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Loads of Movies, Big and Small

Hope Madden Hope Madden Loads of Movies, Big and SmallPhoto via IMDb
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Bunches of excellent options for your cinematic pleasure this week, whether you want high-flying shenanigans, Ohioan heroics, indie dramas or the wildest, weirdest group of horror films you can imagine. 

Dark Waters

by Hope Madden

Todd Haynes hasn’t written one of his own films since 2007’s I’m Not There, a biopic that refuses to fit neatly into that genre (making it a perfect fit for its subject).

The director’s collaboration with other writers has been both sublime (Carol) and spotty (Wonderstruck), the content sometimes feeling as if it simply is a mismatch for his own often gorgeously subversive vision.

So, yes, it’s a bit of a shock to witness the filmmaker who depicted Karen Carpenter’s battle with anorexia via Barbie dolls (Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story), tackle the blue collar true story of a corporate defense attorney who grows a conscience and hits DuPont Chemical where it hurts the most.

Shooting again in southern and central Ohio, Haynes turns in the buttery glamour of Carol for a grimmer image of America.

Dark Waters sees Mark Ruffalo as Robert Bilott, a good guy who also happens to be a corporate lawyer. I guess he’s proof those two concepts need not be mutually exclusive.

A keep-your-head-down kind of colleague, Bilott is confronted at work by a friend of his grandmother back home, a curmudgeonly West Virgina farmer (Bill Camp) who is offering VHS proof that his cows are being poisoned.

The corporate lawyer in Bilott wants to ignore this problem. The salt-of-the-earth Midwesterner in him cannot.

Few actors play the scrupulous good guy as reliably or believably as Ruffalo, who leads the film with a quiet, fragile dignity.

Anne Hathaway co-stars as Bilott’s conflicted wife Sarah. It’s a small and somewhat thankless role for the Oscar winner, but she gives it some meat and, better still, a much needed edge that strengthens the film.

She’s not alone. William Jackson Harper (Midsommar) continues to prove that he’s really good at playing a dick. Meanwhile, veteran “that guy” Camp offers a perfectly off-putting, guttural performance. A number of other sharp turns in small roles, including those by Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Mare Winningham and Victor Garber, help Haynes shade and shadow what could easily have become a paint-by-numbers eco-terror biopic.

He can’t entirely break free, though, and Dark Waters in the end—however stirring, informative and timely the tale—feels far too safe to be a Todd Haynes film.

Grade: B+

The Aeronauts

by George Wolf

Director Tom Harper wastes little time in taking The Aeronauts into the wild blue, but I’m not complaining. Once we’re up there, I didn’t want to come down, no matter how many knots my stomach was twisting into.

Based on some of the true-life events outlined in Richard Holmes’ book Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air, screenwriter Jack Thorne imagines how a spunky, daredevil, balloon-pilot heroine might have helped pioneering London meteorologist James Glaisher break the world altitude record in 1862.

Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne crafts Glaisher as a politely determined man out to prove to his shirt-stuffed, muttoned-chopped colleagues that it just might be possible to predict the weather.

What Glaisher needed was to take temperature and humidity readings at the highest level of the atmosphere. If he failed, the ribbings from the boys at the Royal Society would be fierce. But if he prevailed, he would take the first step toward scaring the shit out of your mom on the 6 o’clock news.

And yeah, also make a huge scientific advancement.

While history remembers Glaisher’s partner was actually balloonist Henry Coxwell (hello, ladies), for these narrative purposes it is defiant aeronaut Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones). She’s haunted by a tragic memory from the past, but won’t let that – or the usual boys club baffoonery – deny her destiny as a “creature of the sky.”

I take no issue with the liberties taken. This isn’t a documentary, Jones is an Oscar nominee who shares a sweet brother/sisterly chemistry with Redmayne, and her character adds a welcome layer of mischief to a backstory that badly needs it.

Most importantly, as the focus quickly settles on two people in a balloon gondola, Amelia brings a sharp contrast to James that just makes the ride more fun and – thanks to the breathless visual gymnastics – sometimes downright terrifying.

Seriously, this film should come with a trigger warning for acrophobics, because Harper (Wild Rose, TV’s Peaky Blinders) and cinematographer George Steel unveil some truly awe-inspiring, anxiety-inducing set pieces begging for IMAX, or 70mm, whatever you can find.

The Aeronauts may give gentle reminders about the importance of science, but it pounds a visual fist in defense of the big screen. The film’s ultimate calling card is not the story but the ride (in real time, no less!), and a smaller canvas just will not do it justice.

Strap in tight, and enjoy the thrill.

Grade: B

Waves

by Hope Madden

“Seize the day,” Tyler’s (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) literature teacher reminds each student as they leave her classroom.

In a constant loop during weight training, Tyler’s wrestling coach barks,
“There are no second chances and there is no fucking second place!”

Even at home, Tyler’s relaxing moment alone with his loving stepmother Catharine (Renee Elise Golsberry) is interrupted by a very stern father (Sterling K. Brown, remarkable as always) reminding him that if he expects to achieve all that has been set out for him – wrestling at state championship level, securing a scholarship – he’d better get back to work.

Trey Edward Schults’s Waves is quick to show us that Tyler has it all: a loving and financially comfortable family, grades, talent, friends, and a gorgeous girlfriend (Alexa Demie). If there is time to enjoy it, there’s certainly no time to live it, to give into it, or to give anything without the clear expectation that it is forwarding something for himself. High expectations, high demands, high rewards, everything focused on Tyler, everyone focused on Tyler, Tyler focused on Tyler.

Waves sometimes feels like a less contrived, more Floridian view of Julius Onah’s Luce, the scab-picking indie in which Harrison proved himself a blistering and commanding lead. Are the demands put upon the brightest and most talented African American high school males too high? Are those supporting these young men deriving too much from their success to actually offer clear-eyed guidance?

Says Dad to an increasingly desperate Tyler, “We are not afforded the luxury of being average.”

While much of the drama leading to this moment could be generalized to most any adolescent male buckling under high expectations, this moment between father and son separates the narrative as one dealing specifically with the black American experience.

In 1968, George Romero famously cast Duane Jones as the lead in his groundbreaking zombie film Night of the Living Dead only, according to the filmmaker, because Jones was the best actor to audition for the part. The film’s enduring success has less to do with Jones’s talent (though that is evident in every frame) and more to do with the political power the film derives from seeing a black hero in this particular effort.

Schultz cast Harrison Jr. as the male lead in Waves because of his work with the remarkable talent in his previous effort, It Comes at Night. The white filmmaker’s script itself is semi-autobiographical, but there’s a superficial tidiness to Schultz’s cultural shift that Romero’s film didn’t suffer.

It’s not enough to topple the film by any means, but the shorthand and stylized moments that remark on the cultural shift from the story of a white adolescent male on a collision course with destiny and the story of a black young man on that same course feel specifically introduced and placed, while much of the rest of the film offers an uneasy authenticity that keeps your attention.

From Schults’s dizzying opening sequence, Tyler’s breathless youth in sunny south Florida is simultaneously exhilarating and reckless, a reality underscored throughout the film by Drew Daniels’s whirligig camera and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ furious score.

What separates Waves from other chronicles of the frenzied fall of an idealized adolescent is his follow-up act, one in which the fallout of Tyler’s destruction implicates everyone who loves him, including his quiet sister Emily (Taylor Russell).

The point of her narrative is the redemptive nature of forgiveness. Here Schults uses the same camera movement and score to note again the hand-in-hand nature of freedom and danger in adolescence. But here, we sense things may not end up as dire.

Like Schults’ first film Krisha, Waves is embroiled in family issues as well as addiction, though this time the issues and the sociological context concern American blackness—questionable territory for a white filmmaker, even one as irrefutably talented as Schults. Perhaps thanks mainly to remarkable performances by Brown, Russell and especially Harrison, Waves rings true.

Grade: A-

Knives and Skin

by Hope Madden

Falling somewhere between David Lynch and Anna Biller in the under-charted area where the boldly surreal meets the colorfully feminist, writer/director Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin offers a hypnotic look at Midwestern high school life.

When Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) goes missing, carefully erected false fronts start crumbling all over town. Cheerleaders take a harder look at football players. Football players cry in their Mustangs. Goth girls fondle pink dresses. Pregnant waitresses bleed at the kitchen sink.

And everyone sings impossibly appropriate Eighties alt hits acapella. Even the dead.

Knives and Skin’s pulpy noir package lets Reeder explore what it means to navigate the world as a female. As tempting as it is to pigeonhole the film as Lynchian, Reeder’s metaphors, while fluid and eccentric, are far more pointed than anything you’ll find in Twin Peaks.

She looks at relationships between mothers and daughters, as daughters toe the line between acceptable and unacceptable levels of conformity and mothers bear the toll exacted by years of fitting in.

Reeder blurs that line between popularity and ostracism, characters finding common ground as they address the question: Are you a whore or a tease?

The ire is not one-dimensional. Though toxic masculinity requires a price, the males in Middle River, even the worst among them, are as sympathetic and as damaged by expectations as anybody.

Reeder’s peculiar dialogue finds its ideal voice with Grace Smith as Joanna Kitzmiller, a jaded feminist and budding entrepreneur. Likewise, Marika Englehardt and Tim Hopper bring extraordinary nuance and sympathy to what could have been campy characters.

This cockeyed lens for the middle American pressure cooker that is high school suggests exhilarating possibilities, but does so with a melancholy absurdity that recognizes the impossibility of it all.

And in the end, all the Middle River Beavers stare longingly at the highway that leads out of town.

Grade: A-

In Fabric

By Hope Madden

My last note after watching In Fabric: “Well, that was weird.”

Weird in a good way.

Nobody blends giallo’s surrealistic seduction with dry British wit (two elements that, to be honest, should not fit together at all) like Peter Strickland. Subversive and playful while boasting a meticulous obsession with the exploitation films of the 70s, Strickland creates vintage-futuristic fantasies that live outside of time and evoke both nostalgia and wonder.

His latest follows a red Ambassadorial Function Dress and the havoc it wreaks on its wearers.

This sounds like Yong-gyun Kim’s 2005 Japanese horror The Red Shoes, but Strickland has something far less sensible, less predictable, and more memorable in store for you. (Quick PSA: If you can be less sensible than a Japanese ghost story horror and still make a watchable, even fascinating, film, you are at the top of your game.)

We meet Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), lonely fiftysomething bank teller just finding her way back into the dating pool and in need of a new dress. She heads, during sales season, to Dentley & Soper, where a coven of sales women led by Strickland favorite Fatma Mohamed (she owns this movie) will do what they can to usher clients toward a “transaction of ecstasy.”

The dress, a “a double dream, diamond wrapped,” says the catalog, is “body sensual, captivating, candlelight glances, canape conversations.”

This heightened perfume-ad speak also spills from the department store sales women—each a cross between a Victorian witch and a mannequin—hinting at the fetishistic nature of the entire film.

Strickland, apparently, is about as fond of consumerism as Romero or Cronenberg. He’s also as fond of the color red as Argento. Unlike the giallo films that clearly inform Strickland’s aesthetic, here commerce, not violence itself, is the seductive, sexualized element.

Sheila is a good egg waiting to crack played with working class grace by Jean-Baptiste (Secrets and Lies). In the tradition of the genre, we root that good egg Sheila will somehow outwit the killer dress her saleswitch conned her into purchasing.

Sheila’s story represents the first half of In Fabric, a peculiar but somewhat straightforward horror film. At the film’s halfway mark, Strickland makes a quick left turn into full blown absurdity, which awaits you in the second half.

Not a frame, not a glance, not a bizarre line of dialog is wasted or misplaced in a bold vision that’s stylized nearly to death. In a good way. Strickland’s audacious anti-consumerism fantasy must be seen to be believed.

Grade: A-

Daniel Isn’t Real

by Hope Madden

Director Adam Egypt Mortimer’s stylish image of mental illness takes a kind of demonic Fight Club angle, hits some mildly homoerotic notes (like Fight Club didn’t?), and offers a quick and absorbing- if hardly new- horror show.

Co-writing with Brian DeLeeuw an adaptation of DeLeeuw’s novel In This Way I Was Saved, Mortimer drops us mid-mom scream into an average afternoon in the life of poor little Luke (Griffin Robert Faulkner, painfully adorable).

As Luke wanders away from home to avoid his mother’s psychotic episode, he witnesses the aftermath of a gruesome murder, but finds a new friend: Daniel.

Quickly enough, Daniel is helping Luke cope with his personal trauma, taking his mind off his problems, and maybe encouraging some truly evil behavior.

From here Mortimer directs us to an effectively creepy doll house (such a great prop in nearly any terrifying film or terrifying child’s bedroom), which will become (as it does in Hereditary and The Lodge) a fine symbol for the madness of the mind.

Mortimer’s film looks great and benefits from a trio of strong performances.

Mary Stuart Masterson, playing Luke’s paranoid schizophrenic mother, gives a brave and believable performance in a role that can easily be overdone.

More importantly, Mortimer’s besties/worsties Luke and Daniel (Miles Robbins and Patrick Schwarzenegger, respectively) create complete characters and offer an uneasy chemistry that keeps the film intriguing.

As Luke’s life spins inevitably out of control, Daniel’s clothing takes on a more and more Tyler Durden style, and I can get behind that. And a certain point near Act 3, Daniel Isn’t Real takes a weird and welcome Clive Barker turn, which is when elements stop being so stylishly predictable and become sloppily fascinating.

The unfortunate Magical Negro trope that will not die surfaces here. It doesn’t entirely sink the film, but it does its damndest to do just that.

Even so, Daniel Isn’t Real is an Olympic-sized leap forward from Mortimer’s previous feature, Some Kind of Hate, the director here showcasing an unpredicted visual flair and storytelling finesse. Though his film treads some well-worn ground, the way Mortimer and team balance the supernatural and psychological push and pull creates an unnerving atmosphere.

Grade: B-

Also opening in Columbus:
Honey Boy (R)
No Safe Spaces (PG13)
Playmobil: The Movie (PG)
The Whistleblower (NR)

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

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