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Horror, Doc, Family Fare, Biopic – Choose Wisely

George Wolf George Wolf Horror, Doc, Family Fare, Biopic – Choose WiselyPhoto via IMDb
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We are knocking at the door of Oscar season by late-October, so expect some hidden gems scattered among the seasonal cash grabs. And be careful not to spill yer beans!

The Lighthouse

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that there are no new ideas in modern film, that everything coming out is a sequel, reboot, adaptation or biopic. And then you spend an hour and 49 minutes with two men and a lighthouse.

What did we just watch?

Director/co-writer Robert Eggers follows The Witch, his incandescent 2015 feature debut, with another painstakingly crafted, moody period piece. The Lighthouse strands you, along with two wickies, on the unforgiving island home of one lonely 1890s New England lighthouse.

Salty sea dog Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) keeps the light, mind ye. He also handles among the most impressive briny soliloquies delivered on screen in a lifetime. Joining him as second is one Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson)—aimless, prone to self-abuse, disinclined to appreciate a man’s cooking.

Eggers’s film is a two-man show, a dizzying, sometimes absurd and often flatulent descent into madness.

The atmosphere is thick and brisk as sea fog, immersing you early with Jarin Blasche’s chilly black and white cinematography and a Damian Volpe sound design echoing of loss and one persistent, ominous foghorn.

For everything Eggers brings to bear, from the Bergmanesque lighting and spiritual undertones, to the haunting score, to the scrupulous set design, to images suitable for framing in a maritime museum – not to mention the script itself – The Lighthouse works because of two breathtaking performances.

Dafoe may be one of the few actors alive who can take this manic-eyed, gimpy-legged version of the Simpson’s sea captain and force us to absorb his every eccentricity. When Winslow finally screams “You’re a parody!” it both wounds and reassures, as by then we’re eager to accept any bit of confirmation that we can trust anything we’re seeing.

As our vessel into this waterlogged nightmare, Pattinson impresses with yet another fiercely committed performance. Winslow comes to “the rock” full of quiet dignity, only to become a soul increasingly tempted by mysterious new demons while running from old ones.

Winslow’s psychological spiral has so many WTF moments, it would crumble without the sympathetic anchor Pattinson provides from the film’s opening moments. Twilight seems like a lifetime ago, and in case you’ve missed any of the impressive indie credits he’s racked up the last few years, we’ll say it again: Pattinson is the real deal.

So is Eggers. His mastery of tone and atmosphere carries a weight that’s damn near palpable. The Lighthouse will leave you feeling cold, wet and woozy, as Eggers trades the literal payoff from The Witch for a series of reveals you’ll be struggling to connect.

This is thrilling cinema. Let it in, and it will consume you to the point of nearly missing the deft gothic storytelling at work. The film is other-worldly, surreal, meticulous and consistently creepy.

And we’ll tell you what The Lighthouse is not. It is not a film ye will soon forget.

Grade: A-

Countdown

by George Wolf

Who takes the time to read all those terms and conditions, amirite?

Countdown knows we just agree without reading, and has a little fun with the notion that some of us could pay for that…WITH OUR LIVES!!

Smartphones have become such a crutch in everyday life that “our phones want to kill us” is an inevitable – and perfectly understandable – horror premise. For his first big screen feature, writer/director Justin Dec uses it as the basis for a rewrite of The Ring with an unexpected side trip into Conjuring territory.

TV vet Elizabeth Lail takes the Naomi Watts lead as Quinn, a rookie RN who’s still mourning her mother and trying to be a good big sis to the teenaged Jordan (Talitha Eliana Bateman).

The mysterious death of one of her patients leads Quinn to download the urban legendary Countdown app. The verdict? Less than three days to live, which means Quinn and the similarly-fated handsome dude she met at the phone store (Jordan Calloway) have to learn the origin of the video tape, er, I mean phone app, so they can figure out how to opt out without penalty.

Look, The Ring was great PG-13 horror film (in fact, one of the best). While Countdown isn’t nearly as effective, it gives the high school horror crowd their own version, and some decent creeps and jump scares to spur date-clinging.

For the rest of us, the film benefits from the comic relief of one smug phone guy (Tom Segura) and a priest (P.J. Byrne) who’s eager to battle demons. And it’s when those demons are conjured that Countdown finds a fun groove to call its own, with Dec ultimately managing to write himself a clever enough way out of these deadly terms and conditions.

So read before signing, or you never know what’s next.

Timeshare: Sign up…and your time’s up!

Grade: C+

Western Stars

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Back in 1985, with “Born in the USA”-mania raging, Bruce Springsteen’s small acting performance in the John Sayles video for “I’m On Fire” spurred talk of a Boss move to feature films.

Aside from a cameo or two, it never happened.

But now, after becoming both an author and playwright in the last five years, Bruce hits the big screen as both star and co-director of Western Stars, an enchanting and meditative live presentation of his 19th album.

Gathering his current, non E-Street band, a 30 piece orchestra and a select audience of friends inside his 100-year-old barn, Bruce brings emotional new life to his musings on “the struggle between individual freedom and communal life.”

Tramps like us already know these songs are not what many expect from the Boss. There are no fist-pumping anthems here. These are lush pop symphonies, draped in the 1970s California pop sounds of Brian Wilson, Jimmy Webb, Glen Campbell and even Burt Bacharach.

Bruce has toyed with these styles as far back as “New York City Serenade,” but it was his 2007 album “Magic” that unveiled the first major step toward the musical promise fulfilled by Western Stars.

And though the comments by Bruce and band about the music “taking on a life of its own” sound like self-serving cliches, these live performances back them up. His speaking voice may show his 70 years, but Bruce’s singing only seems richer and more inviting.

“Sleepy Joe’s Cafe” is powered by a more joyous swing and “Sundown” soars with a newfound drive. For both “Stones” and “Moonlight Motel,” by sharing one mic with wife Patti Scialfa, Bruce adds layers of confessional intimacy.

The soul searching is only bolstered by dreamy, between-song vignettes from Bruce and co-director Thom Zimny. Amid gorgeous vistas, charming home movies (the Boss likes tequila!) and flashbacks to the America that shaped him, Bruce shares the songwriting inspirations he found in cars, risk, lies and love.

Longtime fans have often heard Bruce speak of the “conversation” he’s always had with his audience. In that vein, after his autobiography and broadway show, Western Stars is a can’t-miss portrait of both the artist and the human being taking life’s journey.

And if you’re new to the conversation, welcome. Today’s Springsteen may not be quite what you’re expecting, but the days are still pretty glorious.

Grade: A-

The Current War

by Matt Weiner

Isn’t there a rule that you shouldn’t make a movie about a subject that sets itself up for so many electricity-related puns if the final product is going to be so dim?

That’s the fate that befalls The Current War, a diverting but disjointed biopic that relies on an impeccable cast and flashy style to make up for its confused substance.

The bright spot: The Current War is much better than its protracted release history would suggest. After an expected holiday release in 2017, the movie was put on hold after the Weinstein Company imploded when news broke about Harvey Weinstein’s rape allegations.

Two years and a fresh re-cut from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon later, The Current War briskly takes us through key moments leading up to the competition between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon, excellent as always but maybe even better suited for Edison—or better still, just playing all the leading weirdos for an even more interesting gonzo edit) to power the Chicago World’s Fair.

The contest was the culmination of the War of the Currents, which pitted the world-famous inventor Edison and his direct current against the alternating current favored by Westinghouse, with an assist from Edison’s former employee and eccentric futurist Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult).

The historical details alone should have made for an unusually exciting biopic. Edison might not deserve the blame for Topsy, but his animal body count is still high enough to start his own abattoir.

But whether it’s the invention of the electric chair or Westinghouse’s (stylized) backstory, the film lacks either the interest or the courage to pursue any of the subplots with any real depth.

Which would be surmountable, but the main action participants suffer the same neglect. As much as The Current War’s quick cuts and glassy sound effects try to ape the frenetic spirit of invention, the film is neutered when it comes to having anything of substance to actually say about these people and the trajectory they put the world on.

That’s a bizarre oversight for a script by Michael Mitnick that at least attempts some hand-waving toward a dark reflection of the very same world we’re now living in over a century later: a Gilded Age redux, the foundational mythmaking that has always been tied up between this country and the great men doing what it takes in the name of creation, even the vaporware of Silicon Valley (er, Menlo Park) luminaries.

But how about the powerhouse acting! That distraction alone, coupled with the film’s tortuous journey to screens, suggests that while The Current War isn’t the most insightful biopic, it has a good claim to the one we deserve at the moment.

Grade: C

The Great Alaskan Race

by Rachel Willis

If you’re looking for a movie to watch with your extended family this holiday season, you likely won’t go wrong with director Brian Presley’s film, The Great Alaskan Race. 

Based on a true story, Presley’s film, in which he also stars, is a touching dedication to the mushers and sled dogs who saved the children of Nome, Alaska from a deadly diphtheria outbreak in 1925.

The film opens in 1917 with a voiceover narration introducing the audience to Leonhard Seppala (Presley), a man who has embraced the Alaskan wilderness and its people. We jump ahead one year and learn a flu epidemic has killed half of the native population, including Seppala’s wife, leaving him to care for their infant daughter, Sigrid. 

The opening feels like an unnecessary prologue to a film that addresses this past through dialogue, but its intention is to help us understand Seppala’s motivation to participate in the treacherous run to deliver the diphtheria antitoxin. Once the disease begins to affect the children of Nome, Seppala is terrified his daughter will fall victim to the deadly illness.

Much of the film’s first act is devoted to understanding the tight-knit community in Nome. Through Sigrid (portrayed by Presley’s daughter, Emma), we see that she is beloved by both her indigenous relatives and the settlers to the region, as they share in raising Sigrid while her father works in the area’s gold mines. 

The movie does a good job of letting us know who the characters are, but when it comes to portraying the epic 674-mile run to deliver the lifesaving medicine, it falls short. There are too few scenes of the mushers and their sled dogs fighting the elements and too many scenes of Dr. Welch (Treat Williams) and his nurses tending to the sick kids. For a historical event known as the Great Race of Mercy, we never truly feel the danger and daring involved in such a momentous undertaking.

That’s not to say there aren’t any scenes in which Seppala and some of the other mushers contend with blizzards and subzero temperatures, there just aren’t enough. The scenes they do include are the movie’s most interesting moments. 

For those who already know the story (or have seen the animated Balto from 1995), there may not be many surprises. But for audiences who don’t know this history, or the reason the Iditarod is run yearly, or why there is a statue of Balto the dog in Central Park, they’re likely to learn a few interesting facts. Either way, The Great Alaskan Race is a movie that celebrates community and the great things people can achieve when they work together to help those in need.

Grade: C+

Also opening in Columbus:
Bigil (NR)
Black and Blue (R)
Housefull 4 (NR)
One Piece: Stampede (NR)
Saand Ki Aankh (NR)

Read more from George and crew at MADDWOLF and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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