Editor's Note: Epidemiologists have stated that patronizing indoor movie theaters should be considered a high-risk activity at this time.
Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves in Bill & Ted Face the Music
Bill & Ted Face the Music **1/2
Nearly 30 years after their last cinematic adventure, Bill S. Preston Esq. (Alex Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves) haven’t changed a bit—which is simultaneously the premise, the draw and the weirdness of this third chapter. While they were informed as teens that their music would one day unite the world, Bill & Ted are still running in place as middle-aged dads to daughters Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and Thea (Samara Weaving), respectively—and the series’ original screenwriters, Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, do get some mileage out of the lads trying desperately to fulfill their destiny with songs employing theremin, bagpipes and Tuvan throat singing. Soon they’re informed by the time-traveling daughter (Kristen Schaal) of their old friend Rufus that a fate-of-the-universe deadline looms, kicking off more time travel for both Bill & Ted and Billie & Thea. But there’s a very different dynamic at play when 50-year-old actors are playing the oblivious doofuses, and it’s kind of … sad. While the energy picks up when Bill & Ted’s old friend Death (William Sadler) appears, along with a robot terminator (Anthony Carrigan) who becomes hilariously needy, the two guys at the center make everything feel a little bit off
. Face the Music
tries to do everything the first two movies did, except that there are some things you can’t travel back in time to recapture. Available Aug. 28 in theaters; available Sept. 1 via VOD.
[not yet reviewed]
A couple is trapped in their snowbound car in the middle of an ice storm. Available Aug. 28 in theaters and via VOD.
Class Action Park ***1/2
What begins as a sort of wacky paean to a bygone attraction evolves into a surprisingly complicated look at our relationship with nostalgia. Directors Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III take as their subject Action Park, a water/amusement park that operated in Vernon, New Jersey from 1978-1986. And for much of the running time, it’s a history of the place itself—a ridiculously dangerous collection of poorly-designed attractions operated by disgraced Wall Street broker Gene Mulvihill—through the recollections of former employees and locals who grew up visiting, like comedian/writer Chris Gethard. While the details of the park’s operations and its crazy rides fashion it as a real-life version of a rambunctious 1980s rite-of-passage teen comedy, Class Action Park eventually tells stories of actual deaths at Action Park. There’s a fascinating tug-of-war here between looking back fondly on an era of freewheeling summers before “helicopter parenting,” and the grim realities of making safety an afterthought. Even those who recall their Action Park adventures with an incredulous laugh seem to understand the price they paid for those memories isn’t just battle scars, but mothers burying their sons. Available Aug. 27 via HBO Max.
Herbert Sauper’s fascinating documentary manages to take on multiple topics at once, and figure out a way to almost all of them together into something completely singular. Superficially, Sauper is exploring contemporary Cuba, as he makes his way through Havana interacting with locals. But he’s also tackling the legacy of imperialism, written (sometimes literally) into the buildings and into the way Cubans think about Americans. At the same time, he’s dealing with the cinema itself as part of that history, including the ability of propaganda to shape public opinion. There are times when Sauper darts between these subjects in a way that’s not particularly smooth, though the segments themselves remain individually fascinating. He’s also got a terrific character in Leoneli, a pre-teen Cuban girl with eyes on a career as an actor (with Oona Chaplin as her teacher!). Leoneli might be precociously knowledgeable about historical facts that American schoolkids would never be taught, but her dreams are still shaped by American popular culture, like another resident for whom America’s glories are defined by Disneyland and Hollywood. “Stories created from lies become reality,” Chaplin tells Leoneli, and Epicentro
captures how even this revolutionary island can’t entirely escape the grip of those stories. Available Aug. 28 via SLFSatHome.org.
As Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc
proved nearly a century ago, there can be devastating human drama in the torment of being chosen by God. Marco Pontecorvo’s story of another real-life saint somehow misses where that emotional core should be. The fact-based story takes place largely in 1917 Portugal, where 10-year-old Lúcia Santos (Stephanie Gil) and her two cousins repeatedly witness an apparition of the Virgin Mary, calling for prayer and repentance during a time of world war. A framing sequence set in 1989 casts Harvey Keitel as an academic interviewing an older Lúcia (Sonia Braga) about her experiences, which contributes nothing besides rote debate points over faith, reason and miracles. But it’s even more disappointing that Fatima’s main narrative too often gets sidetracked by how desperately other people in Lúcia’s town—the local priest (Joaquim de Almeida), the skeptical mayor (Goran Visnjic), Lúcia’s own mother (Lúcia Moniz)—try to get her to recant. There’s a powerful story to be mined from the burden placed on a child of conveying a divine message, and while young Gil is quite impressive when given the chance, this isn’t a story that centers her experience. A miracle itself is generally less compelling than its impact on those who experience it. Available Aug. 28 via VOD.
Get Duked! **1/2
There’s nothing wrong with a good genre mash-up, unless the genres get so mashed that you can barely recognize any of them. In the Scottish Highlands, three teen delinquents—Dean (Rian Gordon), Duncan (Lewis Gribben) and DJ Beatroot (Viraj Juneja)—are forced to participate in an outdoor skills test called the Duke of Edinburgh Award, teamed up with friendless nerd Ian (Samuel Bottomley). Unfortunately, their excursion is interrupted by a pair of psycho nobles (Eddie Izzard and Georgie Glen) on a quest to “cull the herd” of undesirables. What ensues is a bizarre mix of stoner comedy and serial-killer thriller, spiked with a dose of social satire, like this year’s The Hunt
by way of Broken Lizard. The funny stuff works best, from DJ Beatroot’s raps that tend towards odes to his penis, to the efforts of local police force to track down what they believe are a zombie pedophile urban drug gang. Doff mixes his gags with a silly visual style emphasizing the characters’ frequent ingesting of hallucinogens, and it’s just a shame that he tries to get too serious in earnest speeches about class and generational warfare in a movie where people eat rabbit shit to get high. Available Aug. 28 via Amazon Prime.
Made in Bangladesh ***
Yes, co-writer/director Rubaiyat Hossain’s drama is largely a didactic exercise; that doesn’t mean it doesn’t also hit most of the targets it’s aiming for. It’s the story of Shimu (Rikita Nandini Shimu), a 23-year-old woman working in a textile factory in the Bangladeshi capital of Dakha to support herself and her unemployed husband. After a fire takes the life of a co-worker, Shimu connects with a labor organizer (Shahana Goswami) and tries to rally her friends to form a union. The obstacles she faces are partly the same as those you’d expect from a similarly themed American drama like Norma Rae, amplified by the struggle of being a woman in an Islamic country where, as Shimu says, “We’re screwed if we’re married, and screwed if we aren’t.” Shimu’s performance strikes the right tone of determination as her character becomes increasingly radicalized, especially as she begins to realize that the national bureaucracy isn’t necessarily on her side. Most significantly, Hossain’s visual direction is far more than purely functional for the story, capturing evocative images beyond the earnest speeches; when we see the inside of one Labor Ministry office, the precarious stacks of files like something out of Gilliam’s Brazil
suggest a government where lives are shuffled off like piece of paper. Available Aug. 28 via SLFSatHome.org and ParkCityFilm.org.
Mr. Soul! ***
A fascinating footnote in television history gets a thorough treatment, at a moment when it feels particularly potent. Director Melissa Haizlip tells the story of her uncle, Ellis Haizlip, who co-created, produced and hosted a 1968-1973 talk and variety program titled Soul!
on public television, focused on Black musicians, performing artists and thinkers. The archival footage alone makes for a great experience, capturing some of the first-ever live television appearances by the likes of Kool & the Gang, Ashford & Simpson, Patti LaBelle and Earth, Wind & Fire. It’s also a fascinating look at how the program provided a platform for controversial voices like Stokely Carmichael, Kathleen Cleaver and Louis Farrakhan, making the show a bit too political for the Nixon administration. Through it all is a compelling portrait of Ellis Haizlip himself, a gay Black man who used his connections to the New York Black arts and letters scene to create an unprecedented showcase for Black culture and thought, at a time when such material could be found nowhere else on television. The recollections of those who watched and appeared on Soul!
emphasize the power of representation, even as 50 years later we still seem unable to make much progress. Available Aug. 28 via SLFSatHome.org.
The New Mutants *1/2
The years-long path of The New Mutants
to the screen has been so tortuous—and tortured—that expectations were bound to be low. And it doesn’t even quite reach that
level. Director Josh Boone’s adaptation of the Marvel characters begins with Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt) as the latest arrival at a facility housing teenagers who are still learning to control their newly-manifested mutant powers. None of the youngsters—Illyana (Anya Taylor-Joy), Rahne (Maisie Williams), Sam (Charlie Heaton) and Roberto (Henry Zaga)—are called by their comic-book hero names, which is just one of many ways that it feels like Boone isn’t quite sure how to integrate the larger X-Men universe into this story. It’s certainly notable that he’s aiming for a more thriller-like tone, and seems to be trying for a story about dealing with the perils at the crossroads of adolescence of choosing what kind of person you will be. But all of that stuff is mashed into narrative that has too incorporate too many “origin” stories, and rushes through the plot too quickly to give most of the characters any personality; Roberto’s primary identifying trait appears to be that he enjoys doing dishes. And then, with around half an hour left, it’s like somebody flips a switch and decides this has to be a comic-book movie again, densely packing the third act with CGI action. We waited an awfully long time for a movie that’s in a big hurry to get to nowhere in particular. Available Aug. 28 in theaters.
Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin ***
Generally speaking, documentary filmmakers struggle when they’re too close to their subjects—but specifically speaking, not many documentary filmmakers are like Werner Herzog. His personality permeates his non-fiction films, including here as he delves into the life and work of writer Bruce Chatwin, whom Herzog befriended in the 1980s—and whose book was the source for Herzog’s 1987 film Cobra Verde—before Chatwin died in 1989 at the age of 49 of AIDS-related causes. While Herzog touches on Chatwin’s personal life, this is less a biography than it is a rumination on Chatwin’s favorite subjects—aboriginal cultures, anthropology and what Herzog describes in his trademark Bavarian growl as “wild characters, strange dreamers and big ideas about the nature of human existence.” Herzog leans a bit too heavily into drone footage and impressive landscapes, with interview subjects who are more of the generic talking-head variety—including Chatwin’s biographer and his widow—rather than those aforementioned wild characters. But it’s a satisfying portrait of its subject nonetheless, and even more so of the impact he clearly had on Herzog himself. As easy as it is to think of the filmmaker as a caricature, he becomes particularly human when remembering an old friend, and getting a catch in his voice over making use of Chatwin’s beloved leather rucksack. Available Aug. 28 via SLFSatHome.org.
The Personal History of David Copperfield **1/2
Dev Patel in The Personal History of David Copperfield
The Charles Dickens tale seems like an unlikely fit for writer/director Armando Iannucci (In the Loop
, The Death of Stalin
) and his scathing gift for political satire, and indeed there are plusses and minuses to the particular match of this filmmaker and this material. Iannucci and frequent co-writer Simon Blackwell make their way through most of the key points from Dickens’ narrative, following the rises and falls in fortune of David (Dev Patel), born into privilege but often forced to deal with poverty. Iannucci puts together an A+ supporting cast—Ben Whishaw, Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi—even as he explores color-blind casting for many roles and employs meta-narrative devices like projected images and self-aware theatricality to emphasize David’s growing identity as a writer himself. But the plot moves at a breakneck pace through all of the necessary subplots, leaving too little time for characters like Capaldi’s Micawber and Whishaw’s Uriah Heep to really flourish. Most disappointing, there’s also too little of Iannucci’s humor, even as he pokes at the story’s critique of class divides, and David’s occasional obliviousness to those divides whenever his fortunes are on the rise. It’s mostly a perfectly solid version of Dickens’ David Copperfield
—which is something anybody could have done. Available Aug. in theaters.
Still Here **1/2
I’ll be honest: I’m not sure if the ways in which co-writer/director Vlad Feier’s drama is messy make the result clumsy, or actually low-key brilliant. The “inspired by true events” narrative offers obvious red meat for an emotional hook, as working-class Black New Yorker Michael Watson (Maurice McRae) struggles to deal with the disappearance of his 10-year-old daughter, Monique. The story splits off into a couple of other tangents—one involving cocky journalist Christian (Johnny Whitworth) researching the story, the other focusing on two detectives (Jeremy Holm and Danny Johnson) assigned to the case—in a way that doesn’t always make it clear what this movie is really about. But it’s hard not to recognize the timely edge to material that treats the police as a thuggish presence more interested in public appearances than in justice, or to the suggestion that Black communities are mostly on their own when it comes to crimes that cause them harm. Some solid performances—particularly McRae’s powerful work as the emotionally devastated dad—help balance Whitworth’s role, which gives him a near-instantaneous character arc that proves hard to play. It’s an awkwardly-constructed story, but one that centers how institutional structures make happy endings the result of luck rather than the diligence of authorities who care. Available Aug. 28 in theaters.
See feature review
. Available Sept. 1 via VOD.