Tag Archives: MaddWolf

Feels Like Teen Spirit

Inside Out 2

by George Wolf

It’s been nine years since Pixar’s Inside Out took us on that wonderful ride through a young girl’s feelings. Almost a decade, and I’m still not over what happened to Bing Bong.

Revisiting Riley (voiced by Kensington Tallman) when she hits her teen years seems like a natural exercise. And beyond that, Inside Out 2 delivers enough warmth, humor and insight to make the sequel feel downright necessary.

Riley’s now turning 13, and all seems status quo. Joy (Amy Poehler) keeps the reins on Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Tony Hale), Sadness (Phyllis Smith) and Disgust (Liza Lapira) as Riley gets set to head to the Bay Area hockey skills camp.

Then, overnight, the puberty alarm goes off. Oh Lord.

Director Kelsey Mann and writers Meg LeFauve (returning from part one) and Dave Holstein unleash this emotional onslaught with a mix of laughs and empathy that sets the perfect catalyst for another winning Pixar trip into a secret world.

And this world is more chaotic than ever. Anxiety (Maya Hawke) turns up with a plan to take over, leaning on Envy (Ayo Edebiri), Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser) and Ennui aka Boredom (Adèle Exarchopoulos) to steer Riley away from who she is and toward “who she needs to be”.

Will Riley abandon her BFF teammates Bree (Sumayyah Nuriddin-Green) and Grace (Grace Lu) to cozy up to star player Val (Lilimar) and the other older girls? Will Riley’s belief that “I’m a good person” crumble under doubt and desperation?

In his feature debut, Mann proves adept at showcasing what Pixar does best: meaningful stories for kids that are also emotional for parents. From the demo crew that arrives with puberty to the “sar-chasm”, this is another very clever romp through all that builds the sense of self. The film’s battle between joy and anxiety is relatable for all generations, and it’s filled with levels of creativity, humor, and visual flair that are undeniably fun.

And while it may not be Toy Story 4 funny, it is funny, especially when a leftover memory from Riley’s favorite kiddie show turns up to help our heroes out of “suppressed emotions” exile. His name is Pouchy (SNL’s James Austin Johnson). He’s a pouch. He’s hilarious. Trust me on this.

Could we now be moving closer to a Disney-fied treatment of Paul Almond’s Up series? Well, June Squibb’s charming cameo as Nostalgia just might be a peek at things to come. Either way, Inside Out 2 is a completely entertaining two-hour guide toward understanding – or appreciating – the messy emotions of growing up.

Guilt Trip

Treasure

by Hope Madden

“You have no idea.”

It’s the refrain forever punctuating the silence between father, Edek (Stephen Fry), and daughter, Ruthy (Lena Dunham), in co-writer/director Julie von Heinz’s family tragicomedy, Treasure.

Both Ruth and Edek are grieving the loss of Ruth’s mother, and each is dealing with that grief in their own way. Edek closes out anything unpleasant and focuses on the positive. Ruth books a trip to Poland to visit everything her Auschwitz survivor father has stricken from his memory.

The fact that von Heinz can mine any comedy from this family vacation is a great credit to her lowkey direction and, of course, to the neurotic charm of her leads.

Fry excels. He’s affable and dear, proud and protective, and—as dads tend to be—infuriating. It’s a great part and Fry expands to fill this larger-than-life presence.

Dunham has her work cut out for her as the hyper-intelligent emotional basket case grappling with the reality that she knows nothing of the nightmare of her parents’ past. The absence of her mother has left her feeling untethered; the trip offers a point of connection with a past that’s lost to her.

Auschwitz is a big image. In stronger moments, Treasure aches with a longing to understand why you are the way you are, a longing for connections to your past. It acknowledges that you may be built from your parents’ trauma, but that does not give you the right to own it.

In weaker moments, the film itself feels like trauma tourism.

Dunham does what she can to humanize this character, to examine Ruth’s grief, hollowing self-loathing, and need. But in the face of her father’s pain, this unholy exercise in picking scabs makes Ruth profoundly, unforgivably self-centered. Grief is necessarily selfish, but Ruth is obliviously sadistic.

Von Heinz walks a tightrope of tone. She taps into the reverberating echoes of war crimes right in the streets and apartments of Poland. She keeps it light but respectful, unveiling a heartbreaking reality most may not know.

There’s much to like in Treasure, but the film keeps siding with Ruthy without giving us any reason to do so ourselves.

Limbo Time

Coma

by George Wolf

Bursting with contrasts of art and ideas, Coma lands as a captivating time capsule of creativity, waiting to be savored by future viewers looking to understand a uniquely unsteady time.

Writer/director Bertrand Bonello casts his own daughter, Louise Labèque, as “L’adolescente,” a teenage girl trying to cope with life in lockdown. She FaceTime chats with friends and looks to YouTuber Patricia Coma (Julia Faure) for guidance on living in a present that has “come to a halt.”

Coma calmly and seductively stresses the need for achieving “limbo” – where we become “blank spaces waiting to be filled,” no longer needing to worry about making our own choices.

Bonello (The Beast) weaves together existential dread, dream and dreamlike narratives, and some black comedy with alternating live action and animation styles to create a hypnotic patchwork that probes a simple idea with utter fascination.

Among the understandable glut of lockdown films, this one stands out as a different animal indeed. The true effects of the pandemic – particularly on the young – may not be fully known for decades. Bonello wants us to realize that now, and Coma is an intriguing and insightful thought starter.

Ropes and the Reins, Joy and the Pain

Ride

by Rachel Willis

Modern-day cowboys are the focus of director Jake Allyn’s film, Ride.

Co-writing with Josh Plasse, Allyn has crafted an aching drama that explores the complicated relationships within a family struggling with several demons.

With his daughter ill, John Hawkins (C. Thomas Howell) engages in a desperate struggle to raise money to pay for treatments. His patience is thin as he fights with bureaucrats, hospital policy, and the outrageous amount of money needed to get his daughter the care she needs.

On top of the looming tragedy, Hawkins’s eldest son, Pete (Allyn, again, doing triple duty), has recently been released from prison. We’re given not-so-subtle hints as to what landed Pete in jail, but it’s compelling. Rounding out the family is the glorious Annabeth Gish, as the Hawkins’s family matriarch, Monica, who is also the town sheriff.  

A backdrop to the family’s personal struggles is the rodeo. The Hawkins family has a history in the sport, which offers us a glimpse into what a contemporary cowboy does in this world.

This is a tightly constructed film that has only one or two faults. Some of the drama treads too close to things we’ve seen before, but for the most part, things are handled in ways that speak to the rawness of a family in crisis.

It’s hard not to sympathize with John’s desperation. The money he needs is a crushing amount; that any family would be on the hook for such large sums to save a child is despicable. It’s not hard to understand the lengths a person will go to in their desire to do right by their family.

How far would you go to support your family? To save a child? It can be hard to imagine making some of the choices John makes, maybe impossible to imagine it. However, it’s not hard to imagine the desperation that leads a parent to make terrible choices.

It’s often crises that drive a family apart. Allyn skillfully raises the tension as Ride progresses. At times, the dialogue falters as we careen toward the climax, but it’s impossible not to be drawn in to this compelling, heartbreaking story of a family struggling to survive in a ruthless world.

Game On

Latency

by Hope Madden

A descent into madness horror that relies almost entirely on two performances, writer/director James Drake’s Latency makes effective use of his single location to amplify themes and create tension.

Sash Luss is Haha, an agoraphobic professional gamer with a lot to lose. She’s months behind on rent, for one, and the last thing an agoraphobic needs is to have to find a new place to live. So, when she gets the chance to test new gear that enhances performance—which she can use to win a high stakes tournament before anyone else gets ahold of the tech—she jumps.

But the mind meld gear exacerbates some troubling aspects of Hana’s mental health, kicking off a rapid deterioration that blends memory with video game until she’s not sure what’s real and what’s not.

Latency feels a bit like a gamer’s Repulsion. Instead of mining sexual hysteria as Polanski did, Drake digs into the way seclusion and technology can intensify trauma and deepen mental illness.

Alexis Ren injects Latency with needed cheer and color, but it’s Luss who anchors the film. She’s in every scene. It’s a demanding role that asks, for instance, for magnetism while staring listlessly at a video game you can play with your mind. The arc of the character is dizzying and Luss can’t always deliver. While she transmits the fear and much of the regret authentically, the madness never feels quite mad enough.

The scares aren’t especially scary, either, but the narrative’s game like quality does build a sense of existential horror. Still, though the video game quality of the aesthetic cheats the need for realistic horror images, they’re still missed.

The film sees agoraphobia as a kind of macabre, inherited coping mechanism. But there’s something honest in the nightmare of days disappearing into other days, a timeless malaise of hyper-isolation.

Journey to Found Family

Queen Tut

by Eva Fraser

Raw and full of representation, Queen Tut is a heartwarming film that makes you feel. Directed by Reem Morsi, it centers on Nabil (Ryan Ali), a young man from Egypt who moves to Toronto. After his chance encounter with Malibu (Alexandra Billings) outside her club, a safe haven for the LGBTQIA+ community, Nabil begins a journey to find where he truly belongs, realizing his true self through drag. 

Comfortable being itself, this film feels real. It doesn’t try to perfect life; it is unfiltered in the best way possible. The effortless intricacies present in the lead performances,— the awkward pauses and subsequent misunderstandings, and the gentle moments in between— fully immerse the audience in the story of a queer community fighting for their rights and fully realizing them at the same time.

Additionally, the makeup and costumes for characters both in and out of drag feel instinctually right, mimicking life in a way that doesn’t seek perfection and instead embraces the quirks that make us human.

The use of color creates a visual aid: Nabil’s home is filled with neutral tones and grays, while Mandy’s Malibu’s club is teeming with vibrancy. Fabric also plays a central role in Nabil’s character development, and the film takes such care to make every scrap special and charged with meaning— whether through flashbacks or a simple close-up of shimmering sequins in Nabil’s hands, the audience can feel the significance. Through simple yet effective devices, QueenTut lets us develop a strong sense of empathy for the narratives of many characters.

Religion heavily features in the film, looming in the background as a ceaseless pressure in Nabil’s life. Although overbearing in certain settings, it is also a key to Nabil’s growth and acceptance of himself. Queen Tut shows us that religion doesn’t have to be interpreted in one way— it can be whatever best serves us. 

One aspect of the film that did not quite click was the pacing. At points, time felt unclear and disorienting. This doesn’t detract from the viewing experience too much. Time can be tricky in life, ebbing and flowing with different emotions and situations, and Queen Tut, although perhaps not intentionally, acknowledges it.

All aspects of the film contribute to the central idea of community as a family that you choose— one that is accepting and grounded in the face of change. This film welcomes the audience into its family, leaving viewers with a sense of hope and self-acceptance.

Tainted Love

Kill Your Lover

by Brandon Thomas

To say that relationships are ripe for mining when it comes to horror movie material might be the king of all understatements. The complex nature of romantic human relationships involves the entire spectrum of emotions and said emotions tend to burn at their brightest during a courtship’s beginning and at the perilous end. With Kill Your Lover, filmmakers Alix Austin and Keir Siewert have crafted an intimate analogy about what happens when the person you’ve loved for so long changes into something darker. 

Through flashes back and forth from the past to the present, Kill Your Lover tells the story of Dakota (Paige Gilmour) and Axel (Shane Quigley-Murphy). The most passionate portions of their relationship are juxtaposed with the present and Dakota’s feelings that the relationship has run its course. It’s not that simple though, and Axel’s changes have less to do with his personality (or do they?) and more with the sickness overtaking him. 

Austin and Siewert wisely spend the majority of Kill Your Lover’s scant 77 minutes just spending time with Dakota and Axel. It’s easy to see why these two characters would’ve fallen so hard for one another. It’s equally easy to see why Dakota wants to break things off. However, with clever plotting, the film also peels back layers and floats the idea that maybe things weren’t so great in the past either. Gilmour and Quigley-Murphy’s fiery chemistry gives the film a sense of life it might not have with lesser performers. 

Kill Your Lover gets a lot of mileage out of essentially being a single-location film. The isolation of the small apartment only increases the anxiety and tension around the situation Dakota finds herself in. From a character standpoint, the awfulness of Axel’s transformation is mirrored by Dakota’s memories of the good times they shared in the same space. 

Despite being a very character-centric bit of horror filmmaking, Kill Your Lover doesn’t skimp on the carnage. The “creature” (if you will) make-up is icky and gruesome and has an outstanding originality to how it behaves and spreads. Still deeply rooted in story and character, when the battle of wills between Dakota and Axel turns into a physical one, the gooeyness of the film increases tenfold.

By leaning heavily into character and the sometimes claustrophobic nature of spiraling relationships, Kill Your Lover offers an exciting and emotional bit of genre filmmaking.

Now Hiring

Hit Man

by George Wolf

What better way to have some breezy fun with our identity-challenged times than by embellishing the true-life story of one Gary Johnson?

Johnson was a phony hitman in Texas who would don different disguises working undercover work for the police. After a 2001 article in Texas Monthly profiled his adventures, various screenwriters toyed with the project. And though Johnson died in 2022, he can sleep well knowing Richard Linklater and Glen Powell’s Hit Man finally does him proud.

In the Linklater/Powell take, Johnson (Powell) is a mild-mannered psych professor at a New Orleans college who likes birding and jean shorts. A proficiency for tech gadgets lands him a moonlighting gig doing surveillance with the cops. But when their undercover man gets suspended for shady activities, Gary emerges from the van as “Ron,” fake hitman for hire.

Turns out, Gary has a knack for this new identity, and impresses his team with some suave method acting.

“Okay, Daniel Day!”

He also impresses Maddy (Adria Arjona from Morbius) who wants her abusive husband dead. “Ron” talks her out of the hit, they begin a steamy affair, then the husband turns up dead anyway.

And so the heat (the Body Heat?) is on.

Powell is all charm and charisma as he bounces from one persona to the next (the Patrick Bateman impression is particularly hilarious), Arjona is a captivating possible femme fatale, and the chemistry between them is undeniable.

Linklater’s direction is slick and well-paced, with a vibe that recalls a winning mix of Fletch whodunnit, Spy humor and Ocean’s 11 sex appeal. But Hitman still feels very much in-the-moment, with a repeated focus on how our point of view can shape our reality, and how our path to change starts by being honest with ourselves.

That’s right, Powell and Linklater find room for a serious message in Hit Man. But don’t worry, you’ll be having so much fun it won’t hurt a bit.

Life Sucks and Then Your Mom Dies

Edge of Everything

by Christie Robb

In the middle of the long transition from child to adult, high school freshman Abby (Sierra McCormick, The Vast of Night) loses her primary caregiver. Now, she has to move in with a distant father (Jason Butler Harner, Ozark) and his much younger partner and navigate her grief and the horrors of adolescence without much of a safety net.

She’s got her friends, sure—a few she seems to have known since kindergarten. They all seem smart, stable, sensible.

But they aren’t what she’s craving right now. Abby is looking for distraction and drama. And she finds it in Caroline (Ryan Simpkins, Fear Street), an underage drinker and Bad Influence willing to trade sexual favors for drugs or booze. With Caroline, Abby experiments with a new persona and new experiences, some of which veer toward the dangerous.

The film could have become a morality play, but the debut feature-length writer/director team of Sophia Sabella and Pablo Feldman aren’t here for that. Instead, they depict—without judgement—a slice of what can be a hugely complicated time in a person’s life, even when they aren’t flattened under a glacier’s worth of grief.

With its short run time, The Edge of Everything could have stood to flesh out some of the relationships and characters a bit more, particularly that between Abby and her father. But what we do have is good. McCormick delivers such a subtle, natural performance that at times it’s hard to remember you are watching an actor at work. She’s a talent to keep an eye on.