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If You Noé You Know

Lux Æterna

by George Wolf

For anyone who’s still wary of the Gaspar Noé sensory assault in full feature length form, Lux Æterna offers a slight variation.

Oh, he’s still beating us about the face and neck with psychedelic imaging, pulsating rhythms and immersive colors, he’s just keeping it to under an hour this time. And, even bringing along a dare-I-say lighthearted touch to this meta mashup of cinema and witchcraft.

Most everyone here is playing themselves, starting right at the top with Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg talking shop. They swap stories, laugh heartily at their “shit films” and eventually get down to the business of making “God’s Work,” a post-modern tale of witches.

Dalle is directing, Gainsbourg is starring, and once on set, the laughter gives way to a cascade of madness and hysterics, rendered even more disorienting by Noé’s consistent use of split screen formatics. Not only is following both sides often challenging, but anyone sensitive to flashing lights might well be overwhelmed.

The “God’s Work” producer is hatching a plan to get Dalle fired from the project. Gainsbourg is juggling trouble at home and unsolicited pitches from an aspiring director (Karl Glusman from Noé’s Love), while her female co-stars (including Abbey Lee and Clara Deshayes) face a string of indignities.

Noé intersperses it all with clips and quotes from films and filmmakers he admires, and when a lighting miscue becomes a flashpoint for total chaos on the production, Noé’s embrace of the breakdown is clear.

This is where his art thrives, and Lux Æterna finds Noé nearly winking at his own reputation. Longtime aficionados may feel a bit slighted, but any neophytes will get a healthy appetizer to help decide if you’re up for bigger portions.

Gods and Monsters

Men

by Hope Madden

Alex Garland bats 1.000 with his third feature, Men, a terrifying look at the complicated aftermath of trauma.

Jessie Buckley (flawless, as always) plays Harper, a woman in need of some time alone. She rents a gorgeous English manor from proper country gentleman Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear) and plans to recuperate from, well, a lot.

Garland unveils Harper’s backstory little by little, each time slightly altering our perception of the film. The more about Harper we learn, the more village folk we meet: vicar, surly teen, pub owner, police officer, and a naked man in the woods. Each is played by Kinnear—or by actors sporting Kinnear’s CGI face—although Harper never mentions this, or even seems to notice.

Is she seeing what we’re seeing?

All is left open to interpretation. An easy read, given Kinnear’s multiple roles, is simply that all men are the same. And while each of Kinnear’s characters represents a specific and common type of male threat, as bizarre reality begins tipping further into outright fantasy, it seems likelier we are seeing more of Harper than we are of men in general. She is putting a face—the same face—on a lifetime of traumas, large and small.

Garland’s bold visuals—so precise in Ex Machina, so surreal in Annihilation—create a sumptuous environment just bordering on overripe. The verdant greens and audacious reds cast a spell perfectly suited to the biblical and primal symbolism littering the picture.

Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s score meshes with Garland’s lush imagery, releasing a blend of music, ambient sound and, at its most eerily beautiful moments, Buckley’s voice. The result is powerful and unnerving.

Men is more of a head-scratcher than either of Garland’s previous films. Yes, even Annihilation. It’s far more of a horror film, for one thing, and far less of a clearly articulated narrative. Rather than clarifying or summing up, the film’s ending offers more questions than answers. But if you can make peace with ambiguity, Men is a film you will not likely forget.

Evil Strange

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

by Brandon Thomas

Welcome back, Sam Raimi. 

The madcap director of the Evil Dead series, Darkman and the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films, makes a triumphant return to the big screen with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has battled other sorcerers, alien threats and even villains from alternate realities. All of them pale in comparison to the dark entity chasing young America Chavez (Xochil Gomez) across dimensions. As Strange fights to protect the young girl, he finds that the line between good and evil can easily be blurred – and sometimes even compromised by the best of intentions. 

The jump in quality between the first Doctor Strange film and Multiverse of Madness is more of a leap than a step. The first film sets it up well enough, but like many of the Marvel origin stories, it takes a while to get to the good stuff. Raimi’s film has no such issues. Cumberbatch is more comfortable in the role now, having appeared in two Avengers films and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Despite having a packed to the gills story, there’s still a lot of meaty character work for Cumberbatch to latch onto. 

Speaking of the story, yes this is another Marvel film with lots of tie-in to movies that came before and movies that will come after. Like the more successful Marvel Cinematic Universe endeavors, Multiverse of Madness delicately threads the needle and never feels too chaotic or unfocused. Raimi fought that battle and lost once before with Spider-Man 3.

There are plenty of surprises in the film. The marketing team behind the trailers should be commended for spoiling next to nothing – not even the main villain. Surprises are a big selling point for these MCU movies, and Multiverse has plenty of them up its sleeve.

Multiverse of Madness is Raimi firing on all cylinders. The movie absolutely crackles with the filmmaker’s energy and signature style. I nearly jumped out of my seat in delight when a couple shots of doors slamming in dutch angles appeared on screen. Few directors attack action sequences with the inventiveness and fun that Raimi does. You can feel the director’s personal flourishes coming through in those scenes instead of pre-visualized dreck from VFX artists in Vancouver.  

The film also leans into horror. Like his skill with action, horror carnage is a specialty of Raimi’s. Witches, demons and undead sorcerers pop up, and Raimi delights in tossing them at Cumberbatch’s Strange. I doubt the director tortured Cumberbatch like his friend Bruce Campbell in the Evil Dead films but it is fun to speculate. 

By embracing the character’s more horror-centric roots, and letting director Sam Raimi cut loose, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness offers up one of the most exciting – and different – films in the MCU so far. 

Fright Club: Friend Groups in Horror

Spooky buddies! What’s what we’re talking about, that’s who we’re talking to.

5. The Ritual (2017)

David Bruckner has entertained us with some of the best shorts in horror today, including work from V/H/S, Southbound, and one of our favorites, The Signal. Directing his feature debut in The Ritual, Bruckner takes what feels familiar, roots it in genuine human emotion, takes a wild left turn and delivers the scares.

Five friends decide to mourn a tragedy with a trip together into the woods. Grief is a tricky, personal, often ugly process and as they work through their feelings, their frustration quickly turns to fear as they lose themselves in a foreign forest where danger lurks.

The film works for a number of reasons, but its greatest triumph is in making the woods scary again. That environment has become such a profound cliché in horror that it is almost impossible to make it feel fresh, but there is an authenticity to the performances, the interaction among the characters, and the frustration and fear that grounds the horror. And then there is horror—intriguing, startling, genuinely frightening horror. Yay!

4. The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

You know the drill: 5 college kids head into the woods for a wild weekend of doobage, cocktails and hookups but find, instead, dismemberment, terror and pain. You can probably already picture the kids, too: a couple of hottie Alphas, the nice girl, the guy she may or may not be into, and the comic relief tag along. In fact, if you tried, you could almost predict who gets picked off when.

But that’s just the point, of course. Making his directorial debut, Drew Goddard uses that preexisting knowledge to entertain holy hell out of you.

Cabin is not a spoof. It’s not a satire. It’s sort of a celebratory homage, but not entirely. What you get with this film is a very different kind of horror-comedy.

3. Tigers Are Not Afraid ( 2017)

Issa Lopez’s fable of children and war brandishes the same themes as Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, but grounds the magic with a rugged street style. One pack of feral children have only each other and their imaginations to keep them safe.

Tigers follows Estrella, a child studying fairy tales—or, she was until her school is temporarily closed due to the stray bullets that make it unsafe for students. As Estrella and her classmates hide beneath desks to avoid gunfire, her teacher hands her three broken pieces of chalk and tells her these are her three wishes.

But wishes never turn out the way you want them to.

2. The Descent (2005)

Adventuring buddies get together for a bit of spelunking. Writer/director Neil Marshall begins his film with an emotionally jolting shock, quickly followed by some awfully unsettling cave crawling and squeezing and generally hyperventilating, before turning dizzyingly panicky before snapping a bone right in two.

And then we find out there are monsters.

The grislier the film gets, the more primal the tone becomes, eventually taking on a tenor as much like a war movie as a horror film. This is not surprising from the director that unleashed Dog Soldiers – a gory, fun werewolf adventure. But Marshall’s second attempt is far scarier.
For full-on horror, this is one hell of a monster movie.

1. It Follows (2014)

It Follows is a coming-of-age tale that mines a primal terror. Moments after a sexual encounter with a new boyfriend, Jay discovers that she is cursed. 

As Jay’s close-knit crew does what they can to help her evade the shapeshifting horror that follows her, Mitchell captures that fleeting yet dragging moment between childhood and adulthood and gives the lurking dread of that time of life a powerful image. There is something that lies just beyond the innocence of youth. You feel it in every frame and begin to look out for it, walking toward you at a consistent pace, long before the characters have begun to check the periphery themselves.

Kissing to Be Clever

Crush

by George Wolf

Don’t worry, parents, the high schoolers in Hulu’s Crush don’t play Seven Minutes in Heaven anymore.

“That perpetuates a Christian narrative. We’re playing Seven Minutes in a Hotel Bathroom.”

Noted. So while the hormones here are as active as ever, the cage they’re raging in is awash in idealized hipness, as a trio of newbie filmmakers craft a feature debut full of genuine sweetness and winning humor.

Paige (Rowan Blanchard from TV’s Snowpiercer) is a Junior at Miller High, and being gay is the least of her drama right now. She’s struggling with the application to Cal Arts – her dream school – and she can’t find the courage to make a move on Gabby (Isabella Ferreira) – her dream girl.

That’s not all. Miller’s Ren Fest-loving principal (Michelle Buteau – a hoot) thinks Paige is behind the series of artful school vandalism murals signed by the mysterious “King Pun.” To avoid suspension, Paige agrees to become extracurricular active (Gabby runs track, so…) and work on outing the real vandal (king pun intended).

But just when it seems Gabby is interested, Paige can’t quit thinking about another track teammate (Auli’i Cravalho, voice of Moana) who never seemed like her type.

Until now.

Director Sammi Cohen invites us into an upper-middle-class teenage dream where kids are accepted and their choices are trusted. None of the stakes or the heartbreaks feel particularly dramatic, but the film itself finds resonance in being purposefully sanitized.

Screenwriters Kirsten King and Casey Rackham develop a nice groove that is self-aware without any awkward pandering to the teen audience. There are plenty of wink-winks to the formula they’re upending, and while the film is never as authentically sexual as last year’s Plan B, the occasional bawdy zinger does land.

Both Blanchard and Cravalho are irresistible charmers, with scene-stealing honors split between Megan Mullaly as Paige’s Mom (“Don’t take edibles before school, we talked about this”) and Aasif Mandvi as the track coach (“I know 60 percent of you are queer!”)

Wait, are Mom and Coach talking dirty to each other? OMGLOL!

Underneath all the horniness is a feel-good formula that may remind you of last year’s Oscar-winning CODA. But the emphasis in Crush showcases a high school world where the queer kids drive that formula. The film itself becomes a 90-minute safe space, where kids can just stress about their crushes instead of the reaction to whatever gender they may be crushing on.

Free as a Bird

The Aviary

by Hope Madden

The pandemic — as crushing and debilitating as it was for so many people — also showed us how resilient people could be. Nowhere is that clearer than with art and, in particular, filmmaking.

To continue to create, filmmakers had to get creative in ways they may not have in the past. They limited themselves to small casts, tight locations, small crews — nothing terribly new to low-budget indie filmmakers. Sometimes that sparked something excellent, like Roshan Sethi’s 7 Days.

But there’s no room for weakness when an audience’s attention is focused so narrowly. Here’s where Chris Cullardi and Jennifer Raite’s mindbender The Aviary comes up short.

Malin Akerman and Lorenza Izzo are two friends escaping Seth (Chris Messina) and Skylight, a cult in the New Mexican desert. Each woman comes at the journey and the decision to break from their confines a bit differently. As the escape grows more and more complicated and terrifying, those differences breed distrust.

Akerman’s solid if uninspired as the more rugged and world-wise Jillian, once a high-ranking member of the organization. She lured Blair (Izzo) into the fold and now feels responsible to get her safely away.

Izzo’s performance stands out a bit more, ranging from shellshock to paranoia to mania as the journey wears on.

At its high points, The Aviary becomes a potent allegory for toxic relationships. Messina is particularly effective, his take on the cult leader somehow more insidious for its sincerity and tenderness.

Cullari and Raite, who co-write and co-direct, don’t have anything especially fresh to say, though. Their writing is fine, never exceptional. Their ideas are solid enough, not innovative by any means. The direction works but never excites.

That obviously leads to a palatable if forgettable cinematic experience. Worse though, it draws attention to flaws because there’s not much else to focus on. The film’s twists feel lazy, illogical rather than surprising. The disappointing payoff turns a relatively bland journey into an unfortunate slog.

Reconnecting

Unplugging

by Rachel Willis

When his UPS delivery driver unexpectedly dies, Dan (Matt Walsh) decides it’s time he and his wife “unplug” and reconnect with each other.

With Unplugging, co-written by Walsh and Brad Morris, director Debra Neil-Fisher attempts to find humor in a couple so plugged-in that a weekend without cell service becomes a disastrous nightmare.

The premise of the movie is applicable to plenty of people. Who doesn’t know someone who’s practically married to their phone? In this case, that’s Dan’s wife, Jeanine (Eva Longoria). The demands of her office are such that she’s typing emails and sending Jib Jabs at 3 am.

Dan and Jeanine’s daughter is just as connected as Jeanine, but this is apparently not a problem. Dan’s tech-free weekend getaway is just for Mom and Dad. His daughter, still looking at her phone as she says goodbye to her parents, is left behind with her grandmother.

Walsh and Longoria are adept at comedy, but the script never gives them anything to work with. Gil (Keith David) runs the local place where the only thing worth eating is the enchiladas, but the spot is so dead that Dan and Jeanine are his only customers. At least, until Perkins (Lea Thompson) shows up.

Thompson and David also have a knack for comedy, but David is underutilized, and Thompson’s drone-tracking, government-conspiracy-spouting rural nut is too over-the-top to land any jokes. Neither character make a lot of sense in the grand scheme of things, except to criticize rural people as “out there.” Perkins’s pet raccoon Lulu only belabors this point.

The film is unclear about its message. Is tech a bad thing? Or is it okay in moderation? Does getting lost in the woods make you appreciate your tech more, or less? Will a person’s constant disconnection from the “real” world make them suspicious of their neighbors? Or are your neighbors worthy of your suspicion? (If they live in the country, the answer seems to be yes.)

Like its characters, Unplugging gets lost about halfway through and never finds its way back. That it’s light on the humor only makes it harder for those of us who unplugged to watch the movie to keep our hands off our phones.

Days of Future Past

Memoria

by Hope Madden

If you are in the mood for something decidedly different, let Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s meditative wonder Memoria beguile you. Or bewilder you. Or both.

You won’t be alone. Indeed, you’ll be much like Jessica (Tilda Swinton, perfect, of course). She’s awakened one dawn by a sound, a kind of “bong” that’s impossible to ignore. She assumes construction in a nearby building is to blame, but eventually, this sound follows her wherever she goes.

A desperate yet somewhat resigned curiosity drives Jessica to try to place the noise, or to identify its cause, whether natural or supernatural.

Her journey unfolds in gorgeously unconventional and profoundly cinematic fashion. Weerasethakul’s approach is simultaneously deliberate and dreamlike, and his tale rejects simplification or, indeed, proper summarization. It certainly avoids that comforting Hollywood structure, but Memoria offers a meticulous structure of its own, one that feels vague but supports the spell being cast.

The film becomes a mystery of sorts, but one that dredges up more questions than answers. On the filmmaker’s mind seems to be concepts of collective memory and isolation, sensory experience and existence.

Jessica’s travels through Colombia in search of answers becomes an entrancing odyssey. Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr’s sound design heightens the experience, almost becoming a second character in the way that the sound supports Swinton’s performance.

And what a performance. Quiet and precise as if always listening and careful not to disturb, Swinton once again disappears wholly into a role.

No fan of simple solutions to life’s puzzles, Weerasethakul still leaves the story with an enigmatic but astonishing resolution. The spell he and his lead cast while bringing you to those final moments offers an experience more surprising and unique than anything else you’ll find onscreen this year.

Screening Room: The Northman, Massive Talent, The Bad Guys & More