As August goes, this week’s movies are not so bad. You’ll find a couple that are really worth your time, a couple that are pretty middling. No true blockbusters on the roster this week, but next week looks promising!

The Night House

In theaters

by George Wolf

The Night House rests on a trusted horror foundation that’s adorned with several stylishly creepy fixtures. But it’s a terrific lead performance from Rebecca Hall that becomes the support beam preventing total collapse.

Hall plays Beth, a New York teacher still reeling from the recent death of her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit). As Beth drifts through her impressive lakefront house trying to adjust, new discoveries bring unexpected questions about her late husband’s outside interests.

Though Beth’s neighbor (Vondie Curtis-Hall, always a pleasure) and best friend (Sarah Goldberg) both warn her not to fill the void in her life with “something dark,” the dark keeps calling. The more Beth digs into things Owen left behind, the more signs point to an unsettling secret life, and to the possibility that Owen may not have entirely moved on.

Director David Bruckner (The Ritual, The Signal) and screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski (Super Dark Times) each have resumes showing impressive results within limited budgets. Stepping up a bit in class, their metaphor for the fog of grief and depression is familiar but well-crafted, with soft-pedaled jump scares and effectively spooky visuals.

Bruckner fuels the standard what’s real/what’s-in-her-head questions with some nifty camera tricks that make the house come eerily alive with forced perspectives and Dali-esque illusions.

As solid as the film’s construction may be, it falls on Hall to make sure the reveals waiting in the third act land with more emotion than silliness.

She’s more than up to the task. Early on, Beth’s sustained grief, and her indignation toward everyone who’s not Owen, carries an authenticity that gets us squarely behind Beth’s personal journey. And that pays dividends once the film relies on our belief in what Beth believes. Thanks to Hall, we end up buying in.

Looking ahead to 2022, Bruckner, Collins and Piotkowski will team up again for the Hellraiser reboot. That means that while there’s enough in The Night House to satisfy horror fans today, there’s also plenty here to get us hopeful about the future.

Grade: B

The Protégé

In theaters

by Hope Madden

For one of those hired assassin thrillers to work, it helps to have a convincing lead who has chemistry with the bad guy. Martin Campbell’s The Protégé delivers on both fronts.

And yes, in these films story often takes a backseat to fight choreography, writing rides shotgun to action. This also sounds a lot like Campbell’s latest, although it would be more forgivable if the action stood out enough that you could overlook the shortcomings in story.

Maggie Q is protégé assassin Anna, and while her inner conflict never breaks the surface, she convinces as she moves bewigged from one set piece to the next. Anna’s mission this time is personal, natch, and her soft spot comes from her mentor, played by Samuel L. Jackson.

How is he? Well, he’s, you know, Sam Jackson. He’s exactly Sam Jackson. That works in almost every other movie, and it works just as well here.

But the real shining treasure in The Protégé is Michael Keaton. His talent, charisma, easy charm and natural good humor elevate every scene. Luckily, he’s in a lot of them, so he elevates most of the film.

Campbell (Casino Royale) stages capable though uninspired action sequences. His script, by action veteran Richard Wenk (The Equalizer), can’t tie character motivation to mystery elements to location or conflict. Instead, it stitches together ideas from a smattering of other films with little concern for coherence.

Perhaps this is why Campbell struggles so mightily with tone. This thing swings back and forth between buddy picture and revenge fantasy, international espionage thriller and romance. The bit that generally drives a film like this—you know, when the steely lead finally faces their demons—feels almost coincidental, leaving it no room to resonate.

The Protégé is not a terrible film. At worst it’s just a waste of your time.

Grade: C

Cryptozoo

At Gateway Film Center

by Matt Weiner

Harder even than finding a cryptid these days might be getting to see a new animated feature meant for adults. Cryptozoo, the latest from comic book artist Dash Shaw and animator Jane Samborski, is compelling proof of how vital it is that we still do—rare as these sightings get.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the many excellent animated options we do get, all with the requisite PG+ jokes to keep parents occupied and weepy climaxes that make you realize a matinee out with the family has turned into at least three future therapy sessions for a child 20 years into the future. But it’s refreshing to get a chance to see lushly textured, hand-drawn animal work go toward interrogating society just a little more than something like “stereotypes are bad.”

Cryptozoo kicks off as an Indiana Jones-style adventure with a mythical twist. Lauren Grey (Lake Bell), trained veterinarian and globetrotting cryptid hunter, tracks down these strange creatures and offers them a place in a protected zoo where they can safely interact with the public as well as their own kind.

Not all cryptids are humanoid, though—you try explaining “Jurassic Park but with sasquatch” to a kraken—and so the zoo’s population is a mix of humanely captured exhibits and fully sentient magical creatures who just want to live and love and go about their daily lives without fear of persecution or worse from their human neighbors.

The “worse” comes in the form of Nicholas (Thomas Jay Ryan), a mercenary ex-military tracker who hunts down cryptids to sell to governments as living weapons. When Nicholas and Lauren go after the same beast (a dream-eating baku), Lauren must partner up with Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), whose point of view on coexistence as a gorgon leads Lauren to slowly question her lifelong pursuit and recoil from the stinging indictment of liberalism and capitalism.

If that sounds like a drag, Shaw’s script—and especially the meticulous drawings and whimsical details on each cryptid—keep it buoyant. The result is an ambitious animated feature where the medium fits the message. This is a bestiary with real bite, mapping out a world where good intentions can still come to a bad end, and that can be the most important moral to learn.

Grade: A-

Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power

At Gateway Film Center

by Brandon Thomas

Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power is a rapturous celebration of the long-time Congresswoman from Oakland, California. Instead of being an issues-driven fluff piece, Speaking Truth to Power is a movie that seeks to understand how Lee’s history and circumstances led her to becoming the woman she is today. 

Barbara Lee hasn’t become a household name like Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Despite her minor anonymity on the national political stage, the film puts a spotlight on how Lee has managed to get meaningful legislation passed while holding onto her core beliefs. It’s part of what has made Lee so endearing to her constituents, other House members and senators, and to her own family.

So much of the early portion of Speaking Truth to Power focuses on Lee’s solitary post-9/11 vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists. By being the lone member of the House of Representatives to vote against the Act, Lee put a target on her back during a fraught time in American politics. Through leaning into this part of Lee’s life so early in the film, Director Abby Ginzberg sets the stage to show how the Congresswoman has always been that principled in her morals and convictions.   

Of course, the film is chock full of glowing testimonials from the creme de la creme of American political and activist life: John Lewis, Van Jones, Cory Booker and Danny Glover, just to name a few. These vignettes never threaten to overtake the film, but add flavorful bits to Lee’s ongoing story from childhood through her career in Washington.

The real meat and potatoes of the film comes from Lee herself. So much of her story is told from her point of view as the filmmakers follow her from Washington, D.C., to her district in California, and even back to El Paso, Texas, where she grew up in the shadow of Jim Crow. The personal side of Lee’s story isn’t given the same attention that her professional side is, and that feels almost by design. Lee isn’t shy about her struggles as a single mother, or the failings of past relationships. But she isn’t looking to let those past hardships define her either. 

By the end of Speaking Truth to Power, it’s apparent that Barbara Lee deserves to be included in the pantheon of those aforementioned household names. Not for her political shrewdness though. No, Barbara Lee should be remembered for her convictions. 

Grade: B+

Sweet Girl

On Netflix

by George Wolf

You know that feeling when someone comes out of a security door at the precise moment you’re trying to come in without a key?

Or when a major cable news show puts your call right through to the air on the very same day you find a uniform in exactly your size hanging up and waiting for you to blend in somewhere you don’t really work?

Me neither. So while Netflix’s Sweet Girl calls attention to a very real problem in America, the narrative that drives it trades authenticity for gimmicky contrivanace.

Through a frequently changing timeline we meet Ray Cooper (Jason Momoa) and his daughter Rachel (Isabela Merced). Tragedy hits their Pittsburgh-based family when wife/mother Amanda Cooper’s life is cut short by cancer. Amanda fights hard, but finally succumbs when a promising new drug is withheld by obnoxious Pharma Bro Simon Keely (Justin Bartha).

While Keely and Congresswoman Diana Morgan (Amy Brenneman) are on live TV debating prescription drug prices, Ray calls in to blame the price-gouging Keely for his wife’s death, and to promise violent revenge.

Ray’s nationwide threat seems to only arouse the interest of an investigative reporter on the trail of a Big Pharma conspiracy, and when Ray’s meeting with the writer turns unexpectedly bloody, father and daughter become fugitives hunted by both the cops and the killers.

In his feature debut, director Brian Andrew Mendoza utilizes Momoa’s hulking charisma via some standard fight choreography, but the gifted Merced seems wasted. Writers Gregg Hurwitz (The Book of Henry) and Phillip Eisner (Event Horizon) serve up a journey of convenience on the way to a third act twist that will define how smoothly the film goes down.

If you can keep your eyes from rolling, this film may feel like the franchise kickstart it aims to be. Otherwise, Sweet Girl leaves a pretty sour aftertaste.

Grade: C

Finding Kendrick Johnson

On VOD

by Rachel Willis

In 2013, in Valdosta, Georgia, a black teenager was found dead in his high school gym. The officials ruled his death a tragic accident. There were a few unsatisfied by that ruling – including director Jason Pollock. The result of his four-year, undercover investigation is the unflinching documentary, Finding Kendrick Johnson.

Drawing on interviews with Kendrick Johnson’s family, official investigators, as well as news footage, crime scene photos, and Valdosta’s brutal history, Pollock makes his own case for what happened to Kendrick.

We’re told early on this information is being presented in a way that will allow viewers “to make up their own minds.” This isn’t an issue when focusing on what happened to Kendrick. However, the film makes a hard accusation. This isn’t to say whether or not the accusations are unfounded, but in the age of internet vengeance, it doesn’t sit well.   

It’s not done without reason. The accusation allows the film to draw parallels. If the roles were reversed, if a white child was murdered and the accused was Black, the case would be handled very differently. A Black teenager would certainly not be allowed to live his life, nor would a white teenager’s murder be handled so carelessly (and with utter disregard) by local law enforcement.  

Narrators, even in documentaries, often deliver a hard sell. Many times, movies fare better without the voiceover giving you the details. But this film wants the viewer to be very clear about what it’s presenting. In case you missed a detail, Jenifer Lewis’s narration helps call your attention to the many contradictions in the case.

Numerous graphic and violent images haunt the screen. Crime scene and autopsy photos of Kendrick allow the viewer to see what happened to Kendrick in gory detail. It might be too much for some, particularly as the documentary draws comparisons to past lynchings, but it’s necessary to highlight the injustices against Black Americans. Too often, Black men, women, and children are murdered, and no one is held accountable.

In the past, these crimes would be known, celebrated, and ignored by the justice system. These days, the justice system tries to pass off a murder as an accident in hopes it will go away. This documentary, along with Johnson’s family, wants to ensure that doesn’t happen to Kendrick.  

Kendrick Johnson deserves justice. His family demands it. Maybe this documentary will help them get it.

Grade: B-

Habit

On VOD

by Hope Madden

Bella Thorne is the best thing about writer/director Janell Shirtcliff’s zany thriller Habit. When is that ever a good sign?

Thorne plays Mads, a Jesus-loving Texan transplanted to Hollywood’s underbelly to be with her two hometown besties Evie (co-writer Libby Mintz) and Addy (Andreja Pejic). Mads really loves Jesus. Like in an entirely unwholesome way.

But that’s the least of her problems after Evie’s one night stand makes off with all the drugs and money the girls are holding for Eric (Gavin Rossdale).

This movie tries so hard to be Tarantino by way of John Waters and it fails so absolutely that it gets credit for commitment. What it lacks is inspiration—Shirtcliff’s odyssey requires that we be shocked by Mads’s behavior, surprised by the stilted lunacy of her pursuers, and weirdly drawn into her unseemly world.

The fact that none of it feels especially wild, or that the pursuers lack originality and panache, takes a backseat to the film’s lacking cinematic quality. Individual scenes have no structure – they drag, most of them missing purpose, punchline or punch.

Nothing feels especially taboo, and that’s a problem because without any real “wild” in these antics, you find yourself paying attention to the writing or, worse still, the acting. Rossdale has a tough time developing a character, partly because there’s no telling whether to like or dislike Eric.

Shirtcliff and Mintz have no idea what to do with the real villains, Queenie (Josie Ho) and Tuff (Jamie Hince). The filmmakers dress them up like something out of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, but their villainy is sloppy and suspect.

Habit plays like a film made by people who really liked David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, Tony Scott’s True Romance, and everything John Waters ever made, but had no real idea what they liked about it. The result is a mishmash of borrowed ideas, none of them interesting enough to merit the label subversive.

Grade: C-

Follow George and Hope on Twitter @maddwolf and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.