Strangers on a Trainwreck


by Hope Madden

Pedro Almodovar brings his two most marked filmmaking styles – the one submerged in the world of women (Volver, for instance), the later of a more Hitchockian note (The Skin I Live In) – and pulls them together in his latest effort, Julieta.

The titular heroine, played at different ages by Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte, has a shameful secret – or two. As the film opens, Julieta (Suárez) is packing to leave Madrid for Portugal with her boyfriend, Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti). But a chance encounter with a childhood friend of her daughter’s convinces Julieta to drop Lorenzo and stay in Madrid, moving instead to the old building where she’d lived for years with her daughter.

We then switch to the story of the younger Julieta (Ugarte), and Almodovar gets all Strangers on a Train with us – even to the point of eventually mentioning the novels of Patricia Highsmith, writer at the core of that Hitchcock classic.

Suárez capably maneuvers Julieta’s emotional landscape. She’s a woman pretending to be fine, keeping her true nature from those around her and attempting to hide it from herself. The performance is haunted, edged with remorse.

Ugarte stumbles, though. It doesn’t help that she and Suárez look so little alike, or that the flashback storyline is designed to be a thriller – an ill-fitting choice for the material.

Almodovar built the screenplay on three inter-connected shorts by Canadian writer Alice Munro, layering her words with an urgent score, suggesting dangerous thrills, and dialog-heavy close ups that feel more like daytime drama.

For all the clashing colors, discordant images and creepy housekeepers, Hitchcock and Munro just don’t fit together well.

Munro’s writing tends to lull you with quite unveilings. Julieta may be Almodovar’s attempt to spice that up by way of homage, score and framing, but it feels like a trick. His direction leads us to believe we’re watching some thriller wrought with dangerous secrets. We are not. This chicanery undercuts the power of Munro’s meditation on guilt while it all but guarantees the dissatisfaction of a misled audience.

The final result, though often gorgeous and compelling, is a bit of thematic chaos that doesn’t work.


Fright Club: Skeletons in the Closet – Oscar Edition

It is that time again – the time of year where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honors the best of the best, and we honor the worst of those best.

Yes, Skeletons in the Closet: Oscar Edition is back. It’s the day we dig around in Oscar nominee closets to find those low budget, horror bones hiding behind the fancier schmancier stuff.

And we can always find them. The great Viola Davis wasted her talent in the Rear Window/Fright Night knock-off Disturbia. The also-great Michael Shannon spent some time early in his career in the actually quite decent Dead Birds, while Ryan Gosling co-starred in the intriguingly titled Frankenstein and Me. Meanwhile, Octavia Spencer slummed it up in Pulse.

But there’s worse – and yet, somehow better – material to discuss. Here are our favorite not-good horror hiding in these A-listers’ closets.

5. Denzel Washington: The Bone Collector (1999)

Denzel! Just a year after the serial Oscar nominee and winner made the dark action thriller Fallen – not good, but not bad – he returned to the land of CSI with The Bone Collector. Must’ve had an itch to scratch.

In Phillip Noyce’s grim police procedural, Washington plays a quadriplegic homicide detective helping beat cop Angelina Jolie track down a serial killer who’s leaving grisly victims and frustrating clues.

Plus, Queen Latifah!

The film is bland, Noyce never able to focus on a physically immobile hero and still create an exciting pace. And yet, Washington commands your attention no matter how listless the scene or unlikely the rest of the casting.

4. Michelle Williams, Halloween 20: H20 (1998)

It’s been 20 years since Michael Myers escaped his confines and slaughtered all those people in Haddonfield. Thousands of miles away in a private school in Northern California, Laurie Strode and her brother come face to face again.

Who was excited? Back in 1998, we were. Jamie Lee Curtis was back, and we were allowed to forget Halloweens 3 – 6 ever happened. Plus – though he’s no John Carpenter – director Steve Minor does have a history with horror, and Curtis’s iconic mom Janet Leigh popped by.

The result was slick, and boasted a great deal more talent than the others: Alan Arkin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and 2017 Oscar nom Michelle Williams. The 4-time Oscar nominee was saddled with the one-dimensional sweetheart role, and though you’d never have known she’d one day be among the most talented performers in film, you knew she was too good for this movie.

3. Jeff Bridges: The Vanishing (1993)

In 1988, co-writer/director George Sluizer unleashed a daring, meticulous and devastating film on an unsuspecting world. Spoorloos asked you to follow a grieving boyfriend down a rabbit hole – one with no escape.

Five years later, Sluizer returned to the scene of the crime, current Oscar-nominee Jeff Bridges in tow. Bridges plays just an ordinary guy indulging a particular fantasy. Unfortunately, Bernrd-Pierre Donnadieu played the same ordinary guy to far, far more believable and therefore chilling effect back in ’88.

Worse still, the fantasy itself is gutted with an “America’s not ready for the real thing” ending that just makes you want to kick a guy. Infuriating!

2. Viggo Mortensen: The Prophecy (1995)

This is one of those bad movies that is fun to watch. Somehow the unusually talent-stacked cast doesn’t feel wasted as much as it does weirdly placed.

There is no question this film belongs to Christopher Walken – as do all films in which he graces the screen. His natural weirdness and uncanny comic timing make the film more memorable than it deserves to be, but when it comes to sinister, Oscar nominee Viggo Mortensen cuts quite a figure as Lucifer.

Unseemly, gorgeous and evil, he seethes through his few scenes and leaves the celluloid scorched.

1. Casey affleck: Soul Survivors (2001)

Good God, this one’s bad.

Writer/director Steve Carpenter – auteur behind such classics as The Dorm that Dripped Blood – somehow convinced talent to join this cast. Who? A post-American Beauty Wes Bentley, an established Luke Wilson, and pre-Oscar nominee Casey Affleck.

Affleck stars as the tragically dead (or is he?) boyfriend of Cassie (Melissa Sagemiller) an awkward runner. (Yes, it’s tangential to any reasonable conversation about the film, but she runs in nearly every scene and I have never seen a more awkward runner.)

Who’s alive? Who’s dead? What’s happening? Well, in case you’ve been lobotomized and can’t keep up, luckily Father Jude (Wilson) will literally explain everything.

Still, Affleck is somehow not terrible.

Let Some Light In

Things to Come

by Cat McAlpine

Depression is often depicted as something grey and dark – a hovering cloud or a dark pit. Writer/Director Mia Hansen Love takes depression and divorce and instead floods them with light in her hopeful but slow Things to Come.

Things follows Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) as she navigates political upheaval, the end of her relationship, and the death of her mother. Instead of shooting a multitude of midlife-crises in dark corners and dim bars, Nathalie is found sleeping in sunny parks and running away to the country.

Even her mother Yvette (Edith Scob), wrought with panic attacks and depression, is bathed in light. Her apartment is bright and clean and she lays in bed all day in nothing but a silver silk night gown. Hansen Love’s film is determined to stay bright.

Huppert is steady and contemplative during the undoing of Nathalie, but her poise is just thinly veiled denial. When her husband Heinz (André Marcon) quietly announces that he’s leaving her for another woman, Huppert stares daggers out the window. “I thought you’d love me forever,” she quietly surrenders. And then, after a beat, “What an idiot.”

The tottering act of being okay and not-okay at the same time is mesmerizing from Huppert, who masters Nathalie’s self-assuredness. Nathalie needs just one puff of someone else’s cigarette to be okay. Nathalie needs just one invigorating philosophical conversation. Nathalie needs just four brief sobs alone in her room.

Riding out into the country side, she declares, “My mother is dead. My husband has left me. I’ve never been so free in my life!” All while toting along her mother’s black cat Pandora.

Nathalie hates Pandora, and is also allergic to her. But she refuses to recognize her literal baggage because sometimes faking it ’til you make it is the only option.

Things to Come can be heavy handed and slow. It intermixes quotes from philosophers and lengthy discussions on morality in a way that makes scenes feel listless. Rather than a complete narrative, the film unfolds like a series of emotional landscapes, loosely connected.

The first and last five minutes offer bizarre time jumps that don’t quite provide useful background or satisfying resolution. They are just moments on a timeline we’ve been invited to watch. But Huppert is ceaselessly watchable, and Hansen Love refuses to let dark times be … well, dark.


Personal Politics


by George Wolf

Director Pablo Larrain disregards traditional biopic structure and reshapes it to hypnotic effect in Jackie, a challenging portrait of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy as she struggles with the shock and grief of her husband’s assassination.

Anchored by a committed, luminous lead performance from Natalie Portman, Jackie emerges as a surreal character study layered with the intimacy of a soul struggling to balance public demands with private resentment.

With one of history’s most famous women as his subject, Larrain (Neruda, Tony Manero) wisely narrows his focus to these watershed moments, adding unspoken gravitas to the film through what we already know about the rest of Mrs. Kennedy’s life. In the whirlwind of November 1963, she had a husband to honor, children to reassure, and a future to guard.

Armed with a confident screenplay from Noah Oppenheim, Larrain is able to carve piercing insight from an unobtrusive viewpoint. He pivots from grand, showy tableaus to hushed privacy, deftly reinforcing the weight of the dueling identities at work inside Camelot. Portman is an understated wonder, making Jackie’s mournful devastation cut as deep as the jaded wisdom she grants an inquiring journalist (an excellent Billy Crudup).

A meticulous, complex statement buoyed by vital history and raw humanity, Jackie defiantly delivers on an uncompromising vision of a story we know well, but can never understand.




My Lives as a Dog

A Dog’s Purpose

by George Wolf

Dogs sure are cute, and they can teach us many things. Apparently, though, subtlety and the tenets of reincarnation are not among them.

A Dog’s Purpose, based on the novel by W. Bruce Cameron, follows the various lives of a pooch first known as Bailey, a Michigan farm dog growing up happily in the 1960s after young Ethan rescues the Retriever pup from a hot car. From there, Bailey becomes a Chicago K9 Shepherd named Ellie, then a cute Corgi in 1980s Georgia, and back to Michigan as one of those unfortunate dogs tied to a tree all day.

The dog’s soul (voiced with overdone preciousness by Josh Gad) remains constant throughout, and constantly serves as an eager-to-please Captain Obvious. Imagine walking by a man vomiting as his sad-eyed dog remarks, “oh, he must be sick.” Now imagine it for ninety minutes.

Director Lasse Hallstrom (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules) and writer Cathryn Michon draw each character and every situation with the most broad, most one-dimensional brushes available, efficiently plowing through a checklist of contrived plot points seemingly chosen for utmost manipulation potential. Even a modest farmhouse isn’t complete without a picture perfect crescent moon above it, situated like the northern star in a cloudless sky.

Framing the story through the simplicity of a canine viewpoint may have been a worthwhile goal at some point, but the mix of melodramatic schmaltz and slapstick comedy (dog on the loose at a fancy dinner!) quickly becomes overbearing. Yes, the pets are lovable, but ultimately a film aimed at dog lovers develops the foul odor of exploiting what it claims to celebrate.

The recent video alleging animal abuse during filming is also a concern (trainers have claimed the video was falsely edited), but trust me, there are plenty of other reasons to avoid A Dog’s Purpose.




Meat is Meat

We Are the Flesh

by Hope Madden

Are you squeamish?

This is actually the first question my friend was asked in an interview for an internship with a meat packing plant, but it’s also a good piece of self-reflection before you sit down to We Are the Flesh.

First time feature writer/director Emiliano Rocha Minter announces his presence with authority – and a lot of body fluids – in this carnal horror show.

A hellish vision if ever there was one, the film opens on a filthy man with a lot of packing tape. He’s taking different types of nastiness, taping it inside a plastic drum to ferment, and eventually turning it into a drink or a drug. Hard to tell – loud drum banging follows, as well as hallucinations and really, really deep sleep.

During that sleep we meet two siblings, a teenaged brother and sister who’ve stumbled into the abandoned building where the hermit lives.

What happens next? What doesn’t?! Incest, cannibalism, a lot of shared body fluids of every manner, rape, maybe some necrophilia – depending on your perspective – a lot of stuff, none of it pleasant.

Minter has created a fever dream as close to hell as anything we’ve seen since last year’s Turkish nightmare Baskin.

Had Minter not found an anchor for the overwhelmingly lurid imagery, his movie would have felt like little more than self-indulgent horror porn (like literally horror and porn).

Noé Hernández conjures a goblin-like image, his unblinking eyes and demonic grin permanent fixtures as he mentors his teenage charges in his repellant ways. The boy he’s dubbed Skeletor (Diego Gamaleil) resists, though his consistently surprising sister (María Evoli) is less inhibited.

There’s little chance you’ll watch this film in its entirety without diverting your eyes – whether your concern is the problematic sexuality or just the onslaught of viscous secretions, the screen is a slurry of shit you don’t really want to see.

What opens as a post-apocalyptic hellscape eventually morphs into a social comment on Mexico City’s disposable population, which is both the film’s strength and its weakness.

Unfortunately, though Minter’s movie boasts deeply unnerving ideas and compelling performances, in light of other Mexican filmmakers making social commentaries – Jorge Michel Grau’s brilliant 2010 We Are What We Are, in particular – We Are the Flesh comes up slightly lacking.


Let’s Talk Oscar Nominations…

By Hope Madden and George Wolf

2016 was a fairly weak, fairly bland year at the movies, but it still has surprises in store for us. Look at this…Suicide Squad is nominated for an Oscar! Okay, it’s for makeup and hairstyling – who knew that rolling around Hot Topic could translate to an Oscar nomination?

The official Academy Award nominations had few other surprises in store. La La Land racked up quite a haul of noms, most of which are likely to translate to statuettes. What’s the lowdown? Who should have made the list? Who shouldn’t have? Let us walk you through it.


Best Film



Hacksaw Ridge

Hell or High Water

Hidden Figures

La La Land


Manchester by the Sea


Snubs: Zootopia, Jungle Book, The Witch, The Lobster, Jackie, Loving – there’s a bunch we’d have included instead of Lion, Hidden Figures or Hacksaw Ridge. Not that those are bad films – they are quite good. Just not as deserving.


Best Director

Denis Villeneuve, Arrival

Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge

Damien Chazelle, La La Land

Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea

Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

Snubs: No question Mel Gibson is out of his league here. While Hacksaw Ridge was a fine piece of filmmaking, it almost works in spite of Gibson’s direction. He begins with a Hallmark card then descends into carnage few other filmmakers care to capture. But the performances and the genuine merit of the story keep the film interesting. It’s not the direction, which is why we’d have honored David Mackenzie and his glorious direction for Hell or High Water instead.


Best Actress

Isabelle Huppert, Elle

Ruth Negga, Loving

Natalie Portman, Jackie

Emma Stone, La La Land

Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

Snubs: It’s hard to even form this sentence, but Meryl Streep should not be on this list. We know! Blasphemy! But the pool for Best Actress is rarely this deep, and Annette Bening (20th Century Women) Rebecca Hall (Christine), or Amy Adams (Arrival) would have been better choices.


Best Actor

Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge

Ryan Gosling, La La Land

Viggo Mortensen,  Captain Fantastic

Denzel Washington, Fences

Snubs: Not much to complain about here. The race is basically Affleck V Washington, with Affleck coming out on top, but we could have accepted Tom Hanks (Sully) or Nate Parker (The Birth of a Nation) in Garfield’s spot.


Best Supporting Actress

Viola Davis, Fences

Naomie Harris, Moonlight

Nicole Kidman,  Lion

Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures

Michelle Williams,  Manchester by the Sea

Snubs: Here’s a weird yet valid complaint: the smart money’s on Viola Davis to win, but how in the hell is this a supporting role? Not only is Davis the only female on the screen for 9/10 of Fences, she has more screen time than Denzel. It’s her story. She’s not just the lead actress, she’s the lead. And her performance is more than strong enough to take home the best actress Oscar.


Best Supporting Actor

Mahershala Ali,  Moonlight

Jeff Bridges,  Hell or High Water

Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea

Dev Patel, Lion

Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

Snubs: First of all, amen to Michael Shannon. We could not be more pleased to see him hit this list. And halleluiah to Mahershala Ali – the likely front runner in the category.

We’d have given Dev Patel’s slot to Shannon’s Nocturnal Animals co-star Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Ben Foster outshined his full slate of talented co-stars in Hell or High Water. He deserves Jeff Bridges’s spot.


Original Screenplay

Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water

Damien Chazelle, La La Land

Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou, The Lobster

Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea

Mike Mills, 20th Century Women

Snub: This is a very solid and admirable list. Mike Mills’s 20th Century Women is brilliantly written and performed. We might swap him out, though, and give his spot to Robert Eggers’s The Witch.


Adapted Screenplay

Eric Heisserer, Arrival

August Wilson, Fences

Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures

Luke Davies, Lion

Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

Snubs: Hidden Figures and Lion were well put-together, lovely films. But in this year of searing, searching, brilliant writing, they have no place in this list. In their stead? Whit Stillman’s wicked and wonderful Love & Friendship and Tom Ford’s story within a story Nocturnal Animals.




La La Land




Snubs: Chan-wook Park’s gloriously wrong The Handmaiden looked better than anything else that came out this year. It shouldn’t just be nominated, it should win. But it certainly should be perched in this category in Lion’s spot.


Foreign Language

Land of Mine

A Man Called Ove

The Salesman


Toni Erdmann

Snubs: Again, where is the love for The Handmaiden? And the bigger surprise may be Elle, which nabbed a Best Actress nomination.


Documentary Feature

Fire at Sea

I Am Not Your Negro

Life, Animated

OJ: Made in America


Snubs: Nope. Not a one. Every single one of these is required viewing. We’re hoping for some ties.


Animated Feature

Kubo and the Two Strings


The Red Turtle


My Life as a Zucchini

Snubs: No Finding Dory? We’re not sure that’s a snub, but it means no Pixar in this category, and we’ll call that a surprise.

We’ll have our official predictions a little closer to the Feb. 26th Oscar ceremony.

Behind the Bun

The Founder

by George Wolf

Two brothers, innovators in the food service industry, look on in despair as the sign is removed from above their beloved business. They no longer own their last name because, in Dick McDonald’s words, they “let a fox in the henhouse.”

That fox was Ray Kroc, and The Founder is director John Lee Hancock’s faithful dissection of how Kroc turned the McDonald brothers’ California burger stand into the worldwide behemoth that now feeds one percent of the global population every single day.

Michael Keaton is fantastic as Kroc, as he crafts an intensely driven man who listens to positive-thinking albums and becomes a living testament to the mantra of “persistence.” Dick and Mac McDonald (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch, respectively – both terrific) had the business insight that was years ahead of its time, but Kroc had the vision, along with the fortitude and dog-eat-dog mentality to see that vision through. Keaton makes him a pathetically fascinating hero, possessed with winning at any cost.

So, an egocentric businessman with questionable ethics stops at nothing to attain a position of incredible wealth and power? Timely.

It is, and Hancock skips the opportunities in Robert Siegel’s script to give his film more teeth. Siegel also wrote Big Fan and The Wrestler, so he knows his way around finding the dark edges of the American dream. Though the rise of McDonalds is layered with very relevant threads (crass commercialism, innovation displacing employment, etc.), Hancock, per his resume (The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks) isn’t interested in exploring anything on that menu.

The Founder tells the story, and tells it in fine clinical fashion, but misses the chance to go big time.

Those McDonald boys can relate.



Not the Boss of Me

Trespass Against Us

by George Wolf

Two great actors going toe to toe. Trespass Against Us may be a strangely unfocused crime drama/comedy, but it does bring Michael Fassbender and Brendan Gleeson together, and that’s far from criminal.

Gleeson is Colby “Cole” Cutler, who heads a family band of tramps and thieves camped in the British countryside and committed to a life of robbing the wealthy while taunting the police. Fassbender is Chad Cutler, the eldest son looking for a way out. Like everyone else, Chad is scared to confront his old man, but as his own son is becoming a young man, Chad begins secretly plotting a path that might give his boy the chance at a different life.

In this narrative feature debut for both director Adam Smith and screenwriter Alastair Siddons, familiar themes are brought to the surface without giving the fine ensemble cast enough ammunition to make any meaningful statement. In fact, it’s hard to pin down the purpose for any particular course the film takes, other than generating a respectful shoulder shrug.

Chad’s wife Kelly (a terrific Lyndsey Marshall) is tired of waiting for her husband to make his move, and though we see both tension and affection throughout the extended family, the film never really breaks from a bystander’s point of view. These are clearly complicated relationships with loyalties that have shifted over the years, but they’re all kept at arm’s length, rendering Trespass Against Us a well-performed curiosity.




The Beast in Me


by George Wolf

Yes, Split is the latest from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, and no, you’ll never see it coming.

You know what I mean. And Shyamalan knows you know what I mean. So, while you’re trying to guess what surprise twist he’s got in store for you, a nifty psychological thriller plays out, elevated by a transfixing performance from James McAvoy.

After years of misfires, Shyamalan got his groove back by scaling back two years ago with The Visit, an enjoyable bit of lightly scary fun that amounted to one giant misdirection. With Split, the director himself is the main misdirection, as his reputation pushes you to chase something that may not be there at all.

McAvoy is Kevin, a deeply troubled man harboring 23 distinct personalities and some increasingly chilling behavior. When he kidnaps the teenaged Casey (The Witch‘s Anya Taylor-Joy) and her two friends (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Suva), the girls are faced with constantly changing identities as they desperately seek an escape from their disorienting confines.

Meanwhile, one of Kevin’s personalities is making emergency appointments with his longtime therapist (Betty Buckley, nice to see you), only to show up and assure the Dr. everything is fine. She thinks otherwise, and she is right.

The split personality trope has been used to eye-rolling effect in enough films to be the perfect device for Shyamalan’s clever rope-a-dope. By often splitting the frame with intentional set designs and camera angles, or by letting full face closeups linger one extra beat, he reinforces the psychological creepiness without any excess bloodshed that would have soiled a PG-13 rating.

Still, it all might have gone for naught without McAvoy, who manages to make Kevin a sympathetic character while deftly dancing between identities, often in the same take. He’s a wonder to watch, and the solid support from Buckley and Taylor-Joy help keep the tension simmering through speedbumps in pacing and questionable flashbacks to Casey’s childhood.

Maybe the best case for this new Shyamalan surprise is the fact that even without the kicker, Split would hold up as a competent, emotionally disquieting thriller. But when you add that final reveal?

I see happy people.