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Super Fans, Good Boys, Sharks and More in Theaters

George Wolf George Wolf Super Fans, Good Boys, Sharks and More in TheatersPhoto via IMDb
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Is it still August? Well, that explains the plethora of middling movie options in theaters. Hollywood  needs to sweep out the closet of all the not-quite-summer blockbusters to make room for autumn’s almost-awards-worthy. So, here you go: foul mouthed ‘tweens, albino sharks, lost rich people, plus two you should check out. One is a lovely beekeeping analogy. The other one’s about Bruuuuuuce.

 

Blinded by the Light

by George Wolf

Warning: this article contains some serious pro-Boss bias. Like, copious amounts.

Because a Springsteen fanatic like myself reviewing Blinded by the Light is somewhere close to your racist Facebook friend from high school reviewing Fox News. Expecting a thumbs down is like, oh, I don’t know…

Trying to start a fire without a spark?

Cool, we understand each other.

But beyond the singer or the songs, the real joyous triumph of the film is how it unabashedly adores not just this one particular artist, but the entire concept of inspiration.

Based on the memoir by Sarfraz Manzoor, the film rewinds to the late 80s when Javed (Viviek Kalra in an irresistible feature debut), a British teen of Pakistani descent, is trying to navigate high school amid the austere gloom of Thatcher conservatism and the ominous rise of far-right bigotry.

Drowning in a sea of synth pop, Javed’s life changes when his friend Roops (Aaron Phagura) gives him some Springsteen cassettes.

As both a veteran of that awakening and a witness for others, I can tell you director/co-writer Gurinder Chadha nails it with a perfectly rockin’ bullseye. Bruce’s lyrics dance across the screen and around Javed’s head, his fist pumping and his face beaming with a newfound sense of purpose.

Though his father (a terrific Kulvinder Ghir) bemoans the influence of “that Jewish singer,” (“He’s not Jewish – and that’s racist!”) Javed, bolstered by encouragement from a sincere teacher (Hayley Atwell) and a new girlfriend (Nell Williams), takes the first steps toward a future of his own – as a writer.

Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham) manages a wonderful tonal balance, juggling humor (watch for that hilarious Rob Brydon cameo), coming of age pathos, blaring 80s hits, a mighty timely social conscience and even extended dance sequences.

Cynicism doesn’t stand a chance. Chadha keeps the heart on Manzoor’s sleeve beating loud, proud and unmistakable, knowing this borders on cornball and not giving a toss.

For Springsteen (who has been notoriously shy about licensing his songs) to give this project his complete blessing lends an immense layer of gravitas for longtime fans. Until that next Bruce concert, we are a choir eager for the preaching.

But replace Bruce with Aretha, Kurt Cobain, Ed Sheeran or Taylor Swift and the exuberant joy of Blinded by the Light still works.

Inspiration, wherever you find it, is worth celebrating. Embrace it, and it might even lead to your…glory days.

One, two, three, four!

Grade: A-

 

Good Boys

by George Wolf

So apparently kids today get names like Brixlee, Soren and Thor. That’s new.

And when puberty hits, they pretend they’re plenty world wise, are tempted by peer pressure, and worry that missing the big kissing party would be the end of the world. That’s not so new.

With Superbad‘s Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg on board as producers, Good Boys takes that film’s trusty formula and backs it up a few years, scoring a fair amount of solid laughs but not quite as much of the heartfelt smarts.

Max (Jacob Tremblay), Lucas (Keith L. Williams) and yes, Thor (Brady Noon) are new sixth graders and best friends – the Bean Bag Boys for Life! “Because we have bean bags.” Duh.

They drop F-bombs, hope other kids think they’re cool, and will stop at nothing to make Soren’s (Izaac Wang) party where Max hopes to meet up with Brixlee (Millie Davis) and finally get the chance to puck up or shut up.

But the ‘tween universe sends plenty of obstacles to keep the boys from the bash, some of which include drugs, alcohol, anal beads, angry high school girls, cops, a very busy highway, and a frantic paint ball battle at a nasty frat house (which turns out be a pretty inspired bit).

There’s always some inherent humor in kids talking dirty and crossing paths with very adult things while misunderstanding most of them. Good Boys, to its credit, wants to be more, it’s just unsure about how to get there.

Writer Gene Stupnitsky (Bad Teacher, Year One), directing his first feature, is at a disadvantage from the start. Superbad and Booksmart (you should see it!) both benefited from a leaving-for-college premise, which is just more of a life change than leaving for middle school.

But those films also found a tender heart inside their core friendships that Good Boys can’t quite pin down. The boys are all adorable, and plenty of laughs – especially Tremblay’s hilariously deadpan line about a sex doll – do land flush.

By the final bell, though, it’s caught between caring about the boys and laughing at them, and so are we.

Grade: B-

 

47 Meters Down: Uncaged

by George Wolf

Two years ago, Johannes Roberts proved he could craft some fine sharky thrills amid the soggy dialog and questionable logic of 47 Meters Down.

He’s back as director/co-writer for Uncaged, with a bigger budget and a mission to deliver more of whatever you liked the first time. The scares? They’re jumpier! The sharks? They’re scarier! The water? Wetter!

Roberts builds these thrills on an unrelated shark tale. Four high school girls in Mexico go diving where they shouldn’t – an underwater Mayan burial cave. It’s currently being mapped by a team led by one of the girls’ Dad (John Corbett), which makes the cutting edge dive gear more believable than last time.

But all that gear is perfectly form-fitting for a group of teen girls, so…

So, forget it, and appreciate how Roberts borrows elements from the horror gem The Descent to create satisfying waves of claustrophobic, over-the-top terror.

If you remember the best scene from 47, you’ll see it re-imagined here, along with a very direct homage to Jaws and a nicely twisted and completely ridiculous finale.

Because if you haven’t noticed, Spielberg’s less is more approach to the monster has…say it with me…jumped the shark. For Roberts and Uncaged, more is more, and this film doesn’t stop until you’re shaking your head at the skillful outlandishness of it all.

Grade: C+

 

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

by Hope Madden

Low-key visionary director Richard Linklater, inexhaustible talent Cate Blanchett and wildly popular source material exploring creativity, motherhood and existential angst—Where’d You Go, Bernadette could work.

The title suggests two things. Metaphorically, it refers to a disappeared genius. Bernadette Fox ceased to exist when she abandoned her architectural artistry for parenthood and, as far as the creative world knew, vanished.

In a less metaphorical manner, the title refers to the actual mystery driving the plot of Maria Semple’s novel—the story of a teenager using emails, news clippings and notes to try to piece together the whereabouts of her now-literally-missing mother.

That mystery is mainly gone from Linklater’s film adaptation, as Bernadette (the ever-exquisite Blanchett) doesn’t up and vanish until well after the 90-minute mark, and because the audience knows where she is all the while.

Instead, Linklater focuses on why she left in the first place. Because, what could have been an ideal situation for another woman—wealthy husband (Billy Crudup) and his super-attentive administrative assistant, precocious and adoring daughter (Emma Nelson), nice neighborhood (even if the neighbors hate her), good schools, money to burn on virtual personal assistants (who turn out to be Russian identity thieves)—welp, it just doesn’t seem to be enough for Bernadette.

There’s a lot to like about Where’d You Go, Bernadette, including a game cast and some gorgeous footage. Unfortunately, under all that is yet another fantasy about a rich white woman who needs to find herself.

In its worst moments, the film falls back on catty mean girlisms, as if the greatest nightmare a woman could face would be for the withering cliquishness of high school to survive into adulthood, the popular moms making you feel like an outcast all over again.

The filmmaker hits his stride, unsurprisingly, when pairing Blanchett with, well, basically anybody. Her one-on-one moments with Nelson, Kristin Wiig (as prissy neighbor Audrey), Laurence Fishburne (playing a former colleague) and Crudup (neutered as his character is) almost make up for the blandly directionless narrative.

Linklater can do comedy (School of Rock!!). He can certainly dive into motherhood (Boyhood). Nobody’d argue his insight and artistry when it comes to documenting a romantic relationship with its ups and downs (Sunset series). Frustratingly, with this film he simply cannot seem to decide which direction to take.

Comedic moments are abandoned before they land, emotional messiness is tidied into submission, dramatic moments are undercut before they can generate any tension.

The resulting, meandering tale doesn’t go much of anywhere.

Grade: C+

 

Honeyland

by Hope Madden

Cinematic in structure, narrative in its storytelling, all of it expressed with a visual flair that gives it the sense of poetry—Honeyland is no ordinary documentary.

Filmmakers Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov offer a master class in fly-on-the-wall documenting with their patient, beautiful story of a lone beekeeper. Or is Honeyland actually an analogy for the human race and our relationship with this planet?

It’s both.

The Sundance winner offers no exposition, no context, no question and answer. Content to simply observe, Honeyland follows Hatidze Muratova, a Macedonian beekeeper. Loving long shots establish both the rugged terrain and the isolation of Hatidze’s days as she begins the yearly cycle of transporting a hive, caring for it and reaping the benefits of that patient, diligent work.

The filmmakers’ respect for Hatidze drives the doc, which never labels or trivializes its subject, never patronizes.

The solitude and the quiet of Hatidze’s days spent with bees and evenings with her bedridden mother soon make way for chaos and cacophony, as Hatidze’s lonesome dot of Macedonian land makes room for Hussein Sam and his nomadic family.

Kotevska and Ljubomir abandon the long shot in favor of mid-range filming and close ups crowded with jumping children, bickering siblings, chickens and cattle. The campers, the kids, the livestock, the noise—all of it caught with affection and trepidation by both the filmmakers’ camera and Hatidze’s smiling eye.

Somewhere on the edge of this rush of sound creeps Hatidze, curious and cautious but smiling. Little by little she and this family form a community. She even becomes something of a mentor in the beekeeping tradition to one of the young sons, forming a sweet and eventually heartbreaking relationship.

Heartbreaking because rush and need, ambition and impatience all combine with selfish interests to convince the Sam family that beekeeping is also for them. Shortcuts lead to a natural imbalance and soon Hatidze faces the crisis left behind when the natural environment is used for profit rather than nurtured for balance.

Beautifully filmed with natural light to create a sort of visual lyricism, Honeyland becomes an allegory for our times. It’s hard not to be invested in Hatidze’s story, in her bees, as if our own future depends on them.

Grade: A-

Also opening in Columbus:
The Angry Birds Movie 2 (PG)
Bring the Soul: The Movie (NR)
Mike Wallace Is Here (NR)
Ranarangam (NR)
This Changes Everything (NR)

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

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