It’s Not Your Phone That’s Dead

Countdown

by George Wolf

Who takes the time to read all those terms and conditions, amirite?

Countdown knows we just agree without reading, and has a little fun with the notion that some of us could pay for that….WITH OUR LIVES!!

Smartphones have become such a crutch in everyday life that “our phones want to kill us” is an inevitable – and perfectly understandable – horror premise. For his first big screen feature, writer/director Justin Dec uses it as the basis for a rewrite of The Ring with an unexpected side trip into Conjuring territory.

TV vet Elizabeth Lail takes the Naomi Watts lead as Quinn, a rookie RN who’s still mourning her mother and trying to be a supportive big sis to the teenaged Jordan (Talitha Eliana Bateman).

The mysterious death of one of her patients leads Quinn to download the urban legendary Countdown app. The verdict? Less than three days to live, which means Quinn and the similarly-fated handsome dude she met at the phone store (Jordan Calloway) have to learn the origin of the video tape I mean phone app so they can figure out how to opt out without penalty.

Look, The Ring was great PG-13 horror (in fact, one of the best). While Countdown isn’t nearly as effective, it gives today’s high school horror crowd their own version, and some decent creeps and jump scares to spur date-clinging.

For the rest of us, the film benefits from the comic relief of one smug phone guy (Tom Segura) and a priest (P.J. Byrne) who’s eager to battle demons. And it’s when those demons are conjured that Countdown finds a fun groove to call its own, with Dec ultimately managing to write himself a clever enough way out of these deadly terms and conditions.

So read before signing, or you never know what’s next.

Timeshare: sign up…and your time’s up!

The Wizard of Meh-nlo Park

The Current War

by Matt Weiner

Isn’t there a rule that you shouldn’t make a movie about a subject that sets itself up for so many electricity-related puns if the final product is going to be so dim?

That’s the fate that befalls The Current War, a diverting but disjointed biopic that relies on an impeccable cast and flashy style to make up for its confused substance.

The bright spot: The Current War is much better than its protracted release history would suggest. After an expected holiday release in 2017, the movie was put on hold after the Weinstein Company imploded when news broke about Harvey Weinstein’s rape allegations.

Two years and a fresh re-cut from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon later, The Current War briskly takes us through key moments leading up to the competition between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon, excellent as always but maybe even better suited for Edison—or better still, just playing all the leading weirdos for an even more interesting gonzo edit) to power the Chicago World’s Fair.

The contest was the culmination of the War of the Currents, which pitted the world-famous inventor Edison and his direct current against the alternating current favored by Westinghouse, with an assist from Edison’s former employee and eccentric futurist Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult).

The historical details alone should have made for an unusually exciting biopic. Edison might not deserve the blame for Topsy, but his animal body count is still high enough to start his own abattoir.

But whether it’s the invention of the electric chair or Westinghouse’s (stylized) backstory, the film lacks either the interest or the courage to pursue any of the subplots with any real depth.

Which would be surmountable, but the main action participants suffer the same neglect. As much as The Current War’s quick cuts and glassy sound effects try to ape the frenetic spirit of invention, the film is neutered when it comes to having anything of substance to actually say about these people and the trajectory they put the world on.

That’s a bizarre oversight for a script by Michael Mitnick that at least attempts some hand-waving toward a dark reflection of the very same world we’re now living in over a century later: a Gilded Age redux, the foundational mythmaking that has always been tied up between this country and the Great Men doing what it takes in the name of creation, even the vaporware of Silicon Valley (er, Menlo Park) luminaries.

But how about the powerhouse acting! That distraction alone coupled with the film’s tortuous journey to screens suggests that while The Current War isn’t the most insightful biopic, it has a good claim to the one we deserve at the moment.

Cool Running

The Great Alaskan Race

by Rachel Willis

If you’re looking for a movie to watch with your extended family this holiday season, you likely won’t go wrong with director Brian Presley’s film, The Great Alaskan Race. 

Based on a true story, Presley’s film, in which he also stars, is a touching dedication to the mushers and sled dogs who saved the children of Nome, Alaska from a deadly diphtheria outbreak in 1925.

The film opens in 1917 with a voiceover narration introducing the audience to Leonhard Seppala (Presley), a man who has embraced the Alaskan wilderness and its people. We jump ahead one year and learn a flu epidemic has killed half of the native population, including Seppala’s wife, leaving him to care for their infant daughter, Sigrid. 

The opening feels like an unnecessary prologue to a film that addresses this past through dialogue, but its intention is to help us understand Seppala’s motivation to participate in the treacherous run to deliver the diphtheria antitoxin. Once the disease begins to affect the children of Nome, Seppala is terrified his daughter will fall victim to the deadly illness.

Much of the film’s first act is devoted to understanding the tight-knit community in Nome. Through Sigrid (portrayed by Presley’s daughter, Emma), we see that she is beloved by both her indigenous relatives and the settlers to the region, as they share in raising Sigrid while her father works in the area’s gold mines. 

The movie does a good job of letting us know who the characters are, but when it comes to portraying the epic 674-mile run to deliver the lifesaving medicine, it falls short. There are too few scenes of the mushers and their sled dogs fighting the elements and too many scenes of Dr. Welch (Treat Williams) and his nurses tending to the sick kids. For a historical event known as the Great Race of Mercy, we never truly feel the danger and daring involved in such a momentous undertaking.

That’s not to say there aren’t any scenes in which Seppala and some of the other mushers contend with blizzards and subzero temperatures, there just aren’t enough. The scenes they do include are the movie’s most interesting moments. 

For those who already know the story (or have seen the animated Balto from 1995), there may not be many surprises. But for audiences who don’t know this history, or the reason the Iditarod is run yearly, or why there is a statue of Balto the dog in Central Park, they’re likely to learn a few interesting facts. Either way, The Great Alaskan Race is a movie that celebrates community and the great things people can achieve when they work together to help those in need.

Beyond the Sea

The Lighthouse

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that there are no new ideas in modern film, that everything coming out is a sequel, reboot, adaptation or biopic. And then you spend an hour and 49 minutes with two men and a lighthouse.

What did we just watch?

Director/co-writer Robert Eggers follows The Witch, his incandescent 2015 feature debut, with another painstakingly crafted, moody period piece. The Lighthouse strands you, along with two wickies, on the unforgiving island home of one lonely 1890s New England lighthouse.

Salty sea dog Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) keeps the light, mind ye. He also handles among the most impressive briny soliloquies delivered on screen in a lifetime. Joining him as second is one Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson)—aimless, prone to self-abuse, disinclined to appreciate a man’s cooking.

Eggers’s film is a two-man show, a dizzying, sometimes absurd and often flatulent descent into madness.

The atmosphere is thick and brisk as sea fog, immersing you early with Jarin Blasche’s chilly black and white cinematography and a Damian Volpe sound design echoing of loss and one persistent, ominous foghorn.

For everything Eggers brings to bear, from the Bergmanesque lighting and spiritual undertones to the haunting score to the scrupulous set design to images suitable for framing in a maritime museum – not to mention the script itself – The Lighthouse works because of two breathtaking performances.

Dafoe may be one of the few actors alive who can take this manic-eyed, gimpy-legged version of the Simpson’s sea captain and force us to absorb his every eccentricity. When Winslow finally screams “You’re a parody!” it both wounds and reassures, as by then we’re eager to accept any bit of confirmation that we can trust anything we’re seeing.

As our vessel into this waterlogged nightmare, Pattinson impresses with yet another fiercely committed performance. Winslow comes to “the rock” full of quiet dignity, only to become a soul increasingly tempted by mysterious new demons while running from old ones.

Winslow’s psychological spiral has so many WTF moments, it would crumble without the sympathetic anchor Pattinson provides from the film’s opening moments. Twilight seems like a lifetime ago, and in case you’ve missed any of the impressive indie credits he’s racked up the last few years, we’ll say it again: Pattinson is the real deal.

So is Eggers. His mastery of tone and atmosphere carries a weight that’s damn near palpable. The Lighthouse will leave you feeling cold, wet and woozy, as Eggers trades the literal payoff from The Witch for a series of reveals you’ll be struggling to connect.

This is thrilling cinema. Let it in, and it will consume you to the point of nearly missing the deft gothic storytelling at work. The film is other-worldly, surreal, meticulous and consistently creepy.

And we’ll tell you what The Lighthouse is not. It is not a film ye will soon forget.

A Guide to Family Friendly Scares

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

It’s nearly Halloween, and it turns out that children’s hunger for age-appropriate scares rivals their taste for those elusive, full size trick-or-treat candy bars. Mmmmmm … chocolatey age-appropriate scares. Well, we’re here to help stave off starvation with these new- and old-school viewing options.

For the Very Young

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Hayao Miyazaki – often called Japan’s answer to Walt Disney – shares the sweetly magical tale of a budding young witch. Fun adventures befall the little witch-in-training, who becomes a baker’s courier to gain broom-flying skill. Kids will like the holiday feel, the cat and the hijinks with no worry of big scares.

For the Still Quite Wee

Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)

This film is so utterly enjoyable, charming and silly that you almost miss the true ingenuity and craft in the animation itself. British placticine duo Wallace – inventor and cheese lover – and his silently worried dog, Gromit, take on the bunnies upsetting town gardeners. But things go all Halloweeney on them. This is the kind of film that begs to be scanned for its clever details (the town barbershop is called A Close Shave, for instance), but it’s the unselfconscious, innocent comedy and remarkable animation that make the film a stunning success.  Wallace & Gromit belong in the highest echelon of doofus and silent sidekick comedy teams, and everyone in your family has reason to see their first full length feature.

Monsters, Inc. (2001)

A couple of best buds living in Monstropolis have to keep it under wraps that a child has infiltrated the city. She’s a serious risk of contamination – this is a real danger, actually, because children are filthy germ bags. And they’re often quite sticky. Pixar knows this, and alerts us to the potential epidemic via fuzzy monster characters. The animation is stunning. (Who doesn’t, right now, want to have a fuzzy blue Sulley doll?! You? What are you, a sociopath?)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FIW2OhcvQT8

Frankenweenie (2012)

In stellar black and white, Tim Burton animates the tale of a quiet young scientist and his undead dog. Odes to the classics of horror will entertain the parents (maybe even grandparents) in the audience, but the lovely boy/dog friendship, quirky school kids, and science-related peril will entertain the kids. Plus, Mr. Rzykurski (Martin Landau) is the most spectacular science teacher ever, as depicted in his speech to parents at the PTA meeting: “Ladies and gentlemen. I think the confusion here is that you are all very ignorant. Is that right word, ignorant? I mean stupid, primitive, unenlightened.”

For The Not Too Wee

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Back in 1993, Tim Burton produced the classic goth holiday extravaganza The Nightmare Before Christmas, having handed over his own sketches and story to director Henry Selick and the world’s coolest stop-action animators. Burton’s team, including Danny Elfman on tunes, assembled a lightheartedly macabre fantasy that artfully yet cataclysmically mixed America’s two most indulgent and excessive holidays. It was inspired.

Corpse Bride (2005)

The first animated film Tim Burton directed himself is equal parts wholesome and gruesome, somehow effortlessly combined. A nervous groom practices his wedding vows in a forest, unwittingly awakening a bride murdered on her wedding night. She misunderstands and accepts his promise of love. The reluctant groom is ushered into the afterlife, which is more like a cool blues club than a cloudy resting place, where he is welcomed by a delightfully grisly cast of characters.

The comedy is clever, the bride’s heartbreak is often genuinely poignant, and the rotty flesh is just as natural as the pre-wedding jitters. It’s no Jack Skellington, but it is close.

Monster House (2006)

This one is likely to scare little ones, what with its super creepy sideshow circus backdrop, scary old man and a house that actually eats people. Loads of endearing and interesting characters fall upon the kinds of everyday scares that bloom in a child’s imagination. Well written, honestly spooky, and eventually quite heart tugging, Monster House was a surprise Oscar nomination back in ’06, and is still an underseen Halloween gem.

Coraline (2009)

Coraline is a two-sided cautionary tale. For kids wishing for more attentive parents, be careful what you wish for. For parents disinterested in their tweens, danger lurks and lures your girls. Adapted for the screen and directed by Henry Selick (Nightmare Before Christmas), Coraline offers darkly magical visuals, quirky and creepy characters, and a surprisingly disturbing storyline. The film is clever and goth-gorgeous, but may be a little too creepy for kids under 10.

ParaNorman (2012)

“I see dead people” takes on new legs with this animated tale of the supernatural. ParaNorman celebrates cinematic horror with the story of a little boy whose closest buds are the goofy new kid and his own long-dead grandma. But Norman’s gift of seeing ghosts proves pretty beneficial when some witchy chicanery threatens the whole town. Plus, big props for including a gay couple in a family-friendly flick.

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Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween (2018)

The humor is silly but not stupid, the frights won’t bring nightmares, the town bully isn’t really that mean, and the town does Halloween like no place you’ve ever seen. It makes for an inviting setting, and once all those costumes and decorations come to life, there is plenty of lower-budget visual pop.

Goosebumps 2 has style, a winning cast, and winking nods to horror classics such as IT and Frankenstein. Plus, it makes books and science seem cool, and gets it all done in under 90 minutes. That adds up to one “fun-size” Halloween treat that doesn’t disappoint.

Now, pass the popcorn and…Happy Halloween!

Born in the Southwest USA

Western Stars

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Back in 1985, with “Born in the USA”-mania raging, Bruce Springsteen’s small acting performance in the John Sayles video for “I’m On Fire” spurred talk of a Boss move to feature films.

Aside from a cameo or two, it never happened.

But now, after becoming both an author and playwright in the last five years, Bruce hits the big screen as both star and co-director of Western Stars, an enchanting and meditative live presentation of his 19th album.

Gathering his current, non E-Street band, a 30 piece orchestra and a select audience of friends inside his one hundred-year-old barn, Bruce brings emotional new life to his musings on “the struggle between individual freedom and communal life.”

Tramps like us already know these songs are not what many expect from the Boss. There are no fist-pumping anthems here. These are lush pop symphonies, draped in the 1970s California pop sounds of Brian Wilson, Jimmy Webb, Glen Campbell and even Burt Bacharach.

Bruce has toyed with these styles as far back as “New York City Serenade,” but it was his 2007 album “Magic” that unveiled the first major step toward the musical promise fulfilled by Western Stars.

And though the comments by Bruce and band about the music “taking on a life of its own” sound like self-serving cliches, these live performances back them up. His speaking voice may show his 70 years, but Bruce’s singing only seems richer and more inviting.

“Sleepy Joe’s Cafe” is powered by a more joyous swing and “Sundown” soars with a newfound drive. For both “Stones” and “Moonlight Motel,” by sharing one mic with wife Patti Scialfa, Bruce adds layers of confessional intimacy.

The soul searching is only bolstered by dreamy, between-song vignettes from Bruce and co-director Thom Zimny. Amid gorgeous vistas, charming home movies (the Boss likes tequila!) and flashbacks to the America that shaped him, Bruce shares the songwriting inspirations he found in cars, risk, lies and love.

Longtime fans have often heard Bruce speak of the “conversation” he’s always had with his audience. In that vein, after his autobiography and broadway show, Western Stars is a can’t miss portrait of both the artist and the human being taking life’s journey.

And if you’re new to the conversation, welcome. Today’s Springsteen may not be quite what you’re expecting, but the days are still pretty glorious.

The Long Way Home

Midnight Traveler

by George Wolf

“How do you say ‘help’ in English?”

A harrowing first person account of one family’s flight from a death sentence, Midnight Traveler frames the refugee debate with honest, heartbreaking intimacy.

In 2015, the work of Afghan filmmaker Hassan Fazili earned him a call for death from the ruling Taliban. Fazili and his family sought asylum in neighboring Tajikistan, only to be denied after 14 months.

Midnight Traveler joins Fazili, his wife Nargis and two young daughters the night before their scheduled deportation back to Afghanistan. Filmed only on three iPhones, the movie documents the family’s years and thousands of miles-long journey in search of a safe place to call home.

In last year’s Oscar-winning doc Free Solo, the filmmakers expressed angst over the effect their cameras might have on the decisions of free climber Alex Honnold. As the dangers mount for Fazili and family, we begin to feel the same, worrying our intrusion might somehow cloud their judgement.

As the Fazili family deals with smugglers, broken promises and spur of the moment evacuations, we also see smaller moments of daily life. The daughters manage to laugh and play, and there is tenderness between Hassan and Nargis, as they smile over past memories of a much simpler and safer time.

Even with a verite nature that is often frantic and understandably desperate, Hassan’s footage reveals an unmistakable eye for form and structure.

This is a family literally crying for help in real time, and a human rights issue that can suffer from anonymous enormity transforms before our eyes, consistently adding strength to the touching impact of Midnight Traveler.

Refugees are more than statistics and political footballs. They are human beings with families, dreams and dwindling options. Within the reams of names on a waiting list are urgent, personal stories of survival.

This is one.

It’s Alive!

Zombieland 2: Double Tap

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

“It’s time to nut up or shut up.”

“That line is so 2009.”

There you have it. A horror film that recognizes its desire to wallow in its former glory as well as its need to find something new to say.

We had our worries about the sequel to one of the all-time best zombie action flicks, Zombieland. Horror sequels so rarely work and Zombieland: Double Tap is slow going at the start, to be sure. But don’t give up on it.

Everybody’s back. Director Ruben Fleischer – who’s spent the last decade trying to live up to Z-land‘s promise – returns, as do writers Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, along with newbie Dave Callaham, who’s written a lot of really big, really bad movies.

Still, it was enough to draw the most important elements—all four leads. Among Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Jesse Eisenberg and Abigail Breslin are seven Oscar nominations and one win. That’s a lot of credibility for a zombie movie.

They reprise their roles, now ten years on as a heavily armed and somewhat dysfunctional family. Little Rock (Breslin), in particular, longs to leave the nest, get away from a smothering Tallahassee (Harrelson) and find people her own age. Wichita (Stone) may be feeling a little smothered in her relationship with Columbus (Eisenberg), though he remains blissfully unaware.

Things pick up when the girls take off, the guys brood, a new survivor enters the picture (Zoey Deutch, scene-stealing hilarious), and a sudden road trip to Graceland seems like it might reunite the family.

The filmmakers spend plenty of time simultaneously ribbing and basking in previous success. So there is plenty here to remind us why we loved the first Zombieland adventure so much (especially during the credits), although Double Tap doesn’t come to life until it embraces some fresh meat.

A run-in with near-doppelgangers (Luke Wilson, Thomas Middleditch) leads to an inspired action sequence inside the Elvis-themed motel run by Nevada (Rosario Dawson). A pacifist commune stands in for the amusement park from part one, letting everyone poke some blood-splattered fun at the culture clash between hippies, survivalists, and of course, the undead.

An underused articulation of the way zombies have evolved over the decade could have offered the biggest update. Still, after a 10 year wait, this revival offers just enough fun to not only avoid a let down, but instantly become Fleischer’s second best film.