Mad World

Mad Max: Fury Road

by Hope Madden

Holy shit.

To say that George Miller has stepped up his game since he left us at Thunderdome would be far too mild a statement to open with. Mad Max: Fury Road is not just superior to everything in this franchise, as well as everything else Miller has ever directed. It’s among the most exhausting, thrilling, visceral action films ever made.

Powerful, villainous white guys have ruined the planet by way of their greed for oil and their warmongering, and now they are sustaining their power by taking control of women’s reproductive systems. So, you know, pretty far-fetched.

But Max doesn’t belong to any of these festering wounds called societies. He’s feral. Again. No telling how long it’s been since Max saved the kids from Aunty Entity, but he’s lost himself again, wandering the desert hunted by man and haunted by those he couldn’t save.

Again Miller puts Max in a position to redeem himself by helping the vulnerable and pure survive this apocalyptic future. Mercifully, there are no children and no mullets this go-round.

Unsurprisingly, the great Tom Hardy delivers a perfect, guttural performance as the road warrior. As his reluctant partner in survival, Charlize Theron is the perfect mix of compassion and badassedness. Hardy’s a fascinating, mysterious presence, but Theron owns this film.

Like the first two films in this series, Fury Road wastes little time on dialogue or plotting. Rather, it is basically one long, magnificent car chase. Miller adorns every scene with the most astonishing, peculiar imagery and the vehicular action is like nothing you’ve ever seen.

Dudes on poles!

Miller’s magnificent action sequences keep the film from ever hitting the dragging monotony of his first two efforts in the series. While the characters remain as paper thin as they have been in every episode, the vast superiority of this cast from top to bottom guarantees that the marauding band’s excess and abandon are handled with genuine skill.

Fury Road amounts to a film about survival, redemption and the power of the universal blood donor. Clever, spare scripting makes room for indulgent set pieces that astonish and amaze. There’s real craftsmanship involved here – in the practical effects, the pacing, the disturbing imagery, and the performances that hold it all together – that marks not just a creative force at the top of his game, but a high water mark for summer blockbusters.

The Pitch is Back

Pitch Perfect 2

by Hope Madden

In 2012, Elizabeth Banks produced a film that was “an inspiration to girls all over the country too ugly to be cheerleaders.” And now it’s time to return to Barton University to get our accompaniment-free groove on in Pitch Perfect 2.

That’s right, pitches.

The Barton Bellas, having survived power struggles, forbidden romance and intimacy issues, have been the reigning collegiate a cappella champs for 3 years. However, an a cappella-tastrophe during a command performance at the Lincoln Center stripped the group of their title, and their only way to get it back is to become the first Americans to win the World Competition.

To do it, they’ll have to beat the Germans. Just like Rocky, but with singing … and comedy that’s intentional.

Banks returns in her role as one half of a bedecked competition commentator duo, opposite the endlessly hilarious John Michael Higgins. While their hysterical banter punctuates the proceedings, Banks also directs this time around. She shows as strong a sense of comic timing behind the camera as she has always shown in front of it, but really impresses when staging the musical numbers.

The game cast returns for seconds, with a dry, self-deprecating Anna Kendrick leading up the singing sisterhood. Rebel Wilson and Adam DeVine are back, ensuring plenty of uncomfortable lunacy, while a stable of fun cameos including David Cross, Jason Jones and Keegan-Michael Key keeps scenes fresh and funny.

I’m no Green Bay Packers fan, but it’s a lot of fun watching Clay Matthews and most of their offensive line sing Bootilicious.

Plenty of bits feel stale, too. As with any sequel, the novelty is gone and certain jokes have more than run their course by now. The storyline is a bit too predictable and tidy, the new characters are not compelling, and now and again Banks returns to a gag once too often.

Still, Kendrick is a solid foundation. She’s a talented comic performer who sings remarkably well, so a good place to build your movie. Kay Cannon’s script balances silliness, raunch and heart quite well, and those folks looking for lots of exceptionally choreographed numbers won’t be disappointed.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

Madding Not Maddening

Far from the Madding Crowd

by George Wolf

Did we need another film adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd? Despite its status as a romantic classic, Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel travels some tedious, predictable ground. The last big screen version followed suit but, to be fair, that was in the late 60s. Can a skillful director, an insightful writer and a sublime cast blow the dust off after nearly five decades?

Um, yes.

It starts at the top, with the effortlessly good Carey Mulligan as independent heroine Bathsheba Everdene, who inherits her uncle’s vast estate in the English countryside. She attracts admirers on both extremes of society, but rebuffs marriage proposals from poor, earnest sheep herder Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) and the village’s most eligible bachelor, wealthy William Boldwood (Michael Sheen).

Bathsheba’s passions are finally stirred by the arrogantly douchy Sgt. Troy (Tom Sturridge) but not long after their impetuous marriage, regret comes calling.

It’s an extremely old fashioned love triangle, pared down considerably by director Thomas Vinterberg and screenwriter David Nicholls. Nicholls has experience adapting classics such as Great Expectations and Tess of the D’Ubervilles, and sharp instincts for cutting fat. The story is leaner, with less chance to bog down in melodrama.

Vinterberg, who helmed the gripping drama The Hunt in 2012, delivers sweeping, gorgeous landscapes befitting such a period piece, and frames his able actors with frequent closeups that never go to waste.

Mulligan gives Bathsheba the layers needed to make her human, and Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone) makes Gabriel’s strong, silent act easy to root for. But it’s Sheen, even with limited screen time, who steals the show, wringing Boldwood’s repressed emotion from every pore.

Whatever the motivation for revisiting this old standard, Far from the Madding Crowd is a testament to sheer talent uplifting the source material. It may not be most memorable present on the table, but these gift wrappers sure make a good impression.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

The Real Birdman

I Am Big Bird

by George Wolf

Sure, Big Bird is a beloved television icon…but is he also a stone cold assassin?

Could be. I Am Big Bird may be the film to finally kill off the cliched moniker of “feel good movie,” as it sets the sweetness bar almost impossibly high. Seriously, of all the feel good movies ever made, this may be the feel-goodiest.

It is the story of Caroll Spinney, the nearly 80 year-old artist and puppeteer who has played Big Bird (as well as Oscar the Grouch) for over 40 years. It is the portrait of a man who not only has come to personify his most famous creation, but whose life has often been woven through American history in an almost Forrest Gump-like fashion.

Funded largely from a kickstarter campaign, the film relies heavily on Spinney’s lifelong habit of recording countless moments in his life. Directors Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker edit thousands of photos and hundreds of hours of home movie footage, mixing them with archival TV clips and first person interviews to uncover the gentle soul inside the 8 foot-tall suit.

John Lennon may have written All is Need is Love, but Spinney seems to have lived it. He loves his job, his audience, his co-workers, and most of all, his equally loving wife Debra. The film just exudes a loving spirit, so much so that you understand the short shrift it gives to any unpleasantness in Spinney’s story. A closer look at his somewhat troubled childhood would have provided more depth, but the film brushes it aside to focus on the positive, much as it seems Spinney has done.

By the time the movie hits you with a goosebump-inducing reunion decades in the making, even the harshest cynic won’t be able to resist all the feels.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lTNfYSYbgN4

 

Fright Club: Zealots

Horror films have long told the story of religious zealots, usually of the Black Mass variety – The Mephisto Waltz (1971), Sheitan (2006), Starry Eyes (2014), Rosemary’s Baby (1968). We decided not to look to the cloaked, horned Satanists and instead, examine religious zealots of a different flavor. Here are our favorites.

5. Red State (2011)

Kevin Smith’s first foray into horror is perhaps his very strongest and least seen film. Red State is 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 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.”

We agree.

4. The Wicker Man (1973)

In the early Seventies, Robin Hardy created a film that fed on the period’s hippie versus straight hysteria.

Uptight Brit constable Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward) flies to the private island Summerisle investigating charges of a missing child. His sleuthing leads him into a pagan world incompatible with his sternly Christian point of view.

The deftly crafted moral ambiguity of the picture keeps the audience off kilter. Surely we aren’t to root for these heathens, with their nudey business right out in the open? But how can we side with the self-righteous prig Howie?

Hardy and his cast have wicked fun with Anthony Shaffer’s sly screenplay, no one more so than the ever glorious Christopher Lee. Oh, that saucy baritone!

The film is hardly a horror movie at all – more of a subversive comedy of sorts – until the final reel or so. Starting with the creepy animal masks (that would become pretty popular in the genre a few decades later), then the parade, and then the finale, things take quite a creepy turn leading to what is still a very powerful climax.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=21gb49H-Uo4

3. Kill List (2011)

Never has the line “thank you” had a weirder effect than in the genre bending adventure Kill List.

Hitman Jay (a volcanic Neil Maskell) is wary to take another job after the botched Kiev assignment, but his bank account is empty and his wife Shel (an also eruptive MyAnna Buring) has become vocally impatient about carrying the financial load. But this new gig proves to be seriously weird.

Without ever losing that gritty, indie sensibility, Ben Wheatley’s fascinating film begins a slide in Act 2 from crime drama toward macabre thriller. You spend the balance of the film’s brisk 95 minutes actively puzzling out clues, ambiguities and oddities. (The often impenetrable accents don’t exactly help with this sleuthing). The “What the hell is happening?” response to a film is rarely this satisfying.

For those looking for blood and guts and bullets, Kill List will only partially satisfy and may bewilder by the end. But audiences seeking a finely crafted, unusual horror film may find themselves saying thank you.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQDPp5hxFZQ

2. Martyrs (2008)

This import plays like three separate films: orphanage ghost story, suburban revenge fantasy, and medical experimentation horror flick. The whole is a brutal tale that is hard to watch, hard to turn away from, and worth the effort.

Mining the heartbreaking loneliness of abandoned, damaged children, the film follows the profound relationship between torture survivor Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi) and the only friend she will ever have, an undeterrably loving Anna (Morjana Alaoui).

Constantly subverting expectations, including those immediately felt for Anna’s love, writer/director Pascal Laugier makes a series of sharp turns, but he throws unforgettable images at you periodically, and your affection for the leads keeps you breathlessly engaged.

The proceedings are tough to stomach, but well-conceived and skillfully executed. It holds some gruesome imagery, and though the climax may not be pleasing, it certainly doesn’t disappoint.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7Qx2dT-lUw

1. Frailty (2001)

Director Bill Paxton stars as a widowed, country dad awakened one night by an angel – or a bright light shining off the angel on top of a trophy on his ramshackle bedroom bookcase. Whichever – he understands now that he and his sons have been called by God to kill demons.

Flash forward and we’re led through the saga of the serial killer God’s Hand by a troubled young man (Matthew McConaughey), who, with eerie quiet and reflection, recounts his childhood with Paxton’s character as a father.

Dread mounts as Paxton drags out the ambiguity of whether this man is insane, and his therefore good hearted but wrong-headed behavior profoundly damaging his boys, or is he really chosen, and his sons likewise marked by God? The film upends everything – repeatedly – until it’s as if it’s challenged your expectations, biases, and your own childhood to boot.

Paxton crafts a morbidly compelling tale free from irony, sarcasm, or judgment and full of darkly sympathetic characters. It’s a surprisingly strong feature directorial debut from a guy who once played a giant talking turd.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=89u-uKDNrfU

Listen to the whole conversation on our FRIGHT CLUB podcast.

So Bad It’s Criminal

Hot Pursuit

by Hope Madden

Remember Election – Alexander Payne’s 1999 movie about high school student body electoral process? Reese Witherspoon was funny. She was also truly funny in Legally Blonde, a film that had no business working at all and yet did, miraculously, because of Witherspoon.

While Sofia Vergara isn’t quite as proven on the big screen, four Emmy nominations suggest she has some comic talent as well. So, if we can’t blame them, why in the world is Hot Pursuit so, so awful?

Better yet, why in the hell did they sign up to do it?

Witherspoon plays Cooper, an uptight cop assigned to transport duty. She needs to get a recently widowed drug lord’s wife to Dallas to testify against her late husband’s boss.

Things go terribly wrong, obviously, and soon Hot Pursuit clarifies itself as a fish out of water buddy cop cliché of a road trip movie.

They have nothing in common, you see. Cooper’s uptight, small, intense, while Vergara’s Daniella is a steaming pile of racial stereotypes. Daniella has big boobs, but Cooper dresses like a boy. How can they ever make it to Dallas?

Anne Fletcher, who also helmed the abysmal road trip cliché The Guilt Trip, outdoes herself with this one. Not one joke lands, not one gag goes over, not a frame of the film feels anything other than stale and beneath the talent involved.

David Feeney and John Quaintance took a break from anemic TV sitcoms to pen this. Dan Fogelman wrote The Guilt Trip, which means that Fletcher intentionally chose two separate, awful road trip movies to bring to the screen. Why? Does she hate us?

Witherspoon and Vergara work hard to keep this thing afloat, and Witherspoon fares a little better because at least her character is not outright offensive. There’s almost chemistry between the two – something that might have translated into a fun onscreen bond if either one of them had a single funny line to deliver. Banter is really too much to hope for.

Verdict-1-0-Star

A Tenacious D

The D Train

by George Wolf

Funny thing about The D Train…it’s not really funny.

In fact, if Jack Black wasn’t the lead, you’d be hard pressed to describe it as a comedy in the first place. It’s awkward, uncomfortable in spots, slightly amusing in others and carries exactly one big laugh out loud moment. But it also has a big heart, an unexpected social conscience, thoughtful writing and fine performances that make it worth a look.

Black stars as Dan, a socially challenged guy in Pittsburgh who keeps inventing nicknames for himself in hopes that one of them will stick. Think George Costanza and his quest to be called T-Bone, but less abrasive.

Dan remains stoic and upbeat, taking his position as chairman of his 20th high school class reunion committee very seriously…even if none of the other members will include him in their after meeting get-togethers. The RSVPs for the reunion are pretty sparse, but then Dan sees old classmate Oliver Lawless (James Marsden) in a TV commercial for sunscreen and has an epiphany.

He’ll come up with a bogus reason for an L.A. business trip, track Oliver down and convince the homegrown Hollywood star to come back for the reunion. With that, attendance will skyrocket and Dan will finally be the BMOC of his dreams!

It will come as no surprise that things don’t quite go as planned. What is surprising is how the film turns away from comedic high jinks to embrace a little introspection in today’s complicated times. Writers Andrew Mogul and Jarrad Paul (Yes Man) also make their directing debut with The D Train, displaying a commendable, if not completely successful ambition to bring a classic genre some fresh perspective.

While they cast the always funny Kathryn Hahn as Dan’s wife Stacey, she is asked to do nothing at all comedic. Talent wasted? Maybe. Or maybe her sympathetic turn is another way the film keeps you guessing and consistently entertained despite the lack of hilarity.

Both Black and Marsden are perfect, crafting a nice chemistry as they gradually give Dan and Oliver some layers of insecurity and misconception that may look pretty familiar.

You won’t be quoting many lines from The D Train at your next party, but you won’t be regretting the trip either.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 

 

Don’t Cry, Sad Clown

Misery Loves Comedy

by Hope Madden

Is every clown really a sad clown? In his debut as a documentarian, actor Kevin Pollak seeks to find the answer to that question by asking it (or variations of it) to 50 or so of the brightest comic minds of the day.

Who? Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Martin Short, Jimmy Fallon, Janeane Garofalo, Judd Apatow and dozens of other stand-up comics and comedic writers and performers. What Pollak wants in return is a glimpse into the shared psyche of the funnyman.

Who were their influences? When did they realize they were funny? What’s it like to bomb onstage? To kill? They’re interesting enough questions and sometimes the answers are fun to watch, but the sheer volume of responses almost requires that the film remain superficial.

His doc would have benefitted had Pollak narrowed down the interviewees, perhaps focusing solely on stand-up comics. We also hear from film directors, sit-com actors and one radio morning show. The breadth only draws attention to the lack of depth.

And yet, there are ways in which the cast feels very narrow. The group is – whether inadvertently or not – pretty white and male. Pollak may simply have raided his own personal phone book, calling in favors from friends for the film, but the result is breathtakingly one sided. He talks with 5 or 6 women, one of whom (Whoopi Goldberg) is not white. He also talks to one male (Kumail Nanjani) who isn’t white.

So, 40+ white guys tell us about the context of being funny. Presumably this is not because of some deeply held belief of Pollak’s, but that doesn’t excuse it. Forget that whatever thesis he may be trying to put forward is irredeemably skewed by this, the fact that anyone could direct a documentary about stand-up comedy without including the point of view of one African American male – no Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Kevin Hart, Dave Chappelle, Tracy Morgan – is astonishing.

Plus, honestly, the film itself is almost never actually funny. He talks to fifty funny people about being funny yet catches almost no comedy on film. What?

In the end the film is dedicated to the memory of Robin Williams, and I’m sure Pollak’s heart was in the right place. It’s just that nothing else was.

Verdict-2-0-Stars

She’ll Be Back

Maggie

by Hope Madden

Arnold Schwarzenegger stars in the zombie flick Maggie, but Conan the Zombarian it is not.

Forget the set pieces, explosions, pacing and quips generally associated with the big Austrian. Here he plays an anxious Midwestern father in a time shortly after the zombipocalypse. His teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin) is a member of the infected and he is more interested in protecting her from the outside world than in protecting the outside world from her.

Director Henry Hobson’s feature debut upends expectations no matter what they may be. By blending genres and placing stars in very different situations than their norm he’s opened the audience up to accepting some odd turns. The film itself does not always deliver on this intriguing promise, but despite the slow pace and quiet tones, it keeps your attention because you can never be sure what will happen next.

Breslin, already the star of one of the best zombie comedies of all time (Zombieland), proves a nuanced performer with this pensive turn as a teen awaiting the inevitable. Schwarzenegger has never offered as dialed-down and somber a performance, and while the film is absolutely Breslin’s show, his support is tender and unexpected.

Maggie is a character study, and a gamey twist on the coming of age film as father and daughter wait – not for that impending dawning of womanhood, but for her imminent death, and what comes after. Hobson and screenwriter John Scott 3 are not in it for exploitation. Although the film inevitably gives over to sentimentality, the filmmakers’ restraint throughout allow the proceedings a little dignity.

The film may have a tough time finding a niche. Schwarzenegger’s fans may hope for something a little flashier while genre fans may be left unsatisfied. But Maggie has something to offer. It’s a small film that explores something relatable and intimate, even if it chooses an unusual setting to do it.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

Doin’ It For Themselves

Girlhood

by Hope Madden

Moments after Girlhood’s perfectly disconcerting opening, you settle into the world of its protagonist, Marieme, but writer/director Celine Sciamma has already told you something very important. You shouldn’t assume anything.

Few, if any, films have been able to do justice to coming of age the way Sciamma’s does. Girlhood is a character study, following Marieme (Karidja Toure) through her days as an adolescent in a deprived Paris project, struggling against each of her equally unappealing life options.

Good girl Marieme sees one important door toward opportunity close. On the same day, she catches the eye of a trio of wilder girls and slowly she finds the joy in extending her adolescence and the power in solidarity and sisterhood.

Sciamma, thanks to a quietly powerful performance from Toure, represents more than just the bittersweet romance and nostalgia generally associated with the coming of age film. Saying goodbye to childhood is rarely as simple and lovely as movies make it out to be, and Sciamma’s interest is in seeing the same transition from an under represented point of view. The fact that this feels so fresh is itself an indictment. For Marieme, her choices are limited along racial, sexual and socioeconomic lines, but Sciamma’s perceptive film is too honest and understated to feel preachy.

Wisely, Sciamma disregards every filmmaking technique we’ve come to expect in a movie about a girl blossoming into womanhood. Her observant style, cast of amateur actors, and her own penetrating storytelling give the proceedings a quiet authenticity.

Like Sciamma’s previous films Tomboy and Water Lillies, Girlhood explores youth in crisis. She never judges her characters, and Toure’s ability to showcase her character’s humility and strength simultaneously ensure the audience’s empathy.

The storyline is necessarily untidy as Marieme takes on and casts off wildly different personas, illuminating the almost heartbreaking courage of youth. Regardless of the choices she makes from among the options limited by discrimination on almost every front, we must root for her fight for a life she can accept.

Verdict-4-0-Stars