Category Archives: New In Theaters

Reviews of what’s out now

A Powerful Film Anchored by Another Great Teen Performance

by Hope Madden

I am beginning to believe the best actors working today are not yet old enough to drink beer. Most aren’t old enough to see PG-13 films. War Witch does not dissuade me from this opinion.

In the film, writer/director Kim Nguyen takes a path similar to that of the magnificent Beasts of the Southern Wild or the poignant and lovely Lore. He uses a child’s point of view to detail individual suffering, crafting a troubling yet wondrous tale of resilience.

Beasts of the Southern Wild – among the very best films of 2012 – exposed audiences to the horror of a hurricane through the eyes of a little girl (the ferocious Quvenzhane Wallis, then 6 years old) living in its wake.  Likewise, Cate Shortland’s lyrical Lore introduces an adolescent Hitler Youth (a heartbreaking Saskia Rosendahl, then 17), as an opportunity to see the immediate aftermath of WWII in a new and touching way.

Nguyen’s heroine in War Witch survives something even more unimaginable. Kidnapped at 12 and forced into the life of a child soldier in Sub Saharan Africa, Komona (a miraculous Rachel Mwanza, now 16) accepts the horror, suffering and survival around her as part of the nightmare world she must endure.

The film’s impressionistic, almost surreal atmosphere mirrors the thinking of the child at the heart of the story. There’s little on earth more irrational, or more fraught with dark magic, than war. So certainly it makes sense, when detailing one 12-year-old girl’s plight when war comes calling, to use her point of view and cast a bit of magical realism, however horrific.

Nguyen’s approach, blending a straightforward sensibility with elements of the supernatural, is perfect: candid and unsentimental but cloudy with juvenile logic, it articulates the point of view of a child, it mirrors the incomprehensible suffering of war, and it allows him to tell the story without bending to overt politicizing.

Cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc marvelously recreates the almost inconceivable horror in a way that is understated enough for an audience to begin to understand how a human being withstands it. Through his lens we see the resilience of a child, and of the human race itself.

Mwanza’s warm, quiet, phenomenal performance can’t be ignored. In a powerful debut she shoulders the film – appearing in every scene but one. It is through her narration that we learn, without bombast or melodrama, about endurance.

4 stars (out of 5)


Maybe put Fey in the new Anchorman instead?

By Hope Madden

The idea of pairing Tina Fey and Paul Rudd is very appealing. They are funny, smart and talented – and yet so often willing to take soft-boiled parts where they play socially awkward cutie pies. Like, for instance, Admission.

Fey plays Portia, a buttoned-up Princeton admissions counselor looking for happiness in a hum drum life inside the ivory tower. Rudd’s John, on the other hand, is an impetuous free spirit currently serving the youth of the world as an alternative school teacher.

Both of these misguided adults decide to help one unusual teen get into Princeton in this good hearted, underwhelming comedy about parents and children and the damage we do to each other.

Of course, Portia and John fall for each other, Portia comes to terms with her ambition and her mother (a scene-stealing Lily Tomlin), John realizes fatherhood requires some sacrifice, and lessons are learned just all over the place. Sounds hilarious, doesn’t it?

Nope. Funny is not the word to describe Admission.  And that’s a crime, really. Wasting comic talents like Rudd and Fey should come with consequences.

Director Paul Weitz knows how to orchestrate a smart comedy, having helmed flicks from the raucous American Pie to the complex About a Boy to the wizened American Dreamz. Unfortunately, he cannot find his rhythm here.

Karen Croner seems a likely culprit. The screenwriter had never written a comedy before and frankly, still hasn’t. Working from the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, Croner is content to embed flat one liners into a laid back comment on finding true happiness in age old family values.

Side plots abound, each meant to create humiliating moments of comic gold for Fey. Unfortunately, every zany tale – whether with an ex-boyfriend (an underused Michael Sheen), an office rival (Gloria Reuben), or a ferocious mother – goes nowhere.

Fey overworks the “frazzled woman pretending to have it all together” bit, trying too hard to generate energy and chuckles in scenes without potential. A charming, warm Rudd is nothing if not likeable, but he, too, suffers from an absence of opportunity to draw more than a few fond smiles.

Very little works in this toothless comedy that has courage enough to avoid a tidy ending, yet still falls back on an almost offensively traditional image of happiness, one that requires roots, a man, a woman, and a child.

2 stars (out of 5)


God Help Me, I Miss the Piñata

By Hope Madden

Enigmatic filmmaker Makinov (he wears a mask, which is weird) launches a new thriller this weekend called Come Out and Play, and it may feel pretty familiar. That could be because it is a nearly shot-for-shot remake of Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s little-seen 1976 flick Who Can Kill a Child? (released in the US as Island of the Damned).

Whether you saw that dusty gem or not, you’re still likely to find the film recognizable because Come Out and Play boils down to a familiar template: protagonists are stranded, hordes are killing everyone.  It could just as easily be a zombie film or an animal attack flick. Instead, it’s one of those nightmares that sees our own sweet tots turning on us.

Married couple Francis (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and a pretty pregnant Beth (Vinessa Shaw) are on holiday, heading to the remote island Punta Hueca. Once there, they find only dusty children running about – nary an adult turns up as they comb the isle for lunch, a shower and a bed.

They find out soon enough that they are 1) stranded, and 2) screwed.

For the majority of the film’s running time, we simply follow Beth and Francis as they walk, then run, then hide in and among abandoned island buildings. This span is, at times, tedious, frustrating, and full of bad decision making – but this is a horror film, and those particular elements do generate tension.

Makinov’s deliberate pacing and unique, unnerving use of sound work well with the slight plot, wringing as much anxiety as possible out of the stranded couple’s predicament. Wisely, he sidesteps a lot of the pitfall of “killer children” films by keeping the wee ones’ dialogue to a minimum, letting their menacing stares and maniacal glee do their talking for them.

Francis and Beth, on the other hand, have plenty of screen time to make an impression. They offer believable chemistry, and Moss-Bachrach, in particular, animates his character’s internal struggle quite well. Shaw grows tiresome, but it’s hard to beat the presence of a pregnant lady to limit movement and ramp up tension.

Makinov pulls some punches Serrador was happy to land (God help me, I  miss the pinata), but the film remains effectively disconcerting, offering a decent new vision of murderous children that’s worth a look.

Or, you could head to Netflix, where the dated but superior original is available on DVD.

3 stars (out of 5)

You’re Encouraged to Continue Believin’


By George Wolf


If you’re an inhabitant of planet Earth, you’ve heard Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” According to a new documentary on the band, it is the most downloaded song of the 20th century.

It was co-written and sung, of course, by Steve Perry, Journey’s most famous former lead singer. These days, it is sung in concert by a diminutive Filipino named Arnel Pineda, and his story is outlined in Don’t Stop Believin’:  Everyman’s Journey.

After the split with Perry in 1998, Perry sound-alike Steve Augeri handled vocal duties for almost ten years. Then, when the band once again found itself in need of a singer, Journey guitarist Neal Schon scoured youtube for Journey tribute bands.

He stopped when he heard Pineda’s powerful voice, and a trip from Manila to California was quickly arranged so Pineda could audition in person. He got the gig, and continues with the band today.

Director Ramona S. Diaz wraps the story in a feel-good gloss that is more fitting of a concert film than a true documentary. There is plenty of live show footage and backstage material, with each band member shown only in a positive light. Pineda’s rise from Third-World poverty to rock stardom may be the film’s hook, but many emotional details are skirted in a project that too often smacks of an overlong marketing ploy.

Still, Pineda comes off as a very likable guy, both grateful for and nervous about his good fortune. The band, in turn, seems sweetly protective of their new, young-enough-to-be-their-son frontman, and are energized by Pineda’s youthful exuberance.

Years ago, when Judas Priest replaced singer Rob Halford with Priest tribute band vocalist “Ripper” Owens, the story was so novel it inspired the movie “Rock Star.” Now, the process makes perfect sense.

Pineda’s backstory makes Journey’s case more unique, and though Don’t Stop Believin’:  Everyman’s Journey could use more of that story, the set list it settles on is entertaining enough to leave you singing a little something about “South Detroit.”

3 stars (out of 5)

Call Me Pleasantly Surprised

by George Wolf


Let’s be honest, The Call is a pretty weak movie title. And, if you’ve seen the film’s preview trailer, odds are that didn’t knock you out either.

So, surprise! The movie itself is pretty engaging.

Halle Berry, sporting a bad hairdo to make her look more “average”, plays L.A. 911 operator Jordan Turner. While on the line with a young girl who is trying to avoid a kidnapper, Jordan has a slight lapse in judgment that ends up having tragic consequences.

Months later, Jordan is handed a call from Casey, (Abigail Breslin) another young victim who has managed to call 911 from the trunk of her kidnapper’s car.  Finding that they are both Capricorns, Jordan tells Casey that, as born “fighters,” they are going to help each other fight back against the attacker.

When The Call succeeds, it is mainly a result of good directing trumping bad writing. Director Brad Anderson (The Machinist, Transsiberian) has a solid grasp on the action, often filming in extreme, shaky closeup to aid the feel of disorientation. When passing motorists or helpful gas station attendants try to come to Casey’s aid, Anderson pulls back, letting events unfold with proper tension.

Too often, though, these effective segments are interrupted by momentum-killing scenes full of stilted, implausible dialogue, such as when Jordan is training new employees on the 911 system. After a speech that overly educates the audience, Jordan is asked why she isn’t actually taking the calls anymore. Cue dramatic flashback…just before she’s called back into action!

As Casey’s situation grows more desperate, The Call wanders into the horror neighborhood, and Anderson gets caught up giving too many homages to one particular horror classic. To avoid spoilers, I won’t mention the film, but if you’re a horror fan, there’s little question you’ll miss the references.

Berry, as is the case with too many Oscar winners, has had trouble following her Monster’s Ball win in 2001 with solid roles in good films. The Call, while certainly not award-worthy, is a well-paced and effective crowd-pleaser that should generate enough positive word-of-mouth to make it a hit.

3 stars (out of 5)

“Incredible” is apparently relative

By Hope Madden

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone squanders an interesting premise and a talented cast on an atonal, uninspired comedy. It’s the kind of film that generates a few grins with its general pleasantness, but never offers the kind of laugh out loud moments that let you overlook its larger flaws.

The ever-likeable Steve Carell plays Burt Wonderstone, the bewigged and bejeweled Vegas magician whose lost his love of magic just in time for his public to move on to the next big thing – Jim Carrey’s extreme magician Steve Grey (think David Blaine with self-mutilation tendencies).

It’s not a bad idea, but it is badly executed. Wonderstone can’t decide if it’s a spoof or a family film. In the end, it succeeds at neither aim.

Rather than mining for pop culture laughs, as its screenplay attempts to do in spurts, director Don Scardino wallows in sentiment. Will Burt recover his childlike wonder? Learn to appreciate what he has right in front of him? Wow back a crowd? These probing questions and others are emphasized at every turn with an overbearing score, in case you might miss the emotionally moving moments.

Part of the reason Scardino’s schmaltzy approach doesn’t work is that it’s at odds with the script itself. Gags about making foggy old ladies cry, bringing magic (rather than food) to starving children, and performing wildly inappropriate “tricks” at a birthday party – not to mention a nutty, drug-fueled finale – should have felt edgier, but they are so softened by Scardino’s family-friendly vibe that they barely leave an impression.

The cast gets credit for heroic efforts, though. Supporting players James Gandolfini, Alan Arkin, Steve Buscemi and Olivia Wilde make honest efforts to create interesting, memorable characters.

But if Carell’s egomaniac feels a little forced (it sure does!), then his change of heart feels a lot forced. Carell’s comic timing and sense of the absurd often carry him through lifeless scenes, but it’s not enough to overcome the lazily written dialogue no matter how much velvet and glitter he throws at it.

Carrey’s fun as the star of the internet program Brain Rapist (another funny bit that feels out of place), but he’s far too old to play an up-and-coming street performer. Rather than youthful competition, he looks like Carell’s white trash uncle.

Actually, both actors are 51 – also known as “old enough to be Olivia Wilde’s dad.” Or, in this case, love interest.

It’s not unbelievable, people. It’s magic.

2 stars (out of 5)

Teenage Wasteland


By George Wolf


By weaving adolescent disillusionment and dreamlike imagery into a well known history lesson rife with brutality, Lore is able to cast a gripping, often poetic spell.

Set in Germany at the close of World War II, the teenaged Hannalore becomes head of her household when her parents, due to their Nazi ties, are interred by Allied forces. With four siblings to take care of (including a new baby), “Lore” decides they must all set out on foot for the safety of their grandmother’s home in Hamburg.

Australian director/co-writer Cate Shortland skillfully crafts the cross-country trip as a story of awakenings. Lore is a proud member of the Hitler youth, and she begins the journey full of defiant pride in her homeland. When a mysterious stranger offers assistance, Lore is perplexed by mixed feelings of hate and burgeoning sexual desire.

In the title role, Saskia Rosendahl does not shrink from the responsibility of carrying the movie through her performance. We have to feel Lore’s evolution, as she begins to question everything about the life she has known and realizes the horrors hidden by her own family. Rosendahl, in her film debut, is wonderful, often able to convey Lore’s inner turmoil through little more than a glance.

Framing the story through Lore’s eyes, Shortland constructs a nimble juxtaposition between the usual ways that a teenager’s eyes are opened, and the terrible realizations the German people were forced to accept.

Shortland also makes the most of Adam Arkapaw’s sublime cinematography, filling Lore with impressionistic visuals that give the story a hypnotic, almost lyrical flow.

Before leaving the family to fend for themselves, Lore’s mother instructs her to “never forget who you are.” The journey, of course, is about learning just how deep that lesson runs.

Smart, well- acted and beautifully assembled, Lore is a compelling tale of innocence lost.


4 stars (out of 5)

Alphabetizing Slaughter with Mixed Results

by Hope Madden

A project built from short horror films is nothing new in Columbus. Local groups routinely gather would-be filmmakers, provide a theme and set them loose.

Set such a thing on an international stage, draw on some of the best new (and new-ish) genre filmmakers, and you have The ABCs of Death, an uneven but fascinating smattering of horrific ideas, each tied to one letter of the alphabet.

Strap in, though. Twenty six films turn out to be quite a lot in one sitting, even if they clock in at around 4 minutes apiece. Some felt as swift as that running time suggests. Others seemed to go on for an unendurable length of time. (I’m looking at you, letter L.)

But any who’s who in horror, from semi-established international talent (Xavier Gens, Banjong Pisanthanakun, Ernesto Diaz Espinoza, Ben Wheatley, Nacho Vigalondo), to a mishmash of American filmmakers (Jason Eisener, Ti West, Adam Wingard), is bound to offer hit and miss results.

Take Noboru Igushi’s clip, example.  F is not for favorite.

Igushi is just one of several filmmakers (including two animators) distressingly preoccupied with toilet matters. Ti West – a study in the law of diminishing returns – likewise fixates his tale for the letter M. Of the many bathroom-related flicks, only Lee Hardcastle’s claymation vision “T is for Toilet” is worth watching.

Others segments pack a punch, though. Among the best are Marcel Sarmiento’s gritty but satisfying “D is for Dogfight”, Gens’s bodily horror “X is for XXL”, and Jake West’s fascinating reality check “S is for Speed”.

Timo Tjahjanto is one of several filmmakers linking horror and porn in a way that implicates viewers, and his effort, “L is for Libido”, is a mixed result. Perhaps with just 4 minutes, a sledgehammer approach to the point was needed. But I doubt I would have made it through the film had it been much longer, so that’s not really a complaint.

Yoshihiro Nishimura proves he knows how to make the most of his miniscule running time. No, size does not seem to matter in Z is for Zetsumetsu (Japanese for extinction), the film that packs more confetti exploding inflatable knife penises in four minutes than any film since Hannah and Her Sisters.

Good thing his flick was last. It’s hard to picture anyone following that batshit crazy piece of filmmaking.

3 stars (out of 5)

He’s the Wiz and Nobody Beats Him!

by Hope Madden

It takes balls to follow up Victor Fleming’s 1939 masterpiece The Wizard of Oz. A classic in so many ways – from its astonishing visual storytelling to its iconic characters to its oft-belted songbook – the film remains among the most beloved in American moviedom. More importantly, it introduced perhaps the greatest villain in cinematic history, the awe-inspiring Wicked Witch of the West.

Director Sam Raimi sets out to prove he has a pair with Oz: The Great and Powerful, a prequel to the classic that details the wizard’s earliest escapades in Oz.

Beginning and ending with its pop-up book inspired credits, Raimi’s film boasts a hokey visual charm appropriate for its vaudeville-esque hero.  Raimi employs state of the art technology to wow in the way inventive backdrops filmed with brand-spanking new Technicolor caused jaws to drop in ’39, forever imbuing his cutting edge visuals with an enjoyably retro quality.

Oz also mimics its predecessor’s format: opening in black and white Kansas, introducing characters that will feel oh-so-familiar once we’re in the topsy turvy land of Oz, before landing in the hyper-saturated color and 3D majesty of fantasy.

No songs, though.

Still, it’s not just the visual element that made the original a classic, and 2013 audiences are pretty used to being wowed visually. What else has Raimi got?

A pretty impressive cast, actually, though few feel right for their characters. Oscar winners and nominees mix with established character actors to populate the overripe landscape, but most of them are filling some pretty big shoes.

A likeable James Franco keeps you interested, but he lacks any real sense of showmanship or seediness as the morally conflicted Oz, carnival shyster turned powerful wizard.

The always wonderful Rachel Weisz comes off best as the intriguing enchantress Evanora. The also extravagantly talented Michelle Williams really struggles, however. She tries to keep Glinda’s spirit intact without becoming too restricted by Billie Burke’s originating (let’s be honest, annoyingly sugary) performance. I’m not sure she succeeds.

It’s Mila Kunis, though, who stumbles most – a crippling misstep in casting.

But Raimi gets points for the sheer joy in his storytelling and his effort’s obvious love for both its predecessor and the work of writer L. Frank Baum.

The vividly animated adventure offers enough energy and entertainment to shake off these snowy March weekend blahs. It will hardly stand the test of time the way the original has, but it’s a fun way to waste a couple hours right now.

3 stars (out of 5)

What happened to last year’s History teacher?


By George Wolf


After great films such as Lincoln, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty last year, 2013 has big shoes to fill in the historical drama department.

Emperor, despite the best of intentions, is not a good fit.

Based on the book His Majesty’s Salvation by Shiro Okamoto, the film is set at the end of World War II. Japan has surrendered, and U.S. Supreme Commander Douglas MacArthur has mere days to advise the President on the fate of Japanese Emperor Hirohito.

MacArthur assigns General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox) to conduct a quick investigation into whether or not Hirohito should be considered a war criminal, and then in all likelihood, executed.

The story is built around Fellers and his mission, relegating the iconic MacArthur to supporting status. Casting the legendary Jones as MacArthur makes sense, but it only adds to the pressure on the actor portraying Fellers. He must not overshadow the Supreme Commander, yet still craft his own character finely enough to hold your interest.

Neither Fox, nor the script he’s working with, get it done.

While we follow Fellers on his quest to decipher just who deserves blame for leading Japan to attack Pearl Harbor, we end up wondering what MacArthur is up to. It doesn’t help that screenwriters Vera Blasi and David Klass insert flashbacks to a romance between Fellers and a young Japanese woman he met during his college years.

The romance is meant to give you a deeper understanding of Fellers, but it’s so tepid and by-the –numbers it ends up feeling totally unnecessary, a point which is driven home by how quickly MacArthur brushes it off when he learns of Fellers’s possible conflict of interest.

Maybe the most curious aspect of Emperor is that it comes from director Peter Webber, who so artfully crafted 2003’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring. That film emerged as a beautiful period piece, but much of Emperor just doesn’t pass the eye test. From the sets to the clothes, it often looks cold and esoteric, further hampering any emotional connection.

The historical films of last year proved that even though endings may be well-known, great storytelling and inspired performances can result in renewed suspense and emotion.

Emperor just doesn’t have the horses.

2 stars (out of 5)