Tag Archives: MaddWolf

Cultural Echoes

Echoes of the Empire: Beyond Genghis Khan

by Tori Hanes

A thorough and colorful exploration of Mongolian history and culture, director Robert H. Lieberman’s Echoes of the Empire: Beyond Genghis Khan immediately astounds with breathtaking cinematography. That awe is transferred to the artistic animation as stories take shape, and is continued in every visual aspect of the film for its entirety. 

The documentary guides you from early Mongolian history to present-day culture. Lieberman’s visual storytelling almost does more to narrate the culture than the scattered interviews. Exploration into the fabric of early Mongolian society is where Lieberman excels. He details how fables turn into norms to connect the culture to an audience largely unfamiliar with the country.

First-person accounts from citizens raised nomadically (a fact touted in the film: nomadic citizens estimate approximately 30% of the country’s population) beautifully and effortlessly transcend the audience to the lush, rolling hills of farmers and livestock.

Unfortunately, an interest in both glossing over and thoroughly explaining the complex history of the country causes a bit of a pile-up. It’s understandable. Recognizing how the culture found itself in the present is paramount for the film’s ultimate point: that Mongolia is a rapidly evolving nation, shifting its position both in the world and internally. Knowing the past is important for expanding on the future, but a smoother structure would’ve made the information more digestible.

On the other hand, Mongolia’s constantly changing society remains under-explored. The choice to invest the audience’s time in the past without a significant payoff looking toward the future leaves the film imbalanced, slightly muddling the ultimate point. 

Echoes of the Empire is many things: informative, compelling, astounding, and sometimes, disproportionate. But the beauty of Lieberman’s vision tied closely with the captivating culture makes for a unique, lifted experience.

In This Housing Market?

Abandoned

by Hope Madden

Competently made and utterly unremarkable, Spencer Squire’s Abandoned still somehow managed to draw a top-notch cast. Huh.

Emma Roberts is Sara, a new mom battling post-partum depression. Her doting husband Alex (John Gallagher Jr.) thinks a change of scenery will help. Naturally, they purchase a beautiful, rustic farmhouse that was once the site of a massive family murder.

Will there be a creepy neighbor with intel on the crime? There will indeed, blessedly in the form of the always amazing Michael Shannon. Why he’s in this film is anybody’s guess (until you dig deeper into the credits), but he’s a welcome, fascinating presence.

Sara spends lonesome days alone with her baby while veterinarian Alex tends to the surrounding farms’ livestock. These follow sleepless nights, where creaking, stomping, and the laughter of children keep her awake.

Writers Erik Patterson and Jessica Scott conflate psychosis, post-partum depression and paranoia with a reasonable suspicion of a haunting. Is Sara overwrought from depression? Is the slain of the house trying to terrorize her? Is she actually just dangerously unstable from way back?

Options aplenty, none of them explored or particularly well established.

It’s a lot of weight on Roberts, who’s proven in films like The Blackcoat’s Daughter that an unbalanced horror heroine is well within her wheelhouse. Here she just seems lost.

Gallagher is wasted in yet another Good Guy Jim (Newsroom reference) role. But the supporting cast is excellent, beginning with Shannon. Kate Arrington (Shannon’s real-life wife who was so stellar in Knives and Skin) is perfection as the eager but judgy real estate agent.

Paul Schneider appears in an intriguing if underdeveloped role, one that appears to throw the entire film in a fascinating new direction. Sadly, Abandoned quickly reestablishes itself as the predictably middling supernatural thriller you knew it was from its opening minutes.

Shooting Blanks

Blowback

by Brandon Thomas

Rideshare driver Nick (Cam Gigandet of Twilight and The Magnificent Seven) needs fast money to help care for his hospitalized daughter. Thankfully in the world of Blowback, there’s a seedy criminal underbelly that rideshare drivers know about.

Nick gets hooked up with a crew that includes an ex of his (Michelle Plaia) and her new squeeze, Jack (Randy Couture of The Expendables). Like clockwork, Nick is quickly double-crossed after the heist and left for dead. What follows is a meandering, undercooked tale of revenge. 

First thing’s first: Blowback was a chore to sit through. It’s a movie completely devoid of clever plotting or surprises. Instead, the entirety of the film is built upon genre cliches that have been done better hundreds of times before. Cliches and tropes can be fun and entertaining, but it helps to have good writing, directing, and acting to support them.

Gigandet and Couture are the big “names” in Blowback, and I’m having a hard time thinking of two other leads more boring than them. Gigandet has turned in some okay work in bigger fare over the years, but he’s not the kind of actor that can take weak material and beef it up through his performance. Couture, on the other hand, has never turned in a performance I would call good. The majority of his line readings feel like they’re coming from cue cards.

Director Tibor Takacs has been steadily working as a director since the mid-80s. He’s responsible for two cult horror favorites in The Gate and I, Madman. While these two films aren’t bonafide classics, they did show that Takacs knew how to approach genre with some style. This is not the case with Blowback.

The film is competently made, but only from a point-and-shoot standard. Takacs’s vanilla directing style here does nothing to help the already cheap feel of the entire production.

Blowback offers 93 minutes of nothing new in the realm of revenge cinema. Save yourself the time and put on Point Blank again. Or maybe one of the John Wick movies. Maybe Kill Bill would scratch that itch as well. In fact, any other movie would work out better than Blowback.

Hot in the City

Cocoon

by Rachel Willis

Berlin, 2018 is the setting for writer/director Leonie Krippendorff’s coming-of-age drama, Cocoon (Kokon).  

Awkward, quiet Nora (Lena Urzendowsky) is our guide through this realistic, slice-of-life look at teenagers as the hottest summer on record sweeps Berlin. A follower, Nora spends most of her time with her older sister, Jule (Lena Klenke) and Jule’s best friend, Aylin (Elina Vildanova).

When Nora meets carefree, older student, Romy (Jella Haase), she explores a different kind of world – one apart from her sister. Where Jule and Aylin are obsessed with boys and their looks, filming the bulk of their activities on their cell phones, Nora is still finding her way. But it’s an innocent wrestling match in the pool between Nora and Aylin that makes Nora realizes she looks at girls “the way boys do.”

Krippendorff’s masterful take on the embarrassing and exhilarating moments of being a teenager, especially a teenage girl, is both observant and often subtle. Nora’s mother is rarely home, leaving Jule to take care of a younger sister, who is at times the more well-adjusted of the two. A misguided attempt of Jule’s to keep their mother home is met with a level-headed response from Nora.

Romy offers Nora a chance to separate herself from both her sister and the struggles of a home-life absent of parents. Nora is happiest when she’s allowed to explore a teenager’s life – one with adventure and joy and sexual experiences.

Though it’s never made clear how much older Romy is than Nora, there are a few scenes that highlight the age gap between the two. Often, Nora’s responses to Romy’s attentions come across as childish, making the pairing feel a little more awkward than is probably intended. However, it can be argued that Nora’s behavior in her relations with Romy serves as a contrast to the ways she has been forced to shed her youth at home in order to survive. It’s only with Romy that Nora is able and allowed to express herself fully.

In a strong film, there are still a few disappointments: a predictable turn of events during the film’s climax, the not-so-subtle sequences with a caterpillar, an ethereal plastic bag. (I didn’t like it any better in American Beauty).

Fortunately, in a film with so many wonderful moments, the minor flaws are easily forgiven and adolescence in all its incongruous beauty is put on magnificent display for us to either relive or relate.

Madness Rein

Mad God

by Hope Madden

You may not know Phil Tippett by name, but you’ve certainly seen his work. The monsters of his imagination were on the Dejarik board in Star Wars. They roamed Jurassic Park. They wrought havoc in Starship Troopers.

Now Tippett’s demons take center stage in his stop motion head trip 30 years in the making, Mad God.

It’s like a Bosch painting and a Tool video accusing each other of being too lighthearted.

Dense with grotesquerie and craftsmanship, the animated tale follows a lone figure across and through a noxious landscape bubbling with creatures large and small. Our hero has a map to aid him and a gas mask to protect him. His journey brings him in contact with violence of both the sadistic and thoughtless sort.

Mad God delivers a nightmare vision like little else, overwhelming in its detail and scope. Tippett plumbs cycles of mindless cruelty. Then, just when you think his film speaks of war and commerce, the commerce of war, he turns focus.

We enter a hospital, witness a medical harvesting. And then suddenly, we turn to a series demonstrating ways in which history and societies have been built on sadistic entertainment.

Suddenly, a sequence full of day-glo colors and relative gaiety feels momentarily like a respite. Nope.

Mad World revels in Tippett’s vulgar, potent fantasy without belaboring a clear plotline. The world itself resembles, at least at first, a post-apocalyptic wasteland you might recognize. Tippett peoples this somewhat familiar landscape with figures and images that also feel reminiscent: a doll’s befouled face, a fiendish surgeon, a cloaked figure.

Certain sequences and score sections recall Alan Parker’s Pink Floyd: The Wall, while others bring to mind Shane Acker’s underseen 2009 animation, 9. Rather than pull you through these images with a clear destination, Tippett meanders.

Mad God asks you to take in the chaos, the slurry of misery in its tactile, malevolent nightmare and find, if not hope — you will not find hope — then maybe sympathy.

Fright Club: They Had Sex with What?!?

Horror flirts with taboo, teases decency, and sometimes comes right out and has sex with a monster. Most often this is a violation of the flesh, but we’re most interested in films and characters that are pretty OK with it. Most of those movies are gloriously bonkers. We count down our favs in episode 225:

5. The Shape of Water (2017)

An unforgettable Sally Hawkins—an actor who has never hit a false note in her long and underappreciated career—gets her chance to lead a big, big show. She plays Elisa, a mute woman on the janitorial team for a research institute in Cold War-era Baltimore.

Enter one night a malevolent man (Michael Shannon), and a mysterious container. Color Elisa intrigued.

In its own way, The Creature from the Black Lagoon is a tragic romance. But what if it weren’t? Tragic, I mean. What if beauty loved the beast?

Writer/director Guillermo del Toro is an overt romantic. So many of his films—CronosThe Devil’s BackboneCrimson Peak—swim in romance, but he’s never made as dreamily romantic or hypnotically sensual a film as The Shape of Water.

4. Spring (2014)

Evan (a spot-on Lou Taylor Pucci) has hit a rough patch. After nursing his ailing mother for two years, Evan finds himself in a bar fight just hours after her funeral. With grief dogging him and the cops looking to bring him in, he grabs his passport and heads to the first international location available: Italy.

It’s a wise setup, and an earnest Pucci delivers the tender, open performance the film requires. He’s matched by the mysterious Nadia Hilker as Louise, the beautiful stranger who captivates Evan.

At its core, Spring is a love story that animates the fear of commitment in a way few others do. The film’s entire aesthetic animates the idea of the natural world’s overwhelming beauty and danger. It’s a vision that’s equally suited to a sweeping romance or a monster movie, and since you’ll have a hard time determining which of those labels best fits Spring, it’s a good look.

3. The Untamed (2016)

Sexual frustration leads to a lot of bad choices, but sexual satisfaction may be the real monster in Amat Escalante’s wild scifi/horror flick.

Alejandra (Ruth Ramos) is one of the sexually frustrated. Veronica (Simone Bucio) is not. Angel (Jesus Meza) is making bad choices. But there was this meteor, and it landed out by this isolated farm. What if the answer to all their problems is there?

Taking direct inspiration from Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession, Escalante reframes the taboo-defying frenzy of unbridled sexuality. Where Zulawski’s surreal, antiseptic environment suggested absurdism, Escalante grounds the fantasy in profoundly ordinary and relatable human drama. The result is horrifying.

2. Possession (1981)

Andrzej Zulawski – writer/director/Czech – created this wild ride with doppelgangers, private investigators, ominous government (or are they?) agencies, and curious sexual appetites. 

Sam Neill plays Mark. Mark has just left his job – a mysterious position with some kind of lab.

Back at home, he greets his genuinely adorable son Bob (Michael Hogben). Mark’s wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) is also at home with Bob.

Anna, it seems, is in love with someone else. Is it the sexually open – really, really open – Heinrich? Is it a bloody, mollusk-like monster? Is Mark boning Anna’s mean friend with a cast on her leg? Does Bob’s kindergarten teacher bear an unreasonable resemblance to Anna? Is anyone caring properly for Bob?

These questions and more go basically unanswered in a deviant, summary-defying bit of filmmaking that mocks the idiocy, even insanity of obsession and boasts a handful of weirdly excellent performances. And sex with a bloody mollusk-like monster.

1. Titane (2021)

Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or-winning Titane is alive with alternating color palettes, pulsating sounds and endless shocks of body horrific visuals. The sudden bursts of violence are downright pedestrian alongside the parade of boldly squirm-inducing clashes of flesh, bone and other.

But as she did with her first feature, Raw, Ducournau finds humanity clawing out from the inhumane. Truly unforgettable performances from Vincent Lindon and Agathe Russell provide intimate examples of the extremes that even the most damaged souls are capable of in the search to care and be cared for.

It may not be shy about homages and influences, but Titane is indeed its own ferocious animal. Open the cage look the F out.

With Teeth

Jurassic World: Dominion

by Hope Madden

Trite. Insipid. Derivative. Safe.

Oh, that’s harsh. I may still be mad that the Jurassic franchise ruined J.A. Bayona for me. But no matter the hot garbage that was Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, I vowed to keep my hopes high for Jurassic World: Dominion.

I mean, Laura Dern’s back. And Sam Neill. And Jeff Goldblum! What’s not to love?

Too much. There is unquestionably too much not to love.

Colin Trevorrow returns to helm the franchise he rebooted with the surprisingly popular 4th installment, 2015’s Jurassic World. It was fun. It had problems (it really embraced outdated ideas of gender roles and romance, for instance), but it was a decent slice of nostalgia wrapped in excellent FX.

Then came the abomination of Fallen Kingdom. So, now Trevorrow is back to rein in the franchise with the one thing that can save it: the cast we loved from Spielberg’s ’93 original.

Dern, Neill and Goldblum – as Ellie, Grant and Malcolm — are more interested in these giant hybrid locusts than in dinosaurs, though. Whereas Owen (Chris Pratt) and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) want to save their daughter.

Essentially, no one gives a shit about dinosaurs in this one.

See, that’s how zombie franchises derail. Filmmakers think we pay money to see their people on a big screen. People we can see in any movie. Hell, we can see people by turning our heads away from the screen.

Dinosaurs, please!

They’re here, and they look cool, but they’re filler. Trevorrow, co-writing with Emily Carmichael and Derek Connolly, stuffs the script with so much needless human backstory and drama that the dinosaur danger offers little more than set dressing.

In its place, loads and loads of traditional family values, Spielberg nods and nostalgia. The tone is insincere at best. Rather than feeling inspired by Spielberg, Jurassic World Dominion comes off as a hollow, cynical facsimile. It’s as authentic as a theme park ride.

We’re Gonna Need a Montage

Hustle

by George Wolf

Adam Sandler’s passion for basketball is fairly well known, so the fact that Hustle is a love letter to the NBA shouldn’t be a huge surprise. And, this being a sports movie, you can expect some familiar benchmarks the film wisely doesn’t shy away from.

But this film about the heart and commitment that’s required in the Association boasts plenty of both from nearly everyone involved, landing Netflix an enjoyable winner.

Sandler plays Stanley Sugerman, a road-weary scout for the Philadelphia 76ers whose devotion to team owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall) is finally rewarded with a job on the bench as Assistant Coach.

But with clear shades of the Buss family drama in L.A., Rex’s son Vince (Ben Foster) wrestles control of the team from his sister (Heidi Gardner), and Stan is back living out of a suitcase while he scours the globe for a susperstar.

Writers Will Fetters and Taylor Materne set some nice stakes early, as Vince dangles a return to coaching in front of Stan. The quicker he finds the team a game-changing phenom, the sooner he can be home closer to his wife (Queen Latifah) and daughter (Jordan Hull).

On a gritty playground in Spain, Stan thinks he’s found his unicorn in the 6’9” Bo Cruz (NBA vet Juancho Hernangomez). The talk of big money lures Bo to Philly, but the path to a payday hits some roadblocks, and Bo’s longing for this mom and daughter back home creates some effective character-driven parallels with Stan.

Sandler and Hernangomez share a sweet, funny chemistry, and a constant stream of past and present NBA stars adds plenty of authenticity. Even better is director Jeremiah Zagar’s (We the Animals) skill in framing on-court action with speed, sweat and a tense, in-the-moment feel that gives the standard sports themes some needed vitality.

Hustle is a story of father figures, redemption, perseverance, and leaving your mark. No one’s claiming to re-invent anything here, and the winking nod to an iconic Rocky moment cements a self-awareness that only adds to the film’s charm.

It’s also another example of Sandler’s versatility, and the good that comes from surrounding himself with unique voices. When Sandler cares, he shines.

And he clearly cares about basketball.

Rites of Passage

Tahara

by George Wolf

If you saw Rachel Sennot’s breakout performance in last year’s wonderful Shiva Baby, the setup of Tahara is going to look pretty familiar. But in their feature debut, writer Jess Zeidman and director Olivia Peace find a vibrant, refreshing lens for their own look at one funeral’s anxious aftermath.

Sennot is terrific again as the self-centered Hannah, who joins her more reserved best friend Carrie (Madeline Grey DeFreece, also excellent) at the service for their Hebrew school classmate Samantha. Samantha killed herself at the age of 18, and after the funeral the girls will join other classmates at a grief session to talk about their feelings.

They will also gossip, navigate cliques, and bitch about having to be there while they try to catch the eye of Tristan (Daniel Taveras).

At least Hannah will be flirting with Tristan. Because Carrie is hiding some true feelings for her bestie, a conflict that Peace and Zeidman surround with some touching and effective parallels.

Peace frames most of the film in a square, 1:1 aspect ratio, but goes wide at important moments, most of which are animated. It’s a clear nod to the times when Carrie, a young Jewish queer woman of color, sees herself – and the world – in new ways.

Though the animation sequences and lack of score can give the film an experimental feel, a juxtaposition with the Jewish ritual meant to cleanse the body before burial (Tahara) ultimately grounds it as a deeply personal journey.

The students tell their teacher (and by extension, those not familiar with Jewish traditions) that the ritual’s goal is to “erase social status,” which feeds perfectly into the teenage power struggles (and one suicide) we see through the eyes of a type of character not often represented.

At times funny, uncomfortable, and heartbreaking, Tahara is an ambitious and ultimately moving film, from a pair of voices we should look forward to hearing again.

Birds, Bees and Whatnot

A Sexplanation

by Rachel Willis

Director Alex Liu is on a quest to overcome the shame he feels regarding sex. He’s also out to understand why sex is such a taboo subject in America – especially when it comes to our kids, their curiosity, and their own drives (whatever they may be) – in his documentary, A Sexplanation.

Part exploration of sex education in the United States, healthy sexual conversation, and personal memoir, the doc wants to understand why Liu was made to feel such shame about his own sexual acts and preferences. In a heart-wrenching moment, he even admits to contemplating suicide because of it.

This is a heavy sequence in an otherwise very lighthearted and funny documentary. Liu might still feel some of the embarrassment of his upbringing (in one particular interview it’s obvious from his blush he’s asking questions that bring discomfort), but he is determined to upend the current notion of sex as shameful.

This is the kind of documentary that would be a wonderful conversation starter for parents and their teenagers, as some of its queries are a bit too advanced for younger children. One of the points the documentary makes is that there shouldn’t be “The Talk” with kids, but a continuing conversation around age-appropriate topics. There’s no reason why a two- or three-year-old can’t know the proper terminology for their body parts. Or why a six-year-old can’t begin to understand the biological differences between the sexes. In the case of sex, silence from parents can be just as damaging as outright shaming.

This is what appears to have happened to Liu. As he talks with his parents, both of whom seem quite open to his questions, it doesn’t appear that they intended for Liu to feel awkward, embarrassed, or even wrong for a natural part of development. But their silence meant he was left to the wayward American education system, which primarily values abstinence-only over comprehensive sex-ed.

Conversations with others his age reveal the woefully inadequate education most of us have, not only concerning sex, but also some of the basics of human biology.   

Liu could probably have done a bit more exploring. Still, A Sexplanation offers a non-judgmental safe space for the questions that many of us (okay, probably all of us) have had when it comes to masturbation, sexual proclivities, and the whole exciting and wonderful topic that is sex.