Not So Sure the Kids are All Right

by Hope Madden

If you haven’t seen Chan-wook Park’s twisted revenge fantasy Oldboy, do so immediately. I’ll wait.

Amazing, isn’t it? Hell, his whole Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) inspires awe. Wildly inventive, punishing and entertaining, the films mark a director with a talent for subversive action.

For the Korean filmmaker’s English language debut, he turns his attention to a dysfunctional family drama/mystery. But even a softer Park offers surprising punch.

Mia Wasikowska (The Kids are All Right) plays India Stoker, an odd girl, pensive, in a Wednesday Addams kind of way. A car accident kills her father on her 18th birthday, leaving her to contend with her chilly mother (Nicole Kidman, wonderful) and the surprise, lengthy visit from an Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) she never knew she had.

Wasikowska treads the uneven ground of this character quite well. Never entirely sympathetic, her India strikes the necessary chords to keep Park’s twists believable.

Goode’s an underrated performer. His dreamy good looks and big-eyed eagerness belie a particular kind of weirdness perfect for the role.

The film, quite intentionally, plays like a fractured take on Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Uncle Charlie and all. There’s something weirdly amiss – sinister, even – in this house, and the handsome, attentive uncle is clearly not what he pretends to be.

But Park and screenwriter Wentworth Miller have a different tale to tell, one whose lurid details are suggested from the onset with saturated colors, evocative sounds, and the peering camera of Chung-hoon Chung (Park’s regular collaborator). As he slides around corners and crawls along pathways, his camera forever heightens tensions as well as a sense of puzzlement.

Solid performances across the board anchor a story that missteps once in a while. This is the first screenwriting credit for actor Miller (Prison Break), whose efforts were aided by contributions from Erin Cressida Wilson, the pen behind the dark indie flicks Secretary, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, and Chloe.

But it’s Park who makes the film, an effort that could easily have faltered under the weight of style over substance. In his hands, each scene is meticulously crafted – every color, every sound, every glance – to lift the already capable performances and solid script to something better than it should be.

Provocative, slyly funny and a bit twisted (you can expect nothing less from Park), Stoker represents a quietly fascinating image of a twisted family dynamic.

3 1/5 stars (out of 5)

So that happened…MaddWolf meets HorrorHound

It’s HorrorHound Weekend, a convention celebrating terror cinema … in Cincinnati. Dude! With too many local commitments this year, we had to skip what would have been our second annual trek. One year ago, a different kind of March Madness gripped the MaddWolf household, as the convention landed in Columbus for the first time. And while OSU gear was in short supply, I counted three different Motel Hell tee shirts. Nice!

It was Saturday afternoon. In a short few hours, Ohio State would take on Syracuse in the East Regional Finals, yet my husband George was sporting the only OSU T-shirt in the sea of humans at the Crown Plaza North hotel.

I don’t think I’ve ever ventured outside my home without seeing at least several OSU tees. What gives?  As I pondered, I turned the corner and blurted, “Oh my God, it’s Pinhead!”

It was Doug Bradley, the actor who’d brought life to the iconic villain from Clive Barker’s 1987 film Hellraiser. He was sitting nonchalantly, wearing a Mansfield Correctional Facility tee shirt and signing autographs for $20 a pop.

Many of those attendees not bedecked in their Evil Dead/Halloween/Friday the 13th finest showed off an even deeper commitment to their fandom, coming costumed as their favorite characters. The Bride of Chucky milled around alongside the Bride of Frankenstein. Jigsaw squeezed past the Wolfman on his way to the bar. I saw many Elviras – some of them women, even. The zombies were countless.

There were also an awful lot of Ghostbusters in attendance, which seemed weird. Maybe they’d been called in case things got out of hand.

Left your Army of Darkness tee at home? No worries!  Vendors shucked tee shirts, jewelry, face painting, and costumes. Booths offered gear from Blacula, The Shining, Shivers – nearly every film you might think of – as well as obscure DVDs, posters, and wildly tacky paintings.

You could even go home stained with a brand new, horror-inspired tattoo, courtesy of on-sight tattoo artists Screaming Ink.

Many such customers, freshly inked with Elvira’s likeness, shuffled directly into line to meet the actual Mistress of the Dark (Cassandra Peterson). For just $20 you could get your photo, Elvira hanging off one arm, her face forever etched on the other.

Twenty was the going rate for most photo ops.

I paid it. I’m not made of stone.

Stuart Gordon, director of many genre classics including Re-Animator, pocketed a bill of mine, as did Tippi Hedren from  Hitchcock’s ornithophobic classic The Birds. But she kicked in a prop raven for free. Now that’s the kind of theatrical panache that lures in suckers like me.

I dropped a lot of cash, I’m not going to lie to you. But how else was I going to get a picture of me standing between Gunnar Hansen and Marilyn Burns, killer and survivor from the 1974 original Texas Chainsaw Massacre? How?!

Across from Bradley’s table was a booth crowned with a banner reading: Are you a horror film freak?

Um, yes. And I was in my element.

In the ballrooms, lobbies and corridors of the Crown Plaza gathered thousands of the most ardent consumers and prolific purveyors of all things gore. Along with Pinhead, you might run into Jason Voorhees (Steve Dash), Michael Myers (Tyler Mane), or Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen).

If you just read that paragraph and objected that Dash, Mane and Hansen are not the only actors to don a hockey/Shatner/human flesh mask onscreen, you, too, may be a horror film freak.

This is not exactly George’s element. He enjoys a good horror film, but only a good one. Still, he embraced the opportunity to let me absorb all the horror-nerdery I could handle. He took note of the many and varied costumes bedecking the convention attendees and suggested we return in our Halloween get-ups from last year – blood soaked prom-goer Carrie and her date Tommy. God bless George, he does participate in life.

In a few short hours, the Buckeyes would earn their place in the Final Four, but here there was a different kind of madness afoot. Such is HorrorHound weekend, the convention where the man who changed the face – whole head, even – of horror might be right next to you, and the only scarlet you’re likely to see on a tee shirt is the blood dripping from the words “I like boobs and murder.”

“Get Out of My House!”

By George Wolf


Borrowing the original Die Hard formula is not a heinous crime. Films have been doing it for years, with varying degrees of success.

Olympus Has Fallen takes that formula, as well as..ahem.. a scene or two, wraps it in pathos and patriotism and delivers an action flick that really has no business working as well as it does.

The “Nakatomi Plaza” this time round is none other than the White House, which is overtaken by a gang of North Korean terrorists who were apparently unmoved by the all-American charm of Dennis Rodman.

The fly in their ointment is ex special forces/ex secret service/general badass Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), who slipped inside during the takeover and is determined to deliver a few good wisecracks while rescuing the hostages, which include the President (Aaron Eckhart),  VP and Secretary of Defense.

Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) has a clear vision of the movie he’s making and sticks to it, with no apologies. That vision is basically 90 minutes of the “get off my plane!” crowd-pleasing from Air Force One. The action,  well paced as it is, is interspersed with dramatic shots of bullet-ridden flags falling in slow motion and a heavy-hearted Speaker of the House/acting President (Morgan Freeman of course) debating his next move.  The film offers up a couple shots at American foreign policy, but those are quickly drowned out by the swelling music and nationalistic bombast.

The ensemble cast (including Ashley Judd, Melissa Leo, Dylan McDermott and Angela Bassett) does come through for Fuqua, helping him deliver a few tense-if-ridiculous moments.

Olympus Has Fallen aims no higher than keeping an audience engaged throughout a large drink and popcorn. Though that target is squarely acquired, it’s a rather empty victory that is easily forgotten once the lights come up.

2 1/2 stars

Bullets and Bikinis..What Could Go Wrong?


By George Wolf


Spring Break! Whoo-hooo!

Actually, from here on out you may pronounce it spraaannggg braaayyyk, thanks to James Franco’s unforgettable performance in the surprisingly good Spring Breakers.

The biggest surprise is that, coming as it does from gonzo writer/director Harmony Korine, the film adopts a fairly normal narrative structure in delivering a rumination on the nihilistic nature of popular culture. If you’ve seen Korine’s what-the-fuck?- classics such as Gummo or Trash Humpers, you know “fairly normal” is not his usual neighborhood.

The film follows four college girls (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and the filmmaker’s wife Rachel Korine) desperate to break out of their “seeing the same things every day” routine. They gleefully rob a restaurant for some fast cash, and then hop a bus to Florida for the annual spring bacchanalia.

Their exploits don’t get much more law-abiding, and after landing in the the county jail, they’re bailed out by the mysterious “Alien” (Franco), a self-described rapper/gangsta/hustler with a “ballr” license plate and a mansion full of of guns, drugs, and the requisite nunchucks.

Much like Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike, Franco is an unhinged force of nature, commanding the screen and owning the film. While much as been made of former Disney princesses Gomez and Hudgens playing down and dirty bad girl roles, both are practically invisible whenever Franco is around.

While Franco is the main reason to see Spring Breakers, he’s not, as McConaughey was  in Magic Mike,  the only reason.

Korine has something to say here, and, though he skirts with casting too many judgements on his characters, he says it pretty well. Outrageous, courageous, and often very funny, Spring Breakers is worth your time.

Plus, you’ll never think of Britney Spears music the same way again. Trust me.

3 1/2 stars (out of 5)



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)

For Your Queue: Ignore the Hyperbole, Embrace the Subtitles

While we often like to suggest one newly available DVD and one older title worthy of looking up, this week we thought – screw that, there are two new ones we want to recommend!  So that’s what we’re gonna do. We’re edgy like that.

Two first rate films release this week, beginning with Zero Dark Thirty, the gripping tale of the hunt for Osama bin Laden from director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal.

Look past the hyperbolic debate the film inspired, and you’ll find a work of meticulous craftsmanship that is bursting with intelligence, suspense, and a profound respect for the story it is telling.

Meanwhile, Rust and Bone (De rouille et d’os) , a gritty and punishing a tale of sexual redemption, tells of two broken people unconventionally well suited to each other. Crafting a spell of raw, emotional and sexual intimacy borne of struggle, writer/director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) introduces two strangers (Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts). How do they find anything in common, let alone generate the fierce bond they share?

The chemistry between the leads keeps the film taut, and Audiard’s wandering storyline and loyalty to his characters forever surprises.


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)

Hope Madden and George Wolf … get it?