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Can Any New Movie Unseat Captain Marvel?

George Wolf George Wolf Can Any New Movie Unseat Captain Marvel?Photo still from "Climax," via IMDb.
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Damn, a lot of movies come out this week. Is any one of them strong enough to take over the coveted #1 slot at the box office? Oh, hell no. Not a single chance of it. The national releases are poor to middling in quality, although there are some really worthwhile indie gems for you to seek out this weekend.

Captive State

by Hope Madden

Imagine, if you will, that someone bullied their way to a takeover of the government. Imagine that they exploited the poor for labor while gutting Earth’s natural resources for their own gain, leaving a husk of a planet behind.

Imagine that they enacted blunt order with no thought to human rights, as they built walls, separated families and cordoned off neighborhoods to keep the poor a safe distance from the wealthy.

Let’s say they also passed themselves off as some almost holy enterprise that rewarded compliance and adoration.

Right, not such a stretch.

Oh, it’s aliens? That would actually be a lot easier to accept.

Filmmaker Rupert Wyatt returns to the theme of his greatest success, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with his latest SciFi adventure, Captive State.

Wyatt drops us into the heart of Chicago some 10 or so years after an alien invasion. Earth has long since accepted the aliens as their new legislature, and terrestrial natives are now either blindly following command with the hope of reward, or they are not.

Gabriel Drummond (Ashton Sanders, Moonlight) can’t quite make up his mind. His brother Rafe (Jonathan Majors) is the symbol of the revolution, but Gabriel just wants to get out of Dodge and try for a new life.

Lawman William Mulligan (John Goodman, wonderful as always) won’t let him. What emerges is an intricate and often clever thriller about submission and resistance.

Though Wyatt’s allegory is clear, it doesn’t drown the story itself. Even the most thinly drawn character has purpose and dimension, the ensemble talent assembled here delivering memorable but understated turns.

Vera Farmiga offers a particularly poignant performance, though her screen time can’t reach past two minutes. Likewise, James Ransone, Alan Ruck and Lawrence Grimm balance desperation, courage and hope in brief episodes that help Wyatt create the bleak but almost optimistic tone.

The look is a bit murky, the 1984-style occupations a tad convenient and the lack of one single point of view character limits audience investment in character, and therefore, in the outcome. But the aliens look pretty cool, John Goodman offers a twisty, melancholic performance that’s worth seeing, and there’s rarely a bad time to be reminded of the power of resistance.

Grade: C+

Climax

by George Wolf

Hey, club kids, it’s a Gaspar Noe dance party!

For a while, anyway, but if that’s all you’re expecting from Climax, you don’t know your Noe.

2015’s Love showed the boundary pusher’s tender side via some graphic 3D porn. But now writer/director Noe is back in sensory-pummeling mode, pulling from his usual playbook for a balls-out psychedelic bacchanal soaked in body fluids, drugs and EDM.

After a mysterious opening mix of bloody snow angels and claims of “true events,” Noe showcases audition interviews for a French dance troupe before jumping ahead to the group’s transfixing final rehearsal.

Selva (Sofia Boutella) and the crew are ready for the show, so now it’s time to let off some steam as only they can. DJ Daddy (Kiddy Smile), drop some beats!

Noe’s usual reliance on extended takes, stationary cameras and overhead shots makes the dance sequences utterly intoxicating, the performers’ energy creating exciting visual beauty and a palpable exuberance for their art. These seductive odes to dance are interspersed with sometimes graphically sexual conversations between the dancers, sharpening character edges and laying down an interpersonal framework that will soon be turned on its head.

“What is wrong with you all?”

In what seems like an instant, suspicion, mob rule and primal desire overtake the company. The dancers’ movements become monstrosities bathed in pulsating rhythms, visual disorientation, wanton violence and illicit sex.

What spurred this sea change, and who is to blame? Noe turns that mystery into a greater conversation about the opportunity of birth, the impossibility of life and the extraordinary experience of death, and as is his wont, batters your senses while doing it.

He is also again wearing his heart on his screen, with a stacked movie collection directly calling out influences from Possession to Suspiria. But Climax is unforgettably a Noe vision, one of his most concise, streamlined and clearly inspired.

It is 97 minutes of can’t-look-away intensity, a bold experience that may leave you asking “what just happened?” while you look for a nice place to lie down.

But oh, those dreams you’ll be having.

Grade: B+

Five Feet Apart

by George Wolf

Haley Lu Richardson is a very talented young actress. Director Justin Baldoni seems to have very good intentions. Neither can save Five Feet Apart from crawling through the heap of Young Adult angst as the unholy love child of Nicholas Sparks and Lars von Trier.

Richardson is Stella, an optimistic cystic fibrosis patient who vlogs about her experiences with an encouraging smile. Hospitalized for a new drug trial, she meets fellow “CF’er” Will, a dreamboat with an attitude and a darker prognosis.

Fears of bacteria bring strict orders for Stella and Will to always remain at least six feet apart. But when love blooms…..

Stories of young forbidden love have been sprouting since the Capulets and Montagues, but the biggest surprise in Five Feet Apart is that it didn’t start as a YA novel. Screenwriters Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis wear the hats, here, working through as many formulaic and manipulative opportunities as possible.

Though many health care issues are conveniently skirted, some honest moments about the struggles of CF patients find a mark, thanks mainly to some warm chemistry between Richardson (Columbus, The Edge of Seventeen, Split) and Sprouse (Big Daddy, TV’s Riverdale). But as the overly orchestrated suffering continues to mount, the entire CF storyline starts smelling of the easiest path to teenage tears.

Baldoni, whose My Last Days web series benefits a variety of charities, may have his heart in the right place. And there is certainly talent in this cast, which Richardson leans on to deliver the line “Thank you for saying something real!” without a trace of irony.

But the boxes for plaintive music, closing narration, and the gay best friend are all checked. Plus, the life lessons that are dictated to us because that’s easier than building a story that resonates strongly enough to let us realize things on our own. So much YA drama is anchored by this cheap enlightenment, and there is plenty here to wallow in.

So depending on your side of that fence, the bar may have been raised. Or lowered.

But Haley Lu, though.

Grade: D+

Birds of Passage

by Hope Madden

It’s difficult to imagine a fresh cartel story, a novel approach to the rise-and-fall arc of a self-made kingpin. And though scene after scene of Birds of Passage recalls that familiar structure, reminding you of what’s to come, you have never seen a film quite like this.

To begin with, directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra set this narco-thriller and its tale of the corrupting lure of luxury deep inside Colombia’s indigenous Wayuu culture. And though anyone who’s seen Scarface can guess how tides may turn for Rapayet (Jose Acosta), the entrepreneur at the heart of this saga, the tragic difference in this film is the way the same insidious rot destined to eat Rapayet alive also seeps into and destroys the Wayuu culture itself.

Spanning 20 years, Birds of Passage opens with Rapayet participating in a ritual, beautiful and peculiar. He proposes, but his gift is inappropriate – it’s a luxury, a thing. He’s already begun to lose touch with his roots, and yet he is determined to earn the dowry and his bride, Zaida (Natalia Reyes).

Rapayet straddles two existences, never truly fitting into either. He’s the bridge for the two ecosystems to meet, but Acosta’s performance is intriguing. Hardly the ambitious firebrand who builds an empire, he’s quiet and perhaps even weak, bringing an end to his culture accidentally, like an infected animal who doesn’t know what he’s brought home with him.

David Gallego’s cinematography renders an absurdly beautiful desolation, colors splashing and popping against bleached sandy neutrals. Naturalistic performances from the entire cast aid in the film’s authentic feeling, but the poetry of the directors’ use of long shots and the singing voiceover give Birds of Passage the tone of folklore.

It’s a fitting balance —the story itself being both intimate and epic. Like Guerra’s Oscar-nominated Embrace the Serpent, this film again examines the moment when an indigenous people watch the death of their culture in favor of something more globally acknowledged and yet clearly inferior.

Grade: A-

Ruben Brandt, Collector

by George Wolf

When is a collector not just a collector?

When he, or she, is a thief.

Not just a smash-and-grab hack, either, but the leader of four notoriously slippery bandits specializing in priceless works of art. All are patients of psychotherapist Ruben Brandt (voiced by Ivan Kamaris), and each offers their talents in his time of need.

Ruben is suffering from violent nightmares inspired by legendary works of art from masters such as Manet and Hopper. Ruben comes to believe possessing these works is his only hope for relief, and his thieving patients believe they can help with that.

As the art world is shaken by the brazen thefts, the identity of the ringleader dubbed “The Collector” remains a mystery.

In his feature debut, writer/director Milorad Krstic displays a wonderful eye and a frisky wit, filling his film with the familiar fun of a big screen heist, unexpectedly winning soundtrack choices and a rich, textured animation style worthy of the high art setting.

The caper itself is a wry, understated hoot, with intellectual asides to subliminal psychology and plenty of homages to iconic artworks. But, as only seems fitting, the constantly engaging animation is the true centerpiece here.

From the shadows that follow a thief along his clandestine wall climb, to the uneasy confines of a van struggling to navigate some dangerous curves, Krstic’s animation fills nearly every scene with rewards for close inspection, and a promise of more frivolity to any willing accomplices.

Like a pop-up book full of highbrow surprises, Ruben Brandt, Collector is never less than delightful.

Grade: B+

Wonder Park

by Hope Madden

Credit any film that can tap into the audience’s sense of wonder.

Wonder Park is that movie. I wonder why the film was called Wonder Park when the amusement park at the center of the film — and of little June’s imagination — is actually called Wonderland.

I wonder who directed the film, because there’s no one listed on IMDb or the film’s own credits.

I wonder if there was no director at all, and that’s why the first act runs for 35 minutes, dumping us headlong into a second act full of characters we don’t feel connected to, regardless of the fact that they are the talking animals we’ve been trained to love and want to purchase.

(Fun fact: Wonder Park may or may not have been directed by David Feiss, who reportedly took over after Dylan Brown was fired over sexual misconduct allegations but is uncredited here. Makes you wonder.)

I also wonder how that bear ended up at the top of the roller coaster hill, because there is literally no explanation for it at all and yet it leads to a climactic scene. I wonder if the filmmaker – whoever that might have been – knows that there is no payoff, no matter the visual wonder, if there is no set up. The bear can’t just be at the top of the roller coaster hill. If he can magically wake up there without having to get up there, then he can magically wake up at the bottom, so where’s the fun in that?

There’s not a lot of fun in this movie. There is a lot of talent: Jennifer Garner, Mila Kunis, John Oliver, Ken Jeong, Kenan Thompson, Matthew Broderick. And the animation looks good. There is also an admirably nerdy underpinning that encourages kids — girls, in particular — to appreciate the excitingly destructive qualities of math and science.

As is often the case with powerful and memorable animated films – Up, Bambi, DumboWonder Park is also about grief. It’s grief and fear that cause mischievous little genius June (Sofia Malie and Brianna Denski, depending on the age of the character) to lose her spark.

With the help of science, math, girl power and imagination, she can face her grief and fear and come out the other side.

Wait, is that how it works?

No. Math and science can help with a lot of things, but grief is grief and it just needs to be accepted. This trickery to overcome it is a cheat, as is the film’s ending, not to mention that roller coaster bear moment.

Good lord, I wonder how this got made.

Grade: D

Also screening in Columbus:

Cliffs of Freedom (NR)
More than Blue (NR)
Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (PG)
Never Look Away (R)
No Manches Frida 2 (R)
The Wedding Guest (R)
This Magnificent Cake! (NR)

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

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