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Solid Selection of Weekend Flicks

Hope Madden Hope Madden Solid Selection of Weekend FlicksThe Trial of the Chicago 7 - Photo via IMDb
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This may be a record week for positive movie reviews. Really good stuff available in theaters, through virtual cinemas, and via your tried and true VOD options. Shall we dig in?

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Playing at Gateway Film Center and on Netflix.

by Hope Madden

Oscar winning, much beloved and frequently frustrating writer Aaron Sorkin first ducked behind the camera for the clever if overwritten 2017 indulgence Molly’s Game.

A courtroom drama (very Sorkin) about celebrity tabloid fodder (less Sorkin-like), the film seemed an odd match for the filmmaker. He’s found a much more comfortable focus in his follow up, the tale of eight defendants, their counsel, prosecution, and a corrupt establishment: The Trial of the Chicago 7.

Chicago 7 artfully and urgently recreates the scene of the federal court hearing against eight defendants alleged to have conspired to incite the infamous riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

The film rings with historical significance as well as disheartening immediacy. It is another courtroom drama, this one benefitting from surprising restraint, as well as Sorkin’s deep well of passion for the subjects of legal processes and liberalism. Like Ave DuVernay’s 2014 masterpiece Selma, Sorkin’s new film details the past to show us the present.

He’s assembled a remarkable ensemble, each actor leaving an impression though none gets an abundance of screen time. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is a blistering Bobby Seale while Frank Langella is infuriatingly believable as Judge Julius Hoffman. Eddie Redmayne, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Mark Rylance are all also excellent, as you might expect.

Jeremy Strong and Sacha Baron Cohen share a comfortable, enjoyable chemistry as Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, respectively. Both appear in the film, as they did in life, as the wise-cracking comic relief in the room, but Cohen’s turn is thoughtful, wise, and slightly tragic. He’s obviously a talent, but this may be the first time we’ve seen the magnitude of his acting prowess.

An alarmingly relevant look at the power of due process, free speech, and justice, Chicago 7 is catapulted by more than the self-righteousness that sometimes weights down Sorkin’s writing. This is outrage, even anger, as well as an urgent optimism about the possibilities in human nature and democracy.

If I may quote my own review of Molly’s Game and my take on Sorkin as a filmmaker:

His are dialogue-driven character pieces where brilliant people throw intellectual and moral challenges at one another while the audience wonders whether the damaged protagonist’s moral compass can still find true north.

Still the case. But with Chicago 7, Sorkin’s struck a balance. He’s found a story and convened a cast that demand and receive his very best, because The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a story about today, this minute.

Grade: A

Time

Playing at Gateway Film Center.

by George Wolf

I can’t remember the last time a film I was dreading made me feel so grateful that it existed.

I knew that Time was a documentary account of a man serving an outrageous prison sentence, and the wife who was working to get him released. I braced for another heartbreaking deconstruction of injustice and systemic oppression.

As effective as those films can be, what director Garrett Bradley delivers is a miracle of love, hope and superhuman perseverance. The film unfolds in a poetic, sometimes stream-of-consciousness fashion, enveloping you in the indefatigable spirit of Fox Rich.

Bradley first envisioned Rich’s story to be a bookend for her 2017 short film Alone, which focused on families effected by incarceration. But as she dug deeper into the hours and hours of Fox’s home videos, Bradley knew this was a journey that could not be denied.

In 1997, Fox was the getaway driver as her husband Rob held up a credit union in Louisiana. After Fox delivered twins, she served three and a half years in prison. Rob tried to accept a plea deal, but a series of mishandled legal maneuvers forced him to stand trial. The guilty verdict brought a sentence of sixty years with no chance of parole. Six-zero.

The respect that Bradley and editor Gabe Rhodes exhibit for the deeply personal nature of Rich’s footage is eclipsed only by the emotional power of how they present it. Concentrating more on the effects of Rob’s sentence than the background of his case, the film sings in a style that is simply transportive, carried by the voice of a true wonder woman.

We see Fox lift herself and her children to the heights of motivation and self-respect, never letting Rob’s return home seem like anything less than a coming day. And that ending…bravo. I’m tearing up just thinking about it.

Time is a stunning journey, searingly intimate with a sobering undercurrent of commonality. You wear this film like a blanket of feeling. Don’t miss the chance to wrap it around you.

Grade: A

Sh*thouse

Available on VOD.

by Matt Weiner

It takes a certain bravery to cast yourself as a leading man who spends more time talking to his mom and stuffed dog than the romantic object of his affection. But Shithouse, the loosely autobiographical festival favorite from writer/director Cooper Raiff, isn’t the typical college comedy.

It starts in familiar enough territory. Raiff plays Alex, an awkward college freshman who feels like a fish out of water in Los Angeles and is homesick for his family back in Texas. It’s not clear that Alex has really talked to anyone besides his roommate, until a chance encounter brings him together with Maggie (Dylan Gelula), his dorm RA.

There’s an oblique chemistry between Alex and Maggie, a connection that’s undeniably there but blossoms as erratically as their first peripatetic night together wandering campus. So much of the movie starts to take on this collegiate version of Before Sunrise that it’s all the more disarming when their relationship takes a turn.

It’s also where Raiff’s script takes Shithouse from standard coming-of-age fare to something far more moving and empathetic. And refreshing: the writing is sensitive to its characters without flattering them. Young people behave terribly, but there’s a measure of grace the film affords them that feels welcome to anyone willing to put in the work to be a better person in a very public social media era.

For Alex, that means interrogating what it means to be a so-called nice guy. But it’s Gelula who steals the movie. Maggie has a mix of confidence and world-weariness that almost excuses Alex for being so enchanted. But she’s just as quick to dispel anyone’s entitlement, Alex included.

What Raiff captures so well, both in the quiet moments between Alex and Maggie but especially in the spaces where the two are apart, is all the hope and anxiety bound up in relationships—and how much possibility they can contain if you open yourself up to it.

Grade: A-

Totally Under Control

Available on VOD.

by George Wolf

Totally Under Control is arriving at a complicated time, making a case that exists in a contrasting space.

The film eviscerates Donald Trump’s administration mere weeks from Election Day, yet it’s presentation is miles away from inflammatory. It’s timely enough to feature a tail-end acknowledgment of Trump’s recent COVID-19 diagnosis, but feeling more outdated with each day’s increasing infection numbers.

Directors Suzanne Hillinger, Ophelia Harutyunyan and the Oscar-winning Alex Gibney present a devastating case against the government’s handling of the pandemic. From the first documented U.S. case (Jan. 20, Washington state), the response has been fought with brazen dishonesty, stupefying incompetence, and a firm insistence on politics Trumping science.

Apparently filmed in secrecy with the aid of a portable “covid cam” to avoid in-person interviews, the film unveils its step-by-step timeline with a measured and confident tone. Utilizing a series of whistleblowers, graphs, stats and archival footage, Gibney, Harutyunyan and Hillinger earnestly deconstruct the folly of treating a country like a business.

And though Trump is certainly an understood subject, the finger-pointing is never belabored. Indeed, a flow chart of malfeasance sporting this many lackeys and sycophants would usually conclude a conspiracy, but by then it’s clear that’s not among this film’s objectives.

Sadly, this crisis is probably a long way from being over. But when the history is finally written, the most nagging question will be “How in the hell did this happen in America?”

And there will be no better time for Totally Under Control.

Grade: A-

Martin Eden

by Hope Madden

Streaming via Wexner Center for the Arts Virtual Screening Room.

“The world is stronger than me.”

So opens documentarian turned feature filmmaker Pietro Marcello’s very Italian reimagining of the Jack London classic, Martin Eden.

An avowed Socialist, London’s ninth novel—written long after the working-class author had found financial and social success that didn’t sit well with him—trails a penniless young man named Martin. He falls for the beautiful, wealthy Elena (Jessica Cressy) and works to become something worthy of her love.

Luca Martinelli, who was so empathetic and wonderful in The Old Guard, astonishes as the tragic hero. All roiling passion and resentment, Martinelli’s is a magnetic screen presence.

At first undeniably charming in his sincerity and eagerness, the bruises begin to show as Martin is knocked about by a class of people loath to accept him, and by his own blooming understanding of the bourgeoisie’s cultural and intellectual limitations.

More pointedly, Marcello echoes London’s sentiment on organized education as an insidious tool of subjugation. The film’s final position on socialism, capitalism, individualism and liberalism is more of a moving target.

Adding to the film’s vagueness is its repurposed setting: Naples of no clear time period. Based on clothing, cars, transportation, and scene the time period could be anywhere from the 40s to the 70s. An abrupt third act time jump—although only Martin seems to have aged—creates an even more ambiguous tone that doesn’t really benefit a film that can’t entirely nail down its political point.

Still, Marcello’s vision is vintage and gorgeous, thanks to Francesco Di Giacomo’s 16mm cinematography. Between the dreamy look, Marcello’s cut-aways to home movie style footage evocative of his own documentaries, and Martinelli’s arresting performance, the film develops an atmosphere more than a point. The film settles finally on a character study—a writer who seeks only to channel the world and destroys himself in the process.

It’s hardly an uncommon cinematic concept, but thanks to a beautiful picture and a stunning central performance, it still commands attention.

Grade: B+

The Opening Act

Available on VOD.

by Darren Tilby

The world of stand-up comedy is notoriously difficult and unforgiving. It’s a tough business to break in to, with many clubs unwilling to give newcomers more than five minutes of stage time, and even then, usually only after the comedian has made a bit of a name for themselves. And then there is the audience, who can be less than accommodating, to say the least. It’s toward this struggle that Steve Byrne directs a perceptive and knowing gaze.

Will Chu (a fantastic showing from Jimmy O. Yang), a young Asian man from Ohio, dreams of being a stand-up comic but finds himself frustrated by the lack of willingness of most local venues to give him much of a chance. But, spurred on by his girlfriend, Jen (a brilliant and charming, yet criminally underutilized Debby Ryan), he keeps at it. His big break finally comes when a friend and fellow comedian, Quinn (Ken Jeong), sets him up with a weekend-long gig at the famous Improv club in Pennsylvania. It’s a booking that could make or break Will’s career.

There’s rarely a dull moment during the entirety of The Opening Act’s 90-minute runtime, thanks in no small part to an eclectic cast of colorful characters and their various exploits, most of which Will gets, inadvertently, caught up in. It is in the absurdity of these situations that we find much of the film’s humor. It descends into the ridiculous at times, but there’s also an honesty about it that makes it feel feel, perhaps, not so far- fetched after all.

Tonally, however, the film lacks edge. For instance: at one point, we hear that many comics mock their own pain and suffering as a way of coping. This is a commonly held belief, and it’s a weighty subject, one I should like to have explored more, particularly from an insider’s point-of-view. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really happen. This reluctance to delve into the darker, more cynical side of the industry feels like an oversight and results in the film becoming a little shallow.

But there’s no denying that The Opening Act is a lovely film; a feel-good movie that, despite the occasional mention of drugs and scenes of drinking, seems kind of warm and fuzzy inside. It’s a safe and good-natured movie that’s well-presented, well-written, honest and authentic—and I really enjoyed it.

Grade: A-

Faith Ba$ed

Available on VOD.

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

I have seen Faith Ba$ed and I am outraged.

People that haven’t seen it are outraged, and you know what that is?

Outrageous, but not surprising.

According to writer and co-star Luke Barnett, people are upset at just “the idea of it.” And that’s an ironic protest that actually speaks more negatively about the Christian film industry than anything in this actual movie.

Barnett and director Vincent Masciale, both Funny or Die veterans, are more interested in the goofy exploits of two lifelong friends in California who are having trouble adjusting to adulthood.

Tanner (Tanner Thomason) is a ladies’ man bartender whose life goals don’t extend beyond drinking and hanging out with friends. Luke (Barnett) cleans pools while peddling the weight loss tea pyramid scheme of his entrepreneurial idol Nicky Steele (Jason Alexander in a bonkers cameo).

Luke and Tanner are big movie fans, and when they discover just how profitable the faith-based market is, a plan emerges. If they can make their own “Jesus” film and sell it to ChristFlix pictures, there should be more than enough profit to stuff their pockets and help out the local Elevate Church where Luke’s father (Lance Reddick) is the pastor.

The big question: can the boys snag Butch Savage (David Koechner, bonkers himself), the action hero from their youth, for the pivotal role?

Masciale, helming his second feature, brings an irresistibly absurdist vibe to the shenanigans that practically begs you not to overthink any of it. Sometimes we get character interviews as per a mockumentary, sometimes we don’t. The continuity and internal logic gets shaky at times, all of which falls perfectly in line with the movie within this movie.

Good-natured fun is certainly had at the expense of the faith-based industry. Margaret Cho’s appearance as a ChristFlix executive running down the rules of Christian films is every bit the bullseye of the horror rules in Scream, and the big Christian yacht rock concert (pay attention to those lyrics!) is subtle perfection.

But it’s the continued success of the Christian entertainment industry that makes it ripe for satire. And while Faith Ba$ed uses the setting to great advantage, its knives are never out for the believers themselves.

Because you know what else Barnett’s script gives us? A church community that is welcoming to all, one where people missing something in their lives can and do find real fulfillment.

And it gives us plenty of laughs, memorable quotes and overall nuttiness at a time when we could use it.

Oh, the outrage.

Grade: A-

Evil Eye

Streaming on Prime.

by George Wolf

Though they live in different countries, Usha (Sarita Choudhury) and her daughter Pallavi (Sunita Mani) talk often, and Mom always seems to have two main things on her mind.

Does Pallavi have a boyfriend yet? And is she remembering to wear her “evil eye” bracelet?

It’s been years since Usha and her husband left the U.S. for their native India, as Pallavi stayed behind with aspirations of writing a novel. Now, as her very American daughter nears 30, the traditional Usha is getting impatient for a wedding, and trusts in the bracelet to protect Pallavi against any evil spirits preventing her from marriage.

So, when Pallavi begins a serious relationship with the dashing Sandeep (Omar Maskati), she is shocked when Mom objects, and strenuously.

You’d object, too, if you believed your daughter was dating a reincarnation of the abusive boyfriend who tried to kill you three decades before.

Originally a best-selling Audible original, Evil Eye is directors Elan and Rajeev Dassani’s contribution to Amazon’s Welcome to the Blumhouse series. With an adapted script from source author Madhuri Shekar, the film lands as a delightfully cultured mystery. As narrative layers develop, the atmosphere is more supernatural thriller than outright horror show.

Plot turns tend to rely on convenience and in the absence of any sustained tension or outright fear, the real draw becomes the mother/daughter dynamic propelled by the two lead performances.

The veteran Choudhury makes Usha a fascinating conundrum, haunted by her past, fearing for her daughter’s future and forced to question some beliefs she’s long held dear. When the script wavers, Choudhury elevates it, selling every moment with conviction.

Mani, an up-and-comer seen in Glow and the current Save Yourselves!, provides the effective contrast. Pallavi’s modern path is, at first, only mildly affected by her mother’s traditional sensibilities. But when Usha comes west to present her concerns in person, Pallavi must confront her own inner turmoil.

By the time the final twist is revealed, you’ll most likely have already guessed it. But what you’ll remember about Evil Eye has little to do with the mysterious occurrences surrounding this mother and daughter. It’s the humanity flowing between them that sticks.

Grade: B-

The Mortuary Collection

Streaming on Shudder.

by Hope Madden

“Have you any experience in the mortuary arts?”

So begins a conversation between Raven’s End’s mysterious mortician and a young woman who’s come to answer the help wanted sign out front in writer/director Ryan Spindell’s fun and stylish horror anthology, The Mortuary Collection.

Mortician Montgomery Dark (Clancy Brown) has tales to tell of the lives and deaths in Raven’s End. His new assistant Sam (Caitlin Custer) is an eager listener, but also tough to please.

Such is the framing device for the anthology of short horrors, much like the one from Rusty Cundieff’s 1995 collection, Tales from the Hood (and just a bit like Jeff Burr’s 1987 anthology with Vincent Price, From a Whisper to a Scream).

The framing device is so often the best part.

Brown conjures a bit of Angus Scrimm (Phantasm’s Tall Man), channeling a little Tom Noonan as well, to create a spooky but somehow vulnerable master of ceremonies. Custer’s is an intriguing character, challenging her host, never squeamish or spooked. It makes for an interesting dynamic that turns more into a conversation on storytelling than you might expect.

The tales themselves are all set in and around a town where newspaper headlines speak of beasts, asylums, and missing persons. Raven’s End and its stories possess an unidentifiably vintage quality, something fictional and fanciful, modern and yet of an indeterminate past.

Characters sometimes pop up in multiple tales, each story boasting that patented twist ending you’d expect from a Tales from the Crypt episode. Some of the shorts are stronger than others (as Sam likes to point out to Mr. Dark), but the performances are all very solid, and Spindell peppers every story with fun bits of dialog.

“They won’t let me near a scalpel, and for good reason.”

There isn’t a weak short in the bunch, and though certainly some of the twists are not surprising, the execution is slick, the shorts are gorgeous and moody, and Clancy Brown is an absolute treat.

Grade: B+

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

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