friday: Red State

Red State (2011)

I actually got to talk to Kevin Smith about a year before Red State was released. Our official topic was his Smodcasts, but given my particular weakness for genre filmmaking, I veered the questions toward his forthcoming entrance into horror.

He told me: “For years I’ve called myself a filmmaker, but it’s not really true. Really I just make Kevin Smith movies. I’m at that stage where I could make a Kevin Smith Movie with my eyes closed. Let me see if I can make another movie.”

That other movie was Red State – an underrated gem. Deceptively straightforward, Smith’s tale of a small, violently devout cult taken to using the internet to trap “homos and fornicators” for ritualistic murder cuts deeper than you might expect. Not simply satisfied with liberal finger wagging, Smith’s film leaves no character burdened by innocence.

The usually stellar Melissa Leo chews more scenery than need be as a devoted apostle, but pastor Abin Cooper spellbinds as delivered to us by Tarantino favorite Michael Parks. Never a false note, never a clichéd moment, Parks’s award-worthy performance fuels the entire picture.

There’s enough creepiness involved to call this a horror film, but truth be told, by about the midway point it turns to corrupt government action flick, with slightly lesser results. Still, the dialogue is surprisingly smart, and the cast brims with rock solid character actors, including John Goodman, Stephen Root, and Kevin Pollak.

Smith said at the time: “I think we have something. It’s creepy and very finger-on-the-pulse and very much about America.”


Save it for When You’re Sick

This Is Where I Leave You

by Christie Robb

You’ve probably seen it before: a broken man forced by circumstance to return to his family home and reconnect with the life he had before, somehow, it all went awry. But you probably haven’t seen it with such enormous fake tits.

This Is Where I Leave You is as familiar and unchallenging as a bowl of chicken soup. Shawn Levy’s adaptation of the book by Jonathan Tropper places the spotlight on Jason Bateman’s Judd, a sad-sack who actually sits down for a breath and watches while his boss bones his wife on their marital bed. While couch surfing and growing out his obligatory beard of depression, he receives a phone call from his sister (Tina Fey) informing him that his father has died. His last request: that the kids sit shiva together for a week.

The family gathers with attendant significant others and kidlets and are encouraged by their oversharing, breast-enhanced mom (Jane Fonda), to let it all hang out and really get into the grief.

Like the bowl of chicken soup, you know exactly what you are going to get when you start. Family brawls. Run-ins with old loves. Finding dad’s secret stash of weed… You can ease into a nap worry-free. You’ll be able to figure out what happened before you dig the sleep crusties out of your eye creases.

The ensemble cast works to provide a little spice to an otherwise bland dramedy. Adam Driver (Girls) is great as the black sheep baby of the family and steals every scene that he’s in with a manic, fresh delivery and moments of puppy dog eyed sincerity. His interactions with the rabbi (Ben Schwartz from Parks and Recreation) who cannot shake his childhood nickname, Boner, are particularly delightful.  But the talent mostly drowns in the soppy sentimentality and same-ness of it all.

I’m not saying the flick isn’t worth seeing. Just watch it at home nestled in a blanket, coughing out a lung  with a bottle of NyQuil at your side.