Film Reviews: New Releases for Feb. 23 | Buzz Blog
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Film Reviews: New Releases for Feb. 23

Perfect Days, Drive-Away Dolls, Ordinary Angels, Tótem, Stopmotion, Red Right Hand


Kōji Yakusho and Arisa Nakano in Perfect Days - NEON FILMS
  • Neon Films
  • Kōji Yakusho and Arisa Nakano in Perfect Days
Drive-Away Dolls ***
See feature review. Available Feb. 23 in theaters. (R)

Ordinary Angels ***
Faith-based entertainment can come in many different forms; this one works simply by allowing its two central performances room to shine. Set in 1993, the fact-based story involves Sharon Stevens (Hilary Swank), a hard-drinking Louisville hairdresser who becomes laser-focused on the plight of widowed father Ed Schmitt (Alan Ritchson) and his ailing 5-year-old daughter Michelle (Emily Mitchell), raising money for medical bills and becoming a kind of surrogate mother for Michelle and her sister. Screenwriters Kelly Fremon Craig (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.) and Meg Tilly underline the fact that there’s a redemption-seeking component to Sharon’s philanthropy, connected to her own failings as a mother, and the stuff about her demons isn’t particularly restrained. But Swank still sells the furious energy Sharon throws into her efforts on the Schmitt family’s behalf, and the resulting personality clashes with the more taciturn Ed. And Ritchson’s performance is terrific, not just as a portrait of inward-turned grief, but as a way of capturing a simple working-class guy in a way that’s never simplistic. The narrative’s climax ultimately gets a bit too caught up in the logistics of a potentially life-saving mission, but it’s not enough to completely undermine the strong character development, and the inspirational notion of people coming together as a manifestation of the divine. Available Feb. 23 in theaters. (PG)

Perfect Days ***1/2

For fully half the running time of co-writer/director Wim Wenders’ Oscar-nominated drama, I was thinking, “Well, this is nice, but I’ve already seen Jim Jarmusch's Paterson, and that was a perfect rendering of this basic conceit.” And then it developed its own particular kind of melancholy, deepening the main character and central performance, and I was fully hooked. It opens simply enough, introducing the simple of existence of Hirayama (Kōji Yakusho), living alone in his Tokyo apartment and spending his days cleaning public restrooms around the city. Wenders builds the narrative on Hirayama’s meticulous attention to his daily routine, finding some comic relief in a counterpoint between the quiet Hirayama and his motor-mouthed co-worker Takashi (Tokio Emoto) but initially seeming mostly interested in a restrained character study. Then Hirayama’s runaway teenage niece Niko (Arisa Nakano) shows up on his doorstep—but instead of turning the movie into a clunky tale of a solitary guy forced to care for a kid, the development offers an insight into the world Hirayama might be trying to escape from, and why. Yakusho’s performance provides a fantastic portrayal not so much of loneliness, but of a kind of voluntary monasticism built on barely-acknowledged trauma, of a kind that only breaks down when he gets a chance at the kind of childhood playfulness that might not have been available to him previously. Available Feb. 23 at Broadway Centre Cinemas. (PG)

Red Right Hand **1/2
The John Wick series might be the ne plus ultra of “would-be reformed criminal pulled back into his old world,” but it’s a sturdy enough narrative scaffolding to support other stories, provided they understand the fundamentals. This one casts Orlando Bloom as Cash Williams—once hired muscle for Big Cat (Andie MacDowell), the local drug queenpin of his Appalachian community, but now trying to live the straight life helping his widowed brother-in-law Finney (Scott Haze) and niece Savannah (Chapel Oaks) run the family farm. But when Finney turns to Big Cat for financial help, Cash finds himself … well, pulled back in. Writer/directors Ian and Eshom Nelms previously applied their taste for genre violence to the “Mel Gibson as badass Santa” vehicle Fatman, and they’re certainly not shy about leaning into cringe-inducing bloodshed. It’s nothing particularly revelatory, but it pushes most of the right buttons, with MacDowell’s over-the-top villainy balancing a performance by Bloom so deliberately restrained that he threatens to disappear entirely. If the Nelms brothers are almost too schematic about setting up their Chekhovian guns (and knives), they do understand how to craft set pieces with tension and a sense of consequence. It might not add much to the legacy of stories of this kind, but at least the people who made it are smart enough to let a formula do what it does best. Available Feb. 23 in theaters. (NR)

Stopmotion ***
If 21st-century horror cinema plans to lean hard into thematic ideas of being Actually About Trauma, at least it can offer the kind of uniquely unsettling mystery served up by director Robert Morgan and his co-screenwriter Robin King. It opens with Ella Blake (Aisling Franciosi) serving as an assistant to her mother Suzanne (Stella Gonet), a legend in stop-motion animation now limited by arthritis. When Suzanne suffers a stroke and is left incapacitated, Ella has the chance to create her own original work, but a strange little girl (Caoilnn Springall) suggests a story that guides her in creepy directions. Morgan has a firm grasp on how much sound design can elevate a horror narrative, and his team does masterful work here, from the muted dialogue emphasizing Ella’s distracted state of mind to the squishy tones of the materials Ella employs to create her puppets. It’s all part of an effective body-horror allegory where some of the elements are wisely not treated as “plot twists,” and others are left without explicit underlining as to how they relate to Ella’s personal history. There’s a missed opportunity, perhaps, to establish more clearly the power dynamics that damage the relationship between Ella and Suzanne, but Franciosi’s performance anchors a tale of psychological disintegration that succeeds in large part because of what the filmmakers decide not to tell us. Available Feb. 23 in theaters. (R)

Tótem ***1/2
What at first seems to be a child’s-eye-view tale of confronting impending tragedy evolves into a more complex story of the way different people confront that same impending tragedy. It revolves around the preparations in a Mexican home for the 27th birthday of artist Tona (Mateo García Elizondo), while the elephant in every room is that Tona is so ill that he’s unlikely to see his 28th. Writer/director Lila Avilés initially makes Tona’s 7-year-old daughter Sol (Naíma Sentíes) the focus, and there’s a particular effectiveness to watching her try to navigate the hubbub around her, often turning to the natural world for a sense of calm. But it’s also compelling watching the other members of the household deal with the situation in their own way: Tona’s sister getting progressively more drunk while baking his cake; another sister inviting a psychic to the house to cleanse it of negative energy; Tona’s own quiet heartbreak watching Sol in a performance that suggests the adult he won’t ever see. It’s not so much a portrait of a dysfunctional family as it is a recognition that certain situations make any family dysfunctional, even as they try to put on a brave face of normalcy. And through the bits of dark humor and finely-observed character moments, Avilés turns Tótem into an interesting sort of celebration of trying to live in the present and create memories that will outlive individual people. Available Feb. 23 at Broadway Centre Cinemas. (NR)