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A Few of the Year’s Best Films This Week

Hope Madden Hope Madden A Few of the Year’s Best Films This WeekOne Night in Miami - Photo via IMDb
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I love that moment in January when Oscar hopefuls sneak across the screen, and this is that moment. A handful of great movies, plus a few enjoyable throwaways, and a solid group of decent new horror flicks stream this week – just in time for the crappy weather. Nice!

One Night in Miami

On Amazon Prime

by George Wolf

The room where it really happened was in Miami’s Hampton House. After a young Cassius Clay won the Heavyweight title from Sonny Liston on Feb. 25, 1964, he joined his long time mentor Malcolm X, NFL legend Jim Brown and soul sensation Sam Cooke at the south Florida hotel.

Writer Kemp Powers first imagined how that meeting of legendary minds might have played out, and now Regina King – who already has an acting Oscar – jumps into the race for Best Director with a wise and wonderful adaptation of Powers’ stage play. Propelled by a bold, vital script from Powers himself, King invites us into a frank discussion about the steps in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and about each man’s role in the struggle.

Though existing mainly inside that single hotel room, One Night in Miami is in a constant state of motion, as four talented actors serve and volley through a ballet of insight and intellect.

Portraying a bigger-than life-personality such as Clay without a hint of caricature is no easy feat, but Eli Goree handles it with smooth charisma.

Clay’s braggadocio is as playful and charming as you remember, but Goree also finds authentic shades of apprehension about the societal role Clay (who would publicly join the Nation of Islam and announce his name change to Muhammed Ali just weeks after the meeting) was about to accept.

Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcom X is a calming force of wisdom, but the film finds its gravitational pull in the forces of Aldis Hodge and Leslie Odom, Jr.

As Brown, Hodge is beautifully restrained power, a man of incredible strength still able to be staggered by sudden blows of racism. Brown’s path as a leader of the civil rights movement contrasts sharply with Cooke’s, and Odom, Jr. gives the singer surprising and resonant layers that include anger at the thought that he’s not all in for the cause.

The characters continually challenge each other, as King and Powers challenge us with a profundity that comes from their refusal to settle for easy answers. Each question the film raises connects past to present with committed grace, and One Night in Miami finds a beautiful dignity that shines in the face of bigotry. 

Grade: A-

MLK/FBI

Showing at Studio 35

by George Wolf

This year’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day arrives during a time in history that has worn out the word “unprecedented.” And it is the gravity of these times that only serves to make veteran documentarian Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI ring with more timely urgency.

Mixing some impressive historical footage, newly declassified files and more recent interview perspectives, Pollard dives into the FBI’s harassment of Dr. King with a steady, tactical approach.

For those unfamiliar, it becomes a chilling reminder of a courageous and charismatic civil rights leader, and the powerful white men who felt the best way to weaken Dr. King was through revelations of his sexual indiscretions.

And as you hear racists from decades past recite the same, tired excuses for their fear and bigotry that we’re hearing now, the folly of our confident righteousness is exposed with a sad irony.

Looking back, former FBI director James Comey describes the assault on Dr. King as the saddest days in the history of the bureau. Those times were daunting, too, and they called for accountability that never came.

Are we condemned to repeat that history? We’ll see very soon, which makes the lessons of MLK/FBI as vital as ever.

Grade: A-

Promising Young Woman

Yes, we know we already posted this one, but it’s finally streaming and you should really see it!

by Hope Madden

Emerald Fennell keeps you guessing.

In a riotous and incredibly assured feature debut as writer and director, she twists both knife and expectations in a rape-revenge riff that’s relevant, smart and surprisingly hilarious.

If you like your humor dark.

Carey Mulligan is flawless—when is she not?—as Cassandra. By day the one-time med student ignores customers from behind a coffee house counter. By night, she pretends to be obliterated in local clubs and dive bars.

Why would she do that? Well honestly, it’s because Cassandra’s life has lost its purpose and this is to a great degree the drug that numbs her. These opportunities to puncture the moral delusions of self-proclaimed “nice guys” who take her home provide catharsis. It’s like her own version of purgatory, as she forever tries to make amends for that one night back in med school.

And these moments are priceless as, one by one, Fennell exposes the hideous reality of gender norms and how little it takes for a man to be considered a good dude.

Mulligan is marvelous, giving Cassie the courage that comes from an utter disinterest in the opinions or well-being of others. And then a good guy from med school (Bo Burnham) stops in for coffee (in one of Mulligan’s finest, funniest scenes) and the stakes get higher.

Maybe she has a shot at turning the tables on those she considers responsible for this pain. Or maybe she’s found her one chance to put this pain behind her.

It’s a tightly wound script populated by spot-on performances. Fennell has a gift for casting small roles with actors who can find the absurd humor and realistic horror of every situation: Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown, Adam Brody, Laverne Cox, Alison Brie, Christopher Mintz-Plasse. But the cherry on this sundae is Burnham, who is quietly magnificent.

A pessimism runs through Fennell’s film that’s hard to ignore and even harder to criticize. But the film is true to the character of Cassie—a woman who’s profoundly dark and unforgiving but not wrong.

Fennell’s film is not a nuanced drama concerning rape culture. It’s not telling us anything we don’t honestly know already. It’s not a scalpel to the brain, it’s a sledge hammer to the testicles.

And why not?

Grade: A-

Rock Camp: The Movie

Screening Virtually at Gateway Film Center

by George Wolf

“Thanks for coming out tonight, we’re Motley Jüe..oy!”

Yes, Motley Jüe was a real band, at least for a few days. Picking the perfect band name is just a small part of the fun for the wannabe rockers at Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp. Rock Camp: The Movie takes us inside the experience that bridges the gap between stage and the Gold Circle section.

Because, let’s face it, those in the cheap seats can’t afford this, either. But for the fans that can swing it, RCTM shows us an indulgence that’s a lot less worthy of the kinds of jokes it inspired in year one.

Promoter David Fishof launched the first camp in 1997, to minimal interest. He got the idea from a practical joke played on him backstage by members of Ringo’s All-Starr Band (that home video footage is priceless), though low attendance the first year seemed to signal failure.

But after the camp was featured in various TV and commercial segments, it gained a foothold in popular culture. That brought some big rock stars into the fold, and Fishof (an interesting guy who could merit a documentary himself) suddenly had a hit.

The film is the debut feature for co-writers/directors Renee Barron and Douglas Blush, which often shows. Their focus can wander, and much of the production isn’t far removed from a marketing video. Plus, there’s no escaping that fact that much of the footage – judging by the look of some very famous faces – is clearly less than recent. But, these rough edges do go down easier in the context of regular folk taking a chance to follow their passions.

Profiles of fewer campers might have allowed time to foster a more intimate feel, but the dreamers Barron and Blush introduce are worth knowing. We see lives uplifted, families strengthened, and true talent given the chance to grow.

Perhaps most surprisingly, we see rich and incredibly successful musicians truly moved by their students, and reconnecting with the simple joy of music that set them on their path. And some of them – Roger Daltrey, Paul Stanley and Sammy Hagar especially – seem like really nice people.

Grade: B-

Locked Down

On HBO Max

by George Wolf

If you’re gonna be quarantined, you could do worse than being stuck with Anne Hathaway or Chiwetel Ejiofor. They’re both extremely talented and – inexplicable internet hate notwithstanding – easy to like.

But in Locked Down, their characters don’t like each other much anymore. In fact, Linda and Paxton were just about to split up when the stay-at-home orders came down. So now he’s been furloughed, she’s been firing people via Skype, and they keep to opposite ends of their (pretty sweet) London townhouse.

But fate is a funny thing, and though Paxton thinks it’s long been against him, suddenly he and Linda have the opportunity to steal a priceless diamond from Herrod’s without anyone noticing.

In writer Steven Knight’s resume of big ups (Locke) and major downs (Serenity – I mean wtf?), Locked Down is a creamy middle with a pleasant enough aftertaste.

Though the dialogue is filled with too-perfect banter and characters who casually drop references to Norse mythology while getting tripped up over “implode” and “explode,” everyone involved seems like their having fun. Expect a couple laugh out loud moments as well, so there’s that.

Hathaway and Ejiofor exude effortless charisma, and a parade of cameos (Ben Stiller, Ben Kingsley, Mindy Kaling, Stephen Merchant, Claes Bang) adds to the comfort food feeling.

And since this is a true socially distant production, most of those famous faces are seen only on computer screens, with director Doug Liman making sure there are plenty of Zoom glitches and other overdone reminders of our interesting times.

But though Liman is best known for action flicks (Edge of Tomorrow, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) this is no Ocean’s Two. The heist is small scale and forgettable fun, but it’s when we’re gently reminded about the things the pandemic hasn’t changed – only revealed – that Locked Down finds a relevant voice.

Grade: B-

Go/Don’t Go

On VOD

by Brandon Thomas

The opening minutes of Go/Don’t Go hint at a burgeoning relationship drama. Shy boy meets an outgoing girl. Girl draws the boy out of his shell. Hints of electricity crackle as they find themselves engrossed in conversation. The parts are all there, but as the scene comes to a close, Go/Don’t Go crosses into something a little more…sinister. 

Set in a not-so-distant future, Adam (writer/director Alex Knapp) spends his days completing routine tasks. He cleans, prepares meals and works on repairing a car. When not doing his day-to-day, Adam wanders the countryside, checks homes and marks areas on a map as “Go/Don’t Go.” Adam appears to be the only person left.

Isolation and loneliness exist in the periphery of every post-apocalyptic type movie. In Go/Don’t Go, the isolation is front and center. Adam doesn’t spend the entire running time evading cannibalistic marauders or dispatching shuffling zombies. No, Adam’s conflict exists in the haunted memories of a past love, K (Olivia Luccardi, It Follows). 

Looked at as a typical horror/thriller, Go/Don’t Go could be a frustrating watch for many. There’s a purposeful aloofness to the narrative that builds a lot of mystery, but also never shows much interest in resolving said mysteries. Adam’s flashbacks fill in interesting character gaps instead of explaining how Adam found himself in his current situation. 

The film’s most interesting angle is how it plays with metaphor. Is the landscape in which Adam lives even real? Every house he enters has running water and electricity. The market he goes to is always stocked full of fresh products. Maybe Adam’s shyness, hinted at in those opening minutes, has consumed him after the ending of a relationship. Of course, nothing is definitive and most of this is left to the viewer to decide. 

Knapp’s handling of familiar territory is a breath of fresh air. Despite the lack of momentum in the narrative, Knapp taps into a sense of urgency through clever editing. This allows layers of character to be peeled back piece by piece. It’s enough to keep us interested and invested in a story that moves at more of a sporadic pace. 

By focusing on character and theme, Go/Don’t Go manages to stand out in a sea of post-apocalyptic tales. 

Grade: A-

Bloody Hell

On VOD

by Hope Madden

The title made me think I was in for droll English humor. Not the case.

Bloody Hell, the latest from filmmaker Alister Grierson, is a kind of American/Finnish hybrid about tourism and how it’s often a terrible decision.

Rex (Ben O’Toole, Detroit) made one mistake. Well, it was sort of a series of mistakes all at one time, but they’re only mistakes if you think of them that way, and he doesn’t. Not really. Yes, one person died as a result, but Rex’s debt is paid now and he’s ready to rebuild his life.

Just not in the U.S., where the video of his “mistake” made him wildly, oppressively famous. Nope, somewhere else. Somewhere far away. Somewhere calm.

Finland! It’s the happiest country in the world! (It’s true. Look it up.) What could go wrong? There’s even reindeer.

There’s also this one sadistic and insane family, and Rex is about to get to know them and learn that unwanted fame is not, in the grander scheme, that bad when the grander scheme includes Finnish cannibals.

Bloody Hell is funny. It’s mean funny, sometimes tone-deaf mean and not so funny, but the often joyously dark humor almost makes up for that. The film’s success is mainly thanks to O’Toole, who manages to be sympathetic and sort of awful.

A string of lunatic supporting turns moves the story forward. Caroline Craig and Matthew Sunderland, in particular, are creepy fun as the heads of the household.

Credit screenwriter Robert Benjamin for much of the film’s frenetic pace. He has a knack for understanding what details we really do not need to possess to be able to follow along. Benjamin has basically strung together a series of carnage-strewn set pieces, and Grierson relies on O’Toole’s charisma to elevate these for messy, bloody laughs.

With self-deprecating charm to burn, O’Toole creates a wrong-headed but hilarious and almost sweet tone that helps Grierson hold together a plot that throws a lot at you. But at its heart, Bloody Hell is the tale of a lonely guy—endearingly but borderline psychotically lonely—and what it takes for him to find someone to love.  

It takes a trip to Finland. No wonder they’re so happy over there!

Grade: B

Hunted

On Shudder

by Hope Madden

It’s hard to tell a new story. People have been telling stories since the beginning of people, and eventually – probably millennia ago – we realized we were just recycling the same dozen or so tales.

This week’s Shudder premiere, director Vincent Paronnaud’s Hunted, feels especially familiar. He knows that, presumably, or the woman being chased through a massive forest wouldn’t be wearing a red hooded coat.

It’s clear in every aspect of the telling of this story that the filmmaker (and a team of writers including Paronnaud, Lea Pernollet and David H. Pickering) want you to understand how familiar this is.

Indeed, Paronnaud’s tale of a man chasing a woman is so ordinary that no matter how outlandish the circumstances, onlookers barely register it as more than a moment’s blip in their day.

Hunted opens with a fairy tale, spun by fireside in a deep, dark woods, of a group of men who turn on a woman. In this ancient lore, things don’t turn out so well for the men, not because a savior steps in but because of something more primal.

And so, eons later, the aptly named Eve (Lucie Debay) is dealing with a boss who underestimates her and a husband who can’t stop calling. She goes out for a drink. That might have been the last we ever heard from Eve.

Instead, after a series of events that escalate beyond the point of realism to something bordering on the absurd, the whole damn forest hears her.

Debay’s transformation is also marked very obviously and very visually, underscoring the cartoonish nature of this particular enactment. She does a wonderful job of evolving from something in Act 1 that feels garden variety for horror into something surprising and fierce.

Arieh Worthalter equals her as the psychopath, often lensed to give him the look of an animated wolf charming villagers.

Paronnaud’s background is in animation—he co-directed Marjane Satrapi’s sublime black and white wonder Persepolis. His move to horror benefits from his visual flair. While the red coat stands out as an obvious nod (not to mention terrible camouflage), a later splash of blue feels simultaneously insane and warrior-like.  

Or a fresh coat of paint.

Grade: B

Bright Hill Road

On VOD

by Hope Madden

No one looks forward to the consequences of their actions. If you believe in God, they’re coming for you one way or the other.

Robert Cuffley’s latest economically made horror Bright Hill Road shadows no-longer-functioning alcoholic Marcy (Siobhan Williams) through a pretty bad stretch. It would be hard to imagine things getting any worse, really. So, Marcy decides to drive across country to spend some time with her sister Mia in California.

She doesn’t drive straight through, though. She wakes up in her car in front of a pretty dodgy looking hotel in some forgotten little town and finds herself checking in. The place is super weird, though, and Marcy’s never sure if she’s hallucinating, drying out, or seeing and hearing ghosts.

Most of the time Bright Hill Road works—playing on your guesswork without giving away all its secrets. Sometimes it does not work. But the film lives and dies with Siobhan Williams’ performance.

Slight but scrappy, she takes on the image of Angela Bettis or Elliot Page. You worry for her, believe in both her vulnerability and the chip on her shoulder that might get her through it. She’s weary but spirited and more than anything, she’s in denial.

Cuffley’s direction takes on a hallucinatory quality that suits Susie Maloney’s trippy script. Both Act 1 and Act 3 feel rushed—the opening bit of violence shocks you out of complaining, but the final moments border on being unearned. Still, the meat of the film meanders at a creepy pace, one that conjures the feeling of a bad dream.

Bright Hill Road has an intentional, low-rent Overlook quality to it—something both supernatural and seedy. It carries its own internal logic, and while the toughest eruptions of violence hit us in the film’s opening moments, it has some grim images to share as the hotel takes on additional guests.

Cuffley doesn’t break a lot of new ground, but his is an appealing riff on a familiar tune. Most of our demons are within. Trauma takes on an even more sinister form when it’s mixed up with shame. Addiction is its own monster. No one likes a shared bathroom.

Grade: B-

Read more from George and Hope on twitter @maddwolf and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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