Blithe Spirit **
Cinematic farce has a spotty history, largely because the manic energy required to maintain the premise doesn’t translate particularly well to the screen. Director Edward Hall—an episodic television veteran overseeing his first feature—essays Noël Coward’s 1941 play about a blocked writer named Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) whose lark of a home séance with medium Madame Arcati (Judi Dench) results in the apparition of his late first wife, Elvira (Leslie Mann), much to the consternation of Charles’ second wife, Ruth (Isla Fisher). The screenplay complicates the character dynamics by making Elvira the “ghost writer” of Charles’ works, and tries to build more pathos into Madame Arcati’s quest for communication from beyond. But the crux of the thing has to come down to the craziness that ensues when Charles starts talking to a ghost only he can see, and jealousy rears its ugly head. And sadly, this Blithe Spirit simply feels like it’s always crawling along, no matter how frantically any of the cast members behaves. If any of the tweaks to the story were meant to give it more humanity—or more of a bawdy contemporary feel—it doesn’t particularly work, and leaves a flat interpretation of a wild scenario. Available Feb. 19 in theaters.
Days of the Bagnold Summer ***
The complicated dynamics between a single mom and a teenage son get a charming if not particularly insightful interpretation in this adaptation of Joff Winterhart’s graphic novel. English divorcée Sue Bagnold (Monica Dolan) and her sullen, heavy-metal-loving 15-year-old son Daniel (Earl Cave, son of rocker Nick) find themselves unexpected stuck together for the summer after Daniel’s planned holiday with his dad in Florida gets cancelled. The narrative mostly follows the two on parallel courses, with director Simon Bird often shooting the scenes where they are together to emphasize the distance between them. The interactions feel a lot like a slightly-older-kid version of the tension between young River Phoenix and Dianne Wiest in Parenthood
, and Daniel’s treatment of his just-trying mum pushes the limits of making his frustrations flat-out obnoxious. But Dolan is quite appealing in her efforts at trying to be both a good mother and a woman with her own life, continuing to reach out to Daniel when it would have been easy to surrender. While the third act turn towards mutual understanding feels a bit abrupt, it’s a generally satisfying character study of figuring out how to be family. Available Feb. 19 via SLFSatHome.org.
Flora & Ulysses **1/2
The “Disney-fying” of certain stories is a tricky business, and some things emerge from the process a bit worse for wear. Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery Medal-winning novel is adapted for the story of 10-year-old Flora Buckman (Matilda Lawler), a cynical child whose parents (Alyson Hannigan and Ben Schwartz) have recently separated. Into this messy life falls Ulysses, a squirrel who seems to have been imbued with super-powers after a run-in with an automated vacuum. Director Lena Khan and screenwriter Brad Copeland aim to preserve the basic dynamic of Flora processing her family’s troubles through her adventures with Ulysses, and Lawler is charming in the central performance. But the film can’t capture the quirky energy of the book’s illustration style, relying on plenty of slapstick chaos and an unnecessary antagonist in Danny Pudi as an overzealous animal-control officer (which has become something of a mini-cliché in family cinema). By the time they’ve thrown in one too many bits of corporate synergy—yes, we actually get an unironic “love you 3000”—a lot of the potential emotion has been swallowed up by making this particular rodent’s tale subservient to the needs of Disney’s Big Rodent. Available Feb. 19 via Disney+.
I Care a Lot ***
See feature review
. Available Feb. 19 via Netflix.
Silk Road ***
There’s a certain degree of familiarity here, but at least one part of the narrative proves solid enough to keep a spark of interest. Writer/director Tiller Russell adapts the fact-based story of Ross Ulbricht (Nick Robinson), a libertarian idealist who launches a dark-web site called Silk Road to allow for anonymous transactions in drugs and other contraband goods; in virtual pursuit is DEA agent Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke), a veteran undercover man whose loose-cannon ways landed him in cybercrimes. The result is two parts The Social Network
and one part Catch Me If You Can
, combining a portrait of startup guru arrogance with the odd relationship between pursued and pursuer. On the first count, Russell’s structure is a little shaky, leaving Ulbricht’s motives relatively superficial and spending too much time on how he alienates his girlfriend (Robinson’s Love, Simon
co-star Alexandra Shipp). But Clarke is great as a burned-out cop barely able to keep up with the digital world he’s now tasked with policing; there’s a cruelly funny moment when an attempt at faking torture for a camera has to be repeated because he forgot to press record. While Silk Road
might not fully explore the dark societal underbelly the website exploited, it’s effective at conveying new dangers arising faster than an older generation can understand them. Available Feb. 19 in theaters and via VOD.
Test Pattern ****
I spent the 82 minutes of Shatara Michelle Ford’s feature dazzled by the kind of direction that signals an absolute powerhouse talent, to the point where the movie’s ideas almost snuck up on me. At the outset, it’s almost a meet-cute romance as we see the early days of the relationship between Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) and Evan (Will Brill), full of initial awkwardness and a first sexual encounter that makes asking for consent amazingly hot. The narrative eventually turns toward the aftermath of an encounter between an intoxicated Renesha and another man while she’s having a girls’ night with a friend—and suddenly the dynamic between Renesha and Evan becomes something where it feels like her agency is being taken away by the person who’s supposed to be on her side. Ford illustrates her tale with one fantastic choice after another: interstitial flashbacks to simpler moments between the couple that reveal potential cracks; a jagged, disorienting editing capturing Renesha at her most vulnerable; a hard cut away from Evan ranting at a hospital employee; even the use of “Waltz of the Flowers” in the middle of an ordeal to get Renesha examined for a rape kit. Both central performances are terrific, and Ford’s vision is so distinct that a tale that could have felt like a lecture instead feels like a revelation. Available Feb. 19 via SLFSatHome.org.