Quick Movie Reviews (The Wolf of Snow Hollow & The Forty-Year-Old Version)

The Wolf of Snow Hollow

Jim Cummings’ impressive debut feature, Thunder Road, was a discomfitingly funny character study of a Texas patrolman suffering a howling nervous breakdown. So in a way, it makes sense that for his follow-up, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, the actor, writer and director should tackle the subject of werewolves. His character here, John Marshall, is not all that different from Thunder Road‘s Jimmy Arnaud. He’s a frustrated, ineffectual deputy in the mountain community of Snow Hollow, Utah, where his aging father (the late great Robert Forster, in his final role) is the sheriff and a serious crime happens once or twice a year. That is, until the bodies of horrifically mangled and dismembered young women start popping up every full moon. Is it a bona fide lycan or is it a serial killer that’s running loose in the un-idyllic Americana of divorced dads and coroners who vape on the job? Either way, trouble is afoot.

Among the many quirks of this very idiosyncratic comedy is that it really is structured like a horror-thriller film. There are gruesome crime scenes, creepy suspects and voyeuristic point-of-view shots. The hero is pursuing his own theory, no matter the toll it takes on his personal life. But one major difference is that the characters are all Jim Cummings creations, speaking dialogue that is both believable and demented, with a wonderful ear for people’s awkward verbal reflexes, banalities and resentments. In that regard, it represents an improvement on Thunder Road, in which every character except it’s protagonist was one-note. Although John is introduced through one of those deftly written single-take monologues that distinguished Cummings’ debut, a much larger part of The Wolf of Snow Hollow is invested in its terrific supporting cast, which includes familiar faces like Forester and Riki Lindhome (who plays another deputy, Julia), and a lot of unknowns. The influence of the Coen brothers is conspicuous, especially their fondness for those characters that could only exist in one specific place. However, Cummings doesn’t share the Coens’ ironic, fatalistic worldview. Like his pervious film, The Wolf of Snow Hollow is a semi-sympathetic portrait of a walking disaster — a lawman who lacks the emotional equipment to direct traffic, let alone pursue an investigation that he seems to have cribbed from watching too many serial killer movies. Several sequences pay affectionate tribute to Zodiac, and there’s more than a tinge of David Fincher’s infinitely rewatchable magnum opus in the way John’s life crumbles as he obsesses over the seemingly unsolvable killings.

Image via Orion Classics

Part of the fun is watching Cummings (who’s performance is pretty strong) navigate his character’s immaturity, whether he’s shouting at his colleagues, correcting himself mid-sentence, or lambasting a librarian for startling him awake after he dozes off in front of a stack of books about werewolves. One thing he’s exceptionally good at is portraying the way people get angry and then keep inventing reasons to stay angry. Which is to say that a lot of the funniest parts of the film come down to psychology. John’s alcoholism (he’s three years sober) and strained relationship with his college-bound teenage daughter (Chloe East) may seem like pure Hollywood cliché, but the script genuinely probes the misdirected resentment he embodies. Although The Wolf of Snow Hollow isn’t remotely scary (a problem, considering its multiple sequences of women being murdered under moonlight), it does offer some things that are worth being scared of, with a current of darkness that flows alongside the humor. Cummings has something thoughtful to say about werewolves, inner monsters, and maybe even violence, but addressing it would mean spoiling this intriguing movie. An inspired genre hybrid of an impressive tonal balance, The Wolf of Snow Hollow sees Jim Cummings further spreading his wings as a filmmaker and in the process finding plenty idiosyncratic pleasures.

Grade: B

The Wolf of Snow Hollow is available on VOD

The Forty-Year-Old Version

Radha Blank, a playwright and TV producer arrives to the cinema front with her debut feature The Forty-Year-Old Version, a rangy, relaxed, one-woman-show type of film with an interesting tang of disillusionment. With her film, Blank not only writes and directs but also stars as a fictionalized version of herself, a New York playwright who once appeared on a “30 under 30 list” of smart up-and-comers to watch. The movie version of Radha is now pushing forty, her career is on the skids and she’s reduced to teaching drama to tricky teens in high school. Her agent and friend Archie (Peter Kim) still believes in Radha, and tries to sell her work to the insufferably patronizing big-cheese producer Josh Whitman (Reed Birney), but to the horror of everyone trying to work with and influence her on a new play, an earnestly preachy drama about gentrification in Harlem, Radha has an idea of how to reinvent herself. She will become a rapper, turning her middle-aged angst into rhymes, and in doing so she begins a new relationship with a Bronx music producer, D (Oswin Benjamin).

Radha’s talent in this new arena is more than apparent, even if her nerves sometimes get the better of her — like when she freezes onstage in front of an audience that includes several of her high-school students. If you cringe for Radha in that moment, as you likely will, consider it proof of how deeply Blank has secured some form of your emotional investment in her journey. Yet at times the film still has its struggles with trying to dodge the crowd-pleasing underdog-drama clichés, but when it does it is worth tipping your hat towards. A more obvious telling of this story might have ended with Radha discovering her true calling as a rapper, or figuring out how to put on a successful version of her play that stays true to her creative vision. But Blank seems less interested in clear resolutions than in examining how these two distinct worlds, theater and hip-hop, have shaped her complex identity as an artist. She doesn’t feel entirely at home in either space. And yet her work, becomes a bold synthesis of both.

Image via Netflix

Even as the film’s unhurried quality does start to catch up to itself, it’s blending of rom-com, backstage farce and a portrait of an artist moving onto the next stage in their life finds an interesting tone that can be fast and funny and also have a rich vein of melancholy. There’s an elegiac quality to the film’s black-and-white 35mm images, which might bring to mind vintage New York pictures like Manhattan, Shadows and Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It. As it happens, She’s Gotta Have It recently spawned a TV series for which Blank wrote a few episodes. But it would ultimately be a mistake to squeeze her into any kind of mold based on her influences. Radha Blank already has a voice that is gloriously her own, whichever version of it we hear next. Approaching heavy-duty questions on art and identity with a light touch, The Forty-Year-Old Version, for the most part, finds insight in its laidback mood and sharp candidness.

Grade: B-

The Forty-Year-Old Version is available to stream on Netflix

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