There's about half a movie in "Overcomer." The other half or so is a pretty half-hearted sermon. Neither half is particularly worthwhile, and the whole is cheap, cheesy, and, to put it charitably, churchy.
That's the method of director Alex Kendrick, who has helmed and, with his brother Stephen, co-written several faith-based movies. (The brothers wrote this screenplay, too). To call this one merely "faith-based" seems like an understatement, and to call it a "movie" feels especially generous.
It doesn't start that way, though. In fact, the first act of Kendrick's newest seems like a legitimate narrative. Indeed, it opens with a prologue (featuring a nifty drone shot that flies over some trees, through the window of a Christian high school and into the gymnasium, where a basketball game is underway), establishing a community on the brink of economic disaster. A nearby manufacturing plant is closing its doors and laying off most of the employees. The school's fate is in jeopardy, because most of the families have someone who works at the plant.
That's one setup established. Then, we get another, as teacher and basketball coach John Harrison (played by the director, whose performance certainly sells the idea that the filmmakers pulled a random high school basketball coach, with no acting experience but a genial personality, out of nowhere and put him in the leading role) is in a tough spot. With parents leaving town and students leaving the school, the coach's team looks ready to collapse.
Plus, the school's principal (played by Priscilla C. Shirer) wants him to coach the cross country team. John doesn't even think running is a real sport, and the only student who tries out is Hannah (Aryn Wright-Thompson), a transfer student whose parents are dead, who lives with her grandmother Barbara (Denise Armstrong), and, who, more pertinent to long-distance running, has asthma.
That's three narrative threads, right there for the taking: the coach who has something to learn, the student who has something to prove, and the economic insecurity of the small town threatening all of it. None of these threads is revolutionary by any measure, but they at least form the foundation of an actual story.
At some point, though, the Kendricks simply decide to abandon just about all of that. Through a chance meeting at a hospital, where John is visiting a fellow parishioner with his church's pastor, the coach just happens to discover Thomas (Cameron Arnett). Through some painfully on-the-nose dialogue during a later visit, John learns that Thomas, blind and having more health issues on account of diabetes, is actually Hannah's long-believed dead father.
Now, of course, there's the conundrum: Does John tell Hannah, or does he respect the wishes of Barbara, who has kept the fact that Thomas is still alive hidden from Hannah? It doesn't matter, because, even before he learns that his daughter is so close, Thomas begins the preaching, insisting that maybe John isn't the best Christian he can be. After all, John dares to list several other things about him and his life before he even thinks about calling himself a Christian.
Then, the principal gets into the game, proselytizing Hannah to reject her terribly sinful ways and become a Christian. There are three scenes in a row that exclusively show or climax with different characters praying, and Hannah's big training montage—which is to be expected, even when the movie seems to have abandoned everything but the sermons from the story—is intercut with her doing a Bible study.
Eventually, the Kendricks' screenplay gets back to the racing plot thread. Mind you, it's just for the Big Race (which we only learn is the state championship after it's finished), so it's more of a requirement than an actual story point. Even then, Hannah wears an earbud with her father coaching and, obviously, preaching to her. In theory, this is a rather clever way to make a lengthy sequence of a long-distance race involving, but in practice, it's just more sermonizing.
Apparently, "Overcomer" isn't for an audience that cares about being told a story. It's aimed at an audience that doesn't mind too much if a story occasionally interrupts a homily.
“Liberty” is a word so deeply ingrained in American culture that our nation’s most iconic statue supposedly serves as an embodiment of it. So often has the term been used that it has lost all trace of meaning. It’s easy to forget that liberty, as defined by our dictionaries, is “the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions by authority on one’s way of life.” Having personally observed how my mother, her body rendered nearly immobile by Multiple Sclerosis, has struggled to remain at home, despite the efforts of insurance companies to locate her elsewhere, it’s clear to me that “liberty” is not a top priority of the United States. Her fully functional brain has no place in a nursing home, and the same could be said of Zak (Zack Gottsagen), the protagonist with Down syndrome who escapes his incarceration in “The Peanut Butter Falcon.” That film’s hopeful theme of love transcending bureaucratic inertia is shared by another of this year’s aspiring crowd-pleasers, Kirill Mikhanovsky’s “Give Me Liberty.” Both pictures deserve praise for their inclusive casting and unpatronizing portrayal of people with disabilities, but does their optimism really ring true?
I suspect those viewers all-too-familiar with the relentless stresses of caregiving and being cared for will find little hilarity in Mikhanovsky’s Job-like portrait of a young medical transport driver, Vic (Chris Galust), who carries the weight of a broken system on his slender shoulders. Perhaps I would’ve laughed more at his plight if I wasn’t busy having a panic attack. As the film opens, he’s already running late in busing various clients to appointments, since the sheer ineptitude of America’s health care apparatus has caused him to take on more responsibilities than one can adequately tackle. Upon realizing that a van hasn’t arrived for an elderly group of singing mourners—including his grandfather—on their way to a funeral, Vic can’t resist cramming them into his vehicle alongside others bound for Eisenhower Center, the nonprofit job training program for people with disabilities in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Tagging along for the ride is Dima (Maxim Stoyanov), an irreverent con man posing as a long-lost nephew of the deceased. After swiping candy from a passenger, he’s mortified to see her endure a diabetic attack, prompting the funeral goers to make an emergency stop at the Center, where they’re faced with an empty vending machine and dog treats. Left stranded in the vehicle is Tracy (Lauren “Lolo” Spencer), a woman with ALS who dryly quips, “I’m so glad the accordion got off the van before I did.”
This is one of a handful of moments that did elicit a chuckle from me, in part because the incessant shouting matches had temporarily subsided, allowing the absurdity of the situation to sink in. Spencer, a YouTube star de-stigmatizing people who use wheelchairs on her channel “Sitting Pretty,” proves here to have a riveting screen presence, exuding the inherent frustration of her circumstances without ever allowing herself to be defined by them. It’s a pity that many of her most affecting scenes are fragmented by Mikhanovsky’s tirelessly visceral editing, which is so restless that it causes some key sequences—particularly the climax—to verge on incoherence, with the soundtrack periodically becoming out of sync with the footage. The best thing that can be said about the script, penned by acclaimed playwright Alice Austen, is that it never sounds written. Most of the dialogue seems as if it were improvised by the film’s remarkable ensemble, particularly when scenes of prolonged verbal altercations reach Cassavetes-level decibels. Long before the film’s first half has concluded, Vic has run up against enough obstacles to permanently freeze his face into a replica of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” yet he keeps plugging along for reasons he keeps to himself, much to the bewilderment of his mother.
If this movie is actually intended to be a comedy, then its overarching gag may be that our country’s failure to care for those in need requires a “scam artist” like Dima to ensure that things get done rather than remain in stagnation. Though he initially appears to be a nuisance offering little more than strained comic relief, he eventually emerges as somewhat of a good luck charm for Vic, helping him open an apartment for a post-funeral gathering by putting the moves on a jaded security guard. I didn’t buy this scene any more than I did Dakota Johnson’s abrupt transformation from a rule-abiding nursing home employee to a carefree spirit upon falling for the oily charms of Shia LaBeouf in “The Peanut Butter Falcon.” Time and again, both films build up to conflicts that would likely result in a dire outcome before backing away from them with a shrug and a smile. A serious conversation about a young man’s future suddenly devolves into laughter. A violent brawl somehow evaporates before anyone gets mortally wounded. A guaranteed firing is prevented merely by the forces of luck. In the production notes, Mikhanovsky refers to Austen and himself as idealists who believe that the American Dream is still within reach for all who carry it within them. I appreciate this sentiment, though their film’s inability to follow through on what it sets up is more indicative of denial than enlightenment.
That being said, there’s a great deal to admire about this picture, not least of all the fact that it was shot entirely in Milwaukee, a town not known for its filmmaking incentives. As he did in his debut feature, 2006’s Brazil-set “Fish Dreams,” Mikhanovsky directs a cast comprised largely of non-actors, none of whom are reduced to caricatures. The end credit roll pointedly begins with the full names of its leads starting with Galust, an electrician randomly discovered by the casting director in a bakery, and concludes with Mikhanovsky and Austen, referred to only by their last names. In a sense, the film’s very existence is as miraculous as that of Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” another audacious ode to Americans devalued by their own government. Zeitlin served as an executive producer on “Give Me Liberty,” while his former gaffer, Wyatt Garfield, reaffirms his status as a sublime cinematographer, on the heels of lensing such gems as “American Fable” and “Porto.” I especially like how he turns Dima’s flirtation with Vic’s sister, Sasha (Darya Ekamasova of “The Americans,” one of the few veteran performers in the cast), into a spiral of conflicting emotion, capturing their humor, sorrow and budding attraction as they pirouette before the camera in long, near wordless takes.
Many of the stories in the script were apparently inspired by Mikhanovsky’s own experiences of driving a medical transport van, while the film’s “Whose Streets?” march could very well be mirroring the 2016 Milwaukee protests following the fatal shooting of a 23-year-old African-American man by police. What “Give Me Liberty” aims to express is that even in a city as segregated as Milwaukee, America’s melting pot enables a diverse wealth of races, cultures and physical capabilities to blend together in beautiful and unexpected ways, just like the colorful trees drawn by Eisenhower Center resident Gregory Merzlak. Vic reminds me quite a bit of my father, who has sacrificed his retirement years to ensure that my mother’s dream of living at home can be sustained as long as possible. Mikhanovsky nails the harrowing reality of Vic’s predicament so thoroughly that I couldn’t stomach the film’s escapist flourishes, however well-intentioned they were. By the end, I felt neither amused nor uplifted. I was simply wrung out.
The sleepy, dopey action bonanza “Angel Has Fallen” is disappointing, and not just for the reasons you might expect. Being the second sequel to “Olympus Has Fallen,” “Angel Has Fallen” doesn’t even have a high bar to clear. “Olympus Has Fallen” was a by-the-numbers revenge-fantasy about ruthless North Koreans and emasculated, savior-thirsty Americans that’s mostly distinguished by its considerable displays of over-the-top violence. Basically, America is graphically imperiled for the sake of confirming a slogan coined by then-interim President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman): “As a nation, we are never stronger than when we are tested.”
“Olympus Has Fallen” is, at the very least, a credible survivalist wet dream. In that movie, America is (temporarily) made great again, but only after the Washington Monument is toppled, the President is tied up, and the Secretary of Defense is punched in the face and kicked in the belly, right before she’s dragged across the floor as she defiantly screams the Pledge of Allegiance. To defeat the North Koreans, Banning does what no officially sanctioned US agents can: he kills a bunch of bad guys without any remorse or reprisal, like the North Korean hostage that he shoots in the head, just to spook the other North Korean agent he has tied up (“Your friend seemed like a funny guy”). “Olympus Has Fallen” isn’t a good movie, but I couldn’t stop watching it.
By contrast: I couldn’t wait to stop watching “Angel Has Fallen,” an indifferently assembled cash-in shot with way too many shaky, unfocused close-ups which seem designed to re-assure viewers of this otherwise bland drama’s surface-deep intensity. Being a timid lament about contemporary American trust issues (the Russians are to blame, but almost incidentally), “Angel Has Fallen” sics Banning—now rickety from concussion-induced migraines and insomnia—on a group of disloyal American mercenaries led by, well, you’ll figure that part out soon enough.
The makers of “Angel Has Fallen” don’t seem to care as much about their characters (or patriotic ass-whoopings) like their predecessors did. Instead, we get a few tentative signs of introspection from Banning—he’s sick, has a family to protect, and an estranged dad, too!—that are immediately glossed over for the sake of pumping up a few flat set pieces that hail from the Tony Scott School of Frenzied Action Filmmaking, only they’re not as dynamic or good-looking as Scott’s jittery photography. If you’re going to be mean-spirited and exploitative, at least do it convincingly.
The makers of “Angel Has Fallen” struggle most when they have to make Banning look like a rebel who also knows that he must inevitably “ride a desk” to retirement. Their version of Banning is more like John McClane in “A Good Day to Die Hard” than in “Die Hard 2: Die Harder.” He complains (and periodically shows symptoms) of the action-movie equivalent of PTSD, but never succumbs to those ailments, especially not when he needs to cut through handcuffs, light up a phalanx of armed mercs, or run away strategically. This is apparently what life is like for a trained ex-soldier: a sad, vague awareness of your own mortality that’s mostly off-set by shoot-outs, drone attacks, and improvised explosions that confirm your megalomaniacal sense of self-worth. After all, Banning’s got an important job to do: protect Trumbull, a steadfast leader who vows to never rush our nation into war, but also wants us to be ready in case it’s ever Boom Boom Go Time. Banning’s moral righteousness sharply contrasts with the movie’s immoral, Russia-colluding baddies, all of whom sell out their country because they miss going to war and also really like money.
I’d care more about Banning and his values if his creators had invested more care into their movie’s action scenes, dialogue, characterizations, and basic plot. The editing and sound design is fine enough, but that’s about it. Close-ups of Butler's and Freeman’s blotchy-but-determined faces only hammer home the movie’s general please-like-me desperation, as do action scenes that over-stress smoke, gunfire flashes, and flying debris instead of choreography, visual coherence, or human personality. Even the scenes where Banning’s dad (no spoilers!) blows up some faceless goons somehow feel perfunctory and underwhelming.
These key moments, like any scene featuring great character actors like Tim Blake Nelson and Lance Reddick, are raced through with negligible conviction and even less inspiration. If this type of no-brow entertainment is your thing, you may find something to like in “Angel Has Fallen,” but that doesn’t mean you need what these guys are reselling.
The first time I saw the title and synopsis of “Brittany Runs a Marathon” at Sundance, I cringed. I didn’t want to see some version of my own health struggles at a time when I was not sleeping well, not eating healthy and not getting any exercise aside from standing in line for my next movie. Fortunately, when I finally watched the film months later, I was overwhelmingly charmed. Yes, this movie’s title says it all—there is a character named Brittany (Jillian Bell) who runs a marathon (New York’s, one of the biggest running events in the country). But there’s a surprising amount of nuance in Brittany’s story. The movie unpacks the emotional baggage of how society treats you differently when your dress size is in the double digits, how the scars of bad relationships past (if you’ve had relationships at all) can pool up insecurity and how endless self-loathing can curdle into an attitude that hurts others. Far from being just a simple comedy about fitness and weight loss, Brittany’s journey includes the healing and forgiveness it takes to really meet those goals.
Before Brittany was a runner, she was a party girl who loved to stay up late, drink and eat goodness knows what and dabble in drugs most doctors would frown on. After a reality check from a concerned physician, Brittany decides to reshape her life with something she normally would never do: run. With the help of a neighbor (Michaela Watkins) she used to hate and a fellow out-of-shape-getting-into-shape running buddy (Micah Stock), Brittany learns to take care of herself and the people that matter to her.
Beyond obvious training montages and scenes of those painful first steps into a fitness routine, it’s apparent that Brittany has more to work on than just her high blood pressure. Her struggles are similar to that of many other millennials: she’s a rainy day away from going broke, making do with the low-paying gig economy, her roommate situation is less-than-ideal and romance eludes her on dating apps. Any one of the issues would have been enough dramatic tension for her to deal with, but when coupled with her extreme health makeover and a tragic backstory, it lends this comedy some authenticity. Because she’s coping with so much, Brittany’s self-defenses are always on guard, ready to lash out at those trying to help her. She can even get cruel or selfish, which are not characteristics you usually see in feel-good sports movies. She’s who you want to cheer for, but her tendency for self-sabotage threatens her progress, her friendships and the audience’s connection to her.
Thankfully, Bell and writer and director Paul Downs Colaizzo empathize with their main character’s struggles, giving her room to be messy and imperfect but also a chance for redemption. Downs Colaizzo based Brittney on a close friend of his yet doesn’t spare his cinematic version of her from a few less-than-stellar moments. It’s perhaps the reason why the film feels less like some guy’s fabrication of what it’s like for a woman to go through what Brittany experiences. Bell’s performance balances her character from being too earnest or too hard on herself and really gets at the insecurity she feels about her athletic abilities, her financial situation and her personal life. She can be bubbly or bitter, determined or defeated. Bell shows off a range that many of her previous roles never gave her. In much of the same way seasoned runners make a marathon look easy, Bell makes leading this comedy look effortless.
Since a good portion of the drama plays out on New York City’s never-ending sidewalks and park paths, cinematographer Seamus Tierney’s landscapes look more like a blur, with close-ups of our main characters and bright colors of running gear popping against each frame. The movie still has its independent scrappiness intact, which is most obvious during the digitally rendered marathon map tracking Brittany’s progress through the race. But that does not detract from the powerful emotions captured at the climactic event: the enormous scale of thousands of runners pouring through the city’s five boroughs, hundreds of volunteers scattered throughout the course and miles and miles of strangers—maybe even a few friendly faces—cheering for hours as people cross the finish line. It’s a moment so perfectly encapsulated in the final stretch of “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” that it earns a place among some of the best sports movies.
It’s not surprising that Guillermo del Toro has been a vocal advocate for Issa López’s “Tigers Are Not Afraid.” The film was clearly deeply influenced by Del Toro’s “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which merge fantasy and supernatural elements with real-life horrors. In those films, and López’s, the real monsters are flesh and blood. They carry guns and victimize the innocent. At its best, López’s movie has that del Toro signature style, and she also proves herself a deft director of children, another element she shares in common with the Oscar winner. There are moments in the midsection of “Tigers” in which I wished the film had more urgency and rising tension, but then the film lands with a breathtaking final shot. I mean that literally—I gasped. And it’s a shot that will linger with me, a perfect closing beat for a film that has become one of the most-buzzed of 2019 for a reason.
One important element that separates “Tigers” from a masterpiece like “Backbone” is that López’s film is not a period piece. For a lot of viewers, it will feel like something they can’t relate to, but it tells a very current story, especially given how much the drug war on the border of Mexico and the state of immigration dominates our political discourse. López opens by reminding us how many people have been murdered and disappeared in Mexico since 2006, when the drug war intensified and riddled the air with violence to such a degree that there are entire cities that have become ghost towns.
Our story is set in one of these cities, where children have been orphaned by the violence that surrounds them, forming a sort of “lost boys” group of their own on a rooftop. They steal food and the supplies to keep them alive, and they’re led by an angry young man named Shine (Juan Ramon López). In an early scene, Shine steals a phone and a gun from a local thug named Caco (Ianis Guerrero), and nearly shoots him in the back. Not long after this decision, a quiet girl named Estrella (the incredible Paola Lara, whose commitment holds the whole film together) comes home after a school shooting to find her mother is missing. She joins Shine’s gang, and they tell Estrella that her mother was likely kidnapped and either trafficked or murdered. And then Caco and his men come looking for his phone.
You may be wondering how fantasy plays into such a dark, realist narrative. López opens with a teacher asking her students to write a fairy tale, and some of the elements of that instruction weave their way through the film. There’s a mysterious blood trail that follows Estella; she is haunted by something in the shadows that may or may not be her mother; she’s even been granted three wishes, which will play major roles in how her story unfolds. While some filmmakers would have used the magical elements of Estella’s life to provide an escape from reality, López is more interested in using them to enhance the danger and symbolism of her story. Don’t come into this wanting answers about what’s real and what isn’t—you won’t find them. López merges the horrors of real life with fairy tale structures and storytelling in a way that’s ambitious and consistently fascinating.
The union of the two doesn’t always click, though. To be blunt, what del Toro does is very difficult to maintain tonally, and “Tigers” doesn’t quite come together like his best work. There’s a sense of mounting danger in the best films like this that is just a bit lacking in “Tigers.” I wanted to feel the monsters closing in on Estrella and Shine more than I did, as the film kind of plays on one level, even as López proves she’s willing to take some risks in terms of presenting the real danger of this world. Still, when a film opens with a school shooting and a child pointing a gun, it’s hard to build from there in terms of danger and urgency. Consequently, “Tigers Are Not Afraid” is more a film that I appreciated instead of becoming enveloped in its world and fully invested in the plight of its characters.
That is until that final shot. Without spoiling anything, López uses color and space in a way she doesn’t otherwise in the film, and the result casts everything before it in a poignant light. These ghost towns of orphans are so violent and tragic that perhaps the only way we can even possibly understand and relate to what’s happening there is through a fairy tale. “Tigers Are Not Afraid” may be imperfect, but you can feel the passion and creativity of its filmmaker in every decision. She’s fearless.
Despite what some purists may think, there’s nothing inherently wrong with remaking a great movie, especially one that’s almost three decades old. I’m all for taking the themes of a film and reworking them in a way that makes them feel fresh and new for a modern audience -- two great examples of this being John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and David Cronenberg’s “The Fly.” What frustrates me is when a remake deconstructs what works about an original film and then doesn’t seem to have any interest in reconstructing it into something interesting again. Even worse is when it feels like a movie inherently doesn’t understand what really worked about the source material from which it’s working, which is the case with David Rosenthal’s inept, long-delayed remake of Adrian Lyne’s “Jacob’s Ladder.” Lyne’s best film emerged from a country still damaged by Vietnam and weaved the distrust engendered by the veteran experience into a Kafka-esque vision of horror. The remake has some scary faces and a tacked-on commentary about PTSD and government intervention that feels cheap and unearned. Only the commitment from the always-solid Michael Ealy saves it from being one of the worst movies of the year, although just barely.
Ealy plays Jacob Singer, a medic in Afghanistan who is startled to discover that the latest body on his stretcher belongs to his brother Isaac. After returning home and settling down with his wife (Nicole Beharie) and new child, Jacob begins to have terrifying visions, although most of them are of the jump-scare variety instead of the slow-burn horror approach used by Lyne. A clearly traumatized vet (Ealy’s co-star from “The Intruder,” Joseph Sikora) warns him that something is wrong before meeting a grisly fate. Or does he? Could Jacob just be going crazy? When he finds out something shocking about his brother, played by Jesse Williams, and learns about a new drug that seems to be replacing PTSD with addiction, the line between what’s real and what’s imagined blurs to another degree.
Rosenthal and his collaborators drop in visual beats that will be familiar to fans of the original -- both films have a fascinating visual motif of motion as subway trains and speeding cars come racing through history to catch up with Jacob Singer. But this version of “Jacob’s Ladder” can’t find the right tone, jumping wildly from a story about PTSD to a story about brotherhood to a waking nightmare without ever figuring out how to merge the three. Consequently, it gives us a version of Jacob Singer who simply bounces from plot point to plot point, occasionally terrified by a jump scare but never resonant in a way that makes his plight feel relatable. Lyne’s original has become an influential piece of cinema for its visuals and final twist, but Tim Robbins’ performance there remains one his most underrated. It’s a film that works not just because of its narrative or atmosphere but because of how Robbins grounds it. Try as he might, Ealy’s version of Singer gets lost here. It sometimes feels like the filmmaking is actively working against him.
Although he certainly makes out better than the supporting cast. Beharie and Williams’ characters might as well be named ‘Plot Device 1’ and ‘Plot Device 2’ given how little they have to work with beyond their relationship with Jacob Singer. Like so much of the 2019 “Jacob’s Ladder,” they’re shallow. It feels like a project that worked from a checklist more than any sort of artistic impetus to rework an influential film. And it often feels like a project that’s trying to merge different projects together. There’s a movie in here about brotherhood, one about PTSD, one about addiction, and a remake of “Jacob’s Ladder” but they never come together to form a satisfying whole.
The first question any remake needs to ask is “Why?” Not only is it painfully obvious that this was never once answered during the production of the new “Jacob’s Ladder,” it doesn’t seem like anyone considered asking it.
Liza Mandelup's documentary "Jawline," about 16-year-old Austyn Tester's desire to achieve social media fame, is an interesting experience. Mandelup has taken great care in how she presents Tester, as well as how she approaches this whole world of social media stars and the mostly tween-age girls who adore them. If you're over 14 years of age, all of it may seem like you've entered an alternate and very confusing dimension, but Mandelup presents without judgment, and in so doing provides understanding. There are disturbing undercurrents in this world, so present it's almost like white noise, and Mandelup avoids much of it, or touches lightly on it before moving on. This is a mistake. "Jawline" left me feeling wistful and very protective of Tester. Like his brother Donovan says early on, "Austyn is soft-hearted." A portrait of a kid determined to add "positivity" to the world through YouTube videos may sound like pretty grim viewing, especially to the cynical, but "Jawline" works gently, slowly, presenting its subject and sub-culture with not just affection but sympathy, a sympathy very close to tenderness.
At first, watching Tester—a cute kid from Kingsport, Tennessee—make his YouTube broadcasts from a corner of his bedroom, chatting with the fans who sign on, it's hard to tell what exactly is the point of what he is doing. He doesn't have any skills like singing or dancing. His whole thing is presenting a kind and sweet persona, providing pep talks to his fans, all of whom are young girls: "Be yourself. Go after your dreams. Don't let anyone stop you." It's all very vague, but the girls giggle and squeal and when he interacts with them one on one it's as though Mick Jagger is on the line. Tester talks constantly about how he wants to add positivity to the world. It's almost heartbreaking. And, despite his obvious naiveté, he knows what "sells"; he studies the videos made by Julian and Jovani Jara, twins who present an unthreatening boyish friendliness, and have a gigantic following. He knows what he needs to do and be.
Tester lives with his mother and brother in a house full of cats. The family clearly has no money, and the abusive father left a long time ago. Mandelup films without condescension, and the cinematography by Noah Collier and Ben Whatley is poetic and emotional: Tester and his friends leaping into the river on a hot day, or wandering the night streets, past rusting cars on cinder blocks, a Coca Cola machine on the side of the road, an empty Dairy Queen drive-thru. There's a beautiful shot of Tester and his best friend lying in a hammock in the woods, bare legs flopped over each other, both of them engrossed in their phones. Considering his environment, it's not hard to see why Tester latches onto fame. Is it any different from the kids in Suzannah Herbert and Lauren Belfer's documentary "Wrestle," who depend on getting scholarships to college? In essence it's the same, but there's one crucial difference: the kids in "Wrestle" have a skill, a skill that provides a future (education, coaching). Tester has ... what?
Tester says things like, "I want to move to LA because that's the place where dreams come true." He means this. I feared for him. This fear grows when Mandelup moves the action to Los Angeles, following Michael Weist, a "manager" who helps kids achieve the social media fame they want. Weist shops on Rodeo Drive, and is only a couple of years older than the teenagers he promotes. All of his clients live with him in his palatial house (which is also a pig-sty, a frat house for camera-ready 15-year-old boys). Weist pays for everything, and they all sit around making videos and getting massages. It is truly La-La Land. (Weist became notorious last year when he "produced" something called "TanaCon," which ended in disaster. It wasn't as big a debacle as Fyre Festival but it—and he—made headlines.) The majority of "Jawline" sticks with Austin, as he acquires a "manager" from Houston (interviewed, creepily, in an empty office). Tester gets placed on a "tour," and returning to Kingsport is a tough adjustment. He finds it hard to put out "positivity" into the world, he stops making videos. This is the emptiness of creating a persona for online consumption: what happens when you don't feel it?
Mandelup made a very smart choice in interviewing the girls who flock to the "tours." These interviews help contextualize the "shows," where coiffed boys walk around on a stage, doing nothing but taking selfies with girls and signing autographs, causing mass pandemonium. But when these girls talk about being bullied, or feeling lonely, or having a rough home life, the comfort they find in these friendly non-judgmental boys who are like the really popular boys at school, except caring and considerate ... it makes sense. This is a pre-sexual "scene". It's kids finding comfort and creating a community where they feel safe.
The whole situation, though, seems ripe for abuse and exploitation. Michael Weist does himself no favors with his own chosen persona, and is barely an authority figure with his "charges." They all bicker like the kids that they are. Ominously, Weist has also been accused of sexual harassment. Tester's "manager" in the empty office seems like a a grifter, a scammer, and Tester is too wide-eyed gullible to notice any red flags. Mandalup does not follow these threads, does not dig in deeper to the seedier side of this hastily erected "business".
"Jawline" is not Bert Marcus' "The American Meme," a brutal documentary about adult social media stars like Paris Hilton, Kirill Bichutsky (aka "The Slut Whisperer), and Josh Ostrovsky, people who create "empires" with their "personalities." Watching "The American Meme" may make you want to unplug and move to a cabin in the wilderness for ten years, but watching "Jawline" makes you want to send Tester a supportive message, telling him to hang in there, he's doing fine. He adds positivity to the world already. He's a sweet kid and it's a scary world out there. Hopefully he finds his way.
“Vita & Virginia” wastes the talents of four people—its two subjects and the two women that play them. It is a deeply frustrating movie, a film that not only can’t find the right tone from scene to scene but feels disjointed in individual moments too. It is a bit of a chamber piece, a bit of a romance, a bit of a commentary on creativity, a bit of social commentary, even a bit of magical realism. At a certain point, I started to wonder if the disjointed nature of “Vita & Virginia” was designed purposefully to replicate the structure and themes of Woolf’s Orlando, but decided I was giving a messy movie too much credit. Sometimes a mess is just a mess.
Gemma Arterton plays Vita Sackville-West, a famous socialite and writer in her own right, who meets a woman already famous but soon to be legendary, Virginia Woolf, played by the great Elizabeth Debicki. There’s an immediate connection between the two—although one of the many problems in Eileen Atkins’ script, based on her own play and co-written with director Chanya Button, is that it’s one of those films that’s constantly telling us about the spark between its leading ladies instead of actually showing it. Vita is coming off a scandalous affair with another woman, although it’s more of an issue for society and her mother (played forgettably by Isabella Rossellini) than her husband (Rupert Penry-Jones), with whom she seems to be in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” variation on open marriage.
The Woolf captured here is just starting to become the one we know today. She’s dealing with mental illness and anxiety over the publication of Mrs. Dalloway when she becomes infatuated with Vita, the yin to her yang. The idea that Vita should be a more vibrant, outgoing personality to counter Virginia’s reticent, wallflower personality is fine on a creative level, but it leads to a film with two performances at its center that feel like they’re from different movies. Arterton goes broad in line reading and facial expressions, but Debicki goes too far in the other direction. If Arterton is playing to the back row of the theatre, Debicki is playing to the people who could afford the front. They’re both very good taken on their own, but it creates a lack of chemistry in the center in which it doesn’t just feel like the two women have different personalities but like they’re in different movies. Arterton and Debicki are excellent actresses, but it was Button’s responsibility to pull them together as a director, and that just never happens.
Part of the problem is that the script never allows for depth of character, making the exaggerated over- and under-acting more apparent. This is a film filled with people who say what they want, feel, and need all the time. A character literally says, “You must remember that Virginia is vulnerable under all her brilliance.” Oh, really? Thanks. The film constantly telegraphs the intended depths of its storytelling without ever actually doing the digging. The result is an experience that’s oddly flat when it’s not spiraling off into flights of fancy, usually through a bouncy but slightly incongruous score or a bit of magical realism with Virginia, who has visions like birds attacking her or vines growing in her house.
In those moments, “Vita & Virginia” becomes another movie. It becomes the story of a famous, troubled writer who finds peace and comfort in the arms of another woman. If the entire project had been reworked from that perspective, it might have worked. Debicki is more than up to the challenge dramatically. But it jumps around in such a way that it tries to tell so much more stories than just its most interesting narrative throughline. Vita is so underwritten and yet dominates so much of the screen time. And it just becomes harder and harder to care about what happens to either of them. Someone once said that Orlando was a love letter from Virginia to Vita. You’d learn more about their relationship if you just read it instead of seeing this movie.
As comprehensive as it is dry, Stanley Nelson’s “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” will educate those who aren’t aware that the legendary Kind of Blue was improvised lightning in a bottle, or about the era in which Miles Davis was influenced by Indian music. But if those pieces of music history are old hat for you, this doc has little to offer other than its catalogue, and the poignant musings offered by a cadre of musicologists, writers, and loved ones who knew the jazz genius closely in one way or the other. For either newcomers or fans, the documentary’s cradle-to-grave, talking-head approach too readily threatens to take the zip, romance, and funk out of a fascinating subject who would be nothing without those very elements.
One aspect that shines within Nelson’s doc is the tangible sense of evolution—it is instructive on how to hear the different quintets and styles within Davis’ catalogue. And with its expansiveness, it connects the many dots to show how different collaborators (or journeys, as when Davis spent time in Paris and returned a balladeer) influenced the way Davis played trumpet and changed jazz forever, again and again. Nelson’s doc treats pivotal albums more like general eras than milestones—even the record that inspired this film’s title feels glossed over—but it creates a full sense of his career, and the many languages he created using the same 12 notes.
Words written by Davis accompany different historical moments and presented by Carl Lumbly, who has that scratchy raspy voice of Davis’ that many people in the film talk about, and sometimes imitate. But the movie is so touch and go with his artistic breakthroughs and heartbreaks—of which he had many—that the self-reflection in Davis’ trumpet is a colorful, lonely voice up against waves of monochromatic filmmaking.
Nelson’s doc thankfully eschews hagiography—it’s for the fans, but it reckons with the ugliness that equally informed his art. His ex-wife, the late Frances Taylor Davis, talks about the abuse and misogyny she faced when with the violent and jealous Davis, who essentially removed her from her dreams of dancing, virtually forced her to stay home, and accept domesticity. Davis’ drug habits are covered in all of their tragedy too, and in the doc's honest coverage of the pain he felt, a complicated morality emerges for a truly blood-sweat-and-tears composer and performer.
And yet whenever there’s a sudden burst of energy, it creates an overall herky-jerky rhythm. Nelson will introduce a decade with quick cuts of stock footage, and before one can get a strong enough rush it’s back to more talking heads, surveying Davis’ career like civil war docs do battles. Even some jokes within included footage fall flat amongst the editing, as with the inclusion of Walter Cronkite calling jazz “musical noise” in a news clip before the doc shrugs and goes on to its next talking point.
Nelson’s film was likely always meant to be constructed like this—probably from its conception—so it doesn’t seem entirely fair to knock it for its more pedagogical intent and form. Still, an information dump feels like a shortcut. “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” won’t transport you back to Davis’ pivotal performance or immerse you in his different states of mind, but it will kill whenever there’s a substitute teacher for music history class.
Is American ready for a feel-good movie about a toxic, conservative talk show host who learns to listen? Maybe, but Frank Coraci’s “Hot Air” is too shallow, sloppy, and unfunny to lead the cause, basing itself off the nation’s divisiveness as if it were a wistful set-up for ideological kumbaya, all while being afraid of starting a tough—and true—conversation.
Steve Coogan plays Lionel Macomb, a Glenn Beck, Joe Walsh-type who has an angry fanbase that tune in for his nastiness. He’s not afraid to be a bully when reading the news about a senator he doesn't like (as with Judith Light's Judith Montefiore-Salters), and he cuts callers off in the middle of heated exchanges—after getting the last zinger in. Within his own bubble, he approaches debates like a boxing match, where he’s both fighter and referee. Macomb's a mean entertainer, and is sharp enough to know how to stoke up his audience, especially when it comes to issues about people who supposedly take advantage of the system—like the lower-class, or immigrants.
Will Reichel’s script slowly reveals why Macomb is so grotesque—he has massive family issues relating to his mother and estranged sister. But instead of going to therapy, he has weaponized his ability for zinger, and created an echo chamber where he doesn’t need to address his own problems, or worry about who might be influenced by his vitriol.
He’s already a tough character to embrace as as a right-wing Scrooge, but treating his ugly beliefs as a mutation from his personal problems is a gross simplification. You get a sense that he’s doing this for narcissism and for his business; that if he could make more money telling liberals what they wanted to hear, he’d do that too. If only he were to address that buried pain, could he have a change of heart. But people are more stubborn and complicated than that, and the story's overall plan of showing his lighter side registers as especially false.
The lazy mechanics for this feel-good story kick-off once his niece Tess (Taylor Russell) shows up at his swanky NYC penthouse, and claims her relation to him, while telling him that her mother is in rehab. Persuaded by his girlfriend and PR manager Valerie (Neve Campbell) to not kick her out (or sign an NDA agreement), the unamused Lionel becomes a type of curmudgeonly father figure to the considerably less conservative Tess, who soon witnesses firsthand the phoniness of his world, and that he doesn’t let people talk.
Tess enters the picture as the type of bandaid Lionel has needed all of his life, and much of Taylor Russell’s spirited performance concerns trying to help him face the past, holding out hope that he and her mother can find a type of peace. Russell isn’t given much, even as a type of comic relief from the stressful world of Macomb. But she does help push the stagnant emotions along with blunt dialogue like, “Why are you still so angry, Lionel? Why can’t you just let it go?”, which sends the movie off on its next woe-is-Lionel passage.
Buried within the mush is a heated Coogan performance that perhaps at one point could have been memorable. During a show hosted by his arch rival Gareth Whitley (Skylar Astin), Lionel gives a quarter-baked “Network”-like rant where he goes off the cuff in front of the cameras, transforming from the voice of the conservative to a tacky cynic about all of culture. As Coraci mercilessly chops up the speech, Coogan rails against easy targets like screen culture (there’s not one but two disses) and fixations on fake idols such as himself. It’s a bland damnation that’s fitting for the soft-edges of this movie, which errs toward bipartisan crankiness.
But Coraci knows that if leaned into too much Fox News rhetoric, the film would be even more of a lost cause than it nonetheless is. We don’t see Lionel get too brash, or really push any buttons. This gives “Hot Air” the problems of other movies inspired by our daily tensions—it's afraid to pick a side and humanize it. Like how the recent “Long Shot” told of a political campaign and never revealed the character’s political party, this one plays to both sides by having Lionel rip on President Trump and Hillary Clinton, carefully making Macomb the carefully platonic image of a recognizable conservative.
It’s not a bold statement to say that it feels like we're in a post-debate era: people don't hop into Twitter threads or comment sections to be convinced, they just want to win. “Hot Air” has a merely cute sentiment for us that doesn’t stand up against reality, especially when the subjects have become so extreme that they readily concern life and death (guns, abortions, immigration, Trump, etc.). However hopeful “Hot Air” is, its phoniness makes the prospect of an open-minded debate feel even more like a fantasy.