Editor's Note: Epidemiologists have stated that patronizing indoor movie theaters should be considered a high-risk activity at this time.
The August Virgin ***1/2
Ivan and Bryan Cranston in The One and Only Ivan
A narrative about a “third-life crisis” could easily come off as self-indulgent, but Jonás Trueba’s sparkling Spanish drama finds deep humanity in a contemplative pace and a wonderful central performance by Itsaso Arana (who co-wrote the screenplay with Trueba). She plays Eva, a 32-year-old Madrid woman at something of a personal crossroads. She opts to remain in the city during the August holidays when most of the locals flee to vacation spots, staying in a friend’s apartment in the center of Madrid while she figures out her next steps. Those next steps are fairly episodic—late-night dancing with friends, getting her first reiki session, meeting a potential new romantic interest (Vito Sanz)—connected by a willingness to observe Eva as she walks, or watches the Perseid meteor shower, or plays with reflecting the sun off of her cell phone. It only works because Arana is so beautifully open in the role, full of hesitant smiles and awkward body language that convey how much she is trying to explore “the perfect time for being herself.” Trueba makes marvelous use of his setting, capturing not just the place but the specific month—Madrid's August heat that becomes the crucible for forming the next phase of Eva’s life. Available Aug. 21 via SLFSatHome.org.
Chemical Hearts ***
See feature review
. Available Aug. 21 via Amazon Prime.
Coup 53 ***
Desert One ***1/2
Two new documentaries come at the messy history between Iran and the United States from very different angles, 57 years after the August 1953 CIA-backed coup that overthrew Iran’s elected government. Coup 53
deals with that event, as Iranian-born filmmaker Taghi Amirani explores not just the events that led up to the ouster of prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, but his own journey at uncovering details about the British government’s involvement in that same coup. It’s always a tricky business when a documentary filmmaker spends time on his or her own efforts; there’s a self-congratulatory quality to “look how much I had to get through to find The Truth!” But there is a compelling mystery to why an interview with British MI6 agent Norman Darbyshire (played in re-creations here by Ralph Fiennes) apparently vanished without a trace, and Amirani’s comprehensive research shows up in getting perspectives from every possible angle on an event that had far-reaching consequences. One of those consequences was the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and the subsequent hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy, and Barbara Kopple’s Desert One
takes on that part of the story with a focus on the failed rescue mission in April 1980. Kopple’s amazing access to interview subjects—everyone from former hostages to former hostage-takers to Jimmy Carter himself participates—allows for an impressively comprehensive view of the situation from a variety of perspectives; when one Iranian paints a rosy picture of how the hostages and the student radicals “even became friends,” there’s an ex-hostage immediately on hand to debunk that notion. If the title itself (a reference to the U.S. landing site where the rescue mission went bad) is a bit misleading in suggesting more emphasis on that mission, it’s hard to imagine a more thorough 105-minute history of this dark American moment. Coup 53 available Aug 19 at Megaplex Theatres and SLFSatHome.org; Desert One
available Aug. 21 at Megaplex Theatres and via SLFSatHome.org.
The One and Only Ivan **1/2
There are multiple levels on which this adaptation of Katherine Applegate’s inspired-by-a-true-story illustrated novel could have been a unique kind of kid-flick; instead, it too often feels like a soggy mash-up of elements diluting the riskier ideas. Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell) is the headline attraction in a circus based in a suburban mall, seemingly content under his owner and ringmaster (Bryan Cranston). But when baby elephant Ruby (Brooklynn Prince) arrives, Ivan begins contemplating what it means to live a life in captivity. That’s fodder not just for a look at ethical treatment of wild animals, but potentially an allegory about benevolent colonialism and feeling so accustomed to a position of subservience that you don’t see it as a problem—which might also be a bit daring for family fare. What remains is more gently appealing, mixing a little bit of Babe’s animal hijinks with a little bit of Toy Story’s stand-in for sibling jealousy in a way that will evaporate from the memory shortly after it’s over. It’s all generally pleasant, satisfying and uncontroversial enough that parents can sit the youngsters in front of it and not have to worry about them thinking too much. Available Aug. 21 via Disney+.
Stage Mother **
What if a story seems really nice and sweet and affirming, but actually is kind of condescending and lacking a real character arc? That’s the odd dynamic in this story of Maybelline Metcalf (Jackie Weaver), a church choir director in a small Texas town who learns that her long-estranged gay son, Ricky, has died of a drug overdose, leaving behind a gay cabaret club for her to run. It’s superficially satisfying to see Maybelline build relationships—particularly with Ricky’s grieving partner (Adrian Grenier) and single-mom best friend (Lucy Liu)—with people who are nothing like her, yet aside from feeling uncomfortable at seeing a drag performance at Ricky’s funeral, Maybelline doesn’t seem like she’s got much “woke”-ing to do. This is really a story about her acting on the tolerance she already has, allowing her to become a Red State guardian angel solving everyone’s problems with a combination of homespun wisdom, Christian compassion and a concealed carry permit. While we all want to believe in the possibility of bridging ideological divides, it’s hard not to see Stage Mother
as the tale of a bunch of messed-up progressives who just needed a common-sense conservative to step into their lives and shape them up. Available Aug. 21 at Megaplex Theatres.
Ethan Hawke in Tesla
Would that more filmmakers were willing to be as playful with potentially stodgy subject matter as Michael Almereyda has proven himself to be. The director reunites the Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) and Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) from his 2000 modern-day Hamlet
adaptation, with Hawke as Nikola Tesla and MacLachlan as Thomas Edison in a study of the battle between alternating current and direct current for the powering of the newly-electricity-hungry world. The character study stuff, however, takes a backseat to Almereyda’s willingness to have all kinds of weird fun with his subject, starting with the character of Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) acting as a kind of omniscient narrator talking about what you can find if you Google Tesla or Edison. And anachronism is only part of the menu, which also serves up unreliability (“This meeting never happened,” you hear after one seemingly optimistic moment) and self-aware stagecraft (placing the actors in front of projections and paintings). Along the way, you’re going to learn a few things about how and why Tesla is more a footnote of scientific history than a legend, and how many breaks went against him. But mostly, it’s fun to see a potentially serious romantic interlude undercut by having the participants staggering around on roller skates. Available Aug. 21 via VOD and Megaplex Theatres.
Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula ***
Yeon Sang-ho’s 2016 zombie thriller Train to Busan
crafted a potent allegory for trying to maintain humanity during a crisis; his follow-up, set in the same world but with a completely different cast of characters, backs off somewhat on the morality play in favor of pure mayhem. Four years after the outbreak depicted in the original film, the Korean peninsula has been isolated from the rest of the world, and a group of expatriate survivors—including former South Korean soldier Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won)—agrees to return to the infected zone to recover a fortune in American currency. The sort-of-a-heist mission is basically an excuse to get us back into the danger zone to see what has become of the country, and it’s a predictably bleak picture. But while Yeon and co-writer Park Joo-suk dabble in ideas about unwelcome refugees and try to build drama around Jung-seok’s quest for redemption, there’s a whole lot of shoot-’em-up, smash-’em-up as car chases mix with zombie attacks. Some of the creative creepiness of Train to Busan
’s claustrophobic setting is lost in these wide-open spaces, where vehicles topple undead bodies like bowling pins. There are worse models to copy for over-the-top apocalyptic action than Zombieland
crossed with World War Z
, but it might have been nice to have something that was more like, you know, Train to Busan
. Available Aug. 21 at Megaplex Theatres.
Russell Crowe in Unhinged
It’s one thing to make a deeply unpleasant exploitation picture; it’s another thing entirely to pretend that it’s really
about a zeitgeist moment or some shit. Newly-single mom Rachel (Karen Pistorius) honks too loudly at psycho Tom (Russell Crowe), initiating a road-rage incident that quickly turns homicidal. A rapid-fire montage credits sequence sets the stage for the notion that we’re all on edge in America and ready to snap, which would have made sense if Tom had seemed like anything except a complete monster from the outset. That simplistic characterization gives Crowe nothing interesting to play; Tom is like Michael Douglas’s Falling Down
character if that guy had just murdered literally everyone as soon as he rolled out of bed. All that remains is some nasty violence and a few tense set pieces that try to find a Duel
sensibility in Rachel’s attempt to outrun an implacable menace, which is none-too-subtly built on the idea that she kinda had it coming, or at least is part of the problem. When your movie is trying to “both-sides” an Oxy-popping sadist with a harried young woman who dared to beep at the Oxy-popping sadist, you’ve got nothing worth listening to. Available Aug. 21 at Megaplex Theatres.
Words on Bathroom Walls ***
There’s a tricky balancing act required of this adaptation of Julia Walton’s novel: providing the satisfying rhythms and character dynamics of a young-adult romance, while not diminishing the realities of living a chronic mental illness. Adam Petrazelli (Charlie Plummer), a high-school senior with paranoid schizophrenia, begins what he worries is his last shot at “normalcy” when he transfers to a Catholic school, starts an experimental drug treatment and begins falling for his classmate and math tutor Maya (Taylor Russell). Director Thor Freudenthal crafts a complex look and sound to bring us inside Adam’s head, from his trio of imaginary companions (AnnaSophia Robb, Lobo Sebastian and Devon Bostick) to terrifying hallucinations. Indeed, it’s impressive that Words on Bathroom Walls plays like a horror film as often as it does like a teen love story, recognizing that Adam’s shame over his illness makes his pain even more profound. And it is still effective when the focus is on the character interactions, from the complex chemistry between Adam and Maya to the wisdom of a kindly priest (a wonderfully low-key Andy Garcia). The plot structure might fall back on obvious points—you start waiting for the Flowers for Algernon
moment when the experimental drug situation goes south—but it’s impressive to find Words on Bathroom Walls
handing its delicate subject with honesty, compassion and a bit of an edge. Available Aug. 21 at Megaplex Theaters.