Anyone for Tetris?


by George Wolf

So, you had mad Tetris skills back in the day, did you? Wel then, maybe you know that the name came from merging “tetra” (Greek for “four”) with “tennis.”

But did you know that the road to your gaming glory was paved with blackmail, Cold War intrigue, corporate backstabbing, KGB harassment and perhaps even one exuberant singalong to Europe’s 1986 anthem “The Final Countdown?”

The Apple Original Tetris gives us all that and more, riding an animated lead performance from Taron Egerton and a nostalgic, 16-bit aesthetic for an entertaining ride through history that’s only too happy to borrow from both Pixels and Argo.

And no matter how familiar you are with gaming culture, this is one crazy-ass story.

In the late 1980s, Henk Rogers (Egerton) was a video game sales rep whose shoot-from-the-hip manner and boots-with-suits style earned him a cowboy reputation. His first look at Tetris left him mesmerized at its “poetry, art and math,” and obsessed with obtaining the marketing rights for he called “the perfect game.”

But Tetris was a spare-time invention from Russian worker bee Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov), and getting those rights would put Rogers in the criss-crossing crosshairs of a competing sales rep (Toby Jones), a billionaire tycoon (Roger Allam, under some questionable makeup) and his heir (Anthony Boyle), game developers from Nintendo and various members of the KGB.

Fun! it is, especially the moments when a Russian business exec (Oleg Stefan, fantastic) moves from room to room in his office building, pitting the players against each other with deadpan delight.

Once again, Egerton is terrific. We first meet Henk as a fast-talking sales dog always ready with a pitch. But as Henk’s passion for a possible Tetris goldmine gives way to manic desperation, it feels real, as does his concern for safety of Alexey and his family.

Director Jon S. Baird (Stan & Ollie) indulges the throwback Thursday vibe, with plenty of game player graphics, pixellated frames and 80s jams. But look beyond the breezy attitude, and you’ll also find that writer Noah Pink includes some resonant nods to how even the seemingly harmless technology can quickly be weaponized.

Yes, the finale becomes a bit tidy, idealistic, and familiar (does Ben Affleck get a credit?), but the fictionalized history of Tetris is worth revisiting, meaning that after a slew of terrible video game adaptations, the genre can bask in a rare double score. Dungeons and Dragons can please crowds at the multiplex, while briefcases and boots gets the job done at home.

They Got Game

Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

There is a new Dungeons and Dragons movie, Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. Unfortunately, there is not a topic on this planet about which Madd and/or Wolf know less than Dungeons and Dragons. It honestly took us decades to undersand that “zero charisma!” reference in E.T.

Well, good news, then, that MaddWolf pack writer Cat McAlpine is a D&D expert!

Bad news! Cat McAlpine was unavailable for the screening because she was – we swear to God this is true ­– playing Dungeons and Dragons. So, you’ll have to settle for us. And here’s the crazy thing: we liked it.

We did not expect to. You should have seen the fit we threw when we realized Cat couldn’t review it and we would have to. Hissy levels.

Obviously, we can’t speak to how closely the film sticks to whatever it is Dungeons and Dragons is/does/conjures. But as a comedic adventure film with a quest narrative and a game-like aesthetic, it succeeds.

Co-directors John Francis Daly and Jonathan Goldstein (Game Night), both writing with Michael Gilio (Kwik Stop), find an easy humor that feeds off the charm and charisma of their cast. They inject a Guardians of the Galaxy tone into a narrative that mirrors role-playing level changes, and let a talented ensemble keep you entertained.

Chris Pine is the lute-playing, wise-cracking Edgin, who teams with the badass Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) to bust out of prison and go on the run from that cad Forge (Who else but that cad Hugh Grant). They pick up young sorcerer Simon (Justice Smith) and the shape-shifting druid Doric (Sophia Lillis) along the way, and the foursome embarks on an adventure to retrieve a powerful relic that could help reunite Edgin and his daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman).

Does any of this follow a D&D storyline? We don’t know. But even before Bridgerton‘s Regé-Jean Page shows up to lampoon his own image as the dashing Xenk, the contagious, wink-wink swashbuckling had won us over.

The fantastical creatures are plentiful (an “owl bear,” presumably cocaine free!) and gameboard-worthy, while Daly and Goldstein keep upping the ante with fast-paced plot turns that recall those “extra life” badge things that gamers rely on to keep the action pumping.

And the adventure does run a tad long, sometimes feeling simultaneously overstuffed and superficial. But the tone it embraces feels just right, and Honor Among Thieves fulfills its quest to deliver likable characters, infectious humor, and escapist fun.

Assault on Overlook Hotel


by Hope Madden

Equal parts Assault on Precinct 13 and The Shining by way of Charles Manson, Anthony DiBlasi’s Malum is a quick, mean, mad look into the abyss.

Jessica Sula stars as a rookie cop whose first night on the job is a babysitting gig, so to speak. The new station is up and running and all she has to do is sit tight at the old station, redirect anyone who stops by, and wait for morning. So far, so Carpenter.

Jessica (her character’s name, as well) actually requested this stint because her dad, a hero, ended his career in this very building and she just wants the two careers to overlap, if only for one shift. But the cult that her father put an end to one year ago tonight has designs on Jessica.

DiBlasi is reimagining his own 2014 flick Last Shift, although it feels more like a riff on Carpenter’s 1976 Precinct 13 than anything. Regardless, what the filmmaker does is confine the audience along with our hero in a funhouse.

As the film wears on its nightmarish vibe intensifies. Weird characters and genuinely unsettling scenarios play out, some of them predictable but most of them surprises. The jump scares work, the gore plays, and the creature effects are top notch.

Inspired supporting turns from Natalie Victoria, Sam Brooks and Kevin Wayne keep the bizarre tensions building and Sula’s grounded, understated hero holds the mayhem together well

Malum gets nuts, exactly as it should. Though it never feels genuinely unique, it manages to avoid feeling derivative because of DiBlasi’s commitment to the grisly madness afoot. The result is a solid, blood soaked bit of genre entertainment fully worthy of your 92 minutes.  

Glorious Madness

I’m an Electric Lampshade

by Christie Robb

Oh man, what can I say about this one? That it’s a celebration of the confidence of mediocre White men? That it’s an inspiring hero’s journey toward self-love and acceptance? It’s kinda both. And a bunch of other stuff.

It’s like a mix of The Office, Spinal TapAlice in Wonderland, and RuPaul’s Drag Race.

And the music videos. My God, the music videos.

I’m an Electric Lampshade follows Doug (Doug McCorkle), a 60-year-old corporate accountant, as he retires from office life to pursue his dream of becoming a concert performer. Director/writer John Clayton Doyle mines this material for all that it is worth—finding the humor, the heart, the beauty, and the weirdness in his cast and locations (the States, Mexico, and the Philippines).

The movie is based on the true story of Doug and is, at least in part, a documentary. But it also incorporates many fictional elements that give it a dreamy, hallucinogenic quality that at times verges on the cartoonish. This isn’t a “conventionally” good movie. It has the makings of a cult classic and is definitely a weird and wonderful little gem.


Smoking Causes Coughing

by Hope Madden

The narratives of brilliant French filmmaker Claire Denis tend to skip over dramatic highpoints in favor if those moments most filmmakers would ignore. She tells the same story but uses this device to undermine expectations and develop character. In Denis’s hands, it’s a brilliant approach that’s delivered many exceptional films: Trouble Every Day, High Life, 35 Shots of Rum, Let the Sunshine In and so many more.

In his own way, French filmmaker Quentin Dupieux does the same. He certainly does with his latest piece of absurdity, Smoking Causes Coughing, a high concept robbed of its drama and left with Dupieux’s favorite moments. The banal ones.

Costumed avengers Tobacco Force work as a team, each adding their unique gift to a combined weapon strong enough to bring down any enemy – or at least any kaiju in a rubber suit. The whole ordeal is only funnier when the helmets come off and some of the biggest names in French film spend an entire movie dressed like Power Rangers.

Nicotine (Anaïs Demoustier), Ammonia (Oulaya Amamra), Mercury (Jean-Pascal Zadi), Benzene (Gilles Lellouche) and Methanol (Vincent Lacoste) seem to be falling apart. Mercury’s powers were weak last time because he wasn’t sincere enough, and now the Chief (a particularly foul if amorous rat puppet voiced by Alain Chabat) thinks their team lacks cohesion.

And what a time to fall apart! Intergalactic supervillain Lezardin (Benoît Poelvoorde) is planning to eliminate Earth for being uninteresting.

Rather than follow the strategies and preparations, or even the battle itself, Dupieux sets his tale during the weeklong forced retreat where the team builds cohesion and shares campfire stories. The superhero film then becomes, essentially, the framing device for an absurdist’s horror anthology.

What is it all about? The ridiculousness of storytelling, of distracting yourself from life, and the insidious way capitalism influences both your life and your distraction from life?

I have no idea. But if you like Quentin Dupieux movies, you’ll no doubt enjoy this one. It’s less inspired than 2010’s Rubber, less endearing than 2020’s Mandibles. But Smoking Causes Coughing kicks expectations in the ass and has a fine time making moviemaking the butt of its joke.

Fright Club: Iconic Creature Make Up

We are beyond thrilled to get to talk with horror makeup FX master and good friend David Henson Greathouse for an episode on the best creature makeup in horror.

5. The Howling (1981) (Rob Bottin)

Rob Bottin won an Oscar for his FX makeup in Total Recal and was nominated for the glorious mostermaking in Ridley Scott’s Legend. Still, he may be best known for the touchstone in horror movie makeup, The Thing.

But the Bottin work we want to celebrate is in Joe Dante’s 1981 lycanthrope horror The Howling. Not because we love it more than his groundbreaking work those others, but because he shapes so many characters, and his makeup defines those characters. From partial transformations to complete metamorphosis, the makeup FX in The Howling create an unseemly atmosphere and tell us all we need to know about the characters on the screen.

4. Hellraiser (1987) (Bob Keen)

Bob Keen’s creatures have terrified in Candyman, Lifeforce, Nightbreed, Dog Soldiers and more. But his crowning glory wore pins.

Keen is the builder who brought Clive Barker’s maleficent cenobites to life and he had such sights to show us. Josh Russell took what Keen created and finessed it brilliantly for David Bruckner’s 2022 reboot, but Keen’s original – Pinhead, especially – cut a figure as memorable and identifiable as any monster since Frankenstein’s.

3. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) (David Martí)

David Martí won the Oscar for his magnificent work on longtime collaborator Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth. He’d brought del Toro’s wondrously macabre imagination to life many times – The Devil’s Backbone, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Crimson Peak – but never as beautifully, terrifyingly or heartbreakingly as here.

The Pale Man is a perfect example of actor and artist melding, Doug Jones taking the inspired horror of Martí’s makeup and animating the character as no one else could. The result is absolute perfection.

2. The Fly (1986) (Chris Walas)

When Chris Walas and David Cronenberg collaborated on 1981’s Scanners, a star was born. Probably two. That head explosion catapulted both artists into the genre stratosphere. With Naked Lunch, Walas was able to indulge his imagination in wildly various ways with all manner of creature.

But his Oscar came for his 1986 stroke of genius that was The Fly. Once again, artist and actor merged as Walas’s designs led Jeff Goldblum through the transformation, and his character’s arc. No matter how grotesque or repulsive, Walas and Goldblum managed to maintain a human heart, which is what was broken by the time the credits rolled.

1. Frankenstein (1931) (Jack Pierce)

What else? There may be on planet earth no image more instantly recognizable, and in the genre there is certainly no profile more iconic, than that of the monster created by Jack Pierce and brought to life by Boris Karloff.

The design didn’t resemble the description from Shelley’s text, nor did Whale’s direction or Karloff’s performance resemble the doomed monster of the novel. But what image do you associate with the Frankenstein monster? What square head, big boots, bolted neck has become the shorthand across popular culture from film to cereal boxes? And whose wild imagination conjured that image? Jack Pierce’s.

Screening Room: John Wick 4, A Good Person, One Fine Morning, Return to Seoul & More

Freedom from Tyranny

John Wick: Chapter 4

by Hope Madden

What do you want to know? John Wick: Chapter 4 doesn’t disappoint.

Guns, blades, cars, swords, fire, motorcycles, explosions, horses, bludgeonings, fisticuffs, playing cards, dogs. Of course, dogs.

Donnie Yen, Hiroyuki Sanada, Scott Adkins, Marko Zaror, Clancy Brown, Bill Skarsgard, Shamier Anderson, Aimee Kwan, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Keanu Reeves and Lance Reddick. Farewell, Lance.

Do you need to see the first three installments to follow the plot? No. It’s good to know that John Wick (Reeves) wears a bulletproof suit. Otherwise, he’d just look silly pulling up his lapel all the time. Other than that, you can probably figure out the gist. The stakes? High. The villains? Bad. The good guys? Professional villains. The best thing about being four episodes in is the needlessness of context or exposition.

Chad Stahelski returns to helm the latest, having carved out an impressive niche in action with his 2014 original. Since then, John Wick has become a cultural phenomenon sparking more copycat action flicks than Die Hard or Taken and solidifying Reeves as an undeniable if  unusual cinematic presence.

Chapter 4 is not just more of what makes the series memorable, it’s better: better action, better cinematography, better fight choreography, better framing and shot selection. Sandwiched between inspired carnage are brief moments of exposition set within sumptuous visions of luxury and decadence. This movie is absolutely gorgeous.

One of the reasons each episode of this franchise surpasses the last is that the franchise is not exactly about John Wick. It’s a love letter to a canon, a song about the entire history of onscreen assassins and their honorable, meticulous action. Genre legends arrive and we accept a backstory that isn’t detailed or necessary because the actors carry their cinematic history with them, and that’s backstory enough.

It’s hard to believe it took this many sequels to get us to John Wick v Donnie Yen, but it was worth the wait. Yen’s wryly comedic presence injects the film with needed levity. Plus he’s a better actor than Reeves and he looks less silly when he runs.

Skarsgard ­– though his French accent is dubious – fits the bill as the diabolically privileged Marquis who’s forgotten that “a man’s ambition should never exceed his worth.”

Hats off to Stahelski, his entire ensemble, stunt department, action choreographers and crew. No one could have guessed back in 2014 how this would snowball, but the director at the helm has managed to up his game once again.

Seoul Searching

Return to Seoul

by George Wolf

“Your birth name is Yeon-Hee. It means ‘docile’ and ‘joyous.'”

None of those things apply to Frédérique (Park Ji-min), whose name was changed after a French couple adopted baby Yeon-Hee and moved her from Seoul to Paris.

25 years later, she’s back.

In Return to Seoul (Retour à Séoul), the trip “home” becomes a catalyst for one woman’s search for identity, as director and co-writer Davy Chou crafts a relentlessly engrossing study of character and culture.

Now 25, “Freddie”‘s planned vacation in Japan is diverted by a typhoon, and she lands in Seoul “by surprise” – or so she tells her adoptive mother in France. But it isn’t long before Freddie is visiting the agency that handled her adoption, and reaching out to her birth parents to gauge interest in a meeting.

And from the minute we meet Freddie, she is purposefully upending the societal expectations of her heritage. When Freddie laughingly explains it away to her friend Tena (Guka Han) as “I’m French,” Tena quietly responds that Freddie is “also Korean.”

Freddie’s birth father and mother have very different reactions to her outreach. Chou moves the timeline incrementally forward, and Freddie’s two-week holiday becomes a new life in Seoul, one that’s fueled by restlessness and unrequited longing.

In her screen debut, Park is simply a revelation. Her experience as a visual artist clearly assists Park in realizing how to challenge the camera in a transfixing manner that implores us not to give up on her character. Freddie is carrying a soul-deep wound and pushes people away with a sometimes casual cruelty, but Park always grounds her with humanity and restraint.

As the narrative years go by, Chou adds flamboyance without seeming overly showy, and manages to toe a tricky line between singular characterization and a more universal comment on Korean adoptees.

Freddie begins to embody the typhoon that pushed her toward this journey of self, and Return to Seoul becomes an always defiant, sometimes bristling march to emotional release. And when that release comes, it is a rich and moving reward for a filmmaker, a performer, and all who choose to follow.