All posts by maddwolf

Screening Room: Bullet Train, Prey, Thirteen Lives, Luck & More

First Time Long Time

Prey

by George Wolf

Well-crafted memories of the mid-80s helped Top Gun Maverick blow up the box office this summer. And while Prey skips the big screens for a rollout on Hulu, the film is not shy about its plan for more crowd-pleasing nostalgia.

It’s also not shy about the carnage.

Director Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) takes the reins for installment number five in the Predator franchise, teaming with writer Patrick Aison to rewind 300 years, when a tribe of Comanche hunters suddenly found themselves among the hunted.

Naru (Amber Midthunder) thinks she has the skills to join the hunt and help provide for her tribe, but her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) isn’t so sure. And when Taabe has to come to Naru’s rescue in the wild, she’s urged to stand down.

But Naru has glimpsed something large and lethal in the woods, and when that something begins making bloody sport of Comanche nation, she’s eager to prove just how lethal she can be.

Midthunder (The Wheel, TV’s Legion) is a fine heroine, more than capable with the role’s physicality and Naru’s stubborn resolve. And she’s able to keep the character compelling when Aison’s character arcs and “the hunter is now the prey” themes seem hurried and obvious.

Trachtenberg compensates with a string of arresting visual set pieces. As his camera dives deep into the trees and then high above, Trachtenberg crafts the Predator’s first Earthly battlefield as a home suddenly and violently unknown to its natives, a metaphor for the Native American experience that lands with resonance.

Those well-known monster calls fuel the tension, the action is thrilling, and the blood is splattered with pride, complete with unmistakable callbacks to the original 1987 film through both movement and dialog.

And about that dialog…

Trachtenberg and producer Jhane Myers (of both Comanche and Blackfeet heritage) have clearly taken great care with the film’s cultural representation and depiction. In fact, you can choose a version of Prey that is dubbed by the cast in the Comanche language (becoming the first film to offer this option).

It’s a wise choice, because as distracting as dubbed audio can be, the English dialog in Prey is even more so. It’s not just that the Comanche characters speak English, but the phrasing and delivery is so very present day, it’s hard to stay grounded in the film’s otherwise impressive world-building.

Word is that before making the decision to dub, Trachtenberg and Myers considered filming exclusively in the Comanche language. Damn, that would have been a great action film.

Prey is a good one.

The Odd Couple

Ali & Ava

by Rachel Willis

In the years since the 1974 release of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s masterful Fear Eats the Soul, it’s quite depressing to realize so little has changed. The evidence is there in Clio Barnard’s poignant and relevant film, Ali & Ava.

Treading similar ground as Fassbinder, Ali & Ava charts the growth of a relationship between Ava, an older, white, working-class woman, and Ali, a 30-something, middle-class man of Pakistani descent. However, Barnard carves a fresh story, the West Yorkshire city of Bradford serving as the setting for the racial and economic tensions permeating the couple’s relationship.

The most winning aspect of the film is the charm and natural chemistry shared between the two leads, Claire Rushbrook’s Ava and Adeel Akhtar’s Ali. Though their backgrounds are quite different – Ava is a teacher’s aide with several children and grandchildren, while Ali is a landlord who befriends his tenants, many of them immigrants who speak little English – the two find a connection through music.

The film’s soundtrack works as a third character, serving as an emotional backdrop to the growing attachment between Ali and Ava. Though Ali professes to hate folk when Ava declares her enjoyment, he spends time listening to Bob Dylan, trying to perfect one of his songs on the ukulele. It’s little touches like this that draw the viewer into the couple’s relationship.

Like similar films, the biggest obstacles to the new couple’s happiness are family. Ava’s son, Callum (Shaun Thomas) — his recently deceased father a skinhead — professes his disgust in a dramatic scene that rings a little false in light of the film’s subtler moments. Meanwhile, Ali’s sister employs a classist slur akin to white trash.

The one thing that doesn’t seem to work against the couple is their age difference, which in films with similar themes has often been as shocking as the class or race differences. Perhaps we’ve made a little forward progress in one respect.

Despite the roadblocks to the couple’s happiness, Barnard doesn’t give up hope. The soundtrack remains upbeat, connecting not just Ali and Ava, but Ali to a handful of kids who throw rocks at his car. (Why they do this is yet one more subtle moment highlighting the issues still facing us.)

Perhaps not as profound as thematically similar films, Ali & Ava serves as a nice reminder that sometimes love is more powerful than hate.

Station to Station

Bullet Train

by Hope Madden & George Wolf

It took us decades to embrace it, but Brad Pitt is really funny. We all saw those acceptance speeches, right? Burn After Reading? And he was easily the funniest thing about the Sandra Bullock/Channing Tatum romance adventure The Lost City.

But those were acceptance speeches and supporting turns. Pitt’s comedic stylings are front and center in David Leitch’s highly advertised Bullet Train.

He’s not alone. There are about 100 other people on this train, most of them for the same reason.

Hitman twins Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are on a job for the mysterious Japanese gang lord known as White Death. Prince (Joey King) is a young woman with more plans for the trip than just finishing her book. Kimura (Andrew Koji) will do whatever it takes to keep his kidnapped son alive, and Wolf (Benito A Martínez Ocasio aka Bad Bunny) just wants to settle an old score with Ladybug.

Pitt would be Ladybug, an adorable code name given to him by his handler (Sandra Bullock). His first job back from sabbatical is a quick, easy one: grab a briefcase off a train and then get off that train. But there are so many other stories and bandits and snakes and whatnot, and that automatic door just keeps closing station after station before Ladybug can make his exit.

Leitch can stage action. You’ve seen Atomic Blonde, right? And since the director’s official 2017 feature debut (he gets an uncredited nod for the original John Wick), his focus has been on slight, action-heavy comedies: Deadpool 2 and Hobbs & Shaw.

His Bullet Train continues that tradition: it’s slight, action-packed, silly fun. He and screenwriter Zak Olkewicz adapt Kôtarô Isaka’s novel via a mishmash of styles, blending a spoonful of Edgar Wright with a heaping helping of Guy Ritchie and a smidge of Tarantino. It’s bloody and hyperactive with witty banter and surprise dot connecting, all trying their best to distract you from the lack of tension and bloated run time.

The cast sure seems to be having a blast with it, especially Pitt. He makes Ladybug an endearing mix of daily affirmations and lethal force (with an unusual interest in lavatory facilities).

Throw in a couple other big star cameos, and Bullet Train is a stylish concoction that never finds the right balance of hip action and self-aware absurdity. It’s clever but not really funny, full of high gloss stuck in economy class. The ride may seem fun while it lasts, just don’t expect anything memorable waiting at the destination.

Gone Fishing

I Love My Dad

by Brandon Thomas

We live in an era where cringe-comedy reigns supreme. From HBO’s Eastbound and Down to the American remake of The Office (so many cringe-inducing episodes), modern comedy seems hellbent on making us uncomfortable. While these two examples and many others only tend to dabble in discomfort, the new film I Love My Dad uses it to full effect while going places many movies could only dream of.

Chuck (Patton Oswalt of Ratatouille and Young Adult) has a terrible relationship with his son, Franklin (I Love My Dad writer/director James Morosini). Chuck was an absentee father who missed birthdays, made empty promises, and disappointed his son every chance he could. After Franklin blocks his dad on social media and won’t take his calls, Chuck decides to “borrow” the online identity of Becca, a waitress at a local diner, to catfish his way back into his son’s life. 

The premise of I Love My Dad is enough to make most people go, “Wait, what?” 

The execution though? 

Well, that’s something even more anxiety-riddled. 

Morosini knows exactly what he’s doing with this subject matter and carries it out through the entire running time. I Love My Dad is like a cinematic car accident you can’t help looking at as you drive by. However, in this case, the car accident is a very well-made movie.

Morosini cleverly brings to life the text conversations between Franklin and “Becca” by using the real actress (Claudia Sulewski) to act them out alongside him. It’s an impressive way to show how connected Franklin feels toward Becca and only helps ratchet up the tension. By the time the inevitable truth is revealed, even the audience feels invested in this fraudulent relationship that Chuck has conjured between him and his son.

So much of the success of I Love My Dad hinges on the casting of Chuck. Make no mistake, Chuck is a scumbag of the highest order, but having someone as likable as Patton Oswalt play him sets up certain expectations. Even as Chuck digs himself deeper and deeper, it’s difficult to completely root against him. Oswalt’s naturally affable demeanor is hard to get past even when the character he’s playing is so deplorable. It’s perfect casting that makes you think, “Well if HE’S the bad guy, what else can happen?”

The supporting cast is peppered with some fun faces. Lil Rel Howery (Get Out) shows up as Chuck’s work friend who gives him the catfishing idea. And the always-on-fire Rachel Dratch (Saturday Night Live) nearly walks away with the entire movie as Chuck’s very horny girlfriend. 

I Love My Dad explores some dark and taboo territory but still manages to wring out a lot of laughs along the way. Maybe don’t watch it with your parents, though.

Secret Chords

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song

by George Wolf

For longtime fans of Leonard Cohen, the continued pop culture embrace of “Hallelujah” can sometimes feel bittersweet. Other times it just makes you want to scream.

Jeff Buckley didn’t write it! It’s not a Christmas song! And for God’s sake, stop messing with the lyrics!

And even though that’s satisfying to yell when another TV talent show contestant attacks Cohen’s masterpiece with more bluster than feeling, you can’t deny you’re guilty of an equally false claim of ownership. As singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile rightly points out, by now the song “Is its own person. It has a life of its own.”

So, how’d that happen? Back in the early 80s, “Hallelujah” was DOA, buried on a Cohen album that Columbia Records dismissed outright as unworthy to release.

Alan Light first tracked the song’s ascent in his 2012 bestseller “The Holy or the Broken,” and Light serves as a consultant to co-directors Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine for their documentary examination. Straddling the line between biopic and expose, the film gives the uninitiated an overview of Cohen’s background while indulging veteran admirers with a deeper dive into his most acclaimed composition.

Geller and Goldfine interview fans, friends and journalists, tracking Cohen’s unique troubadour life alongside the gradual wave of “Hallelujah” cover versions. It seems only right that Bob Dylan was one of the first to recognize the song’s genius, and it’s a treat to hear his interpretation set the stage for the mainstream breakthrough that came via Jeff Buckley and Shrek (John Cale in the film, Rufus Wainwright on the soundtrack).

But the film’s strongest moments come through the intimacy of hearing from Cohen himself, and getting closer to his often tortured songwriting process (“If I knew where songs came from, I would go there more often”). We see notebook after notebook full of lyrics, while handwritten lines appear and disappear as guesses are made as to just how many verses (100? 180?) Cohen wrote for “Hallelujah” alone.

At times Geller and Goldfine lean back on biography just when the musical detective work is cooking, but A Journey, A Song ultimately connects the two with a resonant thread.

Leonard Cohen was a seeker, always striving to reconcile the primal with the spiritual. The process may have taken several years, but he wrote a song that lays that search bare with unparalleled eloquence. And though Cohen himself admitted before his death that “too many people sing it,” Geller and Goldfine are smart enough to include plenty of footage of Cohen performing the song himself, and to close with k.d. lang’s goosebump-time version that Cohen hinted was his favorite.

Father Knows Best

What Josiah Saw

by Hope Madden

Just when you think you know where director Vincent Grashaw’s Southern Gothic What Josiah Saw is going, you meet Eli.

One at a time, Grashaw introduces us to the Graham children. At first, it’s poor Tommy (Scott Haze), a simple fella living at home with Graham patriarch, Josiah (Robert Patrick). Josiah doesn’t think much of Tommy. He doesn’t think much of God, either, but he’s having a change of heart.

Then Grashaw switches gears and introduces us to Tommy’s brother Eli (Nick Stahl), who lives hard. He’s run afoul of some bad people (including Jake Weber in a welcome cameo) and is in some pretty desperate straits. Finally, we meet sister Mary (Kelli Garner), whose trauma sits far nearer the surface and strengthens our unease about the inevitable family reunion.

The Grahams reunite, drawn by the lure of oil money: the Devlin corporation hopes to drill on their land. The money could mean a fresh start for everyone. But some details need to be handled first.

Moving from story to story, What Josiah Saw keeps you on your toes. Grashaw glides easily from one style to the next, although Eli’s gritty thriller storyline is the most intriguing. It feels more complete, less bait and switch, and benefits from Stahl’s naturalistic, resigned performance.

Not every episode works as well. The stones left unturned and strings left untied from one tale to the next, though, give the film a rich, dark present-day. From the outset it’s clear there’s a traumatic backstory waiting to be revealed, so it’s to Grashaw and writer Robert Alan Dilts’s credit that the messy present keeps pulling our interest.

Patrick delivers a strong turn, mean-spirited and commanding. He’s at the center of the mystery, the center of everybody’s trauma in a film mainly concerned with how you live with the marks left by your childhood.

Ambiguity in the third act is becoming a theme in horror this year. Alex Garland’s Men, the recent stalker horror Resurrection, and now, What Josiah Saw. Sometimes it’s brave to let the audience own the experience and make the call. More often, it feels indecisive or muddy. I’m not sure all the clues are here to help make the determination for What Josiah Saw, but even without proper closure, Grashaw paints a creepy picture.

Scary Sea Shanty

Sideworld: Terrors of the Sea

by Hope Madden

Inspired by the British folklore they’ve explored in two features, Hex and The Droving, director George Popov and writer Jonathan Russell turn away from fiction, delivering spectral dread in truer tales.

Their second documentary in less than a year, Sideworld: Terrors of the Sea swims dark waters alongside ghost ships and sea monsters.

Popov’s voiceover establishes a Twilight Zone quality: Truth and lies do not relate in such a simple equation when the line between fact and fiction is enshrouded in mist and shadow. Beyond that threshold is a place that can change our perspective on everything we think we know. I call this place the Sideworld.

Earlier this year, Popov and Russell led us into this mist and shadow with the first installment of their doc series, Haunted Forests of England. Their second effort opens with more of their characteristically haunting cinematography.

The film breaks into four chapters: Ghost Ships, Sea Monsters, Spectral Sailors and Mermaids. Each chapter consists of a number of tails, always highlighting one in particular with some primary or secondary source material to mine.

Though the Flying Dutchman has its fame, the majority of the stories spilled on these shores are little known legends with historical documents for basis. The Wildman of Orford and other tales offer fascinating historical curiosities, while outright ghost stories delight in their sad, scary way.

Popov’s voiceover remains somber throughout, avoiding the campfire fright style of storytelling and instead rendering his tales with reverence. In fact, Popov and Russell’s sympathetic point of view continually asks whether the monsters in these tales are not actually the humans.

Brisk, informative, creepy fun, Sideworld: Terrors of the Sea uncovers welcome treasures of haunted folklore.

Screening Room: DC League of Super-Pets, Vengeance, Not Okay, Resurrection and More

Go West, Young D-bag

Vengeance

by George Wolf

As you may have noticed, we’re living in extraordinary times. So when we’re looking back decades from now, what film commentaries will separate themselves as the most insightful of the day?

In the words of Sammy Hagar, only time will tell what stands the test of time. But there are two releasing just this week that seem like good bets to at least make the team picture.

Quinn Shephard’s Not Okay takes some satirical daggers to the social media age, while Vengeance broadens the focus for a lightly comical mystery with some hot button issues on its mind.

It’s the feature debut as writer and director for familiar face B. J. Novak, and it instantly marks him as a smart, sly, and entertaining storyteller.

Novak (Saving Mr. Banks, Inglourious Basterds, TV’s The Office) also stars as Ben, a writer for the New Yorker who wants to be more. He wants to be a “voice.” Fate steps in when he’s lured to West Texas after the fatal opioid overdose of his occasional hookup Abilene (Crazy, Stupid, Love‘s Lio Tipton). Abi may have been little more than a fling, but Abi’s family thinks she and Ben were a longtime committed couple.

They also think Abi was murdered, and when her brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook, terrifically nutty) proposes a teamup to avenge Abi’s death, Ben seizes the chance to pitch a “Dead White Girl” true crime podcast to his editor Eloise (Issa Rae, always welcome).

Early on, Novak gets laughs from throwing a “hundred percent, hundred percent” New York hipster into the home of an eccentrically red state brood who will teach him many things about Texas, including what makes Whataburger so great.

“It’s right there!”

But as Ben starts piecing together Abi’s last days, and glimpsing her dreams of stardom with a local record producer (Ashton Kutcher, understated and better than he’s ever been), Novak begins weaving some impressive and resonant layers.

Speeches are made and then refuted. Stereotypes are outlined and defended, only to be punctured as Novak and Ben dig deeper, searching for the heart of a “new American reality” that took shape when truth became unacceptable.

From podcasts, conspiracy theories and hot takes to the ideological divide between coastal elites and country bumpkins, Vengeance sure feels like an authentic national portrait.

It’s also a funny and entertaining mystery caper, self-effacing but not afraid to wander into some dark places, with a social conscience that Novak reveals in organic and endearing ways. We are more just the record of ourselves in and around new media, and our evolving societal challenges deserve more than convenient cop-outs.

Sounds like a good start to Novak’s transition into filmmaking.

Hundred percent.