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Bunches of Fine Movie Options

Hope Madden Hope Madden Bunches of Fine Movie OptionsThe Devil All the Time - Photo via IMDb
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Theaters and streaming services are still vying for our attention. Don’t you just feel drunk on power right now? A couple of excellent Ohio-grown options this week, several films to leave you sleepless, and generally just a pretty solid week all around.

The Devil All the Time

Playing theatrically at Gateway Film Center. Streaming on Netflix beginning Wednesday.

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

“Lord know where a person who ain’t saved might end up.”

Indeed. The constant fight to overcome the worst in ourselves lies at the heart of The Devil All the Time, director Antonio Campos’s darkly riveting realization of Donald Ray Pollack’s best-selling novel.

Bookended by the close of World War II and the escalation in Vietnam, the film connects the fates of various characters living in the small rural towns of Southern Ohio and West Virginia.

Arvin (Tom Holland), the son of a disturbed WWII vet (Bill Skarsgard), fights to protect his sister (Eliza Scanlen) while he ponders his future. Husband and wife serial killers (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough) look for hitchhikers to degrade, photograph and murder. A new small town preacher (Robert Pattinson) displays a special interest in the young girls of his congregation.

It’s a star studded affair—Mia Wasikowska, Haley Bennett and Sebastian Stan joining the ensemble as well—but every actor blends into the woodsy atmosphere with a sense of unease that permeates the air. No stars here, all character actors in service of the film’s unsettling calling.

Pollack’s prose created a dizzyingly bleak landscape where Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy might meet to quietly ponder man’s inhumanity to man. Campos unlocks that world courtesy of Pollack himself, who narrates the film’s depravity with a backwoods folksiness that makes it all the more chilling.

As rays of light are constantly snuffed out by darkness, Campos (who also co-wrote the screenplay) uses Pollack’s voice and contrasting soundtrack song choices to create a perverse air of comfort.

Redemption is a slippery aim in and around Knockemstiff, Ohio, and grace is even harder to come by. With a heavier hand, this film would have been a savage beating or a backwoods horror of the most grotesque kind. Campos and his formidable ensemble deliver Pollack’s tale with enough understatement and integrity that it leaves more of a scar.

Grade: A-

All In: The Fight for Democracy

Playing at Gateway Film Center and streaming on Amazon Prime.

by Hope Madden

Documentaries can be frustrating, especially political documentaries. They warn you about coming disasters you hadn’t predicted, show you the brutality and ugliness in parts of the world you hadn’t seen, reinforce that ulcerous dread in your gut about humanity on the whole. You can basically only hope they also show you a way out.

Mercifully, All In: The Fight for Democracy does that. But first it upbraids your apathy about voting by detailing the harrowing history of Americans who had to take a beating, even die, just to exercise that right. Then it details the meticulously detailed strategy in place and being executed right now to keep you from exercising your right, now that you understand its value.

Filmmakers Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus wisely anchor their facts to Georgia’s gubernatorial race of 2018. The core storyline, narrated by the Democratic candidate in that race, Stacey Abrams, is of that election’s rampant and open-to-pubic-view suppression of Georgia voters. Abrams’s opponent, Brian Kemp, had been an architect of voter suppression as Georgia’s Secretary of State: closing polling places, purging voting rolls and instituting legislation that made voting more difficult.

It was incredibly successful for him. Expect to see more of it.

If that sounds cynical, it is. It’s also a major point of the film. But Cortes and Garbus (and Abrams) have a more idealistic goal, which is to point out something important to every American citizen regardless of party: Democracies only work when citizens decide what politicians do, not vice versa. When citizens vote, we can make the decisions. We can determine who is in office and what they need to fight for and against. And if they don’t do it? We can vote them out.

But we can only do that if we can actually vote, which is why politicians who don’t want to do their jobs enacting the will of the people work tirelessly to make it harder and harder for Americans to cast their ballots.

The history is well told between effective speakers and illustrative animations, but it’s the insidious nature of voter suppression and its modern execution that is equal parts enlightening, terrifying and frustrating.

So make a plan. Verify your polling location. Double check that you are still on the rolls. (Ohio is especially guilty of stifling the vote.) Vote early.

Just vote.

And watch this movie.

Grade: A-

The Broken Hearts Gallery

In theaters.

by George Wolf

I have no problem at all with scary movies, I love them. But I gotta be honest, I can’t think of many things more frightening than the prospect of dating in today’s social climate.

So kudos to writer/director Natalie Krinsky for squeezing so much feel-goodiness out of the dating tribulations of twenty-something New Yorkers in The Broken Hearts Gallery.

Lucy (Geraldine Viswanathan), a gallery assistant, is smarting from a painful breakup. Her roommate besties Amanda (Molly Gordon from BooksmartGood BoysLife of the Party) and Nadine (Hamilton‘s Phillipa Soo) are helping her cope.

First lesson in letting go: get rid of all that junk you’ve saved as souvenirs from past relationships!

But a chance meeting with Nick (Dacre Montgomery from Stranger Things), a budding hotel owner, spawns an idea. If Lucy will help get the hotel ready for opening day, Nick will give her space to open a gallery showcasing trinkets donated by lovers left behind.

Krinsky, a TV vet helming her first feature, leans on plenty of familiar rom-com tropes, but gives them all just the right amount of unabashed enthusiasm to feel more comfortable than cheesy.

The dance montages are numerous, the dialog less like real conversations and more like people waiting for their next turn to quip, and the ladies’ Big Apple cynicism as biting as a sugar-coated fantasy.

But Viswanathan (Blockers, Bad Education) is bursting with bubbly charm, Montgomery brings a welcome, dialed-down authenticity, and Krinsky is able to mine some contemporary laughs from recycled ideas (the actual Museum of Broken Relationships, When Harry Met Sally-styled interviews with the trinket owners).

The Broken Hearts Gallery is often as awkward and messy as it is breezy and spirited. You know where it’s going and it goes there, pushed buttons blazing.

And for 108 minutes, dating in this world seems like it isn’t that scary at all, and could maybe even be fun. Maybe.

Grade: B-

Buoyancy

Streaming via Wexner Center for the Arts Virtual Screening Room.

by Hope Madden

Hey, it’s been a pretty easy going year. Feel like a movie?

Well, first time feature filmmaker Rodd Rathjen has one for you and you’re not going to like it, but you should watch it anyway. Buoyancy shadows a 14-year-old Cambodian boy sold into slave labor on a Thai fishing trawler.

I know, but stay with me.

In his feature debut behind the camera, Rathjen wisely relies on naturalistic performances from mainly non-professional actors to recreate the circumstances rather than dramatize them.

Sarm Heng is Chakra, a put upon adolescent bristling at the limitations of his life. There’s the universal element of adolescent rebellion, here tied to far more than angst. Chakra does manual labor rather than going to school, and as kids in uniform whiz by him on bicycles, and cars on the nearby highway come and go, his stagnancy and the back breaking monotony awaiting him in adulthood press down on him.

He follows an opportunity to sneak away from home and get a ride out of the country, where he’ll make real money working in a factory. It’s OK if he doesn’t have the $500 fare to leave the country, he can work that off in his first month.

That’s not how it actually works, and we spend the rest of the film watching as Chaka’s realization comes to him in bits and pieces that he will probably never leave this rickety fishing boat.

Rathjen’s film ends with sobering facts concerning the modern slave trade in Southeast Asia, with as many as 200,000 boys and men currently missing and believed to be held in bondage on fishing boats. The filmmaker’s verité style helps us understand how this happens. There’s no boisterous villain detailing the scheme, no, “Ha! You belong to me now!” No one tells you you’re never being paid, never going home. You simply adjust to your circumstances or you die.

There’s little dialog once Chakra leaves the boys in the village behind, but Heng doesn’t need it. The evolution of this character hangs on his face. It’s a remarkable performance, especially from a kid who’s never acted before.

Heng gets an assist from two actors with some experience. An utterly heartbreaking Mony Ros is the middle-aged man who falls prey to the scheme in the hopes of providing for his family. The camaraderie between these two characters is powerful, and it’s a theme Rathjen mirrors in Chakra’s relationship with the ship’s captain, played with menacing relish by Thenawut Ketsaro.

What they create together is harrowing, but it’s also a brilliant piece of filmmaking that needs to be seen.

Grade: A-

Rent-A-Pal

Available on VOD.

by Hope Madden

What did we do before Tinder?

Back in 1990 there weren’t even online dating sites, let alone handy apps for lonely singles, and David (Brian Landis Folkins) is lonely. He cares for his mother by day and spends evenings in his basement, viewing new VHS tapes from a dating service—a service he’s belonged to for six months without a single match.

When he goes back in to record a new video of his own, David stumbles across a different kind of tape: Rent-A-Pal.

This video doesn’t tempt David with first-person accounts of women who won’t be interested in him. No, Andy (Wil Wheaton) is a real friend, even if he is just a recording.

It’s like Blue’s Clues, except it’s aimed at desperately lonely men, which is maybe the creepiest premise I can remember.

From the top-loading VCR to the woody wagon, writer/director Jon Stevenson has David clearly defined. Even for 1990, he is behind the times. He’s a loser. But Stevenson doesn’t dismiss David, and he definitely doesn’t mock him. Which is not to say Rent-A-Pal is entirely sympathetic.

Stevenson and Folkins work together to make David a believable, heartbreaking, damaged human being. Were he a caricature of that loser who lives in his mom’s basement, Rent-A-Pal would not pack nearly the wallop it does. Folkins’s layered, vulnerable performance and his character’s evolution are powerful, awful, and awfully relevant.

It’s a pre-internet story of a lonely white guy, easily convinced of his entitlement to everything he wants by another, similar white guy. Thanks to this other voice, so very similar to his own and so very supportive, David’s self-pity turns bitter.

Rent-A-Pal is a cautionary, pre-incel tale of the insidious dangers of blame and entitlement. Driven by a smart script, excellent supporting work (both Amy Rutledge and Kathleen Brady are wonderful), and an unerring lead turn, Rent-A-Pal delivers an alarming kind of origin story.

Grade: A-

TBDBITL 141

TBDITL 141 is available now on Vimeo.

by George Wolf

It might be more fair for someone who wasn’t an Ohio State graduate and/or rabid Buckeye fan to review TBDBITL 141.

But no one fitting that description lives in my house, so…

For the sadly unwashed, “TBDBITL” stands for The Best Damn Band in the Land. 2018 brought the Ohio State Marching Band’s 141st edition, and director Joe Camoriano takes us inside that memorable season with unprecedented access. (Camoriano’s role as the University Communication Director of National Broadcast Media might have helped.)

From summer practice to tryouts, headline-grabbing halftime shows to the Macys Thanksgiving Day Parade, Rose Bowl and Disneyland, we get a captivating look at how hard Band Director Dr. Christopher Hoch, his staff and band members work to achieve a status that is – in the words of former football coach Urban Meyer – “elite.”

Camoriano is wise to humanize the experience via three engaging band members. There’s Konner, who is realizing a lifelong dream as Drum Major; Sydney, a charming trombone player with boundless enthusiasm; and Thomas, the lucky sousaphonist who gets the honor of dotting the “I” in the incomparable Script Ohio.

These three are likable personalities and easy to root for, which naturally increases our investment in the entire process, and is especially helpful for anyone coming to this film wondering what the hype is all about.

Despite an over-reliance on video fades and some rough patches in the background sound mix, Camoriano’s footage is always informative and engaging, even occasionally thrilling.

And for those of us always ready to answer a cry of “O-H!” there might be a goosebump or three.

Grade: B+

Red, White & Wasted

Available on VOD.

by George Wolf

The most effective documentaries often serve as windows to a new world. The world framed by Red, White & Wasted may be covered in Florida mud, but its view – in both foreground and background – is remarkably clear.

Up front, we’re immersed in the culture of “mudders,” who live for monster trucks and mud holes, beer and babes. The undercurrent, though, carries the type of bare bones political insight authors and filmmakers have been trying to articulate for years.

Directors Sam Jones and Andrei Bowden Schwartz introduce us to Matthew Burns, a mudding disciple who years back gained some local Orlando fame as “Video Pat,” ringleader of the “Swamp Ghost” mud hole. The monster truckers would come to barrel through the mud, and Pat would eventually fill “1,000 +” videotapes with all the filthy glory.

But Orlando, as you may have heard, is famous for some other attractions, and eventually the mudders’ favorite piece of land is sold, forcing them all to give up the Ghost.

The introduction of Video Pat’s family and friends expands the fascination the film finds in uncovering this backwoods life. While Jones and Schwartz – in their feature debut – never condescend to the mudders opening up to them, they’re also smart enough to follow where the simple country folks are only too happy too lead.

These proud “rednecks” are openly racist but don’t think it’s really a problem, keep tuned to conservative media, have “a lot of respect for Vladimir Putin” and protest that the Confederate flag really represents “home grown cookin’.”

And they are bigly fans of Donald Trump.

For anyone still wondering why so many of these rural Americans continue to vote against their own interests, this film and these people make it clear as mud. Their way of life is disappearing, and blaming the immigrants, city slickers, job-stealing foreign countries and libtards makes them feel better.

And whichever way you react to that, Pat’s reflections on his years of mudding, his failures as a father, and his status as a brand new grandfather arrive with a conflicted poignancy.

As he smiles and gently cradles his new grandson, Pat wonders about all the boy might soon be taught.

He’s not the only one wondering.

Grade: B+

Immortal

Available on VOD.

by Hope Madden

Countless movies over the years have pondered what it might feel like to be immortal. Writer Jon Dabach, in four separate tales with one thread in common, wonders what it would be like not to be able to die.

His film Immortal strings together these stories, each one directed by a different person (Tom Colley, Danny Isaacs, Rob Margolies and Dabach himself), each one depicting one person’s relationship with deathlessness.

The composite contains a horror short, two thrillers and one anguished romance.

Chelsea, starring the great Dylan Baker, offers a somewhat overwritten first act. Baker is beloved old high school English teacher Mr. Shagis, Chelsea (Lindsay Mushet) is the school’s star athlete, and today’s lesson is symbolism.

Baker’s as nuanced and fascinating as always in a short that starts things off with a solid smack.

Of the balance, Mary and Ted is most effective. Assisted suicide advocates film a video of the longtime married couple played lovingly by Robin Bartlett and Tony Todd. We, along with the crew, get to know them—their love, their suffering—and then the crew leaves them to their task.

I feel like I want to send Dabach a thank you note for this one, just to see Tony Todd this tender. The sub-baritone voiced horror icon (Candyman, Night of the Living Dead) delicately wields emotion and heartbreak here in a way we’ve certainly never seen from this actor. Bartlett offers an outstanding counterpoint, the believable resignation in her delivery weighing down every line.

A hit-and-run victim exacts precise revenge in Warren, which takes a particularly solitary view: So you just found out you can’t die. What do you do now? The absolute ordinariness, the down-to-earthiness of this one’s delivery—as well as the charmingly odd investigator—give it real appeal.

Even the one that feels most predictable takes a wildly unpredictable turn—one the filmmakers do not shy away from capturing on film. In each, there’s an element of discovery that punctuates the story. Dabach and his team of directors capture a wide range of emotions and attitudes, but leave the audience wondering just enough.

Immortal is essentially an anthology of short films, and in fact, the pieces do not intersect, nor do they clarify much. Instead, they offer four slices of life—well, slices of not death—and an intriguing look at what death means to us.

Grade: B+

Entwined

Available on VOD.

by Hope Madden

Aah, the woods. It is almost overwhelming in its defiance of civilization, its sheer magnitude of just plain nature. Shakespeare set his magic there, but a lot of horror filmmakers lean closer to Lars Von Trier’s proclamation: Nature is Satan’s church.

Making his feature debut as both director and co-writer, Minos Nikolakakis conjures a spooky fairy tale that makes much ado about nature.

Panos (Prometheus Aleifer), a city doctor looking for a simpler, more isolated existence, moves to a remote Greek village to become the town’s only (and apparently first) doctor. Winding through wooded, mountainous roads on his way to his new home he nearly runs down a lovely young woman, who promptly disappears back into the woods.

Once in the village, Panos discovers tight-lipped locals, superstition and boredom—all of which leads him on a quest to figure out who that girl in the woods might be.

It’s to Nikolakakis’s credit as a visual storyteller that so many familiar elements still work to cast a spell. The film explains very little. It sprinkles clues about, but relies on your familiarity with the way folk tales work to lead you into an unusual take on the genre. There’s nothing overstated or campy about Nikolakakis’s fairy tale trappings.

Aleifer’s understated charisma—his penetrating stare, his abiding sadness—creates a strong center for the story. A melancholy mixture of logic and longing, his bearing articulates the dizzying, frustrating mixture of emotions and circumstances that trap Panos.

Anastasia Rafaella Konidi’s earthy version of the succubus intrigues consistently. She vacillates between demanding and imploring, but never feels genuinely sinister. And we’re never entirely sure whether the doctor sees his plight in the woods as a dream or a nightmare, and that shifting reality generates dizzying dread.

The film’s weakest element is the presence of co-writer John De Holland in the role of Panos’ protective half-brother, George. The performance is shaky enough that the first act suffers badly—the first impression is of a movie not worth your time.

Luckily De Holland has considerably less screen time through the remainder of the film. Still, when George does appear intermittently he punctures the spell Nikolakakis and the remainder of the cast has conjured and it takes a while to recreate the mood.

The way the story resolves itself is a puzzle, and not an especially satisfying one. With Entwined, Nikolakakis boasts some impressive storytelling instincts, but there’s still room for growth.

Grade: B-

Read more from George and Hope at MADDWOLF and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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