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Full Roster of Good Flicks Hits Theaters this Week

Hope Madden Hope Madden Full Roster of Good Flicks Hits Theaters this WeekPhoto still from "Bad Times at the El Royale," via IMDb.
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Holy cow, a lot of movies come out this week — loads and loads, and a lot of them are gunning for Oscars. Some are just gunning for — well, it’s tough to say, but that’s the fun of a lot of movies, isn’t it? The point is, whatever your bag, it’s tough to go wrong this week. Here’s the skinny:

First Man

by Hope Madden

We’ve seen a lot of movies about astronauts, loads of sometimes great films about the U.S. space race and the fearlessness of those involved. Director Damien Chazelle’s First Man is something different.

Chazelle strips away the glamour and artifice, the bombast and spectacle usually associated with films of this nature. His vision is raw and visceral, often putting you in the moon boots of the lead, but never quite putting you inside his head.

The director’s La La Land lead Ryan Gosling plays Neil Armstrong in this biopic of the first human being to set foot on the lunar surface. It’s another of Gosling’s impressive turns: reserved, with an early vulnerability that hardens over time to a protective stoicism.

A no-frills Claire Foy plays Armstrong’s wife, Janet, and the characters the two actors carve share a bristly chemistry that adds to the film’s committed authenticity. It also provides some kind of emotional center for the story.

Chazelle’s observational, unhurried style doesn’t draw attention to the drama. There is nothing showy about this film. That understatement allows the most startling, horrifying and awe-inspiring moments their own power. The approach also quietly reminds you of the escalating pressures shouldered by Armstrong as he and NASA faced tragedy after tragedy in the name of space exploration.

Though Gosling’s distant performance and Chazelle’s near-vérité style mirror Armstrong’s increasingly walled-off psyche, it becomes difficult to connect with characters. First Man deposits you inside the action but keeps you at arm’s length from Neil Armstrong.

As gritty and unpolished as the film is, Chazelle never loses his sense of wonder. The jarring quiet, the stillness and vastness are captured with reverence and filmed beautifully.

Those images of silent awe are as stirring as anything you will see, but it’s the visceral, nauseating and claustrophobic moments underscoring the death-defying commitment to the cause that will shake you up.

Grade: A-

Bad Times at the El Royale

by George Wolf

A priest and a vacuum salesman walk into a bar…

Well, one may not be a priest, the other might not be a salesman, and the bar is really part of a nearly abandoned hotel, but the point is all hell breaks loose in writer/director Drew Goddard’s stylish thriller, Bad Times at the El Royale.

Lake Tahoe’s El Royale sits straddling the Nevada/California border in the late 1960s. Before the East side lost its gambling license, the El Royale had been a hot spot and Rat Pack hangout, but lately bellboy/desk clerk and bartender Miles (Lewis Pullman) is pretty lonely.

Then the priest (Jeff Bridges), the salesman (Jon Hamm) and a singer (Cynthia Erivo) check in, followed by a hippie (Dakota Johnson) who’s got an F-you attitude and someone in her trunk (Cailee Spaeney). Their respective reasons for stopping at the El Royale are separate and shady, but as each character reveals a dark past and true intentions, the quiet hotel quickly becomes a battleground for survival.

Goddard’s follow-up to 2012’s ingenious The Cabin in the Woods is anchored with the same inventive zest, and built with time-jumping back stories and placards that bring Tarantino to mind. And while El Royale can’t completely deliver on its promise, it offers a gorgeous blast of color, sound and plot twists that are pretty fun to watch unravel.

The film’s biggest disappointment stems from the arrival of the sinister Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a violent charmer who’s come to settle a score with someone in the El Royale’s guestbook. As past histories and current events collide, the film reveals a late-stage moralistic vein as hopes for a type of Cabin in the Woods-style show-stopping finale slowly fade away.

Those final 15 minutes are fine for any typical noir crime thriller, but not quite worthy of El Royale‘s previous deliciously indulgent two hours.

Grade: B+

Old Man & the Gun

by George Wolf

Redford’s decades-long status as a screen icon has always leaned more on charm than range, and The Old Man & the Gun wears that strategy like a favorite pair of broken-in boots.

Director/co-writer David Lowery adapts a magazine article on a likable rogue named Forest Tucker, who broke out of San Quentin at the age of 70 and earned his folk hero status with a string of brazen bank robberies.

Tucker (Redford, natch) plots the heists and flirts with the farm-living Jewel (Sissy Spacek) while lawman John Hunt (Casey Affleck) is on his tail.

The story is light and whimsical, but thanks to the veteran actors and the slyly understated direction, it’s got a frisky heart that won’t quit. Watching Redford and Spacek together is a joy in itself, as Jewel’s bemused-but-curious reaction to her new suitor only brings more twinkles to his eye. Then there’s Affleck easily filling Hunt with the perfect strain of frustration-laced respect, and Waits delivering some deliciously dry one-liners.

But it’s Lowery who may be the real wonder here. After Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and A Ghost Story, he again shows unique storytelling instincts no matter what tonal gears he’s shifting. This film is a satisfied mosey, one that serves as a sunset ride for a Hollywood legend while letting the exploits of a charming bandit reinforce the value of just loving what you do.

For Tucker, it was robbing banks. For Redford, it was being an iconic leading man.

Lowery makes sure they both get a proper sendoff.

Grade: B+

All About Nina

by George Wolf

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that lets you see a very funny impression of Werner Herzog ordering a smoothie.

All About Nina is that movie, and a good bit more. A confident, impressive feature debut from writer/director Eva Vives, it rides a sensational lead performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead for a character study with a timely and tenacious bite.

Winstead is Nina, a standup comic in New York whose edgy routines about dating shed light on her tumultuous personal life. Needing a shakeup, Nina moves to L.A. to pursue a spot on Comedy Prime, the late nite brass ring for up-and-coming comics. As she fine tunes her audition material, a stop/start romance with the easygoing Rafe (Common) pushes Nina to reconsider her aversion to commitment.

The standup comic who uses laughter to mask pain is a well-worn path, but Vives uses the very comfort in that cliché to point out, as we’ve been so clearly reminded of the last few weeks, how casually some trauma is dismissed.

Vives is juggling some important themes, and the few moments where the film’s uncertainty breeds heavy-handedness can’t diminish her exciting potential as a writer and director.

On its surface a look at giving yourself without losing yourself, All About Nina isn’t just about Nina, and that’s what makes it truly resonant. It reminds us of the courage it takes for women to speak up, and the shame that comes with not listening.

Grade: B+

Colette

by Christie Robb

Colette gives us the origin story of French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley), a Madonna-like figure of the early 1900s who emerged from a small provincial village to become the toast of Paris, reinventing herself over the years as a novelist, mime, actress and journalist.

But before all that, Colette married a bully named Willy (Dominic West). Over a decade her senior, Willy was a popular writer who put out music reviews, stories and novels. Quite a bit was written by other people in a factory system, where he compelled his wife to mine her childhood experiences so he could publish them under his name. Once the Claudine books became popular, he would lock Colette in a room until he was satisfied she had written enough.

The movie traces an arc from Colette’s awkward introduction into Paris salon society to an eventual break with the abusive hack and first steps toward an independent life.

Knightly is masterful inhabiting the multifaceted Colette, using her eyes to hint at the hurt she’s experiencing while wielding a bold bravado as a shield in her constant verbal fencing matches with her husband.

Given the breadth of Colette’s life and its many acts, it makes sense that director Wash Westmoreland would focus on one distinct part of it. However, because of his desire to give screen time to so many of the big personalities of the Belle Époque and to keep the focus squarely on the time period of the Colette/Willy relationship, the movie seems simultaneously thinly-sketched and agonizingly long.

But when she snaps…it’s so good. Oscar-bait good.

Given this week, I’d have vastly preferred it if more of the movie had focused on the glorious and adventurous life Colette led after she dumped Willy and struck out on her own. But, even so, it’s a story of liberation and the claiming of a woman’s power. Something that’s needed.

I just hope there’s a sequel.

Grade: B+

Also opening in Columbus:
After Everything (NR)
The Apparition (NR)
Black ’47 (R)
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween (PG)
Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer (PG13)
The Hate U Give (PG13)
Kinky (NR)
The Samuel Project (PG13)
The Sisters Brothers (R)

Read more from Hope and team at MADDWOLF. Looking for some great seasonal flicks to get spooky? Listen to her horror movie podcast, FRIGHT CLUB.

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