Behold the island of misfit goys stuck together over the 1970 Christmas break at a New England prep school campus in Alexander Payne’s snappy and sentimental The Holdovers (A-). A grumpy instructor brilliantly inhabited by Paul Giamatti, a brainy student troublemaker beautifully portrayed by Dominic Sessa and the school’s head cook, a grieving mother flawlessly played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph are among the sterling ensemble of this seriocomedy about the unlikely bonds formed between surrogate families. Payne is a preeminent chronicler of the American experience, and he finds pockets of marvelous introspection in the seeds of the Me Decade as the cynical denizens who populate his story reflect on loneliness, loss and the lies people sometimes tell themselves to cope. That said, the film is often riotously funny amidst the piercing insights. This is the curmudgeon role for which Giamatti was born to play, as viewers watch the blowhard soften up over time. Sessa and Randolph provide the lead actor magnificent foils at two different generations and are vital contributors to one of the most endearing trios to share the screen of late. The skillful production design and mellow music capture a lovely innocence juxtaposed with the movie’s smartly sketched characters. The story could have used some tightening in a few key passages, and there are times when Randolph’s glorious character gets mildly sidelined and missed; but Payne’s picaresque with indelible characters is one for the history books.
This biographical baseball film has three strikes against it: its acting roster is somewhat inconsistent, it fouls up some of its central notions about the limits of faith and it slides in too many familiar sports movie tropes – but even so, it’s largely a rousing run around the bases of feel-good sentiment. An earnest true-life story of a little-known sports miracle, Jeff Celentano’s The Hill (B-) is equal parts formulaic and inspirational. The central slugger who overcomes a handicap in order to try out for a chance at the big leagues is a real guy from history named Rickey Hill. He’s played effectively as a plucky child by the very talented Jesse Berry and as a twentysomething by Colin Ford, who is likable but not quite as natural. Dennis Quaid portrays his pastor father, who seems a bit world-weary in his stubborn role; the actor is powerful even if he never fully matches the age of his character (mercifully, no Indy 5 de-aging effects were employed). Scott Glenn as the legendary MLB scout and Bonnie Bedelia as the screenplay’s deus ex machina (a.k.a. the Hill family’s truth-telling grandmother) make lively impressions as the even more elder states-folk of the proceedings. The film is photographed in nostalgic tones which undergird its old-fashioned themes as the overprotective dad evokes unswerving devotion to religion as an excuse to forbid his son from a potentially disappointing career in baseball that will likely ruin the frail body behind his brawny batting arm. The script insists pop’s stalwart overprotection is somewhere beyond that of the parents in Footloose or Carrie, which gets far-fetched and tedious. Of course the staunch won’t short-change the launch. Still, when the inspirational sports and emotional moments work their magic, cheers and waterworks spring forth. There are some nice sequences of subtlety early in the film showcasing observant familial and congregational traditions which get mostly jettisoned for the inevitable montage sequences and grand finale. The movie is genial family entertainment and deftly demonstrates the majesty of both belief in a higher power and belief in a disciplined work ethic to field one’s dreams.
This summer’s great wish fulfillment romance is so high stakes, it just might cause an international incident. Taylor Zakhar Perez and Nicholas Galitzine play the U.S. president’s son and a British prince, respectfully, who find themselves falling in love in Matthew López’s winning romcom Red, White & Royal Blue (B+). Considering their roles as high-profile public figures, the young men who Meet Cute at a U.K. wedding party must keep their burgeoning relationship a secret at all costs. The lead actors are dashing and often amusing in their earnest roles, and López grounds the plot with enough political accuracy and contours about making history for one’s culture or community to make the cross-continental complications fairly credible. Strong supporting performances include Uma Thurman as the Texas-accented president and Stephen Fry as a smug member of the monarchy. The film, available on Prime Video, is a triumph of representation and a jolly good time in its own right.
Kelly Fremon Craig’s joyfully innocent adaptation of the Judy Blume young adult novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (A) is the book club conversation a generation has waited a half century to manifest. And it’s a modern-day film classic. Raised by a Christian mother (Rachel McAdams) and a Jewish father (Benny Safdie), a 12-year old girl (Abby Ryder Fortson) embarks on a series of questions about religion and faith while averting the preteen perils of life in the sixth grade. Craig magnificently evokes the 1970s milieu of the source material, with a spin the bottle smorgasbord of funny and heartwarming episodes ranging from fitting into a curious club to fitting into a bra. Fortson is a natural as the titular character at the center of her own set of crushes and crashes; she anchors the film with fortitude and nary a false move. She’s worthy of all accolades. Graduating from her own mean girls mentality, McAdams is exquisite as the eternally plucky mom, and Kathy Bates is a hoot as the family’s wry paternal grandmother. The film maintains sublime seriocomic delicacy as it balances glimpses at various belief systems and plumbs some taboos on the verge of adolescence. It’s heartwarming throughout, without a dash of cynicism. See it with someone you cherish.
In this modern-day season of spiritual outpouring and reawakening, Joe Erwin and Brent McCorkle’s late-1960s set Jesus Revolution (B) is a lovely nod to finding universal truth via an unlikely history lesson about the origins of some major contemporary Christian movements on the West Coast. In this faith-based film, Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammer), a Southern California pastor in a rut, opens his church to enlightened hippies including ring leader Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie), and together they launch a successful movement to evangelize members of the counterculture including future pastor Greg Laurie (Joel Courtney). There are some unlikely Venn diagrams at play here between those who drop acid and those who drop The Gospel, but aside from one embarrassing sequence that feels like a Nancy Reagan curated Reefer Madness fever dream, most of the movie’s high points focus on an engrossing fish out of water and coming of age tale. The film’s second half is a longer slog about the machinations of congregation and commune life, mercifully punctuated with a sweet romance between Courtney’s Laurie and the talented Anna Grace Barlow as his committed girlfriend Cathe. The directors capture a supple California bathed in glorious magic hour camera shots, with sunsets and baptismal waters breaking through the chaos of the historical times and a buoyant mix of period songs with worship music. The themes about opening the doors of the church to those unlike the traditional congregants resonate strongly in a time churches are still struggling about who to accept. This film is an endearing story, well acted by its three principal actors, likely to stir the soul.
Foisting an often unflattering, unremarkable personal memoir on the masses is a sure fire way to open oneself up to bruising judgment, especially when the memories intended to move or inspire simply feel dramatically inert. Writer/director James Gray’s Armageddon Time (C-) leverages his wistful recollections about being 12 years old in Queens, New York in the 1980s to moralize about the enduring state of affairs in the world. The retro atmosphere is all there, from toting metal lunchboxes, riding on the subway, touring the Guggenheim and playing in Flushing Meadows, but the film rarely gathers steam in any of its locales. Banks Repeta is the central boy learning retconned lessons about white privilege as he watches his Black friend played by Jaylin Webb get in trouble for mutual troublemaking. It feels like the protagonist isn’t really there; he’s just watching himself be an unsure tween, longing for better choices he could have made. Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway are believable but oddly written as the parents; the viewer will be unsure what to make of them exactly, and they have very little to do or say. Even a nice portrayal of the sage family grandfather by Anthony Hopkins feels perfunctory. There are indeed some life lessons lurking beneath the heavy handed plotting, but there are few revelations to draw viewers into this feature as essential viewing.
Lead actress Daisy Edgar-Jones (DEJ) almost unilaterally redeems director Olivia Newman’s melodrama Where the Crawdads Sing (B-), rescuing the period piece film from one of the most poorly paced and acted first twenty minutes of a major Hollywood feature (a kind of reverse Saving Private Ryan) and helping draw viewers into what at times magically becomes rather riveting. The movie’s literary roots are showing, from the cloying first-person voice-over narration to the “life under a microscope” earthly allusions. DEJ’s protagonist “Kya” is an outsider loner and novice naturalist of the North Carolina marshes who becomes embroiled in two significant romances and one murder trial. She digs mussels and muscles and may or may not harbor secrets. The soapy plot would be the death Nell to the proceedings were it not for the impeccable work by DEJ as the magnetic central character. She’s surrounded by one of David Strathairn’s few humdrum performances (he’s the kindly lawyer) and even more confounding acting turns by Taylor John Smith and Harris Dickinson as tall glass of water “good” and “bad” suitors, respectively (Did original song writer Taylor Swift also cast the disappointing dudes from her jilted jukebox burn book?). Somewhere in the middle of it all, though, there’s DEJ’s fierce female performance: a smart, observant and evolving heroine with emotive eyes, piercing pathos and utterly believable physicality. She makes viewers hope and wince and cheer. The story is occasionally rich with bursts of Southern gothic atmosphere, and Newman ultimately gets a grip on the multiple plot threads to lend a sizable chunk of the overlong story a more cohesive vibe. This is all a bit of a guilty pleasure, quite watchable, but hardly revelatory. Except the lead actress: she’s a cinematic savior here and raises the stakes beyond the brays of the crayfish.
Maneuvering the manic minefield of the female Chinese-Canadian tween growing up in early aughts Toronto can be a lot to handle: from flip phones to flipping out, juggling pimpled cuties and temple duties, hoarding both Tamogotchis and tampons and in general trying to find one’s way while on the brink of something new. Domee Shi’s Turning Red (B) leverages a fusion of anime stylings and daydreams with dollops of photo-realistic Pixar aesthetics to craft an animated adventure. But why simply chronicle the protagonist’s amusing and illuminating semi-autobiographical coming of age story when you can also foist an extra forced metaphor of turning into a giant red panda when emotions get heavy? It’s a balancing act for the filmmaking team ultimately working out the story kinks. Glimpses into the bonds of female friendship and some fascinating Cantonese cultural cues enliven the sillier moments, and the film works best when pursuing the genuine embarrassments of adolescence as opposed to plumbing the land grabs for plush merchandise sales. Rosalie Chiang gives a spry central voice performance, and Sandra Oh is effective as her demanding mom who thankfully can relate to her daughter’s strife with more haste that a recently frustrating animated Colombian abuela. Although this film is not a musical, the score and songs by Ludwig Göransson plus Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell, respectively, keep proceedings lively, especially in some amusing boy band parody sequences. No doubt this will be the latest Disney endeavor to play on repeat for a good part of the upcoming season, so thankfully it’s a ritual with rewards.
It’s a pretty platter party with a nostalgic ‘70s San Fernando Valley, California aesthetic and solid soundscape, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s meandering dramedy Licorice Pizza (C) is a bit too charmed with itself to ever figure out exactly what it is. For all practical purposes, it’s a coming of age movie in which neither principal character comes of age. Alana Haim plays an aimless twentysomething who befriends Cooper Hoffman’s fifteen year old child actor and sometimes entrepreneur and ostensibly has a near romantic relationship with him. It’s never clear which of this newcomer duo’s particular points of view the audience is intended to follow the most. Both characters are often sympathetic but after a long running time remain at arm’s length. The plot is an episodic series of escapades with little payoff; and like the oil embargo ripped out of headlines into the otherwise fantastical story, the movie itself actually runs out of gas. Celebrity cameos don’t much help matters with a feral character portrayed by Bradley Cooper at least generating more onscreen momentum than a smarmy bore played by Sean Penn. The bittersweet film ultimately isn’t funny enough, romantic enough or dramatic enough to take its place as a classic along with the likes of American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused. Hopefully other non-critics will find it funnier and sunnier than this writer did.
This film is speaking my love language. As the teenage daughter of deaf parents with her only sibling deaf as well, Ruby, played with sublime grace by Emilia Jones, seeks to be a standout in the field of choral music, which no one else in her rural New England family can actually hear, in the formulaic but feel-good dramedy of the summer, Sian Heder’s CODA (A-). Heder writes and directs the film with an admirable lack of sentiment and grounds the central family in a highly relatable milieu. The protagonist’s quest to pursue her art while also pulled into the mounting demands of the family fishing business (she’s their sole interpreter) provides ample material for conflict, but most everything comes back to love in an overall work that can best be described as heartwarming. Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur are outstanding as the parents, Daniel Durant charming as the brother and Eugenio Derbez is a delight as the music teacher. Ruby and her family feel real in their every interaction, and even when the story unfolds in pretty much the way a viewer would expect it to, it still does so in surprising ways because of the composition and cunning of this unconventional family. Viewers will be won over by the sweet-natured strengths of the ensemble, the unexpected representation and inclusion of the casting and the writer/director’s skills at quiet observation. Additionally the music sequences are wonderful. Far from a chore or a bore, this film is uplift from beginning to end.
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.
The first year of college can feel like you’re on the verge of something amazing or the brink of tears, and for the homesick protagonist of the breakout 2020 South by Southwest film Shithouse (aka Freshman Year) (A-), it’s a vulnerable journey from mope to hope. Cooper Raif is writer, director and star of this DIY gem of a film with lived-in performances, droll dialogue and a generally appealing scrappiness portending a star being born. Dylan Gelula is excellent as the resident advisor and potential romantic partner who beguiles the confused frosh, and Logan Miller is the unreliable roommate who first tells our hero about the irreverent titular party headquarters where destinies could take a turn. There are undercurrents of Before Sunrise here in the talky travelogue of campus life but with characters who are sending very mixed signals. Raif is funny and fresh and doesn’t mind wearing his emotions on his sleeve and gives a great speech about those in a relationship at least needing to be on the same team. There are many creative conceits involving an encouraging childhood plush toy who communicates in subtitles, a wake for a reptile and a botched sex scene filmed as awkwardly as its confusing content. This is one of those movies the viewer simply chills with as opposed to being bombarded with constant jokes, and the hang is definitely worth it.