Kajillionaire – One of my favorite filmmakers in the last twenty years and a storyteller who is very idiosyncratic in her own right, like Nicholas Winding Refn or Yorgos Lanthimos, I have always been excited about Miranda July’s new projects and this film didn’t disappoint. Starring Evan Rachel Wood, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger and Gina Rodriguez, the story follows two con artists who have spent twenty-six years training their only daughter to swindle, scam and steal at every turn to get them by. During a desperate and hastily conceived heist, they charm a stranger into joining them, only to have their entire world turned upside down as she upsets the dynamic that had been working so well for them and starts to show Old Dolio (yes, that’s really what they named her) the real way of the world and the goodness in people. Wood is absolutely incredible in this movie, playing a morose feeling monotone character that reflects so well in every nuanced reaction. Just another phenomenal performance in 2020 that shouldn’t be overlooked.
The Last Shift – It’s a glorious double Richard Jenkins week to end the summer and I couldn’t be happier. In this film, he plays Stanley, a long time employee on the graveyard shift at Oscar’s Chicken and Fish who is calling it quits after 38 years and must train his young replacement, a talented but stalled young writer who was recently paroled and his provocative politics keep landing him in trouble. Jenkins gives another fantastic performance as he’s done throughout his career but like The Visitor, a film that got him nominated for an Oscar, this is another benchmark in his great career. This is a strong narrative debut for writer and director Andrew Cohn and a really solid supporting role from Shane Paul McGhie as well as former Modern Family star Ed O’Neill.
LX 2048 – Hmmm, a future set movie where the earth is under attack from the damages of climate change? Wow, science fiction, am I right? All jokes with a depressing center aside, this film feels really close to reality right now as certain parallels in the story come up that funhouse mirror our own current pandemic situation. Set in the near future, the sun has become so toxic people can no longer leave their houses in the daytime, and normal life is conducted mostly inside the realm of virtual reality. Against this dystopian backdrop, a dying man seeks to ensure the future well-being of his family, while coping with what it means to be human in this new reality. The film stars Cloud Atlas’s James D’Arcy, Atonement’s Gina McKee and the great Delroy Lindo who makes an appearance again on this list later and it’s written and directed by Guy Moshe who did the entertaining but wholly dumb action film, Bunraku. This one is a decent watch and another cautionary tale wrapped in sci-fi.
The Artist’s Wife – Films dealing with couples going through dementia or late-stage Alzheimer’s are always a rough watch but it is through incredible performances that we get full rounded stories that we can relate to and Bruce Dern delivers one this time that is so full of soul that it’s hard to forget. Written and directed Last Weekend’s Tom Dolby in just his second film, the story follows Lena Olin as the wife of a renowned abstract artist who is plunged into a late-life crisis when her husband is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and is in danger of not completing the paintings for his final show. Both Olin and Dern play off of each other so well, which makes the moments of pure devotion between them so beautiful and when the opposite of that happens you are sure to feel it. I also have to say that the feature debut of cinematographer Ryan Earl Parker was a great thing as well.
We Are Many – I would like to say that this is a brand new documentary hitting video on demand this week but that’s not really the case as this film was actually completed five years ago when the world was in certainly a different political climate and is about a time over a decade before that, three years removed from the tragedy of the World Trade Center, an even more different political time. The film is about the global protest against the Iraq War on February 15th, 2003, which was a pivotal moment in recent history, the consequences of which have gone unreported. This documentary looks in-depth at the struggle to shift power from the old establishment to the new superpower that is global public opinion, through the prism of one historic day featuring Susan Sarandon, Mark Rylance, filmmaker Ken Loach, Noam Chomsky and more.
Tesla – Filmmaker Michael Almereyda is kind of known for making pretty idiosyncratic films, doing an adaptation of Hamlet in modern-day Wall Street, a sci-fi about holograms of the recently deceased or, my personal favorite, a film about a radical psychological experiment based on a true story. For this film, he goes the biopic route with Ethan Hawke taking the title role as Nikola Tesla in a freewheeling take on the visionary inventor, his interactions with Thomas Edison, played brilliantly by Kyle MacLachlan and J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne, through Bridge Of Spies’ Eve Hewson who narrates the film seemingly in the future, and his breakthroughs in transmitting electrical power and light. Hawke is the saving grace in a film that feels disjointed and confused even if the backdrop of the story is as interesting as it is. It made me think of how great Experimenter was the whole time I was watching it. Almereyda has definitely done better work.
Babyteeth – Another under-advertised little indie film, this debut feature from director Shannon Murphy absolutely floored me. The film follows Milla, a seriously ill teenager who falls madly in love with small-time drug dealer Moses and, obviously, it’s her parents’ worst nightmare. But as Milla’s first brush with love brings her a new lust for life, things get messy and traditional morals go right out the window and she soon shows everyone in her orbit, like her parents, Moses, a sensitive music teacher, a budding child violinist, and a disarmingly honest pregnant neighbour, how to live like you have nothing to lose. This movie is driven by fantastic performances in a coming of age story that, in a sea of genre films just like it, rises to the top in a way that demands to be recognized. I highly recommend this movie, one of my favorites this week.
Pizza: A Love Story – Pizza is a common thing that bonds most of us, our love for it, the comradery it makes when we gather around a box to open it for a fresh slice or the fact that any party feels lackluster without it. Well, this new documentary is made for all of us then. This film is about three pizza palaces, Sally’s, Pepe’s and Modern, all in the 6 block radius of Wooster square in Elm City, loved by everybody from presidents to rock stars. Hell, even Frank Sinatra used to send his driver all the way from Hoboken just to pick up some pies. The film feature interviews family members that ran Pepe’s, lifelong fans, both famous and not and food critics, intercutting archival footage and vintage photographs, many never before seen publicly, all to explain the passion, the long lines, and how a small town in Connecticut became the pizza center of the universe. This is a great film but be sure to have your own pizza in front of you during it or you will seriously regret it.
The GoodTimes Kid – Azazel Jacobs is a name that is only really bandied around the indie world but those who know his work know how special it is. With the John C. Reilly film Terri, the beautifully written and acted The Lovers and the endearing HBO series Doll And Em, Jacobs should be far more popular than he is. Well, thanks to Kino Lorber, we’re reaching back in his catalogue to 2005 with the director starring front and center as Rodolfo, a brooding slacker who gets a summons from the Army to report for duty even though he did not enlist. He heads to a recruitment office to try and straighten out the mess where he meets another recruit named Punk, a journalist who joined the Army to get away from his life and girlfriend, Diaz who Rodolfo quickly befriends. This film is an early showcasing of Jacobs ability to write characters that find nuance behind their scripted words and have a grounded real emotion to them that bleeds off the screen. Truly great indie filmmaking.
Momma’s Man – Let’s fast forward to 2008 for another one of Azazel Jacob’s early work but this time instead of him starring in it, he cast his mother and father in the pivotal main roles. The film follows a man who flies from Los Angeles to Manhattan for a business meeting and takes a moment to see his graying parents in the dimly lit downtown loft where he grew up. Overcome with nostalgia and a sudden longing for his increasingly distant adolescence,he decides to make himself at home but as the nights wear on, and his father and his wife grow increasingly concerned, he struggles to confront his fears of becoming a full-fledged adult. This film is incredibly moody but still finds that sweet spot of satirizing real life and being totally dedicated to keeping the true emotion of the human condition vibrantly alive. Azazel Jacobs might be one of the prolific voices of our times but he just hasn’t hit that needed level of notoriety for mass attention.
The Dead Ones – This movie landed on my doorstep and once I pulled it out of the packaging I noticed on the cover that Film School Rejects boasted it as the best horror movie of the year. The thing was that I hadn’t heard one thing about it. Now that I’m educated on it, I can tell you it follows four outcast teens who are being punished with summer detention, assigned to clean their high school after a horrific incident. They soon discover they are not alone as a macabre gang wearing guises of The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse, Famine, Pestilence, War and Death, have locked them inside and are hunting them through the school’s hallways. As the four students battle to survive, each must confront the supernatural echoes of past traumas they have tried to leave in the past. You know what? The Rejects might be on to something as I really dug this film and that it was pretty original to boot. The scares are smart and don’t feel like a jump scare cheapening of the genre. Director Jeremy Kasten has a serious future in front of him and I look forward to what is next, along with writer Zach Chassler.
Beckman – When I got this one I looked at the cast and content and I was pretty intrigued. Then a friend pointed out that the movie was produced by Pure Flix, a faith-based production company that is in love with putting out its religious message over delivering a cohesive film and my heart sank. Starring David A.R. White, William “Can we still call him Billy?” Baldwin, and Rocky’s pal Paulie, Burt Young, Crazily enough, this is an action film following a contract killer who has become the reverend of a LA church living the “good life” until a cult leader and his minions kidnap his daughter. Blinded by vengeance, he cuts a bloody path across the city and, of course, the only thing that can stop him is his newfound faith. These movies always have the audience to a certain point and that’s when the religious message comes in clanging it’s pots and pans and ruining everything that came before it. As this movie seems to go the extra mile in being terrible I ask again, can we get a passable faith-based movie for the love of God?
Christ Stopped At Eboli – I honestly geek the hell out every time Criterion sends me another new release selection from their prestigious collection and when I haven’t heard of the movie they turn out to be that much better because the moment of discovery can never be forgotten. This is definitely true of this 1979 Italian drama from acclaimed writer and director Francesco Rosi about a doctor in Fascist Italy who is exiled to a remote village for his political views. He is sent to a remote region of Southern Italy populated by inhabitants who barely survive on the meagre harvest of the unyielding land. Eboli, the closest train station, is the last outpost of civilization (such as it is) before entering a world that has changed very little since the Middle Ages expresses all the sense of abandonment, neglect, desolation and human despair that weighs on our lead character. This is a fascinating piece of both Italian film history as well as their cultural and political history as well. This is recommended for all cinephiles.
The Good Fight: Season 4 – As a big fan of the series that this show spun off of, The Good Wife starring Julianna Margulies, I have been a fan of this show since it started on the less constrained CBS All Access for two reasons, the carryover star from that show, Christine Baranski’s Diane Lockhardt and the always incredible Delroy Lindo. For those out of the loop, this series picks up one year after the events of the final broadcast episode of The Good Wife, where an enormous financial scam has destroyed the reputation of a young lawyer, played by Game Of Thrones’ Rose Leslie, while simultaneously wiping out her mentor and godmother Diane Lockhart’s savings. Forced out of Lockhart and Lee, they join Lucca Quinn at one of Chicago’s preeminent law firms to hopefully rebuild an empire. The show plays heavily on real politics and it may become exhausting with the consistent anti-Trump message but in this reviewer’s mind, it is all warranted because that guy sucks and makes my blood boil. Hell, maybe I should write for this show, I’ve got a few ideas.
Riverdale: Season 4 – We all know what this show is by now, right? A reimagining of the Archie comics that have been smashed together with the dark elements of Twin Peaks and a little dash of the popular CW series Pretty Little Liars. Yes, the series has definitely carved out its own niche but the latest season had everyone braced for tragedy as we said goodbye to one of the main characters both on the show and in life as Luke Perry passed away last year. This season, amongst that, deals with the residents of Riverdale preparing for the Independence Day parade and Archie receiving that bad news phone call that will change the rest of his life forever. Perry, Skeet Ulrich and the lovely Madchen Amick were the reasons I watched the series so it’s a really tough pill to swallow.
Steve’s Blu-Ray Geekout:
Black Rainbow – This was a sweet little forgotten horror flick that got lost in the shuffle of largely the marginalization of a whole genre that has been regarded as fluffy, cheap and just plain bad by a big portion of the critic world. Sad but true. The film follows a young female medium on tour who sees a hitman killing a whistleblower in her vision. Unfortunately for her, the killer finds out about this and plans to kill her as well causing some skeptical police, her manager father and a curious journalist to join forces to try to protect her. I love the top line of this cast that has the always welcome Rosanna Arquette, the legendary Jason Robards and former Academy Award nominee Tom Hulce. Hey, remember Amadeus? The film was written and directed by Mike Hodges who has had some great classics in his career including Flash Gordon, the original Get Carter and that gambling thriller with Clive Owen, Croupier. I liked this quite a bit, it’s a really effective supernatural thriller that feels grounded still.
Zombie For Sale – If you put this movie in front of me a few years ago, a campy little zombie film that plays on the slapstick comedy more than anything, I probably would be on the fence until you told me it was from South Korea but after the brilliance that was Shin’ichirô Ueda’s One Cut Of The Dead, well, you can hook this baby to my veins. The story is very simple, about a strange family named Park, who takes in a zombie inadvertently created by a pharmaceutical company’s illegal experiments hoping to make a profit from it. This is the debut for director Lee Min-Jae and he lands with such an interesting and stylish feature that he is definitely on my list of filmmakers to look out for when his next film lands. In a genre that is really feeling like a dime a dozen in the last decade, he made something original that works on all levels.
Million Dollar Mermaid – Let’s take it back to the classics again for another entry from the Warner Archive and this time it’s an American-made film that is about Australia. The film tells the story of Australian swimming sensation Annette Kellerman, who overcame childhood polio to go on and achieve fame as a professional swimmer and film star in the early decades of the 20th century. At the same time, she also scandalized the world by wearing a one-piece bathing suit on public beaches long before the style was accepted in polite company, a definite sign of those times, and made waves in other ways as well as it kind of became her nature. The lead star, Esther Williams, is really great in this, again, for the time, and it was directed by Mervyn LeRoy who also did The Wizard Of Oz and Gypsy. This is some of that “controversial” filmmaking of the times and it looks great in the new Blu-Ray transfer.
Better Days – Ever since I saw the trailer for this new Chinese drama I have been waiting patiently by my mailbox for it to arrive and, although it was sent to me late, it really didn’t disappoint. The film follows a bullied teenage girl who forms an unlikely friendship with a mysterious young man who protects her from her assailants, all while she copes with the pressures of her final examinations because in China when it comes to their standardized testing, the entire country comes to a standstill. For nearly ten million high school students, this two-day national college entrance exam will determine where and if they get to study and it is not uncommon for the fates of entire families to hinge on the results. This movie is drenched in soul and you feel the uncertainty of the next moment through these beautiful performances from Dongyu Zhou and Jackson Yee.
Bull: Season 4 – Look, this show may feature a former NCIS star in lead Michael Weatherly but it has more in common with Dr. Phil than it does that crime procedural as this is a show based on the famous television psychiatrist’s life although, I assume, very loosely. Weatherly plays Dr. Jason Bull, a brilliant, brash, and charming observer of jurors, attorneys and witnesses to get the pertinent edge his firm needs to defend their clients and, in some cases, condemn them. Unfortunately, and this is something I still can’t shake, this show has the stink of the bad conduct the star showed towards at the time possible co-star Eliza Dushku but I actually enjoyed the couple of seasons I crammed in leading up to now and the season features some pretty good guest stars like one of my favorites, Oz’s Lee Tergesun, Samantha Mathis, The Wire and The Walking Dead’s Seth Gilliam and the returning Mercedes Ruehl, a character actress I always enjoy seeing.
Utopia: Season 1 (Amazon Prime) – This is not to be confused with the British series of the same name but damn this looks cool and I’m really a big sucker for the grand arch mystery shows. The series follows a group of young adults, who meet online and get a hold of a cult underground graphic novel, which not only pins them as a target of a shadowy deep state organization but also burdens them with the dangerous task of saving the world. Featuring John Cusack, Rainn Wilson and American Honey’s Sasha Lane among the young cast, this series looks truly awesome and one that people will gather around to check notes and figure it all out. You know the mystery will be deep and delicious as well because it comes from the mind of Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn who dons the showrunner hat for the first time in her career.
Enola Holmes (Netflix) – Netflix is about to have a phenomenal week and this new film is a big reason why, as it is exhilarating, fun and the lead star Millie Bobby Brown shines in it. Set in England, 1884, a world on the brink of change, The film follows Brown as Enola Holmes who, on the morning of her 16th birthday, wakes to find that her mother, played by the always welcome Helena Bonham Carter, has disappeared, leaving behind an odd assortment of gifts but no apparent clue as to where she’s gone or why. After a free-spirited childhood, Enola suddenly finds herself under the care of her brothers Sherlock, played by the human special effect Henry Cavill, and Mycroft, brilliantly played with a sneer by Sam Claflin, both set on sending her away to a finishing school for “proper” young ladies. Refusing to follow their wishes, Enola escapes to search for her mother in London but when her journey finds her entangled in a mystery surrounding a young runaway Lord, Enola becomes a super-sleuth in her own right, outwitting her famous brother as she unravels a conspiracy that threatens to make progression take a back seat. This movie is reminiscent of the family mysteries of a seemingly forgotten era and commands this to continue as a franchise. Fleabag director Harry Bradbeer makes his feature debut here and nails it in every way.
The Chef Show: Season 2 (Netflix) – Cooking is a journey and making a meal is about more than just food, it’s about appreciating friends, family and tradition and Jon Favreau’s Netflix show is indicative of that. In The Chef Show he and award-winning Chef Roy Choi reunite after their critically acclaimed film Chef to embark on a new adventure, experimenting with their favorite recipes and techniques, baking, cooking, exploring and collaborating with some of the biggest names in the entertainment and culinary world including Gwyneth Paltrow, Seth Rogen, Wolfgang Puck and David Chang. From sharing a meal with the Avengers cast in Atlanta to smoking brisket in Texas with world-renowned pitmaster Aaron Franklin, to honoring the legendary food critic Jonathan Gold in Los Angeles, Favreau and Choi embrace their passion for food and make you hungry constantly. I’ve really been enjoying my run through this series and the David Chang episode was so special to me. I love that dude.
Sneakerheads (Netflix) – This brand new original series lands this week and has a slight edge to it that reminds me a bit of Entourage. Coming from the writer of the basketball film Uncle Drew from a couple of years ago with Kyrie Irving, this series follows Devin, a former sneakerhead turned stay-at-home dad, who gets back in the game only to quickly find himself five thousand dollars in the hole after falling for one of old friend Bobby’s get-rich-quick schemes. Desperate to get his money back before his wife finds out he’s fallen off the wagon, Devin enlists the help of a ragtag group of fellow shoe lovers on his global hunt for the elusive “Zeroes,” the holy grail of hard-to-find kicks. Episode one feels like a good establishing point but the whole story feels a bit flimsy to pull off an entire series around and you can kind of see how anemic it is pretty quickly. As I move through the series I might be wrong but it feels faltering.
Tehran: Season 1 (AppleTV) – I was a big fan of the FX series Tyrant which ran for two seasons on the network along with the recently cancelled Netflix show Messiah so when this show appeared on my list of upcoming television I definitely jumped on it. Coming from a handful of new showrunners, this is the story of Tamar Rabinyan, a Mossad computer hacker-agent undertaking her very first mission in the heart of a hostile and menacing city, which also happens to be the place of her birth. Tasked with disabling an Iranian nuclear reactor, her mission has implications not just for the Middle East, but for the entire world order and when the Mossad mission fails, Tamar goes rogue in Tehran as she rediscovers her Iranian roots and becomes romantically entwined with a pro-democracy activist. The only recognizable cast member for me in this is Shaun Toub who played the scientist who helped Tony Stark build the Mark I Iron Man suit in a desert cave but the storyline is intriguing and has a mix of espionage and melodrama embedded with eastern culture and looks really interesting.