All posts by Brent Leuthold

Mank

When 26-year-old Orson Welles developed his debut film Citizen Kane in 1941, he famously demanded complete creative control over the project and even though it was extremely uncommon for a first-time director, RKO Pictures wisely heeded his wishes. Almost 80 years later, director David Fincher currently finds himself in a seemingly similar situation of artistic authority with Netflix. Starting out early as an executive producer on their first hit series House of Cards and continuing as a showrunner for the similarly successful Mindhunter, he’s built up enough goodwill with the streaming behemoth to bring a long-gestating biopic to life. It’s difficult to associate the term “passion project” with a director as notoriously analytical and meticulous as Fincher, but whatever soft spot he had for his latest film Mank would have gone better untouched.

It’s 1940 and revered screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is at something of a low point. After sustaining a broken leg from a car accident, he’s bedridden and perpetually at the bottom of a bottle when wunderkind Orson Welles (Tom Burke) reaches out for help with a new project. Given a 60 day deadline, “Mank” dictates his script one word at a time to his secretary Rita (Lily Collins) as she types out what would become the Oscar-winning screenplay for Citizen Kane. We flip back and forth through time as we see Mank’s apparent influences on his Shakespearean story, including his relationship with powerful magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and Hearst’s gregarious mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).

Scripted by David Fincher’s late father Jack before his passing in 2003, Mank is undoubtedly well-researched both in regards to Kane‘s towering mythology and to the culture of post-Depression show business. Packed with snappy dialogue from the primary players that cultivated Kane and niche references to the economic and political climate of 1930s California, the exhaustive script is likely on the money when it comes to historical accuracy. But just because it’s right doesn’t mean it’s compelling and even though the majority of the characters are fantastically witty, their journeys and motivations are thoroughly uninteresting. Unless you’re up on your intermediate knowledge of early Hollywood, you may have a hard time following when and where you are in the story but you’ll have a harder time caring either way.

Fincher, who somehow made computer hacking exciting in his Kane-inspired The Social Network, can’t do the same for on-screen script writing. Shot digitally in black-and-white by DP Erik Messerschmidt and scored by Bernard Herrmann-inspired composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Mank aptly apes the inimitable style of its predecessor. Sporting a runtime 12 minutes longer than the film that inspired it, the wearisome biopic also recalls Kane‘s then-revolutionary labyrinthine plot structure by way of superimposed screenplay excerpts that shift the chronological gears more fitfully than a crummy Series 60 Cadillac. Fincher seeks to make clear the inextricable link between his film and Kane but instead gets closer to the unruly and listless nature of another Welles film: The Other Side of the Wind, which was coincidentally revived by Netflix in 2018 after decades of developmental disrepair.

Much like the film in which he’s starring, Oldman is straining hard for Oscar adoration but his performance is stiflingly rote for an actor of his range and caliber. In the film’s inevitable string of award nominations, I fear the Academy will overlook the work of Tom Pelphrey, who was excellent as Ben in the most recent season of Netflix’s Ozark and marks Mank’s brother Joseph as the film’s lone engaging character. The movie’s most engrossing scene, a confrontation between the two brothers about the dangers of releasing the potentially controversial script, comes much too late in the story to set things right. Perhaps the first boring movie that Fincher has ever made, Mank is a frenzied footnote-laden film which aspires to be a Peloton workout for cinephiles but ultimately comes across as a trivial exercise in self-importance.

Score – 2/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Debuting on Amazon Prime is Sound of Metal, a music-based drama starring Riz Ahmed and Olivia Cooke about a heavy-metal drummer whose life is thrown into freefall when he begins to lose his hearing.
Coming to premium on demand is Ammonite, a period romance starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan about a burgeoning relationship between an acclaimed but overlooked palaeontologist and a young tourist.
Also available to rent digitally is Black Bear, a dramedy starring Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott about a filmmaker at a creative impasse who seeks solace from her tumultuous past at a rural retreat, only to find that the woods summon her inner demons.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Run

Following up his superb screenlife thriller Searching, writer-director Aneesh Chaganty expands his narrative scope with Run, another engaging nail-biter that doesn’t quite match the ingenuity of his debut. By comparison, it’s much more broad in its story beats and campy in its execution but at the end of the day, it delivers enough slick twists and turns in its lean 90-minute runtime to satisfy one’s Fall fright itch. As lopsided as the script can be, the film mainly succeeds on the strength of the performances by the two lead actresses, one who is steeply committed to this genre at this point in her career and another who is new to acting altogether.

We meet Diane (Sarah Paulson) on what should be the happiest day of her life but the critical condition of her premature newborn casts a pall over the delivery room. Flash forward 17 years and she’s adjusted the best that she can to the various health ailments that plague her homeschooled daughter Chloe (Kiera Allen). Wheelchair-bound and asthma-ridden, Chloe is clearly dependent on her ever-present mom for many physical tasks but can more than fend for herself from an intelligence perspective. It’s this intellect and curiosity that leads her to peel back a loosely adhered medication label and thus unravel a much deeper and darker mystery at the heart of her relationship with her domineering mother.

Fittingly slated to open in theaters on Mother’s Day weekend this past spring, Run is yet another 2020 release that got postponed indefinitely when the pandemic hit and found new life when a streaming service (Hulu, in this case) ponied up for the distribution rights. Unfortunately, this is a movie that benefits greatly from the experience of sitting in a darkened room with strangers whose hushed gasps and shrieks undoubtedly flavor the viewing. If theaters really are on their last legs, as many have suggested, is there anything that filmmakers can do to translate this phenomenon for audiences at home? Will studios even keep making thrillers like this in the first place? Questions like this disturb me more than anything in Run, although that isn’t a burden the film should have to carry.

In any case, the stellar acting is Run‘s strongest quality and the main area in which it distinguishes itself from the trashy Lifetime movie of the week that it could have been otherwise. Kiera Allen, who is disabled in real life, is outstanding as a smart and resourceful teenager who chooses not to define herself by her limitations. It helps to have such a cunning protagonist when we spend much of the running time working through obstacles with her in real time and Allen is more than up to the task. The film’s best scene, a lengthy setpiece in which Chloe must get from one bedroom window to another by crawling across the roof, gave me flashbacks to the famous Burj Khalifa sequence from Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.

Paulson is very good as the increasingly insidious Diane, although she can practically play chilly and borderline psychotic in her sleep by this point. From her recent appearance as a sinister caregiver in Netflix’s Ratched to her role as a sinister caregiver in last year’s Glass, I’d like to see her display more range in her character choice for her next project. Similarly, the film occupies a familiar class of psychological thriller depicted in shows like HBO’s Sharp Objects and movies like Greta and Ma, although it would easily place first in a race between the three films. If it were playing at your local theater, Run might not warrant a hurried excursion but from the comfort of the couch, it should be enough to quicken one’s pulse.

Score – 3/5

New movies this weekend:
Streaming on Hulu is Happiest Season, a romantic comedy starring Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis about a young woman planning to propose to her girlfriend while attending her family’s annual holiday party.
Coming to Netflix is The Christmas Chronicles 2, a holiday comedy starring Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn about Santa teaming up again with a cynical teenager to stop a mysterious foe who threatens to cancel Christmas forever.
Opening only in theaters is The Croods: A New Age, an animated adventure starring Nicolas Cage and Emma Stone about a prehistoric family who is challenged by a rival family who claim to be better and more evolved.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Nest

It’s commonplace for haunted house movies to follow a familiar formula: happy family moves into a new home, tensions escalate as supernatural events occur and the fraught family members band together to fight off the malevolent apparitions. In his outstanding sophomore outing The Nest, writer-director Sean Durkin inverts this equation, taking a family already reeling from years of mistrust and instability and instead of serving them up the typical ghosts and monsters, he uses the chilly setting to further exacerbate existing wounds. As with his similarly brilliant debut, 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, Durkin examines frayed family dynamics within the structure of a slow-burn thriller where irrevocable tragedy is only a crooked look or misplaced insult away.

We meet the ambitious scoundrel Rory O’Hara (Jude Law) as he makes a call to an old employer and wakes his steely-eyed wife Allison (Carrie Coon) with the news that they’ll be moving back to his native London for a new job opportunity. It’s the “greed-is-good” era of the 1980s and Rory is hungrier than ever, even if this move marks their fourth in ten years. Rory has essentially made the choice to pursue the position on his own, asking neither for permission nor forgiveness, but it doesn’t take long to learn that he and Allison are hardly on the same page about anything. As the pair “settle” into their dreary England estate with kids Sam (Oona Roche) and Ben (Charlie Shotwell), resentment continues to build and the chasm of conflicting personalities between the four grows wider.

Richly conceived and near-flawlessly executed, The Nest truly is a triumph on every meaningful level of artistic merit. Durkin, who did spend part of his childhood in 1980s South England, mines the more irksome cultural disparities between British and American life as just one of the pin pricks of malcontent that fracture the O’Hara clan. With this groundwork in place, he constructs supremely well-observed characterizations within a fittingly economical screenplay that tells us everything we need to know about these people without a word of excess. The direction is brutally patient and tonally congruent, with Durkin beautifully demonstrating a balance between tension and release. Were this movie to play in theaters nationwide, I would fully expect jeers akin to “don’t go in that room!” from audiences, only adapted for a chilly story of domestic strife rather than a jump scare-laden horror movie.

In roles that are perfectly attuned to the strengths of the actors, Coon and Law do some of the most wrenching and compelling work of their already accomplished careers. Law’s performance recalls the charming deception of his Talented Mr. Ripley character Dickie Greenleaf but he trades Dickie’s carefree spirit for Rory’s palpably desperate sense of determination that is sickeningly enthralling to behold. Coon is equally electrifying as a no-nonsense horse trainer who is in lock-step with her compliant stallion but can’t seem to put the reins on her recklessly impulsive husband. Their inevitable scenes of verbal conflict match the bruising staying power of the culminating scene from last year’s Marriage Story, though I doubt The Nest will inspire nearly as many misbegotten memes.

In one of the year’s most hypnotically effective musical scores, composer and Arcade Fire band member Richard Reed Parry pits discordant piano against apprehensive woodwinds to musically mirror the story’s central conflict. The diegetic soundtrack aptly interpolates 80s hits like the wistful Thompson Twins track “Hold Me Now” and, in a particularly cathartic sequence, the ebullient Communards dance tune “Don’t Leave Me This Way”. It’s been 9 long years since Sean Durkin broke out and if he has more films in him with a quality level similar to The Nest, I hope we won’t have to wait 9 more for his next mesmerizing masterpiece.

Score – 4.5/5

New movies to stream this weekend:
Available to watch on Hulu is Run, a suspense thriller from the director of Searching starring Sarah Paulson and Kiera Allen about a homeschooled teenager who begins to suspect her mother is keeping a dark secret from her.
Out for digital rental is Jiu Jitsu, a martial arts fantasy starring Tony Jaa and Nicolas Cage about an ancient order of expert fighters who must square off against a vicious race of alien invaders in a battle for Earth.
Debuting next Tuesday on Netflix is Hillbilly Elegy, a Ron Howard drama starring Glenn Close and Amy Adams about a law student drawn back to his hometown as he grapples with his Appalachian family’s struggles.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

A Rainy Day in New York

By now, we all know Amazon is notorious for their two-day shipping but if your name is Woody Allen, you apparently have to wait two years for your movie to arrive. Due to be released by Amazon Studios back in 2018, Allen’s latest comedy A Rainy Day In New York was shelved after sexual assault allegations resurfaced against him amid the Me Too movement and the film finally slinks onto on demand this week. The last decade has not been particularly kind to the prolific writer-director, who followed up his critical smash, 2011’s Midnight In Paris, with a handful of releases like the middling Rainy Day that haven’t come close to matching the praise that romp received.

Allen’s tale this time revolves around Gatsby Welles (Timothée Chalamet), a college student who takes a trip from Upstate New York into the city with his girlfriend Ashleigh (Elle Fanning). On assignment to interview revered indie director Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber), Ashleigh splits off with Gatsby early on with plans to reunite at a fancy cocktail bar but the fates conspire to keep them separated. Ashleigh becomes further entrenched in Pollard’s work when he wants to screen his latest film for her, while Gatsby ambles around the city and runs into Chan (Selena Gomez), the sister of one of his ex-girlfriends. The misadventures of the two continue throughout the afternoon as moody rainclouds conjure up a slew of slippery scenarios among a talented cast that also includes Jude Law and Diego Luna.

It’s been a tradition among Allen’s films for the protagonist to imbue the neurotic and nebbish qualities of Allen’s persona and A Rainy Day In New York confidently follows suit with the perpetually put-upon Gatsby. While certain actors like Larry David and Jesse Eisenberg are a natural fit, Chalamet is frankly way too cool and confident to convincingly play an anxiety-ridden handwringer and I rolled my eyes nearly every time his character stammered through ten-cent words. Fanning fares much better in her role, channeling Annie Hall-era Diane Keaton energy with nervous hiccup fits and all. She’s nothing short of supremely charming as she keeps getting pulled into mishaps that get more convoluted as the story moves along.

While Allen’s screenplay features some reliably witty one-liners and exchanges by generable likable characters, its themes of infidelity and big city living hardly break new ground in his oeuvre. The direction is similarly lazy, bouncing from subplot to subplot with only a third-act monologue by Cherry Jones serving as the film’s chief inspired moment. Alisa Lepselter’s editing juggles Gatsby’s and Ashleigh perspectives well but the tempo doesn’t always lock in where it should be during the dialogue-heavy scenes. When it’s all said and done, this is a romantic’s view of New York through the eyes of a hopelessly romantic lead character and Allen is doing his best to impart that sense of metropolitan wonder.

Like fellow recent release On The Rocks, which also wrapped well before the pandemic, this film unintentionally makes one nostalgic for a time when individuals could chat closely without the necessity of a face mask. As Chalamet and company participate in maskless walk-and-talks while name-checking artists like Charlie Parker and Akira Kurosawa, I had to turn off the voice in my head yelling “don’t they know how irresponsible they’re being?” Even the simple sight of a couple huddling close to share an umbrella during a downpour inexplicably made my eyes a bit misty. Like the old soul at the center of its story, A Rainy Day In New York is an old-fashioned, escapist romance that isn’t as inspired as it should have been but isn’t as tiresome it could have been.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies this weekend:
Premiering on Netflix is Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, a Christmas musical starring Forest Whitaker and Keegan-Michael Key about a toymaker and his granddaughter who construct a magical invention in time for the holidays.
Streaming on Apple TV+ is Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, a Werner Herzog documentary about meteors and comets while investigating their influence on ancient religions and other cultural and physical impacts they’ve had on Earth.
Only playing in theaters is Freaky, a slasher black comedy starring Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton that reimagines the Freaky Friday formula by body-swapping a high school student and a deranged serial killer.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Possessor

For decades now, filmmaker David Cronenberg has been provoking audiences with a signature brand of body horror through works like Videodrome, Crash (no, not the Best Picture winner) and A History of Violence. It’s been some time since his latest effort, 2014’s disappointing Maps to the Stars, but luckily, David’s son Brandon has seemingly followed closely in his father’s footsteps. His second feature, Possessor, is a sci-fi horror hybrid that does indeed bear the mark of predecessors like Scanners and The Fly but establishes a contemplative pace and existential disposition that deepens its mesmeric power. It’s a brutal and uncompromising vision that may not be the best entry point for newcomers to the genre but should thoroughly please those who revel in the creatively horrifying.

We meet Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) during a normal day of her thoroughly abnormal profession: she’s an assassin, of sorts, who uses brain implant technology to transplant her consciousness into the bodies of unwitting bystanders. On the heels of another vicious job, Tasya’s handler (Jennifer Jason Leigh) fills her in on their new target: Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), a young programmer who uses VR to unethically mine data for a powerful tech company. The head of said corporation, John Parse (Sean Bean), is the father of Colin’s girlfriend Ava (Tuppence Middleton), which makes Colin a sensible mark to take John out of the picture on behalf of Vos’s client. The normally unflappable Vos begins to falter in her approach as Colin resists the body-mind control process and their psyches begin to battle one another for dominance.

With firm control over his story and its themes, Cronenberg investigates the terrifying prospect of losing control of oneself with arresting imagery and ingenious personifications of physiological phenomena. He marries the illusory concept of invading someone else’s mind and body like a parasite with the visceral tactility of the wretched instruments that it takes to make such an infiltration possible. Early on, we see Tasya “calibrating” her brainwaves with what looks like a portable transistor radio and the machine that allows her to enter her subject’s brain is connected through what appear to be standard audio cables. In the wrong hands, these prop design choices could seem foolish and archaic but it demonstrates Cronenberg’s dedication to an inventive cyberpunk-inspired aesthetic that, ironically, moves the genre forward.

At times, Possessor resembles an arthouse take on Inception, as it also involves ousting a CEO at the behest of a client through metaphysically manipulated means, but you don’t even need to get past the opening scene to see where it diverges violently. Like his father, Conenberg has little compunction about making his viewers squeamish in the pursuit of ferociously virtuosic violence. But also like David, Brandon argues for the savagery on-screen as a vehicle to depict the dark intangibles of human nature in ways that this breed of science fiction can do better than any other genre. Behind the camera, cinematographer Karim Hussain fixates on unsettling shots like palms rippling under an air hand dryer and bathes the frame in stark blues and oranges to promote a constant sense of disorientation and unreality.

The always captivating Andrea Riseborough is outstanding as a woman whose crumbling sense of reality has left her emotionally bereft from those with whom she’s meant to be closest. In what could be another Christopher Nolan callback, one scene depicts Tasya as she’s asked to grapple various mementos from her past and explain their significance to her handler. Riseborough’s expressions are flawless in these moments, as she struggles valiantly to reorient herself while suggesting that she may not even care to do so. Christopher Abbott is also excellent in a role that calls for him to primarily act as if he’s not actually in control of his body, which I imagine is even more challenging than it seems. Disturbing yet enriching, Possessor is a shocking reflection on the fleeting nature of identity and the confounding complexities of consciousness.

Score – 4/5

New movies this weekend:
Available to rent digitally is The Informer, a crime thriller starring Joel Kinnaman and Rosamund Pike about an undercover ex-convict who becomes incarcerated again in order to infiltrate a mob at a maximum security prison.
Also available to watch on demand is The Dark And The Wicked, a horror film starring Marin Ireland and Michael Abbott Jr. about a patriarch farmer whose growing illness manifests waking nightmares for the members of his family.
Another digital release is Triggered, a mystery movie starring Reine Swart and Liesl Ahlers about nine campers who wake up with suicide bombs strapped to their chests with varying times on their countdown clocks.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ep. #50 – Quaranstream III: Happy Hallostream

I’m joined again by my wife Aubree as we get into the Halloween spirit and discuss some spooky streaming options for your fall viewing pleasure. We talk over the Hulu movie Books of Blood, the Amazon Prime film series Welcome to the Blumhouse, Adam Sandler’s new Netflix “movie” Hubie Halloween, the Netflix series The Haunting of Bly Manor and the Hulu anthology series Monsterland. Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd.

Bad Hair

When writer/director Justin Simien broke into the indie film scene with his incendiary Sundance hit Dear White People in 2014, it seemed unlikely that it would take a follow-up film 6 years to be released. Instead of moving onto wholly new material, Simien wisely chose to adapt his overstuffed movie into a Netflix series, whose three seasons account for some of the best original content the streaming giant has ever produced. As great as the Dear White People series is, the film world was sorely missing a voice as audacious and brazen as Simien’s, which makes his sophomore effort Bad Hair that much more reason to celebrate. This is an idiosyncratic horror comedy so specific in its influences that it feels like it was made to be enjoyed by maybe a few dozen people total. Fortunately, I would count myself as one of the weirdos in that hypothetically select group.

It’s 1989 Los Angeles and a personal assistant named Anna (Elle Lorraine) is looking to move up the ranks at Culture, a music television network that serves as a stand-in for the real-life BET. Her opportunity comes when the head of the station is replaced by ex-supermodel Zora (Vanessa Williams), who sees potential in Anna provided she can look the part of other on-air talent like the impossibly cool Julius (Jay Pharoah). This directive leads her to stylist Virgie (Laverne Cox) and her boutique salon, which has a reputation of transforming frizzy hair into lavish locks like those of pop superstars like the inimitable Sandra (Kelly Rowland). However, Anna gets more than she bargained for when the expensive, sewed-on weave starts to take on a mind of its own and seek revenge on those who have wronged her along the way.

Simien takes this high-concept, campy premise to present all manner of cultural commentary, from the impossibility of interracial beauty standards to the pressures of assimilation and conformity, while never losing its sense of cheeky irreverence in the process. If Spike Lee had directed his own version of Little Shop Of Horrors in the early 1990s, it may have come out something like Bad Hair, though one imagines it wouldn’t have quite the deft satirical bite that Simien once again shows off here. In terms of more recent contemporaries, it’s easy to imagine Jordan Peele having an affinity for similar material and while Bad Hair isn’t quite the instant classic that Get Out was, I would personally classify it as a bigger success than last year’s Us. While Simien isn’t yet the household name that Lee or Peele is, I hope it isn’t long before that changes.

Along with composer Kris Bowers and cinematographer Topher Osborn, Simien crafts an homage to, among many other things, throwback thrillers from revered directors like Brian De Palma and John Carpenter. The look is pitch-perfect, marrying lingering crossfades and ominous Dutch angles with a saturated gritty aesthetic that truly makes the movie look like it was shot on film in the 70s or 80s. The introduction of the killer wig and the slow reveal of its nefarious nature melds both the body horror elements of a David Cronenberg picture with the Japanese horror frights of something along the lines of Ju-On: The Grudge. By the time the haywire third act comes into focus, the film most closely resembles socially-conscious sci-fi like Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Besides the exceedingly clever script penned by Simien, this stylistic melting pot is held together best by a terrific lead performance from newcomer Elle Lorraine. No matter how outlandish the storyline gets or how many genres the movie invokes, she proves that she’s game to bob and weave as necessary to keep the audience invested. She sells the “beauty is pain” principle best during the salon scene where the hair extensions are being grafted to her scalp or, as a colleague puts it, “sewing someone’s dead energy into their head.” Naturally, Simien has a deeper metaphors and symbolism attached to the concept of stealing what is someone else’s and wearing it as your own, which are best for the viewer to discover for themselves. It just came out last week but Bad Hair already seems destined for cult classic status and rightfully so.

Score – 4/5

New movies this weekend:
Available to rent digitally is The Craft: Legacy, a sequel to the 1996 supernatural horror film starring Cailee Spaeny and Gideon Adlon about a new group of high school students who form a coven of witches.
Streaming on Netflix is His House, a thriller starring Wunmi Mosaku and Sope Dirisu about a Sudanese refugee couple who struggle to adjust to their new life in an English town that has an evil lurking beneath the surface.
Coming to theaters is Come Play, a horror thriller starring Gillian Jacobs and John Gallagher Jr. about a monster who haunts a non-verbal autistic young boy along with his family and friends through various technological devices.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

On The Rocks

For one reason or another, Sofia Coppola just seems to get Bill Murray. In her previous directorial efforts Lost in Translation and A Very Murray Christmas, Coppola tapped into both the world-weary wisdom and lounge lizard haminess that represent two distinct sides of the veteran comedian’s larger-than-life persona. Now the writer-director and her comic collaborator team up again for On The Rocks, an abundantly charming and breezy screwball dramedy about the potential pitfalls of marriage and the lengths that spouses will go through to get back on track. The marriage in question isn’t that of Murray’s character Felix and his wife but instead of his daughter Laura, played by Rashida Jones.

Along with her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans), Laura raises two little girls in the heart of New York City. Quickly approaching 40, she doesn’t have a career as a writer as much as she has a career in blanking staring at her MacBook Pro with research papers strewn across her desk. Conversely, Dean’s tech-based career is going much better, so much so that he’s been traveling more frequently and surrounding himself with attractive colleagues like his assistant Fiona (Jessica Henwick). Having fleeting doubts about Dean’s fidelity, Laura calls her gregarious father Felix for reassurance but instead gets further confirmation from him that Dean’s actions are suspicious. Together, Laura and Felix go to extreme lengths to confirm Dean’s loyalty and potentially save the marriage from going cold.

It’s a straightforward comedic premise that could aim for sitcom-level yucks in the wrong hands but thankfully, the chemistry between Jones and Murray more than makes up for the somewhat flimsy story. This is a terrific starring role for Jones, who is best known for her role on NBC’s Parks and Recreation but deserves loads of lead film roles in the future. She’s a completely winning screen presence, imbuing Laura with such grace and passion that it’s almost impossible not to root for her. Whether or not Dean is having some kind of affair, we can empathize with Laura’s concerns and insecurities not only because of his questionable behavior but because of how she has subconsciously expected men to act based on the model of her duplicitous father.

In what may be his most fully-realized role since Lost In Translation, Murray turns in an outstanding performance that plays perfectly to both his comedic and dramatic strengths. We first meet the well-off Felix as his chauffeur pulls up to the curb and a roll-down of the car’s rear window reveals Murray’s droll face, with a perfectly deadpan “get in” to punctuate the moment. Within the first minute of their car ride, Felix blithely whistles a tune and encourages Laura to do the same. Murray renders Felix’s childish and even chauvinistic antics, like his non-stop flirtations with women half (or even a third) his age, with wickedly winsome confidence. When Laura observes Felix get out of yet another jam, she dryly remarks “it must be very nice to be you,” to which he wittily chirps “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

While this is mainly a two-hander between Jones and Murray, Jenny Slate steals a few scenes as a single woman who blathers on so much about her dating issues that Laura eventually doesn’t even bother feigning interest. Wayans is typically known for his work in poorly-received spoofs like A Haunted House and Fifty Shades of Black but he’s a nice fit here, riding the line between preoccupied go-getter and potential scoundrel. But ultimately, Jones and Murray are the reason to see this movie and Coppola’s thoughtful and warm writing allows the two performers to get the most out of their endearing characters. Though it doesn’t reach the depths of Coppola’s strongest work, On The Rocks is a good-natured and welcome diversion when we could all use it the most.

Score – 3.5/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, Sacha Baron Cohen’s follow-up to his smash 2006 mockumentary Borat about a hapless Kazakhstani reporter who travels American to learn about its culture.
Streaming on HBO Max is The Witches, a remake of the 1990 fantasy comedy starring Anne Hathaway and Octavia Spencer about an orphaned young boy who stumbles across a conference of witches while staying with his grandmother at a hotel.
Streaming on Netflix is Rebecca, an adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier novel starring Armie Hammer and Lily James about a newly married young woman who finds herself battling the shadow of her husband’s dead first wife.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Trial Of The Chicago 7

Originally planned for a theatrical release at the beginning of awards season, the well-intentioned but overbearing courtroom drama The Trial of the Chicago 7 arrives on Netflix this weekend with an Oscar checklist in hand. With its 1960s-set true story that has ties to current events and an Academy Award-winner screenwriter at the helm, it’s the kind of movie that’s seemingly designed in a Hollywood lab with the intention of hitting as many conventional voter criteria as possible. While writer/director Aaron Sorkin has writing credits like A Few Good Men and HBO’s The Newsroom that make him a good mark for this material, the film marks only his second time as a feature director after 2017’s Molly’s Game and he carries over some of the corny and sanctimonious tendencies from his worst writing into his new career of directing.

The titular trial is that of a band of seven anti-Vietnam War protesters, who allegedly conspired to incite violence among crowds outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Among the defendants is the altruistic Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and smirking Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), who possess wildly conflicting personalities but are unified by a common goal of disrupting the status quo. Tasked with trying the group of activists is Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a fresh-faced prosecutor facing off against the soft-spoken but determined defense attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance). Presiding over the months-long trial is the strict Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), who hurls contempt of court charges liberally in his attempts to maintain dominance over the often rambunctious courtroom.

Sorkin and his composer Daniel Pemberton get off to a questionable start, scoring an introductory montage of the 7 with oddly upbeat music that comes across as blithe and borderline flippant given the highbrow tone it’s presumably trying to set. The cues during the dramatic courtroom scenes are appropriately exuberant but rarely rousing, pumping up the orchestral horns and strings as they cloy with self-importance. Working with editor Alan Baumgarten, Sorkin employs a snappy zig-zag narrative strategy that frames the trial sequences with flashback cuts that pertain to witness testimonies. The editing is competent and never confusing as it zips back and forth chronologically but is too spastic when it come to dialogue-heavy scenes, whipping between routine shot/reverse shot compositions at an unnecessarily hurried rate.

The remarkably qualified cast, which also includes reliable character actors like John Carroll Lynch and John Doman, seems to generally be on the same page when it comes to the characters that they are rendering. If I had to pick a standout, I’d look to Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, portraying Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale with proper conviction and compelling resilience. The simmer in his voice when he says, “they tried something peaceful; we’re going to try something else” is the stuff that Best Supporting Actor nods are made of. Another immensely talented actor, whose name I won’t mention for fear of spoiling the surprise, shows up in the third act for his own “you can’t handle the truth!” moment, even if it doesn’t land with quite the same kind of impact as its predecessor.

For all its self-righteousness posturing and dubious bits of supposedly true interactions, the movie left me with one chief qualm: what is Sorkin really trying to say here? Civil unrest and street riots are obviously hot topics this year but Sorkin remains frustratingly inert when it comes to having a novel perspective on the subjects. Outside of some witty exchanges and occasional bits of cheeky humor, Sorkin simply doesn’t inject enough of his voice into his surprisingly shallow screenplay. Even though the whole world is streaming, there isn’t enough of an edge to The Trial of the Chicago 7 to make it worth adding to one’s ever-expanding queue.

Score – 2.5/5

Other new movies this weekend:
Streaming on HBO Max is American Utopia, a Spike Lee-directed concert film capturing a musical Broadway performance from former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is What the Constitution Means to Me, another live recording of a Broadway performance; in this case, it’s Heidi Schreck’s play presenting multiple facets, historical perspectives and personal experiences with the U.S. Constitution
Available to rent on demand is Greenland, a disaster film starring Gerard Butler and Morena Baccarin about a family struggles for survival in the face of a cataclysmic meteor event.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup