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Hot Docs and Cool Blues in Home Entertainment

Hope Madden Hope Madden Hot Docs and Cool Blues in Home EntertainmentPhoto via IMDb
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There are more ways than ever for us shut ins to enjoy brand spanking new movies, and in many cases, help out the cinemas we miss so terribly. Here is this week’s crop of brand new streaming films, most of which you can view via Gateway Film Center and Wexner Center for the Arts websites, which not only allow you access to fresh and generally excellent fare, but also generate a little profit to help those local cinemas offset this catastrophic box office dry spell.

The Hottest August

by Hope Madden

Streaming via the Wexner Center for the Arts

It’s August, 2016 – the hottest August in history – and Brett Story (The Prison in Twelve Landscapes) is taking the temperature of New York City. Armed with open-ended questions, she travels borough to borough gauging different New Yorkers’ sensibilities concerning climate, race, capitalism, robotics, gentrification, unions.

As the world sweats and readies itself for a total solar eclipse, Story gets people talking.

Her subjects are not tongue tied, and their soliloquies are loosely linked one to the other by their in-the-moment nature. You can’t talk about this moment, it seems, without waxing nostalgic about the past and worrying about the future.

How do they feel about the future?

Some are compelled to take action, to exert some control over their present to claim their own future. Others prepare. Some take note of what’s going on around them and that’s enough. Some don’t even do that.

The film is equally fascinating whether it’s digging into grand ideas or sitting in a sidewalk lawn chair chit-chatting about the nastier, day-to-day consequences of gentrification.

It’s best, though, when it walks alongside Afronaut – New York artist or man from the future who’s come back to make notes on the present and offer sage advice?

Multiply the probability of a harm by the magnitude of the harm.

All directors manipulate the message, especially documentarians, and Story is no different. Story’s unshowy curiosity proves an amicable though not passive guide. She doesn’t judge, neither does she excuse.

Story talks with big thinkers in their spacious, impressive apartments. She follows activists to the streets as they practice to effect change. She sits on a barstool with Yankee fans who’d like to reframe racism as “resentment.”

Is the future controllable, inevitable, or both? Are we preparing for it, or will it eat us whole like the moon ate the sun that August? The answer is ultimately surreal – just ask Afronaut.

Grade: A-

Invisible Life

by George Wolf

Invisible Life (A Vida Invisvel) is one of the few films that earns its melodrama status in only positive ways. Director/co-writer Karim Ainouz attacks our sentimentality in such a loving, dreamlike manner you easily fall under his spell of family strife in 1950s Brazil.

Sisters Euridice and Guida (Carol Duarte and Julia Stockler, both exceptional) grew up inseparable but have begun to follow different paths. While Guida dreams of finding love, Euridice has aspirations as a classical pianist.

A dramatic turn leads to one of the women being disowned by their father, and the two sisters begin living disconnected lives, each believing the other’s circumstances are very different than reality.

The “invisibility” of the sisters to each other, and of the lives of all women in a patriarchal society, is a thread Ainouz weaves skillfully and repeatedly throughout. The result is a lush and emotional period piece that dives into its genre with no apologies, tugging at your heart with broken dreams and familial bonds until you’re nothing but thankful for it.

Grade: A-

We Summon the Darkness

by Hope Madden

Available on various streaming services

The year was 1988, and as far as you know, metal bands shouted “hail Satan” and evangelicals took to the airwaves warning their flocks about cults driven to spill virtuous blood.

Marc Meyers (My Friend Dahmer) jumps in the way back machine to road trip with three besties headed to a rock show. Alexis (Alexandra Daddario), Val (Maddie Hasson) and Bev (Amy Forsyth) are rockin’ like Dokken with those bare midriff black tees and upside down cross dangles, but something’s amiss.

For one thing, their hair is not nearly obnoxious enough. No way they’re en route to a rock concert in ’88. No one’s hair even grazes the car ceiling.

Also, that trio of dudes they’re flirting with (at least one of them is mulleted, so there is a whiff of authenticity) is clearly beneath them. Plus, with this nationwide ritualistic Satanic killing spree going on…

Here’s the thing, though. I was actually alive in rural Ohio in the late Eighties, and there honestly were people—like, people in authority—who believed our corn fields were lousy with covens. They believed metal music transmitted the words of the dark lord to the eager ears of teens.

It wasn’t true. It’s just that all rock bands in 1988 sucked.

Nonetheless, Meyers creates a nearly believable atmosphere for his spare, occasionally comical dive into Ozzy-inspired Satanism.

Hasson charms as the hot friend with a weak bladder. While the banter never feels quite fresh enough to be improvisational, the dialog among the three girls is random, comfortable fun.

Daddario and Hasson share a silly chemistry that keeps scenes bright and engaging, even when the slight plot begins to wear through.

In its best moments, We Summon the Darkness conjures Kevin Smith’s Red State (an underseen and under-appreciated horror gem). Johnny Knoxville plays intriguingly against type as the Midwestern pastor warning youngsters about the lures of the devil, and Daddario has enough screen presence to anchor the movie.

There’s just not a lot to see here. Pretty girls. Terrible music. Worse clothes. Religious zealots. Backwards thinking. Friends who drive you crazy on a road trip because they have to stop every ten minutes to pee.

Yes, that does sound like 1988 to me, actually. It’s just too bad Meyers couldn’t deliver the kind of inspired, memorable scares born of high school relationships, weirdos and misfits he shared in My Friend Dahmer. Instead the camaraderie and atmosphere become entertaining distractions from a forgettable story.

Grade: C

Extra Ordinary

Stream from Gateway Film Center.

by Hope Madden

Mike Ahern and Edna Loughman’s latest charms you into accepting familiarity. Then, thanks to quirky characters, nothing ever goes exactly as you expected.

Rose Dooley (Maeve Higgins) is our reluctant hero. A driving instructor in rural Ireland, Rose has stopped chatting with the ghosts that seek her attention as she drives through town, and she is only returning phone calls about driving school. None of that other stuff. She’s done with that.

Which is why Martin Martin (Barry Ward) has to pretend he needs a lesson. Martin Martin doesn’t really want help ridding himself of his wife’s fairly abusive ghost, he just wants his teenage daughter Sarah (Emma Coleman) to think he’s looking into it so she doesn’t leave home.

But Martin Martin’s ghost is the least of his worries, what with that Satan worshipping one-hit-wonder Christian Winter (Will Forte) over in that castle conjuring up virgin-hungry demons to help him relaunch his musical career.

That’s a lot to pack into 94 minutes, although the plot is hardly the point. Higgins is the point. This no-fuss comedy remains adorably indifferent to the supernatural, every new development just an opportunity for Higgins, in particular, to charm with her sharp comic timing and infectious good nature.

The film’s affable absurdity suits Forte and Ward makes a sweetly ideal foil for Higgins. Extra Ordinary casts a silly spell that leaves you smiling.

Grade: B+

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band

by George Wolf

Stream from Gateway Film Center

How big of a music geek are you if you can name all five members of The Band?

They were the rare musical breed whose biggest personality was not the lead singer. Still, even charismatic guitarist Robbie Robertson remained largely anonymous next to the very rock stars his work was influencing.

Writer/director Daniel Roher makes Robertson and his memoir the anchor of Once Were Brothers, and while that does limit the film’s scope, Robertson is such an enthusiastic and engaging storyteller – and his access is so valuable – you come to understand the choice pretty quickly.

Roher and executive producer Martin Scorsese surround Robertson (looking fantastic at age 76) with praise from of a succession of legendary fans (Eric Clapton exclaims “Big Pink changed my life,”) and, of course, plenty of priceless archival footage.

As a rock doc, Once Were Brothers blazes few trails, but the ones it travels are well worth revisiting. And though the lack of any counterpoint from surviving member Garth Hudson is noticeable, tour guide Robertson is the kind you’re ready to tip when the day is done.

Grade: B+

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

by George Wolf

New on VOD, also on Netflix

Miles Davis, the original cool? Well, at the very least, he’s in the team picture.

And part of that iconic allure, along with groundbreaking talent, was his elusiveness. Until that unexpected 1980s stretch of pop collaborations, art exhibitions and Miami Vice appearances, Davis was the prickly genius you could not pin down.

Enough talk, his every glance seemed to sneer (behind the coolest of sunglasses, of course). Just stand back and let me play.

With Birth of the Cool, director Stanley Nelson weaves archival footage, first-person interviews and Davis’ own words (read by actor Carl Lumbly) into a captivating career retrospective buoyed by important historical context.

Longtime aficionados will relish the dive into early stints with Dizzy, Bird and Coltrane as much as the later mentorships of Shorter and Hancock. The amount of respect and adoration here is healthy, indeed, but the darker layers of Davis’s drug use and abusive relationships are treated as part of his human complexity rather than mere whispers on a scandal sheet.

Birth of the Cool is an obvious must for any Davis fans wanting to feel as close to the legend as they’ve ever been. And for anyone using the film as intro to Miles 101, it’s a fine primer on road to Bitches Brew.

Grade: A-

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

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