Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Weekend Screen Scene: The Humans, Bruised

If you're looking for the perfect Thanksgiving movie to help you realize your dysfunctional family gathering could be worse, look no further than The Humans, Stephen Karam's screen adaptation of his Tony Award winning play. 

Karam makes his feature film directorial debut with this adaptation, and he does a masterful job of turning the dilapidated New York city apartment setting into a character all its own, with its increasingly dark hallways, dingy windows that never give a clear view of the outside, and seeping walls and ceilings. (Anyone who has lived outside of a big city may wonder "Why would anyone choose to live there??" I, instead, marveled at the apartment's space - two stories!--and wondered about the amount of closets.)

Beanie Feldstein and Steven Yeun play Brigid and Richard, the young couple who have just moved into the apartment, who are hosting Brigid's family for a bare bones Thanksgiving dinner. Richard Jenkins and Jayne Houdyshell are the parents, June Squibb is the grandmother, and Amy Schumer is the sister. As tends to be the case at many a Thanksgiving gathering, family tensions rise, secrets are revealed, and the home they are sitting in may very well be haunted. (OK, that last bit is perhaps a tad less common.)

The cast is universally excellent, and by creating such a vividly realized set, director Karam manages to keep the film from feeling too stagey. It's part family drama, part horror movie, aka...Thanksgiving.

The Humans is currently playing in select theaters and is also streaming on Showtime.

Bruised is another directorial debut, this time from Halle Berry, who also stars, as Jackie Justice a former MMA fighter who left the sport after a humiliating defeat, and is attempting to make a comeback.

If that sounds pretty cliched, how about a few more, just to add to the fun? She's also struggling with alcoholism, an abusive partner, and hello! What's this? It's the sudden reappearance of the child she abandoned as an infant! And believe it or not, that isn't the end of the cliches that pepper this predictable tale.

Berry gives a good performance, and the fight sequences are at least well staged. But there is nothing in Bruised that hasn't been done, and done better, in countless sports films that have preceded it.

Bruised is currently streaming on Netflix.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Weekend Screen Scene: The First Wave, Zeros And Ones, Freeland

Watching a documentary about a recent traumatic event - and one that hasn't really ended yet - may not be everyone's entertainment of choice, but in some ways, the events in The First Wave almost feel like ancient history; a glimpse into the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, back when the political divide centered on the disease wasn't quite so endemic.

Director Matthew Heinema was given some pretty intimate access to some of the patients, doctors, and nurses in one of the hardest hit hospitals in New York, and the images and testaments are often difficult to watch. Doctors at the breaking point because everything they know about treating and saving lives too often just doesn't seem to work; patients struggling to recover and gain the most basic functions back, like breathing. It's heartbreaking, but also filled with life affirming moments that make the documentary bearable.

Seeing such images and stories now just makes me wonder if seeing them a year ago could have made a difference. If this country really saw just how horrible things were, over and over on their nightly news, could things have ended up different?

The First Wave is currently playing in select theaters.

Abel Ferrara's new film Zeros and Ones opens and closes with video messages from its star, Ethan Hawke. In the opening message (which was filmed before the movie was made, and was actually used as a promo to gather investors for the film), Hawke talks about being a lifelong fan of Ferrara's, how impressed he was by the script for Zeros and Ones, and how the movie is perfect for these times.

What follows is a confusing and murky mess that will probably only satisfy Ferrara's most devoted fans. Hawke plays twin brothers, a soldier and a revolutionary, both in a locked down Italy under terrorist threat. Filmed during the pandemic, Ferrara takes advantage of the abandoned streets and the real masked and armed military. Add in a relentlessly droning score, and he effectively manifests a genuine feeling of unease, I'll give him that. But the film as a whole is a bit of a headscratcher, and if Hawke's closing video massage after the credits roll is any indication, he feels the same way.

Zeros and Ones is currently available to rent online.

The legalization of marijuana across much of the country has certainly been a happy development for cannabis fans, but what about the small pot growers who relied on their own growing and distribution chains? It's not exactly easy, or cheap, to go legit. The indie drama Freeland is a portrait of one such grower in Humbolt County, Califorian. 

Krisha Fairchild, who was instantly memorable in the 2015 film Krisha, gives an equally impressive performance as Devi, an independent pot grower who is forced to make tough decisions about a future that she's just not prepared for. Directors Mario Furloni and Kate McLean definitely capture the beauty of Northern California, and how idyllic it can be to essentially make a living off your land. But I also appreciated that they didn't shy from depicting the paranoia (that is certainly not helped by getting high on your own supply) just such a lifestyle can result in.

Freeland is currently available to rent online.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Weekend Screen Scene: Finch, 7 Prisoners

Finch had a troubled journey to the small screen. It was filmed back in 2019, and had a few release dates, the last being late 2020, but like many 2020 films, it was pulled. Eventually, it was bought by Apple TV+, where it can be viewed starting today.

It's somewhat surprising, since the film stars the beloved Tom Hanks. Of course who can say whether he's still a box office draw since his last two films were released during a global pandemic. I will say that Finch, while filled with some stunning vistas and good special effects, is perhaps better suited for the small screen, at least right now. I'm not sure venturing out to the theater to watch a movie about the end of the world, where the star coughs up blood and is visibly emaciated is all that appealing?

Instead you can feel uncomfortable, laugh, and cry in the comfort of your own home. And yes, Finch will probably make you cry. Hanks stars as the titular Finch, an engineer, and one of the few survivors of a global climate catastrophe. He designs a humanoid robot for the primary purposes of caring for his dog, Goodyear, after he dies. And Finch is definitely dying. (I will gladly spoil that the dog does NOT die, something I wish I knew before going into the film; it was a needless and distracting concern.)

There's a lot wrong with Finch, things like tremendous plot holes, a lack of world building, and an overall maudlin sensibility. But two things save it. One is Hanks, who remains an engaging screen presence you can't help but root for. And the other is the robot "Jeff," who is voiced (and was performed on set) by Caleb Landry Jones. This came as a complete surprise to me because I best remember Jones as the loathsome and villainous brother in Get Out. But his Jeff starts as a robot that sounds like your typical Stephen Hawkins-voiced stiff, but eventually grows into the equivalent of a precocious child, eager to learn and please his father, making plenty of mistakes along the way. Ultimately, I couldn't help but find this flawed robot, and this flawed film, endearing.

Finch is currently streaming on Apple TV+.

Alexandre Moratto's 7 Prisoners is a brutal drama examining modern day slavery and human trafficking in São Paulo, Brazil. Christian Malheiros stars as Mateus, a rural teenager who, along with a several other young men, accept a job offer in the city. Once there, they are overworked, denied pay, and locked into their sleeping quarters, essentially prisoners. Any attempts to escape are thwarted by their tyrannical boss, Luca (Rodrigo Santoro) who controls them via violence, and the threat of violence against their families back home. 

Malheiros is excellent as Mateus, the defaco leader of the group who quickly learns that survival depends on a certain level of duplicity, and that a shitty boss probably has someone even shittier above him. 7 Prisoners is a depressing but effective dramatization of the evils of human trafficking and the capitalist system that allows these, and often more subtle crimes against workers, to continue.

7 Prisoners is currently playing in select theaters and will begin streaming on Netflix on November 11th.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Weekend Screen Scene: A Mouthful Of Air, Women Is Losers

Amanda Seyfried stars as a children's book author dealing with post-partum depression in the difficult drama A Mouthful of Air. 

It's a difficult in a number of ways. For one, it's a topic, like many topics centered on women, that too often gets relegated to the realm of Lifetime, seldom making it into studio pictures. And it's a difficult topic to depict, as many stories of mental illness can be. How do you properly convey an inner turmoil that can often be so deep and hidden via a medium that depends on the visual?

First time director Amy Koppleman, who also wrote the screenplay, which is based on her 2003 novel of the same name, chooses to keep most of that turmoil hidden. From the start, we don't really know how new mom Julie (Amanda Seyfried) is feeling, we only see how she is reacting to her feelings, when she attempts suicide in the early moments of the film. We then see how those around her react to that attempt, and some of those reactions are shocking, like when her sister-in-law (Jennifer Carpenter) yells at Julie for being thoughtless; do you know her brother is still scrubbing blood out of the carpet!?

Thankfully, Julie's husband (Finn Wittrock) is more understanding, and when she gets pregnant again, he's the one who insists she stays on her medication, while she is more fearful about what the medication may do to her child, and her own ability to breastfeed. Seyfried gives a great performance, and when the film does depict her moments of mental and parental exhaustion, she is wholly convincing. She shines in a film that is too often frustratingly opaque.

A Mouthful of Air is now playing in select theaters.

Women Is Losers is another movie about the hardships of motherhood, and if these two movies have taught me anything, it's that I should never regret not having children.

Women Is Losers instantly won me over, at least partially, with its early 1970's San Francisco setting, even if the film makes no real attempt to depict that era of the city accurately. This is actually something the film apologies for, right off the bat, as characters break the fourth wall, explaining that their small budget didn't allow for much in the way of street dressing, or glamorous lighting. (There's no excusing the era-inappropriate hairstyling though. But I digress.)

Breaking the fourth wall happens a lot, with the film's single mother heroine Celina (Lorenza Izzo) often speaking directly to the viewer about the inequities that women, especially women of color, had to face in that era, and pointedly calling out where things have not really changed. It's a little gimmicky, and gives the film the feeling of a stage play, but for the most part it didn't bother me. The strong cast, which includes Simu Liu, Liza Weil, Stephen Bauer, but particularly Lorenza Izzo, helps carry the film over its bumpier and cliched moments.

Women Is Losers is currently streaming on HBO Max.

Friday, October 22, 2021

Weekend Screen Scene: The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, No Future

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is an odd movie, which is appropriate, because Louis Wain was an odd man. I don't think I had ever heard of him prior to this movie, but there's no doubt I was aware of his artistic work, as it involved cats. 

It's hard to imagine a time when cats were not considered the meme-worthy creatures they are now, but back in Victorian England, cats were mainly animals you kept around outside to kill mice, their history as creatures who were, in other cultures and earlier times, worshiped as gods, blinding people to their inherent silliness. Louis Wain did just that in whimsical and colorful work that appeared in books, postcards, newspapers, and other commercially available ephemera.

Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as Wain, in a biopic that both sticks to the conventions of the genre, for better and for worse, and tosses in moments of surrealism and unconventional imagery that helps bring Wain's unique worldview into focus (although I have a hard time understanding director Will Sharpe's choice of aspect ratio). Claire Foy, also great, co-stars as his wife, Emily, the ultimate catalyst of his cat fancy. The middle parts of the film, depicting the happiest moments in their life, are, maybe needless to say, the most enjoyable. As Wain gets older, and must deal with tragedy and his own declining mental state, the film becomes a bit of a drag.

As tends to be the case with many biopics, you may come away from it with more questions than you even had going in, reaching for that phone so you can google his Wikipedia entry once the end credits start. Don't come to The Electrical Life of Louis Wain for the facts. Come for the performances, some moments of original beauty, and of course, the cats.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is currently playing in select theaters and will begin streaming on Amazon Prime on November 5th.

I'll watch almost anything Catherine Keener is in because even in a bad movie, I know she'll be, at the very least, interesting. In No Future, Keener is as interesting as ever, with the added benefit of being surrounded by an equally strong cast, including Charlie Heaton, Jackie Earle Haley, and her Brand New Cherry Flavor co-star, Rosa Salazar. And it's the film's performances alone that lift it, occasionally, above a pretty standard story of addiction and the difficulties surrounding recovery.

The unexpected relationship that develops between Keener's grieving mother, and Heaton, as her deceased son's former best friend, instills the film with moments of genuine frisson, and Keener, as always, kept me fully engaged. But aside from those moments, the film is predictable, and doesn't really have anything new to say about the toll drug addiction can take on friends and family. The ending left me thinking "Is that all there is?" until I quickly realized that's a rather fitting response. For lives torn apart by addiction, too often that really is all there is.

No Future is currently playing in select theaters.

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 about 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 Cariño, 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.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Weekend Screen Scene: Vacation Friends, Together, and Ma Belle, My Beauty

Marcus (Lil Rel Howery) and Emily (Yvonne Orj) travel to a Mexican resort for a romantic holiday and find it both ruined and saved by hedonistic couple Ron (John Cena) and Kyla (Meredith Hagner) in Vacation Friends.

It's a little weird watching this a couple of weeks after the finale of HBO's The White Lotus; I kept expecting Armond to pop up promising to make everything better. But Vacation Friends is much more of a straight up comedy, or at least tries to be, and it only partially succeeds, usually because of Cena and Howery,

It's also a little weird to watch two white people cause so much strife and destruction within the lives of a black couple, and yet never hear race brought up even once. But maybe we've reached a point where it doesn't need to be commented on, because of course it's a couple of white people who almost ruin the lives of a couple of black people.

Vacation Friends is now streaming on Hulu.

For almost a century the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic was forgotten history, as if the entire world preferred to forget it had ever happened, once the dying stopped. But entertainment centered on the Covid-19 pandemic seemingly started to pop up the moment we all entered lockdown, and as a result, a lot of it felt forced and unsatisfying; ultimately, just...too soon.

Together has the benefit of a little more time. Spanning a year of lockdown in London from March 2020 to March 2021, this chamber drama about a bickering couple stuck home together consistently breaks the fourth wall allowing stars James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan to speak directly to the audience, resulting in some staginess that may be off-putting to some. (I found it perfectly fitting after a year when so many of us have spent hours watching loved ones on screens talk to us.)

At first it feels very similar to Horgan's (excellent) Amazon series Catastrophe, which also dealt with a couple who seemed to hate each other more than they loved each other, but Together delves into much more serious terrain, and Horgan proves herself to be as fine a dramatic actress as she is a comedian; she's the primary reason the movie works at all.

This latest bit of Covid-centered entertainment may also feel too soon to some. But for me there was comfort to be had in seeing a well acted drama reflect and comment on the all too common pains and frustrations this past year (and counting) has brought.

 Together is playing in select theaters.

I originally screened Ma Belle, My Beauty as part of San Francisco's Frameline festival, where I found it a tad slight, but ultimately charming. If the love triangle between New Orleans jazz singer Bertie (Idella Johnson) who has married French musician Fred (Lucien Guignard) after the end of their polyamorous relationship with Lane (Hannah Pepper) isn't exactly riveting, there's enough lush French countryside, beautiful people, and jazzy musical performances to keep you watching.

Ma Belle, My Beauty is playing in select theaters.

Friday, July 2, 2021

'The Tomorrow War': Live For Today

Quick: Who's the boring one?

If you aren't an Amazon Prime subscriber and can't watch The Tomorrow War, don't worry that you're missing much; you've likely seen something very similar--and better--before. It's Terminator, but with thousands of Sarah Connors. It's Aliens, but on Earth. It's The Thing, without the body snatching paranoia. It's Starship Troopers, without the satire. And that's just naming half of the films it "borrows" from. That said, it's ripping off from the best, and because of that it can't help but be, some of the time, exciting and entertaining. It's just that the most of the time, it's also really, really dumb.

It's set on a fictional Earth that learns humanity is doomed to die off completely in 50 years, unless soldiers - and eventually, civilians - travel in time to that future to help kill the alien hoards that are ravaging the planet. I say a "fictional Earth" because it presumes our present planet would be willing to sacrifice anything, let alone its own lives, to save the future. (Though I suppose it is kind of believable since it involves massive firearms and not, like, sacrificing personal luxuries to help fight the looming disasters of climate change.)

Chris Pratt, who's entire appeal seems to be centered on his ability to be earnest, funny, and ripped, is definitely that first thing through the majority of the film, and he gets to show off that third thing early on. But he's very rarely that second thing, making for a surprisingly dull hero. His Dan Forester, an Iraq War veteran who's stuck being a biology teacher when hopes for a prestigious researcher job fall through, has no distinctive personality aside from Devoted Husband and Loving Father, and that makes certain revelations about his future self less surprising than completely inexplicable.

His relative void as a character does allow some of the supporting players to shine though. I was pleasantly surprised to see Mary Lynn Rajskub pop up as a terrified but formidable civilian draftee. J.K. Simmons is a sight as Dan's grizzled, estranged father. And just a week ago, after seeing Werewolves Within, I was wishing Sam Richardson would get cast as the lead in more movies; there's no doubt The Tomorrow War would be a more entertaining movie with his nervous talking Georgie Tech professor leading the troops.

Still, The Tomorrow War is not without its moments. The aliens, dubbed "White Spikes" because of their ghostly pallor and natural defenses, have the same look that all aliens/monsters seem to have these days (Hollywood loves a three-flapped mouth filled with teeth), but the fights against them are at times genuinely thrilling. Screenwriter Zach Dean also does some interesting things with the time travel conceit, especially around the notion of how to draft an expendable army, but, like most time travel stories, there are also some huge plot holes that are never satisfactorily filled. Amazon Prime subscribers could do worse on a Friday night at home. But The Tomorrow War is not worth filling Jeff Bezo's pockets with more money if you aren't already doing so.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Don't Be 'Cruella'

Dalmatians? Never heard of such a thing.

When the trailer for Cruella came out last year, the majority response seemed to be, "Do we really need yet another villain origin story, much less one that looks like Joker but with dresses?" That reaction was partly right. No, we don't need a Cruella de Vil origin story, but the one they've given us is not a nihilistic Joker-in a dress fable. Instead, it's a fun, fashion fueled fantasy that is ultimately weighed down by its connection to the Disney franchise.

Like many an origin story, it begins in school days, with a young raven-and-platinum-haired Estella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland) ostracized by her classmates and her teachers. She doesn't take any of it laying down, releasing the inner fighter she dubs "Cruella" whenever she feels threatened or rebellious.

When tragedy strikes, Estella ends up alone on the streets of London, but quickly finds two literal partners in crime in Jasper and Horace, two ragamuffin brothers, and they grow up to be thick as thieves. Frankly, I was glad to see the childhood stuff end pretty quickly, as the parts with the now grown Estella (Emma Thompson) and Jasper and Horace (Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser) running scams and picking pockets on the streets of early 1970's London are pretty fun to watch.

Estella's dream is to be a fashion designer, which firmly sets this up as a prequel to the 1996 live action 101 Dalmatians starring Glenn Close as Cruella, and not the animated version released in 1961. Cruella's eventual obsession with dalmatian puppy pelts is given some explanation as well (although that explanation is so ridiculous I howled with laughter when it was revealed). 

Cruella's designing dreams put her in the path of the Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), London's haute couture legend, who recognizes some talent in Estella, whom she initially dubs "Grubby Girl," and hires her for her fashion house.

What follows is closer to The Devil Wears Prada than 101 Dalmatians (in fact Prada and Cruella share a screenwriter), and that ultimtely got me wishing the whole film could have instead been a kind of hyper, Velvet Goldmine-type fantasized version of the Vivienne Westwood story (who is very clearly the inspiration behind Cruella's punk style), and not the story of a villain we're supposed to love but who we all know eventually grows up to be a PUPPY MURDERER.

The heart of the film, in which the Baroness and Cruella engage in fashion-based battles and one-upmanship, is a complete delight. Along with Jasper and Horance, Cruella's crew includes a one eyed chihuahua named Wink, and Artie (John McCrea), the flamboyantly glam rock owner of a vintage clothing shop. Emma Thompson clearly relishes her villainous role, while also underplaying it in unexpected ways. She's a boss from hell in every sense of the term, but manages to be utterly horrible without a bit of screaming. Also: her turban game is on point.

Emma Stone plays Cruella like a superhero who is discovering her dominion is the power of a show-stopping entrance. Her "rubbish gown" alone should garner costume designer Jenny Beaven an Oscar, though really the film is filled with more costume eye candy than can be caught in one viewing. All of the colorful visuals are backed by a killer soundtrack that, yes, includes some of the expected sounds of the era (the Stones; the Clash; Bowie), but I have to applaud the inclusion of Ike and Tina Turner's covers of Whole Lotta Love and Come Together. Truly inspired.

With a running time of 134 minutes Cruella is definitely too long, and is almost begging for an alternative cut that eliminates the majority of the franchise tie-ins, leaving behind a story of a punk rock princess who beats an evil queen, and lives happily ever after in her own fashion empire, with a couple of cute black and white dogs she has absolutely no desire to murder.

Cruella is available to stream on Disney+.

Friday, May 14, 2021

'The Djinn' Is A Horror Tonic

I'll skip that bedtime story tonight, thanks

Horror movies have a lot in common with fairy tales. In some of the best of both you will find storytelling conventions centered on morality, and how horrible things can happen to even those who set out with the best of intentions. And of course, some of the most popular fairy tales in their original forms are also the most horrifying.

At its heart, The Djinn is a fairy tale about a boy who makes a wish, and suffers the consequences. Watching it brought to mind such 1970's and '80's horror classics as Trilogy of Terror, The Evil Dead, Phantasm, and Poltergeist. Its late 1980's setting (which seems primarily picked so as to avoid the modern advantages that cell phones and computers would lend to the story) certainly has a lot to do with that, as does its synthy score. 

But I could also see the influence classic horror had on the writing and directing team of David Charbonier and Justin Powell, who insert plot elements centered on incantations read from a mysterious book (horror movie lesson number one: don't ever do that), and being trapped in a house with malevolent creatures that can sometimes look very human (horror movie lesson number two: they never are, so don't be fooled). 

The Djinn wouldn't work as well as it does without Ezra Dewey as Dylan, the kid at the center of the story. Dylan is recovering from several losses, including the loss of his own speaking voice. When he finds a mysterious book in the closet of his new house, a book that includes a spell that will make a wish come true, he knows just what to wish for.

Dewey is a captivating young actor and he handles being in every moment of the movie with the skill of a veteran. In fact, he's so compelling, it becomes a little tough to watch him suffer through some of the trauma he's put through in the course of the story. If I have any complaint about the movie, it's that Dylan's night of horror goes on just a tad too long. When horror wallows in the pain of its moralistic lessons, it can branch off into the realm of torture porn. Thankfully, The Djinn ultimately does show some restraint, landing back in the realm of fairy tales, though probably not the kind you'd want to tell your kid at bedtime.

The Djinn is now showing in select theaters, and can also be rented on most VOD platforms

Friday, May 7, 2021

'Wrath of Man' Does Not Produce a Righteous Moviegoing Experience

"You promised if I did all the driving you'd talk to me! Otherwise I'm gonna fall asleep!"

It's a weird time to be reviewing movies, even weirder than it was a year ago, at the beginning of the pandemic. Back then, there really wasn't any doubt about going to movie theaters since the vast majority were closed. Streaming was it. But now, a year later, theaters are opening back up, and films are getting exclusive theatrical releases again. But despite being fully vaccinated, I remain cautious, and I think it would take something a bit more...epic than Guy Ritchie's Wrath of Man to get me back into a theater full of popcorn munchers right now. (I watched a streaming version for this review.)

That said, I cannot deny that action movies are best viewed on a big screen, and perhaps viewing from the comfort of my couch can partially be to blame for my almost falling asleep at times, though I think it's the redundancy of the plot, and its ultimate shoot-out, which sure does drag on (the movie runs over two hours), that is really to blame for that. 

A remake of the 2004 French film Cash Truck, Wrath of Man stars Ritchie regular Jason Statham as the mysterious new driver, known only as "H," at an armored truck company. Just why he chose to join the company a few weeks after a deadly robbery, and who he may actually be, is the mystery that grounds the first 30 minutes or so of the film, before it begins to jump around in time and we learn what his real motives are.

I'm a Jason Statham fan, and have watched plenty of terrible movies merely because he was in them. He's his usual steely jawed and deadpan self here and...that's about it. The script doesn't give him many of his reliably witty retorts, and his fighting is relegated to expert marksmanship alone. There's not much in the way of punching or high kicks to his enemies' heads here. Which, trust me, I get! The man is in his fifties now. But without either of those things, he's just a waste in a film that doesn't offer much else to make up for it.

And at times, Wrath of Man is almost amateurish. There's some shockingly bad dialogue throughout, some of it delivered by equally shockingly bad American accents from such Brits as Eddie Marsan and Darrell D'Silva. (Statham, thankfully, sticks to his cockney growl, although more than once I was wishing for subtitles.) Also, Statham's character is given a son who, who because of unfortunate casting, appears to be entering college at the age of 30?

The terrible dialogue doesn't help the performances of some normally solid actors, like Holt McCallany, Jeremy Donovan and Josh Hartnett. Ironically, this theatrical release is exactly the kind of movie you'd usually find on some streaming service when looking for something, anything, new to watch. You'd start it because of the Guy Ritchie and Jason Statham name recognition...and then probably turn it off half way through because you're sure there's just got to be something better on.

Friday, January 15, 2021

'Promising Young Woman' Fulfills

Candy colored vengeance

Promising Young Woman is a gooey romantic comedy wrapped in a pastel colored, hard candy, revenge fantasy shell. It's also my favorite film of 2020.

I knew very little going into it, aside from what the trailer showed me (which, in retrospect, was probably too much; watch with warning), and I am thankful for that. The film is filled with surprises, and if I had truly known what to expect, I'm not sure it would have delighted me as much. (I promise no spoilers in this review.)

I also had no idea who the director was, so was a little shocked to learn it is Emerald Fennell, who I had just finished watching in Netflix's The Crown, where she plays Camilla Parker Bowles. (She's also head writer for the second season of Killing Eve.) Promising Young Woman is her feature film directorial debut, and it's one of the most assured debuts in years. 

Carey Mulligan stars as Cassandra, a young woman at the end of her twenties who works at a coffee shop, and still lives at home. Her best, and seemingly only, friend is the manager of that coffee shop (played by Laverne Cox). That's pretty much her life, aside from the nights she goes to bars or clubs alone, pretends to be blackout drunk, and goes home with men promising they only want to help.

Of course, they never actually do, and none are truly prepared to suddenly deal with the pissed off and completely sober woman they actually end up with.  

One of many things director Fennell gets perfect is the casting, starting with Mulligan, who is convincing in every persona she takes on, from every day, girlish barista, to drunken businesswoman, to stripper. The casting against type of the men in the film is simply genius; it's a veritable who's who of actors known for their nerdy nice guy roles, including Adam Brody, Max Greenfield, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Sam Richardson, and, as the ultimate nice guy boyfriend, Bo Burnham (who's 2018 directorial debut, Eight Grade, was equally surprising).

Promising Young Woman is filled with appealing things. The pastel colored pastries in Cassie's coffee shop; her girlish manicure; the pop music soundtrack; a charmingly self-deprecating boyfriend who is also a doctor. It's also appealingly funny, but at its heart, its story is pretty grim. Fennell knows packaging the story in pretty things only makes the horror at its heart hit harder. I have no doubt once the closing credits run, some people are going to hate what they just saw.

Speaking of credits, I think my favorite moment in the film is during the opening credits, which plays out to the strains of a cover of It's Raining Men. As Cassie walks home in triumph after another successful evening, a walk that to any observer, may appear to be one of shame, she is catcalled by some construction workers across the street. She stops. She stares at them, not moving or saying a word. They continue to call out lewdly...she continues to stare in still silence. It’s disquieting because we are not yet sure how dangerous Cassie is, but that's also what makes it quite funny. And her stare is enough to turn her "admirers" into haters, as they start to scream insults at her instead, before turning and skulking away. 

Cassie's silent stare is like a mirror turned on her harassers, who see themselves, react in anger, but then slink away, hopefully in shame. In fact, everything Cassie does in the movie forces perpetrators and enablers to stop and see their actions clearly, perhaps for the first time. "Bad guys" are more than those who commit horrible acts. They're also those who see those acts, rationalize them, and do nothing. 

Promising Young Woman is now available to rent on most VOD platforms.