2 Hearts **
There’s a place in cinema for tear-jerkers, but it gets a bit frustrating to sit through something that’s effectively pulling out your nostril hairs one at a time for 100 minutes to make sure the eyes are wet. The fact-based story follows two mostly parallel romances: between rum manufacturing scion Jorge (Adan Canto) and flight attendant Leslie (Radha Mitchell), and between college students Chris (Jacob Elordi) and Sam (Tiera Skobvye). It doesn’t take a professional film critic to figure out that these two tales will ultimately intersect, nor the specific way in which that intersection is likely to occur. But while the meet-cutes and swooning scenes between our two-pair of lovers clearly set us up for the waterworks, director Lance Hool and his screenwriting team are absolutely shameless in their manipulation. Aside from a completely unjustifiable fake-out, there are approximately a dozen different scenes in which people say tearful goodbyes to someone they believe is dying, and the cliché of a funeral scene … in the rain … with everyone using identical black umbrellas. If you’re looking for a cathartic experience with a side-order of inspirational kinda-faith-based drama, there have to be better places to find it (see Clouds
below). Available Oct. 16 in theaters.
American Utopia ***1/2
See feature review
. Available Oct. 17on HBO and HBO Max.
Belly of the Beast ***
Director Erika Cohn strikes just the right balance between outrage-stoking issue documentary and genuine character study as she explores the horrifying details behind the state of California involuntarily sterilizing female prison inmates. The focus is on Kelli Dillon, a former prisoner who brought her own story of involuntary sterilization to attorney Cynthia Chandler, part of a civil-rights advocacy group Justice Now. Cohn lays out the case in disturbing detail, from the long history of eugenic sterilization that even inspired Nazi Germany to look to 1930s California as a role model, to modern-day social media comments voicing support for such ongoing action. The story avoids becoming a parade of statistics by allowing Dillon’s own story of attempting to rebuild her post-incarceration life to come to the forefront, along with Chandler’s sacrifices to fight for these women’s rights (even if the material about ignoring her own kids to do her job feels a bit too much like a preview of the inevitable fictionalized version of this narrative). Any recounting of these events might have gotten you angry, which makes it satisfying when a filmmaker understands how to turn it into an actual movie. Available Oct. 16 via SLFSatHome.org.
See feature review
. Available Oct. 16 via Disney+.
Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something ***
In the final interview snippet of singer/songwriter Harry Chapin used by director Rick Korn, we hear him describe life as being “like a C-movie … it’s not straight, it’s messy.” That could have come off as a filmmaker’s backhanded self-justification, but it also feels appropriate for a subject who was perpetually barreling ahead with an emphasis on passion over pragmatism. Korn focuses more on Chapin’s philanthropy for hunger-related causes than on his musical career—though a montage about how Chapin’s signature song, “Cat’s in the Cradle,” became a pop-culture shorthand for emotional father-son relationships is one of the movie’s filmmaking high points. As a result, this feels less like a standard-issue “great artist” doc than a profile in how Chapin’s activism ultimately mattered much more to him than the fame he used as the platform for doing actual good in the world. It’s almost too easy for a profile like this to feel like hero-worship, when so many people—not just family members, but fellow artists like Billy Joel and Pat Benatar whom he treated with generosity when they were still nobodies—share tales of his decency, and his early death feels so particularly tragic. If the result isn’t particularly dramatic, well, right now tales of decency seem pretty important. Available Oct. 16 via SLFSatHome.org.
A veteran thief (Liam Neeson) finds his attempt to turn himself in complicated by crooked Federal agents. Available Oct. 16 in theaters.
The Kid Detective ***
Writer/director Evan Morgan’s concept is so good, that I spent fully half of The Kid Detective
running time wondering if I was on the verge of the year’s most unexpectedly great movie—until an inability to fully stick the landing leaves it simply pretty damn good. Adam Brody stars as Abe Applebaum, a 32-year-old private detective who has spent 20 years trying to live up to his status as an adolescent child prodigy who solved innocuous town mysteries, until his failure to handle a real case crushed his spirit. Most of the narrative revolves around Abe’s attempt to find redemption by solving a murder case brought to him by a high-school student, leading to the brilliant, Airplane!
-esque exchange: “Someone murdered my boyfriend.” “Seriously?” “Pretty seriously.” The writing stays at a high level throughout, with Brody effectively playing a more humorous variation on William H. Macy’s peaked-too-soon sadsack from Magnolia
. Eventually the focus turns to actually solving the crime, and despite a surprisingly creepy denouement, Morgan isn’t quite as successful at the darker tones in Abe’s dramatic arc. For a while, though, it’s hilarious watching the kind of guy who was the hero of a middle-grade book series muddle through an adulthood after precociousness fades. Available Oct. 16 in theaters.
Love and Monsters
A young man (Dylan O’Brien) journeys through a creature-infested world to find his girlfriend. Available Oct. 16 in theaters.
Martin Eden **1/2
Being unfamiliar with the Jack London source material, I’m not sure if Martin Eden
is meant to be an epic romantic drama or simply a character study in self-delusion, but co-writer/director Pietro Marcello doesn’t seem to know, either. In an unspecified early-20th-century year in Naples, young merchant seaman Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli) falls for Elena (Jessica Cressy), the daughter of a wealthy family, and finds himself inspired to become a writer. Much of the narrative is devoted to Martin’s frustrated efforts to find his own voice, as he’s pressured on one side by Elena to tell “nice” stories, and on another by his new friend Briss (Carlo Cecchi) to fully embrace socialism. That story is wrapped in an interesting visual package, as Marcello frequently employs inserts of vintage or faux-vintage footage, occasionally in a way that seems to be representing Martin’s imagination. But this is also one of those literary adaptations that feels like it’s racing through the key plot points, to the extent that it’s startling to realize we’ve reached a moment where Martin has achieved renown. Where exactly this journey is meant to have taken him by the time we hear cries that war has come, isn’t entirely clear. Available Oct. 16 via SLFSatHome.org.
Over the Moon **1/2
It’s not as though grief and death haven’t been central ideas in animated films previously; it’s that grief and death have been central ideas in animated films so often
that you need to bring something fresh to the table. This one is set in contemporary China, where adolescent Fei Fei (Cathy Ang)—distressed that her widowed father (John Cho) seems on the verge of remarriage—builds a rocket to the moon to find the legendary moon goddess Chang’e (Hamilton’s Phillipa Soo) whose story proves the existence of one eternal love. Veteran Disney animator Glen Keane gives Chang’e’s world a primary-colors glow that combines Coco
’s underworld with Wreck-It Ralph
’s candy kingdom, and it’s satisfying to see a fully Asian and Asian-American cast get a chance to be at center stage. The story is just blandly familiar otherwise, from the motor-mouthed sidekick character (voiced by Ken Jeong), to the tedious on-the-nose lyrics of the songs, to a resolution that stops only millimeters short of “the real moon was inside you all along.” As much as Over the Moon
wants to earn genuine emotion at the idea of a kid dealing with loss, we’ve seen what that looks like often enough to know when it’s working. Available Oct. 16 in theaters; available Oct. 23 via Netflix.
Dylan Gelula and Cooper Raiff in Shithouse
There’s such an absolute earnestness to writer/director Cooper Raiff’s debut feature that you just want to wrap it up in your arms and let him know everything is gonna be all right. Raiff also stars as Alex, a freshman at a Southern California university who's desperately lonely and homesick for his family back in Texas. On one drunken Friday night, he connects with his sophomore RA, Maggie (Dylan Gelula), and begins to think he might have something worth sticking around for. There’s a level on which the dynamic between Alex and Maggie feels somewhat familiar—not just because the first half plays out like a collegiate Before Sunrise
, but because of the sparks and potential clashes between the emotionally-open Alex and the more guarded Maggie. Both performances are terrific, though, not just at capturing a burgeoning romance but at fully investing their initial interactions with an almost painful-to-watch awkwardness. Mostly, Raiff honors his obvious influences without aping them, finding a distinctive voice in the idea that coming from a loving, fully functional family presents its own challenges in a harsh world. It’s delightful as a romantic comedy, but even better as a celebration of the idea that there’s nothing wimpy about wanting to feel connected to other people. Available Oct. 16 via VOD.
The American mass-incarceration system and its disparate impact on people of color has been the topic of many recent documentaries; this one stands out by making those impacts quietly, achingly human. Garrett Bradley’s documentary focuses on Sibil “Fox Rich” Richardson, a Black Louisiana woman whose husband, Robert, is serving the 20th year of a 60-year sentence for an armed bank robbery (for which Fox herself served 12 years). No one here argues that they didn’t commit the crime, so Time absolutely isn’t about an unjustly convicted man. Instead, the story is entirely about what it feels like to wait for the system to decide that enough punishment is enough. Fox is a dynamic personality, making it easy to get great material out of her public speaking. The real power, though, comes from Bradley’s integration of Fox’s own home-video footage with the contemporary material, both shot in black-and-white so that the transition from images of Fox and Robert’s children as infants to them in college is often jarring. A restrained piano score adds to the mournful quality of a movie that’s confident enough to recognize the impact of holding the camera on Fox as she calls the courts for information on Robert’s latest appeal, and sits there waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Available Oct. 16 via Amazon Prime. (PG-13)
Totally Under Control ***
Alex Gibney’s documentary style might best be described as “professorial outrage”—issue-oriented non-fiction filmmaking that’s loaded to the rafters with facts, and mostly leaves it to the audience to fill in the “this is so fucked up” part of things. Here he turns to the Trump administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a timeline so up-to-the-moment that a postscript even mentions Trump’s own recent diagnosis. Mostly, it’s an accumulation of evidence already well-documented in other media: the lack of effective testing in the early days of the pandemic; the failure to get masks and PPE to those who needed them; the politicized efforts to promote hydroxychloroquine as a possible treatment; etc. Gibney lays out the successful response in South Korea as a counterpoint to the U.S. catastrophe, and brings on plenty of Obama administration officials, whistle-blowers and front-line health care workers to lay out how badly this president screwed the pooch. None of this is breaking news, and Gibney rarely does anything from a filmmaking standpoint to liven things up, like underscoring scenes of PPE transport with the song “Convoy.” Mostly, he’s trying to make a comprehensive document of a preventable tragedy. It ain’t flashy, but it’s damning. Available Oct. 13 via VOD; available Oct. 20 via Hulu.
White Riot **1/2
Maybe there’s something fitting about telling a story centered around British punk rock with a frantic anarchic spirit, but that still results in something that bounces around with a frustrating lack of direction. Director Rubika Shah looks into the Rock Against Racism movement, launched in the late 1970s by artist/photographer Red Saunders and others in response to England’s growing racist/anti-immigrant National Front movement. The film lays out the backdrop—including the era’s deep economic recession in England and the unsurprising accompanying emergence of scapegoating—and celebrates the DIY spirit with which Saunders and his collaborators took fighting fascism into their own hands, with Shah employing plenty of music and animation to add energy. But while White Riot
provides some interesting reminders of lesser-known acts from Britain’s own punk scene, notably including groups like X-Ray Spex and Alien Kuture fronted by people of color, the frequent use of performance footage pulls the focus away from what all these people were trying to accomplish politically. Even the climactic April 1978 “Carnival Against the Nazis” co-headlined by The Clash seems more interested in the concert than the march by tens of thousands of anti-fascist demonstrators that preceded it. The “against racism” part too often feels subsumed by the “rock” part. Available Oct. 16 via SLFSatHome.org.