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Something for Everyone in Theaters This Week

Hope Madden Hope Madden Something for Everyone in Theaters This WeekPhoto still from "Brian Banks," via IMDb.
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What are you looking for? Documentary? Mob flick? Scary movie? Family fare? Theaters have all of it and more this weekend, so the only task left is to pick through the options. That’s where we come in.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

by Hope Madden

Was there a story you heard as a kid that scared you sleepless? Mine was Bloody Fingers, the tale of a mangled man who dragged his carcass toward you. You could hear him coming: thump, thump, draaaaag. My neighbor used to sneak up behind me muttering those terrifying words.

Writer Alvin Schwartz knew how to work a kid’s nerves even better than my neighbor. Inspired by campfire tales and urban legends, he spun yarns for maximum kid fright, then paired them—and this is the important part—with the inspired line drawings by Stephen Gammell. The result, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, became the go-to for kids who like to be scared and schools who like to ban books.

Director André Øvredal (TrollHunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe) and co-writer Guillermo del Toro both know something about tingling the spine. Together with a team of writers — some veterans of horror, some of family films — they’ve created an affectionate and scary ode to the old series of books.

Set in Mill Town, Pennsylvania around Halloween, 1968 — trees are turning, Nixon is about to be elected, Night of the Living Dead is showing at the drive in — Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark follows three wholesome high school outcasts and a handsome out-of-towner. On the run from the Vietnam-bound, letter-jacket wearing bully, they hide in the old, abandoned Bellows place. The town says the house is haunted.

Sounds a little cliched, right? The kind of story you’ve heard over and over, but that’s exactly the point. To begin to tell Schwartz’s tales — all of them pulled from the collective unconscious, all of them drawing on those same old stories that were new to us as kids — Øvredal sets a familiar and appropriate stage.

His framing device works well enough for a while. Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti), who hopes to be a writer herself, swipes creepy old child killer Sarah Bellows’s book of stories, but when she gets them home, new stories write themselves in the blank pages and, one by one, the kids in Mill Town go missing.

This is what PG-13 horror should look like. Yes, like most of the genre films engineered for youngsters, Scary Stories rehashes tropes familiar to adult viewers, but Øvredal’s clear fondness for the terrifying source material, especially the illustrations, gives the film the primal, almost grotesque innocence of a childhood nightmare.

The film’s tone is spot-on, performances solid and the set design and practical effects glorious. This is more than an anthology of shorts. It’s a cohesive whole that contains a handful of Schwartz’s nightmares, but the whole is not as great as the sum of its parts. Too heavy with clichés in the framing device, the film loses steam as it rolls into its third act.

An analogy of lost innocence, nostalgic without becoming too sentimental, this is old school scary, as unapologetically unoriginal as its source material and almost as effective.

Grade: B-

The Kitchen

by George Wolf

Looking for trouble? You’ll find plenty in The Kitchen. Looking for nuance? Fresh out, suckas.

It’s a 70s crime drama stripped of style and subtext, yet able to squeeze considerable fun out of the exploitation vibe it revels in.

Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), Claire (Elizabeth Moss) and Ruby (Tiffany Haddish) are left with dwindling options when their Irish mob husbands are sent to prison for a botched robbery. It’s 1978 in Hell’s Kitchen, and the ladies realize the meager allowance from their hubbies’ crew ain’t gonna cut it.

Time for these sisters to start doing it for themselves!

And if that song was from the 70s, you’d hear it loud and proud alongside all the other strategically placed picks from that groovy decade. It’s not a Scorsese soundtrack strategy, really, but rather one that makes sure we hear the lyric that can most literally comment on what we’re seeing.

Call it a Berloff maneuver.

The Kitchen marks the directing debut of veteran writer Andrea Berloff (Straight Outta Compton), and from the start, her tone is as unapologetic as her main characters.

Their takeover of the Hells Kitchen action is too easy and their character development too broadly drawn. But just as you’re starting to wonder what this much talent (also including Margo Martindale, Domhnall Gleason, James Badge Dale and of course, Common) saw in this material, the sheer audacity of its often clumsily edited approach feels almost right.

Berloff’s script makes it clear that this is less about the shots and more about who calls them, with some surprises in store by act three and a committed cast won over by the comic book source material or Berloff’s vision for it. Or probably both.

Moss, as a meek victim pushed around too long, and Gleason, as the smitten psycho who gently schools her in dismembering a body, elevate the film with every scene they share. Haddish delivers the underestimated street smarts with McCarthy — the two-time Oscar nominee whose range should no longer be in doubt — bringing an anchor of authenticity.

There’s an allegory here of strong women fed up with fragile masculinity. There’s also a bloody mess of retro schlocky mob noir tropes (patent pending).

I love it when a plan has some awkward missteps but still kinda sorta comes together.

Grade: B-

Them that Follow

by George Wolf

When a way of life not only makes you a social outcast, but presents increasing dangers to those closest to you, what would motivate you to cling even tighter?

It’s a premise that could easily lead to vilification, so credit filmmakers Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage for taking Them That Follow in a more resonant direction. Rather than relying on lazy condescension, they want to probe the psychological politics of control.

Mara (Alice Englert) is the pastor’s daughter in a small community of snake handlers in the Appalachian mountains. Her father Lemuel (Walton Goggins) preaches strict adherence to the Word, which requires frequent tests of faith, subjugation of women and shunning the ways of the material world.

But Mara’s interest is starting to move beyond the mountain, raising the suspicions of the stern Sister Slaughter (Olivia Coleman, recent Oscar-winner for The Favourite) and sparking the curiosity of her best friend Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever).

“Who you choose, girl, chooses your whole life,” Sister Slaughter cautions Mara. And Mara will soon face choices that will alter several lives.

Them That Follow benefits from a beautifully rustic production design and an unhurried pace, building earnest layers of authenticity that mirror a sublime ensemble cast (which includes a nice dramatic turn from comic Jim Gaffigan).

Poulton and Savage are not here to mock religious beliefs, but rather to question the motives of leaders who seek control by division. Followers are belittled by proxy (“They look down on you!”) while leaders make unhealthy demands and wash their hands of culpability (“It’s God’s law, not mine”).

While the film’s concerns are especially timely now, a third act that seems rushed and overly tidy loosens the grip of Them That Follow. The tail here has more bite than the head, but the serpent still deserves respect.

Grade: B+

Brian Banks

by Brandon Thomas

Anyone with two working eyes knows that the criminal justice system in the United States is far from perfect and rarely yields actual justice. The situation is even bleaker for young men of color. Even after their time is served, people convicted of a crime have a hard time finding work and maintaining new relationships.

As unfair as this is for everyone that goes through it, it can be especially grueling for people convicted of crimes they did not commit.

Brian Banks (Aldis Hodge) was once a star high school football player. He and his mother (Sherri Shepherd) had planned for Brian to attend college and hopefully make it to the NFL. All of that changed with a chance encounter that led to an accusation of kidnapping and rape. The barriers Brian faces after his release from prison lead him to a lawyer (Greg Kinnear) who might be able to clear his name and give him back his future.

Brian Banks is an interesting look at incarceration in that the film never once questions Brian’s innocence. In fact, the audience is clued in early on that Brian is a character we can trust. This film isn’t one that dwells on twists and turns. It’s more interested in Banks himself and what his plight says about our justice system. Unfortunately, that look tends to be one dimensional, and pushed through the lens of a mediocre TV movie-of-the-week.

Hodge (Hidden Figures, Straight Outta Compton) brings a humanity to this role that makes it easy to cheer for Banks despite the over-abundance of cliche. He does a wonderful job showing Brian’s frustration, hurt and disappointment all at once. It’s a tightrope performance, and Hodge pulls it off beautifully.

But there’s a cheapness to Brian Banks that makes it look like it would be right at home on the Lifetime cable channel. This is especially surprising since director Tom Shadyac spent the majority of his career making huge studio movies like Liar Liar, Bruce Almighty and The Nutty Professor. None of these films is exactly Lawrence of Arabia, but they still had a distinct visual flair. 

Despite a strong lead performance, Brian Banks can’t overcome its reliance on age-old courtroom cliche and melodrama that ends up bringing the movie down. It’s a film that had something to say, but the message became muddled and/or lost along the way.

Grade: C-

Maiden

by Hope Madden

“The ocean’s always trying to kill you. It doesn’t take a break.”

So says Tracy Edwards, and she should know. At 24 years of age in 1989, fresh off a stint as cook on a charter boat, Edwards skippered the Maiden with the first all-female crew to enter England’s Whitbread Round the World Race.

Thirty years later, documentarian Alex Holmes revisits this historic event with clarity and candor.

It’s certainly no surprise that the odds were stacked against Edwards, although it is fascinating to look back at just how these sailors were treated by other yachtsmen as well as the media.

According to Jen Mundy, Edwards’s girlhood friend and member of her crew, those set to sail Maiden were told: “You’re not strong enough. You’re not skilled enough. Girls don’t get on. You’ll die.”

Girls don’t get on?

Yes, even as the 80s came to a close there were enough commonly believed stereotypes about women’s inabilities and bitchy tendencies to sink a yacht. And Holmes is not ready to let those spouting such idiocy off the hook. He interviews a number of journalists, each of whom admit to being convinced the Maiden has no shot at completing the race. The Guardian’s Bob Fisher went so far as to refer to the crew as “a tinful of tarts.”

He actually defends that headline in the documentary.

It’s impossible not to notice that the word “woman” is used maybe twice in the entire film, every participant, even Edwards herself, preferring the term “girls.”

Vocabulary aside, Holmes finds an interesting arc for a sports doc. As the race begins, simply finishing the first leg was cause for patronizing celebration: a bunch of girls didn’t die. Hooray!

But Edwards and crew were, like everyone else in the race in 1989, competitors invested in the competition, focused on winning and only on winning. Unlike their competition, the crew of the Maiden seemed genuinely, even wildly unaware of the profundity of simply participating.

The spirit of female defiance, that’s the flag the Maiden flew at journey’s end. After proving their ability – after besting their competition repeatedly —that celebration lost its patronizing taint.

Scene after windy, wet, terrifying scene — the nautical thrills crisply underscored by Rob Manning and Samuel Sim’s score — skipper and crew of the Maiden strategize, tough it out, and risk a watery grave. And why?

Mainly because one malcontent — Edwards, who’d been suspended 26 times before she was finally expelled from school at 15 — wanted to do it and was told she couldn’t.

“What do you mean I can’t? That’s just idiotic.”

Indeed.

Grade: B+

Brainiac: Transmissions After Zero

by Hope Madden

It’s been an ugly few days, and while we reel from our country’s 251st mass shooting, this one painfully close to home, it’s a good time to remember that Dayton, Ohio is an amazing town teeming with fascinating, resilient people.

Eric Mahoney knows that, which explains why he returned to his hometown for this second documentary, this one on the 90s indie punk force Brainiac.

The adjective used most frequently in Mahoney’s rock doc Brainiac: Transmissions After Zero is “weird.”

Fitting, really, for a film that dives into the brief and electric career of Dayton’s pride and one of the most innovative and surprisingly influential indie bands on the young scene.

Haven’t heard of them? Now’s your opportunity.

Don’t just take it from Mahoney. Take it from Hole’s Melissa Auf der Maur, The Mars Volta’s Cedric Bixler-Zavala, The National’s Matt Berninger, Fred Armisan and tons of others who still mourn the loss of this genuine and unique and weird presence in music.

Filmed 20 years after the freak accident that took the life of the band’s songwriter and main creative force, Tim Taylor, Transmissions After Zero makes itself comfortable with those who knew him best: his mom, his sister, his band.

Mahoney’s timestamp of a picture offers a refreshing break from the Behind the Music style of so many rock docs — partly because Brainiac’s trajectory ended days before signing with a major label.

What results is a candid look at what happens to the rest of the band, dealing not just with grief but also with the abrupt end of their forward progress, the end of their dream.

The film, in the end, is less about Tim Taylor himself and more about the band. Taylor’s presence is never far from mind, but at the same time, Mahoney and his subjects never manage to truly articulate that presence. Perhaps it’s a lack of interview footage, but the absence is felt — which partly frustrates but also fuels the doc’s overall sensibility of loss.

Without Taylor, Mahoney relies on bandmates Juan Monastrio, Michelle Bodine, Tyler Trent and John Schmersal to keep things lively. Their candor, wit and weirdness compel attention and empathy. Their openness with Mahoney is touching and often very funny.

Mahoney offers mainly talking head footage with brief snippets of the band onstage and some low-key but inspired animated sequences. He exhibits a little electro punk flourish himself as he pieces together the elements, but his style never upstages the content.

Instead, he lets the music and the musicians tell their own story. Like a lot of rock docs, Transmissions After Zero introduces or reintroduces a group of voices that should not have been lost. And in this case, it also reminds us how great Dayton and its people really are.

Grade: A-

Also opening in Columbus:

The Art of Racing in the Rain (PG)
The Bravest (PG-13)
Dora and the Lost City of Gold (PG)
ECCO (R)
Light of My Life (R)

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

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