Movie reviews

Dominique Fishback plays the world's biggest and most murderous Beyoncé super fan in "Swarm," a blood-splattered pop culture provocation from co-creators Janine Nabers and Donald Glover. Her Houstonian character Dre is willing to max out credit cards for concert tickets, just as much as she's ready to murder online trolls to defend the celebrity's honor. It matters only for legal reasons that the singer Fishback's Dre is obsessed with is actually referred to in this Prime Video limited series as Ni'Jah (Nirine S. Brown), not Beyoncé. But the opening words before each episode, as abrasive as other things in this in-your-face limited series, say plenty: "This is not a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is intentional." 

Nabers, Glover, and their team of ambitious writers have very few reservations about their references, and the series plays out like a funhouse mirror reflection of very real, however bizarre, trending topics of the recent past. Dre is a member of the type of rabid fan community that exists on any noteworthy social media platform and can be known for attacking dissenters, doxing them, and making their star's squabbles their own. Of course, many fan bases are out there, but the explicit specificity of "Swarm" about Beyoncé's fans makes it all the more biting. And the show's irascible course of events becomes all the wilder when "Swarm" riffs on the "Who Bit Beyoncé?" scandal of 2018 or references the group's violent disgust about Becky with the good hair. 

"Swarm" sets the stage with a terrific pilot episode, in which the tone zig-zags from one uncomfortable moment to the next. At first, it's watching Dre open a new credit card just so she can buy over-priced concert tickets; later on, it's the haunting, terribly sad events involving her roommate, fellow Ni'Jah superfan Marissa (Chloe Bailey). The show ends with its first act of head-crushing murder, established with vivid cinematography from Drew Daniels that makes "Swarm" even more impossible to look away from—a camera that slowly creeps and circles around a room. Much of the show will become about Dre navigating different living spaces, passing through the country like Henry in "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer." Dre's love for Ni'Jah makes everyone else's life secondary; it makes killing make sense. 

As the show jumps ahead months at a time with each episode, "Swarm" is anchored by a robust aesthetic made possible by shooting on film: the saturated colors make the spilled blood extra red, and the grit from film stock provides a texture perfect for Dre's visceral acts. The series directors, Donald Glover, Adamma Ebo ("Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul."), Ibra Ake, and Stephen Glover, establish a sound idea of this grounded but bizarre tone, complemented by a rich soundscape. In the series' sometimes intentionally campy fashion, it will play buzzing sounds when Dre is ramping up the next violent act. But the score by Michael Uzowuru is a greater addition to the soundscape, complementing bizarre scenes—one standout track at the end of an emotionally intense homecoming episode sounds like a melodic dial-tone.

The series has an incredible centerpiece with Fishback, who has always led with range and muted rage, from her debut performance in "Night Comes On" to "Judas and the Black Messiah." Fishback makes this character more than just a fan; she reflects the culture. Her emotions, physicality, and her entire existence are steered by what someone says about Ni'Jah. Fishback surprises you throughout the series with the increasing depth she takes with this character, a killer zealot who speaks with tears down her cheek about fantasies of hanging with Ni'Jah as if they were real. The series' satire is all the more heartbreaking and compulsively watchable because of Fishback's dedication to every facet of Dre. And despite the disclaimer's intent of culpability, she has the necessary empathy to soulfully portray the specific audience members "Swarm" is calling out. 

"Swarm" is very selective about how much it divulges about Dre's psychology, but those character details are almost extraneous (as in a later standalone episode that doesn't quite justify itself). The series is also not precious when presenting mental health or obsession, and such flagrancy becomes a challenging but effective part of the show's discomfort. 

As an often-fascinating work about pop culture looking at itself, the series also features appearances from other stars who live in the reality of "Swarm," making the show all the more valuable. One standout appearance comes from Billie Eilish, in her first significant on-screen acting role. As a pseudo cult leader that Fishback stumbles upon mid-season, Eilish proves able to harness her own megastar presence into a gentle but equally imposing force. It's the controlled, confident stuff that turns musicians into movie stars, and we'll remember where we saw it first. 

"Swarm" is the kind of series that casts a spell even when it's not fully working—its horror-comedy attempts at being funny are more effective with ironic developments or pitch-black bits of dialogue, like when someone compliments Dre by saying, "You should be a medical student, or a serial killer." The hit-and-miss laughs it goes for more are mostly that of disbelief, that "Swarm" has unleashed another gruesome act often inspired by someone's distaste for Ni'Jah. 

But it all returns to the fearless Fishback, who holds the absurdity and heart of this horror tale while echoing previous smiling psychos like Rupert Pupkin ("The King of Comedy"), Patrick Bateman ("American Psycho"), and Arthur Fleck ("Joker"). Fishback's work channels the same way those characters have revealed the ids of their time period and left an unforgettable mark. Every pop culture movement creates its own killer. "Swarm" is just getting in formation. 

Now playing on Prime Video.

Author: Nick Allen
Posted: March 17, 2023, 4:04 pm

Bette Davis famously owned a pillow with the adage “old age ain’t no place for sissies” stitched across it. This truism is at the heart of writer/director Paul Weitz’s “Moving On,” which stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as Claire and Evelyn, two aging, estranged friends thrown together again after decades at the funeral of their mutual friend Joyce.

A melodrama with comedic elements, plot-wise the film is about Claire’s desire to get vengeance for a sexual assault perpetrated by Joyce’s husband Howard (Malcolm McDowell) nearly 50 years earlier that completely derailed her life. In the wake of the event, she pulled away from Joyce and Evelyn, left her loving husband Ralph (Richard Roundtree, as charming and suave as ever), and has spent most of her life petrified by the trauma. 

Yet, this is not a film that exists solely for its plot mechanics. It’s a clear-eyed examination of the compounding weight of growing older, of carrying your life and your hopes and your memories and your regrets with you everywhere you go. The title, “Moving On,” does not just mean to move beyond your past but also to keep moving forward in life, even if your past stays with you. 

Like the characters they play, Fonda and Tomlin have spent decades building a deep friendship while appearing together in projects like “9 to 5” and “Grace and Frankie,” and their chemistry shines as bright as ever. They are not, however, just playing versions of their own personas. 

Claire is a woman who never found her own power, always living for others after the assault left her “mute.” Fonda plays her with a somber rigidity, holding her body tight as if thousands of emotions are one moment away from escaping the cage she’s built around them. As she reconnects with Evelyn, Ralph, and even Howard, Claire’s long-repressed sense of humor, sensuality, and seething anger she kept hidden for so long find their way to the surface. 

Tomlin plays retired musician Evelyn with her trademark deadpan sensibility, always seeming to say what she means and what feels at any given moment, unafraid to be unabashedly herself. Yet, Evelyn is a woman with secrets, wounded pride, and a passion for music – and for women – that hasn’t had an outlet in far too long. She secretly ekes out as free an existence as she can in the independent section of an assisted living facility. Joyce’s death, and Claire’s return to her life, bring out in Evelyn a bevy of complex emotions, this shift played with subtle precision by Tomlin, whose eyes belie her stoic face and monotonous voice. 

While Evelyn helps Claire plot out how to get her revenge, the two discuss the immediate aftermath of the incident. Claire didn’t report it to the police because “They wouldn’t have believed me.” On one hand, the dialogue here is on the nose, yet when looking back 50 years and then forward again, and seeing that not much has changed for women in this country in terms of their bodily autonomy and the prosecution of rapists, perhaps on the nose becomes just the truth. 

When Claire does finally get to say her peace to Howard, she graphically describes the assault, recalling every horrid detail as if it happened yesterday and not nearly 50 years ago because, for her, time stopped on that day. Fonda delivers this monologue with as much power and conviction as any in her career, tapping into the weight not just of Claire’s trauma but all the compound traumas that the actress has witnessed as a woman in this country for the last half-century. 

For his part, McDowell plays Howard as the kind of privileged man who has done just enough work on himself to consider himself a “changed man” yet has only really achieved healing for himself and for his own sake, not for those he’s harmed. Howard is less a character than an emblem of all the powerful men who get away with it over and over and over again. This could be seen as a failure at the script level, but it also allows Howard to get his just desserts at the end without the audience feeling too bad for the family he leaves behind. 

While the tonal shifts from melodrama to mordant comedy don’t always work, Fonda and Tomlin are as good as they have ever been and “Moving On” proves itself a powerful rumination on the strength it takes to age—mentally, physically, and economically. It takes strength to live with yourself and your traumas, to embrace your pleasures, and to be there for those you care about despite it all. 

Now playing in theaters. 

Author: Marya E. Gates
Posted: March 17, 2023, 12:39 pm

Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl is one of the world's best directors of actors, and he nears some kind of a peak in "Rimini," a blisteringly funny and often touching film about people struggling towards happiness despite having experienced lifetimes of disappointment. 

Set in the seaside city of the title—a "vacation town" made mournful by winter—it focuses on Richie Bravo (Michael Thomas), a once-famous pop singer. Richie lives in Rimini with his retired father (Hans-Michael Rehberg, in his final screen performance), a broken old man in a memory care facility, and, unfortunately, a Nazi sympathizer. Richie performs in nightclubs and bars and picks up a little bit of money that way, and picks up a little bit more money going home with women his own age or older. He drinks and smokes constantly and is probably carrying 40 more pounds than he must've had at his peak of stardom. He has puffy eyes, a cascading mane of hair, and twice as much jewelry as any man needs. His preferred outerwear is a sealskin coat with shoulders cut absurdly wide. He's obviously been perfecting this look for most of his life, and he's not changing it. He’s content to be a mess.

Then a young woman shows up at one of his gigs and says she's his daughter Tessa (Tessa Göttlicher), and she wants him to pay all the back child support he owes her mother. The arguments between Richie and Tessa are some of the best arguments between an adult child and a disappointing parent ever captured onscreen. Seidl honors his actors’ teamwork by holding on them in medium shots and trying not to cut until they're done. They overlap, they tear into each other, sometimes they yell, and there are moments where it seems like maybe one of the actors took the scene in an unanticipated direction, and the other decided to roll with it—and this, too, feels real. 

One of the many things that makes Richie fascinating is that if you described him as a gigolo who performs music on the side rather than a working musician, he might not disagree with you. Seidl and his cowriter Veronika Franz don't have any illusions about any of their characters. Tessa seems a bit less righteous and more scammy as the story goes on; she has a boyfriend and he has an entourage. Richie’s clients and party friends have lives, and Richie’s barely controlled chaos is their brief escape from responsibility. There's no special pleading on behalf of anyone in the story or any romanticizing (although there's something about Thomas that makes you like Richie no matter how degraded his behavior). 

There are probably too many scenes detailing Richie's carousing with various women—the issue is not any specific behavior depicted but a certain repetitiousness that sets in, the "OK, we got it already" factor. But even when the movie seems to be spinning its wheels a bit, there's always a pivot or surprising disclosure that makes the scene worth it, as when Richie is too drunk to perform, and his partner has to keep pausing to go into an adjoining room and tend to her elderly, bedridden mother. The best parts are reminiscent of John Cassavetes films where you almost can't believe how unflatteringly the characters are being depicted and how far down the actors were willing to go to capture that level of delusion and misery. It's elating in a horrible way. Liberating, almost.

Wolfgang Thaler's cinematography and Monika Willi's editing capture the desiccated loveliness of the town during wintertime, stressing negative space in the frame where vacationers would be if it were warmer. The story ends in a place that makes sense, with Richie getting something like a comeuppance and possibly, in his own mind, a redemption—although it's equally easy to imagine him, a week or two after the final scene, packing his bags and going somewhere else.

Supposedly, this is the first part of a matching set of films, the other of which deals with Ritchie’s brother, who is introduced in the opening sequence where Ritchie performs for a sparsely populated memorial service for their mother and the two commiserate, getting blitzed in the family home and improvising an indoor shooting range. I confess that I am more excited to see this film than I am to see the next Star Wars or Marvel. If you’re as twisted as I am, you’ll understand.

Now playing in select theaters.

Author: Matt Zoller Seitz
Posted: March 17, 2023, 12:39 pm

“Shazam! Fury of the Gods” arrives with two strikes against it since it’s not only a studio-produced sequel but also a superhero movie made in 2023. One should expect a certain level of creative committee-mandated, Mad Libs-y monotony, regardless of how one feels about the surprisingly decent “Shazam!”. The makers of that fine-enough 2019 franchise-starter, including director David F. Sandberg, toned down both the Troma Lite cynicism and post-Spielberg sentimentality that’s come to define the lighthearted James Gunn-style super-projects that dominate the landscape.

“Shazam! Fury of the Gods” meanders further in that direction. The first “Shazam!” works as well as it does because it’s mostly focused on two adolescent pipsqueaks, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) and Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), who get sucked into a generic fantasy, with some assistance from their extended family of orphan buddies. “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” mostly sticks to the comic book formula that the first movie poked fun at, despite another strong comedic performance from star Zachary Levi and some sporadic yuks throughout. It’s schtickier and less assured than the first “Shazam!” but these leftovers still reheat well enough.

Billy, Freddy, and their foster family members return to fight the latest vengeful dangling plot thread, this time a trio of vindictive sorceresses called the Daughters of Atlas, led by Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu), who want to avenge their father, Atlas (not in this picture). The identity of the third Daughter is briefly shrouded in mystery.

Billy’s anxieties speak loudest for the “Marvel Family,” as comics fans know them, a convivial group of tweens whom, after yelling the magic word “Shazam,” are granted godlike superpowers. But even the residents of Philadelphia, where most of “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” takes place, don’t seem to know who these kids are. They refer to the Marvels as the “Philly Fiascos,” presumably because you can’t successfully brand a DC Comics character as a Marvel anything. Billy also longs to know what his “superhero name” is; he gets some answers after he unexpectedly reunites with his grumpy guru/mentor, the Wizard (Djimon Hounsou), who somehow survived the events of the first “Shazam!”. Don’t worry if you forgot this last plot point, Billy and Freddy repeatedly joke about it.

That kind of pre-chewed humor is only charming because it’s finessed by the movie’s ensemble cast members, especially the actors who play the punchy, adult-aged demigods that Billy and his family become when they say the magic word. Levi, who plays Billy’s alter-ego Shazam (also known as Captain Marvel), and Adam Brody, who plays “Super Freddy” (AKA Captain Marvel Jr., Elvis’ favorite super-guy), both stand out as adolescents struggling with thankless grown-up feelings and responsibilities. The movie’s adult villains don’t stand out, though Mirren still smirks like a champ.

There are signs of a warmer and cleverer adolescent super-drama throughout “Shazam! Fury of the Gods.” Clearly enunicated and frantically declaimed dialogue hints at Billy’s prevailing fear of “aging out of” his family, especially now that he’s about to turn 18 years old. His other family members also have lives to live, but we only catch glimpses of them whenever the plot stalls long enough to highlight likable but under-developed supporting characters, like the unicorn-loving Darla (Faithe Herman) or the closeted Pedro (Jovan Armand), both of whom graze the heart-strings with focus-group-level efficiency. 

“Shazam! Fury of the Gods” might have been better if it were more focused on both Billy and Freddy and their hormonal anxieties. Billy dreams of wooing Wonder Woman (in two scenes), and Freddy’s got a crush on new girl Anthea (Rachel Zegler, who sadly has no chemistry with Grazer). Billy keeps saying he’s all about family, but maybe he should focus on feuding with his surrogate brother and wrestling with his super-ego? That worked before, so why not an encore?

Most of the big emotional moments lack cornball vigor, though Levi still takes all the extra room he’s given to create a goofy character who, like an actual teenager, doesn’t have a filter or an indoor voice. This makes up for some things, especially in a movie where the big action scenes mostly sit there, and the gags need to be both sped up and punched up. You have to want to hang out with the Philly Fiascos, and Levi’s arguably the best combination of main character and lead performer in a recent superhero pic. It’s too bad there are several other characters in this movie.

Honestly, Captain Marvel’s a tough character to get right, and if DC still can’t nail a sunny—or functionally grimdark—Superman movie, what hope does Levi’s big red cheese have of surviving the latest DC implosion? The odds never really favored another live-action “Shazam!” but this new one will still do in a pinch.

Now playing in theaters. 

Author: Simon Abrams
Posted: March 17, 2023, 12:39 pm

Inside” has an initial premise that's so intriguing you can imagine any number of gifted filmmakers making an absolute meal out of it. The problem is that Vasilis Katsoupis, the film’s director, is evidently not one of them. The result is a movie that never comes together into a satisfying whole, and which will leave most viewers afterward feeling as hungry for something of actual substance as the hapless protagonist whose misadventures they have just spent the previous 105 minutes watching.

That protagonist is Nemo (Willem Dafoe), an art thief. As the story begins, he has just been dropped off at a massive New York penthouse apartment by unseen handlers. After disabling the security alarm, Nemo quickly grabs nearly all of the Egon Schiele paintings he's there to take, but just as he is about to depart, the security system malfunctions and locks everything down. The handler tells Nemo he's on his own and then disappears. After trying and failing to break a window and cut through the ornate front door, Nemo finally realizes he is stuck.

That is bad, but as he soon discovers, things will get much worse. Although the apartment is filled with priceless works of art (the end credits list them like other films do with the songs on the soundtrack) and bric-a-brac, there's little in the place that suggests human beings actually reside there. The fridge is virtually empty (though it does helpfully play “Macarena” whenever the freezer is open, the plumbing is shut down, and the only sources of water are a pool, the automatic watering system for the indoor garden, and a couple of large fish tanks (and you can probably guess the fate of the fish that they contain). If that weren’t enough, the fritzing control system causes the temperature to vary, seemingly at random, between broiling highs and freezing lows.

Nemo realizes that he's in for the long haul. But that does not stop his determination to escape, primarily by jerry-rigging the apartment’s furnishings into a tower that he ascends in hopes of busting through the skylight high above. In between those intense and occasionally painful efforts, as the days seemingly blend into weeks, he staves off the pains of isolation by entertaining himself. He stages fake cooking shows (demonstrating how to make pasta without a working stove) and makes up stories involving the other building denizens he can see via security camera but who have no idea he is there. The effect is like what Matt Damon went through in “The Martian”—the difference being that it all takes place in a setting worth enough money to potentially fund a good part of a Mars mission all by itself.

Back to what I was saying about other filmmakers potentially making something out of the setup that Katsoupis and screenwriter Ben Hopkins have devised here. While watching "Inside" and finding it to not work, I found myself thinking of three distinctly different directors who could have done wonders with the material. For example, I can see Jerry Lewis transforming it into a potentially brilliant piece of sustained solo slapstick as he reduces the place to shambles while struggling to get free. (If you doubt this, check out the astonishing opening sequence to his final directorial effort, “Cracking Up,” in which he inadvertently destroys his psychiatrist’s waiting room through klutzy moves, a waxed floor, and a bag of M&M’s.) On the other hand, I can also see the story as a sort of existential arthouse (no pun intended) horror film from the likes of Michael Haneke—sort of what might result if he was inexplicably hired to direct the third “Escape Room” film. Finally, I would have loved to see this concept in the hands of the late great Larry Cohen, who was famous for films with audacious premises like this and could have properly navigated the moves into sociological commentary about the value, literal and metaphorical, of art.

Your mileage may vary regarding the filmmakers I have cited, but whatever you might say about them, they all bring particular points of view to their work that makes them distinct and intriguing. Katsoupis, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have anything of interest to say about his basic narrative or its subtext concerning the values people place on art. As a result, "Inside" becomes little more than an exercise in cruelty as we watch Nemo struggle to escape his apparent fate, and while some of the individual moments are darkly funny, they don’t really add up to much. It all concludes in a manner that I think is meant to be slightly symbolic (I kid—Ruben Östlund himself might find it too on the nose), but which is likely to leave most viewers feeling seriously underwhelmed.

Oddly enough, one of the best things about “Inside” is also one reason it doesn’t quite work, and that's Dafoe's performance. Don’t get me wrong—in what is essentially a one-man show, he's riveting as he navigates Nemo’s inner journey from despair to resignation to some kind of grace with a roller coaster's intensity. But this is the kind of wild, let-it-all-hang-out work we know going in that Dafoe is capable of pulling off, and as a result, his descent into savagery has a whiff of the familiar to it. It might have been more effective to cast a more famously laid-back actor and put them through the wringer found here. Cast someone like George Clooney in the role of Nemo, set it up like another slick “Ocean’s Eleven”-style romp, and then have him resort to licking the inside of an empty freezer for sustenance.

“Inside” is made with some evident degree of skill and craft (the apartment is a wonder of production design), but they're in service of a story nowhere near as profound or audacious as it believes itself to be. The film has its moments, and Dafoe certainly gives it his all, but there's a hollowness that ends up rendering the whole thing fairly forgettable—the cinematic equivalent of a piece of art you buy only because it goes well with the couch.

In theaters today.

Author: Peter Sobczynski
Posted: March 17, 2023, 12:38 pm

Little in Julia’s life is under control. With a chaotic opening scene full of yelling and pushing in front of an unsteady camera, Lola Quivoron’s “Rodeo” paints a grim and gritty picture of a misfit biker, Julia (Julie Ledru). She wants to be a part of a community that, like her, lives to ride, but because she’s a woman and prefers to wear more motorcycle-friendly clothes than tight jeans and cute blouses, some in the all-male biker gang reject her. At her first urban rodeo, where bikers flex their skills, one rider, Abra (Dave Nsaman), shows some kindness and teaches her first trick. Sadly, the welcome is short-lived once Abra crashes. The bleak rite-of-passage of crashes and accidents ushers Julia into this unkind realm where she will make enemies like Manel (Junior Correia), few allies like Kaïs (Yannis Lafki), possibly a friend in Ophélie (Antonia Buresi), and a mysterious boss named Domino (Sébastien Schroeder) who controls the bike gang’s movement from a jail cell. 

Quivoron, who co-wrote “Rodeo” with Buresi, often switches gears between character study and a heist movie, creating an uneasy whiplash. In certain scenes, the camera stays close to Julia’s world-weary eyes; her angry, defiant stare burns into whoever is unlucky enough to earn her ire. What feels like seconds later, she’s back on her bike, bidding for freedom and enjoying the wind in her long hair. But the movie occasionally loses sight of her when it focuses more on the slick dirt bikes zooming by at breakneck speeds or the gang subplot that buries Julia’s inner turmoil to the sides of the road. 

The world is not kind to our movie’s heroine. Julia’s world is raw and visceral, dirty and dangerous. That hostile feeling is enhanced by Raphaël Vandenbussche’s grainy cinematography and the performances from its largely first-time actors. Nowhere feels safe for Julia, and "Rodeo" ensures that foreboding essence is felt in every tense, handheld close-up. 

Ledru carries the dramatic plot with an understated but powerful presence. Her face is difficult to read, yet her body is open about her anger and drive to fight the world hellbent against her. In her feature debut, Ledru plays the role of a tough woman trying to fit in with the guys but is also vulnerable enough to connect with Ophélie and her child, who are trapped under the watchful eye of Ophélie’s commanding husband Domino. Julia and Ophélie’s dynamic deepens in the second half of the film, showing there’s more to our main character than scowls and lonely stares. She has outsized ambitions to pull off a large-scale bike heist that stands to earn a lot of money, but her reasoning is to help those also suffering under a man’s control. Julia almost always looks like she’s just dismounted her bike and removed her helmet at the bike garage, Ophélie’s home, or the street. It’s as if she were perpetually in motion, running towards an impossible future. 

In some spiritual sense, Julia in “Rodeo” shares a number of similarities with Mia, the brash young protagonist in Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank.” Both women face violence from men, find an escape through physical expression (dirt bike urban rodeos for Julia, hip-hop dancing for Mia), and their characters feel isolated from the rest of the world that rejects them at every turn. However, “Rodeo” does not give Julia the catharsis Mia eventually reaches. Her suffering extends from one end of the picture to the other. Far from the concept of “family” from the “Fast and Furious” series, her crew sees no use for a woman other than to be kept or put to work. Quivoron’s vision is a cruel world and one that feels like it cheats its audience by the end. Maybe the real last heist was to rob us of our feelings for Julia. 

Now playing in theaters. 

Author: Monica Castillo
Posted: March 17, 2023, 12:38 pm

A terrific cast can only do so much with superficial, maudlin material in the coming-of-age dramedy “Wildflower.”

Kiernan Shipka deftly navigates the film’s sometimes clunky tonal shifts as Bea, a high school senior who’s the child of intellectually disabled parents, Derek (Dash Mihok) and Sharon (autistic actress Samantha Hyde). Shipka is accessible and likable throughout the movie’s many highs, lows, and narrative time jumps, and the veteran “Mad Men” child star always has reliable comic timing.

For starters, Bea (short for Bambi, her mom’s favorite character) is lying in a hospital bed in a coma, narrating the film in sardonic tones: “I’ve always felt trapped in this family, but this is a whole other level,” she jokes off the top as frantic relatives surround her, fretting about her fate. That can be amusing, especially when she contradicts other characters in a clipped, dry way reminiscent of Ron Howard’s voiceover work on “Arrested Development.” Bea has been in some sort of accident, and the flashback structure fills in who she is and, eventually, solves the mystery of how she got there. But too often, the script from director Matt Smukler (in his feature film debut) and Jana Savage calls on Bea to spell out everything in her narration, including feelings and instincts we can clearly surmise for ourselves from what’s happening on screen. 

She takes us back to the beginning, showing us how her parents met, quickly fell in love, married, and gave birth to her, despite the concern and disapproval of their own parents. Sharon’s mother and father (Jean Smart and Brad Garrett) bicker over whether she’s equipped to care for a baby. “Wildflower” is based on a true story, but it offers a simplistic perspective of Sharon, depicting her almost entirely in childlike terms. She’s more of a cheery idea than a fully-formed character, flitting about, getting easily distracted, and finding joy in the little things in life. Derek, meanwhile, is an agreeable goofball after suffering a serious brain injury in his youth, and there isn’t much more to him than that. And Jacki Weaver, as Derek’s mom, is too much of a narcissist to worry about anyone else’s future; the first time we see her, she’s hamming it up big time, cluelessly smoking in Bea’s hospital room for wacky laughs. Smart finds the grace notes in her beleaguered, no-nonsense grandmother character. Garrett barely gets anything to do.

In flashbacks to Bea’s childhood, the talented Ryan Kiera Armstrong takes over the role, revealing the character’s strong-willed, independent streak even at age 10. The only child must care for herself and her parents at this point, as we see from their cluttered Las Vegas home. A scene in which she bribes her mom with Oreos to make her get ready for work feels so specific and sad, it must have come from real life. But a brief stay with her affluent aunt and uncle (Alexandra Daddario and Reid Scott), who helicopter parent their overly cautious, overscheduled twin sons, doesn’t seem a preferable existence, either, even though it would be more comfortable. (Armstrong, the young star of last year’s “Firestarter” and the recent Nicolas Cage Western “The Old Way,” is always authentic, natural, and too often better than the material she gets to work with.)

Shipka assumes the role of Bea as a teenager: the self-possessed misfit who doesn’t care what the popular girls think of her. Charlie Plummer brings some welcome subtlety as Ethan, the hot, new boy in school who takes an instant liking to her and becomes her first love. They recognize something in each other that’s different—trauma has forced them both to grow up too fast, and this section of “Wildflower” that focuses on their romance is its strongest. Like “CODA,” Bea is a smart young woman with a bright future who’s reluctant to go off to college because she’s so insistent that her parents couldn’t possibly function without her. That conflict provides some legitimate stakes.

But “Wildflower” tries to cover so much in terms of time and emotion that it feels rushed, and the big, tear-jerker moments it seeks never come close to blossoming.

Now playing in theaters and available on digital platforms on March 21st.

Author: Christy Lemire
Posted: March 17, 2023, 12:37 pm

If you focused only on the movie itself, you might not immediately see the dizzying Chinese spy comedy “Full River Red” as state-approved propaganda. There are some signs, both in and about the movie, especially since “Full River Red” was directed by Zhang Yimou (“Hero,” “The Great Wall”), who recently directed his second Olympics ceremony in Beijing. (And, in 2014, was also fined somewhere between $615,000 and $1.2 million for violating China’s One Child Policy, for which he publicly apologized.)

But the movie, the highest grosser among this year’s Lunar New Year releases, is a knockabout comedy about a labyrinthine Song Dynasty (around the 13th century) conspiracy. A frequently rotated cast of guardsmen, courtiers, and informants accuse each other of killing a Jin region diplomat and stealing a message intended for Chancellor Qin Hui (Lei Jiayin), their sickly and paranoid leader. A sobering dramatic finale takes the movie in an unsettling direction, specifically towards commemorating the titular anthemic poem, which sings of “national shame,” “lost land,” and enemies lurking beyond the Helan Mountains (the Jurchen, from modern-day Inner Manchuria).

This saber-rattling finale casts a large shadow over the movie’s preceding events, but it doesn’t fundamentally change or really detract from the preceding black comedy, which tends to be broad, mordant, and bracing. It’s worth remembering that in 2009, Zhang remade “Blood Simple,” the Coen brothers’ corrosive 1984 neo-noir feature debut, as a comedic noir pastiche called “A Woman, A Gun, and a Noodle Shop.” “Full River Red” is relatively straightforward for a while but also often unpredictable and exhausting.

An on-screen text introduces Qin as a traitor since he previously executed the “highly respected” General Yue Fei. Yue’s murder isn’t the main concern of “Full River Red,” nor is the character of his assassin Qin, though his anxious influence permeates the movie.

After a visiting Jin diplomat is found stabbed to death, Qin tasks his men with rounding up a group of suspects, from whom he chooses an ignoble patsy. Corporal Zhang Da (Shen Teng) literally draws a short straw, which unfortunately brings him to Qin’s attention. Zhang Da quickly contrives an involved scheme to hide a confidential letter. Qin presents Zhang Da with a lose-lose offer: take two hours to retrieve the letter or be executed. Zhang Da will almost certainly be executed in either case, and he knows it. He implicates several others during his investigation, from Qin Hui’s advisers to a low-ranking horseman named Liu Xi (Yu Ailei)

Everyone that Zhang Da meets has ulterior plans and motives, even the mulish but sympathetic deputy guardsman commander Sun Jun (Jackson Yee). They go through the procedural-style motions anyway, first interrogating, then turning on each other in snappy, screwball-fast dialogue. Eventually, it becomes clear that the conspiracy that Zhang Da seemed to make up from whole cloth has either just enough truth or was essentially willed into existence during his involved search.

“Full River Red” stops and starts with a high-strung, peripatetic rhythm; volleys of dynamic, off-kilter dialogue are wedged between sudden deaths, exchanged back and forth by impotent bullies and sweaty flunkies. A robust cast of supporting characters habitually point fingers and then invariably turn the tables on each other, which can also be disorienting. Still, a few snappy comedy routines and a perpetually escalating mystery plot ensure that Zhang’s latest never slows down nor retraces its steps long enough to feel monotonous. Characters dance around the limits of their autonomy and influence as everybody around them dies and/or gets fingered.

Dream-like drone camerawork and surreal image-compositing also give interstitial scenes a dramatic cohesion, over-scored as they are with a musical chorus that combines hip-hop vocals with Peking opera-style instrumentation. Sadly, the lyrics were not translated into English in the version of the movie that I watched for review. But the effect of Han Hong’s score was still clearly jarring, like when the upbeat singer-narrator concludes a short verse right before Zhang cuts to a pair of soldiers as they untangle a dangling body from the ceiling’s crossbeams. The corridors of power are narrow and spider-vein-thin in “Full River Red” but still well-traveled and precisely navigated by Zhang and his well-synchronized collaborators.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the arch dramatic thrust and provocative signaling of the movie’s rousing climax. It’s up to viewers to decide if “Full River Red” is more pandering than conflicted in its endorsement of nationalistic slogans, as some critics already have. (Good context can be found at The Economist). Zhang’s affinity for loopy, Coen brothers-esque gallows humor will also probably alienate some viewers well before the title poem can be recited. Both style and substance are still deliberate and ruthlessly effective. People are vulnerable, but nations are strong; “Full River Red” supplies more proof.

Now playing in theaters. 

Author: Simon Abrams
Posted: March 17, 2023, 12:37 pm

Ken Loach's "The Spirit of '45," a documentary about the reinvention of British social services after World War II, explores a part of history that textbooks usually prefer to skip or distort because it contradicts messaging that government and taxes are the "real problems" in life and if people are suffering, it's their fault. 

"The Spirit of '45" is also a testament to the power of faces speaking in closeup. Much of it is an oral history. Many of the witnesses were elderly when Loach interviewed them, and remember the 1930s, '40s, and '50s firsthand. There are also interviews with people who weren't alive then but heard stories from their parents or grandparents on rare occasions when the elders were able to overcome the trauma that more often made them keep those tales to themselves. They grew up poor on a level that Charles Dickens described in his fiction, barely surviving from one day to the next. In calm, even tones, they talk about agonizing deprivation that was accepted as normal by the "haves" in Great Britain. 

“The slums of England were the worst in Europe,” says one witness. One elderly man talks about climbing into bed each night with his siblings and untold numbers of fleas, being bitten all over his body as he slept, then getting caned at school the next day for having "dirty knees." There were rats and roaches, too. No rugs, because no one could afford them. Many interviewees ate potatoes and bread every night. Drippings, one witness says, were not something most poor families experienced because they couldn't afford meat. Dot Gibson, the General Secretary of the Pensioner's Convention, talks about how her grandfather used to take his only suit to the pawn shop on a Monday, use the money he received for it to buy food for the family and pay to treat one of his son's kidney ailments, then get the suit back after he got paid on Friday so he could wear it to the pub. 

The Labour Party won a surprise landslide victory in 1945, following the end of Britain's involvement in World War II, routing the coalition led by Prime Minister Winston Churchill. As Loach explains, part of the rejection was due to Churchill being perceived as a wartime leader who wouldn't know how to handle peacetime challenges, as well as the lingering stink of appeasement of Hitler that clung to Churchill's party (although Churchill personally was against appeasement). 

But another, possibly bigger factor was people wondering why the United Kingdom could afford to spend billions to fight a World war at a time of deprivation (things were economically bad before, too) yet supposedly lacked the funds to improve the lives of non-wealthy citizens afterward. When Labour won, a raft of social programs was passed to ease the suffering of the poor and working class. The jewel was the creation of a free national healthcare service, something that the United States of America has barely begun to try to equal and that many decades of conservative agitprop in the United Kingdom have failed to completely eradicate.

One of the chords that Loach repeatedly strikes here is that in democracies, and perhaps every other sort of government, money spent on war is somehow never counted as spending, and certainly never as irresponsible spending, except perhaps by a handful of legislators who identify as socialist and therefore have no power. There's always some reason concocted to explain why defense spending is urgently necessary and to question it is unpatriotic and perhaps treasonous. This is the case in the United States as well. It's the same all over the world and always has been. 

But Great Britain briefly and anomalously refused to accept it in 1945, and as Loach tells the story, it took another 34 years for the election of Margaret Thatcher (a year before Ronald Reagan in the USA) to start dismantling the social architecture that had been created and begin returning the lion's share of the nation's wealth to the rich, who believed they deserved it more.

The 1942 Beveridge Report—officially titled "Social Insurance and Allied Services"— was a factor in the socialist victory three years later. The impetus was its author William Beveridge's realization while working in the private sector that philanthropy was useless as a means of truly improving the lives of the poor; its main purpose was to make rich people feel better about hoarding money and resources and let them put their names on things, and the only way to effect widespread, deep, positive change was to seriously tax them and fund social programs. Beveridge said the 1940s were "a time for revolutions, not for patching." (You can read about the report here.)

This is a terrific movie all on its own, giving us details about a specific period of history in a specific country that commercial films and TV platforms for obvious reasons won't touch. It's so compelling in its account of the immediate pre- and postwar eras that when it jumps ahead and feels like it's rushing to get its points in, the film is diminished just a bit, but that's a small complaint. "The Spirit of '45" will be particularly fascinating to anyone who's followed Loach's career as a dramatic filmmaker with a socialist vision. In films as diverse as "Kes," "Riff-Raff," "Raining Stones," "Land and Freedom" and the recent "Sorry We Missed You," he chronicles the lives of the poor and working-class, past and present, often in areas of the United Kingdom that are rarely shown onscreen, and always makes sure to provide social and political context for why they have to work themselves practically to death to afford the basics. This documentary could be screened as a prelude or postscript to anything and everything he's done. 

Author: Matt Zoller Seitz
Posted: March 17, 2023, 12:37 pm

In "Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game," there's an opening exchange between Roger Sharpe (Dennis Boutsikaris) and the unseen director of the "documentary" being filmed. Sharpe scoffs at the director's comment that overturning the decades-long ban on pinball machines in New York City was his "legacy." What he did back in 1976, he says, was "a footnote" at best. He's not wrong. Both statements are true. Written and directed by Austin and Meredith Bragg, "Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game" doesn't play with too heavy a hand, and the trumpet blast of the title is an ironic wink. The Braggs know they're telling a "footnote" story, a sliver of forgotten history, bizarre and ridiculous more than urgent and unjust. The film doesn't burden pinball machines with more meaning than they can stand. "Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game" is strictly low stakes. This is part of its knowing charm.

Set up faux-documentary style, older Roger (Boutsikaris) narrates his own story, showing up in the flashbacks beside his younger self and even interrupting scenes to correct the director's "interpretation." There are moments where the "director" interrupts Roger's narration, particularly when Roger recounts falling in love with Ellen (Crystal Reed). The director wonders if Roger isn't getting "distracted" from the main theme. These meta-interruptions reduce the flame, which works in the film's favor.

The young Roger (Mike Faist), with a bristly mustache so big it has its own area code, discovers the joys of pinball while a student at the University of Wisconsin. He gets married, divorced, fired, and moves to New York with dreams of being a writer. He lands a job with the brand-new men's magazine Gentlemen's Quarterly. At random, he discovers a pinball machine in the lobby of a peep show. The illicit peeping going on behind the curtain holds no appeal. He's here for the pinball machine. This is how he learns that pinball, the activity he pursued with no shame back in Wisconsin, is illegal in the city of New York City due to a very weird, seemingly personal vendetta against the machines by famed Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. (The game was thought to be Mob-owned and run, akin to gambling, and, worst of all, marketed to kids.) If you lived in New York City, where sin ran rampant in the streets, and you wanted to play a legal game of pinball, you had to drive to New Jersey.

This backstory is told in newsreel-type fragments, with scenes of NYPD doing "raids," smashing pinball machines on the streets, newspaper headlines, and LaGuardia giving press conferences, all like it's Chicago fighting organized crime in the 1920s. It's absurd, so Roger decides to write about it for GQ, which he then expands into a book. He tracks down the original manufacturers to interview them, basically gathering evidence for the eventual showdown in 1976.

Alongside all this pinball activity is the romance with Ellen, a single mother, working as a secretary, painting at night, cautious about letting men into her life, and very upfront with Roger about what she wants, needs, and expects. She wants to be married. She wants a father for her 11-year-old son. If Roger isn't up for all of that, then it would be best to just stop now. Roger gets it. The three become a makeshift little family. These scenes are played with attention to detail, and Ellen is as fleshed-out as Roger is (maybe even a little more). Their chemistry is believable and of the everyday regular-person variety: they make each other laugh, they try to be thoughtful, and each is invested in the other person's potential. They mess up on occasion and try to do better, etc. It's nice to see a human-sized romance played human-sized. I imagine this is harder to accomplish than it looks.

Mike Faist made his Broadway debut in 2011's "Newsies," but it was Dear Evan Hansen (2015-2018)—a catching-the-zeitgeist Broadway hit—and his performance as the dead Connor Murphy that made him a star. He was nominated for a Tony Award. (For those who didn't get to see Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway, the performance of "Sincerely Me" was captured on video and gives a really good feel for how effective he is onstage, particularly physically.) Of course, the whole world discovered Faist when he showed up in Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story" as Jet-leader Riff. The buzz around Faist was instant. He had that "something," the charismatic spark drawing all eyes to him. He swaggered into the film as though he was a star already (and indeed, he was, on Broadway at least). "Pinball" gives Faist a chance to hold the center of a film, and he does so admirably.

When the offscreen "director" keeps interrupting the love story, suggesting Roger is getting "distracted," it's part of the ongoing joke of the film, the push-pull between the "director" and his subject. But it's also a set-up that pays off in the final moments of the film. Pinball is why we're all here, but falling in love is not a distraction. What seems to be a footnote is actually a legacy.

Author: Sheila O'Malley
Posted: March 17, 2023, 12:36 pm