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Ghostbusting, Oscar Baiting, Documenting and More

George Wolf George Wolf Ghostbusting, Oscar Baiting, Documenting and MoreKing Richard - Photo via IMDb
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What are you looking for? A spectral bit of nostalgia? Will Smith’s latest bid for Oscar? Maybe a musical? Maybe a documentary? Maybe an apocalyptic fable? Done. Some are better than others, though, so let us run you through it before you choose.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

In theaters

by George Wolf

Have you tried to branch out, only to end up with a revolt on your hands? Perhaps fan service is right for you! In other words, if 2016’s Ghostbusters was The Last JediAfterlife is The Rise of Skywalker. With a side of Goonies.

That doesn’t mean it’s not a fun trip down memory lane.

Director/co-writer Jason Reitman picks up the 1984 baton from dad Ivan, crafting a new adventure that casually ignores the 1989 sequel.

Egon Spengler’s long-estranged daughter Callie (Carrie Coon) is being evicted from her Chicago apartment, so she takes daughter Phoebe (Mckenna Grace – just terrific in a completely heroic arc) and son Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) to the only thing Dad left her when he died: a dilapidated farmhouse in small-town Oklahoma.

Ah, but this farm holds secrets, and it isn’t long before science whiz Phoebe is getting familiar with proton packs and Trevor is checking to see if the ECTO-1’s engine might actually turn over.

Good timing, too, because Phoebe’s teacher Mr. Grooberson (Paul Rudd) has been noticing some serious seismic activity in town that he cannot explain. Turns out the Sexiest Teacher Alive is also a big fan of the original Ghostbusters, and he clues in Phoebe and her conspiracy-happy friend “Podcast” (a charming Logan Kim) about Grandpa’s heroics back in the day.

Once Trevor’s crush Lucky (Celeste O’Connor from Freaky) makes it a quartet, it’s up to the kids to figure out the real reason Egon abandoned the GB’s all those years ago, what’s brewing under the farmhouse, and just how to wrangle a stage five apparition.

This is a film so steeped in the nostalgia for its source material that you cannot imagine it existing on its own. Is that a direct result of the savagery that greeted the female (and for what it’s worth, underrated) reboot or a natural reaction by a son following in his father’s footsteps?

Either way, the benchmark callbacks come early and often, with Reitman frequently holding the shot an extra beat just to make sure you pick up what he left for you. And while the Bill Murray zany-ness is replaced by Paul Rudd sarcasm and wisecracking from a cast of wonderful young actors, there is humor here, enough to justify the “comedy” label (which honestly, the original trailer had me questioning).

But is it fun? Oh yeah, with some slick CGI and high points that are zuuler than the other side of the pillow.

You’ll want to stay through the credits for two extra scenes, but there’s a good chance you’ll still be thinking about all that Reitman has in store during that finale. It’s plenty – maybe even enough for your eyes to stay as pufty as a certain marshmallow man.

Grade: B+

King Richard

In theaters and on HBOMax

by George Wolf

You know how many parents are convinced their kid is destined for athletic greatness? Quite a few, and that’s just in your neighborhood.

So how – and why – did Richard Williams’ predictions for daughters Venus and Serena come so incredulously true?

That’s a compelling story, one that King Richard tells with enough restraint and humanity to sidestep most sports movie cliches and find layers of true inspiration.

The Williams family – Richard (Will Smith), wife Brandi (Aunjanue Ellis), Venus (Saniyya Sidney), Serena (Demi Singleton), and three additional daughters from Brandi’s previous relationship – weren’t exactly welcomed into the L.A. tennis community when Richard put his master plan in motion.

Tennis was a sport for the rich and the pale. They were a Black family from Compton, often dodging gang activity for a chance to practice on run down community courts. Richard was dogged in his search for a coach, first landing Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) before Venus earned the entire family an invite to Rick Macci’s (Jon Bernthal, playing delightfully against type) exclusive training center in Florida.

In his debut screenplay, writer Zach Baylin follows a fairly standard biopic formula, but manages to weave in necessary layers of nuance. While we see that the doubt Richard encounters about his daughters’ future greatness is understandable, the added barrier of racism is understood without an overplaying the hand. In fact, Baylin’s script (or the editing bay) occasionally downplays obstacles that the Williams’ surely encountered all too often, seemingly mindful of the film’s 138 minute running time.

But director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men) has a good feel for pacing, with well-placed bits of tension, humor and impressively-staged tennis sequences that never let the film feel sluggish.

And while you can hardly be blamed for detecting the whiff of “Will Smith Oscar bait” in the air, don’t be surprised if he lands his third nomination. The film is an inspirational crowd pleaser that steers refreshingly clear of pandering, and Smith responds with a performance that leans into the colorful personality of Richard Williams while checking his penchant for heavy-handed mugging.

It helps that Smith is constantly elevated by Sidney and Singleton, the two wonderful young actresses playing Venus and Serena, and the always amazing Ellis (Lovecraft Country, Ray, The Help). Though Brandi’s character is often strong and silent, there are fine moments that prove just how vital she is to the Williams plan. And by the time Brandi is dressing down Richard as just another man that won’t admit he’s scared, it’s clear how vital Ellis is to the film’s resonance.

Though Venus and Serena get Executive Producer credits, the film doesn’t ignore some problematic areas in Richard’s personality, and Smith makes the mix of crazy-like-a-fox determination, gentle humor and hidden scars one that -like Smith himself – is hard to dislike.

As the older sister and the first to find success on the tour, it is Venus that gets much of the film’s focus. But Richard’s prediction for Serena (“the best ever”) serves as a natural pivot to send us home with a reminder about how lucky we’ve been to witness their greatness.

And as the best sports movies always do, King Richard scores often enough to land its message past the fault lines. The Williams plan may have been heavy on tennis, but it’s anchored by life lessons that not only benefitted all of Richard and Brandi’s children, but would undoubtedly be an asset in any arena.

So what made Richard’s vision so much clearer than every other parent in the stands?

Just some unending determination and confident stubbornness. Plus two daughters with once-in-a-generation gifts, the passionate drive to excel, and the desire to make the road a little smoother for the next young phenom that isn’t white or wealthy. That helps, too.

Grace: B+

tick, tick…BOOM!

In theaters and on Netflix

by George Wolf

What’s an aspiring writer to do when his first major work is bypassed for the eager anticipation about what he’ll do next?

He takes his agent’s advice to “move on to the next one – and write what you know.”

Broadway trailblazer Jonathan Larson – Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and composer of Rent – agonized for eight years over Superbia, a futuristic musical that never earned a full production. When Larson did move on to the next one, it became tick, tick…BOOM!, his autobiographical story of a composer named Jon whose final days as a twenty-something bring feelings of rejection and inadequacy.

ttBOOM! made it to off-Broadway in 1990, with revivals beginning in 2001, 15 years after both the phenomenal success of Rent and Larson’s tragic death from an aortic aneurysm at the age of 35.

Now, director Lin-Manuel Miranda brings Larson’s story of struggling artistry to the screen with an infectious exuberance and undying respect for those committed to the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd.

Andrew Garfield stars as Jon, who waits tables in a New York diner, works on his musical and worries about how much other people have accomplished before turning 30 (“Sondheim wrote West Side Story at 27!”).

While Jon struggles to find enough money to keep the lights on, his longtime girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) mulls a tempting job offer in the Berkshires, and his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesus) decides it’s finally time to give up the Broadway dream and get a real 9 to 5 gig.

While everyone – including Sondheim himself! (a terrific Bradley Whitford) – tells him Superbia needs one more big song in the second act, Jon rebuffs any need for a life “backup plan,” even as his tenuous relationship status and a co-worker’s HIV diagnosis remind him of each precious tick of the clock.

Miranda and screenwriter Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hanson, Fosse/Verdon) effectively layer the musical segments with real-life inspirations and one-man show beginnings that build to workshop performances and Broadway fantasies. From the birthday defiance of “30/90” to the pleading interplay between Garfield, Shipp and Vanessa Hudgens (as Susan’s stage persona) on “Come to Your Senses,” Miranda’s staging is lively and stylish, peppered by plenty of Easter eggs and cameos saluting years of musical greats (including Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, Bebe Neuwirth and two of Hamiton‘s Schuyler sisters in the show-stopping “Sunday” alone).

Garfield delivers an electric, committed performance, singing well and absolutely selling the manic, no-sleep-til-curtain-time tunnel vision that Larson clings to instead of admitting that there might be any other way to live.

And as a tribute to this life, the creative process and one man who personified both, tick, tick…BOOM! is a runaway hit. But in the process, it forgoes a sense of intimacy that might have brought us closer to Larson himself. That’s a trade-off the film ultimately seems comfortable with. Miranda, Garfield and company are going big here, and end up reaching the balcony with crowd-pleasing panache.

Grade: B+

Zeros and Ones

At Gateway Film Center

by Hope Madden

Abel Ferrara, man. Dude refuses to follow a traditional film structure, and sometimes that works so well. Bad Lieutenant and The Addiction — two of my favorites — took on a dreamlike atmosphere thanks to the filmmaker’s loose structure and it suited both pictures.

Beginning with 2014’s Pasolini, Ferrara seems to have abandoned the standard framework entirely, his films becoming more dreamlike than lucid. His latest, Zeros and Ones, follows that path.

Ethan Hawke stars in this hazily connected sequence of scenes emphasizing one man’s journey toward a realization about himself, his brother and the world around him. Hawke plays both the journeyman, a military specialist of some kind, and his brother, a freedom fighter in Rome.

Hawke wanders empty, post-pandemic Rome as bits of military and religious debauchery and double-crossing weave and bob across the screen. Meanwhile, Hawke’s voiceover oscillates between meta-Christian reflections and calls to action.

For his part, Hawke delivers two discernibly different characters, sure, but in keeping with Ferrara’s themes, two distinct types: apostle and wayward soldier. Nothing feels scripted, and with a veteran like Hawke, that works out fine. Like Willem Dafoe in so many of Ferrara’s recent films, Hawke inhabits the desolate dreamscape with a weary resignation, a ghost guiding us toward some dark inevitability.

Zeros and Ones is a pandemic film, but rather than feeling like a filmmaker doing whatever they can with the situation, this one seems like an opportunity Ferrara has been waiting for. He isn’t doing his best within unreasonable constrictions, he’s finally found that empty, nihilistic apocalypse he’s prepared for. The empty streets and lonesome, masked figures feel apiece of his greater goal.

What was that goal? What is it always? The world is filth, hope is futile, man is doomed. You’ve seen his films, right? If so, you probably already know where you’ll fall on Zeros and Ones. It is less poetic and self-indulgent than Tommaso or Siberia, less sensible than his earlier work, and less compelling than a lot of what he’s done. And the explosions look ridiculous.

And yet, there is nothing quite like an Abel Ferrara film.

Grade: B-

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time

At Gateway Film Center

by Hope Madden

Closure is hard for a lot of us. Take Robert Weide. The Curb Your Enthusiasm producer and director has been working on a Kurt Vonnegut documentary since the Nineties.

A rabid fan since his first introduction to Vonnegut’s work by a high school teacher, Weide went on to teach a class on the author at the same high school. When Weide began producing documentaries for public broadcast some years later, he hand-wrote a letter to his hero, offering to make Vonnegut the subject of his next project.

Vonnegut wrote him back.

Very often, when a documentarian inserts themselves into the film, it’s hard not to wonder why. In this case, seeing Weide’s face as he recounts opening the handwritten note from his idol (which he still has) explains everything.

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is not a simple biographical doc on an icon of American literature. This is a real-life depiction of one of humanity’s most common fantasies: becoming close friends with your celebrity hero.

The illuminating doc is there, too, but even that is affected by the friendship. You can see it in the trusting relationship between Weide and Vonnegut’s children, who describe a distant man they got to know more through his writing than through time spent with him.

That very intimacy likely helps Weide and co-director Don Argott (Last Days HereBeliever) uncover a rarely captured side of the famously acerbic and funny author.

A chronologically unmoored approach (very Billy Pilgrim, sans the aliens) lets the doc ease you into the subject matter. We get to know Weide, we meet Vonnegut, we find what we might hope to find about Kurt. (It’s OK to call him Kurt, we’re friends now.) He’s funny, charming, goofy, brilliant, friendly. How awesome would it be to meet [insert your name of choice here] and have them respond to you like this?

It would be awesome.

From there, Weide is as likely to gush over some act of camaraderie, fawn over some new accomplishment, or dig into a Vonnegut misstatement in hopes of greater understanding — as you would with a loved one whose behavior concerns you.

Little by little, the film peels away what we may have assumed about Kurt Vonnegut to find what was underneath it all — most of which we should have guessed at given the words he committed to the page. And though the film is overlong and perhaps slightly too wrapped up in Weide himself, it warmly and bittersweetly answers one of life’s most relatable questions.

What if my hero wanted to be my friend?

Grade: B+

The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain

On VOD

by Brandon Thomas

Movies set in a single location have always been a favorite of mine. The intimacy and the claustrophobia can almost become unbearable. Like a stage play, this kind of film also becomes a showcase for the actors. The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain is no exception.

Set in the wee hours of the morning, The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain follows the events that led to Chamberlain being killed by White Plains, New York, police. Chamberlain (Frankie Faison, Do the Right ThingThe Silence of the Lambs) is an elderly veteran with bipolar disorder who lives alone. After accidentally setting off his emergency medical alert system, Chamberlain is awakened by police sent to perform a welfare check. Afraid and agitated, Chamberlain refuses to let the police into his apartment. Events escalate after the initial officers call in backup, and maintain that they will enter Chamberlain’s apartment by any means necessary. 

There’s no secrecy around what’s eventually going to happen in The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain – I mean, it’s in the title. However, that doesn’t make the entire 83-minute running time any less anxiety-inducing. Director David Midell does a terrific job allowing the tension to slowly and excruciatingly build as the situation between Chamberlain and the police deteriorates. It’s one of the most uncomfortable, but riveting, films I’ve watched in ages. 

The ripped-from-the-headlines storyline feels only all too real in the latter half of 2021. Midell’s film is certainly a commentary on police misconduct, but also how even the most trivial situation can escalate unnecessarily. Knowing that the film is based on a true story only makes it more frustrating and upsetting. 

Faison is mesmerizing as the titular character. We only meet Kenneth Chamberlain for a short period of time, and Faison brings the character’s humanity to the forefront from the beginning. It’s a high-energy performance that never loses any ground and commands the audience’s attention from the get-go. On the flipside, Enrico Natale does a wonderful job playing a conflicted rookie officer. It’s a character that goes back and forth with audience sympathy, and Natale seems to know that. Despite being one of the few officers with a conscience, his character still toes the line and Natale beautifully conveys the guilt, hesitancy and fear the character feels throughout the film. 

Through deft use of the setting and a handful of outstanding performances, The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain materializes as one of the more powerful dramas of the year. 

Grade: A-

The End of Blindness

On VOD

by Rachel Willis

In Ethiopia, 1.6% of the population is blind, 80% of them with curable ailments. But for the nation’s poorest, care is beyond their reach.

In director A.J. Martinson’s documentary, The End of Blindness, we follow Dr. Samuel Bora, the only ophthalmologist for a population of more than 3 million, as he works to treat as many people as he can.

With the help of the non-profit organization, Tropical Health Alliance Foundation (THAF), Dr. Bora operates primarily in the nation’s capital, Addis Ababa. However, he spends two weeks out of every month traveling the country to visit the nation’s poorest villages.

Though focusing primarily on Dr. Bora, the documentary takes time to follow a few of those who seek treatment: a young mother who has never seen the face of her four-month-old baby; an older woman out of work for two years because of her blindness; a nine-year-old boy suffering traumatic cataracts after an injury.

By allowing us to spend time with a few of the people who desperately need treatment, Martinson gives these startling numbers a human face. For those of us so far removed from the idea of a five-minute, $50 surgery being unattainable, this is a reminder of the importance of access to quality medical care. In some ways, this gives the film the feel of one of those depressing commercials that hopes to elicit donations.

Further contributing to this impression is the deep timber of the film’s narrator. The crisis is laid out in simple terms with the narrator’s occasional input. The documentary’s score makes sure we recognize the importance of Dr. Bora’s work.

Yet, it’s impossible not to be moved when a patient has their bandages removed and the blank expression on their face gives way to a radiant smile that tells us the operation was successful. Dr. Bora’s work is crucial for a country where so many are devastated by blindness. It’s a crisis worthy of the attention the documentary draws to it.

For the squeamish, a few close-ups of eye surgery may have you turning away, but the images underscore the ease of the surgery Dr. Bora performs. It’s a stark reminder that this quick surgery is only possible because of the dedication of one man – who sometimes performs 60 surgeries in one day.

His dedication is a reminder that one person can make a difference. His story is worth telling.

Grade: A-

Ankle Biters (Cherrypicker)

On VOD

by Christie Robb

As we near the end of the year, pop culture tries to sell us on the idea that the small people who live amongst us are little doe-eyed innocents that deserve to be spoiled with sweet treats and presents and matching sets of family pajamas. Glossed over are the moments when their grown-ups awake in a cold sweat to find a shadowy presence in a onesie staring down at them. Or the times when they inform Grandma that she’s likely going to die soon. Or the phase when they turn to you on the couch and very casually mention something bone-chillingly creepy like that they want to see what “mommy looks like without skin.” 

Bennet De Brabandere, writer/director of Ankle Biters (originally titled Cherrypicker), isn’t trying to sell you on this whole sugar and spice con. In his movie, the kiddos may be small and doe-eyed, but they are also cold, calculating, and capable.

When recently widowed mom Laura (Marianthi Evans) starts dating hockey jock Sean (Zion Forrest Lee), Laura’s four daughters are predisposed to dislike him. They don’t want their dad to be replaced.

When Sean invites them away to his lakeside cottage for a bonding weekend and they notice bruises on their mom, the girls start to get worried. When snooping, they find cell phone footage of Laura and Sean involved in some rough sex and light bondage and make a series of wrong conclusions. Determined to protect their mom, the four girls turn what could have been an innocent vacation into a horror-comedy.

While the practical effects are pretty good, the standouts in this movie are clearly the Reid sisters (Lily, Violet, Rosalee, and Dahlia). They manage to convey the winsomeness and feral grit that combine to make up the foundational character of a young girl.

The adult acting perhaps leaves a little bit to be desired. Most of the dialogue seems to have been re-recorded after the fact. And rather than reacting to what another person has said or done, the actors often exhibit the blank stare of a person waiting their turn to talk. The plot leaves some loose ends untied. (What’s with the dog? And the lawyer?) And it misses an opportunity for the girls to gradually turn the screws on Sean. But the climax is absolutely delightful.

Grade: C

The Rumperbutts

On VOD

By Matt Weiner

It’s life imitating art for Rumperbutts, a musical comedy about a husband-wife indie band who have grown to hate their lucrative but creatively unfulfilling second act as a children’s entertainment group. Magical intervention grants the duo another chance at the music career and life they always wanted together.

Rumperbutts, written and directed by Marc Brener, is getting a second chance of its own on digital after a brief release in 2015. Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel, real-life married couple behind Mates of State, star as the fictional Rumperbutts, Bonnie and Jack. The band also wrote the songs and music for the movie.

After a delirious opening performance reflecting to an audience of children where their career and marriage went off the rails, Bonnie and Jack receive a visit from Richie (Josh Brener). Part muse and part fairy godfather, Richie helps free the couple from their Rumperbutts job and sets them on the path to making music again.

Why they couldn’t do both—or why it even matters when the Rumperbutts songs sound the same as their non-corporate songs—is the sort of logical leap we’re just supposed to accept, but it’s tough to ignore as the central premise.

There’s a sweet core to the film, propped up by the band’s infectious pop and chemistry together. The flashbacks that slowly reveal Bonnie and Jack falling in and out of love stand well enough on their own without the magical framing to muddy the plot. But those flashbacks also bring up their own tantalizing regrets. Mainly, what could the movie have been without trying to force together Once and A Christmas Carol into the same concept?

Rumperbutts is the ideal vehicle for its pop songs. The winsome earworms don’t go very deep, but just try and get through the movie without nodding along.

Grade: C

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

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