The Lovebirds ***1/2
The conceit at the core here is hardly original—everything from Manhattan Murder Mystery
to Date Night
has played the “couple in a relationship rut get their lives spiced up through mortal danger” card—but it also hardly matters when the material is this funny. Leilani (Issa Rae) and Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) are on the verge of breaking up after four years together, when Jibran hits a bicyclist with their car, inadvertently plunging them into a scheme involving murder, blackmail and at least one skillet full of hot bacon grease. Some of what follows plays like screenwriters Aaron Abrams, Brendan Gall and Martin Gero asked the improbable question, “What if Eyes Wide Shut
, but as farce?”—a fraught proposition, particularly when Rae and Nanjiani don’t exactly have crackling romantic chemistry. They do, however, have terrific comedic chemistry, with Nanjiani’s The Big Sick
director Michael Showalter again showing that he knows how to optimize the comedian’s deadpan line readings; it’s great stuff when the on-the-lam couple-of-color watches suspicious police officers pass by in a squad car, and Nanjiani sighs with relief, “Oh good, they’re just regular racists.” As ridiculous as the set-up might be, it’s just fine that it serves a non-stop parade of big laughs. Available May 22 on Netflix.
Lucky Grandma **1/2
It’s always a tricky proposition when a story is predicated on “old lady does decidedly non-old-lady things,” but while co-writer/director Sasie Sealy doesn’t rely entirely on that incongruity, nor does she really optimize the story’s chance to be something much better. Her heroine is Grandma Wong (Tsai Chin), an elderly widow in New York’s Chinatown whose visits a casino on one day promised by her astrologer as particularly fortuitous. And indeed Grandma Wong does end up with a small fortune after her trip—only it’s the bag of cash left behind when a gangster drops dead of a heart attack on the casino bus. What follows is played mostly for laughs, as Grandma Wong tries to avoid violence at the hand of one gang of criminals by hiring—and befriending—a genial bodyguard (Hsiao-Yuan Ha) from a rival gang. Sealy builds some fun out of that scenario, leaning into Tsai Chin’s ornery performance, but there are many missed opportunities to play up the collision between Grandma Wong’s world and the underworld. This is also ultimately a story about a senior’s fear of being left with nothing at the end of life, and it’s hard for that notion to land when the entertainment value here revolves around a little old lady scooting feebly away while being chased by guys with guns. Available May 22 via SLFSatHome.org.
Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy ***
A wise documentarian knows when to let a lively subject take the reins, and director Elizabeth Carroll does just that with her profile of 95-year-old Diana Kennedy, a British-born, self-taught chef whose multiple cookbooks on regional Mexican cuisine made her the country’s culinary ambassador to the English-speaking world. There’s a bit of biography just to lay the foundation—notably her arrival in Mexico in the 1950s with her journalist husband—but mostly Carroll focuses on Kennedy in the present day, as she cooks, teaches and lectures about the food she loves. What emerges is a delightful portrait of a feisty, tart-tongued, opinionated woman, but not merely one who has grown that way with age. Her perspectives are based on deep principles—to sustainable living, to honoring traditional cooking methods—and an independent streak that has defined her entire life, as Carroll shows in a great sequence cross-cutting between Kennedy making the same recipe some 40 years apart, with exactly the same refusal to compromise. If there’s one complaint to be made, it’s that 72 minutes isn’t long enough to spend with someone who has built her own life exactly the way she believes a life should be lived. Available May 22 via SLFSatHome.org and ParkCityFilm.org.
The Painter and the Thief **1/2
Some of the material in Benjamin Ree’s documentary is so potent that it’s also consistently frustrating how much it rambles. At its heart is an extremely unexpected friendship—between Czech-born artist Barbora Kysilkova, who has two of her paintings stolen from an Oslo gallery, and Karl-Bertil Nordland, a recidivist criminal and drug addict who was of the thieves. The feel-good material at the outset—including a powerful sequence in which Barbora reveals to Karl-Bertil a portrait of him she has made—suggests a simple tale of how a man might be redeemed through someone else finding him redeemable; that notion gets complicated in effective ways by suggesting that Barbora is less an angel of mercy than a troubled woman drawn to darkness. The film simply ends up covering too much territory—about the two subjects’ respective romantic relationships, Barbora’s financial troubles, Karl-Bertil’s recovery from a serious auto accident—without necessarily pulling all of those threads together into a cohesive narrative. Considering that the soul of this story is who these two people are to one another, and why, it never finds its footing whenever the focus is on one of them at a time. Available May 22 via ParkCityFilm.org.
The Trip to Greece ***1/2
See feature review. Available May 22 via VOD.