Tag Archives: George Wolf

Coen My Way?

Drive-Away Dolls

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Is the flattery still sincerest if you’re imitating yourself?

Because about 15 minutes into Drive-Away Dolls, the first installment of a lesbian B-movie trilogy from director/co-writer Ethan Coen and co-writer Tricia Cooke (Coen’s longtime producer/editor/wife), you can’t ignore how much this film reminds you of Coen Brothers movies.

And yes, better Coen Brothers movies.

Like The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading, Barton Fink and A Serious Man, all of which get subtle and not-so-subtle nods in a twisting story of two young women and a mysterious, valuable briefcase.

Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) are queer best friends in 1999 Philadelphia. Marian is sexually conservative, and the free-spirited Jamie hopes to get her friend some action while they accept a drive-away job down to Tallahassee and hit every lesbian bar they can find.

What the girls don’t know is that the car they’ve been given has two very important items in the trunk, and it isn’t long before “The Chief” (Colman Domingo) and his two hapless henchman (Joey Slotnick, C.J. Wilson) are on their tail heading South.

The cast is indeed impressive (with appearances from Pedro Pascal, Bill Camp, Beanie Feldstein and Matt Damon), but while the film serves up a handful of LOL moments, the vast majority of the nuttiness lands with more desperation than inspiration.

It all feels so forced, except for Viswanathan, whose earnest delivery points out the artifice in Qualley’s. The Foghorn Leghorn-y of pre-millennium lesbians, Jamie’s every line draws attention to its own zaniness. It calls to mind The Ladykillers—and that’s never the Coen movie you want to make people remember.

Much of the ensemble works magic, though. Camp is particularly, dryly memorable. But this script, and the unsteady direction, suffers from high expectations. Drive-Away Dolls is fine. It’s fun enough. It’s nutty. But if Coen and Cooke weren’t awkwardly chasing their own family history, it would have been more satisfying.

Community Organizer

Ordinary Angels

by George Wolf

It’s understandable if Ordinary Angels seems familiar. Hilary Swank playing a tireless do-gooder in a based-on-true-events drama with a vaguely inspirational title is probably going to feel that way.

And while the film does rely on plenty of broad-brushing, it ultimately mines enough nuance to find some genuine feels, as well.

Swank plays Sharon Stevens, a hard-partying beauty salon owner in Kentucky who’s hoping one day to mend the relationship with her estranged son, Derek (Dempsey Byrk). While waiting at the grocery store checkout, a local newspaper story gives Sharon’s life new meaning.

Five year-old Michelle Schmitt (Emily Mitchell) has a rare disease and needs a liver transplant to survive. Her father Ed (Jack Reacher‘s Alan Ritchson), still hurting from his wife’s fatal battle with Wegener’s disease, is facing a mountain of medical debt while struggling to raise Michelle and her older sister Ashley (Skywalker Hughes) as a single parent.

After so much heartache, Ed admits to his mother Barbara (Nancy Travis) that he’s losing his faith. Could this hardscrabble hairdresser at their door be a Godsend? The few thousand dollars she raises from a salon fundraiser is a darn good start.

Two-time Oscar winner Swank is perfect for the role, even if the script from Kelly Fremon Craig (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret) and Meg Tilly (the veteran actress with her first feature writing credit) doesn’t provide many edges, at least early on. Sharon is all “hush my mouth” spunk, smiling through her accent as she imposes her will on multiple situations and begins to feel interchangeable with similar characters from The Blind Side to Swank’s own Conviction.

Ritchson is fine and shares sweet chemistry with the two adorable young girls, though Ed also lacks the depth to move the character beyond any number of faith-based dramas following a basic heart string-tugging playbook.

Ordinary Angels does find a unique voice in the third act, when Ed’s patience wears thin, and Sharon is finally forced to confront the life she’s really trying to save. Plus, director Jon Gunn (The Case for Christ, The Week) moves away from the formulaic to develop some respectable tension when the call for Michelle’s life-saving transplant comes during a monster snowstorm.

That really happened, and the true story here does provide an inspiring example of the good that humans are capable of. No doubt we need that right now, and Ordinary Angels manages just enough extraordinary moments to please more than the choir.

Holy Sanctimony

God & Country

by George Wolf

When Rob Schenck was a young pastor, he was told never to prepare a sermon without consulting the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel.

Years later, Schenck learned that Kittel was also the man who gave Hitler a Christian blessing for his Final Solution.

“That was an eye opener,” Schenck admits. The point—that there is no limit to what radical Christianity can be used to justify—is what drives God & Country. And much of the film’s success comes from how it combats that fanaticism with a measured, confident deconstruction.

Director Dan Partland doesn’t insert himself into the conversation, but has no problem crafting a spirited one. Yes, he has a clear agenda, but includes enough footage from news reports, political speeches and televangelist messaging that the film’s worldview becomes the “other side” getting a chance to be heard.

Partland relies on historians, authors, and theologians to trace the rise of Christian Nationalism, it’s deviation from actual Christian teachings, the quest for power over values that earns a rebranding as “White Religious Nationalism,” and how the true believers have been convinced that America has a God-ordained role in human history.

And if democracy gets in the way? See January 6th, 2021.

The attack on the Capitol is what bookends the film, and in between, Partland actually elicits sympathy for the attackers, who have been fed a calculated diet of lies, fear and outrage. The resulting echo chamber creates an alternative reality bubble, one that was always designed to burst.

If you noticed the proudly theocratic ruling from the Alabama Supreme Court last week, you know that the threat to democracy is only becoming more dangerous. Partland makes it clear that the biggest hope is awareness, so that those led astray by the fervor (like Schenck) can experience a new awakening.

Christian Nationalism has nothing to do with Christianity. And God & Country finds a useful tone between sermonizing and condescension that can help us see that light.

Fright Club: Towns that Won’t Let Go

Being trapped in a town–whether by supernatural forces or physical ones–is a nightmare scenario that horror movies use to their advantage. Maybe it’s bloodthirsty kids in a cornfield who keep you. Maybe it’s some kind of unnatural barrier, and every time you leave, you wind up where you started. Either way, spooky times! Here are our five favorite towns that won’t let you leave!

5. Hilsboro: The Brotherhood of Satan (1971)

One of those mid-afternoon TV watches one day home sick from school, this movie scared the shit out of me. Was it the kidnapping and possession of children? The Satanic cult? No–it was the idea that K.T. and Nicky could never leave the town. No matter what direction they drove or how they attempted it, they would never get out of the town.

That idea stuck with me for ages, but in restrospect, the movie has a lot of weird goodness going for it. It seems to have inspired Being John Malcovich to a degree, as well as Cemetery Man. It’s a B-movie, no question, but it is a lot of fun.

4. Camp Arcadia: The Endless (2017)

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead continue themes developed in the remarkable Resolution (which could also be on the list). And though it’s really a camp they need to leave, the dread the filmmakers develop is identical to that of the town that won’t let go.

As brothers return to the cult they’d escaped years earlier for a friendly visit, you spend every minute hoping, goading, yelling, begging them to fucking just leave! Get out! What are you still doing there?!

The tension is palpable and the fraternal familiarity between Justin and Moorhead is painfully, tenderly authentic. This works to ground the science fiction elements as they develop, creating an unnerving and memorable feature.

3. Hobbs End: In the Mouth of Madness (1994)

John Carpenter combines King with Lovecraft to create an unforgettable journey into madness. Sam Neill is an insurance investigator out to prove that vanished author Sutter Cane is a phony. He just needs to get to Hobb’s End and prove it.

There’s a scene with a bicyclist on a country road that boasts of Carpenter’s genre magic, as madness and mayhem collude to keep Neill where he is, at least until he can serve a greater purpose.

2. Buffalora: Cemetery Man (Dellamorte Dellamore – [of death, of love], 1994)

Inarguably director Michele Soavi’s best work is confined mainly to the cemetery in Buffalora. Released the same year as In the Mouth of Madness, Cemetery Man explores a handful of the same themes. It just does it with more sex.

The film balances humor with horror, sneakily leading to meaner and more chaotic plot turns until there’s no going back.

Rupert Everett is perfection as Dellamorte, the cemetery keeper who has noticed that the dead come back about seven days after they’re interred. Things go from bad to worse to worse still, and finally he loads up his best friend Gnaghi and plans to put Buffalora behind him. Good luck.

1. The Yabba: Wake in Fright (1971)

First time in the Yabba?

Sweaty, drunken, debauched–Ted Kotcheff’s Aussie thriller wrings tension from every scene as John Grant, put-upon school teacher, explores his manliness with the very manliest in town.

A pressure cooker, the film is an absolute education in escalating tension, but it also boasts what may be the greatest performance of Donald Pleasance’s career.

The film is not for the faint of heart, and potential viewers beware: the kangaroo hunt is real.

Oscar Nominated Shorts: Documentary

by George Wolf

When I was a kid watching the Oscars, I remember always being perplexed by short film categories. How do people manage to see these shorts?

Good news, kids, it’s gotten much easier. Not only to we now have ShortsTV, but in the last several years, all the nominated shorts have been packaged by category for theatrical showings. And in the cases where the combined run times don’t reach feature length, some bonus shorts are added to the programs.

In this year’s Documentary group, you’ll find informative shorts that inspire, surprise and delight.

Island In Between 20 Mins. Director: S. Leo Chiang Taiwan

Taiwanese-American filmmaker S. Leo Chiang calls this his ”op-doc,” as he reflects on a ”three way custody battle” that continues to define him.

The triangle of influence is made up of the U.S., China and the small island of Kinmen, where Chiang’s parents still live. Kinmen is a Taiwanese island only 10km from mainland China, a small piece of land sitting literally and figuratively between vastly different worlds.

It’s often wise to funnel complex ideas through smaller, more intimate perspectives, and Chaing does that effectively here. In documenting his own journey to self-identification, Island In Between becomes an enlightening window into a slice of world history that continues to breed tension.

No trailer available

Nai Nai & Wài Pó 17 mins. Director: Sean Wang United States

In a bad mood? Give this one 17 minutes and it will be gone like a fart in the wind.

Probably one of Wai Po’s farts.

Nai Nai & Wai Po are the paternal and maternal grandmothers of filmmaker Sean Wang. They live together in China, and are happy that their grandson is visiting to make them ”movie stars!”

Wang fills each frame with love and appreciation, allowing each woman to look back, to talk about how they see life and death, and to get gloriously silly.

It’s a wonderful love letter to family that will bring a warm smile to your heart, and make you want to call your Mom or Grandma.

The ABCs of Book Banning 27 Mins. Directors: Trish Adlesic, Nazenet Habtezghi, Sheila Nevins United States

The film quickly gets you up to date on some sobering facts: approximately 2,000 books have been removed from U.S. school districts after being restricted, challenged or banned.

Then, the directors let a group of 8, 9 and 10 year-olds sound ff on these decisions. These kids are smart and thirst for knowledge, and their wonderfully simplistic assessments expose the ridiculous objections to many of these books.

“You’re stealing knowledge.”

“I like to learn.”

“Something’s not clicking in your brain.”

And, after being told that a book having same sex parents is objectionable: ”Why? It’s not like they turned into a werewolf!”

The clear objective here to give voice to those who don’t often get to weigh in on an issue that directly concerns them. But to rest its case, the film spotlights a 100 year-old woman’s impassioned speech to a local school board debating banned books.

Neither age group has much use for BS. Well done.

The Barber of Little Rock 35 mins. Directors: John Hoffman Christine Turner United States

Get to know Arlo Washington.

A Little Rock barber and small business owner, Arlo’s commitment to confronting the racial wealth gap led to his forming the People’s Trust bank in 2008, a Community Development Financial Institution specially designed to combat the economic segregation of his community.

I.e. ”banking while Black.”

You feel inspired just spending time with Arlo, and smarter for the way he and the film break down the ways CDFI’s can make truly impactful differences in both lives and communities.

Arlo’s work provides freedom, which is precisely why a friend advises him to watch his back. The film lets you understand why the friend’s words are well taken, even as you’re hoping Arlo’s work is just getting started.

The Last Repair Shop 39 mins. Directors: Kris Bowers, Ben Proudfoot United States

The team behind the 2020 Oscar nominee A Concerto Is a Conversation returns to spotlight the people inside a musical instrument repair shop, and the students whose lives they are touching.

Since 1959, the L.A. school district has been providing free instrument repair for its music students. It is one of the last U.S. districts to still offer this service, and the film shows us the joy the practice can bring to the kids, while it profiles the unique circumstances that brought four expert craftspeople to the same repair shop.

It’s a captivating and warm approach to illustrating this one degree of separation between generations, and reminding us of the enrichment possible through music education.

Oscar Nominated Shorts: Live Action

by George Wolf

When I was a kid watching the Oscars, I remember always being perplexed by short film categories. How do people manage to see these shorts?

Good news, kids, it’s gotten much easier. Not only do we now have ShortsTV, but in the last several years, all the nominated shorts have been packaged by category for theatrical showings. And in the cases where the combined run times don’t reach feature length, some bonus shorts are added to the programs.

In this year’s Live Action group, we get four tear-jerkers, two big plot twists and one Wes Anderson cavalcade of whimsy. Enjoy.

Invincible 30 Mins. Writer/director: Vincent René-Lortie Canada

Based on the last 48 hours in the life of Marc-Antoine Bernier, a 14 year-old boy struggling with incarceration in a youth centre, Invincible finds humanity amid heartbreak.

Young Léokim Beaumier-Lépine gives a terrific performance as Marc, whose continued outbursts have put his weekend visits home at risk. Marc has shown himself to be both smart and talented, but has not responded well to his confinement. The situation is also beginning to take a toll on his younger sister, Justine (Élia St-Pierre).

René-Lortie brings an artful touch of grace to this tragic story, allowing a troubled spirit to soar toward freedom.

Knight of Fortune 25 mins. Writer/director: Lasse Lyskjær Noer Denmark

Karl (Leif Andrée) has come to the morgue for a last look at his beloved wife. He’s told to be prepared for the changes in her appearance, but he can’t quite bring himself to open the coffin and accept that she is gone.

In the restroom, Karl meets Torben (Jens Jørn Spottag), another grieving widower who would like Karl to accompany him to the room with his own late wife’s coffin, and help him say goodbye.

The men’s quick bond is bittersweet and warmly funny. And when Karl learns some surprising facts about Torben, the film becomes a wonderfully touching message about love, loss, and what it takes to keep moving forward.

No trailer available

Red, White and Blue 23 mins. Writer/director: Nazrin Choudhury United State

Brittany Show stars as Rachel, a struggling single parent in Arkansas who is suddenly faced with an unwanted pregnancy. She’s forced to cross state lines for the care she seeks, and Rachel’s choices seem fairly clear cut.

Until they’re not.

Choudhury, a veteran TV writer directing her first film, drops a major twist that changes everything we thought we knew about Rachel. Yes, what follows comes on pretty strong, but Choudbury isn’t interested in whispering, and there’s an urgency in Red, White and Blue that can’t be denied.

The After 19 mins. Writers: Misan Harriman and John Julius Schwabach Director: Misan Harriman United Kingdom

The first of two Netflix films in this group, The After finds Dayo (David Oyelowo in fine form as always) struggling to accept unspeakable tragedy.

Sleepwalking though what’s left of his life, Dayo takes a job as a ride share driver. The lack of personal interaction seems perfect for Dayo’s desire to withdraw, until a certain passenger forces him to confront the past.

The film is not subtle, but Oyelowo’s turn is deeply affecting, allowing The After to speak clearly through the tears.

The Wonderful Life of Henry Sugar 37mins. Writer/director: Wes Anderson. U.K./U.S.A.

One of three short films Wes Anderson produced for Netflix last year, Henry Sugar unfolds like a delightful pop-up book being presented to us by a breathlessly enthusiastic troupe.

Benedict Cumberbatch, Dev Patel, Ralph Fiennes and Sir Ben Kingsley lead a stellar ensemble that thrives inside Anderson’s trademark world of unmistakable color, framing and pace.

You could say the film is about a man who learns to see through objects with help from a stolen book, but that would be doing a disservice to the engaging ways the entire tale evolves. Wonderful indeed.

Willie or Won’t She?

Willie and Me

by George Wolf

Greta is a young girl in Germany who loves her some Wille Nelson. Her unstable mother does not agree.

“Turn it off or I’ll punch you in the face!” Not a lot of gray area there.

But her devotion to the Red Headed Stranger endures into adulthood, when Greta (Eva Haßmann, who also writes and directs her first feature) feels compelled to travel to America and attend Willie’s “farewell” concert in Las Vegas.

So after selling the Porsche behind her husband’s back and setting their kitchen on fire (accidentally?), Greta just can’t wait to get on the road (again).

Flying first into L.A, Greta finds the city pretty welcoming, starting with the helpful hotel desk clerk who sails often on whiskey river (Peter Bogdanovich, in his final screen appearance). A local Elvis impersonator named Nick (Blaine Gray) also takes an interest in Greta’s welfare, stirring echoes of how an entire city instantly rolled over for Elizabeth Berkeley’s character in Showgirls.

But rather than serving up pretentious camp, Haßmann embraces the utter silliness of Greta’s quest. There are snake bites, blow up dolls, stolen cars, pre-teen con artists and more trying to derail Greta’s journey, but she just keeps plowing ahead with the certainty of the Blues Brothers’ “mission from God.”

It’s not really that funny, and the production values can be shaky, but there’s a quirky charm here, thanks mainly to a commitment from Haßmann that mirrors her character. She even writes and performs a song with Willie himself, who handles double duty with a cameo as a mysterious man in black.

It adds up to a madcap slice of Napoleon Dynamite-esque Americana that’s just as likely to leave you scratching your head as laughing out loud. There’s little chance Willie and Me will be always on your mind, but at just 87 minutes, it’s a whimsical tribute to an icon that won’t feel like a waste of time.

Rules Are Rules

The Teacher’s Lounge

by George Wolf

“What happens in the teacher’s lounge, stays in the teacher’s lounge.”

Mrs. (Carla) Nowak uses that line as a condescending quip to avoid some pointed questions from her students’ even as she’s starting to desperately wish it were true.

Carla (Leonie Benesch, fantastic) teaches 12-year-olds at a German grade school. Carla exchanges small talk with her fellow teachers, and doesn’t look away when she notices one who helps herself to what’s in the office coffee fund jar just minutes after Carla donated some change.

It’s a small but meaningful moment that writer/director Ilker Çatak uses to effectively illustrate Carla’s idealism, and to foreshadow her coming clash with reality.

The conflict begins to simmer when Carla witnesses two other teachers try to coerce some “good” students into naming who they think might be behind the recent rash of thefts at the school. Carla objects to the line of questioning, and reacts by using her wallet and laptop camera to set a trap and expose the guilty party.

What follows is a tense and utterly fascinating parable of accusation, distrust, paranoia and anger that has garnered an Oscar nomination for Best International Feature. Çatak crafts the school community as a Petri dish of contrasting agendas, one where teachers, students and parents fight for claims on the moral high ground.

Benesch is simply wonderful. Carla’s care for her students is never in doubt, but as the gravity of her situation begins to dawn on her, Benesch often only needs her wide eyes and tightened jawline to deliver Carla’s increasingly desperate mix of emotions.

As perspectives change, you may be reminded of Ruben Östlund’s insightful Force Majeure. But with The Teacher’s Lounge, Çatak moves the conversation to how the tribal nature of modern society can lead to separate realities, and how quickly those dug-in heels can be weaponized.

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