Tag Archives: 4.5/5

CODA

The opening film of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which brought audiences to their feet when it screened on-site and virtually back in January, is now here to warm hearts the world over. Apple acquired distribution rights to CODA for $25 million, a record-setting price tag for a Sundance selection, two days after it premiered and I’m happy to report that the movie is worth every penny spent. Apple TV+ is a streaming service that has gotten off to a slow start since programming began in November of 2019 but crowd-pleasing content like Ted Lasso, the ongoing Schmigadoon! and this new entry could be a formidable way forward. Theoretically, the demand for feel-good streaming entertainment should be higher than ever and this indie gem has all the hallmarks of an endearing and enduring classic.

The film stars Emilia Jones as Ruby Rossi, a demure high school senior whose designation as a Child Of Deaf Adults gives the film its acronymous title. As the only hearing member of her Massachusetts-based family, she plays a crucial role in aiding the fishing business her father Frank (Troy Kotsur) started with little more than a schooner to his name. Ruby splits her time at school going out to sea with her father and her brother Leo (Daniel Durant), singing along to oldies while helping them bring in their fishing nets. Her burgeoning passion for music is recognized and emboldened by Ruby’s choir teacher Bernardo (Eugenio Derbez), whose proposition that Ruby consider music school puts her personal dreams at odds with her desire to keep her tight-knit, working-class family together.

Adapting from the French dramedy La Famille Bélier, writer/director Sian Heder has crafted an irresistible and utterly charming coming-of-age story packed with both achingly authentic and warmly funny moments. It’s a fair criticism to point out that the shape of CODA‘s narrative is not novel to the genre but for every story beat that may seem familiar, Heder adds a character detail or extra moment that gives her film its own unique signature. She isn’t interested in making saints out of her deaf characters; Leo playfully exchanges vulgarities with her sister in American Sign Language (ASL), while Ruby has to translate for her not-so-discreetly amorous parents during an uncomfortable doctor’s visit. These are full-featured and soulful characters who inspire empathy and affection from minute one.

Much of that is credit to the immensely talented cast, headed up by the phenomenal 19-year-old British actress Emilia Jones. As Ruby, she is CODA‘s magnetic center, carrying the weight of her family’s struggles and expectations of her while trying to find herself and realize her dreams in the process. It’s a breakout performance, affecting and pure with heaps of compassion baked in. Along with Marlee Matlin in addition to Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant, the film features an exceptional trio of deaf actors who effortlessly flesh out characters usually relegated to the periphery with fantastically lived-in performances. Kudos to casting director Deborah Aquila for not just finding actors that “fit the bill” but matching each performer flawlessly with their respective roles.

Since a significant portion of the film is in ASL, CODA is to be the first film with “open” subtitles being displayed throughout for every member of the audience during its theatrical run. Whatever taboo may exist around American audiences being shown subtitles during an English-language film may be dissolving thanks to other movies like A Quiet Place and its recent sequel, which also feature extensive use of ASL. Personally, I prefer to watch as many films with subtitles as possible (regardless of language) and I hope the experience of viewing one in theaters will open audiences up to the possibilities it provides. As Parasite director Bong Joon Ho pointed in one of his Oscar speeches from last year, “once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” I’m happy to cite CODA as a prime example.

Score – 4.5/5

More new movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Free Guy, an action comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and Jodie Comer, follows a non-player character in an open world video game who becomes self-aware and decides to save the day.
Don’t Breathe 2, a horror thriller starring Stephen Lang and Madelyn Grace, fast forwards 11 years after the home invasion of the original film to find The Blind Man fending off more bandits.
Respect, a music biopic starring Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker, details Aretha Franklin’s rise from choir singer in Detroit to the Queen of Soul while depicting her personal struggles along the way.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Pig

Nicolas Cage. Since sneaking on-screen as Brad’s Bud in Fast Times at Ridgemont High almost 40 years ago, he’s forged an ironclad foothold in our pop culture consciousness with over 100 film roles to his name. Over the past 3 years, he’s appeared in 10 direct-to-VOD movies, almost all of which I’ve seen and are admittedly terrible. But Cage is an actor that knows when certain projects are worthy of his best and the new indie drama Pig is one of the defining examples of his career. When the film’s trailer was released last month, depicting it as a revenge movie in which Cage’s character seems to go on a rampage looking for his lost pig, the internet was understandably alit with choruses of John Oink and Bacon as a swine-based swap for Taken. But those coming into this expecting Cage to ham it up will hopefully be delighted to have an entirely different kind of meal served to them.

Cage stars as Rob, a reclusive forager living in the vast Oregonian woods with an affectionate and intelligent truffle-hunting pig always by his side. One of Rob’s only visitors is Amir (Alex Wolff), a Portland-based purchaser who drops by once a week to buy the in-demand truffles and sell them to the city’s most competitive chefs. The value of such a potentially profitable pig is realized when Rob’s prized pet is stolen from him one night, prompting him to pair with the now disadvantaged Amir to track down the pig-nappers and punish them for their crimes. The journey into Rob’s former hometown does indeed unveil a specific set of skills that he possesses but they aren’t as bloodthirsty and violent as the narrative might suggest.

As much as the marketing of Pig painted it to have the singular focus of a traditional revenge movie, the movie is not only about much more than one thing but it’s also incredibly wise about the other topics it chooses to invoke. For one, it’s a melancholic but relentlessly optimistic portrait of broken men blindly scouring the world for power and purpose in the absence of women for whom they’ve cared. It’s a sensitive examination of toxic masculinity that doesn’t resort to having female characters chew male characters out about their indiscretions. Watching these men flail about as they try to put themselves back together is more painful than the fury behind any scornful words that could be uttered at them.

In the film’s meditation on man’s place in nature amid the creeping forces of commerce and capitalism, Pig reminded more of last year’s quietly moving First Cow than your typical Liam Neeson-starring vengeance tale. “There’s nothing for you here anymore,” a suspect laments to Rob, “There’s nothing here for most of us. You don’t keep a grip on it, that’s pretty much it.” These lines have an extra layer of shattering context given the social unrest that has pervaded Portland as of late but even taken on a more broad level, they speak to a sense of identity that urban living promises to the young and idealistic but naturally can’t fulfill for everybody. More than anything else, the movie beautifully explores past lives, future selves and the mess we create in between.

An actor who is frequently charged with “over-acting”, Cage proves once again after his wordless Willy’s Wonderland performance from earlier this year that his best version of more is less. His Rob is a character who seems to be hovering above these characters and this story, not in an arrogant or dismissive way but in a way that suggests an ethereal sense of empathy. He listens, and listens intensely, and when he speaks, he chooses the fewest amount of words for the highest level of emotional impact. It’s calm and controlled work but not self-consciously so and quite simply, it’s one of the very best performances of his career. Sensitive and smart, Pig is a hidden gem that will reward adventurous moviegoers who choose it from the menu of uninspired selections that are being offered up weekly both at home and in theaters.

Score – 4.5/5

More new movies coming this weekend:
Playing in theaters and on HBO Max is Space Jam: A New Legacy, a sports comedy starring LeBron James and Don Cheadle which finds another basketball icon getting sucked into an animated world to play a high-stakes game of hoops.
Playing in theaters and available to rent digitally is Die In A Gunfight, a stylized update of Romeo and Juliet starring Diego Boneta and Alexandra Daddario which finds a pair of star-crossed lovers flanked by a jealous ex-boyfriend and two rival families.
Streaming on Netflix is Gunpowder Milkshake, an action thriller starring Karen Gillan and Lena Headey about a mother and daughter assassin duo out to protect an 8-year-old girl caught in the middle of a gang war.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Mitchells vs. the Machines

Originally titled Connected and due to arrive in theaters last fall, the superb new animated comedy The Mitchells vs. the Machines is now available on Netflix for families everywhere to binge over and over again. Fortunately, it’s a movie packed with so many laughs and warm moments that rewatches will actually feel warranted and reward viewers with bits they may have missed the first or second time around. It comes courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation and Lord/Miller Productions, the same collaboration that yielded amazing results with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse a few years ago. Like that film, Mitchells starts off with concepts and characters that feel very familiar but demonstrates a willingness early on to dig deeper with some exceptionally sharp writing and direction.

The titular family is, by their own admission, a bit of an odd bunch. There’s Katie (Abbi Jacobson), an aspiring film student who makes goofy but inspired movies starring her younger brother Aaron (Mike Rianda) and their derpy pug Monchi (“voiced” by celebrity pet Doug the Pug). Her mother Linda (Maya Rudolph) is supportive of their endeavors but her techno-resistant father Rick (Danny McBride) finds himself growing distant from his smartphone-addicted daughter, made worse after he accidentally totals her laptop. In a well-intentioned but blatantly impulsive act of repentance, he cancels Katie’s California-bound flight and packs up the family for one last cross-country road trip over orientation week. As bad luck would have it, their trek coincides with a robot uprising brought on by out-of-control virtual assistant PAL (Olivia Colman).

Rianda, who also serves as director and co-writer with Jeff Rowe, tackles well-worn subjects like reliance on glowing devices and “quirky” dysfunctional families through a completely fresh lens. Cross-generational attitudes about the prevalence of technology are often portrayed one-dimensionally in the media but The Mitchells vs. the Machines doesn’t settle for an easy conversation about it. Sure, Katie’s preference to live her life through a screen bothers her dad and Rick’s helplessness in navigating the internet embarrasses his daughter but the film seeks to bridge the gap with empathy between the two camps. The virtues and pitfalls of the natural world and the AI-driven technoscape are explored with a welcome amount of even-handedness and intelligence.

Of course, humor also helps solidify these bonds and this movie has enough gags to keep viewers of all ages laughing throughout. What family can’t relate to Rick’s plea that everyone put their phones down for 10 seconds of uninterrupted eye contact with one another, only to find that it’s more awkward and unnatural than it sounds? With references to works that range from the more recognizable The Dukes of Hazzard and Kill Bill to more niche picks like Portrait Of A Lady On Fire and They Live, there’s an unquestionable amount of inspiration behind the innumerable jokes. This is also one of the first films I’ve seen that manages to keep up the breakneck pace of Gen Z comedy, implementing TikTok rhythm and meme culture in a way that doesn’t feel condescending or contrived.

The stacked voice cast ties everything together, with Jacobson and McBride effortlessly selling the heartfelt father-daughter dynamic while scoring huge laughs along the way. SNL alum Fred Armisen and Beck Bennett are downright hilarious as a pair of defective robots who unwittingly guide the Mitchells, while Eric Andre finds himself in a rare straight man role as a foil to Colman’s exceedingly witty PAL. Chrissy Teigen and John Legend naturally play the picture-perfect Posey family next door, whose seemingly obvious fate is subverted in a nicely choreographed punchline. Set to a raucous and upbeat soundtrack that perfectly matches its idiosyncratic verve, The Mitchells vs. the Machines is wise and weird in all the best ways.

Score – 4.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Spiral: From The Book of Saw, the ninth installment in the Saw horror series starring Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson about a new crew of detectives tasked with tracking down the Jigsaw Killer.
Also opening in theaters and streaming on HBO Max is Those Who Wish Me Dead, a neo-Western starring Angelina Jolie and Nicholas Hoult about a teenage murder witness who finds himself pursued by twin assassins in the Montana wilderness.
Premiering on Netflix is The Woman in the Window, a psychological thriller starring Amy Adams and Gary Oldman about an agoraphobic psychologist who suspects foul play when her across-the-street neighbor suddenly disappears.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Minari

Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari is about as heartfelt and pure as movies get. Adapting his childhood experiences growing up in mid-1980s rural Arkansas, Chung doesn’t merely recall the struggles that his Korean American family endured during that period but reconsiders them with a new sense of compassion and grace. The tender retelling of his upbringing as a first-generation immigrant is all the more compelling when you factor in that Chung was likely no more than ten years old when the events of the film took place. While Chung’s script is centered around his perspective as a child, he writes every character with sympathy and specificity, calling to mind the adage that children are often more insightful and perceptive than we perhaps give them credit for.

We meet the Yi family as they tail a moving truck in their station wagon, making their way to the modest mobile home where they will soon set down their roots. When the Yis arrive, the patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun) exits the car first, seeing the untapped potential in the vast acres of farming land that lay before them. Much more tenuous is his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri), not nearly as thrilled with their surroundings and even more apprehensive of the hard work that will be necessary to make their exodus from California worthwhile. The young David (Alan Kim) and his older sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho) may be the most excited of all, ignoring the residence’s tacky, light brown interior paneling and instead choosing to note that their house has “wheels like a big car!”

Crops certainly don’t grow overnight, so Jacob and Monica take jobs at a nearby hatchery — the former is purported to be an “expert chicken sexer” by his new superior — until their yield increases. Mom and dad’s absence during the work day brings the need for Monica’s spritely mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) to move in from Korea to watch over David and Anne. Kids being kids, the pair playfully talk behind their grandma’s back in English, all while trying to stay out of a level of trouble that would warrant a stick-whipping. Thanks to a neighboring war veteran Paul (Will Patton), Jacob is able to avoid some of the rookie mistakes associated with starting one’s own farm but still faces an array of pitfalls that put more pressure on his ability to provide for his clan.

The film’s title refers to a water plant whose seeds Soon-ja scatters at the base of a nearby river. Known to produce a vegetable that has myriad culinary uses, minari grows healthily and abundantly once it settles its roots and serves as a perfect metaphor for dogged optimism that Jacob holds for his family’s future in their new surroundings. Minari may not have a traditional antagonist but that doesn’t make the organic obstacles that occur any less challenging or the natural elements that inform the conflict any less brutal. It ultimately arrives at a truth about the immigrant experience that feels specific to this story but potentially applicable to so many others: that hardship and sacrifice may cost parents their personal lives in order for their children to build up better lives for themselves.

Bringing this salient point home is the transcendent ensemble acting, anchored by a soulful and zealous performance by Yeun as an obdurate father almost literally breaking his back for his family. Ye-ri is right there with him, taking a character who could play like a one-note nagging wife in the wrong hands but is instead given the dimension and depth that she deserves. Portraying the surrogate for the real-life Chung as a youngster, Alan Kim gives David a cherubic craftiness and sheepish introspection that make his work nothing short of winsome. Continuing a string of outstanding work in his young career as a film composer, Emile Mosseri lends a gorgeous musical score that aches with the possibility of unknown futures. Thoughtful and touching in equal measure, Minari is a family drama whose ability to generate empathy seems effortless.

Score – 4.5/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Streaming on HBO Max is Tom & Jerry, a live action/CGI comedy starring Chloë Grace Moretz and Michael Peña about the eternally feuding cat and mouse duo who wreak havoc on one of New York City’s most upscale hotels.
Debuting on Hulu is The United States vs. Billie Holiday, a biopic starring Andra Day and Trevante Rhodes about the legendary jazz singer and the drug addiction that tragically cut her life and career short.
Available to watch on Apple TV+ is The World’s a Little Blurry, a music documentary centered around the rising career of Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Billie Eilish.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Nomadland

In her elegiac and emotionally captivating new movie Nomadland, director Chloé Zhao opens with a curious title card about a small city in Nevada named Empire. It’s a remote town so driven by a single industry that when the local sheetrock plant closes down in 2011 after 88 years in business, the entire town was evacuated and the zip code was literally abandoned not long afterwards. Among those displaced by the devastating closure is Fern (Frances McDormand), who doesn’t have much need to stay after the recent passing of her husband. She finds a new partner, of sorts, in a van she dubs Vanguard, which carries the remainder of her belongings that she hasn’t sold off or holed up in a storage unit. With jobs being scarce as a result of The Great Recession, Fern travels from one Southwest city to another, meeting other nomads like herself and adapting to their mutual lifestyle in the process.

What makes Zhao’s film so slyly remarkable is just how lived-in and genuine each aspect of her story feels as it unfolds before us. As in her previous work, the also excellent The Rider, she surrounds the protagonist with real-life figures playing modestly fictionalized versions of themselves. Among the challenges of creating a sprawling picture as this is, I would imagine it’s quite difficult to fill your movie with a bevy of non-actors but Zhao gets bonafide performances out of each and every one of them. Also serving as the film’s editor, Zhao has a brilliant instinct for how to cut conversations together where sentences may overlap but every word still registers and resonates. There’s a pace and rhythm to the dialogue in Nomadland that you just won’t see anywhere else.

Credit for the naturalistic exchanges also extends to McDormand, giving an understated performance that is necessarily more reactive and reflexive but no less compelling as a result. As a bereft wayfarer still acclimating to her changing circumstances, she reveals Fern’s empathetic nature while letting us in on her sadness little bits at a time. It’s a much different role than the one for which she most recently scored a Best Actress Oscar, the incendiary Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which openly wore its anger and bitterness on its sleeve. McDormand suggests Fern could possess similar resentment but sublimates it into savvy survival skills and a sturdy work ethic that allows her to pick up hands-on labor nearly everywhere she goes, even while work is difficult for others to find.

Adapting from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book, whose subtitle Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century pitches it as a how-to guide, Zhao doesn’t graft a complex narrative onto Nomadland. A more pedestrian storyteller would have telegraphed a redemption arc or a series of inorganic obstacles for our heroine to overcome but Zhao knows that it’s more than enough for us to simply spend time with these nomads and hear them out. We learn about their way of life, from the Ten Commandments of Stealth Parking to bucket-based tips that I shouldn’t delve into here. While some were driven out of their homes, others choose the mobile lifestyle for their own reasons and just as they don’t judge one another, Zhao asks the same of us in the audience.

As the theatrical experience continues to experience setback after setback, there’s no movie I’ve seen in the last 12 months that made me wish I was watching it in a theater more than this one. While I might typically expect that sentiment to arise from an effects blockbuster rather than a $5 million awards drama, I’ll take the golden hour desert vistas captured by cinematographer Joshua James Richards over the fussed-over frames of a spandex superhero showdown any day. Hopefully sometime soon, I would love to see the images of this film illuminate the big screen when it’s safe to go back to our beleaguered multiplexes. A stunning meditation on transience and trauma, Nomadland is a patient and perceptive portrait of people who are rarely, if ever, given the chance to represent themselves in the movies.

Score – 4.5/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Debuting on Netflix is I Care A Lot, a dark comedy starring Rosamund Pike and Peter Dinklage about a woman who makes her living stealing from the elderly by deceiving judges into appointing her as their “legal guardian.”
Swooping in on Disney+ is Flora & Ulysses, a family superhero comedy starring Matilda Lawler and Danny Pudi about the adventures of a young girl and her adopted squirrel who has superpowers.
Available to digitally rent is Silk Road, a based-on-a-true-story thriller starring Jason Clarke and Nick Robinson about the tech mastermind behind Silk Road, a dark web page that sells narcotics, and the DEA agent tasked with taking him down.

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

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

Palm Springs

As anyone who’s gone through months of quarantine (basically all of us, at this point) will tell you, it has a way of distorting one’s perception of time. With the removal of structured tasks like work and social outings, the “Blursday” phenomenon can make us feel that we’re living the same day over and over again with no end in sight. Given that so many of us can now relate to this purgatorial condition, it perhaps couldn’t be a better time for a time loop comedy like Palm Springs to come along and help us make sense of and maybe even make light of our “quarantine blues”. When Neon and Hulu struck a $17.5 million deal for the film at Sundance earlier this year, there’s no way they could have realized how apropos it would ultimately be upon its release.

Andy Samberg stars as Nyles, a seemingly carefree slacker whose loud Hawaiian shirt shouts “I don’t care” but disaffected disposition points to something a bit darker. “Today, yesterday, tomorrow — it’s all the same,” he murmurs blithely from a pizza-shaped pool float the morning of a Palm Springs wedding. It turns out, his words are more literal than it sounds, as Nyles has actually relived this exact day more times than he can remember. The twist on the Groundhog Day conceit comes in the form of maid of honor Sarah (Cristin Milioti), who becomes stuck in the perpetual time loop with Nyles after an unforeseen incident binds their fates. With nothing but time on their hands, the two work together to absolve themselves from their temporal dilemma.

Director Max Barbakow and screenwriter Andy Siara know they’re in familiar territory here but one of the many joys of watching Palm Springs is seeing how fresh a perspective the pair can graft onto this formula. By making a couple go through the broken record routine as opposed to one person alone, the film investigates the prospects of a romantic relationship in a time warp that continually resets. The story serves as a multi-faceted metaphor for monogamy, making literal the sentiment that two people can live forever in their own shared reality apart from the rest of the clueless world. In this way, the film reminded me often of all-time great Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in the way it explores how time interacts with romance in unexpectedly complicated ways.

While the performances in Palm Springs might not quite be up to the caliber of Carrey’s and Winslet’s in Spotless Mind, they’re not as far off as one may anticipate. Samberg starts off in familiar goofball territory but it doesn’t take long before he adds layers of anxiety and grief to really sell the experience of a man caught up in his distressing scenario. Milioti is even better as a sardonic match for Samberg’s wise-cracking Nyles as she slowly unpacks the stages of existential dread in the funniest way possible. Elsewhere, the always fantastic J.K. Simmons turns in another excellent supporting performance as a fellow wedding guest who adds even more wisdom and emotional intelligence to an uncommonly perceptive movie.

“Uncommonly perceptive” is not a descriptor I would have necessarily expected to apply to a product of The Lonely Island, the comedy trio Samberg created with two fellow SNL alums Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone. The minds behind frivolous cult comedies like Hot Rod and MacGruber have seemingly matured enough to craft something this simultaneously thoughtful and hilarious. If you’re familiar with the trio’s brand of humor and come into the film with the understanding of how much pranking and mischief two people could get up to in this sci-fi synopsis, then you may have a picture of just how entertaining the film ultimately becomes. Palm Springs is a melancholy and mordantly funny meditation on what it means to grow together with someone in a world that seems doomed to repeat its past failures.

Score – 4.5/5

Also streaming this weekend:
Available on Apple+ is Greyhound, a war movie starring Tom Hanks and Stephen Graham about an inexperienced U.S. Navy captain whose Allied convoy is being pursued by a fleet of Nazi U-boats.
Available on demand is First Cow, an indie drama from writer/director Kelly Reichardt starring John Magaro and Toby Jones about a cook who travels with fur trappers to 19th century Oregon.
Available on Netflix is The Old Guard, a superhero film starring Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne about a group of centuries-old immortal mercenaries who are suddenly exposed and must fight to keep their identity a secret.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Little Women

Writer-director Greta Gerwig follows up her breakout debut Lady Bird with Little Women, an enchanting and exquisite modern take on Louisa May Alcott’s autobiographical novel. It’s a daunting task taking on such a well-known work, one that has now been adapted to film eight times now, but Gerwig has committed to creative choices that distinguish this iteration from its ilk. In the best way, this feels like a “remix” of the original source material, focusing on tone and theme more than adhering strictly to the narrative as it’s laid out in the book. Bolstered by lush camerawork and a first-rate ensemble cast, this is a delightful and supremely entertaining take on a coming-of-age classic.

Set in 1860s New England, the story centers around the March family as Marmee March (Laura Dern) looks over her four daughters while Father March (Bob Odenkirk) fights in the Civil War. There’s Jo (Saorise Ronan), the rambunctious aspiring writer who captures the affection of the devilishly charming next-door neighbor Laurie (Timothée Chalamet). There’s Meg (Emma Watson), who dreams of a life on the stage with a suitor waiting in the wings. There’s Amy (Florence Pugh), the youngest whose jealousy and selfishness tend to get the best of her. Finally, there’s Beth (Eliza Scanlen), whose sweet and reserved disposition is reflected in her beautiful piano playing that warmly fills the March residence.

Gerwig’s boldest artistic direction, in conjunction with editor Nick Houy, comes in how she approaches the chronology, beginning the film with Jo as an adult pitching a pulp novel to the incredulous Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts). From there, we flash back six years to Jo’s childhood in the lively March household and then we flip back and forth in time to follow not only Jo’s journey but also the stories of the other three sisters as well. As is tradition for retellings of this tale, Jo remains the focus but Gerwig expands the scope of the character work by allowing us to spend more time with the rest of the March family. For example, Amy has been more crudely drawn in other adaptations but through Pugh’s performance and Gerwig’s writing, she’s a fully fleshed-out character.

The dream cast, which also includes venerable veterans like Laura Dern and Meryl Streep, is perfectly realized in both major and minor roles. Rekindling their pre-existing partnership from Lady Bird, Ronan and Chalamet showcase an effortless charm and chemistry that brings out the very best of the actors’ sensibilities. Pugh caps off her breakout year with another winning performance that cements her as one of the most magnetic young actresses working today. Also carried over from Lady Bird is Letts, who scores some big laughs as a cynical publisher who playfully picks apart Jo’s pending novel, peppering in pieces of advice like “if the main character is a girl, make sure she’s married by the end.”

Bringing the whole package together are some terrific contributions from behind the camera. The elegant cinematography from Yorick Le Saux makes beautiful use of natural light in every scene, book-matching the opening and concluding shots of the film with transcendent symmetry. Musically, Alexandre Desplat’s stately yet spritely score adds the perfect notes of sophistication and whimsy for a period drama such as this. Little Women is proof that with the right combination of ingenuity and intelligence, it’s possible to make even the most well-worn stories feel fresh once again.

Score – 4.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Grudge, starring Andrea Riseborough and John Cho, is a remake of a remake about a spooky house cursed by a vengeful spirit who haunts and kills all those who enter it.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Lighthouse

Writer/director Robert Eggers follows up his striking debut The Witch with The Lighthouse, a different kind of horror movie that channels psychological distress over supernatural haunts. While both films use period-correct dialogue with authentic dialects to establish an undeniable sense of time and place, Eggers’ latest effort is even more engrossing and oddly enchanting by comparison. Shot in gorgeously haunting black-and-white and presented in a constrained 1.19:1 aspect ratio, the film is an unrelenting symphony of dread and dismay fueled by impeccable sound design and two top-caliber performances.

We meet our two main characters, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), in hazy silhouette as their boat charges ahead to a remote island off the coast of New England. It is there that the two men plan on spending the next four weeks together, with the cantankerous Wake serving as the lead of the lighthouse while the virile Winslow takes up the physically taxing jobs. Over their stay, the pair bond over nightly dinners and overnight liquor sessions but eventually, isolation and paranoia begin to take hold of them as the natural elements around grow harsher every day.

Shaped by the work of German Expressionist masters like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, The Lighthouse is a hellish and hypnotic vision from a filmmaker who continues to push himself formally and stylistically. Together with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, Eggers beautifully paints his frame with the perfect balance of light and shadow to convey the rotting psyche of the central duo. Also lending itself to the slow decline into insanity is the music score by Mark Korven and the accompanying cacophonous sound design, which blends the constant cawing of seagulls with the growl of a bellowing furnace to overwhelming effect.

Thanks to the fiercely committed acting from the leads, this is as good a two-hander as you’re likely to see in theaters this year. Sporting a picturesque seaman’s beard, Dafoe brings a cackling menace to his role as he tosses off dinner toasts and curse-laden monologues with equal panache. Pattinson, who was also excellent in another challenging A24 entry High Life earlier this year, is even better as the downtrodden wickie who becomes consumed with guilt and obsession. I hope this film gets nominated for plenty of Academy Awards when the nominations are announced but at the very least, these two actors deserve to be recognized for their superb work.

Bringing everything together is the salty screenplay by Robert Eggers and his brother Max Eggers, which ratchets up the tension between the beleaguered men with pointed dialogue that’s at times harrowing and hilarious. Whether they’re sparring about the quality of one’s cooking or how lazy the other is, their bickering is intentionally reminiscent of an old married couple. In the midst of a more amiable conversation, Thomas utters the film’s thesis: “boredom makes men to villains.” Immaculately crafted from top to bottom, The Lighthouse is a maelstrom of mischief that should pull in all who dare to enter its path.

Score – 4.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Charlie’s Angels, starring Kristen Stewart and Naomi Scott, reboots the popular female-centric action franchise about a trio of highly trained spies who travel internationally to take on a new threat.
Ford v Ferrari, starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale, tells the true story of an American car designer and professional driver who set out build a brand new vehicle to challenge Ferrari at 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The Good Liar, starring Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen, is a spy thriller about a seasoned con man who finds himself falling for the woman he orchestrated his latest scheme against after meeting her online.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup