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Theaters Open, Streaming Still Thrives

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Theaters across the city are officially open. Studio 35 has two new releases, plus a few months’ worth of managing in post-apocalyptic times, but if it’s multiplex you want, Russell Crowe and his road rage waits for you there, too. Or you can always stick around the house and watch a remarkable piece of history—one narrative, one documentary. If you have a hankering for Wild West witches, that’s an option, too. Let us help you sort it out.

Unhinged

Playing at Studio 35 Cinema and Drafthouse.

by George Wolf

I remember watching that classic TV movie Duel with my mom in the early 70s. It was tense and exciting (a young Spielberg directed!), but the thing that most unnerved mom was the fact that…SPOILER ALERT… you never find out why that truck driver was terrorizing a frazzled Dennis Weaver.

Unhinged offers no such ambiguity. Russel Crowe is just really pissed off.

Well, the unnamed driver Crowe plays is, anyway. The Man has lost his wife, and his job, and now he’s in traffic getting beeped at, passed and gestured to by a woman in a big hurry.

The Man catches up, rolls down the window and calmly explains civility to young Kyle in the back seat (Gabriel Bateman from Lights Out and the Child’s Play reboot) while asking Rachel in the front for an apology. She declines, so The Man vows to show Rachel (Slow West’s Caren Pistorius) what a bad day really is.

Things get nasty in a hurry. And though the script from Carl Ellsworth (Red Eye, Disturbia) often flirts with ridiculous, it offers more clever construction that you might expect. The premise certainly recalls Falling Down, but Ellsworth isn’t interested in darkly comic social commentary. This is an overt explosion of murderous male rage, one that also manages – almost as an afterthought – to deliver a blunt cautionary tale about smart phone addiction as effective as any we’ve seen on film.

Director Derrick Borte (The Joneses) keeps the pace moving nicely with tension and bursts of brutality, which is perfectly fine for a disposable thriller. What’s even better, he knows what the real point of all this is.

Russell on a rampage. That’s it.

You want some of that? Crowe and Unhinged deliver it, with all the whens, whys, and hows right up in your face.

You know, so mom won’t be left hanging.

Grade: C+

The 24th

On all major streaming and VOD platforms.

by George Wolf

Take at look at some recent writing credits for Kevin Willmott: Da 5 Bloods, Black KkKlansman (which won him a deserved Oscar), Chi-Raq. Impressive. Go back to 2004, and you’ll find The Confederate States of America, which he also directed.

Without question, Willmott speaks eloquently and provocatively on the history of being Black in America. He’s back behind the camera for The 24th, a bold and clear-eyed take on the 1917 mutiny of the all-Black 24th U.S. Army infantry regiment after harassment from the Houston police department.

Willmott, co-writing with first-time screenwriter Trai Byers, again shows an uncanny instinct for making history crackle with the urgency of a breaking news bulletin. Humanizing the conflict through the fictional Pvt. William Boston (Byers, also taking lead acting duties), the film builds from a slightly impatient first act into a final third full of resonant rage and tremendous emotional power.

Pvt. Boston’s education abroad and dignified air draw the ire of both his fellow soldiers and his white commanding officers, save for the thoughtful Col. Norton (Thomas Haden Church, playing impressively against type). Both Boston and Norton want the 24th to be the first Black regiment sent to the Normandy front lines, and the Col. recommends Boston for officer training.

Aspiring to lead by the example of valuing service over ambition, Boston resists the promotion, laying down the first marker in a character arc of weighty heartbreak, resignation and sacrifice.

The Jim Crow laws of Texas stop at nothing to oppress and brutalize the members of the 24th, even the private MP unit formed expressly to protect them.

As Boston prepares to give his local sweetheart (Aja Naomi King) a promise ring, the night of August 23, 1917 cascades into violence, leaving policemen, civilians and soldiers dead in the Houston streets.

The aftermath leaves Boston with a soul shaking choice, one made easier by an awakened and defiant resolve.

He still aspires to be an inspiration, but for a completely different reason. And it is this journey – made so deeply intimate by Byers and a superb Mykelti Williamson as Boston’s frequent adversary Sgt. Hayes – that carries the film’s early 1900s setting into the streets of today’s Black Lives Matter protests.

Making that leap with us, and not for us, is no easy trick, but The 24th is more proof of risk and reward. The ugliest corners of the mirror can be valuable teachers, and we need Willmott’s voice – as both a writer and a filmmaker – to keep us looking.

Grade: A-

Tesla

Showing at Studio 35 Cinema and Drafthouse.

by Matt Weiner

Nikola Tesla is having a moment. Hot on the heels of 2019’s The Current War comes Tesla, another take on the inventor from writer and director Michael Almereyda. And while both treatments are anchored around Tesla’s rivalry with Thomas Edison over electrifying the country, Tesla is so far apart in style and tone that the subject could be a completely different person.

Almereyda has already shown that he can handle big sci-fi themes on a small budget. His adaptation of Marjorie Prime was moving and challenging. Tesla also has the rhythm of a stage play, one where characters and dialogue take precedence over strict history.

This is still a biopic, though. The story begins as Tesla (Ethan Hawke) splits from Thomas Edison (Kyle MacLachlan), and follows through his partnership with George Westinghouse (Jim Gaffigan) and his ultimate victory in the war of the currents.

But as Tesla’s personal and professional lives unravel, Almereyda takes his film off the rails as well. From historical counterfactuals and modern-day interruptions to an arresting musical number, Tesla the movie surrenders all control over its title character—and does so gleefully. These big swings don’t always connect, but the attempts are always compelling.

In Almereyda’s version, Tesla is a cipher. Hawke trades in his usual charm for a portrayal that blends tortured genius and mad scientist, and despite his quiet demeanor he fills every scene with an intensely heavy presence.

It’s up to the supporting cast, especially MacLachlan’s flighty yet imperious Edison, to draw out whatever they can from the inscrutable Tesla. It’s an unusual effect for a biopic, but it works. Tesla is the rare adaptation that seems determined to obscure its subject rather than illuminate him.

This Tesla is a man not so much ahead of his time but completely outside of it. Almereyda suggests that the enduring appeal of Tesla can’t be neatly captured in the war of the currents against Edison. There’s Tesla the pioneering genius who lit up the Chicago World’s Fair, and there’s Tesla who died penniless in a hotel room dreaming of death rays. And somewhere in between, there’s a man who raises the curiosity of everyone he meets.

But in this telling, the closest we can come to unsolvable mysteries are a reflection here, a spark there. This Tesla is a brief light guiding us toward some greater understanding, one that vanishes just as quickly.

Grade: B+

Desert One

Screening in Gateway Film Center’s virtual screening room.

by Rachel Willis

It has been nearly 41 years since 52 American diplomats and citizens were taken hostage in Tehran, Iran. Coming on the heals of the Iranian revolution, in which the Ayatollah Khomeini took power from the U.S.-backed Shah, the hostage crisis was perhaps the single biggest catastrophe of the Carter presidency.

Five months after the hostages were taken prisoner, in April of 1980, President Carter authorized a rescue mission, the subject of director Barbara Kopple’s (Harlan County, USA) latest documentary, Desert One.

Drawing on previously unreleased audio recordings, extensive interviews with those involved in the operation, and archival footage, Kopple’s film is one of the most compelling you’ll see this year.

Viewers may not be aware of the details of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, so a brief but informative overview of the situation in Iran paints a vivid picture. What led to the crisis is laid-out in clear detail. Interviews with many of the diplomats who were later held hostage help the audience understand the mood in D.C. as Khomeini came to power. Interviews with Iranian citizens further develop the picture of their attitude toward U.S. policy.

The most remarkable aspect of Desert One is the sheer number of interviews conducted for the film. Kopple interviews hostages and hostage takers, Delta Force members, as well as former president, Jimmy Carter, and his vice president, Walter Mondale.

Though the film is heavily skewed toward the American perspective, there is an attempt at balance by allowing some of the Iranians involved to share their perspective on the situation. However, as with most of history, memories of the incident vary wildly – prisoners describe being tortured; translator Hossein Sheikholeslam describes friendly relationships with the hostages. Hostage taker Faizeh Moslehi says the hostages were treated with respect, yet revels in the memory of seeing Americans defeated in brutal ways.

Animations serve to emphasize the words of the interviews and as reenactments for events not recorded. However, the most effective aspects are the pictures and archival footage – at times, almost too gruesome to bear. It emphasizes the sheer tragedy of the situation, as well as the mounting pressure on the U.S. to resolve it.

Removed from the situation by nearly half a century, it is still a critical moment in American history and not one to be forgotten. Kopple ensures it will remain fresh in our minds a little longer with her riveting piece of filmmaking.   

Grade: A-

Words on Bathroom Walls

In theaters and on all major streaming and VOD platforms.

by George Wolf

Look, I know Young Adult is not the only genre to lean on a familiar blueprint, but we’ve reached the point where finding any YA film without voiceover narration or an essay-reading finale is going to feel like gazing upon the golden wonders of Marcellus Wallace’s briefcase.

There’s little glow surrounding Words on Bathroom Walls.

To be fair, writer Nick Naveda’s take on Julia Walton’s novel does at least try to develop an organic thread for the narration, as high schooler Adam (Charlie Plummer) talks to an unseen therapist about his struggles with paranoid schizophrenia.

Director Thor Freudenthal (Diary of a Wimpy Kid) manifests those struggles onscreen via three distinct characters (AnnaSophia Robb, Devon Bostick and the gloriously named Lobo Sebastian) whose voices are always lurking inside Adam’s head. It’s an early clue that the film’s handling of teen mental health will be an opportunity largely missed.

After a serious episode during class injures another student, Adam is expelled from his high school in the middle of senior year. On the upside, he’s accepted into a trial for a new schizophrenia drug, and into a prestigious local Catholic school which promises to be discreet.

Adam’s future plan to attend culinary college hinges on a high school diploma, which means Adam must make sure he a) takes his new meds, b) keeps his grades up, and c) passes a big exam which consists only of math questions and…..wait for it….an essay.

The obligatory tortured romance is between Adam and his math tutor, a classmate named Maya (Taylor Russell) who also has some secrets she’d rather not reveal.

And as with so many of these YA adaptations, all the narration and essay reading means the film is more tell, less show and nothing earned. Again, we get an invitation for teens to wallow in the angst of an inexperienced worldview simply by telling them what we think they want to hear.

Adam’s “you don’t understand me” posturing with his mother (Molly Parker), her new boyfriend (Walton Goggins, wasted) and an easygoing priest (Andy Garcia) serve only the manipulative and convenient use of Adam’s condition. Both Plummer (All the Money in the World) and Russell (Waves) have impressed before, but they’re given little chance to develop their characters into anything real or resonant.

All the familiar YA parts are here, and Words on Bathroom Walls keeps them comfortably close. But like those sentence-building magnets on the refrigerator door, just moving them around seldom leads to anything that makes much sense.

Grade: C-

Chemical Hearts

In theaters and n all major streaming and VOD platforms.

by Cat McAlpine

Henry Page is a romantic. He’s also unremarkable, he muses in moody voiceover. But senior year of high school might just be the year that something interesting finally happens to him. When Grace Town transfers on the first day of class and joins the school newspaper, Henry is immediately smitten. But people are rarely the things we imagine them to be.

Richard Tanne (Southside with You) wrote and directed this adaptation of Krystal Sutherland’s novel, “Our Chemical Hearts.” Tanne’s camera haunts dusk and after-dark more often than not, with even his daytime shots heavily shadowed. He finds gorgeous lighting in an abandoned warehouse and develops a grittier finish to this YA romance that’s rare for the genre.

But no matter how often Grace (Lili Reinhart) promises she’s “fucked up,” the film doesn’t go as dark as it wants to. In the end, Chemical Hearts is about a middle-class kid pining after a broken girl. While some twists and turns make the story more interesting, the narrative is distracted by Henry (Austin Abrams) who is as he promises to be – unremarkable.

Chemical Hearts also suffers from a heavy serving of quirky character traits. Henry’s not normal, he practices the Japanese art of kintsukuroi – repairing broken pottery with gold seams. Grace stands thigh deep in a koi pond, monologuing about humanity’s fate to be briefly rearranged motes of start dust. How did the koi end up in an abandoned warehouse? Spoiler alert, we never find out.

For all its false depths, Chemical Hearts also ruminates on death, guilt, and suicide in fair measure. But the grief is twice removed and mostly mystery. Grace’s healing process is constantly measured by her capability to fully love Henry. We don’t get the opportunity to explore her growth outside of him.

Chemical Heart’s constant insistence that being a teenager is the hardest part of life will fall flat for older viewers who have already survived the gauntlet of adolescence. Meanwhile, the younger audience will likely appreciate a story that reminds them that life doesn’t always go the way you want it to.

Grade: C+

Love Express: The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk

On all major streaming and VOD platforms.

by Darren Tilby

Walerian Borowczyk – a writer/director of unparalleled sensuality, unequalled in the 1970s for his work on sexual freedom, but later labelled an erotic filmmaker, had a short but undeniably impactful career. By interviewing long-time collaborators, peers and fans of his work, Kuba Mikurda offers rare insight into Borowczyk’s art, which poses questions on society’s relationship with love and hate and the boundaries of artistic freedom, in a celebration of Borowczyk’s enigmatic and often controversial career.

Unlike Borowczyk himself, Love Express follows a fairly conventional (documentary-film) formula: it’s constructed from archival footage of Borowczyk at work and in interview, as well as contemporary interviews from those who knew him or his work. It’s a safe choice, one that works well, but still, I feel more could have been done here to differentiate it a little.

Long-time collaborator Noël Véry – who acted as a camera operator in many of Borowczyk’s films and was one of the people closest to him – leads and stays with us throughout the movie, which, at only 70 minutes in length, flows nicely and never outstays its welcome.

From Borowczyk’s time as an animator (an identity which he never truly shed) manipulating and fetishizing objects, to live-action director (now manipulating and fetishizing his actors as he once did his animations), to his unfortunate and eventual pigeonholing as a pornographer, Mikurda takes us through it all.

Throughout the film’s five chapters (each detailing particularly important years and movies) we hear from an eclectic mix of people, all with varying interests in Borowczyk’s work: Terry Gilliam, Bertrand Bonello, Neil Jordan, Andrzej Wajda and Patrice Leconte to name but a few.

The interviews themselves are incredibly well-conducted—informative, absorbing, well-shot and with excellent sound quality. Small, almost playful, visual flourishes serve to illustrate the voiced opinion, in addition to keeping the viewer entertained.

More importantly, the film’s entirely successful in bringing to light the unique and often misunderstood talent of one of cinema’s most infamous and enigmatic filmmakers. I knew very little about Borowczyk or his process going into this movie, having seen only a couple of his films. I left feeling enlightened and determined—determined to find his older works.

And in the end, isn’t that the point?

Grade: A-

Random Acts of Violence

Streaming on Shudder.

by Hope Madden

The last time I saw Jesse Williams get into a car on a road trip to horror, the journey delivered one of the most fun flicks of 2011, Cabin in the Woods.

He’s back on the road in co-writer/director/co-star Jay Baruchel’s graphic novel adaptation, Random Acts of Violence. Williams plays Todd, creator of the adult comic series Slasherman.

Though writer’s block is keeping him from finishing the final installment, Todd hits the road with his publisher Ezra (Baruchel), assistant Aurora (Niahm Wilson), and girlfriend Kathy, played by Jordana Brewster. (Brewster also starred in a road trip to hell—for character and viewer—with the 2006’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning.)

Their goal is to visit the landmarks associated with the comic’s inspiration, the gruesome serial killer dubbed the I-90 killer who terrorized a stretch of highway from 1987 – 1991. Todd and Ezra hope to drum up some publicity for their comic con appearances. Kathy is researching her own related project, a nonfiction and victim-centric book about the same killer.

The film lands on ground fertile for horror examination. Most interesting and timely is the conversation around perspective. Are we beyond the point as a society where we make the serial killer our protagonist when we can instead take the point of view of the victim? (The popularity of the book and series I’ll Be Gone in the Dark suggests that we may be.)

Too bad the film relegates this conversation to a single argument: men create horror and women hate that; meanwhile, women create something more wholesome. (Counterpoint: much of the best horror of the last decade was made by women, and if it’s gruesome you want, please see Julia Ducournau’s fantastic 2016 rumination on adolescence and meat, Raw.)

The film does boast moments of provocative carnage, plus flashes of intriguing content. Rather than the traditional creepiness inspired by the Midwest rural route gas station—the isolated community somehow suggesting incest and cannibalism without every directly saying so—Baruchel conjures the far more realistic and modern blight of meth to achieve the same unhealthy atmosphere.

Never a particularly compelling presence, Williams lacks the gravitas to shoulder the suffering artist schtick and Brewster’s presence doesn’t elevate the tensions. Both Baruchel (an outstanding purveyor of nerdy support in any cast) and the tenderly engaging Wilson offset this lack of chemistry in their brief screen time, but it’s not enough.

Random Acts of Violence could have been an interesting indictment of the true crime phenomenon. It might have been an intriguing entry into the Writer’s Block Turns Horrific family (of which The Shining is patriarch). Instead, it’s a mainly competent but frequently lazy flick with gore to spare and some fun animations, but it could have been a lot more.

Grade: C+

The Pale Door

On all major streaming and VOD platforms.

by Hope Madden

The horror Western is an under-explored subgenre. There have been some great ones. In fact, just two years ago filmmaker Emma Tammi took a look at isolation and outlaws from a female perspective with her effective nightmare The Wind.

Co-writer/director Aaron B. Koontz (Scare Package) pits a bunch of women against some scurrilous train robbers in a Wild West ghost town for his latest, The Pale Door.

The title is a Poe reference, a line from his poem The Haunted Palace. Poe wasn’t much of a gun slinger, but that doesn’t matter because the title has nothing to do with anything. Just go with it. You’ll enjoy Koontz’s odd concoction more if you do.

Little brother Jake (Devin Druid) and big brother Duncan (Zachary Knighton) grew up on opposite sides of the law. Duncan runs the Dalton Gang, a bunch of quick shootin’ and hard drinkin’ outlaws. But that’s not the life Duncan ever wanted for his bro, who sweeps up at a saloon and saves his nickels to buy back the old farm.

Until the gang is one man down with a big payday coming on the next train. Jake steps in, the gang robs the train, but this score is not what they expected and next thing they know, wouldn’t ya figure it? Witches.

I am all in for a ghost town full of witches—it’s like a Scooby Doo episode gone wonderfully off track. Production values do not evoke a period and the props are hardly authentic, but the atmosphere is fun and the cast has a good time.

Pat Healey is the wrong-headed good choice he always is. Noah Segan (who directed one of the shorts in Koontz’s Scare Package) is basically playing Noah Segan, but luckily that character is always so entertaining.

Veteran character actor Stan Shaw is mainly saddled with exasperated entrances and hypermasculine melodrama (because this is, after all, a Western). Meanwhile, Bill Sage (We Are What We Are) charms as a kind of poor man’s Bruce Campbell. (That’s not an insult. We can’t all be Bruce Campbell.)

So the gang finds themselves in a sort of Wild West Titty Twister (let’s assume you’ve seen From Dusk Till Dawn), and young, wholesome Jake may be their only hope for survival.

Does the leap from Salem to Western ghost town make sense? It does not. How about the basic internal mythology, the blood ritual, the sex, the ending? Not really. And no one will accuse The Pale Door of taking a female perspective.  

But for a witchtastic Western, is it fun?

Edgar Allen Poe couldn’t have made it any more fun.

Grade: C

The Unfamiliar

On all major streaming and VOD platforms.

by Hope Madden

The first thing you’ll likely notice in writer/director Henk Pretorius’s supernatural thriller The Unfamiliar is that the distant hero— the one who comes home from war only to shut down emotional or psychological answers to problems, instead relying on power tools and car repair to soothe a wounded mind—is a woman.

Izzy (Jemima West) returns from a tour in Afghanistan and immediately feels out of sorts at home. It’s as if she doesn’t even know her husband or oldest daughter, her son’s turned into some kind of lurking weirdo, and she’s weighed down by guilt for leaving home while her youngest was just an infant.

So, when the hallucinations start, PTSD seems a likely culprit.

The truth is, the gender swap draws attention to some of the laziest horror clichés that we’ve come to simply accept without dissection.

It is absolutely fascinating to watch a man carry a baby around, no real purpose but to stare with furrow-browed concern as his wife struggles to come to terms with the situation. By enlisting a female character to behave so erratically in service of a weak story, Pretorious seems to be intentionally pointing out the idiotic leaps in logic audiences are willing to make.

You cannot miss every hackneyed beat, it’s brilliant. If only that were really the purpose.

If it’s ironic that Pretorious’s fresh approach to casting only draws attention to his clichés, wait until you see what he does with cultural appropriation.

Why is Izzy’s family having supernatural problems? It seems her husband may have disturbed something sinister by researching native Hawaiian culture. You see, his family must pay for the fact that he steals their stories to make a buck. (Note: This is where Pretorius makes up a bunch of disconnected “native” stories, abandoning the logic of PTSD in favor of a woefully underdeveloped and racially insensitive subplot, all with the hope of making a buck. It’s like rain on your wedding day, people.)

If there is one movie trope that we simply must retire—and there is clearly more than one—but if we can retire only one, please can it be that of the magical brown person who sacrifices themselves for the benefit of the whiteys?

Please, Jesus, please? Can we just let whitey figure it out for herself or die trying?

Not today, it seems. But if no one spends money on films like The Unfamiliar, maybe, slowly, the cliché will die on its own.

Grade: D

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

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