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Choice Picks in Theaters

George Wolf George Wolf Choice Picks in TheatersThe Tomorrow War - Photo via IMDb
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As long as you know where to look, you can find some outstanding entertainment options this weekend. Fresh indies and remarkable documentaries are the real gems this weekend, but a couple of old war horses will entertain their won specific crowds. Here’s the skinny:

Zola

In theaters

by George Wolf

Is it surprising that movies are now born from Twitter threads? Maybe, for a minute. But you’ll find good stories on Twitter, and Zola tells a ferociously good story, even if some of it may not be exactly true.

In 2015, A’Ziah “Zola” King took to her Twitter account, and in 148 tweets told a jaw-dropping yarn about meeting Stefanie, traveling south with her to dance in Tampa strip clubs, and quickly regretting it all.

Director/co-writer Janicza Bravo adapts David Kushner’s Rolling Stone article with an undeniable vision. She brings a vital, in-your-face aesthetic that succeeds in putting the tale’s social media roots right up on the screen without a hint of pandering or desperation hipness.

Anyone who’s seen Taylor Paige in strong supporting roles (Boogie, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) knew her breakout was coming soon, and now here it is. She owns every frame as Zola, guiding us through this mashup of hilarity and horror show with captivating bursts of sass, shade and poignant vulnerability.

Riley Keough has a tough job finding the soft spots in the outlandish Stefani, but she lands them repeatedly. Is the offensive Stefani we’re seeing just a cartoon villain from Zola’s memory, or is she also a victim? Keough give us important glimpses that make us care enough to wonder.

Bravo, Paige and Keough (with solid support from Colman Domingo, Nick Braun and Jason Mitchell). Each brings indelible talent to Zola, and the sheer buzz of this wild ride becomes irresistible.

Is it truth? Fiction? A bit of both?

It matters only in that it doesn’t matter at all. Because whatever truth still exists in the digital age, Zola speaks it.

Grade: A-

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

Playing at Drexel Theaters, Gateway Film Center, and on Hulu

by George Wolf

According to Amir “Questlove” Thompson, the first time he saw some of the digitized footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival concerts, he nearly wept.

How could this event have been ignored to the extent that even a musical aficionado such as himself had never heard of it? And why had all these hours of stunning performances gone unseen for decades?

The free concerts ran for six consecutive weekends at Harlem’s Mt. Morris Park in the summer of 1969, attracting over 300,000 fans. That same summer, the Woodstock festival was held about 100 miles away, but even when producer Hal Tulchin tried to market his reels of video as “the Black Woodstock,” there were no takers.

And so the boxes sat in a basement for 50 years.

Once Thompson committed to directing his first film, he immersed himself in the footage nearly 24/7, and Summer of Soul emerges as a triumphant testament to the music that drove a “Black consciousness revolution.”

From the gospel of Mahalia Jackson to the blues of B.B. King, from the Fifth Dimension’s smooth pop to Sly Stone’s psychedelic funk, the musical styles blend gloriously in the summer sun and the goosebump moments mount.

A young Mavis Staples and an aging Jackson share one microphone; Stevie Wonder unleashes a furious drum solo; Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis. Jr. tear up recalling how important it was that the Fifth Dimension’s perceived “white” sound be accepted as “black enough;” Nina Simone strikes a commanding presence as she challenges the crowd’s commitment to social change; and on and on and on.

But even more impressive than Thompson’s musical direction is the way he frames the entire festival through the context of time, place, and population.

Embraced by New York’s Republican mayor and sponsored by corporate giant Maxwell House, the festival was seen as a way to keep the Black community calm after the rising tensions of 1968.

But ’69 was – in the words of Rev. Al Sharpton – “the year Negro died and Black was born,” and Thompson layers the archival footage with new interviews that are equal parts poignant and timely.

We see festival attendees telling stories of what lengths they went to for a chance to be in the crowd, and how being there changed their lives. Starkly contrasting footage of white and black crowds being interviewed for reactions to the 1969 moon landing put a fine point on how sadly relevant yesterday’s civil rights struggles remain today.

And while the defiant cries of revolution and equality pulsate through Summer of Soul, they never eclipse the festival’s unbridled joy.

One man who was just a young boy in 1969 and had come to doubt his own memory over the years, cries with joy at seeing proof positive on film.

“I’m not crazy! And it was beautiful.”

It still is.

Grade: A

The Forever Purge

In theaters

by Hope Madden

Now, I’m not suggesting any of the Purge films were subtle. Creator James DeMonaco wielded a blunt political instrument from the start.

Quick recap: In the near future, a far-right government, the New Founding Fathers, establishes a single night of lawlessness to encourage Americans to purge themselves of all their hate and anger. And, you know, take their frustrations out on the homeless, the poor, and the otherwise generally oppressed.

So, a pretty easy metaphor to figure out, although most installments contained an interesting idea here, some memorable imagery there. Gerard McMurray’s 2018 The First Purge was impressively topical and prescient, and genuinely angry. In it, the filmmakers essentially looked at Trump’s America and asked: How did we get here?

In a way, all of these films have led organically to The Forever Purge, a film with a premonition of what would have happened if Trump’s America had been allowed to – or would ever again – continue on its natural course.

It’s hard to blame filmmakers for losing optimism in the face of the national shame of January 6. In this installment, entitled, angry white people have decided that one night is not enough, so they organize online and just take over the country.

DaMonaco returns as writer, while Everardo Gout directs. Gout’s sensibilities lean heavily toward action. The Forever Purge is essentially an action thriller with a social conscience (and about as much subtlety as you’ve come to expect from the franchise).

There is no forgiveness in this installment, and maybe there shouldn’t be. But The Forever Purge loses the humanity of the better episodes in the series. At its worst, it’s a political outcry by way of a predictable horror film that’s pretty light on horror. At its best, it’s a poignant upending of this country’s fundamental, foundational racism.  

Grade: B-

The Tomorrow War

On Prime

by Hope Madden

With a prelude this reminiscent of Edge of Tomorrow and a catalyst that recalls Nolan’s The Dark Knight RisesThe Tomorrow War makes itself clear early. This is not going to be a terribly original movie.

Dan Forester (Chris Pratt) is a high school science teacher who believes he was destined for more important things. His opportunity arrives when future earthlings show up to recruit present-day earthlings to fight a battle against the end of the human race.

Some important questions to answer. What is going to be the end of us?

Aliens.

Do we get to see them?

Yes! Early and often.

How do they look?

Nasty as hell! Dude, the teeth and these tentacle things—nice!

And finally, why is this movie so long?

While there is no clear answer to that, it appears that director Chris McKay is a big fan of Roland Emmerich, Michael Bay, maybe Stephen Sommers. The film emits a throwback vibe, conjuring popcorn munchers of the late 90s—which is about the era when self-indulgent directors started making two-and-a-half-hour, mindless Sci-Fi.

That’s not all bad, right? The film’s logic may be a bit sketchy, but its professed love of science makes up for a lot of that. Naturally, there are also syrupy family dramatics to drive the narrative, because we all remember Emmerich’s 1996 epic Independence Day.

Also, while many of the internal action sequences feel theme-park stagey, the outdoor set pieces are a blast.

Films like this don’t call for master thespians. Good thing, because Pratt, who also executive produces, doesn’t bring any real depth of emotion to the role. Luckily, J.K. Simmons cannot give a weak performance, so the bruised masculinity and daddy issues have somewhere to take root.   

Lose an hour and The Tomorrow War is a pretty fun time-waster, but nothing more. Writer Zach Dean doesn’t say anything new and McKay certainly doesn’t find any fresh ways to say it. But if you miss the bloated, two-plus hour action/adventure flicks of the late 1990s, The Tomorrow War is your movie.

Grade: C

The Boss Baby: Family Business

In theaters and on Peacock+

by George Wolf

What happens when The Boss Baby we met in 2017 gets all grown up?

Well, when we catch up with Theodore “Ted” Templeton (voiced again by Alec Baldwin) in the Dreamworks sequel Family Business, he’s a hedge fund honcho who now has a statue in his honor at Baby Corp. But Ted works all the time, doesn’t see much of his family, and has a strained relationship with his brother Tim (James Marsden).

Tim and wife Carol (Eva Longoria) are parents of Tabitha (Ariana Greenblatt), a whip smart but increasingly distant second grader at the Acorn School, and Tina (Amy Sedaris), a new baby with a familiar secret.

Yep, Tina’s an agent from Baby Corp, and they need the Templeton boys to mend fences and work together. It seems Acorn headmaster Dr. Erwin Armstrong (Jeff Goldblum) is cooking up something nefarious at the school, so Ted and Tim need to drink the formula that will – to the tune of “Time Warp” – turn them back into a baby (Ted) and a schoolboy (Tim) for 48 hours. Then they must use that time to derail Dr. Armstrong’s plan for a baby revolution (“cake for everybody!”)

Director Tom McGrath and writer Michael McCullers return from the first film, where they struggled to expand Marla Frazee’s book to feature length without leaning on excess filler.

But this new installment comes together as a more independent, fully-formed adventure. The pace is buzzing with often frenetic activity that should keep the kids interested, and though the laughs aren’t hearty LOLs, McGrath and McCullers score with several well-placed and understated asides that parents will appreciate.

Baldwin’s buttery sarcasm is again perfect for the little bossman (“I have a beautiful voice!”), while Sedaris and Goldblum (both always welcome) bring some zany to the voice ensemble.

Can the Templeton brothers form a new bond while thwarting Armstrong’s plan? Can Tim return to adult form in time to see Tabitha sing in the Holiday pageant (which also features a song about global warming called “We’re Doomed”)? Is the head on Ted’s statue big enough?

Yes, answering these questions does get both predictable and convoluted, but Family Business stocks just enough inspired nuttiness and warm fuzzies to finish in the black.

Grade: B-

The Phantom

At Gateway Film Center

by Brandon Thomas

In February 1983, Corpus Christi, TX, gas station employee Wanda Lopez was murdered by a knife-wielding assailant during a robbery. Witnesses saw a man flee the scene, and police eventually caught Carlos DeLuna – shirtless and holding a wad of cash – hiding under a car. After a whirlwind trial, DeLuna, who always claimed his innocence, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The execution itself was carried out on December 7, 1989.

During his trial and subsequent incarceration, DeLuna maintained that a Carlos Hernandez was the man responsible for Wanda Lopez’s murder. Local police and prosecutors looked into DeLuna’s allegations but claimed to have never found any existence of the Carlos Hernandez described. Nearly a decade later, a private investigator was able to prove that Carlos Hernandez did exist and that he bore a striking resemblance to Carlos DeLuna. What happened next convinced many in the Corpus Christi region that a severe miscarriage of justice had taken place.

With The Phantom, director Patrick Forbes (The Widowmaker) doesn’t waste any time digging into the particulars of Wanda Lopez’s murder, and its seemingly neat resolution. Like any good true crime doc worth its weight in gold, The Phantom is chock full of interviews with the investigators involved, and the family members impacted most. The approach is clinical in nature, with nearly everyone involved getting a chance to speak their peace about what happened. 

The second half of the film is where things get really interesting, and the focus of the movie shifts. Miscarriages of justice aren’t new topics in crime docs – and especially crime docs set in Texas (The Thin Blue Line anyone?). More questions are presented than are answered, but answers don’t seem to be Forbes’s objective anyhow. There are more than enough questions surrounding DeLuna’s guilt, but The Phantom’s ultimate goal seems to be to comment on the morality surrounding capital punishment. 

As the end credits start to roll, the lasting feeling from The Phantom is that of freshness. So many modern-day crime docs editorialize to the point of denying the audience a chance to think for themselves. Sometimes it’s nice to spend 80 minutes with a fascinating story and walk away with a lingering “What if…?”

Grade: B+

Vicious Fun

On Shudder

by Hope Madden

Even serial killers need someone to talk to. Just hope it’s not you.

That, in a nutshell, is the premise of Cody Callahan’s latest, Vicious Fun.

In this 80s-era horror-comedy, sad sack Joel (Evan Marsh in kind of a Jon Cryer role) is a nice guy. He’s just kind of an idiot who can’t take a hint.

One evening he drowns his sorrows, passes out, and sobers up to find himself in a late-night support group for serial killers. He’s not a member—a fact the others sniff out pretty quickly—and shit goes south post haste.

Callahan’s script winks with a kind of embarrassed affection toward the horror nerd. Joel’s a screenwriter wannabe and is perhaps too proud of his position as horror journalist for a fan magazine.

The serial killers here are not so much your garden variety psychos as they are typical horror movie monsters. Vicious Fun shows no end of self-deprecating charm, and Callahan’s solid cast is in on the joke.

Earlier this year, Callahan impressed with the boozy Canadian hillbilly noir The Oak Room, where he took advantage of Ari Millen’s versatility and peculiarity. Here Millen dives more fully into his peculiar side, throwing shades of McConaughey at his most unhinged for a character who’s never quite what he seems but is always attention-getting.

The enormous Robert Maillet (Becky) fits his character, physically and emotionally, to a tee, while Julian Richings (Anything for Jackson) surprises in a dual role. Amber Goldfarb cuts an impressive presence as the film’s badass, and David Koechner is David Koechner, but when isn’t that fun?

There aren’t enough nice guys in horror movies. Hats off to Callahan for not only finding a unique and fun premise in an overcrowded genre but for appreciating the precious jewel that is the nice guy.

Grade: B

The God Committee

On VOD

by Rachel Willis

Based on the play by Mark St. Germain and adapted for the screen by writer/director Austin Stark, The God Committee seeks to provide insight into the fraught decisions behind who lives and who dies when it comes to organ transplants.

A new heart is recently available for the St. Augustine Hospital, a building in disrepair and under renovation, and the transplant committee convenes to decide who among three matches is the worthiest to receive the heart. The committee has a paltry 90 minutes to make their decision or else the heart will be useless.

The initial set-up alone is worthy of an entire film, but the movie isn’t satisfied to stay within the confines of a sterile boardroom. The timeline jumps forward seven years to check-in on our committee, primarily Dr. Andre Boxer (Kelsey Grammer), and how the implications of their decision on that fateful day have affected them.

By moving back and forth between the past and present, the tension of those crucial 90 minutes is often interrupted. However, by weaving the present into the past, we get to know the people behind these decisions.  

Grammer excels on screen as the pragmatic Boxer, basing his judgments on the medical data rather than emotion. As his foil, Dr. Jordan Taylor (Julia Styles) relies on her heart to guide her decision-making. Unfortunately, Styles can’t quite match the passion of Grammer. The other members of the committee, which include Janeane Garofalo and Colman Domingo, aren’t given as much to work with and don’t resonate on screen in the same way.

The play lends itself well to film, and Stark handily adapts the source material. There are a few moments that remind us this is an adaption of a play – mainly, characters who talk to the screen. This might have worked better had it been transitioned from audience-directed monologue into character-driven dialogue, as it would have heightened the conflict inside the boardroom.

The film touches on numerous thematic issues: the ethics of deciding who is worthy of a transplant, the conjunction of corporatism and life-saving medical research, the inequity of medical care across racial and class lines, black market trade in organs, etc. Unfortunately, The God Committee never settles on any of them, careening across multiple threads without any direction.

If the movie had stuck to a theme and a timeline, it might have been more impactful.

Grade: C

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

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