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Wild Variety in New Streaming Movies

George Wolf George Wolf Wild Variety in New Streaming MoviesPhoto via IMDb
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Another week inside, another week bursting with streaming movie options. Nineties nostalgia? Informative and yet entertaining documentaries? Coming-of-age (and middle age) indies? How ‘bout some Vince Vaughn? All of it’s here. Let us help you get it sorted.

How to Build a Girl

Available on traditional streaming services.

by Hope Madden

There may be nothing braver than an open heart. That kind of bravery accompanies a lack of cynicism that makes others hide their eyes. It is also what drives Coky Giedroyc’s big screen depiction of Caitlin Moran’s memoir (adapted by Moran herself), How to Build a Girl.

Though events have been condensed and details changed (including the main character’s name), Moran’s inimitable upbeat and insightful voice remains, finding its ideal avatar in Booksmart’s Beanie Feldstein.

Feldstein is Johanna, unrepentantly resilient odd duck. Friendless, in love with life, desperate for an adventure, Johanna is the fearless hero in this quest. Feldstein, aside from a few struggles with the accent, commands your attention and very best wishes. You root out loud for her.

After a local TV spot as student poet turns mortifying, Johanna’s brother (one of four) suggests she audition for a London magazine’s “gunslinger” opening as a music critic. She unironically writes up a piece on the soundtrack to Broadway’s “Annie”—which nabs her an interview, but only as a joke. Undeterred, she overwhelms the smarmy hipsters into an assignment.

There are moments where How to Build a Girl transcends its coming-of-age trappings. Those are the moments when it directly quotes the book, giving us a peek inside the skill as a writer that will carry Johanna through it all.

The film bears a resemblance to Lady Bird, in which Feldstein portrayed shy bestie to Saoirse Ronan’s adolescent work-in-progress. Like Lady Bird, Johanna craves life outside her hometown. The two heroines also share a lovely knack for forgiveness (of self and others) as well as a strength for self-definition.

Feldstein’s work thus far (Neighbors 2, Lady Bird and, most notably, Booksmart) has announced her as the go-to for funny, brainy, less-than-popular teens—which is not to call her a one-trick pony. Part of her draw is her ability to carve out individuals, to recognize and unveil the human heart inside each girl. Her charisma is almost blinding in this film.

That’ll help you miss some of the weaker elements. Minor characters are allowed little opportunity to develop and the story feels boiled down to the most obvious plot points. There is nothing superficial about Johanna, but the film itself fails to dive far enough beneath the surface to do her justice.

Moran’s audacious humor sometimes feels muted, and that is an outright shame. Nonetheless, Feldstein’s a 1000 watt bulb who makes even the most ordinary scene glow happily. There is also something fearless in a film that decides it is up to every girl to build and rebuild herself in her own image.

Grade: B+

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Streaming from Drexel Theater.

by George Wolf

You want to understand the economic mess we’re in? Simple. It all comes down to horses and board games.

Wut?

Watch Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and more than just vague analogies will come into startling focus.

New Zealand filmmaker Justin Pemberton has assembled an array of scholars and historians (including Thomas Piketty, author of the source book) for a 103-minute presentation that is so informative, measured and concise it should earn you college credits.

There are graphs, illustrations and pop culture snippets from film and television that Pemberton weaves throughout the lecture material to attract the eye and boost the film’s overall entertainment value. But make no mistake, his mission is about breaking down the 400 years of history that explain the social and economic precipice we’re teetering on right now.

The breakdown is an accomplishment in itself, but Pemberton and his scholars never condescend or confuse, bringing an immeasurable value to the medium delivering this invaluable message.

And while some of the lessons are not new (i.e. we need a strong middle class), the context here is so vivid and relevant many observations may land with an echo of “eureka!” inside your head.

The history of nations carrying staggering wealth inequality and stagnant social mobility is not pleasant, but the ironic timing of Pemberton’s film helps fuel the hope that total socio-economic collapse may still be avoided.

The key lies in totally re-shaping the way a population thinks, which historically has only been achieved through seismic cultural shifts such as a war or a depression.

Or a pandemic?

We’ll see, but by the time Capital in the Twenty-First Century is done telling you about the horses and the board games, there will be little doubt why the “job creators” are so anxious to give us the business.

Grade: A

Clementine

Available to stream from Gateway Film Center.

by Matt Weiner

A woman trespassing in a cabin in the woods tends to foretell a very different kind of film than Clementine’s smart, sensual coming-of-age story.

But writer and director Lara Jean Gallagher’s feature debut, while exploring the relationships that make (and break) us, also doesn’t spare the menace lurking just beneath the surface. Maybe it’s the remote cabin in the woods vibe, but it’s also in large part due to the beautiful, gauzy shots of the Pacific Northwest from cinematographer Andres Karu that manage to feel always just on the cusp of sliding from languid daydream to nightmare.

Gallagher brings the same inseparable emotions to the story. When Karen (Otmara Marrero) flees Los Angeles and a toxic relationship to break into her ex’s cabin in Oregon, she discovers that she’s not the only interloper in the area. A young aspiring actress Lana (Sydney Sweeney) is also crashing at a nearby house, but quickly finds herself drawn to Karen, open to either validation or love, but undecided on which would be more important.

Their relationship starts out relatively chaste, with Karen still smarting from her breakup and wary about the age gap between her and Lana. Driven by a powerful and nuanced performance from Sweeney, Lana’s mix of aloofness and desire turns even the slightest touch into a highly charged event that seems to stop time. 

There are the aching moments between Karen and Lana as the two bond over heartbreak and trauma. But the sharpest emotional insight that Gallagher brings to her tightly crafted coming-of-age story is to structure it as a psychological drama—one that gets increasingly fraught as the two women push and pull each other into their respective lives.

It makes perfect sense though. Trying to discover who we are as teenagers was horrifying enough, but Karen is an unsettling reminder that learning from these mistakes is an imperfect, lifelong process. The thought that adolescence can be a terror not so removed from Hitchcock is a sobering realization. That we might continue to repeat these traumas, and enact them on the ones we love most, is a horrifying one.

Grade: A-

Arkansas

Available on traditional streaming services.

by Brandon Thomas

Clark Duke has established himself as one of the more prominent “Hey! It’s that guy!” actors in Hollywood. You probably don’t know his name, but you’ve seen him pop up on shows and films such as The Office, Hot Tub Time Machine and Kick-Ass. While Duke might not be included among the comedy greats of our time, he shows far more promise as a feature writer/director with his debut, Arkansas.

Kyle (Liam Hemsworth) and Swin (Duke) are low-level drug dealers working for a mysterious king-pin named Frog (Vince Vaughn). The two pose as park rangers by day so that they can courier drugs at night for Bright (John Malkovich), one of Frog’s proxies. When one of these runs goes bad, Kyle and Swin find their lives in danger as Frog starts to believe that they are a threat to his drug empire.

Duke handles the movie’s tone from the first scene. Not quite interested in gut-busting comedy nor the other darkly comedic side of the coin, Duke, instead, is happy to present this tale with wry wit. Think of a happy marriage between the works of Joe R. Lansdale and Elmore Leonard than that of Tarantino.

Fully on board with this tone is the film’s cast. Duke himself plays Swin as a man with unmatched, and unearned, confidence. Malkovich is clearly having a ball, and that allows him to go big, but not Cyrus the Virus big. The odd man out is Hemsworth. Try as he might, Hemsworth tackles every line with a little too much seriousness and bravado. 

Vaughn continues his recent streak of popping up in interesting indie thrillers. While Arkansas isn’t nearly as intense as Brawl in Cell Block 99 or Dragged Across Concrete, Vaughn attacks the role of Frog with the same sense of danger. Like the film itself, Vaughn’s performance oozes charm, but with menace bubbling just below the surface. 

Arkansas probably won’t be taking a victory lap during awards season later in the year, but what it will be doing is showing that Duke is a behind -the-camera talent to keep an eye on.

Grade: B+

South Mountain

Available on traditional streaming services.

by Cat McAlpine

Lila is trying to hold it together, but things keep falling apart. Her best friend has cancer. Her daughters have both left for the summer. Her husband might be leaving forever. The ants will be back soon.

Written and Directed by Hilary Brougher, South Mountain refuses to settle into one place.

At first, we follow the youngest daughter, Dara (Naian González Norvind), back home from the woods. Then the older daughter, Sam (Macaulee Cassaday), arrives home before her big sail across the Atlantic. We discover that father Edgar (Scott Cohen) has a secret. Gigi (Andrus Nichols) has a lump and her daughter is scared. Everyone has an opportunity, even if glancing, to be the main character. Life’s like that.

But it is Lila (Talia Balsam) with whom the camera stays. Lila is at the center of it all.

There is only one reference, in passing, to South Mountain’s namesake but the title still fits the tone of the film. Brougher never lets you forget how close the outside world is or how integral it is to this family’s backdrop.

We see nature in micro and macro as Lila’s journey comes in and out of focus. The credits open on a nearby waterfall, but as the story narrows, the details get smaller and more mundane. Flies are constantly zooming around the dining room. Fresh blackberries are picked for dessert. We even get a look inside the compost bin because life and leftovers are messy.

The narrative is loose. Sometimes new scenes are introduced with a date stamp. “June 22nd”, announces one, in unassuming white letters. Other scenes come and go without any anchor. The clothes change, the light shifts, and you simply realize that this must be a different day. Time never seems to move linearly, but it does keep moving forward. Paired with a shifting focus at the start, Brougher paints a more realistic story of grief and acceptance where some days matter and some do not.

Overall, what carries South Mountain is Balsam’s fantastic performance. The story can be too slow and too scattered at times. But it’s impossible to not keep watching Balsam as she moves from self-assured to train wreck to something in-between.

Is Lila going to be okay? There won’t be a definite answer but it’s worth the journey. Life’s like that.

Grade: B+

Spaceship Earth

Available to stream from Gateway Film Center and the Wexner Center for the Arts.

by George Wolf

Man, it was a crazy time. A group of hippies got famous for putting on jumpsuits and quarantining themselves in Arizona for two years. Then they tweaked their own rules and bickered until Steve Bannon showed up to “kick ass” and name names.

If you were thinking “70s commune” until the Steve Bannon reference threw you, you’ve forgotten about the great Biosphere 2 experiment from 1991. As much as it made news then, if B2 is remembered at all these days, it usually lands just a notch above “new Coke” on the scale of pop culture face plants.

Almost 30 years later, is that a fair assessment, or did Biosphere 2 teach us something valuable?

Director Matt Wolf looks for answers with Spaceship Earth, an intriguing look back on a moment when the reach of idealism seemed equal to its grasp.

Wolf, as he did with Teenage and Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, leans on a wealth of archival footage to view a historical movement through a modern lens. For Spaceship Earth, that begins with a reminder that B2 was not some grand government project, but the culmination of hippie aspirations.

Led by the charismatic John Allen, a group of California dreamers traveled the world performing theater and preaching ecology, gradually increasing their goals until eight of them were moving into a completely closed system boasting a geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller.

The aim was to understand biosphere 1 (Earth) enough to be able to replicate it in space. The result was complicated.

The film’s backstory of the “synergists” and their accomplishments gives the film a sturdy anchor, as well as a resonant narrative contrast once the B2 project is beset with scientific short-sightedness, group infighting, and the opportunist douch-baggery of Bannon.

Wolf’s respect for the group is clear, and while that respect isn’t unearned, it makes the skirting of some legitimate issues – like Allen’s label as a “cult leader” – appear more flagrant.

But what Wolf does best is give a whole new taste test to a benchmark in both science and pop culture. Biosphere 2 deserves a better legacy, and by re-framing the project through the lessons of the last three decades, Spaceship Earth rests on a compelling case.

And, just sayin’, new Coke was pretty good, too.

Grade: B+

Z

Available on Shudder.

by Hope Madden

There is a moment that currently fascinates horror filmmakers. It is the moment when we forever lose the sweet little white boy destined to become a sociopath.

Director Brandon Christensen (writing with Colin Minnihan) examines parental involvement and even responsibility with the imaginary friend horror, Z.

Beth Parsons (Keegan Connor Tracy) and her husband Kevin (Minnihan regular Sean Rogerson) are at odds about how best to handle son Josh (Jett Klyne) and his new buddy.

This sounds familiar.

Mother is immediately creeped out. Dad is lenient. Boy begins to lash out, blaming imaginary friend. Mom wants to enlist expert help. Dad agrees within reason, but begins to pull away once Mom becomes convinced of a supernatural presence. Bodies begin to pile up.

Brightburn

The Boy

Brahms: The Boy II

Hole in the Ground

Prodigy

That’s just in the last three years. This phenomenon means two things: filmmakers have hit upon a provocatively of-the-moment topic and it will be hard to find a unique perspective on that topic.

Though Z never seems fresh, there are moments that feel more authentic than they have any right to. Christensen’s direction lets conversations, in particular, breathe. Actors get the chance to give their characters a heartbeat. Adult family relationships have a lived-in quality that both reinforces themes and carves out layers for the story.

As is often the case in this subgenre, the film lives or dies on the role of the mother. Lucky, then, that Tracy gives such a powerful performance. Never showy, Tracy’s weary, passive, put-upon delivery creates a mysterious yet believable character. Beth’s actions feel both natural and unpredictable, which creates a lot of space for the filmmaker to build in surprises.

Too much convenience, too many unearned jump scares and too much predictability threaten to sink the effort, but a handful of narrative choices and a few truly solid performances (plus a cameo from the always welcome Stephen McHattie) elevate the film.

It’s no We Need to Talk about Kevin (the high water mark for the category), but what is? It is an unsettling way to worry about what we pass on to our kids.

Grade: B-

Read more from Hope and George at MADDWOLF and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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