Boys State ***1/2
Jamie Foxx in Project Power
If you’re looking to the future in hope that we can emerge from politics that are exclusively about preserving power into a focus on real issues, directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss have some hard truths to serve up to you. They spend a week at the 2018 Boys State in Texas, an annual gathering of high-school seniors with the ostensible goal of teaching them about governance, party politics and “civil discourse,” on the way to electing some of them to office. Naturally they focus on a few individuals—specifically, those leading the “Nationalist” and “Federalist” parties, and those running for governor—with enough clarity that we get some clear heroes and villains of this story. But since the goal for these kids is entirely about getting elected, rather than what the candidates would actually do in office, the real lessons are almost entirely about who’s willing to take the high road and how low the low road can get. There’s some simple entertainment value in watching a thousand amped-up teen boys getting both ridiculous and way-too-serious; it’s also pretty illuminating (and depressing) to watch some of these kids learn that there is no goal more important than winning, and that playing dirty works. Available Aug. 14 via Apple+.
Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story ***1/2
“Warts and all” documentaries have an inherent intrigue, but there’s a particular jolt that comes from what this story ultimately explores. On the most basic level, it’s the story of the groundbreaking 1990s Nickelodeon cartoon series The Ren & Stimpy Show
, focusing on creator John Kricfalusi and his team of innovative animators. There’s plenty of material simply involving the show itself, from its near-immediate popular and artistic success, to Krisfalusi’s firing from the show, to the many other creators influenced by its style. But the ability of directors Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood to get Kricfalusi himself on camera makes it possible to dig into the perfectionism and abusiveness towards collaborators that led to the show’s implosion, as well as the stories that ultimately emerged about his grooming of—and long-term sexual relationships with—underage girls. It’s a rare #MeToo-era film that allows us not just to look into the face of a sexual predator as he responds to what has been said about him, but to wrestle with how we are supposed to think about wildly creative works once we know the darkest truths about those who created them. Available Aug. 14 at Megaplex Theatres.
Jazz on a Summer’s Day ***
Though it likely became a National Film Registry entry 20 years ago because it was a chronicle of legendary artists at work, Bert Stern’s 1959 documentary set at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival actually proves most fascinating when it’s not exactly a concert film. Yes, we do get performances from the likes of Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Mahalia Jackson an Chuck Berry, all at the top of their game and with an up-close-and-personal approach that allows you to see the sweat. But the film also provides a bit of a snapshot of a moment, juxtaposing the music festival with the America’s Cup yachting trials also taking place offshore, and house parties full of young people. Maybe it’s a bit of a reach to suggest that it offered a preview of a coming generation gap, what with the voices of local residents heard encouraging the visiting festival attendees to drive carefully and be considerate. And if it’s just about the music, you get to watch Anita O’Day scatting her heart out and delighting the audience by trying to get her backup musicians to follow her lead. Available Aug. 14 via SLFSatHome.org and UtahFilmCenter.org.
Project Power ***
There’s a lot—almost too much—going on beneath the surface of what is superficially a super-heroes-vs.-super-villains adventure, yet it still manages to deliver the goods within that genre. On the streets of New Orleans, a new designer drug called Power is giving those who take it unpredictable five-minute doses of individualized heightened abilities, affecting the lives of our three protagonists: N.O. police detective Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who believes he needs to take the drug to stop it; an ex-military operative known as The Major (Jamie Foxx), who has personal reasons for finding the distributor; and Robin (Dominique Fishback), a teenage street-level dealer. Screenwriter Mattson Tomlin (the upcoming The Batman
) digs into a world where socioeconomically disadvantaged people become guinea pigs for government experiments, and police are pitted against those who most threaten the established order—plenty to chew on in the volatile world of 2020 America. Meanwhile, the special-effects-laden fights also provide plenty of satisfaction, with directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Paranormal Activity
) serving up a unique set piece looking through the windows of an experimental cell. The cast strains to find richer characters than the script actually gives them, but Project Power
provides its own short-dose burst of summer-movie energy, with a bit of a conscience besides. Available Aug. 14 via Netflix.
Ostensibly, Hillary Bachelder’s documentary is about women running for political office in America, except that her chosen subjects complicate that narratives in ways that sometimes help her narrative, and sometimes don’t. Over the course of campaigns in 2017 and 2018, Bachelder follows three first-time candidates: Myya Jones, a 22-year-old Black woman running for mayor of Detroit; Julie Cho, a Korean-American running for the Illinois state legislature; and Bryn Bird, a mother of two running for the council of her rural Ohio township. What complicates the “women candidate” story is that every one of these candidates faces obstacles beyond their gender—Myya in her youth running against an incumbent, Julie as a Republican in a heavily Democratic district, etc. Only Bryn’s story really takes on entrenched sexism in particular, which doesn’t mean that the individual stories aren’t compelling in addressing what can drive someone to put themselves into the political arena. In fact, the film becomes most compelling at considering how hard it might be for the best candidates for any office to succeed, when it feels like anyone who isn’t a white man has to challenge whatever labels are being attached to them. Available Aug. 14 via SLFSatHome.org.
River City Drumbeat **1/2
It is no insult, either to the subjects of Marlon Johnson and Anne Flatté’s documentary or to the work that they do, to suggest that this would have made a killer short rather than a solid feature. They explore the River City Drum Corp, a Louisville-based non-profit that teaches mostly Black kids traditional African drumming and contemporary drumline percussion, as the organization’s founder, Ed White, prepares to retire after nearly 30 years and pass the organization on to one of his first students, Albert Shumake. The story works best as a lovely testament to importance of mentors, as Albert acknowledges how much RCDC changed his life even as we watch current students take on leadership roles. The only problem is that the filmmakers spend a lot of time on drum performances themselves—and as impressive as the students’ skills are, the drumming itself is far less important than what the work conveys in both cultural pride and actual discipline. It feels like most of what River City Drumbeat
has to say could have been captured in a tight 45 or 50 minutes, without losing any of the emotion inherent in a program that changes lives. Available Aug. 14 via SLFSatHome.org.
See feature review
. Available Aug. 14 via VOD and at Megaplex Theatres.