Head Games

Inside Out

by George Wolf

Sometimes I think Pixar’s only goal is to make me a pile of emotional mush. The old man in Up was a dead ringer for my old man, and the Toy Story films were in perfect sync with my son’s childhood, right down to part 3 when Andy (voiced by the original, now grown up kid) was leaving home the same time our Riley was packing for Ohio State. Sniff.

Now, with Inside Out, Pixar builds their latest delightful adventure around the growing pains of a young girl whose name just happens to be…Riley.

Honey! We’re going to need more tissues!

I doubt we’re alone, and that’s one of the many wonderful things about Pixar films. At their best, they resonate with both infectious fun and relatable emotion. Make no mistake, Inside Out is one of their best, landing perhaps just a half notch below Up and the Toy Story trilogy.

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 just a brilliant premise and perfect execution 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.

The voice talent is stellar, particularly Black (Angry? Who’d have thought?) and Smith, who makes Sadness a lovable unlikely hero by reminding us that sometimes, it’s okay to be sad.

And that’s the real beauty of Inside Out. While you’re laughing at those silly emotions, the film is gently tugging at yours. 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.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 

 

Fright Club: Road Trip Horror

It’s summer time! Maybe you’ve gotten it into your head to pack up the family truckster and set off on an adventure, take a road trip? Well, we’re here to talk you out of it. Whether it’s Joy Ride or Wrong Turn, Brotherhood of Satan or Race with the Devil, or any one of the films on this list, if there is one thing our research has shown us, it’s that we’re staying safe at home this summer.

5. The Hitcher (1986)

Baby faced C. Thomas Howell – still a star in 1986 – finds himself falling asleep behind the wheel as he drives a car from Chicago to San Diego. In a torrential downpour, he picks up a hitchhiker – the effortlessly terrifying Rutger Hauer.

Hauer’s John Ryder immediately creeps you out, and his peculiarly sinister nature bounces beautifully off Howell’s slack jawed innocence. Hauer goes on to do very bad things, especially to truck stop heroine Jennifer Jason Leigh. Yikes.

First time director Robert Harmon does a nice job of ratcheting up tension by exploring the calm surrounding Howell’s shaken character: the roadside, the townies, the slumbering mountains on the horizon, and in particular, Hauer’s serene psychopath. The discrepancy fosters an anxiety in the audience, and though Howell’s crybaby driver Jim Halsey makes consistently idiotic decisions, he’s so convincingly innocent that we forgive him.

4. Duel (1971)

Steven Spielberg was just 25 years old when he directed this taut thriller about mysterious road rage.

Dennis Weaver stars as a salesman on a business road trip who finds himself terrorized by the driver of a big rig. Based on Richard Matheson’s short story that sprang from a real-life incident, the film shows young Spielberg’s filmmaking instincts were already razor sharp. He rachets the tension early and often, knowing that our fear for the life of the salesman becomes even greater when mixed with the frustration of not knowing why he is being targeted.

Originally produced as a TV movie of the week, Duel eventually received a limited theatrical run, and it is flush with all the elements of a winning big screen pulse-pounder.

3. The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

Wes Craven’s original Hills – cheaply made and poorly acted – is a surprisingly memorable, and even more surprisingly alarming flick. Craven’s early career is marked by a contempt for both characters and audience, and his first two horror films ignored taboos, mistreating everyone on screen and in the theater. In the style of Deliverance meets Mad Max, Hills was an exercise in pushing the envelope, and it owes what lasting popularity it has to its shocking violence and Michael Berryman’s nightmarish mug.

A suburban American family on a road trip takes an ill-advised “short cut” through this New Mexican desert to find themselves the targets of a family of inbred mutants’ blood lust.

The Hills Have Eyes – Craven’s original or Alexandre Aja’s 2006 reboot – is not for the squeamish. People are raped, burned alive, eaten alive, eaten dead, and generally ill-treated.

In fact, Craven’s greatest triumph is in creating tension via a plot device so unreasonably gruesome no audience would believe a film could go through with it. The freaks kidnap a baby with plans to eat her. But by systematically crushing taboo after taboo, the unthinkable becomes plausible, and the audience grows to fear that the baby will actually be eaten. It’s not the kind of accomplishment you’d want to share with your mom, but in terms of genre control, it is pretty good.

2. Wolf Creek (2005)

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 writer/director Greg 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.” McLean explores the isolated beauty of this vast, empty Australian middle with spectacularly creepy results.

Using only digital cameras to enhance an ultra-naturalistic style, McLean’s happy backpackers find themselves immobile outside Wolf Creek National Park when their car stops running. As luck would have it, friendly bushman Mick Taylor (a startlingly horrifying, utterly perfect 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.

1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Not everyone considers Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a classic. Those people are wrong. Perhaps even stupid.

Franklin Hardesty, his pretty sister Sally, and a few other friends head out to Grampa Hardesty’s final resting place after hearing the news of some Texas cemeteries being grave robbed. They pick up a hitchhiker, played with glorious insanity by Edwin Neal. The Hitchhiker is part of a family of cannibals, and the youths will eventually stumble upon their digs.

It is classic because Hooper masterfully enlisted a low rent verite for this bizarre story to do something utterly new. The camera work, so home-movie like, worked with the “based on a true story” tag line like nothing before it, and the result seriously disturbed the folks of 1974. It has been ripped off and copied dozens of times since its release, but in the context of its time, it was so absolutely original it was terrifying.

Hooper sidestepped all the horror gimmicks audiences had grown accustomed to – a spooky score that let you know when to grow tense, shadowy interiors that predicted oncoming scares – and instead shot guerilla-style in broad daylight, outdoors, with no score at all. You just couldn’t predict what was coming. He was after an entirely different kind of tension. He dashes your expectations, making you uncomfortable, as if you have no idea what you could be in for. As if, in watching this film, you yourself are in more danger than you’d predicted.

But not more danger than Franklin is in, because Franklin is not in for a good time.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vs3981DoINw

Roar

Jurassic World

by Hope Madden

Three years ago, director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly teamed up to breathe new life into a tired SciFi concept with the almost miraculous bit of time travel fun, Safety Not Guaranteed. They re-team this year, with a host of other writers, to see what they can do with dinosaurs.

The often clever script for Jurassic World laments their position as the creators of the 4th installment of a franchise that jumped the temnodontosaurus back in ’97. The park – a successful, viable island resort some 22 years after the initial disaster – needs to constantly evolve to maintain public interest. Having learned nothing, they’re cooking up more dinosaur DNA stew and they’ve concocted something a little scary.

What follows is a mish mash of fine, viable genre tropes: militarization meets mad science and greed with lessons to be learned all around. What is at the heart of every creature feature worth its screen time? The arrogance of believing that we are in control.

Uptight control freak Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), whose nephews are unaccompanied in the park because she decided to work, needs to take charge when the new Frankensteinosaur breaks free and rampages the island.

She’ll need the help of beefcake Navy Seal/velociraptor trainer Owen (Chris Pratt) to save her nephews, the park, and the world. He will first need to remove that stick from her ass.

Pratt’s easy going charm brings a little Indiana Jones swagger to the role, but the chemistry between him and Howard is nonexistent. Perhaps that’s because of their wildly stereotyped odd couple role – something so outdated by this point it is itself a dinosaur.

Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson offer fine turns as the youngsters in peril while Jake Johnson delivers enjoyable meta-commentary as the requisite computer nerd back in the control room.

Like it’s the acting you’re looking for.

The dinosaurs still look very cool, and Trevorrow shows real skill in balancing concrete with computer generated effects. He wastes little time getting us into the action and ensuing carnage and finds fresh ways to embrace and ridicule theme parks, blockbuster franchises and creature features simultaneously.

For a filmmaker who made his name by utterly retooling genre tropes from the ground up, it’s interesting the way his next feature celebrates them. From the original Jurassic Park to Aliens to Godzilla and every major action/SciFi/creature feature in between, Jurassic World benefits. It doesn’t bring anything new, but sometimes summer calls for some mindless monster munching.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

Through a Space Brightly

La Sapienza

by George Wolf

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.

Alexandre (Fabrizio Rongione) is a renowned French architect feeling dissatisfaction with life. He decides a trip to Italy is in order, where he will complete his book about the life of legendary Italian architect Francesco Borromini. Alexandre’s wife Alienor (Christelle Prot) feels her husband slipping away and joins him on the trip, where they quickly befriend a pair of young siblings.

Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) is about to begin his architectural studies, while Lavinia (Arianna Nastro) struggles with a mysterious illness that keeps her frequently bedridden. At Alienor’s urging, Alexandre invites Goffredo to join him on his fact-finding travels in Italy, while the ladies stay behind and explore the nature of Lavinia’s ills.

Many philosophical discussions follow, with Green often making sure each character speaks directly into the camera, demanding that viewers take part. He also carefully serves up Goffredo as a younger version of Alexandre and allowing, as the two converse, the enthusiastic ideals of youth to chip away at the hardened facade of aging.

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

Such metaphors, built around lovingly artistic imagery, lead you to imagine Green’s goal here is a mix of Through a Glass Darkly and The Great Beauty that targets both heart and mind.

That’s ambitious, but not out of the film’s reach. La Sapienza still thinks big questions can have simple answers, and cinema is still capable of uncovering both truth and beauty.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 

Christopher Lee Dies at 93

The most imposing of all the Draculas, Christopher Lee died Sunday in London at the age of 93. With a powerful voice and formidable presence, Lee made his name as the villain in scores of British horror films from Hammer studios, memorably portraying Dracula, Fu Manchu, Frankenstein’s monster, Rasputin, Mephistopheles, the Mummy, as well as dozens of other random evil Counts, bloodthirsty vampires, suspicious doctors, nefarious priests, and various other sinister ne’er do wells.

He found use besides terrifying young maidens for that saucy baritone, recording a metal album in 2010 entitled Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross, and the follow up in 2013, Charlemagne: The Omens of Death.

Though Lee never struggled to land work, in his Eighties he found himself in the unlikely position of starring in two of the most financially successful franchises in movie history: Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. He also worked regularly in his later years in blockbusters directed by Tim Burton, and was a ready, welcome face in an assortment of indie horror flicks in his later years.

Lee was truly among the most iconic, most elegant, most impressive actors working in or outside of genre filmmaking. Do yourself a favor and rediscover some of the darkly magical work of the great Sir Christopher Lee.

Dracula (Horror of Dracula) (1958)

In 1958, British studio Hammer began its long and fabulous love affair with the cloaked one, introducing the irrefutably awesome Christopher Lee as the Count.

Their tale varies a bit from Stoker’s, but the main players are mostly accounted for. Peter Cushing steps in early and often as Van Helsing, bringing his inimitable brand of prissy kick-ass, but it’s Lee who carries the film.

Six foot 5 and sporting that elegant yet sinister baritone, Lee cuts by far the most intimidating figure of the lot as Dracula. Director Terence Fisher uses that to the film’s advantage by developing a far more vicious, brutal vampire than what we’d seen previously.

Still the film is about seduction, though, which gives Lee’s brute force an unseemly thrill. Unlike so many victims in other vampire tales, it’s not just that Melissa Stribling’s Mina is helpless to stop Dracula’s penetration. She’s in league. She wants it.

Ribald stuff for 1958!

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

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.

Hardy and his cast have wicked fun with Anthony Shaffer’s sly screenplay, no one more so than the particularly saucy Christopher Lee. I love him in the role of Lord Summerisle, though it helps that he gets all the great lines. For instance, “Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent,” he deadpans.

When Howie asks, “And what of the one true God?”

Summerisle responds, “Well, he’s dead. He had his chance and, in modern parlance, blew it.”
Blasphemy indeed! No wonder Howie’s so up in arms. Plus there’s that naked barmaid and her sexy come-hither dance.

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.

Burke and Hare (2010)

Throughout his career, Lee made numerous, memorable cameos. Playing on his decades in genre film work, his quick appearances delivered a wink and a shudder to any true horror fan. From the LEGO Movie to The Wicker Tree to just about everything Tim Burton did after Mars Attacks, films benefitted from that otherworldly presence, even if only for a moment. Among the most fun is John Landis’s 2010 horror comedy about Europe’s famed corpse makers, Burke and Hare.

The film, loosely based on historical fact, follows William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis – greatest living performance-capture actor making a rare flesh and blood appearance). It’s the age of enlightenment, and advances in medical science necessitate more fresh dissecting corpses in Edinburgh’s medical colleges. In a touching tale of capitalism in action, these two blokes simply found a need and filled it.

Landis’s approach is darkly comical, a choice he announces in the opening moments: This is a true story, except for the parts that are not. His game cast – including the always welcome Tom Wilkinson, the gloriously weird Tim Curry, and Lee as the pair’s first real victim – proves up to the challenge.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

I admit it – I had not read these books when I took my son to see the first of these films. As he and I huddled together in our seats, hoping little Frodo and Sam could outrun the Wraiths with the help of the magnificent Ian McKellan, we were naïve enough to believe that the White Wizard would be their salvation. Until I saw who it was.

I whispered to my boy, “He is not going to help them.”

Such is the effortless villainy of Christopher Lee. His simple presence fills you with fear – and then he speaks. That voice, so commanding and mocking and glorious.

Lee was 79 years old when Peter Jackson filmed the first trilogy and he twirled that staff, mounted that horse and commanded those Orcs like an ageless power. Like a boss.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Beginning in the late 1950s, Britain’s Hammer studios begin making lurid period horror, banking on the awesome horror duo of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Their first collaboration was longtime Hammer director Terence Fisher’s take on the Shelley text, Curse of Frankenstein.

All bubbling potions and bunsen burners, Cushing’s laboratory (don’t forget to pronounce that middle ‘o’) is as fine a home to unholy alchemy as any. Jovially laissez faire in matters of a moral nature, his sinister acts in the name of science are well played.

His mad doctor is, at heart, a spoiled child. His behavior is outrageous, repugnant, but fascinating.
Christopher Lee made a fantastic Dracula – all elegance, height and menace. His Frankenstein’s monster is an almost unrecognizable change of pace. He’s rotty flesh, dead eye and sutures. Though his performance certainly lacks the vulnerability and innocence that made Boris Karloff’s version iconic, his version is more raw menace.

Fright Club: Top 5 Midnight Movies

We are beyond thrilled that 6-time Emmy winner Fritz the Nite Owl and his director/producer Mike McGraner joined us this week to talk about the five most popular films from thier live midnight movie Nite Owl Theatre. Fritz hosted a late night movie show in Columbus from ’74 to ’91 and in 2010, he and McGraner took Fritz’s particular brand of entertainment to the public and online. Here we talk about the 5 films that got the best fan reaction over their years together.

5. Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

No horror filmmaker could do more with a buck than Roger Corman. Back in 1960, he was still directing a lot of the shoestring budget flicks he produced, and the shiniest and most unexpected gem was this ode to bloodthirsty horticulture. In ’86, Frank Oz would make a campier film version of the stage musical , but the original is a spare, zany black comedy.

Clumsy, lovestruck Seymour (Jonathan Haze) just wants to impress his florist boss with the plant he’s growing at home in a coffee can. Unfortunately, that plant – Audrey, Jr. – is an unholy Venus Flytrap hybrid thirsty for human blood.

The comedy is broad and dated, relying on more than a few stereotypes for laughs, but the unique premise and memorable performances – especially Jack Nicholson’s cameo – keep it fun.

4. Trick ‘r Treat (2007)

Back in ’07, Columbus native and screenwriter Brian Dougherty – hot off a couple well-received superhero screenplays – made the leap to directing with this comic-book inspired collection of related horror shorts.

The visually stunning effort follows holiday revelers in a homey small town. Brian Cox, as a “get off my lawn!” style old coot, is tormented by a small trick or treater. Meanwhile, Anna Paquin’s Red Riding Hood costume carries mean symbolism and Dylan Baker plays a more indecent character here than he did in Todd Solondz’s Happiness.

Dougherty’s fluid camera work, glorious use of color and sense of darkest humor combine in what amounts to what may be the very best anthology style horror movie.

3. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

You know the drill – teens on suburban Elm St. share nightmares, and one by one, these teens are not waking up. Not that their disbelieving parents care. When Tina woke one night, her nightgown shredded by Freddie’s razor fingers, her super-classy mother admonished, “Tina, hon, you gotta cut your fingernails or you gotta stop that kind of dreamin’. One or the other.”

Depositing a boogieman in your dreams, creating nightmares that will truly kill you, was a genius concept by writer/director Wes Craven because you can only stay awake for so long. It took everyone’s fear of nightmares to a more concrete level. Plus, it introduced the world to Johnny Depp.

The film suffers from a low budget and weak FX that date it – not to mention Heather Langenkamp’s weak performanc – but it’s still a great movie. That face that stretches through the wall is cool, the too-long out arms reaching out behind Tina are still scary. The nightmare images are apt, and the hopscotch chant and the vision of Freddie himself were not only refreshingly original but wildly creepy.

2. Alien (1979)

After a vagina-hand-sucker-beast attaches itself to your face, it gestates inside you, then tears through your innards. Then it grows exponentially, hides a second set of teeth, and bleeds acid. How much cooler could this possibly be?

Director Ridley Scott handled the film perfectly, emphasizing the tin can quality of the futuristic vessel. These people are simply not safe – they probably were in danger before bringing the afflicted John Hurt back on board. It’s dark in there, decaying and nasty – just like some moldy old mansion. The trick here is that these people- unlike the inhabitants of a haunted house – truly cannot go anywhere. Where would they go? They’re in space.

Much ado has been made, rightfully so, of the John Hurt Chest Explosion (I loved their early albums, before they went commercial). But Scott’s lingering camera leaves unsettling impressions in far simpler ways, starting with the shot of all those eggs.

1. The Shining (1980)

What more can we possibly say about this movie?

The hypnotic, innocent sound of Danny Torrance’s Big Wheel against the weirdly phallic patterns of the hotel carpet tells so much – about the size of the place, about the monotony of the existence, about hidden perversity. The sound is so lulling that its abrupt ceasing becomes a signal of spookiness afoot.

Jack Nicholson outdoes himself. His early, veiled contempt blossoms into pure homicidal mania, and there’s something so wonderful about watching Nicholson slowly lose his mind. Between writer’s block, isolation, ghosts, alcohol withdrawal, midlife crisis, and “a momentary loss of muscular coordination,” the playfully sadistic creature lurking inside this husband and father emerges.

What image stays with you most? The two creepy little girls? The blood pouring out of the elevator? The impressive afro in the velvet painting above Scatman Crothers’s bed? That freaky guy in the bear suit? Whatever the answer, thanks be to Kubrick’s deviant yet tidy imagination.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1G7Ju035-8U

Hear the full conversation with Fritz on our Fright Club podcast.

Check out Fritz’s schedule, grab some episodes and merch at fritzlives.com You can also like him on FB @ Fritz the Nite Owl and on Twitter @niteowltheatre.

Nite Owl Theatre shows the 4th Saturday of every month at Gateway Film Center, 1550 N. High St., Columbus, OH 43201.

 

Third Time Lacks Charm

Insidious: Chapter 3

by Hope Madden

Mid-budget, R-rated horror can land a surprising punch. Sinister, The Purge, Paranormal Activity and others benefitted from filmmakers’ dark imagination and the freedom to explore unsettling territory.

Similarly budgeted PG-13 horror is more of a mixed bag. The younger target audience frees filmmakers up to steal from older films, and the family-friendly rating sometimes means sterilized scares. There are exceptions: The Ring, The Grudge, Insidious.

The first film in this trilogy offered a wildly imaginative take on ghost stories and possession. A spooky if somewhat traditional haunted house tale turns insane as director James Wan articulated writer Leigh Whannell’s concept of “the Further” – the realm beyond ours where creepy spirits play pipe organs and tiptoe through tulips.

It is tough for a filmmaker to show us something that phantasmal. Generally, leaving it up to the audience’s imagination is the better bet, but Wan and Whannell took a chance and it paid off with disturbing success.

The two returned for a sequel, with lesser results. For the third chapter, Whannell – longtime horror writer, first time director – takes the helm for an origin story.

Elise (Lin Shaye) has retired from the psychic biz after a personal tragedy and a spectral scare, but she’s drawn reluctantly back into the game when spunky teen Quinn (Stefanie Scott) finds herself dogged by a nasty entity she’d mistaken for her dead mother.

As a director, Whannell relies heavily on jump scares, and his image of “the Further” lacks all the panache and terror of the original.

He’s replaced this with a hero/victim that better suits a younger audience. Rather than watching desperate parents struggling to save their children, we follow the increasingly more helpless adolescent as her angsty high school drama turns into something far more sinister.

There’s no depth to the emotional turmoil and the supernatural element is far less clever. This is not a film that will haunt you as you turn out the lights, but it will make you jump while you’re watching, which is sometimes success enough.

Verdict-2-5-Stars

This Just In: McCarthy Hilarious

Spy

by George Wolf

Man, I’m tired of actresses that I don’t find attractive trying to carry a movie, let alone a comedy! I mean, it’s okay for someone like Will Ferrell to be crude or maybe use his physique for some laughs, but women should keep in mind that it’s just not ladylike. And what about onscreen romances? They really should be believable, like Kevin James and Rosario Dawson, you know? What are those Hollywood elites thinking?

Well, Spy is thinking about pointing out what a steaming pile of double standard b.s. that argument is, and being solidly funny while doing it.

It’s the latest teamup for director Paul Feig and star Melissa McCarthy, who gave us the hilarity of Bridesmaids and its one-for-the-ages character of Megan. Feig also gets writing credit this time, and it’s hard to believe he didn’t craft the script especially for McCarthy.

She plays Susan Cooper, a “basement” employee at the CIA who spends most of her time as Girl Friday to super spy Bradley Fine (Jude Law). But when Fine is taken out and the identities of all current field agents are compromised, it’s up to Susan to go under cover across the globe, gain the trust of the villainous Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) and rescue a rogue nuke before it can be sold to terrorists.

So yes, it’s a sendup of Bond-type capers, and a good one. Feig delivers surprisingly stable action sequences, and plenty of freedom for his stellar ensemble to create some infectious fun.

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. British favorite Miranda Hart also gets big laughs as Nancy, a fellow CIA desk jockey who follows Cooper into the fray and remains pleasantly clueless as to the danger at hand.

But this is McCarthy’s show, and a leading role tailor made for her powerhouse talent. As 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.

Spy is not only really funny, it’s plenty smart, and just a damn good time.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

It’s Not the Sandman

The Nightmare

by Hope Madden

An effective scary movie is one that haunts your dreams long after the credits roll. It’s that kind of impact most horror buffs are seeking, but even the most ardent genre fan will hope out loud that Rodney Ascher’s new documentary The Nightmare doesn’t follow them to sleep.

His film explores sleep paralysis. It’s a sleep disorder – or a label hung on the world’s most unfortunate night terrors – that’s haunted humanity for eons. Most sufferers never realize that others share their misery.

Sleep paralysis is the phenomenon that inspired Wes Craven to write A Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s a clear creative root for Insidious, Borgman and scores of other horror movies. But it isn’t fiction. It’s a sometimes nightly horror show real people have to live with. And dig this – it sounds like it might be contagious.

Ascher’s a fascinating, idiosyncratic filmmaker. His documentaries approach some dark, often morbid topics with a sense of wonder. His films never seem to be pushing an agenda, he doesn’t seem to have made up his mind on his subject matter. Rather, he is open which, in turn, invites the audience to be open.

It’s not all earnest sleuthing, though, because Ascher is a real showman. What’s intriguing is the way he draws your attention to his craftsmanship – like framing a shot so you see the speaker not head on, but in a large mirror’s reflection, then leaving the reflection of the cameraman’s arm in the same shot. Touches like this never feel amateurish, but they don’t really feel like a cinematic wink, either. Instead they seem intentional, as if he may just be playing.

Coyness suited his Shining documentary Room 237 pretty brilliantly. Here it feels almost like a way to release the tension, remind you that you are, indeed, watching a movie… a heartbreaking, terrifying movie.

I spend a great deal of time watching horror movies, and I cannot remember an instance in my life that I considered turning off a film for fear that I would dream about it later. Until now.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

Original Artist

Love and Mercy

by George Wolf

Love and Mercy is a music biography that doesn’t follow the standard playbook. More abstract than similar films in the genre, its dual narrative approach is not only welcome, but one that feels entirely appropriate for the life involved.

Even if you’ve never heard a note of Brian Wilson’s music, one listen to “God Only Knows,” “Good Vibrations,” “Caroline, No” 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.

Rather than a complete overview of Wilson’s entire life, acclaimed screenwriter Oren Moverman (Rampart, The Messenger, I’m Not There) anchors the film around two watershed periods: the late 1960s, when Wilson stopped touring to concentrate on recording, and the late 1980s, when questionable treatment for psychological issues left him an emotional invalid.

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.

Pohlad, a veteran producer directing his first film in nearly 25 years, turns to John Cusack for the role of the older Wilson, and it pays off. Though not the physical match Dano is, Cusack nails Wilson’s speech pattern and hesitant gait and more importantly, he projects the weariness of a decades-long torment. Terrific support comes from Elizabeth Banks as the girlfriend who helped Wilson toward a breakthrough, and her chemistry with Cusack conveys a tender desperation.

Beyond some basic introductions of family and band members, Moverman’s script isn’t interested in spoon feeding. A degree in music history may not be necessary, but viewers already familiar with names such as Van Dyke Parks, Hal Blaine and Dr. Eugene Landy (a perfectly slimy Paul Giamatti) will feel even greater appreciation for the film’s disinterest in pandering.

Pohland crafts the studio segments with precision and an eye for detail. Rather than a greatest hits musical revue, we hear segments of the songs as they’re being constructed, and glimpse Wilson’s obsessive innovations in the studio, tirelessly directing the famed “wrecking crew” of studio musicians until he gets the perfect mix.

There are only minor bumps along the way. Pohland is a tad too preoccupied with time stamping via TV news reports and top 40 hits, and really, one closeup of Wilson trying to follow the sounds inside his head is enough to get the point across.

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.

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars