Lonely is the Night

Dark Night

by Hope Madden

An eerie soundtrack echoing with alienation and longing pairs with a roaming camera in search of human connection. With these and little more filmmaker Tim Sutton creates the loose and lonesome architecture for Dark Night.

His film glimpses disparate lives that will eventually meet and, in some cases, end in a bland suburban movie theater.

Sutton bases this prelude to a massacre around a fictional copycat shooting. With no help from exposition, he builds an unsettling dread as we and the camera so dispassionately watch each character.

This anxiety grows as we realize one of these people will eventually act on the same urge that pushed James Eagan Holmes to open fire, killing 10 and wounding 20 more in an Aurora, Colorado screening of The Dark Night Rises in 2012.

The focus remains splintered, meandering from one character to the next – an Iraq veteran struggling with PTSD, a video game obsessed teen, a selfie-compulsive would-be model, a skate kid tellingly dying his hair orange. The only discernible commonality – aside from the lifeless landscape of their suburban digs – is personal alienation.

As their stories begin to coalesce, you’re asked to guess who will become the shooter. You understand that there will be an incident and instinctively begin to distinguish potential culprits from likely victims. It’s a sort of whodunit in reverse.

Sutton’s interest is in our preconceived notions as well as possible inspirations for this particular brand of American mayhem.

The filmmaker creates a drowsy cadence – clearly reminiscent of Gus Van Sant’s own meditation on mass shootings, Elephant – pulling each thread tighter and tighter as the climax draws near.

Much of the power in Sutton’s film comes not from imagery but absence. Dark Night is adamantly bloodless. You know what is coming, feel the weight of its inevitability. What’s the use in seeing it?

Dark Night becomes a lyrical American nightmare, although at times its pursuit of authenticity feels more like cinematic sleight of hand. Characters begin to feel like red herrings, undercutting the basic, flawed humanity Sutton offered each one early in the film.

Still, between Hélène Louvart’s fluid camerawork, Maica Armata’s doleful score, naturalistic performances from an ensemble of newcomers and Sutton’s hypnotic structure is a potent vision of the damage of disconnection.


Seeds of Love

Bitter Harvest

by Rachel Willis

The love story of Yuri and Natalka is the thread that ties together director George Mendeluk’s Bitter Harvest. Set in Ukraine in the early 1930’s, the Soviet oppression under Stalin (the Holodomor) is the backdrop for their relationship.

As Yuri, Max Irons shines as the artist who’s loved Natalka (Samantha Barks) since they were children. The bulk of the film is his story, as we follow him from the small town of his childhood to Kiev, where he is able to pursue his artistic passions. Though Natalka is primed to join Yuri in Kiev, the influx of Soviets into their country keeps the lovers separated.

Unfortunately, rather than keep the story simple and focus solely on Yuri’s attempts to get home to Natalka, the film tries to take on too much. As if trying to convey the entirety of the horrors inflicted on the Ukrainian people, the audience sees Yuri in a number of far flung locations and situations. What could be a three-hour epic is condensed into less than two hours, so the audience never feels a true connection to any of the characters.

Expository dialogue further removes the viewer from the movie. It’s hard to stay in the moment when characters break out of tense scenes to explain to the audience what’s happening in the greater context. A heavy handed score also does the film a disservice, as it turns moments of tension into melodrama.

Though the story is weakened by these elements, the actors bring heartfelt emotion to their roles. While never given the depth they deserve, they are nonetheless sympathetic. A scene in which a young boy kneels by his mother’s grave is moving because the actor conveys the depth of sorrow the character feels. It also speaks to the larger situation, as many more children will be orphaned by the Holodomor.

If the film could have stayed with the smaller, more personal moments, it would have been a stronger film. Even so, this is a story that needs to be told, and Bitter Harvest is a heartfelt endeavor to share it.



Don’t Meet the Parents

Get Out

by George Wolf

You want to know the fears and anxieties at work in any modern population? Just look at their horror films.

You probably knew that. The stumper then, is what took so long for a film to manifest the fears of racial inequality as smartly as does Jordan Peele’s Get Out.

Last year’s Keanu proved Key & Peele could smoothly transition from sketch comedy to an extended (and often hilarious) narrative. Now Peele has his solo album, writing and directing a mash of Guess Who’s Coming to DinnerRosemary’s Baby and a few other staples that should go unnamed to preserve the fun. Opening with a brilliant prologue that wraps a nice vibe of homage around the cold realities of “walking while black,” Peele uses tension, humor and a few solid frights to call out blatant prejudice, casual racism and cultural appropriation.

When white Rose (Alison Williams) takes her black boyfriend Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) home to meet the fam, she assures him race will not be a problem. How can she be sure? Because her Dad (Bradley Whitford) would have voted for Obama’s third term “if he could.” It’s the first of many B.S. alerts for Peele, and they only get more satisfying.

Rose’s family is overly polite at first, but then mom Missy (Catherine Keener) starts acting evasive and brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) gets a bit threatening, while the gardener and the maid (both black – whaaat?) appear straight outta Stepford.

Peele is clearly a horror fan, and he gives knowing winks to many genre cliches (the jump scare, the dream) while anchoring his entire film in the upending of the “final girl.” This isn’t a young white coed trying to solve a mystery and save herself, it’s a young man of color, challenging the audience to enjoy the ride but understand why switching these roles in a horror film is a social critique in itself.

Get Out is an audacious first feature for Jordan Peele, a film that never stops entertaining as it consistently pays off the bets it is unafraid to make.





Should Win/Will Win 2017

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Oscar cometh, and with him the possibility of drawing attention to some of the best films from 2016 that many people didn’t see. By all means, check out Hell or High Water and Moonlight. Watch Natalie Portman’s brilliant turn in Jackie, or Viola Davis’s blistering performance in Fences. And for the love of God, watch Manchester by the Sea already. It won’t kill you.

And while you’re at it, pull out your Oscar score card and compare it with ours.

Best Picture
There are a lot of solid contenders and one possible winner. Such is the case every year, but the best thing about the real race this year is that it’s the movie you enjoyed most versus clearly the best film you saw this year. For us, it’s La La Land versus Moonlight, and however it turns out, we all win. This is how it will turn out:

Should: Moonlight
Will: La La Land


Best Director
We would love to say David Mackenzie, beautiful visionary behind Hell or High Water, should win but will lose to someone else. But, Mel Gibson got that nomination for Hacksaw Ridge. So Mackenzie can’t lose, at least he has that. The winner, then?

Should: Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Will: Chazelle


Best Actress
This is a stacked category (including Streep, Portman, and Loving‘s Ruth Negga)– one of the strongest pack of contenders for Best Female Lead we’ve seen in years. Congratulations to us that it will be so tough to choose. But here’s the way it’ll likely go:

Should: Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Will: Emma Stone, La La Land


Best Actor
Tightest race this year, and only getting tighter. Even Denzel Washington was surprised to see the Screen Actors Guild award come his way for Fences, and with all the overlap in the voting pool between that organization and the Academy, Denzel’s chances have only gotten better. But we still give Casey Affleck the slightest of leads.

Should: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Will: Affleck


Best Supporting Actress
Regardless of her limited screen time in Manchester by the Sea, Michelle Williams has every right to this award, only because the great Viola Davis should be nominated in the best actress category. But since she’s not…

Should: Viola Davis, Fences
Will: Davis


Best Supporting Actor
This is another group of impressive performances. Nice to see Lucas Hedges included for his great work in Manchester by the Sea. Still, this ranks as the second strongest lock on the ballot (after Viola’s certain win).

Should: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Will: Ali


Best Original Screenplay
Wow, the brilliance off all this work could blind you. The Lobster, 20th Century Woman, La La Land and more, some of the most original, most provocative and most moving screenplays we’ve seen in years. There are no losers here.

Should: Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water
Will: Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea


Best Adapted Screenplay
Matching the originals in style and substance is this group of adapted screenplays (including Lion, Arrival, and Fences). Breathtaking.

Should: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Will: Moonlight


Best Animated Film
Oscar liked some obscure cartoons this year – and good for all of us that they drew attention to such gems as The Red Turtle and My Life as a Zucchini. Still, it’s the big boys who delivered. No, not Pixar. For once, the ultimate behemoth in ‘toon-tainment, Disney, put out the most relevant and gorgeous piece of animation, and will be rewarded for it.

Should: Zootopia
Will: Zootopia


Best Documentary
Three films here, including Ava DuVernay’s gripping 13th, are almost equally deserving of this award, each of them speaking to the nation’s racial tensions in a way that illustrates both the history and currency of the topic. We’ll be happy however it turns out, but if it were up to us…

Should: I Am Not Your Negro
Will: OJ: Made In America

Catch the show Sunday night on ABC. Coverage begins at 7pm.

Fright Club: Best of Vincent Price

Few figures in horror are more familiar, no matter your age, than Vincent Price. With more than 100 films to his credit, not to mention the Scooby Doo episodes and Thriller rap, the iconic voice and face of evil (and sometimes comedy) left an impression. Whether it’s his hapless scientist in The Fly (1958), the sole survivor of a zombie/vampire epidemic in 1964’s The Last Man on Earth, or his murderous supervillain in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Price put his voice, his height, his hair and pencil-thin mustache to evil use with a panache few could match.

With the help of Phantom Dark Dave, we take a look at the best Price had to offer.

5. Masque of the Red Death (1964)

One of many Poe adaptations director Roger Corman did with Price, this one sees the actor as a Satanic prince ruling over a plague-beset village. While he tries to turn one village innocent (Jane Asher) from her naïve ways, his lover Juliana (Hazel Court) decides she’s finally ready to wed Satan.

All this takes place at a party the prince is throwing – a closed-off house party of sorts, where guests are encouraged toward debauchery and kept safe (they believe) from the plague outside.

Price cuts a bemused presence of evil in this overly dramatic adaptation that throws some provocative notions and bold color into the Poe mix.

4. House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Price famously worked with B-movie maestro William Castle twice. While The Tingler succeeded in many ways – cinematic and historical – House on Haunted Hill became their most iconic and memorable collaboration.

Chock-full of cheese and floating heads, the film is best watched as a joyous bit of nostalgia. Price’s millionaire Frederick Loren hosts a party in a haunted house at the behest of his wife. Isn’t she amusing? Guests are locked in, and those who survive the night will take home $10k.

The bumps in the night are laughable by today’s standards, but the fact that this plot has been lifted so many times – even making its way into a Flintstones episode – speaks to the simple power of the tale.

3. House of Usher (1960)

Roger Corman made 8 films with Vincent Price, most of them adaptations of the work of Edgar Allen Poe. House of Usher is the strongest of the efforts, primarily because of Price’s presence.

Starkly blond and working his height to achieve a ghastly presence, Price’s Roderick Usher is a weirdo from the word go. The performance fits this tale of sibling trouble perfectly, as Corman – with the help of Price and Myrna Fahey as Roderick’s sister Madeline – mines something unseemly and yet well hidden in the family dynamic.

What is Roderick’s deal with his sister, really? Corman finds something symbolic and uthinkable in the Usher madness that Poe barely hinted, and though this House of Usher is never entirely out with it, it lays a queasying undercurrent that makes the film a success.

2. Theatre of Blood (1973)

Vincent Price made 101 films, but in a way, it feels like fewer. Maybe because so many of them were basically the same film: a decent man is believed to have died horribly; disfigured and insane, he returns to exact bloody vengeance in increasingly bizarre yet clearly outlined ways.

This could be House of Wax, any of the Dr. Phibes films, and Theatre of Blood. What makes the latter stand out is that, even as it reworks themes so terribly familiar to Vincent Price fans, it does it in a way that sends up Price’s image and still tells a clever tale.

Price’s Edward Lionheart believed himself to be the greatest actor in London. When the city’s eminent critics fail to give him the recognition he is due, he falls to his death. Or does he?

Using strategies that not only call back to Price’s earlier works but predict both Seven and some of the Saw franchise, the spurned actor comes calling to make his critics eat their words – and sometimes their dogs.

1. Witchfinder General (The Conqueror Worm) (1968)

Price’s one true horror film asks him to step outside his comfort zone a bit. Yes, he once again plays the evil villain – clearly the role the lanky, mustachioed tenor was born to play. But as Matthew Hopkins, self-appointed “witchfinder general” he gets to really tear into his work.

Hopkins, along with his evil henchman John Stearne (Robert Russell) travel the English countryside ridding villages of witches on the taxpayer’s dollar. Woe to those who think they can spurn a sexual advance – which makes you wonder just why righteous soldier Richard (Ian Ogilvy) leaves his bride-to-be alone with her uncle, the priest who’s losing favor in the village. Hell, he even gives the two witch hunters directions to her house. What kind of love is that?

Director Michael Reeves takes the movie in directions unlike those found in most of Price’s work. The film was released in the states as The Conqueror Work, a Poe phrase meant to connect it to Price’s slew of Poe-inspired films, but fans of that franchise would likely balk at the overt violence on display here.

It remains an effective work of horror, and Price’s most convincing performance.

Gifted & Talented

The Girl with All the Gifts

by Hope Madden

It is the top of the food chain that has the most reason to fear evolution.

Isn’t that the abiding tension in monster and superhero movie alike? The Girl with All the Gifts explores it thoughtfully and elegantly – for a zombie movie.

In 2010, director Colm McCarthy took an unusually restrained and intimate look at lycanthropy in his underseen Outcast – kind of a werewolf Romeo and Juliet among Irish travelers. This time he mines Mike Carey’s screen adaptation of his own novel with the same quietly insightful bent.

Melanie (startlingly strong newcomer Sennia Nanua) lives out her young life in a cell, then restrained head, hands and feet in a wheelchair as part of ongoing research conducted by Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close).

Let’s pause. When 6-time Oscar nominee and all around acting badass Glenn Close deems a zombie film worthy of her talent, we should all pay attention.

So, what’s the deal? A horde of “hungries,” each infected with a plant-based virus, has long since overrun the human population. Dr. Caldwell, her researchers and the military are holed up while trying to derive a cure from the next generation, like Melanie – the offspring of those infected during pregnancy.

It is an unsettling premise handled with restraint and realism, bolstered by uniformly admirable performances.

Melanie aside, the characters could be standard fare zombipocalypse cogs: gung ho military guys, driven researcher, tender-hearted woman here to remind us all of the civilization we’re fighting to save.

But expect something surprising and wonderful out of every actor involved – from Paddy Considine as the Sarge with something to learn to Gemma Arterton as Melanie’s beloved teacher to Close, steely and cagey in a underwritten role.

But much of the weight sits on Nanua’s narrow shoulders, and she owns this film. The role requires a level of emotional nimbleness, naiveté edged with survival instinct, and command. She has that and more.

McCarthy showcases his bounty of talent in a film that knows its roots but embraces the natural evolution of the genre. It’s not easy to make a zombie film that says something different.

Girl brims with ideas and nods to films of the past – in many ways, it is the natural extension of the ideas Romero first brought to the screen when he invented the genre in ’68. It definitely picks up where his Day of the Dead left off in ’85, working in nods to 28 Days Later as well as other seminal flicks in the genre.

But what Girl has to say is both surprising and inevitable.

And she says it really, really well.


Shell Shocked

The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge)

by Hope Madden

Life, death, the natural world and the redemptive love of a redhead – all excellent topics, all simply but beautifully explored in the Oscar-nominated animated film The Red Turtle.

When Dutch filmmaker Michael Dudok de Wit got word from Studio Ghibli that they wanted him to be the first foreign filmmaker to work with them, he agreed, even though it would mean leaving the world of short subjects behind in favor of something feature length.

The filmmaker, who’d been contentedly animating shorts since 1981 and directing his own work since ’92, took the next nine years to complete The Red Turtle.

Like his Oscar-winning short Father and Daughter, The Red Turtle boasts minimalistic visuals to convey solitude, longing and the harsh realities of nature. But the melancholy of the previous effort is missing, something more hopeful in its place.

We join a nameless man – survivor of a shipwreck now stranded on a deserted island – as he fights to save himself from his fate. With no company but the skittering beach crabs, he explores enough of the island to determine the best ways off.

But each raft he builds is destroyed from below by an unseen force.

Without the help of dialog, musical numbers or flashy visuals – indeed, the entire effort borders on the monochromatic – The Red Turtle becomes a hypnotic experience. De Wit asks you to wonder whether the extraordinary events are happening or are the hallucinations of a desperate man – perhaps even the visions of a man in the throes of death.

He doesn’t answer your questions, instead weaving a fable as easily taken for symbol as it is taken literally. Perhaps the man didn’t survive the shipwreck. Perhaps he did, and the inexplicable power and magic of the natural world convinced him to stop fighting and live the life he has.

Either way, this spare and often somber film, punctuated as it is with both joyous outbursts and peril, is a welcome piece of poetry in Oscar’s roster.


Cure for Insomnia

A Cure for Wellness

by Hope Madden

Not too far into The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter suggests that Buffalo Bill’s behavior seems “desperately random.”

Director Gore Verbinski’s latest, A Cure for Wellness, feels desperately creepy – and far too random.

His film is a little bit Kubrick, a little more Cronenberg, a touch Scorsese and an awful lot Burton. Maybe that’s why it’s so long – it takes Verbinski a while to squeeze all those other people’s vision into his movie.

What’s it about? How avaricious humanity’s lost its way, how an ambitious corporate cog travels to a spa in the Swiss alps to retrieve his boss, and eels.

All of it amounts to a bunch of nothing, but man, the package is great.

Dane DeHaan plays Lockhart, relentless executive headed for the top. When the firm sends him to a “wellness center” in hopes of retrieving a missing CEO, Lockhart sees his chance for the big time. But, like Scorsese’s Shutter Island, things are not as they seem.

Verbinski hasn’t been as visually unleashed in years, and his picture is very pretty, very creepy and endlessly stylized.

Beneath that distracting layer of polish is a hodgepodge – a mainly incoherent assortment of unrelated ideas. A Cure for Wellness slides images at you, each of them meant to conjure a particular feeling, but it never lays out any cohesive narrative to bring them together.

And, my God it’s so long.

On the surface is a familiar story of a man who is not a patient at a sanitarium becoming a patient against his will. And then, of course, is the mystery he must solve concerning his CEO – unless he’s going mad in the process? Mwa ha ha ha ha….

Plus some confluence of vaguely Nazi imagery (this is the whitest film you will ever see), a bit of a creature feature, odds and ends that feel like folklore horror, flashbacks and/or dream sequences, and a dance scene that could be straight out of Harry Potter. (The fact that Lucius Malfoy – Jason Isaacs – plays the villain doesn’t hinder that notion.)

Random creepy images grow tiresome after 80 or so minutes. Unmercifully, A Cure for Wellness has another sixty minutes to go, without a coherent thread or satisfying payoff. Or any payoff, really.


Don’t Knock At All

Don’t Knock Twice

by Hope Madden

Two Thomas the Tank Engine writers team up with fledgling director Caradog James to talk of witches, urban legends, estranged children and doors.

They just don’t do it very well.

Do you ever watch a horror film where a storyline leads to a jump scare, and then characters move on with their lives as if no spindly legged giant demon woman just crawled out of their closet toward them? They just go to the next scene?

Frustrating, right?

Welcome to Don’t Knock Twice.

The film follows a recovered addict turned successful sculptor (Katee Sackhoff) as she tries to regain custody of the teen daughter she gave up years ago. Chloe (Lucy Boynton – who was so good in last year’s Sing Street) wants nothing to do with her mum until buddy Danny goes missing and Chloe suspects the long dead neighborhood witch is to blame.

A mishmash of horror tropes follows as Chloe and her mother believe idiocy and do ridiculous things.

There’s a Baba Yaga – nice! Now there’s a fresh idea.

There’s also a beautiful foreigner spinning hocusy pocusy nonsense, which is straight out of every “her husband left town and something supernatural is happening” piece of garbage ever to be set to film.

Lucy Boynton has talent. Katee Sackhoff, as far as Don’t Knock Twice exposes, does not. Her flat delivery never suggests the maternal devotion meant to drive her character’s actions and her chemistry with the rest of the cast is nonexistent.

The main trouble, however, is James. He cannot create a cohesive mythology, which is especially important in supernatural horror. Very little holds together and even less holds your attention.

It’s a mystery, you see – one that routinely mentions doors without ever really doing anything with that; one that returns repeatedly to clues just to pretend they mean something different this time; one that asks you to accept that a conscious human could find a box of evidence in her own art studio and not ask, “Hey, how did this get here?!”

It’s bad, is what I’m saying.

And worse yet, it’s dull.


Readin’, Writin’, Teacher Fightin’

Fist Fight

by George Wolf

At Roosevelt High, it’s the last day before summer break, and the school’s online newspaper gets a breaking story:


Seems the meek Mr. Campbell (Charlie Day) snitched on the scary Mr. Strickland (Ice Cube), and you know what they say about snitches. They get their asses beat on the playground while the whole school watches…and they will most likely require stitches at some point.

Fist Fight is often contrived and ridiculous, and has those funny bloopers ready to roll as soon as possible, but ya know, it fills the class with enough likable clowns to get a pass.

The two leads aren’t asked to venture beyond their respective comfort zones, but do display some nice comic timing that bolsters their easy chemistry. Cube pushes his menacing persona and steely glare for all they are worth while Day does the same with the naturally funny pairing of his diminutive stature and high-pitched wheeze. The conflict of their characters is grounded just by these two actors sharing the same frame, giving the film a comic foundation from the start.

Then you have the always weird and welcome Jillian Bell as a guidance counselor who’s really fond of drugs and “that tenis” (teenage penis), Kumail Nanjiani’s by-the-book school security officer and Tracy Morgan dispensing wisdom as Coach Crawford (“You can’t run away! Who is you, Seabiscuit?”) for a steady stream of nuttiness.

Director Richie Keen makes his feature debut after years of TV episodes (including Day’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), keeping the pace lively and the mood raunchy. He even shows a little theatrical flair once the students’ start spreading rumors of Mr.Strickland’s murderous past, and the fantasies play out with hilarious excess.

Fist Fight offers violence, plenty of sex-fueled gags and the obligatory foul-mouthed grade-schooler. It’s an adult education, for sure, and just funny enough not to skip.