Tag Archives: film review

Animal Farm

American Factory

by Hope Madden

When filmmakers Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert documented the last days of Moraine, Ohio’s GM plant for their Oscar nominated 2008 doc The Last Truck, they probably did not foresee a second nomination coming nearly a decade later for what amounts to a sequel.

And yet, American Factory returns to the same scene, this time to provide a fly-on-the-wall peek at the Fuyayo Glass Factory, a Chinese/American experiment taking place inside those same walls.

The first film released by Michelle and Barak Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, American Factory is a case study in cross-cultural miscommunication and national personality clash.

After Moraine’s GM plant closed, the town sank into economic disaster—something Dayton’s own Bognar and Reichert certainly witnessed daily since the short film. Looking to expand their production in the States, China’s Fuayo Glass Industry Group purchased the old GM plant and instantly created quite a buzz.

What Reichert and Bognar capture is astonishing and unnervingly honest. Chinese workers in Ohio are given a crash course in what to expect from Americans, as management tutors them to expect blunt honesty and the Americans’ belief that they are somehow special no matter who they are. Meanwhile, American managers are treated to a company meeting in China where the orderliness and productiveness of the workers inspires awe, the propaganda-riddled pageantry alarms, and the sight of employees sifting through broken glass to find pieces worth salvaging horrifies.

The human struggle at the plant mostly comes down to an attempt to unionize, which Chinese management sees as an opportunity for lazy Americans to gut productivity while the American labor sees it as an opportunity to institute legal protections concerning safety, health code regulations, wages and benefits.

It truly is as if the parties speak different languages.

Bognar and Reichert strive to provide a balanced point of view. Any finger- wagging is directed at both sides of the argument, but even that’s somewhat limited. The filmmakers and their film are more interested in the human side of the exchange. The film sheds light on the loneliness of the Chinese workers biding their time until their families can be brought overseas. We’re also privy to the early optimism and then heartbreaking disappointments faced by the Ohioans hoping for another chance to make an honest living.

While the cultural wreckage offers a fascinating sociological experiment, the film ends far more ominously as automation proves to eliminate all concerns over wages, hours, productivity, quality, jingoism, racism and any other human frailty you can think of.

What the filmmakers encapsulate about humanity, culture and the future of labor is equal parts enthralling and frightening.

Wolf Pack Mentality

Meow Wolf: Origin Story

by Rachel Willis

If you’ve never heard of Meow Wolf, an 88-minute documentary about their beginnings may seem pointless, but I promise it’s worth it. By the time the credits roll, you’ll be looking into the price of plane tickets to Santa Fe.

Santa Fe, New Mexico is one of the world’s most vibrant arts centers. Home to hundreds of galleries and dozens of museums, it’s known worldwide for its art markets, events and performances.

And it’s also home to Meow Wolf, an art collective comprising a handful of anarchistic artists who saw too much bourgeois capitalism in the local art scene. Seeking to break away from the idea of art as commodity, these creative individuals banded together to create something new, unique and entirely collaborative.

Using animations, archival footage and interviews with founding members of the collective, directors Jilann Spitzmiller and Morgan Capps create a visually engaging documentary. It would have to be to capture the spirit and brilliance of the art and artists behind Meow Wolf.

The major theme of the film, which is the major dilemma for Meow Wolf, is maintaining artistic integrity while creating a marketable product. From the very beginning of Meow Wolf’s inception, most of the group’s members were opposed to anyone trying to impose too much order into the creation process.

Spitzmiller and Capps document the bitter fights, the fissions within the group, and ultimately, the success when they manage to work together to find common ground. With a collective, each member is involved in the creation process. Each member has a say, and each person contributes to the final product.

Documenting a few of Meow Wolf’s early successes, the film culminates with their most ambitious endeavor: the House of Eternal Return. A 20,000 square feet interactive, immersive art installation, it’s one of the most incomparable and wondrous projects you’ll have the pleasure of viewing from conception to completion onscreen.

That George R.R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame helped fund the project only adds to its charm.

Watching Meow Wolf create ambitious, quirky projects is like watching a great band write game-changing songs. There are tense moments, fights and losses, but when things come together you’ll come as close as one can to true magic.

Ball of Confusion


by Hope Madden

Welcome back, Spike Lee!

It’s not like he’s really been gone. He’s made a dozen or more TV episodes, documentaries, short films and basement-budget indies since his unfortunate 2013 compromised vision Old Boy. But BlacKkKlansman is a return to form—to the envelope-pushing enjoyment that showcases his skills as storyteller, entertainer and activist.

Earmarks of his most indelible marks on cinema—Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X—these three elements have rarely joined forces since 1992. You might get one (Get on the Bus) or two (Inside Man, Chi-Raq), but not all three.

Why now? Lee isn’t the first filmmaker to realize how painfully relevant historical tales of systemic racism are at the moment. But it wasn’t until 2014 that Ron Stallworth published the book detailing how he, a black cop in Colorado Springs in 1979, infiltrated the KKK.

You see how it all comes together?

If you don’t, you really should. Lee balances unexpected shifts between humor and drama, camaraderie and horror, entertainment and history lesson, popcorn-muncher and experimental indie with a fluidity few other directors could muster.

The story itself is beyond insane—a zany, hair-raising misadventure destined for the big screen. Stallworth (John David Washington), a rookie in Colorado Springs’s intelligence office, stumbles upon an ad in the newspaper, makes a call, and joins the Klan.

Of course, he’ll need a second officer to actually show up. Enter Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver—perfect), who sounds about as much like Stallworth as he looks, plus he’s Jewish, which could further complicate his face-to-face relationship with the hate group.

Much sit-com-esque absurdity and dramatic police procedural thrills follow, but it’s the way Lee subverts these standard formats that hits home. The insidious nature of the racism depicted in 1979 echoes in both directions—in the history that brought our country to this moment in time, and in the future Ron Stallworth undoubtedly hoped he could prevent.

Yes, there are laugh out loud moments in this film, but there are far more rallying cries.

Fright Club Live: Calvaire (The Ordeal)

The Ordeal (Calvaire) (2004)

This week’s Fright Club – 9pm at the Drexel Theatre in Bexley – unspools the 35mm print of Calvaire. It’s the first time the film has screened in Columbus, and we could not be more excited!

A paranoid fantasy about the link between progress and emasculation, The Ordeal sees a timid singer stuck in the wilds of Belgium after his van breaks down.

Writer/director Fabrice Du Welz’s script scares up the darkest imaginable humor. If David Lynch had directed Deliverance in French, the concoction might have resembled The Ordeal. As sweet, shy singer Marc (a pitch perfect Laurent Lucas) awaits aid, he begins to recognize the hell he’s stumbled into. Unfortunately for Marc, salvation’s even worse.

The whole film boasts an uneasy, “What next?” quality. It also provides a European image of a terror that’s plagued American filmmakers for generations: the more we embrace progress, the further we get from that primal hunter/gatherer who knew how to survive.

Du Welz animates more ably than most our collective revulsion over the idea that we’ve evolved into something incapable of unaided survival; the weaker species, so to speak. Certainly John Boorman’s Deliverance (the Uncle Daddy of all backwoods survival pics) understood the fear of emasculation that fuels this particular dread, but Du Welz picks that scab more effectively than any filmmaker since.

His film is a profoundly uncomfortable, deeply disturbing, unsettlingly humorous freakshow that must be seen to be believed.


Fright Club Fridays: The Orphanage

The Orphanage (2007)

Some of the world’s best horror output comes from distant lands – like this gem from Spain.

Laura (Belén Rueda) and her husband reopen the orphanage where she grew up, with the goal of running a house for children with special needs – children like her adopted son Simón, who is HIV positive. But Simón’s new imaginary friends worry Laura, and when he disappears it looks like she may be imagining things herself.

This looks like a well worn tale at first glance: Is the distraught mother losing her mind, as those around her assume, or is something supernatural afoot? But it’s director Juan Antonio Bayona’s understated approach, along with Rueda’s measured performance and Óscar Faura’s superb cinematography, that buoy the film above the ordinary ghost story.

A scary movie can be elevated beyond measure by a masterful score and an artful camera. Because Bayona keeps the score and all ambient noise to a minimum, allowing the quiet to fill the scenes, he develops a truly haunting atmosphere. Faura captures the eerie beauty of the stately orphanage, but does it in a way that always suggests someone is watching. The effect is never heavy handed, but effortlessly eerie.

The Orphanage treads familiar ground, employing such iconic genre images as the lighthouse, scary dolls, scarecrows, a misshapen child – not to mention the many and varied things that go bump in the night – but it does so with an unusual integrity. Creepy images from early in the film are effectively replayed in the third act to punctuate the very real sense of dread Bayona creates throughout the film. While most of the horror is built with slow, spectral dread, there are a couple of outright shocks to keep the audience guessing.

One of the film’s great successes is its ability to take seriously both the logical, real world story line, and the supernatural one.

Screenwriter Sergio Sánchez doesn’t shortchange his characters or the audience by dismissing Laura’s anguished state of mind, or by neglecting the shadowy side of his tale. The Orphanage is reminiscent of producer Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, as well as The Others, and even of the classic The Innocents.

The Orphanage has more than the unsettling spectral images of children in common with these films; it boasts a sustaining, powerful female performance. Rueda carries the film with a restrained urgency – hysterical only when necessary, focused at all times, and absolutely committed to this character, who may or may not be seeing ghosts. The realism and tenderness in her performance help one overlook flaws in the film’s storyline.

Examine it too closely and the backstory starts to crumble before you, but all is forgiven because of the final payoff – an ending that suits the characters, is faithful to the truth of the ghosts as Laura sees them, does justice to the exquisite atmosphere created in the film, and never feels inauthentic or obvious.

A good ghost story is hard to find. Apparently you have to look in Spain.

The 2014 Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts

The Academy Award nominations can drive you crazy between the snubs and the needless accolades. Some years are so bad, you may think you’ll never forgive them. But every year, however misguided their big ticket nominations, the academy does at least one wonderful thing. They draw attention to short films that would otherwise go unnoticed. Do yourself a favor and head to the Gateway Film Center to catch all fifteen of these magnificent short subject works of art, starting with five brilliant and varied animated features.

The nominations this year net a variety of styles and tones. The clear frontrunner for the Oscar is Disney’s Get a Horse, the 3-D short that accompanied their popular (and prescient!) Frozen. Director Lauren MacMullen’s six minute ‘toon is a joyous ode to animation history, bridging Disney’s past with its future by mixing archival Mickey Mouse animation with modern cinematic storytelling.

At the other end of the spectrum is Ferel, a shadowy, impressionistic tale of a wild boy found by a hunter and introduced to society. Smokey images in shades of grey underscore the story’s haunting nature.


Equally haunted, though in a more literal and offbeat manner, is Shuhei Morita’s Possessions. A fix-it man travels, wares on his back, through a terrible storm. He takes shelter in an abandoned shack to witness the discarded items there come to life. It’s a lively, entertaining piece on a consume-and-discard culture.

Room on the Broom is a longer, stop-action style film aimed at a younger crowd. Simon Pegg voices the narration for the tale of a good hearted witch who never met a new friend she didn’t want to make, regardless of her cat’s preferences. It’s a sweet image of acceptance and family.


The best of the bunch, though likely not to be the winner, is the appealing Mr. Hublot. In a clattery, mechanical future world, idiosyncratic Mr. Hublot lives alone with his OCD. His days are full – straightening picture frames, turning the lights on and off, on and off, on and off. Back to straightening frames – though he can’t help but hear that abandoned, barking puppy out there in the weather. Writer Laurent Witz, along with his co-director Alexandre Espigares, creates an endearing image of familial love and acceptance with this charmer.

Every one’s a winner regardless of the final vote. Catch them while you can.

McConaughey: More than Naked Bongo Drumming

by Hope Madden

It took the man almost 20 years in the business to find his real calling, but god damn, Matthew McConaughey knows how to create a character. And Ron Woodruff was nothing if not a character.

McConaughey plays the role of the real life AIDS victim and Texan in the compelling and surprisingly entertaining Dallas Buyers Club.

Woodruff was a part-time bull rider, an occupation that almost defines him as fearless, determined, thrill-seeking, and probably not long for this world. He was man who “preferred to die with his boots on,” and he makes for an unlikely hero. After a lifetime of dangerous behavior on every level, Woodruff lands in the hospital with the news that he has HIV and a predicted 30 days to get his affairs in order.

Well, he saw that news as bullshit, and thanks to those defining characteristics, his subsequent journey makes for a singularly fascinating film.

A character-driven historical piece on the grinding reality of the dawning AIDS crisis, Dallas Buyers Club offers a glimpse at desperation, isolation, bigotry and resilience. Regardless of the facts, this is not the tragic story of a charismatic straight man struggling with AIDS. It’s the story of AIDS in Texas in 1985.

There is something formulaic, even predictable, about the film’s structure, and the screenplay speechifies here and there, but Jean-Marc Vallee’s understated direction and the performances of the entire ensemble buoy the effort above its “socially relevant biopic” label.

McConaughey’s charmingly assholish depiction is never less than compelling. He doesn’t make a saint of this man because there’s no saint to be made. What he makes him is human, an effort aided immeasurably by the supporting work of Jared Leto.

Leto plays Rayon, Woodruff’s reluctantly-accepted partner in a health care whirlwind. Their work together recalls the barbaric money grab at the heart of any attempt to cure those dying every day of AIDS. Quietly and with genuine tenderness, Leto’s performance reminds you that no one was defined by this disease alone.

Both actors are likely to be remembered come awards time, and some will point to Oscar’s preference for true stories and physical transformation. (Because of the weight lost for the roles, both McConaughey and Leto are almost unrecognizable.) Celebrating their superficial metamorphoses, though, limits their work. With the aid of a director’s steady hand and an ensemble’s quietly powerful work, they provide the heart and soul of an exceptional and surprisingly fresh true tale.





Transcendent Filmmaking

12 Years a Slave

by Hope Madden

Remarkable, isn’t it, that it took a foreign-born filmmaker, with the help of a mostly foreign-born cast, to properly tell the shamefully American tale 12 Years a Slave.

Steve McQueen is the British director who artfully and impeccably translates Solomon Northup’s memoir of illegal captivity to the screen. Northup, played with breathtaking beauty by Chiwetel Ejiofor, was a free family man in New York State, a violinist by trade, duped, drugged, shackled and sold into slavery in Louisiana. We are privy to the next 12 years of this man’s life, and while it is often brutally difficult to watch, it’s also a tale so magnificently told it must not be missed.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is an intense talent, though you have likely never heard of him and have possibly never seen him. But if you happened to have come across Britain’s 2002 thriller Dirty Pretty Things and spied his tender, heart-wrenching turn as Okwe, a Nigerian immigrant fallen into sketchy company in London,  you knew he was destined for great things.

He’s found that destiny in 12 Years a Slave.

The clear Oscar frontrunner, Ejiofor is not alone as a favorite this award season. McQueen populates his understated, graceful picture with one of the most perfectly chosen casts in memory. Even the smallest role leaves a scalding impression. Whether it’s Paul Giamatti’s casual evil, Benedict Cumberbatch’s cowardly mercy, Paul Dano’s spineless rage or Adepero Oduye’s unbridled grief, there’s an emotional authenticity to the film that makes every character, no matter how brief their appearance in Northup’s odyssey, memorable – sometimes painfully so.

But there are three performances you will likely never forget. Principally, there is Ejiofor, a performer who expresses more conflict, anguish and thought with his eyes than most actors can hope to share in an entire performance. His work roils with emotions few would care to consider, and never does he bend to melodrama or overstatement.

In her film debut, Lupita Nyong’o’s almost otherworldly performance marks a profound talent.

Meanwhile, as the sadistic Master Epps, Michael Fassbender’s performance guarantees to be the most brilliantly unsettling piece of acting found onscreen this year. There is no stronger contender in this year’s Oscar race for best supporting actor, and likely none will show himself. He’s terrifying, and his performance feeds off the talent around him. The raw energy among the three – Fassbender, Ejiofor and Nyong’o – is sometimes too much to bear, and the three share a few scenes that are nearly too powerful to take in.

McQueen does not let the cast run away with his picture, though, and he mines a deep human beauty from Northup’s journey. He never forgets that while justice requires that Northup be delivered from slavery, it remains blind to all those people left on Epps’s plantation, many of whom faced a far more dire existence than Northup.

No romanticizing, no comic relief, just the abject truth of what will happen to a man, a woman, a young boy, and a little girl who is owned outright by the kind of human who believes owning another human is justified. It’s almost beyond comprehension, due not only to the fact it happened for 250 years in our own history, but  because across the globe, it still happens every day in the world’s booming sex trade industry.

12 Years a Slave transcends filmmaking, ultimately become an event, one that is destined to leave a profound, lasting impression.



One Scary Movie a Day in October! Day 28: The Last Circus

The Last Circus (Balada triste de trompeta) (2010)

Who’s in the mood for something weird?

Unhinged Spanish filmmaker Alex de la Iglesia (Perdita Durango) returns to form with The Last Circus, a breathtakingly bizarre look at a Big Top love triangle set in Franco’s Spain.

Describing the story in much detail would risk giving away too many of the astonishing images. A boy loses his performer father to conscription in Spain’s civil war, and decades later, with Franco’s reign’s end in sight, he follows in pop’s clown-sized footsteps and joins the circus. There he falls for another clown’s woman, and stuff gets nutty.

Iglesia’s direction slides from sublime, black and white surrealist history to something else entirely. Acts 2 and 3 evolve into something gloriously grotesque – a sideshow that mixes political metaphor with carnival nightmare.

Like Tarantino, Igelsia pulls together ideas and images from across cinema and blends them into something uniquely his own, crafting a film that’s somewhat familiar, but never, ever predictable.

The Last Circus boasts more than brilliantly wrong-minded direction and stunningly macabre imagery – though of these things it certainly boasts. Within that bloody and perverse chaos are some of the more touching performances to be found onscreen.

Carlos Areces and Antonio de la Torre soar as the clowns at odds over the love of an acrobat (Carolina Bang, in another of the film’s wonderfully fresh performances). Areces’s tortured Sad Clown versus Torre’s sadistic Happy Clown – it’s a battle to the death in one of the more entertainingly garish political allegories in Spanish cinema.

One Scary Movie Per Day in October. Day 26: Night of the Living Dead


Night of the Living Dead (1968)

From the brightly lit opening cemetery sequence to the paranoid power struggle in the house to the devastating closing montage, Night of the Living Dead teems with the racial, sexual and political tensions of its time. An unsettlingly relevant George A. Romero knew how to push societal panic buttons.

Two hundred miles outside Pittsburgh, squabbling siblings Barbara and Johnny visit a cemetery to put a wreath on their father’s grave. Then comes the first of the film’s many iconic quotes: They’re coming to get you, Barbara.

My favorite, though, has always been, “Yeah, they’re dead. They’re all messed up.”

A befuddled, borderline useless Barbara stumbles to an old farmhouse, where the very useful and not easily befuddled Ben takes her under his wing and boards up the place. Meanwhile, TV newsmen declare that the, “scene can best be described as mayhem” and note that Barbara, Ben and all those folks down the basement should avoid the mayhem’s “murder-happy characters.”

Romero’s responsible for more than just outstanding dialogue. (OK, at times, like the heavy handed score, the dialogue isn’t entirely outstanding. But often enough, it is.) As the first film of its kind, the lasting impact of this picture on horror cinema is hard to overstate. His inventive imagination created the genre and the monster from the ground up.

They’re dead.

They’re back.

They’re hungry for human flesh.

Their bite infects the bitten.

The bitten will eventually bite.

Aim for the head.

The tensions inside the house are almost as serious as the danger outside the house, once bossypants Mr. Cooper pokes his head out of the basement. And wouldn’t everybody be better off if Romero could write a worthwhile part for a female?

Still, the shrill sense of confinement, the danger of one inmate turning on another, and the unthinkable transformation going on in the cellar build to a startling climax – one that utterly upends expectations – followed by the kind of absolutely genius ending that guarantees the film’s eternal position in the annals of horror cinema.