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This Week in Movies: Choices Aplenty

George Wolf George Wolf This Week in Movies: Choices AplentyRebuilding Paradise - Photo via IMDb
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Inspirational documentaries, good and bad horror, worse inspirational fictional drivel, and one Ohioan’s hillbilly noir—those are your cinematic options this week. Let us help you pick a winner.

The Big Ugly

Streaming from all major VOD platforms.

by Hope Madden

When my son was young, we liked to watch Animal Face-Off, an educational program that proposed hypothetical battles between animals that wouldn’t normally fight. Sperm Whale v Colossal Squid, African Lion v Nile Crocodile, Walrus v Polar Bear.

Ohioan Scott Wiper delivers a similar culture clash movie: Brit gangster v hillbillies with money. The filmmaker drops us in the Appalachians along with London mob elite Harris (Malcolm McDowell), his muscle, Neelyn (Vinnie Jones), and Neelyn’s girl, Fiona (Lenora Crichlow).

After decades of hard, dirty work, these men are about to make a deal with an oilman who can’t get legal money to drill. They finance Preston (Ron Perlman) and his son Junior (Brandon Sklenar) now, and it pays off for the rest of their lives.

Bills are exchanged, drinks are drunk, but when the dust clears the next day, Fiona comes up missing.

Even at 55, Jones is still an intimidating presence. He’s looking a bit worse for the wear here, but the effect gives Neelyn a weariness that serves the character well. And while it’s always wonderful to see veterans McDowell and Perlman with real characters to dig into, it’s Sklenar who impresses most.

His entitled sociopath schtick slides fluidly from charming and hateful, and the fact that he and writer/director Wiper offer the character both intelligence and physical prowess makes this a villain who may just stand a chance.

It’s also to the filmmaker’s credit that the West Virginians are rarely the oversimplified hillbilly clichés we’ve come to expect.

Which isn’t to say the film is full of nuance. Though the tone is less laughable, The Big Ugly sometimes takes on a Roadhouse feel about it. Plot contrivances and obvious resolutions mark a film that’s clearly breaking no new ground.

The subplot about the heads of the families carries too little weight and too much screen time. It’s hard to complain about an honor-among-thieves conflict between two such beloved genre veterans as Perlman and McDowell, but Wiper tells of the bond more than he shows it, so the payoff feels unearned.

Still, for a B-movie, The Big Ugly delivers what it needs to. Our favorite Animal Face-Off was Hippopotamus v Bull Shark because we love it when the big, lumbering beast you’d bet against turns out to be the badass. Doesn’t everybody?

Grade: B

Summerland

Streaming from all major VOD platforms.

by Rachel Willis

Irascible Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton, The Girl with All the Gifts) doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her. Called a witch by local children, pranked by schoolboys, and barely tolerated by the adults in her community, she’s resigned to her routine and to living her life alone.

Writer/director Jessica Swale, with her first feature film, Summerland, examines what it means to be a woman in a world where women had very few choices in life.  

In the early-1940s, the British countryside of Kent is seemingly removed from the harsher realities of World War II. The residents are asked to do their part for the “war effort,” but none of this affects Alice. At least, not until a trainload of children arrive from London. Fleeing the frequent bombing raids on the city, the children have been separated from their parents and sent to live with strangers.

Conscripted to care for Frank (Lucas Bond), Alice is perturbed by this development in her life. She wants nothing to do with the boy, but with no other options, she’s forced to take him.

Though the film has a warm, light-hearted tone, there are moments that remind the audience about the harsh realities of the time. Frank is on his own with a stranger who treats him with undisguised annoyance. Through flashbacks, we learn that Alice’s past still haunts her. As Frank becomes a part of her life, we come to understand why she is angry with the world.

But it’s past trauma that allows the characters to bond, and Swale conveys this with tenderness. Though Alice doesn’t have the foggiest idea how to care for a child, she finds a companion who accepts her and treats her with kindness even when she doesn’t deserve it.

Swale explores a few themes, but she’s primarily concerned with Alice’s experiences, leaving little room for anything else. Alice is the only character with depth. The ancillary characters round out the main story, but none of them truly live and breathe. We barely scratch the surface of this complex world.

While the theme of Swale’s choosing is worthwhile, the lack of attention to the other details is distracting. Rather than serving as a thematic bookend to Alice, Frank ends up as a crutch for her growth.

The result is a middling film about love and friendship that still has enough appeal to thaw the coldest hearts.

Grade: B-

The Secret: Dare to Dream

Streaming from all major VOD platforms.

by George Wolf

It might be a different type of faith-based flick, but Dare to Dream most definitely earns my usual disclaimer: judging these films is less about what they are preaching, and more about how well they tell a story.

Here, the gospel is the Law of Attraction, and the storytelling is unattractively dreadful.

The Secret first arrived nearly 15 years ago as a documentary and self-help book, both written by Rhonda Byrne, and each detailing how positive thinking can directly influence your life and bring you whatever it is you visualize.

Director/co-writer Andy Tennant (Hitch, Fool’s Gold) visualizes a narrative treatment that finds Vanderbilt professor Bray Johnson (Josh Lucas) ignoring hurricane warnings and driving down to New Orleans with an important message for one Miranda Wells (Katie Holmes).

Miranda is a widow with three kids, a boyfriend (Jerry O’Connell), and character development consisting of a succession of old graphic tees. She finds Bray before he finds her, by rear-ending him in traffic. Bray’s original mission is quickly sidetracked, and soon he’s fixing Miranda’s car, the hole in her roof, and whatever else his laid-back, dimpled philosophizing can help with.

Even before this handsome stranger effortlessly fascinates the wide-eyed Wells children with an example of how magnets work, not a lick of this bears any resemblance to real life.

Paper-thin characters recite banal dialogue carrying all the depth of a pop-up greeting card. Family strife about storm damage and money trouble is only dire enough to be a manufactured setup for Holmes to give a cute sigh and wonder, “What now??” while her kids pine for a computer or a pony.

Bray’s mission is never in doubt, and the film’s ultimate resolution becomes a tidy, manipulative pinch from the Nicholas Sparks playbook, right down to the throwing of a shameless trump card.

Whether you think The Secret is nothing but entitlement masquerading as feel good drivel, or a truly uplifting approach to finding happiness, a resonant film needs an attraction beyond preaching to the converted.

Or does it? Dare to Dream doesn’t really seem interested in finding out.

Grade: D

Rebuilding Paradise

Streaming at Gateway Film Center.

by Brandon Thomas

It’s an indisputable truth that we’re living at a time when the effects of human civilization are having a massive impact on the environment. Climate change is all around us. From stronger hurricanes and cyclones in our oceans, to half of Australia burning, the catastrophic change we’ve caused is something that’s become impossible to ignore. 

While climate change and humans’ impact on it continues to be a political lightning rod, there are real people all over the world suffering the effects. Rebuilding Paradise tells the story of one such town and its residents. 

On November 8, 2018, an enormous wildfire overtook the small northern California town of Paradise. The Camp Fire, as it became known, destroyed most of Paradise and much of the surrounding area. Many residents were left without homes and jobs. Most of the city’s schools were either destroyed entirely or severely damaged. Eighty-five residents lost their lives that day.

A lot of people would’ve left and never looked back. For many of the residents of Paradise, turning their backs on their community wasn’t an option.

Finding Paradise opens with a harrowing series of videos shot by Paradise residents. As they flee, the footage shows nothing short of an absolute hellscape. Propane tanks explode in the distance as panicked families try to decide the safest route. At one point a resident asks another, “Are we going to die?” As a viewer, this devastating footage makes it all the easier to understand the PTSD that residents felt in the weeks and months following. 

In the last decade, director Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) has started to dabble more and more in the documentary field. His first two efforts, Made In America and Pavarotti, showed an already confident filmmaker finding his groove in a new genre. With Rebuilding Paradise, Howard’s confidence is solidified. 

It would’ve been easy to make Rebuilding Paradise an exercise in tragedy porn. Instead, Howard builds the film as a tribute to the strength and the resiliency of the people of Paradise. The utter devastation at the beginning of the film is beautifully bookended by extraordinary acts of kindness. A community bends over backwards to make sure the few graduating Paradise seniors get to walk across the football field at their own high school. People open their doors to estranged family members who lost everything in the conflagration.

Howard’s insistence on focusing on the people of Paradise allows the film to stay deeply personal. Some of the worst that nature has to offer allows us to see just how decent, hardy, and inspiring people can be when pushed.

Grade: A-

Marley

Streaming from all major VOD platforms.

by Seth Troyer

In our current era of memes and wikipedia summaries, the true power of a figure like Bob Marley can become diminished. To many in the U.S., Marley is simply known as “that reggae guy, who smoked weed and thought peace was cool.” Dorm room posters, white kids with dreadlocks, and Marley-related drug paraphernalia can sometimes threaten to make us forget what it was that made Marley a legend in the first place.

Kevin Macdonald’s in-depth documentary from 2012 seeks to jog the world’s memory about the revolutionary king of reggae. Marley is epic in scale and creates an experience that will be eye-opening for long-time fans and newcomers alike.

Re-released for what would have been Marley’s 75th birthday, the film has a two and a half hour runtime, but I can’t stress enough for audiences to not be daunted by the film’s length. The story here feels instantly essential and engrossing. It simply opts for a thoughtful, methodical pace that seems perfectly in sync with the reggae movement.

Even the editing of the film seems to be in reverence of its subject. For instance, a scene that introduces a popular song like “Natty Dread” in less mature hands may have been used as an excuse to showcase wild camera work and ADD, rapid-cut editing. Instead we are given a slow motion aerial shot of Marley’s home country of Jamaica. We are granted a quiet moment where we listen to the music and gaze out at the beauty that helped inspire it.

The length also allows interviews with Marley’s band mates and family members to be more than just cut up sound bites. Macdonald is in no hurry and his patience elevates the film. The interviewees are given time to articulate their thoughts, and have genuine moments of joy and heartbreak as they offer their recollections.

The film is clearly a love letter to the man and his music, but unlike many celebrity documentaries, it does not shy away from some of the more difficult truths about its subject. Those who were closest to him are often painfully honest in the film when it comes to his egotistical tendencies and shortcomings as a family man.

Its comprehensive honesty makes Marley much more than a simple fan rock doc. It is an honest portrait, a celebration of a man who helped open the eyes of the world to a new era of music.

Grade: A-

Host

Streaming on Shudder.

by Hope Madden

It was bound to happen, and no doubt the inanely titled Host is the first in a succession of films to tap into quarantine and pandemic frustrations to fuel horror. The fact that co-writer/director Rob Savage employs found footage for his of-the-moment horror show seems even more obvious.

Sometimes, though, it’s the most obvious choices that work out. Savage taps into the real emotional gap between face-to-face and virtual relationships as a handful of mates jump on a Zoom meeting for a bit if fun.

Separated because of lockdown, the buddies decide to create an event: an online séance. Haley (Haley Bishop) is hoping her friends will be respectful of the medium Seylan (Seylan Baxter), but those hopes are dashed when Teddy (Edward Linard) convinces the group to do a shot every time Seylan says “astro plane.”

“It’s astral plane,” Haley sighs.

Naturally, their irreverence is repaid.

Savage treads the same aesthetic as The Den or Unfriended: Dark Web, but in many ways his effort is even more successful—perhaps because it speaks so articulately to our immediate condition. Host is incredibly simple and spooky in the way that it exploits our isolation and the vulnerability that comes with that.

And while the medium itself is hardly groundbreaking and is sometimes irritating, Savage takes advantage of the limitations of found footage horror. The likability of the characters help you suspend disbelief during the portions where they’d clearly have put down the damn computer, and because the film manages to keep your interest, you get to enjoy the spook house effects. A lot of these jump scares are old school fun.

Lean and mean, running a brisk 56 minutes, the film doesn’t busy itself too much with why or how or really even what. Instead it quickly upends our new normal with old-fashioned scares.

Grade: B+

In Search of Darkness

Streaming on Shudder.

by Hope Madden

The first thing you know about Shudder’s new original doc In Search of Darkness is that it’s an encyclopedic look at horror movies from the ’80s.

The second thing you need to know is that it’s nearly four and a half hours long.

Right?!!

Why filmmaker David A. Weiner decided this had to be a standalone doc rather than a short series is beyond me. Certainly you can (and no doubt will) pause the film and come back to it, which is simple enough to do with Shudder. Still, having devoted about a third of my waking day to a single documentary, I feel as if I should have learned more about ’80s horror than I did.

The bright spots: Tom Atkins is as delightful as you hope he is, as, of course, is Barbara Crampton. John Carpenter and Larry Cohen are as curmudgeonly; Keith David’s saucy baritone makes every anecdote extra fun; Alex Winter makes some interesting connections between films and society at large; and some of the industry insider talking heads seem knowledgeable.

There’s no real rhyme or reason to the specific titles discussed, but more problematic is the superficial treatment of the genre. In four and a half hours, I should have learned something, should have heard of a movie I’d never known about. In Search of Darkness refuses to connect any dots.

Some of the asides about VHS cover art, for instance, are briefly interesting, but other such tangents only emphasize the film’s overall weaknesses. The discussion of the final girl or of gratuitous nudity in ’80s horror lacks any kind of insight, but when the piece on horror soundtracks did not mention Goblin, it dawned on me that in early four and a half hours, not a single foreign title is discussed.

No Argento, no Fulci, no Deodado – niente.

A 90 minute doc that contents itself with a nostalgic traipse down VHS store aisles would be fun. A doc series that contextualizes the phenomenal explosion in the popularity of horror in the ’80s, digging into sexism, feminism, foreign titles, changing music, the Reagan influence, the impact of VHS and MTV – that would be amazing. In Search of Darkness is neither.

Grade: C-

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

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