All posts by maddwolf

Screening Room: Abigail, Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, Sasquatch Sunset, The People’s Joker & More

Dancing in the Dark

Abigail

by Hope Madden

Back in 2019, directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett had a blast locking a group of evildoers and one innocent inside a luxurious mansion for about 90 minutes of head exploding, weapon wielding, visceral mayhem.

The fun they had with Ready or Not was contagious. So catchy that you can certainly feel its influence in the filmmakers’ latest, the ballerina vampire tale Abigail.

The first big difference is that in this mansion, no one is innocent.

A team has been assembled for a kidnapping: grab a wealthy guy’s kid and hole up in some out-of-the-way safe house until the ransom comes. They nab little Abigail as she’s coming home from ballet lessons, easy enough, and now all they have to do is wait out the night until the cash comes through.

It’s an airtight movie set up, even if it leaves little breathing space for twists or surprises—assuming you’ve seen the trailer, or at least the poster, and are not shocked to learn that Abigail is a vampire.

Alisha Weir (Matilda: The Musical, Wicked Little Letters) strikes a fine balance as the centuries-old bloodsucker who suckers victims by playing a helpless preteen. She certainly makes ballet look sinister.

Gillett and Bettinelli-Olpin surround their wee star with a solid ensemble. This ragtag group of bloodbags (or criminals, as they’d probably prefer to be known) delivers some fun chemistry.

Dan Stevens (having a banner year!) is delightfully unpleasant as group leader Frank, while Melissa Barrera (Scream) carves out a compelling lead turn. Meanwhile, Kathryn Newton (Lisa Frankenstein, Freaky) and longtime “that guy” Kevin Durand deliver the comic notes.

Abigail offers quickly paced, sharply edited gore with enough banter to keep the characters interesting. It’s tough to know who to root for—these people did willingly kidnap a child, after all. The overall moral ambiguity of the film makes it less satisfying than Ready or Not and the lockstep plotting keeps it from sticking with you long after the credits roll.

It’s fun, though. And when it decides to finally get bloody, it may not leave a lasting impression, but it definitely makes a mess.

Pretty When She Smiles

The People’s Joker

by Hope Madden

When Vera Drew’s The People’s Joker premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, Warner Bros. and their lawyers promptly shut it down.

How in keeping with the spirit of the film, an autobiographical glimpse into the filmmaker’s transition that skewers homogenized corporate-controlled art. A multimedia collage of sorts, the film sutures live action with animation to tell of a young person, fed up with their narcissistic mother and absent father, numbed by the conveniently prescribed “Smylex” that’s helped keep reality at bay lo these many years. The numbness doesn’t keep our hero from heading to Gotham City to fail wildly as a comic, though.

Moments in the film that directly address the filmmaker’s own life story deliver an emotional punch that somehow feels at ease inside this wickedly satirical take on the death of fringe art.

Vera Drew also stars as the performer who becomes Joker, then Joker the Harlequin, her deadname being bleeped throughout the film, a la Kill Bill. The transition from put-upon son to underground comic outcast to what she was meant to be all along creates a strong and emotional structure for the film.

In its own way, The People’s Joker homages as much as it lambasts. The film is dedicated to Joel Schumacher, whose Batman Forever provided young Joker his first inkling that he was not who he was meant to be.

The film takes aim at Saturday Night Live and superhero culture as essentially a hollow impersonation of what once was outsider art, and it achieves its aims by being, very clearly, outsider art.

Gotham City—ever the cesspool—withers under the fascist rule of Batman and Lorne Michaels, whose United Clown Bureau Live (clearly SNL) is the only legal form of comedy in the city.

Batman’s not all he’s caped up to be, either.

It’s an incredibly impressive effort both behind and in front of the camera. Her film is wildly imaginative but devastatingly personal at the same time. But her clear-eyed image of corporate comedy has even more bite.  

Dress for the Job You Want

Villains, Inc.

by Rachel Willis

When their super villain leader dies, three henchmen are left adrift in director Jeremy Warner’s comedy Villains, Inc.

It’s an interesting concept told with the kind of mundanity that speaks to real life. Though most of these villains have superpowers and special abilities, they need jobs – just like the rest of us. They also have dreams of the future, just like us. Not perhaps of a summer house in the country, but of world domination. 

After the leader dies, Beatrix (Mallory Everton) becomes the group’s de facto number one. The other two (Colin Mochrie and Jason Gray) just aren’t capable of leading anyone.

There is a certain amount of comedy from the set up alone. What do hench people do when they have no one to guide them? However, this concept only takes you so far. What follows is often forced and ineffective. No one leans into the material, so too often, there is nothing to laugh at.

We’re left with clunky dialogue and a been-there-done-that style of humor. That’s not to say no joke ever lands – Mallory Everton and Jason Gray get produce a good laugh or two – but too often the writing gets in the way.

The story itself is fine. We have montage moments and misunderstandings, reconciliations and growth. The superhero of the film, Captain Justice (Trey Warner), has some of the best scenes, but even a few of those are lifted from other films. The moment when Justice hands out “swag” to fawning cops is reminiscent of The Lego Batman Movie.

While the characters are likable enough, there simply isn’t enough working for this movie to keep it interesting. There are too many threads for each to get a satisfactory resolution, as if the writers weren’t quite sure what kind of story they wanted to tell.

The slap-stick style comedy will definitely work for some, but comedy is one of the toughest sells. What resonates is not so much the humor but the desperation that comes with needing a job – even if you have superpowers.  

Caution: Low Flying Poo

Sasquatch Sunset

by George Wolf

After the completely enchanting Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter in 2014 and the whimsical Western Damsel four years later, you might not expect writer/director David Zellner to next film a year in the life of a Sasquatch family.

And Yeti did.

Sorry, but that joke is just silly enough to fit in with Sasquatch Sunset, if only the movie had any dialog at all. It doesn’t, instead letting the ‘Squatches’ grunts, screams, moans and various other bodily noises speak volumes.

Jesse Eisenberg, Riley Keough, Christophe Zajac-Denek and co-director Nathan Zellner portray the furry family underneath hair and makeup that renders the performers unrecognizable. But we have little trouble catching on to what the family is up to, which often strikes an absurdly funny tone that’s only compounded by this absurd setup that seems sprung from 1970s Saturday morning TV..

They hump, they fling poop, they get high off wild berries and act like idiots, and they are forced to confront the serious consequences of mankind’s intrusion on their habitat.

Wait, are we getting real here?

We are. As the seasons pass, harsh lessons are learned, and the Zellners layer this nutty romp with some thoughtful, touching, and yes even heartbreaking moments. It’s a small miracle that it all works, one bolstered by the fact that you really haven’t seen anything like this before, so rules seem up for grabs.

Why would you cast name actors for roles that hide their faces and don’t allow them to speak? I dunno, maybe these actors have experience marking their territory with urine.

And if you want to make heartfelt points about family bonds and the delicate balance of nature, why surround them with a barrage of bathroom humor?

Let ’em live!

What’s certain is that there is commitment evident in every choice the Zellners make, right down to the wry bombshell delivered by the final shot. So take a load off your big feet, and give Sasquatch Sunset the chance to charm you.

Fright Club: Malls in Horror Movies

Once upon a time, there was nothing cooler than a mall. There was no place you would rather be. It was an oasis, a microcosm, and an excellent location for horror. In honor of the 45th anniversary of George Romero’s pinnacle of consumerist horror, we decided to pull together a list of the five most effective shopping mall horrors.

5. Chopping Mall (1986)

In 1984, Kelli Maroney found mall side horror in Night of the Comet. Like Halley’s Comet, shopping center disaster returned to Maroney just two years later.

She and some pals are planning a wild party inside Park Plaza Mall after closing. But their state-of-the-art security robots go all Robo Cop on them. Boasting a supremely 80s vibe, plus the great Barbara Crampton and a Mary Woronov/Paul Bartel sighting! Jim Wynorski’s time capsule of 80s horror might be more fun to watch now than when it was released.

4. Slaxx (2020)

Absurdism meets consumerism in co-writer/director Elza Kephart’s bloody comedy, Slaxx. CCC Clothing’s new line of denim adjusts to your body and makes you look even more glorious than you already do. And these jeans fit every single figure, from 5 pounds underweight to 5 pounds overweight. It’s a dream come true.

Sehar Bhojani steals every scene as the cynical Shruti, but the jeans are the real stars here. Kephart finds endlessly entertaining ways to sic them on unsuspecting wearers.

Where Romero mainly pointed fingers at the hordes mindlessly drawn to stores like CCC, Kephart sees the villains as those perpetuating clean corporate hypocrisy. Still, it’s their customers and workers she murders—by the pantload.

3. Fear Street: Part One – 1994 (2021)

The first episode in Leigh Janiak’s trilogy takes us to Shadyville, site of misery, trauma and unpleasantness nigh on 300 years. Not that Deena (Kiana Madeira) is buying all this “witch’s curse” BS.

Janiak’s 90s vibe is strong and her soundtrack is tight. Performances—Madeiera as well as Benjamin Flores Jr., Maya Hawke, Fred Hechinger and Gillian Jacobs—far exceed expectations for an R. L. Stine adaptation.

Part One is the best in the trilogy, but all three of Janiak’s Fear Street installments deliver fear and fun in equal portions.

2. Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Zack Snyder would go on to success with vastly overrated movies, but his one truly fine piece of filmmaking updated Romero’s Dead sequel with the high octane horror. The result may be less cerebral and political than Romero’s original, but it is a thrill ride through hell and it is not to be missed.

The flick begins strong with one of the best “things seem fine but then they don’t” openings in film. And finally! A strong female lead (Sarah Polley). Polley’s beleaguered nurse Ana leads us through the aftermath of the dawn of the dead, fleeing her rabid husband and neighbors and winding up with a rag tag team of survivors hunkered down inside a mall.

In Romero’s version, themes of capitalism, greed, and mindless consumerism run through the narrative. Snyder, though affectionate to the source material, focuses more on survival, humanity, and thrills. (He also has a wickedly clever soundtrack.) It’s more visceral and more fun. His feature is gripping, breathlessly paced, well developed and genuinely terrifying.

1. Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Romero returned to the land of the undead in ’78 with a full-color sequel to Night. Set in Philadelphia, at a news broadcast gone crazy, the film follows a news producer, her chopper pilot boyfriend, and two Philly SWAT cops ready to abandon the organized zombie fight and find peace elsewhere. The four board a helicopter, eventually landing on the roof of a mall, which they turn into their private hideaway.

Romero, make-up legend Tom Savini, and Italian horror director Dario Argento teamed up for the sequel. You feel Argento’s presence in the score and the vivid red of the gore.

Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger as the buddies from SWAT create the most effective moments, whether character-driven tension or zombie-driven action. Romero’s politics are on his sleeve with this one, and he seems to be working to build on successes of his original. He uses the “z” word, digs at Eighties consumerism, shows full-color entrails, and reminds us again that the undead may not be our biggest enemy once the zombie-tastrophe falls.

Is This Your Homework, LaRoy?

LaRoy, Texas

by Christie Robb

When small-town pushover Ray (John Magaro, Past Lives) finds himself caught up in a blackmail/murder-for-hire scheme, he teams up with high school-acquaintance/bumbling private investigator Skip (Steve Zahn) to get to the bottom of things.

This neo-noir crime-comedy is writer/director Shane Atkinson’s first feature (he wrote the screenplay for the 2019 Diane Keaton vehicle Poms). It feels like a streamlined take on the Big Lebowski—mistaken identity gets loser in over his head in a world full of morally ambiguous/dangerous characters. An overly-invested partner invites himself along and makes the situation worse. A somewhat complex mystery is unraveled. There are funny interactions with various weirdos.

Zahn (White Lotus) is a highlight. His cowboy-at-prom ensemble. His golden retriever vibe. His enthusiasm for detection. It’s all glorious. 

Dylan Baker’s (Selma) Harry the Hitman is unsettling in the manner of that unassuming neighbor who keeps to himself but then gets caught doing something unspeakable, like using a stray cat as a fleshlight. He shifts from disarming charm to efficient malevolence like a finely-tuned racecar.

However, while LaRoy, Texas is funny, it’s missing the quirk of the Cohen brothers cult classic. The lead, Ray, lands as a too bland everyman—a boring sad-sack point of stability around which the plot turns. The dialogue could be snappier. The women could have more to do. And it definitely deserved a better soundtrack.

But if you are looking to program a night of neo-noir, you could totally play LaRoy, Texas as an opening act as long as you save the superstars like Fargo and the Big Lebowski for later in the evening.

Night Crawlers

Arcadian

by George Wolf

Nicolas Cage has become such a mythic figure in film culture that each new outing tends to bring questions.

Is this the unhinged “rage in the Cage?” Arthouse Cage? Mass appeal or self effacing Cage?

You can file Arcadian under “understated Cage leading a YA leaning creature feature.”

He stars as Paul, who’s living in a remote farmhouse with his twin teenage sons in a dystopian future. By day, the men follow a careful routine of security and sustenance. Because at night, there are visitors that really want to come in.

The exact details of the invasion are a little sketchy, but never elusive enough to derail our interest in the family’s survival.

Thomas (Maxwell Jenkins) is the impulsive, romantic brother, and his visits with Charlotte (Sadie Soverall) at the farm down the road have been keeping Thomas out dangerously late. His twin Joseph (Jaeden Martell) is the introspective thinker. Joseph has been studying patterns of the nightly attacks and believes the creatures have been testing, and planning.

He’s right.

Director Benjamin Brewer isn’t trying to reinvent anything here. He teams with producer-turned-screenwriter Michael Nilon for an unassuming horror thriller than benefits greatly from an impressive cast and a frightening creature design.

I don’t want to give anything away, but these bad boys have one specific trait that will get your attention right quick.

These themes aren’t new. There will be peril, bloodshed, and sacrifice as the creatures get smarter and the young begin to take on responsibilities of adulthood and cherish the things that matter. But thankfully, that familiarity doesn’t breed pandering. Brewer is also able to land some solid thrills, while the three younger co-stars provide impressive support for Cage’s elder statesman grace.

Ultimately, Arcadian doesn’t feel that much like a stereotypical “Nicolas Cage movie.” And the film is better for it.

Divisible

Civil War

by George Wolf

Writer/director Alex Garland gets to the point quickly in Civil War, via battle-weary photographer Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst).

“Every time I’ve survived a war zone, I thought I was sending a warning home: don’t do this.”

“But here we are.”

Smith and her colleague Joel (Wagner Moura) are preparing for the 857-mile drive from New York to D.C. during a very active civil war in near-future America. Their press credentials may bring sympathy from some they encounter, and deadly aggression from others. The danger only intensifies when they agree to bring along elderly reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and the aspiring young photojournalist Jessie (Priscilla‘s Cailee Spaeny).

The goal? A face-to-face interview with a President (Nick Offerman) who has disbanded the FBI, ordered air strikes against American citizens, and has not taken questions for over a year.

Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation, Men) is careful not to tip his political hand. Though a couple lines of dialog give you a vague glimpse about what type of policies the President favors, we’re repeatedly told resistance is coming from the “Western Forces” led by California and Texas. The nicely subtle mix of red and blue state rebellion makes it clear the point here is not purely idealogical.

“Don’t do this.”

And though many a road movie has leaned on that narrative device for a flimsy connection of random ideas, Garland uses the trip to D.C. to bolster his very ambitious idea with tension-filled looks at the heartland. Through an uneasy stop for gas, the visit to a town the war forgot, a marksman’s simple rules of engagement, and a brutal citizenship test from an unforgettable Jesse Plemons, we’re immersed in a war-torn America that seems authentically terrifying.

But it’s all just a prelude to the carnage ahead.

Because once it settles in D.C., the film becomes a war movie that will batter your senses with a barrage of breathless execution.

Dunst has never been better, particularly in the moments when Lee’s stoic rationalizing can no longer come to her rescue, or ours. Garland gives us the vulnerable Jessie as a logical entry point in the early going, but as she joins Joel in feeding off the war zone rush, moralities become more complicated.

As draining as it often is, Civil War is also an exhilarating, sobering and necessary experience. Smartly written and expertly crafted, the film manages to honor the work of wartime photojournalists as it delivers a chilling vision. It’s one beyond left or right, where the slippery slope of dehumanization breeds a willingly and violently divisible America we always professed to be beneath us.