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Halloween and Other Treats in Theaters

Hope Madden Hope Madden Halloween and Other Treats in TheatersPhoto still from Halloween, via IMDb.
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Four very interesting films bound to spark conversation hit CBUS screens this week. Three of these examine political upheaval and vital current social issues. The other one is Halloween. I’m not going to lie about which one I was most excited to see. Don’t judge me.

Halloween

by Hope Madden

Any sequel to an iconic horror — particularly one that introduced a nightmarish, game changing villain — is bound to disappoint in some fashion, because our imagination has attached its own terror to the story and the boogeyman that no one else can match.

Though, they certainly tried their best with the Michael Myers franchise, to the tune of seven sequels and two reboots preceding this 40th anniversary comeback, Halloween.

Wisely, director/co-writer David Gordon Green and his writing partners Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley ignore all those other films, creating a universe where only John Carpenter’s 1978 original exists.

Jamie Lee Curtis returns to the star-making role of Laurie Strode, Carpenter’s final girl who has spent the last 40 years struggling to recover from the trauma of that Halloween night by stockpiling guns, booby-trapping her home and alienating her family.

She’s not the only character with a one-track mind. Myers’ attending doc Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer) thinks of, studies and devotes himself to nothing else but his star patient.

“You’re the new Loomis,” Laurie Strode quips upon meeting him — exactly what we were thinking. And though Bilginer’s performance borders on camp (and not in that respectable way Donald Pleasance had of overacting), his musings articulate the film’s basic principles. After 40 years of obsessing over having failed to achieve their goals — neither killed the other — Laurie Strode and Michael Myers are as connected as they might be if they were still siblings.

See, that came up in 1981’s Halloween II, so no longer canon.

Green’s direct sequel is, above all things, a mash note to the original. Visual odes continually call back to Carpenter, often in ways that allude to an intriguing about face the film is leading to.

Aside from Bilginer and Andi Matichak — unmemorable as Strode’s high school-aged granddaughter, Allyson — the cast is far stronger than what any of the other sequels could boast.

The humor peppered throughout the film, mainly as dialog between characters about to be butchered, too often undermines the tension being built. But Green, whose style refuses to be pinned down, embraces the slasher genre without submitting to it.

Kills — more numerous and grisly than the first go round — are often handled offscreen, just the wet thud or slice of the deed to enlighten us until the corpse gets a quick showcase. The result is a jumpy, fun, “don’t go in there!” experience reminiscent of the best of the genre.

The film takes it up a notch in its final reel, as tables turn, panic rooms open and cop heads become Jack-o-lanterns. The result is a respectful, fun and creepy experience meant to be experienced with a crowd.

Grade: B

The Oath

by Hope Madden

The Oath, writer/director/star Ike Barinholtz’s deep, dark comedy of manners and political upheaval, almost feels like a prequel to The Purge franchise.

As Kai (Tiffany Haddish, criminally underused) and Chris (Barinholtz) prepare for the yearly celebration of family dysfunction that is Thanksgiving, pressure within and outside the house builds around the US government’s new Patriot’s Oath.

This oath is a pledge of unfaltering dedication to the president. It is voluntary — and anyone who loves America would certainly volunteer. Deadline for signing is Black Friday.

The premise allows Barinholtz to mine the old dinner table comedy concept for insights about a divided nation. As lead, he creates a self-righteous liberal who’s quick to judge, blindly passionate and dismissive of other opinions.

Chris’s opposite this holiday season is not exactly his conservative brother Pat (played by actual brother Jon Barinholtz) as much as it is Pat’s Tomi Lahren-esque girlfriend, Abbie (perfectly played by Meredith Hagner). The rest of the family —played by Nora Dunn, Carrie Brownstein, and Chris Ellis —fall somewhere between the two on the political spectrum. Mainly, they’d just like some quiet to enjoy their turkey.

The Oath exacerbates tensions with an all-too-relevant and believable horror, but makes a wild tonal shift when two government officials (John Cho, Billy Magnussen) arrive on Black Friday to talk to Chris, who hasn’t signed.

Barinholtz’s premise is alarmingly tight. Equally on-target is the tension about sharing holidays with politically opposed loved ones, as well as the image of our irrevocably altered news consumption. But beyond that, The Oath doesn’t offer a lot of insight.

It makes some weird decisions and Barinholtz’s dialog — especially the quick one-offs — are both character defining and often hilarious. But as a black comedy, The Oath can’t decide what it delivers. A middle class family comfortably in the suburbs faces the unthinkable: potential incarceration and separation with no true justice system in place to work for their freedom.

Unfortunately, this actually describes far too many immigrant families for the film to pull that final punch. Barinholtz settles, offering a convenient resolution that robs his film of any credibility its first two acts had earned.

Grade: B-

The Hate U Give

by George Wolf

The Hate U Give becomes one of the year’s better films not because it elevates an oft-maligned genre (though that fresh air blast certainly doesn’t hurt), but instead for how it wraps troubling, vital societal issues around an absorbing family drama.

Adapted from the best selling Young Adult novel by Angie Thomas, the film slaps you with reality right from the opening, when a commanding father (Russell Hornsby) is giving his young children “the talk” — not about sex, but about how to survive when they are pulled over by the police. You may see this as either familiar or eyebrow-raising, and that is precisely the point.

Like so many YA dramas, THUG is anchored by a special young girl. Here, she’s Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), but Starr’s specialness isn’t a device that panders, it’s one that is intelligently used to illustrate two very different Americas.

She lives in a Georgia “hood” with her family, but attends a private Catholic school in the ‘burbs, and not, as her mother (Regina Hall) says, “because she needs to learn how to pray.”

On the ride home after a weekend party in her neighborhood, Starr becomes the only witness to the fatal police shooting of her childhood friend Khalil (Detroit‘s Algee Smith). She’s reluctant to come forward for a variety of reasons (all logical), and as the pressure builds from different sides, reactions to the killing bring the contrasts between Starr’s two worlds into clear, illuminating focus.

Director George Tillman, Jr. (Notorious) and screenwriter Audrey Wells (who sadly passed away just weeks ago) craft a thoughtful balance as the narrative progresses, cutting deeper via an impressive restraint that holds until the final few minutes hit a more tidy, didactic vein.

But when this film works, which is most of the time, it works wonderfully. Through Starr’s eyes (and yes, narration) we navigate heady terrain: white privilege, systemic oppression, Black Lives Matter, all lives matter, victim blaming, mass incarceration, cultural appropriation and liberal guilt. And Stenberg, leading a strong ensemble which also includes Anthony Mackie, Issa Rae and Common, rises to the material after some cookie-cutter YA fare (The Darkest Minds, Everything, Everything) with her best performance to date, moving Starr believably through grief, confusion, anger, defiance and hard decisions.

It’s character development that respects both the character and the audience. And in trusting that YA audience with some bitter pills, The Hate U Give becomes a required dose for the rest of us.

Grade: B+

I Am Not a Witch

by Christie Robb

Zambian-born Welsh writer/director Rungano Nyoni’s first feature film is like Monty Python’s witch trial scene shot through lenses of patriarchy and economic exploitation.

It centers on a displaced young girl named Shula (Maggie Mulubwa), accused of witchcraft by members of her community.

Found guilty, she’s turned over to a government-run witch zoo filled with old women tied by ribbons to enormous spools who are by turns photographed by tourists and rented out as agricultural laborers. Thrilled to have a “young and fresh” witch in town, the Boss (Henry B.J. Phiri) selects her for choice assignments. Shula functions as a judge of sorts in a small claims court and takes a stab at predicting the weather before Boss brings her on national television as a mascot for an egg-selling scheme.

At first, Shula seems to try to make the best of it. After she successfully outs a thief, the Boss takes her home for a taste of the good life. Shula sees bougie furniture, nice clothes, an electric chandelier, and the Boss’s Wife — a former witch. Wife tells Shula that if she does everything she’s told, Shula might end up just like her and achieve “respectability.”

But, as it turns out, a wedding ring and a veneer of dignity aren’t all they are cracked up to be.

Satirical and quietly devastating, I Am Not a Witch is a fairy tale rooted in the dust.

Grade: A-

Also opening in Columbus:
1945 (NR)
Alive (NR)

Read more from Hope and team at MADDWOLF, and prepare for the season with her horror movie podcast, FRIGHT CLUB.

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