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True Stories Top the Watch List

Hope Madden Hope Madden True Stories Top the Watch ListThe Outpost - Photo via IMDb
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There’s a lot of nonfiction worth looking into in new streaming films this week, from documentaries to true war stories. Alien encounters (if you want to believe) are a little weaker, but if you’re looking for a familiar riff on the old exorcism classic, we might have a more make believe winner.

The Outpost

Streaming via traditional paid platforms.

by Hope Madden

Films concerning the U.S.’s two-decade war in Afghanistan have not managed to find much of an audience. I’m not sure summer 2020—the year we welcomed meth gators as a needed distraction from our own personal hell—will improve those odds.

And yet, director Rod Lurie’s The Outpost bravely ventures to the streaming environment this week to remind us that a solid, understated war movie can still thrill.

The ensemble piece features Caleb Landry Jones and Scott Eastwood as two sides of a coin. Eastwood’s Staff Sgt. Clint (that’s right) Romesha is a born leader with quiet dignity, grit and a mind for strategy. Cynical of the Army’s “frat boy” culture, Jones’ Staff Sgt. Ty Carter doesn’t quite fit in.

Where doesn’t he fit in? A sitting duck army outpost situated at the basin of surrounding mountains where Taliban forces travel, watch and shoot.

Screenwriter Eric Johnson’s bread and butter has been teaming with Paul Tamasy to create the cinematic presentation of a true story. They nearly won an Oscar for Johnson’s first foray into feature length screenplays, David O’ Russell’s powerful The Fighter (with Scott Silver).

The duo join forces again, this time adapting Jake Tapper’s investigative book concerning one extraordinary battle in our war in Afghanistan.

Understatement works in the film’s favor, Lurie favoring overlapping dialog and naturalistic settings to bombast and a leading score. In fact, much of the film plays without a score, a refreshing change that gives The Outpost a grittier, more realistic feel that serves it well. Because truth be told, a true tale that delivers this amount of sheer will, courage, perseverance and spirit is undermined by flapping flags and swelling strings. Lurie’s restraint says, “This is really what happened. Can you effing believe that?!”

That’s not to say The Outpost eliminates every cowboy moment. Indeed, this may be the first role in which Eastwood makes the most of his famous last name, clearly channeling his father in a performance punctuated by controlled, hushed rage and squinting blue eyes.

But Jones, as remarkable and versatile actor as you will find, is the broken soul of this film. Jones does “haunted” in a way that makes every other performance feel like a performance.

Together Lurie, his writers and his cast sidestep clichés, delivering instead a clear-eyed look at bravery, failure, and the cost of war.

Grade: B

John Lewis: Good Trouble

Streaming via Wexner Center for the Arts, Drexel Theater and Gateway Film Center.

by Rachel Willis

With a man as active as John Lewis, finding a focal point from which to craft a story could prove challenging. Should a documentarian focus on his early years as a civil and voting rights activist? His first years as a politician? His contemporary battle to overturn voter suppression laws?

Director Dawn Porter decides to highlight a little bit of everything in John Lewis: Good Trouble. The result is a fascinating, if messy, portrait of one of America’s greatest fighters for equality and justice.

Porter’s efforts have previously featured John Lewis as an interviewee (the magnificent docu-series Bobby Kennedy for President), but this time, she mines the wealth of material surrounding the man himself.

Congressman Lewis is a more than worthy subject. His early years on the front lines of the fight for racial equality alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to his current stumps along the campaign trail offer endless archival footage, colleagues and siblings to interview, and opportunities to follow the Congressman during his day-to-day life on the Hill. 

Some of the most noteworthy parts of the documentary showcase conversations with those who have been inspired by Lewis. Representative James Clyburn says Lewis is “the most courageous person [he] has ever met.” Representative Ilhan Omar quotes John Lewis saying she took to heart his message to “love your country like you love yourself.”

The bulk of the film addresses Mr. Lewis’s continuing struggle to ensure voting is accessible to everyone. In the 50s and 60s, it involved (among other things) walking door to door in black neighborhoods to encourage the residents to vote. Today, he wages the war in Congress, trying to strengthen the Voting Rights Act after it was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013. On the campaign trail, he encourages those who are most affected by restrictive voting laws to turn out in waves.

Some moments drag, as Porter tries to cram as much information about Lewis as she can into her 96-minute documentary. Certain stories seem added as an afterthought that would perhaps have been better left on the cutting room floor.

Mr. Lewis says he is deeply concerned about the future of democracy in America, but that he still believes “we shall overcome.” Anyone who needs inspiration or hope in these chaotic times can always look to John Lewis for guidance.

Grade: B

David Foster: Off the Record

Streaming on Netflix.

by George Wolf

Imagine being so successful at something that it bores you.

After decades in the music business, millions of records sold, 16 Grammy awards, scores of nominations, and multiple careers launched, improved or saved, that’s where legendary producer David Foster found himself.

His new passion is Broadway, where he hopes to launch a hit musical and maybe even check off the the T in EGOT (with a Tony award). This career shift has seemingly inspired Foster to look back, talking at length to director Barry Avrich for David Foster: Off the Record.

With an introductory promise to Avrich to “be over your shoulder the whole f-ing way,” Foster is very definitely on the record. The ego is healthy but understandable, and some frank self-assessment helps Foster come off as a complex, demanding, uniquely talented charmer who can be a bit of a Richard.

His perfect pitch was revealed during a self-described “perfect childhood” in Victoria, B.C., and by the time he was a young man was out-earning his parents through a variety of music gigs. After a year in London, he landed in L.A., became one-hit wonderful with Skylark (“Wildflower”) in ’72, caught the ear of Streisand in a recording session, and the rocket ride began.

Obviously, the man’s got some great stories. What Avrich has is a great editor in Eugene Weis, and together they set the perfect pace for a film about a guy who admits to only feeling comfortable in the fast lane.

Weis supercuts interview footage to create lively “conversations” between Foster and his colleagues, while Avrich lingers on Foster when he listens hard to one of his creations (such as Celine Dion’s “All By Myself”), drinking it in and relishing the effect.

Even if you don’t love all the tunes (and it’s clear members of Chicago aren’t exactly big fans of Foster’s bombastic 80s ballads that rescued their career), it’s hard to resist the engaging nature of the storytelling. And they just keep coming, from crashing a party at Streisand’s and fighting over The Bodyguard soundtrack, to saving a broadway star’s life by almost killing him and helping launch reality TV.

But while most of the film is gracefully laced with Foster’s honest introspection on his multiple failed marriages and concerns about being a good father, the final act wavers with a more glossy, choreographed concentration on his personal life.

Avrich recovers with a parting nod to Foster’s new focus on Broadway, the unconquered quest in the city he doesn’t enjoy. But hey, at least he’s not bored.

Thanks to what’s on the record in Off The Record, you won’t be, either.

Grade: B+


Streaming via traditional paid platforms.

by Brandon Thomas

To say that The Blair Witch Project made an impact upon its summer 1999 release would maybe be the understatement of the year. Not only is The Blair Witch Project one of the most profitable independent films of all time, but it also ushered in the rise of found footage horror.

Twenty-one years after the phenomenon of Blair Witch, that film’s co-director, Daniel Myrick, returns to the mockumentary fold with Skyman.

Carl Merryweather (Michael Selle) claims he was visited by an extraterrestrial, Skyman, when he was 10 years-old. That event made Carl a minor celebrity in his small California town and it’s completely shaped his life. As his 40th birthday draws near, Carl becomes more convinced that the Skyman is going to return. With his skeptical sister Gina and a documentary film crew, Carl goes back to the spot in the desert where the original encounter took place.

If you think Skyman is going to be overflowing with murderous E.T.s, outlandish found-footage F/X, and tense scares, then you are going to be sorely disappointed. Myrick’s approach to Skyman is more akin to the original Blair Witch than to the found-footage spectacle we’re now used to. It’s a very deliberately paced film — maybe too deliberate.

Given Myrick’s pedigree with the genre, it’s fair to have expected something a little more scary with Skyman. Maybe not a “vengeful witch in the woods” scary, but I would’ve settled for a Fire in the Sky kind of disturbing found footage vibe. The film’s more sci-fi finale is a tacked-on afterthought. The audience, like Carl, eagerly awaits the return of the Skyman. Unlike Blair Witch with its tantalizing nuggets of the witch spaced through the film, the Skyman himself is a virtual no-show.

Selle is outstanding as the awkward Carl. Selle and Myrick have created a character driven by his obsession, but not at the expense of his friends and family. Roy Neary from Close Encounters he ain’t. This decency, along with Selle’s subdued performance, makes it easy to root for Carl. 

Outside of a great lead performance, Skyman offers up nothing the audience hasn’t seen before, and mostly just leaves you wanting. 

Grade: C-


Streaming via Shudder.

by George Wolf

A deadly curse passed from house to house. A demon that can change identities at will. A young girl possessed, and desperate parents begging experts to investigate. A priest, wracked with guilt, seeking exorcism help from an older mentor. Deadly dopplegangers.

As a patchwork repackaging of several classic horror themes, South Korean Shudder original Metamorphosis (Byeonshin) works better than you might expect. Despite familiar tropes and convenient plot turns, director Hong-seon Kim scores with creepy atmospherics, sympathetic family strife and intermittent flashes of gore.

Gang-goo (Dong-il Sung) can’t believe the deal he got on the new house for his family. No other bids, imagine that! Shortly after move-in, though, the trouble starts with a very noisy neighbor and his alarming tastes in interior design.

But confronting him only brings evil closer to home, and soon Gang-goo, his wife and three daughters are facing increasing threats from each other. Or so they believe.

Turns out Gang-goo’s brother Joong-su (Sung-Woo Bae) is a priest with a tragic past, and he may be the family’s only hope to escape the demonic force that has gripped them.

Director Kim seems unfazed by the script’s lack of originality or moments of contrivance, confident in his ability to find new frights in well-traveled neighborhoods. For the most part, he does, even managing to touch a nerve that resonates beyond the horror genre itself.

Look beyond the inverted crosses, walls dripping blood and one unsurprising twist, and you’ll see Metamorphosis carrying a layer of horror-loving metaphor. We hurt each other in so many ways, and can be easily convinced that hurt is justified, or even divine.

There’s a devil in some of the details here, but the big picture is worthy.

Grade: B

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

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