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Wow, That’s a Lot of Movies

George Wolf George Wolf Wow, That’s a Lot of MoviesPhoto via IMDb
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So, last weekend basically one movie came out. Hollywood is making up for that dearth this weekend. At last count, four hundred million movies. The nutty thing is that most of them are really good. If you can’t find something to interest you this weekend, you are one picky viewer. Here’s the scoop.

Hustlers

by George Wolf

“You don’t have to believe me. I’m used to people not believing me.”

“Destiny” (Constance Wu) is telling her tale to Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), a writer in the midst of a story on a gang of high-end strippers who were busted for drugging clients and fleecing them for thousands.

The disclaimer is a clear, yet not overbearing, sign that our window into the world of Hustlers may not necessarily be the most clear and reliable. It’s one of many wise choices made by writer/director Lorene Scafaria in her adaptation of Jessica Pressler’s article on “The Hustlers at Scores.”

Wu is terrific as the naive newbie, overshadowed only by a completely magnetic Jennifer Lopez as Ramona, the stripping legend who teaches Destiny (and by extension, us) the ropes of spotting the highest-rolling Wall Street d-bags to milk for all they can.

But when the crash hits in ’08, times get tough for everybody, and it isn’t hard to justify hatching a plan to swindle the swindlers.

Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, The Meddler) is not shy about the Scorsese influences, and seeing Will Ferrell and Adam McKay as executive producers makes The Big Short-styled humor all the more understandable.

No matter. This is still a supremely assured vision from Scafaria, cleverly constructed with visual flair, solid laughs, a sizzling pace and some truly memorable sequences.

One of the many great soundtrack choices comes right out of the gate, as Scafaria sets the stakes with Janet Jackson’s spoken-word opening to “Control.”

Who’s got it? Who doesn’t? And who’s badass enough to go get it?

It’s a wild, intoxicating high of girl power. And when it all comes crashing down, the moral ambiguities are scattered like dollar bills under the pole. As Ramona is quick to remind us, if there’s money being thrown, there will always be people ready to dance.

Grade: A-

Brittany Runs a Marathon

by George Wolf

In a surprisingly touching circle of art and life and imitating, Brittany Runs a Marathon charts its main narrative course with humor, charm and insight, while solid doses of humanity are never out of sight.

It may be the based-on-truth story of a woman taking control of her life, but in the process, it’s also the story of a longtime supporting actor not only taking the lead, but literally transforming before our eyes.

Writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo, a playwright and TV director making his feature debut, drew inspiration from close friend Brittany O’Neil, who got her messy affairs in order by making some big changes.

One of those was a commitment to running, and a goal to complete the New York City marathon.

The film version finds Brittany Folger (Jillian Bell) out of shape and out of sorts. Allowing herself to be used by friends and randos, Brittany is the fat, funny sidekick who uses her quick, caustic wit as a suit of armor.

Early on, Brittany is just the sort of vessel Bell has used to steal big and small screen scenes for years. She nails the setup with hilarity, which isn’t surprising. But the most impressive layer in Bell’s performance is how she ups her game when the laughs don’t come as often, dodging any false notes in Brittany’s wake up call.

We knew Bell could do funny, but this is a performance full of drama that’s equally impressive (if not more).

Credit Colaizzo for some equally deft maneuvering, making sure this is more complex that the standard “get hot to get happy” makeover fantasy you could hardly be blamed for expecting.

Brittany may joke about people who “missed the point of those Dove ads,” but when she tells her attractive friend that “my life is just harder than yours,” it rings with the capital that Colaizzo’s script has earned.

The in-the-moment nods are numerous but not overdone, contrasting Brittany’s self-loathing with the emptiness of comparing real life to social media staging or quick assumptions from afar.

As hard as it is for Brittany to stick with running, dropping the pounds is the easy part. She has to grow emotionally, starting with accepting the fact that she’s worthy of the friendship her running pals (Michaela Watkins, Micah Stock) are offering.

And what’s up with Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar- terrific), who pulls the night housesitting shift the same place Brittany handles the daytime? Is he stuck in the friend zone? Is she?

Sure, the film has a convenient plot turn or two, but this is some sneaky good crowd-pleasing. Brittany Runs a Marathon ropes you with the comfort of formula, then dopes you with emotional complexities, warm sincerity and a knockout lead performance.

Winner winner sensible dinner.

Grade: A-

Knives and Skin

by Hope Madden

Falling somewhere between David Lynch and Anna Biller in the under-charted area where the boldly surreal meets the colorfully feminist, writer/director Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin offers a hypnotic look at Midwestern high school life.

When Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) goes missing, carefully erected false fronts start crumbling all over town. Cheerleaders take a harder look at football players. Football players cry in their Mustangs. Goth girls fondle pink dresses. Pregnant waitresses bleed at the kitchen sink.

And everyone sings impossibly appropriate Eighties alt hits acapella. Even the dead.

Knives and Skin’s pulpy noir package lets Reeder explore what it means to navigate the world as a female. As tempting as it is to pigeonhole the film as Lynchian, Reeder’s metaphors, while fluid and eccentric, are far more pointed than anything you’ll find in Twin Peaks.

She looks at relationships between mothers and daughters, as daughters toe the line between acceptable and unacceptable levels of conformity and mothers bear the toll exacted by years of fitting in.

Reeder blurs that line between popularity and ostracism, with characters finding common ground as they address the question: Are you a whore or a tease?

The ire is not one-dimensional. Though toxic masculinity requires a price, the males in Middle River, even the worst among them, are as sympathetic and as damaged by expectations as anybody.

Reeder’s peculiar dialogue finds its ideal voice with Grace Smith as Joanna Kitzmiller, a jaded feminist and budding entrepreneur. Likewise, Marika Englehardt and Tim Hopper bring extraordinary nuance and sympathy to what could have been campy characters.

This cockeyed lens for the middle American pressure cooker that is high school suggests exhilarating possibilities, but does so with a melancholy absurdity that recognizes the impossibility of it all.

And in the end, all the Middle River Beavers stare longingly at the highway that leads out of town.

Grade: A-

Tigers Are Not Afraid

by Hope Madden

Comparing most films to Pan’s Labyrinth would be setting a bar too high. Guillermo del Toro’s macabre fable of war and childhood delivers more magic, humanity and tragedy than any one film should be allowed.

And yet, it’s hard to watch Issa Lopez’s Tigers Are Not Afraid without thinking about little Ofelia, the fairies and the Pale Man.

Lopez’s fable of children and war brandishes the same themes as del Toro’s masterpiece, but grounds the magic with a rugged street style.

Tigers follows Estrella, a child studying fairy tales—or, she was until her school is temporarily closed due to the stray bullets that make it unsafe for students. As Estrella and her classmates hide beneath desks to avoid gunfire, her teacher hands her three broken pieces of chalk and tells her these are her three wishes.

But wishes never turn out the way you want them to.

There is an echo through Latin American horror that speaks to the idea of a disposable population. You find it in Jorge Michel Grau’s brilliant 2010 cannibal horror We Are What We Are and again in Emiliano Rocha Minter’s 2016 taboo-buster, We Are the Flesh.

Lopez amplifies that voice with a film that feels horrifying in its currency and devastating in the way it travels with the most vulnerable of those discarded people.

Estrella is befriended by other orphans in her city, each aching with the loss of parents and each on the move to escape the dangers facing the powerless.

Though Tigers bears the mark of a del Toro – Labyrinth as well as The Devi’s Backbone – it can’t quite reach his level of sorrowful lyricism. It makes up for that with the gut punch of modernity. Though this ghost story with tiny dragons and stuffed tigers is darkly fanciful, it’s also surprisingly clear-eyed in its view of the toll the drug war takes on the innocent.

It’s Latin American horror at its best.

Grade: A-

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice

by George Wolf

You may have heard that Linda Ronstadt can’t sing anymore, her incredible instrument silenced by Parkinson’s disease. But Ronstadt’s harmonies with a nephew in The Sound of My Voice are gentle and effective, and rendered more bittersweet by her quick, self-deprecating dismissal.

“This isn’t really singing.”

The ironic truth in this engaging documentary is that the sound of her spoken voice is what gives the film the warmth it needs to register as more than just a big screen fan letter.

Ronstadt initially balked at the pitch by directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (Howl, Lovelace) but they won her over with a promise to let her tell the story and define its terms.

So while we don’t get any juicy intimacies or sordid details, we do get some fantastic highlights from her archives and a unique, first-person perspective of being a queen in a king’s game.

For anyone under 40, the film is also a great intro to one of the most successful female singers in history. I know Taylor Swift is great and all, kids, but in the 1970s, her name was Linda Ronstadt.

An Arizona native who was raised on a multitude of musical styles, Ronstadt came to L.A. as a teen. After first raising interest and eyebrows as the defiant girl singer not wanting to be tied down to just one lover on the Stone Poneys’ 1967 hit “Different Drum,” Ronstadt’s 70s solo success reached unprecedented levels for a female artist.

With hits on the pop, R&B and country charts, a string of platinum albums and magazine covers, she was everywhere. Later decades brought torch song projects with Nelson Riddle, a starring role in Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, a record-breaking Spanish language album paying tribute to her father’s heritage, and forming a legendary country trio with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris.

It is truly an incredible career, and reminding us of that fact seems to be goal number one for Epstein and Friedman. Their mission is more than accomplished, and with Ronstadt herself as the guide, it’s like getting a backlot studio tour from Spielberg.

You hear wonderful anecdotes about how Ronstadt handled sexism both systemic and casual (former boyfriend J.D. Souther asked her to cook him dinner – she handed him a PB&J), how her backing band left to start a little combo called the Eagles, and how none of the successes could quell the nagging feeling that she was never good enough.

She was. The Sound of My Voice is all the proof you need.

Grade: B

Depraved

by Hope Madden

It is tough to find a fresh direction to take fiction published 201 years ago, let alone a tale already made into countless films. Is there a new way—or reason—to look at the Frankenstein fable?

Writer/director/horror favorite Larry Fessenden thinks so. He tackles the myth, as well as a culture of greed and toxic masculinity, with his latest, Depraved.

Adam (a deeply sympathetic Alex Breaux) is kind of an act of catharsis for Henry (David Call). A PTSD-suffering combat medic, Henry is so interested in finding a way to bring battlefield fatalities back to life that he doesn’t even question where his Big Pharma partner Polidori (Joshua Leonard, in another excellent genre turn) gets his pieces and parts.

Here’s a question that’s plagued me since I read Shelley’s text in eighth grade. Why take parts of cadavers? Why not bring one whole dude back and save all that time and stitching effort? Frank  Henenlotter (Frankenhooker) and Lucky McKee (May) found answers to that question. Fessenden isn’t worried about it.

He’s more interested in illuminating the way a culture is represented in its offspring. Pour all your own ugly tendencies, insecurities and selfish behaviors into your creation and see what that gets you.

Fessenden isn’t subtle about the problems he sees in society, nor vague about their causes. Depraved is the latest in a host of genre films pointing fingers at the specific folks who have had the power to cause all the problems that are now coming back to bite us in the ass.

It’s the white guys with money because, well, because it is.

Along with Leonard’s oily approach and Breaux’s tenderness, the film boasts solid supporting work from Chloe Levine (The Transfiguration, Ranger) and especially Addison Timlin, who is great in a very small role.

There is a sloppy subtext here, charming in its refusal to be tidy, about the man Adam used to be (or one of them), the girl he didn’t really appreciate, and the way, deep down, a mildly douchy guy can learn a lesson about self-sacrifice.

In its own cynical way, Depraved does offer a glimmer of hope for mankind. Fessenden doesn’t revolutionize the genre or say anything new, though, but you won’t leave the film wishing Shelley’s beast would just stay dead.

Grade: B-

Also opening in Columbus:
Freaks (R)
Gang Leader (NR)
The Goldfinch (R)
Love, Antosha (R)
Official Secrets (R)
Paliwaan (NR)
Riot Girls (NR)
Sea of Shadows (NR)
Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken! (PG-13)

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

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