All posts by maddwolf

Control Group

Alice, Darling

by George Wolf

Remember the palpable tension in the opening moments of 2020’s The Invisible Man ? We didn’t need visual evidence to believe Elisabeth Moss’s character was desperate to flee an abusive relationship. We felt it simply from the strength of Moss’s performance.

Anna Kendrick delivers similar results in Alice, Darling, reaching new career heights as a woman who has lost all sense of self to a controlling, manipulative partner.

Alice (Kendrick) can’t even join her besties Sophie and Tess (Wunmi Mosaku and Kaniehtiio Horn, both terrific) for happy hour without Simon (Charlie Carrick, politley menacing) texting multiple requests aimed at reminding Alice just who she answers to.

When the ladies rent a secluded lake house for a week-long celebration of Tess’s birthday, Alice tells Charlie her time away from him is strictly work-related. But once they’re at the cabin, Alice’s anxious behavior convinces her two friends that everything is not fine at home.

Kendrick – who also serves as an executive producer – has recently opened up about her regret and shame from letting a previous abusive relationship carry on too long. This is an understandably personal project for her, and she channels her own pain into a compelling portrait of a woman nearly suffocating from manipulation, where every message notification and car wheel on gravel serves as a trigger.

An apt underwater metaphor is just one of those skillfully employed by director Mary Nighy in an impressive debut that benefits from subtlety and confident restraint. Alice’s moments of self-harm are evident but not overdone, and her growing interest in the case of a local girl gone missing is understood simply from Kendrick’s quiet fascination.

Alanna Francis’s thoughtful script does eventually reveal Charlie’s gaslighting methods in action, but never to the point where it seems something needs to be proven, because nothing does.

This is no he said/she said. Kendrick has us believing from the start, as Alice, Darling becomes a healing journey back to self, and an intimate reflection on what love is not.

Far from the Tree

The Son

by Hope Madden

Two years ago, Florian Zeller reimagined how film could represent perspective, turning his play The Father into a devastating meditation on helplessness, loss and love. Once again Zeller works with Christopher Hampton, this time to adapt the third in his trilogy of stage plays to examine family conflict, The Son.

Hugh Jackman stars as Peter, a dashing and successful lawyer with a lovely young wife (Vanessa Kirby) and a cherubic infant son. He also has a harried ex-wife named Kate (Laura Dern) and a teenage son named Nicholas (Zen McGrath), both of whom feel abandoned by him.

We meet Kate at Peter’s high-high-end doorway. He’s clearly not thrilled to see her – “You can’t just show up here unannounced like this!” – but she’s at her wit’s end. There’s something wrong with Nicholas.

Well, here’s Peter to the rescue. And in the ensuing two hours we learn that, even though appearances suggest that ol’ Pete has it all under control, he does not. No one does.

The dynamic between Kirby and McGrath becomes the most intriguing pairing as neither character is positioned to be fully villain or hero. Both are at odds – with each other, with Peter, with Kate – and yet both make genuine, if thwarted, attempts to bond.

As is her way, Kirby digs to find richness and complexity in a character with limited screen time. Dern is likewise excellent – as is her way. But the film lives and dies with Jackman and McGrath.

Zeller and Hampton’s script does McGrath no favors and he struggles mightily to find a balance between whining entitlement and genuine suffering.

Jackman’s a little bit by the numbers here. Zeller allows the clean, slick surfaces of his home and office and his elegant, never-mussed wardrobe to speak more loudly than they should, stifling a nuanced characterization. Jackman tries, and moments where Peter’s vanity seeps through his “perfect father” demeanor are welcome. But Zeller’s direction is obvious, and the writing wallows more than it enlightens.

Where The Father was a transcendent experience that dared to ask viewers to see as a man with Alzheimer’s sees, The Son takes no such daring leap. Its insights are stale, its twists manipulative. The film delivers a classy melodrama, but nothing more.

That New God Smell

New Gods: Yang Jian

by Daniel Baldwin

Much like its 2021 counterpart, New Gods: Nezha Reborn, this latest film from director Zhao Ji offers up a brand new take on another portion of Chinese mythology. In New Gods: Yang Jian, we follow god Yang Jian, who after the war of the heavens has been forced to take up a job as a bounty hunter scouring both the immortal and mortal realms for quarry. After all, one has to pay for (cosmic) gas and food somehow. Whoever said gods couldn’t be relatable?

Armed with fighting abilities, his wits, and a harmonica, Yang Jian sets out on an epic quest in a world that pulls as much from steampunk and western tropes as it does swashbuckling fantasy. Add in a host of spirits, demons, creatures, and other gods and you’ve got yourself a compelling concoction. The animation brings it all to life, stunningly created with CGI; standing toe-to-toe with everything that the animation studios of Disney, Sony, and DreamWorks conjure up, year in and out.

Beneath its numerous fantastical elements lies a generational tale of family, love loss, grief, and regret. Yang Jian carries a heavy burden in his mind and heart over the loss of his sister (as well as the events that led to it). These feelings are only further complicated when his quest brings him face to face with her now-grown son, whom he had promised to protect, but ultimately abandoned to the care of others. They’ll have to set aside their differences and work together to stave off magical disaster, neither of which will be any small feat. If that sounds tropey, it is! But that’s not a bad thing for stories of this nature. The fun of them is in the journey itself, not in guessable destinations.

New Gods: Yang Jian might not be bursting with narrative originality, but what it lacks on that front, it makes up for in gorgeous visuals, fun characters, and exciting fantasy-action setpieces. If you want something that can offer up the heart of family adventure animation and the derring-do of superhero entertainment, you’ll get your money’s worth. Also, be sure to stick through the credits!

Remember, Remember…

Back to the Wharf

by Brandon Thomas

Many of your favorite neo-noirs play with the idea of past transgressions coming back to haunt our hero(s). Whether it’s murder born of passionate jealousy or a botched robbery that places the lead on the run, the past hangs on this genre like a cheap suit. In director Xiaofeng Li’s Back to the Wharf, one tragic mistake has a ripple effect across an entire family and community.

Song Hao (Yu Zhang) has returned to his hometown after 15 years following the death of his mother. Once a promising student with university in his future, Song fled after mistakenly entering a neighbor’s home and stabbing him. What Song didn’t know at the time is that his father finished off the mortally wounded man to save his son – and that one of Song’s classmates, Li Tang (Hong-chi Lee) witnessed the crime and has been using it to blackmail his father ever since.

Back to the Wharf – unlike many modern neo-noirs – isn’t concerned with the tropes of the genre. The cool factor is toned down in favor of a more quiet character study. The bursts of violence that do happen are born out of believable character development, not a need to clumsily move the plot along. 

Zhang as Song Hao delivers a quiet, but enthralling performance. It’s easy to see Song is a powder keg, but the delicateness of Zhang’s performance has us as viewers begging for that eventual explosion not to happen. This is especially true once Pan (Song Jia), a former classmate of Song’s, enters his life again. Their meet-cute is made all the more adorable because of Pan’s quirky demeanor – one that has made her an isolated outsider in the community, just like Song. Jia’s jovial outward performance is a fantastic juxtaposition to Zhang’s stoic and guilt-ridden Song.

The film’s eventual conclusion is an unsubtle comment on how violence festers into more violence. There’s no crescendo of righteous vengeance from Song or his father against Li Tang as he squeezes the two for political favors. The cycle of greed and emotional reckoning remains unbroken even as Song tries to build a life of stability with Pan.
While straddling the line between typical neo-noir and quiet character drama, Back to the Wharf manages to satisfy fans of both genres.

The Children Are Our Future

There’s Something Wrong with the Children

by Hope Madden

There are things about There’s Something Wrong with the Children that feel familiar. It’s a cabin-in-the-woods horror film, sure, but director Roxanne Benjamin complicates those tiresome tropes because the forest partiers are a little older than your typical co-eds.

The film drops us somewhere near the end of the first night of vacation. Ben (Zach Gilford) and Margo (Alisha Wainwright) are spending the weekend in adjoining cabins with Margo’s best friend, Ellie (Amanda Crew), and her husband and two kids.

There’s a camaraderie as well as a distance among all partiers that feels authentic. Ellie drinks a great deal for a parent whose kids are on-hand. Ben seems more comfortable playing nerdy forest games with the kids than he does hanging out with the adults. Ellie’s husband Thomas (Carlos Santos) is clearly upset with his wife about something.

The kids seem fine.

And then Ben drags everyone on a forest hike that requires a machete to complete. They stumble upon a ruin with a deep, deep well. Everybody gets a little weird, the children’s noses spontaneously bleed, and the campers decide to retire to their cabins.

The kids – as you might predict from the title – are no longer fine.

The entire cast is solid. Even when the film wades into too-familiar territory, the actors elevate the material with realistic and reasonable performances. Both David Mattie and Briella Guiza as the children in question evolve beautifully from precocious youngsters to something terrifying yet still playful.

I appreciate the way Benjamin dwells in that fun-and-games space where adults do childish things, where dangerous behavior can masquerade as playfulness. She draws you into a supernatural world that feels whisper close to reality.

The most intriguing thing about this film is its stance on motherhood. As much as I enjoyed M3GAN, its mom-shaming got to me. Horror (and not only horror) has a terrible habit of developing storylines meant to prove to women that they do, indeed, have a maternal instinct. And woe be to those women who simply do not.

Benjamin, focusing a script by T.J. Cimfel and David White, instead explores the tension involved in simply owning your own decision not to become a mother. Indeed, There’s Something Wrong with the Children wholly approves of this choice. Makes a great case for it, even.

Daddy Issues

Legions

by Hope Madden

I watch a lot of movies. More than anything, I watch horror movies. Once in a long while, you uncover a little treasure, something that sneaks up on you with a distinct voice and magical storytelling. Such is the case with Fabián Forte’s Legions.

Antonio (Germán de Silva) recounts his life stories to the other residents in the hospital where he’s being held instead of prison. Some people call him a shaman. He prefers to be called a mediator between worlds. It’s that mediation that landed him in the hospital and caused a likely irreparable rift between him and his daughter, Helena (Lorena Vega).

But the blood moon is coming and with it a demon that will use Helena to bring about the apocalypse. To save his daughter, Argentina, and the world, Antonio has to make his daughter believe in him again.

Forte’s film traverses three different time periods and three distinct tones but the filmmaker masterfully blends them one to the next. Each new era has a different color palette and score to emphasize the change in tone, as Antonio’s stature and the respect he receives from those around him and from his daughter diminish. Finally, with a fully comedic tenor, Antonio finds himself quarantined in his old age.

In this way, Legions bears a passing resemblance to Don Coscarelli’s amazing Bubba Ho-Tep, though the humor at the expense of residents is sometimes patronizing. Still, by having patients mount a stage production of Antonio’s tales strengthens the thread connecting truth and fiction, real-life horror and entertainment, and day-to-day cynicism with faith.

Forte channels not just Coscarelli but, and far more obviously, Sam Raimi. Still, the film feels entirely its own, partly because it glides through different sub-genres so smoothly, and partly because it wears its heart on its sleeve.

At its core, Legions is a fantasy about regaining the respect of your adult children, and because of that, it’s both relatable and touching.

Holy Terror

Holy Spider

by Matt Weiner

A killer on the loose, inept authorities and simmering political protest come together in the taut, unflinching Holy Spider, the latest from writer/director Ali Abbasi (Border).

After a tense opening sequence, there’s little mystery who the killer is. Saeed, played to cipher-like perfection by Mehdi Bajestani, is a construction worker and family man by day who spends his nights strangling sex workers in the Iranian city of Masshad.

Rahimi (Zar Amiur-Ebrahimi, who took home Best Actress for the role at Cannes) is an out-of-town reporter chasing down the story—often propelling the authorities to even consider the killing spree an urgent matter. As her investigation quickly outpaces that of the police, she becomes determined to crack the case, even if it means becoming the next victim.

If that sounds like a dated setup for a serial killer movie, Abbasi quickly shifts focus. His film sits at the timely intersection of two issues. There’s the handling of the wildly popular true crime genre, undergoing its own interrogation for a focus on lurid storytelling and police narratives at the expense of real people. And then there are the protests and unrest in Iran, sparked by the death of a young woman by the Morality Police.

Holy Spider is based on the real-life Spider killer Saeed Hanaei, who murdered 16 sex workers in the city of Mashhad and was celebrated as doing God’s work by hardline factions after his arrest. And while Holy Spider was made before recent protests, it’s impossible to miss Abbasi’s indictment of how Iranian society at large treats women, especially the most marginalized among them.

It’s not subtle, but it makes for a powerful twist on the usual true crime narrative. Abbasi’s script resists depicting Saeed as a suave or supernatural monster. Saeed is merely an instrument, yes, but it’s not God’s work. It’s the authorities and even Saeed’s own neighbors who show so little care in catching a man who can barely be bothered to cover his tracks. It turns out, choosing victims deemed immoral by society is all he needs to do.

Rahimi’s overt line of questioning wins her no friends in the police department, and Rahimi herself is subject to the same harassment that has allowed Saeed to turn the holy city of Mashhad into a body dump. (There are echoes in Rahimi’s backstory to the actress Ebrahimi’s own past, now an exile living in Paris after an alleged sex tape scandal blew up her career in Iran. It’s an unusual meta-narrative, but there’s nothing gimmicky about Ebrahimi’s fierce, grounded turn.)

If you look up photos of the real Saeed, it’s uncanny how Abbasi is sure to capture his self-assured smile in the courtroom. But more than that, the filmmaker drives home how the real terror lies with Saeed’s certainty that this will all turn out okay in the end. How could it not, for someone just doing what’s expected of him?

Just the Three of Us

All Eyes Off Me

by Rachel Willis

Sex can be one of the most (if not the most) intimate experiences in human existence. However, there are things that interfere to reduce or eliminate the intimacy of sexual relations. This is examined in rich detail by writer/director Hadas Ben Aroya in the new film, All Eyes Off Me.

The film is told in three vignettes, and we start the film following Danny (Hadar Katz). She’s at a party searching for Max (Leib Levin). She’s pregnant and wants him to know. Events interfere with her goal, offering our first look at how an intimate experience can be monumental to one person and insignificant to another.

While the first vignette is the shortest, it opens the door to further exploration as we follow Max into the second. He’s starting a new relationship with Avishag (Elisheva Weil), a woman with whom he not only shares physical intimacy, but emotional intimacy as well, trusting her in a way he’s never trusted anyone. She tries to extend this trust during an intimate moment, delivering an uncomfortable scene full of intimacy but no trust.

This is an especially relatable instance that becomes poignant for a young couple wrapped up in love and lust. Where does one end and the other begin? It raises questions regarding those moments in which lust is confused with love and unveils the outcome when two people sharing these personal moments aren’t necessarily on the same page emotionally.

Avishag carries us into the third vignette. This is the one that brings a certain maturity to the nature of sexual relationships. Sexual attraction doesn’t always result in sex, but that doesn’t lessen the intimacy or the connection between two people.

While the film puts sex at the forefront of these connections, Aroya highlights that this isn’t the only form of intimacy. There’s trust and emotional connection. Physical attraction comes in many forms, often springing from an emotional exploration.

Weil is the most prominent performer in these vignettes; she’s a great focal point, as Avishag is our most relatable character. Aroya has crafted a fantastic, naturalistic film that will make you consider your own relationships. Films that keep you thinking are often the films that stay with you. This is one of those films.

The Hills Are Alive

The Devil to Pay

by Hope Madden

I’ve long felt that pre-film text-on-screen quotes are a cinematic crutch, often pretentious musings that rarely capture the essence of the film about to unspool.

Then, over a colorful vista of misty Appalachian mountaintops and plaintive banjo strings I read about the hardy folk populating those peaks, the descendants of criminals and oppressed alike who sought refuge in this inhospitable place.

As shadow creeps across the landscape, the quote:

“They want nothing from you and God help you if you try to interfere.” – 2010 census worker

Welcome to The Devil to Pay, Lane and Ruckus Skye’s lyrical backwoods epic, grounded in a lived-in world most of us never knew existed.

The tale is anchored with a quietly ferocious turn by Danielle Deadwyler (who also produces) as Lemon, a hardscrabble farmer trying to keep things up and wondering where her husband has been these past days.

Deadwyler’s clear-eyed efficiency is matched with the hillbilly condescension of one Tommy Runion (Catherine Dyer, flawless), whose homespun advice and cheer mask a dead-eyed, sadistic sense of right, wrong and entitlement.

One of the most tightly written thrillers in recent memory, The Devil to Pay peoples those hills with true characters, not a forgettable villain or cliched rube among them. The sense of danger is palpable and Deadwyler’s commitment to communicating Lemon’s low-key tenacity is a thing of beauty.

Hell, the whole film is beautiful, Sherman Johnson’s camera catching not just the forbidding nature of Appalachia, but also its lush glory.

Yes, the cult that lives just outside the county line does feel a tad convenient, but again, the Skyes and their outstanding cast carve out memorable, realistic and terrifying characters.

The Devil to Pay remains true to these fascinating souls, reveling in the well-worn but idiosyncratic nature of their individual relationships—a tone matched by sly performances across the board. And just when you think you’ve settled into a scene or a relationship, The Devil to Pay shocks you with a turn of events that is equal parts surprising and inevitable.

It’s a stunning film and a rare gem that treats Appalachians, not as clichés, but certainly not as people to be messed with.

Fright Club: Best Lakeside Horror Movies

To some, it’s a lovely spot for a holiday or a proposal or just a little picnic. But we know better. Filmmakers have long taken advantage of the idyllic yet dangerous nature of a lake for horror. Almost always, it’s the irony, of finding death and mayhem exactly where you’re expecting joy and frivolity that makes lakeside horror so compelling.

Here are our favorite horror movies side at a lake.

5. Lake Mungo (2008)

This deceptive slow boil of a documentary is two movies in one: the one you think you’re watching and the one beneath. The obvious film is a clever true-crime bit, constantly introducing new information and fascinating twists, each delivered by incredibly authentic performances.

Alice Palmer drownd. Her parents and brother are having a hard time accepting it, and the noises coming from her bedroom at night promote their skepticism. They investigate, turning up a lot of peculiar intel.

But writer/director Joel Anderson does more than lead you through a surprising mystery. He layers into that the melancholy lonesomeness that any ghost story must have, and the two stories together become one wonderfully sad film.

4. Lake Placid (1999)

Fun! Writer David E. Kelly is known more for his quirky TV series, but he takes the exact same approach –smart, bantering and bickering characters facing a huge challenge – to the big screen with this crocodile hunt.

Veteran horror director Steve Miner (Warlock, House, Friday the 13th parts 2 & 3) delivers thrills and comedy in equal measure, but the film lives and dies with this unbelievable cast.

Betty F. White and Brendan Gleeson! Both! And she tells him to suck her dick!! I don’t know what more you want, but you get Bridget Fonda, Oliver Platt, Bill Pullman and Meredith Salenger in a fun, bloody romp.

3. Friday the 13th (1980)

Before the mask, Sean Cunningham’s 1980 slasher penned by Victor Miller created the splatter-by-numbers blueprint for dozens of horror movies to follow – including 10 of its own sequels. Friday the 13th was a cultural and cinematic turning point that changed horror and the way we thought about summer camp.

With next to no budget but plenty of short shorts, remarkable blood fx by maestro Tom Savini, genuinely original kill sequences, and a masterful twist ending, the film awakened something in moviegoers. It’s been copycatted to death, but upon reinspection, the original is still champion.

2. Funny Games (1997/2007)

A family pulls into their vacation lake home. They are quickly bothered by two young men in white gloves. Things, to put it mildly, deteriorate.

Writer/director/genius Michael Haneke begins this nerve-wracking exercise by treading tensions created through etiquette, toying with subtle social mores and yet building dread so deftly, so authentically, that you begin to clench your teeth long before the first act of true violence.

His 2007 English language remake is a shot-for-shot repeat of the 1997 German language original. In both films, it is the villains who sell the premise. Whether the German actors Arno Frisch and Frank Giering or the Americans Brady Corbet and Michael Pitt, the bored sadism that wafts from these kids is seriously unsettling, as, in turn, is each film.

1. Eden Lake (2008)

The always outstanding Michael Fassbender takes his girl Jenny (Kelly Reilly) to his childhood stomping grounds – a flooded quarry and soon-to-be centerpiece for a grand housing development. He intends to propose, but he’s routinely disrupted, eventually in quite a bloody manner, by a roving band of teenage thugs.

Kids today!

The film expertly mixes liberal guilt with a genuine terror of the lower classes. The acting, particularly from the youngsters, is outstanding. Most impressive, Jack O’Connell’s performance as the young psychopath is chilling.

There’s the slow boil of the cowardly self-righteous. Then there’s this bit with a dog chain. Plus a railroad spike scene that may cause some squeamishness. Well, it’s a grisly mess, but a powerful and provocative one. Excellent performances are deftly handled by the director who would go on to helm The Woman in Black.