Effective Blunt Instrument

Sicario

by Hope Madden

How versatile is Emily Blunt?

Who’d have thought, back when she caught our attention in Devil Wears Prada or The Young Victoria that she’d step so easily into the role of badass? But between her shotgun-wielding protector in Looper and her Sigourney Weaver-esque role in Edge of Tomorrow, she’s proven as compelling a figure in action as she is in comedy and drama. She proves her mettle again in Denis Villeneuve’s take on the drug war, Sicario.

Blunt plays Kate Macer, a determined cop working hostage crises who’s promoted to a vaguely defined drug taskforce. She will find that her desire to make an impact and her hunger for justice do not always gel. It’s a flawed character who struggles against her naiveté while battling to keep her idealism intact in an operation that vividly encapsulates the murky, complex, and unwholesome battle at our Southern border.

As wonderful as Blunt is, she’s matched step for step by Josh Brolin, as a flippant senior officer who finds humor where most of us would not, and a breathtaking Benicio Del Toro.

Del Toro is at his best as a haunted, mysterious consultant on the case, and his relationship with Blunt’s character is equally menacing and tender.

Villeneuve’s films are dark and challenging, which is certainly the case with Sicario – his most satisfying film to date.

By focusing as intimately as he does on three or four characters, the global picture he paints is anchored, becoming more relevant and comprehensible. Roger Deakins’s weirdly beautiful cinematography mimics the rising panic of Kate’s attempt to soak in every piece of information in her new surroundings, generating an awestruck and terrified depiction of the escalating action.

Villeneuve walks a line between thoughtful drama and all out action film, never abandoning character while still creating arresting, unforgettable action sequences. The opening scene will stay with you, while two different visits to the border – one above ground, one below – are pure cinematic genius.

A tourism advertisement it is not, but Sicario offers an insightful, thrilling glimpse into a possibly unsolvable riddle.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

Walk of Fame

The Walk

by George Wolf

If you’ve seen Man on Wire, the Oscar-winning documentary from 2008, you may wonder if The Walk is even necessary (as if Hollywood cares). James Marsh’s look inside the legendary wire walk across the Twin Towers was as poetic as it was thrilling, and it left any other film on the subject a skyscraper-high hill to climb.

The Walk brings together director Robert Zemeckis, star Joseph Gordon-Levitt and some vertigo-inducing wizardry to give the story an newly polished sheen.

Gordon-Levitt is Philippe Petit, the effervescent Frenchman who pulled off the “artistic crime of the century.” In August of 1974, he successfully rigged a wire from the top of one tower to the other and walked across…and back..and back again.

The high whimsy count in the film’s first half could be expected from the director behind Forrest Gump, but it’s also a clear attempt to create a distinct identity for re-telling the tale. Zemeckis, who also co-wrote the script based on Petit’s book, has Gordon-Levitt in character atop the Statue of Liberty, scaling the “fourth wall” and narrating his journey from naive street performer to international sensation.

The overly fantastical narrative loses its charm pretty quickly, never approaching the emotional connection that drove Man on Wire. Gordon-Levitt, though, is a wonderful choice for Petit, with a performance good enough to make those unfamiliar with Petit’s tireless personality think the portrayal is over the top. No, that’s Petit.

The backstory does seems rushed, and when Petit’s team converges on the WTC to put the illegal scheme in motion, you’re not sure he’s earned the right to try it. But if Zemeckis is in a hurry to get Petit out on that wire, you quickly find out why, as questions about the film’s necessity are rebutted once the moment of truth arrives.

Man on Wire could only provide still photos from, as Petit calls it, “the coup,” but The Walk puts you there. Zemeckis and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (Prometheus) unveil an array of truly wondrous visuals not for the faint of height. As with the recent Everest, this is a film meant to be seen in all its 3D IMAX eye-popping glory

Zemeckis saves any subtlety for where it counts the most, treating the memory of the WTC towers with a welcome, restrained dignity. That, coupled with the breathtaking recreation of a once-in-a-lifetime feat, makes The Walk a worthy trip.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

 

 

Does the Sex Part Always Get in the Way?

Sleeping with Other People

By Christie Robb

The latest rom-com to follow in the footsteps of 1989’s classic When Harry Met Sally is Leslye Headland’s Sleeping with Other People (which was originally pitched as “When Harry Met Sally for Assholes.” It also examines the question of whether heterosexual men and women can be friends.

Like When Harry Met Sally, SWOP starts with a relatively unrealistic flashback scene to college days where unfortunate period clothing choices and bad bangs are supposed to provide sufficient suspension of disbelief for us to see two folks knocking on middle age as dorm inhabitants. Here we meet our romantic leads, Lainey (Alison Brie) and Jake (Jason Sudeikis), two old virgins aching to give it up. He’s waiting for the right person. She’s been scorned by her person. They decide to bone each other.

Flash forward 12 years and Lainey and Jake meet for the second time at a sex addicts meeting. He, having been abandoned by Lainey after one night, only sleeps with women he is comfortable being left by. She’s still addicted to the love of the dude who rejected her in college and is furtively banging him.

Jake and Lainey rekindle their collegiate spark, but because of their issues, decide to keep things platonic, employing a safe word whenever the sex part rears its head. Of course, things get complicated.

Perhaps SWOP doesn’t break new ground in rom-commery, but it’s delightful nonetheless. The aspirational dialogue, reminiscent of Gilmore Girls in its sweeping references, is brainy but also captivatingly nasty. (There’s a whole rant about “juices” and a masturbation demo that some college kids probably should be taking notes on.)

The raunch helps balance out the more saccharine moments. The casting helps as well. Natasha Lyonne (Orange is the New Black) is great, if somewhat underutilized, as Lainey’s gay best friend. Andrea Savage (Dinner for Schmucks) and Jason Mantzoukas (Neighbors) shine as the cool married couple with kids. Billy Eichner (Difficult People/Parks and Recreation) has an amazing little monologue as a sex addict. The only thing really missing is LeBron, who I believe should now be contractually obligated to appear at least once in every rom-com.

Brie and Sudeikis also really work. Their chemistry is believable and they pull off both the smutty repartee and the longing equally well.

Stick around for the end credits.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 

 

 

Gonna Fly Hopefully Sometime in the Future

Sons of Ben

by George Wolf

What if they didn’t give a sports team…and fans cheered anyway?

And what if they kept cheering, long and loud until they couldn’t be ignored?

Find the answers in Sons of Ben, a passionate, and ultimately inspiring documentary on how an unlikely dream came true for a bunch of crazed soccer fans.

When Major League Soccer announced their list of teams for the league’s inaugural season in 1996, Philly native Bryan James and his buddies were pretty disappointed they were not getting a home team to cheer. The disappointment only grew, leading to the realization that there might be “no better way to land a team, than to be fans of a team that doesn’t exist.”

Once that lightbulb came on, the guys got inspired, and someone pitched the name “Sons of Ben,” for their new fan club. It worked not just because of the Ben Franklin angle, but it could easily be shortened to the “S.O.B’s” and that seemed pretty appropriate for the nuisance these guys were committed to becoming.

Armed with a really sweet logo, these guys showed up at as many soccer events as possible, cheering for their non-existent team, until, in James’s words, “sheer luck” got them press coverage, and then the ball started rolling.

Writer/director Jeffrey C. Bell sets a confident, entertaining pace for the fan club’s formation, wisely making it personal when he can. We see the toll that James’s duties as S.O.B president take on his home life, and how easily group members get choked up when talking about the grass roots movement and the meaning it holds in their lives.

Even better, Bell takes us inside the plans to build Philly’s soccer stadium in the downtrodden suburb of Chester. Without getting too heavy-handed, Bell reminds us that in the big business of sports stadiums, promises made are not always promises kept.

The 75 minute running time does feel a bit slight, leaving a few questions unexplored (like who did that logo), but Sons of Ben is an underdog sports story with a unique twist, and a Rocky-sized heart.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

 

Twitter- @sonsofbenmovie

Facebook- https://www.facebook.com/SoBmovie

Website- www.sonsofbenmovie.com

Fright Club: Best Twin Horror

Listen to the whole conversation on our FRIGHT CLUB PODCAST.

For whatever reason, filmmakers and moviegoers alike seem to find twins inherently creepy. Would The Shining have been as menacing if it were just another child trying to lure Danny to his death? No – for some reason what’s particularly terrifying is the image of those two identical girls waving and beckoning, “Come play with us, Danny…”

It’s as if they’ve conspired. You’re outnumbered. There’s the idea that they’re doppelgangers able to fool the rest of us, that or they are two half beings unable to live without the other and yet perhaps quietly desperate to try.

We’ve enlisted the help of Senior Twin Correspondent Joy Madden (she’s Hope’s evil twin, FYI) to puzzle through the best in twin horror. Unlike The Shining, though, twins are the centerpiece of these films and it is their very twin-ness that drives the story.

5. Basket Case (1982)

This film is fed by a particularly twin-linked anxiety. Can anyone really be the love of one twin’s life, and if so, where does that leave the other twin? More than that, though, the idea of separating conjoined twins is just irresistible to dark fantasy. Rock bottom production values and ridiculous FX combine with the absurdist concept and poor acting to result in an entertaining splatter comedy a bit like Peter Jackson’s early work.

When super-wholesome teenage Duane moves into a cheap and dangerous New York flophouse, it’s easy to become anxious for him. But that’s not laundry in his basket, Belial is in the basket -Duane’s deformed, angry, bloodthirsty, jealous twin brother – but not just a twin, a formerly conjoined twin. What he really is, of course, is Duane’s id – his Hyde, his Hulk, his Danny DeVito. And together the brothers tear a bloody, vengeful rip in the fabric of family life.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtmLKrxR6H0

4. Sisters (1973)

We’re all probably familiar with director Brian De Palma’s long and sometimes tiresome journey through his own person obsessions with Alfred Hitchcock. He married Hitch’s high-tension score and murder mystery plotlines with Mario Bava’s sexualized violence to create his own hybrid, which began with this twin sister trauma.

French Canadian model Danielle (Margot Kidder) may or may not have a once-conjoined twin who may or may not be a diabolical killer in this “is she or isn’t she” mind bender. Separation anxiety and a general nervousness about twins as an alien concept fuel this murder mystery that takes some hard left turns – some novel, some now clichéd. Whatever the flaws, though, De Palma’s panache and Hitchcockisms are in full bloom in this stylish, often creepy thriller.

3. Dead Ringers (1988)

The film is about separation anxiety, with the effortlessly melancholy Jeremy Irons playing a set of gynecologist twins on a downward spiral. Cronenberg doesn’t consider this a horror film at all. Truth is, because the twin brothers facing emotional and mental collapse are gynecologists, Cronenberg is wrong.

Irons is brilliant as Elliot and Beverly Mantle, bringing such flair and, eventually, childlike charm to the performance you feel almost grateful. Like some of the greats, he manages to create two very distinct yet appropriately linked personalities, and Cronenberg’s interest is the deeply painful power shift as they try and fail to find independence from the other. The film’s pace is slow and its horror subtle, but the uncomfortable moments are peculiarly, artfully Cronenberg.

2. Goodnight Mommy (2014)

During one languid summer, twin brothers Lukas and Elias await their mother’s return from the hospital. They spend their time bouncing on a trampoline, floating in a pond, or exploring the fields and woods around the house. But when their mom comes home, bandaged from the cosmetic surgery she underwent, the brothers fear more has changed than just her face.

Inside this elegantly filmed environment, where sun dappled fields lead to leafy forests, the filmmakers mine a kind of primal childhood fear. The filmmakers’ graceful storytelling leads you down one path before utterly upending everything you think you know. They never spoon feed you information, depending instead on your astute observation – a refreshing approach in this genre.

Performances by young brothers Lukas and Elias Schwarz compel interest, while Susanne Wuest’s cagey turn as the boys’ mother propels the mystery. It’s a hypnotic, bucolic adventure as visually arresting as it is utterly creepy. The film is going to go where you don’t expect it to go, even if you expect you’ve uncovered its secrets.

1. The Other (1972)

Director Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird) is a master of slow reveal, feeding us information as we need it and pulling no punches in the meantime. It’s rural 1930s, and one hearty farm family has withstood a lot. Ever since Dad died last summer, seems like every time you turn around there’s some crazy mishap. And yet, the farm still goes on – there’s always a pie in the oven and a cow that needs milking. Still, Ada (Uta Hagen), the sturdy German matriarch, is troubled. Sweet, stout young Niles seems terribly confused about his twin, Holland.

Mulligan turns to that same nostalgic, heartland approach he used so beautifully with Mockingbird to inform a stunningly crafted, understated film that sneaks up on you. He creates what is likely the most effective and troubling film you’ll see about twins.

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

Not Easy Being Green

The Green Inferno

by Hope Madden

Filmmakers often use their work to pay homage to other filmmakers. Sometimes this looks like a direct rip off, but when done well – as it was earlier this year in David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows – it can elevate a picture while generating nostalgia and paying tribute.

It works better if the films you homage were good in the first place, though.

Love him or hate him (and it appears most everyone does one or the other), Eli Roth is one such filmmaker. His latest, The Green Inferno, takes inspiration from a very particular style of film. These cannibal flicks, mostly made by Italians in the late Seventies and early Eighties, dropped naïve Westerners in jungles populated by flesh hungry head hunters.

Roth’s flick does likewise with a set of idealistic college students, including Justine (Lorenza Izzo – Roth’s real life wife). They just want to stop developers in Peru from destroying tribal villages, but when their plane crashes deep in the jungle, they go from activists to appetizers.

The films that inspired Roth’s picture – Ruggero Deodato’s infamous Cannibal Holocaust, in particular – are known for their goretastic imagery, exuberant violence, ethnocentrism, and general taboo-shattering.

Though it’s a slog getting to the action, when Inferno finally does pit student youth group against Peruvian cannibal tribe, blood, limbs, and entrails go flying.

Like most of Roth’s work, there’s a dark and cynical sense of humor underlying the melee. As with his Hostel films, beneath the concussive violence and body part slurry there lies an attempt at political insight. But with Inferno, the traditional heroine arc and confused jabs at political correctness undermine any relevant statement.

Plus, the acting is abysmal, the writing clichéd, and the comic moments are so poorly executed you get the feeling the filmmaker and his writing partners felt equal contempt for characters and audience alike.

For true fans of this particular genre, though, solid performances and stellar writing are hardly the point, but here’s the rub. The Green Inferno feels like nothing more than a neutered Cannibal Holocaust.

Not that we need another Cannibal Holocaust, nor do we probably need to resurrect a genre that died out for reasons as extreme as those associated with the jungle cannibal movie, but if you can’t improve on its weaknesses and you can’t match its bombast, what is the point, exactly?

Verdict-1-0-Star

Beautiful, but Boring

Wildlike

By Christie Robb

The movie Wildlike has the pace and emotional warmth of a glacier grinding down the slopes of Denali.

The first full-length feature from writer/director Frank Hall Green, the film follows Mackenzie (Ella Purnell, Maleficent), a 14-year-old girl sent to live with her uncle in Juneau while her widowed mother makes a stint at recovery.

The relationship, at first tender, soon becomes creepy and emotionally manipulative and Mackenzie flees. She spends the remainder of the movie stoically trying to get herself back to her mom in the lower 48. Ultimately, she ends up more or less stalking this poor widower (Bruce Greenwood, Star Trek) who’s on a solo hiking trip to mourn his ex wife. Mackenzie spots his return ferry ticket to Seattle, and after that adheres herself to him like a tick, and they wander about the – admittedly beautifully shot – Alaskan wilderness.

Although at first determined to get rid of her, the dude ultimately becomes a kind of surrogate dad. At least he rejects her awkward attempt to sleep with him, anyway.

The two bond for some reason—he tells her about his regrets and she…looks at him with watery, mascara-rimmed eyes.

The film has been praised for its minimalism and Purnell’s nuanced performance, but without seemingly necessary dialogue to flesh out Mackenzie, Purnell’s emotional restraint suppresses the character development necessary to understand why her travelling companion doesn’t simply turn her over to child protective services at the first available opportunity.

Verdict-1-0-Star

Get Coffee? You Talkin’ to Me?

The Intern

by George Wolf

If you need a feel-good romantic comedy about rich white people aging friskily, Nancy Meyers would be a safe bet to bring it.

With both Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated, writer and director Meyers leaned on veteran talent (Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin) to get the most out of amusing scripts that were fun first, feeling later.

She tries to bring the same formula to The Intern, but ends up pushing much too hard to manufacture something that just isn’t there.

Again, her A-listers aren’t too shabby. Robert DeNiro is Ben, a retired widower who needs something to do. Anne Hathaway plays Jules, the founder of an online clothing company that’s growing like a weed. Jules forgets giving the green light to a senior internship program (“Seniors in high school? No, seniors in life!”) and isn’t really thrilled when the 70 year-old Ben is assigned to assist her personally.

Not a thing wrong with pointing out how much older citizens still have to offer, but Meyers never wants her films to make you think too much. The Intern gets buried under shallow contrivance and outright silliness.

You don’t for one second believe Jules is the tough-as-nails workaholic taskmaster we’re told she is, and the entire workplace smacks of an overly rehearsed training video for hipster boss dot com. Ben? He might as well be Santa Claus, gifting life lessons to all he encounters, as his co-workers pose like department store mannequins and look on in amazement.

It all hits an embarrassing low point when Ben takes three of them on a needless adventure that leads to calling each other “Clooney” and “Affleck’s brother” while pretending they’re in Ocean’s Eleven. With a running time of two full hours, this 20 minutes would be welcome on the cutting room floor.

DeNiro and Hathaway give it their all, but like the rest of us, they seem to be waiting for the human moments that Jack or Meryl got to work with. They never come, replaced instead with empty speeches about “getting lost” while finding out “who I am.”

Rene Russo’s small part is a much-needed boost, and her scenes with DeNiro suggest where Meyers could have built a better movie, forgoing the younger generation that she can’t write nearly as well. As it stands, most everything about The Intern feels fake, and considering the resumes involved, that’s a big letdown.

Verdict-2-5-Stars

 

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh, Ich seh)

by Hope Madden

There is something eerily beautiful about Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s rural Austrian horror Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh, Ich seh).

During one languid summer, twin brothers Lukas and Elias await their mother’s return from the hospital. They spend their time bouncing on a trampoline, floating in a pond, or exploring the fields and woods around the house. But when their mom comes home, bandaged from the cosmetic surgery she underwent, the brothers fear more has changed than just her face.

Franz and Fiala owe a great debt to an older American film, but to name it would be to give far too much away, and the less you know about Goodnight Mommy, the better.

Inside this elegantly filmed environment, where sun dappled fields lead to leafy forests, the filmmakers mine a kind of primal childhood fear. There’s a subtle lack of compassion that works the nerves beautifully, because it’s hard to feel too badly for the boys or for their mother. You don’t wish harm on any of them, but at the same time, their flaws make all three a bit terrifying.

The filmmakers’ graceful storytelling leads you down one path before utterly upending everything you think you know. They never spoon feed you information, depending instead on your astute observation – a refreshing approach in this genre.

Performances by young brothers Lukas and Elias Schwarz compel interest, while Susanne Wuest’s cagey turn as the boys’ mother propels the mystery. It’s a hypnotic, bucolic adventure as visually arresting as it is utterly creepy.

The film is going to go where you don’t expect it to go, even if you expect you’ve uncovered its secrets.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hisSd7qyY40

Fright Club: Best Werewolf Movies

In honor of George Wolf’s birthday on “the 21st night of September” (thanks Earth, Wind & Fire!), we celebrate Wolf men today. Not the fuzzy abomination of the Twilight wolf boys – let’s skip them. In fact, in prepping for this one we noticed an awful lot of really bad werewolf movies, and even more decent efforts undone by the real curse of lycanthropy – the prosthetics and make up. There’s also one we leave off this list that will piss a lot of people off. It was a close call, but we gave goth poetry the nod over Eighties social commentary.

5. The Company of Wolves (1984)

Neil Jordan’s poetic tale of sexual awakening is saturated with metaphors and symbols – most of them a bit naughty. A young girl dreams a Little Red Riding Hood type fable. She was just a girl, after all, who’d strayed from the path in the forest.

Jordan looks at a lot of the same themes you’ll find in any coming of age horror – the hysteria surrounding the move into womanhood. It’s just that he does it with such a sly delivery.

Theatrical and atmospheric, it’s not a classic horror tale, but it is creepy and it builds genuine dread. It also takes some provocative turns, and it boasts a quick but outstanding cameo by Terence Stamp as the Prince of Darkness.

4. The Wolf Man (1941)

Obviously this classic needs to be remembered in any examination of the genre. Lon Chaney, Jr.’s incredibly sympathetic turn as the big American schlub who keeps accidentally killing people anchors a film that has aged surprisingly well. Just compare it to its heinous 2010 reboot and you, too, will long for the grace of the original.

Sure, the score, the sets, the fog and high drama can feel especially precious. And what self-respecting wolf man goes by the name Larry? But there’s something lovely and tragic about poor, old Larry that helps the film remain compelling after more than sixty years.

3. Ginger Snaps (2000)
Sisters Ginger and Bridget, outcasts in the wasteland of Canadian suburbia, cling to each other, and reject/loathe high school (a feeling that high school in general returns).

On the evening of Ginger’s first period, she’s bitten by a werewolf. Writer Karen Walton cares not for subtlety: the curse, get it? It turns out, lycanthropy makes for a pretty vivid metaphor for puberty. This turn of events proves especially provocative and appropriate for a film that upends many mainstay female cliches. Walton’s wickedly humorous script stays in your face with the metaphors, successfully building an entire film on clever turns of phrase, puns, and analogies, stirring up the kind of hysteria that surrounds puberty, sex, reputations, body hair, and one’s own helplessness to these very elements. It’s as insightful a high school horror film as you’ll find, peppered equally with dark humor and gore – kind of A Canadian Werewolf in High School, if you will.

2. Dog Soldiers (2002)

Before Neil Marshall freaked us all out with the excellent genre flick The Descent, he breathed new life into the werewolf tale by abandoning a group of soldiers in the Scottish highlands as bait.

Wry humor, impenetrable accents, and a true sense of being out in the middle of nowhere help separate this from legions of other wolf men tales. Marshall uses an army’s last stand approach beautifully. This is like any genre pic where a battalion is trapped behind enemy lines – just as vivid, bloody and tense. But the enemies this time are giant, hairy, hungry monsters. So the idea (fantastically realized here) of traitors takes on a little extra something-something.

1. An American Werewolf in London (1981)

We’ve mentioned John Landis’s groundbreaking horror comedy in the past. It is the best of the bunch for a number of reasons: a darkly funny script, sharp writing that propels the action, Oscar-winning effects, a cool looking wolf. But is there one scene that encapsulates it all?

A pasty, purse-lipped Brit businessman leaves the train in an otherwise empty, harshly lit subway station. He pumps a small vending machine with change and comes out with mints. A tiny smirk of satisfaction crosses his face as he begins to unwrap the item, but the look turns to a grimace of unpleasant surprise. Echoing through the empty, rounded corridor comes a far off growl.

“Hello? Is there someone there?”

Again the growl.

Stern voice: “I can assure you that this is not the least bit amusing. I shall report this.”

There now, those hooligans have ruined his happy mint moment.

The camera follows him up an escalator, around a turn, into a rounded tunnel-like corridor uninterrupted for a long stretch by doors or windows. It’s a claustrophobic nightmare.

The camera takes the beast’s eye view, rounding a nearby corner, eyeing the Englishman. We see the terror as he backs away.

“Good lord.”

That awful howling sound.

And then David wakes up naked in the zoo.

Join the conversation on our Fright Club Podcast.