Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis crafts a remarkable psychological suspense thriller in Swallow (B) about a working class woman (Haley Bennett) who marries the heir to a major company (Austin Stowell) and experiences extreme isolation keeping up their home. The protagonist develops a disorder in which she consumes inanimate objects as a way to gain control over unresolved emotions. Although the terror is largely an internal trauma, Bennett does an incredible job drawing empathy in the role. The film, shot in brilliant hues with engaging set pieces, is fascinating and works on a variety of layers including as feminist parable. It’s an unusual sleeper film that’s sure to spark conversations.
Hot on the trail of a potentially cheating spouse, a woman turns to the philandering father whose extramarital affair broke up her own family, Clarice Starling/Hannibal Lecter style, in an absolute confection of a new melancholy comedy. Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks (A-) hits all the right notes with a crackling central daughter-father dynamic between Rashida Jones and Bill Murray within a film that poses the question: who is that stranger who is also called your parent or spouse? Coppola lenses a glamorous Manhattan out of fairy tale dreams, a little too perfect at times actually, as the backdrop for a vodka stinger of a comic caper with just enough witty detours to fully reveal its characters. Jones is dynamite as the plaintive female protagonist, a lobster mildly boiling in the water of writer’s block and an uncertain marriage (her mysterious husband is nicely played by Marlon Wayans). Murray has rarely been better as a flirtatious iconoclast who may just have the capability to mildly reconcile with the daughter whose family he shattered due to his own infidelity. His propensity to sing and whistle his way through life and to lay himself bare through his hot takes regarding the ways of men and women is the engaging stuff of a classic character. Coppola lends a joyous, non-judgmental eye to her broken subjects and threads her marvelous themes about the nature of humanity with absolute pleasure and droll dialogue. The result is a charming observational piece demonstrating a director at the top of her game. It’s a delight.
Spike Lee’s concert movie David Byrne’s American Utopia (A) is an often absurdist, sometimes poignant and always joyfully ebullient work featuring twelve troubadours on a Broadway stage making music seemingly ripped from the soul of the here and now. The idiosyncratic Talking Heads lead singer is part narrator and part conjuror in a cathartic protest film structured loosely on themes about the lingering possibilities of the United States experiment. Byrne gleefully marshals an international group of musical artists including two dancers with a peculiar Punch and Judy vibe in a fife and drumline spectacle replete with timely social justice and voting themes. The work is made all the more magical by the mere fact that it was chronicled weeks before New York City productions shut down for the global pandemic. Lee brilliantly captures what it was like to breathe the same air of musicians and fans in a shared live experience and focuses the eyes and ears on the simple pleasures of the performance’s sparse staging: it’s a kaleidoscope of transparent curtains, fancy footlights and swirling shadows to take viewers into the visceral vortex of putting on a show. Familiar singles such as “Once in a Lifetime” and “Road to Nowhere” are joined by compelling new tunes including a jewel of a song lent to the ensemble by the great Janelle Monae. The film’s daring dozen appears to be marching to its own beat and to a better day for the land of the free. For both strident fans of the lead artist and newcomers to his subversive optimism, Lee’s concert film showcases Byrne in fine form and an America strolling in sensational syncopation to a better day.
This plucky, picturesque new family movie is both elementary and dear. Millie Bobby Brown is superb in the titular role of teen detective little sister of Sherlock in Harry Bradbeer’s Enola Holmes (B), and much of the Victorian Era young adult adaptation story rises to the level of its protagonist’s wit and intelligence. Bradbeer fills the screen with whimsy and fun visual cues, even as some of the plot of this opulent adventure gets occasionally sluggish. As Enola’s brother and mother, respectively, Henry Cavill and Helena Bonham Carter come off a bit dull, and villains are cartoonish; but Brown brims with charm and enthusiasm, stealing all scenes. Under the magnifying glass, the film delivers a satisfying yarn and provides a potent mystery in its own right, with tinges of feminism and clever wordplay buoying its every move. This is a good first installment of what will undoubtedly be a fun series of films,
Niki Caro’s live-action remake of Mulan (B-) doesn’t really sing. Literally she doesn’t sing, but she sure does swing. The movie’s sometimes successful blend of swordsmanship, bow’s eye war sequences, wuxia-style fight choreography and awkwardly imprinted progressive values juxtaposed against Chinese tradition all serve to stack this new take on the Disney classic. The simple story of a young Chinese maiden played by Yifei Liu who disguises herself as a male warrior in order to save her father (Tzi Ma) is overbaked with a notion of Qi, the film’s version of The Force, plus added villains including a Frozen-style female antagonist to buttress the girl power quotient (yes, this director really likes symmetry). The Mouse House’s remakes of late have been artistically cynical and still commercially successful, and thankfully this film largely benefits from pretty solid production values. The resplendent colors and widescreen vistas help paint in a somewhat hollow story with sometimes stilted dialogue. The earthbound action sequences are commendable, but an oft-appearing airborne spirit looks more like a pride kite. Liu in the lead role is noble and imminently watchable, and she does honor to the role.
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.
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.
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.
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.