“The Monster”: Old-school horror meets modern family drama on a deserted road

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“The Monster” is now playing at AMC Desert Star in Baraboo. R, 1:32, three stars out of four.

You’d be forgiven for thinking initially that the title character in Bryan Bertino’s horror film “The Monster” was a mother. Kathy (Zoe Kazan) is a spectacular trainwreck of a single parent, channeling her frustration and anger with her situation into substance abuse and screaming fits at her 12-year-old daughter Lizzie (Ella Bellentine).

In the opening scene, we see Lizzie listening to a sad country song as she cleans up the wreckage of one of Kathy’s benders, picking up beer bottles and pouring out ashtrays. Kathy is supposed to drive Lizzie to her father’s house for an extended (perhaps permanent) visit, but she oversleeps, and the bickering duo gets a late start on the road.

That turns out to be a very serious mistake.

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“Little Sister”: A nun on the run comes home to her Goth roots

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“Little Sister” screens at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St. Tickets are free for museum members, $7 for all others. Not rated, 1:31, three stars out of four.

It’s a little disconcerting to see a film that’s a period piece set only eight years ago, sparking a feeling of “Didn’t that just happen?” Zach Clark’s “Little Sister” is set in the fall of 2008, and the cultural signifiers are everywhere – candidate Obama’s speeches on television, talk of Iraq. There’s even a scene featuring a performance art piece with a dancing Twin Towers.

But Clark’s film uses the moment as a backdrop for a funny, wistful little comedy-drama about family members learning to overcome themselves and reconnect with each other. Can we reconcile with those who know us only too well? Yes, we can.

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“Kaili Blues”: Dream a little dream in a fast-changing China

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“Kaili Blues” has its Madison premiere at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St. FREE for museum members, $7 for all others. Not rated, 1:49, three stars out of four.

“Man, have you ever had one of those dreams that are completely real?” That’s a line from Richard Linklater in his 1991 debut film “Slacker,” a movie I kept thinking of as I was watching Bi Gan’s “Kaili Blues.” Both films are from first-time filmmakers, daring but a little shaky in execution, promising great things in the future. And both eschew traditional narrative structure for an elliptical, dream-like story.

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“Childhood of a Leader”: Portrait of the fascist as a young man

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“The Childhood of a Leader” has its Madison premiere at 7 tonight for FREE at the UW-Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall. Not rated, 1:56, three and a half stars out of four.

Never underestimate youth. That’s the message of the chilling and masterful “The Childhood of a Leader” in more than one way. Centering on an angelic-looking boy who may be in training to be one of history’s greatest monsters, the film has the ominous grandeur of a Stanley Kubrick or Alexander Sokurov movie. But it was made not by an old European master, but by a twentysomething American actor named Brady Corbet (“Melancholia”) making his filmmaking debut. Wow.

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“De Palma”: A master class from one of cinema’s most controversial directors

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“DePalma” has its Madison premiere at 7 p.m. Friday at the UW-Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave. R, 1:50, three and a half stars out of four. FREE!

The Village Voice once ran dueling columns by its film critics, Andrew Sarris and J. Hoberman, on Brian DePalma. One was headlined “Derivative” and the other “Dazzling.”

Such has been the competing views of DePalma. Like his spiritual mentor Alfred Hitchcock, he’s been a deeply polarizing figure in American cinema who only now, late in life, may be finally getting his due. During his heyday, many critics couldn’t look past the blood or the naked women or the bloody naked women in “Dressed to Kill” or “Carrie” or “Body Double.”

But he had his champions, most notably Pauline Kael of The New Yorker, and has come to be renowned as one of the masters of cinematic storytelling. Even if those stories got a little overheated. The fine new documentary “De Palma,” by fellow filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, features just one interview, with De Palma himself, talking about every single film he ever made. No other interviewee is necessary.

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Wiener-Dog: Todd Solondz throws the world’s saddest sausage party

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Even the mariachi bands are depressing in a Todd Solondz movie. From 1996’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse” to the new “Wiener-Dog,” Solondz has been one of the most reliable miserablists in movies. He treats the losers and posers of the world with equal contempt. If there’s anybody in his movies he seems to have an affinity for, it’s the few amoral predators who prey on the rest of us. They’ve at least figured out the rules in such an unfeeling world.

I’ve gone back and forth on Solondz’s movies – I really liked his little-seen last film “Dark Horse,” but have found other films to be mean just for the sake of meanness – and a pretty repetitive meanness at that. It plays Saturday night at the UW-Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall, for free on a double bill with the documentary “Weiner.”

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“Into the Forest”: A powerful film about the (literally) powerless

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“Into the Forest” opens Friday at AMC Desert Star in Baraboo. (It’s also available on several streaming outlets, including Vudu and iTunes). R, 1:41, three and a half stars out of four.

“Into the Forest” is a post-apocalyptic disaster movie without a single visual effect. No explosions, no zombies, no mobs rioting in the streets. There’s just quiet, and dark.

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