Movie Review: Take Care that Your Hostage isn’t a “Wildcat”

As tortured hostage in Iraq tales go, “Wildcat” plays as entirely too chatty and slackly-paced. But it has its moments, a middle-sequence turnabout and a finale that has all the urgency missing from the first two acts.

“Black Mirror” and “Broadchurch” veteran Georgina Campbell plays Khadija, a “journalist” taken hostage by a terrorist gang in Mosul. She’s hurled into a cell with Luke, a Marine (Luke Benward of “Field of Lost Shoes” and “Grand Isle”), the only other survivor of the convoy they were in that was ambushed.

They barely have time to bond before they’re separated for interrogations. “Kat” meets a brute (Maz Siam) who promptly pulls out a fingernail, followed by an English speaker (Mido Hamada) who asks the questions.

“What is your name? Are you with State Department? Are you CIA?” He’s never satisfied with her answers.

But when the Marine is tossed back into the cell, he calls her a “lightweight” for answering any question, for pleading “Please, I am Muslim, you don’t have to do this,” etc.

“Wildcat,” as its title implies, is about how wrong our Marine might be.

This is no “particular skills” action hero thriller. Kat’s gifts include memory, details, some sort of training in a “work the problem” vein. They reason out where they are by the sounds of a mosque’s call to prayers. They figure out who has them.

But how can they get out of this?

Writer-director Jonathan W. Stokes (he scripted the Scott Adkins/Christian Bale actioner, “Bullet”) doesn’t shy away from the torture, but the picture dawdles through the middle acts, conversations filled with bonding, interrogations built on debates, with both prisoner and torturer reading the other’s psychological profiles, and threats.

“When I look at you, I see fear…If you act like a victim, people will victimize you.”

Campbell makes a solid lead, the captor/villains are passable stock “types.” But entirely too little is done to up the pace, raise the stakes. These characters should be in pain as they struggle to figure out why they were taken. Their captors need to be in more of a hurry to get what they want out of them.

The best dramatic moment, when Kat starts to intellectually turn the tables, is a great place to “cue rising suspense.” Nobody behind the camera took that cue.

MPA Rating: R (Language|Violence/Torture)

Cast: Georgina Campbell, Luke Benward, Mido Hamada, Maz Siam and Ibrahim Renno

Credits: Scripted and directed by Jonathan W. Stokes. A Saban Films release (April 23)

Running time: 1:33

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Movie Preview: “Riders of Justice,” Mads Mikkelsen in a Danish thriller

It’s coming in mid May. He’s been a “Star Wars” hero, a Bond villain and a teacher with a drinking problem.

Why not a vigilante?

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Movie Preview: An All-star Cast brings a Depression era Football Tale to the screen — “12 Mighty Orphans”

It’s one of those pieces of early football history, like the legends of Pop Warner and Jim Thorpe and Knute Rockne and “The Gipper.”

“12 Mighty Orphans” recalls a Depression Era football team of over-achievers from a Texas orphanage.

Like Wilson, Vinessa Shaw, Martin Sheen, Treat Williams and Robert Duvall star in this June release from Sony Pictures Classics.

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Movie Review: Biting, bittersweet and Swiss — “My Wonderful Wanda”

The dark Swiss chocolate analogy fits the Swiss comedy “My Wonderful Wanda” to a T, a bitter, wincing farce with an aftertaste that leaves you with a smile.

Death and new life, cultural prejudices and that Swiss obsession with money play into a film that is Germanic in its darkness, as subtle as a wet slap and funny? Eventually.

Wanda, played by Agnieszka Grochowska, is a Polish 30something, a single mother of two who travels by bus to her three month-long shifts with the German Swiss Wegmeister-Gloor clan. They’re rich, living in a lakeside manse. But the patriarch of their engineering firm, Josef (André Jung) had a stroke and is confined to his bed. Wanda is his favorite in-home caregiver.

His imperious wife Else (the great Marthe Keller) may feign warmth, now and again, to this woman who “works for us.” But she isn’t shy about brusquely setting boundaries.

When she asks Wanda to take on housekeeping duties, two things emerge. First, this family is a bit of a nightmare. Wanda simply won’t take her first offer for the added workload. And second, the fact that Wanda’s Polish speaks volumes. These rich cheapskates hired a bargain. they’re sure they can push around.

Son Gregor (Jacob Matschenz) still lives at home with his parents, the engineer-heir to the family firm but very slow to graduate from college. His real passion is birding, and he serenades Wanda — whom he’s sweet on — with a mockingbird’s repertoire of bird calls.

But Josef’s attachment is deeper. He, after all, has the money. And he’s not shy about bellowing “WANDA” in the middle of the night, summoning her for a “happy ending,” which supplements her income.

Josef tends to pout when she’s not at his beck and call. And when his daughter, Sophie (Birgit Minichmayr) barges in for his 70th birthday party and insists on assigning him therapy and pushing “my wonderful Wanda” into the background, things turn testy.

That’s when we pick up on how awful the Wegmeister-Gloors can be. Their offenses range from selfishness and rudeness to open hostility, their acting-out begins with insults and crescendos with screaming tantrums.

Wanda, who needs the cash, just has to take it.

And then a complication enters the picture, one that involves a Frühschwangerschaftstest — German for “peeing on a stick — and changes the dynamic in a big way.

Director and co-writer Bettina Oberli is slow to give away the tone she’s shooting for here. Some scenes make you cringe and the upper class cruelty can make you wince.

The matriarch laments old age, how “friends disappear, and with them, their occasions” (in German and Polish with English subtitles). But Josef fields birthday cards with gruff bemusement. “They’re still alive?”

We know it’s a comedy because a cow becomes a plot point, covering up shenanigans and revealing deep cultural prejudices.

And then daughter Sophie arrives — callous, mistrusting and spiteful — and we have a villain we can sink our teeth into. The Austrian Minichmayr (“Downfall,””The White Ribbon,” “Perfume”) puts on an audition for Nazi concentration camp guard roles with her bravura bullying and repertoire of petty humiliations.

She is so over-the-top you keep waiting for somebody — preferably a woman — to slap her. And when it happens, you eagerly hope it happens again.

Grochowska, of the recent singing competition drama “Teen Spirit,” gives away Wanda’s powerlessness in just her eyes. She has to sneak off to Facetime her children back in Poland. And whatever Josef’s affection for her or Gregor’s attentions might bode, it is women who either tolerate her or instinctively mistrust her who hold her fate.

Grochowaska’s turn strikes an awkward balance between how much Wanda can endure, and making us guess what upside she sees in all of this.

Like us, her Wanda is taking a tiny bite of this bitter chocolate with a grimace, hoping that something sweet kicks in eventually.

MPA Rating: unrated, sex, profanity

Cast: Agnieszka Grochowska, André Jung, Birgit Minichmayr, Jacob Matschenz and Marthe Keller

Credits: Directed by Bettina Oberli, script by Bettina Oberli, Cooky Ziesche. A Zeitgeist release.

Running time: 1:51

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Movie Review: A haunted British house in need of “The Banishing”

Today on “Escape to Horror Country,” we visit a haunted parsonage in Essex, a manor house that in a prior life, was home to a burned-out Christian sect, and the period perfect setting for “The Banishing,” a pre-war British period piece, because aren’t they all?

Christopher Smith’s thriller (now on Shudder) is proof that if you get the gloomy tone, the production values and period polish perfect, your haunted house tale is halfway there. But it’s that other half that’s that separates the terrifying from the travelogue.

Something’s going on in Morley Hall. A prologue shows us a vicar who descends into murder-suicide madness, obsessed by First Thessalonians 4:5, warnings about avoiding “lustful passion,” as St. Paul put it, “like the Gentiles.”

Hey now.

“Three years later” a new vicar (Paul Heffernan) is on the job and in the house. Bringing his wife (Jessica Brown Findlay) and daughter (Anya McKenna-Bruce) and their troubled marriage into it can’t be a good idea.

The bishop (John Lynch, good casting) didn’t warn him. He’s the one we saw walking in on the murder suicide, and promptly pouring himself a whisky in his best “nothing to see here” nonchalance.

But there’s this wild-eyed visitor (Sean Harris, great casting) who has…answers. It’s about the house, the “sect” that had a monastery on this land, what happened to them and what happens there now.

“Is the house playing games with your wife’s head?”

It is — visions, mirrors that don’t perform to spec, thump and moans, and these creepy dolls that little Adelaide finds and plays with, a girl doll that looks like “Annabelle” prototypes, and tiny cowled monks who watch over her.

The basements in these British fixer-uppers always look like dungeons, and that’s always where little girls wander and their guilt-ridden mummy’s see the awfullest things when they set out in search of their child.

That’s the state of the horror, here, a child menaced, perhaps possessed, a husband in denial and a mother under supernatural assault because of her childcare skills.

The kid is properly creepy, and Findlay (“Brave New World,” “Harlots,” “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society”) does a fine job of testily judging her repressed and somewhat shamed husband and increasingly alarmed mother not able to process the threats to herself and a little girl who stops acknowledging her as her mother.

Hefferman’s vicar in meltdown mode passes muster. And there’s value in putting the sinister, whispering Harris and menacing Lynch into opposition, playing two men at odds over “the secret” of the house and maybe the politics of Britain on the cusp of a World War where you were either fascist or anti-fascist.

That last element is handled quite clumsily. The story’s dawdling pace works against it, and attempts at injecting urgency into the third act seem too chatty and explanatory for suspense to build.

The effects are more interesting than chilling –sequences in which the vicar’s wife sees different versions of herself in various states of terror over what she’s experiencing, or fears she’s caused.

I have to say I like this sort of 1930s Gothic horror, even though I’m generally more impressed by the detail than jolted by the frights. But the cast and the period piece pall they perform under make this mixed-bag of a thriller worth a look.

MPA Rating: unrated, violence

Cast: Jessica Brown Findlay, John Heffernan, Anya McKenna-Bruce, Sean Harris and John Lynch

Credits: Directed by Christopher Smith, script by  David Beton, Ray Bogdanovich and Dean Bogdanovich. A Shudder release.

Running time: 1:37

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Movie Preview: Barry Jenkins take on “The Underground Railroad”

It’s coming to Amazon Prime in mid May. Perhaps Amazon will have stopped advertising on Tucker Carlson’s racist, treasonous TV show ny then.

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Movie Preview: Horror from Olde Eire –“Boys from County Hell”

Looks daft, and diddley aye.

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Movie Preview: A Little Boy faces the horrors of “The Djinn” all by himself.

“Home Alone” with an evil spirit/genie?

Looks enterprising and alarming.

May 14, “The Djinn” comes to us in theaters or on demand.

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Series Review: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau shows his charming side traveling “Through Greenland”

With R’hllor as my witness, I had no idea Nikolaj Coster-Waldau could be this offhandedly funny and charming.

The Danish “Game of Thrones” hunk is our guide through Greenland, a country he married into (His wife Nukâka is from here.), in “Through Greenland.”

It’s a starkly beautiful series, in English (and Danish with English subtitles) that he made for Danish TV and is now available on Topic.

He travels north to south, east to west over the surprisingly vast land and ice-scape, in helicopters and boats, witnessing the melting glaciers and shrinking ice sheet there with experts and UNDP officials (He’s a “good will ambassador” on climate issues for the United Nations Development Program.), meeting the people in remote villages and participating in the folkways.

Yes, Jaime Lannister from “Game of Thrones” gets mixed up in blood and gore — watching how a hunted narwhal is cut up and sampling the raw meat with the natives, and pitching in on butchering a musk oxen, a major meat source for Greenlanders.

He jokes around at the Thule Air Force Base, whose Cold War mission has morphed into space monitoring and radio telescopic science in recent years.

“So, you’re tracking the aliens?”

He hikes the ice sheet, visits an abandoned coal mining town and empty missile silos. He stops by the village of Dundas, evacuated in a cruel rush because the U.S. Air Force needed the land decades ago. He meets the survivors and descendants of that ordeal in Qaanaag. He goes fishing, visits his actress-wife’s childhood home in Uumannaq, and dines with her in Oqaatsut in H8, which has to be the northernmost French-Greenlandic restaurant on Earth.

Yes. Adjust your bucket list accordingly.

That marriage is part of why this is a “personal journey” he explains. But Thule is where his father used to work, in the Danish civilian crew that helped run the American Thule air base in the north of the country. Dad was “the guy with the clinking bottles” folks from there remember. His father was a very good bookkeeper and an alcoholic.

He marvels at what “hard work” it is, being an alcoholic, hiding your illness (rarely very well) and delivers a token of his father’s affection back to where it came from — a ball glove Dad “stole” from the base gym to give his kid as a gift from exotic America.

Through it all, Coster-Waldau wears his celebrity easily and his curiosity on his sleeve. He speaks of being humbled by being in a “vast polar desert” where nothing and no one gives a damn about his “schedule.”

“Nature calls the shots,” he says with a shrug when he and his small crew get fogged in, at one point.

It’s almost hilarious to see Air Force personnel fangirling out over his visit, the women blushing, the men trying to convince him they don’t know the TV show, “but my wife does!”

The bigger message of this loneliest corner of our “lonely planet,” is how urgent it is that this beautiful place and its enormous ice sheet and glaciers be saved. Much of Denmark and all of the “Low Countries” of Belgium and The Netherlands would be under water is that sheet melts and seas rise 25 feet. So yes, the UN wants people to start taking that seriously.

And if you can get an affable international star to tour his wife’s homeland with a crew to view the problem and get that message across, all the better. “Through Greenland” is as pretty and exotic an eco-travelogue as TV has ever served up.

MPA Rating: unrated, animal slaughter, toilet humor

Cast: Nikolah Coster-Waldau, Nukâka, Jo Scheuer

Credits: Directed by Eric Engesgaard. A Danish production now on Topic.

Running time: Five episodes @ :43 minutes each.

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Documentary Preview: “Upheaval” tells the life story of Israel’s Menachem Begin

You remember Camp David, but do know the path his life took to get him there?

“Upheaval” comes our way June 7.

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