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So You’ve Seen Endgame. Now What?

George Wolf George Wolf So You’ve Seen Endgame. Now What?Photo still from "Ask Dr. Ruth," via IMDb.
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Studios figured the Marvel capper would still be raking in the dough this weekend, so there are no sure fire blockbusters being released. Instead, for a rainy couple of days, you’ll find a smattering of smaller films opening all over town. Some of them are pretty great. Some of them are definitely not. We’ll walk you through it.

Long Shot

by George Wolf

Long Shot‘s first success comes before the opening credits even start rolling. It’s right there on the movie poster: “Unlikely, but not impossible.”

So before you can scoff at the idea of Charlize Theron giving Seth Rogen the time ‘o day, your protest of the premise is a) acknowledged, and b) set aside, leaving plenty of loophole to just appreciate an R-rated romantic comedy that’s brash, smart, timely, and pretty damn funny.

Rogen is Fred Flarsky, a scruffy, sweatsuit-loving online journalist known for cutting-edge exposes such as “F*&^ You, Exxon,” and “The Two Party System Can Suck a D&^%.” When media monarch Rupert Murdoch, er, I mean Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis) buys the digital magazine Fred works for, he quits in protest.

Theron plays Secretary of State Charlotte Field, a graceful, brilliant stateswoman who’s ready to make a run for the Oval Office and could use a speechwriter. Back in her teens, Charlotte was Fred’s babysitter (!), and after they cross paths at an ill-fated fundraiser, he’s brought on to give Charlotte’s speeches a little of that Fred Flarsky feeling.

The surprising (but not impossible!) romance that follows doesn’t thrill Team Charlotte (the slideshow explaining how it might impact her poll numbers is a scream) but credit writers Dan Sterling (The Interview) and Liz Hannah (The Post) for having more on their minds than a dude makeover.

Keeping just enough of that Rogen stoner-comedy vibe, Long Shot skewers Bernie Bros, female candidate double standards, romantic comedy tropes, celebrity presidents and, most pointedly and hilariously of all, Fox News.

Theron and Rogen elevate every bit of it, working as a comedic power couple out in front of an ensemble cast full of standouts, most notably June Diane Raphael as Charlotte’s disapproving Chief of Staff and O’Shea Jackson, Jr. as Fred’s motivational best friend.

Director Jonathan Levine (The Wackness, 50/50, The Night Before) keeps things grounded and character-focused. Just when the parody or implauseability is in danger of running amok, he gets us back in the semi-real world of crowd pleasing entertainment.

And though that does mean a third act that gives in to overt sentimentality, Long Shot has the heart, charm and hilarity to win you over long before then.

Grade: B+

Her Smell

by Hope Madden

“Kill your idols.”

“Give them enough rope and they will do it themselves.”

Apt lines from Alex Ross Perry’s new rock and roll meltdown, Her Smell.

You may think you’ve seen “Behind the Music” style self-destruction, but you have never seen anything quite like this.

And how great is that title?!

Writer/director Perry has a soft spot for unlikeable people. That is the most common element running through his work — Color Wheel, Listen Up Philip, Queen of Earth. So it’s no huge shock that he hasn’t made a profitable film yet. That’s a tough sell: come spend 90 minutes — or in the case of Her Smell, 144 minutes — with someone you’ll have a tough time tolerating.

Which is not to say Perry makes bad movies. He makes really good movies, they just try your patience. Her Smell has a couple of things going for it, though.

First of all, there’s train wreck appeal. Becky Something (a ferocious Elisabeth Moss) is so outrageously tough to love that you cannot look away from the downward spiral Perry dares you to witness.

The second and most important strength is Moss’s stellar turn as Something, a rocker facing the inevitable consequence of drug abuse, pathological insecurity and the shifting dynamics of the music world.

The film itself is a dizzying, self-indulgent mess, which only seems appropriate. Sean Price Williams’ restless camera captures it all. All of it. All all all. And Moss’s toxic, mascara-smeared maniac is such a loathsome explosion, you almost wish rock bottom would come, already.

Uncharacteristic of the filmmaker, though, regret and redemption color the film’s second half. It’s here that Moss’s rawness and the deeply felt character work from her supporting cast (an especially wonderful Agyness Deyn, in particular) repay you for the abuse you’ve taken for more than an hour. 

The music itself — much of it, anyway — is the film’s real weakness. But Moss, who has more than proven her mettle in basically every role she’s ever taken, is more than fearless here. She is bare, ugly authenticity and there is something transcendent about sticking it out with her.

Grade: A-

Ask Dr. Ruth

by Cat McAlpine

Ruth Westheimer stands only 4’ 7” tall and she knows it, mentioning her small stature frequently throughout the documentary Ask Dr. Ruth. She believes being small made her less intimidating when she took the world by storm talking frankly about sex. Ruth’s small stature also came in handy when she was grievously injured in the 1947-49 Palestine War, as she was able to stay in an overcrowded hospital by sleeping on a bookshelf.

Oh, that’s right. Ruth didn’t become Dr. Ruth until her 40’s. First she survived the holocaust in a Swiss orphanage, emigrated to Palestine, became a sniper for a Jewish paramilitary group during the war, started her education in Paris, fell in love and was married three times, emigrated to the United States, and raised a family.

Director Ryan White curates a beautiful narrative that explores Ruth’s constant position at the forefront of change and upheaval. The story flickers between a retelling of Ruth’s early life, the beginning of her career, and a reflection of what she’s managed to accomplish today. At 90 years old Ruth is still teaching classes, performing speeches, writing books, and giving advice. At one point she’s asked, “Why write another book now, at 90?” (she’s published at least 30).

She replies with good humor, “What a stupid question.”

Ruth herself is a marvelous star. She’s proud of what she does; she’s kept recordings of all of her performances and you can spy flyers and posters of her appearances tacked up in her New York apartment. She’s warm and welcoming, a caregiver to her core, but she is also shockingly stoic for her jovial nature. Ruth keeps the events of her life at arm’s length. Accounts of past wars and lost loves are highlighted with animated reenactments.

This is the point where I typically balk at documentaries. Animation or actor reenactments often feel like a necessary evil in telling a story that cameras weren’t present for. I find the mixed media style off-putting and, honestly, tacky. In Ask Dr. Ruth though, the effect works pretty well. It helps that the dreamy animation is done with vignettes rather than characters mouthing a voice-over.

Toward the end of the film, there’s a super-cut montage of Ruth’s life. Black and white photos alternate with the beautiful animations and clips from 80s talk shows. It’s wild and crazy, happy and sad, and so very, very Ruth.

This film is a heartwarming tale of what life is like as a refugee and an immigrant, a feminist icon who denies the label, and as a doting mother and grandmother. Allow yourself to be delightfully surprised by Ask Dr. Ruth.

Grade: A-

The River and the Wall

by Rachel Willis

Director Ben Masters has an interest in the land along the Rio Grande. In making The River and the Wall, he hopes to show us what makes the area so special.

Along with four companions – two wildlife filmmakers, an ecologist/ornithologist, and a Rio Grande river guide – Masters embarks on a weeks-long, 1,200-mile trip from El Paso, Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. They travel along the Rio Grande, the potential site of a border wall that, if erected, would have a lasting, devastating impact on the land.

Most of the film screens like an adventure tale. The companions travel by mountain bike and mustang in places where the river is too shallow for boats. When the river is passable, they journey by canoe. By making the trip in this way, they hope to show the difficulty of the journey in numerous places. It’s an imperfect attempt to emphasize the unlikelihood that immigrants would choose these routes when attempting to cross into the United States.

Along the way, we meet people on both sides of the border. If there are people who live in these areas who are in favor of the wall, Masters and team don’t meet any. From people living in Mexico to ranchers in Texas, everyone recognizes the potential negative consequences to the proposed wall. Even the area U.S. representatives in Congress, Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat, and Will Hurd, a Republican, are opposed to the wall. Hurd states that building a wall “is the most expensive, least effective” method for border security. It’s a rare show of bipartisanship that should give those opposed to the wall some hope.

The cinematography is essential in a film that wants to impart upon the audience the beauty, vastness, and treachery of the land, and the crew is up to the challenge. Numerous shots highlight the diversity of the landscape as the five friends make their way along the river.

In some ways, The River and the Wall effectively states its case that the area around the Rio Grande should be protected. Ecologist Heather Mackey mentions over 150 bird species live in the area, some of which are only located in this area. A wall would disrupt migration patterns, bulldoze protected natural areas, and in effect, cede nearly 1 million acres of U.S. land to Mexico.

However, it is unlikely the film will change the minds of those in favor of the wall. Most likely because they won’t even bother to see it.

Grade: A-

The Intruder

by George Wolf

If you caught Dennis Quaid creeping around your house on numerous occasions, would you be scared, or just figure he was bringing over some mac and cheese? (Liquid gold!)

Quaid might be one of the ultimate likable dudes, and his playing waaay against type is one of promising threads that The Intruder squanders in its warmed over dish of jump scares and borrowed ideas.

Beautiful couple Scott (Michael Ealy) and Annie (Meagan Good) are living the good life in San Francisco, but Annie feels it’s time they move to the country and start a family. She finds her dream house at the Napa Valley home of Charlie Peck (Quaid), and as quickly as you can say “overly rushed setup,” they’re moving in.

Charlie says he’s selling to head South, so why is he still coming over to mow the lawn, assist with the Christmas decorations, and find reasons to be alone with Annie?

Whaddya bet he’s not really retiring to Florida, or that some guy at Scott’s office would like nothing better than dig into Charlie’s past to find what he’s hiding?

Director Deon Taylor (Traffik) and writer David Loughery (Lakeview Terrace) are both treading familiar ground, too much on autopilot to successfully mine the contrasts they introduce.

It’s old ways versus new, city versus country, and a red hat wearing white guy terrorizing a black couple.

That’s plenty to chew on, but everyone goes hungry while characters make one idiotic decision after another on the subtlety-free ride to a finale lifted verbatim from a 90s thriller.

At some point, Taylor and Loughery needed to chose a path: logical, layered tension or unhinged, over-the-top fun.

It’s clearly evident which one Quaid wanted, but both he and the film end up undecided on the remodeling plans. Like that old, musty spare room with the bad wallpaper, The Intruder is a little creepy, too often unintentionally funny and in need of some work.

Grade: C-

Ugly Dolls

by Hope Madden

We open on what is essentially the Island of Misfit Toys. This is the moment when the adults in the Ugly Dolls audience need to make a choice: accept these notions stolen from far superior toy-related children’s fare as homages, or bristle at inferior product skating by on copy-catting.

It’s your choice, but your kids will mainly see a perfectly sweet, upbeat and unimaginative tale of an ugly duckling. Even better, an ugly duckling who doesn’t need to become a swan to be happy.

That duck, or that blobby pink thing, is Moxy (voiced by Kelly Clarkson). And she lives happily in Uglyville with other merrily misshapen beasties (Wanda Sykes, Blake Shelton, Pitbull, Leehom Wang, Gabriel Iglesias). But Moxy yearns for more.

On a songtastic adventure to fulfill her dream, Moxy and gang run afoul of the pretty dolls, whose leader, Lou (Nick Jonas) intends to keep them from finding the boy or girl who will love them.

Will that stop Moxy? No! She yearns for her very own Andy.

I feel safe in saying that because there’s no question director Kelly Asbury (Shrek 2) and screenwriter Alison Peck (working with characters created by Su-min Kim and David Horvath) have seen Toy Story.

Man, that was a good movie, eh? The whole series, actually. In fact, there’s one scene in Toy Story 3 that made me cry harder than any scene in any film ever. It obviously made an impact on Asbury and Peck as well, because it is lifted shamelessly for the emotional climax of UglyDolls.

When it’s not distracting you with its borderline plagiarism, UglyDolls is sledgehammering its theme. Janelle Monáe voices Mandy, a pretty doll who might be ugly deep down (a good thing). She helps beat the point home that we do not need to conform to be happy. Which is a great theme, and one that a well-made film (like, say, Shrek) can deliver without losing sight of storytelling.

The big screen leap for these critters amounts to a sweetly mediocre marketing strategy for some unattractive (but lovable!) toys.

Grade: C-

Also opening in Columbus:

Bolden (R)
The Chaperone (NR)
El Chicano (R)
Hesburgh (PG)
Sorry Angel (R)
Under the Silver Lake (R)

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

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