Greetings From Movie Review, N.J.: ‘Blinded by the Light’ Review

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CREDIT: Nick Wall/Warner Bros.

In my review of Yesterday, I took the disappearing-Beatles film to task for failing to answer all the questions it raised. (Yesterday, I don’t mean to bag on you too hard; you’re enjoyable even though you’re so silly.) Now another movie about the power of one classic musical act has come along, and it benefits from a much tighter focus. Instead of imagining what the entire world would be like without Bruce Springsteen, it captures the profound effect the Boss has on one British-Pakistani teenage boy in 1987 small-town England. But that tight focus doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of questions to be answered.

Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra) is immediately enraptured the first time he encounters the poet laureate of Asbury Park, and despite their (superficial) cultural differences, he sees a model of inspiration to break out of his hometown and make it as a successful writer. But his new favorite music doesn’t change the fact that he’s growing up in a traditional immigrant family beset by financial struggles and prejudice from their neighbors and the National Front party. Javed thinks that Springsteen’s message is pretty simple, and in some ways, it fundamentally is. But the challenge for him is to look outward with that message when he is tempted to remain inward. Luckily, Blinded by the Light is up to the challenge of answering the questions of how one artist with such a personal touch can inspire someone to be a good son, friend, sibling, boyfriend, neighbor, and overall human. The journey it presents is unfailingly earnest and bursting with ebullience

Blinded by the Light is Recommended if You Like: Bend It Like Beckham, Sing Street, Standing up to neo-Nazis

I give Blinded by the Light 90 Death Traps out of 100 Runners in the Night.

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Movie Review Awful People in History Edition: The Nightingale

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CREDIT: IFC Films/YouTube Screenshot

Brutal. So brutal. Has there ever been a movie as brutal as The Nightingale?

It is undoubtedly well-crafted and undeniably well-acted, but is that good enough to justify the brutality? Could it ever possibly be good enough?

Here’s what happens: an Irish woman who’s been convicted of theft and taken to Tasmania, Australia in 1825 is raped multiple times by the English officer who is basically her slave master. Then she watches as her husband and baby are suddenly killed. With the help of an Aboriginal tracker, she then sets out on a revenge mission, and along the way, there are more rapes and murders, as well as a liberal dash of stabbing and blunt force trauma. The total disregard for the lives of women, people of color, and young children is stunning, but considering human history, not exactly shocking. But thankfully it is clear that writer/director Jennifer Kent is giving narrative precedence to the abused and exploited. Ultimately, this fits in a cinematic tradition that is fundamentally unenjoyable but an important corrective for those whose stories have been wiped out.

I give The Nightingale My Understanding for Why It Must Exist.

Super-Relatable for Runners of All Racing Stripes: ‘Brittany Runs a Marathon’ Review

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CREDIT: Amazon Studios

Starring: Jillian Bell, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Michaela Watkins, Micah Stock, Lil Rel Howery, Alice Lee

Director: Paul Downs Colaizzo

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: R for Some Fun and Sexy Times in Between the Marathon Training

Release Date: August 23, 2019 (Limited)

Brittany Forgler (Jillian Bell) has never been much of a fan of exercise, but somehow she finds herself training for the New York City Marathon mere months after she first takes up running. I’ve been running since I was in sixth grade, and my current goal is to complete the 2020 New York City Marathon. Our origins are very different, and yet we are one and the same.

Brittany Runs a Marathon understands certain core tenets about running, particularly that no matter how in shape or out of shape of you, the next challenge is always daunting. And no matter how much running becomes a part of your routine, the next run still feel sublime. That’s important, as it makes up for the fact that much of the non-running moments of this movie are kind of soul-crushing. As we watch Brittany make her way through the gig economy and deal with roommate issues and learn how to be an adult who regularly visits the doctor, we mostly get a cinematic effort that’s about at the level of a dimly sitcom, or a dramedy of malaise, or what have you. But when Brittany conquers the huffing and the puffing and the indiscriminate sweat as she makes her way through the five boroughs, a bit of transcendence manages to sneak up on us.

Brittany Runs a Marathon is Recommended If You Like: Cheering on runners of all skill levels

Grade: 3 out of 5 Sweat Patches

Foreign Language Film Review Corner: ‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’

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CREDIT: Shudder/YouTube Screenshot

Starring: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López, Hanssel Casillas

Director: Issa López

Running Time: 83 Minutes

Rating: Unrated (I’d Peg it at a PG-13 for Violence That’s Not Too Graphic)

Release Date: August 21, 2019 (New York)/August 23, 2019 (Los Angeles and Toronto)

After her mother is murdered, little Estrella (Paola Lara) joins up with a group of boys as they run through the streets of Mexico to avoid the clutches of the local drug cartel. Also hot on Estrella’s tail is a streak of blood that runs along the floor and up the wall whenever she is stuck in a corner. It turns out that the ever-present threat of drug violence is paired with a mysterious supernatural presence that is more existentially unnerving than it is especially deadly. From my vantage point, that otherworldliness weirdly seemed like a small bit of comfort for Estrella. A dark fantasy world is suitably spooky when a child’s base reality is safe and secure, but when normal is filled with angry, gun-toting adults, the fantasy is the realm of security.

Tigers Are Not Afraid is Recommended If You Like: Gritty fantastical realism

Grade: 3 out of 5 Wishes

No Need to Make a Deal with the Devil: Go See ‘Ready or Not’!

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CREDIT: Eric Zachanowich/Twentieth Century Fox

Starring: Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O’Brien, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Nicky Guadagni, Kristian Bruun, Melanie Scrofano, Elyse Levesque, John Ralston

Directors: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett

Running Time: 95 Minutes

Rating: R for Ridiculous and Bloody Violence, Over-the-Top Profanity, and a Few Bumps of Cocaine

Release Date: August 21, 2019

Rich people are so different from the rest of us (HOW DIFFERENT ARE THEY?!) that some of them think it’s perfectly justifiable to hunt other people for fun. Or at least that’s what the 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game” and its many descendants would have us believe. The latest example is Ready or Not, which features the highest-stakes version of hide-and-seek I have ever witnessed. It takes place at the mansion of the Le Domas family, whose black sheep son Alex (Mark O’Brien) has returned home with his new bride Grace (Samara Weaving). The Le Domases made their fortune in the gaming industry, and it is no coincidence that tradition dictates that whenever someone marries into the family, she must play a little game with her in-laws on her wedding night.

As the newbie to all this eccentricity, Grace is of course the hider, which she discovers is quite a frightening position to be in when she learns that everyone is trying to kill her before the sun comes up. This may sound like some sort of twisted sport hunting, but while the Le Domases can be gleeful in their attempted murder, they would rather not have to go through it. And yet they have decided they must, for they believe that something very bad will happen to them if they do not complete the ritual. You see, a few generations ago, when the first Le Domas arrived in America, he made a deal with a strange benefactor who promised – and delivered – great fortune, but with the caveat that his family must perform this wedding night gameplay in perpetuity under penalty of execution. The underlying message is clear: the ultra-rich are prone to some rather offbeat logic to justify their lot in life.

The familial indoctrination on display here is strikingly similar to that of a cult, which has me wondering: is devotion to the principles of the ultra-rich a religious sect unto itself? The religious overtones are certainly there, as the mandatoriness of the lethal hide-and-seek is fashioned as a sort of deal with the devil. But while the Le Domases appear to be allegiant to some sort of dark lord, their loyalty is not all that different than the sort demanded by the God of the Old Testament. While watching Ready or Not, I couldn’t stop thinking of Abraham attempting to sacrifice his son Isaac after God commanded him to do so, with God then rewarding Abraham for his loyalty. Is Alex’s responsibility to kill his new wife just a similar test of faith?

The great satisfaction of Ready or Not is how these weighty issues of generational inheritance fit so seamlessly within the thrills of a relentless and-then-there-were-none-style slasher pic. The performances follow suit. Samara Weaving is like a threatened animal screaming full-bodied howls animated by profound incredulousness, with the survivor’s strength she summons recalling Marilyn Burns in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Sharni Vinson in You’re Next. As the parents and aunt of the groom, Andie MacDowell, Henry Czerny, and Nicky Guadagni are all disturbingly committed to the game, while Adam Brody, as Alex’s brother Daniel, is in eternal negotiations with the legacy he’s inherited. The blood in Ready or Not is disturbing, hilarious, and thought-provoking – what else can you ask for?!

Ready or Not is Recommended If You Like: You’re Next, Clue, The Purge

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Bloody Wedding Dresses

Scary Movie Reviews to Write in the Dark: ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ Review

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CREDIT: CBS Films

In Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, Stella Nichols (Zoe Colletti) just needs to increase her speed and stamina a bit to make herself the perfect adversary to defeat a haunted book. She’s already a talented enough writer who knows how to get the truth out there. Anyway, on Halloween 1968, she and her friends stumble upon a tome in a creepy abandoned house that features macabre musings written in blood that come to life with deadly consequences. They’re penned from beyond by the deceased Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard), who it turns out was abused by her own family after she attempted to reveal their dark secrets.

The underlying thematic schematic here is something to do with the unseemly secrets at the heart of America and how powerful folks often do their worst to keep inconvenient people quiet. That’s given resonant oomph by the Bellows’ black servant being the only thing close to a reliable witness and a time period that constantly places Tricky Dick Nixon’s presidential campaign on TVs in the background. The message is meaningful, but it perhaps could be synthesized more clearly. As for the monstrousness, the imagery is effective enough, what with a big white meatball creature that absorbs people and a massive swelling of the cheek that houses a swarm of spiders. I’m a little scared, and I’m motivated enough to say let’s get our skeletons out of the darkness.

I give Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark 3 Bloody Letters out of 5 Jangly Men.

The Wettest Documentary Review Ever: ‘Aquarela’

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CREDIT: Stine Heilmann/Sony Pictures Classics

Starring: H2O

Director: Victor Kossakovsky

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: PG for General Aquatic Danger

Release Date: August 16, 2019 (Limited)

Water. Water water water water water water water.

That’s what’s promised and it’s certainly what’s on display in Russian director Victor Kossakovsky’s wet, unique, and uniquely wet documentary Aquarela. Water sustains all life on this planet, so in a way, it also sustains all cinema. But when it stands on its own at number one on the call sheet, does it hit the spot? To be fair, I will have to personally assess a score of “incomplete” on that question, as will most people who end up seeing Aquarela. It was shot at a practically unheard rate of 96 frames per second, four times the standard 24, and there aren’t many theaters with the capacity to project at that rate. So it will be screened at 48 frames per second, which is itself quite rare.

The idea here is to show a montage of H2O in its most overpowering forms (huge waves, flood waters, glaciers cracking apart) and remind humans that we’re at the mercy of the all-consuming forces of nature. On a technical level, Kossakovsky’s accomplishment is unimpeachable. But in terms of the content he’s chosen to include, it all feels so haphazard: here’s a car crashing below ice here, here are some animals stuck in floodwater there, here we go to a close-up of a waterfall.

The king of documentaries that offer a survey of the non-living world in images is the 1982 time-lapse classic Koyaanisqatsi, and Aquarela does not come close to being the hypnotic achievement that Godfrey Reggio gave us. Instead, we start off with a sort of rake joke-style comedy of errors on ice and then somehow make our way to a nameless series of crashing waves. In other words, Kossakovsky hasn’t discovered anything new about water by making it the star of the show, but surrender to the experience, and maybe it can lull you in the right way.

Aquarela is Recommended If You Like: Staring at the ocean all day

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Floods

 

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