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There’s a Movie for Everybody This Week

Hope Madden Hope Madden There’s a Movie for Everybody This WeekPhoto still from "Pet Sematary," via IMDb.
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Whether you’re up for the best DC flick in years — and one you can share with your kids, even! — or a scare, or a history lesson (or two, or three), you will find something to watch in the plethora of new movies available in theaters this week. Here’s a quick run down.

Shazam!

by George Wolf

To paraphrase a classic segment from the old Letterman show: Can a guy in a supersuit get into a strip club?

Easily, which is pretty exciting for the teenage boy inside the super man inside the suit. And it’s just one example of the irreverent vibe Shazam! rides to bring home one of the most fun origin stories in recent memory.

The teenage boy is Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who’s just been placed in the latest of a string of foster homes. Just as he’s getting to know his foster family, including the superhero-crazed Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer from IT, impressive again), Billy is chosen to replace the aging Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) as protector of the Realms, bringing a youthful energy that will ensure the Seven Deadly Sin-Monsters cannot assume Earthly forms.

The super-villainous Dr. Thaddeus Silva (Mark Strong, gloriously slimy) does not approve, and vows to defeat the new Shazam (Zachary Levi) and assume all his powers.

So, it’s on!

But first, Billy and Freddy have to find out just what superpowers are brought on by saying that magic word, which sets up a series of amusing tests and is the springboard for getting to know this grown up superboy while he mulls over possible super names.

“Thundercrack?” “No! That sounds like a butt thing.”

If you’re thinking Big (and the film acknowledges that you are with a cute homage), you’re right on. Writer Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo) fills the script with action, humor, heart and spunk, while director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) keeps things lively and engaging with plenty of impressive visual pop.

The entire cast is wonderfully diverse and consistently winning, and a few corny moments aside, makes the feels on friendship, family and responsibility land nearly as flush as the winking riffs on superhero tropes.

There really isn’t much Shazam! doesn’t deliver (okay, maybe it delivers a slightly bloated running time that includes two post-credits stingers), and as fast as you can say the magic word, DC has the best film in its universe since Bale was the Bat.

Grade: A-

Pet Sematary

by Hope Madden

There is a lot of love out there for Mary Lambert’s 1989 hit Pet Sematary.

Why, again? Was it the wooden lead performances? The adorably sinister villain? Massive Headwound Harry? Come on — there was a lot wrong with that movie and only two things were really right: The Ramones and Zelda.

Zelda was creepy AF.

Fear not! Directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes) were obviously also affected by Zelda because she (Alyssa Levine) delivers again. On all other items, the directing duo improve.

Except The Ramones, but they are here in spirit.

Jason Clarke leads things as Louis, big city doc transplanted to quiet, rural Maine. Apparently he and his family — Rachel (Amy Seimetz), Ellie (Jeté Laurence), Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) and Church the Cat — didn’t ask a lot of questions about that 80-acre lot they bought. Lotta nasty stuff out back.

John Lithgow takes over for the tough to replace Fred Gwynne and his over the top Mainer accent. Lithgow’s more subdued Grumpy Old Man neighbor falls victim again to the pull of that “sour ground” out back when his beloved little Ellie’s cat gets hit by one of those semis speeding down the nearby road.

The film really tests your ability to suspend disbelief, but it also layers a lot of history and creepiness in tidy fashion. The superior performances alone make the reboot a stronger film, although familiarity means it has to try a little harder to actually scare you.

One help is a change screenwriters Matt Greenberg and Jeff Buhler make to the story. It’s a big alteration and not everyone will be thrilled, but it limits the laughability once things turn ugly. The film also lessons spiritual guide Pascow’s (Obssa Ahmed) screen time and gives his presence a spookier, less comedic feel. There’s a new ending, too — meaner and more of a gut punch. Nice.

The movie looks good, and Clarke (playing a grieving father for the second time this weekend, including his WWII drama The Aftermath) anchors the events with a thoughtful, believable performance that helps Pet Sematary overcome some of its more nonsensical moments.

It is not a classic, but it delivers the goods.

I still missed The Ramones.

Grade: B-

The Best of Enemies

by George Wolf

At the risk of opening recent wounds, it’s hard not to view The Best of Enemies through the lens of last year’s Oscar race debate. It’s a based-on-true-events historical drama draped in racial healing and also, the KKK.

So, is this more BlackKkKlansman, then? Or Green Book?

While it’s nowhere near the rarified air of the former, it does a better job than the latter of veering from the white pandering playbook.

For his debut feature, writer/director Robin Bissell adapts the tale of an unlikely friendship between a black community leader and the president of the local Klan chapter. Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) and C.P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell) were on vastly opposing sides over school segregation in 1971 North Carolina when an arbitration exercise called a charrette forced them to hear each other out.

So you know where it’s going, but too often the trick is getting to that moment of average white awakening without making it the black character’s reward for being exceptional, or the white audience’s reward for being in the theater. Yes, Ellis has the biggest character arc, but Atwater changes, too, and thankfully isn’t here just to help him grow.

So Bissell is wise to put Atwater and Ellis on nearly equal footing, and fortunate to have leads this good. Henson mines powerful emotions as the defiant “Roughhouse Annie,” while Rockwell refuses to make Ellis a caricature villain. Together they find a combative chemistry that is raw and often effectively human.

Bissell is clearly a student of the Scorsese School of Pop Song Insertion, and an early sequence set to Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” is indeed striking. But while the film’s overall structure is workmanlike, a few clunky, pause-for-dramatic-effect moments seem to exist more from indecision than confidence.

The Best of Enemies tells a good story and does plenty right while doing it, but is held back by missed opportunities.

As both factions in a divided community state their cases, the arguments are shockingly current, but Bissell can’t find the tone that clearly connects this past to our present. Just when he’s close (like the rundown of different challenges the black parents faced), some Mayberry-esque comedy re-sets the mood, leaving a worthy but not quite memorable history lesson on the value of reaching across the battle lines.

Grade: B-

The Wind

by Hope Madden

There are not enough horror westerns. And why not? The whole Wild West thing feels like a terrifying, isolated, dangerous adventure — especially for women.

Director Emma Tammi’s first narrative feature, The Wind, pulls together all those ideas and more into an absorbing little nightmare.

Lizzy and Isaac Macklin (Caitlin Gerard and Ashley Zukerman, respectively) are relieved to see smoke coming from a distant chimney. The only other cabin for miles has been empty a long while, and the prairie does get lonesome.

But companionship and burden go hand in hand for Lizzy, and company won’t chase away all the demons plaguing this harsh land.

Working from a spare script by Teresa Sutherland, Tammi develops a wonderfully spooky descent into madness. Throughout Lizzy’s isolation, Tammi swaps images onscreen from present moment reality to weeks earlier, to months earlier, to a present-day hallucination or specter and back again. The looping time frame and repetitive imagery turn in on themselves to create a dizzying effect that echoes Lizzy’s headspace.

Gerard spends nearly as much screen time alone as she does with co-stars, and her turn is haunting. There’s nothing showy in this performance, Gerard slyly betraying one emotion at a time through the character’s well-rehearsed stoicism and reserve.

It’s a feat of imagination and execution for both Gerard and Tammi, turning this small production—only five principle actors and two sets — into a hypnotic ordeal. Tammi’s confident pacing and Gerard’s masterful performance ensure a gripping trip through a merciless slice of prairie life.

Grade: B

Diane

by Christie Robb

There’s a meme, “You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first.” Writer/director Kent Jones’s Diane is a character study of a woman in need of self-care. Her cup has gone bone dry.

The 70-ish widowed and retired Diane (played by the phenomenal Mary Kay Place) spends her days in service to others. She plays cards at the bedside of a cousin dying of cervical cancer. She brings casseroles to friends recovering from illnesses. She serves macaroni and cheese at a soup kitchen. And she returns again and again to the disheveled apartment of her drug addict son, incurring his abuse as she begs him to return to the clinic for treatment.

But when asked how she is doing, Diane responds with a pat response of, “I’m fine,” deflecting the conversation away from herself.

Over time the distractions disappear, giving Diane a lonely space to focus on herself. But that space exposes a shameful memory from her past that she’s kept busy trying to avoid by performing penance.

Place’s performance is raw and layered. The cracks she reveals in Diane’s polite self-sacrificing façade are natural, relatable and quietly devastating. And most of this is delivered by way of a slight change of facial expression or a shift in body language.

She anchors the film, and it emerges as an effective study of the everyday failures and secret shame that most of us carry with us as we drive about in our lives trying to do better this time.

Grade: A-

The Public

by George Wolf

Emilio Estevez just does not do nuance.

The Public marks his fifth feature as writer/director, and it sports the conviction of his best work while also suffering from his familliar lack of restraint.

Estevez also stars as Stuart Goodson, a dedicated, stoic manager at the Cincinnati Public Library. While Stuart and his staff deal daily with an array of homeless citizens using the library, he finds himself a “good son” under fire when complaints about body odor lead to one vagrant’s eviction – and a lawsuit.

And then things get complicated.

Beyond the free computer use, the library also offers respite from the bitter winter cold, and when a deadly deep freeze grips Ohio, Stuart sits at the center of an armed standoff between the city and homeless folks needing shelter.

And it’s not just the homeless question The Public is addressing. From addiction and recovery to tabloid journalism, political cowardice and civic (ii.e. “the public”) responsibility, Estevez has plenty of heart available for numerous sleeves, getting admirable support from a solid ensemble cast including Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater, Jeffrey Wright, Taylor Schilling, Michael Kenneth Williams, Gabrielle Union and the ever-ageless Jena Malone.

Characters and subplots converge through dialog that’s too often desperate for authenticity, and a film that decries “intellectual vanity” seems overly proud of its own moments of clumsy enlightenment.

Case in point: a callous TV reporter (Union) is pumped at the social media traction she’s getting for her live reports from the library conflict. While her cameraman points out the plight of people at the heart of the story, she stays glued to her phone.

Point made, but Estevez can’t leave it there.

“Huh? What?” she answers, then a cut to the cameraman rolling his eyes. Second that.

Similarly, the stunt Estevez engineers for the big resolve gets a bystander explanation that is not only unnecessary, but factually dubious at best.

It’s just a culmination of the slow slide from good intentions to self-satisfied finger-wagging. The film has a respect for books and libraries that is indeed admirable, but by the time Goodson starts reading from Steinbeck on live TV, it becomes painfully evident what The Public wants to be when it grows up.

Grade: C-

The Aftermath

by Hope Madden

While there are a number of fine points to James Kent’s The Aftermath, novelty is not among them.

You don’t need to know the plot, you just need to glimpse the movie poster: Jason Clarke is married to Keira Knightly; Alexander Skarsgård lives in their attic.

What happens, do you think? Any guesses?

It’s a love triangle you’d have to have your eyes closed to miss. No, the plot is not going to surprise or, to be honest, particularly entertain. Give Kent and Aftermath credit, then, for mining its backdrop for genuine tension, not to mention fascinating historical detail.

Knightly is Rachael Morgan, wife of a British colonel (Clarke, obv). She joins him in his post-victory assignment in what’s left of Hamburg, 1946. He’s been given the home of a German architect, Herr Lubert (Skarsgård), and in Morgan’s compassion (and naivete), he invites the former owner and his teenage daughter to stay on rather than face the harsh realities of the camps.

Clarke—who too often plays cuckolded husbands to waifish beauties and handsome houseguests—offers a sympathetic turn as a grieving man coming to grips with both a crisis of conscience as well as profound grief. Through him we glimpse the chaos of a divided city, conflict and hatred still echoing through rubble-strewn streets.

He’s intriguing, as are those minor characters who orbit his military life: the rogue Aryans still loyal to the cause, comrades taking pleasure in continuing to punish Germans, and the teenage girl lurking in the shadows of his own home.

Though the film continues to direct your attention to the beautiful people struggling against their desires, it’s angry adolescent Freda Lubert (Flora Thiemann) whose silent contempt compels attention. She’s wonderful, creating a spoiled, misguided character who’s hard to like and harder to predict.

It’s a nice distraction from a film that is otherwise as unsurprising as any you’re likely to see. Knightly and Skarsgård perform admirably in blandly familiar roles. And, of course, they look glorious. But pretty as they are, every moment they’re onscreen you’ll wish to be back out in the ruins of Hamburg with the actual characters.

Grade: C

Also screening in Columbus:

20th Annual Animation Show of Shows (PG-13)
Black Mother (NR)
Iceman (NR)
Majili (NR)
Styx (NR)

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

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