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Legos and Liam, Moms and Mind Reading in Theaters

George Wolf George Wolf Legos and Liam, Moms and Mind Reading in TheatersPhoto still from "The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part," via IMDb.
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A pretty mediocre week in new releases, honestly, although a couple of films offer enough charm and/or weirdness to entertain.

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

by Hope Madden

Everything is not awesome.

Don’t tell Emmet (Chris Pratt), though. Try as he might (mainly to please the ever-brooding Lucy/Wildstyle [Elizabeth Banks]), he can’t seem to take on the bleak attitudes of those populating Apocalypseburg.

Wait, didn’t that used to be called Bricksburg? It did, but that was before Dad invited kid sister to share in the Lego fun. Since that day, Emmett and his buds live Fury Road-esque in a smoldering wasteland, forever on the lookout for cute but dangerous aliens from the Sistar System.

When said aliens abscond with all the Master Builders (Lucy, Batman [Will Arnett], Unkitty [Alison Brie], MetalBeard [Nick Offerman], and Benny [Charlie Day]), Emmet will have to find some grit to save his friends.

Returning writers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller update their 2014 tale, this time directed by Mike Mitchell (Trolls), with some pre-adolescent angst that surprisingly mirrors the post-Trump revelation that everything really isn’t awesome.

Out there in the Sistar System, Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish, a hoot) sings in Disney Villain tones that she is definitely not at all evil. Definitely. Not at all. Meanwhile, she manipulates Batman’s inner narcissist to convince him to marry her in a ceremony Emmet is convinced will bring about Ourmomageddon.

Yes, much of the charm of the original has worn thin. To make up for it, the sequel relies too heavily on pop culture references (a good chunk of the film is about funny, chubby Chris Pratt versus chiseled, hot Chris Pratt and his spaceship full of velociraptors). An abundance of live action plus a clumsy Back to the Future gag fail to entertain as much as they do force the story forward.

Still, Lord and Miller nimbly use the “don’t lose your inner child” theme so popular in family films to cast a side glance at the current bleakening of society. Emmet tries harder and harder to lose his sweetness and optimism in favor of the more masculine stylings of his new friend Rex Dangervest (also Pratt, channeling his Guardians co-star Kurt Russell).

Of course, we all pull for the childlike Emmet to survive, just as the film seems to hope that our own positivity can survive our own Apocalypseville.

Grade: B-

Cold Pursuit

by Hope Madden

Liam Neeson, everybody.

If we’d ever wondered what fueled Neeson’s on-screen obsession with a character who can turn from perfectly ordinary, even good guy to blindly bloodthirsty avenging devil, now we know. His movies were more fun before, weren’t they?

In Cold Pursuit, Neeson’s ninth riff on the theme since his 2008 career-changer Taken, he takes on mainly white guys (whew!).

Kehoe, Colorado’s most beloved snow plow driver Nels Coxman (Neeson) learns of his son’s heroin overdose death. Not believing his son to have been a junkie, he does some digging, and some retaliatory murdering.

One thing leads to another, the holy bonds between father and son are honored without being explored, Laura Dern (as Mrs. Coxman) vanishes from the film by the end of Act 1, and a rival drug gang complicates the revenge fantasy.

This is director Hans Petter Moland’s reboot of his own 2014 Norwegian thriller, In Order of Disappearance. Both films employ a dark and absurd humor that keep the well-worn material from feeling stale. The weird tone and Moland’s flair for fantastic visuals—not to mention his joy of carnage—keep the film intriguing from start to finish.

A game supporting cast doesn’t hurt. Tom Bateman (listen close and you can hear him say, “holy shit” in The Interview) chews enough scenery to balance Neeson’s quiet brood.

Plenty of peculiar turns and quirky moments between odd characters elevate this one above your garden variety Neeson thriller. It offers a mildly entertaining time—assuming you can get past the actor’s own disturbing relationship with revenge.

Grade: B-

What Men Want

by George Wolf

There are a few moments in What Men Want — too few — when the forced caricature of Taraji P. Henson’s character takes a break and some actual acting is allowed up for air. These are nice reminders of how good Henson can be when given the chance.

Her latest, a reimagining of the Mel Gibson/Helen Hunt fantasy from nearly 20 years ago, badly needs the confidence in its actors that elevated the original film. What Women Want was shallow, sure, but it had sense enough to trust what its leads could do with the material.

This time, a woman is blessed/cursed with the power to hear the inner thoughts of men. Sports agent Ali (Henson) gets that power after an unexpected visit with a strange psychic (Erykah Badu in a weirdly effective cameo), only the first of many convoluted and hastily-assembled situations the film trots out ad nauseum.

Director Adam Shankman can find none of the authentic energy that infused his effervescent take on Hairspray, settling instead for a laziness that has little regard for continuity, logic or organic humor.

Ali’s father (Richard Roundtree, nice to see you) comments on scenes he wasn’t part of, one-sided phone conversations appear just slightly more authentic than holding a thumb and pinky up to your face, and what could have been fertile comic ground musters only big-eyebrowed mugging and histrionics.

Ali’s thought-reading could be a vehicle for edgy takes on sexual politics, boys club boardrooms and any number of sexist double standards. But the inner thoughts Ali hears offer more boredom than bite, with the team of screenwriters racing past any possibilities for an effective character arc on their way to the next used condom gag.

A scene-stealing Tracy Morgan and a surprising Brian Bosworth improve a supporting ensemble that sports plenty of weak spots surrounding Taraji P. She over-compensates with desperate attempts to pull everyone to the finish line, which doesn’t come quite soon enough.

Grade: C-

The Prodigy

by Hope Madden

There is nothing especially wrong with The Prodigy, director Nicholas McCarthy’s take on the Bad Seed formula. Not much right about it, either.

Sarah (Taylor Schilling, Orange is the New Black) is starting to think there’s something wrong with her son, Miles (Jackson Robert Scott). He’s just too smart, and he doesn’t ever want to play with other kids. Plus there was that wrench bashing incident.

Luckily he speaks Hungarian in his sleep and his psychologist has a friend whose research is a little out of the ordinary…

How do we find an original take on the murderous offspring? Straight up psycho’s been done. Same with satanic possession, zombies, rabies, pet semataries…

Writer Jeff Buhler (Pet Sematary) dreams up an adequate vehicle that allows us to watch the battle between innocence and evil rage inside Scott’s lovely, wide eyes.

Wisely, the film is a bit less concerned with who’s winning that battle than it is with the lengths a parent will go in order to save her child. It’s the slightly less traveled road, and one that Schilling journeys fairly convincingly.

Scott likewise convinces in a tough role for a child, oscillating between frightened boy and cold blooded psychopath deftly enough to leave trace of one in the other at times to keep you guessing who’s who.

It’s just so hard not to feel like you’ve seen this movie before. The dad says stick with medical science, but the mom is willing to chase these crazy spiritual theories that conveniently leapt into her lap. And, of course, there has to be a mysterious path toward fixing the problem that she stumbles upon, because cosmic evil is tidy like that.

The bigger problem is the leaden pacing an lack of action. McCarthy may be going for an atmospheric dread, but the result feels stagnant and drowsy.

Which is too bad because the movie has some redeeming qualities—a late-film performance from Brittany Allen (It Stains the Sands Red), for one. Cookie cutter plotting and flat direction keeps it from taking advantage of solid performances, though, and leaving you wishing for something more.

Grade: C-

The Gospel of Eureka

by Rachel Willis

Eureka Springs, Arkansas has long been considered a magical place. In the mid-19th century, its springs were known for their “healing” waters. It’s home to Christ of the Ozarks, a two million pound, 65-feet tall statue of Jesus Christ, as well as The Great Passion Play. The play is the largest-attended outdoor drama in the country and depicts the last days of Christ.

There is also a large LGBTQ population at home in Eureka Springs. With The Gospel of Eureka, directors Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher explore the city of Eureka Springs and the people who live there.

We meet several people in Mosher and Palmieri’s film, but the most endearing are Lee Keating and Walter Burrell, the owners of Eureka Live Underground, a bar that boasts “the largest beer garden in Eureka Springs.” Both Lee and Walter are devoutly Christian, though they differ in opinion on some of the specifics.

We also spend time with some of the performers in The Great Passion Play. They’re open to sharing their devotion with the audience. We see the great deal of preparation that goes into such a elaborate production.

We’re also privy to scenes from The Great Passion Play, but they’re interspersed with moments from a drag show at Eureka Live Underground. Many of the performers incorporate religious songs into their acts. It may seem dichotomous from the outside, but this is what makes Eureka Springs the place it is.

That’s not to say Eureka Springs is a perfect place. The narrator makes sure to include some of the town’s darker history – lynchings, beatings, and murder – but it was also the first city in Arkansas to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and the film itself is anchored around the run up to a vote regarding Non-Discrimination Ordinance 2223. For a city with a deeply ingrained Christian culture, it’s a toss-up as to how the vote will turn out.

With so many aspects to explore, Palmieri and Mosher try to tie it together, but most of the time the film is unmoored. It’s not always clear how pieces fit into the whole story. As a simple portrait of a city, it’s a lovely film. However, if the directors were trying to make a larger point, that goal is wanting.

Grade: C-

Also screening in Columbus:

Braid (R)
Integrity (NR)
The Man Who Killed Hitler and then Bigfoot (NR)
Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts (NR)
Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts (NR)
Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts (NR)
Sicilian Ghost Story (NR)
Yatra (NR)

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

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