Making America Great

The Purge: Election Year

by Hope Madden

America is having one pretty insane election year. The conservatives’ Presidential candidate is the wacko, egomaniacal figurehead for a party bent on feeding the bloodlust of its citizenry to protect their own wealth while thinning the herd of those Americans it deems unworthy.

Oh, also – The Purge: Election Year is out this weekend.

Writer/director James DeMonaco returns for the third installment in his trilogy of cathartic blood sport – a phrase that describes both the act of watching the series and DeMonaco’s plot.

In 2013, the filmmaker ushered forth a home-invasion movie based on the intriguing premise of a not-so-distant America that embraces a government-sanctioned (encouraged, even!) yearly celebration of lawlessness.

DeMonaco returned last year with a sequel that took the analogy to the streets, digging deeper into the racial and socio-economic message he flirted with in the original. The third installment follows Presidential candidate Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a purge survivor running on a platform of ending the bloody celebration forever.

Never a fan of subtlety, DeMonaco throws every piece of contemporary political filth at the screen while leading this franchise to its reasonably logical conclusion. Murder tourism, entitled teens with a hunger for gore and chocolate, one-percenters literally worshipping at the altar of death, religious zealots preaching the divinity of slaughtering the under-privileged and the women who would defy them – you will find it all.

Though the story moves with the Senator and her chief of security, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo, returning from The Purge: Anarchy), the film only finds its anchor with a trio of regular folks trying to survive the night.

Mykelti Williamson owns every scene as Joe Dixon, a deli owner guarding his business from the rooftop with his shotgun and his loyal employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria). Filling out their group is Laney Rucker (Betty Gabriel), a badass from the neighborhood who prowls the street in a reinforced van offering medical aid.

Considering the overt racial tensions that fuel DeMonaco’s script as well as the yearly purge, it’s appropriate that the strongest characters be those of color; it’s unfortunate that DeMonaco relegates them to support.

A mish-mash of ideas stolen from other, better films as well as Fox News, the effort amplifies the lunacy of the current political climate, reaching a level of hyperbole and mania that should feel more cathartic than it does.

Verdict-2-5-Stars

Day of the Dead

Swiss Army Man

by George Wolf

Makeshift toy boats drift out to sea, carrying cries for help ranging from “I don’t want to die alone” to “I’m so bored.” Swiss Army Man sets its off-kilter tone early, and then things get weird. Fart-powered motor boat weird.

Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded alone on a deserted island, quite literally at the end of his rope. While contemplating his end, he spies a body (Daniel Radcliffe) in the surf and suddenly, Hank has a new friend. His name is Manny, and he’s dead.

Turns out Manny has plenty of uses (like the fart-powered motor boat thing) and before long the stranded pair is singing songs, putting on shows, and ruminating on reasons to live.

In their feature debut, the writer/director team of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (aka “Daniels”) crafts a wild, imaginative odyssey alive with color and wonderful set pieces. Swiss Army Man has abundant charm, occasional hilarity and a few moments of magic, but the Daniels directing vision is always two steps ahead of their scriptwriting depth.

Excessively revelatory music heralds layers of resonance that never come, and we settle instead for warmed over sentiments about disconnection and vulnerability. The approach is often just too cute for its own good, the Daniels seemingly confident their earnest outlandishness will win you over.

They’re pretty much right.

This is a film that will tweak your curiosity as often as it tests your patience, and the Birdman-style ending may leave you struggling to come up with any reaction other than “that was weird,” but you will be entertained.

Dano and Radcliffe complement each other well, both delivering committed performances that turn Hank and Manny into some sort of bizarro Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Sure, Swiss Army Man chases too many windmills, but I’m still anxious to see what Daniels might come up with next.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

F Is Not for Flatulent?

The BFG

by Hope Madden

“It was the witching hour, when the boogeyman comes out, when people go missing.”

That’s a proper way to start a story or a film, but who’d have expected less? Roald Dahl knew how to tell a story, and Steven Spielberg knows how to make a film. This summer, Spielberg puts his skills to the test as he takes Dahl’s beloved tale The BFG to the screen.

The tale of a London orphan befriended by a Big Friendly Giant, the story itself is fairly slight, but Spielberg’s imagination is not.

In an era when the third dimension is thrown around the multiplex with needless abandon, The BFG stands out. 3D has rarely been employed so grandly. Spielberg bridges live action and motion-capture animation with a stunningly articulated fantasy world that captures you from the film’s opening moments.

John Williams’s lovely score – part Raiders of the Lost Arc (his own), part Wizard of Oz – matches Spielberg’s overall approach, which employs every modern whistle in service of a film that feels old school.

As the title character, Oscar winner Mark Rylance proves as capable with giant gibberish and motion-capture performance as he is with historical thriller drama. A more endearing giant you’re never likely to find, as Rylance conveys BFG’s tumult of emotions.

Likewise, Ruby Burnhill, as his wee friend Sophie, believably maneuvers between precocious loner and lonesome child with ease.

Flexing vocal muscles to match his animated stature, the always welcome Jemaine Clement fills the frame with blundering menace as BFG’s nemesis and passionate Bean eater, the evil giant Fleshlumpeater.

Spielberg’s problem – or Dahl’s – is lack of momentum. Working from an adaptation by regular contributor Melissa Mathison (E.T.), Spielberg’s take on the story amplifies the relationship and relatedness between Sophie and BFG, but he under-develops the tension and mostly avoids the action. The result is a languid pace that may lose some viewers – especially younger ones.

There are moments when the CGI betrays the action onscreen, but these are few and forgivable considering the magically captivating environment Spielberg and cinematographer – another regular collaborator – Janusz Kaminski have built.

The BFG is a sweet film, finely acted and gorgeously brought to life. If you and yours have the patience to let this tender note on loneliness ring, it offers an immersive experience.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

Fright Club: Sexiest Villains

Some people dream of the hero. There are folks who swoon during Avengers films, choosing their fave from the assemblage of good guys, or wait with baited breath for Wonder Woman to get her stand alone film.

But what about the bad guys? Are you saying that, just because we like a date with blood on their teeth, there’s something wrong with us? Surely not! Tell us you didn’t get a little weak in the knees for Skeet Ulrich in Scream, or swoon just a little when Catherine Deneuve seduced Susan Sarandon in The Hunger. Of course you did! And why not?

So today, we celebrate the sexy villains. Join us, won’t you?

George Pick #3: Elizabeth Olsen – Silent House (2011)

Olsen is a tremendous talent, consistently excellent even in lesser films. Silent House starts off strong but eventually relies too heavily on a gimmick and Olsen’s tight shirt to keep you interested. Still, Olsen’s vulnerable yet badass character is undeniably hot – tight shirt or no.

Hope Pick #3: Tony Todd – Candyman (1992)

No, he’s not classically handsome. In fact, on paper, Candyman is not that sexy of a villain. He has a hook for a hand, bees in his chest, that moldy velvet robe thing has to smell awful. But Tony Todd’s voice is the push over the cliff. When he tells Helen (Virginia Madsen) “Don’t fear the pain. The pain is exquisite,” you can’t help but want to believe.

George’s #2 Natasha Henstridge – Species (1995)

Species is more a SciFi thriller than a horror movies, but George gets to choose so it’s not up to Hope and her picky rules. No one could blame the guy for landing on this one – Henstridge is fierce and sexy and very naked. What is he, made of stone?

Hope’s #2: Johnny Depp – Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Sweeney Todd is to Hope what Chocolat is to normal people. Sure, Depp is a dreamboat regardless of his role, but with Sweeney Todd, director Tim Burton finally lets him get a little mean. When he lifts that blade above his head, singing of his “old friend,” he is hypnotic.

George’s #1: Salma Hayek – From Dusk til Dawn (1996)

Duh. Bow your head, dogs! When Salma Hayak appears in Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk til Dawn, everybody pays attention – everybody in the bar Titty Twister, and everybody watching. Hayek is easily one of the most gorgeous humans on earth, and her snake-bedecked dance is no doubt enough to lure many voluntarily to her eternal servitude.

Hope’s #1: Rutger Hauer- The Hitcher (1986)

Hope had been nursing a crush on Hauer since Blade Runner, but it was The Hitcher that sent her over the edge. Unsettling, given the tender age at which she saw the film? No doubt, but his brilliant eyes and steely delivery and the way he seduced girlie C. Thomas Howell on that drive across the desert was just more than her bored little heart could bear. Don’t judge her.

Who did we miss? Let us know on twitter @maddwolf!

California Dreaming

The Neon Demon

by Hope Madden

“Beauty isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

So says an uncredited Alessandro Nivola, a fashion designer waxing philosophic in Nicolas Winding Refn’s (Bronson, Drive) nightmarish new film The Neon Demon.

The line, of course, is borrowed. Refn tweaks the familiar idea to suit his fluid, perfectly framed, cynical vision.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) is an underaged modeling hopeful recently relocated to a sketchy motel in Pasadena. Will she be swallowed whole by the darker, more monstrous elements of Hollywood?

Refn is as assured a director as you’ll find. Each of his films has its own peculiar and magnificent look and sound that sets it apart and marks the helmsman as someone with a unique vision to share. The Neon Demon looks and sounds great, but it doesn’t look or sound unique. The entire aesthetic, from the shots to the palette to the score, feels like a mash up of Stanley Kubrick and Dario Argento. Interestingly – or boringly, depending on your perspective – the story swims such familiar waters that this borrowed aesthetic feels simultaneously intentional and derivative.

Hollywood is a soulless machine that crushes people. The world objectifies women, a toxic reality that poisons everyone it touches. Small town girl gets in trouble following her dreams in Tinseltown. There’s nothing new here. To manufacture something, it’s as though Refn replaces fresh ideas with bizarre imagery.

It’s tough to make a film about the dehumanizing effect of objectification without objectifying, and even the deeply talented Refn can’t seem to do it.

The film is not without its charms. The Neon Demon is the closest thing to a horror film as anything Refn has delivered, even if it takes 100 minutes or so to get there. Like Only God Forgives, the longer you wander through this nightmarish landscape, the more outlandish the dream becomes. But for all its detractors and laborious weirdness, Only God Forgives felt like a breakneck action thriller compared to the languid, even leaden pace of Neon Demon.

But you know what? Keanu Reeves isn’t bad. Huh!

Verdict-2-5-Stars

Summertime Blues

Independence Day: Resurgence

by George Wolf

Have you ever seen a fast food commercial where the burger looks fantastic, then you get there and it’s basically day old dog food on a flattened-out bun?

Say hello to Independence Day: Resurgence, a preposterous, tedious filet of sequel churned out with all the joy of a kid’s meal minus the toy surprise.

It’s been twenty years since the “War of 1996,” and banding together to beat back the alien horde has brought the entire would together in a hand-holding singalong of peace. Things are good, made even better by the advances that came from getting a look at all that high-flying alien technology.

Former President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) isn’t doing as well, suffering persistent dreams and flashbacks about the aliens, even as the big 20th anniversary victory celebration is fast approaching.

His daughter Patricia (Maika Munroe) is engaged to Jake (Liam Hemsworth), a hotshot pilot who lives on the edge! We know this because he’s told “You’re grounded!” barely five minutes in. You think that’s gonna stop Jake when shit gets real? Ha, he laughs in your general direction! Jake and fellow pilot Dylan (Jessie T. Usher) have a serious beef, so it’s a total surprise when they have to put all that aside and crack wise as they fight the next alien invasion.

Hey. it’s summer, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to eat some popcorn and watch aliens explode, but Resurgence is proof than more can definitely be less.

Director/co-writer Roland Emmerich returns from part one, determined to re-create as many scenes as he can and up the ante on ships, aliens, and overall bombast.

Check and triple check.

The script is often groan-inducing, highlighted by lines no more subtle than “You’re the only family I got!” and the appearance of a helpful African warlord who can read the alien alphabet.

Just when you’re thinking (hoping) this might actually be a sequel to Mars Attacks! Whitmore delivers another “We’re going to live on” speech amid the swelling strings and waving flags and you’re right back on planet lazy

Independence Day was no classic, but it was fun, something Resurgence couldn’t spell if it gave an F.

Verdict-1-5-Stars

 

Shark Sandwich

The Shallows

by Hope Madden

Is The Shallows – Blake Lively’s new flick about a surfer trying to survive a shark attack – simply a girl power exercise wrapped in a sandy bikini?

Yes.

Still, it gets as much right as it does wrong.

Lively plays Nancy, a med student alone on a secluded, secret beach in Mexico. She’s here to be alone, to mourn, to surf. As the local drops her off on the beach and refuses her offer of cash, he asks how she plans to get back to town.

Excellent question.

There’s a great deal of convenient idiocy in this screenplay, but director Jaume Collet-Serra – who is no comrade of subtlety – actually handles most of these items deftly. After a few middling horror efforts, Collet-Serra made his name with a string of Liam Neeson films, so he knows a little something about a solitary figure fighting deadly odds.

Lively does a fine job in what is essentially a one-surfer-show. Nancy is smart. Not smart enough to avoid surfing alone in an isolated area of a foreign land, but a different kind of smart. MacGyver smart. And it’s with a balance of delicacy and grit that she just about makes you believe the ludicrous.

The Shallows is gorgeously filmed – and not just Lively. Yes, the camera hugs her form more closely than a wet suit, but Collet-Serra treats the surf, sky and sand with as much ardor. A generous reviewer might even say he’s creating a parallel – something about breathtaking beauty that belies serious ferocity. I am not generous enough to buy that theory, but I am generous enough to throw it out there.

For stretches, The Shallows will have you believing you’re watching a tense, thoughtful survival drama. Eventually the shark becomes a vengeful-mythical-beast-warrior-machine-monster, and any hint of credibility is lost at sea. This is the age of Sharknado – maybe Collet-Serra didn’t think he could keep his audience’s attention until the shark tried to scale something with his teeth?

Whatever the case, it’s a wild mashup of efforts: equal parts empowerment and ogling, survival thriller and Sharkasaurus Rex.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

Swampland Rebellion

Free State of Jones

by George Wolf

For all the onscreen battles in Free State of Jones, a more persistent one dogs the film throughout, as writer/director Gary Ross struggles to find cohesion for elements that too often conflict. The historical drama at the film’s core is so vast, it feels as though Ross just couldn’t bring himself to restrain any part of it.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Newton Knight, a farmer near Jones County, Mississippi who deserted the Confederate Army during the Civil War. As the numbers of fellow deserters grew, Knight led what came to be known as the Knight Company, a small army of Southerners that battled the Confederacy in an attempt to establish the “Free State of Jones.”

Historians still argue over Knight’s true motivations, but the film is less than nuanced at the outset, clearly drawing Knight as a poor man refusing to die in a rich man’s war, and unable to accept “any man telling another man what he’s got to live for, or what he’s got to die for.”

Ross (The Hunger Games, Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) does find more subtlety as the film progresses, but Newton’s heroically righteous nature, albeit delivered through a committed and moving performance from McConaughey, feels manufactured. Ditto the minimal racial tensions present in a unit mixing runaway slaves and AWOL Confederates.

Conversely, amid this idealism, the film is effectively brutal in its depiction of war and the deep, ugly roots of racism. But even here, the pendulum eventually swings back to manipulation, as Ross’s aim seems to be less about learning from history and more about being proud of how badly we feel.

Sparring tones continue, most specifically when the Knight Company uprising is woven through details of a decades-later jury trial involving one of Knight’s descendants from his marriage to a former slave (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Bridges between each thread are built with dry, history-lecture sequences that are equal parts salient info and narrative distraction.

Ross’s passion is understandable. This truly is an incredible piece of America’s history, but one so expansive that an approach this broad is hampered from the start. Free State of Jones leaves fine performances and effectively-crafted sequences strewn across the battlefield, but the emotional connection needed to bind them remains just over that next hill.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

 

 

Collision Course

From Afar

by Hope Madden

Welcome to the fringes of Caracas, where a life barely lived collides with vibrant and violent passions in From Afar, the confident feature debut from director Lorenzo Vigas.

Veteran Chilean actor Alfredo Castro plays Armando, a solitary figure who stokes what little longing he still has by paying street kids for company.

Castro’s masterful performance mirrors Vigas’s detached style, but there’s more to this character than meets the eye. Vigas, who also wrote, shares only as many details as needed, encouraging the viewer to fill in the missing pieces. Meanwhile, Castro’s resigned, closed-off performance still roils at times with passion that threatens to break through his carefully protected surface.

Vigas’s deliberate use of focus and carefully observational approach keeps the audience at arm’s length, but this remote tone is frequently punctuated by the brute ferocity of young Luis Silva’s performance.

In a blistering screen debut as Elder, the 17-year-old punk who captures Armando’s interest, Silva is a shock to the system. Primal, urgent and impulsive, he bursts through the screen as well as Armando’s emotional walls.

The tension between Armando and Elder and the damage each may be doing to his own life and the other’s cause nerve-wracking tension as the relationship blooms, and yet Silva takes the narrative in directions that are simultaneously inevitable and heartbreakingly surprising.

Though the film sometimes feels overly crafted, and perhaps Vigas allows style to dictate more than it should, there is no denying the lead performances. Committed and natural, sympathetic yet repellant, the two actors unveil characters that are as similar and as dissimilar as people can be.

Vigas understands the power in silence. His film explains very little and yet exposes much – about yearning, class divides, human nature, and survival. He and his remarkable cast invite you into lives you couldn’t possibly know to tell a story with no judgment, and the truth in it is devastating.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7PsCR8kHqmA

 

 

 

Best Films of 2016 So Far

What the? The year is half over? Let’s get caught up.

Cleveland won a championship!!!

But back to movies…

Batman v. Superman wasn’t that bad, Civil War wasn’t that good, and two Gerard Butler flicks are clubhouse leaders for worst of the year. But let’s focus on the positive.

With honorable mentions going to Finding Dory, Love and Friendship, Keanu, Everybody Wants Some!!, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising and Viva, here are our picks for the top of the mid-year report card:

10) The Nice Guys

Hey girl, guess what – Ryan Gosling is a hoot! And if you found his scene-stealing performance in last year’s gem The Big Short a refreshing and joyous change of pace for the award-bedecked actor, you will surely enjoy this masterpiece of comic timing and physicality.

Gosling plays Holland March, an alcoholic PI with questionable parenting skills who reluctantly teams up with muscle-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). What begins as a low-rent missing persons case snowballs into an enormous conspiracy involving porn, the government, and the all-powerful auto industry.

Aah, 1977 – when everybody smoked, ogled women, and found alcoholism a laugh riot. Writer/director Shane Black puts this time machine quality to excellent use in a film that would have felt stale and rote during his Eighties heyday, but today it serves as an endlessly entertaining riff on all that was so wrong and so right about the Seventies.

9) 10 Cloverfield Lane

Less a sequel than a tangentially related piece, 10 Cloverfield Lane amplifies tensions with genuine filmmaking craftsmanship, unveiling more than one kind of monster.

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes from a car crash handcuffed to a pipe in a bunker. Howard (John Goodman, top-notch as usual), may simply be saving her from herself and the apocalypse outside. Good natured Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) certainly thinks so.

Goodman is phenomenal, but Winstead and Gallagher prove, once again, to be among the strongest young actors working in independent film today.

Talented newcomer Dan Trachtenberg toys with tensions as well as claustrophobia in a film that finds often terrifying relevance in the most mundane moments, each leading through a mystery to a hell of a climax.

8) Deadpool

A thug with a quick wit, foul mouth, a likeminded girl, and quite possibly a ring pop up his ass, Wade Wilson has it all – including inoperable cancer, which sends him into the arms of some very bad doctors. The rest of the film – in energetically non-chronological order – is the revenge plot.

An utterly unbridled Ryan Reynolds returns as the titular Super (yes) Hero (no), and though the actor’s reserve of talent has long been debated, few disagree that his brand of self-referential sarcasm and quippage beautifully suits this character.

All the sarcastic cuteness can wear thin, but Deadpool does not stoop to hard won lessons or self-sacrificing victories. It flips the bird at the Marvel formula, turns Ryan Reynolds into an avocado, and offers the most agreeably childish R-rated film of the year.

7) Krisha

Krisha is not only a powerful character study awash in piercing intimacy, it is a stunning feature debut for Trey Edward Shults, a young writer/director with seemingly dizzying potential.

And then there’s the startling turn from Krisha Fairchild, Shults’s real-life Aunt, who after decades of scattershot film and voice work, delivers a jaw-dropping lead performance full of such raw authenticity you begin to feel you are treading where you don’t belong.

Expanding his own short film from 2014, Shults is remarkably assured in constructing his narrative. Nothing is spoon fed, rather we grasp what we know about Krisha and her family through guarded conversations and quiet, private moments. From the awkwardness of forced holiday small talk to the inevitable request for the “techy” relative to fix a computer, the scene is unmistakably real. Then, as old wounds become new, the film strikes with a humanity so deeply felt we expect to see our own faces in those family albums left out on the table.

Krisha is a timely reminder what undiscovered talents can achieve despite their limitations of budget, cast or location.

Here’s hoping we discover these two again soon.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1njjaYizV1Q

 

 6) Zootopia

With Zootopia, Disney – not Pixar, not Dreamworks, but Disney proper – spins an amazingly relevant and of-the-moment political tale with real merit, and they do it with a frenetically paced, visually dazzling, perfectly cast movie.

In this astoundingly detailed, brilliantly conceived, and visually glorious urban mecca, prey and predator have long since given up their archaic, bloodthirsty ways in favor of peaceful coexistence. And while the adventure that follows is a vibrantly animated buddy cop mystery – smartly told and filled with laughs – the boldly expressed themes of diversity, prejudice, and empowerment are even more jaw dropping than the spectacular set pieces.

If you worry that Zootopia is a preachy liberal finger-wagger, fear not. It is simply the most relevant Disney film to come along in at least a generation.

5) Green Room

The tragic loss of 27-year-old talent Anton Yelchin makes this one bittersweet. Young punk band the Ain’t Rights is in desperate need of a paying gig, even if it is at a rough private club for the “boots and braces” crowd (i.e. white power skinheads). Bass guitarist Pat (Yelchin) eschews social media promotion for the “time and aggression” of live shows, and when he accidentally witnesses a murder in the club’s makeshift green room, Pat and his band find plenty of both.

Along with concertgoer Amber (a terrific Imogen Poots), they’re held at gunpoint while the club manager (Macon Blair from Blue Ruin) fetches the mysterious Darcy (Patrick Stewart, gloriously grim) to sort things out. Though Darcy is full of calm reassurances, it quickly becomes clear the captives will have to fight for their lives.

As he did with Blue Ruin, writer/director Jeremy Saulnier plunges unprepared characters into a world of casual savagery, finding out just what they have to offer in a nasty backwoods standoff.  It’s a path worn by Straw Dogs, Deliverance, and plenty more, but Saulnier again shows a knack for establishing his own thoughtful thumbprint. What Green Room lacks in depth, it makes up in commitment to genre.

Only a flirtation with contrivance keeps Green Room from classic status. It’s lean, mean, loud and grisly, and a ton of bloody fun.

 

4) The Jungle Book

Much like the “man-cub” Mowgli prancing gracefully on a thin tree branch, director Jon Favreau’s new live action version of Disney’s The Jungle Book finds an artful balance between modern wizardry and beloved tradition.

The film looks utterly amazing, and feels nearly as special.

Based on the stories of Rudyard Kipling, Disney’s 1967 animated feature showcased impeccable voice casting and memorable songs to carve its way into the hearts of countless children (myself included). Clearly, Favreau is also one of the faithful, as he gives the reboot a loving treatment with sincere, effective tweaks more in line with Kipling’s vision, and just the right amount of homage to the original film.

All the elements blend seamlessly, never giving the impression that the CGI is just for flash or the brilliant voice cast merely here for star power. The characters are rich, the story engrossing and the suspense heartfelt. Credit Favreau for having impressive fun with all these fancy toys, while not forgetting where the magic of this tale truly lives.

 

3) Midnight Special

Get to know Jeff Nichols. The Arkansas native is batting 1000, writing and directing among the most beautiful and compelling American films being made. His latest, Midnight Special, is no different. But then again, it is very, very different.

Nichols mainstay Michael Shannon, as well as Joel Edgerton, are armed men in a seedy motel. They have a child in tow (Jaeden Lieberher – wonderful). Local news casts a dark image of the trio, but there’s also a Waco-esque religious community looking for the boy, not to mention the FBI. So, what the hell is going on?

Nichols knows, and he invites your curiosity as he upends expectations.

Midnight Special is just another gem of a film that allows Nichols and his extraordinary cast to find exceptional moments in both the outlandish and the terribly mundane, and that’s probably the skill that sets this filmmaker above nearly anyone else working today. He sees beyond expectations and asks you to do it, too.

You should.

2) The Lobster

How to describe The Lobster?

Imagining how Charlie Kaufman might direct a mashup of 1984 and Logan’s Run would get you in the area code, but still couldn’t quite capture director Yorgos Lanthimos’s darkly comic trip to a future where it’s a crime to be single.

Lanthimos, who also co-wrote the screenplay, crafts a film which ends up feeling like a minor miracle. The Lobster builds on themes we’ve seen before (most recently in Kaufman’s Anomalisa) but bursts with originality, while every setting looks at once familiar and yet like nothing we’ve ever known.

The ensemble cast is uniformly terrific, each actor finding subtle but important variations in delivering the script’s wonderfully intelligent takedown of societal expectations.

It’s a captivating experience full of humor, tenderness, and longing, even before Lanthimos starts to bring a subversive beauty into soft focus. The Lobster pokes wicked fun at the rules of attraction, but finds its lasting power in asking disquieting questions about the very nature of our motives when following them.

1) The Witch

The unerring authenticity of The Witch makes it the most unnerving horror film in years.

Ideas of gender inequality, sexual awakening, slavish devotion to dogma, and isolationism roil beneath the surface of the film, yet the tale itself is deceptively simple. One family, fresh off the boat from England in 1630 and expelled from their puritanical village, sets up house and farm in a clearing near a wood.

As a series of grim catastrophes befalls the family, members turn on members with ever-heightening hysteria. The Witch creates an atmosphere of the most intimate and unpleasant tension, a sense of anxiety that builds relentlessly and traps you along with this helpless, miserable family.

As frenzy and paranoia feed on ignorance and helplessness, tensions balloon to bursting. You are trapped as they are trapped in this inescapable mess, where man’s overanxious attempt to purge himself absolutely of his capacity for sin only opens him up to the true evil lurking, as it always is, in the woods.

 

Bones to pick? Join the conversation on twitter @maddwolf!