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Oscar Noms and Hollywood Hopefuls in Theaters

Hope Madden Hope Madden Oscar Noms and Hollywood Hopefuls in TheatersPhoto via IMDb
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Sure, it’s another week of “How January will Hollywood be?” but that doesn’t mean nothing’s worth seeking. It’s Oscar season! That means that not only are all the big nominees back in rotation, but smaller films—animation, documentary, shorts, international pictures—are all available on Columbus screens, too. Woot!

Gretel & Hansel

by Hope Madden

It’s still early, but 2020 has not been great in terms of horror.

First came Nicolas Pesce’s pointless reboot of The Grudge.

Yikes. And I do not mean that in a good way.

And then last week we had Floria Sigismondi’s boldly wrong-headed reimagining, The Turning.

In keeping with a trend, this week Oz Perkins revisits an existing story. Gretel & Hansel picks on the bones of that old fairly-tale—the one that actually did scare the shit out of me as a kid. Two kids are turned out into the woods because their parents can’t feed them. Things go from bad to worse once they’re left to fend for themselves and soon cannibalism comes into play, as I assume it always does when you get lost in the woods.

Perkins, working from a script by Rob Hayes (East Meets Barry West), abandons much of the original bits (fewer breadcrumbs). His spookier imagination is more interested in Gretel’s burgeoning womanhood.

Sophia Lillis (IT) narrates and stars as Gretel, the center of this coming-of-age story—reasonable, given the change of billing suggested by the film’s title. The witch may still have a tasty meal on her mind, but this is less a cautionary tale than it is a metaphor for agency over obligation.

Alice Krige and her cheekbones strike the perfect mixture of menace and mentorship, while Sammy Leakey’s little Hansel manages to be both adorable and tiresome, as is required for the story to work.

Perkins continues to impress with his talent for visual storytelling and Galo Olivares’s cinematography heightens the film’s folkloric atmosphere.

It’s unfortunate, though, that Perkins doesn’t also write. The two films he both writes and directs, I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House and, in particular, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, sidestepped predictability while mining primal anxieties to produce excellent, memorable horror.

The writing here doesn’t quite reach the heights of the storyline told through imagery. Gretel & Hansel loses itself too often in a dreamscape horror without rectifying or clarifying, which leaves the metaphor foggy and the horror muted.

The whole affair feels like an intriguing if unsatisfying dream.

Grade: B-

The Rhythm Section

by George Wolf

The sexy assassin. The beautiful killing machine.

The Rhythm Section plays a tune that’s lately been as popular as Taylor Swift at the high school talent show. But hey, there’s still a ways to go before it catches up to the macho men, so have at it, ladies. The right arrangement can always find some swing in the mustiest of standards.

Blake Lively is Stephanie, a top student at Oxford who falls hard after losing her family to an airplane bomber. How hard? She’s an addict and a prostitute, but her destructive spiral finds a new avenue when an investigative reporter seeks her out.

He’s on the trail of the terrorist responsible for the bombing, and Stephanie’s cooperation sets a chain of events in motion that quickly lead to an ex MI-6 operative (Jude Law) training her to be a killer.

And why would he do that, exactly?

Keep that question at bay and you’ll find a serviceable thriller that hits plenty of familiar beats, but is always kept watchable through Lively’s committed performance.

Screenwriter Mark Burnell adapts his own novel as a globe-trotting exercise in exorcising your demons. And while multiple character motivations can get murky, the relationship between Stephanie and her mysterious mentor is always engaging.

Director Reed Morano (I Think We’re Alone Now, TV projects such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Halt and Catch Fire) can stage a nifty fight scene and breathless car chase, but she too often seems desperately in search of a definitive style that never finds a groove.

While soundtrack choices and soft focus flashbacks feel forced, Morano’s detached treatment of Lively’s physical appearance may be the most original pillar in the film. Though her role is plenty physical and Lively never shrinks from it, even the obligatory “red sparrow” sequence offers an overdue counterpoint to the usual leering camera served up by Morano’s male counterparts.

Expect the usual questions of “who can I trust” and the usual fine performance from Sterling K. Brown (that guy’s busy), who shows up as an ex-CIA agent with valuable contacts.

But most of all, expect Lively to keep The Rhythm Section humming, even when it’s set on repeat.

Grade: B-

American Factory

by Hope Madden

When filmmakers Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert documented the last days of Moraine, Ohio’s GM plant for their Oscar nominated 2008 doc The Last Truck, they probably did not foresee a second nomination coming nearly a decade later for what amounts to a sequel.

And yet, American Factory returns to the same scene, this time to provide a fly-on-the-wall peek at the Fuyayo Glass Factory, a Chinese/American experiment taking place inside those same walls.

The first film released by Michelle and Barak Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, American Factory is a case study in cross-cultural miscommunication and national personality clash.

After Moraine’s GM plant closed, the town sank into economic disaster—something Dayton’s own Bognar and Reichert certainly witnessed daily since the short film. Looking to expand their production in the States, China’s Fuayo Glass Industry Group purchased the old GM plant and instantly created quite a buzz.

What Reichert and Bognar capture is astonishing and unnervingly honest. Chinese workers in Ohio are given a crash course in what to expect from Americans, as management tutors them to expect blunt honesty and the Americans’ belief that they are somehow special no matter who they are. Meanwhile, American managers are treated to a company meeting in China where the orderliness and productiveness of the workers inspires awe, the propaganda-riddled pageantry alarms, and the sight of employees sifting through broken glass to find pieces worth salvaging horrifies.

The human struggle at the plant mostly comes down to an attempt to unionize, which Chinese management sees as an opportunity for lazy Americans to gut productivity while the American labor sees it as an opportunity to institute legal protections concerning safety, health code regulations, wages and benefits.

It truly is as if the parties speak different languages.

Bognar and Reichert strive to provide a balanced point of view. Any finger- wagging is directed at both sides of the argument, but even that’s somewhat limited. The filmmakers and their film are more interested in the human side of the exchange. The film sheds light on the loneliness of the Chinese workers biding their time until their families can be brought overseas. We’re also privy to the early optimism and then heartbreaking disappointments faced by the Ohioans hoping for another chance to make an honest living.

While the cultural wreckage offers a fascinating sociological experiment, the film ends far more ominously as automation proves to eliminate all concerns over wages, hours, productivity, quality, jingoism, racism and any other human frailty you can think of.

What the filmmakers encapsulate about humanity, culture and the future of labor is equal parts enthralling and frightening.

Grade: A-

The Edge of Democracy

by George Wolf

Documentaries can often be judged by how successful they are at showing us unfamiliar worlds.

But for the Oscar-nominated The Edge of Democracy, it is the familiarity of the story it tells that makes it so heartbreakingly urgent, as it wraps a personal memoir around a firs- hand account of Brazil’s fragile hold on democracy.

Veteran documentarian Petra Costa (Omar & the Seagull, Undertow Eyes), whose own parents risked their lives protesting Brazil’s military dictatorship, narrates the film with much personal insight, starting with her feeling that she and Brazilian democracy “have grown up together.”

Taking power through a U.S.-backed coup in 1964, a succession of generals ruled Brazil until 1985, when the Workers Party began to take hold, thanks in large part to union leader Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, who was finally elected president in 2002.

Costa, backed up by a string of working class Brazilians, speaks in glowing terms of the economic progress made under Lula, and we see no less than Barack Obama dub him “the most popular politician on Earth.”

Indeed, Lula left office in 2010 with an 87% approval rating, when his hand-picked successor, former militant Dilma Rousseff, won the presidency. Three years later the economy stumbled, Dilma announced a crackdown on corruption, and the knives came out.

Even then, not many would have thought it possible for the democracy Brazilians long fought for to succumb so easily to primal populism, or for Jair Bolsonaro, a bigoted, hostile, “fake news” decrying candidate who began as a joke, to be elected president in 2018.

But here we are.

Costa’s passion for her cause is weary but evident, and her earnest narration often asks us to assume much without pausing to consider any contrasting evaluations of what she dubs “the coup of 2016.”

That’s not to say Dilma’s ouster doesn’t stink to high heaven – it does – but it also isn’t hard to find accusations against the Workers Party that don’t seem that flimsy, and while the one-sided approach is in line with the film’s personal journey, it leaves the documentary side wanting.

But Costa’s ultimate success comes from weaving her family’s story into the political tumult of her homeland, and in turn mirroring a more global struggle. We get a stark illustration of the rising tides of authoritarianism, leaving the Edge of Democracy a film that should be pretty damn personal to all of us.

Grade: B+

Klaus

by Hope Madden

Be honest, when you saw the list of Oscar nominated animated films, did you wonder whether Klaus was somehow the international title for Frozen 2?

Co-directors Sergio Pablos and Carlos Martinez Lopez develop the story of a coddled would-be mailman named Jesper (Jason Schwartzman, perfect). His Postmaster General father tires of Jesper’s spoiled ways and sends him on a make-or-break assignment to the nether reaches of the north, Smeerensburg.

All Jesper has to do is collect and deliver 6000 parcels this year and he can go back to his warm, self-indulgent, cushy little home.

Naturally, there are obstacles. There’s a decades-long feud, for one. It’s so bad the school teacher has turned her school house into a fish market (parents won’t send their kids anywhere they might have to fraternize with the other clan). And then there’s that creepy, disproportionately large, old woodsman.

At times, the twisty tale threatens to collapse under its own weight, but it does not. Instead, it takes risks you don’t often see in family films and those risks mainly pay off. For a Christmas film, the movie manages to mainly avoid schmaltz. It offers clever explanations as to how many of the Santa Claus myths are born, affects just enough of a sense of wonder, and entertains from start to finish.

The vocal talent certainly helps. Flanking Schwartzman are the always welcome JK Simmons as the big guy himself, as well as Rashida Jones, Joan Cusack and Norm MacDonald as a smarmy boatman.

The animation itself is beautiful, but not especially showy. The images won’t disappoint, but they won’t make your jaw drop, either. Instead, Klaus relies on the perfect blend of sentimentality and wit to delight children and entertain their parents.

Grade: B+

Also opening in Columbus:
2020 Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts
2020 Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts
2020 Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts
Aswathama (NR)
Atlantics (R)
I Lost My Body (NR)
Jawaani Jaaneman (NR)
Weathering With You (PG13)

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

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