Tag Archives: MaddWolf

Sound + Vision

Moonage Daydream

by George Wolf

Longtime David Bowie fans know of his early fondness for the “cut up” method to writing songs – literally cutting up lines of written lyrics and then shifting them around in search of more enigmatic creations.

Director Brett Morgen takes a similar approach to telling Bowie’s story in Moonage Daydream, a completely intoxicating documentary that immerses you in the legendary artist’s iconic mystique and ambitious creative process.

Bowie’s estate gifted Morgen with the key to the archives, and the celebrated documentarian (The Kid Stays in the Picture, Jane, Cobain: Montage of Heck) pored through the thousands of hours of footage for moments that could stand on their own while serving a greater narrative. The result is a glorious explosion of sound and vision, revealing Morgen’s choice to trust himself as film editor was also a damn good one.

Anchored by atmospheric bookends that evoke Bowie’s image as the ethereal “man who fell to Earth,” Morgen unleashes a barrage of concert sequences, still photos and interviews clips, interspersed with bits of old movies, news reports and pop culture references. It’s a luscious and cinematic (especially in IMAX) mashup, and one that slowly unveils a subtle but purposeful roadmap.

The music is thrilling and visceral, of course, but the interview footage reveals Bowie to be tremendously inquisitive and philosophical. We see him as a truly gifted artist who felt satisfaction when he “worked well,” but apprehension with new projects (such as painting) that didn’t yet meet his standards.

At first, Morgen’s approach may seem scattershot, as he appears more concerned with blowing our minds than chronological purity. But what becomes clear is that Morgen’s commitment leans toward grouping slices of Bowie’s life that speak to who he was (i.e. juxtaposing a “Rock and Roll Suicide” performance from the 70s with comments about his “sellout” 80s period). And by the time Bowie’s looking back fondly on his first meeting with wife Iman, an appropriate and touching timeline has emerged.

Though the last years of Bowie’s life are skirted just a bit, Moonage Daydream is like no music biography that you’ve ever seen. It’s a risky, daring and defiant experience, which is exactly the kind of film David Bowie deserves. Expect two hours and fifteen minutes of head-spinning fascination, and a sense that you’ve gotten closer to one Starman than you ever felt possible.

Watching the Detectives

Confess, Fletch

by George Wolf

Casting Jon Hamm as the new Fletch seems like a bullseye. He has leading man charm, sharp comic timing and plenty of skill handling a one-liner.

Really, the only minus is that he might be too handsome. He doesn’t really seem like a hat guy, so that Lakers cap on his head in Confess, Fletch feels like a forced homage to the Chevy Chase original. But Hamm is wise enough to avoid imitating Chase outright, teaming with director/co-writer Greg Mottola for an Irwin M. Fletcher that’s closer to the star of Gregory McDonald’s source novels.

We catch up with Fletch as he’s left the newspaper game behind, disenchanted with the effects of the digital age. But his rep as an L.A. investigative reporter “of some repute” lands him freelance sleuthing gigs, like searching for a stolen Picasso that his Italian girlfriend Angela (Lorenza Izzo) needs as ransom for her kidnapped father.

But then a dead girl turns up in Fletch’s rented Boston townhouse and the local detectives (Roy Wood, Jr. and Ayden Mayeri) just want him to confess already. And they’d also like him to stop taking his shoes and socks off.

Of course, Fletch remains sarcastically cool throughout their surveillance, investigating on his own and uncovering a few other suspects: his stoner neighbor (Annie Mumolo), a germaphobe art dealer (Kyle MacLachlan), Angela’s mother aka “The Countess” (Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden, hamming it up) and even Angela herself.

Mottola’s (Adventureland, Superbad) story building doesn’t stray far from the structure of Michael Richie’s 1985 original, which may not be ambitious but is at least understandable, considering the same novelist assembled both mysteries. The major difference is the lack of inspired silliness, which brings us back to the casting of Hamm.

The fake names Fletch gives out aren’t so outlandish, and you won’t find any SNL-ready skits about playing for the Lakers or going undercover at Dr. Jellyfinger’s office.

But all that was catered to what Chevy Chase did best, which was playing Chevy Chase. Hamm is actually acting. The irony here is that while the character of Fletch is now more fully formed, the movie itself just isn’t as consistently funny.

There are plenty of smiles, though. The cast of unusual suspects can be a hoot (especially Mumolo) and running gags about Fletch’s fluency in Italian, his bare feet and his attempts at charming the detectives bring some chuckles. A Mad Men reunion with John Slattery as Fletch’s salty old newspaper editor is a nice touch, as well.

Years from now, you won’t be quoting any lines from Confess, Fletch. But the hour and a half you spend with this breezy whodunit isn’t a waste, and might leave you feeling like you just met the real I.M. Fletcher.

Your Friends and Neighbors

Speak No Evil

by Hope Madden

There’s little as uncomfortable as a good horror of manners—like a comedy of manners, but the social discomfort makes way for grim, horrifying death. Michael Haneke did it best with Funny Games (either version). Just last month, Shudder released the lighter but no less bloody Who Invited Them.

Denmark comes knocking with co-writer/director Christian Tafdrup’s Speak No Evil, a terribly polite tale of Danes and Dutchmen that veers slowly but relentlessly toward something sinister.

Bjørn (Morten Burian) is facing a crisis of masculinity. He’s too polite to articulate it, which only exacerbates that strangling sensation.

It’s a testament to Burian’s performance that he remains sympathetic throughout the film, however selfish and weak his actions. Playing his wife, Sidsel Siem Koch easily embodies the proper but awkward and easily cowed Louise.

Their adversaries? The good-looking, fun-loving, demonstrative Dutch couple Patrick (Fedja van Huêt) and Karin (Karina Smulders). The two families — each with a youngster in tow — run into each other on holiday and become pals. Sometime later, when Bjørn & Louise receive a postcard inviting their family to visit, Bjørn is anxious to go.

It takes some quiet, polite maneuvering, but before long, he, Louise and little Agnes (Liva Forsberg) are face to face with their hosts and the escalating tension grows almost unendurable. Speak No Evil quickly becomes a sociological experiment that questions our tendency to act against our own instincts, side with the cool kids, and lose who we are.

Van Huêt ably maneuvers Patrick’s manipulations, his about-faces, and his indefatigable charisma.

Sune Kølster’s score works deliriously against cinematographer Erik Molberg Hansen’s beautiful images to create dissonance (again, in much the same way Haneke did, but if you’re going to copy someone, he’s as good a place to start as any).

Tafdrup’s script, co-written with Mads Tafdrup, is sneaky in the way it treads on social anxiety, etiquette, politeness. You see how easily gaslighting alters the trajectory of a conversation, the course of action.

There is a resignation that feels unearned, even contemptuous. But actions throughout are believable enough, each couple’s interactions authentic enough, and the tensions palpable enough to forgive slight lapses. Speak No Evil is a grim trip, but there is no question that it’s well made.

Divided We Fall

God’s Country

by George Wolf

It’s only September, but I’m taking out my Oscar scorecard, and writing in Thandiwe Newton. With a pen.

Because if she doesn’t get noticed for her astounding performance in God’s Country, there’s somerthing wrong with all of us.

The film is also an incredibly assured sophomore effort from director and co-writer Julian Higgins, expanding on the themes and insight hinted at nearly twenty years ago in his feature debut Mending Wall.

Newton stars as Cassandra Guidry, a professor at a small college near the mountain wilderness. The grief from her mother’s recent death is deep, but she’s committed to teaching her students the importance of persistence in the strive for change.

“Sandra” hopes that leaving a note on the truck windshield will change the behavior of two hunters (Joris Jarsky, Jefferson White), who trespass on her property. It does not, and a battle of wills slowly escalates into a powder keg that Higgins uses to comment on the divides in this country that often seem impossible to navigate.

While Sandra struggles with the reaction from the local sheriff (Jeremy Bobb), we learn more about her past, and about things that make her keenly aware of where this situation could he headed. And as Higgins advances the narrative with onscreen text marking off the days, Sandra’s belief that “we all gotta play by the same rules if this is gonna work” can also apply to her push for diversity in the university’s search for a new Dean.

Higgins’s camerawork is barren and cold, buoyed by starkly beautiful cinematography from Andrew Wheeler. His script treads with care and precision. Nothing feels like a cliche, even though God’s Country lives in areas where cliches often roam freely. These characters and their flaws feel familiar, but Higgins finds intimate ways to offer hope for redemption, if only for the briefest of exchanges.

And why won’t Sandra let the parking thing go? Newton makes it achingly personal, carrying the weariness of swimming against the current in her every steely glare. Her final scene, though nearly dialog-free, is exquisitely devastating and sure to follow you home.

Just how many “no big deals” are allowed before there is indeed a big deal? And who decides?

God’s Country is full of the persistent ugliness that plagues ours. Yet none of its issues are raised with a heavy hand. Measured and often visual storytelling is at work here, carried on the shoulders of a sensational lead performance.

Fright Club: Satanists in Horror

It’s time to sift through that bountiful gift that is satanic horror. So many movies! So many black masses! So many purple robes, goat’s heads, high priests!! So many, indeed, that we had to leave off a ton of really great movies, so even though they didn’t make the final list, be sure to check out Ready or Not, Brotherhood of Satan, Race with the Devil, Blood on Satan’s Claw, Prince of Darkness, House of the Devil, The Sentinel, The Devil Rides Out, and the brilliant short film Born Again.

5. The Day of the Beast (1995)

Funny, startling and wildly irreverent, Alex de la Iglesia’s dip into Satanism is a giddy experience. It’s not just great Satanism horror, it’s an excellent Christmas movie!

A priest, a Satanist and a charlatan comb the city of Madrid on Christmas Eve in search of the birth ritual of the Antichrist. Their hijinx are feverish and frantic in a transgressively funny horror tale.

Gleefully gory mayhem suits the outlandish performances, together driving one of the gruesome auteur’s very best.

4. Angel Heart (1987)

In Angel Heart, director Alan Parker develops a steamy atmosphere as we follow private dick Harold Angel (Mickey Rourke) through the bowels of New Orleans in search of information on missing crooner Johnny Favorite.

Rourke’s work is key to the film’s unseemly feel. Angel’s sympathetic and full of a disheveled charm. You’re sorry for him even as you know he’s outmatched and probably undeserving of your pity. He knows it, too, and that’s what makes the performance so strong.

Plus there’s the sheer diabolical presence of an understated Robert DeNiro. His well-manicured and articulate Louis Cyphre perfectly balances Rourke’s handsome slob, and both fit beautifully into this sultry version of 1955.

Deceptively bloody, unusually classy, effortlessly creepy, Angel Heart stays under your skin. Maybe it’s the casual evil, the lurid atmosphere. Maybe it’s De Niro’s understated menace, with those long nails and that hardboiled egg.

3. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)

Winter break approaches at a Catholic New England boarding school. Snow piles up outside, the buildings empty, yet Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton) remain. One has tricked her parents for an extra day with her townie boyfriend. One remains under more mysterious circumstances.

Things in writer/director Oz Perkins’s The Blackcoat’s Daughter quietly unravel from there – although quiet is not precisely the word for it. There is a stillness to the chilly, empty halls. But thanks to the filmmaker’s brother Elvis, whose disquieting score fills these empty spaces with buzzing, whispering white noise, a sinister atmosphere is born.

Perkins repays your patience and attention. There are loads of sinister little clues to find.

2. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Rosemary’s Baby remains a disturbing, elegant, and fascinating tale, and Mia Farrow’s embodiment of defenselessness joins forces with William Fraker’s skillful camerawork to cast a spell. Along with Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976), Rosemary’s Baby is part of Polanski’s “apartment trilogy” – disturbing films of tension and horror in which metropolitan life and nosey neighbors conspire to drive a person mad.

Working from Ira Levin’s novel, Polanski takes all the glamour out of Satanism – with a huge assist from Ruth Gordon, who won an Oscar for her turn as the highly rouged busybody Minnie Castevet. By now we all know what happens to poor Rosemary Woodhouse, but back in’69, thanks much to Mia Farrow’s vulnerable performance, the film boiled over with paranoid tension. Was poor, pregnant Rosemary losing it, or was she utterly helpless and in evil hands?

1. The Witch (2015)

The unerring authenticity of The Witch made it the most unnerving horror film in years.

Every opportunity writer/director Roger Eggers has to make an obvious choice he discards, though not a single move feels inauthentic. Rather, every detail – whether lurid or mundane – feels peculiarly at home here. Even the most supernatural elements in the film feel appallingly true because of the reality of this world, much of which is owed to journals and documents of the time, from which Eggers pulled complete sections of dialog.

As frenzy and paranoia feed on ignorance and helplessness, tensions balloon to bursting. You are trapped as this family is trapped in an inescapable mess, where man’s overanxious attempt to purge himself absolutely of his capacity for sin only opens him up to the true evil lurking, as it always is, in the woods.

Strings Attached

Pinocchio

by George Wolf

I saw a tweet not long ago that suggested Disney should stop with the live-action remakes and instead, re-do their classics with the Muppets.

That logic is sound. Disney now owns the necessary rights, of course, and Muppet treatments would at least ensure creative visions that run deeper than “because we can.”

Heck, Tom Hanks could still star in them, as he does in this new live-action version of Pinocchio. Really, it would be more of a surprise if Hanks didn’t play the kindly Geppetto, and he’s just as fitting as you would expect a GD National Treasure to be.

And since the film mixes Hanks and other live actors with impressive digital animation, seeing the name Robert Zemeckis (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Polar Express, Welcome to Marwen) as director and co-writer gives you confidence the entire project will be well-crafted and satisfactory.

And it is. But if true magic is what your heart desires, keep wishing.

Young Benjamin Evan Ainsworth is in fine voice as the legendary puppet who longs to be a real boy, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt strains for that distinctive Jiminy Cricket phrasing and lands a little too close to South Park‘s Mr. Hankey.

But more importantly, Zemeckis and co-writer Chris Weitz seem too eager to justify their project via modern sensibilities. And in turn, they end up short-changing elements that made Disney’s original such an enduring favorite.

New songs add little beyond pop flavor, while one new character, Sofia the seagull (Lorraine Bracco) exists mainly to over-explain character motivations. Pinocchio’s friendship with Sabina (Jaquita Ta’le), a skilled puppeteer in Stromboli’s (Giuseppe Battiston) show, is well-intentioned but forced. Keegan-Michael Key’s foxy Honest John tempts Pinocchio with fame through references to “influencers” and Chris Pine.

Luke Evans does make a delightfully devilish Coachman, who leads Pinocchio to an effectively realized Pleasure Island that glimpses some darker themes. Exploring more of these layers would have strengthened the fairy tale roots, but it’s the tale of the Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo) that gets the shortest shrift.

“When You Wish Upon a Star” is not just a song for Disney. By now it’s the bedrock of their entire, world-conquering, fantasy-selling enterprise. And Erivo has a beautiful voice.

Let her let it gooooo! (pun intended). Yes, the song comes early in the film, but go ahead and hit us with an extended mix of full-blown goosebump orchestration while the fairy dust goes to work, then a reprise over the credits. Erivo deserves it.

It could have been a magical moment, and Pinocchio needs more of them. Much more than it needs Chris Pine.

Scare BnB

Barbarian

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

When you see as many movies as we do – especially horror flicks – taking us places we did not see coming is much appreciated.

Barbarian certainly does that, mashing horror, dark comedy and social commentary to wild and mostly satisfying ends.

Tess (TV vet Georgina Campbell) is in Detroit for a job interview. She books an Airbnb in an unsavory part of town, only to find out Kieth (Bill Skarsgård) booked the same place on HomeAway. What to do?

They talk, flirt a little, and Tess agrees to stay in the bedroom while Keith takes the couch. They’ll sort it out in the morning.

In his feature debut, writer/director Zach Cregger (The Whitest Kids You Know) lulls us with a competent but familiar hook. What’s really going on? Can Keith be trusted? Creeger throws in some creepy camera angles, terrific lighting maneuvers and jump scare fake-outs to build tension.

Then Tess makes her way down to the basement. Yikes.

But even after Tess’s startling discoveries, we’re still feeling like we have a grip on what’s ahead.

And then Cregger takes us to Hollywood, where producer AJ Gilbride (Justin Long) is sacked from his latest project due to allegations of sexual misconduct.

Um…what?

AJ’s story suddenly crosses paths with a tale set in the same house in 1982, this one starring Richard Brake. While that’s often great news for viewers, it is rarely good news for other characters.

What could start to feel disjointed and episodic instead congeals into a bizarre and brutal minefield of surprises. There are times when these surprises hang together with unrealistic decision-making, but Cregger’s sly script overcomes most of its conveniences and missteps.

Not every moment works. Certain choices feel ridiculous and breaks of levity keep the film from being as disturbing as maybe it should be, given the content. But most of that is forgivable, mainly because of the surprises Cregger has for us, and the nimble way he brings them out of hiding.

Hard to Portmanteau

Tiny Cinema

by Daniel Baldwin

Colloquialisms being taken to their absolute extremes. A woman struggling to find happiness in solitude. A pleasure-deprived man seeking help from his friends. Body horror ending not in goo and grue, but in dad jokes?!? Tiny Cinema is a comedic genre anthology film that wants to make you laugh and gasp in equal measure with the outrageous storytelling that it contains within. Does it succeed? Mostly.

Tiny Cinema is the latest cinematic endeavor of director/writer/actor extraordinaire Tyler Cornack and his motley crew of performers. If you’ve seen their previous effort, Butt Boy, you’re going to spot a lot of familiar faces across all six segments here. This film largely lacks that one’s Henenlotter-esque weirdness, however. It instead opts for a modern Twilight Zone vibe; offering up situations where ordinary people find their lives turned upside down by strange occurrences that are either tied to everyday problems (i.e. loneliness, sexual dysfunction, dating) or become twisted takes on everyday sayings (i.e. “That’s what she said!” and “Yo momma!”).

The results are mixed. On the positive side of things, there is a great host in the form of the quirky and deeply charismatic Paul Ford. The first three segments are also really entertaining (particularly “Bust!”). Furthermore, what really helps Tiny Cinema along is its cast. The troupe that Cornack has pooled together are all beyond game for whatever delirious nonsense he asks of them and that helps smooth over even the segments that don’t really work. They help to drive his best ideas home and make his films worth seeking out.

It’s in the back half where things begin to wobble, as the other three segments aren’t nearly as strong. Almost all anthology films have weak spots. Unevenness is par for the course with episodic storytelling. The weaker segments here are the slighter ones that just aim for shock value. Unfortunately, with them all filling out the second half of the feature, it means that it starts with a bang and ends with a bit of a whimper.

Tiny Cinema might be a step down from Butt Boy, but it’s a solid indie slice of portmanteau moviemaking. If you’re game for some weird fun, this might just be up your alley.

In the Company of Women

House of Darkness

by Hope Madden

Who hurt Neil LaBute?

Would it surprise you to find that the latest from the writer/director behind In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors (as well as the less impressive Wicker Man reboot and others) is a meditation on sexual dynamics, power and agency? That it’s brimming with psychosexual wordplay? That it’s bitter and a bit misguided?

How many times can we disassemble the mating ritual to judge and shame those involved?  

Sometimes LaBute does it well—so well that it’s tough not to look forward to whatever he releases. House of Darkness sees the filmmaker again exploring his favorite topic, this time within a horror context.

Justin Long riffs on his nice guy persona, his character Hap actually referring to himself at one point as “one of the good ones.” (Had Hap seen Promising Young Women, he might have had sense enough not to make such a claim.)

Hap’s been lured into the stately gothic manor of the lovely Mina, played with controlled ferocity by Kate Bosworth. Bosworth seems to relish the directness of her character. Mina’s disinterest in accommodating Hap’s insecurities is glorious—a reminder of how casually brutal LaBute’s work can be.

Perhaps because he started his career as a playwright, each of LaBute’s films rise or fall on dialog. House of Darkness is a chamber piece – it could easily be a stage play (though it’s likely a Covid production). Limited performers pepper scenes with double entendres in an awkward dance of “will we or won’t we” sexual politics.

The difference this time around is the genre trapping, a first for the filmmaker. The look is lush and effective, particularly the more fantastical sequences. Long — a genre veteran — delivers a bit of nuance, his Hap never entirely sympathetic but definitely hard to hate.

The story builds effectively enough. It’s just that nothing is ever in question. The genre tropes are more threadbare from use than LaBute’s banter-driven power game. Worse, the point rings hollow, like a disingenuous, cash-grab reversal of In the Company of Men.