Tag Archives: Emile Hirsch

Dangerous Method

Devil’s Workshop

by Hope Madden

I hate to admit this, but my first thought upon screening Devil’s Workshop was that we don’t need another low budget exorcism movie – or worse yet, another ghost hunter demonologist movie. I am pleased to report that writer/director Chris von Hoffmann’s latest horror offering is not “just another” anything.

The premise seems garden variety enough. Struggling actor Clayton (Timothy Granaderos, Who Invited Them) auditions for the part of a demonologist in a new low-budget indie. His competition, Donald (Emile Hirsch), is a social climbing douche who gets whatever he wants. To sharpen his edge for the callback, Clayton hires a real demonologist to train him for the performance.

That demonologist is played by Radha Mitchell, who’s both wonderful and evidence that von Hoffman has something unusual up his sleeve.

The filmmaker cuts between earnest, insecure Clayton undertaking his eerily authentic preparation, and narcissist Donald, preparing in his own way. As von Hoffman does this, he comments on the main theme of his film: a knowing, sly analogy of the process of acting, from ridiculous to pretentious to dangerous.

What emerges is a cheeky, cynical but not hateful application of the mantras and exercises meant to break an actor down and open them up to the demons that will create a better performance.

Two things are necessary for Devil’s Workshop to pull this off: stellar acting (or the metaphor falls apart) and genuine horror (or the metaphor overwhelms the story).

The acting is stellar, beginning with Mitchell. Her giggles and offhanded terms of endearment, hand gestures and facial expressions create an elusive character. Granaderos, so impressive as the sinister partygoer in Who Invited Them, adopts a wide-eyed insecurity that suits von Hoffman’s style.

Rather than drawing our eye to the speaker, von Hoffman’s camera lingers on the listener. The choice captures Clayton’s discomfort, sometimes for a troubling length of time, creating unease.

The horror does well enough for nearly long enough. A couple of times it’s effective, but it never rises to true scares. Worse still, the payoff doesn’t land. In the end, von Hoffman’s insiders-view of the dangers in submitting entirely to a part falls just short of success.

Exit Stage Willis

Midnight in the Switchgrass

by George Wolf

This is the third Bruce Willis film so far this year. That leaves 13 more in production, and 1 in development. And if you’ve seen even a few of the titles in Bruno’s output over the last several years, you can assume a couple things about his latest right away.

First, regardless of his presence in the poster and/or trailer, Willis will only show up for a few scenes in the actual film. And secondly, his character won’t be that integral to the story.

Both assumptions prove true with Midnight in the Switchgrass, a thriller that manages to work itself a notch or two above most films in the “Exit Stage Willis” subgenre.

Willis is Karl Helter, the old and tired FBI partner of agent Rebecca Lombardi (Megan Fox). Rebecca’s been going undercover as a hooker to try and catch the serial killer (Lukas Haas) stalking truck stops and roadside motels around Pensacola, Florida (a character inspired by real life “Truck Stop Killer” Robert Rhoades).

There’s a string of similar cold cases dating back several years, a fact that still haunts Florida state police officer Byron Crawford (Emile Hirsch). When a new victim turns up, Byron is compelled to assist Rebecca and Karl any way he can.

Well, he assists one of them, anyway, because Karl conveniently bails before Rebecca is kidnapped by the killer and events turn mildly interesting.

This is the debut feature for both writer Alan Horsnail and director Randall Emmett, though Emmett’s long tenure as a producer appears to have honed his ability to craft a generic crime drama that imitates more gripping films – one in particular.

A killer’s identity that is never in doubt, paired with parallel storylines and certain other flourishes I won’t mention for fear of spoilers, all bring a serious Silence of The Lambs vibe.

That’s rarefied and ambitious air that Switchgrass can’t live in, though it does carve out a few respectably tense manhunt moments. Fox and Hirsch rise above some heavy-handed dialogue – even Bruno seems halfway interested while he’s around – and Haas is effectively creepy.

Add it all up, check the scorecards, and on the sliding scale of Willis its rank is roughly equal to Citizen Kane.

Midnight in the Switchgrass is available on VOD July 23rd.

In His Name


by Hope Madden

Back in 2014, Irish filmmaker Ivan Kavanagh wondered what to do about a dad who may be his son’s only salvation, or may be his one true danger. Canal had a lot going for it—it looked creepy, performances were solid, and it wasn’t afraid to bang up its cast.

It just couldn’t quite make the leap from good to great.

Same goes for the filmmaker’s latest, Son.

We open on a filthy, barefoot, rain-soaked young pregnant woman (Andi Matichak, Halloween) hoping to warm up with a coffee in a roadside diner. Two men walk in, she exits in a hurry.

Cut to eight years later. Same woman, clean and wholesome now, buckles in precocious little David (Luke David Blumm) to drop him off at school. They’re adorable. They’re happy, hard-working, loving, and about to face some ugly stuff once Kavanagh establishes the paradise to be lost.

An awful lot of movies want to know how far a mother is willing to go to protect the son who may or may not be the real villain. This has been especially true in the last five years. (See The Hole, The Prodigy, Brahms: The Boy 2, Z, Brightburn it’s a long list.) Does anything set Son apart?

Kavanaugh roots the story in hysteria and conspiracy, sketchy memories of a cult versus police reports of sex trafficking. All of it feels mildly of-the-moment, but the real purpose is to throw skepticism toward the seemingly lucid mother and her claims.

Which is another common horror trope (is she crazy or is she right?), especially in the subgenre where a mother is trying to figure something out that may or may not be supernatural.

So, no, Kavanaugh does not bring much that’s new to the table.

Son does boast solid performances, and the filmmaker once again flexes his strong instincts for unsettling locations and atmospheres. The writing, pacing, and imagery all work together as they should to generate anxiety and dread. Son gets gory now and again, too.

It just doesn’t do anything you don’t expect it to do.

Come to the Lab, See What’s On the Slab

The Autopsy of Jane Doe

by George Wolf

An unidentified body is found buried in the dirt at an unusual crime scene. The county coroner and his assistant/son begin an autopsy, immediately discovering unsettling things. As they dig for more answers, unsettling gradually turns to terrifying.

In 2010, director Andre Ovredal made Trollhunter a fresh blast of B-movie fun. He brings a similar vibe to The Autopsy of Jane Doe, a film with enough wry smarts and acting chops to deliver more satisfying scares than you might expect.

Ovredal, along with screenwriters Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing, knows the payoff is weaker than the premise, so he makes sure you’re plenty invested early on, earning some capital that will be spent when things get a bit silly. Talented leads don’t hurt, either.

As Coroner Tom Tilden and his son Austin, Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch display an easy chemistry and deliver a solid anchor of believability to build upon. We trust these guys, and we don’t doubt they truly want to do right by the young victim through science, and learn the source of her painful death.

That there is plenty of gruesome body horror should be no surprise, but the under-reliance on a bevy of special effects is a nice one. Even better is Ovredal’s treatment of his lead actress (Olwen Kelly). Yes, the female body on the slab is young, attractive (at least to start) and constantly nude, but the director seems careful not to further exploit that fact with a leering camera, focusing instead on making it increasingly difficult to look her way.

Once the Tildens realize they’re in a literally bloody mess, Jane Doe becomes an adult version of Lights Out, delivering jump scares and red herrings with a knowing, playful touch that says “Why so serious? Let’s have some fun!”

You will, right down to the final shot.


Beautiful Losers for Your Queue

Available today on DVD and Blu-Ray is the utterly unseen but stingingly lovely portrait of American poverty, The Motel Life. Boasting beautiful performances from Emile Hirsch, Dakota Fanning and, in particular, Stephen Dorff, this story of brothers, hope, and the bad choices that kick survival in the teeth is worth checking out.

Motel Life, at times, feels reminiscent  of Gus Van Zant’s 1989 tale of rambling cons and druggies Drugstore Cowboy. Spun from the haunted existence on the fringes, with dusty small towns and cheap motels, populated by broken people making poor decisions, Drugstore Cowboy is another breathtaking image of the fight to change your direction.

Just Keeping It Real


by George Wolf


From the opening moments of Lone Survivor, it’s clear writer/director Peter Berg kept one goal above all others: honor the Navy SEALS at the heart of this harrowing true life tale.

By most accounts he’s done that, and his adaptation of the 2007 memoir by SEAL Marcus Luttrell emerges as a single-minded war movie of both power and intensity.

In 2005, “Operation Red Wings” sent a four man SEAL team into Afghanistan to eliminate a  senior Taliban leader. The mission was compromised, a firefight ensued and an attempt to rescue the team turned tragic. Only Luttrell was left alive.

It’s a riveting tale, and Berg (Friday Night Lights/The Kingdom) anchors it with the brotherhood among the men involved, and the unflinching devotion to their duty. We don’t get intimate profiles of any of the characters, but we get enough to feel we know them, and more importantly, we see how deeply they identify with each other, with their team, and with their respective places in it.

Though Mark Wahlberg stars as Luttrell, Berg wisely does not tilt the screen time in his favor, and we fear for each member of his team equally, even though we already know what the eventual outcome will be. Credit Wahlberg, and co-stars Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, and Emile Hirsch with solid performances that are able to resonate collectively, yet still illustrate the anguish of a fallen comrade.

Berg’s touch with the battle scenes is equally focused, filming with an intentional frenzy full of gut-wrenching stunt work.  Keeping these sequences nearly absent of background music or superfluous pageantry, the unmistakable aim is to present this hellish scenario as the men themselves knew it.

Of course, as a war film, Lone Survivor carries instant baggage, seemingly destined to be labeled either jingoistic, un-American or misinformed. Clearly looking to avoid the “that’s not how it’s done” barbs slung at Zero Dark Thirty, Berg spent a month embedded with a SEAL team in Iraq, and his film offers no apologies for its abundant machismo or respectful salute.

The catch-22 is, this approach works at the expense of a layered dramatic narrative that makes movies such as Zero Dark Thirty so compelling.

To be fair, though, Lone Survivor never aims that high. It is a film that mainly wants us to understand what it takes to do a job that most of us can’t even fathom.

Consider that mission accomplished.







Don’t Expect Mints on the Pillow

The Motel Life

by Hope Madden

Emile Hirsch is a talented actor most effective when playing against that cherubic mug. As drifters, outsiders and struggling lowlifes (Into the Wild, Killer Joe, Prince Avalanche), he animates the hope inside the hopeless like few others. His open tenderness is half the reason The Motel Life is such a stingingly lovely portrait of American poverty.

Hirsch plays Frank, storyteller and brother’s keeper. That brother, forever getting the two into serious trouble, is played with heartbreaking frailty by Stephen Dorff – the second half of the film’s one-two punch.

Dorff’s Jerry Lee has gotten the rawer end of a pretty raw deal. His brother and his own ability with a pencil and drawing pad are all he has to show for his time on this planet. Missing part of his leg and drawn to trouble, Jerry Lee has given Frank a lifetime of clean-up work.

The film is at its most entertaining during story time. To keep his brother’s mind at east, Frank spins outlandish yarns where Jerry Lee can be a hero with two good legs and a voluptuous babe on his arm. Directors Alan and Gabe Polsky set these to great illustrations that bespeak the brothers’ arrested adolescence.

Based on Willy Vlautin’s acclaimed novel, the film offers an off-kilter, smoky image of hope, and the choices that kick triumph – sometimes even survival – in the teeth.

The Motel Life exists in the same basic universe as Killer Joe (but with far less insanity or humor). It’s a world belonging to the broken and haunted, where a would-be mentor has to remind you, “Don’t make decisions thinking you’re a lowlife. Make decisions thinking you’re a great man. Or at least a good man.”

Who offers such advice? Kris Kristofferson – duh. Oh, one more thing he says. “And don’t be a pussy.”

The pace the Polskys set is deliberate, sometimes frustratingly so, and Hirsch is far too pretty to have led this life. (It doesn’t help that the brother who appears to be maybe 2 years his senior in flashbacks is played as an adult by an actor 12 years older than Hirsch.) But there’s an offhanded authenticity to the story of underdogs who might break free in one beautiful instant, only to fall back to what holds them in chains, whether it’s gambling, strippers, or a brother with a head full of bad wiring.



They’re On a Road to Nowhere

Prince Avalanche

by Hope Madden

David Gordon Green is a curious filmmaker. Beginning his career with poignant, Southern independent films, he is perhaps best known for the breakout hit Pineapple Express and subsequent bombs Your Highness and The Sitter. He returns to the world of offbeat indies with Prince Avalanche – a film about as offbeat and indie as any you will ever find.

Alvin and Lance (Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch) spend the summer of ‘88 doing roadwork in an isolated, wooded area recovering from the years-old and miles-wide devastation of a wildfire. They’re just two goofy dorks in blue overalls arguing over their “equal time boombox agreement” and painting yellow stripes, mile after mile, week after week.

Avalanche is as sweetly odd as it is casually gorgeous, the wild beauty of the duo’s surroundings an absurd backdrop to their own screwball behavior. It’s a buddy comedy of the most eccentric sort.

Green’s unconventional approach allows Hirsch and Rudd ample room to breathe, and to develop unique and fascinating characters. Rudd’s peculiar Alvin nicely counters Hirsch’s silly Lance, and their placement in this vast wilderness feels so entirely counter intuitive that their adventure takes on an almost surreal humor. Both actors are a joy in a film that commits to taking you places you’ve simply never been.

Green based the screenplay on Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurossen’s much lauded but little seen Icelandic picture Either Way. The meandering pace he gives the work serves its overall themes, but will aggravate a lot of viewers – particularly those seeking a plot. What we get is a generously documented, lovingly observed character study of two outsiders with little in common beyond their own troubles with human contact.

When Green remains focused on the absurdity of the situation, Prince Avalanche charms the impatient viewer into submission. It’s only when he falls back on his own roots in indie cinema – poetically capturing the languid beauty and rustic living – that the slight production feels tedious.

Still, I cannot imagine a more potent antidote to Summer Blockbuster Fever and its symptoms of FX bloat star dazzle than this spare, offbeat film.