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Big Weekend for Movies

Hope Madden Hope Madden Big Weekend for MoviesJungle Cruise - Photo via IMDb
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Theme park rides, Arthurian legends, and a ripped-from-the-headlines kind of thriller—that doesn’t sound like that interesting a weekend in movies. But it is. And if these major releases don’t draw your fancy, there’s a host of worthwhile indies in theaters and on the small screen we’d like to point you toward. 

The Green Knight

In theaters

by Hope Madden

Lutes and mead, chainmail and sorcery—director David Lowery’s Camelot is just as rockin’ as ever in his trippy coming-of-age style The Green Knight.

Dev Patel stars as King Arthur’s nephew, Gawain. He’s a bit of a ne’er-do- well and it looks like he’s ne’er going to actually be knighted. But Christmas warms old Arthur’s heart and he asks the boy to take a seat of honor at the round table. When this menacing giant (think Groot, but sinister) drops in for a beheading game, Gawain offers to play so he can keep his uncle’s respect.

The story itself is more than 700 years old. Credit Lowery, who adapted the old ballad for the screen, with finding fresh intrigue in the old bones. He’s slippery with symbolism and draws wonderful performances from the ensemble.

Joel Edgerton is especially fun as The Lord, just one of many helpers and hindrances Gawain finds on his journey. Barry Keoghan is likewise wonderful playing a brash, angry scavenger. But Edgerton and Keoghan are always good. The real surprise here is Patel.

That’s not to say he’s unproven, just that his performances until now tend to rely heavily and falsely on an earnest streak. Gawain does not. Patel doesn’t shy away from or judge the character’s weakness or cowardice. Instead, he uses those very characteristics to make Gawain human.

It’s the kind of compassionate portrayal rarely depicted in an Arthurian fable, and it ensures that you care enough for the character to puzzle through his adventures with him. There’s sorcery afoot, and also psychedelic mushrooms, so who knows what’s really going on?

Here’s where Lowery really excels, though. His visual storytelling has always been his greatest strength as a director and this tale encourages his most fanciful and hypnotic visual style to date. The Green Knight is gorgeous. The color and framing are pure visual poetry. Together with this exceptional ensemble, Lowery’s created a magical realm where you believe anything could happen.

Grade: A-

Jungle Cruise

In theaters and Disney Plus Premium

by George Wolf

Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) wears trousers in 1916 London, so she’s “pants.”

Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) is the skipper Lily hires to guide her and her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) into the Amazon jungle, she he’s “skippy.”

As Lily and Frank’s verbal sparring grows more and more flirtatious during the swashbuckling adventures of Jungle Cruise, the sheer charisma of the two leads succeeds in steering the film away from dull waters.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra fills Disney’s latest with plenty of wink-wink spirit from the original theme park ride, right down to the cornball jokes Frank insists on telling to his tour boat clients.

But Lily is no tourist. She’s a botanist in search of the Tears of the Moon, a legendary tree said to contain magical healing powers. The closer Frank gets them to the prize, the more dangers come out of the jungle. Not only does Kaiser Wilhelm’s son Joachim (Jesse Plemons) also want the magic flowers, but a 400-year-old undead conquistador (Edgar Ramirez) is seeking to break the curse that ties him to the jungle.

Yes, there’s much going on, but Collet-Serra keeps the CGI action sequences (some of which will remind you plenty of Pirates of the Caribbean) front and center on a journey that never loses the family adventure vibe.

Not that the five credited writers have forgotten about us grown-ups who took this actual Disney ride as kids. An extended bout of Blunt v Johnson innuendo becomes a frisky delight, while the subtle nods to marriage equality and the savagery of colonialism are fleeting but effective.

The film’s third act delivers a major surprise, which results in extended exposition and the first signs of treading water. But even at its most formulaic, there’s enough humor, heart and genuine movie star appeal here to make Jungle Cruise an excursion full of rollicking good fun.

Grade: B

Stillwater

In theaters

by Hope Madden

A couple weeks back, Nicolas Cage played a man desperate to reclaim a loved one that was lost to him, a man who might stop at nothing to do just that. His film Pig hit every beat of a John Wick or Taken, subverting the genre trappings to create one of the most beautiful films of 2021.

Matt Damon has not lost his beloved bovine, but in Stillwater, he leads a film equally bent on messing with audience expectations.

Damon plays Bill Baker, out-of-work oil rigger headed to Marseilles to see his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin). It’s not your ordinary visit, though. Allison has been in prison for five years for a very Amanda Knox type of incident.

What does Bill want? To get his little girl out of prison. What does he need? To prove himself to himself, and to the world, but most desperately to Allison. There is an aching humility undergirding this performance, giving it richness and tenderness. That humility alone is enough to separate Stillwater from other fathers-desperate-to-save-daughter films like Taken.

But co-writer/director Tom McCarthy does not stop there.

This filmmaker is hard to figure. McCarthy followed up his early indie treasures (The Station Agent and The Visitor among them) with the high profile, catastrophically terrible Adam Sandler movie The Cobbler. Bounced back pretty well, though, with his Oscar-winning Spotlight. Still, his filmography swings back and forth between masterpiece (he wrote Pixar’s Up) and misfire (he wrote Disney’s Million Dollar Arm).

Stillwater falls somewhere between.

The film opens with the threadbare premise of an earnest, All-American Dad taking justice in his own hands to save his daughter. It picks up that thriller storyline late in the second act with a jarring right turn you simply did not expect. In between, though, in what could easily feel like a self-indulgent side plot, is the real meat of the film.

Bill decides to stay semi-permanently in France, moving in with the French woman who’s willing to help translate and sleuth with him. While he’s drawn to Virginie (Camille Cottin), it’s really her 9-year-old (a fantastic Lilou Siauvaud) that draws him in. And here McCarthy—along with a team of writers, both American and French—betray the real theme of the film.

Stillwater is a tragedy about second chances. Its sloppy construction is both its downfall and its strong point. The film works against your expectations brilliantly to deliver a film that refuses to satisfy. The result is an often brilliant, ultimately unsatisfying work. And that seems to be the point.

Grade: B+

Lorelei

At Gateway Film Center

by Hope Madden

Dolores (Jena Malone) is a mess. Her past, her present, even her future: a mess. Shacking up with her high school boyfriend – just released from a 15-year stint for armed robbery – hardly seems like it will improve things for Dolores or her three children.

But bubbling beneath the surface of filmmaker Sabrina Doyle’s messy, sometimes frustrating feature debut Lorelei is enough magic to make redemption possible.

It helps immeasurably that Jena Malone plays the single mom who named each of her children after a different shade of blue. Wayland (Pablo Schreiber) had held out a hope that the eldest—a 15-year-old boy named Dodger Blue (Chancellor Perry)—might be his, but the truth is that none of Dolores’s kids are Wayland’s. All three should have been, but Wayland, in his own way, got out and Dolores did not.

Malone’s commitment is mesmerizing. In her hands, Dolores is never one-note white trash, nor is she by any means an example of the noble poor. Instead, she’s all love and resentment, wonder and self-destruction.

Schreiber (Liev’s brother) balances her electricity with quiet awe. He’s a physically imposing presence, especially opposite the petite Malone, but he never falls back on the gentle giant cliche. He fills Wayland’s inner conflict with remorse, loss and tenderness.

Though Dolores’s trio of Blues (Perry, Amelia Borgerding and Parker Pascoe-Sheppard) showcase genuine talent from three young performers, the same can’t be said of the entire ensemble. Many struggle with Doyle’s sometimes stilted dialog and her tendency to toss in minor characters with little purpose but exposition. Between that and the film’s sometimes frustrating structure, Lorelei can be cumbersome.

But there’s no denying the central performances or the beautifully messy image of family the film delivers. Though at its heart Lorelei offers a blue-collar romance, this is less a traditional love story—albeit one on society’s fringes—than a declaration about unconventional families.

In fact, in that way alone Doyle manages to make Lorelei’s flaws work in its favor.

Grade: B+

Ride the Eagle

At Gateway Film Center and on VOD

by George Wolf

Small casts working on limited sets with wide open spaces. We’ve seen plenty of these films lately, and we’ll see plenty more. Because even under pandemic rules, creators adjust and create.

Director/co-writer Trent O’Donnell and star/co-writer Jake Johnson adjusted to the tune of Ride the Eagle, a lightly sweet lesson in living your best life while you still can.

Johnson is Leif, a harmless California stoner who plays bongos (oh, sorry, “percussion”) in a band called Restaurant. Leif’s been estranged from his mom Honey (Susan Sarandon, in a role that seems tailored to her) since she left to join a cult when he was 12.

But now, Honey’s dead, and she’s left behind a couple things especially for Leif. The first is her sweet mountain cabin up near Yosemite, which he can take possession of only if he pays close attention to the other thing Mom left.

It’s a VHS tape, filled with a to-do list that comprises Leif’s “conditional inheritance.”

“Is this legal?” Apparently, it is.

And luckily, Mom’s VHS player isn’t dead. So Leif dutifully goes about the tasks that Honey hopes will teach him things she regretfully did not: express yourself, eat what you kill, call the one that got away.

Sarandon’s on tape, and ex Audrey (a charmingly flirty D’Arcy Carden) is on phone and text, so this is nearly a Johnson one man show. Good thing he’s in his likable comfort zone, using his talks with dog Nora as an endearingly organic way to both inform and crack wise.

It’s all perfectly warm and amusing, but in need of precisely the jolt delivered by Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons as Carl, Honey’s ex-lover who’s not shy about detailing their love life.

“That’s probably not what her son wants to hear, I guess.”

No probably not, but we do. Simmons’s cameo punctures the bubble by putting two humans in the same room to reflect on the passing of another human. It’s funny and it’s fuzzy and it goes a long way toward making sure these ruminations on forgiveness and regret actually resonate.

The Honey do list isn’t preaching anything new, but Johnson and O’Donnell never pretend that it is. Ride the Eagle is a casual, come as you are and wherever you are affair, like some comfort food two guys thought was worth another serving during a worldwide crisis.

And they’re not wrong. Some golden rules are always worth a rewind, even on VHS.

Grade: B-

Mr. Soul!

On AppleTV

by George Wolf

Who do you think of when you hear the title “Mr. Soul!”?

James Brown? Otis Redding? Marvin Gaye?

Give writer/director Melissa Haizlip 104 minutes, and she’ll more than convince you the correct answer is her uncle, Ellis Haizlip, the trailblazing producer and host of the first “Black Tonight Show.”

Ellis and his team televised the revolution on Soul!, a landmark “love affair with blackness” which ran on New York public television from 1968 to 1973.

Under Ellis’ guidance as visionary producer and thoughtful host, Soul! confidently promoted the liberation of Black people. Tossing a truth bomb into the lily white television landscape of the late ’60s, the show brought a focus on Black arts never before seen on screen.

Melissa Haizlip presents it all in absolutely riveting fashion. She primes us with the fascinating story behind the birth of the show and Ellis’ somewhat reluctant ascension to host, and then drops our jaws with a litany of archival performances that make the past crackle with new urgency.

Of course there are rousing musical segments from Stevie Wonder, Al Green, Gladys Knight, Billy Preston, Earth, Wind & Fire and more, but Ellis made sure Soul! also brought an overdue showcase to the “original avant-garde” of Black dance, writing and poetry.

Ellis’ goal was to share the Black experience first, and then educate and entertain. Bringing the brilliant work of Toni Morrison, the Last Poets, Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin to television audiences cemented Ellis’ vision, and Melissa provides context to transcend the decades and allow the voices to speak their truth to current power.

And as you would expect, Melissa makes sure we see the caring soul of her uncle. With help from Blair Underwood often narrating Ellis’ writings (Ellis died in 1991 at the age of 61), we get to know an openly gay man who raised the topic of homosexuality with his audience and guests, and filled his own production team with a majority of female staffers.

Of the new interviews that Melissa weaves into the history lesson, hearing from Amir “Questlove” Thompson seems especially fitting. Though Mr. Soul! was completed three years ago, a more widespread release now makes it the perfect complement to Thompson’s own Summer of Soul.

This is Black history coming thrillingly, vibrantly alive, through the life of an enigmatic man earning that exclamation point.

Mr. Soul! Get to know him.

Grade: A

Twist

On VOD

by Christie Robb

Have you ever found yourself reading a classic Victorian novel and wondering, “What if this was more like Ocean’s Eleven as directed by Guy Ritchiebut with parkour?”

A modern-day update of the Charles Dickens classic Oliver Twist, Martin Owen’s Twist imagines Oliver as an orphaned parkour enthusiast and Banksy-esque street artist. Oliver is swiftly recruited into a gang of art thieves and tasked with stealing a previously stolen Hogarth painting to salvage the reputation of Fagin (Michael Caine), who was a legitimate art dealer back in the day until his partner stole the Hogarth and pinned it on him.

The movie’s strength is in its depiction of parkour. The practitioners make the London cityscape into their playground, skipping across rooftops like stones on a still pond.

The plot and character development are handled with less dexterity. The teenage thieves are given highly specialized technical skills with no attempt at an explanation of how, for example, a minor might know how to clone a cell phone or fake the credentials of a fine art gallery. The characters are very thinly portraited, with each seeming to get about one emotion to embody. Raff Law (song of Jude) as Twist is unflappably earnest with no undertone of the emotional baggage that a kid who was orphaned at 10 or 11 and lived alone on the streets of London would have accrued.

Even Lena Headey, who gives a very convincing depiction of rage, can’t overcome the script’s lack of an explanation of why she’s there and what exactly she has to do with everything except being an obstacle because the plot demands it.

Headey and Caine lend the film a certain gravitas it otherwise doesn’t really deserve. There’s certainly none of the concern with crushing, systemic poverty and the social class disparities contained in the source material. Oliver and the other young thieves are dressed stylishly, are glowing with good health, and get to hang out in a clubhouse furnished with classic arcade games, jukeboxes, and foosball tables. The morality of their lifestyle isn’t questioned as much as it is explained away as a romantic Robin Hood kind of thing where Fagin plays Hood and the kiddos are his Merry Men.  

Overall, the film is a rather lackluster adaptation of a classic that misses much of the original’s point. If you want to see young people executing artful feats of athleticism, dodge this flick and put on the Olympics.

Grade: C

For Madmen Only

On AppleTV

by Matt Weiner

E. B. White warned us years ago against explaining a joke when he wrote that “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”

What then to make of For Madmen Only, a feature-length explanation of not just a joke but a unique art form created by a man who has to hold the title of greatest comedy legend that nobody has ever heard of?

Well, nobody outside of the comedy world. For Madmen Only seeks to correct this by documenting the story of Del Close, the improv comedy guru who brought form and structure to the genre and influenced decades of comedians, from Bill Murray and John Belushi to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

Director Heather Ross brings an ordered, mostly chronological approach to Close’s chaotic life, with a who’s who of talking heads to back up the thesis that Close forever changed the direction of modern comedy. Ross balances the interviews with a series of re-enactments, with James Urbaniak giving such an uncanny performance as Close that he deserves a feature-length companion.

For Madmen Only turns the history of a comedic form into a fully engaging suspense tale, that centers Close as a dogged Quixote trying to prove both the artistic and financial success of improv, even as his tumultuous lifestyle leads to setback after setback (and a few mental breakdowns for good measure).

The film also manages to walk the tightrope between hagiography and documentary. If improv performance attracts a special blend of weirdo – as the on-camera interviews persuasively argue – that might go double for audiences who regularly watch these risky performances and hold detailed opinions about their favorite UCB Harold teams.

Yet for a documentary on such a niche subject, Ross (along with co-writer Adam Samuel Goldman) hangs everything on a universal frame. Close is an artist first, and his medium just happened to be a new kind of sketch comedy. While a film dedicated to bringing Close to a wider audience is naturally in his camp, Ross sprinkles in enough counterpoints for anyone who thinks two hours of improvised comedy is too unstructured to be funny.

Where this treatment of Close does pull its punches is when it comes to any in-depth look at the very narrow type of diversity this comedy scene fostered, an issue the industry is still grappling with. But at least that gets a passing mention.

Completely absent is any look at the financial situation these theaters have created for participants. (A situation that has, not coincidentally, led to a comedy landscape where relatively privileged writers and actors can afford to pay large amounts of money to the theaters in big cities while paying their dues.) But these blind spots belong to the entire industry, not just Close.

In a fitting nod to improv, For Madmen Only is full of surprising detours and poignant observations. It would have been easy to reduce Close to tortured genius or entitled bully. It’s harder to embrace vulnerability and grapple with the answer: “Yes. And…”

Grade: A-

Follow George and Hope on Twitter @maddwolf and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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