Still a Magic Man

Magic Mike XXL

by Hope Madden

Rarely is a sequel superior to the original film – Bride of Frankenstein, The Empire Strikes Back, maybe The Godfather, Part 2. That’s heady company for Magic Mike XXL – in fact, the movie should never really be mentioned in the same sentence as those particular films – but let’s give it its due. It is a better movie than the original.

It’s been three years since Mike (Channing Tatum) left male entertainment behind him for the settled life. But he’s bored, basically, and he misses it, so he joins the old Tampa Kings for one last trip to the national stripper convention in Myrtle Beach.

There is a huge, gaping hole in this film shaped like Matthew McConaughey, who was the only reason to watch the original. McConaughey was Dallas, the leader and emcee for the Tampa Kings, and the performance was positively unhinged. This was just at the beginning of what anthropologists will call the McConaissance – that period of unbelievable performances that led to his first Oscar. He does not return for the sequel, and his inspired lunacy is dearly missed.

On the other hand, both Alex Pettyfer and Cody Horn are blessedly missing. I’m sure they’re nice people, but Lord they cannot act.

Another positive change, weirdly enough, is a switch in director. Steven Soderbergh directed the original to be a gritty expose on the dangerous world of Florida stripper life, while the film owes its irrational success to one thing: beefcake.

Director Gregory Jacobs embraces this. Welcome aboard a road trip of muscle and thong, spray tans and gyration as Tatum and his buds hope to pull off one last, big dance. They want to go out in a tsunami of dollar bills and they hope you brought your singles.

Tatum is effortlessly charming, as always, but his posse gets more of an opportunity to show off personality as well as pecs this time around. Joe Manganiello, in particular, gets more screen time in a film that’s far more bromance than romantic comedy.

There are also cameos aplenty, some glitter, some baby oil, and at least as much screaming inside the theater as on the screen. Ladies, calm down.

Magic Mike XXL is not a great movie by any stretch, but it knows what it is and it runs with it. Well, dances with it. And that’s fine.


Countdown: Best in Film through Half of 2015

Believe it or not, 2015 is officially half over. It’s been a pretty big half, though – July through December has its work cut out for it if it hopes to stand up. While historical Supreme Court rulings and heartbreaking tragedies are the items we will remember the longest, there were also some great movies released in the first half of this year that deserve a mention. Here are the best films of the first half of the year.

10. Spy
Spy is the latest team-up for director Paul Feig and star Melissa McCarthy, who gave us the hilarity of Bridesmaids and its one-for-the-ages character of Megan. (They will collaborate again in what may be the most inspired reboot of them all, Ghostbusters.) Feig also gets writing credit for Spy, and it’s hard to believe he didn’t craft the script especially for McCarthy. Beyond creating a boisterous, hilarious, perfectly cast send up of Bond-style capers, the film also meticulously points out the steaming pile of double standard b.s. McCarthy has had to deal with during her entire career.

Rose Byrne continues to show real comic flair, and Jason Statham practically kidnaps the film as Agent Rick Ford, a riotous parody of the to-the-extreme tough guy roles that made him famous. But this is McCarthy’s show, and a leading role tailor made for her powerhouse talent. As her Agent Susan Cooper assumes various identities and becomes more confident in her role as a badass, the film lands some sly shots at the sexist barbs often thrown McCarthy’s way. Bravo.

9. La Sapienza
If you like to check your phone or take frequent bathroom breaks at the theater, La Sapienza is not for you. Writer/director Eugene Green makes sure every shot and each line of dialogue is significant in his beautiful meditation on spirituality and love.

A renowned French architect and his wife take a trip to Italy, where they befriend a set of siblings. Many philosophical discussions follow, with Green often making sure each character speaks directly into the camera, demanding that viewers take part.

As Green’s camera lingers on the contours of classic Italian structures, and as man and boy share their architectural philosophies, the roles of teacher and student begin to blur. While one questions the meaning of life and believes in “salvation through work,” the other’s desire is to create spaces with an “emptiness which must be filled with people and light.”

La Sapienza still thinks big questions can have simple answers, and that cinema is still capable of uncovering both truth and beauty.

8. Clouds of Sils Maria
Somewhere between Twilight and the tabloids, Kristen Stewart began doing some real acting. She’s better than ever in Clouds of Sils Maria, and though hers is a supporting role alongside one of the screen’s major talents, Stewart pulls plenty of weight in a terrific drama with much to say.

Juliette Binoche is customarily excellent as Maria, a famous actress returning to the stage in a revival of the play that launched her career twenty years earlier. Stewart is Maria’s ever-present personal assistant Valentine, who not only runs both errands and lines for Maria, but serves as her bridge to a younger generation.

Writer/director Olivier Assayas’s script is sharp and his camera is fluid, effectively blurring the line between onstage and off. The beauty of Clouds of Sils Maria lies in its complexity. It offers subtle insights that sneak up on you, and uses an exceptional cast to make them stick.

7. The Nightmare
Idiosyncratic documentarian Rodney Ascher walks a line in his films between open and earnest investigation and metacommentary. His great achievement with this film is not that it transcends the quirky indie doc subgenre, but that it works equally well as an honest piece of nonfiction filmmaking and as a terrifying horror film.

He investigates sleep paralysis, but his weirdly attuned style and his mastery of slow reveal pulls you in to the deeply disturbing case histories long before you really understand what is happening to these poor people. Then, little by little, he makes you realize that, by virtue of watching this film, you may also be at risk. It’s a bit like The Ring, but a real life version.

Any horror film worth its mettle will make you a little nervous about going to sleep. This one will panic you.

6. Girlhood
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.

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. 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.

5. Love and Mercy
Even if you’ve never heard a note of Brian Wilson’s music, one listen to “God Only Knows,” or countless other Beach Boys classics reveals a musical visionary like none other. His success and inner turmoil have both become legend, and director Bill Pohlad utilizes an ambitious script and fine performances to make Wilson’s story resonate with heartbreak and hope.

Paul Dano is flat out fantastic as the younger Wilson. Beyond the considerable physical resemblance, Dano is able to mine multiple layers of wonder, inspiration and doubt, as Wilson struggles to follow his vision in the midst of those who can’t understand it.

Variations on the Brian Wilson story have been attempted before, but Love and Mercy is an original tune that won’t need to be covered for quite some time.

4. It Follows
A perfect blend of new ideas and genre respect, It Follows looks like a John Carpenter film but tells a unique tale. More than the STD of horror movies, it’s a film that channels the best of the genre while using an indie drama sensibility to keep you off guard. Excellent performances and positively inspired camerawork ensure that you care what happens, and are basically terrified from the opening sequence.

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell employs an effectively retro score with a voyeuristic camera to keep you on edge, and the impossible to pinpoint time period allows the film to feel both fresh and nostalgic simultaneously. He punctuates the building dread with a handful of jump scares – usually really effective ones – but the film is not reliant upon this gimmick. It’s a unique vision, beautifully written and provocatively executed, that marks a serious new force in filmmaking, genre or otherwise.

3. Inside Out
It’s a tumultuous time in young Riley’s life. Her family has just moved from Minnesota to San Francisco, and her emotions are working overtime. Inside her mind, five particular feelings are running the show at Riley “headquarters.” There’s Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Joy is usually able to keep the rest in check (“I’m detecting high levels of sass!”), but when she and Sadness get lost in the outer regions of Riley’s psyche, the race is on to get back to base before the young girl’s personality is forever changed.

So, yes, Pixar returns to the “secret world” theme they know well, but there’s no denying this is a brilliant premise, perfectly executed by a veteran Pixar team. From rides on the “train of thought” to commercial jingles that get stuck in your head to a clever gag about mixing facts and opinions, co- directors/co-writers Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen keep things fresh and funny while maintaining a simple conflict that easily gets younger viewers invested.

And that’s the real beauty of Inside Out. Once again, Pixar examines the changing phases of life with charm, humor and a subtle intelligence that can’t help but give you a fresh appreciation for all the jumbled feelings that make life worth living.

2. Mad Max: Fury Road
After 30 years, George Miller returns to the desolate wasteland that drove poor Max Rockatansky mad. What he delivers with Mad Max: Fury Road is a film so far superior to its three predecessors as to be almost magical. The always magnificent Tom Hardy more than fills the shoes left behind by Mel Gibson, but the star of this film is Charlize Theron as Furiosa – just another cast off looking for redemption. If you can not only outshine but out-badass Tom Hardy, you are one miraculous performer.

Like Miller’s previous Mad Max efforts, this film dusts up some political and environmental gripes, but he’s never been so pointed about his concerns. Not that this will distract you from the utterly kick ass visuals of a film shot using mostly practical effects. How on earth he did some of this is anyone’s guess, but it looks like hell on wheels and leaves you cheering. A flamethrower electric guitar? Hell yeah!

1. Ex Machina
Smart, seductive, and wickedly funny, Ex Machina is the directorial debut from veteran writer Alex Garland, and it instantly marks him as one of the most promising dual threats in film.

Computer wiz Caleb (Domhnall Gleason) gets word that he’s “won” a contest at work. The firm’s founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), has picked Caleb as the lucky one who will get a look inside the reclusive genius’s world and assist on a top secret project.

The ever-versatile Isaac is mesmerizing, crafting Nathan as a walking, talking, drinking God complex in bare feet. Gleason gives Caleb a perfect mix of naïveté and good intentions, while Alicia Vikander is a true wonder as Ava. Living in the space between woman and machine, Vikander pulls it off with nary a hint of caricature.

Sci Fi and horror films have long provided glimpses into a particular generation through the fears and anxieties that manifest on screen. Anchored in science, sex, and creation (sound familiar?), Ex Machina is an insightful, deliciously fun time capsule we need to open right now.

Fright Club: Most Horrifying Moments

This is an odd one for us. Generally, our countdowns are meant specifically to draw attention to films we think you should see. The films covered today are not recommended for the squeamish, and one of them is not recommended for anyone. When the hobbling scene from Misery is not tough enough to make your list – indeed, did not even make the top 10 – you know you’ve chosen some pretty miserable content. (We’ve decided to include trailers here rather than the actual scenes.) After much help from listeners and a lot of soul crushing time spent watching movies and scenes we’d rather forget, here is our list of the 5 most difficult scenes in horror movies to watch.

5. Oldboy (2003)

Like most every film on this list, Chan-wook Park’s 2003 original Oldboy boasts many scenes that are tough to watch. It’s a magnificent if punishing film, full of unseemly twists and bloody turns that ratchet up tension and keep you utterly bewildered for 120 minutes. But there are two scenes in particular that really hit a nerve as only a root canal can.

Dentistry horror is tough for a lot of people to take, and Park explores his oral fixation several times in this film. For us, the hardest one to watch happens toward the bitter end, when the smitten Dae-su Oh attempts to prove that he will never tell the secret. To give away either the secret or the proof may be to spoil too much, but he is guaranteed to do no tongue wagging after this scene.

4. Antichrist (2009)

Lars von Trier’s foray into horror follows a couple down a deep and dark rabbit hole of grief. Von Trier’s films have often fixated on punishing viewers and female protagonists alike, but in this film the nameless woman (played fearlessly by Charlotte Gainsbourg) wields most of the punishment – whether upon her mate (Willem Dafoe) or herself.

Like dental scenes, gynecological horror draws a particular reaction. Whether it’s the abuse scene at the beginning of Proxy, nearly any scene in the brilliant French film Inside, or the final feast in Trouble Every Day, scenes of this ilk can be tough to watch. But to watch as Gainsbourg – who’s already inflicted some serious pain on Dafoe’s character – takes the scissors to herself is next to impossible.

3. Irreversible (2002)

French filmmaker/provocateur Gaspar Noe does not play well with his audience. Every film, no matter how brilliantly put together or gloriously filmed, is a feat in masochism to watch. Later efforts, like Enter the Void, spread the misery out for its full running time, but for Irreversible, he gave it to us in two horrifying scenes. While the head bashing is tough viewing, the film centers on a rape scene that is all but impossible to watch.

Noe’s general MO is to punish you through sheer duration. The scenes last so long you feel like you cannot endure another minute, and this scene certainly does that. Not shot even momentarily for titillation, and boasting a devastatingly excellent performance from Monica Bellucci, it justifies its own horrific presence. There are other films with necessary and difficult rape scenes – Straw Dogs, I Spit on Your Grave, The Last House on the Left, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – but none is harder to stomach than this.

2. Martyrs (2009)

Martyrs is an incredibly difficult film to watch, but it pays you for your perseverance. It’s a brilliantly conceived and thoughtfully executed film about innocence, zealotry, and misery that opens with a child surviving torture. Not an easy image to overcome, and yet Martyrs only gets tougher.

Writer/director Pascal Laugier plays on the same visceral reaction to torture that drove Hostel, Audition, and The Strangers. Indeed, mainstream directors understand the “look away” reflex that informs Martyrs – just watch the slow knife death in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, or American History X’s curb stomp scene. But Martyrs builds and builds, pulling you in, asking you to love poor Anna so that it is that much tougher to watch her when she’s skinned alive.

1. A Serbian Film (2010)

This is not a movie we would recommend to basically anyone. That’s not to say it’s a bad film – it’s pretty well directed, acted, and written. It’s just that the co-writer/director Srdjan Spasojevic is trying to articulate the soul-deadening effects of surviving the depravity of war. The film title is no coincidence – the film is meant to reflect the reality of a nation so recently involved in among the most depraved, horrific, unimaginable acts of war. It’s as if he’s saying, after all that, what could still shock us?

Like Pier Paolo Pasolini’s notorious 1975 effort Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom – also a depiction of the depravity left behind after war – A Serbian Film overwhelms you with horrifying imagery. Indeed, between Salo and A Serbian Film, you’ll find just about every single scene we’ve mentioned in this list. But there is one scene that has to top the list, and you probably already know what that is. Milos (Srdjan Todorovic) finally realizes the depths of his new director’s evil when he sees his latest effort: newborn porn. There is no unseeing this.

Whew. Now, on to some comedies!

Listen to the whole conversation on our FRIGHT CLUB podcast.

Dogs, Kids, Bikes, Flags


by George Wolf

No doubt you’ve seen the photos of military service dogs lying in despair beside a casket or headstone, silently grieving for a fallen handler. Heartbreaking.

At its core, Max is a film with a worthy goal – salute these dogs and the work they do. But that goal gets lodged between an after school special adventure and some pretty blatant armed forces recruitment.

The canine Max is a Belgian Malinois Shepherd and a dedicated Marine, serving in Afghanistan alongside his handler Kyle (Robbie Arnell). Kyle’s family members, including former Marine dad (Thomas Haden Church), loving helpmate mom (Lauren Graham) and disgruntled teen brother Justin (Josh Wiggins), are shocked when Kyle is killed in action, and subsequently agree to adopt Max after he’s deemed too distraught for continued service.

Director/co-writer Boaz Yakin (Remember the Titans) provides one dimensional characters full of shallow dialogue, with clearly marked heroes and villains amid swelling music in case you miss any Lifetime channel melodrama. From there, the film suddenly becomes a race for three kids on bikes with a hero dog to bring down a weapons dealer who’s in cahoots with the local sheriff.

Wait, arms dealer? Yep, and there might be drugs involved, too!

Okay, if you’re aiming no higher than ‘tween sensibilities and ‘just say no,’ I get it, and who can dislike this dog? There’s even one surprisingly tender scene where Justin comforts an anxious Max during a fireworks show, a nicely subtle reminder of the different battles many veterans face once they return home.

But that last act…oh my. Any hint of subtly is forgotten via a highly contrived finale intent on marking military service (and more specifically, actual battle) as a required rite of passage for manhood. All that’s missing is the dramatic voiceover.

There’s probably a nice family film buried somewhere deep in Max, but once the bullets start flying and the bridges start exploding, you’d need a bloodhound to find it.





Grin and Bear it

Ted 2

by George Wolf

We pretty much know what to expect from Seth MacFarlane by now, don’t we? Crude, often sophomoric gags heavy on pop culture references, celebrity cameos and non sequiturs, with some musical numbers worked in to boot.

By that scorecard, Ted 2 is definitely a Seth MacFarlane movie and, like most of his work, sometimes it’s really, really funny.

We catch up with the “thunder buddies” to find John (Mark Wahlberg) has gotten divorced and Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) is getting married. But after only one year of marriage, Ted and Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth) are not happy. They make the hasty decision that a child is the answer, but find some roadblocks to parenthood, both anatomical and otherwise.

Ted’s frequent buzz is killed when he learns that, in the eyes of the state, a teddy bear come to life is not really a person, and he’ll have to fight for his civil rights. That news spurs a team-up with a rookie lawyer (Amanda Seyfried) and a quest to prove that Ted has the right to take the inspired last name of “Clubberlang” and become a legally recognized husband and father.

The obvious parallels with current equality issues are commendable, but MacFarlane has no intention of going soft. Jokes about race and sexual orientation are plentiful, making sure we know everyone is fair game, including Seyfried, the good sport target of several “big eyed” barbs.

There are some downright hilarious moments (especially John on bad weed and the gang’s trip to Comic Con) but Ted 2 still feels about fifteen minutes too long. When you talk with friends after the film, you’ll probably quote enough scenes to make the entire thing seem like a non-stop gut buster, but it isn’t.

There are several stretches where the laughs are light, plus one very promising parody of Planes, Trains and Automobiles that sadly goes nowhere. And, it should go without saying that if you’re easily offended, Ted 2 will easily offend you.

Even more than the first go round, John and Ted’s new adventure wants to be a foul-mouthed Big. It doesn’t always work, but if you don’t mind a bit rougher recess, play on.





You, Me and Everyone

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

by Hope Madden

Whatever its flaws and familiarities, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl delivers a heartfelt, understated but affecting punch.

The “Me” of the title is Greg (the ageless Thomas Mann), who describes himself as “terminally awkward, with a face like a little groundhog.” Greg treasures the anonymity he’s carved out by being superficially accepted and forgotten by every clique in his school. He and his best friend Earl (RJ Cyler), whom he considers more of a co-worker, hide out at lunch in the history teacher’s office, and make movie parodies (A Sockwork Orange, Pooping Tom) in their spare time.

Then Greg’s mom (Connie Britton) insists that he befriend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who’s been diagnosed with leukemia.

Yep, it’s a quirky coming-of-age dramedy with cancer overtones. Who’d have thought this would become such a popular concept?

Regardless of the well-worn terrain, the film offers a bright, often unpredictable charm mixed with a wonderfully morbid sense of humor. All performances are solid, especially that of Molly Shannon as the bubbly yet grieving and usually drunk mother.

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon cuts a new career path with this indie dramedy, but he and screenwriter Jesse Andrews (adapting his own novel) miss a pretty important point.

No matter who you are or how many friends you had or how many parties you went to, you probably remember your high school self as socially awkward. Nothing fuels a coming-of-age film quite like this idea, when usually the protagonist (and maybe the writer, and nearly every teen in history) is just burdened by narcissism and self-loathing. It’s a small but important distinction, and one that very few coming-of-age tales get right. Getting that tiny point right is the difference between a work of genius like Napoleon Dynamite and a self-congratulatory confection like The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is considerably better than most films that miss that point, but it still misses it. The perfectly likeable protagonist believes himself to be terminally awkward and what he needs is for the one-dimensional (if truly likeable) characters around him to show him he’s actually pretty great. That is, to placate his narcissism while soothing his self-loathing as they gain nothing themselves.

Most of us remember some coming-of-age film from our own adolescence with needless but genuine nostalgia and affection. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl can be that movie – The Breakfast Club or Grease or Mean Girls for this generation. But, like most teens, it can’t quite get past itself to become great.


My Adidas and Me, Close as Can be

Fresh Dressed

by George Wolf

“Being fresh is more important than having money.”

That might be easy for the far-from-broke Kanye West to say, but when he says it near the start of Fresh Dressed, it serves as a modern law of physics that director Sacha Jenkins is eager to reinforce.

His effortlessly likable documentary traces the history of hip hop fashion, not only spotlighting the breezy fun of kids expressing themselves, but also pointing out the social and economic struggles that parallel each generational shift.

Let’s face it, it’s always fun to look back on style trends of years past, but Fresh Dressed has a more serious aim. From the slave-owning origins of the phrase “your Sunday best” to street gang affiliations to corporate boardrooms, Jenkins shows how fashion can be as effective as music in giving voice to those longing to find one.

To that end, Jenkins mixes historical footage with interview segments featuring icons of both sound (Pharrell, Nas) and style (Draymond John, Karl Kani), though it isn’t long before you notice how few women are providing a viewpoint. Surely, women experienced these cultural changes in different ways, and the film would benefit from a more balanced perspective.

Really, a similar lack of depth becomes the main shortcoming of Fresh Dressed. It quickly gets your attention with solid execution and topics that seem long overdue, but then seems satisfied with merely starting conversations, not seeing how far they might go.





Fright Club: Best Australian Horror

Thank you to Senior Aussie Correspondent Cory Metcalf for co-hosting our salute to Australian horror (and forgive our stupid jokes about Vegamite and Men at Work)! In the last decade his native land has become a powerhouse in the genre, boasting inspired, wicked, twisted efforts that range from unsettlingly authentic to weirdly, darkly comical. Here are our favorites.

5. Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead (2014)

It is hard to do something fresh and interesting with a zombie film, but director Kiah Roache-Turner has done it. Writing with brother Tristan, Roache-Turner takes pieces and parts of the basic zombie myth as it’s evolved over countless films, shows, comics and video games, and woven it together with an audaciously Aussie sensibility.

Barry (Jay Gallagher) gets a call in the middle of the night from his artist/badass sister Brooke (Bianca Bradey). The zombies are here.

Barry ends up on the road with an assortment of survivors and begins the search for his sister, who’s having one hell of an adventure on her own.

Like the best in the business, Roache-Turner follows Romero’s lead when it comes to trusting the government. Zombies are more principled. But Wyrmwood mixes interesting new ideas with some of the stronger genre tropes to create a novel, often funny, action-packed film that gets creepy as hell.

4. Snowtown (The Snowtown Murders) (2011)

John Bunting tortured and killed eleven people during his spree in South Australia in the Nineties. We only watch it happen once on film, but that’s more than enough.

Director Justin Kurzel seems less interested in the lurid details of Bunting’s brutal violence than he is in the complicated and alarming nature of complicity. Ironically, this less-is-more approach may be why the movie leaves you so shaken.

An unflinching examination of a predator swimming among prey, Snowtown succeeds where many true crime films fail because of its understatement, its casual observational style, and its unsettling authenticity. More than anything, though, the film excels due to one astounding performance.

Daniel Henshall (also in Babadook) cuts an unimpressive figure on screen – a round faced, smiling schlub. But he brings Bunting an amiability and confrontational fearlessness that provides insight into what draws people to a sadistic madman.

3. Wolf Creek (2005)

There have long been filmmakers whose ultimate goal is not to entertain an audience; the idea being that art is meant to affect, not entertain. These filmmakers, from Sam Peckinpah to Lars von Trier, generally develop impenetrable indie credibility and a line of devoted, bawling fans. No one in recent memory has applied this ideology to horror cinema as effectively as writer/director Greg McLean with his Outback opus Wolf Creek.

Some of the best scares in film have come as the reaction to urbanites’ fear of losing our tentative grasp on our own link in the food chain once we find ourselves in the middle of nowhere. With Wolf Creek, it’s as if McLean looked at American filmmakers’ preoccupation with backwoods thrillers and scoffed, in his best Mick Dundee, “That’s not the middle of nowhere. This is the middle of nowhere.”

Using only digital cameras to enhance an ultra-naturalistic style, McLean follows happy backpackers who find themselves immobile outside Wolf Creek National Park when their car stops running. As luck would have it, friendly bushman Mick Taylor (John Jarratt) drives up offering a tow back to his camp, where he promises to fix the vehicle.

A horror film this realistic is not only hard to watch, but a bit hard to justify. What makes an audience interested in observing human suffering so meticulously recreated? This is where, like a true artist, McLean finally succeeds. What is as unsettling as the film itself is that its content is somehow satisfying.

2. The Loved Ones (2009)

Writer/director/Tasmanian Sean Byrne upends high school clichés and deftly maneuvers between angsty, gritty drama and neon colored, glittery carnage in a story that borrows from other horror flicks but absolutely tells its own story.

Brent (Xavier Samuel) is dealing with guilt and tragedy in his own way, and his girlfriend Holly tries to be patient with him. Oblivious to all this, Lola (a gloriously wrong-minded Robin McLeavy) asks Brent to the end of school dance. He politely declines, which proves to be probably a poor decision.

Byrne quietly crafts an atmosphere of loss and depression in and around the school without painting the troubles cleanly. This slow reveal pulls the tale together and elevates it above a simple work of outrageous violence.

Inside Lola’s house, the mood is decidedly different. Here, we’re privy to the weirdest, darkest image of a spoiled princess and her daddy. The daddy/daughter bonding over power tool related tasks is – well – I’m not sure touching is the right word for it.

The Loved Ones is a cleverly written, unique piece of filmmaking that benefits from McLeavy’s inspired performance as much as it does its filmmaker’s sly handling of subject matter.

1. The Babadook (2014)

Like a fairy tale or nursery rhyme, simplicity and a child’s logic can be all you need for terror.

You’re exhausted – just bone-deep tired – and for the umpteenth night in a row your son refuses to sleep. He’s terrified, inconsolable. You check under the bed, you check in the closet, you read a book together – no luck. You let him choose the next book to read, and he hands you a pop-up you don’t recognize: The Babadook. Pretty soon, your son isn’t the only one afraid of what’s in the shadows.

It’s a simple premise, and writer/director Jennifer Kent spins her tale with straightforward efficiency. There is no need for cheap theatrics, camera tricks or convoluted backstories, because Kent is drilling down into something deeply, frighteningly human.

Kent’s film is expertly written and beautifully acted, boasting unnerving performances from not only a stellar lead in Essie Davis, but also the alarmingly spot-on young Noah Wiseman. Davis’s lovely, loving Amelia is so recognizably wearied by her only child’s erratic, sometimes violent behavior that you cannot help but pity her, and sometimes fear for her, and other times fear her.

Listen to the whole conversation on the Fright Club Podcast.

The Jackasses of Activism

The Yes Men Are Revolting

By Christie Robb

As you take shelter from yet another downpour and check in on the interwebs, have you seen that thing Pope Francis said about humanity ruining the planet? Or Jeb Bush’s command for him to shut his pointy-hat wearing trap? Or the latest on California drying up like a raisin?

Well, there’s a documentary out on that theme, The Yes Men Are Revolting.

The Yes Men, activists Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (not their real names) have been together since the 90s egging each other on to ever escalating heights of ridiculousness in an attempt to prank corporations and climate change deniers.

In order to draw public attention to issues, they stage phony press events and impersonate lobbyists, employees of corporations, and/or governmental agencies and announce dramatic shifts in policy, like Canada agreeing to pay 1% of its GDP to help poor countries adapt to climate change. (Imagine the guys from Jackass, but with a political agenda.)

Often, the stunts get picked up as legitimate stories by mainstream media, before the folks they’ve been impersonating scramble to set the record straight and do damage control.

This, the Yes Men’s third film, covers their attempts to draw the public’s attention to climate change while simultaneously dealing with transformation in the duo’s own lives. They’ve been doing this gig for a while. Now, Bonanno’s married with two kids and one on the way. Bichlbaum finally finds a man he wants to settle down with. Both men have other jobs that put demands on them. They’re asking questions: How much time can they devote to their stunts and each other anymore? Is activism even worth it? What difference are they actually making? Isn’t the world in worse shape now than when they started?

Despite these questions and the gloom generated by any discussion of climate change, The Yes Men Are Revolting will not result in you wanting to slit your wrists.

Bichlbaum and Bonanno’s enjoyment of each other and their vocation, the silliness of their fake names and awful disguises, the quality of the ideas at the heart of their pranks, and a final act that involves getting defense contractors to awkwardly dance, make this film fun and even potentially inspirational.


Everybody’s Got One

Hungry Hearts

by Hope Madden

New parents can easily panic at the counterintuitive, conflicting, hyperbolic, self-righteous nonsense that purports to be parenting advice. At no time in your life do you feel more of a need to be strong and reliable, and at no time do you see yourself as more of an underprepared moron. It can be terrifying.

Hungry Hearts mines that terror in provocative and insightful ways as it invites us into the crumbling relationship between Mina (Alba Rohrwacher) and Jude (Adam Driver).

Jude and Mina’s tale is told in terms of proximity rather than intimacy. From their remarkable meeting throughout their courtship and marriage, their story is articulated by its confinement, the fragile power struggle almost always shown in corporeal terms: Inside this small space, whose body is controlling whose?

From this perspective, the casting is impeccable, with Driver’s unintimidating lankiness at odds with, and often physically overwhelming, the petite Rohrwacher.

Driver is a master at walking the line between vulnerability and believable insincerity, a skill he puts to impressive use here. Jude seems so harmless, sees himself as harmless, and he certainly doesn’t intend to do anything other than love and respect his family. That’s why he’s so confounded when it all goes south.

It’s a provocative story where Jude’s seemingly small acts of power lead to the need for more concrete acts, although it is Mina’s helplessness in the face of all those small but profound betrayals that created her paranoia in the first place.

Director Severio Costanzo traps you in this insulated world. What looks and feels like an indie drama gives way to the distorted camerawork and intentional score of horror. The tonal shift doesn’t always work, and the third act feels too tidy and conventional for the film itself, but you never lose interest.

What Costanzo has created, and what his small but game cast has almost perfectly animated, is a nuanced, delicate nightmare of helplessness, control and madness with the fate of a 7-month-old in the balance.