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Movies Galore in the Week Before Endgame

Hope Madden Hope Madden Movies Galore in the Week Before EndgamePhoto still from "Amazing Grace," via IMDb.
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The Avengers capper opens next week, which means studios are vying for your attention this weekend. You will find horror, penguins, historical dramas and so much singing crowding in to multiplexes. Which ones should you check out?

The Curse of La Llorona

by Hope Madden

The Conjuring Universe loves the 70s, doesn’t it? And why not? So many patterns to distract attention from your evil, so many bell bottoms to hide beneath. It’s also a time period before Catholicism became a horror movie unto itself, which makes it a safer space to depict a more wholesome view of the Church.

Not that Anna (Linda Cardellini, Green Book) would know. Her late husband was more of the religious one. But as Fr. Perez (Tony Amendola, Annabelle) points out, “You don’t have to be religious to have faith.”

Ah, yes, Michael Chaves’s The Curse of La Llorona is burdened by some seriously obvious dialog. That’s to be expected. The two people who wrote the film (Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis) are the same two people who wrote Five Feet Apart, the latest teen tragedy porn to wheeze its Boy in a Plastic Bubble riff into the hearts of Kleenex-clutching youth everywhere.

And yet, there is something of the old school charm that marks the best films in the Conjuring universe on display here. Simple fun house scares, primarily practical effects, kids in peril — these are all invoked in a quickly paced if somewhat nonsensical and conveniently plotted ghost story.

There is also a quick Scooby-Doo reference (this being 1976). Have you ever wondered why Cardellini always looks so familiar? Because she was Velma in the film series — making her sort of my own personal hero — and I, for one, was thrilled that LLL shouted that out. Plus, good parenting.

The story unfortunately skirts the real tensions to be drawn from questioning her parenting skills. Not that LLL had a shot at reaching the terrifying heights of The Babadook, but for a moment it takes us down the path of calling a single parent’s fitness for the job into question.

This is quickly abandoned for the safer territory of a fierce mother protecting her cubs, which is too bad because Cardellini’s understated and graceful performance could probably have carried a more challenging script.

Instead we get bits and pieces of other films in the series, stitched together by a folk tale about a murderous mother. This is not inspired horror, but it’s not ridiculous, either.

It’s a spooky time waster.

Grade: C

Penguins

by George Wolf

Temperatures have finally started warming up.

So why would we take a trip to the coldest, windiest place on Earth, where there ain’t no sunshine for half the year?

Because Antarctica is where the Penguins are, and they’re the focus of Disneynature’s latest Earth Day doc for the family!

You might know the drill by now. Expect incredible nature footage, an approach geared more toward accessibility than science, with some easygoing humor and gentle reminders about the harshness of predators and prey.

Ed Helms narrates this adventure, starring an Adelie penguin we’ll call Steve, who’s finally ready for his first mating season as a single-and-ready-to-mingle adult male.

On his long trek to the hookup point Steve passes through a tribe of his Emperor cousins, which reminds us that 1) this is like March of the Penguins, except different, and 2) Steve is a bit of a laggie.

But he catches up to the rest of the migrators, and after impressing a young coldie known as Adelene, Steve finds a mate and a new family. Together, Steve and Adelene must keep their chicks safe until they’re able to fend for themselves in the open sea.

The writing for this installment is less forced, with many of Helms’s asides for Steve (“She smells great! I gotta start working out…”) drawing chuckles without the added weight of manipulation that has hampered previous Earth Day episodes.

Directors Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson (both Disneynature vets) hit all the right benchmarks in their 76 minutes: a penguin adventure that will delight the kids told through often breathtaking footage plus, for the adults, nostalgic odes to parenting and classic hits (Whitesnake! REO!).

And, per usual, stay through the credits for some nifty peeks behind the icy curtain.

Grade: B+

Teen Spirit

by Hope Madden

Three years ago, Elle Fanning starred in The Neon Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn’s take on the soul devouring business of show. She played an innocent hoping her natural talent would be enough to carry her far away from her one-horse town.

It’s a threadbare storyline and Refn couldn’t find the same inspiration that drove his earlier efforts Drive and Bronson to such dizzying heights. And yet, for its faults, The Neon Demon is a bold, imaginative and bracingly fresh take on a familiar song.

Writer/director Max Minghella is no Nicolas Winding Refn.

Minghella’s Teen Spirit sees Fanning as Violet, raw singing talent wasting away on the Isle of Wight. When an American Idol-style singing competition hosts auditions on the island, Violet sees her opportunity.

Awash in daddy issues, blatantly judgmental of showmanship (God forbid a girl wear makeup or wigs) and too dependent on Fanning’s mediocre voice, Minghella’s look at the dark side of the entertainment industry can’t find its groove.

Teen Spirit is not a complete misstep. Fanning’s acting is characteristically spot on. Rather than casting Violet as the bashful townie, Fanning presents a sullen, unlikeable character whose aloneness has as much to do with her own adolescent misanthropy as anything.

Equally appealing in his unappealing way is Zlatko Buric playing Vlad, the unsightly mess of a drunk that an underaged Violet drafts into posing as her guardian so she can audition.

The crusty sympathy the two form creates a welcome change to the ordinary — which is what the rest of Teen Spirit bathes in. Catty divas, soulless and posh record execs, temptation, disloyalty, pop songs — all of it’s here in some neutered form or other.

Teen Spirit not only plays like a toothless version of Neon Demon, it also bears an eerie resemblance to Leap, the 2016 animated adventure in which Fanning plays an orphan who longs to dance in the Paris ballet.

She’s also an alien turned punk rocker — with far more interesting performance sequences — in John Cameron Mitchell’s How to Talk to Girls at Parties from 2016.

No wonder Teen Spirit feels so derivative. You haven’t just seen this movie before, you’ve seen Elle Fanning in this movie before.

Grade: C-

Amazing Grace

by George Wolf

These days, singers made from technology feel more like the rule than the exception. How cosmically right, then, that is it because of improved technology we can finally witness one of the world’s greatest singers at home with her genius.

Already a living legend in January of 1972, Aretha Franklin wanted her next album to be a return to her gospel roots. Over two nights at the New Temple Baptist Church in Los Angeles, Aretha recorded live with the Reverend James Cleveland’s Southern California Community Choir as director Sydney Pollack rolled cameras for a possible TV special.

While it resulted in the biggest-selling gospel album in history, problems with syncing the music to the film kept the footage shelved for decades. Armed with the latest tech wizardry, producer/co-director Alan Elliot finally brings Amazing Grace to a glorious finish line.

Starting out by accompanying herself on piano, Aretha dives into gospel standards and modern medleys with a transfixing joy. As Rev. Cleveland (and later, Aretha’s father, the Rev, C.L. Franklin) sing her praises between songs, the Queen seems shy, almost embarrassed by the attention.

But when the music starts again, her eyes close and the beads of sweat dot her face, Aretha seems to be giving thanks for her gift, singing straight to the heavens with a soul-stirring euphoria that moves in brilliant unison with choir director Alexander Hamilton’s sublime ensemble.

To see her here is to see her at the absolute apex of her powers. taking that voice-of-a-lifetime wherever she pleases with an ease that simply astounds. Even with the recording session stop/starts that Elliot includes for proper context, Aretha’s hold on the congregations (which include the Stones’ Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts) is a come-to-Jesus revelation.

So is the film. It’s a thrilling, absolute can’t-miss testament to soul personified.

Grade: A+

Little Woods

by Hope Madden

If you already know the name Nia DaCosta, the likely reason may be that Jordan Peele pegged her to direct the Monkey Paws-produced remake of 1992’s horror gem Candyman that’s due next year.

What had she done to so impress the new American emperor of horror?

Little Woods.

DaCosta’s feature directorial debut, which she also wrote, is not a horror film. It’s an independent drama of the most unusual sort — the sort that situates itself unapologetically inside American poverty.

Tessa Thompson anchors the film as Oleander. She has eight days left on her probation for running drugs across the Canadian border and she means to get the F out of her dead end town the first minute she can. Her sister Deb (Lily James) complicates things.

There is a predictability in the setup that DaCosta uses to betray your preconceived notions. While the traditionally structured narrative does its job to elevate tension, the characters within that tale veer wildly — or, authentically — from the expected.

This is less a film about the complicated pull of illegal activity and more a film about the obstacles the American poor face, many of them created by a healthcare system that serves anyone but our own ill and injured.

Films that honestly explore American poverty are scarce. There’s The Florida Project, Frozen River, The Rider and very few others. Little Woods joins this list, all beautiful gut punch films that choose to present realistic tales with fully drawn characters rather than easy, noble tragedies.

The border crossing scene in Little Woods holds particular resonance, even more than it did back in 2008 when Courtney Hunt put Melissa Leo and her car on Frozen River‘s thin ice. Echoes of images from our own southern border help to contextualize the nation’s narrative about saving society from the poor families and the criminals out to exploit our riches.

But politically savvy filmmaking is not the main reason to see Little Woods. See it because Tessa Thompson and Lily James are amazing, or because the story is stirring and unpredictable.

See it because it’s what American actually looks like.

Grade: A-

Hagazussa

by Hope Madden

Making a remarkably assured feature debut as director, Lukas Feigelfeld mesmerizes with his German Gothic poetry, Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse.

Settled somewhere in the 15th Century Alps, the film shadows lonely, ostracized women struggling against a period where plague, paranoia and superstition reigned.

Young Albrun (Celina Peter) and her mother (Claudia Martini) make their way back to their isolated cabin before darkness falls. With a minimum of dialog and a maximum of atmosphere, Feigelfeld quickly establishes the dangerous isolation facing mother and daughter.

It’s an episode that will haunt Albrun well into adulthood, where she (Aleksandra Cwen) is now the single mother, still an outsider, still isolated from the village.

It would be easy to mistake the story Feigelfeld (who also writes) develops as a take on horror’s common “is she crazy or is there malevolence afoot?” theme. But the filmmaker’s hallucinatory tone and Cwen’s grounded performance allow Hagazussa to straddle that line and perhaps introduce a third option — maybe both are true.

Isolation, shunning and bullying lead to one tragedy upon the next. The village and its priest having deemed Albrun a witch, the line that defines the reality of the situation and the spiritual ugliness blur for both Albrun and the audience.

The film lends itself to a reading more lyrical than literal. Feigelfeld’s influences from Murnau to Lynch show themselves in his deliberate pacing and the sheer beauty of his delusional segments. One goat milking episode, in particular, is both startlingly erotic and disturbingly articulate of Albrun’s state of mind.

MMD’s ominous score strengthens the film’s overall sense of hypnotic menace, echoing sounds we’re not sure will frighten or comfort this mysterious woman at the center of the film.

Albrun’s is a tragic story and Feigelfeld crafts it with a believable loneliness that bends toward madness. He’s captured this moment in time, this draining and ugly paranoia that caused women such misery, with imagery that is perplexingly beautiful.

He’s cast a spell and you should submit.

Grade: A-

Peterloo

by Matt Weiner

It should be a match made in heaven: British director Mike Leigh channeling an uprising that pitted reactionary government leaders against a working-class population with radical demands for reform.

And for a historical drama that revolves around grain tariffs as a pretty important plot point, Leigh succeeds on one key front: Peterloo abounds with righteous indignation, from start to finish. This comes at the cost of Leigh’s usual nuanced character sketches, though.

The radical reformers, journalists and magistrates inhabiting 1819 Manchester still benefit from Leigh’s verbal fireworks. On one side, there are the aristocrats and rulers living in real fear that even the British triumph at Waterloo might not be enough to quell the spirit of the French Revolution. And then there is the unruly mob: disparate factory workers, reformers and women’s groups seeking a number of Parliamentary reforms and representation.

Agitators are literally read the Riot Act. Harrumphs and harangues come in equal measure. There’s even an impassioned debate about the merits of centrism vs. proto-Antifa at political rallies. Peterloo isn’t wanting for passion, but where the whole thing falls short isn’t that it’s a polemic — Leigh is still a formidable talent when it comes to making a period piece feel relevant, even urgent.

Which makes it all the more frustrating to see the film so weighed down by its singular, bluntly fired message that much of the cast doesn’t get a chance to inhabit their roles as much as they mostly bluster through them. Real-life figures Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) and Samuel Bamford (Neil Bell) are among the more memorable orators, but it is Karl Johnson who looks like he’s having the most fun as the cruelly indifferent Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary.

The cast of characters to keep straight is large but they’re drawn in absurdly broad strokes so you can easily track who’s under the boot and who’s wearing it. For all the impassioned speeches, it’s ironic that Peterloo winds up feeling far less humane than Leigh’s other historical masterpieces, especially 2014’s Mr. Turner. (That film owes much to Timothy Spahl’s tour de force lead, but Leigh’s generous script also balanced grace with uncompromising characters in a way that’s sorely missed in Peterloo.)

Long-time Leigh cinematographer Dick Pope comes back along for the ride, but his presence is also missed for much of the 150-minute runtime. I assume the working-class Manchester milieus are sufficiently gritty, but it doesn’t really matter. Most of the (copious) meeting scenes feel as perfunctory as the characters themselves.

Thankfully, the film at least delivers on the rage that has been set to a nonstop boil for so long. Leigh captures the confusion and senselessness of the tragedy. It’s just a shame that the massacre itself is the only thing in the film that ever really takes on any dimension.

Grade: C

Stuck

by Rachel Willis

Based on the musical of the same name, director Michael Berry’s film Stuck is the story of six strangers trapped on a subway car who change each other’s lives in meaningful ways.

Or at least, that’s what the movie tries to achieve. Unfortunately, it doesn’t accomplish its goal.

The characters are all one-note stereotypes. During their time trapped on a subway car, they reveal their own prejudices toward each other, as well as huge details of their lives. The personal stories, the elements that attempt to make each character unique, are all shared through song. However, it’s easy to guess who each character will be because they’re roles we’ve seen many times before.

As each person shares a little more of themselves with the others, the characters’ facial expressions are meant to convey internal change. There are sympathetic looks, a few words of apology, but none of it feels like true growth. The characters who enter the subway car are the same characters when they leave the subway car.

One of the most frustrating elements of the film is the “all is forgiven” attitude toward one character who has been stalking another character for several days before the events of the film. Though we learn the intentions are “innocent,” it’s angering to watch as the other characters give him a pass because he’s a good artist.

The musical aspects here are the strongest elements. The choreography, the lyrics, the musical arrangements, and the performances are all effective, with the individual character songs among the only moments where genuine emotion is conveyed. The musical styles are unique to each character, giving them more depth than the dialogue conveys.

All the actors are strong singers, which is refreshing since several movies lately have featured actors who can’t sing well, or at all, in singing roles. It’s one of the areas where Stuck succeeds. Ashanti is particularly powerful in her vocal performance, though Giancarlo Esposito also stands out as an impressive vocalist.

Though Esposito sings several of the film’s songs, his character is the least explored. He isn’t given a backstory like the others, and it’s unclear if he’s meant to be a conduit for the others to reveal themselves or a character in his own right.

In a film like Stuck, the point is to never judge a book by its cover. The people we pass on the street everyday are dealing with things about which we will mostly likely never know. Hardships in their lives may be the reason why they’re impatient or cruel, so it’s a reminder to treat everyone with kindness.

It’s not a bad message. But it’s one that’s been delivered before in more effective ways.

Grade: C-

Also opening in Columbus:

Breaking Habits (NR)
Breakthrough (PG)
Drunk Parents (R)
Jersey (NR)
The Sower (NR)

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

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