Tag Archives: Screen Wolf

Night Crawlers

Arcadian

by George Wolf

Nicolas Cage has become such a mythic figure in film culture that each new outing tends to bring questions.

Is this the unhinged “rage in the Cage?” Arthouse Cage? Mass appeal or self effacing Cage?

You can file Arcadian under “understated Cage leading a YA leaning creature feature.”

He stars as Paul, who’s living in a remote farmhouse with his twin teenage sons in a dystopian future. By day, the men follow a careful routine of security and sustenance. Because at night, there are visitors that really want to come in.

The exact details of the invasion are a little sketchy, but never elusive enough to derail our interest in the family’s survival.

Thomas (Maxwell Jenkins) is the impulsive, romantic brother, and his visits with Charlotte (Sadie Soverall) at the farm down the road have been keeping Thomas out dangerously late. His twin Joseph (Jaeden Martell) is the introspective thinker. Joseph has been studying patterns of the nightly attacks and believes the creatures have been testing, and planning.

He’s right.

Director Benjamin Brewer isn’t trying to reinvent anything here. He teams with producer-turned-screenwriter Michael Nilon for an unassuming horror thriller than benefits greatly from an impressive cast and a frightening creature design.

I don’t want to give anything away, but these bad boys have one specific trait that will get your attention right quick.

These themes aren’t new. There will be peril, bloodshed, and sacrifice as the creatures get smarter and the young begin to take on responsibilities of adulthood and cherish the things that matter. But thankfully, that familiarity doesn’t breed pandering. Brewer is also able to land some solid thrills, while the three younger co-stars provide impressive support for Cage’s elder statesman grace.

Ultimately, Arcadian doesn’t feel that much like a stereotypical “Nicolas Cage movie.” And the film is better for it.

Divisible

Civil War

by George Wolf

Writer/director Alex Garland gets to the point quickly in Civil War, via battle-weary photographer Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst).

“Every time I’ve survived a war zone, I thought I was sending a warning home: don’t do this.”

“But here we are.”

Smith and her colleague Joel (Wagner Moura) are preparing for the 857-mile drive from New York to D.C. during a very active civil war in near-future America. Their press credentials may bring sympathy from some they encounter, and deadly aggression from others. The danger only intensifies when they agree to bring along elderly reporter Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and the aspiring young photojournalist Jessie (Priscilla‘s Cailee Spaeny).

The goal? A face-to-face interview with a President (Nick Offerman) who has disbanded the FBI, ordered air strikes against American citizens, and has not taken questions for over a year.

Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation, Men) is careful not to tip his political hand. Though a couple lines of dialog give you a vague glimpse about what type of policies the President favors, we’re repeatedly told resistance is coming from the “Western Forces” led by California and Texas. The nicely subtle mix of red and blue state rebellion makes it clear the point here is not purely idealogical.

“Don’t do this.”

And though many a road movie has leaned on that narrative device for a flimsy connection of random ideas, Garland uses the trip to D.C. to bolster his very ambitious idea with tension-filled looks at the heartland. Through an uneasy stop for gas, the visit to a town the war forgot, a marksman’s simple rules of engagement, and a brutal citizenship test from an unforgettable Jesse Plemons, we’re immersed in a war-torn America that seems authentically terrifying.

But it’s all just a prelude to the carnage ahead.

Because once it settles in D.C., the film becomes a war movie that will batter your senses with a barrage of breathless execution.

Dunst has never been better, particularly in the moments when Lee’s stoic rationalizing can no longer come to her rescue, or ours. Garland gives us the vulnerable Jessie as a logical entry point in the early going, but as she joins Joel in feeding off the war zone rush, moralities become more complicated.

As draining as it often is, Civil War is also an exhilarating, sobering and necessary experience. Smartly written and expertly crafted, the film manages to honor the work of wartime photojournalists as it delivers a chilling vision. It’s one beyond left or right, where the slippery slope of dehumanization breeds a willingly and violently divisible America we always professed to be beneath us.

One Small Ember

Monkey Man

by George Wolf

A new hero has arrived. And with him, an exciting new filmmaker.

After directing just two short films, Dev Patel moves to features with Monkey Man, an assured and thrillingly violent story of heritage and revenge.

Patel (who also gets a story credit) is charismatic and commanding as “Bobby,” an underground fighter in India who takes dives for “Tiger” (Sharlto Copley) and cons his way into a job washing dishes at an exclusive club run by Queenie Kapoor (Ashwini Kalsekar).

But Bobby has a plan to get promoted to serving in the VIP room. Once in, he’ll get close enough to police chief Rana Singh (Sikandar Kher) to make him pay for crimes committed against Bobby’s mother (Adithi Kalkunte) years before.

Complications arise, leaving Bobby a very wounded and hunted man, until some mystical assistance from Alpha (Vipin Sharma) turns Bobby into a lethal leader for the common people.

Patel doesn’t run from his inspirations, even name-dropping John Wick early in the film. You’ll also see shades of martial arts masters, Winding Refn, Tarantino and more, but Patel is always ready to put his own stamp on a familiar march to a showdown. He favors quick cuts and close ups with scattershot POV shots to enhance the impressive fight choreography and striking color palettes at work.

Similarly, Patel teams with screenwriters John Colle and Paul Angunawela—plus producer Jordan Peele—to take some well known themes and move them progressively forward. Rebelling against the totalitarian tactics of Baba Shakti (Makrand Deshpandi) and the Sovereign Party, a forgotten and oppressed population turns to the Monkey Man for deliverance.

And as much as this feels like an origin story, it is a dark one. Patel has indeed delivered a statement, as much about his filmmaking prowess as it is about his worldview. But the statement is grim and bloody, so leave the little ones at home and strap in for the thrilling, visceral rise of Patel and the Monkey Man.

The Final Curtain

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Opus

by George Wolf

There’s that pivotal scene in Walk the Line, where a young Johnny Cash is failing his audition with Sun Records. Owner Sam Phillips is growing impatient, and finally tells Cash to play one song as if he were dying and wanted to tell God what he felt about his time on Earth.

For 103 glorious minutes in Opus, a dying Ryuichi Sakamoto delivers just such an elegy, a soul-stirring set of piano compositions that often seem to be speaking directly to the heavens.

Sakamoto, the Japanese composer and actor who earned Grammys, BAFTAs, Golden Globes, an Oscar and multiple other awards in his legendary career, was nearing the end of his long battle with cancer when he agreed to one final performance.

Director Neo Sora – Sakamoto’s son – presents his father’s farewell with minimalistic virtuosity. There is only Sakamoto, his piano, and his wonderful talent, as a cascade of musical beauty fills in all the colors needed against Sora’s rich black-and-white pallet.

Sora’s camera is often static, as if to respect and savor the moment. But when it does move it is with grace and purpose, to slowly focus on the master’s hands, his fulfilled facial expressions or the repeated bows of his head.

Sakamoto chooses original works from across his career, performing each with a depth of feeling that is transfixing and touching, reaching an almost ethereal level of expression. It is an experience that can be deeply moving for an audience, but it’s also one that requires a theater setting and uninterrupted silence to completely let it in.

Give Ryuichi Sakamoto: Opus your time and complete attention, and you will be rewarded. This is a man talking to God through his piano.

Just let your soul be enriched

You’ve Got Hate Mail

Wicked Little Letters

by George Wolf

Long before you could hide behind a keyboard and avatar, a small English village was scandalized by some expert-level anonymous trolling. Wicked Little Letters tells us that story is “more true than you’d think,” and rolls out a stellar ensemble to elevate the tale at nearly every turn.

It is the 1920s in Littlehampton, England, where unmarried Edith Swan (Oscar winner Olivia Colman) still lives with her parents (Timothy Spall, Gemma Jones). Edith is known to be a dutiful daughter and devout Christian, so town tongues are wagging when she begins to receive hateful and profanity-laced “poison pen” letters in the mail.

Who could be behind such unwarranted vitriol?

Whaddya bet it’s that filthy Irishwoman Rose Gooding (Oscar nominee Jessie Buckley)?

Rose is frequently loud, drunk and vulgar. Plus, she’s a war widow (or is she?) with a young daughter (Alisha Weir from the upcoming Abigail), a “reputation” and a live-in boyfriend (Malachi Kirby).

Throw in the recent falling-out with Edith, and that’s enough for the town Constables (Hugh Skinner, Paul Chahidi), who arrest Rose and quickly schedule a show trial.

But “Woman Police Officer” Moss (Anjana Vasan) isn’t convinced, and she risks her position by continuing to investigate the letters on her own.

Director Thea Sharrock (Me Before You, The One and Only Ivan) and first-time screenwriter Jonny Sweet don’t craft a “whodunnit” as much as they do a “whoproveit” and a “whydunnit.” The real culprit is revealed fairly early on, and the film tries to balance some British wit atop heavier themes of repression, equality, and the sanctimonious crowd who are all preach no practice.

It’s historically interesting and well-meaning enough, but it reveals Sweet’s TV background through a light and obvious romp that’s rescued by heavyweight talent.

Colman, Buckley and Spall are all customarily splendid, each making up for the lack of nuance in their characters with some livid-in conviction and natural chemistry. Plus, Vasan stands out in the winning supporting group as the overlooked and underestimated W.P.O. Moss.

So while it’s lacking in the bite needed to leave a lasting impression, think of Wicked Little Letters as an extended cat video, one just amusing enough to take your mind off of all those nasty comments from the keyboard warriors.

Screening Room: Godzilla x Kong, Steve! (Martin), Easter Bloody Easter & More

The Deadest of Pans

Lousy Carter

by George Wolf

“Lousy” Carter (a terrific David Krumholtz) is a college professor, currently teaching a grad level seminar on The Great Gatsby.

One book? Even his “best friend” and colleague Kaminsky (Martin Starr) is nonplussed.

“Maybe you should teach a pamphlet,” he says with the deadest of pans, underscoring the entire tone of writer/director Bob Byington’s sardonic slice of life and death.

Carter got his titular nickname from being bad at golf, but he’s not exactly ace-ing this life thing, either. Lousy’s students don’t like him, his ex (Olivia Thirlby) calls him a “baby man,” and his sister (Trieste Kelly Dunn) would rather not call him at all. His fellow teachers are embarrassed for him, his therapist (Stephen Root) mocks him, he’s thousands in debt, and he’s sleeping with Kaminsky’s wife (Jocelyn DeBoer).

Great. Anything else?

He just got some very bad news at the doctor’s office.

But hey, he does have a fan in Dick Anthony (Macon Blair), a weird guy who loved the animated film Lousy made “back in the aughts,” and who might be giving off stalker vibes.

If you’re familiar with Byington’s work (Somebody Up There Likes Me, RSO), you’ll be ready for how dryly Byington attacks this clash of narcissism against the merciless march of time. And though you can probably count on one hand the number of times any character smiles, that doesn’t mean there aren’t laughs to be found here.

The biggest may be the “based on true events” tag that Byington hangs up at the start, right before he lets Krumholtz loose on this journey of indignation. It’s not so much an arc as it is a sinking ship, but Krumholtz excels in finding sympathetic moments that draw us in.

And even if this bark has too much bite for you, it’s hard not to respect Byington’s masterly command of tone. His commitment to that tone is unwavering, with Krumholtz leading an unmerry band of misanthropes through a series of events that are never at a loss for darkly funny cynicism.

I mean they’re just lousy with it.

Fright Club: Telephone Horror

We welcome our Fave Five From Fans podcast buddy Jamie Ray back to the Club to talk about horror movies that make the best use of phones. This was Jamie’s topic suggestion and he brings five titles of his own, so please be sure to listen to the full podcast!

In the meantime, here are our five favorites.

5. The Black Phone (2021)

Ethan Hawke plays the Grabber in Scott Derrikson’s take on the Joe Hill short story. With his top hat, black balloons and big black van, Grabber’s managed to lure and snatch a number of young boys from a small Colorado town. Finney (Mason Thames) is his latest victim, and for most of the film, Finney waits for his punishment down a locked cement basement with a cot and an unplugged black rotary dial phone.

Time period detail sets a spooky mood and Derrickson has fun with soundtrack choices. But the film’s success—its creepy, affecting success—is Hawke. The actor weaves in and out of different postures, tones of voice, movements. He’s about eight different kinds of creepy, every one of them aided immeasurably by its variation on that mask.

Derrickson hasn’t reinvented the genre. But, with solid source material and one inspired performance, he’s crafted a gem of a horror movie.

4. Black Christmas (1974)

Sure, it’s another case of mysterious phone calls leading to grisly murders; sure it’s another one-by-one pick off of sorority stereotypes; sure, there’s a damaged child backstory; naturally John Saxon co-stars. Wait, what was different? Oh yeah, it did it first.

Released in 1974, the film predates most slashers by at least a half dozen years. It created the architecture. More importantly, the phone calls are actually quite unsettling. Director Bob Clark was onto something with the phone calls, as evidenced by the number of films that ripped off this original convention.

3. When a Stranger Calls (1979)

With a very simple premise, director/co-writer Fred Walton delivered genuine shocks and dread.

Carol Kane is Jill, garden variety high school babysitter type. The kids are already in bed, Jill just needs to be there in the house until Dr. and Mrs. Mandrakis get back. She does homework, talks on the phone, watches TV. What she does not do—however often the rando phone caller asks—is check the children.

The first and third acts are the killers, while Act 2 is a lot of police procedural thriller, but there’s a reason people still bristle when they hear, “Have you checked the children?”

2. Scream (1996)

Wes Craven’s return to horror—aided immeasurably by a sly and daring script from Kevin Williamson—revived the genre. And you knew it would be an incredible movie from the opening moments.

Drew Barrymore—easily the most recognizable name in the cast (also a producer)—answers the phone. She’s home alone, making popcorn, readying to watch a horror film. She gets roped into a flirty anonymous game of “what’s your favorite scary movie?”

The voice (Roger Jackson) became iconic, as did his line.

1.The Ring (2002)

“Seven days…”

Gore Verbinski’s take on Chisui Takigawa’s 1995 film embraces the already-retro tech—VHS tapes and landlines—to ground a supernatural tale of curses, horses and bad parenting.

Nowadays when you see “PG13” attached to horror, you may roll your eyes. But The Ring brings plenty of terror and tension, and it all starts when that phone rings.