On the Road Again

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

From the dust and the waste of the Mad Max Saga has sprung many a fascinating supporting player: The Humungus, Auntie Entity, Immortan Joe. Only one commands an origin story. That look. That arm. That name: Furiosa!

George Miller follows up his epic action masterpiece Fury Road with a look at what made our girl tick, what turns of event turned her into the baddest of all badasses.

Writing again with Nick Lathouris, who co-write Fury Road, Miller invests more time in plotting than usual, creating a 15-year odyssey rather than a breathless and breakneck few day adventure.

Young Furiosa (Alyla Browne, Sting) is taken from the storied Green Place by scavengers, eventually landing in the care of vainglorious leader of the marauders, Dr. Dementus (Chris Hemsworth, creating a fascinating mix of loquacious pretension, reckless machismo and prosthetic nose). It’s the first stop of many on the savvy, silent one’s wearying journey toward fulfilling the two promises: the one she made her mother to return, and the sacred oath all in the Green Place make to keep the location forever secret.

Years pass, and Anya-Taylor Joy straps on the arm and the attitude for this prequel, her arc a suitable evolution from scrappy kid to determined adult to the undeniable warrior Charlize Theron perfected in the last go-round.

Miller remains as true to his vision of the wasteland as he was back in ’79’s original Mad Max, but there is a depth to the storytelling here that sets it apart. We’ve had four films to see what turned Max Rockatansky mad, made him what he is. Now Miller lays out a single story that serves as both a thrilling prelude to Fury Road and a rich origin story in its own right.

Plot does not take a front seat to action, though, so strap in for more glorious road wars.

Again wielding his patented punch-in closeups like a heavy metal power chord, Miller keeps a palpable sense of frenzied motion. War rigs take to the barren terrain while all manner of air and ground assaults constantly threaten from every direction. Miller and cinematographer Simon Duggan craft a wonderfully rich visual playground, while Fury Road editors Eliot Knapman and Margaret Sixel (Miller’s wife) return to make sure this trip feels equally immersive.

The very nature of this installment’s origin story removes the chance for the kind of singular narrative mission that helped elevate Fury Road to all-time great action heights. But anyone who took that ride knew there had to be a helluva story behind that buzz cut and metal arm.

There is, and Furiosa brings it right up to where the last journey began, in an often spectacular fashion that demands nothing less than the big screen.

Grindhouse Grandma

Queen of the Deuce

by Brandon Thomas

New York City in the 1960s and 1970s occupies its own special corner of film history. Films like Taxi Driver, The French Connection, and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 paint a vivid picture of Manhattan at the time. Long before chain restaurants, toy stores, and Disney actors lined the streets near Times Square, X-rated theaters, peep shows, and violent crime reigned supreme. Despite the roughness of the area, it was still home to a lot of people. Queen of the Deuce focuses on one such family, and specifically the matriarch who also just happened to run a mini porn empire. 

Director Valerie Kontakos’s documentary delves into the rich history of one Chelly Wilson as told in the present day by her children, grandchildren, and various other family members. Originally from a small Jewish community in Greece, Chelly left Europe for America before the start of World War II. After marrying, having children, and working a modest job, Chelly found herself the owner of property throughout New York City. By the time the early 1970s rolled around, many of these properties were X-rated theaters (one of which Chelly lived above).

Larger than life individuals often make the best subjects of this kind of documentary and Chelly Wilson is no exception. From the start, it’s easy to see why people were so drawn to her. She was magnetic, feisty, testy, and loving sometimes all in the span of a single interaction. Chelly’s family lovingly talk about how she held court in her apartment with friends, neighbors, and family. Everyone would be under her spell. Sometimes this may have even included members of the local mafia. 

Kontakos skillfully weaves tales of Chelly’s history and her present in the 1970s and 80s into the fabric of Manhattan of the time. Chelly was a woman who faced adversity from an early age, and the mean streets of New York weren’t about to intimidate her. There are low points in her story for sure, but much of The Queen of the Deuce is filled with stories of how loved and admired she was. 

Much of the film is filled with family videos and photographs that help to amplify the stories. This visual history is an enormous asset to Kontakos, who doesn’t have to completely fall back on standard talking head footage.

Queen of the Deuce does an admirable job of touching on the history of New York City of the time, but even better is how the film showcases the love and respect a family can share throughout the ages.

What’s Up, Doc?

Sight

by Hope Madden

Sight, the latest inspirational film from director/co-writer Andrew Hyatt (Paul, The Apostle of Christ; All Those Small Things), leads by example rather than preaching to the choir. It’s still a mishmash of a result, but it is a step in a better direction.

Terry Chen plays Dr. Ming Wang, a real-life eye surgeon whose foundation restores sight to many without the financial means to cover the surgery themselves. But Sight tells the story that leads to this philanthropic action.

The film opens on a press conference. Dr. Wang has just performed another breakthrough surgery, but his humility and stoicism keep him from enjoying the moment. This perplexes his wizened and good-natured colleague, Dr. Misha Bartnovsky (Greg Kinnear).

Kinnear spends the next hour and forty minutes with a perpetual half smirk, half grimace as he nudges Dr. Wang toward a little satisfaction, a little happiness. Maybe a date.

Most of that running time is actually spent with young Ming Wang (Ben Wang), who grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution with a passion to become a doctor. But when those in power start burning books, you know nothing good can come of it. His life becomes a nightmare that still haunts the adult doctor. Maybe if he can save one little girl, it will all be worth it?

That’s the core crisis in Sight, and it feels pretty forced, pretty made-for-TV, as does most of the film. There’s a great deal of exposition, loads of characters, endless flashbacks, all of it skimming the surface of the story. Every character has one note: benevolent, anguished, optimistic, supportive, or evil. No one gets to be human.

Hyatt’s approach is safe, his film superficial and earnest. And though the plot takes an unexpected turn—because life took an unexpected turn for Dr. Wang and his patient—Hyatt seems desperate to tidy up, to make the narrative fit the expected framework rather than embracing its messiness.

Dr. Wang has no doubt led a remarkable and inspirational life, and anyone who’s contributed this much good to the world deserves to be appreciated. Sight does that. It does far less as a film—as a stand-alone piece of art with depth and honesty. But it’s nice and it tells a nice, safe story.

California Dream

The Beach Boys

by George Wolf

Only one of The Beach Boys even knew how to surf. They had a fateful encounter with Charles Manson. Glen Campbell was a member for a short time.

Casual fans may hear some surprising new stories in Disney’s The Beach Boys, while longtime devotees will get a respectful and well-crafted overview that favors family over friction.

That family legacy started with California brothers Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine in the late 1950s. Neighbor David Marks joined for the first four albums before domineering family patriarch Murry Wilson forced him out. Campbell was the first to become a touring replacement while Brian stayed home to work his magic in the studio. When Campbell’s solo career took off, Bruce Johnston stepped in “for two weeks” and never left.

Directors Frank Marshall (From the Earth to the Moon, Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story) and Thom Zimny (various Springsteen docs and videos) weave interviews old and new, archival footage and iconic music into a compelling pop culture tapestry.

Major sources of conflict in the band’s history – Murry’s bullying, Brian’s mental health and Mike Love’s ego – are addressed but not stressed. Instead, the film spotlights the importance of each individual contribution, and how they blended for a sound that can never be duplicated.

Music historians and contemporaries such as Don Was, Lindsey Buckingham and Janelle Monáe discuss how that sound defined a “California dream” that called to them and countless others. We see a creative rivalry with the Beatles, and how the cultural revolution of the late Sixties favored the Fab Four, while the Beach Boys popularity waned until 1974’s “Endless Summer” compilation hit #1 and reignited demand.

But much like a scaled-down version of Peter Jackson’s Get Back, The Beach Boys gleans insight from going into the studio, starting with Brian’s description of how his early obsession with the Four Freshmen led to building his vision of what the Beach Boys could do. Rare audio snippets of Brian producing are layered between interviews with legendary “Wrecking Crew” studio musicians such as Hal Blaine and Carol Kaye detailing how they came to realize Brian’s genius.

Then, an older but matter-of-fact Brian sits at a studio console, proudly isolating tracks to reveal the separate pieces of beauty required to create a wonder like “God Only Knows.” Joyous.

And that’s really the simple message The Beach Boys wants to leave us with, culminated by a tender and tearful surfside reunion. Strip away the infighting, the lawsuits, the drug use and the drama, and you find family, each member an integral part of finding that perfect, indelible harmony.

Hot Mamas

Babes

by Hope Madden

Bobby Hill makes a movie. I think we always knew he was a feminist.

Director Pamela Adlon, longtime actor and brilliant voice actor (winning an Emmy for her work on King of the Hill), helms her first feature with Babes, the tale of two of lifelong best friends grappling with the sloppy tensions motherhood can put on a friendship.

Adlon works with a script by co-star Ilana Glazer and Josh Rabinowitz, who wrote together on Glazer’s breakout sitcom Broad City, so you can guess what to expect: raunchy hilarity based in shameless womanhood.

Yes, please.

This is Glazer’s sweet spot. She’s plays Eden, whose free spirit is met with increasingly harried laughs by Michelle Buteau (Survival of the Thickest). Buteau’s Dawn has just given birth to her second child and realizes that it only gets harder. Everything. All things. Harder.

Just when Dawn could use her delightfully odd bestie’s help, Eden finds herself pregnant, quickly becoming just another bottomless source of need.

Applause to Babes for doing more than checking off boxes: premise, catalyst, etc. Dawn’s pregnancy mishap is actually among the most endearing plot points in a surprisingly lovely, if deeply gross, film.

The raucous irresponsibility that fueled Broad City enlivens Babes as well, but there’s more to this story than body fluids and lady parts. Glazer and Buteau share a charming, lived-in chemistry that enriches their sharp comic timing and riotous delivery.

They’re not alone. Delightful supporting turns from Hasan Minhaj, Stephen James and John Carroll Lynch add depth to situations, developing dimensional characters we become invested in.

Childhood best friendship rarely really survives adulthood. Babes wonders whether it can, with the right mix of forgiveness and need, distance and support, breast milk and feces. Glazer’s irreverent humor loses none of its edge, but there’s now more depth and humanity. The laughs come early and often, but Babes delivers a lot of heart as well.

Schoolhouse Rock

House of Screaming Glass

by Hope Madden

A descent into madness when the protagonist is probably already mad makes for a very short trip and not a particularly dramatic arc, but director David R. Williams gives it a go with his latest indie, House of Screaming Glass (which is a great title).

Elizabeth Cadozia (Lani Call) has inherited the old schoolhouse her grandmother has used as a home. It came to Elizabeth on her 27th birthday, upon the death of her mother. We don’t know what happened to Elizabeth’s mother, or anything Elizabeth chooses not to share with us directly. The only dialog in the film is done in voice over, Elizabeth telling us pieces of her story, and she does not seem like the most reliable narrator.

Call, in essentially a one-person show, really is mesmerizing. But she has an awful lot on her shoulders and Williams’s direction is not always on her side.

Having a camera trained on  your face as you wordlessly morph from dreamy apathy to dread to horror to tears and back again tests an actor, and Call passes beautifully. It’s the kind of scene that could easily become the watershed moment in any film, horror in particular. In keeping with Williams’s “more is more” direction throughout, Call is put through this about six times during the film’s hour and 45-minute run time.

This is symptomatic of a frustrating lack of focus that mires the entire effort in unfocused, self-indulgent tedium. This is especially disappointing because Call’s performance is genuinely arresting, and because Williams drops a good number of seriously startling, impressive images of horror throughout the film.

A sort of marriage between Lovecraft and Judeo-Christian hauntings, House of Screaming Glass succeeds when it unveils gooey shocks of body horror and practical monster effects. Call’s awkwardly sensuous turn amplifies the horror, but the imagery either gets lost in the unfocused narrative, or the scene in question goes on for such an unnecessary length that you lose interest.

House of Screaming Glass could have been a memorable hypnotic fever dream had Williams pruned at least 30 minutes. It’s still worth watching—Call’s performance, Stephen Rosenthal’s cinematography and many of Williams’s nightmarish visuals are transfixing.

Screening Room: IF, Back to Black, The Strangers: Chapter 1, I Saw the TV Glow, Evil Does Not Exist & More

TV Guide

I Saw the TV Glow

by George Wolf

Fulfilling the promise of 2021’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, writer/director Jane Schoenbrun’s follow-up, I Saw the TV Glow, is a hypnotically abstract and dreamily immersive nightmare of longing.

Owen (Justice Smith) and Maddy (Brigette Lundy-Paine) meet as very introverted teens, drawn together by their love of “The Pink Opaque,” a Saturday night series on the Young Adult Network.

Maddy’s basement offers shelter from her violent stepdad, while Owen has to join her there in secret, away from the sheltering grasp of his mother (always great to see Danielle Deadwyler) and father (Fred Durst!).

Together, the teens escape into the weekly adventures of two young women (Helena Howard, Lindsey Jordan) who connect across the psychic realm to battle monsters sent by the evil Mr. Melancholy.

But then the show is cancelled, the basement TV is left in flames on the front lawn, and Maddy vanishes without a trace.

As the film wanders through the advancing years and Owen sometimes comments through the fourth wall, Schoenbrun layers Eric Yue’s cinematography and a captivating soundtrack to craft a completely transfixing pastiche of color, light, sound and shadow.

Smith (Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves) is heartbreakingly endearing, while Lundy-Paine (Bill & Ted Face the Music) provides a revelatory turn of alienation and mystery. It’s hard to take your eyes of either one of them, with Schoenbrun often framing their stares through close-ups that become as challenging as they are inviting.

And that feels organically right. Because Schoenbrun is channelling characters who imagine life as someone else, to again emerge as a challenging and inviting filmmaker with a thrillingly original voice.

Worlds’ Fair got our attention – and A24’s. Now I Saw the TV Glow is here to get in our heads.

Knock Knock Joke

The Strangers: Chapter 1

by Hope Madden

Reny Harlin’s best film is The Long Kiss Goodnight, though some would argue Die Hard 2. Niether one of these is great. Good, yes. Definitely. Not great.

He’s made 42 other features—42!—not one of which is good. A couple are decent. A lot of people think he disappeared, talk about his work with The Strangers origin story trilogy as some kind of grand reemergence, but he’s never gone away. It’s just that the movies he’s made for the last thirtyish years have been entirely forgettable.

So anyway, The Strangers: Chapter 1.

Chapter 1 is actually the third installment in the tale of masked marauders randomly hunting anybody who’s home when they come calling. Bryan Bertino’s 2008 original is among the scariest horror films of the new millennium. It took ten  years for somebody to decide it needed a sequel. It didn’t.

But that’s the problem with a franchise, isn’t it? You can’t replicate the genuine terror of a truly original horror film, you can only hope to replicate it. This is what Harlin, with writing partners Alan R. Coen and Alan Freedland—both comedy writers known for King of the Hill and other sitcoms—attempts. Chapter 1 hits all the same beats—all of them—as Bertino’s original. The only real difference is that he abandons every move that made the original original.

Gone is the complicated relationship, emotional gut punches, chilling lines and good music. The vinyl collection in this backwoods Airbnb is terrible.

Maya (Madelaine Petsch) and Ryan (Froy Gutierrez) stop at an off-the-grid diner on their road trip from NYC to Portland, Oregon. Unexpected car trouble lands them in a rustic cabin overnight, which seems ideal until someone comes knocking looking for Tamara.

There’s a Richard Brake sighting, which is never a bad thing, but blink and you’ll miss him. Gutierrez and Petsch are fine. They’re asked more to pose and look nice than anything, but they do emit a lovable chemistry that makes you sorry for what you know is in store.

And though you certainly know where things are heading (partly because Harlin mimics Bertino’s original so early and often), individual set pieces ratchet up a certain amount of tension. It looks nice. Is it the gorgeous vintage horror aesthetic of Bertino’s original? It is not. But it’s a good looking movie.

So, if you have not seen the 2008 treasure that grounds this franchise, then Harlin’s Chapter 1 is sure to please. It’s an extremely conventional, competent horror movie. As if that’s enough.