Spy Versus Spy


by Hope Madden

In turns grand and intimate, Allied blends pulp and melodrama with old Hollywood glamour.

We open on a dashing Max Vatan (Brad Pitt), landing in a North African desert where he’ll be met by a mysterious driver delivering his new identity. Vatan will join French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) in Casablanca on a mission to assassinate a Nazi official.

Director Robert Zemeckis’s vintage spy thriller begins with a bang. Stylish and gorgeous, the first act embraces an old-fashioned dazzle that suits both Pitt and Cotillard.

Problems arise – for Vatan and Beausejour, as well as the film – once the couple relocates to London. Vatan takes a desk job with the Royal Air Force while his new wife and child wait lovingly at home. But when command turns up evidence that Marianne could be a German spy, this ideal life begins to crack.

Both Cotillard and Pitt perform respectably with a script involving tensions that reach toward the ludicrous. Pitt carries himself with a weird stiffness, but his face wears joy, weariness and emotional tumult in a way that the actor has rarely managed.

Cotillard is characteristically excellent, her own demeanor turning the edge of every expression with a hint of something sour. She is effortlessly mysterious, a characteristic required for the part.

Steven Knight’s screenplay loses momentum once the couple settles into their homey London life, and for all Zemeckis’s visual wizardry, the balance of the film never recaptures the thrill of their early adventures.

Instead, we settle for several gloriously shot sequences – a love scene inside a car beset by a sandstorm, a party interrupted by an air raid. But even the tensest late-film moments feel staged, even borrowed.

Knight’s writing tends to play better with grittier, more street-savvy direction (think Eastern Promises or Dirty Pretty Things), but Zemeckis likes a big stage. The result, though often entertaining because of solid performances, is too much of a mishmash to really work.


What’s In a Name?


by Hope Madden

Like Barry Jenkins’s miraculous Moonlight, the new film from Jeff Nichols offers a needed, optimistic reminder that progress is not dead and the ugliness of hatred need not win – even when it looks like it has already won.

Like so many of Nichols’s films – his 2012 Huck Finn-esque Mud, in particular – Loving boasts an intimate, Southern storyteller’s lilt. Here the writer/director quietly shares the triumphant story of the couple whose Supreme Court case made interracial marriage legal in the US.

In 1958, Mildred (Ruth Negga) and Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) married. Richard was savvy enough to have the ceremony conducted in D.C., but upon returning to their rural Virginia home, the two were arrested for breaking the state’s anti-miscegenation laws.

What follows, with admirable restraint, is a look at the couple’s struggle to live as they want, where they want.

Nichols conducts the effort with an understatement that gives certain small moments and images true power. Never splashy and far from preachy, Loving sits with an otherwise ordinary family and lets their very normalcy speak volumes about the misguided hate that would separate them.

His is a beautiful film anchored by Negga’s graceful, modest turn. Though legalizing the union was Richard’s idea – formally marrying and hanging the framed license in their home – it’s Mildred who is unbending, and in Negga’s hands, this will spills over with compassion and hope.

Edgerton’s Richard is a tougher nut. A man of few words, Richard would just as soon avoid the flashy lawyers and press that draws attention to his life. He just wants everyone to leave his family alone and, in return, his family won’t bother anyone.

Nichols may dial the drama down a bit too much, truth be told. Though the outcome of the court case hangs over the last reel like a dark cloud, the true, national impact of this victory and the potentially dire consequences of a defeat are barely whispered.

The approach does give the film a lovely intimacy, though. And it reminds us that progress, though hard-won and often ugly in its pursuit, can be won.


Polynesian Princess


by Hope Madden

Disney’s no Pixar, but in 2016 that doesn’t seem to matter. In an ocean of excellent animation this year, Disney’s Zootopia stands out as quite possibly the best – certainly the most relevant. While their holiday release, Moana, returns to some tried-and-true-and-tired tropes, it frees itself often enough from Disneyisms to become yet another strong ‘toon from the studio.

The animation behemoth never strays for too long from its merch-encrusted path. Yes, Moana (Auli’i Cravahlo) is a Disney princess. She’s the daughter of a Polynesian chief, but as demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) points out, “You’re wearing a dress, you have an animal sidekick – you’re a princess.”

Yes, she’s a princess who yearns for more than the responsibilities life affords her. (Mercifully, that dream never does involve a beau.) There are songs of self-actualization and the thrill of adventure. There’s a lot that’s familiar.

Set generations ago in the Polynesian islands, the film tells of the ancient demigod Maui – a shapeshifter who used his magical fishhook to steal the heart of the earth goddess, dooming the islands to eventual peril. Moana is called by the sea to find Maui, retrieve his hook and return the heart to save her people.

Moana draws comparisons to The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Pixar’s Brave – hell, there’s even a bit of Mad Max on the high seas (nice!). But the film ultimately carves out its own presence, partly due to a refreshing cultural change.

From music to art to tattooing, the film offers more than a patronizing nod to Polynesian historical context. Also refreshing: sturdier looking characters, a lack of (creepy, pre-adolescent) love story, quiet mockery of standard Disney motifs, one fantastically jewel-encrusted crab.

Jemaine! The always welcome Jemaine Clement voices one of the many dastardly creatures Moana and Maui encounter on their trek, and he’s almost Tim Curry glorious. (He also has the best song in the film.)

He’s just one baddie in a film littered with fascinating menaces – from the coconut pirates (no, they don’t steal coconuts – they are coconuts) to various undersea dangers to the lava demon the heroic duo must defeat to save the world.

Johnson steals most of the film. With broad humor to match Maui’s enormous, ornately tattooed body, his chemistry with the teen voyager is nearly as entertaining as his struggles to shape shift.

The film has its troubles, including a slog of a first act, but Moana contains more than enough freshness to offset its weaknesses and guarantee holiday family fun.


I Want to Believe

Bad Santa 2

by George Wolf

Thirteen years after showing us that it’s probably not a candy cane in his pocket, Bad Santa is back for more naughtiness.

Thirteen years, really?

Yep, which is just one of the reasons BS2 smells more like desperation than inspiration.

The always charming Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) is trying to end his miserable life when Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly) walks in to offer him a sandwich and let Willie know that his old friend Marcus needs a meeting pronto.

Marcus (Tony Cox) says there’s an easy score of at least 2 million bucks waiting at a charity in Chicago. All they have to do is put the old suits back on, ring some bells for donation money and then rob the safe on Christmas Eve. Once in Chi-town, Willie learns the part Marcus left out. They’ll be working with Willie’s long-estranged and equally charming mother Sunny (Kathy Bates), who has organized the whole plan.

Then Thurman makes the trip from Arizona to be with Willie on Christmas, and the gang is back together!

Well, some of the gang, but not nearly enough.

Part one was more than just a hilariously shocking mix of the sacred and the profane. Director Terry Zwigoff and original writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa put some subversive social commentary alongside distinct supporting characters that were perfectly fleshed out by the likes of John Ritter and Bernie Mac.

BS2 finds director Mark Waters (Mean Girls, Vampire Academy) and a new writing team not thinking any deeper than being crude and having Kathy Bates in the cast. The characters are thin, the plot is contrived and few of the jokes find a mark. Worse than that, the bad boy charm from BS1 is long gone, replaced with an unsavory streak of mean.

And then there’s Thurman Merman. He was the MVP of Bad Santa, so you can’t really have a sequel without him, yet there’s no way to recreate that magic. Thurman was 8 back then, and his unending belief in a “bad” Santa created a sweet conflict that felt impossibly real and drove the film. Sure, it’s a kick to see him at age 21 but beyond that, the writers can’t seem to decide how the character fits in anymore.

Much as I wanted to believe in Bad Santa 2, it’s just too much of an empty suit.




Bizarre Billionaire Love Triangle

Rules Don’t Apply

by Matt Weiner

Warren Beatty is back behind the camera for his fifth feature film in almost as many decades. Rules Don’t Apply, also co-written and co-produced by Beatty, follows the lives of Hollywood newcomers Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) and Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), each depending on the graces of billionaire Howard Hughes (Beatty) for their big breaks—Marla as an aspiring actress, Frank as a budding businessman.

When Frank gets assigned as Marla’s designated driver for the film studio, the two quickly bond over their shared determination to make it in a world where they both feel like outsiders stifled by tradition.

Hughes looms large over Frank and Marla’s courtship, although he doesn’t make an entrance until midway through the movie. Instead, his admired (and feared) presence hangs over everything with a Godot-like intensity that leaves Frank, Marla and everyone else in Hughes’s orbit to make what lives they can for themselves while longing for greater meaning.

The eventual appearance of Hughes complicates Frank and Marla’s awkward romance. And it certainly complicates our impression of the mogul. If the Hughes in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator is one of tragedy, Beatty’s take leans closer to farce.

Beatty is still fascinating onscreen, and he grounds the tics and insecurities of the mentally deteriorating Hughes in warmth rather than gimmickry. But he never fully commits to whether Hughes—and by extension, his effect on the characters around him—is a kooky uncle or something more sinister.

Frank and Marla are the would-be heroes of a lush Old Hollywood comedy, but Hughes is always there to stalk their happily ever after. Contemporary filmmakers have mined the underbelly of the 1950s and ‘60s for Gothic horror that lies beneath, but it’s disconcerting to see stray flashes of this breaking into an otherwise straightforward homage to the period. (Cue off-camera singing of the on-the-nose title song, “The Rules Don’t Apply.”)

Like the elusive Hughes, Rules Don’t Apply is a maddening film to pin down. It’s not a biopic, but there’s plenty of historical nostalgia for a bygone Hollywood that Beatty himself helped revolutionize in the late 1960s. And while there’s plenty to loathe about the old system—as Hughes flunky Levar Mathis (Matthew Broderick) is there to remind us—it all feels more like an elegy than a satire.

Beatty includes the Spruce Goose as part of an impressionistic, ahistorical timeline, seemingly as a dare to invite the comparison. All the moving pieces of Rules Don’t Apply manage to achieve liftoff, if barely. The film should have collapsed under the weight of its own eccentricity… and yet. There’s also a sweetness there, a lightness that propels the romantic leads toward a satisfying ending that would make Old Hollywood heavyweights like Sturges or Lubitsch proud.


Fright Club: Norse/Scandinavian Horror

It’s been too long since we took a trip around the world to see how certain corners view horror. Today we head to the cluster of chilly Norse and Scandinavian countries to seek trolls, wolves, Nazi zombies – and to steer clear of household tools, if possible.

5. Trollhunter (2010) (Norway)

All ancient cultures generated fairy tales. They passed on stories that wrapped the virtues most respected at the time inside common dangers to tell tales of heroism and humor. Norway’s fairy tales all involve trolls. Indeed, their entire national culture seems weirdly identified with trolls. Why is that? Well, writer/director Andre Ovredal’s Trollhunter suggests that maybe it’s because trolls are a real problem up there.

Ovredal’s approach is wry and silly – adjectives that rarely hang out together, but maybe we haven’t seen enough of Norway’s cinematic output. The FX are sometimes wonderful, and especially effective given the otherwise verite, documentary style. Ovredal makes droll use of both approaches.

Trollhunter is definitely more comedy than horror, as at no time does the film actually seek to scare you. It’s a wild ride into a foreign culture, though, and it makes you think twice about the Norway section of Epcot, I’ll tell you what.


4. Dead Snow (2009) (Norway)

Nazi zombies, everybody! Hell yes!

Like its portly nerd character Erlend, Dead Snow loves horror movies. A self-referential “cabin in the woods” flick, Dead Snow follows a handsome, mixed-gender group of college students as they head to a remote cabin for Spring Break. A creepy old dude warns them off with a tale of local evil. They mock and ignore him at their peril.

But co-writer/director/Scandinavian Tommy Wirkola doesn’t just obey these time-honored horror film rules, he draws your attention to them. His film embraces our prior knowledge of the path we’re taking to mine for comedy, but doesn’t give up on the scares. Wirkola’s artful imagination generates plenty of startles, and gore by the gallon.

Spectacular location shooting, exquisite cinematography, effective sound editing and a killer soundtrack combine to elevate the film above its clever script and solid acting. Take, for example, the gorgeous image of Norwegian peace – a tent, lit from within, sits like a jewel nestled in the quiet of a snowy mountainside. The image glistens with pristine outdoorsy beauty – until it … doesn’t.

3. Antichrist (2009) (Denmark)

Saturated in the cinematic equivalent of melancholy poetry, punctuated with truly, deeply shocking moments of violence and brutality, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist takes the cabin-in-the-woods horror to brand new places, sharing his auteur cred with the horror genre.

A nameless couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) is wracked with grief after the death of their young son. They retreat to their remote cabin, hoping to speed the healing process. Things do not go well.

Dafoe and Gainsbourg give terrific, courageous performances. They are the only two actors onscreen for 99 percent of the film, and they do not shrink from the challenge. These are deeply flawed characters, and the performances are haunting.

Von Trier’s film is so gorgeous to see and so punishing to watch, the result is an amazing if bruising experience. His tone ranges from somber to insane, and one or two of the more vivid weirdisms feel terribly out of place. But there is no forgetting Antichrist, hard as you may try.

2. Hour of the Wolf (1968) (Sweden)

An atmospheric masterpiece, Ingmar Bergman’s meditation on artistic conflict and regret is a haunting experience.

Bergman favorites Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman are a married couple spending time on an isolated, windswept island. Ullman’s Alma is pregnant, and her relationship with her husband becomes strained as his time and attention become more and more consumed by visions, or demons – or maybe they’re just party people.

Von Sydow’s character is tempted with the decadence missing from the wholesome life that may be dissatisfying to him. But it’s Ullman, whose performance spills over with longing, that amplifies the heartbreak and mourning that color the entire film.

Shot in incandescent black and white, with Bergman’s characteristic eye for light and shadow, Hour of the Wolf is a glorious, hypnotic nightmare.

1. Let The Right One In (2008) (Sweden)

In 2008, Sweden’s Let the Right One In emerged as an original, stylish thriller – and the best vampire flick in years. A spooky coming of age tale populated by outcasts in the bleakest environment, the film breaks hearts and bleeds victims in equal measure. Kare Hedebrant‘s Oskar, with his blond Prince Valiant haircut, falls innocently for the odd new girl (an outstanding Lina Leandersson) in his shabby apartment complex. Reluctantly, she returns his admiration, and a sweet and bloody romance buds.

As sudden acts of violence mar the snowy landscape, Oskar and Ali grow closer, providing each other a comfort no one else can. The film offers an ominous sense of dread, bleak isolation and brazen androgyny – as well as the best swimming pool scene perhaps ever. Intriguingly, though both children tend toward violence – murder, even – you never feel anything but empathy for them. The film is moving, bloody, lovely and terrifying in equal measure.

Hard Knock Life

No Pay, Nudity

by Hope Madden

Director (Ohio’s own) Lee Wilkof and screenwriter Ethan Sandler tap into years of collective wisdom from the inside to create a bittersweet, in-the-know glimpse at the near-thankless life of the workaday actor.

Gabriel Byrne, low key but excellent, is Lester Rosenthal – or Lawrence Rose, as the old playbill would have read. He’s having a hell of a time, as his longtime friend Hershel (Nathan Lane) explains to us via narration.

He’s a New York actor. An aging one whose dog just died, who hasn’t worked too steadily since that soap opera killed him off a few years back, who whiles away his days with similarly stagnant thesps in the Actors’ Equity Lounge, who may be willing to accept the role as King Lear’s Fool – in Dayton.

A mash note to the beleaguered actor in it for the long haul, No Pay, Nudity hits more often than it misses. The filmmakers possess a clear, lived-in knowledge of this world, this life. The yarn they spin is as empathetic as it is frustrated, and Byrne effortlessly embodies this embittered, wearied soul.

The premise is a bit slight and the resolution a tad rushed, but Wilkof and company make up for most of that with insight and affection to spare.


Magical Menagerie

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

by Hope Madden

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) protects that which is unusual and therefore feared and persecuted. Funny that it took so long for a series about witchcraft to finally embrace this theme, but JK Rowling’s latest, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, digs in.

Part of the Harry Potter universe, though set decades earlier and continents apart, Beasts sees Newt land in NYC circa 1929 with a suitcase full of incorrigible creatures. He’s writing a book (it will eventually become a standard text at Hogwarts), but for now he has a spectacular winged creature to return.

If only the rest of the menagerie would stay put – and the American council of witches is none too pleased to find that his critters have escaped to run amuck in Manhattan.

The witches don’t like Newt’s beasties, so he hides them. The New Salem sect does not like witches, so they hide. The New York elite doesn’t like the freaks of New Salem. All this revulsion of the unknown leads to very bad things – things that could be avoided if we could see beyond our own fears.

Not that Rowling, adapting her own novel for the screen, or Beasts director David Yates (who helmed the final 4 Potter films), beats you about the head with the message. You’ll be plenty distracted by the wings, coils, teeth, horns and antics of Newt’s whimsical pals, and Yates’s giddy FX.

The film looks great – appropriately grim and glorious, in turns – and strong casting helps buoy a somewhat thin plot.

Redmayne (who may need to play a normal guy at some point) charms as the impish lead. As the quietly malevolent leader of the witch hunters, Samantha Morton delivers the most commanding performance among supporting players with characters as peculiar as Newt’s creatures.

Mercifully free of the adolescent angst that plagued the Potter series, Beasts contents itself with lovable losers in search of wild beasties and basic harmony between magic and nomag (the US term for muggles).

Though uneven at times – as if introducing too much and too little simultaneously – the first in a series of 5 films offers enough magic to make it worthwhile.


High School Confidential

The Edge of Seventeen

by George Wolf

Even if you had a good time in high school, let’s be honest. Would you really want to go back?

Doubtful. And The Edge of Seventeen is another reminder that one time through a battlefield littered with drama, hormones, benzoyl peroxide and general awkwardness is plenty, thanks.

Oregon teen Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) is navigating that struggle with a standard mix of panic and self-absorption. She feels like a social outcast, is convinced she’s an old soul, resents the golden boy status of her older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) and has one real friend in Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). Just as Nadine is plotting a strategy to catch the eye of her crush Nick (Alexander Calvert), she catches Krista and Darian canoodling, and dramatically issues the “him or me!” ultimatum.

It doesn’t go well.

In her debut as writer/director, Kelly Fremon Craig crafts a “Nora Ephron for teens” type of vibe, and buoys Steinfeld’s terrific lead performance with just enough refreshing frankness to offset the standard teen cliches.

We get voiceover narration, forced quirkiness and the nice boy who waits while Nadine chases the bad boy, but we also get commitments to a layered main character and complicated relationships. Nadine doesn’t give us many reasons to like her, and though you know this is going to change, her journey to the edge of maturity feels more real than most.

Her theatrics are undercut by the amusing reactions of Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), a history teacher who’s seen way too much of her kind and is more concerned about Nadine’s run-on sentences than her latest social suicide. After dismissing Bruner as an out of touch fogey, Nadine’s peek inside his home life is an effectively subtle wake up.

Even better, Fremon Craig uses the friction between Nadine and Krista as a nice metaphor for leaving childhood things behind and moving on.

The Edge of Seventeen is not without its own growing pains, but much like Nadine, it accumulates enough moments of depth for a well-earned resonance.





Fright Club: Horror’s Best Weirdos

Horror loves it some weirdos – and so do we! Be honest, Carrie would not have done nearly so much damage had she fit in somehow, right?

Oh, Carrie – how we love you and your nutcase of a mom. And the White women are hardly alone. Freaks and misfits litter the horror cinema landscape – and thank God for it! Whether Edwin Neal – the hitchhiker and harbinger of what’s to come in West Texas – or an unseemly Pit Bukowski, white gown and katana bedecked in Der Samurai.

You want to get really weird? How about anybody from Calvaire? Possession’s swinging Heinrich? Let’s not forget our favorite prom non-goer, The Loved Ones’ Lola (Robin McLeavy).

And these aren’t even the best. Who are the five best weirdos in horror cinema?

5. Orlok (Willem Dafoe) Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Veteran actor/effortless weirdo Willem Dafoe picked up an Oscar nomination playing Max Schreck, the “actor” who portrayed vampire Count Orlock in FW Murnau’s groundbreaking 1922 film Nosferatu.

Shadow film pokes good natured but pointed fun at the industry, but it’s based on the rumor at the time that Schreck’s performance was so authentic because he was, indeed, a vampire.

Dafoe is odd as they come, and also heartbreaking, goofy, lovable, wounded and terrifying.

4. Ichi (Nao Ohmori) Ichi the Killer (2001)

Clearly someone from a Takashi Miike film was bound to make this list. Indeed, just about every character in this film would have been in contention. But no one out-weirds Ichi.

A man-child who’s equal parts sympathetic and repellant, Ichi does the bidding of those who care for him. Their moral compass does not always point North, though they try to do the right thing by letting Ichi unleash his very, very wrong behavior in a kind of, sort of heroic way.

Which is why some of his actions are so profoundly, scarringly surprising. Because Ichi does some seriously fucked up shit. And he’s not even the one who skins a guy alive.

3. May (Angela Bettis) May (2002)

Oh, Angela Bettis. No one – not even Sissy Spacek – captured the crushing awkwardness of trying to fit in when you are, deep down, cripplingly odd as well as Bettis.

Her May aches for a friend. She has some heartbreaking trouble finding that in Adam (Jeremy Sisto) and Polly (Anna Faris – brilliant). But if you can’t find a friend, you might just have to make one.

Her performance is all awkward pauses, embarrassing gestures and longing. It’s beautiful, tender, sweet and – eventually – forgivingly bloody. We love May.

2. Bubby (Nicholas Hope) Bad Boy Bubby (1993)

Christ, kid, you’re a weirdo.

Writer/director Rolf de Heer explores something amazing in his Aussie arthouse horror Bad Boy Bubby. Bubby has spent his entire 30 years in a single, windowless room with Mam. She leaves now and again, affixing a gas mask and warning the boy that he’ll die if he sets foot outside.

No, things aren’t that great for Bubby. They’re even worse for Cat. When Bubby eventually has to meander out into the open, his adventure is so authentically pieced together. He assimilates information and behaviors with the perfect sense of childishness.

Nicholas Hope’s performance is a minor miracle in a film that is wild, disturbing and pretty amazing.

1. Big Ronnie (Michael St. Michaels ) Greasy Strangler (2016)

Honestly, just about anybody from this film might have made the list. Big Brayden (Sky Elobar) was an obvious possibility. Those glasses! And he’s shit scared!

But it’s Big Ronnie (or is it Private Eye Jodie?!) who earns the accolade. Yes, he may be a bullshit artist, but that smile, the disco suit, the “big rat,” – let’s not even get started on his diet or hygiene. We’d never have thought of using a carwash quite that way, and yet we will never be able to think of it otherwise again.

Big Ronnie is the Weirdo All Star. Celebrate with some potato chips?