Tag Archives: MaddWolf

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

Practical Magic

Marvelous and the Black Hole

by Hope Madden

Anybody who remembers Cheers knows Rhea Perlman can be tough as nails. But a magician hoping to befriend an angry adolescent? Well, that’s just masochism.

Still, that is the plot of Kate Tsang’s Marvelous and the Black Hole. Sullen Sammy (Miya Cech) is in trouble again. Her widowed father (Leonardo Nam) doesn’t know what to do with her, but the vandalism and angry outbursts — especially toward his new love, Marianne (Paulina Lule) — have got to stop.

The ultimatum: get an A in a summer course at community college or go to a religious boot camp.

But the course on entrepreneurship is lame and the teacher’s a moron so Sammy hits the bathrooms for a smoke. There she runs afoul of Perlman’s Margot, on campus to entertain a preschool. Margot sees something of herself in Sammy. Slowly, reluctantly, they pull friendship out of a hat.

Tsang’s got a history with whimsy, which certainly informs her feature debut. Animation, fantasy and magic spill together in sometimes inspired, sometimes ill-fitting ways to highlight Sammy’s tumultuous coming of age.

There’s an interesting clash of visual styles, but beneath that is a uniformly predictable story. Situations and characters are too broadly drawn, but just when you’re tempted to give up on the film, Tsang and gang hit a note of authenticity that pulls you back in. That’s particularly true with the way the film deals with grief.

What elevates Tsang’s tale no matter the scene is Cech’s performance. She anchors the story with a believably angry girl trapped between the tantrums of childhood and the self-destruction of adolescence. The performance feels authentic rather than angsty and it elevates even the weakest scenes.

Perlman’s a charmer as the lonely mentor and she and Cech share a sweet chemistry. The film boasts some laughs and some cringes, but uneven as it gets, Cech delivers.

From the Land of the Ice and Snow

The Northman

by Hope Madden

Robert Eggers releases his third feature this week, a Viking adventure on an epic scale called The Northman.

You had me at Robert Eggers.

On display once again are the filmmaker’s aesthetic instincts, his mastery of framing, and his ability to squeeze every ounce of brutal beauty from a scene. This film is gorgeous, simultaneously broadcasting the wonder and unconquerable ruggedness of its Nordic land and seascapes.

There are also familiar faces. Anya-Taylor Joy plays Olga, a spoil of war too cunning to remain long in bonds. She’s joined in smaller roles by Eggers favorites Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, and Willem Dafoe as a wizened court jester.

Now, if you’re not a fan of the director’s two previous features, 2015’s The Witch and 2019’s The Lighthouse, that does not necessarily predict your feelings about his latest effort. Eggers is working in a different genre with a different, far larger cast and scope this time around.

Alexander Skarsgård is the film’s titular hero; Claes Bang, his uncle and foe.

What you have is a classic vengeance tale: prince witnesses royal betrayal and the murder of his father. He loses his mother and his crown and vows revenge. You’ve seen the trailer.

I will avenge you, father.

I will save you, mother.

I will kill you, Fjolnir.

Skarsgård is cut to play a Viking. His performance is primarily physical: blind rage looking for an outlet. He’s believably vicious, bloodthirsty, single-minded and, when necessary, vulnerable. The entire cast around him is equally convincing.

Nicole Kidman – who played Skarsgård’s wife in the HBO series Big Little Lies, graduates to mother here, while Ethan Hawke plays his father, King Aurvandil War-Raven.

That’s a good name.

Oh, plus Bjork because Iceland. In fact, Egger’s co-writer here, beloved Icelandic novelist and screenwriter Sjón, penned not only last year’s gorgeous folk horror The Lamb, but also Bjork’s early work with Lars von Trier, Dancer in the Dark.

Classic is exactly how The Northman feels. The story is gritty and grand, the action brutal and the storytelling majestic. As is the case with Eggers, expect a fair amount of the supernatural and surreal to seep in here and there, but not enough to outweigh the meticulously crafted period realism.

Platinum Status

Stanleyville

by George Wolf

Every once in a while, a film comes along that has no hope of fitting inside those “every once in a while” constraints.

Because if you’re looking to sum up Stanleyville in such generic terms, good luck to you.

It’s a weird movie. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

In his feature debut, director and co-writer Maxwell McCabe-Lokos serves up an offbeat comedy that is equal parts exaggerated and restrained, one that’s anchored by the quiet existential dread of Maria (Susanne Wuest from Goodnight Mommy).

Startled by a hawk flying into her office window – and the lack of a reaction from her co-worker – Maria walks off away from her job, her family and the few material things she’s carrying with her. Slumped and staring blankly ahead from a massage chair at the local mall, Maria’s approached by older gentleman in an ill-fitting suit. Oh, and his name is Homunculus (Julian Richings).

What’s this? Maria’s been chosen from among “hundred of millions of candidates” to compete in a contest. And not just any contest, a “platinum level exclusive contest!”

The prize: a brand new habanero-orange compact SUV.

Maria’s in, and she reports for duty to find four other contestants (with names like Bofill Pancreas and Manny Jumpcannon) ready to battle for that sweet habanero ride. As Homunculus explains the ten rounds of competition (“Uh, there’s only eight up there.”), check that – eight rounds of competition, contrasts are drawn between Maria and her opponents.

She’s up against a hedge fund d-bag, a muscle bound jock, the fame whore and the badass bitch. McCabe-Lokos fits all four into clearly purposeful stereotypes, while Maria is reserved and harder to read.

The eight rounds are bizarre and abstract, with the microcosm of society breaking down along familiar lines as desperation grows to get the grand prize, along with the validation of conquering “the very essence of mind-body articulation.”

The brand of satire is indeed fascinating and ambitious, it’s just never more than dryly clever. Even at barely 90 minutes, a sense of drag seeps into the film, and though McCabe-Lokos shows definite promise for the future, Stanleyville hits the final bell more of a curiosity than a champion.

Ch-ch-ch-ch Changes

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair

by Brandon Thomas

It’s hard to imagine any filmmaker creating something exciting and fresh inside of the found footage subgenre in the year 2022. Since The Blair Witch Project burst onto the scene over 20 years ago, found footage has touched on haunted houses, monster invasions and even alien abductions. Honestly, if you name it, there’s probably been a found footage movie made about it. In We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, director Jane Schoenbrun dials back the visual trickery, and instead crafts something much more intimate, yet equally terrifying.

Anna Cobb is Casey, an isolated teen who has become obsessed with an online role-playing horror game. Dividing her time between her attic bedroom, the detached garage on her property, and the nearby woods, Casey begins to document what she thinks are changes to her body and mind due to the game. 

Schoenbrun allows many scenes to play out in long, uninterrupted takes. Whether it’s Casey talking to the camera, or a static shot of her sleeping, this approach wrings the tension out of even the most mundane. We’re always waiting for something to happen. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. The not-knowing is the worst.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair also cleverly plays with form. Schoenbrun isn’t afraid to leave found footage behind and take a more traditional narrative approach. The filmmaker still expertly keeps the movie tapped into the immense isolation Casey and her online friend JLB (Michael J. Rogers) feel. Outside of other online testimonials, Casey and JLB are the only two characters we clearly see in the entire film.

There’s always the question of whether what’s happening to Casey is real or just a byproduct of internet obsession. It’s easy to point to this young character and say, “See! Teens are soooo addicted to the internet,” yet, the film wisely juxtaposes Casey with JLB and his equally monotonous existence. The film leaves so many tantalizing questions dangling, but any answers offered up would never satisfy the ones in our head.

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair plays with theme and character much more than it does with on-screen carnage. However, it doesn’t take shadows dancing in the corner of the frame to create chills and thrills.

Dark Night

Surviving Theater 9

by Rachel Willis

Tim McGrath survived the shooting at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. He shares his story in the docudrama, Surviving Theater 9.

McGrath not only wrote and directed but also plays himself in a film that focuses on what transpired before and after the event. Keeping his runtime to a brisk 49 minutes, McGrath narrows his focus to three survivors: himself, a teenager who went to the screening with his brother, and a woman whose brother was killed in the shooting.

The most affecting moments are the scenes that focus on what happens after. Some of it is appalling to consider: a neighbor who accuses a woman of exploiting her brother’s death; a law school committee that listens heartlessly as a student tries to appeal their decision to suspend him; a teacher who doesn’t understand her student just needs a moment alone.

Though the Before moments want to give the audience a chance to get to know these three, perhaps the shortness of the film’s runtime is to blame for the lack of depth. Surviving Theater 9 might have been more poignant if the survivors had been allowed to speak for themselves in a documentary, but you can see that this story might be easier to tell through another person’s point of view.

McGrath might have been wiser to restrict the timeline to a chronological retelling. Instead, he skips from After to Before and back again, creating gaps in the timeline. You’re left wondering about the fate of a cousin who accompanied McGrath to the theater, because it’s hard to recall if he appears in the After sections or only the Before sections.

McGrath’s goals are understandable, but flaws in the filmmaking detract from the experience.

Wisely, McGrath does not focus on the shooting itself. We’re given only minor moments of the chaos and terror that happened inside theater 9 because this isn’t the shooter’s story. Nor is it the story of the event. It’s about the survivors and the story they need to tell.

Influencer Pay

Follower

by Tori Hanes

It’s a classic setup: three girls, an annual camping trip, a sadistic killer. Reminiscent of an 80’s horror flick, the antagonistic stalker is set on making girls pay for the crime of being female. With the added stomach-turning twist of the dark web community, director James Rich’s Follower establishes itself within the modern-day horror genre. 

Early in the film, the promise of an interactive experience is teased. Subsequently, within the first scenes, the audience is prompted to follow “Heather’s” real Instagram page. While a fun moment, it can only be defined as that- a moment. 

The interactive portion is forgotten until midway through, when the audience is encouraged to follow the killer’s page. With that, the interactive portion is complete. Ultimately, there was a heightened expectation for interactivity to be a prevalent part of the narrative fabric. The inclusion of the Instagrams with no correlation to the plot, though interesting in theory, was a disappointment in practice.

In a genre plagued by inauthentic and uneven performances, this indie horror shows shimmers of talent- specifically in leading ladies Revell Carpenter and Molly Leach. While it did take the characters a moment to ground themselves, once they achieved steadiness a natural buoyancy emerged. 

Even with these breakthrough examples, many performances left something to be desired.  It’s not uncommon to see actors derailed by the unevenness of their co-stars. Carpenter and Leach never fell victim to this – just the opposite. Whether subconscious or intended, they heightened their performances in response.

The film prides itself on women taking back the narrative from patriarchal horror films of the past. Whenever watching films that put the onus on the victims to reclaim their power, there is always the underlying hope that vengeance will somehow be inflicted tenfold. 

This is not only to claim revenge for the protagonists but justice for every bikini-clad teen who wasn’t given a chance in your favorite slasher flick. Follower fell short in this regard, not quite able to break the skin of what makes female vengeance so unique and deserved. 

Though set with a postmodern twist, Follower feels like a relic of horror movies past.