Grinch V Nazi Zombies V Lisbeth Salander—Take Your Bets
Cash grabs and Oscar hopefuls, riveting documentaries and watery melodramas, ass-kicking women and Nazi zombies—that’s a week! A smorgasbord — a little of it very healthy, a lot of it just tasty, and a bit of stuff you’ll regret.
Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch
by George Wolf
Before we get to the Whos, let’s consider the Whys.
Is it too much of a GOML (Get Off My Lawn) moment to ask why, beyond the obvious cash grab, The Grinch has to be redone? The original, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, is 25 minutes of perfection, an animated TV classic that was already the subject of a charmless live action update for the big screens of nearly 20 years ago.
Now we’re back to animation, and facing the same quandary.
How do you add an hour of narrative that is more than just filler, substantial enough to not dilute what made the original work so simply joyous, so universally touching?
In 2009, Spike Jonze showed it can be done, delivering a wondrous and emotional take on Where the Wild Things Are.
But in this latest re-imagining of The Grinch, what writer Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow giveth only ends up taking away.
We’re still told the heart of Mr. Grinch (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) is two sizes too small, yet we’re given a new backstory for additional explanation as to why he hates Christmas so much.
His heart is two sizes too small, didn’t you hear? That’s the reason! Well, it should be, but then we see the Grinch do little acts of kindness for his dog Max and some other creatures, meaning the whole idea of Mr. Grinch being such an unpleasant misanthrope (and thus the impact of the story’s entire resolution) is compromised early.
The narration (courtesy of Pharrell Williams) includes some of the delightful Dr. Suess wordplay from 1966, plus some fresh attempts to imitate it that, as you might guess, stand out like a $10 Rolex. Mr. Grinch’s ultimate change of holiday heart doesn’t fare much better, as he and Cindy Lou Who (The Greatest Showman‘s Cameron Seely) spend ample time hammering home a message that, while still welcome, shouldn’t require that much force.
Directors Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier craft a few giddy sequences set among the snowy terrain of Whoville, and SNL’s Kenan Thompson squeezes as much humor as he can from his role as the Mean One’s erstwhile “best friend,” but for anyone hoping to recapture the magic of a holiday standard, The Grinch is nearly as empty as Cindy Lou’s living room on Christmas morn.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web
by George Wolf
This far along, it’s no surprise some freshness has wilted from the Lisbeth Salander franchise. But now, as the fourth book in Steig Larsson’s “Millennium” series makes it to the multiplex, some of its identity seems to be slipping away as well.
Claire Foy hops on the speed bike as the latest Lisbeth, Stockholm’s most infamous hacker/vigilante/all around badass. Her latest impossible mission is to recover a top secret computer program known as Firefall.
Developed by a weirdly tall code wizard (Stephen Merchant), the program can breach all missile defense systems and put them under the control of a single user. Though the program can’t be copied, it can be moved, and when the Americans steal it, Lisbeth is contracted to steal it back.
The job comes with plenty of attempts on her life and open wounds from the past, and as Lisbeth is pursued across Sweden by a Washington NSA agent (Lakeith Stanfield), her old pal Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) tries to help sort it all out.
Director/co-writer Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breathe, Evil Dead) trades the cold, sterile atmospherics that marked the previous films for a more standard thriller tone. Despite a few nifty sleights of hand, the film always seems to be working from another’s playbook.
It’s less grisly, less ambitious and more comfortable settling for overly convenient plot turns and painting the female action hero in more of a male fantasy world. Salander has been an anti-Bond since book one, making this shift particularly disappointing.
For her part, Foy is a serviceable Salander but more of a blank slate. While Noomi Repace brought more instant menace and Rooney Mara more mystery, Foy can’t define her turn much beyond hurtful stares and beatdowns.
Spider’s Web is always watchable, and engaging enough to keep you invested. But Lisbeth became memorable by being uniquely compelling, not merely satisfactory.
by Hope Madden
Perhaps you don’t know this, but Nazi zombies have a horror genre unto themselves: Shock Waves, Zombie Lake, Dead Snow, Dead Snow 2, Blood Creek. Well, there’s a new Nazi Zombie Sheriff in town, and he is effing glorious.
Overlord drops us into enemy territory on D-Day. One rag tag group of soldiers needs to disable the radio tower the Nazis have set up on top of a rural French church, disabling Nazi communications and allowing our guys to land safely.
What’s on the church tower is not so much the problem. It’s what’s in the basement.
Director Julius Avery stays true to the war film vibe. Though clearly Overlord lacks the scope of something like Saving Private Ryan, visceral scenes of war set the stage for a film about the monstrosity lurking inside man.
He’s aided immeasurably by two writers with a knack for tales of endurance. Billy Ray’s career is littered with tense political thrillers, and his co-scribe Mark L. Smith wrote The Revenant, for Lord’s sake. He knows how to put a man through some shit.
The fellas find cover in the home of a sympathetic French woman (Mathilde Olivier) and plot their next move. Too bad it’s into that church basement.
Pilou Asbaek offers another excellent performance, this time as the Nazi commander. He drips sinister and looks enough like a handsome Michael Shannon to terrify even when he’s not speaking.
All the performances are strong, and character arcs feel fresh even though you know — if you have ever seen a war movie — how they will progress. Because this is a war movie, but war is hell and hell is horror.
Avery creates the same kind of desperate tension you’d expect from a suicide mission, and when the tables turn and we’re suddenly inside some kind of filthy mad scientist horror, the film doesn’t lose a step.
Suddenly, through Avery’s eyes and the horrified reactions of our heroes, we see how easily not only war movies but Marvel comic book films can cross the line to blood chilling horror.
A satisfying Good V Evil film that benefits from layers, Overlord reminds us repeatedly that it is possible to retain your humanity, even in the face of inhuman evil.
Plus, Nazi zombies, which is never not awesome!
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
by Hope Madden
People forget that Melissa McCarthy was nominated for an Oscar. It’s a stiff year for female leads, but she might just nab another nom for her turn as a misanthropic writer in the true story, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
A one-time best seller, author Lee Israel (McCarthy) is feeling her shelf life. Unwilling to conform to any kind of expectations — particularly those placed on females in the publishing industry — she finds herself facing the reality that no one wants a book on Fanny Brice, and no one wants a book by Lee Israel.
McCarthy’s socially inept and down-on-her-luck biographer sits in a dingy bar midday, drinking away her unemployability, her cat’s illness and her writer’s block when in beams a boozy ray of sunshine disguised as upbeat alcoholic hustler Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant).
It’s here that director Marielle Heller’s film hits its stride. McCarthy’s energy, her dimples and her infectious good nature have buoyed any number of mediocre films. But here, she carves a low key, solitary figure unable and unwilling to open up. It’s a fascinating about-face for McCarthy.
Set Israel’s curmudgeonliness against the unbridled zeal and charm Grant brings to his character, and a compelling odd-couple-on-the-skids is born.
To pay her bills and exercise her talent, Israel begins forging letters from literary icons and selling those forgeries at bookshops across New York. The wondrous respect this film has for writers, for the written and spoken word, and the nostalgia it has for a past when those elements were likewise revered generates a lovely, literary atmosphere.
Co-writer Nicole Holofcener again subverts ideas of entitlement and self-destruction with a screenplay so full of empathy it’s impossible to dislike the deeply unpleasant Israel.
A great deal of that success, of course, comes from McCarthy’s authenticity. The performance is nuanced and understated, as is the entire film, and aching of self-inflicted loneliness. She creates a believable and yet unusual character — one who embarks on a deeply strange yet somehow fitting journey.
The story of Lee Israel offers an oddly optimistic if cautionary tale for misfit women. It’s also a great reminder that Melissa McCarthy can really act.
by Matt Weiner
If the Midwest is often treated as America’s test market for new products, Baltimore makes a good case as America’s stand-in for how our cities have been neglected, in ways both passive and pernicious. With Charm City, Marilyn Ness sketches the big picture by zooming in on one city neighborhood.
Ness centers the documentary around those most affected by the violence and lack of opportunity in the city, spending time on the streets with the irrepressible Clayton “Mr. C” Guyton. Mr. C runs a neighborhood community center, providing a mix of social services, inspirational sermons and a contagious hope that things must get better.
Also represented is the Baltimore Police Department, whose officers are buckling under constant overtime in an attempt to stem the record murder rate. Politicians get their due through the eyes of Brandon Scott, a reform-minded city councilman (and the youngest person elected to the position).
At first it seems like Ness’s framing is nuanced to a fault. She studiously highlights the interactions on all sides as an almost routine drudgery. Or as routine as life can be when you’re in a constant struggle for resources just to survive.
But haunting the periphery is the death of Freddie Gray, which took place just months before the film begins. Ness limits her interviews to the more optimistic and eager officials and officers, but even relatively benign interactions are impossible to separate from the wider conversations happening around criminal justice reform in cities and police departments all over the country.
As frustrating as it can be when Ness sticks to her granular talking head shots, there’s still a message, even if that message to viewers is often that you’re going to need to do some extra homework on this.
And it’s effective. It’s heartbreaking when the people on Mr. C’s block abruptly suffer the loss of one of their own. It’s bracing to hear them refuse to give up even though they feel like everyone else has abandoned them. It’s useful to see how city officials view doing the right thing, and how quickly that impulse crashes against a public health epidemic that cannot be theirs alone to fix.
There have been plenty of superb recent documentaries about criminal justice in America, including Ava DuVernay’s 13th and Erik Ljung’s The Blood Is at the Doorstep. Charm City probably shouldn’t be the only film to watch if you’re looking to go deeper on the subject, but it’s a fine and no less urgent place to start.
Here and Now
by Rachel Willis
What would you do upon receiving the worst news of your life? How would you spend the next 24 hours?
These are the questions that plague Vivienne (Sarah Jessica Parker) upon learning she has a tumor. More tests are required to diagnose the nature of the tumor, but if it’s cancerous, she can expect to live another 14 months with aggressive treatment.
It’s telling that Vivienne is alone when she receives this information. From the beginning, director Fabien Constant creates a sense of loneliness around her. After receiving the devastating news, her next stop is a rehearsal for her upcoming 25th anniversary show. A number of band members have clearly been waiting, but Vivienne mollifies their annoyance with banal pleasantries. She doesn’t mention to any of them, including her manager Ben (Common), that she is sick.
Vivienne spends the next 24 hours wandering from place the place. The New York City backdrop perfectly captures the theme of isolation despite being surrounded by millions. Though Vivienne has friends, a concerned mother, a lover, and a daughter, it’s clear from the dialogue she has always maintained an aloofness around those who care for her.
Writer Laura Eason gives us just enough to understand Vivienne’s relationships without giving away too much. Her relationship with the father of her daughter, Nick (Simon Baker) is cordial, but it’s clear from his tone when speaking about their daughter, Vivienne hasn’t been the most engaged mother. She’s been too busy with her career.
Though the first act of the film manages to convey a lot of information in brief exchanges, and Sarah Jessica Parker aptly conveys the emotional anguish of Vivienne, the second half falls quickly into melodrama. The idea that Vivienne is desperate for a connection is conveyed by a number of trite interactions with a Lyft driver who happens to make repeat appearances in her life. The naturalness of the dialogue in the first half is replaced with brief, forced conversations about profound subjects, mainly the power of music.
It’s unfortunate that Hollywood has adopted the policy of casting actors in singing roles when they can’t sing. Gone are the days of overdubbing actors with quality singers. Instead, we’re forced to listen to Parker muddle her way through a cheesy song. And not once, but twice.
With a title like Here and Now, it’s not a surprise that the film takes a melodramatic turn, but it’s a shame since it had a promising start.
Also opening in Columbus:
Last Letter (NR)
Liz and the Blue Bird (PG)
River Runs Red (NR)
Welcome to Mercy (NR)
Read more from George and team at MADDWOLF, and listen to his weekly roundup of movie reviews, SCREENING ROOM.