Film Reviews: New Releases for Feb. 24 | Buzz Blog
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Film Reviews: New Releases for Feb. 24

Cocaine Bear, Emily, Jesus Revolution, We Have a Ghost and more


Keri Russell in Cocaine Bear - UNIVERSAL PICTURES
  • Universal Pictures
  • Keri Russell in Cocaine Bear
2023 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts ***
It’s a solid bunch of nominees in a category where most viewers haven’t seen any of them, but the one at the top is an absolute knockout. There’s a well-intentioned but incomplete effort in Joshua Seftel’s Stranger at the Gate, exploring a 2009 hate-crime-that-almost was in a story that takes some unusual and heartwarming turns, but seems to require more than half an hour to really provide its desired emotional gut punch. Jay Rosenblatt’s How Do You Measure a Year boasts a concept that should resonate with any parent—Rosenblatt interviewing his daughter Emma on her birthday from the ages of 2 – 18—but while it’s sweet and distinctive, it doesn’t find anything particularly profound to say about parenting or childhood. The Elephant Whisperers, by Kartiki Gonsalves, delivers a gorgeously-filmed profile of two workers at an elephant rescue camp in South India that’s much better when it focuses on animals than when it focuses on their human caretakers. Anne Alvergue and Debra McClutchy’s The Martha Mitchell Effect presents a lively, efficiently-constructed reminder about the titular central character in the Watergate story, effectively using archival footage for a fascinating profile of its outspoken subject. But the undisputed bet of them is Haulout by Evegenia Arbugaeva and Maxim Argugaev, which follows a Russian researcher in the Siberian Arctic, whose research subject emerges in a way that feels yanked from a Hitchcock thriller; so many moments here—ranging from creepy to weird to mordantly funny—are going to stick with me. Available Feb. 24 at Broadway Centre Cinemas. (NR)

Bunker **
When you’ve got a concept with all the potential to be a solid “B”-movie slice of horror, it’s kind of a bummer when that concept gets more ambitious than the creative team can sustain. In World War I Europe, a joint group of British and American soldiers—including Latinx Private Segura (Eddie Ramos) and his fellow inexperienced Yank Private Baker (Julian Feder)—crosses No Man’s Land to investigate an abandoned German bunker, only to get trapped there with a German prisoner (Luke Baines) and a mysterious supernatural force. Director Adrian Langley makes the most of his low-budget approach by representing his threat largely in the form of viscous white liquid and fibrous tendrils, counting on the psychological breakdowns of the characters to do a lot of the heavy lifting. But those breakdowns aren’t exactly subtle, particularly Patrick Moltane’s eye-bulging work as the British lieutenant who chews on every line a hundred times before delivering it. More frustrating, screenwriter Michael Huntsman keeps poking at ideas about war—like soldiers of color doing dirty work they’ll never get credit for—without really being able to have them pay off in the midst of the exploding viscera. The blast of vintage-sounding opening score from composer Andrew Morgan Smith portends a much more conventionally satisfying monster movie than Bunker allows itself to be. Available Feb. 24 in theaters. (R)

Cocaine Bear **1/2
Cocaine Bear leaves me genuinely torn—torn between the goofy-gross lark it is when it’s actually doing what its premise promises, and the over-plotted, generic tale that pads out the running time. Oh-so-loosely inspired by a real event, the 1985-set story finds a fortune in coke dumped from a plane over a forest in Georgia, where a black bear unexpectedly finds she has a taste for it. Along for the ride are way too many characters in Jimmy Warden’s screenplay: a single mom (Keri Russell) searching for her daughter in the middle of the bear’s rampage; the drug dealer (Ray Liotta, in his final role), his grieving son (Alden Ehrenreich) and another employee (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.); a police detective (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.); a thirsty park ranger (Margo Martindale); and a trio of teen hooligans. There’s really no damn good reason for so many subplots, particularly the one involving Russell and the lost kids, which is so irrelevant that it’s almost startling when director Elizabeth Banks returns to them. But then she’ll give us exactly what we came for, in the form of ursine carnage—like a hilariously-staged bit involving an ambulance trying to outrun the bear—and a recurring motif of the bear getting crucially-timed bursts of energy from a dose of blow, like Popeye opening up a can of spinach. The various bits of chatter are at least occasionally amusing, and the pace is unusually brisk when so many contemporary movies are so bloated. But let’s be frank: When you call your movie Cocaine Bear, it needs just a bit more bear, and more cocaine, than this. Available Feb. 24 in theaters. (R)

Emma Mackey in Emily - BLEECKER STREET
  • Bleecker Street
  • Emma Mackey in Emily
Emily **1/2
The eternal biopic dilemma is how much you owe to history vs. how much you owe to effective dramatic filmmaking, and actor-turned-first-time-feature director Frances O’Connor just can’t quite get the balance right in this attempt at a character study of writer Emily Brontë (Emma Mackey). The narrative tracks a fairly narrow window of time in Emily’s adulthood, including her close connection with her troubled brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead), her often-contentious relationship with sister Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) and a possible romance with William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), the new associate minister to her pastor father (Adrian Dunbar). Frances shows a facility for visual filmmaking, including a wordless sequence capturing Emily’s profound social anxiety, and the gothic intensity of a guessing game that abruptly becomes a kind of séance. In theory, though, a narrative of this kind should be about giving us a vivid sense of who Emily Brontë was as a person that informed her writing—and no matter how much screen time O’Connor devotes to close-ups of Mackey staring directly into the camera, she too often comes off like a chaotic mix of behaviors that don’t add up to a character. Maybe many of things are true, or at least truer than the timeline for the publication of Wuthering Heights. But while the truth is always an acceptable defense in a libel case, that’s not always enough to make for a successful story. Available Feb. 24 in theaters. (R)

God’s Time **
There’s a proud cinematic tradition of the “once crazy night” comedic thriller, and it kind of feels for a while that writer/director Daniel Antebi wants to hit that vibe—until it starts to clash awkwardly with earnestness. It centers around a 12-step meeting in New York, where best friends/aspiring actors Dev (Ben Groh) and Luca (Dion Costelloe) find themselves wrapped up in the drama of fellow addict Regina (Liz Caribel Sierra), who may or may not be on a mission to kill an ex-boyfriend. Antebi sets his tone early by having Dev speak directly to the camera—he even pushes it out of the way at one point—and launching on a series of misadventures through a circa-2020 NYC authentically filled with people who don’t understand how to keep a mask over their noses. But while that particular setting might have made for an interesting look at the added stressors of that time on people trying to stay clean, it ultimately doesn’t feel like it matters all that much. That leaves God’s Time as a story that bounces awkwardly between its over-the-top situations and an overly-sincere attempt at capturing the surrogate-family dynamics of people in recovery. An effort to wrap the message vegetables of “it works if you work it” in the candy coating of after-hours hijinks ends up as something with the odd aftertaste of … well, candy-coated vegetables. Available Feb. 24 in theaters. (NR)

Jesus Revolution **
Co-director Jon Erwin used part of this story as the foundation for the intriguing 2021 documentary The Jesus Music—and honesty, he should have quit while he was ahead. Working this time with co-director Brent McCorkle rather than his brother Andrew, Erwin focuses on the creation of hippie-centric Southern California-based Christian church Calvary Chapel in 1968 from two perspectives: Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammar), the pastor who needs to shake his knee-jerk disdain for the unkempt youth; and Greg Laurie (Joel Courtney), a teenager from a dysfunctional home looking for answers (and whose memoir serves as the source material). As was true of The Jesus Music, Erwin and company are interested in the way conservative structural intransigence can get in the way of spreading the Gospel, which at least gives the first half a bit of an edge. But the second half is a long slog built around the conflicts between Chuck and Calvary co-founder Lonnie Frisbie (Jonathan Roumie), and Greg’s soppy romance with a fellow convert (Anna Grace Barlow). And the filmmaking is just desperately clunky in its melodrama, giving an alarmist blurred-around-the-edges look to scenes of kids on drugs. Throw in some convenient historical whitewashing—like ignoring that Frisbie was gay, and that his 1993 death was from AIDS—and you’ve got the kind of thing that makes faith-based films so consistently infuriating. Available Feb. 24 in theaters. (PG-13)

We Have a Ghost **1/2
Buried deep within We Have a Ghost is the germ of a terrific idea—“What if Beetlejuice, but in the era of social media?”—that winds up muddled in a story that keeps pulling from too many different elements. It’s set in a long-unoccupied Chicago house, where the Presley family—including dad Frank (Anthony Mackie) and introverted 16-year-old Kevin (Jahi Winston)—moves in. What they don’t know is that the low, low real-estate price is the result of the house being haunted by a ghost called Ernest (David Harbour), which Frank sees not as a threat, but as an opportunity for his latest get-rich-quick scheme. Writer/director Christopher Landon (Freaky) gets a lot of mileage out of what happens when Frank’s Ernest videos go viral, from inevitable stupid online “challenges” to the attendant media storm, all while Kevin tries to help Ernest learn how he died in order to find closure. There’s just so much … stuff packed into this story, from car chases to a murder mystery to a determined parapsychologist (Tig Notaro) to a genuinely ill-advised romantic subplot involving Kevin and his neighbor/classmate (the very engaging Isabella Russo). The theoretical center of it all is the fractured father/son relationship between Frank and Kevin, which Landon takes quite seriously but doesn’t devote enough time to for it stick the landing. As a result, We Have a Ghost starts drifting away from its Beetlejuice roots toward something that’s more like a halfhearted attempt at E.T. if Elliott’s father were actually around, looking for redemption. Available Feb. 24 via Netflix. (PG-13)