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Old and New, Good and Bad in Theaters

George Wolf George Wolf Old and New, Good and Bad in TheatersOld - Photo via IMDb
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Well, this week’s big releases are middling, but man there are some great indies out there this week if you know where to look. Luckily, we have that intel for you. Here’s the skinny.

Old

In theaters

by George Wolf

The last 20 some odd years have been somewhat odd for M. Night Shyamalan.

There was the meteoric rise, the faceplant fall, and the unexpected rise again. The writer/director’s highs (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Split) have been clever, crowd-pleasing and well crafted, while the lows (The Last Airbender, After Earth, The Happening) became self-indulgent, condescending misfires.

Old, Shyamalan’s first since the disappointing Glass two years ago, may not rank among his best, but there is enough here to hold your interest while it delivers an earnest message about precious time.

Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) are ready to separate, but want to enjoy one last dream vacation with 6 year-old Trent (Nolan River) and 11 year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton) before breaking the news.

Shortly after getting a VIP welcome at their tropical resort, the family is offered access to a private beach paradise, just a short drive away. Once there, they find a few other guests have also gotten the invite to the pristine beach surrounded by majestic and imposing walls of rock.

But of course, there is a price to be paid for this privilege: time. Trent and Maddox are suddenly years older (and now played by Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie), while the rest of the group (including Rufus Sewell, Abbey Lee and Aaron Pierre) also begins to feel the effects of a rapidly increased aging process.

Shyamalan’s camerawork – usually a plus – is again nimble and expressive. He’s able to fuel a feeling of confusion and disorientation on the ground, while frequent overhead shots provide the unmistakable suggestion that this group is being watched.

His pace is also well-played, fast and frantic (with one very effective visual fright) in the early going, then a bit more measured to reflect cooler heads trying to plan an escape.

But while Shyamalan’s script is an adaptation of the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederick Peeters, dialogue can still trip him up. It’s too frequently both silly and obvious, yet almost always rescued by a talented ensemble that never shrinks from selling every word of it.

It’s still a Shyamalan film, though, which will lead many to expect a humdinger of a twist. Don’t.

There is something waiting beyond the clearly defined metaphor about appreciating every day. But like the film, the resolution of Old is more tidy than revelatory, as easy to digest and appreciate as it is to forget.

Grade: B-

Snake Eyes

In theaters

by Hope Madden

Stay with me. Remember how bad Mortal Kombat was? Like, bad, but kind of so stick-to-your-guns bad, so full of head-bursting ridiculousness and terrible acting that it somehow felt right?

Take that, neuter it completely so you don’t even see any blood regardless of the wall-to-wall swordplay, invest in great-looking scenery and one A-list actor, and you essentially have the new G.I. Joe movie, Snake Eyes.

Henry Golding is that A-lister, an American with a questionable accent and some barely hidden rage issues. A dice game gone bad left him emotionally scarred (thought it did lend him that cool moniker) and now he fistfights his way from one town to the next.

That is, until a shady Yakuza man offers him a chance at vengeance in return for some labor. The next thing you know, Snake Eyes is mixed up in ninja training, clan warfare and global domination, or some such nonsense.

Director Robert Schwentke is pretty hamstrung with the PG-13 rating. His film is based on a children’s cartoon, after all. Sure, that cartoon promotes armed conflict in every single episode—as does this film—but you can’t show the result of any of that violence.

How cool would this movie be if Takashi Miike directed it? And how NC-17?

A girl can dream. But the reality is that Schwentke does about as well as he can within the limitations. The clanging swords are shiny, the motorcycles zip around like the ninjas they carry, and the hand-to-hand bouts stand out.

The acting, well, you know. And writing. Yeesh. Indeed, the writing is weak enough that both Golding and the proven Samara Weaving nearly choke on it. Andrew Koki as clan heir apparent Tommy struggles mightily, his character at war with what is expected of him. It calls for a lot of inner conflict.

It calls for a better script.

Haruka Abe likewise wrestles to find a character within this loyal security chief who’s unemotional and yet so very emotional. And wearing really high heels for someone called on to run this often.

Weaving at least seems to recognize that she is playing a cartoon character, and her performance is therefore reasonably cartoonish. Koki mopes, Abe whines. And Golding, well, he is very handsome.

The sets look great—from a super cool-looking Tokyo to the secret Arashikage compound to the cement pits for bare-knuckle brawling. That’s not really reason enough to watch it, though.

Grade: C-

Val

At Gateway Film Center

by Hope Madden

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a crush on Val Kilmer.

I can’t be the only one.

Eighties heartthrob turned Hollywood prick turned reliable character actor turned working actor turned Mark Twain, Kilmer has seen his ups and downs. The thing is, he recorded all of them, too. And now directors Ting Poo and Leo Scott—both primarily known as editors—piece together material from the thousands of hours of video Kilmer has compiled in his 40-odd years in the industry.

The result oscillates between self-indulgence and raw nerve, but it’s never less than intriguing.

Yes, there are behind-the-scenes moments from Top Gun, pieces from the contentious Island of Dr. Moreau set, Batman Forever clips and bits of Doors footage. But the film is most relevant when Kilmer interacts with his son Jack, who also narrates from pages written by his dad.

Kilmer can’t do his own voiceover because of his fight with throat cancer, which left him with a tracheostomy that makes speech difficult. The battle has taken a lot out of him physically in much the way different battles throughout his career have taken a lot out of him financially. Poo, Scott and Kilmer never hide those battle scars, and yet their film never feels exploitative or reality TV-esque.

Much of that has to do with Kilmer’s indominable spirit and generous nature. Though a costly divorce and what amounts to fraud perpetrated by his own father left Kilmer strapped for cash, his outlook on both his ex-wife and his dad are entirely positive. And what he has to say about selling autographs to pay his bills becomes perhaps the most moving moment in a fairly emotional film.

At just under two hours, the film seems a tad long. There are times when Val feels self-indulgent, but how could it not? We’re here to watch the actor come back then come back again then, dressed as Mark Twain for his shockingly successful one-man show Citizen Twain, make yet another comeback.

In Val, Jack Kilmer quotes his father quoting Twain: “Don’t part with your illusions. When they are gone you may still exist, but you have ceased to live.” It’s an apt metaphor for a documentary about life and acting, and a springboard for another surprising comeback.

Grade: B+

All the Streets Are Silent: The Convergence of Hip Hop and Skateboarding (1987-1997)

At Gateway Film Center

by Christie Robb

Jeremy Elkin and Dana Brown’s documentary explores the origins of what is now a mainstream aesthetic born from two distinct ’90s New York City subcultures—graffiti artists/skateboarders and hip hop.

Tracing the ancestry, briefly, to NYC artists Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the film credits the convergence of the movements to the prescience of the club management department at Club Mars, a multistory nightclub in the Meatpacking District.

In the early ’90s, Mars had a weekly hip hop party that started in the basement and attracted a broad swath of NYC street culture. The bouncers let the skate kids in, even if they were all gross and sweaty and not dressed up. Their streetstyle was cool. And the cross-pollination began.

Out of this came:

  • Phat Farm, the first hip hop clothing line
  • Zoo York, the first skateboard brand out of New York
  • The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show, an underground hip hop radio show that introduced Biggie Smalls, Jay Z, Busta Rhymes, and the Wu-Tang Clan (among many others)
  • The independent movie KIDS, featuring the debut performances of Leo Fitzpatrick, Chloe Sevigny, and Rosario Dawson
  • The Supreme skateboarding lifestyle brand
  • The Zoo Mixtape video, with a hip hop soundtrack

As the film reminds us, skateboarding is now an Olympic event and a $2 billion per year industry and hip hop surpassed rock recently as the dominant music genre.

Elkin and Brown stuff their documentary full of interviews from the people who were part of the scene in the ’90s like Kid Capri, Stretch Armstrong, Bobbito Garcia, and Mike Carroll. Archival footage was supplied by Eli Morgan Gesner, who had the presence of mind to shoot video of the skateboarders doing tricks and the rappers trying out rhymes. This grounds the film in the visual aesthetic of the period while the original score by hip hop producer Large Professor provides the aural vibe.

It all comes to resemble video scrapbook of the baby years of what’s become a mainstream aesthetic. And, while I’d prefer more coverage of the gradual gentrification of the aesthetic from an outsider scene to a branded “lifestyle,” that’s not really the project here. As a nonfiction narrative looking back on all the individuals and circumstances who mixed together in ’90s downtown NYC, All the Streets Are Silent is pretty fly.

Grade: A-

Joe Bell

In theaters

by Hope Madden

In April of 2013, Joe Bell explained his walking trek from Le Grand, Oregon to New York City. He was doing something. Those who watch bullying and do nothing about it are as guilty as the bullies themselves.

It makes sense, then, that Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film Joe Bell is more interested in what Joe did and did not do when confronted with his son’s bullying than it is in the bullying and victimization themselves. Because the truth is, this walk is as much a penance as anything.

Mark Wahlberg plays Joe, volatile but loving husband and father just trying to fly under the radar and still accept, as best he can, his oldest son Jadin’s (Reid Miller) sexual orientation. Joe’s a blue-collar guy in a blue-collar town, and neither Wahlberg nor writers Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry (both of Brokeback Mountain) let him completely off the hook for the misery Jadin faces.

Wahlberg performs admirably as a man who’s trying and failing, but the breakout here is Miller. Warm, bright and brimming with life, Miller’s work is the highlight of the film, although Green puts together a solid ensemble including a heartbreakingly understated Connie Britton.

Though an early film contrivance threatens to sink things before they can even really swim, the film eventually finds its lonesome way, more or less. The examination here is culpability, and it’s uncomfortable, messy terrain.

Wahlberg’s performance is raw and emotional. He lets the character struggle, sometimes sinking under the weight of loss and culpability, sometimes accepting the easy balm of celebrity in lieu of real change. His interactions with Britton offer the most complex and satisfying suggestions that Green and team recognize the wide and shattering reach of this kind of trauma.

The film Green builds around Wahlberg never stoops toward easy epiphanies or patronizing catharsis. There is a simmering anger and barely checked pain beneath the surface of this narrative, and no cliched structure or manipulative storytelling gimmicks can entirely cage that.

In the end, Joe Bell does break through the contrivance of familiar storytelling because this story doesn’t fit neatly or cheerily into that package.

Grade: B-

Mandibles

In theaters

by Hope Madden

The great thing about filmmaker Quentin Dupieux is that you always know what you’re in for and you definitely never know what you’re in for.

The point of Mandibles, essentially, is that you can never rely on anyone to do a single, simple thing correctly. Manu (Grégoire Ludig, Keep an Eye Out) — homeless at the moment — promises to deliver a suitcase in the trunk of his car from Michel-Michel to Point B. He needs to get it there by noon. Can he be trusted to do that one thing?

Of course he can!

He cannot.

There are the extenuating circumstances of the giant housefly that’s already in the trunk. We could get into what happens with the fly, but it’s not going to make any real sense, so why ruin it? Dupieux films work best when you just go with it.

That’s what Manu does. He and best friend Jean-Gab (David Marsais) take opportunities as they come, remain open to possibilities, and just enjoy their friendship. And their new, giant housefly.

The relatively streamlined plot delivers a fresh change of pace for the filmmaker—not that you could call any Dupieux film stale. But in pairing back the complications and convolutions, the writer/director has crafted maybe his most audience-friendly film to date. Mandibles certainly delivers the filmmaker’s most audience-friendly characters.

Ludig frustrates and charms in equal measure as the doofus Manu, and he and Marsais share an easy chemistry that suggests a lot of miles on this friendship. Here is the filmmaker’s most delightful surprise—a lack of cynicism or existential dread that leaves just an airy, almost sweet, wildly ridiculous comedy.

None of this has anything to do with a jawbone, but the title will become clear if you pay close attention.

Or maybe it won’t.

Quentin Dupieux, amiright?

Grade: B+

Settlers

On VOD

by George Wolf

The settlement in writer/director Wyatt Rockefeller’s feature debut may be on Mars, but it’s his measured treatment of the colony’s constant dangers that allow the story to transcend any specific time and place.

Ilsa (Sofia Boutella), Reza (Jonny Lee Miller) and young Remmy (The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince) appear to be the only family on a barren Martian settlement, but then they wake to a giant “LEAVE” written on their front window and the questions begin to stack up.

Why is Jerry (Ismael Cruz Cordova) staking a claim to their place? What happened to all the other colonists, and how many others are out there lurking, maybe plotting to attack?

And what caused them all to leave Earth in the first place?

Rockefeller is not at all interested in easy answers, instead employing some first-rate performances and stellar production design to evoke a more universal statement on human nature, and more specifically, the often desperate and consistently overlooked role of women in nation building.

It’s a theme given an effective horror treatment in The Wind three years ago, and while the science fiction elements in Settlers are well-played, they’re also subtle enough to never upstage the character studies at work.

We see the first two acts of the film through young Remmy’s eyes, carefully observing the adults around her and making friends with a dog-like robot she calls “Steve.” Prince delivers a wonderfully tender performance, enabling us to feel Remmy sizing up her future choices with each passing day.

The film’s final act jumps ahead ten years, when a now teenage Remmy (the awesomely named Nell Tiger Free from GoT) is nearing the day she’ll be forced to make those hard choices. Jerry has become an even bigger presence in her life, and Cordova flexes an impressive ability to keep you guessing about Jerry’s true nature until late in the game.

If you lean toward tidy endings wrapped in unmistakable red bows, you’ll find none of those in Settlers. You will find an engrossing tale careful to leave plenty of opportunities for filling in the blank spaces.

Follow where it leads, and you’ll glimpse a future that’s inviting you to rethink the past. And the present.

Grade: B+

Midnight in the Switchgrass

On VOD

by George Wolf

This is the third Bruce Willis film so far this year. That leaves 13 more in production, and 1 in development. And if you’ve seen even a few of the titles in Bruno’s output over the last several years, you can assume a couple things about his latest right away.

First, regardless of his presence in the poster and/or trailer, Willis will only show up for a few scenes in the actual film. And secondly, his character won’t be that integral to the story.

Both assumptions prove true with Midnight in the Switchgrass, a thriller that manages to work itself a notch or two above most films in the “Exit Stage Willis” subgenre.

Willis is Karl Helter, the old and tired FBI partner of agent Rebecca Lombardi (Megan Fox). Rebecca’s been going undercover as a hooker to try and catch the serial killer (Lukas Haas) stalking truck stops and roadside motels around Pensacola, Florida (a character inspired by real life “Truck Stop Killer” Robert Rhoades).

There’s a string of similar cold cases dating back several years, a fact that still haunts Florida state police officer Byron Crawford (Emile Hirsch). When a new victim turns up, Byron is compelled to assist Rebecca and Karl any way he can.

Well, he assists one of them, anyway, because Karl conveniently bails before Rebecca is kidnapped by the killer and events turn mildly interesting.

This is the debut feature for both writer Alan Horsnail and director Randall Emmett, though Emmett’s long tenure as a producer appears to have honed his ability to craft a generic crime drama that imitates more gripping films – one in particular.

A killer’s identity that is never in doubt, paired with parallel storylines and certain other flourishes I won’t mention for fear of spoilers, all bring a serious Silence of The Lambs vibe.

That’s rarefied and ambitious air that Switchgrass can’t live in, though it does carve out a few respectably tense manhunt moments. Fox and Hirsch rise above some heavy-handed dialogue – even Bruno seems halfway interested while he’s around – and Haas is effectively creepy.

Add it all up, check the scorecards, and on the sliding scale of Willis its rank is roughly equal to Citizen Kane.

Grade: C

Kandisha

On Shudder

by George Wolf

Early on, plenty in the Shudder original Kandisha is going to remind you of Candyman. The filmmakers wisely address this early as well, and then move right along with a brisk and bloody realization of a Moroccan vendetta born from centuries-old roots.

On summer break from school, teen best friends Amélie (Mathilde Lamusse), Bintou (Suzy Bemba) and Morjana (Samarcande Saadi) are busy practicing their graffiti art in a dilapidated building. Peeling back some rotting drywall, Amélie spots a spray-painted tag of “Kandisha,” and Morjana recounts the legend.

In 16th century Morocco, Kandisha fought the Portuguese occupation that took her husband’s life. She even managed to kill six enemy occupiers before being caught, tortured, and killed.

Now, she roams the netherworld as a half-beast walking upright on hooves, waiting for a summons that will require her to slay six men before returning to her eternal unrest.

And how do you summon Kandisha? You look in the mirror and say her name five times.

“Like in the movies?”

Yes, girls, just like in the movies.

Writers/directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (the unforgettable Inside) are smart enough to take what we’re thinking and make it organic. We instantly relate to the girls’ scoffing, which helps make us feel connected to the journey that will make them believers.

Once Amélie conjures Kandisha to avenge an assault, it’s a trip that doesn’t waste much time getting down to business. There’s no trace of the silly humor Bustillo and Maury added to Inside, but their penchant for grandiose bloodletting is front and center as Kandisha begins counting to six.

The girls turn to an Imam for help reversing the curse, a narrative thread that ultimately provides more than just montrous thrills. It’s also the chance for international audiences – especially in America – to see Islam depicted as a source for salvation instead of the stereotypical terrorist breeding ground.

If you’re going back to the well of Bloody Mary and Candyman, the water gets finer via each original filter. Kandisha adds a fresh cultural and female-specific lens to a bloody, take-no-prisoners approach that does much to overcome the tale’s familiar building blocks.

Grade: B+

Danny. Legend. God.

On VOD

by Rachel Willis

With a title like Danny. Legend. God. you might expect a movie that’s, well, legendary. Unfortunately, writer/director Yavor Petkov delivers something far more banal with his first feature film.

A film crew follows city councilor, Danny (Dimo Alexiev), for a documentary series about money laundering. However, Danny lets them know they won’t be following any kind of script; they’re making “big cinema.” The three-person team gets more than they bargained for as Danny takes them deeper into his shady world.

Danny is a big fish in a little pond, and along with his heavy, Tanko (Emil Kamenov), spends a lot of his time finding ways to impress his importance upon the film crew. Danny’s godson (Borislav Markovski) tags along for a few of his exploits, and it’s a credit to young Markovski that he’s one of the most interesting characters to watch despite having zero lines of dialogue.

But this points to the film’s biggest problem – the lead. For Danny, you need a character who is both repulsive, yet irresistible. Alexiev’s Danny is repulsive, but there is nothing about him – or the film – that compels you to watch. Too much here feels like we’re waiting for something to happen.

There are several scenes in the car that attempt to heighten the tension of being trapped with someone like Danny, but it doesn’t work. No one wants to be in the car with Danny – not the film crew nor the audience. We’re not watching a car crash, but a traffic jam.

There are a few side characters who turn up for a scene or two that help move the film along. Danny’s irritated wife, the documentary producer, and an old flame play off Alexiev with conviction. Seeing Danny from their points of view help sell him as someone dangerous.

As Danny’s more sinister nature begins to reveal itself, the documentary soundman (James Ryan Babson) becomes more uncomfortable with the things they record. He insists “we’re complicit!” but within the context of the film, it’s either an overreaction or a heavy-handed commentary on our societal tendency to sit back and watch while our politicians play fast and loose with the rules.

The movie wants us to wake up and find ourselves uncomfortable with those we put into office, but in the context of the real world, Danny isn’t nearly as disturbing as some of the actual people holding power right now.

Grade: D+

Follow George and Hope on Twitter @maddwolf and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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