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Wintry Mix in Theaters

Hope Madden Hope Madden Wintry Mix in TheatersPhoto via IMDb
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There is a lot of snow onscreen this week. Whether it’s the Alaskan wilderness and some CGI hounds, the stark holiday hellscape of The Lodge, or romance at the winter Olympics, it’s chillier onscreen than off this weekend. There are a couple of reasons to brave the cold, though. Let’s discuss.

The Call of the Wild

by George Wolf

Look, we’re all thinking it, so let’s just get it out there.

Raiders of the Lost Bark.

Happy now? Okay, we can move on.

Truth is, there’s plenty of bark in this latest adaptation of Jack London’s classic novel, but not much bite to be found.

We’re still introduced to Buck, the sturdy St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix, as the spoiled pet of a wealthy California judge (Bradley Whitford) in the late 1800s. Stolen and sold as a sled dog to French-Canadian mail dispatchers, Buck adapts to the pack mentality and the harsh conditions of the Alaskan wilderness, eventually teaming up with the grizzled Thorton (Harrison Ford) for a journey into the Yukon.

It should come as no surprise that Ford is effortlessly affecting as a world-weary mountain man. What is surprising is his endearing rapport with a CGI dog (motioned-captured by Terry Notary). Ford’s narration is earnest enough to soften its heavy hands, drawing Thorton and Buck as two kindred spirits, both lost in their own wilderness.

While taking the actual wild out of The Call of the Wild seems sadly ironic, the computer-generated beasts come to fall perfectly in line with director Chris Sanders’ family-ready vision for the enduring tale.

Stripped of any bloody carnage, cultural insensitivities or harsh realities, Sanders (How to Train Your Dragon, Lilo & Stitch, The Croods) and writer Michael Green (Logan, Blade Runner 2049) fill the gaps with obvious questions, easy answers, and a flesh and blood bad guy (Dan Stevens in full Snidley Whiplash mode) who manages to be the biggest cartoon in a film full of computer animation.

Buck himself – looking fine but landing a notch below the motion capture high water of the last Planet of the Apes trilogy – is often stuck between Lassie and Scooby, heroically loyal while seeming to instantly understand everything from English to drunkenness.

With the sharp edges ground down, this Call of the Wild becomes a pleasant metaphor for the simple life, and for finding your place in it. In short, it’s a PG-rated primer, meant to hold a place until the kids are ready for the real thing.

Grade: C+

The Lodge

by Hope Madden

It’s Christmas, and regardless of a profound, almost insurmountable family tragedy, one irredeemably oblivious father (Richard Armitage) decides his kids (Jaeden Martell and Lia McHugh) should get to know the woman (Riley Keough) he left their mother for. A week in an isolated mountain cabin during a blizzard should do it.

Dad stays just long enough to make things really uncomfortable, then heads back to town for a few days to work. Surely everybody will be caroling and toasting marshmallows by the time he returns.

Though everything about The Lodge brings to mind A24 horror—for a number of reasons, Hereditary in particular—the film is actually a Hammer effort. No longer the corset-and-bloodletting studio, Hammer’s millennial output has been sparse but often quite good.

Choosing to back filmmakers Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz making their follow up to the supremely creepy Goodnight Mommy should be a solid risk to take. Here the pair does not shy away from the body of “white death” horror that came before The Lodge, with eerie and sometimes humorous nods to The Thing and The Shining, among others, haunting the piece.

The film also brings to mind A24’s It Comes at Night, another quiet film that saw Keough trapped in an isolated abode with unsettling family dynamics. Keough is riding an impressive run of performances and her work here is slippery and wonderful. As the unwanted new member in the family, she’s sympathetic but also brittle.

Martell, a kid who has yet to deliver a less than impressive turn, is the human heartbeat at the center of the mystery in the cabin. His tenderness gives the film a quiet, pleading tragedy. Whether he’s comforting his grieving little sister or begging Grace (Keough) to come in from the snow, his performance aches and you ache with him.

A healthy ability to suspend disbelief will aid in the experience The Lodge has to offer, but there’s no denying the mounting dread the filmmakers create, and the three central performances are uniquely effective. Thanks to the actors’ commitment and the filmmakers’ skill in atmospheric horror, the movie grips you, makes you cold and uncomfortable, and ends with a memorable slap.

Grade: B+

The Assistant

by Christie Robb

One of the more depressing aspects of maturity is the realization that evil is somewhat banal. Rarely does the antagonist sport a handlebar mustache that he twirls while ogling the victim he’s tied to the railroad tracks. The heinous are more ubiquitous and their misdeeds are cliched. The soul is crushed, not under a train, but under the repetition of many predictable, everyday disappointments.

Kitty Green’s The Assistant is a day-long coming-of-age story. Jane (Julia Garner), the titular assistant, has held her job for five weeks. We follow her from her bleary, pre-dawn commute till she shuffles away from the office hours after sunset. She’s entry-level at a New York production company, one of many assistants to an entertainment bigwig with a well-used casting couch.

Her day is filled with mundane tasks: organizing travel, making copies, stocking the fridge with bottled water, cleaning cum stains off her boss’ furniture, taking messages, fielding phone calls, ordering lunch…

Concerned about a young and potentially vulnerable new-hire, Jane tries to alert folks at Human Resources. But there are no heroes at corporate.

Garner carries the film with a nuanced performance that illustrates the exhaustion of a woman who represses much of herself in order to navigate a culture that normalizes predatory behavior and rewards complicity.

Informed by Green’s research and interviews with women post-Weinstein, at technology and engineering companies, as well as those in entertainment, The Assistant explores the machinery involved that works to normalize toxic work environments, that exchanges tolerance of bad behavior for a modicum of opportunity.

Green’s background in documentary (Ukraine Is not a Brothel, Casting JonBenet) serves her well here. She’s got an eye for the tiny, but not so insignificant, details that give an office its character—whether people decide to talk or to stay silent when a co-worker enters the breakroom, who gets off the elevator first, the aggression not so subtly hinted at by sliding a box of tissues across a desk.

It’s a hard film to watch that explores what, besides our time and labor, we are trading in exchange for a paycheck. 

Grade: A-

Brahms: The Boy II

by Hope Madden

Wow. Who would have guessed that director William Brent Bell could drive his lackluster 2016 scary doll flick The Boy to a sequel? Not the half dozen or so of us who saw it.

But here you have it, Brahms: The Boy II is a real live movie.

Katie Holmes is in it. She plays Liza, concerned mum. She and her youngster Jude (Christopher Convery) survived a trauma and now they are recuperating, along with supportive dad Sean (Owain Yoeman), in an old English manor.

Jude finds this creepy doll buried outside, just his little white hand poking out from the ground. They take him inside and clean him up and keep him because they have never seen a horror movie.

If you have, you can definitely skip this one.

While there’s not a lot to like about Stacey Menear’s script, the problem here—as with his 2016 effort that began this whole killer plaything saga—feels more like poor direction. The story sets up a slight twist on a common horror theme: someone survives a traumatic experience only to find themselves in a potentially super natural circumstance. This begs the question, is this person insane, or is this super natural event really happening?

Scads and scads of horror films have wandered the psychological corridors of this premise. In this case, there are two possible crazies (both Liza and Jude). So, there is something here. We could twist throughout the film wondering, is this doll sentient evil? Is little Jude a budding maniac? Or is Liza suffering from PTSD and imagining it all?

We don’t wonder, though, because Bell clarifies the true culprit early and often. He’s so clear on the matter that the subsequent moments of Liza questioning her own sanity, or of Jude staring menacingly at his bully cousin, amount to an idiotic mishandling of material.

Ralph Ineson (The Witch) and his grizzled baritone make a quick appearance. There’s also a Google search or two—damn, horror movie Google searches deliver results, don’t they?! And how lucky to bump into that stranger in town who 1) asks where you live and, 2) happens to have all the info you’d ever need on the entire history of the home you’re renting. Too nutty!

But let’s be honest, do you even want to see this movie?

Grade: D+

Olympic Dreams

by Matt Weiner

You have to admire the chutzpah when the first feature film ever to shoot on location at the Olympics has the star athlete’s event be over immediately after the opening ceremony.

But it’s an anticlimax that sets the tone for the rest of Olympic Dreams. Cross-country skier Penelope (real-life Olympian Alexi Pappas) is at a crossroads in her life. Young in years but already worn out in a world that measures time in all-consuming four-year spans, she spends the rest of her time at the Olympic Village wandering around, talking to fellow athletes and delaying the inevitable return to reality when she has to go back home.

She meets volunteer dentist Ezra (Nick Kroll, foreshadowing an effective mid-career transition to these reined-in dramedy roles), an outgoing Olympics nerd who’s just happy to be there.

The two hit it off, united by a vague sense of longing for… well, something. It’s a movie with modest aims, which are often dwarfed by the impressive settings. The story (by Pappas and Kroll along with Jeremy Teicher, who also directs) feels like it came long after securing the PyeongChang Olympic Village as the setting.

There’s the barest of plots, a sort of fish-out-of-water rom-com that plays like a mumblecore Lost In Translation. As endearing as the two leads are, there’s not a lot of scaffolding to help them out. The film relies less on subtle characterization and more on a safe bet that you’ve seen these particulars enough to fill in the blanks yourself.

It’s a shame because Kroll and Pappas excel in their elements. Between Kroll’s deadpan improv with the various athletes and Pappas’ sincere empathy for the sacrifice and emotional highs and lows constantly unfolding in the background, it’s a wonder the filmmakers didn’t play it straight as a documentary.

The film has plenty of warm moments, with Pappas especially managing to balance a range of heartbreak, uncertainty and charm in a way that doesn’t get to come through in the official behind-the-scenes featurettes during the Olympics.

There’s just not enough there to back her up. The film might take us to the finish line, but just barely.

Grade: C-

Also opening in Columbus:
63 Up (NR)
Bheeshma (NR)
Impractical Jokers: The Movie (PG13)
Mafia Chapter 1 (NR)
My Boyfriend’s Meds (R)
Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (NR)

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

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