Friday, October 1, 2021

Weekend Screen Scene: Black As Night, Bingo Hell

Last October, Amazon Prime premiered four horror films under the banner Welcome to the Blumhouse, and they're back this year with four more, with two premiering today, and two more next Friday.

While last year's films didn't exactly rise above that of "straight-to-streaming" fare, what I appreciated most about those I saw was how they told multicultural stories with diverse casts. This year seems to be following suit.

Black As Night follows Shawna (Asjha Cooper), a New Orleans teenager who can't quite shake an inferiority complex fueled by her troubled, drug addicted mother, and a brother who can't resist pointing out that the boy she has a crush on prefers lighter-skinned "Creole girls." When she's attacked and bitten one night returning from a party, she discovers the city's homeless are being turned into a vampire army, and she enlists the help of her friends to find and kill the leader.

It doesn't go without comment even within the film that this set-up is similar to another story centered on a teenage vampire slayer, and Black As Night is at times equally humorous and irreverent; I especially enjoyed the kids' ingenious use of garlic powder as chemical weapon. But it also manages to address some serious topics, like the lingering effects Hurricane Katrina continues to have on the city, and deep rooted colorism within the Black community. All that and the presence of horror movie veteran Keith David can almost make me forget the film's completely unnecessary coda.

Bingo Hell takes place in a town that bears a striking resemblance to New Orleans, but is called Oak Springs. And like post-Katrina NOLA, Oak Springs is losing its soul to hipster-fueled gentrification and vampiric developers. Lupita (Adriana Barraza), the neighborhood abuela, refuses to give up without a fight, facing each day with anger despite her aching feet and creaking back.

When the local bingo hall (bingo hall, bingo hell, get it?), is taken over by a creepy outsider and transformed into a neon filled nightmare straight from the Vegas strip, the neighborhood is initially wary--until they start to learn about the cash prizes they could win. And we all know what those kinds of winnings lead to, right?

Bingo Hell covers some of the same ground as Black As Night, though I think the latter is ultimately the better of the two. Neither is telling entirely original tales, but Black As Night holds a few more surprises

Friday, September 24, 2021

Weekend Screen Scene: The Guilty, I'm Your Man

The Guilty is a one man show with a star-studded cast. That one man is Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays Joes, an angry 911 operator working what he hopes is his final shift before a court hearing that will determine whether he can return to the LAPD. The star-studded cast is in all the voices that call him that night. And the "guilty" are...well, you'll know by the end of the film.

If this set-up sounds like something that is perfectly suited for filming during a global pandemic, you'd be correct. In the majority of the film Gyllenhaal is alone on screen, conversing with characters played by Paul Dano, Bill Burr, Ethan Hawke, Peter Sarsgaard, and Riley Keough. Those last two fill the film with its central mystery: A young woman has been abducted, but by whom? And what has happened to the children she keeps referring to?

Joe is a tough hero to root for. He's rude and gruff with both the people who call him and his co-workers, and he's clearly got bigger things on his mind than those who are in search of help. But Gyllenhaal has a face made for the movies; he can be mesmerizing. Maybe it's those huge eyes. In any case, it takes an actor with his intensity to hold an audience's attention for that much screen time. The Guilty isn't action packed, but it's never a boring watch.

The Guilty is currently playing in select theaters and will start streaming on Netflix on October 1st.

Dan Stevens stars as Tom, the synthetic lover in I'm Your Man, a sci-fi romantic comedy from German director Maria Schrader. But this isn't an adult version of A.I. Artificial Intelligence where the robot is the center of the story. Instead, the robot centers the story on Alma (Maren Eggert), a lonely scientist who's at first in denial of her loneliness, but then begins to see what she's missing, while also pondering the cost of accepting manufactured happiness into her life.

Dan Stevens as an android is practically type-casting. He's always looked like he could have emerged from a factory that created movie stars on an assembly line. Pair those looks with the stilted behavior of a robot learning the ropes of love, and it's almost too perfect. But what's most surprising about Steven's performance is that he gives it in perfect German, which made me wonder, has he been German all along too?? (No, turns out he just studied the language in school.) 

I'm Your Man is a sci-fi rom-com that's a bit low on the sci-fi, the laughs, and the romance. But that's because it's more interested in the philosophical questions the combination of all those things can raise.

I'm You Man is currently playing in select theaters and will be available digitally on October 12th.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Weekend Screen Scene: Best Sellers, Apartment 413

There's nothing very surprising in the comedic drama Best Sellers to anyone who has seen...any movie ever, but it manages to rise slightly above its predictability through the strength of its performances.

Aubrey Plaza stars as Lucy, a book editor struggling to keep the publishing house her father has left her from failing, with a buyout seemingly the only solution. When she discovers an aging Pulitzer Prize winning author owes the house another book, she see's this as a possible path to profitability.

Enter Michael Caine as Harris Shaw, an aging, alcoholic recluse who never published anything past his first award winning tome. You can probably guess what happens from here. Fights; reluctance; unexpected viral success; a record number of utterances of the word "bullshite." (OK, that last one is probably a little less predictable a plot point.)

Michael Caine is 88 years old, and I'm not going to sugar coat it: you can tell. But he's still got a lot of fire in him, and even if he needs to do a lot of his screaming from the comfort of a bed or a chair, he manages to command almost every moment of his screen time. Plaza holds her own aside him, shedding her trademarked deadpan delivery for much of the film, particularly in the one scene that features a genuinely unexpected plot point. If nothing else, Best Sellers allows Caine to prove he's got at least one more Award-winning performance in him, should a slightly better script come along.

 Best Sellers is currently playing in select theaters and is available to rent online.

There's something not quite right in apartment 413, judging from the inexplicable murder that takes place inside its walls at the film's beginning. Several months later, Marco (Nicholas Saenz) and Dana (Brea Grant) are the latest residents of the claustrophobic one bedroom apartment in Austin, Texas. Marco is struggling to find a job before Dana has their first child, although most of the potential jobs that return his calls end up being...weirdly hostile.

When mysterious notes and an ancient cell phone show up in the apartment, Marco is convinced someone is out to get him, though he has a hard time convincing Dana, who is more concerned with his lack of employment. Director Matt Patterson takes full advantage of the tight filming quarters, arranging the furniture at weird angles, so that nothing ever really looks or feels normal in Marco and Dana's home.

Saenz's performance is suitably intense, with a few moments of levity (although we never really see what a completely sane Marco ever really looked like for comparison). Apartment 413 is another film that, while not above Covid, or even filmed during the past two years of the pandemic, still manages to benefit from our collective experience, depicting a kind of cabin fever and fear of the future that is, while not universal, is surely recognizable.

Apartment 413 is now available to purchase via digital download and is streaming on Amazon Prime.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Weekend Screen Scene: Fauci, Everybody's Talking About Jamie, Language Lessons

One may initially assume a documentary focused on Dr. Anthony Fauci, coming out right now, is a case of filmmakers exploiting a terrible moment in history. But work on the National Geographic-produced documentary Fauci started before the pandemic even began. And frankly, I can't imagine the film would be quite as compelling as it is without the addition of our more recent history.

It's a good introduction to the man and his long career with the National Institutes of Health, with Fauci telling most of his own story, and family and co-workers filling in some color. The film jumps around in time, with the primary focus given to his work during the AIDS crisis and the current Covid-19 pandemic, reminding us that Fauci has always had people screaming for his firing. The difference between then and now is when AIDS activists were demanding that Fauci be fired, they still believed in science, and were demanding expediency in research and drug development. A far cry from the reasons some Americans think he should be fired now.

I don't think Fauci is going to convert any of his detractors, but for anyone who really didn't know much about him before this past year, it's both an entertaining and illuminating documentary. (And I hope it gets an Academy Award, just to piss of his haters.)

Fauci is now playing in select theaters and will begin streaming on Disney+ on October 6th.

Everybody's Talking About Jamie, the new film based on the stage musical of the same name, which in turn was based on the short documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16,  is, and I hate to say it. a drag. And not in the way I'd expected.

And I really hate to say that about a movie that is so earnest, and has such an uplifting message! Max Harwood gives an engaging performances as Jamie, a gay teenager in Sheffield, England, who wants to become a drag queen, and debut his new persona at his school's prom. But there is nothing surprising about how the school, his classmates, and some of his family initially react to this goal, or how it all turns out. A musical about an outcast who's eventually accepted and celebrated? I've never seen that before!

And, again, I feel terrible having such a negative reaction to a story that was actually true, but if any of the numbers were engaging, or the songs particularly memorable, I'd be singing a different tune. It's a strangely inert musical. Plus, Jamie's one moment of actual drag performance, while good, is woefully brief. What Jamie needs is more Mimi Me and less woe-is-me.

Everybody's Talking About Jamie is currently playing in select theaters and will begin streaming on Amazon Prime on September 17th.

I first noticed Nathalie Morales in the (woefully underappreciated) TV series The Middleman, and I've enjoyed her in everything I've seen her in since. She makes her directorial debut with Language Lessons, a comedy co-written with co-star Mark Duplass, making the best of pandemic production constraints by setting up a storyline that requires the two stars to perform for the camera, but not together. She plays CariƱo, a Spanish teacher offering lessons over video chat, and he's her initially reluctant student.

Despite the gimmick requiring them to remain separated in their own little square boxes, the two have good chemistry, and the film provides genuine laughs while also hitting some unexpected emotional notes. Hopefully this little film gives Morales the chance to do something even bigger.

Language Lessons is currently playing in select theaters.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Weekend Screen Scene: Mogul Mowgli, We Need To Do Something, Cinderella

Riz Ahmed stars as a musician who must face an uncertain future when diagnosed with a debilitating illness. No, I'm not talking about last year's Sound of Metal. This time, Ahmed is a rapper, not a drummer, and the illness is an autoimmune disease and not deafness. (If he's not careful, he may find himself typecast.)

Mogul Mowgli is a smaller movie than last year's Sound of Metal, literally--it's filmed in the classic square academy ratio--but it's also a bigger one, addressing issues of immigrant identity and legacy. Ahmed plays Zed, a London native of Pakistani decent, who is just hitting it big with a hip hop career, landing an opening gig on a major tour. When illness hits, he's forced to rely on the help of his parents, who can barely comprehend his life and career choices.

Riz Ahmed received an Oscar nomination for Sound of Metal, but his performance here is even more impressive, perhaps because it hardly feels like a performance at all. Having a long second career in hip hop, Ahmed wrote all of his rhymes in the film and is a natural during the performance scenes; I wish there were more of them. Director Bassam Tariq likes to delve into fantastic and surreal realms at times, but the film succeeds most when it's grounded in reality.

Mogul Mowgli is currently playing in select theaters.

A family takes shelter in their home bathroom during a violent storm, and soon find themselves dealing with things much scarier than high winds in the claustrophobic horror movie We Need To Do Something

This is a family you would not want to be stuck in an elevator with for ten minutes (Pat Healy adds World's Worst Dad to his growing resume of horrible characters), so watching them suffer through days of entrapment is a bit of a slog, and what they must deal with gets repetitive, building up to an ending that, while effective, probably would have more impact in a short film, or in an episode of a horror anthology.

I will say this though, that bathroom is fabulous.

We Need To Do Something is currently playing in select theaters and is available to rent online.

Do we really need another version of Cinderella? Much less a jukebox musical version? I mean, didn't we just get a Disney reboot a few years ago?

No, we don't need another Cinderella, but at least this one attempts to modernize the more eye-rolling aspects of its classically thin story, giving Cinderella some goals bigger than getting married so she can get out of her stepmother's basement. It's also got a pretty good cast, including Idina Menzel as the stepmother, Billy Porter as the fairy godparent, and James Corden as a mouse-turned-footman. Camila Cabello is also suitably spunky as the heroine. 

But despite laughing a few times (Maddie Baillio and Charlotte Spencer as the stepsisters are probably the best things in the film), I couldn't get past the film's disjointed blend of modern (the majority of the songs in this jukebox musical are pop classics like Rhythm Nation and Material Girl), and classical (the story still takes place in some mythical "long ago" time). Also, the costumes are wretched, especially Cinderella's ballgown, which is probably the most disappointing wardrobe reveal since Molly Ringwald showed up to the prom in a butchered vintage dress in Pretty in Pink.

Cinderella is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.