Arlo the Alligator Boy **1/2
Denise Gough and Sebastian Stan in Monday
Old-school 2D animation is uncommon enough that you wish something with this much enthusiasm came with a matching level of narrative creativity. Writer/director Ryan Crego introduces Arlo Beauregard (former American Idol contestant Michael J. Woodard), an alligator boy raised in a bayou shack by a woman named Edmée (Annie Potts), but who learns as a teenager that he was born in New York and sent away as an infant floating in a basket. Thus begins a musical quest up the Atlantic coast, with Arlo accumulating a group of similarly oddball friends—including a super-sized girl (Mary Lambert), a walking hairball (Jonathan Van Ness) and a teeny tiny … something (Tony Hale)—while being pursued by a couple (Jennifer Coolidge and Flea) who want to capture Arlo and exploit him. It’s a colorful journey full of fairly disposable pop tunes (written by Crego and Alex Geringas), and a style that clearly owes a hat-tip to stuff like Adventure Time
and SpongeBob SquarePants
. The story arc, however, is simply another riff on the “be true to yourself” theme that serves as a lazy default in so much kid-friendly fare. As diverting as it is in the moment, it lacks the confident weirdness of its central characters. Available April 16 via Netflix.
Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts ***
A fascinating art-history footnote gets a comprehensive portrait in director Jeffrey Wolf’s profile of Bill Traylor, born a slave in Alabama and “discovered” as an artist while homeless and creating fascinating work on the street while in his 80s. Wolf uses plenty of historical documentation and readings from diaries to track the pre-art-career portion of Traylor’s life, turning it almost incidentally into an overview of the African-American experience in the late 19th and early 20th century, from emancipation to sharecropping to the Great Migration. But the best stuff comes in the opportunity to explore Traylor’s work, with art historians and collectors providing insightful commentary on thematic material ranging from male-female relations to “hoodoo” mysticism. And there’s a playful quality to the way Wolf presents it, like a pair of narrators who at times disagree over points of fact. The film bogs down near the end as it turns a focus to Traylor’s descendants coming to appreciate his legacy, and gathering together for a lengthy celebration/headstone dedication in 2018. It is, however, a bit more understandable since we’ve just come along on a similar journey of discovery. Available April 16 via SLFSatHome.org.
In the Earth **1/2
See feature review
. Available April 16 in theaters.
It’s such an obvious premise that it’s astonishing that it hasn’t been done a thousand more times than it has: What happens after the grand romantic gesture that typically ends a cinematic love story? Co-writer/director Argyris Papadimitropoulos tells the story of two Americans in Athens—musician/DJ Mickey (Sebastian Stan) and immigration attorney Chloe (Denise Gough)—who hook up for a one-night stand, spend a whirlwind weekend together, then face that “what’s next?” after Chloe impulsively decides not to return to the U.S. The first act is a terrific mix of meet-cute and character development, with both terrific lead actors establishing both what attracts them to one another and what might later become problems. And the somewhat episodic structure offers some brilliantly executed ideas, like a party that shows the oil-and-water nature of Mickey and Chloe’s respective friend groups. Most impressive, Monday never plays like a stealth horror film, where one or the other of the couple turns out to be a terrible person, despite a couple of somewhat schematic plot developments. It’s simply a superbly acted, tightly-constructed tale of the intoxicating allure of early infatuation, and whether the decisions made under its influence can leave you feeling trapped. Available April 16 in theaters and via VOD.
Morgan Freeman in Vanquish
When you see a great actor slumming, you can either lament that he has resorted to slumming, or enjoy the “great actor” part when it manifests itself. Morgan Freeman plays Damon Hickey, an oft-decorated police officer left wheelchair-bound after a shooting, and whose post-retirement career has involved becoming a wealthy crime lord. On an evening when an informant threatens to blow Damon’s operation apart, he kidnaps the daughter of his caretaker Vicky (Ruby Rose)—once a criminal killer, now trying to reform her life—to force Vicky into retrieving huge quantities of cash for him. The bones of the narrative are actually fairly solid; you can see the potential dynamic between the corrupted good-guy and the penitent villain. But co-writer/director George Gallo (veteran screenwriter of Midnight Run
and Bad Boys
) over-directs this thing to an almost comical degree, from a rat’s-eye-view cam, to trippy colors when a character is drugged, to fireworks shooting off over a graveyard. And the limp action consists almost entirely of Vicky getting chased on her motorcycle, with too little effort made to establish her badass bona fides. At least there’s a chance to watch Freeman do his thing, somehow wrestling enjoyment out of Damon’s simple deadpan unwillingness to respond to Vicky’s threats. Even in a role that mostly involves him talking on the phone, Freeman never phones it in. Available April 16 in theaters and April 20 via VOD.
We Broke Up ***
What starts out seeming like it might be a simple “comedy of remarriage” morphs into something slightly more complex. Doug (William Jackson Harper) and Lori (Aya Cash) have been a couple for 10 years, but just a few days before the wedding of Lori’s sister Bea (Sarah Bolger), Doug’s marriage proposal is met with vomit and stony silence. But they decide to hide the ensuing breakup from friends and family at the wedding weekend, so as not to spoil the occasion. Plenty of the simpler details in the script—by Laura Jacqmin and director Jeff Rosenberg)—are solidly amusing, from the business Bea is planning to start making “bespoke scrunchies,” to the wedding’s Jewish officiant handing out weed hamantaschen. The soul of the material, though, is in the unique awkwardness of separating from someone you’ve been with forever—feeling like you’re losing the relationships with your partner’s family, wondering if the time spent together was “wasted,” etc. Harper and Cash both get relatively thin characters to work with over the 80-minute running time, but they both flesh out the dawning realization of being at different places in their emotional lives. This is the rare kind of romantic comedy that’s okay seasoning the funny with a little sadness. Available April 16 via SLFSatHome.org.