An inventive free-for-all based on a frenzied series of real-life eyewitness tweets about the misadventures of two women on an extraordinary road trip, Janicza Bravo’s Zola (B+) brims with mirthful dark comedy and unexpected detours. Breakthrough star Taylour Paige is a delight as the wry title character “@zola,” a part-time exotic dancer lured into a Florida getaway by Riley Keough’s outrageous “@stefani.” They make a madcap duo, and Keough is a riot with a manipulative medicine show of emotions in her arsenal. Carmen Domingo manages to steal a few scenes from these brash co-stars as the ominous “X,” teetering on a line between charming and sinister. With surprises aplenty and shocks around every bend, Bravo marshals her ensemble with grit and grace. The tropical color palette and snappy editing plus droll throwaway one-liners provide the film with myriad memorable moments. The fact that it’s all a bit of a lark doesn’t take away from the creativity and the committed acting on display. This is a breezy joyride of an indie destined to coast into cult status.
Betting on the scrappiness of a bunch of bros who become woke in a history-bending take on the founding of the country, Matt Thompson’s America: The Motion Picture (B-) is an irreverent and often quite funny animated film aimed at the adults of the household. The movie’s tipsy time bandits traversing a stew of history involving George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Geronimo, a female Thomas Edison and many others throw out a lot of vulgar gags and end up with a winning comedy in the tradition of the South Park movie, Team America: World Police or even the live action This is the End. Channing Tatum, Jason Mantzoukas, Olivia Munn, Killer Mike and Andy Samberg are among the spry voice cast ensemble in this veritable Mad or National Lampoon magazine come to life. The animation is accomplished and the profane and prophetic jokes abundant enough to keep surprising even the most academic viewers. It’s anachronistic, anarchic and lots of mindless fun and ultimately pulses with a patriotic heart.
More like watching a Twitch video game play feed than enjoying an actual movie, the act of witnessing Chris McKay’s The Tomorrow War (C) is an experience of viewing it all play out and all the while second-guessing. Shoddy effects and ham-fisted acting mar this mediocre dystopian sci-fi adventure in which Chris Pratt’s character is drafted to fight in a future battle against aliens, and the fate of humanity relies on his ability to confront his past. Yvonne Strahovski and Sam Richardson are among an ensemble with little remarkable to do in a past, present and future tale that is far from Dickensian. Pratt tries out myriad befuddled faces and shoots or punches amorphous creatures for most of the film’s bloated duration. Any novelty to the story or surprises in its warped timeline wear out their welcome fast. This action movie will definitely not be one for the record books.
The Fast and the Furious films aren’t known for their adherence to physics, but it would be prudent indeed if science could improve the wooden performances of Vin Diesel and John Cena as unlikely rival brothers in the treacly backstory bogging down Justin Lin’s F9 The Fast Saga (C+). A stunt show in search of a through line, this sequel rarely gets lift-off except when foreboding land mines and traffic-jamming electromagnets are involved. It’s never a good sign in an action movie when the arrival of Dame Helen Mirren heralds an “ok, now it’s getting good,” but aside from another sassy bit by Charlize Theron, the ensemble film is severely lacking in character. Thank goodness for the witty trio of Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Nathalie Emmanuel and Tyrese Gibson who ground even the most Moonraker-esque lunacy with fun-filled quips and quandaries. The final act chase is truly spectacular even if a bit familiar, and the aforementioned magnets are the gimmick that keeps on giving. But aside from very well staged action sequences, this entry into the saga drifts quite resolutely into the mediocre lane.
A joyful ode to “finding your island”even when it’s a place where you’ve been all along, Jon M. Chu’s film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In the Heights (B) is a faithful and often fanciful extravaganza with creative song sequences showcasing camaraderie and community, athletic choreography featuring hundreds of dancers and a colorful panoramic tour of the Washington Heights neighborhood in the uppermost part of the New York City borough of Manhattan. The sing-speak spectacular is a celebration of the trials, travails and cultural contributions of Dominican, Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants in a one-of-a-kind district; and as a whole, the mirthful, hopeful energy transcends a threadbare storyline by highlighting various choose-your-own pathways to big dreams (sueñitos). The individual characters get short shrift in the bombast and swirl, and Chu shifts tone and perspective a few too many times including with an unnecessary framing device; but these are small complaints in a film of overall genuine goodness. The female performances surrounding a charismatic Anthony Ramos as the shopkeeper narrator are the breakout stars, particularly Melissa Barrera as an aspiring fashion designer who wants to escape her humble roots and Leslie Grace as the high-achieving student returning from a first semester of college with her tail between her legs, hoping to be renewed by the uplift of her neighborhood. Both actresses imbue their characters with sweet sentiment and occasional pent-up ferocity. Much of the musical infusion plays out Rent-style, with young characters professing love amidst struggle. After a maudlin middle act that brings the film’s festive outlook to a bit of a halt with some clunky sequences, it is a delightful Daphne Rubin-Vega as a firebrand beautician who brings the film roaring back to life. The best moments fuse winning songs with creative harmonies or set pieces, especially as the film’s community denizens rally within an oversized Esther Williams inspired pool or as two lovers defy gravity by dancing up and down the side of a brownstone high-rise. This film will be remembered for its verve and representation, for bursts of brilliance that are maintained in spurts. When it hits those titular heights, though, oh how it soars!
It takes a while to justify a film’s existence when it’s an origin story prequel to a live action remake series based on an animated movie, but Craig Gillespie’s Cruella (B) proves to be an effective and stylish madcap romp set in the punk rock era of London in the 70s with character and couture to spare. Emma Stone is delicious as the titular antihero at the film’s center, an abandoned grifter with a flair for fashion. When she falls into a job as a clothing designer at a haute house led by an extremely arch Emma Thompson, a visually accomplished tale of rivalry and revenge ensues. There are also enjoyable supporting performances by a game Paul Walter Houser, a wily Joel Fry and a pack of real and digital pups. Although overlong with a screenplay that doesn’t hit all the right notes and a soundtrack so packed with classic ear-worms that it seems to be overcompensating, this is ultimately more creative and bolder fare than Disney has recently foisted on the world. It’s best when the droll, high-spirited what-the-frock oneupmanship is in full flourish.
It’s the family friendly horror film franchise that’s just as much fun with the mute button on, and its sonic release in theatres after a year of pandemic may be the ultimate gimmick that amps up the tension even more. Director John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place Part II (B+) expands on the suspenseful milieu of its predecessor and pulls back the lens from one small town family on its homestead farm to a bit more about their actions’ implications on a struggling post-apocalyptic society around them. In this dystopian future world inhabited by blind monsters with an acute sense of hearing, Emily Blunt’s character tries to stealthily hold her family – including a newborn – together despite a splintering side quest led by her fiesty daughter, played with aplomb by Millicent Simmonds. A mysterious new character played by a winning Cillian Murphy plus expressive teen Noah Jupe both stoke the kindling of several plot paths along the journey, and Krasinski consistently builds both mounting anxiety and the pulses of familial emotion. The novelty of the original film is dialed down this time around in lieu of world building, and regrettably Blunt’s character is a bit defanged but there’s enough fresh material to keep audiences on the edges of their seat. Overall it’s an effective thriller broadening its exciting universe with deeply relatable characters. Sure there are jump scares, but the biggest surprise is just how well crafted this sequel is and how much it justifies its existence.
Fast becoming the king of the Neo-Western, Taylor Sheridan, who wrote high-minded screenplays ranging from Sicario to Hell or High Water, makes his directorial debut with a rather routine but entertaining thriller elevated by the work of its leading lady and a pair of actors playing ruthless villains. Sheridan’s wilderness adventure Those Who Wish Me Dead (B-) introduces two converging storylines, the redemption arch of a brassy Montana smokejumper played by Angelina Jolie recovering from a tragedy and the crime thriller chase film featuring a child (Finn Little) who observes his father’s murder and is stalked Witness-style by two assassins, cunningly played by Nicholas Hoult and Aidan Gillen. The film is a throwback to ’90s action films with its propulsive parade of set pieces and showdowns, even amidst some lackluster forest fire special effects and a plot that doesn’t tread all that much new ground. Jolie is effective as she bonds with the boy and brandishes her acumen and adrenaline in some knockout moments, but it’s Hoult and Gillen who milk the most out of their sequences as the veritable renegade Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of an ensemble that also includes an effective Jon Bernthal and Medina Senghore. It’s a rollicking ride with taut action aplenty.
Known for his handsomely produced period pieces, director Joe Wright proves so wrong at the helm of a modern-day Hitchcockian thriller. A pleasant enough but wildly uneven and ultimately unsatisfying popcorn thriller, Wright’s The Woman in the Window (C) is a genre exercise occasionally uplifted by a committed central performance by a game Amy Adams as an agoraphobic therapist who notices something is going down with the brownstone family across the way. Nearly every supporting actor in the film – particularly Gary Oldman and Julianne Moore as the new neighbors – is wasted in roles not worthy of their talents, and the director tosses in handsome production colors and strange twists and transitions to patch up his dramatically inert house of cards. Adams consistently toils to try to make the film work and is particularly good in sequences opposite Wyatt Russell as a mysterious tenant and Brian Tyree Henry as an investigator. The film can’t decide if its tone is genuine suspense or campy shtick, especially evident in its unhinged final act. Neither scary nor dramatic enough to add up to much, the film’s unreliable narrator turns out to be its director.
You’ll want to wrap your tentacles around this feel-good, feel-sad nature documentary. James Reid and Pippa Ehrlich’s My Octopus Teacher (B) centers on diver Craig Foster who swims for a year with an octopus that lives in a kelp forest off the coast of South Africa. Through visiting her den and tracking her movements every day, he creates a symbiotic bond that rejuvenates his faith in his own human world. The octopus is a tad more interesting than the guy, and the human drama seems a little tacked on to add extra resonance. But the underwater camera work is spectacular, from camouflaging to evade pyjama sharks to feasting eyes on predatory seafood banquets. Much of the detail is nothing short of miraculous. It’s immersive and occasionally rousing and an unexpected find suitable for families.
This is the film that happens after an unlikely pair Meets Cute, after the guy gets girl, after he intercepts her at the airport to go ahead and stay. Set in a gorgeously shot Athens, Greece, as a boozy sun-drenched party paradise, Argyris Papadimitropoulos’ kinetic drama Monday (C+) propels its appealing thirtysomething American expat leads into immediate lust and leaves most of the film for figuring out if they’re even remotely right for each other. Sebastian Stan is magnetic, spry and beguiling as the devil-may-care deejay and vagabond; and Denise Gough is the complete opposite as a plucky but more proper immigration lawyer who is in one of those rebound travel-the-world on a bender type situations. In chronicling this mismatched duo’s fall from an almost too metaphorical Garden of Eden (it’s a fig leaf-free beach in this case), the film plumbs the notion of how a relationship can survive on chemistry and chemicals alone and finds lots of erotic ways to determine if true love can really be skin deep. But the episodes of showing how different the wavelengths each is surfing can be painful and awkward, and the movie’s near-improvised vibe feels a touch incomplete. The filmmakers get points for examining the intoxication of obsessive love but rarely make space, momentum or structure to adequately fill in some of the emotional gaps which would elucidate why these giddy drifters choose to spend time together on any activity other than sex. Because it is set in the exotic milieu of a foreign land with characters somewhat in a toxic fog of trying to find each other, the story becomes more absorbing even as its trajectory appears clear to the audience. Fittingly, it’s all lovely to look at and drink in, but the hangover comprises most of this bittersweet story.
Here is the P3 Podcast with our conversation after the “pandemic year” Oscars.