Tag Archives: Screen Wolf

Unhappy Homemaker

Don’t Worry Darling

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

There’s drama, scandal, ghosting, possible spitting – Don’t Worry Darling is known for it all. And none of it’s even in the movie!

So, if you separate Olivia Wilde’s sophomore effort behind the camera from its pre-launch baggage, what do you have? An absolutely gorgeous if somewhat superficial critique of how little progress women – especially married women ­­– have made in terms of agency and control.

Its main recommendation is Florence Pugh, which should surprise no one. Her performances are always fiercely intimate and human; Alice is no different. Lovely wife of Jack Chambers (Harry Styles), Alice cocktails with the ladies, hums while she cleans, prepares a mean roast, and enjoys a healthy sex life with her devoted Jack.

Jack, that’s a manly name. You know what else is? Frank. And manly Frank (Chris Pine) is the force behind the town of Victory. He’s the visionary, the gatekeeper, the Great and Powerful Oz – and Pine relishes every scene-chewing moment on the screen. He is particularly effective when sparring with and menacing Pugh. Their spark is so strong it only makes the rest of the cast appear dimmer.

But we know something is amiss in Victory because nothing screams “something is amiss” to viewers as quickly as a colorfully wholesome late 50s vibe. But man, does Wilde and her production designer Katie Bryon nail that vibe. It’s like Mad Men meets Better Homes and Gardens with cool cars and fabulous costumes to boot, all of it choreographed to flow like the synchronized dance numbers forever punctuating the narrative.

What Wilde shows us is slick, stylish and well-constructed. What she’s telling us is fine, too, it’s just that none of it is as profound as Wilde and screenwriters Katie Silberman, Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke seem to think it is.

They make salient points about testosterone-laden rabbit holes and the inequalities that many demand of a “great” America, but their hand is rarely subtle. And when it comes, even the Twilight Zone moment lands with more shaky logic than well-earned resonance.

But Don’t Worry Darling isn’t worthy of gossip column dismissal, either. There is talent spread throughout the community here, just nothing in the collective effort that’s truly memorable. And like those hot new developments built on remnants of old ones, the film ultimately feels like a shiny new makeover of familiar ideas.

Sister Act

Carmen

by George Wolf

Before the end of the year, there are two Carmen films being released. This is the other one.

Writer/director Valerie Buhagiar isn’t interested in updating that classic opera. But she is interested in what happens when one repressed woman begins to indulge an impetuous nature that would make the legendary operatic gypsy proud.

It is the 1980s on the Maltese Islands, the middle-aged Carmen (Natascha McElhone – outstanding) has been serving as housekeeper for her brother the priest (Henry Zammit Cordina) since she was 16 years old.

The Monsignor (Paul Portelli) promises Carmen that she will indeed be rewarded for her years of service to the Church – when she dies. In this life, though, there is little joy until fate intervenes.

Carmen’s brother suddenly drops dead, and when a replacement is slow to arrive, Carmen herself is mistaken for the new priest. Slipping into the anonymity of the confessional booth, she dispatches advice that actually improves the lives of the locals (especially the women). Contented townsfolk mean an overflowing collection box, which Carmen dips into with a heavenly vow to repay.

She gets a new look, indulges herself, and soon catches the eye of men about town, including the younger Paulo (Steven Love), and the older Tom (Richard Clarkin).

It’s a wonderful lead role for the veteran McElhone, and she makes the most of it. Even early on, we get the sense that there is still a passionate spirit alive in Carmen, just one that’s been buried by years of serving both a country and a religion with little interest in a woman’s fulfillment.

McElhone reveals Carmen’s journey of self with a mischievous indulgence that feels both genuine and joyous, even if the opening “mistaken identity” setup lands as a tad contrived.

The character arc also seems personal to Buhagiar. A Malta native, she deftly uses Carmen’s backstory and her lifetime of longing to comment on the xenophobia she’s seen in her homeland, and the oppression she’s felt from her Church.

The film’s sense of awakening and romance is propelled by gorgeous photography (hat tip to cinematographer Diego Guijarro) and sly use of visual imagery.

Sure, that dove that’s following Carmen around can easily be seen as a religious symbol. But it’s also a reminder from Buhagiar that Carmen’s famous name is no accident. Much like the titular opera’s description of love, this Carmen’s heart is still “a rebellious bird that none can tame.”

And it sure is fun watching her follow it.

Screening Room: The Woman King, Pearl, Moonage Daydream, Confess Fletch, See How They Run & More

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.

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.