All posts by maddwolf

In the Mood for Macabre

Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes

by Brandon Thomas

After inheriting a large castle, Dieter (Frederik von Lüttichau) and Margot (Luisa Taraz) head into the European countryside to assess the property’s worth. As the couple explores the empty castle, they begin to experience visions of ghostly figures. After an unplanned overnight, Dieter and Margot find their relationship succumbing to the influence of the old structure.

The above description comprises no more than the first 30 minutes of Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes. Going any further with story specifics would ruin the twists and turns the remaining 40 minutes will offer. Suffice to say, this isn’t your typical “Couple Explores Creepy Property They Unexpectedly Inherited” movie. 

Austrian filmmaker Kevin Kopacka jumps headfirst into 60s/70s Euro-horror that’s heavy on mood and style and purposefully light on narrative throughlines. The gorgeous colors that dance through the castle sets are reminiscent of the stylings of Mario Bava and Argento’s work in Suspiria. The early emphasis on style never threatens to turn the movie into a substance-lacking nostalgia piece. Kopacka and co-writer Lili Villanyi have far too much on their minds for that to happen.

Even at a scant 75 minutes, Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes manages to switch gears three or four times. What begins as a focused homage to Euro-horror ends as an examination of the creative process and delicate male egos. The themes aren’t subtle but through smart writing and beautiful visuals, they land with ease. 

For a film that’s so heavy on ideas and atmosphere, it was quite shocking to see one particularly graphic moment. The overall lack of carnage in Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes makes this moment even more impactful as it shocks the audience out of the certain level the filmmakers have developed. The guys in the audience will find themselves squirming an extraordinary amount.

With a clever script and some top-notch visuals, Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes earns a spot as one of the more intriguing horror films of the year so far.

Tears in His Eyes, I Guess

The Phantom of the Open

by George Wolf

Olympic ski jumping found its unlikely warrior in Eddie the Eagle. Championship golf has a similar everyman hero in Maurice Flitcroft, and while Maurice still needs a catchy nickname, his tale finally gets the big screen treatment with The Phantom of the Open.

Maurice actually made his name years before Eddie, when he qualified for the British Open back in 1976.

And?

Up until that time, Maurice was a crane operator at a British shipyard who had never played even one full round of golf.

Cinderella story, meet Cinderella boy.

Well, not exactly, as Maurice shoots the worst round in Open history and quickly runs afoul of the course director (Rhys Ifans).

But a legend is born, and right from the film’s storybook-styled opening, director Craig Roberts (Eternal Beauty) and writer Simon Farnaby (Paddington 2) adapt Scott Murray’s book on Maurice’s often hilarious exploits with a whimsical, endlessly optimistic treatment. It fits like a pair of plaid pants at the 19th hole.

And what perfect casting. Oscar-winner Mark Rylance effortlessly brings Maurice to lovable life as a gentle, indefatigable dreamer. He’s also a soft-spoken family man, devoted to his wife (an equally perfect Sally Hawkins), the older stepson who’s embarrassed by him (Jake Davies) and his twin sons obsessed with disco (Christian and Jonah Lees).

His wife supports him, so why shouldn’t Maurice take a stab at the Open? Why can’t his friend at the shipyard open that pub he’s always wanted? And who says his boys can’t be disco dance champions? The world is your oyster, go find that pearl!

The film may not always share Maurice’s grand ambitions, but it has plenty of good humor and nearly overflows with crowd-pleasing charm. An unassuming ode to staying committed to what – and who – you love, The Phantom of the Open plays to the gallery with an awkward, sweater-vested panache that makes one history-making slouch seem pretty tremendous.

Friend for the End

Revealer

by Hope Madden

The apocalypse really brings out the best and the worst in people, doesn’t it?

Take Sally (Shaina Schrooten), for example. She’s been waiting for the end of days for as long as she can remember, but now that it’s here, is she really happy?

And what about Angie (Caito Aase)? She was pretty angry to start with, working a peep show booth in a 1980s Chicago strip mall, dealing with leering customers, a cheap boss, and that judgy bitch Sally. You think she might embrace the end times.

Filmmaker Luke Boyce traps the two in the peep booth while trumpets of doom sound outside and they have to work through their nonsense, make sense of the situation and try to survive.

Tiny cast, minimal sets, distractingly fun set—the film has all the earmarks of smartly made low-budget horror. Solid creature effects help Revealer transcend financial limitations and a sassy turn from Aase elevates an often threadbare script.

Boyce co-writes, along with Michael Moreci and Tim Seeley, but they run out of things to say or ways to say them. A lot of time is spent with illogical action contrived to extend conversations. Those conversations unveil all backstory, context, character growth—and with few places for his characters to go, Boyce seems hard-pressed to invent ways to show us rather than tell us what’s happening.

What is happening is that two people rethink who’s really a saint and who’s really a sinner and whether it really matters while Chicago burns. There’s not a lot of subtlety.

Boyce shows instincts for making the most of the frame. His visual ideas pay off comedically, amplifying the frenemy vibe while creating a fun atmosphere. The time period seems an odd choice, given the actual apocalypse, but it’s executed well enough.

In fact, a lot of Revealer is done just well enough. It could have been a really fun short. But at feature length, Boyce’s film feels like a lot of filler.

Granada and the Quarter-Life Crisis

Granada Nights

by Isaiah Merritt

Summer in Europe – a classic setting for romantic rendezvous, self-discovery, the natural habit of the hopeless romantic – and the perfect backdrop for a quarter-life crisis?

Abid Khan, writer/editor/director, chooses Grenada, Spain as the romantic backdrop to his debut work Grenada Nights. It’s a film exploring the journey that is self-discovery and what it means to belong to something in the trenches of existentialism – better known as a person’s early twenties. 

The first act of Grenada Nights is very emotionally engaging, due in large part to the sympathetic turn of the film’s lead, Antonio Aakeel. Aakeel portrays Ben, an aimless, hopeless romantic, with such sincerity you can’t help but root for him.

The film takes a tonal shift to a brighter side when Ben meets a group of students at the local university (Oscar Casas, Julius Fleischanderl, Laura Frederico) who challenge his perspective and encourage him to learn how to stand on his own two feet. 

However, it is at this turning point in the film when the narrative becomes somewhat choppy with jumps in time that are not well connected. Which left me asking myself, “Did I miss a scene?”

This disjointed nature coupled with the conventional method in which the film is crafted, especially in the second act, made it difficult for me to fully connect.

Thankfully, with the help of a much-needed montage, endearing performances by everyone in the cast, and universal themes, the film recovers and finishes with much more fluidity. Thus, allowing for an emotionally and thematically impactful ending. 

Grenada Nights was overall successful in illustrating the journey of a young man finding himself and a community in a complex world with unpredictable human beings.

Plot Plop Fizz Fizz

Flux Gourmet

by Hope Madden

There is something so delightfully confounding about trying to review a Peter Strickland film. Even summarizing the plot is a walk into absurdity. For example, Strickland’s latest, Flux Gourmet, takes us inside a culinary collective institute. Here, sonic caterers and a man documenting them struggle with artistic authenticity.

What are sonic caterers, you ask? Maybe you didn’t, but I did. They are sort of performance artists whose medium is food.

Elle (Strickland regular Fatma Mohamed), Lamina (Ariane Labed, The Lobster, The Souvenir) and Billy (Asa Butterfield, Hugo) are the collective who’ve earned this year’s residency. Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie) oversees the institute. Stones (Makis Papadimitriou) documents.

Stones also narrates the film, and while his voiceover does help to articulate the plot of the film, his main focus is his own humiliating and painful flatulence problem.

The film often plays a bit like Strickland’s 2012 treasure Berberian Sound Studio, where an amiable outsider — a normal, nice guy — finds himself trapped with hedonistic, narcissistic artist types. Can he escape with his goodness intact?

Both films fixate on sound design, but Flux Gourmet settles into lighter, more clearly comic territory. And, at the risk of trying to read too much into Strickland’s absurdities, the film seems to say a lot about filmmaking as art versus commerce—the vulgar act of consuming and producing.

Which brings us back to poor Stones. Papadimitriou’s sympathetic performance delivers a nicely human counterpoint to the narcissistic, shallow characters that surround him. Christie, lavishly costumed and made up, is especially entertaining. Her patronizing sparks with Mohamed’s dictatorial Elle create absurd comic gold, only outdone by the self-impressed in-house medic, Dr. Glock (Richard Bremmer).

Strickland’s carved himself a recognizable niche in modern absurdist filmmaking with his precise, eclectic visual instincts. Funnier than Yorgos Lanthimos, more biting than Quentin Dupieux, more accessible than Leos Carax, Strickland wallows in his own very specific preoccupations. But he does so with such panache that it’s tough not to let him convert you.

This story feels somewhat slight compared to the complicated plotlines of Strickland’s earlier films, especially his 2018 horror treasure In Fabric. But Flux Gourmet is the filmmaker’s funniest feature.

Screening Room: Lightyear, Spiderhead, Cha Cha Real Smooth, Mad God & More

Lost, Not Found

The Lost Girls

by Cat McAlpine

After a whirlwind summer, Wendy Darling is too old to return to the lost boys again. So, what does poor Peter do? Simply waits for her daughter. And then waits for her daughter. And the one after that.

It’s easy to see how a classic, magical story is a nightmare in disguise. The Lost Girls explores four generations of Darling women and how a summer with Peter Pan impacts them for the rest of their lives. Based on the novel by Laurie Fox, the film has promise but drastically fumbles.

Adapting, directing, and starring in the film, Livia De Paolis has taken on more than she can chew. Weaving back and forth in time, while also capturing the stories of four generations of women, The Lost Girls fails to solidify any one character. Wendy is meant to be depicted as a dreamer, struggling between her imagination and real life. Unfortunately, she’s wholly irredeemable. None of Wendy’s experiences or actions endear viewers to her.

While the Peter Pan story is familiar, De Paolis would have benefitted from spending more time with Peter to show what has so enraptured four women across time. The fantastical characters are somehow the most believable. Both Louis Partridge as Peter Pan and Iain Glen as Hook are captivating on-screen. Unfortunately, they alone cannot carry the film.

There is a lot to be unearthed here. An immortal fae boy consistently grooms young women to adore him, only to abandon them as they age. Though each girl falls in love with Peter, he insists that their relationship remain chaste. His pirate counterpart, just as immortal and devious but in an older man’s body, pursues the girls and assaults them. That summer of whirlwind trauma haunts the Darling women for the rest of their lives. The results are muddy and inconsistent.

While The Lost Girls has opportunity to explore inherited mental illness here, it’s unclear if it is the source material or the adaptation that skirts the issue. Every Darling woman seems to present her illness differently, from flights of fancy to narcissism to suicide attempts. There is no clear source for their shared hallucination, or shared fantastical reality. There is no pattern to their illnesses or the consequences of a lifetime of disappointment after coming of age.

Bookended by bad CGI and a consistent lack of chemistry, The Lost Girls itself seems pretty lost.

The Pleasure Principle

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande

by George Wolf

If we’re boiling down film narratives to heroes and quests, it won’t take long to define Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.

Nancy is our hero, and sex is her quest.

And she would like good sex, thank you, although she can’t quite bring herself to expect the elusive release that she spent decades faking for her husband’s benefit.

But now Nancy (Emma Thompson) is an aging widow, fidgeting nervously in a hotel room and second-guessing her decision to hire handsome young escort Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack) for a tryst.

Thompson is, of course, glorious. And as much fun as it always is to see her command those in-charge characters spitting ruthlessly droll asides, Nancy reminds you how equally adept Thompson is with self-effacing humor, vulnerability and longing.

Writer Katy Brand’s script is filled with delightful wordplay, subtle wit and insightful details, one of the most resonant being Nancy’s history as a religious education teacher. We see her as a woman not only desperate to learn things she was never taught (and she has a list!), but also now regretting some of the lessons she passed down to young girls in her classrooms.

To Nancy, Leo represents more than just lust. He is the power of youth, and all the possibilities of a different generation that have long felt shameful to many from her generation.

McCormack is terrific, worthy of extra kudos for not shrinking from the prospect of simply being the “other half” of a two-hander led by a rarified talent. Leo has some issues of his own beneath his suave demeanor, and McCormack reveals them with subtlety and heart.

But back to our hero.

Nancy’s journey is, of course, an intimate one, and director Sophie Hyde doubles down on the intimacy, rarely leaving the privacy of the hotel room. Regardless, the film is never claustrophobic and always cinematic, framing even the most sexual moments with a refreshing honesty that the characters (and these two impeccable performances) deserve.

And you know what? We deserve it, too. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is a simply wonderful look at embracing who you are and what you want. It’s funny and empowering, warm and touching, even heartbreaking at times.

Let’s hope it finds the audience it deserves.

Everybody Clap Your Hands

Cha Cha Real Smooth

by Hope Madden

Dakota Johnson is the unquestioned star of indie darling coming-of-age drama Cha Cha Real Smooth, but it’s writer/director/co-star Cooper Raiff who’s shining bright enough to blind you.

The twentysomething filmmaker, fresh off his tender and insightful feature debut Sh*thouse, spins another yarn defined by vulnerability.

Raiff plays Andrew, a recent college grad sleeping on a blow-up mattress in his little brother’s bedroom and working at Meat Sticks until he figures something else out. A surprising opportunity arises at a bat mitzvah he attends with his brother (Evan Assante). Andrew has a gift for making sure everyone has a great time—including lonely single mom Domino (Johnson) and her daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). The other moms are so impressed, they all hire him to host their kids’ events.

Sure, it pays, but it’s silly. Harmless. Pointless. How fun, and also tragic. It’s an apt metaphor for Andrew, who was so good at being young and is now a little lost. Gen X had Lloyd Dobbler. Gen Z has Andrew.

Solid support from Leslie Mann and Brad Garrett offers Raiff opportunities to subvert tropes with surprising compassion. There are also more than enough laughs to balance the drama.

Johnson’s greatest strength as a performer is the almost preternatural chemistry she shares with everyone else on screen. That connection with Raiff aches with human tenderness, as does the entire film.

As an actor, Raiff’s performance is open — a strength his direction capitalizes on with long, breathing takes and intimate close-ups. The plot isn’t rushed or forced. Raiff’s writing weaves through complicated situations and emotions without the need to tidy up. The anxiety and pathos feel all the more honest because no one is safe from them. But the film empathizes thoroughly with its characters, applauding every brave and awkward act of intimacy.

Cha Cha Real Smooth, which won Sundance’s dramatic competition this year, overflows with charm and warmth. More than that, it points to a remarkable cinematic voice that’s just getting started.

Lone Ranger

Lightyear

by George Wolf

Exploring new life in the Toy Story universe comes with benefits – and drawbacks.

Sure, you inherit the goodwill earned by four of Pixar’s best feature films. But then, those films cast a mighty long shadow.

Lightyear taps into the warm fuzzies early, by letting us know why Andy wanted a Buzz action figure so badly that Christmas back in ’95. It’s because he loved the movie so much. This movie.

But honestly, for the first sixty minutes, you can’t imagine why.

Space Ranger Lightyear (voiced by Chris Evans) blames himself for marooning his settlement on a distant planet. A return to hyperspeed could bring everyone home, so Buzz is determined to keep testing until he gets it right.

Trouble is, each test flight sends him into a time dialator where 4 minutes up in space turns into 4 years back at base. So before Buzz knows it decades have passed, and he must take an untested team (Keke Palmer, Taika Waititi, Dale Soules) and a robotic cat (Peter Sohn) into battle against Emperor Zurg’s forces for control of the precious hyperspeed fuel source.

That’s all fine, but that’s all it is. Director and co-writer Angus MacLane (Finding Dory) can’t find any way to make the toy’s story come to life.

Until Buzz comes face to face with Zurg (James Brolin).

Zurg has a big surprise for all of us, one that might as well send the film into hyperspeed.

Almost in an instant, the cinematography from Jeremy Lasky and Ian Megibben adds depth and wonder (that spacewalk – goosebumps!), MacLane quickens the pace while recalling both 2001 and Aliens, and backstories from earlier in the film pay off with gentle lessons on bloodlines, destiny, and what makes a life’s mission matter.

Stay for the credits and beyond to get two bonus scenes that bring a chuckle or two. But just make sure you sit tight for the final half hour. That’s when Lightyear delivers the kind of action and pizazz that just might make a kid change his Christmas list.