Tag Archives: entertainment

Night Crawlers

Arcadian

by George Wolf

Nicolas Cage has become such a mythic figure in film culture that each new outing tends to bring questions.

Is this the unhinged “rage in the Cage?” Arthouse Cage? Mass appeal or self effacing Cage?

You can file Arcadian under “understated Cage leading a YA leaning creature feature.”

He stars as Paul, who’s living in a remote farmhouse with his twin teenage sons in a dystopian future. By day, the men follow a careful routine of security and sustenance. Because at night, there are visitors that really want to come in.

The exact details of the invasion are a little sketchy, but never elusive enough to derail our interest in the family’s survival.

Thomas (Maxwell Jenkins) is the impulsive, romantic brother, and his visits with Charlotte (Sadie Soverall) at the farm down the road have been keeping Thomas out dangerously late. His twin Joseph (Jaeden Martell) is the introspective thinker. Joseph has been studying patterns of the nightly attacks and believes the creatures have been testing, and planning.

He’s right.

Director Benjamin Brewer isn’t trying to reinvent anything here. He teams with producer-turned-screenwriter Michael Nilon for an unassuming horror thriller than benefits greatly from an impressive cast and a frightening creature design.

I don’t want to give anything away, but these bad boys have one specific trait that will get your attention right quick.

These themes aren’t new. There will be peril, bloodshed, and sacrifice as the creatures get smarter and the young begin to take on responsibilities of adulthood and cherish the things that matter. But thankfully, that familiarity doesn’t breed pandering. Brewer is also able to land some solid thrills, while the three younger co-stars provide impressive support for Cage’s elder statesman grace.

Ultimately, Arcadian doesn’t feel that much like a stereotypical “Nicolas Cage movie.” And the film is better for it.

Divisible

Civil War

by George Wolf

Writer/director Alex Garland gets to the point quickly in Civil War, via battle-weary photographer Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst).

“Every time I’ve survived a war zone, I thought I was sending a warning home: don’t do this.”

“But here we are.”

Smith and her colleague Joel (Wagner Moura) are preparing for the 857-mile drive from New York to D.C. during a very active civil war in near-future America. Their press credentials may bring sympathy from some they encounter, and deadly aggression from others. The danger only intensifies when they agree to bring along elderly reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and the aspiring young photojournalist Jessie (Priscilla‘s Cailee Spaeny).

The goal? A face-to-face interview with a President (Nick Offerman) who has disbanded the FBI, ordered air strikes against American citizens, and has not taken questions for over a year.

Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation, Men) is careful not to tip his political hand. Though a couple lines of dialog give you a vague glimpse about what type of policies the President favors, we’re repeatedly told resistance is coming from the “Western Forces” led by California and Texas. The nicely subtle mix of red and blue state rebellion makes it clear the point here is not purely idealogical.

“Don’t do this.”

And though many a road movie has leaned on that narrative device for a flimsy connection of random ideas, Garland uses the trip to D.C. to bolster his very ambitious idea with tension-filled looks at the heartland. Through an uneasy stop for gas, the visit to a town the war forgot, a marksman’s simple rules of engagement, and a brutal citizenship test from an unforgettable Jesse Plemons, we’re immersed in a war-torn America that seems authentically terrifying.

But it’s all just a prelude to the carnage ahead.

Because once it settles in D.C., the film becomes a war movie that will batter your senses with a barrage of breathless execution.

Dunst has never been better, particularly in the moments when Lee’s stoic rationalizing can no longer come to her rescue, or ours. Garland gives us the vulnerable Jessie as a logical entry point in the early going, but as she joins Joel in feeding off the war zone rush, moralities become more complicated.

As draining as it often is, Civil War is also an exhilarating, sobering and necessary experience. Smartly written and expertly crafted, the film manages to honor the work of wartime photojournalists as it delivers a chilling vision. It’s one beyond left or right, where the slippery slope of dehumanization breeds a willingly and violently divisible America we always professed to be beneath us.

One Small Ember

Monkey Man

by George Wolf

A new hero has arrived. And with him, an exciting new filmmaker.

After directing just two short films, Dev Patel moves to features with Monkey Man, an assured and thrillingly violent story of heritage and revenge.

Patel (who also gets a story credit) is charismatic and commanding as “Bobby,” an underground fighter in India who takes dives for “Tiger” (Sharlto Copley) and cons his way into a job washing dishes at an exclusive club run by Queenie Kapoor (Ashwini Kalsekar).

But Bobby has a plan to get promoted to serving in the VIP room. Once in, he’ll get close enough to police chief Rana Singh (Sikandar Kher) to make him pay for crimes committed against Bobby’s mother (Adithi Kalkunte) years before.

Complications arise, leaving Bobby a very wounded and hunted man, until some mystical assistance from Alpha (Vipin Sharma) turns Bobby into a lethal leader for the common people.

Patel doesn’t run from his inspirations, even name-dropping John Wick early in the film. You’ll also see shades of martial arts masters, Winding Refn, Tarantino and more, but Patel is always ready to put his own stamp on a familiar march to a showdown. He favors quick cuts and close ups with scattershot POV shots to enhance the impressive fight choreography and striking color palettes at work.

Similarly, Patel teams with screenwriters John Colle and Paul Angunawela—plus producer Jordan Peele—to take some well known themes and move them progressively forward. Rebelling against the totalitarian tactics of Baba Shakti (Makrand Deshpandi) and the Sovereign Party, a forgotten and oppressed population turns to the Monkey Man for deliverance.

And as much as this feels like an origin story, it is a dark one. Patel has indeed delivered a statement, as much about his filmmaking prowess as it is about his worldview. But the statement is grim and bloody, so leave the little ones at home and strap in for the thrilling, visceral rise of Patel and the Monkey Man.

The Final Curtain

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Opus

by George Wolf

There’s that pivotal scene in Walk the Line, where a young Johnny Cash is failing his audition with Sun Records. Owner Sam Phillips is growing impatient, and finally tells Cash to play one song as if he were dying and wanted to tell God what he felt about his time on Earth.

For 103 glorious minutes in Opus, a dying Ryuichi Sakamoto delivers just such an elegy, a soul-stirring set of piano compositions that often seem to be speaking directly to the heavens.

Sakamoto, the Japanese composer and actor who earned Grammys, BAFTAs, Golden Globes, an Oscar and multiple other awards in his legendary career, was nearing the end of his long battle with cancer when he agreed to one final performance.

Director Neo Sora – Sakamoto’s son – presents his father’s farewell with minimalistic virtuosity. There is only Sakamoto, his piano, and his wonderful talent, as a cascade of musical beauty fills in all the colors needed against Sora’s rich black-and-white pallet.

Sora’s camera is often static, as if to respect and savor the moment. But when it does move it is with grace and purpose, to slowly focus on the master’s hands, his fulfilled facial expressions or the repeated bows of his head.

Sakamoto chooses original works from across his career, performing each with a depth of feeling that is transfixing and touching, reaching an almost ethereal level of expression. It is an experience that can be deeply moving for an audience, but it’s also one that requires a theater setting and uninterrupted silence to completely let it in.

Give Ryuichi Sakamoto: Opus your time and complete attention, and you will be rewarded. This is a man talking to God through his piano.

Just let your soul be enriched

You’ve Got Hate Mail

Wicked Little Letters

by George Wolf

Long before you could hide behind a keyboard and avatar, a small English village was scandalized by some expert-level anonymous trolling. Wicked Little Letters tells us that story is “more true than you’d think,” and rolls out a stellar ensemble to elevate the tale at nearly every turn.

It is the 1920s in Littlehampton, England, where unmarried Edith Swan (Oscar winner Olivia Colman) still lives with her parents (Timothy Spall, Gemma Jones). Edith is known to be a dutiful daughter and devout Christian, so town tongues are wagging when she begins to receive hateful and profanity-laced “poison pen” letters in the mail.

Who could be behind such unwarranted vitriol?

Whaddya bet it’s that filthy Irishwoman Rose Gooding (Oscar nominee Jessie Buckley)?

Rose is frequently loud, drunk and vulgar. Plus, she’s a war widow (or is she?) with a young daughter (Alisha Weir from the upcoming Abigail), a “reputation” and a live-in boyfriend (Malachi Kirby).

Throw in the recent falling-out with Edith, and that’s enough for the town Constables (Hugh Skinner, Paul Chahidi), who arrest Rose and quickly schedule a show trial.

But “Woman Police Officer” Moss (Anjana Vasan) isn’t convinced, and she risks her position by continuing to investigate the letters on her own.

Director Thea Sharrock (Me Before You, The One and Only Ivan) and first-time screenwriter Jonny Sweet don’t craft a “whodunnit” as much as they do a “whoproveit” and a “whydunnit.” The real culprit is revealed fairly early on, and the film tries to balance some British wit atop heavier themes of repression, equality, and the sanctimonious crowd who are all preach no practice.

It’s historically interesting and well-meaning enough, but it reveals Sweet’s TV background through a light and obvious romp that’s rescued by heavyweight talent.

Colman, Buckley and Spall are all customarily splendid, each making up for the lack of nuance in their characters with some livid-in conviction and natural chemistry. Plus, Vasan stands out in the winning supporting group as the overlooked and underestimated W.P.O. Moss.

So while it’s lacking in the bite needed to leave a lasting impression, think of Wicked Little Letters as an extended cat video, one just amusing enough to take your mind off of all those nasty comments from the keyboard warriors.

The Deadest of Pans

Lousy Carter

by George Wolf

“Lousy” Carter (a terrific David Krumholtz) is a college professor, currently teaching a grad level seminar on The Great Gatsby.

One book? Even his “best friend” and colleague Kaminsky (Martin Starr) is nonplussed.

“Maybe you should teach a pamphlet,” he says with the deadest of pans, underscoring the entire tone of writer/director Bob Byington’s sardonic slice of life and death.

Carter got his titular nickname from being bad at golf, but he’s not exactly ace-ing this life thing, either. Lousy’s students don’t like him, his ex (Olivia Thirlby) calls him a “baby man,” and his sister (Trieste Kelly Dunn) would rather not call him at all. His fellow teachers are embarrassed for him, his therapist (Stephen Root) mocks him, he’s thousands in debt, and he’s sleeping with Kaminsky’s wife (Jocelyn DeBoer).

Great. Anything else?

He just got some very bad news at the doctor’s office.

But hey, he does have a fan in Dick Anthony (Macon Blair), a weird guy who loved the animated film Lousy made “back in the aughts,” and who might be giving off stalker vibes.

If you’re familiar with Byington’s work (Somebody Up There Likes Me, RSO), you’ll be ready for how dryly Byington attacks this clash of narcissism against the merciless march of time. And though you can probably count on one hand the number of times any character smiles, that doesn’t mean there aren’t laughs to be found here.

The biggest may be the “based on true events” tag that Byington hangs up at the start, right before he lets Krumholtz loose on this journey of indignation. It’s not so much an arc as it is a sinking ship, but Krumholtz excels in finding sympathetic moments that draw us in.

And even if this bark has too much bite for you, it’s hard not to respect Byington’s masterly command of tone. His commitment to that tone is unwavering, with Krumholtz leading an unmerry band of misanthropes through a series of events that are never at a loss for darkly funny cynicism.

I mean they’re just lousy with it.

Bloody Bunny Trail

Easter Bloody Easter

by George Wolf

“What is that? A llama?” says the guy at the bar, pointing to the mounted head of a rabbit with huge antlers that he actually thought was real.

“No, that’s a jackalope,” says the bartender, trying to keep a straight face. “They’re attracted to the smell of whiskey!”

“Oh…..”

That’s not a scene from Easter Bloody Easter, it’s a cherished memory from my days tending bar, and this horror comedy about a bloodthirsty jackalope is finally giving me the chance to weave it in!

It’s all just as silly as it sounds, with director/co-star Diane Foster and writer/co-star Allison Lobel setting that vibe right from a prologue that pokes fun at the well-worn horror trope of “teenage sex = death.” The two actors are much too old and their southern accents are way overdone, which is goofy and endearing. It’s only when the film forgets these roots that things get messy.

The setting is springtime in small town Texas, when everyone’s excited for the annual combination fish fry/bunny hop/egg hunt they call Easterpalooza! Check that, Jeannie (Foster) is not excited, because her husband Lance is missing! Jeannie’s best friend Carol (Kelly Grant) grabs her shotgun to join the search, and it isn’t long before the warnings from tinfoil hat-wearing Sam (Zach Kanner) begin to play out.

The urban legendary Jackalope and his army of devilish bunnies are on the loose and out for blood! So why won’t the mayor from Jaws—I mean the Sheriff—postpone Easterpalooza?

The film sends up low budget creature features, small town busybodies (with Lobel starring as the leader of the catty church ladies), conspiracy theorists and more with considerable zest. The ensemble cast, led by Grant’s strong comic timing, is all in on the gags, and the moments when fuzzy bunnies turn into maneaters are frequently hilarious.

But the absurd zaniness hits a roadblock whenever the film suddenly starts taking itself seriously. An introspective musical number hits with an especially curious thud, and the running time starts swelling enough to chip away at your patience.

When Easter Bloody Easter stays on its bloody bunny trail, though, it puts together a basket of over-the-top fun. Just be prepared to wade through some patches of grass to find all the treats.

After the Break: Dr. Joyce Brothers and a Demon!

Late Night with the Devil

by George Wolf

Who remembers The Amazing Randi?

He was that magician, author and “professional skeptic” who would come on the Johnny Carson show to debunk anyone claiming to have supernatural, paranormal or occult powers.

Memories of Randi aren’t required to feel the pull of Late Night with the Devil, but if you grew up around 1970s TV, you’re likely to have an even deeper appreciation for this high-concept homage from filmmakers Cameron and Colin Cairnes.

The Australian brothers who gave us the terrific low budget horror 100 Bloody Acres have essentially crafted their found footage genre entry, all centered around broadcast and BTS footage from the last episode of Night Owls with Jack Delroy, a nighttime talk show trying to compete with Carson.

The film’s prologue—featuring foreboding narration from Michael Ironside—tells us that by the late 70s, Delroy (a terrific David Dastmalchian) had been worried about the future of the show, which led to a fateful gamble.

Cue the footage!

Delroy’s “Randi” is Carmichael Haig (Ian Bliss, perfectly smug), who condescendingly debunks the show’s first guest, clairvoyant Christou (Fayssal Bazzi). Haig is then ready to do the same to Dr. June Ross-Mitchell’s (Laura Gordon) claim that her young patient Lilly (Ingrid Torelli) is possessed by a demon.

But Lilly’s got a surprise for sweeps week.

Cameron and Colin share the writing/directing duties, and they set an effective time stamp early on through solid production design and patient editing. The mood is one of appropriately cheesy humor amid some uneasy dread.

After all, we know what these wide-lapeled jokesters don’t: something nasty is about to go down.

The Cairnes boys take their time getting there, letting Dastmalchian reel us into Delroy’s easy charm and increasingly questionable backstory. Dastmalchian—a longtime supporting MVP blessed with a memorable face—is finally getting his chance to carry a film, and he does not disappoint.

Kudos also go out the effects department, rolling out a (mostly) practical finale that serves as a perfect capper to the film’s finely tuned aesthetic. Computer wizardry has no place in this world, and the Cairneses keep it refreshingly real.

Ultimately, what Late Night with the Devil has in mind is more like an R-rated Twilight Zone, with a twisty moral backed up by blood. Expect devilish fireworks and frisky throwback fun, even if you’re not scared out of your bellbottoms.

Tin Roof, Rusted

Snack Shack

by George Wolf

Four years ago, Adam Rehmeier’s Dinner In America arrived as a delightfully subversive 90s punk rock rom-com. Snack Shack finds the writer/director still navigating the 90s with hilarious R-rated delight, even as the punk rock ‘tude has been usurped by capitalistic dreams.

It’s 1991 in small town Nebraska, and teen best friends A.J. (Conor Sherry) and Moose (The Fablemans‘ Gabriel LaBelle) are coming hot into summer with some big plans. They score at the dog track, market their own homemade beer and are working more than enough angles to please the Gordon Gekko poster hanging on the wall.

But then an unexpected new hustle presents itself. The boys’ older friend Shane (Nick Robinson) – who’s a bit of a local hero thanks to his service in Kuwait – is home to manage the local pool, and he gives the foul-mouthed young Gekkos a tip on how to win the city council’s summer contract for the poolside snack bar.

Before long, business is booming, and that 75-cent upcharge for using ketchup to write “fuck” on a hotdog (a “fuckdog!”)is paying off big time. Will success go to their heads? Will A.J. earn enough cash for his Alaskan trek with Shane, AND earn the respect of his parents (David Costabile and Gillian Vigman, both priceless)?

And what about Brooke, the hot new lifeguard (Mika Abdalla)? Could she actually come between these hometown homies?

You’ll know where some of this is going, but Rehmeier’s script delivers foul, horny hilarity, and outstanding turns by both Sherry and LaBelle stand out in a letter perfect ensemble. The time stamp is again spot on, with Rehmeier’s freewheeling style crafting an infectious mashup of The Way Way Back, Superbad and Project X.

And most importantly, Rehmeier captures that zest for life on the cusp of adulthood without a whiff of pandering or condescension. The boys will do some growing up during this one crazy summer, and the film will grow up with them. Slowly, parents don’t seem quite as lame, the hijinx aren’t as silly and some important lessons about love, sex, death and friendship hang in the air just long enough to hit just hard enough.

Fuckdogs are still funny, though, homie, just like a surprise punch to the nuts.

Ordinary People

One Life

by George Wolf

Back in 2015, Sir Nicholas Winton passed away at the age of…106.

Healthy diet? Lots of cardio? Maybe, but One Life lets us know Winton could have subsisted on little more than whiskey, smokes, and the unlimited good karma from his days as a young man on a humanitarian mission that put faith in “ordinary people.”

In the years before World War II, “Nicky” (Johnny Flynn) was a London stockbroker. But as Hitler and the Nazis marched across Europe, Nicky committed himself to saving as many Jewish children as he could, spearheading a committee to place the children with foster families in the U.K.

Years later, the older Nicky (Anthony Hopkins) and his wife Grete (Lenas Olin) begin cleaning out their house, which brings him face to face with an old briefcase. Inside the satchel are the records from Nicky’s refugee network, and he begins to wonder if the story might be of interest to the local press.

It is.

Veteran television director James Hawes and the writing team of Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake adapt the book by Winton’s daughter Barbara as a standard take on an extraordinary story. Have plenty of tissues handy, which is a testament to the sheer power and timely urgency of Nicky’s life-saving work.

The flashback scenes are satisfactory, but lack the cinematic style and structure to find a unique voice amid the holocaust dramas we’ve seen in just the last several years.

It is the later narrative thread – with, unsurprisingly, a truly touching turn by Hopkins – that allows One Life to leave its mark. Overdue accolades only seem to increase Nicky’s despair over the lives he couldn’t save, and Hopkins is able to craft the haunted man with a nuance that underscores all the good that can come from turning care into action.

The film’s final act puts the effect of Sir Nicholas’s work in very specific, very human and very public terms. And even if you remember hearing about the goosebump-inducing way the “British Schindler” finally got his flowers, One Life makes sure those goosebumps will come again.