Africa Mia (The Mali-Cuba Connection) ***
Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer in Thunder Force
The tale of a fascinating little music-history footnote loses its footing only when the filmmaker falls into the trap of making the story about himself. Veteran music producer Richard Minier (who co-directed with Edouard Salier) chronicles his 15-year obsession with Las Maravillas de Mali—a band made up of Malian musicians who traveled to Cuba in 1964 for music education sponsored by their fellow communist country—and Minier’s various attempts to reunite the surviving members. Much of the focus is on Boncana Maïga, who went solo for a massively successful career, leaving resentments that lingered decades later. Minier gets some great interview material from the Maravillas members, talking about the “distractions” of 1960s Havana and what their hosts believed life in Africa was like at the time. The structure feels awkward at times as Minier bounces to whomever he can find at any given time, and his narration often centers his own frustrated mission at the expense of the musicians' stories. It’s stronger when it’s focused on other relationships, and on the unique music that was created out of a one-of-a-kind experience. Available April 9 via SLFSatHome.org.
If you’re going to attempt a de facto remake of Full Metal Jacket
, it helps to approach it from a unique angle. Co-writer/director Oliver Hermanus adapts André Carl van der Merwe’s novel set in 1981-1982 South Africa, where teenager Nicholas van der Swart (Kai Luke Brümmer) is beginning his mandatory military service trying to hide his sexual orientation from a culture where it could be fatal (“moffie” is an Afrikaans gay slur). The opening hour is full of familiar boot-camp tropes, like the brutal drill sergeant (Hilton Pelser) and a troublemaker who becomes the drill sergeant’s target for discipline. Yet there’s a constant undercurrent of menace particular to Nicholas’s fears, even if Hermanus and lays on a bit of a heavy hand with the dissonant strings transitioning to operatic arias when Nicholas connects with a fellow soldier (Ryan de Villiers). And it’s a neat shift from the FMJ homage when Moffie
includes a Top Gun
-esque volleyball match involving shirtless military men that doesn’t pretend it isn’t about homoeroticism. The actual combat section of the film is relatively short, and feels like a missed opportunity to explore how Nicholas deals with his mission to perpetuate oppression of another minority. Yet Moffie
does give a fresh twist to the idea of being indoctrinated into a very specific definition of manhood. Available April 9 in theaters and via VOD.
Shiva Baby **1/2
Not every “feature expanded from a short” feels every bit of that description, but that’s Emma Seligman’s debut feature, for better and for worse. At a funeral reception for a family friend, college senior Danielle (Rachel Sennott) finds herself in the awkward situation of bumping into both her high school girlfriend, Maya (Molly Gordon), and the “sugar daddy” (Danny Deferrari) who’s been keeping her in pocket money—and who also turns out to be married with a baby. There’s very little set-up for the story, which plays out almost entirely at the reception, making it feel like a 72-minute second-act without much of a set-up or resolution. There is some solid stuff in between, mostly involving Sennott’s performance as a young woman who doesn’t know how to integrate the confusing realities of her life with her traditional Jewish parents (Polly Draper and Fred Melamed) and their friends. But the components of awkward farce bump up against the reality that situations here feel repetitive, especially scenes where Danielle will be buttonholed by someone while her eyes dart anxiously around the room accompanied by a score of jittery strings. Sometimes, the 8-minute version is probably the version that worked best. Available April 9 via SLFSatHome.org and ParkCityFilm.org.
Thunder Force **
Melissa McCarthy’s high-concept comedy collaborations with husband/writer/director Ben Falcone continue to be wildly uneven in quality, up to and including this tepid super-hero comedy. Set in a contemporary Chicago where cosmic rays have created super-powered villains, it follows two estranged friends-since-childhood—bumbling Lydia (McCarthy) and brilliant Emily (Octavia Spencer)—as they take advantage of Emily’s genetic research to become heroes challenging the “miscreants.” Not surprisingly, much of the humor is built around McCarthy’s game physicality and Everywoman appeal, but the gags themselves are almost uniformly uninspired; if building a punch line around McCarthy and Spencer singing along to a pop-radio chestnut is only worth a smile the first time, it doesn’t get any fresher when it’s repeated. More frustrating still, Spencer is wasted as straight-woman to McCarthy, her character lacking any spark that would contribute to an odd-couple pairing or a story of reconciliation. There are some satisfyingly odd touches around the edges, particularly involving Jason Bateman applying his droll delivery to the role of a bad-guy henchman with crab arms, and a fantasy dance sequence between Bateman and McCarthy set to Glenn Frey’s “You Belong to the City.” It’s just hard to make it through even 100 minutes of a comedy when there isn’t all that much that’s funny. Available April 9 via Netflix.
Tye Sheridan and Fionn Whitehead in Voyagers
Yeah, it feels kind of snarky and reductive to describe Voyagers
as Horny Lord of the Flies in Space
—but I mean, if the shoe fits. Writer/director Neil Burger spins a tale set in the late 21st century, as humanity prepares to colonize a distant planet by raising 30 children in isolation to prepare them for the 86-year journey. But 10 years into the actual voyage, two of the now-teens—Christopher (Tye Sheridan) and Zac (Fionn Whitehead) learn that their adult surrogate parent Richard (Colin Farrell) has been secretly drugging them all to make them more docile and less hormonal. Predictably, aggressions and jealousies are eventually released, with factions forming and the ship’s fragile civilization teetering on the edge of disintegration. All of that could have been an allegory for a nature-or-nurture look at humanity’s worst impulses fighting with its better angels—including the creation of scapegoats to create fear and seize power—except that this young cast of genetically perfect specimens just ain’t up to the thematic heavy lifting. All that’s left then is the genre material: a little PG-13 sensuality here, a little laser blasting there, and some heavy-handed quick-cut symbolism of predators and prey to make the point the actual storytelling can’t. Available April 9 in theaters.