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Hope Madden Hope Madden Canine Crusaders Unseating Avengers?Photo still from "Trial by Fire," via IMDb.
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For the first time since its release, Endgame may get bumped to runner up at the box office. Can John Wick take them down? He does have some skills.

John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum

by Hope Madden

John F. Wick.

You have to tip your hat to a filmmaker who understands his strengths and plays to them. For Chad Stahelski, I think you just have to take the hat off entirely.

Kickboxer turned stunt man turned stunt coordinator turned helmsman of a phenomenon, Stahelski returns for his third tour with Keanu Reeves as dog-loving assassin widower John Wick for Chapter 3 — Parabellum.

The great thing about chapters is that no one expects them to tell a whole story, and since storytelling and acting are not the strongest suits in this franchise, Stahelski wisely sharpens his focus on what is: action.

A breathless Act 1 (with a truly inspired use of the New York Public Library) picks up the moment John Wick 2 ends, mercifully dispensing with the need for exposition. In its stead, balletic mayhem.

The plot of sorts: Wick is in trouble with the guardians of the world’s assassin guild, approximately every third human in NYC is a hired killer, and there is a $14 million bounty on his head. Where can he go? What can he do?

These are questions Stahelski and his army of writers have fun answering with ludicrous, violent, exhausting, carnage-strewn glee.

Inside of 10 minutes it was clear that this is the best film of the trilogy.

Welcome new faces Anjelica Huston and Asia Kate Dillon cut impressive figures, though Halle Berry feels out of her depth and a clear sound stage representation of Morocco is the only clunky set piece in the movie.

Ian McShane, Lance Reddick and Laurence Fishburne return. Wisely, Stahelski lets these guys mete out most of the dialog. I’d wager Reeves utters fewer than 30 lines total.

Again, play to your strengths.

Dan Lausten’s camera ensures that you know when Reeves does his own action, most of which is choreographed and captured in long, fluid, serpentine shots with a lot of broken glass. Man, their easy-shatter glass budget must have been through the roof!

The Fast and Furious franchise didn’t become tolerable until it embraced the fact that it was a superhero series, abandoning all reason and logic and just jumping cars from the 100th floor of one building to the 100th floor of another. Luckily, it didn’t take John Wick six films to take flight.

Grade: B+

The Sun Is Also a Star

by George Wolf

Every time I see the latest Young Adult romance fantasy on the big screen, I end up thinking about Barton Fink getting reprimanded for not sticking to the formula.

“Wallace Beery! Wrestling picture!”

Credit The Sun Is Also a Star for trying to stray outside the usual lines, even as it hits those same formulaic goalposts.

Natasha (Yara Shahidi) and Daniel (Charles Melton) are great-looking (and somehow, single) teens in New York City. Hers is a family of Jamaican immigrants facing deportation in 24 hours, while his Korean family runs a black hair care store in the neighborhood.

‘Tasha “doesn’t believe in love,” but meeting Daniel gives him the chance to win her over while she explores a last option to stay in the U.S.

Yes, there’s voiceover essay reading, yes he realizes her specialness after one faraway glimpse, and yes they both have to break free from the lives their parents have planned for them. Yes, in a city of millions they keep stumbling into idyllic situations where they’re all alone. Yes, it’s based on a YA novel and yes, some of the dialogue is downright cringeworthy.

You knew much of that already (because “wrestling picture!”), but the film does mange to score some little victories.

Best of those is the assured direction from Ry Russo-Young (Nobody Walks, Before I Fall) , who keeps NYC’s melting pot as an ever-present supporting player. Paired with the diversity of the cast, the undercurrent of real lives upended by immigration policies comes in surprisingly deft waves.

But as Daniel waxes on about fate and the need for chemistry, it eventually becomes clear that Shahidi and Melton — both promising talents — don’t have enough of it.

That’s a problem, and it stands at the top of the list of things this film is selling that you just can’t buy.

Grade: C-

Trail by Fire

by George Wolf

Another death row drama with a clear agenda, probing one questionable conviction to build a righteously angry condemnation of our entire justice system?

Yes, Trail by Fire is certainly that, but the familiarity of its gripping narrative actually serves to strengthen the argument. How many dubious death sentences will it take to shake our comfortable faith in fair trials?

In 1992, Texan Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell) was sent to death row for setting the house fire that killed his three young children.

After years in prison, concerned citizen Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern) took an interest in the case. Along with lawyers from the Innocence Project, Gilbert worked to poke enough holes in the conviction to get Willingham a new trial.

Adapted from a New Yorker magazine article and Willingham’s own letters from prison, the committed script from Geoffrey Fletcher (Precious) suffers only in the rushed introduction of Gilbert’s character. But though any organic motivation for Liz’s commitment may be thin, it’s overcome by the sterling performances from the two leads.

O’Connell, a vastly underrated talent, is heartbreakingly effective as Willingham, a man happy to have a regular visitor but wary of the hope Liz brings with her.

His journey from slacker defiance to jailhouse wisdom is grounded in the authenticity of McConnell’s touching performance. This man was no altar boy, but our sympathy for him is well-earned.

The chemistry with Dern is evident from the start. While these plexiglass encounters are a necessary staple of this genre, Dern and McConnell make them simmer with an intensity that is often riveting.

Kudos, too, to Emily Meade as Willingham’s wife Stacy. The Willingham marriage was challenging, to say the least, and Meade (Nerve, Boardwalk Empire, The Deuce) is good enough to make the conflicted relationship recall the bare emotions of Manchester by the Sea.

Director Edward Zwick (Glory, Blood Diamond, Pawn Sacrifice) takes some narrative risks that ultimately pay off, keeping the pace vital through some effective visual storytelling that feeds the sense of a ticking clock.

Zwick also builds layers of indelible support characters (Willingham’s first jail cell neighbor, the lead prison guard, an independent arson investigator) that leave engaging marks, often at junctures critical to avoiding an overly rote structure.

Crushing in its familiarity, gut wrenching in its specifics, Trial by Fire is a tough but worthy reminder of the illusion of fairness.

Grade: B+

Sunset

by Rachel Willis

When Írisz Leiter (an intense and captivating Juli Jakab) returns to Budapest after a long absence, she seeks employment as a milliner in a hat store bearing her name. We learn quickly the store was her parents’, who died when she was two. The current owner, Oszkár Brill, refuses to give her a job and is evasive as to his reasons why. He tells her she can stay in town the night but then must leave.

From there, the tension quickly builds. Family secrets are revealed, and determined to learn more, Írisz refuses to depart as commanded.

With a combination of fearlessness and stupidity, Írisz throws herself into more and more dangerous situations seeking answers to questions we’re never quite sure of. Everyone Írisz meets evades her inquiries. She’s met with increasing resistance and resentment as she digs into her family’s history. As she follows sketchy leads, we’re taken deeper and deeper into the tumultuous world of Budapest in 1913.

There is much happening in director László Nemes historical drama, an ambitious follow up to his Oscar-winning debut, Son of Saul. There is a great deal to absorb as we follow Írisz. She’s our eyes in this world, and much of the time, she’s as off balance as the audience. Keeping the focus tightly bound to one character isn’t a bad way to orient an audience, but it can be problematic when we’re given too much information. It forces you to keep up, but not everyone will be up to the challenge of unraveling the mystery while puzzling over the surrounding details.

Visually, the audience is treated to a stunning film. The cinematography keeps us close to Írisz. Chaotic scenes lose focus, genuine terror is fed through her character’s reactions and facial expressions, crowded streets become oppressive. Darkness envelops much of the most horrific action, and it feeds the growing unease as Írisz’s journey follows unpredictable paths.    

We’re never quite sure where the film will take us, but it’s a compelling journey. We’re kept on our toes, answers aren’t easily found, and it’s not always clear what we’re learning as each new answer appears. When we think we’ve unraveled the mystery, new information comes to unmoor us.

It’s an absorbing, unnerving film.

Grade: A-

Also opening in Columbus:

ABCD (NR)
A Dog’s Journey (PG)
Carmine Street Guitars (NR)
The Chaperone (NR)
Mr. Local (NR)
Ray & Liz (NR)
Sauvage (NR)

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

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