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Holiday Blockbusters and Oscar Grabs Start Hitting Theaters

George Wolf George Wolf Holiday Blockbusters and Oscar Grabs Start Hitting TheatersPhoto still from "Boy Erased," via IMDb.
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Here they come! Holiday blockbusters and Oscar hopefuls — people, it is time. It’s been kind of, almost, squeak-a-few-in-here-and-there time for a few weeks, but with Thanksgiving only days away, we can expect some big guns for the next few weeks. Blockbuster-wise, it’s the sequel to the middling-at-best Harry Potter cash grab. Oscar hopefuls, though? Loads.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindewald

by Hope Madden

People really miss Harry Potter.

Maybe they miss the romantic notion of outsiders among outsiders, or the oh-so-earnest world of good versus evil. J.K. Rowling enchanted a generation with a densely populated world of magic and mayhem and an awful lot of people long to go back. So many, in fact, that they will mostly settle for the sloppy bastard Fantastic Beast series.

It is still Rowling’s words, after all. The author pens the screenplays, inviting us back into that wizarding world, albeit about a generation or two earlier.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindewald picks up six months after its blandly likable predecessor, 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Odd duck Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is banned from international travel by the Ministry of Magic. Grindewald (Johnny Depp) is in prison. Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who conveniently survived what was clearly his death in the previous effort, wants to know who he is and where he belongs.

The second installment opens well, offering more vitality, thrill and sinister mayhem than you’ll find in its predecessor’s full 133 minutes.

Redmayne is as adorable as last time. Depp brings something seductively sinister to the role. And Rowling’s clear distaste for leaders who bang the drum for racial supremacy and fear mongering is both understandable and nicely executed.

David Yates returns to direct his sixth Potter-verse flick. He finds opportunities for the visual flourish that was the only true strength of the first Fantastic Beasts film, but manages far stronger narrative momentum this time around.

All of this really only leads to the frustration of realizing at the 134-minute mark that this film doesn’t end. In fact, the last scene is basically the beginning of the movie. The 130 previous minutes basically amount to exposition that sets up the next film.

Which is funny, since the previous entire film amounts to little more than a preface to an actual narrative.

Characters are quirky, wardrobe is glorious, Ezra Miller broods well — all of which is a lot of what we’ve already seen. What Grindewald doesn’t offer is anything new, or any reason to care.

Grade: C-

Widows

by Hope Madden

There are few films I have been more geeked to see than Widows.

Co-writer/director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame) and co-writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects) update a British miniseries from the 80s about a heist.

Wait, Steve McQueen made a heist movie? A filmmaker so punishing you watch a little Lars von Trier to lighten the mood?

He totally made a heist movie. It is a layered, deeply cynical, wildly faceted take on politics, organized crime, familial grief and the plight of a powerless woman. So, OK, maybe not your run-of-the-mill Liam Neeson flick. But Liam Neeson is in it.

Neeson is Harry Rawlings, top man in a group of criminals who hit vaults around Chicago. This last hit went south, though, and the bad men he fleeced need that cash back. Poor Mrs. Rawlings (Viola Davis, glorious as is her way), is handed the bill.

McQueen has not made an Oceans 11. Widows is not fun. It is smart, riveting entertainment, though.

McQueen’s Chicago landscape is peopled mainly with folks desperately in need of a change: the criminal trying to get into politics (Brian Tyree Henry), the career politician with daddy issues (Colin Farrell), but mostly the widows of Harry’s crew (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki), all left as cash-strapped as Mrs. Rawlings.

It does not pay to marry a criminal.

Every member of the enormous ensemble runs with the opportunities this script allows, no matter how much or how little their screen time. Daniel Kaluuya relishes every sadistic moment he has as an enforcer, while Jacki Weaver establishes one character’s entire history with her two fascinating minutes onscreen.

But it’s Viola Davis who anchors the film. She is the grieving heart and the survivor’s mind that gives Widows its center and its momentum. She wastes nothing, never forgetting or allowing us to forget the grim reality of her situation.

There is a heist, don’t get me wrong. There are double crosses, flying bullets, car chases, explosions — genre prerequisites that feel like new toys for the super-serious director. McQueen proves a versatile a filmmaker, though he has certainly left his own distinctive mark on the action flick.

Grade: A-

Boy Erased

by George Wolf

I don’t know if Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalamet are up on tennis history, but lately they’ve had a nice little Borg/McEnroe thing going. Close in both age and film credits, the last few years have seen them serve and volley with increasingly impressive performances.

Just weeks after Chalamet’s astounding turn in Beautiful Boy, Hedges joins him as a likely Oscar nominee with an intensely intimate performance in Boy Erased, a touching and vital account of one young man’s trip through “conversion therapy.”

Based on Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir, it’s a film that also solidifies Joel Edgerton’s skills as both an actor and filmmaker, one able to balance a complicated, troubling subject with grace and understanding.

Hedges channels Conley as Jared Eamons, an Arkansas high school senior struggling with his sexual identity. Already in the Bible Belt, Jared feels even more pressure to conform from his father’s (a terrific Russel Crowe) status as a pastor and soon-to-be ordained minister in the local Baptist church. Once Jared is forced to admit his feelings for men, church elders recommend a conversion therapy program led by Mr. Sykes (Edgerton).

Amid flashbacks to Jared’s path toward confessing his feelings, Hedges makes all the confusion feel heartbreakingly real. Jared, facing a strictly conservative community and the chance his parents may disown him, enters The Refuge Program with a sincere commitment to become the person everyone else wants him to be. There is a quiet war stirring in Jared as he takes his “moral inventory,” and Hedges is able to make him a sympathetic soul screaming for release via a restrained, beautifully insightful turn.

Edgerton, who also wrote the screenplay, shows us Jared’s eyes being opened through gradual episodes that resist any urge to demonize. Small choices, such as the way he frames a prayer circle at the dinner table or one wonderful scene between Jared and his family doctor (the always welcome Cherry Jones) show Edgerton’s respect for the fragility of reminding us that beyond the rhetoric of hot button issues are real lives being lived.

Jared’s father and mother (Nicole Kidman, also award-worthy) are not portrayed as villains, but rather as parents making choices based on the information they had at the time. The ways that both the information and the parents change acknowledges the religion/science debate without soapboxes, keeping the film’s viewpoint wisely intimate.

It is precisely this intimacy that fuels the film’s resonance, as one family’s story becomes a vessel for greater understanding. That’s no small achievement, and Boy Erased is no small triumph.

Grade: A

Instant Family

by George Wolf

The comedy output of writer/director Sean Anders has ranged from decent (Hot Tub Time Machine) to disaster (That’s My Boy). His latest works as well as it does thanks to leaning more on heart than humor.

That’s most likely because Anders is telling much of his own story here, and a warm authenticity buoys even the film’s most ridiculous moments.

Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne are Pete and Ellie Wagner, a California couple who run a home renovation business and remain undecided about having children. A flippant remark from Pete leads Ellie to investigate foster parenting, which then leads to three young siblings moving in.

There is, to put it mildly, an adjustment period.

Yes, Anders’ parallel of renovating homes and families is plenty obvious, but it goes down easier with his commitment to sincerity about an important topic. The film doesn’t shy away from pointing out the difficult aspects to foster parenting, utilizing an odd-couple pair of case workers (Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro, playing nicely off each other) as an effectively organic vessel for reminding us that “things that matter are hard.”

The laugh quotient rarely rises above a good chuckle, and you can expect some obligatory music montages and family comedy trappings, but some well-drawn characters and a likable cast keep that sizable heart beating.

Byrne continues to show the timing of a comedy MVP, Wahlberg seems more comfortable with the genre than usual, and Margo Martindale breezes in with memorable support as Grandma Sandy, but Anders, speaking from experience, makes sure to remember it’s about the kids.

He doesn’t use children just to be cute (although they are), but as real characters at the core of this arc. This is especially true of oldest sibling Lizzy, thanks to the standout performance from Isabela Moner (Sicario 2), a true young talent.

Always more fuzzy than consistently funny, Instant Family offers plenty of good feels backed up with some lived-in comfortability.

Grade: B-

Border

by Hope Madden

Sometimes knowing yourself means embracing the beast within. Sometimes it means making peace with the beast without. For Tina — well, let’s just say Tina’s got a lot going on right now.

Eva Melander is Tina, a woman resigned to the solitary existence of an outsider. Her “chromosomal malady” has left her unbecoming to most of the people in her Danish border town, but it’s also gifted her with senses that allow her to notice criminals by the way they smell.

Those senses are thrown, though, by a stranger (Eero Milonoff) who makes her feel, for the first time in her life, that she’s not alone.

Border director/co-writer Ali Abbasi has more in mind than your typical Ugly Duckling tale, though. He mines John Ajvide Lindqvist’s (Let the Right One In) short story of outsider love and Nordic folklore for ideas of radicalization, empowerment, gender fluidity and feminine rage.

The result is both a sincere crime thriller and a magical fantasy. A perfect meshing of Michael Pearce’s 2017 indie Beast and Alex van Warmerdam’s dark 2013 folk tale Borgman, Border still manages to be entirely its own creature.

Melander is a force of nature under impressive prosthetics. Her fearless performance, one that requires an arc that feels simultaneously backward and progressive, guarantees that no matter the bracing images or ugly narrative, you will not look away. You won’t be able to.

Milonoff also impresses, as does a cast of support players blessed with an unusual and fittingly untidy storyline.

There are moments in Border that should have felt silly, while others could easily have tipped into lurid territory, but they never do. Abbasi’s respect for his characters keeps even the most outlandish scenes on track. He boasts an impressive aptitude for blending a fantastical fairy tale nature with the realism of a thriller without ever losing one thread for the other.

The result is a film quite unlike anything else, one offering layer upon provocative, messy layer, and Abbasi feels no compulsion to tidy up. Instead, he leaves you with a lot to think through thanks to one unyieldingly original film.

Grade: A-

Also opening in Columbus:
Await Further Instructions (NR)
The Clovehitch Killer (NR)
A Cool Fish (NR)
Last Letter (NR)
A Private War (R)
Welcome Home (R)

Read more from George and team at MADDWOLF, and listen to reviews of each week’s new releases in theaters and home entertainment on SCREENING ROOM.

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