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Quiet Weekend of Indies in Theaters

George Wolf George Wolf Quiet Weekend of Indies in TheatersPhoto still from "Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes," via IMDb.
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It’s a surprisingly quiet week in theaters. I guess Hollywood wanted to give you the chance to catch up on the films with Golden Globe noms. (To that end, Glenn Close’s The Wife has been re-released and can be caught on CBUS screens this weekend.) Beyond that, it’s leftover city — or you can feast on one of these tasty indies.


by George Wolf

“Hey, Tyrone.”

“It’s Tyler, actually.”

“Oh, my bad.”

The subtle discomforts start early in Tyrel, writer/director Sebastian Silva’s perceptive and slyly intense slice of racially tinged mumblecore, a film that benefits greatly from yet another standout turn from Jason Mitchell.

Mitchell stars as Tyler, an African-American man who is grateful to escape a houseful of in-laws by joining his friend John (Christopher Abbott) on a birthday getaway in the Catskills.

But it’s not John’s birthday. It’s John’s friend Pete’s (Caleb Landry Jones) birthday, and it isn’t long before Tyler is meeting plenty of new faces and realizing his is the only one that isn’t white.

Plus, it just happens to be the weekend of Trump’s inauguration. Perfect.

Amid heavy dialog that’s fast and free-flowing with an improvisational feel, the crowded mountain home becomes a nerve-wracking metaphor for the state of race relations. Silva, the unconventional Chilean filmmaker who mined social anxieties effectively in Nasty Baby and The Maid, continues to subvert expectations through intimate, thoughtful characterizations.

After a long stream of memorable supporting roles (Straight Outta Compton, Mudbound, Detroit, Kong: Skull Island), Mitchell carries this film with a performance that is sympathetic from the start, a key factor Silva leans on to turn our insecurities against us. With each slight, appropriation and assurance that “he didn’t mean anything by that,” Tyler’s feelings become more conflicted, raising the level of concern we have for what might happen.

As is his wont, Silva steers clear of expected plot turns and veers in surprising directions, one of them concerning a friendly Catskills neighbor down the road (Ann Dowd).

Though it’s understandably easy to compare this film to Get Out (especially with Jones in the cast), that comparison itself may be one of the scabs Silva is picking. Why did Jordan Peele’s horror story resonate so brilliantly?

With a focus on casual affronts to identity and the privileged confidence that everything is fine, Tyrel‘s Catskills weekend offers some clues.

Grade: B+

Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes

by Matt Weiner

The two most arresting interviews in the new documentary Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes don’t involve any surprising new reveals about the Fox News media mogul himself. But it’s no accident of archival footage for director Alexis Bloom to let clips of Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose hang on the screen just a few beats too long.

Ailes resigned from the network he built in July 2016, brought down by sexual harassment allegations, including those from current and former high-profile Fox News anchors. It would be another year before #MeToo crystallized as a movement, but Bloom convincingly frames the rise and fall of Ailes within this broader national reckoning.

Ample time is given to Ailes’ accusers. Their stories are powerful, and serve as a constant reminder that the tragedy of these harassment incidents aren’t the “great men” we lose but rather all the potential talent that was silenced or forced to leave the industry too soon.

The most refreshing part of Bloom’s perspective is that it means we’re subjected to a surprisingly little amount of armchair analysis. A few of the industry talking heads wonder about the paths not taken for Ailes, and glimpses of his white picket fence upbringing in northeastern Ohio certainly fit neatly within his guiding ethos for Fox News as a revanchist counterweight to supposed liberal anarchy. But these tangents either slip away quietly or are forcibly punctured by the reality of his legacy. It’s a satisfying irony to see Bloom take control away from Ailes and his persona, even posthumously.

If the broad outlines of Ailes as both kingmaker and myth-maker are familiar territory in Divide and Conquer — from his prescient television savvy with Nixon up through the perfect singularity Fox News achieved through its fusion with Donald Trump — Bloom makes a good case that this story is still vital. And, for better or worse, unfinished.

That a paranoid old ogre could have built any world he wanted to with his boundless talent is about as nice a sentiment as the film can coax from his former colleagues. But so what? Ailes is dead now, and can only look up at the rest of us as we figure out how to live in or fight against the world he created.

Grade: B+

Maria by Callas

by Christie Robb

It’s an ambitious project to document the life of an international celebrity almost entirely in her own words. And that’s the task undertaken, not entirely successfully, by director Tom Volf in Maria by Callas.

The life of the mid-century opera singer is captured primarily through taped interviews, diary entries, letters to friends (read by the opera singer Joyce DiDonato), and, of course, recordings of Callas’s phenomenal performances.

We see the polished surface of a star born to humble beginnings in New York and rose to command stages across Europe and the Americas. It’s almost two hours of sweeping updos, elaborate costumes, chic evening wear, dripping jewels, swaddling furs, impeccable makeup, and pristine manicures.

Volf tracks Callas’s career from the 50s through the 70s, and lingers on close ups of Callas’s arias. She’s a waif, all bouffant hair, expressive eyes, and bird-like bones. You wonder how such a big voice can possibly come from such a tiny frame. She’s magnetic. Passionate. Commanding.

The singing is interspersed with autobiographical tidbits provided by Callas. But these are only sketches. Although she states again and again that she would give up her career to raise a family, and it’s clear that at some point around her late 20s or early 30s she got married, the first time she utters her husband’s name in the documentary is to discuss their impending separation. We are left to wonder how genuine she is in saying that she’d give up her career for domestic life, and how much she felt compelled to say that, given the prevailing gender norms of the years in which she was famous.

Much of the autobiography portion is consumed with Callas’s operatic 10-plus year affair with Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, which occurred both before and after his marriage to Jackie Kennedy. Through interviews and letters you can see Callas’s attempt to put a positive spin on what must have been quite a tumultuous relationship. Even while he is pulling away from her, Callas writes to a friend, asking for agreement on how he has changed for the better.

The final moments of the movie show Maria kicking back in Florida. Her hair is down for the first time. She’s wearing loose lounge wear instead of a corseted bodice. Her hair flows down her back, and she’s sporting thick glasses that magnify her myopic eyes. It’s clear how much effort has gone into the package of the public Callas persona.

The contrast between the woman and the artifice would have been more effective with a bit more exposition. It’s an admirable goal to have Callas in control of her own narrative, but to do so leaves out information that would be helpful to provide context to this life. For example, Maria’s rivalry with an older sister who was considered to be the pretty one in the family. The scandalous headlines. The qualities of her vocal talents. The year Maria decided to lose some weight mid-career and lost nearly 80 pounds. How the weight loss may have contributed to her vocal decline. How her changing voice impacted her attempted late-career comeback. Without the biographical backstory, the documentary seems too surface level.

If you don’t know a lot about Callas, do your research beforehand and come for the music and her arresting performances.

Grade: C+

Also opening in Columbus:
At Eternity’s Gate (R)
Searching for Ingmar Bergman (NR)

Read more from George and team at MADDWOLF, and listen to a weekly roundup of film reviews on the podcast SCREENING ROOM.

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