The Argument **
John Leguizamo (center) in Critical Thinking
As a high-concept, it sounds a little like Groundhog Fight
: After a particularly awkward cocktail party that ends in a blowup, actress Lisa (Emma Bell) and her writer boyfriend Jack (Dan Fogler) decide to re-stage the occasion multiple times, in an attempt to prove definitively who was to blame. That’s an interesting idea for exploring the pettiness that can erode the foundations of a relationship—except that director Robert Schwartzman and screenwriter Zac Stanford don’t seem particularly interested in digging into that territory. Instead, they want little more than a farce built around their high concept, as Jack and Lisa’s guests—Jack’s agent Brett (Danny Pudi) and Brett’s irritated entertainment lawyer girlfriend Sarah (Maggie Q), and Lisa’s theatrical co-star Paul (Tyler James Williams) and Paul’s girlfriend Trina (Cleopatra Coleman)—deal with their friends’ craziness. And that might have been fine, had the filmmakers found any genuinely funny places to go with their idea. Instead, The Argument pivots toward the broadest possible stereotypes, particularly once Jack decides to turn his experiment into a staged reading featuring hired actors. Only Maggie Q’s tightly wound Sarah emerges as a character whose actions (mostly) feel plausible. It’s easy to feel, like her, that this whole exercise becomes hard to endure. Available Sept. 4 in theaters.
[not yet reviewed]
4K restoration re-release of Claire Denis’ 1999 drama about an ex-Legionnaire (Denis Levant) reflecting on his career. Available Sept. 4 via SLFSatHome.org.
Critical Thinking ***
There’s a formula to “inspirational teacher” movies, and John Leguizamo knows it; Dito Montiel’s script for this based-on-a-true-story has one of the students comment out loud about the “corny as shit” encouragements of teacher Mario Martinez. Leguizamo directs and stars as Martinez, who teaches a chess elective at a Miami public high school serving a largely non-white population, and brings the school team to state competitions. The plot dynamics are familiar in focusing on the home lives that present tough challenges for team members Sedrick (Corwin C. Tuggles) an Ito (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.), and those scenes often feel far too familiar. The performances, however, are uniformly strong, and Leguizamo and Montiel avoid some real potential pitfalls—first, by making the school principal (Rachel Bay Jones) more than an institutional villain, and second, by allowing plenty of scenes showing the passion with which Martinez teaches chess and not just his life-skills pep talks. It all naturally builds to an underdog-sports-movie crescendo, which doesn’t explain enough to a layperson about what’s going on in the game itself. The real strengths come in showing how Martinez turns these kids into an actual team. Available Sept. 4 via SLFSatHome.org and in theaters.
Feels Good Man ***
In the 21st century online world, is it even possible anymore for creators to control the way their work can be co-opted, memed and otherwise manipulated? Arthur Jones’ documentary—following the evolution of Pepe the Frog from amusing creation of cartoonist Matt Furie into symbol of alt-right ideology—doesn’t exactly provide an encouraging answer. Jones profiles Furie himself, then delves into a weirdly fascinating history of 4Chan and the online subcultures that crafted a bizarre nexus between the googly-eyed amphibian and the Trump presidential campaign. Those details are slickly presented in a lively style that employs plenty of colorful animation, heightening the absurdity of every weird twist the story takes. Furie himself isn’t nearly so lively, but his laid-back presence is an intrinsic part of how this narrative unfolds; once he finally takes legal action to try to re-claim Pepe’s image, it’s clear how uncomfortable he is in that role, even realizing that acting sooner might have made some difference. There are a couple of narrative diversions—particularly one about cryptocurrency and memes as collectibles—that don’t feel as connected to the central story, but it’s still an effective, entertaining cautionary tale about finding yourself forever associated with terrible people, because the ways they can spread their terribleness is evolving faster than we can keep up. Available Sept. 4 via VOD; free live stream Sept. 8, 7 p.m. via UtahFilmCenter.org.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things ***1/2
See feature review
. Available Sept. 4 via Netflix.
The Mole Agent ***1/2
Maite Alberdi’s film offers the storytelling satisfactions of a classic comedy-drama; indeed, the only thing making it hard to know how fully to embrace it is that it’s supposed to be a documentary. Octogenarian widower Sergio answers an ad from private investigator Romulo, looking for someone to go undercover in a Chilean nursing home because a client—the daughter of one of the resident—suspects elder abuse. But instead of focusing on his role as a spy, Sergio becomes a friend and confidante to many of the residents. The early scenes of Sergio struggling to learn the technology required for his mission provide a light-hearted foundation, along with Romulo’s frustrations that Sergio’s reports tend to focus more on the facility’s parties than on potential wrongdoing. The real heart of the story, though, is Sergio’s deep compassion for the (almost exclusively) women who are his co-residents, realizing that their well-being seems most threatened by loneliness; Romulo’s client, so concerned about her mother, never once appears on screen. Perhaps the footage feels a little too neatly packaged, making it hard not to wonder if anything was staged. If we ultimately see an indie-film dramatization based on this material, it’ll be hard-pressed to match the emotion in the original. Available Sept. 4 via SLFSatHome.org.
See feature review
. Available Sept. 4 via Disney+ premium purchase.
See feature review
. Available Sept. 4 in theaters.