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Enormous Men, Fast Cars, Werewolf Whodunnits & More at the Movies

Hope Madden Hope Madden Enormous Men, Fast Cars, Werewolf Whodunnits & More at the MoviesFalse Positive - Photo via IMDb
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What to watch? The ninth installment of a franchise? (You know what they say about sequels, ninth time’s the charm, right?) The rare success in video game-to-film adaptation? Vampires? Werewolves? Mafiosos? So many options! Let’s sort this out.

F9: The Fast Saga

In theaters

by George Wolf

So if this is the ninth installment, that means all laws of physics went out the window 7.5 Fast films ago. Just remember that when there’s a Plymouth Fiero in space for reelz.

Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) have been trying to live a quiet life in the country with little Brian, but they’re going to need a sitter.

Seems Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) sent them an S.O.S. not long after he captured Cipher (Charlize Theron). Now Mr. N is missing, Cipher’s on the loose, and everybody’s trying to get their hands on both halves of a device that, when made whole, will take control of every weapons system in the world.

And you know who already has one half? Dom’s bigger little brother Jacob (John Cena). We haven’t heard about Jacob until now because the boys have serious beef about who was to blame for their father’s death in a 1989 stock car race.

So Dom’s ad nauseam mantra of “family” has its limits.

Lighten up, right? Don’t take it so seriously, this franchise is about the action! I get it, and when the tone is right (like it was with director James Wan in Furious 7), I’m right there with you.

But this film takes itself waaay too seriously. Director/co-writer Justin Lin is back for his fifth go ’round, and after an opening filled with the usual auto gymnastics, settles into a story surprisingly heavy on the spy game.

Cena gets no chance to flash his charismatic mischievous side, as he and Diesel seem intent on making steely stares and jaw clenching an Olympic sport. Roman and Tej (Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) try to fill the playful void left by Hobbs and Shaw, but their hi-jinx seldom rise above silly bickering.

Plenty of familiar franchise faces return (Lucas Black, Shad Moss, Helen Mirren, Jordana Brewster and Sung Kang), often bringing with them a good amount of exposition explaining what their characters have been doing or why they aren’t really dead.

There’s so much nostalgia, you’d think they were actually trying to put a bow on this whole thing if the film wasn’t simultaneously inventing new threads. And as the running time keeps running, it all starts to feel pretty tedious.

But if you want your flying cars and electro-magnet explosions on the biggest screen possible, F9 will eventually give that to you (even in IMAX where available). Just don’t expect the self-awareness to realize how close they are to self-parody.

Also, hang through the credits and you’ll get a stinger with a big clue about what’s coming in the tenth round: a Prius on top of Mt. Everest.

Not really. But at this point, why not?

Grade: C

Werewolves Within

At Gateway Film Center

by Hope Madden

I have seen a lot of horror movies. A lot. You have no idea. Do you know what I have never seen before? A horror movie that opens with a quote from Fred Rogers.

Well done, Werewolves Within.

Mr. Rogers is a hero of sorts for Finn (Sam Richardson), new park ranger for a very small, isolated, snowy mountain town. The townsfolk are divided on a deal to run a pipeline through their little hamlet. But they will have to work together despite their differences when it appears that a werewolf has begun to prey on their town.

Because if left and right cannot work together in the face of a common oppressor, the oppressor will win. It doesn’t matter what that is: fascists, greedy capitalists, werewolves. Still, it can be tough to get the two sides to come together, even for their own good, so Finn channels his hero and does what he can to inspire the townspeople to look out for each other. He just wants them to become good neighbors.

It is adorable.

Horror has its share of nice guys, but these are almost invariably tragic victims, either the first to go because they don’t have the inner meanness to overcome villainy, or eventual victims because the movie is so much more emotionally relevant if they sacrifice themselves. The nice guy is almost never a horror film’s hero, and this is where Werewolves Within really does depart from standard fare.

Director Josh Ruben—fresh off Scare Mea clever horror-comedy he wrote, directed and starred in—delivers a forgiving, even sweet tone. There’s cynicism here, and characters are not drawn with a lot of dimension, but the performances are fun and the comedy is good-natured.

Richardson makes an ideal Rogers-esque central figure, his new hometown populated by a talented comedy ensemble: Michaela Watkins, Michael Chernus, Wayne Duvall, Harvey Guillen (TV’s What We Do In the Shadows), and fan-favorite, Miliana Vayntrub. (You know, Lily from the AT&T ads.)

Werewolves Within is loosely based on the video game of the same name, which may be why the plot feels so very slight. Still, writer Mishna Wolff displays a flair for whodunnit fun that elevates the film high above 90% of the video game movies that have been made.

A lot of that success lies in Wolff and Ruben’s investment in the nice guy.

Fred Rogers once said: “When I was a boy and I would see a scary thing in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers.’”

Finn would have made him proud.

Grade: B+

My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To

At Gateway Film Center

by Hope Madden

Horror films are often—perhaps even always—metaphorical. Classic monster myths seem to be endlessly malleable in this way, one generation’s personification of xenophobia becomes the next generation’s malevolent elite becomes the following era’s image of addiction.

Making an unnervingly assured feature film debut, writer/director Jonathan Cuartas commingles The Transfiguration’s image of lonely, awkward adolescence with Relics horror of familial obligation to create a heartbreaking new vampire tale.

Many things are left unsaid (including the word “vampire’), and My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To confines itself to the daily drudgery of three siblings. Dwight (Patrick Fugit) longs to break these family chains, but sister Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) holds him tight with shame, love, and obligation to little brother, the afflicted Thomas (Owen Campbell).

What could easily have become its own figurative image of the masculine longing for freedom mines far deeper concerns. Cuartas weaves loneliness into that freedom, tainting the concept of independence with a terrifying, even dangerous isolation that leaves you with no one to talk to and no way to get away from yourself.

The film exemplifies this best as Dwight’s repulsion and reluctance to fulfill his task of bringing home the blood his brother needs to survive. Dwight and a homeless man named Eduardo (Moises Tovar) talk to each other, neither understanding the other’s words, both misinterpreting the conversation. And yet both, unbeknownst to the other, bare their own hopelessly lonesome situation in just one of a dozen or more nearly perfect scenes.

Fugit, who always excels as the conflicted good guy, displays a light touch with the leading role. The result is heartbreaking, which wouldn’t be possible without Schram’s delicate and nuanced turn as the authoritative sister. Both siblings show cracks from the strain of this love and obligation, and their lashing out feels deeply realistic regardless of the supernatural dilemma.

Campbell fills Thomas with wide-eyed naivete that, again, deepens the film’s ache. You want better for these characters, however hopeless that desire is.  

As meticulous as Jonathan Cuartas’ direction is brother Michael’s cinematography. They frame the internals in a spooky, claustrophobic beauty and the exteriors with a bleakness that underscores not only this family’s plight, but the toll poverty takes on a community.

Dwight and his family shop at thrift stores, work at diners, and waste nothing. Unlike so many genre filmmakers, Cuartas ensures that their victims — those on the lowest rungs of society, those who no one would miss —are treated with empathy.

My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is not high on horror, but it succeeds in telling a beautiful, heartbreaking story.

Grade: A-

NOTE: The short film Godspeed, written and directed by Hope Madden, will precede each screening of My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To.

False Positive

On Hulu

by Hope Madden

You’ll find real horror in False Positive. There’s the plot, sure—a woman desperate to conceive, in the hands of a nefarious physician with a God complex—and all the body horror and helplessness that go along with it. But that’s not the scary part.

Indeed, co-writer/director John Lee levels a more comedic tone to the by-the-numbers premise. Where he and co-writer/star Ilana Glazer mine unnerving dread is in their observational honesty.

Glazer is Lucy, and she and her husband Adrian (Justin Theroux, slyly wonderful) have been trying to get pregnant for two years. As much as she wants to do this naturally, she finally caves in to Adrian’s suggestion that they visit his med school mentor, Dr. Hindle (Pierce Brosnan – perfection).

Lee’s intention is not to make you wonder whether something sinister is afoot. The Stepford-esque nursing staff and eerily meticulous clinic proclaim it. The sheer number and variety of phallic instruments to be inserted, and the volume of lubricant so very lovingly applied, plays like SNL by way of Cronenberg.

If you’ve ever seen Broad City, Glazer’s groundbreaking Comedy Central sit-com, you may not recognize the performer’s dramatic skills, but you will recognize the writer’s keen eye for everyday absurdities.

Here’s where False Positive’s horror kicks in. It’s the authenticity, the banal realism of Lucy’s daily condescending, dismissive, patronizing, smothering, gaslighting humiliations that really eat at you. The low-key accuracy of it all—from the male colleagues who swear you are glowing as they leave their lunch orders next to your laptop, to your nurse’s reassuring caresses and terms of endearment, to your husband’s reminder whenever you’re feeling down that we’ve been through a lot with this pregnancy.

Tensions escalate as the storyline itself dictates, although the film is far more surefooted in its observational horror than it is in its plot. Lucy’s pre-pregnancy character is ill-defined, which makes her descent less satisfying. The climax is played for comedic value and the final act’s weirdness, though welcome, holds no real meaning.

Worst of all is the under-developed character of a midwife played imposingly by Zainab Jah. Lee clearly hoped to use this character as a statement on the genre itself but the whole affair feels wrong-headed.

Those are some serious misgivings, I grant you, but there really is something subversive, honest, and horrifying worth witnessing in this movie.

Grade: B-

An Unquiet Grave

On Shudder

by George Wolf

Re-animating the dead is one of the most long-standing premises of the horror genre. And like it or don’t, such tradition brings certain expectations.

Playing God is going to bring consequence, that we know. The question is how bloody and brutal the comeuppance will be.

Shudder original An Unquiet Grave goes the understated route, getting maximum return from a minimalistic production that is more centered on grief than gore.

Jamie (Jacob A. Ware) is shattered from the loss of his wife Julie in a bloody car accident. Julie’s twin sister Ava (Christine Nyland, who also co-wrote the script) is grieving, too, but in different, sometimes morbid ways.

In abstract terms, they discuss the idea that Jamie knows a way to bring “Jules” back, but only with Ava’s help.

Months later, around the first anniversary of Julie’s death, Ava is a go. Though the rules of the ritual are a bit fuzzy, they involve returning to the scene of the accident with a blood relative of the deceased (that would be Ava), a blindfold, and the burning of sage.

Working within a clearly limited budget, director/co-writer Terence Krey is still able to set an effectively creepy mood. The woods where the ritual is performed appear deep and isolated, with Krey throwing in a couple nifty camera moves to heighten the sense of the supernatural.

Ware and Nyland are the only two people in the cast, and though they display an easy chemistry, some stilted dialog and a hurried pace – especially once Jules is revived – make for some awkward pauses in an otherwise earnest and insightful film.

Navigating grief can be a unique and lonely journey, one where the darkest moments often come from a self-centered pity. With the hushed tones of the folk song that inspired its title, An Unquiet Grave reminds us that peace is a necessity for both the living and the dead.

Grade: B-

Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide

At Gateway Film Center

by Christie Robb

With the cancellation of 2021’s Columbus Arts Festival and ComFest happening only virtually, this summer you might be feeling the sweet ache of longing for community-building kooky pop art. Never fear—a Kenny Scharf documentary is here!

Scharf, an LA valley native and young baby boomer, was drawn to New York by Andy Warhol and the Factory—folks having an extravagantly good time making art fun. He became part of a group of young artists who merged the club and art scenes. Along with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, Scharf was also part of the 1980s NYC graffiti subculture and became renowned for blurring the lines between the rarified walls of the art gallery and the gritty surfaces of public spaces.

Scharf’s style is maximalist, bright, chaotic, with amoebic-like organic forms. Heavily influenced by mascot-like pop cultural memes from advertising, cartoons, and B-movies, there’s often something sinister lurking behind a smile. He calls attention to the nuclear in nuclear family.

The documentary, by Scharf’s daughter Malia Scharf and Max Basch, is a mix of interviews with Kenny, archival footage, and commentary from collaborators, critics, artists, and collectors. It situates Kenny in art history by tracing the evolution of art style from post-WWII abstract expressionism through to pop art/appropriation art, to graffiti art and cartoon realism.

Although some personal and historical background is presented, the focus is on the art itself and the evolution of the artist’s style, motivation, and use of media over the course of his decades-long career. While Basquiat and Haring died young (taken by overdose and AIDS, respectively), Scharf was privileged to witness his embrace by the art establishment, his fall into obscurity, and his perseverance as a creator. He’s an inspiration.

Grade: A

Too Late

On VOD

by Brandon Thomas

Horror comedy is the cinematic equivalent of chocolate and peanut butter. It makes so much sense that they go together. And every subgenre of horror has been touched. The slasher? Multiple times! Zombies? Oh yeah. Podcasters turned into sea creatures? Umm…that too. With Too Late, director D.W. Thomas adds bad bosses to the mix, and also the world of stand-up comedy.

Aspiring comedian Violet (Alyssa Limperis) has what seems to be a great gig as the assistant to comedy great Bob Devore (Ron Lynch). Devore’s weekly variety act Too Late is legendary, and Violet’s job makes her the envy of her comic friends. The problem? Bob is a literal monster, and Violet is in charge of bringing young, fresh-faced comics to satisfy his hunger. 

Thomas leans harder into the comedy than she does the horror. The tone is kept quite light throughout, and Bob’s more ghoulish moments are hidden off-screen (probably due to budget concerns). The make-up effects used on Lynch are quite good, but never come across as too grotesque. It’s just enough to get the point across and let Lynch’s performance shine through.

Too Late draws a lot from the real world in constructing its story. For years, Lynch hosted a variety show of his own in L.A. called Tomorrow! The film also peppers in real-life comedians who help with authenticity. And authenticity is key here. The strength of Too Late is how natural everything feels. Some of the more elaborate digs at the stand-up world might be a little too “inside baseball” for most of the audience, but it’s still relatable enough to be more of a winking satire. 

The cast is universally good. Limperis is fantastic as the long-suffering Violet. It’s the kind of role that could’ve easily gotten bogged down with “woe is me” speeches and attitude, but Limperis, like the film itself, keeps things light and snappy. You can see the burgeoning comic underneath the stressed-out and overworked assistant. Likewise, Lynch is an absolute delight as Bob Devore. He never hams it up during Bob’s transformation. Bob is as much of a monstrous asshole when he’s a regular person as he is when he’s in his creature form.

SNL alum Fred Armisen and notable stand-up Mary Lynn Rajskub show up in small parts as the “names” of the film. Rajskub’s appearance is more of a glorified cameo with Armisen having a more significant role. Neither makes much of an impact on the overall film, but it’s nice to see them, both adding value to an already wonderful film. 

Through charming performances and a look at a more niche part of the entertainment industry, Too Late stands out as one of the better horror comedies in recent memory. It’s not a gut buster, but you’ll have a smile on your face the entire time. 

Grade: A-

Lansky

On VOD

by Rachel Willis

You might not be familiar with the name Meyer Lansky, but chances are you’re familiar with some of his known associates: Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano. Writer/director Etyan Rockaway decided the time was right to focus on one of the Mafia’s most infamous but un-famous gangsters.

There are quite a few gangster movies, both good (Goodfellas, The Godfather) and bad (Gotti, The Family)Lansky falls somewhere in the center. Never overly imaginative, Rockaway plays it safe with a middling film about a narcissistic mob figure who wants to control the narrative. To do this, an aging Lansky (Harvey Keitel) hires a broke writer, David Stone (Sam Worthington), to pen his tale.

Told in flashbacks within a 1980s framing story, Lansky regales Stone with stories from his childhood, learning to hustle on the streets of – where else? – New York City. However, as Lansky enters adulthood, the tales become violent.

Portraying the Lansky of the past is John Magaro, who makes the character his own while still embracing the inflections and mannerisms of Keitel’s older wise guy. Magaro brings a sinister element, while Keitel embraces the role of a man mellowed by age. It’s a dynamic casting job, and the film’s standout element.

Rockaway’s script glosses over much of Lansky’s past, with large jumps in time, allowing the film to devote equal time to the framing story. Here is where the film tries to carve some new ground. Stone’s story is, in some ways, the more interesting of the two. There’s a moral line Stone must cross to listen to the brutalities in Lansky’s past – especially as he’s bound to secrecy until Lansky has died.

Unfortunately, rather than centering the focus on the ambiguous morality of Stone’s situation, Rockaway’s film instead tries to convince you Lansky is an ‘angel with a dirty face.’

It’s not unheard of to root for the bad guy – Scarface is one of the ultimate examples of this in the genre – but Lansky is not a fictional character. His history is bloody, and his few good deeds hardly outweigh the bad. It’s an odd choice when the true moral crux lies with Stone.

Lansky runs itself ragged trying to cover as many bases as possible, and we’re left with a messy film about one of the most notorious men in Mafia history.

Grade: C

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

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