“Cold in July”: If I were a Carpenter


If you want to recreate the experience of watching a movie on HBO at 12:50 a.m. in 1991, Jim Mickle’s “Cold in July” is your movie. It’s not just that the movie, out on DVD this week, is set in 1989 and revels in its Bush Senior-era kitschiness, from star Michael J. Hall’s majestic mullet to co-star Don Johnson’s shoebox-sized car phone to, well, Don Johnson. It’s more the texture of the thriller, modest in scope, seedy and bloody and focused. They don’t make them like they used to anymore.

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“Stray Dog”: Teaching a troubled old dog some new tricks


“Stray Dog” screens on Sunday at 7 p.m. at 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. as part of the UW-Cinematheque series. Director Debra Granik and subject Ronnie “Stray Dog” Hall will both be in attendance to talk about the film. FREE!

I would not mess with Ronnie “Stray Dog” Hall. The Vietnam veteran and Missouri biker is a fearsome-looking man, the sort who looks like he’s led a hard life, but can make yours a lot harder. No wonder director Debra Granik asked him to appear in her movie “Winter’s Bone” as a terrifying backwoods drug dealer. (My interview with Granik is here.) In one deleted scene on the DVD, you can watch Hall absolutely let loose on John Hawkes with an improvised rant that includes the threat “I’ll nail your dick to the wall.” It clearly comes from someplace real.

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Taking a world tour at the Milwaukee Film Festival


This wasn’t really planned, but I ended up talking a world tour at the first full day of the Milwaukee Film Festival on Friday, taking in films from Italy, Iran and Mexico. The festival’s foreign film slate has always been strong, and this year has beefed up its Latino programming with a special “Passport: Mexico” series.

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“Pay 2 Play”: Do not pass Go, do not enter politics

A protestor stands on a mock Monopoly game board on the street during May Day demonstrations in Los Angeles

“Pay 2 Play” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated, 1:29, two and a half stars out of four. Cap Times and Nation columnist John Nichols (who is in the film) and myself will host a post-show chat after the 7 p.m. show on Tuesday, Sept. 30 at Sundance.

“Monopoly” is kind of a weird game. It has no finish line. The winner is determined not because they reach any particular goal, but because all the other players have gone bankrupt. It’s not enough to win; every other player has to lose, too.

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“The Equalizer”: The old man and the C-4

The Equalizer - 2014

“The Equalizer” opens Friday at Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema and Sundance. R, 2:11, two stars out of four.

“Training Day,” the first collaboration between Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua, was a live wire of a movie, a nervy character drama masquerading as a thriller. We hadn’t seen this dangerously unpredictable Denzel before.

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The five movies you have to see in Madison: Sept. 27-Oct. 2, 2014


1. Pick of the week: “The Boxtrolls” (all week, Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema) — I’m willing to give anything made by Portland-based Laika a pass just because it looks like it takes forever. The animation studio uses stop-motion animation in the tradition of Aardman Studios, giving each frame a loving, handmade feel. Luckily, the movies have been good, too — “Coraline” is a modern classic, and I really liked “ParaNorman” too. “Boxtrolls” is a similarly dark and delightful tale, about bizarre creatures who raise a human boy as their own.

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“Alive Inside”: For them, the music never stopped


Alive Inside” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated, 1:14, three stars out of four.

“We are made to age,” filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett says about halfway through “Alive Inside,” which may be the most radical statement you’ll hear in a movie theater all year. As Rossato-Bennett correctly points out, modern American culture thinks of adulthood as the apogee of the human condition, while growing old is considered nothing more than an inexorable deterioration of that perfect state.

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Looking forward to the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival

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The 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival starts Thursday, and while the weather this week might be unseasonably warm for all-day moviegoing, the festival’s tantalizing lineup of Oscar-contender premieres, foreign films, kid-friendly flicks, special guests and other goodies make it hard to resist. Plus, the festival lasts two weeks, until Thursday, Oct. 9, so there’s got to be a couple of cold, rainy days coming between now and then, right?

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“The Innocents”: Kids scare the darnedest things


It killed me to learn that Henry James’ original “The Turn of the Screw” had been published around Christmastime, because ghost stories at Christmas are something of a British tradition. “A Christmas Carol” notwithstanding, “Screw,” and its elegant and disturbing 1961 British film, doesn’t feel at all like the sort of thing you’d snuggle in with on Christmas Eve. It’s even a little too dark for Halloween, with its moral and supernatural ambiguity suffusing every frame. It is, as historian Christopher Frayling puts it on one of the extras on the new Criterion Collection edition of “The Innocents,” one of cinema’s great ghost stories adapted from one of literature’s great ghost stories.

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Instant Gratification: “Breakfast at Tiffany’s and four other good movies to watch on Netflix


Pick of the week: “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” — If you can get past Mickey Rooney’s incredibly racist performance as a Japanese landlord (just wow), this Truman Capote-penned film giving Audrey Hepburn one of her best roles as a party girl in no hurry to settle down, until a writer (George Peppard) finds the real woman behind the dazzle.

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