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Lots of Screams, Couple of Smiles at the Movies

George Wolf George Wolf Lots of Screams, Couple of Smiles at the MoviesOn The Rocks - Photo via IMDb
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One great American filmmaker returns to the screen with an absolute dream of a cast for a funny, funny movie well worth your time. Other than that, we hope you like scares because we have a mess of them, and some of them are really good. Not all of them, though.

On the Rocks

Screening at Gateway Film Center.

by Hope Madden

At its surface, On the Rocks offers a wryly fun adventure film. It’s a flashy, superficial good time with Bill Murray, and who does not want that?! It’s a father/daughter romp and a heist film of sorts, full of high-end cocktails, cool cars, and hijinks.

But that’s not really the film at all. Writer/director Sofia Coppola’s latest is a candy-coated rumination on legacies left by loving but problematic fathers.

Rashida Jones is Laura, a writer devoting most of her attention and time to her two little girls, with little left for creativity or chemistry. Her husband (Marlon Wayans) is putting in extra hours at work, traveling a lot, and spending a lot of time with his leggy colleague Fiona (Jessica Henwick).

Maybe he’s just busy and maybe Laura’s just in a rut.

Dad doesn’t think so.

Laura’s unrepentant playboy dad Felix (Murray) orchestrates a sleuthing adventure, tailing hubby’s taxis and offering sage advice from a man who knows a little something about infidelity.

Murray is all charm, his charisma at fever pitch. There’s also a lonesome, tender quality to the performance that gives it real depth, and enough self-absorption to grant it some authenticity.

Jones, as his reluctant accomplice, suggests the reality of midlife doldrums with grace. She also transmits the tragic enthusiasm of a daughter still pleased to be the focus of her father’s attention.

It’s almost impossible to avoid comparing Coppola’s latest dramedy with her Oscar-winning 2003 Murray vehicle, Lost in Translation. There are certainly similar themes: a woman unsure about her marriage finds herself drawn into a paternal relationship (with Bill Murray). On the Rocks is too tidy and too slick to entirely stand up to that comparison, but like Lost in Translation, there’s an autobiographical quality to the film that gives it a soul.

Grade: A-

The Wolf of Snow Hollow

At Gateway Film Center.

by George Wolf

How good does a movie have to be before it can’t be improved by adding werewolves?

Don’t answer yet, let’s backtrack.

Two years ago. Thunder Road was a pretty fantastic breakout for writer/director/star Jim Cummings. A visionary character study with alternating moments of heart and hilarity, it felt like recognizable pieces molded into something bracingly original.

Now, Cummings feels it’s time to throw in some werewolves.

While The Wolf of Snow Hollow may not be exactly the same film, the road it travels is pretty thunderous, with Cummings playing a very similar character on a very similar arc.

He’s officer John Marshall of the Snow Hollow sheriff’s department. John’s father (Robert Forster, in his final role) is the longtime sheriff of the small ski resort town, but Dad’s reached the age and condition where John feels he’s really the one in charge.

John’s also a recovering alcoholic with a hot temper, a bitter ex-wife and a teen daughter who doesn’t like him much. But when a young ski bunny gets slaughtered near the hot tub under a full moon, suddenly John’s got a much bigger, much bloodier problem.

As more mutilated corpses stain the snowy landscape, John faces the wrath of scared townsfolk and the growing belief from his own deputies (especially Chavez!) that a werewolf might have come to Snow Hollow.

John doesn’t agree. “It’s a man! When do I get to be right about something?”

This script, like his last, is full of life, and has Cummings again juggling random outbursts of absurd non-sequiturs and hilarious anger with real human issues of struggle and loss. John’s afraid of losing his father, women are being preyed upon, and a drink would sure hit the spot.

And there’s a beast out there threatening the lives and livelihood of Snow Hollow. Yes, you’ll be reminded of Jaws, as well as any number of werewolf films and even Silence of the Lambs.

And if you have seen Thunder Road, you’ll quickly be struck by how much more stylish of a director Cummings is this time out. He’s got a bigger budget and it damn sure shows, with some gorgeous outdoor landscapes, frisky visuals (he must be an Edgar Wright fan) and a confident grip on his monster vision.

Forster’s mere presence brings a bittersweet authenticity to the supporting ensemble, and a stellar turn by Riki Lindhome as Snow Hollow’s most reliably steady deputy gives John’s manic nature a welcome contrast.

Cummings appears to have a gift for taking a pile of familiar, reshaping it and emerging with something endlessly interesting and effortlessly entertaining. The Wolf of Snow Hollow is all that and more.

At its core, it’s a super deluxe re-write of Thunder Road with werewolves. I call that a bloody good time.

Grade: A-

The Devil to Pay

Available on VOD.

by Hope Madden

I’ve long felt that pre-film text-on-screen quotes are a cinematic crutch, often pretentious musings that rarely capture the essence of the film about to unspool.

Then, over a colorful vista of misty Appalachian mountaintops and plaintive banjo strings I read about the hardy folk populating those peaks, the descendants of criminals and oppressed alike who sought refuge in this inhospitable place.

As shadow creeps across the landscape, the quote:

“They want nothing from you and God help you if you try to interfere.” – 2010 census worker

Welcome to The Devil to Pay, Lane and Ruckus Skye’s lyrical backwoods epic, grounded in a lived-in world most of us never knew existed.

The tale is anchored with a quietly ferocious turn by Danielle Deadwyler (who also produces) as Lemon, a hardscrabble farmer trying to keep things up and wondering where her husband has been these past days.

Deadwyler’s clear-eyed efficiency is matched with the hillbilly condescension of one Tommy Runion (Catherine Dyer, flawless), whose homespun advice and cheer mask a dead-eyed, sadistic sense of right, wrong and entitlement.

One of the most tightly-written thrillers in recent memory, The Devil to Pay peoples those hills with true characters, not a forgettable villain or cliched rube among them. The sense of danger is palpable and Deadwyler’s commitment to communicating Lemon’s low-key tenacity is a thing of beauty.

Hell, the whole film is beautiful, Sherman Johnson’s camera catching not just the forbidding nature of Appalachia, but also its lush glory.

Yes, the cult that lives just outside the county line does feel a tad convenient, but again, the Skyes and their outstanding cast carve out memorable, realistic and terrifying characters.

The Devil to Pay remains true to these fascinating souls, reveling in the well-worn but idiosyncratic nature of their individual relationships—a tone matched by sly performances across the board. And just when you think you’ve settled into a scene or a relationship, The Devil to Pay shocks you with a turn of events that is equal parts surprising and inevitable.

It’s a stunning film, and a rare gem that treats Appalachians not as clichés, but certainly not as people to be messed with.

Grade: A-

The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw

Available on VOD.

by Hope Madden

Who’s the villain?

A vampire didn’t choose that destiny, nor the zombie, nor even the werewolf. All three are victims of fate.

The witch, however, comes to her dark powers by choice. And maybe – as Robert Eggers pointed out in his 2015 masterpiece The VVitch—that choice might even make some sense.

Since Eggers’ beguiling horror show, a number of filmmakers have joined him in his ruminations. Lukas Fiegelfeld’s mesmerizing 2017 debut Hagazussa and Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 feminist reprise of Suspiria represent the strongest among the resulting films.

Few, if any, will ever tell the tale so powerfully or so well as Eggers, but writer/director Thomas Robert Lee has a go with The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw. His film is interested in women’s agency, their oddness, what they owe, what they should and shouldn’t be deciding for themselves, and what they are willing to sacrifice.

It’s August of 1973, but it could just as easily be the 1950s or the 1880s. (So why 1973? It was a big year in women’s rights, after all.) A rugged woman, isolated from the nearby religious community, stands silhouetted against her barn, axe and woodpile.

She is Agatha Earnshaw (Catherine Walker), and she has a secret.

Things haven’t been right in the village since the eclipse 17 years back, but things have been especially troubling lately. Agatha has the only farm that’s producing, the only animals that haven’t taken sick.

Performances are wonderful in a film that looks rustic and spooky, creating a time out of time. Walker, who was so effective in the wonderful little Irish horror Dark Song, cuts an impressive figure of maternal ferocity. She’s orbited by consistently impressive turns, whether the sincere pastor (Sean McGinley), entitled patriarch (Tom Carey), distraught husband (Jared Abrahamson), or young woman finding her voice (Jessica Reynolds).

Each man, however sympathetic or compassionate, represents danger. Like a lot of horror films, The  Curse of Audrey Earnshaw is a coming-of-age cautionary tale: fear the power of womanhood. But Lee is careful to keep asking who, exactly, is the villain here?

The direction is too often obvious: a cough, a handkerchief, blood. At other times, cinematic choices betray the film’s low budget. The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw will never reach the ranks of classic, but it makes a lot of bold choices and leaves an impression.

Grade: B+

The Lie

Available on Amazon Prime.

by Hope Madden

Kids are stupid.

There may be no more universally accurate sentence. But parents? Dumb and dumber.

Writer/director Veena Sud retools the 2015 German film Wir Monster with a great cast, compelling complications, and that same awful truth.

Kayla (Joey King) is not very popular, not very happy about her parents’ separation, and not at all excited for this weekend-long ballet retreat. When she sees her bestie Brittany (Devery Jacobs) at the bus stop and convinces Dad (Peter Sarsgaard) to pick her up, things turn ugly.

There are any number of “how far would you go to protect your potentially evil kid?” movies—some great (Luce), some less so (Prodigy). What sets this one apart is mainly the cast, plus a somewhat sly delivery.

Sarsgaard is wonderful, as always. He’s one of the most reliable actors working today, and he finds a way to humanize every character, add a bit of depth and some curious moral complexity. He certainly does that here, and with Mireille Enos (playing Kayla’s mom) as sparring partner, a great deal of backstory is communicated without being overtly detailed.

King, a veteran weepy horror protagonist, delivers a clever performance as someone you’re honestly never certain about. Unlike trainwrecks such as Brahms: The Boy II, The Lie knows why the character should be so hard to pin down, and that reason is not a gimmick. It’s integral to the story.

That story is sharply told, even if there are moments that leave you scratching your head. The police presence is something out of a TV drama, and not a very good one. But when all eyes are on this family dynamic, The Lie is often riveting stuff.

The film is far more family drama/thriller than horror, but Blumhouse could do worse than introduce its Welcome to Blumhouse program on Amazon with this solidly crafted, impressively acted film.

Grade: B-

Black Box

Available on Amazon Prime.

by George Wolf

Nolan (Mamoudou Athie) needs Post-It Notes to get through the day. A car crash took his wife and his memory, and the colorful little squares give Nolan useful info while his young daughter Ava (Amanda Christine) is often forced to assume a parental role.

But there is some hope…of the experimental kind.

Dr. Lillian Brooks (Phylicia Rashad) thinks she can help Nolan regain his memory and reclaim his life through her “black box” therapy. Worn like a high-tech VR headset, it allows the patient to wander through their own subconscious, re-living past experiences until they manifest in the conscious world.

Wow, that’s amazing! What could go wrong?

Director and co-writer Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour anchors his feature debut with some recognizable inspirations, crafting another sci-fi ode to identity that flirts with horror tropes while struggling to find a unique voice.

Athie (The Get Down, Underwater) carries the load here with admirable range. The Nolan we come to know early on is not one found in his own subconscious. And as Nolan comes to fear that he is not the man he thought he was, Athie deftly balances the dual roles fighting for control.

And memories aren’t the only area full of mystery. Nolan’s friend Gary (Tosin Morohunfola), a doctor himself, follows some suspicions to uncover disturbing information about the night of his buddy’s tragic car accident.

The note-posting and body-writing may totally recall Memento, but Black Box also swims in waters populated by iconic J-horror visuals and a touch of Get Out‘s “sunken place.”

The wonders of technology can hide a dark, malevolent side, and we can lose ourselves believing we are always in control.

It’s not a new idea, and Black Box doesn’t blaze any new trails revisiting it. But it is committed to the viability of the journey, and finds its greatest success in engagement rather than surprise.

Grade: B-

The Cleansing Hour

Streaming on Shudder.

by Hope Madden

Almost a decade ago, Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz locked a couple of fraudulent online “ghost hunters” inside an abandoned hospital in the entertaining flick Grave Encounters. It wasn’t the best “supernatural huckster faces honest demonic peril” film of that year—that award goes to Daniel Stamm’s impeccably cast The Last Exorcism.

So, fast forward about a decade and writer/director Damien LeVeck (that is a horror name, my friends) gives us a mash up of both of those movies.

The Cleansing Hour is actually a full-length version of his 2016 short of the same name. In the feature, boyhood friends Max (Ryan Guzman) and Drew (Kyle Gallner) use what they remember of their Catholic school days to fake weekly online exorcisms.

Star of the show Max is a hottie and a bit of a d-bag. Dressed like a priest, he’s in it for the fame and groupies, or as he likes to call them, disciples. Drew is the brains behind the operation. But they’ve hit a plateau. Their viewership isn’t growing as fast as they’d like. Maybe Max is looking at other opportunities. Maybe Drew should just marry longtime girlfriend Lane (Alix Angelis) and get an honest job.

Or maybe a real demon will show up for their next episode.

LeVeck and crew mine that oh-so-Catholic nightmare of shame and confession well. Performances are fine, Guzman’s pretty, but there’s so little new being said here that the film grows tedious long before its 95 minute run is up.

The Cleansing Hour plays too much like a film made by someone who’s seen a lot of horror movies but lacks an original voice. Storylines fall back, not on primal scares or universal areas of dread, but on ideas from other movies.

LeVeck’s film offers a few speeches concerning the evils of the Catholic church (nothing inspired or vital, mainly obvious and hollow), points to our unholy dependence on technology, and shows anxiety about how tech both connects us and brings out the worst in us. Also, an ugly voice comes out of a pretty face.

Familiar stuff, that.

Most problematic (but least surprising) is the twist ending that’s so tired by this point, the idea was just mocked in another horror movie that opened last week.

There’s nothing awful about The Cleansing Hour. It is perfectly serviceable low-budget horror. You could watch it. Or you could find any one of the movies it steals from instead.

Grade: C

Tar

Showing at Gateway Film Center; VOD on 10/20.

by George Wolf

It takes a good while to get to the creature in this creature feature, but that’s hardly the most misplayed hand in Tar. It isn’t until the last few minutes that the film serves up the kind of winky-winky that would have gone a long way toward saving it.

A group of employees in an office building above L.A.’s old La Brea Tar Pits is under a tight deadline to clear out. The smarmy landlord is evicting them all with one day’s notice, and they have to be gone by 6 a.m. or face a big penalty. Then of course the building’s power is cut mid-move, but there are bigger, messier problems.

Underground construction work on the subway expansion has awakened La Brea’s Matchi Manitou, and it ain’t happy.

Director/co-writer/co-star Aaron Wolf gets Timothy Bottoms and Graham Greene to head up his cast, which is good for the poster but bad for the rest of the actors who can’t keep up.

Wolf employs a narrative structure heavy on flashback, and the moments of tension that manage to avoid that roadblock are awkward and clearly telegraphed.

The ensemble of evacuees/possible victims (including Emily Peachy, Sandy Danto, Tiffany Shepis and Nicole Alexandra Shipley) has the depth and logic to only reinforce the point of that horror spoof Geico ad. And after about 90 minutes, the film’s eureka moment makes you wonder about the drive-in pleasure Tar might have been if it hadn’t waited so long to tap a self-aware vein.

Grade: D

Read more from George, Hope and the gang at MADDWOLF and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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