Big Screen or Small, Movies for Everyone
Wait, there are superheroes on the big screen? My God, it almost feels like pre-apocalypse summer, doesn’t it? Does it even matter if the movie’s any good?
Sure it does, and if you don’t feel like superheroes or you aren’t quite sure how safe it is to return to the multiplex, fear not. An absolutely insane number of movies—some of them really good—stream beginning this week. Here are your options.
The New Mutants
by Hope Madden
The franchise does make a bit of a zig with its latest offshoot. The New Mutants is essentially a YA horror film. Co-writer/director Josh Boone’s premise may be comic book, but his execution is angst and PG-13 scares.
Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt) wakes up to find herself in a locked-down, mainly vacant, definitely old and unmistakably spooky asylum of some sort. Here, Dani will learn to control her power—whatever that might be—with the help of the sole custodian of Dani and four other special youngsters, Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga).
Focusing exclusively on adolescence allows the film to deliver, undiluted, the main concepts of the franchise: embrace your differences, forgive yourself, accept others for what they are, master your own potential and stick it to the man. Fine ideas, every one of them, and certainly common themes in YA.
As our plucky hero, Hunt struggles to find anything close to authenticity in her dreamy dialog, but the balance of the cast is strong.
The always remarkable Anya Taylor-Joy relishes the wicked girl role while Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams (battling Taylor-Joy for largest eyes in a human face) is a deeply empathetic, awkward girl with a crush.
That the crush is not on one of the two boys in lockdown—played by Charlie Heaton and Henry Zaga—is a refreshing change of pace charmingly underscored by the teens’ apparent fixation with the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Boone, whose 2014 effort The Fault In Our Stars defines angst porn, knows YA. His combination of these two genres is a bit of a misfire, though, particularly when the final, big, giant scare is revealed. Yikes—and I don’t mean that in a good way.
New Mutants is a film trying too hard to cash in on proven youth market formulas, but the concoction misfires. It doesn’t really work as an angsty romance, misses the mark as a horror movie and never for a minute feels like a superhero flick.
Bill & Ted Face the Music
In theaters and VOD.
by George Wolf
You know why Death (William Sadler) was really kicked out of Wyld Stallyns?
Well, I’d tell you, but that would take the number of laughs waiting for you in Bill & Ted’s latest romp down to two…maybe three.
It’s been almost 30 years since their Excellent Adventure gave way to the Bogus Journey, but Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) are still best buds. Now living in the suburbs, each has the wife that they brought back from Medieval England (Erinn Hayes, Jayma Mays), plus a daughter (Samara Weaving, Brigette Lundy-Paine) that is the younger version of their most excellent dad.
Though they still rock out, Ted is ready to hang up his guitar until the future comes calling.
It’s Kelly (Kristen Schaal), daughter of their old pal Rufus (George Carlin, thanks to a well-placed hologram), with news from the Great Ones. The boys have exactly 77 minutes to play their song that united the world, or reality will collapse.
While it’s nice to know Bill & Ted will finally achieve musical greatness, the world needs that song right now. So why not go into the future, steal it from themselves, then come back and get quantum physical?
Director Dean Parisot, who helped make Galaxy Quest an underrated cult classic, teams with original franchise writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon for a time-traveling ode to living in harmony. This time, the historical figures we meet are mainly musical (Mozart, Satchmo, Grohl), but while the journey is long on sweetness and good-natured stupidity, it just isn’t very funny.
After all these years, Reeves and Winter make an endearing pair of overgrown adolescents, and they do seem genuinely joyful about stepping back into that magical phone booth.
The joy that you get from Face the Music will likely match up perfectly with the amount of nostalgia you have for this franchise. The film’s present isn’t bad, either. Because theaters are opening again, and God knows we’re all ready for a simpler time right now.
For almost 90 minutes, Bill & Ted make sure we get one.
The Personal History of David Copperfield
Only in theaters.
by Hope Madden
Will he turn out to be the hero in his own life?
The Personal History of David Copperfield reunites the writing/directing team of Simon Blackwell and Armando Iannucci, whose Death of Stalin, In the Loop and the series Veep represent high water marks in political satire.
How are they with whimsy?
Not too bad. While the material is a far different style of cynical minefield for the filmmakers, Dickens offers a couple of opportunities Iannucci and Blackwell can appreciate: a big cast and wordplay.
Dev Patel is a perfectly amiable, easy to root for David Trottwood Daisy Dodi Murdstone Davidson Copperfield. (Ranveer Jaiswal is the even easier to root for, ludicrously adorable youngster version.) As we see their tale spun and re-spun, it is, of course, the characters that come and go that make the biggest impression.
Who? Tilda Swinton (!!!), with the year’s best onscreen entrance, Hugh Laurie, Ben Whishaw, Gwendoline Christie, Benedict Wong and Peter Capaldi, among many others. The multiracial cast emphasizes the fanciful fiction, the desire of a writer to create a story better than their own reality. Here, each actor takes character to caricature, but the brashness suits Iannucci’s busy, bursting, briskly-paced narrative.
Iannucci hopscotches about the story and timeline in an episodic manner that fits the source material and agrees with the film’s charmingly animated rumination on those characters in life who shape our stories, experiences and maybe our character.
We can all get behind an underdog story, although like most of Dickens’ work, David Copperfield isn’t one. It’s the would-be tragedy of a person of good breeding who falls into a life that’s beneath him only to have his proper station returned to him via a happy ending.
Not to poo-poo Dickens, but it’s in the cheery resolution that the material seems a misfit for the raging, if delightful, cynicism of the filmmakers. When Uriah Heap accuses, “You and yours have always hated me and mine,” the boisterous nature of Iannucci’s film feels ill at ease because of the line’s pointed honesty. Let’s just right these cosmic wrongs and give the money back to the people who had it in the first place, shall we?
Still, this David Copperfield has its own lunatic charm to burn. Gone are the laugh-out-loud moments as well as the bitter aftertaste of Iannucci’s best work, but in their place is a lovely time.
Available on streaming and VOD platforms.
by Hope Madden
Lingua franca is literally a language used between two people who don’t share a native tongue. But what goes unsaid in Lingua Franca carries far more weight than anything we’re actually told.
Writer/director/producer/star Isabel Sandoval has mastered cinematic understatement. Her approach, as filmmaker and performer, is never showy. Her third and most confident feature is a slice of life drama that meditates quietly on need, agency, love and capital in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.
Olga (a perceptive Lynn Cohen) sometimes forgets where she is. She gets a little agitated and a little weary.
Olivia (Sandoval) calms her, keeps her safe, keeps her well, but has worries of her own.
Alex (Aemon Farren) just needs to catch a break, so he’s staying with his grandmother and helping out Olivia when he can. But we can’t all help each other, even when we mean to.
Sandoval’s film says so much with so few words, it’s remarkable. By way of Olga’s apartment we enter an entirely lived-in world, one that is likely to be utterly unfamiliar and yet feels as authentic as any you’ve seen. The ordinariness of extraordinary circumstances, unusual measures and extreme tensions emerges by way of Olivia’s resigned, world-wearied gaze.
There is a cultural currency to the story, one in which Olivia’s position as a transgender woman of color is actually less dangerous than her situation as an illegal immigrant in the age of ICE. That anxiety plays as a backdrop to a desperate romance between Olga’s two needy houseguests.
As Olivia’s sketchy love interest, Farren offers a nuanced and authentic turn. Alex is a man of squandered potential, dim prospects, and a fleeting if recurring notion that he can be something of value.
There’s a lonesome transience to the story, a feeling of impermanence that’s frightening, sad and just slightly freeing. Lingua Franca tells a lovely, sad story that’s very much worth hearing.
Streaming on Amazon Prime.
by Hope Madden
What does one homeschooled teen and three high school ne’er do wells in trouble for blowing up a lavatory have in common? Impending doom.
The four boys are making the Duke of Edinburgh Award trek across the Scottish highlands. Dean (Rian Gordon), his daft mate Duncan (Lewis Gribben), and the future of hip hop DJ Beatroot (Viraj Juneja) have no choice after that lav incident, while Ian (Samuel Bottomley) just earnestly wants to complete the challenge and include the award on his college applications.
But it’s a long hike and a lot could go wrong, especially now that Dean’s used the map to roll a joint. Will Ian ever be able to check off the requirements of teamwork, foraging and orienteering?
Writer/director Ninian Doff showcases his background with music videos, infusing this often laugh-out-loud horror comedy with a remarkably catchy, high-energy beat that fits no part of the surroundings, which is perfect.
Toss in the always welcome Eddie Izzard as both the informational video voice over and the uptight, uppercust elitist with a shotgun and expect more laughs. More still from the hopelessly bumpkin police force (The Witch’s wonderful Kate Dickie and the grinningly hilarious Kevin Guthrie). They toss aside their ongoing investigation into the highland bread thief to look into suspicions of a Satan worshipping London gang of hip hop pedophiles.
Doff’s good-natured script sometimes echoes of the Cornetto Trilogy in the way its jabs at society land without feeling cynical or bitter. The film is emotionally generous with its juvenile delinquents. The four leads share a lovely chemistry, each actor effortlessly carving out a unique character while developing a level of authenticity in the emotional bonds between them.
This is not the kind of thing you might expect from a comedy where characters routinely—sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose—chew on rabbit poo.
The horror is light, the comedy raucous, the fun explosive. Get Duked may not change you, but it will brighten your mood.
Streaming on Shudder.
by Hope Madden
The 2008 film Deadgirl tested me. Boasting solid performances across the board, it told of a bullied teen who pined for the bully’s girlfriend. He and his even more damaged best friend find a monster, which one sees as a curse and the other sees as a gift. The resulting 95 minutes took me three tries to complete, not because it was scary or gross or troubling, but because it was unwatchably hateful.
Co-writer/director Frank Sabatella builds The Shed on similar terrain.
Stan (Jay Jay Warren), still stuck on his middle school crush Roxy (Sofia Happonen), is in trouble at school, with the sheriff’s department, and with his abusive grandfather, not to mention the local bullies—who have a real field day with his best friend Dommer (Cody Kostro).
So far so familiar, but Sabatella zigs when you think he’ll zag in a couple of important ways. The monster in question—that thing stuck in the shed, at least until sundown—used to be his neighbor, Mr. Bane (Frank “Big Brain on Brad” Whaley, nice to see you).
What Sabatella mines with just a handful of excellent, tense, gory scenes is a certain isolated, rural anxiety. He mixes childhood terrors with adolescent angst with smalltown rebellion with something aching and lonely. All of it, in these few scenes, speaks to something authentic in terms of wrong-side-of-the-tracks coming of age.
Everything else is borrowed, from the Night of the Living Dead and Fright Night, that old Michael Fassbender Nazi zombie thing Cold Creek and, of course, the morally bankrupt Deadgirl. Maybe just a touch of Stakeland.
Still, it’s fun.
Costro is particularly effective as the best friend who’s far more f’ed up than Stan realizes and Warren offers a strong emotional center to the film. There are about a dozen too many nightmare sequences and the end is simply nonsense, but for horror fans, it’s not a bad time.
Available on streaming and VOD platforms.
by George Wolf
Been sweating out these dog days of summer? Ready for a cool down? Well then bundle up, buttercup, because from its opening minutes, Centigrade traps you in bitter elements with the temps falling fast.
Naomi (Genesis Rodriguez) is an American novelist on a book tour in Norway with her husband Matt (Vincent Piazza). They were driving in darkness when freezing rain kicked in, and Matt suggested they pull over to wait out the storm.
Director and co-writer Brendan Walsh fades in when the couple wakes up to find they are buried under snow, and frozen inside their car.
Also, Naomi’s pregnant. Very pregnant.
In his feature debut, Walsh has the challenge of staging a tense survival thriller from the interior of a sedan. Though the leads are effective enough in communicating a growing desperation, there just isn’t enough here to keep you totally invested in it.
Casting Rodriguez and Piazza – a real life couple – was an understandable move that does pay off. Naomi and Matt’s relationship feels lived-in and comfortable from the moment they awake, which in turn makes the ways their frayed psyches affect each other seem more authentic.
But even in the age of a global pandemic that has re-set the bar on unrealistic stupidity, not all of what Centigrade is selling quite adds up. Through onscreen text that is oddly specific, we’re told the film is “inspired” by actual events, while a closer look reveals Walsh’s admission that the inspiration was “culled together” from several different stories.
And that pregnancy hangs over everything, just as it’s been in the back of your mind since I mentioned it four paragraphs ago.
Is it true life or a convenient MacGuffin? Or, as we learn more about Naomi and Matt’s relationship, will it be a literal example of a baby saving them? As the length of the ordeal moves from days to weeks, Walsh always seems to pull up just when it seems he’s getting the loose ends nailed down.
Even at 89 minutes, too much of Centigrade is uninteresting filler. The payoff, when it comes, feels like an unsatisfying layup, and though the stakes and the characters are both well-defined, somehow that primal question of survival is never truly palpable.
In theaters and streaming.
by Rachel Willis
Director Marco Pontecorvo (Pa-ra-da) seeks to bring the “Miracle of the Sun” (also known as the “Miracle of Fatima”) to life with his newest film, Fatima.
In 1917, in the midst of World War I, 10-year-old Lucia (Stephanie Gil) has a vision of the Virgin Mary. Along with her two young cousins, Lucia is asked by the Virgin to return to the same spot every month to pray for peace. When word of this vision spreads, people from all over flock to the small village of Fatima, Portugal to receive the message each month from the Virgin.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a lot of conflict in a film about a miracle. Young Lucia faces skepticism from those around her. The local mayor (Goran Visnjic) is man of science and fears the influence of a young girl on the religious population. The area priest doubts her. Even Lucia’s mother (Lúcia Moniz), a humble believer, thinks her daughter is lying. Why would the Virgin Mary bestow this message on Lucia?
It’s a question posed to the adult Lucia (Sonia Braga), a nun, when a professor (Harvey Keitel) visits her at her convent to ask about the events of 1917. A nonbeliever, Professor Nichols listens to the story as Sister Lucia relives it. The audience is privy to the conversations between Professor Nichols and Sister Lucia, as well as the Sister’s reminiscence on the past.
The film is primarily concerned with the events of 1917. The few moments between Sister Lucia and Professor Nichols are shallow question-and-answer sessions in which neither convinces the other of their position.
This is a movie for believers, to reward their devotion with a “faithful” portrayal of the events in Fatima. There is some neat imagery during some of Lucia’s visions, but most of the moments are unbelievably cheesy.
Pontecorvo’s effort is a messy, one-dimensional film. Characters, particularly the nonbelievers, are stereotypes portrayed in the simplest terms. Lucia’s family members pop in and out of the film at convenient moments to voice concern or disbelief. It’s unclear how many sisters Lucia has. If their names are given in the film, it doesn’t really matter since they don’t really matter.
Though Lucia’s cousins are also witness to the Virgin, they’re not interrogated the same way as Lucia who, for some unexplained reason, is the instigator.
Strong acting, particularly from Lúcia Moniz, keeps the movie watchable, but it’s not enough to save it from poor writing.
I don’t doubt this latest retelling of the “Miracle of Fatima” will be held in high regard by many, even though, at best, it’s a mediocre movie.
Available on streaming and VOD platforms.
by Seth Troyer
Benjamin is one of the most uniquely brilliant indie films I’ve come across in some time. It’s a film that could have easily been yet another Woody Allen clone, yet another romp where a director shares his thoughts on love, nervous breakdowns, and how cool and complex he is just before the film cuts to credits. Benjamin is something much more.
While the core of the film seems born from director Simon Amstell’s autobiography, what really makes it stand out is the duet Amstell has with his star. Colin Morgan’s lightning fast delivery and realistic portrayal of Benjamin, a young gay man who endlessly gets in his own way, makes the film more than just a mouth piece for a director, but a unique character study.
Benjamin is a filmmaker who recently failed to live up to the promise of his debut movie. In the aftermath, he falls in love with a beautiful French musician named Noah, but their relationship is constantly threatened by Benjamin’s increasingly erratic mental state.
In less capable hands such a plot would make for a rather unoriginal film, but here, the events that unfold feel realistically random and unpredictable. Plot points begin, end abruptly, and then pick back up all over again in surprising ways that create a true to life experience. Even the minor characters are fleshed out yet mysterious, creating unique human beings rather than lazy stereotypes.
The film’s fast-paced, dark humor is never contrived or pretentious. Amstell’s incredible ear for dialogue coupled with Morgan’s gift for delivery feels like a comedic team at the top of its game.
Though far more lovable, Morgan’s portrayal of an erratic, untrustworthy protagonist calls to mind David Thewlis’s darkly genius incarnation of Johnny in Mike Leigh’s Naked. Indeed, Benjamin seems to have much in common with Leigh’s everyday dramas in the attempt to flesh out believable characters rather than convey easy moral judgements.
It is an aching portrayal of a person who seems either on the brink of transformation or immolation. Benjamin is a cry for the mind to just shut up for once, and let the heart take the wheel for a change.
Available on streaming and VOD platforms.
by George Wolf
The store was called Other Music because it was directly across the street from a Tower Records in the East Village of Manhattan. So from day one, the message was clear: if you’re looking for other music, come in here.
For 20 years, they did. And they often came in droves, trusting recommendations from the eclectic staff, seeing great new bands such as Vampire Weekend perform live in-store, and coming to feel like they had “found their people.”
But like so many other parts of society, “the way people consume music changed,” and Other Music closed up shop in 2016.
The first directing feature from music video vets Puloma Basu and Rob Hatch-Miller is a bittersweet ode not just to a beloved record store, but to a type of community that now seems longer gone than it actually is.
This film is funny (notables such as Jason Schwartzman and Regina Spektor speak on the staff’s intimidation factor), it’s touching, and it has a good handle on how to rise above the field of similar “last day” docs by not forgetting the valuable context available outside the actual store.
You can file it under “music nerdery,” but spend some time with Other Music and you’ll find a mix of celebration and eulogy. Both are worthy, for a small business in NYC and the similar culture of community disappearing from just about everywhere else.