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Thompsons, Shafts and Ghouls in Theaters

Hope Madden Hope Madden Thompsons, Shafts and Ghouls in Theaters
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Wow, big week. It’s uncommon for a summer weekend to see so many studio releases all at once – does that mean the competition’s not that sure about the “blockbuster” status of Men In Black: International? Well, they’re not wrong.

Not that it’s bad, exactly, but what else is there to see?

Late Night

by George Wolf

Just weeks ago, Long Shot gave us an in-the-moment, proudly raunchy comedy with brains and big laughs. Audiences largely balked.

Late Night also offers plenty of insightful funny business, but trades the hard R-rating for a more agreeable sell, one that will hopefully translate into selling more tickets.

Mindy Kaling’s debut screenplay may be ultimately eager to please, but it’s also a sharp and solidly funny takedown of the challenge in navigating a social landscape in motion.

Kaling also stars as Molly, a factory worker who’s main outside interest is comedy. Though her only standup experience is cracking them up over the intercom at work, Molly lands an interview for a writing gig at her favorite late night talk show.

Her timing is perfect. Comic legend Katherine Newbury (a pitch-perfect, absolutely Oscar-worthy Emma Thompson) has ordered some diversity be added to her all male, all pale writing staff, so Molly gets the gig.

Katherine may have been the first woman to enter the late night wars, but her act has grown stale and complacent. Icon or no, Katherine faces an overthrow attempt from a network president (Amy Ryan) with eyes on an obnoxiously edgy comedian (Ike Barinholtz as Kaling’s barely-veiled swipe at Daniel Tosh) as new host.

Can Molly’s fresh comedic takes save her hero’s job?

Credit Kaling and director Nisha Ganatra for answering that question without sacrificing the bigger points at work.

From slut shaming and #metoo to diversity, office politics and the shifting sands of comedic relevance, Kaling’s script is brimming with writing-what-you-know confidence, even when it’s coasting on roads most traveled.

But still, in those most predictable moments, Thompson’s deliciously droll timing meshes irresistibly with Kaling’s wide-eyed enthusiasm. They both get able support from a uniformly solid ensemble, and the biggest question mark about Late Night becomes that R rating.

The convenient layups the film settles for in act three seem like an understandable trade-off for a greater chance at mainstream appeal. So why not trim a few of those F-bombs to get a PG-13?

Late Night deserves plenty of eyeballs. For [email protected]#! sake, let’s hope it gets them.

Grade: B

The Dead Don’t Die

by Hope Madden

Indie god and native Ohioan Jim Jarmusch made a zombie movie.

If you don’t know the filmmaker (Down by Law, Ghost Dog, Only Lovers Left Alive, Paterson and so many more jewels), you might only have noticed this cast and wondered what would have drawn Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Rosie Perez, RZA, Caleb Landry Jones, Danny Glover, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop and Selena Gomez to a zombie movie.

It’s because Jim Jarmusch made it.

Jarmusch is an auteur of peculiar vision, and his latest, The Dead Don’t Die, with its insanely magnificent cast and its remarkably marketable concept, is the first ever in his nearly 30 years behind the camera to receive a national release.

Not everybody is going to love it, but it will attain cult status faster than any other Jarmusch film, and that’s saying something.

He sets his zombie epidemic in Centerville, Pennsylvania (Romero territory). It’s a small town with just a trio of local police, a gas station/comic book store, one motel (run by Larry Fassenden, first-time Jarmusch actor, longtime horror staple), one diner, and one funeral home, the Ever After.

Newscaster Posie Juarez (Rosie Perez – nice!) informs of the unusual animal behavior, discusses the “polar fracking” issue that’s sent the earth off its rotation, and notes that the recent deaths appear to be caused by a wild animal. Maybe multiple wild animals.

The film never loses its deadpan humor or its sleepy, small town pace, which is one of its greatest charms. Another is the string of in-jokes that horror fans will revisit with countless re-viewings.

But let’s be honest, the cast is the thing. Murray and Driver’s onscreen chemistry is a joy. In fact, Murray’s onscreen chemistry with everyone—Sevigny, Swinton, Glover, even Carol Kane, who’s dead the entire film—delivers the tender heart of the movie.

Driver out-deadpans everyone in the film with comedic deliver I honestly did not know he could muster. Landry Jones also shines, as does The Tilda. (Why can’t she be in every movie?)

And as the film moseys toward its finale, which Driver’s Officer Ronnie Paterson believes won’t end well, you realize this is probably not the hardest Jim Jarmusch and crew have ever worked. Not that the revelation diminishes the fun one iota.

Though it’s tempting to see this narrative as some kind of metaphor for our current global political dystopia, in fairness, it’s more of a mildly cynical love letter to horror and populist entertainment.

Mainly, it’s a low-key laugh riot, an in-joke that feels inclusive and the most quotable movie of the year.

Grade: A-

Shaft

by George Wolf

“JJ” Shaft walks gingerly into traffic, taking care to watch for cars. He doesn’t constantly drop expletives and he’s keen on Brazilian dance fighting.

So, he’s a little different from Dad, then?

It’s the first clue that writers Kenya Barris and Alex Barrow and director Tim Story might have a sound plan to bring Shaft into the 21st century. They need one, because successfully transplanting those solidly 1970s sensibilities to present day is a bit of a trick.

The Brady Bunch Movie got around it by having the 90s Bradys still living gloriously 70s while everyone else called them weird. Genius move.

2005’s Bad News Bears remake just tried to tone down the unacceptable elements. Swing and a miss.

Taking much more of a straight up comedic approach than John Singleton’s 2000 sequel, this Shaft‘s culture clashes between John (Samuel L. Jackson) and JJ (Jessie T. Usher) offer some amusingly organic attempts to freshen the air of misogyny and homophobia.

It’s not a bad strategy, but the dam can only be held back so long. Guys, quit being such pansies. Women like real men who only want sex, guns, and any chance to kill people!

And then there’s the matter of the unintentional comedy.

JJ is a data analyst at the FBI who’s also apparently a hacking genius: “This is the most advanced encryption I’ve ever seen…I’m in!” He drags Pops into a completely ridiculous drug case where the clues come easy and the henchman stand straight up in every line of fire while explaining their motivations for giving chase (“It’s that Shaft kid! He saw everything!”)

Is Jackson a wonderful badass who’s perfect for this? Duh.

Does Regina Hall (as JJ’s mother) brighten every scene she’s in? She always does.

Do the samples of Isaac Hayes’s original music remind it’s probably the greatest theme in movie history? You damn right!

And Richard Roundtree again, casually dismissing that “Uncle Shaft” business from last time? Love it so hard.

There are fun elements here, but the lazy execution never fully commits to the promising setup. Shaft’s early self-awareness ends up devolving into self-parody and sadly, I cannot dig that.

Grade: C

Men In Black: International

by Hope Madden

Someone somewhere at some recent point in history must have said, “What we need is another Men in Black movie.”

Someone else surely disagreed, suggesting that they’d beaten that dead alien long enough.

“We’ll change it up,” this imaginary and somehow sad conversation continued. “Hire a new director, new writers, new actors, take it international. It’ll be—”

“Great?!”

“—mediocre.”

And there you have it. F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) directs an entirely new batch of humans in black as they don sunglasses, erase memories and suss out an alien conspiracy in their ranks, this time on European soil.

Tessa Thompson shines, as is her way, starring as Molly, a tenacious nerd who’s tracked down this mystery organization in hopes of a shot at joining. Head of the US division, Agent O (Emma Thompson — no relation that we know of, but how cool would that be?!) reluctantly gives her a shot.

As expected, all scenes between the Thompsons spark. And, as T. Thom has proven twice already, she shares solid onscreen chemistry with Chris Hemsworth, here portraying her new partner, H.

Gizmo-riffic adventures follow, although it’s pretty soft. There are a couple of fun sight gags, especially one with a hammer. Kumail Nanjiani pops off a few drolly comical lines as this go-round’s cute little alien sidekick, Pawnie.

Then the three are off to Marrakesh, then a fortress island, back to London, a desert, and London again all in pursuit of answers about a tiny little device and the evil twins looking for it. But the storyline was never really the MIB selling point, it was the relationship between the partners.

Thompson and Hemsworth seem like fine choices, having shown both chemistry and comedic spark in Thor: Ragnarok. But Thompson’s early, geeky charm is given little opportunity to show itself once she dons the black suit, and Hemsworth — fun enough as he, once again, basically mocks his own persona — has even less opportunity.

Writers Matt Holloway and Art Marcum don’t articulate enough in the way of plot or character arc and Gray’s listless direction leaves us with a Summer popcorn muncher that coasts rather than thrills.

Grade: C+

Diamantino

by Matt Weiner

Is Diamantino going for hard-hitting social commentary? Eurozone political satire? B-movie send-up? I spent the first half of the film (written and directed by Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt) eyeing the title hero with as much skepticism as those who surround him in the movie. By the end, though, I found it impossible not to root for the surreal star and his message of love, acceptance — and fluffy puppies. (Make that very surreal.)

Diamantino (Carloto Cotta, whose captivating presence keeps the film’s high-concept oddities aloft) is Portugal’s star soccer player. His skills on the field are rivaled only by his childlike naivete, at least until the superstar’s insular bubble gets popped by a succession of professional and personal tragedies.

As the world beyond soccer infiltrates Diamantino’s Zen-like existence, he becomes enmeshed with — in no particular order — the refugee crisis, evil twins, the Portuguese Secret Service, a shadowy genetics conspiracy, Portugal’s place in the European Union and the rising tide of right-wing nationalism. Also giant puppies.

Abrantes and Schmidt clearly have a lot going on in the tight script, but it’s a testament to the film’s good nature and convincing leads (including Cleo Tavares as Diamantino’s adopted “refugee”) that the humor lands more often than not, at least before the satire gives way to mysticism with a detour through B-movie body humor. (Again, a lot going on.)

Not only is Diamantino funny, it’s also beautiful… at least in its own fleeting way, before the film is just as likely to veer back to deliberately cheesy sci-fi effects. But Cotta finds a way to redirect the celebrity satire of Diamantino into tenderness, even when it’s something as achingly funny as the soccer star putting his head down on his own branded bedsheets.

For a film that hinges on so many hot-button current events, the unifying message that coalesces in the final act comes close to feeling like a cop-out. But even when it stumbles, Diamantino earns its cult status just for being so committed, so sincere, so weirdly joyous. And so unlike anything else you’re likely to see this year.

Grade: A-

The Proposal

by Rachel Willis

One part documentary, one part art piece, and one part love letter, The Proposal is an unusual film.

Visual artist and director Jill Magid has an interest in the architect Luis Barragán, particularly his professional archive, which is currently owned by the Swiss furniture company, Vitra. Overseen by Frederica Zanco, the professional collection has been withheld from the public for over 20 years.

The beginning of the film asks some interesting questions about the nature of art and ownership. Not only does Vitra own the physical archives, they also own the copyright for Barragán’s work. A photographer who has taken pictures of Barragán’s work, for example, owns the photo, but Vitra owns distribution rights. It’s a confusing legal quandary that has, in many ways, held Barragán’s work hostage.

However, rather than examine the implications of legal ownership, artistic legacy, and the ethics of corporations owning an artist’s work, Magid has a different agenda for the film.

Working on an artistic installation of her own, Magid has envisioned her entire project, including the film, as that love letter (or a proposal) to Frederica Zanco. What she wants is revealed throughout the course of the film, and her methods to entice Zanco are unorthodox. Many viewers will take issue with her tactics while others will see them as inspired. Part of the film focuses on the debate aroused by her project. 

When the documentary explores the architect (Barragán) and not the artist (Magid), it’s a great film. The moments that concentrate solely on Barragán pay a stunning homage to the man and his work. However, most of the film is focused on Magid, her project and her goals, which often comes across as indulgent, sometimes even arrogant.   

Though Magid claims she’s sincere in her interest in Barragán’s work and its future, it’s hard to know for sure when each moment is used as a piece in her own installation. Is the film a touching tribute to the architect and those who admire him? Or is it a marketing ploy to draw attention to the artist?

In a scene where Magid addresses Barragán’s family, we might have gained additional insight into her true intentions, but rather than allow us access to the meeting, it’s relegated to a montage. What did she say to Barragán’s family to convince them to allow her to carry out her proposal to Zanco?

The questions raised in the film have less to do with the future of Barragán’s archives and more to do with Magid’s own art, which makes The Proposal an unexpected, if not entirely interesting, film.

Grade: C-

Also opening in Columbus:

5B (NR)
American Woman (R)
Game Over (NR)
Halston (NR)
Head Count (NR)
Too Late to Die Young (R)

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

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