Tag Archives: Hope Madden

Nathan’s Inferno

Pandemonium

by Hope Madden

An awful lot of films are preoccupied with what, if anything, comes after death. Pandemonium, the latest feature from French filmmaker Quarxx, takes you there. No guessing.

Nathan (Hugo Dillon) is our journeyman. As the film opens, he picks himself up from the road—a treacherous hillside lane shrouded in fog. Nathan eyes his overturned vehicle and can’t believe his luck, but soon sees the cyclist (Arben Bajraktaraj) he knows is pinned under the wreckage. Except he’s not. He’s fine and standing on the same roadside.

Come to think of it, Nathan feels pretty good, too, considering.

In a lot of tales, we’d work out the details with Nathan until we all come to the obvious conclusion that Nathan didn’t survive that accident. But Quarxx wastes no time. He knows that you know, and quickly he complicates the scene with a third crash victim and two doors. One looks inviting, beautiful even. The other does not.

What’s fascinating about the entire film, and Dillon’s performance, is the polite if reluctant civility, the resigned obedience. Nathan begrudgingly does what he’s told rather than fighting in a narrative move that’s simultaneous cynical and polite.

Nathan’s story is essentially the wraparound tale of an anthology. Early circles of Nathan’s hell involve witnessing the sins of others by way of two separate short horror films. The first, starring a psychotic little princess named Nina (Manon Maindivide, brilliant), is the highlight of Pandemonium. Told with macabre whimsy and no mercy, it’s a welcome dash of color.

The second short within the tale is also solidly told and a bit more desperate. Again, Quarxx’s tone changes as a grieving mother loses her grasp on sanity.

And then, back to hell with Nathan in yet another dramatic tonal shift. Within the span of a barely 90 minutes, Quarxx explores a number of wildly different horror styles, each pretty effectively. The final act is the weakest, and though it has merit as its own short, as a closing chapter for the feature it leaves a bit to be desired. 

But Quarxx is bound to hit on at least one tale that will appeal to every horror fan. It’s not a seamless approach, but it’s never less than compelling.

On the Road Again

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

From the dust and the waste of the Mad Max Saga has sprung many a fascinating supporting player: The Humungus, Auntie Entity, Immortan Joe. Only one commands an origin story. That look. That arm. That name: Furiosa!

George Miller follows up his epic action masterpiece Fury Road with a look at what made our girl tick, what turns of event turned her into the baddest of all badasses.

Writing again with Nick Lathouris, who co-write Fury Road, Miller invests more time in plotting than usual, creating a 15-year odyssey rather than a breathless and breakneck few day adventure.

Young Furiosa (Alyla Browne, Sting) is taken from the storied Green Place by scavengers, eventually landing in the care of vainglorious leader of the marauders, Dr. Dementus (Chris Hemsworth, creating a fascinating mix of loquacious pretension, reckless machismo and prosthetic nose). It’s the first stop of many on the savvy, silent one’s wearying journey toward fulfilling the two promises: the one she made her mother to return, and the sacred oath all in the Green Place make to keep the location forever secret.

Years pass, and Anya-Taylor Joy straps on the arm and the attitude for this prequel, her arc a suitable evolution from scrappy kid to determined adult to the undeniable warrior Charlize Theron perfected in the last go-round.

Miller remains as true to his vision of the wasteland as he was back in ’79’s original Mad Max, but there is a depth to the storytelling here that sets it apart. We’ve had four films to see what turned Max Rockatansky mad, made him what he is. Now Miller lays out a single story that serves as both a thrilling prelude to Fury Road and a rich origin story in its own right.

Plot does not take a front seat to action, though, so strap in for more glorious road wars.

Again wielding his patented punch-in closeups like a heavy metal power chord, Miller keeps a palpable sense of frenzied motion. War rigs take to the barren terrain while all manner of air and ground assaults constantly threaten from every direction. Miller and cinematographer Simon Duggan craft a wonderfully rich visual playground, while Fury Road editors Eliot Knapman and Margaret Sixel (Miller’s wife) return to make sure this trip feels equally immersive.

The very nature of this installment’s origin story removes the chance for the kind of singular narrative mission that helped elevate Fury Road to all-time great action heights. But anyone who took that ride knew there had to be a helluva story behind that buzz cut and metal arm.

There is, and Furiosa brings it right up to where the last journey began, in an often spectacular fashion that demands nothing less than the big screen.

What’s Up, Doc?

Sight

by Hope Madden

Sight, the latest inspirational film from director/co-writer Andrew Hyatt (Paul, The Apostle of Christ; All Those Small Things), leads by example rather than preaching to the choir. It’s still a mishmash of a result, but it is a step in a better direction.

Terry Chen plays Dr. Ming Wang, a real-life eye surgeon whose foundation restores sight to many without the financial means to cover the surgery themselves. But Sight tells the story that leads to this philanthropic action.

The film opens on a press conference. Dr. Wang has just performed another breakthrough surgery, but his humility and stoicism keep him from enjoying the moment. This perplexes his wizened and good-natured colleague, Dr. Misha Bartnovsky (Greg Kinnear).

Kinnear spends the next hour and forty minutes with a perpetual half smirk, half grimace as he nudges Dr. Wang toward a little satisfaction, a little happiness. Maybe a date.

Most of that running time is actually spent with young Ming Wang (Ben Wang), who grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution with a passion to become a doctor. But when those in power start burning books, you know nothing good can come of it. His life becomes a nightmare that still haunts the adult doctor. Maybe if he can save one little girl, it will all be worth it?

That’s the core crisis in Sight, and it feels pretty forced, pretty made-for-TV, as does most of the film. There’s a great deal of exposition, loads of characters, endless flashbacks, all of it skimming the surface of the story. Every character has one note: benevolent, anguished, optimistic, supportive, or evil. No one gets to be human.

Hyatt’s approach is safe, his film superficial and earnest. And though the plot takes an unexpected turn—because life took an unexpected turn for Dr. Wang and his patient—Hyatt seems desperate to tidy up, to make the narrative fit the expected framework rather than embracing its messiness.

Dr. Wang has no doubt led a remarkable and inspirational life, and anyone who’s contributed this much good to the world deserves to be appreciated. Sight does that. It does far less as a film—as a stand-alone piece of art with depth and honesty. But it’s nice and it tells a nice, safe story.

Hot Mamas

Babes

by Hope Madden

Bobby Hill makes a movie. I think we always knew he was a feminist.

Director Pamela Adlon, longtime actor and brilliant voice actor (winning an Emmy for her work on King of the Hill), helms her first feature with Babes, the tale of two of lifelong best friends grappling with the sloppy tensions motherhood can put on a friendship.

Adlon works with a script by co-star Ilana Glazer and Josh Rabinowitz, who wrote together on Glazer’s breakout sitcom Broad City, so you can guess what to expect: raunchy hilarity based in shameless womanhood.

Yes, please.

This is Glazer’s sweet spot. She’s plays Eden, whose free spirit is met with increasingly harried laughs by Michelle Buteau (Survival of the Thickest). Buteau’s Dawn has just given birth to her second child and realizes that it only gets harder. Everything. All things. Harder.

Just when Dawn could use her delightfully odd bestie’s help, Eden finds herself pregnant, quickly becoming just another bottomless source of need.

Applause to Babes for doing more than checking off boxes: premise, catalyst, etc. Dawn’s pregnancy mishap is actually among the most endearing plot points in a surprisingly lovely, if deeply gross, film.

The raucous irresponsibility that fueled Broad City enlivens Babes as well, but there’s more to this story than body fluids and lady parts. Glazer and Buteau share a charming, lived-in chemistry that enriches their sharp comic timing and riotous delivery.

They’re not alone. Delightful supporting turns from Hasan Minhaj, Stephen James and John Carroll Lynch add depth to situations, developing dimensional characters we become invested in.

Childhood best friendship rarely really survives adulthood. Babes wonders whether it can, with the right mix of forgiveness and need, distance and support, breast milk and feces. Glazer’s irreverent humor loses none of its edge, but there’s now more depth and humanity. The laughs come early and often, but Babes delivers a lot of heart as well.

Schoolhouse Rock

House of Screaming Glass

by Hope Madden

A descent into madness when the protagonist is probably already mad makes for a very short trip and not a particularly dramatic arc, but director David R. Williams gives it a go with his latest indie, House of Screaming Glass (which is a great title).

Elizabeth Cadozia (Lani Call) has inherited the old schoolhouse her grandmother has used as a home. It came to Elizabeth on her 27th birthday, upon the death of her mother. We don’t know what happened to Elizabeth’s mother, or anything Elizabeth chooses not to share with us directly. The only dialog in the film is done in voice over, Elizabeth telling us pieces of her story, and she does not seem like the most reliable narrator.

Call, in essentially a one-person show, really is mesmerizing. But she has an awful lot on her shoulders and Williams’s direction is not always on her side.

Having a camera trained on  your face as you wordlessly morph from dreamy apathy to dread to horror to tears and back again tests an actor, and Call passes beautifully. It’s the kind of scene that could easily become the watershed moment in any film, horror in particular. In keeping with Williams’s “more is more” direction throughout, Call is put through this about six times during the film’s hour and 45-minute run time.

This is symptomatic of a frustrating lack of focus that mires the entire effort in unfocused, self-indulgent tedium. This is especially disappointing because Call’s performance is genuinely arresting, and because Williams drops a good number of seriously startling, impressive images of horror throughout the film.

A sort of marriage between Lovecraft and Judeo-Christian hauntings, House of Screaming Glass succeeds when it unveils gooey shocks of body horror and practical monster effects. Call’s awkwardly sensuous turn amplifies the horror, but the imagery either gets lost in the unfocused narrative, or the scene in question goes on for such an unnecessary length that you lose interest.

House of Screaming Glass could have been a memorable hypnotic fever dream had Williams pruned at least 30 minutes. It’s still worth watching—Call’s performance, Stephen Rosenthal’s cinematography and many of Williams’s nightmarish visuals are transfixing.

Screening Room: IF, Back to Black, The Strangers: Chapter 1, I Saw the TV Glow, Evil Does Not Exist & More

Knock Knock Joke

The Strangers: Chapter 1

by Hope Madden

Reny Harlin’s best film is The Long Kiss Goodnight, though some would argue Die Hard 2. Niether one of these is great. Good, yes. Definitely. Not great.

He’s made 42 other features—42!—not one of which is good. A couple are decent. A lot of people think he disappeared, talk about his work with The Strangers origin story trilogy as some kind of grand reemergence, but he’s never gone away. It’s just that the movies he’s made for the last thirtyish years have been entirely forgettable.

So anyway, The Strangers: Chapter 1.

Chapter 1 is actually the third installment in the tale of masked marauders randomly hunting anybody who’s home when they come calling. Bryan Bertino’s 2008 original is among the scariest horror films of the new millennium. It took ten  years for somebody to decide it needed a sequel. It didn’t.

But that’s the problem with a franchise, isn’t it? You can’t replicate the genuine terror of a truly original horror film, you can only hope to replicate it. This is what Harlin, with writing partners Alan R. Coen and Alan Freedland—both comedy writers known for King of the Hill and other sitcoms—attempts. Chapter 1 hits all the same beats—all of them—as Bertino’s original. The only real difference is that he abandons every move that made the original original.

Gone is the complicated relationship, emotional gut punches, chilling lines and good music. The vinyl collection in this backwoods Airbnb is terrible.

Maya (Madelaine Petsch) and Ryan (Froy Gutierrez) stop at an off-the-grid diner on their road trip from NYC to Portland, Oregon. Unexpected car trouble lands them in a rustic cabin overnight, which seems ideal until someone comes knocking looking for Tamara.

There’s a Richard Brake sighting, which is never a bad thing, but blink and you’ll miss him. Gutierrez and Petsch are fine. They’re asked more to pose and look nice than anything, but they do emit a lovable chemistry that makes you sorry for what you know is in store.

And though you certainly know where things are heading (partly because Harlin mimics Bertino’s original so early and often), individual set pieces ratchet up a certain amount of tension. It looks nice. Is it the gorgeous vintage horror aesthetic of Bertino’s original? It is not. But it’s a good looking movie.

So, if you have not seen the 2008 treasure that grounds this franchise, then Harlin’s Chapter 1 is sure to please. It’s an extremely conventional, competent horror movie. As if that’s enough.

Wanted: Friends with More Imagination

IF

by Hope Madden

Filmmaker John Krasinski—whose directorial output thus far has aimed at terrifying audiences soundless—turns his attention to something that’s never been scary in a movie: imaginary friends.

No, actually, except for the rare exception, every film about imaginary friends is horrifying. But Krasinski’s channeling Harvey, not Donnie Darko with his family friendly IF.

IF for Imaginary Friend, harmless beasties that are running rampant near Coney Island. You see, kids grow up and just forget all about their old, reliable imaginary friends. Once that happens, the IFs lose their purpose.

Bea (Cailey Fleming) is staying nearby with her grandmother (Fiona Shaw) while her dad’s (Krasinski) in the hospital. She keeps running into these IFs and decides to help their grumpy (if handsome) handler (Ryan Reynolds) find them new homes.

The whole affair has a throwback quality to it, which suits its unabashedly sentimental attitude about childhood and imagination. The existential crisis recalls Toy Story films, but Krasinski is more concerned with the humans in his tale.

Fleming does a fine job as the 12-year-old who’s decided she’s all grown up, and a dialed down Reynolds is sweet enough. The film boasts an assortment of vocal talent for the various IFs: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Steve Carell, Louis Gossett, Jr., Amy Shumer, Maya Rudolph, George Clooney, Jon Stewart, Sam Rockwell, Richard Jenkins, Blake Lively, Bradley Cooper, Matt Damon, Keegan-Michael Key, Bill Hader and Emily Blunt (wonder how he got her).

What IF lacks is a wild imagination. Everything is so very tame. The wholesomeness blunts any edges of the grief and fear at the heart of Bea’s story. And Krasinski’s story takes any number of turns without really deciding on a direction.

Krasinski’s movie looks good, but the tale he’s telling wanders in a lot of unfinished direction and leaves you with nothing to really remember.

Put On a Happy Face

Faceless After Dark

by Hope Madden

Back in 2016, Jenna Kanell made a horror movie, a low budget affair, the unofficial sequel to a very minor indie nearly no one saw. By that point in her career, Kanell had made half dozen or more low budget indie features, done loads of TV,  shorts, and a few music videos. In all likelihood, Terrifier didn’t register at the time as anything other than one more microbudget horror flick.

But that is not what Terrifier turned out to be, is it? The little clown killer that could undoubtedly changed Kanell’s career, perhaps not in all the ways the actor/writer/director/stunt performer might have wanted it to. What’s a not-final girl to do?

Kanell channeled the experience into the new feature, Faceless After Dark, which she co-wrote with Todd Jacobs. Directed by Raymond Wood, the film follows a disgruntled struggling actress named Bowie (Kanell) who pays more bills selling autographs at horror cons than through actual acting gigs—but the clown from her hit movie earns more.

Plus, her more famous girlfriend is still closeted about the relationship, and her longtime best friend’s film got greenlit—as long as he gives the lead to a different actress.

And, of course, you have the creepy fans.

It all gets to be too much one night, until Bowie taps into her own creativity and becomes the artist she was meant to be.

Meta can get very tiresome, especially in horror, but there’s something wearily honest about its application in Faceless After Dark. At its best, the film is a reflection of the maddening obstacles facing people—women, specifically—trying to survive Hollywood.

Kanell delivers a commanding performance and the writing is sound, even if the plotting is a little obvious and superficial and the psychotic break feels unearned. But as a showcase for Kanell’s charisma, and an often satisfying reaction to the rampant misogyny in cinema and particularly in fan culture, it’s fun.