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Strong Movie Weekend

George Wolf George Wolf Strong Movie WeekendSuicide Squad - Photo via IMDb
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What a great batch of movies! Honestly, except for one stinker, you cannot go wrong with your weekend choices, big screen or small. Here’s some help in deciding.

The Suicide Squad

In theaters and on HBO Max

by Hope Madden

What, did you think Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, glorious goddess that you know she is) only did that supervillain black ops thing that one time? No. Don’t fix what ain’t broke—she has access to expendable bad guys and lots of very sticky situations to deal with.

Now is just the time for another Suicide Squad.

Actually, writer/director James Gunn’s clear purpose is to fix what David Ayer broke last time. And what did he break? An exceptional idea that rid us of those tedious superheroes and gave us an adventure strewn with the far more colorful characters: the bad guys.

How did he fix it? Step 1: an R rating. He’s not kidding, either. If you only know Gunn from his family-friendly Guardians of the Galaxy adventures, then you may not expect quite this much carnage. If, however, you know him from his early Troma work or his sublime creature feature Slither, then you might have a sense of what’s in store.

Also fixed—the cast! Bring back the good ones (Ms. Davis, Margot Robbie), add exceptional new faces (Idris Elba, John Cena), pepper in Gunn-esque cameos (Michael Rooker Nathan Fillion, Sean Gunn, Lloyd Kaufman), and voila! Joel Kinnaman’s back, too, and he has to be elated that his character gets to have a personality this time around.

The very James Gunn soundtrack delivers from the opening seconds through the closing credits and brings with it a wrong-headed sense of fun that pervades the entire effort. Gunn’s writing is gawdy, bedazzled, viscera-spattered glee, but there’s a darkness along with it that suggests he understands better than most the ugliness of these characters and their assignment.

Robbie’s Harley Quinn steals scenes, as is her way. Cena’s true talent shines brightest when he’s put in the position to be the butt of jokes, and as such, his Peacemaker gets off a lot of great lines. Elba is the solid skeleton to hang all this nuttiness on.

Not everything works, though. Stallone’s shark man feels like little more than this film’s version of Groot, only with less purpose. There’s a rat subplot that goes nowhere, and the film is as leaden with daddy issues as every comic book movie in history.

But the way Gunn handles the mommy issues that plague Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian, unnerving as ever) is nothing less than inspired.

Is The Suicide Squad a cinematic masterpiece? It is not. It is, however, a bloody, irreverent good time.

Grade: B+

Annette

In theaters

by George Wolf

Annette wraps the beautifully enigmatic visions of director Leos Carax around the idiosyncratic pop musings of Ron and Russell Mael (aka Sparks) for a what-did-I-just-watch spectacle with undeniable will.

Anyone who’s seen Holy Motors knows Carax is a puzzler. And while Edgar Wright’s recent doc The Sparks Brothers may have nudged the Mael boys toward the mainstream, the songs and the story they bring to this film are a mighty slippery mix.

Think A Star Is Born with Sondheim sensibilities, Shakespearean tragedies, and the kitsch of a Springfield Community Theatre production from The Simpsons.

Magic, right? Well, sometimes.

Adam Driver stars as Henry, a standup comic provocateur whose new show “The Ape of God” has him boasting that he only does comedy so he “can tell the truth without getting killed.”

Marion Cotillard is Ann, a famous opera star who “saves” her audience by dying onstage every night.

As detailed by headlines from the Showbizz Network, the two fall passionately in love, get married and have a daughter named Annette, who comes into the world with an unexpected gift.

In fact, you’ll find most everything about Annette to be a surprise. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

The actors sing live and frequently break that fourth wall, which brings new intimacy to some very intimate moments and quickly immerses us in the grandness of Carax’s vision. Armed with sumptuous cinematography from Caroline Champetier, Carax rolls out a succession of gorgeously hypnotic set pieces.

Be ready, though, for the dreamlike tone to often run headlong into campy silliness that leaves many metaphorical elements searching for a resonate metaphor.

Just when Annette is clear about its musings on the relationship between artist and audience, or about fame, or self-loathing, or fragile masculinity or creative boundaries, it goes all Cop Rock on us.

But man, it’s transfixing to look at, and the Driver/Cotillard pairing is just as powerful as you’d expect. Just don’t expect anything else from Annette, and what you find won’t soon be forgotten.

Grade: B+

Swan Song

At Gateway Film Center

by Hope Madden

Do you mean to say that Udo Kier and Jennifer Coolidge were in Sandusky, Ohio and nobody told me?

Yes! All thanks to the magic of Todd Stephens, a filmmaker born and raised in Sandusky who has neighborhood stories to tell that do not involve Cedar Point. Stephens wrote the film Swan Song as a fictional homage to his own hometown hero.

Kier plays that hero, retired hairdresser Pat Pitsenbarger. Though Pat never left Sandusky, he’s been closed up in a nursing home for so long that he doesn’t even recognize it. That changes when the dying wish of an old client—the richest and most glamorous woman in all of Sandusky (Linda Evans, no less!)—is for Pat to make her gorgeous.

Kier, a staple of independent film since 1970, effortlessly infuses any movie with a palpable sense of the weird and unseemly. Often pegged to play baddies (see his recent films The Painted Bird and Bacurau for proof), he is an absolute treasure here, full of joy, impishness and sass to burn.

If Pat is going to be able to pull off this miracle, he’ll have to confront nemesis Dee Dee Dale (Coolidge) — and thank God for it. While you might expect zany comedic antics, the truth is that both veterans display tenderness and heartbreak beneath their barbs. Their scenes together bring real depth to an ultimately bittersweet homecoming.

Not every ensemble player is quite as strong and Stephens’s deeply independent roots sometimes show. But whenever things begin to feel almost amateurish or scenes run on a little longer than necessary, Kier somehow salvages it with an eye roll, a sashay, or another affectionate murmuring of “Sandusky…I love you.”

Swan Song delivers a remarkable showcase for Kier’s particular and peculiar talent, but Stephens has more on his mind than a vanity project for a deserving actor. As Pat confronts a world he no longer recognizes, Swan Song laments the death of fabulousness. The film becomes a note about what you lose when you win.

And the glory of a darling pair of shoes.

Grade: A-

John and the Hole

At Gateway Film Center

by Hope Madden

Adolescence can be tough. It’s a confusing time, and the fantasy of skipping those awkward years entirely and just being an adult can be heady stuff—especially to John (an unnerving Charlie Shotwell).

When the 13-year-old John stumbles across a deep, unfinished bunker in the woods not far from home, he drugs his family then deposits it, leaving him king of the castle, so to speak.

And leaving his family none the wiser in a hole.

Director and visual artist Pascual Sisto’s feature debut John and the Hole spends a week or so with John as he devises and executes this plan to be the grown-up for a while. Sisto’s working from a script by Nicolás Giacobone, a writer known for dreamlike beauty and cruelty (Birdman, The Revenant, Biutiful).

Dreamlike beauty and cruelty are absolutely in Sisto’s wheelhouse, and he adds Lanthimos-esque absurdism to the effort that makes the film almost funny as well as horrific.

Shotwell’s performance keeps you on edge, unsure of what young John might try next. The performance never veers into easy psychosis or villainy, although it’s undoubtedly the responses of his parents and sister that provoke the most intrigue.

Played with surprising empathy and compassion by Jennifer Ehle, Michael C. Hall and Taissa Farmiga, John’s mother, father and older sister (respectively) represent a very human, genuinely loving and protective unit.

Even in the hole.

It’s a fascinating dynamic, one that defies expectation and gives the film a fable quality that suits it. Some details will certainly frustrate viewers, but the overall impact of Sisto’s measured coming-of-age nightmare is chilling.

Sisto’s tale never tries to explain John’s behavior, and Shotwell’s performance certainly doesn’t shed much light. The film keeps the audience at arm’s length from the first shot through the dining room window to the last shot back at that dinner table.

There’s a chilly beauty to this ambiguity. Between that and an entire ensemble of spot-on performances, you can almost forgive the specificity and resonance the film gives up in favor of this vagueness.

John and the Hole is a head-scratcher and a fascinating addition to the troubled adolescent subgenre.

Grade: B+

Whirlybird

At Gateway Film Center

by Rachel Willis

If you were paying attention to the news in the early 1990s, you’ve likely seen the aerial footage from Bob (now Zoey) Tur and Marika Gerrard-Tur that came out of Los Angeles. Even now, some of the captured footage is embedded within the American culture.

Collating hundreds of hours of footage, director Matt Yoka has assembled a fascinating and poignant documentary about the quest to be first on the scene of breaking news and about the heartbreak of one family behind the camera.

Zoey Tur talks in-depth about her experiences behind the camera in LA, starting in the late 1970s and running through the late ’90s. Her enthusiasm for the chase – whether following police cruisers in the family car (with wife and children in tow), or hovering over the city in her helicopter – is infectious. It’s not hard to see why she pursued the stories with such zeal.

The other half of the duo, Marika, was instantly caught up in the adrenaline rush after her first date with Tur. She describes Tur as being unlike anyone she had known before – a thrill seeker who sucked her into a world of breaking news.

Yoka is not interested in mining the ethical grey area that surrounded the early days of breaking news. Instead, he is more interested in looking at what happens to the people behind the camera – how are they affected by the crime and violence they capture, sometimes as it’s happening?

One of Tur’s most infamous captures was the beating of Reginald Denny. Broadcast on live television (Tur behind the camera in her helicopter), Denny was dragged from his truck and beaten by several men during the LA riots that followed the acquittal of the four officers responsible for the attack on Rodney King.

Tur cannot help but pass judgment on the violence recorded from above, and this is something Yoka focuses on: the influence, not only of the images captured, but the opinions from those recording the footage, on society.

As we watch the seemingly increasing violence in LA, we also watch it reflected in Tur. Violence and anger well up within her, and she lashes out at her family.

Yoka’s sensitive examination of a family and a culture that hinges on the precipice of breaking news is well worth making time for.

Grade: A-

Nine Days

On VOD

by George Wolf

Will (Winston Duke) is a selector. Inside a modest home situated in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by nothing but flatland, he monitors the progress of his past selections while he carefully prepares to fill a new vacancy.

At the end of nine days, Will must choose wisely. His one selection among a new group of unborn souls will move on the “real world” and experience human life. The rest will not.

In his feature debut, writer/director Edson Oda presents an impressively assured vision of transfixing beauty and gentle poignancy. While the current run on “appreciate every day” films is hardly surprising in today’s climate, Oda brings an organic originality to the mantra of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.

Will does exactly that, via the television monitors (and VHS tapes) that allow him to view the world as his past selections are living it. The monitors also play a role in the selection process, as Will gives his candidates (including Zazie Beetz, Tony Hale and Bill Skarsgård) daily assignments to write down their reactions to the world views they see.

Duke (Us, Black Panther) is phenomenal as a “cog in the wheel” who becomes caught between the clinical completion of his duties and the emotional weight of his responsibilities.

Unlike many in this otherworld – including his assistant Kyo (Benedict Wong) – Will actually spent time living in the real one. And while he won’t discuss details of his life experience, his charming reliance on VCRs and Polaroid cameras gives us a clue about the timeframe. Duke brings touching authenticity to the barrier Will has put up around his past, while also letting us glimpse how Will is haunted by the fate of a past selection, and by the chance he may have chosen poorly.

Oda’s writing and direction exhibit solid craftsmanship. His framing and use of light often work wonders together, conjuring an existential outpost full of strangely comfortable trappings.

The screenplay is finely tuned for each distinct applicant in the process, allowing a standout Beetz and the terrific ensemble to find intimate resonance in the alternately joyous and heartbreaking moments of a life.

Yes, Nine Days often has a lilting air of pretension, but with such a philosophical anchor, it would be more surprising if it did not. Give Oda credit for being unafraid of the moment. He’s taking some big swings at mighty heavy concepts here, with an originality of voice and attention to craft that is welcome any day.

Grade: A-

Teddy

On Shudder

by Hope Madden

Even a man who is pure in heart

And says his prayers by night

May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms

And the autumn moon is bright

Teddy (an exceptional Anthony Bajon) may not be all that pure in heart, but he’s not such a bad kid. What he is, is a loser. He knows it. “We’re the village idiots,” he tells the uncle he lives with.

Teddy’s an outsider in his very small French hamlet, a ne’er-do-well who seems harmless enough. He has a job —one he hates. And he has a girlfriend, Rebecca (Christine Gautier) — but how long can that last? Her family can’t stand him, and she’ll graduate at the end of the term. Then what?

Before we can find out, Teddy’s bitten by something in the woods. Suddenly, by the light of the moon (which seems to forever coincide with some kind of angry humiliation Teddy faces), he loses consciousness and then wakes up naked and covered in blood.

Writers/directors/brothers Ludovic and Zoran Boukhera tap into classic monster movie mythology (and sometimes score, with fun results) to mine lycanthrope lore for metaphorical purposes.

Which is usually what werewolves are used for in movies, including the 1941 classic that spawned that poem. Anyone can be cursed, it seems, and under the right circumstances, anyone can become a monster.

In this case, Teddy represents the marginalized, angry white male. The havoc he wreaks? Well, it’s not hard to figure out what that represents. Truth be told, Teddy is almost off-putting in its empathy for the aggrieved male so disillusioned by disappointments and limitations that he becomes monstrous.

I suppose that makes Teddy feel a bit transgressive, but the reason it works is Bajon’s amiably brutish performance. A horror film is rarely worth its weight in carnage if it can’t engender some empathy, provoke some tragedy. Thanks to Bajon and a strong ensemble around him, the film makes you feel something for an enemy you might rather just hate.

It’s not often you get an official Cannes selection on Shudder. I guess that’s one more reason to watch Teddy.

Grade: B+

Mondo Hollywoodland

On VOD

by Christie Robb

Janek Ambros’s Mondo Hollywoodland is a play off a 1960s documentary called Mondo Hollywood by Robert Carl Cohen. The original aimed to depict the more extreme elements of life behind the scenes in Hollywood and included appearances by hippies, strippers, psychedelic pioneer and Tim Leary’s buddy Ram Dass, and both victims and perpetrators of the Manson Family killings.

Ambros’s Hollwoodland is part mockumentary part narrative story narrated by a dude from fifth dimension who visits a magic mushroom dealer named Boyle to understand modern Hollywood and explore the concept of “Mondo.” (Which I guess, like pornography, is something you’ll know when you see.)

Boyle’s life intersects with three archetypes of Hollywood life: the Titans, the Weirdos, and the Dreamers. Each of the archetypes is personified by a few characters and gets its own section before they come together in a somewhat bewildering act four.

The Titans are represented by paranoid, cocaine-fueled, egomaniacal producers and starlets who are catered to by various fawning assistants. The Weirdos are a hodgepodge of political activists, New Age seekers, and untalented artists. The Dreamers are a group of folks who desire financial success or fame, but are unaware that they lack the business acumen or talent necessary to realize their vision.

There’s no nuance to these characterizations. They are the broadest sketches of common tropes. If Ambros was going for a Christopher Guest-style mocumentary or drug-addled comedy, he forgot to make it funny. If there was supposed to be a message to walk away with, it was lost along the way. There certainly wasn’t much new to learn about Hollywood. And if there was any Mondo contained therein, I didn’t see it.

The nods to the original Mondo documentary from the ’60s (trippy music, colorful filter effects, swingy camera movements, and the title) seem derivative, if not downright exploitative of a cult classic. The groovy nostalgia vibe doesn’t reflect life in the 2020s and the focus on southern California stereotypes doesn’t add anything that Saturday Night Live couldn’t provide.

Grade: D-

Follow George and Hope on Twitter @maddwolf and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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