Tag Archives: MaddWolf

Dismantling the Master’s House

Concerning Violence

by Hope Madden

Concerning Violence – a remarkable documentary that looks at the global ramifications of Europe’s history of colonizing African nations – is not for the faint of heart or the slow witted. You may feel like you have to take notes. Director Goran Olsson (The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975) challenges viewers with unadorned footage and undiluted narration, but for those who can tough it out, the film is as rewarding as it is upsetting (and theoretical).

Olsson’s handiwork can hardly be considered smooth or ornate. He has 9 clips to share (titled Nine Scenes from the Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defense) – news footage highlighting conflicts in Angola, Rhodesia, Liberia and other African nations burdened by colonization. He structures the pieces with onscreen type representing his thesis outline, then connects them with text from Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, a nonfiction work that has inspired anti-colonialist movements the world over. Don’t expect a soothing voiceover or talking head footage to help you fit together the pieces. Rather, expect images of revolution paired with quotes from a 1961 text and little else.

Often enough, Olsson makes the scrappy simplicity of his approach work well, giving the images onscreen the attention they deserve. The footage he’s chosen varies enough to offer a multidimensional image of the effects of colonization: the sense of entitlement in the colonizer; the generations-deep weight of oppression, poverty, limitation and powerlessness in the colonized; the frightening exhilaration in the struggle for independence; the inevitable bloodshed.

Fanon’s words are insightful, often lofty and theoretical, but frequently startling with unexpected, brutal turns of phrase that ensure you’re still paying attention. Olsson knows when to pepper in these more provocative remarks and Lauryn Hill’s narration beautifully underscores the points, whether idealistic or disturbing.

Still, Fanon’s words discount any evil in the inevitable violence of anti-colonialism, although we know that any act of coordinated violence draws true evil to it, and evil participates hand in hand with the noble. In this way, the film oversimplifies the struggle.

The film also fails to contextualize its subject in modern concerns, and that’s a major failing. Olsson rarely pulls punches in his film, yet he seems almost afraid to connect the dots to current political, economic and social conditions. He also starts the film off on weak footing with a bewildering preface that seeks to soften Fanon’s grim themes as it also throws a sideways glance toward the film’s omission of complicating gender politics.

Still, this is a big, big story. Concerning Violence is not meant to entertain, and as an informative look at the repercussions of colonialism, it’s an impressive piece containing certain images you won’t soon forget.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

Zombies Ho!

[Rec]4 Apocalypse

by Hope Madden

In 2007, Paco Plaza and Jaume Balaguero revived the already dying first-person-camera gimmick with a claustrophobic zombie flick that was imaginative, bloody, and thrilling – though you may remember their [Rec] better by its American remake title, Quarantine. In both, a news reporter and her cameraman are trapped inside an apartment building under quarantine with a rabies-like virus running rampant. No matter the language, the film was a fun and exciting ride.

The American franchise petered out with one sequel (Zombies on a Plane), but its Spanish counterpart has spawned three offspring. [Rec]2 put us right back inside the quarantined building to find that the virus had some kind of demonic origin, while the third installment saw that demon zombification take on a wedding reception. The latest in the series returns to the scene of the crime, as a new team of responders infiltrates the apartment building to set detonators – then one handsome hero hears the call of that lovely reporter, Angela (Manuela Velasco).

Those of us who have kept up on the series happen to know something about Angela that noble Guzman (Paco Manzanedo) does not. If you have not kept up, well, you and Guzman may have a surprise in store.

Balaguero helms this mission solo, placing Angela, Guzmon, the sole survivor of Part 3’s wedding, some armed goons, some sketchy doctors, and a hapless crew onboard a ship to really put some miles around this particular quarantine. Corridors, holds and lower decks give the action a heightened sense of claustrophobia, while Balaguero back peddles from both the silly wedding theme and the hokey demon-virus angle. He also uses security cameras to call back to the original first-person idea without succumbing to tired formula.

Otherwise, though, the film offers little in the way of novelty. The story and its telling are about as fresh as a poop deck. Balaguero can’t generate any tension from the medical experimentation angle and, worse still, he fails to use the sea itself as a source of isolation or claustrophobia.

On the other hand, the zombies have boils on their faces this time, plus there are infected monkeys, which are pretty mean.

[Rec]4 offers a serviceably entertaining riff on the original with much of what you enjoyed the first time around, especially if you enjoyed seeing Velasco in a bloody wife-beater. But it’s high tide and high time to lay this oft-reanimated corpse to rest.

Verdict-2-5-Stars

Counting Down the 20 Best Films of 2014

2014 was a banner year, with great films in an enormous range of genres: blockbusters and indies, horror and SciFi, dramas and comedies, as well as films from first time filmmakers, a lot of great stuff from women directors, and an unusually high number of excellent films with one-word titles. No idea that that trend might mean. Anyway, today we walk through our 20 favorites of the past 365 days.

20. Into the WoodsRob Marshall proves again that he’s the man you want filming a musical, using inventive techniques to bring the  cross-cutting fairy tale narratives in this Sondheim musical to glorious life. Not your traditional Disney effort, Into the Woods offers a sophisticated, often dark but insightful and imaginative look at the other side of fairy tales.

19. The Lego Movie: The tone is fresh and irreverent, the voice talent spot-on, and the direction is endlessly clever. The Lego Movie was the most fun to be had at the cinema in 2014.

18. Guardians of the Galaxy: Director James Gunn nails the tone, the color, the imagery, and the sound of one Earthling dartin’ about space scavenging, smooching, and basically living the dream. The effortlessly likeable Chris Pratt leads a crew of ragtag misfits who collectively become the most enjoyable team of intergalactic scoundrels since Han Solo piloted the Falcon. This is the definition of a great summer movie.

17. Calvary: World-weary humor, brilliant writing and one stellar performance from the always remarkable Brendan Gleeson mark this underseen gem from Ireland about humanity, betrayal, forgiveness and redemption.

16. The Imitation GameA wonderful mix of exciting historical mystery and heartfelt examination of the complicated man at the mystery’s center, The Imitation Game is a film about secrets boasting an Oscar-worthy performance from Benedict Cumberbatch.

15. American Sniper:  The bio of America’s most lethal sniper is tense, heartfelt, and wise. Director Clint Eastwood hasn’t been this invested in years, and along with an astonishing lead performance from Bradley Cooper, strikes just the right tone with a story that could have easily been mined for manipulation. It isn’t, which is another reason to salute American Sniper. 

14. Locke: A masterpiece in simplicity, Locke tags along on a solo car trip: just you, the great Tom Hardy, and several simultaneous crises he handles on his mobile.

13. Under the Skin: This hypnotic, low-key SciFi thriller – the latest from filmmaker-to-watch Jonathan Glazer – follows Scarlett Johansson around Glasgow in a van. Light on dialogue and void of exposition, Under the Skin demands your attention, but it delivers an enigmatic, breathtaking, utterly unique vision of an alien invasion.

12. The Babadook: A familiar tale given primal urgency, the horror fueled by compassion, the terror unsettling and genuine – this film is more than a scary movie, and it immediately ranks among the freshest and most memorable the genre has to offer.

11. Inherent Vice: Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest defies easy summarization as an inebriated PI (played by Joaquin Phoenix as you’ve never seen him) fits together pieces from several different puzzles to create an unpredictable, barely coherent but wildly enjoyable whole.

10. A Most Violent Year: This gem is a film about the merits versus moral compromise of the American dream, and a slow boil drama that keeps you on edge for its full 125 minute running time because there is absolutely no guessing what is coming next.

9. Snowpiercer: Though incompetently marketed and abysmally underseen, Snowpiercer is an immediate dystopian classic. Visionary direction from Joon-ho Bong maximizes claustrophobic tension while brazen casting victories (Oh my God, Tilda Swinton!) and another solid lead turn from Chris Evens work together to create an enthralling allegory of the makers and the takers.

8. Foxcatcher: Director Bennett Miller’s understated true crime film benefits from seriously unusual casting. Steve Carrel is revelatory as John du Pont, millionaire weirdo and wrestling enthusiast who bankrolled Olympic hopefuls (Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum, both award worthy), ensnaring then in his unpredictable psychosis. It’s riveting stuff.

7. Only Lovers Left Alive: The great Jim Jarmusch (Ohio boy!) updates the vampire genre with a well conceived twist on the unusual, aided by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston’s wonderful performances as well as his own dry humor and magnificent eye for visuals.

6. The Grand Budapest Hotel: The great eccentric genius Wes Anderson inches his way closer to mainstream acceptance and Oscar with the most meticulously framed, wickedly clever dark comedy. Filled with melancholy and whimsy, full to bursting with fascinating cameos, and boasting an almost unimaginably perfect performance by Ralph Fiennes, it’s a work of genius that could spring only from the mind of Anderson.

5. Whiplash: As sure as J.K. Simmons will walk home with his first Oscar this year, Whiplash will astonish you. No film this year ratchets tension like this one, as one musician and his mentor do battle that makes the Hobbit look light hearted. Brilliantly written, expertly directed, and boasting two excellent performances (not to mention some really great music!), Whiplash is easily one of the best features of 2014.

4. Nightcrawler: No telling why it took so long to combine Network and American Psycho, but Nightcrawler is here now, so buckle down for a helluva ride. Jake Gyllenhaal is at his absolute best in a film that is as scorchingly relevant an image of modern media as it is a brilliant character study in psychosis.

3. Birdman: Meta-magical-realism at its finest, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s look at the transience and transcendence of fame will nab some Oscars this season. This is a brilliant director and a magnificent cast at their playful, creative best.

2. Selma: Ava DuVernay’s account of the civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama doesn’t flinch. You can expect the kind of respectful approach common in historical biopics, but don’t let that lull you. This is not a laudable and forgettable historical art piece, and you’ll know that as you watch little girls descend a staircase within the first few minutes. Selma is a straightforward, well crafted punch to the gut.

1. Boyhood: Richard Linklater manages the impossible. By checking in on one family every year for 12 years, collecting not the major incidents but all those everyday moments, he provides an achingly, hilariously, touchingly realistic impression of an entire childhood. The cast is brilliant, and the sense of family they evoke is as authentic as anything you will ever see on film. Boyhood is a film like none other ever made, and it is imperative viewing.

Lost and Found

Unbroken

by Hope Madden

With Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s second effort behind the camera, she proves she knows how to put together a team. Beginning with screenwriters Joel and Ethan Cohen (each with 4 Oscars, two apiece for writing) and extending to cinematographer Roger Deakins (11-time Oscar nominee) and the man behind the music, Alexandre Desplat (with his mere 6 Oscar noms), she’s given Louis Zamperini’s story the storytellers it deserves.

Their film shares the honestly amazing tale of an Olympic runner who finds himself adrift at sea and then held in a Japanese POW camp during WWII. If the film suffers from anything, it’s an overabundance of respect for the source material.

So much of Zamperini’s life just defies belief – if ever there was a true story destined for the big screen, it was his, and Jack O’Connell delivers the grit and spirit needed to pull off the tale. O’Connell may be new to many viewers, but this Brit has been quietly developing an impressive arsenal of work (Eden Lake, Starred Up, ’71). If this performance and film leave questions about Zamperini as a person, O’Connell certainly convinces when it comes to the man’s seemingly bottomless reserve of strength.

While you absolutely get the feeling that this is the guy you’d want with you if you were ever lost at sea, the film refuses to expound on what drives that buoyancy. Nor does it offer a glimpse at the conflicting emotional turmoil he would carry with him after the war.

The cast is large and O’Connell has the kind of easy charisma that makes most scenes feel intimate. The ensemble offers some memorable turns – from Domhnall Gleeson and Takamasa Ishihara, in particular – but too many actors fall back on broad stroke flying ace clichés and too few hold your interest.

Still, there’s no escaping the jaw-dropping facts of this adventure – facts which alone compel rapt attention for the duration of the film. Deakins’s images are on a scale befitting the epic, and Jolie has a knack for taking advantage of every inch of a screen.

Whatever Unbroken’s faults, the adventure will overwhelm you, as it should, and the facts and triumphs will stay with you long after the credits roll.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

Trilogy Finale … No, the Other One

Some trilogies come to a close with dragons, gold, tiny heroes, legendary foes and Ben Stiller. Wait, what?

Yes, though it may have flown under your radar, Stiller’s Night at the Museum series comes to a close with its third installment. Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb completes the arc begun in 2006 when Stiller’s night watchman Larry Daly learned that, after sundown, the exhibits at New York’s Museum of Natural History come to life. (So basically, Toy Story in a museum setting.)

In 2009, Larry and his crew broke into the Smithsonian. This time around, when the golden tablet that reanimates the exhibits night after night begins to mysteriously corrode, the team heads to a London museum to repair the device and save everyone.

Truth be told, this is a series that has been sweet, imaginative but disposable from its inception.

Much fault lies with the series’ director Shawn Levy (Real Steel, Big Fat Liar), an unrepentant purveyor of anemic family fun. The Museum trilogy represents the best of his body of work. Still, he substitutes a busy screen and abundance of characters for actual pacing and energy.

The talent – Stiller, Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan and others – creates likeable, rascally characters, and most draw at least a chuckle or two during the adventure.

We’re to learn that life is about letting go as Larry recognizes his son’s impending manhood, though nothing feels genuine or heartfelt. But why start now? When Levy expanded Milan Trenc’s educational children’s book to a feature film, he borrowed a concept and lengthened it with some inside jokes, some cheap theatrics, and lots of dated gags, but little in the way of heart. Its subsequent sequels rehash the same basic concepts in new museums, and because of an underlying lack of creativity and abundance of coasting on the comic timing of the cast, the sequels have all been about as entertaining as the original.

The concluding chapter offers some coincidental tear jerking as Robin Williams delivers lines more moving because of their real-life context than their importance to the film. There are some other mildly amusing, well placed gags and gimmicks, and an awful lot of rehashing. If you and yours enjoyed the first two installments, the third promises more of exactly the same. The rest of us can overlook the third episode, exactly as we did the first two.

Verdict-2-5-Stars

Trading Olympic for Oscar Gold

Foxcatcher

by Hope Madden

Sibling rivalry, loneliness, competition and madness fuel director Bennett Miller’s award-worthy true crime tale Foxcatcher.

The film follows the events that unfolded as Olympic gold medal winning wrestler Mark Schultz, and later his older brother, gold medal winner Dave (Mark Ruffalo), get involved with sinister millionaire John du Pont, who’s looking to bankroll 1988 US Olympic competitors.

Tatum performs as we have simply never seen him before, a fact that may be outshone by the other two quite amazing performances. Tatum has proven himself a facile comic talent, but his dramatic skills to this point have been lackluster at best.Yet here he brings a brooding, insecure competitor to life in every facet of his performance.

The always excellent Ruffalo is likewise stellar as the more congenial, more talented of the brothers, and the two together create a realistic sibling bond, one as desperate for the other’s approval and help as he is to finally best him; the other a tender, protective mentor.

Joining them, Steve Carell is revelatory as John du Pont. Never transparent, offering no easy answers, equal parts monstrous and pathetic, Carell creates an enigmatic and unseemly presence that haunts the screen. His graceless chemistry with all cast mates creates an uneasy tension in every frame, though his scene with a marvelous Vanessa Redgrave is particularly intriguing.

One thing you can expect from a Bennett Miller film is his meticulous attention to the setting. Miller creates such rich yet understated contexts that the drama unfolding within that environment cannot help but feel authentic. Whether it’s small town 1959 Kansas rocked by murders in Capote or Billy Bean’s world of low rent MLB wheeling and dealing in Moneyball, Bennett shows such respect for the settings of these true tales that the stories immediately take root.

Foxcatcher benefits from his measured touch – from the spare score and the film’s unusual pacing to the embedded, inescapable symbolism he mines of the relationships and the sport of wrestling. It all contributes to a building sense of unease that befits the tale.

Miller may go unnoticed as the maestro behind the weird onscreen magic, but his faith in unproven talent alone is reason to hail him one remarkable director.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

Reese Gone Wild

Wild

by Hope Madden

There may be no more personal, more individual an emotion or experience than grief. It is, by definition, a selfish act: just you and your loss. No one can determine for you the length, depth, duration or symptoms of your own pain. Cheryl Strayed is a case in point.

Wild tells the story of how Cheryl overcame the guilt, regret, shame and profound sense of loss that overcame her after her mother’s death. Cheryl’s is a unique tale, as she is a fascinatingly individual character, but the film mines for the universality in her pain and redemption.

Wild moves back and forth between Cheryl’s 1100 mile trek across the Pacific Crest Trail and the memories that haunt her, past and present braiding together to form a clear picture of the woman emerging from her pain and the pretty jaw-droppingly dangerous behavior that pain wrought.

Though director Jean-Marc Vallee’s (Dallas Buyers Club) film gets off to a slow start, Reese Witherspoon’s performance – aided by the sometimes terrifying, sometimes tragic, sometimes funny events of Strayed’s journey – compel rapt attention.

Witherspoon leaves her comfort zone, allowing Cheryl more vulnerability and ugliness than you might expect. Strayed is comfortable enough in her skin to examine and, eventually, accept all of her own failings, so presenting the character fully is a requirement for the film to work. Witherspoon understands this and gives easily the grittiest, most naturalistic performance of her career.

Witherspoon spends an awful lot of screen time alone, Strayed’s relationship with herself the larger conflict than her relationships with the inhospitable terrain, weather, circumstances and occasional creepy guy. Her pain and self loathing are impeccably drawn, never maudlin or false, and in Witherspoon’s scenes with the equally impressive Laura Dern she sews the seeds that bloom in her time alone onscreen.

The truth is that Strayed’s grief is not typical, and her behavior is certainly extreme, yet Vallee is content to create a somewhat safe structure for the adventure: the lengthy journey punctuated by nightmares and memories that give us a glimpse into the life Strayed was trying to shake off with her hike.

Still, the understated approach allows scenes to breathe, and Strayed’s true alone-ness seeps into certain frames in a way that is deeply unsettling and yet triumphant. And there are no two words better suited to Strayed’s experiences than unsettling and triumphant, so Vallee, Witherspoon and crew were certainly doing something right.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

Bilbo’s Misty Mountain Hop

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

by Hope Madden

This Christmas, Peter Jackson gives us the gift of his final trip to Middle Earth with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (or Enough Already).

I went reluctantly to LOTR: Fellowship of the Ring back in 2001. I am not a big fan of fantasy and was never able to make it through one of Tolkien’s epics as a kid, so a cinematic adaptation held no interest. But I did go, and immediately celebrated that decision.

Peter Jackson (previously know to me solely for splatter-gore comedies) had such a facility for the landscape and heart of these Middle Earth sagas that I was immediately beguiled. And while by hour 4 of the third installment I had wearied of this first trilogy a bit, still I marveled at the accomplishment. Jackson and his versatile cast had carved out genuine characters, which made the peril and adventure all the more absorbing. The fact that Jackson’s native New Zealand lent an authentic backdrop to the derring do completed the fantasy.

The Hobbit has become a tougher slog. Though Martin Freeman continues to be a joy as Master Burglar Bilbo Baggins, the balance of the cast struggles to find dimension for their characters, and Jackson falls back far too often on swelling strings, dramatic lighting and lengthy, ponderous shots to emphasize drama.

What drama? Well, the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) flies toward innocent Laketown to unleash his fiery fury; meanwhile Thorin Oakenshield (of the Glorious Mane Oakenshields) (Richard Armitage) begins his descent into madness, victim of the Dragon Sickness. Unbeknownst to him and his band of wee warriors, Azog the Defiler (now that is an awesome name) leads Orc armies to claim the mountain Smaug just vacated. Plus some fairies have grievances.

Unfortunately, the most interesting character is done away with before the opening credits, and though the film boasts almost constant action, it fails to hold attention.

Jackson’s first trilogy worked as well as it did because he managed to ground the high fantasy in something authentic. His second go at Tolkien abandons authenticity, creating stagey sets and falling back on theatrical performance and uncharacteristically so-so CGI. The late-film nods to the LOTR films only serve as reminders of that trilogy’s superiority. It’s time to ramble on.

 

Verdict-2-5-Stars

Freaky Twin Stuff for Your Queue

It can be said that we have a weak spot for twins. Nonetheless, a really excellent comedy/drama that happens to be about twins comes out today – The Skeleton Twins – and we recommend you take a look.

Estranged siblings Maggie and Milo (a great Kristin Wiig and a letter-perfect Bill Hader) reunite over tough circumstances and muddle sloppily through life as they’ve come to know it. Never tidy, often funny, surprisingly intimate and moving, the film looks a lot like life.

Pair it with an utterly brilliant film that looks nothing like life but represents the best Nicolas Cage ever had to offer – twice! Cage plays twin brothers Charlie and Donald Kaufman in Spike Jonze’s twistedly brilliant look at writer’s block, Adaptation. It is a work of genius, co-starring Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper, who won the Oscar for his work.

Countdown: Weird Trend of 2014

Weird theme for great 2014 movies: one word titles. The oddest trait we saw emerge in great films this war was the one-word title film. A full 15 of the best films of 2014 had single-word titles – who knows why? Whatever the reason, in no particular order, are the best of the one-word-title films (and some of the very, very best films of the year.

1. Wild: Reese Witherspoon will no doubt garner her second Oscar nomination and quite possibly her second Oscar starring as a woman who walks 1100 miles solo to get her head together.

2. Selma: Ave DuVernay’s powerful, painfully relevant biopic on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the marches on Selma, Alabama delivers all the punch it needs with one word.

3. Unbroken: Angelina Jolie returns to a spot behind the camera for this true tale of Olympic athlete and WWII POW Louis Zamperini.

4. Birdman: Meta-magical-realism at its finest, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s look at the transience and transcendence of fame will scoop up some Oscars this year.

5. Calvary: Woefully underseen, this wry, weary and brilliant look at the affects of Catholicism’s abuses boasts the great Brendan Gleeson’s best performance.

6. Whiplash: Holy shit! JK Simmons gets the role of a lifetime as an abusive music teacher who is either trying to push his students to greatness or is trying to get away with absolute sadism. This may be the most tense film of the year.

7. Nightcrawler: Another amazing film, this one positing a weirdly sometimes likeable sociopath (Jake Gyllenhaal at his absolute best) in the context of local news – what better fit could there be?

8. Frank: Another underseen gem, this one has the great Michael Fassbender hiding inside a giant plastic head in an exploration of madness and music.

9. Foxcatcher: Bennett Miller returns with another masterpiece in understatement, a true crime tale of Olympic wrestlers and insane billionaires that could bring Oscar nominations to the unlikeliest of actors: Steve Carell and Channing Tatum.

10. Rosewater: Jon Stewart proved his mettle behind the camera with this touching, insightful and underseen true story of a journalist jailed during the Iranian elections of 2009.

11. Boyhood: The best film of 2014, Boyhood’s filming spanned 12 years and let us glimpse something no other film has ever captured.

12. Wetlands: Underneath the shock and body fluids is a deeply human story boasting a fearless and nuanced performance.

13. Snowpiercer: The best SciFi in a year of especially great SciFi, the film was sabotaged by its own studio and still wound up wowing audiences everywhere.

14. Interstellar: Not Christopher Nolan’s best, but when his intergalactic epic is working, it is a mind-bending ride.

15. Locke: A one man show that highlights the talents of perhaps the greatest actor of his generation, Tom Hardy. See it. Do it!