Quirky love stories are catnip to me. Watching two unlikely humans find one another and navigate the terror and joy that is a true connection is affirming, funny, frustrating, and ultimately joyous. John Lithgow (Pet Sematary) and Blythe Danner (What They Had) definitely run through all those emotions, creating two very differently broken people stumbling through life until they careen into one another.
The odd pair are surrounded by a few, solid supporting characters as well. Derek Cecil (House of Cards) and Eve Harlow (Heroes Reborn), in particular, provide sounding boards and act as proxy for the real world outside Lithgow and Danner’s orbit.
Nobel Jones directed and wrote his first feature with a steady and sure hand. The absurdity of his character’s lives never vaulted into the ridiculous. Their quirks and issues, when exposed, simply brought out their humanity and a deep empathy from the audience. It’s a solid story about people and love, with a wonderful and entertaining arc that leaves you with an unexpected smile.
Subtle this movie isn’t, but it is clever and fun. It is also a nice alternative holiday movie, though less on point than, say, Rare Exports. The main focus is really the evolving Apocalypse and the relationships between the high schoolers involved rather than Christmas. And, yes, it is also a musical (as the original creator suggested of its genesis: think High School Musical meets zombies)!
While clearly tongue-in-cheek, it is executed with complete sincerity and effort. It could have used a couple more songs to make it feel more like a musical and less like a movie with a few song and dance numbers in it, but that’s a quibble as the music that is in it is really pretty good.
Ella Hunt (Robot Overlords) leads the cast with some solid talent and chops. She has a long career ahead of her if she wants it. Hunt is supported by a cast of other mostly unknowns, but all of whom bring moments of emotional complexity to what could have been cookie-cutter performances in lesser hands. Malcom Cumming, Christopher Leveaux, Marli Siu, Ben Wiggins, and Sarah Swire (who also choreographed) are generally all in new projects you’ll be seeing in the coming year.
And then there were the known faces, like Tom Benton (Shakespeare & Hathaway) who brought all his vulnerable best to bear as Hunt’s father. Only the prolific Paul Kaye really disappointed me in the cast. His choices and antics were notched up just a bit too high from the start…I never believed him nor had any sympathy for him. It’s probably the one truly bad choice I felt director John McPhail made with the otherwise very tight and clever delivery.
When you’re in the mood from something in the Cockneys vs. Zombies range, but with a beat, you should definitely check this one out.
Documentarian Penny Lane (Our Nixon) provides an entertaining and informative look inside the The Satanic Temple… and it’s most likely not what you think at all. Her film is a timely piece of reporting and a fascinating mental shift to experience. The way she walks you away from your preconceptions to the reality also demonstrates her command of the story.
But this isn’t a dry and boring tale. I laughed a lot…in all the right places. Lane, and the members of the TST, are full of wry humor. Given the situations they are involved in, that alone will up-level your sense of respect.
Probably the funniest sad movie you’ll see in a long while. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria (The Meddler) tackled the world and people of Hustlers with open eyes. No one comes off great in this film, but everyone comes off as someone real. Which isn’t to say the story isn’t stylized and energized, but it also isn’t entirely sanitized.
Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians) and Jennifer Lopez (Second Act) are the primary focus of the movie. While Lopez sells the hard as nails aspect more than Wu, Wu captures the desperation and emotional drive for their decisions. Both performances are gripping and win you over. And then, of course, there is the delightful, though somewhat throwaway role, for Mercedes Rheul. Rheul, other than her “motherly” role, exists in this story for continuity and information, but she sells it well. There are plenty of other fun performances populating the film as well, but Julia Stiles (Jason Bourne) is the only other major player to stand out. In fact, Stiles does so with much less screen time than anyone else, not to mention hardly any lines.
Hustlers is an entertaining and fascinating peek inside a few different worlds. We’ve seen these worlds before, though often from very a different perspective. And rarely has the result felt as honest without becoming a diatribe or so dark that the watching was a chore.
Hustlers will let you laugh (a lot) and enjoy the story, it just won’t apologize for not covering up at least some of the darker realities of the lives it is sharing. And, more importantly, it is definitely a film and performances worth your time to see on the big screen, where the intimacy is forced upon you. On a small screen this movie will lose some of its punch by providing you distance and the ability to more easily look away from what you don’t want to see.
Insanely predictable, infectiously entertaining. If movies like Finding Your Feet, Calendar Girls, or Last Vegas make you smile, this is another for your list. It’s a silly, but effective, romp with a group of older retirees, complete with old and young nasty girls arrayed against them.
In addition to the women, there are a couple male characters that stand out. In particular, Charlie Tahan (Love is Strange) as the rescued grandchild and Bruce McGill as the comical chief of security.
As a first fiction feature by documentarian Zara Hayes, it is well-paced and cleverly avoids some challenges. And the imperfect script by first-timer Shane Atkinson makes its point; but aspects of the story are a little surfacy or rushed at times. However, if you don’t finish this one with a bittersweet smile ready to take on the world, this movie wasn’t for you.
The number of emotions and ideas that this film sparks are too many and too complicated to try and explain here in less than a tome. Suffice to say that this grounded fable/tragi-comedy by Joe Talbot, Jimmie Fails, and Rob Richert (a first feature for all of them) is inventive, powerful, and effective.
Jimmie Fails also leads in the film alongside Jonathan Majors (Captive State, When We Rise). The friendship of these two men and their journey through the city is both funny and surprising. The duo are supported by host of smaller characters including Danny Glover (Sorry to Bother You), Micheal Epps, and Rob Morgan (Mudbound). Only two small roles by Tichina Arnold (The Neighborhood) and Maximilienne Ewalt (Sense8) add any female influence to this story. Given the tight focus on Fails’s journey and the lack of women in his life, it is almost excusable. However, it is noticeable.
But that criticism aside, this was an unexpected film. If Spike Lee had been born 30 years later and on the West coast, this is the kind of story he’d have been telling. It is politically charged, but without losing track of the personal. It is funny, but without dropping the serious message and intent. It is raw and honest, but not without recognizing the inherent sadness and absurdity in the situation. This is a film worthy of the term and an interesting new set of voices for the industry.
Without planning, there were two time travel/paradox stories that hit my plate this week. One was quite good. The other was interesting, but more as a logic experiment than as a quality entertainment.
Let’s face it, a good time travel story is hard to find. So often it is simply a trope to tell another story. But stories that really think it all through…or as much as possible as paradoxes inevitably create challenges…are rare and fun to find. Predestination, Timecrimes, or even Terminator: Genisys were the last movie attempts to do this well that I’ve seen. And no one has managed to top Looper yet on screen (or Blink on the small screen). Still, at least both of these new offerings make time travel integral to the plot.
I’ll Follow You Down [3 stars]
This movie has its issues, but it definitely has some solid thinking in it that allows me to recommend it.
In addition to the good story, it also has a good cast. Rufus Sewell (Dangerous Beauty, The Man in the High Castle) and Gillian Anderson (Crooked House) catch attention as the parents to Haley Joel Osment (Tusk). Osment is the real lead in this tale, with some nice support by Victor Garber (Sicario) and Susanna Fournier (Being Human (US)). Osment has some great moments, but his performance is uneven and, at times, forced or false. There are plot moments that just clunk like a tin can rolling down stairs. But they are just moments in the midst of some solid acting and well considered issues.
Absent that roller-coaster of belief, I’ll Follow You Down would have been great instead of just good. Director/writer Richie Mehta (Delhli Crime) has certainly peaked my curiosity to see what may come next in his opus. And if you like movies with a bit of intellect behind them, this one pays off nicely.
Excursion [2.5 stars]
Martin Grof’s first feature as writer and director is loaded with ideas. Unfortunately these ideas are often discussed at length by the characters rather than showing us or just trusting the audience. It is primarily a political diatribe blended with a bit of black humor and clever historical revisionism.
To make this kind of script and story work, though, you need a very talented cast. This cast isn’t really up to the task. Other than Johnny Mindlin and Jeryl Burgess, they are often stiff and completely without credibility. And even these two bright spots for naturalism are a little forced at times.
As a curio, this is interesting. Not brilliant, but interesting. However, save it for a time when you’ve nothing else and about 80 minutes to spare. You may find the approach more engaging than I did.
Ugly Dolls suffers from a number of issues, but the main challenge was not understanding how to construct a musical. For example, the movie begins by introducing us to a character being created in a factory…but then we lose a bunch of time jumping to who will really be our main character… who gets a huge song and dance number… which is interrupted by the arrival of the first character and then continues… but then first character just sort of fades away as a bit part for the rest of the tale. I get the strong sense that something happened in the editing or the story breakdown that was just never fixed.
The truth is that Kelly Clarkson’s Moxy is infectious and sweet. And sure, like much of the cast, the woman has pipes. And while the songs are close to bubblegum pop, there is some nice effort on the lyrics to keep them from being too mind numbing.
For a young audience, say under 14, this flick will probably entertain, at least a little. Above that, it starts to wear thin in its relentless optimism and simplified view of the world, not to mention its generally unsurprising storyline.
The Farewell has been quietly saying, “Hello” to cinemas around the country, expanding each week to new audiences. It’s a greeting you should answer. Lulu Wang has created a deceptively simple film that is wonderfully honest, funny, and complex while remaining delightfully entertaining. From the opening moment of the film, you know that is going to be something a little bit different.
Awkwafina (Ocean’s 8) lands a great performance of a young woman finding herself and navigating a family crisis. And Wang helps her navigate it wonderfully and shed her typically over-broad delivery. The rest of the cast is solid, including Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, and, as the beloved Nai Nai, Shuzhen Zhao. Lin and Zhao, in particular may end up in conversations come awards time along with Awkwafina and Wang. And this film should be in that conversation.
But even if I’m wrong on the awards front, and it gets forgotten or snubbed, you should make time for this unexpected treat. It certainly touches on strong emotions, but its overall impact is a positive one; its messages (however you interpret them) and moments sticking with you long after the credits have faded.
For the title alone, I had to check out this silly satire, and clear vanity project, by David Harbour (Hellboy, Stranger Things) on Netflix.
The short film is full of nods and winks to the History Channel, Dark Shadows, and Documentary Now among other shows. It also takes many hilarious slams at the acting craft generally. Against this background Harbour explores his family’s fictional past in search of… well, that would be the problem overall. We never really understand why he’s doing this, what “questions” he has to answer. And, in the end, we don’t know what he’s discovered or embraced. Perhaps the open ended aspect was part of the satire, but it left me as a viewer wondering why I’d spent the half hour.
Given director Daniel Gray Longino’s background with Portlandia, and both he and writer John Levenstein’s involvement with The Kroll Show, the sensibility of this 30 minute distraction shouldn’t be a surprise. Mainly, it’s just disappointing, or was for me. But at 30 minutes, it isn’t a huge chunk of your life to lose for some funny moments. Just don’t expect it to hold together or pay off in a great way and you’ll be fine.
Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…