Killer Style


by Hope Madden

What makes a good midlife crisis? What gives it swagger? Physicality? Style? Maybe a little fringe?


Oscar winner Jean Dujardin (The Artist) is Georges, a man willing to pay an awful lot for a jacket—so much that his wife locks him out of their account. No matter, Georges will just hole up in this little French town, learn how to use the digital camera that came with his purchase, and spend some quality time with his new jacket.

If that sounds absurd, it should. You’ve just stumbled into the one-paragraph synopsis of the latest bit of lunacy from filmmaker Quentin Dupieux. As he did with 2010’s Rubber (a sentient tire on a cross-country rampage), Dupieux sets up one feature-length joke.

It’s funny, though.

Again the filmmaker draws hysterically deadpan, even confused performances from the many nameless characters supporting his leads. Adèle Haenel (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), playing town barkeep and would-be filmmaker, offers a wily and enjoyable counterpoint to Dujardin’s earnestness.

Aside from a couple of utterly priceless Dupieux flourishes, it’s Dujardin that sells this film. He’s deeply committed to the wildly wrong-headed internal logic of the film and the character. There’s an underlying sadness to it, and the willful obliviousness required of a character so willing to commit to a plan as ludicrous as Georges’s. He’s wonderful.

Deerskin is also slyly autobiographical in a way Dupieux’s other films are not. An odd duck wants to follow his vision (in this case, the obsessive love of a deerskin jacket) and make a movie. Creative partnerships and collaboration, while possibly necessary, also soil the vision and make the filmmaker feel dumb.

No one understands him!

Or maybe they do and his ruse is up.

No matter. He still has killer style.

Ways to Be Wicked

The Wretched

by Hope Madden

A tidy opening sets the stage, spilling enough beans to prepare you for the full tale while creating an atmosphere of genuine horror. Some excellent soundtrack choices establish a time and generate a mood.

So far so good, The Wretched!

As sometimes happens when a horror movie starts out strong, this one falls into familiar tropes to move things forward. Writers/directors Brett and Drew T. Pierce (Deadheads) stumble slightly as they usher in Act 2, relying on stock concepts as well as shorthand character introductions: rich asshole, hot girl, unfussy hot girl wearing eccentric socks who you should actually care about, Dad who’s trying but just isn’t that good at this.

Basically, there’s too much here that you’ve seen before and may not need to see again. If horror movies have taught me anything (they have, too!), it’s that Never Have I Ever is a lame game that only brings on death.

Still, the Pierce brothers and a game (if mainly unknown) cast keep even the familiar pretty fresh.

High school kid Ben (John-Paul Howard) finds himself out at the lake, working the docks with his newly single dad (Jamison Jones). Sure, he’d planned to spend the summer tooling around town in the Lincoln his mom was passing down to him, but he got himself into a little hot water and now it’s a summer job catering to pampered townies and vacationing families.

If only that was going to be his biggest problem.

Zarah Mahler is especially effective in breaking through tropes as the neighbor lady who is not what she seems, and The Wretched uses the “child in danger” plotline to worrisome effect throughout its running time.

Weird behavior from those tourists next door finds Ben doing a little sleuthing. Quickly, The Wretched turns into Rear Window/Fright Night/Disturbia—but without the actual house arrest kind of thing, which seriously limits its tension.

There are other, lesser-known films that are thematically closer and, honestly, better, including last year’s Irish horror The Hole in the Ground and Oliver Frampton’s almost entirely unseen 2014 gem, The Forgotten.

At about the time you begin to weary of the film, it recovers with a nice surprise that reaffirms the promise of Act 1. There’s far too much borrowed and rehashed between Acts 1 and 3 for it to stand the test of time alone, but The Wretched delivers enough to entertain and to leave you interested in what’s next for the Pierce brothers.

Night of the Living

Blood Quantum

by Hope Madden

It’s 1981 on the Red Crow Indian reservation and white people have lost their damn minds.

Since it is 1981, no way they know it’s zombies. Sure, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead came out in ’69, but the genre doesn’t really take off until later in the Eighties. No, they have to figure this out for themselves – no meta commentary, no preconceived notions.

It wouldn’t help them anyway because Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum is a zombie movie with a twist, which he uses to his advantage to subvert your knowledge of the genre.

Traylor (Michael Greyeyes) is having a busy morning. He had to shoot his ex-wife’s dog, his sons have both been arrested, Sugar keeps calling the station because his woman’s sick, and Traylor’s dad needs him to come see something down at the store.  

It’s always nutty like that right before the zombie apocalypse, though. Although, to be honest, Blood Quantum often works a little more like 30 Days of Night and Stakeland – both vampire films that riff on zombie tropes—but the filmmaker utilizes Romero when it makes sense.

Barnaby takes common horror themes and bends them to serve the film’s purpose as an apt allegorical nightmare. It’s the combination of social commentary and intimate family drama that makes the film memorable.

Blood Quantum would have been interesting solely on the basis of “plagued up Opies” invading indigenous space—sometimes wrapped in infected blankets, even. But the film derives its real strength from a more intimate struggle. Yes, a diseased white population threatens to overwhelm and destroy the folks of the Mi’gMaq reserve, but Barnaby’s focus is internal.

Whites are a mainly nameless burden, a privileged but parasitic condition of life. Traynor and his boys need to take care of their own shit if they want to survive this.

Greyeyes offers a level performance to build around. Kiowa Gordon brings sinister charm to the bad boy Lysol role, balanced nicely as favorite son Joseph by The Revenant’s Forrest Goodluck, (“He killed my boy!”)

Better still are longtime character actor Gary Farmer (love him!) and relative newcomer Stonehorse Lone Goeman as a couple of guys who’ve lived through a lot and bring rich if not always valuable perspective.

Performances are not always exceptional, and you would not call this a feminist effort, but the underlying wry, weary wit separates the film from anything else like it.

There’s also an excellent use of resources – minimal sets maximized results: claustrophobia, tension, horror.  Barnaby’s spare but effective use of animation is another reason Blood Quantum delivers a vital new perspective for the genre.

I Can’t Go Out – Week of April 28

The time will come within weeks that we have no post-theatrical releases to discuss. How insane is that? Until then, you can pass the time with two early 2020 releases that, according to box office, you probably missed. Both are worth a look – one is actually excellent.

Click the film title to link the complete review.

The Assistant

The Rhythm Section

For Art’s Sake

Beyond the Visible – Hilma af Klint

by Hope Madden

Film pioneer Alice Guy Blache and contemporary art ground-breaker Yayoi Kusama were copied, hidden and disregarded by the predominantly male industry that determined not only financial success but historical acknowledgment.

In 1906 – five years before Kandinsky painted Composition VII, long considered the genesis of abstract art—Sweden’s Hilma af Klimpt had already created a breathtaking series of abstracts. Not that you’ve heard of her.

How could you? As Halina Dyrschka’s documentary Beyond the Visible – Hilma af Klint points out, she wasn’t accepted in her time.

Not uncommon for a great artist. What Dyrschka and those she speaks with in the documentary find far more frustrating is that today, even when her genius is acknowledged (more than a million visitors have taken in the current exhibition of her work), art history shuns her.

Leaving behind hundreds of paintings and thousands of pages of journal entries and sketches, af Klint offers an unusual story of a singular life. Inspired by science, nature and spirituality in ways that would seem wildly uncommon today and must have been outright bizarre in her time, she devoted herself to a vibrant artistic exploration.

The filmmaker lingers lovingly on the work, devoting every inch of screen to the vivid color and fascinating images. She surrounds footage of the paintings with landscapes, architecture and even talking head footage framed for elegance. The material balances the energy of af Klint’s work with a calm that’s sometimes even quietly spiritual.

Still, the underlying outrage at history’s reluctance to accept the truth gives the film an energy matched by the excitement of discovery, which is never lost on the filmmaker. As impatient as the film is with the unhurried acknowledgment of genius, it’s equally thrilled to be able to share this genius with an eager if unknowing audience.  

Bite Club


by Hope Madden

There is something appealing to the glam trainwreck that is Bit, Brad Michael Elmore’s anti-Twilight.

An angsty adolescent fresh from high school graduation voice overs: “You know those teen vampire movies that feel like the horny soap opera fever dreams of an 8th grade diary? Here’s how mine began.”

Like it. It’s self-aware, a little deadpan funny, a little whatever. Go on.

Laurel (Nicole Maines), the recent grad, packs up her Oregon-plated car and takes off to spend the summer with her brother in LA. On her very first night in town, she’s hit on by  the super hot girl Izzy (Zolee Griggs), brought to an after hours full of incredibly cool people, and immediately she feels as if she’s found acceptance, found home.

Naturally, Izzy and her also-hot friends are lesbian vampires who see Laurel’s specialness and invite her to Bite Club.

First rule of Bite Club: No. Fucking. Boys.

Maines is a transgender actress, a fact that elevates Laurel’s angsty “oh, high school was kind of a horror show” schtick because it probably was. Maines does not show an enormous amount of range, unfortunately, and Elmore’s script offers her few opportunities to shine.

She’s entirely convincing with her eyes at half mast, enduring the well-meaning but clueless affection of her family. But Elmore penned very few realistic reasons for Laurel’s behavior and Maines is left struggling to convince us, simply repeating the phrase “I’m fine” ad nauseam.

Diana Hopper, on the other hand, cuts an impressive figure as Bit’s Tyler Durden. Hopper elevates Elmore’s sometimes weak dialog (there are times when it works) with wearied badassedness.

It is fun and sometimes really witty the way Bit mocks boys, though, even if Elmore’s core theme is, “Some of us are OK!” Indeed, Bit undercuts its feminist intent as often as it offers genuine insight.

But maybe its main thesis is that kids are stupid, because Laurel’s philosophy for the future of the human race is…well, it’s stupid.

Still, there’s low-rent garbage fun to be had with this. Everything about it could have been better, but like most guilty pleasures, it appeals in a sugar high kind of way.

Dishonor Among Thieves

The Wild Goose Lake

by Brandon Thomas

A vicious fight breaks out between rival gangs. Chairs fly. Knives are pulled. A spectator takes a bite of a pickle. A man has his prosthetic leg pulled from his body. 

And this is all within the first 10 minutes of The Wild Goose Lake.

Small-time mobster Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) finds himself in the spotlight after mistakenly killing a police officer during a turf dispute with another gang. With dozens of police searching for him, and rival gangs looking to collect the bounty on Zhou’s head, he’s forced to team up with a mysterious woman (Gwei Lun-mei) and go on the run.

In the grand tradition of so many other neo-noir films, Wild Goose Lake walks a tightrope of mood and style. Many scenes play out long and with few cuts – drawing out the tension. The maze of buildings, streets and corridors are shot deep in shadows. The visual claustrophobia unsubtly mimics that of the main characters. And when the violence hits – it hits quickly and brutally. 

The depiction of violence is where the black humor comes out. There’s more Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson in the violence here than there is Francis Ford Coppola. A killing involving an umbrella had me hooting and clapping my hands in delight. Not to mention the inventive decapitation via forklift.

Hu Ge makes for a stoic lead as Zhou. At the beginning of his story, Zhou is a perfect example of cool, calm, and collected. In the opening fight, he casually dispatches opponents in a flurry of fists and kicks. Sharp contrast to later in the film when Zhou more or less resembles a trapped animal.

Gwei Lun-mei is equally impressive as the standard femme fatale, Liu Aiai. Like any good noir femme fatale, Liu’s motives remain murky at best. Like Zhou, Liu’s resolve begins to crumble as the weight of their situation bears down on her. Gwei does a terrific job of adding subtle layers to Liu. 

It’s hard to look at Wild Goose Lake and not be reminded of Fritz Lang’s noir masterpiece M. In M, Peter Lorre famously plays a serial killer hunted by both the police and the criminal underworld. The narrative themes and strong visual cues helped shape the noir genre as we know it today.

By embracing what makes film noir so riveting, Wild Goose Lake manages to satisfy movie lover’s expectations, and sometimes soar above them. 

Born in a Small Town


by George Wolf

If you’re the parent of a current high school senior, you’ll find some extra poignancy in Pahokee, an observational doc that follows four small town Florida teens through their last year at the predominantly African-American Pahokee High School.

B.J. is the football star on a team dreaming of a D1 State Championship. Jacobed is the Salutatorian who helps out at her parents taco stand. Junior already has a child at home. Na’kerria is running for “Miss PHS” and weighing community college vs. the full university experience.

For their first documentary feature, directors Patrick Benson and Ivete Lucas take a hands off, leisurely approach that gives the events plenty of room to breath – sometimes a little too much room. Some obvious questions (where’s the mother of Junior’s child?) are ignored in favor of following strands that could have been trimmed in a tighter edit.

But the film still finds its resonance in moments both large and small. From the face of the older white Harvard rep at the college fair, to Jacobed’s emotional description of her parents’ sacrifice, to the prom dress adorned with pictures of Trayvon Martin and other victims of excessive force, Pahokee serves plenty of subtle, evocative sequences that will make you care about these kids.

The further you are away from high school, the easier it is to dismiss what the class of 2020 has lost this year. Pahokee‘s class of 2017 serves a tender and truthful reminder of a crossroads unlike any other.

The Outsiders

To the Stars

by Rachel Willis

Small town Wakina, Oklahoma in the 1960’s is about as dreary as you might expect. Despite many lamenting the “good old days,” director Martha Stephen’s new film, To the Stars, reminds us that world was not the ideal many would have you believe. This is a world in which outsiders were run out of town, thrown to the wolves, or worse.  

Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward) is one such outsider. She is derided by her classmates, teased by both girls and boys (the teasing of the boys has a sinister sexual nature), and tormented at home by her alcoholic mother, Francie (an effectively cruel Jordana Spiro). Her father is a passive protector, stepping in only after her mother has already thoroughly berated Iris for her differences.

Into Iris’s life strides the outspoken Maggie (Liana Liberato), a girl from “the big city” who speaks her mind and isn’t afraid to hurl rocks at the “good-old-boys” who harass Iris. And while Maggie seems to have a handle on who she is and what she wants, we quickly learn that not all is what it seems with this enviable newcomer.

What connects Iris and Maggie is their sadness. A large part of the movie is the exploration of female sadness, from the quiet despair of the woman who runs a beauty parlor from her home to Francie’s alcoholic outbursts. Even Maggie’s mother seems burdened with her own melancholy as she tries to make the best of her life in a new town. Each of these women feel their “otherness” in a town inhabited by women who know where they fit.   

As Iris and Maggie bond, first time screenwriter Shannon Bradley-Colleary can’t seem to help falling into familiar coming-of-age clichés. There’s the makeover montage as the two girls skip school (a haircut, a new sweater set, and the removal of glasses equals instant confidence). Maggie’s outspoken nature emboldens mousey Iris. The boy Iris likes is sensitive and mysterious, not at all like the other boys. You can mostly predict how the chips will fall as we watch the two become friends.

Occasionally, the film finds ways to thwart overused tropes. Unfortunately, these glimpses of originality are too few. Often, the audience is left scratching its head over certain character choices. Maggie’s mysterious sadness is explored and explained too late in the film and never given the resolution it deserves. This is Iris’s story, and Maggie’s otherness only serves to help Iris become a confident woman.

A few lovely moments of female solidarity help the movie become something a little more than a cliched look at two outsiders bonding, but those instants are mostly lost in a film that can’t seem to embrace its own otherness.