All posts by Brent Leuthold

Antebellum

From first-time writers and directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz comes Antebellum, an intermittently inspired but ultimately misguided psychological thriller that grapples with the horrors of racism and slavery. The marketing wisely touts the film as having a producer in common with Get Out and Us, two high-concept, race-centric horror films whose critical plaudits Antebellum would understandably seek to replicate. While Jordan Peele used the initial hooks of his movies to further investigate deeper cultural themes and implement various sub-genres, Bush and Renz don’t seem to have much on their minds past the film’s grabby conceit. As we learned with CBS’ latest iteration of The Twilight Zone (incidentally, hosted by Peele), a story’s central idea or message is only as good as its execution.

We meet Eden (Janelle Monáe) as she is carried horseback into a Confederate-run Louisiana plantation along with a new batch of slaves. She is treated cruelly by her master (Eric Lange) and despite being forbidden to communicate with others on the plantation, Eden creates a friendship of sorts with fellow slave Julia (Kiersey Clemons). In a parallel storyline set in modern day, we meet Veronica Henley (also Monáe), a PhD and successful author of a book called “Shedding the Coping Persona” about the struggles that women of color face in modern society. She pals around with her brash but supportive friend Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe) until an unexpected incident separates them. The connection between Eden and Veronica is one that is best left for viewers (ones who haven’t already seen the movie’s trailer, that is) to discover for themselves.

Antebellum opens with an ostentatious but nonetheless impressive faux one-take shot establishing the grounds of the perfidiously picturesque plantation as a young girl skips through a sun-drenched field with fresh flowers in hand. Over the course of a few minutes, the imagery gets more disturbing and violent until we see a runaway slave’s brutal death right before the film’s title card fills the screen. Responsibly depicting the atrocities of slavery on screen has always been a tricky proposition, as filmmakers have to balance the unflinching honesty of the violence without crossing into exploitation. Unfortunately, Bush and Renz do cross that line early and often, slowing down the action and pumping up the overbearing musical score in a way that made me feel uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons.

Despite the crass and tasteless nature of the first act, I started to come around a bit during the film’s next section that takes place in present times. Monáe’s portrayal of Veronica is, understandably, much more open and relatable in comparison to the perpetually stifled Eden. Watching an intelligent and dynamic woman like Veronica navigate the nuances of modern racism was much more interesting than watching Eden scream in agony as one evil act after another was visited upon her. Sidibe is also a welcome presence in this middle section, striking up a believable chemistry with Monáe and giving the movie a much needed boost of energy and self-confidence.

But inevitably, the chasm between Eden and Veronica must be resolved and their correlation leads to a Shyamalan-esque final act twist that was foolishly spoiled in the film’s teaser trailer. It’s the kind of misdirection that makes certain plot holes larger in hindsight and leaves the audience with questions that quickly unravel the flimsy storyline. Despite some strong performances, Antebellum is an empty provocation of a thriller whose message could have resonated better with a stronger script and smarter direction.

Score – 2/5

New movies this weekend:
Streaming on Netflix is Enola Holmes, a mystery movie starring Millie Bobby Brown and Henry Cavill about the younger sister of the famous Sherlock Holmes who embarks on a quest to find her missing mother.
Opening in theaters is Kajillionaire, a crime dramedy starring Evan Rachel Wood and Richard Jenkins about a woman whose life is turned upside down after her criminal parents invite an outsider to join them on a major heist they’re planning.
Premiering on HBO is Agents of Chaos, a two part documentary from Going Clear director Alex Gibney that details Russia’s interference with the United States’ 2016 presidential election.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Keanu World Order: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Originally printed in The Midwest Film Journal

“Be excellent to each other and party on, dudes!” It’s a simple sentiment, sure, but something about this thesis statement from the cult comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure has resonated with audiences since its release and perhaps right now even more than ever. Strip away the surfer dude parlance and you basically have calls to empathy and self-care that may not have seemed profound back in 1989 but have proven to be especially illuminating in overwhelmingly distressing times. Aside from the use of a homophobic slur by the main characters, I was surprised while recently rewatching Bill & Ted just how little of it feels dated by today’s standards and fittingly, the experience of seeing it again made me feel as if I was traveling back to a simpler time.

I’ve probably seen Excellent Adventure in full about 5 or 6 times but I doubt more than half of those viewings were for the entire film in one sitting. Growing up as a teen in the early 2000s, I remember Comedy Central playing the movie seemingly every week. When I was flipping through channels, a practice I’m mildly nostalgic for as I’m typing this sentence, I would often stop to catch wherever it was in its runtime. It was like loading scenes of a movie onto an iPod Shuffle, another reference that instantly dates me, and seeing what comes up. If it was the shopping mall montage of historical figures running amok or Napoleon shouting “merde!” as he slides down the bowling lane, you can be sure that the channel would remain unflipped for at least several minutes.

For the uninitiated, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure involves two amiable California dudes who use a time-traveling phone booth to abduct important figures throughout history and pass their final school presentation. Though comedy is often a game of opposites, the characters of Bill and Ted are remarkably similar, to the point where they often make the same exclamations like “bogus!” and “gnarly!” in unison. Naturally, the key to making the relationship work is timing and chemistry, both of which leads Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter have a most magnificent amount. Their performances are harmonious and complimentary in a way that really sells the kind of kindred spirits these two slackers have become to one another.

Although Winter has mainly stayed out of the limelight since his breakout role as Bill S. Preston, Esq., Reeves has since become one of Hollywood’s most recognizable stars with huge franchise hits like The Matrix and John Wick. Due to the once popular “Sad Keanu” meme and his introverted personality, Reeves’ persona has typically relied heavily on the actor’s seeming stoicism, so it’s especially fun going back and watching him essentially be a goof for 90 minutes. I especially love how Reeves imbues Ted with the most laid-back temperament imaginable, even when pressed with trying circumstances. After ribbing Bill about his new stepmom, Bill seems genuinely upset when he tells Ted to shut up, to which Ted pauses a moment and then lights up a dopey grin to diffuse the tension. In a relatively low stakes movie, that brief confrontation has a surprising amount of impact because we recognize how strong of a friendship these two have with each other.

Excellent Adventure also has a playful spirit about the nature of time travel and just like its central duo, really doesn’t bother to take things too seriously. If you ask the movie if it operates on a fixed timeline or alternate timeline, it would answer “yes.” My favorite comedic paradox in the film is when the pair need a set of keys belonging to Ted’s police chief father to get out of a predicament. Ted has a bright idea: why don’t they go back in time after the history report is over, steal the keys and plant them near the police station at that moment so they can find them? Before we even have time to figure out if that makes any sense at all, Bill pulls the keys out of the grass near a sign where their future selves presumably placed them.

Catching up with the film now, it’s still a bit too broad and cartoonish in certain respects but even the bits that don’t work still skate by on good-natured charm. The plotline essentially operates as a feature length version of the Marshall McLuhan scene from Annie Hall, where Woody Allen manifests the media theorist out of thin air to show up a chatty intellectual in a movie line. Here, Bill and Ted nab famous historical figures throughout time as if to say to their teacher “see, we do know something of their work!” While Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure isn’t quite up to Annie Hall caliber, it’s just the kind of sweet and affable comedy that we could all use right about now.

Mulan

Disney goes to the well once more with Mulan, another update on one of their beloved 90s animations that doesn’t supersede the original but at least gets points for trying to go about things in a relatively creative way. Unlike last year’s Aladdin and The Lion King, which were soulless cash grabs that lifelessly tried to recreate classic moments from their predecessors, this new version of Mulan feels more like a modern reimagining of the legend of Hua Mulan rather than a mindless remake of the 1998 Disney film. Gone are the Broadway-style music numbers and cutesy sidekicks, replaced instead by PG-13 wuxia (a term for martial arts stories set in ancient China) action and gorgeously lush set design inspired by genre classics like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero.

Set in imperial China, the storyline follows the courageous and deft warrior Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei), whose parents Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma) and Hua Li (Rosalind Chao) foist matchmakers on her so she can find a husband who will tame her wild spirit. Those plans are put on hold when Rouran warriors, led by the fearsome Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and his enslaved witch Xianniang (Gong Li), make their way towards the Hua’s village. An edict is put forth where a man from each family must join the fight against Khan’s army but the elderly Zhou is at risk for serious injury or even death should he offer his services to the military. To spare her father, Mulan poses as a young man and sets off to train as a soldier with the knowledge that her gender deception could be punishable by death.

Originally slated to grace screens nationwide back in March, Mulan is one of many victims of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and after months of delay, it now debuts on Disney+ with a $30 surcharge for “Premier Access”. While this is a responsible and sensible business decision on their part, it’s a bit of a shame that we likely won’t see this on the big screen any time soon since this is the best looking live-action remake that Disney has put forth yet. Transfixing images like the Emperor’s opulent, gold-plated throne or a collapsing avalanche with its ensuing fog of powder snow just don’t quite have the same power when watching at home, unless your TV is on par with the digital projection found in the cineplex.

While director Niki Caro makes some smart choices when it comes to action and imagery, the biggest missed opportunity here is in the depth of the storytelling and thematic material. Too often Caro and her quartet of screenwriters take the easy way out and settle for simple characterization on behalf of the protagonist and other supporting players. While the animated version of Mulan was also a fierce warrior, she doesn’t start out that way and has to steadily train her way up the ranks. Comparatively, Yifei’s Mulan is already a powerful fighter from the beginning with the aid of a magical level of chi that resembles The Force from Star Wars — one could easily make several parallels between this Mulan and Rey from the Disney-era Star Wars trilogy.

While most of the performances serve the film well, Yifei is not always as compelling as she needs to be in the title role. Her physicality and poise is often spot-on but she plays the character almost too stoically, offering little insight into Mulan’s inner world. Other actors, like the inimitable Donnie Yen as Commander Tung or Tzi Ma from last year’s excellent The Farewell, tend to fare better in their respective roles. While I appreciate Disney’s push for representation by casting all Asian or Asian-American performers, I wish they had gone a bit farther and just had the characters speaking Mandarin instead English. With Parasite winning Best Picture earlier this year, I would suspect that the subtitle barrier isn’t quite as imposing as it once was. Nevertheless, Mulan is a fine introduction to wuxia films that will hopefully inspire audiences to seek out better entries in the genre.

Score – 3/5

New movies this weekend:
Available for rental is Antebellum, a horror film starring Janelle Monáe and Jena Malone about an author who finds herself trapped in a nightmarish reality during the Underground Railroad period and must find a way to break free.
Streaming on Netflix is The Devil All the Time, a psychological thriller starring Tom Holland and Bill Skarsgård about a series of suspicious characters whose storylines converge on the backdrop of a small Ohio town.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is All In: The Fight for Democracy, a political documentary takes a look at the history of and current activism against voter suppression.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Tenet

In writer/director Christopher Nolan’s excellent The Prestige, Nikola Tesla (memorably played by David Bowie) tell’s Hugh Jackman’s character “You’re familiar with the phrase ‘man’s reach exceeds his grasp’? It’s a lie: man’s grasp exceeds his nerve.” Thankfully for us, Nolan has quite a bit of nerve. For over 20 years, he’s been making some of the most narratively dense and visually ambitious films to come out of Hollywood. Perhaps the only big-budget auteur still around, Nolan is likely the only director working who could convince Warner Brothers to release his latest behemoth exclusively to theaters during a global pandemic. After all the false starts and delayed releases, Tenet is finally here and it’s another imaginative and immersive entertainment that will undoubtedly reward multiple viewings.

The quietly commanding John David Washington stars as The Protagonist, an unnamed CIA agent who is recruited by a secret organization known as “Tenet” after a test mission in Kiev. He meets with a fellow spy named Neil (Robert Pattinson) before pursuing his next, world-altering mission. Through a series of operatives, the Protagonist learns of “inverted material”, whose entropy has been reversed so that it can travel backwards through time. The distribution of said material leads him to Russian arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) and his distant wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), who are involved in a plot that could unspool the fabric of time itself.

Following the releases of Memento in 2000 and Inception in 2010, Nolan has continued his rich tradition of opening each new decade with a top-tier, mind-bending thriller whose title titillates with just a single word. Like those previous films, the time in Tenet unfolds in a profoundly unconventional manner and half the fun of watching is in trying to keep up with all of the plates that Nolan is spinning. He seamlessly marries the intricate plot structure of heady time travel fare like Primer with the jaw-dropping action setpieces one would expect from an entry in the Bond or Mission Impossible franchises. The intensely convoluted storyline is bound to leave some viewers frustrated and confused but personally left me eager to unpack its secrets and twists as I reflect on the experience in hindsight.

As one would expect from a Nolan action film at this point, Tenet is impeccably crafted on multiple technical levels. The larger-than-life musical score from Ludwig Göransson throbs with wall-to-wall synths that appropriately sound like they’re being ripped through the time-space continuum. The sharp camerawork from Interstellar cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema beautifully frames the action with mesmerizing clarity — one shot in particular recalls one of the most iconic moments from The Wizard of Oz. But the real MVP behind the camera is Jennifer Lame, who should be a hands-down frontrunner for the Best Editing Oscar whenever the Academy Awards end up happening next year.

I had a great time watching Tenet, the first film I’ve seen in a theater in almost 6 months, but Nolan’s movies continue to have a lingering issue with sound mixing that renders too much of the dialogue unintelligible. Dunkirk gets a bit of a pass since it’s a war picture and the screenplay was light on characters conversing but the script this time around is loaded with metaphysical concepts that are imperative in order to decode the story. I’m looking forward to rewatching Tenet from the comfort and safety of my home, with subtitles active and the rewind button close within my grasp. Whether you choose to brave the theaters or wait for Tenet to become available to rent, it’s a first-rate brainteaser that’s well worth unraveling.

Score – 4/5

New movies this weekend:
Opening in theaters is The Broken Hearts Gallery, a romantic comedy starring Geraldine Viswanathan and Dacre Montgomery about a heartbroken young woman who starts a gallery where people can leave mementos from past relationships.
Available to stream on Netflix is The Social Dilemma, a documentary that investigates the dangerous impact that social media platforms have had on our society.
Also debuting on Netflix is The Babysitter: Killer Queen, a horror comedy sequel starring Judah Lewis and Hana Mae Lee about a high school teen who has another run in with a satanic cult after he escaped one years ago.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

I’m Thinking Of Ending Things

Charlie Kaufman is stuck in his head and he can’t get out. Throughout his filmography, from his screenwriting debut Being John Malkovich to his recent directorial effort Anomalisa, he has specialized in characters with a fierce sense of interiority and has captured solipsistic conflict in a wholly unique way. Kaufman’s latest work, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, is his first adaptation since 2002’s Adaptation but the cerebral writer-director applies his own unmistakable voice to the Iain Reid novel upon which his film is based. Even for a filmmaker who doesn’t exactly traffic in light fare, Kaufman has put together what is perhaps his most challenging movie yet and while it may not be his most rewarding, it offers another tantalizing glimpse into the mind of a true original.

We open on a snowy winter afternoon as Jake (Jesse Plemons) picks up his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) in his car so that they can travel to the modest farmhouse where he grew up. The two have only been dating several weeks and yet, Jake feels confident enough in the relationship to bring his new partner to see his mom and dad (Toni Collette and David Thewlis, respectively) for the first time. However, we learn through voiceover that Jake’s girlfriend isn’t nearly as enthusiastic about the budding “romance”, a sentiment expressed in the film’s opening line that also serves as its title. When the couple arrives at their destination, all seems to be well at first but peculiarities begin to stack up as the night moves on.

About half of I’m Thinking of Ending Things plays like a remake of Meet The Parents if it were directed by David Lynch, filled with absurdist humor and tricky editing that intentionally jars the audience’s sense of time and space. The other half, mainly consisting of the couple’s car-confined conversations during a snowstorm, is even more philosophical and verbose by comparison. But what unites these two halves is Kaufman’s pervasive sense of existential anxiety paired with a mordantly funny perspective on human nature. His illuminating screenplay, which extensively references works of great thinkers like Pauline Kael and William Wordsworth, is filled with dialogue by characters desperate to make sense of their thoughts and to find their place in a perpetually confounding world.

If this all sounds like a heavy meal, that’s because it is. Stretches of the movie make Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, his morose meditation on mortality and failure, seem like a crowd-pleaser by comparison. But where that film ultimately comes together in a relatively satisfying resolution, I’m Thinking of Ending Things seems to spiral even further into obscurity as it reaches its beguiling conclusion. Paradoxically, Kaufman’s least accessible film is being released on Netflix, where hundreds of millions of viewers will have the opportunity to stream it as many times as it takes to properly decode the knotty narrative. On a platform with a seemingly infinite amount of content, will audiences be willing to give multiple viewings to such a heady outing?

My gut tells me that many won’t and there will undoubtedly be those who are frustrated enough with the experience to not even make it through one full viewing, which is understandable. As Kaufman gets further from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, his best-regarded and most well-known film, he has gotten even more uncompromising and even obstinate in his artistic vision. I wish this time around, he had chased the sublime balance of heart and head that he mastered with Sunshine but even Kaufman’s headier pursuits trump the plethora of braindead content streaming these days. Deliriously surreal and all-consuming, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a brazen inquisition of the human condition from one of the best in the business.

Score – 3.5/5

More new movies this weekend:
Opening in theaters is Tenet, the highly-anticipated Christopher Nolan thriller starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson about a spy who utilizes time manipulation to prevent World War III.
Available to rent on Disney+ is Mulan, a live-action remake of the 1998 animated film starring Liu Yifei and Donnie Yen about a young Chinese maiden who disguises herself as a male warrior in order to save her father.
Available to rent on demand is Feels Good Man, a documentary about the creator of the comic character Pepe the Frog who struggles to reclaim control of his creation after it’s re-purposed by political activists online.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Unhinged

As theaters begin to open up again around the country, one question lingers in the minds of potential moviegoers: is there anything out right now that’s even good enough to justify the trip? That question looms large over the new psychological thriller Unhinged, which has been marketed as the first wide theatrical release since the COVID pandemic shut theaters down way back in March. With its menacing tone and sinister lead performance by Russell Crowe, it’s certainly not the most inviting “welcome back” to the multiplex but it may draw curious crowds despite itself.

Crowe plays a hulking juggernaut credited only as The Man, who we first see sitting in a rain-battered pickup truck as he pops some pills before breaking into a house and murdering the occupants. We then meet Rachel (Caren Pistorius), a single mom who encounters bumper-to-bumper traffic while running late to take her son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman) to school. Pulling off at a nearby exit, she levels a prolonged horn honk at the pickup truck in front of her, only to be confronted by The Man in the driver’s seat. When she refuses to apologize to him — he didn’t move promptly through a green light, after all — The Man wages all-out war on Rachel and her family as payback.

If you lop off the lengthy opening credits, whose loaded images of civil unrest must have been added late into post-production to evoke the current cultural climate, Unhinged stands at a lean and mean 75 minutes. In that respect, the film mainly stays within its lane of trashy B-movies that have come before it but never quite catches up to the quality of better road rage films like Duel and Changing Lanes. A major factor that flat-tires the storyline is just how inexplicably untouchable The Man is throughout his violent rampage. Director Derrick Borte bends over backwards to explain the beleaguered police are just spread too thin but no matter how preoccupied your police force is, I’m pretty sure you can make time for the guy committing multiple homicides in broad daylight with plenty of witnesses.

Despite working from a strained script with only small bits of character development sprinkled in, Crowe and Pistorius often carry the movie on the strength of their intense performances alone. Although he gets off to a rocky start with a horribly misjudged Southern accent in his first speaking scene, Crowe quickly rebounds as he crafts an apoplectic antagonist who is genuinely unsettling and intimidating. Pistorius is even better as a new divorcee who already seems to be at her wit’s end before she meets Crowe’s Man but somehow finds more room to convincingly descend into personal ruin. Even though there are numerous scenes where the two actors are simply barking at their cell phones while driving, they’re able to translate the tension and sell that they’re having their terse conversations in real time.

It’s when Borte tries to awkwardly graft socially conscious themes onto his gritty thrill ride that the film veers a bit too far into “We Live In A Society” territory. The movie does tap into our collective anxiety from time to time but doesn’t tend to investigate it in a particularly thoughtful or empathetic way. When The Man waxes poetic about how uncaring the world is and what exactly pushed him over the edge, it implies that we’re supposed to feel sympathy for a character who is unmistakably the villain of this story. Despite some sturdy performances and effectively suspenseful sequences, Unhinged simply isn’t worth racing out to the theaters for any time soon.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies this weekend:
Opening in theaters is The New Mutants, a superhero horror film starring Maisie Williams and Anya Taylor-Joy which is the long-delayed conclusion to the X-Men movie franchise.
Available to rent on demand and watch in theaters is Bill & Ted Face the Music, a time travel comedy starring Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter that reunites the titular amiable slackers after their Excellent Adventure from 31 years ago.
Available to stream on Amazon Prime is Get Duked!, a British black comedy starring Eddie Izzard and Kate Dickie about four city boys on a wilderness trek as they try to escape a mysterious hunter.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Project Power

Even though movie theaters are still closed nationwide, it’s still technically the summer movie season and blockbusters aren’t canceled if Netflix has anything to say about it. Their latest alt-superhero film Project Power follows in the trajectory of recent streaming output like the Chris Hemsworth-starring Extraction and Charlize Theron-starring The Old Guard and continues Netflix’s quest to compete with Hollywood directly with mid-size budget action movies. While it doesn’t quite fill the void of big-budget tentpole entertainment that still has yet to debut on streaming services, Project Power is diverting and fleetingly entertaining enough to earn a spot on one’s Watch Next queue.

Set in near-future New Orleans, the story centers around a newly-designed, high-tech street drug known as Power, which grants its taker five minutes of a seemingly random superpower. Some addicts catch on fire like the Human Torch, while others have super speed like the Flash and some unfortunate souls literally explode within moments of taking it. The dangerous pill soon takes over the local drug market, motivating young dealers like Robin (Dominique Fishback) to step up their game and police officers like Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to be even more vigilant. Power also draws in the presence of The Major (Jamie Foxx), a mysterious man desperate to dissect the distribution chain and take down the equally mysterious forces at the top.

Now that the X-Men film franchise is basically in shambles (save the ever-pending The New Mutants), Project Power serves as a moderately successful stop-gap of a superpower showcase. Co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, whose 2010 documentary Catfish coined a term that has since swam its way into the cultural lexicon, know that Power‘s power lies mainly in its propulsive setpieces and less in its murky mythology. Though there’s a poignant subtext about overcoming systemic inequality, Mattson Tomlin’s script doesn’t have much else on its mind besides shuffling these three, relatively thin characters from place to place so they can level up to the next bad guy.

Thankfully, the trio of performers are all-in for this somewhat silly premise and give it the star power to take things up to the next tier. After a brief reprieve from the limelight, Joseph Gordon-Levitt brings a loose charm and swagger to his rogue cop role that has been sorely missed over the past few years. It’s also good to see Jamie Foxx in an all-out macho lead that reminded me of his work in Django Unchained back in 2012. But the real scene-stealer is Dominique Fishback, who exhibits terrific chemistry with Foxx and creates what is easily the most authentic character on-screen. A bonding scene with Foxx, in which she crafts freestyle raps around words like “seismograph” and “antibiotic”, is arguably more impressive than any of the preceding action sequences.

Like last month’s The Old Guard, Project Power is beset by the same villain issues that have plagued many a superhero movie before it. While it’s fun to watch Gordon-Levitt duke it out with a henchman Powered by ultra-flexibility or watch Foxx take out a whole room of strapped-up baddies, the Men Behind The Curtain are the same old boring bureaucrats we’ve seen in countless action pictures. It doesn’t help that their plan ultimately hinges on several glaring improbabilities that are nearly impossible to square from a logistical perspective. If you don’t use too much brain power, Project Power is a sleek and suitable digression from these less-than-ideal times.

Score – 3/5

New to streaming this weekend:
Opening in limited theaters is Unhinged, a thriller starring Russell Crowe and Caren Pistorius about a young woman who is harassed by a seemingly unstable stranger following a road rage incident.
Available on Disney+ is The One and Only Ivan, a fantasy movie starring Sam Rockwell and Angelina Jolie about a gorilla who tries to piece together his past with the help of an elephant as they hatch a plan to escape from captivity.
Available on demand is Tesla, an unconventional biopic starring Ethan Hawke and Kyle MacLachlan about visionary inventor Nikola Tesla and his interactions with Thomas Edison.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Boys State

Making its debut at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, the enthralling and massively entertaining documentary Boys State hits streaming this weekend and announces itself as one of the year’s best movies. Chronicling the 2018 edition of the American Legion leadership program that gives the film its name, directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine showcase the hundreds of Texan teenagers who gathered to construct a fictitious representative government from scratch. Over the course of a week, the spirited youngsters divide up into two parties of Nationalists and Federalists and elect officials in positions ranging from party chair to governor.

Though they capture input from many of the participants, Moss and McBaine focus on a handful of teens who seem to show the most promise from the outset. There’s Federalist party chair Ben Feinstein, a quick-witted, conservative-minded double amputee who quickly learns the lay of the land and boosts fellow Federalist Eddy Conti to gubernatorial candidacy. Comparatively, Nationalist Steven Garza is more reserved but no less inspiring as a sincere progressive inspired by the likes of Beto O’Rourke and Bernie Sanders. Other Nationalists who rally behind Garza for governor are the eloquent and charismatic party chair René Otero and square-jawed rabble rouser Robert Macdougal.

What’s most fascinating about Boys State is how thoroughly it lays out the beauties and shortcomings of the American democratic process within the context of the current political climate. Though it’s explained early on that the Nationalists and Federalists needn’t adhere to any “guidelines” set by the existing Republican or Democratic parties, it doesn’t take long for the two groups to resemble their real-life counterparts. The testosterone-driven electorates are only slightly exaggerated cyphers for the actual crowds of rally-goers who express their approval or dismay in no uncertain terms. The process of watching the candidates feed off of their energy and change their political strategy accordingly is fascinating to behold.

Lest I make the movie sound like something only a polysci major would enjoy, it’s crucial to note that Boys State is a fun watch even if you favor the personalities over the politics. There is plenty of humor and tension as these strangers come together, try to figure each other out and build something meaningful in such a short amount of time. “I think he’s a fantastic politician,” Otero says of rival Feinstein. “But I don’t think a ‘fantastic politician’ is a compliment either,” he adds after a beat. As the film moved breathlessly to the climactic election night, I could not have been more captivated while waiting to hear the results, even knowing that they didn’t have any actual consequence on the real-life political landscape.

McBaine and Moss, the latter of whom headed up the terrific 2014 doc The Overnighters, weave together all of these public and private moments with both commendable sensitivity and spellbinding momentum. Since 1937, the Boys State program has produced scores of notable alumni from Dick Cheney to Bill Clinton and even film critic Roger Ebert. After seeing this movie, it’s difficult to imagine that ambitious figures like Feinstein and Otero won’t one day have political influence which matches that of the program’s biggest breakouts. Equal parts riveting and revealing, Boys State is a vision of American politics that distills our hopes and fears into one supremely entertaining package.

Score – 4.5/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Available on Netflix is Project Power, a New Orleans-set action movie starring Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt about a pill that gives the taker superhuman abilities for five minutes.
Available on Disney+ is Magic Camp, a family comedy starring Adam DeVine and Jeffrey Tambor about a struggling magician who returns as a counselor to the camp he attended as a child.
Available on demand is Sputnik, a sci-fi horror film starring Oksana Akinshina and Fyodor Bondarchuk about the lone survivor of a space accident who is unknowingly harvesting an alien creature in his body.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup