Sweeping the Clouds Away

The Outside Story

by Hope Madden

Even the title The Outside Story sounds like a children’s book. It’s a vibe writer/director Casimir Nozkowski conjures intentionally. His film is about a man who really never leaves his Brooklyn apartment because, why bother?

That man, Charles, is portrayed with real tenderness and charm by Brian Tyree Henry. An actor of absolutely stunning range, Henry has delivered stellar supporting turns as every type of character in every genre of film over the last few years (Widows, If Beal Street Could Talk, Godzilla v Kong and about a dozen more). The dude works a lot, and he has yet to hit a false note. It’s high time he leads a movie.

The film Nozkowski builds around him feels like Sesame Street for adults. Once Charles finds himself locked out of his apartment, he (and we) gets to learn Who are the people in his neighborhood?

There’s an angry traffic cop (Sunita Mani, Save Yourselves!), brats with water balloons, an incredibly pregnant woman having a stoop sale, a young girl (Olivia Edward) with a problematic mother and so many more.

Nozkowski creates a series of harmless, even sweet mini-adventures for Charles to fall into, each one helping him recognize that maybe he’s closed himself off a bit too much.

It’s not entirely Sesame Street, though. There are plenty of f-bombs, a congenial threesome, and that problematic mom thing. But the darker elements feel downright wholesome in the bright sunshine of Charles’s street.

For the most part, that cheery disposition really aids in the film, and Henry’s wildly compassionate performance is the soft gooey center inside Nozkowski’s brightly colored candy shell.

The Outside Story nearly derails in a late-act scene during which local police mistake Charles for a stocking-footed burglar who’s been breaking into apartments in the neighborhood. Played for good-natured laughs, the scene feels instantly and uncomfortably tone-deaf.

There are other storyline missteps, as well, but The Outside Story is so refreshingly uncynical, so huggable, and often so funny that those misses are easily forgiven. It’s very rare that you see a film this dissimilar to anything else in recent memory.

I may have to think as far back as the last time I watched Sesame Street.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TdbwLDKqs5M

Place Your Bets

Godzilla vs. Kong

by George Wolf & Hope Madden

Here’s a sampling of the things we yelled at the screen during Godzilla vs. Kong:

“Boom! In the face!”

“Kyle Chandler is a terrible father.”

“Skull f**k him!”

“It’s just a flesh wound, get up!”

So you could say we were engaged in this battle, the one that’s been brewing since the end credits stinger from the excellent Kong: Skull Island four years ago. GvK can’t quite match that film’s tonal bullseye, but it easily lands as second best in the “Titan” Monsterverse that was reborn with 2014’s Godzilla.

Picking up three years after the tedious Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the film finds Kong contained on Skull Island under the respectful eye of Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall).

Meanwhile, Godzilla attacks APEX’s Florida headquarters – seemingly unprovoked. Mansplaining Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) says Godzilla’s changed his hero stripes, but his daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) and “Titan Truth” podcaster Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry, committing grand theft scenery) think there’s got to be more to the story.

There’s plenty more, and Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) believes Kong could be the key to proving his Hollow Earth theory about the Titans. Ilene agrees to allow the heavily sedated Kong to be transported by sea, but far from Godzilla’s favorite swimming holes, of course.

Riiiight.

Director Adam Wingard (You’re Next, Blair Witch) clearly realizes that monster mashes aren’t compelling if you can’t tell who’s fighting, and the technical aspects of GvK bring the Titan battles to vibrant life. Pristine cinematography, detailed CGI effects and a wonderfully layered sound design elevate the thrills early and often.

And that is what we’re here for, isn’t it?

That’s a familiar refrain when the human arcs in these films are so woeful, but screenwriters Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein toss the overwrought melodrama of King of the Monsters and add a frisky sense of welcome fun.

Yes, there’s another cute kid (Kaylee Hottle) with negligent guardians, and more than enough characters, locations and theories to keep up with. But even if you fall behind, you’ll catch up when these two Titans throw hands and tails, because they mean business.

They’re timing ain’t bad, either, as this is the kind of cinematic spectacle that could mean very good business for newly reopened theaters that badly need it. It’s a PG-13 return to form for a legendary franchise, with plenty to reward your popcorn munching and ringside commentary (keep it clean at the multiplex, please).

Just pick your screen size, and get ready to rumble.

Friends to the End

Child’s Play

by Hope Madden

You have to give it to the marketing team saddled with Lars Klevberg’s reboot of Child’s Play.

First came the trailers. You couldn’t see the doll, but you heard that old TV theme song, “People let me tell you ‘bout my best friend! He’s a warm boy, cuddly toy, my up, my down, my pride and joy…”

Creepy.

And then the posters. You know, still no Chucky doll in the frame, but a ripped-to-shreds cowboy doll splayed across the ground.

Well, pardner, Sheriff Woody’s got the last laugh because Child’s Play the film is not 1/10th as inspired as its marketing. It’s a tedious time waster uninterested in plumbing any of its possible themes—single parenthood, poverty, loneliness, tech—for terror. Instead it goes for the obvious prey and hopes star power will blind you to its ordinariness.

Discount those straight-to-video installments in the series if you will (and honestly, you probably should), but at least they each tried to do something different. At some point they embraced the ridiculousness of this itty, bitty freckle-faced problem and just ran with it.

Not this time. Nope, what we have here is one deadly serious and wildly unimaginative reboot. Hell, the doll doesn’t even look good!

And yet, Aubrey Plaza, Brian Tyree Henry and Mark Hamill all signed on to star in what amounts to the 8th Chucky film.

Why?

It’s not the concept. The possessed doll conceit has been updated from the soul of a serial killer to modern technology. Imagine if google home required a super creepy doll in bib overalls to work. Admittedly, there are all sorts of Terminator/Maximum Overdrive/Demon Seed possibilities here, all of which are left entirely unmined.

Instead it’s just a defective AI doll (voiced by Hamill himself), birthday gift from a department store clerk (Plaza) to her lonely but clearly too old for the toy son, Andy (Gabriel Bateman, quite good, actually).

They’re all good, especially Henry. Too bad the film doesn’t deserve it. Aside from one kill inspired by Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (nice!), and performances that are all better than the material, the new Child’s Play is a pretty tedious affair.

Oceans Apart

Widows

by Hope Madden

There are few films I have been more geeked to see than Widows.

Co-writer/director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame) and co-writer Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects) update a British miniseries from the ‘80s about a heist.

Wait, Steve McQueen made a heist movie? A filmmaker so punishing you watch a little Lars von Trier to lighten the mood?

He totally made a heist movie. It is a layered, deeply cynical, wildly faceted take on politics, organized crime, familial grief and the plight of a powerless woman. So, OK, maybe not your run-of-the-mill Liam Neeson flick. But Liam Neeson is in it.

Neeson is Harry Rawlings, top man in a group of criminals who hit vaults around Chicago. This last hit went south, though, and the bad men he fleeced need that cash back. Poor Mrs. Rawlings (Viola Davis, glorious as is her way), is handed the bill.

McQueen has not made an Oceans 11. Widows is not fun. It is smart, riveting entertainment, though.

McQueen’s Chicago landscape is peopled mainly with folks desperately in need of a change: the criminal trying to get into politics (Brian Tyree Henry), the career politician with daddy issues (Colin Farrell), but mostly the widows of Harry’s crew (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki), all left as cash-strapped as Mrs. Rawlings.

It does not pay to marry a criminal.

Every member of the enormous ensemble runs with the opportunities this script allows, no matter how much or how little their screen time. Daniel Kaluuya relishes every sadistic moment he has as an enforcer, while Jacki Weaver establishes one character’s entire history with her two fascinating minutes onscreen.

But it’s Viola Davis who anchors the film. She is the grieving heart and the survivor’s mind that gives Widows its center and its momentum. She wastes nothing, never forgetting or allowing us to forget the grim reality of her situation.

There is a heist, don’t get me wrong. There are double crosses, flying bullets, car chases, explosions—genre prerequisites that feel like new toys for the super-serious director. McQueen proves a versatile a filmmaker, though he has certainly left his own distinctive mark on the action flick.