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Murphy, Jolie, Harrelson, Stone – Big Names in Theaters

Hope Madden Hope Madden Murphy, Jolie, Harrelson, Stone – Big Names in TheatersPhoto via IMDb
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Scary movies, Oscar contenders, documentaries, junk—some of those categories overlap. There is a lot going on in theaters this week. Let’s dig in.

Dolemite Is My Name

by George Wolf

Can’t you just hear Dolemite now?

“I’m so m*&^@f#[email protected]!^*’ bad they got that m*&^@f#[email protected]! Eddie Murphy to play me in a m*&^@f#[email protected]!^’ movie!”

They did, and Murphy could very well ride it to an Oscar nomination in this brash, funny, and often wildly entertaining look at the birth of a cultural icon.

“Dolemite” was the brainchild of Rudy Ray Moore, who created the character for his standup comedy act in the early 70s. Moore’s raw material was much too adult for record companies at the time, but the success of his early underground comedy albums (sample title: “Eat Out More Often”) finally gave Moore the cheering crowds he longed for – and the urge to take Dolemite to the big screen.

Moore’s string of so-bad-they’re-good blaxploitation classics not only became important influences in the expanding independent film market, but also for rappers and young comics like Murphy himself.

Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who penned the scripts for The People vs. Larry Flynt, Ed Wood and Man on the Moon among others, are certainly at home fleshing out the stories behind creative legends, and their script fills Dolemite Is My Name with heart, joy and raunchy laughs.

Director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) keeps the pace quick and energetic, crafting a bustling salute to the creative process that never forgets how to be fun.

Two pivotal and very funny scenes bookend the film’s biggest strengths.

Early on, Moore and his crew leave a movie theater dumbfounded by the white audience’s love for a popular feature that had “no titties, no funny and no kung fu!”

Then, during filming of the original Dolemite, Moore doesn’t feel right about his big sex scene until his character’s prowess is pushed to ridiculous levels. We’re laughing, but there’s no doubt we’re laughing with Moore, not at him. And while we’re laughing, we’re learning how Moore took inspiration from the world he lived in, and why he wouldn’t rest until his audience was served.

At the Toronto International Film Festival last month, Murphy said he wanted this film to remind people why they liked him.

Done.

Leading a terrific ensemble that includes Craig Robinson, Keegan-Michael Key, Kodi Smit-McPhee and a priceless Wesley Snipes as the “real” actor among these amateurs, Murphy owns every frame. This film wouldn’t work unless we see a separation between Moore and his character. Murphy toes this line with electric charisma, setting up the feels when Moore’s dogged belief in himself is finally rewarded.

Dolemite Is My Name tells a personal story, but it’s one that’s universal to dreamers everywhere.

And it’s also m*&^@f#[email protected]!^* funny, suckas!

Grade: A-

Zombieland 2: Double Tap

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

“It’s time to nut up or shut up.”

“That line is so 2009.”

There you have it. A horror film that recognizes its desire to wallow in its former glory as well as its need to find something new to say.

We had our worries about the sequel to one of the all-time best zombie action flicks, Zombieland. Horror sequels so rarely work and Zombieland: Double Tap is slow going at the start, to be sure. But don’t give up on it.

Everybody’s back. Director Ruben Fleischer – who’s spent the last decade trying to live up to Z-land‘s promise – returns, as do writers Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, along with newbie Dave Callaham, who’s written a lot of really big, really bad movies.

Still, it was enough to draw the most important elements—all four leads. Among Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Jesse Eisenberg and Abigail Breslin are seven Oscar nominations and one win. That’s a lot of credibility for a zombie movie.

They reprise their roles, now ten years on as a heavily armed and somewhat dysfunctional family. Little Rock (Breslin), in particular, longs to leave the nest, get away from a smothering Tallahassee (Harrelson) and find people her own age. Wichita (Stone) may be feeling a little smothered in her relationship with Columbus (Eisenberg), though he remains blissfully unaware.

Things pick up when the girls take off, the guys brood, a new survivor enters the picture (Zoey Deutch, scene-stealing hilarious), and a sudden road trip to Graceland seems like it might reunite the family.

The filmmakers spend plenty of time simultaneously ribbing and basking in previous success. So there is plenty here to remind us why we loved the first Zombieland adventure so much (especially during the credits), although Double Tap doesn’t come to life until it embraces some fresh meat.

A run-in with near-doppelgangers (Luke Wilson, Thomas Middleditch) leads to an inspired action sequence inside the Elvis-themed motel run by Nevada (Rosario Dawson). A pacifist commune stands in for the amusement park from part one, letting everyone poke some blood-splattered fun at the culture clash between hippies, survivalists, and of course, the undead.

An underused articulation of the way zombies have evolved over the decade could have offered the biggest update. Still, after a 10 year wait, this revival offers just enough fun to not only avoid a let down, but instantly become Fleischer’s second best film.

Grade: B-

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

by Hope Madden

I’m not going to lie to you, I hated Maleficent. Not because it was a mediocre CGI mess, although it certainly was that. I hated that film because Disney turned one of its absolutely most magnificent villains—one of cinema’s most magnificent villains—into a heartbroken, misunderstood victim.

Screw that.

But five years after Maleficent’s (Angelina Jolie) maternal love saves Aurora (Elle Fanning) and several kingdoms in the process, humans are back to whispering evil stories about the guardian of the Moors. Meanwhile, Aurora and Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson) have decided to marry.

That first family dinner doesn’t go super well.

Stuffed to the antlers with sidetracks and subplots, characters and ideas, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil shows you everything and articulates nothing.

Flashes of social commentary stand out. In the name of greed, evil leadership whips up fear amongst the population to justify racism, jingoism, colonialism and even genocide.

Despite Maleficent’s fangs, the fact that the film clearly leans toward giving the colonizers one more chance as opposed to siding with indigenous rebellion renders the film biteless.

But who could resist Chiwetel Ejiofor? He calls for peace and languishes in some kind of Disney side character purgatory as wizened and wearied Conall, one of the winged Fey who look to Maleficent to lead their kind.

Dear Hollywood: please give Chiwetel Ejiofor better parts in better movies.

Ejiofor is hardly the only talent wasted in this slog. Littered amid the carnage of so, so many side plots are Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple, again bothersome at best as three pixies. Sam Riley and Ed Skrein are allowed to smirk and grunt, respectively. Only Jenn Murray stands out, weirdly sadistic playing the queen’s very small enforcer.

Even Fanning once again comes up lame, asked only to beam and blush, though Dickinson has it worse. Be quietly noble, his direction seems to insist. Noble, but never rude.

The film should be Jolie’s show, but she does little more than pose. Robbed of her imposing wickedness by the end of the first movie, she now just seems bored and is more often than not upstaged by Michelle Pfeiffer’s Queen Ingrith.

Ingrith is written with no more depth than any of the other few dozen speaking characters to grace the screen in this overpopulated mess, but it’s always fun to see Pfeiffer chew scenery up and spit it out.

Director Joachim Ronning shows moments of visual inspiration, splashing color across the screen one moment, forbiddingly grim grey tones the next, but the little magical creatures rarely suggest the CGI budget was spent very wisely.

What was the point again?

Oh, right. Maleficent made $758 million.

Grade: C-

Midnight Traveler

by George Wolf

“How do you say ‘help’ in English?”

A harrowing first-person account of one family’s flight from a death sentence, Midnight Traveler frames the refugee debate with honest, heartbreaking intimacy.

In 2015, the work of Afghan filmmaker Hassan Fazili earned him a call for death from the ruling Taliban. Fazili and his family sought asylum in neighboring Tajikistan, only to be denied after 14 months.

Midnight Traveler joins Fazili, his wife Nargis and two young daughters the night before their scheduled deportation back to Afghanistan. Filmed only on three iPhones, the movie documents the family’s years and thousands of miles-long journey in search of a safe place to call home.

In last year’s Oscar-winning doc Free Solo, the filmmakers expressed angst over the effect their cameras might have on the decisions of free climber Alex Honnold. As the dangers mount for Fazili and family, we begin to feel the same, worrying our intrusion might somehow cloud their judgement.

As the Fazili family deals with smugglers, broken promises and spur of the moment evacuations, we also see smaller moments of daily life. The daughters manage to laugh and play, and there is tenderness between Hassan and Nargis, as they smile over past memories of a much simpler and safer time.

Even with a verite nature that is often frantic and understandably desperate, Hassan’s footage reveals an unmistakable eye for form and structure.

This is a family literally crying for help in real time, and a human rights issue that can suffer from anonymous enormity transforms before our eyes, consistently adding strength to the touching impact of Midnight Traveler.

Refugees are more than statistics and political footballs. They are human beings with families, dreams and dwindling options. Within the reams of names on a waiting list are urgent, personal stories of survival.

This is one.

Grade: A-

Trick

by Hope Madden

Always choose treat.

That’s a great horror movie tagline. It’s also just good advice. Two for two before the credits even roll, Patrick Lussier. Onward!

Lussier co-writes and directs Trick, a new horror show about an unstoppable, maybe even supernatural, serial killer who comes back to Smalltown, America on Halloween to kill teens.

Hang on, isn’t that the basic plot of the Halloween franchise?

It is! But wait, there’s more! This loner wearing face paint appeals to the disenfranchised of the world, creating an online following that’s almost dangerous in its obsessive behavior. Who knows what his influence might make them do…

Well, now that’s just Joker.

Correct! But this guy has a cool knife that says TRICK on one side and TREAT on the other side.

Yeah…that’s kind of cool…So if the knife comes up TRICK, he kills you, right? What if it comes up TREAT?

He still kills you. There’s no additional purpose to the knife. But stay with me, here! A beautiful, studious young woman who’s devoted to her invalid dad survived the first attack and now “Trick” Weaver may be coming back to claim her for his next victim!

Oh, come on! That’s every single slasher sequel. Ever! And this isn’t even a sequel—that’s just lazy. Does Trick bring anything new to the table? Offer anything provocative? Are the kills at least interesting?

Did I tell you about his cool knife?

Sigh.

Lussier (Drive Angry, My Bloody Valentine) cobbles a movie together from pieces of at least four different Halloween films plus a Scream vibe (even poaching two franchise actors, Omar Epps and Jamie Kennedy). His film would feel desperate to be socially relevant if it were not so incredibly lazy in just every conceivable way.

I was looking forward to a treat. Trick is like that time my babysitter said she was giving me a Tootsie Roll and it was really beef jerky.

That totally happened, by the way. I’m still mad.

Grade: C-

Also opening in Columbus:
The Captain (NR)
Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles (PG13)
The Golden Glove (NR)
The Ground Beneath My Feet (NR)
The Laundromat (R)

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

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