Sometimes we search for meaning in art where there is actually very little to mine, and often we give a story more patience than it deserves. Giuseppe Capotondi’s neo-noirish drama The Burnt Orange Heresy (C+) features some idiosyncratic performances and a stylish milieu but doesn’t successfully integrate its intriguing elements before culminating in a corker of an ending. Claes Bang plays a charismatic art critic who along with a new companion (Elizabeth Debicki) met while lecturing in Italy, is hired by an eccentric collector (Mick Jagger) to pull off a mission to swipe a painting from a reclusive artist (Donald Sutherland). Clunky, unrealistic dialogue diminishes a Hitchcockian/Highsmithian plot set on lovely Lake Como, and alas character intensions are rather impressionistic for far too long. Bang and Debicki are engaging and make the most of awkwardly written roles. Jagger sinks his teeth into what amounts to an extended cameo, and Sutherland doesn’t bring much to the party. Ultimately this bendy indie doesn’t quite hit its mark.
This movie is quite observant about what it means to be an American teen, down to the chapter and verse. Director Karen Maine’s Yes, God, Yes (B) is a sensitive coming of age dramedy about reconciling church teachings and teenage urges with a breakout performance by Natalia Dyer of the sci-fi TV show Stranger Things. Dyer is the main attraction, astute and engaging and in nearly every sequence, as her innocent and precocious character traverses a ’90s landscape of AOL chat rooms, the emergence of cellphone culture, a punishing parochial school and an even more confusing Christian retreat. These secular land mines all threaten to thwart her steadfast beliefs. Timothy Simons is solid as an authoritarian adult, and the teen ensemble is largely believable even as they navigate provincial points of view. The dramatic stakes aren’t extremely high, and the laughs aren’t as plentiful as, say, Booksmart, but the film is a righteous glimpse into adolescence geared to viewers ready for its adult themes. These types of films often glide on a combination of heart and nostalgia, and Christina Aguilera and Mandy Moore tunes punctuate this enjoyable journey into wary womanhood.
An old axiom proclaims a feature film shouldn’t be less interesting than its makers sitting around discussing that very movie, but the reverse holds true for documentaries. Serviceable when it should be sensational, Don Hahn’s film about the life and word craft of Disney legend Howard Ashman, Howard (B-), strings very few pieces of found footage and plaintiff narration to memorialize a man who deserved a much more special tribute. After all, this lyricist and storyteller helped reinvent the wit and whimsy of an iconic animation studio while secretly harboring AIDS in the height of that epidemic. The film plumbs Ashman’s roots in theatre with glimpses into his stage musicals about man-eating plants and pageant queens before his breakthrough trilogy of animated mermaids, genies and a beauty who fell for a beast. His successes were largely posthumous, so there wasn’t as much AV evidence as is often the case of what it was like to know and work with him, and the eyewitnesses don’t really have the way with words that Howard did. The film does little more than sprinkle some pixie dust on a Wikipedia entry before it finally generates some tender moments toward the end. There’s also a nice bit in the recording studio with Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury voicing “Be Our Guest,” but it otherwise seems like Ursula the sea witch stole the soaring magic right out of the Disney vaults. While sometimes an interesting glimpse into a feisty and fabulous artist, this so-so documentary feels like it’s showing viewers just part of his world.
Danny Wolf’s Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies (B) is revealing in all the right ways. Tracing the history of celluloid flesh from silent films to contemporary cinema, this fairly clinical documentary includes talking heads and feisty film footage to explore the mores of over a century in titillating taste when it comes to the sexy silhouettes of popular culture. The recent #MeToo movement puts the doc’s topic in a fresh lens as Wolf looks at a variety of genres, from pin-up fantasies to arty independents to erotic thrillers. Amidst all the privates on parade, the film nearly finds a thesis. Almost more interesting than the bare essentials at the forefront of this film is its examination of the industry codes and ratings associated with art at various time periods. There’s a nice gender balance in the interviews, from idiosyncratic directors Peter Bogdanovich and Joe Dante to Amy Heckerling and Martha Coolidge. Other industry commentators are a bit of a mixed bag. The subject matter doesn’t necessarily deserve the girth of its running time, and some of the extended sequences may feel a bit, well, gratuitous. At times the documentary is a movie buff’s paradise when it’s not feeling like a peepshow with a purpose.
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It’s a merry, merry multiverse for a trio trapped in a time loop in Max Barbakow’s Palm Springs (B+). This comedy with shades of Groundhog Day triples the number of people caught in the act of living the same day over and over with Andy Samberg and Christin Milioti as two charming strangers who meet at a wedding and J.K. Simmons as a grizzled guest also swept up in the space time continuum. The story eschews some of the tedium of repeating the actual day verbatim and instead follows its progressive romance from mundane to memorable. The first-time director has crafted a jovial and thoughtful lark with enjoyable takes on the physics of love and life. The ensemble is roundly delightful on the unusual journey. Stick around for a mid-credits epilogue.
For those who believe “there can be only one” in immortals movies (thanks, Highlander!), a new super-heroic quintet has arrived to demonstrate that long-living mercenaries come in multiples. These world-weary soldiers of particular fortune with powers including regenerative healing abilities get spectacular spotlight in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard (B+), a successful new action/fantasy film chronicling an unlikely revenge mission. Charlize Theron is in glorious badass mode with KiKi Layne in fine form as her paramilitary protégé. The sterling ensemble including Mattias Schoenaerts and Chiwetel Ejiofor is all up for the task. The fight choreography is superb in a series of riveting action sequences. Surprising is how moving the quieter scenes are depicting the deep bonds between these destiny-bound misfits including suffering throughout the ages. The film teaches some tough lessons of faith and fortitude. The graphic novel-inspired storyline and contemporary Dustin O’Halloran/Hauschka score are propulsive. Credit Prince-Bythewood for commandeering an energetic globetrotting enterprise with hope for a new action franchise springing eternal.
Writer/director Atom Egoyan continues his lifelong exploration of themes of isolation and alienation via two vivid characters in a new memory story. Restaurant inspector Jim (an exacting and austere David Thewlis) and his daughter Veronica (intriguing Laysla De Oliveira), a music teacher, attempt to unravel their complex histories and intertwined secrets in Guest of Honour (C), but the most effective elements are often undermined by head-scratching detours. A weak framing device with a miscast Luke Wilson as a priest does no favors for Egoyan’s meditation on perception and penance, memory and forgiveness. The father-daughter puzzle is complicated by infidelity and a hoax with high schoolers leading to jail time. The film’s most original element is its glimpse at Jim’s culinary certification profession and how he wields his minor power in crafty ways. Thewlis is solid in the role, but the story sometimes descends into mawkish melodrama. It’s disappointing with the talent involved that the stakes aren’t higher.
After all the accolades afforded Lin-Manuel Miranda’s late 1700s historical hip hopera, its stage director and now movie helmer Thomas Kail scores the mic drop of best filmed play as well. If Disney’s Hall of the Presidents pulled a Night at the Museum, springing to multiethnic sung-through life on a spare set with a turntable, you’d have a beginning approximation of the experience that is Hamilton (A). This political pageant with shades of Jesus Christ Superstar and a mixtape of modern music genres depicts a new American nation engaged in a battle for its soul with its titular renaissance man (played by Miranda) making unexpected impact on the laws, lifestyle and legacy of tender through-composed territory. Themes such as the duel between independence and interdependence and the multidimensionality of a man give the proceeding a glorious gravitas. Kail’s multi-camera presentation of the live performance plunges viewers right into the ensemble, dotted with audience reactions and even a one-minute intermission helping punctuate some theatrical conventions such as Act 2 double castings. All the creative moments – from the graceful choreography to cabinet meetings staged as rap battles to fancy flashbacks with the exceptional Renée Elise Goldsberry and show stoppers like Leslie Odom Jr’s “The Room Where it Happens” roundly resonate in close-up. It’s as exciting as a document of a sassily syncopated staged play can be on screen. Plus it’s a satisfying document of a highly resonant work made even more profound as a nation still grapples with identity and destiny.
Summer finally has a superhero. Using interviews and rare archival footage, Dawn Porter’s documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble (B+) traces the titular congressman’s 60-plus years of social activism and legislative action on issues ranging from civil and voting rights to healthcare and immigration reform. It’s a delight to watch the political and protest survivor witness and reflect on historical reels which feel as urgent as ever in today’s climate. The film successfully criss-crosses from modern day to moments in history, drawing rich parallels. Particularly poignant are sequences of lunch counter sit-ins and of the legendary Freedom Rides as the young gamechanger asserts his rights and showcases his resolve. Even the setbacks presented strengthen his might. What starts as a contemplative chronicle becomes a sensational summons for action.
Update from June 2020 review: The civil rights icon and longtime congressman passed away after a six-month battle with cancer on July 18, 2020. You can also explore more about John Lewis in the film Selma.
Will the winner take it all or the loser stand small in the summer’s new cult comedy? David Dobkin’s featherweight and overlong Eurovision (B-) stars Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams as an earnest Icelandic pop music duo in a quixotic quest for the coveted championship in the iconic global song contest. Much of the film is formulaic with slogs which threaten to derail its kitschiest instincts. Ferrell, who also co-wrote the film, is basically funny just for showing up with long hair and a European accent, but the plucky McAdams is really the heart of the proceedings giving a lively and sensitive star turn. Dan Stevens is also enjoyable as a charismatic competitor in rhythm and romance, and Pierce Brosnan gets a nice bit as Ferrell’s fisherman father. The film’s stealth signature turns out to be its garish production numbers and surprisingly hummable original songs including “Volcano Man” and “Double Trouble.” There’s also a mega mix midway that helps perk things up just when the screenplay of the American idylls. It’s easy to forget moments that misfire when the overall tone is so blissful.
Sometimes DIY extends to people, and this latest twist on the Jerry Maguire archetype doesn’t give its prickly prince too far to rise to get out of his rut and assume his comic crown. Judd Apatow’s dramedy The King of Staten Island (B-) is a splendid showcase for slacker comedian Pete Davidson, who plays a 24-year-old stoner tattoo artist doing little with his life while cohabitating with his widowed mother (Marisa Tomei). The millennial protagonist’s world is upended when mom gets a new boyfriend (Bill Burr), which leads to a steady climb toward clarity and consciousness. Despite Apatow’s leisurely pace and uncertain tone, Davidson shines in the role of a character ascending to independence, with a sometimes sarcastic and occasionally soulful perspective. His wide eyes, stick figure physique and zany body art make him a perfect “rejuvenile” in search of a raison d’être. Tomei is also a delight with humor to match her obtuse offspring, but Burr is kind of a nothing-burger of a character as the newfound father figure. The function of surrogate dad as a way to stimulate the film’s man-child into a new awakening is less interesting than Davidson’s sequences bantering with pothead friends, his misanthropic exploits in odd jobs and his witty interactions with kids who are largely alien to him. There are dollops of wry jokes and fun pranks, but much of the film feels like it’s on an anti-depressant with few peaks and valleys. Still, the film has heart and is often quite amusing. Prepare for another inexplicably protracted Apatow running time, and just enjoy Davidson’s sprawling new rise to reels of royalty.
Worse than modern Disney flops Tomorrowland, BFG and A Wrinkle in Time combined, Kenneth Branagh’s Ireland-set Artemis Fowl (F) is an unmitigated disaster, a hopeful tentpole blockbuster and young adult franchise starter completely devoid of magic and wonder. Banished to the phantom zone of a Disney+ debut after COVID-19 shuffled the studio’s theatrical releases, this misbegotten fantasy is a moribund and completely incoherent bore. At its center is a listless titular performance of a boy genius by newcomer Ferdia Shaw, who is all dressed up with nowhere to go and presumably was instructed to play the part as a boring adult tax accountant. When the boy’s father (Colin Farrell) goes missing, the tween must battle with a variety of elves, fairies and goblins, grapple with unpleasant performances by the likes of Judi Dench and Josh Gad and parade through undistinguished low stakes landscapes. At an hour and a half running time with exposition in narration form for its duration, the film teases what happened before and after but forgets to furnish much of a coherent plot within. Even while free to Disney+ subscribers, it should be skipped.