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Indies Worth a Look in Theaters This Weekend

Hope Madden Hope Madden Indies Worth a Look in Theaters This Weekend
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School is back and the summer movie season ends with a whimper. That means there is still time to study what you missed: Blinded By the Light, Peanut Butter Falcon, Ready or Not, The Nightingale. Well, there is this one movie out this week that’s really worth your time.


by Hope Madden

It’s appropriate that so much of the film Luce follows the titular character’s preparation for a debate. The film itself seems to beg for audience argument.

Luce is a bit of an American miracle. A boy soldier rescued from Eritrea at 7 by a wealthy white couple, he’s reinvented himself by the beginning of his senior year in high school, becoming the golden child: debate team captain, cross country captain, speech team captain and eventual valedictorian.

A sternly supportive history teacher (Octavia Spencer) raises questions, her goal to help ensure Luce understands that he “cannot fuck up.” It becomes the catalyst for a tense, borderline terrifying exploration of identity, preconceptions, race, refined society and who gets to take credit for what.

Kelvin Harrison Jr., so wounded and wonderful in It Comes at Night, holds all these puzzle pieces together as the enigma at the center of a mystery. His turn as the charismatic central figure in this highly polite and scholarly debate is fascinating, haunting and, in rare flashes, painfully vulnerable.

His manufactured persona, his carefully studied sincerity, emphasize an image that’s too good to be true. But Harrison Jr. brings so many additional layers—manifestations of survival techniques, an ability to read his environment and predict everyone’s behavior—that give his character needed complexity. Luce is not just a black student everyone can be proud of, or some wonderful example of how our system can work.

And that’s what makes him scary. So when he executes a history assignment too well—writing from the perspective of a historical figure who suggested violence as a moral response to colonialism—he freaks out a teacher (Spencer, wonderfully righteousness) who’d rather he embrace his favored status so she can bask in the glow.

Naomi Watts and Tim Roth play Luce’s socially conscious parents, and the pairing makes it tough to keep your mind from recalling Funny Games, Michael Haneke’s grim picture of affluent familial catastrophe. Whether intentional or not, the casting adds an underlying sense of urgent dread—as does Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s discordant score.

Watts is particularly strong, and the who-knows-what dance she does with Roth as their son plays one off the other adds a queasying rhythm to the mystery.

Julius Onah’s direction sometimes betrays the stagebound nature of the source material. (J.C. Lee adapts his own much lauded play.) Too much is revealed through lengthy monologues and there’s little smooth flow from scene to scene.

But his film teems with provocation and his cast more than meets that challenge. Harrison Jr. in particular is a revelation, an image of a thing that doesn’t exist but is so true you’ll never know if anything else is really there.

Grade: A-

Don’t Let Go

by Hope Madden

Twenty years ago Jim Caviezel and Dennis Quaid sleuthed across time via a ham radio to solve a serial killer case. But who remembers Frequency?

Jacob Estes might. The writer/director revisits the time loop murder mystery concept with a leaner film in Don’t Let Go.

Estes (Mean Creek – if you haven’t seen it, do so) assembles a shockingly strong ensemble beginning with David Oyelowo (Selma) and Storm Reid (A Wrinkle in Time) and extending through support players Brian Tyree Henry, Alfred Molina and Mykelti Williamson. Together they do what they can to elevate a supernatural thriller too mired in cop movie clichés to take advantage of its unusual premise.

Oyelowo is Detective Radcliff, or Uncle Jack as he’s known to Ashley (Reid), the niece he loves like his own daughter. So when he finds her and both her parents dead, he’s devastated. It isn’t long before he’s receiving phone calls from his dead niece. Together, they try to solve the riddle of her death so they might be able to turn back time.

That’s a tough premise to deliver on without stooping to sentimentality, but Estes rarely makes that misstep. In fact, the film devotes frustratingly little time to the emotional weight of its premise, taking the easy way out repeatedly with cop show shoot outs, ambiguous motives and obvious twists.

Oyelowo (a magnificent actor who needs to choose better projects) commands the screen with a quiet torment that hints at what the film refuses to address: loneliness, guilt, sorrow. Likewise Reid, saddled with far less believable dialog, infuses her character with a believable spunk and charm.

Henry and Molina are criminally underused in a film that’s far too safe and much too rote for its supernatural notes to work. Maybe Estes’s goal was to ground the tale with enough realism to offset the fantasy but he managed to do neither justice.

The result is a blandly forgettable waste of a truly impressive group of actors.

Grade: C

After the Wedding

by Brandon Thomas

The adult drama has all but vanished from American multiplexes. Sure, the occasional Oscar-baity title sneaks through around the holidays, but those mom-pleasing, bring-your-hanky dramas of yesteryear are pretty much a thing of the past. 

Despite the presence of A+ talent and an overall intriguing story, After the Wedding isn’t the shot in the arm the genre was looking for.

A retread of Susanne Bier’s 2006 Oscar nominee for foreign language film, After the Wedding follows Isabel (Michelle Williams), who is living a fulfilling, productive life running a small orphanage in Kolkata.

After an extremely generous donation offer is made to the orphanage, Isabel travels to New York to meet Theresa (Julianne Moore), the benefactor. Unexpectedly invited to the wedding of Theresa’s daughter, Isabel finds herself face-to-face with a man from her past (Billy Crudup), and a 20-year-old decision that will shake her to her core.

After the Wedding trips up right out of the gate by leaning so heavily into melodrama. Instead of an emotionally weighty dramatic piece anchored by an amazing cast, this film latches on to genre cliches and doesn’t let go.

Deep, dark family secrets? Check. Mystery illness? Check. Sneaky motivations? Double check. The movie is one evil twin away from being a bad episode of General Hospital.

Did I mention the amount of teary-eyed yelling? There is plenty.

The only real sense of urgency comes from the movie being in a rush to get to that next dramatic reveal. The characters, and likewise the audience, are never given the chance to dwell on what just happened. The experience feels cheap and anticlimactic.

Moore and Williams continue to show that they’re national treasures, but even they can only do so much with the material afforded them. The two actresses share multiple scenes together, but any emotional weight is often deflated by the scattershot script—co-written by director Bart Freundlich (Moore’s husband)— jumping from one unearned character beat to the next. These people feel like a blended mix of every character seen in indie dramas instead of being fully-formed individuals.

Despite reeling in a Who’s Who of a cast, After the Wedding never becomes anything more than a Who Cares.

Grade: C-

Cold Case Hammarskjöld

by Christie Robb

Initially an exploration of the suspicious death of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld in 1961, Mads Brügger’s documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld takes a sharp turn down a rabbit hole into the lengths taken to maintain white supremacy in Africa. 

In a meta move, Brügger makes himself and the process of creating the documentary as much of a focus as Hammarskjöld and the film’s elderly interview subjects. Brügger’s a bit of a fop—dressing in the same clothes affected by the “villain” of the film and occasionally sporting a pith helmet. In much of it, Brügger looms over a black female secretary explaining the twists and turns of his years-long investigation.

You are never unaware that the narrative is being shaped by a white male European.

Which, of course, is much of what the film is about—who gets to shape the story. And the story is both about what really happened to Hammarskjöld (pilot error or multinational assassination conspiracy) and the story of who gets to script the future of Africa. 

The looming is an interesting move, but tends to slow down the pace of the film. Much of the information is presented twice—in the style of a more conventional documentary and via Brügger’s pontification to the secretary. 

With such a breadth of information to cover, the film would have benefited from a bit less artifice and a bit more contextual information. Still, it’ll stay with you, prompting some serious thinking about the intersections of political and corporate interests and what people will do to maintain power.

Grade: B-

Bennett’s War

by George Wolf

After nearly an hour of valiantly struggling to find depth in a character written mainly in cleavage, actress Allison Paige does get to deliver the most truthful moment in Bennett’s War.

“The sponsors are all men and I have boobs!”

Writer/director Alex Ranarivelo may have just been trying for funny, but in this drawerful of ten thousand shallow spoons, the line is a self-aware knife.

Sophie (Paige) needs sponsors for her husband Bennett’s (Michael Roark) motocross team to finally go pro. Bennett had been a promising young racer before he joined the Army Rangers, but the bum leg he came home with carried a warning Ranarivelo thinks we don’t quite get the first three times we hear it.

“No unnecessary risks, or you’ll never walk again!”

Oh, and Bennett’s dad (country singer Trace Adkins) is going to lose the family farm.

So Bennett has to race again, dammit, it’s who he is!

Ranarivelo has made a career out of what are essentially middle school sports dramas for the big screen. The heroes and villains are drawn in the most easily identifiable colors, with the stakes repeated as often as the dumbed down exposition.

There are issues here (the struggles of veterans and/or family farmers) that have merit, but exploring them is not Ranarivelo’s M.O.

The only real surprise is that no one yells “Put him in a body bag!” before our injured hero takes the bad guy down with a surprise move at the big competition.

Wax off.

Grade: C-

Also opening in Columbus:
Killerman (R)
Ne Zha (NR)
Saaho (NR)
[email protected] Caen (PG13)

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

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