Soccer Buddies

Early Man

by Hope Madden

There is something adorably British about Nick Parks’s latest plasticine adventure, Early Man.

No I am not being condescending. It’s animated. It’s supposed to be adorable.

This Aardman export—the Brit animation studio responsible for the Wallace & Gromit classics, among others—pits dunder-headed but lovable cave dwellers against greedy Bronze Age Euro-trash as it spoofs sports flicks.

We open at the dawn of time, when dinosaurs and cave men and giant, toothy mallards roamed the earth outside Manchester, England. Around lunchtime.

It’s silly. And sweet. And basically a 90-minute mash note to Manchester United.

When those posh bullies from the Bronze Age (led by Tom Hiddleston’s Lord Nooth) push Dug (Eddie Redmayne) and his nincompoopy cavemen friends out of their fertile valley, Dug devises a challenge to regain his beloved home.

Like all great sports films, Early Man pushes the underdog narrative to epitomize more than simple foot-to-ball competition. Plus, you really do want these earnest faces, overbites and all, to learn to believe in themselves.

And why can’t a pig play soccer?

Dug’s quick trip into town square offers opportunities for the Aardman Easter eggs—be sure to scan the vendor booths for hilarious names. With voice talent to spare (Timothy Spall and Rob Brydon are among those with smaller roles), you’re assured the intentionally silly jokes are delivered expertly.

The problem is that Early Man would have made for a really hilarious short.

The story doesn’t benefit from a 90-minute stretch. The setting—mainly an imposing landscape littered with enormous rib bones—doesn’t offer enough opportunity for visual distraction and the characters are not memorable enough to keep your attention for the full run time.

Expect much of the familiar: googly eyes, enormous teeth, simple characters and kind-hearted laughter. CGI mixes with the stop-action to rob the film of some character, but Early Man has charm to spare.

What We Do on Asgard

Thor: Ragnarok

by Hope Madden

What if the next Avengers movie was a laugh riot? A full-blown comedy—would you be OK with that?

The answer to that question has serious implications for your appreciation of Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok.

You’re familiar with Thor, his brother, his buddies, his hair. But how well do you know Waititi? Because he’s made a handful of really great movies you should see, chief among them What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

Waititi’s films are charming and funny in that particularly New Zealand way, which is to say equal parts droll and silly. So a total goofus has made our latest superhero movie, is what I’m trying to tell you, and you’ll need to really embrace that to appreciate this film, because Thor: Ragnarok makes the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise seem dour and stiff.

There’s a real Thor movie in here somewhere. Thor (Chris Hemsworth and his abs) learns of his older sister Hela (Cate Blanchett—hela good casting!). Sure, Thor’s the God of Thunder, but Hela’s the Goddess of Death, so her return is not so welcome. But daaayumn, Cate Blanchett makes a kick-ass Goth chick.

Indeed, the film is lousy with female badasses. Tessa Thompson (Dear White People, Creed) proves her status by taking all comers, Thor and Hulk among them.

But can you get behind the idea of Hulk and dialog? Because he has dialog in this movie. Like whole conversations. Dude, I don’t know about that.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) returns, as does Idris Elba, so this is one bona fide handsome movie. Mark Ruffalo makes an appearance in a vintage Duran Duran tee shirt. It’s like Waititi thought to himself, how many of Hope’s crushes can we squeeze into one film?

One more! Jeff Goldblum (don’t judge me) joins as a charming and hysterical world leader. His banter with his second in command (Rachel House—so hilarious in Wilderpeople) is priceless.

Also very funny, Karl Urban (who brings a nice slap of comic timing to every bloated franchise he joins), Waititi himself (playing a creature made of rocks), and one outstanding cameo I won’t spoil.

Thor: Ragnarock lifts self-parody to goofy heights, and maybe that’s OK. There’s no question the film entertains. Does it add much to the canon? Well, let’s be honest, the Thor stand-alones are not the strongest in the Marvel universe.

You will laugh. You’ll want to hug this movie, it’s so adorable.

Unless you’re totally pissed about the whole thing, which is entirely possible.

Return of The King

Kong: Skull Island

by George Wolf

Time to grab the sunscreen and the softball glove…Kong: Skull Island will have you thinking it’s summer! The King’s latest return is fun and fast-paced eye cotton candy, a spectacle entirely satisfied with being less filling and more thrilling.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts serves up the big ape early and often, while smart and talented writers effectively blend homage, humor, metaphor and bombast without ever committing the film too much in one direction.

Writers Nick Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly have resumes that include Nightcrawler, Jurassic World and the 2014 Godzilla. They may have a “B” movie on steroids, but they all know how to sneak in a dose or two of social commentary. This is about man’s inhumanity to nature, about how enemies sometimes “don’t exist until you look for them,” and about an island full of huge freakin’ monsters!

It is 1973, at the close of the Vietnam War, and scientist Bill Randa (John Goodman) feels it may be his last chance at getting government approval (and funds) to explore Skull Island, an uncharted mass in the South Pacific kept hidden by constant electrical storms and magnetic interference.  Of course, Randa has other motives for the mission that he’s not interested in sharing with Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s leading the military escort to the island, grizzled mercenary tracker James Conrad (ungrizzled Tom Hiddleston, a bit miscast), photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) or anyone else on the team.

First on the agenda is dropping explosives in hopes of mapping the island seismographically. Step two is throwing the rest of the agenda out the window and trying to stay alive because Kong don’t play that.

There are plenty other scary things on Skull Island, and even another pilot. Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) has been there since crash landing during WWII, and he’s armed with funny one liners and helpful survival tips for the tourists.

While Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) attacks the adventure with some familiar guns blazing, he peppers in enough small surprises to keep things interestingly off-kilter. It’s like he’s living a dream of combining Apocalypse Now with Godzilla, and he’s not leaving until he’s satisfied the scale is big enough.

It’s plenty big, and the CGI is often exhilarating, but smaller moments of nuance find a way in. The characters both embrace and deflect common stereotypes, so while Brie Larson does end up in a tight tank top, it’s Hiddleston that Vogt-Roberts’s camera is most interested in objectifying.

This is entertaining cheese that screams Memorial Day weekend, rising up before your St. Paddy’s bar crawl. The hangover will be minimal, and even the after-credits scene makes hanging around till closing time seem like a good idea.

Halloween Countdown, Day 23: Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Vampires again! Can’t we just give it a rest already?

I hear ya, but before you write them off completely, let Only Lovers Left Alive renew your faith in the genre’s possibilities.

Leave it to visionary writer/director Jim Jarmusch to concoct the perfect antidote to the pop culture onslaught of romantic teenage blood drinkers. OLLA is a delicious black comedy, oozing with sharp wit and hipster attitude.

Great lead performances don’t hurt, either, and Jarmusch gets them from Tom Hilddleston and Tilda Swinton as Adam and Eve (perfect!), a vampire couple rekindling their centuries-old romance against the picturesque backdrop of…Detroit.

I’m not going to lie, they had me at Swinton/Hiddleston/Jarmusch/vampires, but it’s such a treat to find the end result only exceeds expectations.

Not since the David Bowie/Catherine Deneuve pairing in The Hunger has there been such perfectly vampiric casting. Swinton and Hiddleston, already two of the most consistently excellent actors around, deliver cooly detached, underplayed performances, wearing the world- weariness of their characters in uniquely contrasting ways.

The less you know about the lifestyles of Adam and Eve, the better, and the plot consists mainly of consequences from a surprise visit by Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska). But Jarmusch, as he often does, creates a setting that is totally engrossing, full of fluid beauty and wicked humor.

His camera lingers in dark corners and high ceilings, swimming in waves of sublime production design, evocative music and mood lighting that is subtle perfection. This is a master class in style and atmosphere, conjuring up a dark world you’re just geeked to spend time in.

There is substance to accent all the style. The film moseys toward its perfect finale, casually waxing Goth philosophic about soul mates and finding your joy.

Ironically, Jarmusch treats the possibility of nightwalkers among us more realistically than any vampire flick in recent memory. And in the process, has some wry fun with how the whole thing went south.

Talk about finding our joy.

Listen weekly to MaddWolf’s horror podcast FRIGHT CLUB. Do it!





High Society

High-Rise

by Hope Madden

Set inside a skyscraper in a gloriously retro London, Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise is a dystopia full of misanthropic humor.

Laing (Tom Hiddleston) narrates his own story of life inside the “grand social experiment” – a high rise where the higher the floor, the higher the tenant’s social status. Laing lives keenly alone, somewhere in the middle floors. Socialite Charlotte (a fantastic Sienna Miller) lives one floor above; put upon wife and philandering husband Helen and Wilder (Elizabeth Moss and Luke Evans, respectively) live near the bottom. And at the tippy top, The Architect (Jeremy Irons, magnificent as always).

The film treads some of the same ground as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, only Ballard’s feelings were less respectful of the lowly. The author’s interest was always in peeling that last layer that separates civility from savagery in every member of every class. No one is blameless, no one is incorruptible. It can make his material difficult because no character is entirely sympathetic, which is certainly the case in High-Rise.

Our protagonist holds himself at a distance from all tenants, seeing himself as that singular soul that can fit almost anonymously within every strata, when, in fact, he fits nowhere. And as chaos descends and carnality and carnage, it’s very hard to decide whether anyone is worth rooting for.

The film brings to mind David Cronenberg’s gem, Shivers. The Canadian auteur’s first film saw a high end high rise taken down from within by a parasite that turned its victims into voracious pleasure seekers. Always the Ballard enthusiast (Cronenberg adapted the author’s Crash into a chilly NC-17 adaptation in 1996), the filmmaker’s 1975 flick eerily predicted the British cult novelist’s plot of the same year.

High-Rise’s performances range from slyly understated (Hiddleston, Moss) to powerful (Miller, Evans) to alarmingly hammy (James Purefoy), but each contributes entertainingly to this particular brand of dystopia.

Ballard’s prose is tough to bring to life on the big screen. While Cronenberg’s 1996 adaptation breathed the author’s chilly, disgusted detachment, Wheatley’s version mines Ballard’s humor in a film that is wildly alive but terrifically flawed.

The class war has not waned since Ballard set its microcosm inside his London skyscraper. Its flame burns as bright and toxic today as it ever has, but somehow Wheatley’s film lacks that heat. It’s a fascinating mess without the punch of relevance.

Still, the wicked humor and wild chaos will certainly keep your attention.

Verdict-3-5-Stars





Long Gone Daddy

I Saw the Light

by Hope Madden

At one point in I Saw the Light, Marc Abraham’s biopic of legendary country performer Hank Williams, the singer tells us, “Everybody has a little darkness in them. I show it to them and they don’t have to take it home.”

It’s a fascinating scene. Too bad it doesn’t describe the film we’re seeing.

The reliably talented Tom Hiddleston lost some pounds as well as his Brit accent to take on the role of the lanky Alabaman. While his performance is not perfect, it is quite good. Between the surprisingly effective singing and the occasionally haunted expression, Hiddleston brings Williams to charming if conflicted life.

Hiddleston is joined by the equally talented Elizabeth Olsen, and the two attempt to animate the volcanic relationship between Williams and wife Audrey. Their chemistry keeps the rocky pairing believable and fascinating, and Olsen’s spitfire performance shows fearlessness.

No, the problem with I Saw the Light is definitely not the cast. But make no mistake, there are serious problems here.

In perhaps the best scene in the film, Williams unveils his most recent effort, the iconic Your Cheatin’ Heart. Heartbroken, ill, and spent, the singer whispers the final line and Abraham cuts to his wife Billie (Maddie Hasson). This might have been a powerful choice if we had spent any time with or been given any information about this particular wife and her allegedly cheatin’ heart.

Abraham (Flash of Genius), who adapted the nonfiction book by Colin Escott, meanders through the musical legend’s personal life while entirely neglecting his music. The film never feels like it is moving forward, offers no real context or reflection on Williams’s personal struggles, and is exasperatingly slight when showcasing his artistry.

Williams tells us in the film that when a country singer sings a sad song, you know that he knows sadness.

Man, I bet that’s true. Too bad I don’t hear his sad songs, nor do I see him battle sadness. I do see him drink, show up too drunk to perform, and marry several times. That may be the fodder for a country song or two, but a satisfying biopic on one of the most influential songwriters in modern music? Nope.

Verdict-2-5-Stars

 





Missed Opportunity

Crimson Peak

by Hope Madden

A quick scan of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s work emphasizes his particular capacity for creepiness. His success likely lies partly in his visual flair and partly in his patient storytelling, but it’s his own mad genius that pulls these elements together in sometimes utterly brilliant efforts, like Pan’s Labyrinth.

That’s a high water mark he may never reach again, but his latest, Crimson Peak, can’t even see that high, let alone touch it.

Del Toro has pulled together the genuine talents of Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, and Mia Wasikowska – as well as the questionable competence of Charlie Hunnam – to populate this diabolical love story.

Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) is wooed away from home and childhood beau (Hunnam) by dreamy new suitor Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), regardless of his sister’s unpleasantness or her own father’s disdain. But the siblings may have dastardly motives, not to mention some rather vocal skeletons in their closet.

All four actors struggle. Hunnam has little chance with his underwritten sweetheart role, while Hiddleston is wasted as a spineless yet dreamy baronet. There is no chemistry between Wasikowska and anyone, and while Chastain is often fun to watch as a malevolent force, the cast can’t congeal as a group, so much of her bubbling evil is wasted.

Characteristic of a del Toro effort, however, the film looks fantastic. Gorgeous period pieces drip with symbolism and menace, creating an environment ideal for the old fashioned ghost story unspooling.

But where certain monstrous images blended nicely into the drama of Labyrinth, here they look and feel a part of another film entirely. The garish colors of a Dario Argento horror bleed into the somber gothic mystery. Edith’s ghastly, yet utterly modern, visions not only break the bygone feel the film develops, they awkwardly punctuate Peak’s tensely deliberate pace.

Tonal shifts between lurid and subtle only compound a problem with weak writing, and del Toro struggles to develop the twisted love story required to make the murky depths of the villainy believable.

In the end, Crimson Peak is the sad story of great resources but wasted effort.

Verdict-2-5-Stars





Vampires and Ghosts For Your Queue

Oh glorious day, Only Lovers Left Alive is out today for your home viewing pleasure. What a fantastic film this is!

The great Jim Jarmusch reminds us that vampires are, after all, quite grown up and cool. His casting helps. A wonderful Tilda Swinton joins Tom Hiddleston (not too shabby himself) as Eve and Adam, vampires hanging around Detroit. Only Lovers Left Alive is a well thought-out film, a unique twist on the old tale, filled with dry humor, exquisite visuals, and wonderful performances.

And while you’d be wise to chase that with any Jim Jarmusch film, if we have to pick a favorite, it would be 1999’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. This hypnotic urban poem on masculinity, violence and wisdom may be Jarmusch’s most likeable picture – as funny and dark as anything Tarantino has ever filmed, but with a surreal, dreamlike quality and a soul full of integrity. It’s a work of art, perhaps Jarmusch’s masterpiece.





Vampires Done Right

 

Only Lovers Left Alive

by George Wolf

 

Vampires again! Can’t we just give it a rest already?

I hear ya, but before you write them off completely, let Only Lovers Left Alive renew your faith in the genre’s possibilities.

Leave it to visionary writer/director Jim Jarmusch to concoct the perfect antidote to the pop culture onslaught of romantic teenage blood drinkers. OLLA is a delicious black comedy, oozing with sharp wit and hipster attitude.

Great lead performances don’t hurt, either, and Jarmusch gets them from Tom Hilddleston and Tilda Swinton as Adam and Eve (perfect!), a vampire couple rekindling their centuries-old romance against the picturesque backdrop of…Detroit.

I’m not going to lie, they had me at Swinton/Hiddleston/Jarmusch/vampires, but it’s such a treat to find the end result only exceeds expectations.

Not since the David Bowie/Catherine Deneuve pairing in The Hunger has there been such perfectly vampiric casting. Swinton and Hiddleston, already two of the most consistently excellent actors around, deliver cooly detached, underplayed performances, wearing the world- weariness of their characters in uniquely contrasting ways.

The less you know about the lifestyles of Adam and Eve, the better, and the plot consists mainly of consequences from a surprise visit by Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska). But Jarmusch, as he often does, creates a setting that is totally engrossing, full of fluid beauty and wicked humor. 

His camera lingers in dark corners and high ceilings, swimming in waves of sublime production design, evocative music and mood lighting that is subtle perfection.  This is a master class in style and atmosphere, conjuring up a dark world you’re just geeked to spend time in.

There is substance to accent all the style. The film moseys toward its perfect finale, casually waxing Goth philosophic about soul mates and finding your joy.

Ironically, Jarmusch treats the possibility of nightwalkers among us more realistically than any vampire flick in recent memory. And in the process, has some wry fun with how the whole thing went south.

Talk about finding our joy.

Vampires are back, baby, and Edward can suck it.

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 

 





Hammer Time!

 

by George Wolf

 

The very superhero nature of Thor presents a catch-22 for his standalone film installments. The medieval themes which anchor the character don’t really lend themselves to the fun we expect from Avengers films, yet leaving these themes behind would render any Thor adventure rather pointless.

The first film found a way to balance things quite nicely, establishing the blueprint that Thor:  The Dark World revises in even more impressive fashion.

The filmmakers made two smart moves right off the bat:  1) making Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) more than a bystander, and 2) bringing Loki (Tom Hiddleston) back for another round.

Well-rounded villains can make or break these films, and, in Hiddleston’s capable hands, Loki is the most interesting character on the screen. Sentenced to life in an Asgard prison by King Odin (Anthony Hopkins, finding just the right regal tone), Loki suddenly finds himself in high demand.

On Earth, Jane has stumbled into one the portals between worlds, and she becomes the keeper of something an ancient Dark Lord wants very badly. To save Jane and, a bit more importantly, the universe, Thor and Loki have to put aside old grudges and work together.

Director Alan Taylor comes with some serious medieval bonafides, directing several episodes of …pause for a moment of suitably reverential fanboy silence…Game of Thrones. His instincts for the pacing and framework needed to keep the Asgard scenes vital is spot on. While this may not be surprising, Taylor also shows himself to be more than capable of keeping the fun meter jumping as well.

The lively script, while a bit complicated in the early stages, settles into a very enjoyable rhythm that Taylor exploits well. Expect some nice surprises, of both the dark and light variety, as the film builds to an impressive final battle. Screenwriters Christopher Yost,  Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely even manage to land a few subtle jabs about the folly of war and how easily one army’s hero can resemble another’s zealot. Well played.

As Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth again displays a mix of charisma, physique and temperament that makes the role his own.  His scenes with Hiddleston are a mischievous hoot, both actors seemingly locked in to both their characters and the expectations of one another.

Aside from one curiously low-tech moment of Thor taking flight, much of the film’s 3D presentation looks fantastic, with a broader, more heroic gloss. In particular, an Asgard ceremony set amid candle lights and waterfalls is downright stunning.

The only thing keeping Thor:  The Dark World from superhero elite status is a first act that drags a bit. Once that is vanquished, acts two and three bring richer storytelling than we have seen from Thor. Yes, this film is darker, but it’s also more fun.

And, keep in your seat for two extra scenes.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars