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Lots of Options for Daring Moviegoers

Hope Madden Hope Madden Lots of Options for Daring MoviegoersPhoto via IMDb
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Wow, what a bumper crop of movies that no one is going to see come out this week! Good there are so many, though, since basically nothing is coming out next week…the week after… But seriously, if you’d rather stay home, Little Women, Uncut Gems, Bombshell, Queen & Slim are all out on VOD now, and hometown hero Jennifer Reeder’s miraculous Knives and Skin is now playing on Hulu (as well as YouTube, Amazon Prime, Google Play and Vudu, so watch it!)

But in case you are curious about what’s playing, here’s the skinny.

The Hunt

by Hope Madden

About a year ago, Universal Studios pulled the release of The Hunt because of the amount of gun violence. Commendable.

Later that year, other studios released Ready or Not—critical darling, but didn’t do great at the box office. Then Knives Out, which was both a critical darling and box office giant. And, of course, Parasite would go on to win all the Oscars. Even documentary short.

While The Hunt does contain a goodly amount of violence—guns, knives, hand grenades, pens, stilettos, kitchen appliances—it also boasts the one thing that appears to be the universal key to entertainment. It hates rich people.

Who doesn’t?!

Director Craig Zobel (Compliance), along with writers Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof (both of TV’s Watchmen and The Leftovers), takes no prisoners as characters take a bunch of prisoners, drops them in a field somewhere and, you know, hunts them down for sport. The film gleefully skewers both the left and the right, often in ways you wouldn’t expect but should.

This is a meticulously structured horror film, the tidy beats allowing the writers to insert surprises that play on your preconceived notions in clever ways. Like Jordan Peele, Zobel proves a nimble manipulator of both horror tropes and social commentary.

And casting.

I have to think Betty Gilpin was the most disappointed when this film was shelved last year because it is her break out. No more support work as the hot mean chick, Gilpin’s Crystal is the wrong badass to underestimate. The performance is never showy but quirky and genuine, which goes a long way toward increasing believability.

Zobel populates the herd with familiar faces (Emma Roberts, Ike Barinholtz, Hilary Swank, Amy Madigan), mainly for sleight of hand. Though most get little screen time, and each is handed a fairly one-dimensional character, both the writing and the performances mine that gimmick for a lot.

Positioned to infuriate everyone in one scene or another, the film is brash and bracingly level headed. It’s violent AF, no doubt, but what it reflects back at us is far smarter than what you  might expect. The Hunt is a darkly comedic, socially savvy, equal opportunity skewering and it is a blast.

Grade: B+

Bloodshot

by George Wolf

“Nobody wants to make any real decisions. They just want to feel like they have.”

For a movie that couldn’t have seen shutdown weekend coming, that’s one line in Bloodshot that feels pretty damn timely.

So whether or not there’s anyone in the theater to greet him, Vin Diesel brings the latest comic book hero to the big screen in a visual effects throwdown searching for any other resonant thread.

If, like me, you’re not familiar with one of the most popular characters in the Valiant comic universe, Ray Garrison (Diesel) is a battle-scarred soldier forced to watch his wife’s murder before he eats a bullet himself.

Waking up in the lab of RST industries, Ray hears some hard truths from the brilliant Dr. Harding (Guy Pearce).

He died from that bullet, but he’s back now as the prototype “enhanced soldier” Project Bloodshot has been aiming for. Any injury Ray suffers will repair itself almost instantly, so he can soldier on for war and profit.

Does Ray have trouble accepting his reality? Not enough, which works in a way because the realities keep changing. While Ray only wants to track down his wife’s killer, the vast computer program that keeps Ray upright has surprises in store.

Bloodshot is director David S.F. Wilson’s debut feature after a ton of video game visual effects credits, which is probably why it looks like a giant video game drunk with budget allowances. And though that budget does buy some slick sequences, the film’s Matrix-type mainframe device leans too much on the buzzkill that is the computer keyboard.

Diesel’s guttural emoting is on auto-pilot, while Pearce gets to ham it up a bit and Baby Driver’s Elia Gonzales gets hung out to dry. As a fellow enhanced soldier, her superpowers seem limited to posing, pouting, and squeezing into the tightest wardrobe imaginable.

The screenplay, from the team of Jeff Wardlow and Eric Heisserer, does manage some needed self-aware humor about movie cliches, even as it’s serving them up alongside heavy doses of stilted, expository dialog.

By all means, support your local theater this weekend. And if you’re a fan of the Bloodshot comic, your decision to catch this big screen version will most likely be a good one.

Otherwise, there’s not really enough here to make you feel like it was.

Grade: C-

Wendy

by Hope Madden

Earlier this year, Oz Perkins retold the old Grimm Fairy Tale Hansel and Gretel from the perspective of the newly adolescent sister. It was a fascinating way to reexamine folklore and coming of age.

Likewise, director and co-writer Ben Zeitlin reimagines the old Peter Pan tale, this time through the eyes of Wendy.

It’s not entirely clear why, though.

Zeitlin and writing partner Eliza Zeitlin impressed—more than impressed, they flabbergasted—with their near-perfect 2012 feature debut, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Their sophomore effort delivers a similarly loose narrative structure, another game cast of mostly children and unknowns, and gorgeous visuals that emphasize the chaotic and restless beauty of childhood.

Wendy opens strong. Zeitlin’s impressionistic camera work evokes an intimate if raucous scene of a toddler (Wendy) charming patrons on her mother’s hip at a dodgy diner abutting a train station.

It sets up a thrilling first act that unfortunately settles into thematic confusion once we get to Neverland.

Not that J. M. Barrie’s original text was entirely rational. The underlying theme—being lost without maternal love—remains intact, but for the Zeitlins, that theme takes on an ecological nature. Mother, in the form of a giant glowing fish, represents Mother Nature (and also Tinker Bell—stay with me).

Who would want to grow up when grownups do thoughtless, destructive things that damage, perhaps kill, the mother that sustains them? It’s a heavy-handed idea, but Zeitlin’s clearly Malick-esque style of evocative visuals held together by whispered narration keeps it from feeling like a sermon.

Still, it doesn’t entirely work.

If Tinker Bell/Giant Fish is the  mother character, where does that leave Wendy?

What a fascinating  question! I wish the Zeitlins had a better answer.

The Zeitlins don’t seem to know. The Peter character, played with mischievous energy by Yashua Mack, is also depicted without real clarity, but that’s OK. Peter is supposed to be an enigma, his relationship with Wendy (Devin France) is meant to provide the backbone that holds the adventure together. But they don’t have much of a relationship.

Not much in the film actually seems to have a clear relationship to anything else, which makes for frustrating, often tedious viewing. Worse still, the Zeitlins’ voice over narration, clearly meant to hold the pieces together and provide some forward momentum, echoes with world-weary wisdom and regret that sounds forced and inauthentic in little Devin France’s voice.

Rather than a reimagining of Peter Pan, Wendy feels like a misguided reworking of Beasts of the Southern Wild, which did not need tampering of any kind.

Grade: B-

I Still Believe

by Cat McAlpine

Jeremy Camp is a good big brother, loves to play guitar, and is headed to college. His first day on campus he meets one of his Christian rock idols and locks eyes with a girl who captures his undivided attention. We follow his resulting journey through young adulthood in I Still Believe.

There are two important things you should know going into this film. First, it is based on a true story. And second, the final screen shows a hotline that you can call if you have questions about your faith or God. Being tied to a specific sequence of events and having a specific agenda limit the story, and ultimately deny it any true depth.

We never get to truly know the characters in I Still Believe. What they like, what they want, what their hopes or dreams are… When asked what she wants to do when she graduates college, Melissa (Britt Robertson) responds “I don’t know…everything?” We never learn what anyone, even Jeremy, has enrolled in school to do.

Jeremy never seems to make any other friends at college, and instead aggressively pursues Melissa in a way so straightforward that even the charming KJ Apa (Riverdale, The Last Summer) can’t hide all the red flags. Every character is wholly defined by their relationship with God. Either they believe, and events continue to happen to them, or they feel doubt, in which case they break some things in emotional torment before events continue to happen to them. The narrative plays out like a toddler retelling a long story “And then, and then, and then, and then….”

The original story is heartbreaking, filled with devotion to your loved ones, the power of faith, and how to continue being the person you want to be when your questions go unanswered. But that story never has an opportunity to develop because so little of this film focuses on character or relationship. And then, and then, and then…

The film is shot in the the visual style of other Hallmark and faith-inspo productions, all over-saturated golden hour shots. The style is very reminiscent of the “A Dog’s…” series, and coincidentally, Apa and Robertson last acted opposite each other in A Dog’s Purpose.

While Apa and Robertson are both masters of the recent “realism” acting style that comes with pauses, repeats, and “ums,” neither has an opportunity to deliver a great performance because of how hard they have to work against the script. Robertson most excels when she gets to interact with more emotional content and her turns in faith and fear anchor the middle third of the film.

Directed by Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin (The Erwin Brothers), there’s little offensive about the visual style of the film but also very little inspired. The strangest choice was to not update the film to modern time, and instead keep it in what looks like the early 2000s. The time and setting is never explained. I assume the setting is based on the real events, but the story doesn’t need a time-preserved setting, and the presence of flip phones and landlines pull you out of the viewing experience immediately.

I Still Believe is a guilty pleasure film for a specific audience. It doesn’t require any thought, it takes limp stabs at being profound, it sets up easy moments to sneak in a cry, and its real-life roots will make believers feel vaguely inspired. But, you’d be hard pressed to find any critical merit in the production.

Grade: D+

Swallow

by Hope Madden

Like Todd Haynes’s 1995 film Safe, Swallow shadows a lovely homemaker with little of merit to occupy her time who eventually falls prey to an unusual malady.

Dressed like something out of a 1950s pantyhose ad, Hunter (a transfixing Haley Bennett) fluffs pillows, prepares dinner, and waits for her husband Richie (Austin Stowell) to come home from work. She’s so grateful. Just really thankful, she nods in a hushed, respectful, humble tone.

You might think that pregnancy would give Hunter something meaningful to do with her time: prepare the nursery, read up on parenting, that sort of thing. But the only thing she really wants to do now is to swallow things she shouldn’t.

Putting a relevant twist on the classic “horrific mother” trope, writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis uses the rare eating disorder pica to anchor his exploration of gender dynamics and, in particular, control.

At times almost Hitchcockian in its suspense, anxiety and balance of gender hysterics, Swallow feels urgently present but simultaneously old-fashioned. The costume choices, the vacant expression Hunter wears like a mask, the way she smooths and tucks her hair—all of it rings with the tone of the dementedly June Cleaver-esque.  

Where Mirabella-Davis’s talent for building tension and framing scenes drive the narrative, it’s Bennett’s performance that elevates the film. Serving as executive producer as well as star, Bennett transforms over the course of the film.

The path Swallow takes is eerily, sometimes frustratingly similar to Haynes’s Safe. Both films cover similar themes, both take on a meticulously crafted visual aesthetic, and both boast incandescent lead performances. Indeed, Bennett here is every ounce as believable and touching and transfixing as the great Julianne Moore as Haynes’s brittle heroine.

But where Haynes played things a little too ambiguously to satisfy an audience, Mirabella-Davis embraces clarity—although first he flirts and then dances with it before the full bear hug. The first half of this film is almost sleight of hand, the filmmaker telegraphing imagery too meticulous and obvious.

When things finally burst, though, director and star shake off the traditional storytelling, the Yellow Wallpaper or Awakening or even Safe. The filmmaker’s vision and imagery come full circle with a bold conclusion worthy of Bennett’s performance.

Grade: A-

The Traitor (Il traditore)

by George Wolf

If you think Scorsese set the bar for three-and-a-half-hour mob epics, well, you may have a point.

But, although it clocks in at one hour south of The Irishman, Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor also uses one man’s true-life experience to frame an expansive reflection on a life in the mob.

Tommaso Buscetta, the youngest of 17 children in a poverty-stricken Sicilian family, found his ticket out through organized crime. Rising to the rank of “Don Masino” in Sicily’s Costa Nostra, he eventually lost many family members and allies to the mafia wars. Disillusioned, Buscetta became one of the very first to break the mob’s strict code of silence and turn “pentito,” or informant.

Pierfrancesco Favino, who probably gets women pregnant just from introducing himself, is tremendous as the “Boss of Two Worlds.” Unlike DeNiro’s Frank Sheeran, Buscetta is looking back with defiance, secure in his standing as the only man “honorable” enough to call out the less honorable. Favino brings a quiet intensity to this inner strength that comes to define Buscetta after personal loss drives him to the depths of despair.

The moral complexities of honor among killers is Bellocchio’s strongest play. Early in the film, he sets the stakes effectively through sustained tension and stylish violence (a set piece inside a window factory is especially impressive) offset with familiar loyalties. Bellocchio invites our sympathies for a career criminal, and Favino rewards them.

But once Buscetta starts singing to anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), the film gets bogged down in the minutiae of courtroom testimony. Though American audiences may be intrigued by some of the differences in Italian trial procedure, Bellocchio’s prolonged attention to these details makes us long for the pace of the film’s first two acts.

The scope of Buscetta’s story is grand and Bellocchio’s ambitions noteworthy, but even at 145 minutes the film ultimately feels like a finely-crafted overview. Favino has the goods to give us the The Traitor‘s soul, but not the freedom.

Maybe another hour or so would have done it.

Grade: B

Extra Ordinary

by Hope Madden

It’s a classic hero’s journey, isn’t it? Our protagonist, damaged from a past misadventure, shuns a true talent. Years into a contented but shallow existence free from that talent, reality comes to call. The hero must rediscover that talent to find love, save a town and fulfill a destiny.

It’s every Western, most action films, a lot of vampire flicks, and the supernatural driving instructor love story Extra Ordinary.

Mike Ahern and Edna Loughman’s latest—a film that follows this groove beat by beat—charms you into accepting that familiarity. Then it rewards you with the most delightfully motley group of characters. And, thanks to those 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’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+

Also opening in Columbus:
Beanpole (R)
The Jesus Rolls (R)
Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears

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

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