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Oscar Contenders Hit Big Screens and Small

Hope Madden Hope Madden Oscar Contenders Hit Big Screens and SmallBelfast - Photo via IMDb
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One massive misfire, two black and white powerhouses, a hometown haunting, two compelling indies, and one really bad shark movie. Now that is variety. Which one is on your radar? 

Belfast

In theaters

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

As an actor, Kenneth Branagh can be very ALL CAPS. As a director, he’s harder to pin down. The one thing you can point to, whether his directorial efforts work or do not, is that they are theatrical.

I mean that in a good way, usually. For his latest, the bittersweetly semi-autobiographical Belfast, I mean it in a good way specifically.

Branagh has yet to make a film with such precise visual purpose or style. Every black and white frame, every movement or lack of movement from the camera carries the vision of the film. Belfast is a man’s reminiscence of his own childhood, informed by the movies and songs that bleed together with memory and saturated in the wonder of youth.

Set the whole thing to a steady beat of Van Morrison tunes (natch!), and just listen to those pipes start calling.

It is sentimental. It is nostalgic. It is unapologetically sincere. But by taking the perspective of a 9-year-old boy trying to make sense of a suddenly and profoundly confusing and frightening world, the film gets away with it.

That boy, young Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill, stunning), has to wade through a crush on a smarter, taller, Catholic girl as well as his beloved grandfather’s failing health, his parents’ bickering over money, and, of course, the Troubles. (That is to say, the civil unrest in Northern Ireland that erupted around the time Buddy turned 9.)

Branagh surrounds his young star with talent in every direction, some of it a bit of a surprise. Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench delight as Buddy’s grandparents, while Jamie Dornan impresses with a tender, earnest turn as his father.

Caitriona Balfe shines nearly as brightly as Hill, playing his fierce mother. Balfe benefits from the story’s greatest arc and most of its heaviest emotional scenes, carrying the film’s weight with grace.

Young Hill charms in every scene, though that’s something Branagh’s film has to spare. The script he penned of his memories sweeps you into an idealized, meticulously crafted yarn so lyrical it could be nothing other than Irish.

Yes, the film’s brushstrokes get fairly wide, but take that as an invitation to let Branagh’s memories spur your own – of parents and grandparents, close knit neighborhoods and days where wonder could be found most anywhere.

Is Belfast too precious? It comes close, but between a truly game cast and sheer filmmaking craftsmanship, the vision is hard to deny — as is the opinion that this is Kenneth Branagh’s finest film.

Grade: A-

Passing

On Netflix

by Hope Madden

Making her feature debut behind the camera, Rebecca Hall adapts Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel about women unable to find a place to truly belong. The film is Passing, and Hall mines Larsen’s insight and longing to produce a visually stunning, melancholy period piece.

Filmed appropriately and gorgeously in black and white, Passing transports us to the Harlem Renaissance. Irene (Tessa Thompson), wealthy wife of a doctor, pulls her fashionable hat down a little over her eyes and shops in upscale, very white boutiques looking for the book her son must have for his birthday.

She then cautiously risks an afternoon tea in a high-rent bistro, intrigued but terrified of being discovered as she passes for white. A familiar laugh rings through the room and Irene is recognized, not by angry white faces, but by an almost unfamiliar blonde — high school friend Clare (Ruth Negga), whose entire life is built on the falsehood Irene only flirts with for an afternoon.

What follows is a relationship fraught with anxiety, envy and yearning as two people consider what might have been and what might still be, depending on how they position themselves in the divided racial culture of 1920s NYC.

The languid beauty and comment on class play like a more delicate take on Gatsby, Hall subtly drawing attention not only to the racial divide but to the socioeconomic divide within Irene’s own home and life. Never showy, never heavy-handed, the film’s themes prick at the audience just as they slowly, cumulatively wound Irene.

Thompson delivers an introspective performance unlike anything thus far in her impressive career. A great deal of Irene’s arc plays across Thompson’s face, but an early, cynical burst of laughter and other small gestures speak volumes as Irene’s satisfaction with life drains away.

Negga is superb, just incandescent and haunting as a damaged, elegant survivor. For all her glitter and glamour, Clare haunts the screen. The tenderness between the two characters haunts, as well, delivering a sorrowful tone at odds and yet in keeping with the glorious, snow-globe-esque set design.

Hall might seem an unusual talent to deliver such a richly textured examination of the Black experience in America, but she took inspiration from her own grandfather, a Black man who passed for white. Whatever the background, the result is a meticulously crafted, deeply felt gem of a film.

Grade: A-

Red Notice

On Netflix

by George Wolf

Heist Movie? Gal Gadot? I’m in.

Plus Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds.

I said I’m in! Sounds like a bunch of fun.

But somehow, it’s just not.

Johnson is FBI agent John Hartley, and he’s on the trail of Nolan Booth (Reynolds), the second most wanted art thief in the world.

Who’s number one? That would be The Bishop (Gadot), a mysterious criminal who always seems one step ahead of Booth in the quest to reunite three priceless jeweled eggs that Marc Antony once gave to Cleopatra. Yes, Cleopatra.

After a snappy, parkour-heavy chase to open the film, Hartley offers Booth the chance to move up to the top spot on Interpol’s Red Notice (highest level arrest warrant) list. All he has to do is help Hartley and the Feds nab The Bishop.

And the game is on!

Writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball, We’re the Millers, Central Intelligence, Skyscraper) has assembled three charismatic A-listers for a globe-trotting adventure with glamourous locales, double crosses and a script full of quippy banter. And it takes barely thirty minutes to begin wondering how it all went wrong.

You would think that watching Gadot, Reynolds and Johnson do anything together would be at least a marginal hoot, but nobody seems comfortable. What chemistry there is feels forced, at best, and none of the three stars bring much beyond the personas they’ve earned in better films. Reynolds carries most of the comedic weight, but with schtick that’s nearly interchangeable from his two Hitman’s Bodyguard films, a stale odor appears early and often.

There are a few LOL moments, most notably Hartley and Booth arguing about Jurassic Park and the real Ed Sheeran showing up to fight some federal agents. But with direct references that include Indiana Jones and Vin Diesel, plus multiple outlandish wardrobe changes (Johnson can’t exactly buy off the rack, so who had the tailor made safari outfit?), Thurber ends up navigating an awkward space that teeters on spoof.

Is Red Notice really trying to launch a new action/comedy franchise? Or is it just riffing on the genre? Either way, it ends up on the naughty list. Even those two Hitmans Bodyguard films embrace their own ridiculousness to deliver some dumb, forgettable fun. Red Notice manages two out of those three, and that ain’t good.

Grade: C-

Double Walker

On VOD

by Hope Madden

You know that lyric from It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year — “there’ll be scary ghost stories”? I was an adult before I realized Andy Williams was talking about Scrooge.

Filmmaker Colin West reminds us that that story, and Christmas ghosts in general, can be pretty scary and awfully damaging in his latest, Double Walker.

We open on a blood stain, then a funeral, then a despondent mother (Maika Carter), but her grief is more complicated than it looks.

From there, West’s film follows one young woman (co-writer Sylvie Mix, Poser) who looks very cold and vulnerable on the wintery streets of Columbus, Ohio. As one nice guy after another offers aid, West toys with your preconceived notions. Is she a dangerous psychopath? A victim in the making? Is Double Walker possibly a riff on Emerald Fennell’s glorious Promising Young Woman?

Not exactly. And maybe. But not really.

What the filmmakers have done is to fracture a storyline in favor of a mood, one that takes on the surreal qualities of a haunting.

A meditation on trauma, Double Walker sidesteps easy summarization but never feels unmoored. Like the old Dickens story, this tale wonders at the ripple effects of behaviors, how a change here or there might yet alter the course of events.

Mix is hollow, chilly melancholy as the central figure, wandering into and out of an interconnected group of lives. The almost expressionless performance through the bulk of her screentime allows the mystery to unravel around her without giveaways. It also adds weight to the rare smile and horror to her sudden movements.

Not every performance is as strong, but West evokes such a poignant and dreamlike atmosphere that minor acting hiccups can be overlooked. He casts a spell with his feature debut and it’s hard not to wonder what both he and Mix might do next.

Grade: B+

Night Raiders

On VOD

by Brandon Thomas

Good science fiction has always held a mirror up to humanity’s failings. The complex ways we continue to make bad decisions that impact society, our families and the planet have been fodder for incredible storytelling for decades. The genre has routinely used the present to paint a complicated future. With Night Raiders, Canadian director Danis Goulet looks backward – to North America’s bloody genocidal past – to make a statement about free will, colonization and identity in a dystopian future. 

Night Raiders opens with Niska (Elle Maija-Tailfeathers) and her daughter, Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart), living an isolated and dangerous existence in the wilderness. In their war-ravaged world, children are taken from their parents so that they can be thoroughly conditioned to become soldiers. When Waseese is injured, Niska is forced to take her to the city for treatment. The film then jumps forward nearly a year and finds Niskia with a group of rebels, while Waseese has ended up in a “children’s academy,” which is really a reeducation camp. 

On paper, Night Raiders doesn’t sound all that different from countless other dystopian sci-fi movies. However, the film’s details make it truly shine. Making this an indigenous story featuring indigenous leads gives Night Raiders the kind of gravitas it wouldn’t have had any other way. The colonization metaphor isn’t subtle, but Goulet doesn’t beat the audience over the head with it. It’s impossible to tell this story in this manner without connecting those dots. 

Goulet wisely lets a sense of mystery hang over large portions of the story. There aren’t any characters providing lengthy exposition dumps to help the audience catch up. No, this is simply a world where something terrible happened, and the bad guys won the day. Night Raiders trusts the audience to fill in the gaps where needed, while knowing that not every last detail needs an exclamation point after it. 

Night Raiders is an exciting and fresh bit of sci-fi that succeeds largely by telling a well-traveled story through a compelling point-of-view.

Grade: A-

Small Time

On VOD

by Christie Robb

Writer/director Naiv Conty certainly does not look back on childhood with a rose colored tint. Her film Small Time follows elementary school student Emma as she pinballs around from unfit home to unfit home.

It’s an emotionally honest portrait of neglect that keeps us uncomfortably aware of the tightrope Emma is unaware that she is walking. She’s constantly suspended above disaster—one overlooked gas stove, one loaded handgun, one move from a leering perv away from lasting trauma.

But Emma’s still sustaining damage all the time, just in tinier, more banal ways. Hard-core drug and alcohol abuse by the adults around her is a normal part of her life. She’s loaded up with religious baggage. She’s expected to parent the grown-ups in her life. In the whole movie, no one is there to give her a cuddle or reassurance that looks like it is going to truly have a positive effect. But most of the adults do seem to be doing their best. It’s just that their best isn’t that great.

You know you are in for a heavy film when, only 13 minutes in, your pint-sized heroine has attended her primary caregiver’s funeral and tried repeatedly to “wake up” her mom from an OD.

Still, Emma is a scrappy, upbeat, smart little thing, her interior light dimmed surprisingly little by the shit she has to deal with. Audrey Grace Marshall plays her very straightforwardly. There’s nothing saccharine about her, nothing overwrought. She takes things as they come.

The movie plays a little bit with the timeline and shows events somewhat out of order. This didn’t become clear to me until relatively far into the film. It was filmed over a three-and-a-half-year period to give Marshall time to grow and mature between the three major periods depicted.

These chronological jumps are not clearly signaled by musical or obvious visual cues so it can be a bit disorienting. But the lack of exposition does center us in Emma’s experience as she flashes back to previous experiences and tries to make the best of the terrible hand she’s been dealt.

Small Time isn’t an easy film to watch, but it’s a good one.

Grade: A-

Lair

On VOD

by Rachel Willis

Opening with a very tense scene of a young boy hiding under the stairs, writer/director Adam Ethan Crow sets us up for a suspenseful horror tale.

It’s unfortunate he can’t keep the momentum going. Following this immensely creepy start, Lair falls back on a mundane expository scene where we’re introduced to our main character, Dr. Steven Caramore (Corey Johnson). Disbelieving the existence of demons and the supernatural, he nonetheless decides to test out several supposedly haunted items on a group of unsuspecting renters in his building.

The clueless renters are Maria (Aislinn De’ath), her girlfriend Carly (Alana Wallace), and her own two daughters. The apartment is wired to watch for any sinister activity, so the film sinks into voyeur territory. Caramore watches these women in intimate situations, but Crow treats this as an unfortunate part of spying on your neighbors for demonic activity. It would have made more sense to mine this behavior to sinister effect, and combine it with Caramore’s habit of sneaking into the women’s apartment to place new, haunted items.

His tenants, unaware of this invasion into their lives, have their own drama to deal with. Head of a newly constructed family, Maria is trying to integrate Carly into her daughters’ lives. Carly attempts to figure out where she fits—is she the girls’ friend (particularly the teenage daughter) or an authority figure? This, along with the haunted apartment, is reason enough for interest. Dr. Caramore’s place in the mix begins to seem unnecessary. Why is his story patched into the family’s horror?

And yet, you can appreciate what Crow is trying to accomplish. The bones of a great tale are here, but the narrative falls apart as it’s fleshed out. Poor dialogue and an excess of exposition hurt the overall story. The actors embrace their roles and bring a level of realism to the movie, even as you try to wrap your head around some of the things they do or say.

Lair’s best aspects are the visual effects. There are some terrifying scenes, a couple of impressive jump scares, and some well-imagined demonic activity. Crow delivers enough horrific moments to satisfy even as his movie leaves something to be desired.

It’s also refreshing to see a demon movie that doesn’t revolve around possession—a genre explored almost as much as the zombie oeuvre.

Though Lair is not without its flaws, it’s nonetheless an intriguing idea.

Grade: C-

Great White

On Shudder

by George Wolf

Wait, no new scientific term mixing sharks and weather? No genetically modified sharks? Unearthed prehistoric giants? Sharks with lasers on their heads?

Geesh, do these guys even know how to Sharkmovie?

Don’t get me wrong, Shudder’s Great White gives you plenty of opportunity to suspend disbelief, but it’s built on a premise that now seems almost quaint.

People in the water. Sharks in the water. Big sharks.

Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies….

Actually these are Australian waters, with Charlie (Aaron Jakubenko) and Kaz (Katrina Bowden) running the Pearl Air charter service, where they debate getting married and fire up the seaplane to take tourists on excursions to Hell’s Reef.

The business needs some renewed cash flow, so Charlie is only too happy to book a last minute trip for superdouche investment analyst Joji (Tiim Kano) and his wife Michelle (Kimie Tsukakoshi), who wants to scatter her Grandfather’s ashes in the sea.

But even before cook Benny (Te Kohe Tuhaka) can whip them up a delicious lunch on the island, a ridiculous accident puts everyone in a life raft trying to evade some large, hungry predators that supposedly injured some bathers.

Yes, that’s another Jaws reference, which seems appropriate as director Martin Wilson doesn’t shy away from them either, even including a pretty shameless re-working of one of Spielberg’s classic scenes. But Wilson does craft one major jump scare of his own, and adds frequent shots framed right on the waterline to consistently simmer the tension through simultaneous looks at the castaways and what they fear.

Bowden and Jakubenko mine Michael Boughen’s script for enough authenticity to seem like real people who care for each other. Kano and Tsukakoshi aren’t as lucky, with the Joji character painted as such an over the top asshole that it’s clear he’ll be an entree, the only question is how bloody satisfying it will be to watch.

These man-eaters never do get lasers, but there’s still some pretty outlandish shark wrangling before the shoreline comes into view. So while Great White gets some props for not drowning in silliness from the start, that may have been the only way to make it memorable.

Grade: C-

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

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