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One Big Recommendation This Week at the Movies

George Wolf George Wolf One Big Recommendation This Week at the MoviesPhoto via IMDb
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Why they made us wait this long for 1917 we may never know, but the point is, it’s here now and it’s the movie to see. What else is out this week? Let’s walk through it.

1917

by George Wolf

War. Maybe you’ve heard of it lately.

Taking inspiration from the past, director Sam Mendes has crafted an immaculate exercise in technical wonder, passionate vision and suddenly vital reminders.

The inherent gamble in crafting a film via one extended take – or the illusion of it – lies in the final cut existing as little more than a gimmick, spurring a ‘spot the edit’ challenge that eclipses the narrative.

1917 clears that hurdle in the first five minutes.

It is WWI, and British Corporals Blake and Schofield (Dean Charles-Chapman and George MacKay, both wonderful) are standing before their General (Colin Firth) amid the highest of stakes. Allied intelligence has revealed an imminent offensive will lead straight into a German ambush, and the corporals’ success at traveling deep into enemy territory to deliver the order to abort is all that will keep thousands of soldiers – including Blake’s own brother – from certain death.

Mendes dedicates the film to the stories told by his grandfather, and it stands thick with the humanity of bravery and sacrifice that ultimately prevailed through the most hellish of circumstances.

Blake and Schofield head out alone, enveloped by ballet-worthy camerawork and pristine cinematography (Roger Deakins, natch) that never blinks. The opportunities for edits may be evident at times, but the narrative experience is so immersive you’ll hardly care. We’re not merely following along on this mission, we’re part of every heart-stopping minute.

Anyone who’s seen the actual WW1 footage from Peter Jackson’s recent doc They Shall Not Grow Old (an irresistible bookend to 1917) will recognize a certain sanitation to the production design, but the trade-off is a fresh majesty for familiar themes, one that’s consistently grounded in stark intimacy. Mendes and Deakins (buoyed by a subtly evocative score from Thomas Newman) brush away any dangers of “first-person shooter” novelty with a near miraculous level of precise execution that succeeds in raising several bars.

1917 is absolutely one of the best films of the year, but it’s more. It’s an unforgettable and exhausting trip, immediately joining the ranks of the finest war movies ever made.

Grade: A

Just Mercy

by George Wolf

You may have noticed there’s no shortage of films exposing the miscarriages of justice that have landed innocent people on Death Row.

Sadly, that’s because there’s no shortage of innocent people on Death Row.

So while the prevailing themes in Just Mercy are not new, the sadly ironic truth is their familiarity brings an added layer of inherent sympathy to the film, which helps offset the by-the-numbers approach taken by director/co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton.

Cretton and co-writer Andrew Lanham adapt the 2014 memoir by Bryan Stevenson, an attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, that details Stevenson’s years providing legal counsel to the poor and wrongly convicted in Alabama.

The film keeps its main focus on the case of Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx), who, by the time Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) comes along, has long accepted his death sentence for the murder of an 18 year-old white woman. But by winning over Walter’s extended family, Stevenson gains Walter’s trust, along with plenty of threats from the Alabama good ol’ boys once he starts exposing the outrageous violations during Walter’s “fair trial.”

It’s clear that Cretton (Short Term 12, The Glass Castle) is firmly committed to respectful accuracy in his adaptation, which is commendable. The authenticity of the roadblocks, impassioned speeches or blood-boiling examples of bigotry are never in doubt, but it’s only the ferocious talents of Jordan and Foxx that keep Just Mercy from collapsing under the weight of its own unchecked righteousness.

As sympathetic as Walter’s situation is, the script never quite sees him as a real person, painting only in shades of hero. Oscar winner Brie Larson, a Cretton favorite, is wasted as EJI co-founder Eva Ansley, who seems included more out of respect than for what the character ultimately adds to the narrative.

Jordan has the most to work with here, and – no surprise – he makes the most of it. Peripheral cases help Jordan give Stevenson the needed edges of a man who is equally driven by his failures, doggedly committed to helping those he identifies with so deeply, those who, as Walter puts it, are “guilty from the moment you’re born.”

Though it comes out swinging with heavy hands, Just Mercy steadies itself in time to become an effective portrait of systemic injustice. You will be moved, but with a force that is muted by simple convention.

Grade: B-

Like a Boss

by George Wolf

For years now, we’ve seen Rose Byrne and Tiffany Haddish each be plenty funny.

Three years ago, Salma Hayek and director Miguel Arteta teamed up for the delightful Beatriz at Dinner.

All four now come together for Like A Boss, and what sounds promising quickly becomes a painful, 83-minute exercise in tired contrivance and weak-sauce girl power struggling mightily to earn its label as a “comedy.”

Haddish and Byrne are Mia and Mel, lifelong friends trying to keep their cosmetic company afloat when they’re tossed a million-dollar lifeline by makeup tycoon Claire Luna (Hayek).

Luna’s true aim is to break up the besties and steal their company (whaaat?), so our heroines must learn some sappy lessons about friendship before they can hatch their plan to turn the tables and show Luna who’s really in charge.

The debut screenplay from Sam Pittman and Adam Cole-Kelly is barely ready for prime time, much less the big screen. What little laughter there is comes courtesy of the supporting cast (Billy Porter, Jennifer Coolidge) while the leads are put through a string of hot-pepper-eating, song-and-dance-routine nonsense.

Entirely forced and sadly wasteful of the talent at hand, this film is less like a boss and more like a mess the CEO tells someone else to clean up.

Grade: D

Underwater

by Hope Madden

Kristin Stewart has been stretching.

Yes, she will probably forever be first known as that girl from Twilight, unfortunately. But, in the same way her ex-vampire lover Robert Pattinson has relentlessly carved a stronger impression via challenging, independent film roles, Stewart has been honing her craft and developing a reputation as a solid talent via varying roles in small budget films.

The few dozen or so of us who saw her versatility over the last few years in Personal Shopper, JT LeRoy, Lizzie, Certain Women, Still Alice and Clouds of Sils Maria no longer think first of Twilight’s Bella Swan.

But Ellen Ripley?

William Eubank’s deep sea horror Underwater sees Stewart as Nora, a no-nonsense, quick-thinking, fast-acting survivor—the kind who just might keep the remaining crew alive as they try to make their way from an irreversibly damaged deep sea drill rig to a nearby vessel that might have pods to float them to safety.

But what caused the damage in the first place and what is making that noise?

Eubank has assembled a surprisingly solid cast for his “Alien Under the Sea” flick. Joining Stewart as the rig’s humbly heroic captain is the always excellent Vincent Cassel, while John Gallagher Jr. plays the latest in his long line of effortlessly likeable good guys, Smith. Chubby comic relief is delivered by T.J. Miller.

If that sounds like your basic set of recognizable stereotypes assembled to be picked off one by one, you’ve detected the first major problem with Eubank’s film: a breathtaking lack of originality.

The script, penned by Brian Duffield (The Babysitter) and Adam Cozad (The Legend of Tarzan), offers nothing in the way of novelty and much of the dialog is stilted, and Nora’s third act reveal of the emotional damage she must overcome is false and forced.

Luckily, Eubanks somehow convinced a bunch of genuinely talented actors to deliver these lines, so they mainly come off fine. And while the director frustratingly and consistently undercuts the claustrophobic tension he’s begun building, his monsters are pretty cool looking.

Stewart gets to try on the action hero role, and she’s not too bad. For a 95 minute sea monster movie, neither is Underwater. It’s not too good, either, but at least there are no sparkly vampires.

Grade: C

Three Christs

by Hope Madden

“Three grown men who believe they are Jesus Christ—it’s almost comical,” reads Bradley Whitford’s Clyde, a Ypsilanti mental patient who happens to be one of those three men. There is something bittersweet and meta about his reading that particular line from Dr. Stone’s (Richard Gere) report on the experimental procedure the doctor is undertaking with his three chosen patients.

On its surface, Three Christs itself seems almost comical. Whitford, Walton Goggins and Peter Dinklage play real-life patients institutionalized in Michigan in the 1960s, each of whom believed they were Jesus. Just below the surface is a sad, lonesome story of a medical system ill-equipped and unwilling to treat the individual, and of the peculiar, touching struggles of three souls lost within that system.

Director Jon Avnet, writing with Eric Nazarian, adapts social psychologist Milton Rokeach’s nonfiction book on his own study, “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.”

Whitford’s performance is fine, but he’s somewhat out of his league when compared to Dinklage and Goggins. Dinklage is the film’s heartbeat and he conveys something simultaneously vulnerable and superior in his behavior. He’s wonderful as always, but it’s Goggins who steals this film.

Goggins continues to be an undervalued and under-recognized talent. He can play anything from comic relief to sadistic villainy to nuanced dramatic lead (check out his turn in Them That Follow for proof of the latter). Here the rage that roils barely beneath the surface speaks to the loneliness and pain of constantly misunderstanding and being misunderstood that has marked his character’s entire life.

Gere is the weakest spot in the film. He charms, and his rare scenes with Juliana Margulies, playing Stone’s wife Ruth, are vibrant and enjoyable. But in his responses to his patients and in his struggles against the system (mainly embodied by Stephen Root and Kevin Pollak), he falls back on headshakes, sighs and bitter chuckles.

Aside from two of the three Christs’ performances, Avent’s film looks good but lacks in focus, failing to hold together especially well. The point of the extraordinary treatment method is never very clear, nor is its progress. Stone’s arc is also weak, which again muddies the point of the film.

Three Christs misses more opportunities than it grabs, which is unfortunate because both Dinklage, and especially Goggins, deliver performances worth seeing.

Grade: B-

Also opening in Columbus:
Afterward (NR)
The Chambermaid (NR)
Darbar (NR)
The Disappearance of My Mother (NR)
Sarileru Neekevvaru (NR)
The Sonata (NR)

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

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