At the Sofaplex 23/12/14

A Disturbance in the Force

If the words “Star Wars Holiday Special” conjure up an image of Bea Arthur or Carrie Fisher soulfully singing and give you a little devilish jolt of glee, then give yourself the $5 treat of renting this documentary about the 1978 post-Star Wars, pre-The Empire Strikes Back television special that was a little bit Star Wars — I mean, there were Wookiees — and a lot bit 1970s variety show. I have listened to a whole multi-episode podcast about the special but never seen it for myself. But this movie’s clips from not only the special but other late 1970s Star Wars detritus, including a Donny & Marie episode that features dancing Stormtroopers and Paul Lynde, really put you in the moment. Aging geeks like Weird Al Yankovic, Kevin Smith, Seth Green (who worked on a Lucas property and watched the special with fellow writers in Lucas’ screening room) and Paul Scheer explain the fan perspective while the likes of Bruce Vilanch talk about what it was like to work on this cultural artifact that had a one-and-done airing. George Lucas so disliked the thing that it was never aired again or reissued — but it also earned such a place in the canon of nerd culture that it is now readily available on the internet. The documentary acknowledges the weirdness of what it is — a story about the Wookiee holiday of Life Day mixed with standard variety comedy and musical segments — and places it in the universe of weird 1970s specials and programming. It also explains the special’s role in the larger Star Wars marketing effort that included books, comic books and, belatedly, toys — all of which was in part an effort to first sell the original movie in 1977 and then keep up interest in the Star Wars franchise until the next movie came out.

Whenever you plugged into Star Wars fandom, the documentary holds nostalgic charm for what the thing was before prequels and Disney+ shows. A

Available for rent or purchase on VOD.

Please Don’t Destroy: The Treasure of Foggy Mountain (R)

The comedy team of Martin Herlihy, John Higgins and Ben Marshall, who have cultivated a persona of pale, fragile indoor boys in their Saturday Night Live videos, bring that same sensibility to this 92-minute movie. They play roommates who work at Ben’s dad’s (Conan O’Brien) outdoor equipment store. They’ve been friends since childhood but John fears they’re coming apart, with Ben focused on trying to take over the store and Martin focused on buying a house with his girlfriend Amy (Nichole Sakura). When John realizes a compass they found years ago may hold a clue to the long-rumored $100 million gold bust hidden on Foggy Mountain, he thinks a quest might be just the thing to bring them back together. Along the way the boys meet Taylor (X Mayo) and Lisa (Megan Stalter), two park rangers who decide to try to get the treasure for themselves. Well, actually, Taylor decides that, and Lisa is just wondering if maybe she and John will need to make out for the caper to be successful — like, maybe they should anyway?

The Treasure of Foggy Mountain is extremely stupid and I mean that as the highest of compliments. The boys are intimidated by a hawk, they run in to a cult featuring Bowen Yang, and John Goodman serves as a not-impartial narrator. This is not great comedy but it is dumb comedy and sometimes that’s exactly what you need. B Streaming on Peacock.

At the Sofaplex 23/05/18

The Lost King (PG-13)

Sally Hawkins, Steve Coogan.

Based on the true story: Philippa Langley (Hawkins), who suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, takes issue with the standard Shakespeare version of the English King Richard III wherein his hunchback has made him “a villain.” Her research into Richard leads her to join the Richard III Society and eventually to start looking for the then-unknown resting site of his remains. Along the way, she negotiates her relationship with her ex-husband, John (Coogan), who she needs to move back into the family home so she can leave her job and pursue the Richard search full-time. And, she talks to Richard (Harry Lloyd) himself.

Even Richard, an apparition Philippa knows is just her own head working stuff out, suggests her search for him is something of an obsession, which points to one of this movie’s (maybe intentional, maybe not) running themes about how we view the passion projects of those who don’t have the cover of officialdom. As a woman who deals with a health difficulty, Philippa is shown being regularly thwarted by a bunch of smug dudes “there, there”-ing her, both in her Richard search and in her regular life. There’s a scoffing “she’s an amateur” tone that everyone takes with her — until her theories are shown to have merit and then she’s sort of shoved out of the way. The movie’s handling of this doesn’t always completely fit with Hawkins’ teary and fragile-seeming portrayal — it’s like the story is trying to say something about women, academia and who gets to claim history, and Hawkins’ performance more suggests a shaky woman having a midlife crisis. The result is a movie that tells an interesting story but can at times feel slight and somewhat “this film could have been a magazine article.” C+ Available to rent or own.

Ghosted (PG-13)

Ana de Armas, Chris Evans.

Farmer Cole Turner (Evans) has a meet-cute with tentative plant-buyer Sadie Rhodes (de Armas) at a farmers market. They end up going on a date, which turns into a night-long hang and sleepover. Cole returns home to the family farm all besotted and convinced Sadie is someone special — even though she’s not returning any of his way-too-many texts. When he realizes he left his inhaler with her, he AirTags it and finds out Sadie is in London. I’ll go surprise her, he says, it will be romantic! It will be creepy stalking, everyone tells him, but Cole heads out anyway, only to be knocked unconscious just as he’s getting close to Sadie’s location. He wakes up and finds himself tied to a chair and about to be tortured for a secret passcode by a group of bad guys who are convinced that he is the super spy known as The Tax Man. When a gun-toting Sadie shows up to rescue him, Cole realizes that his one-night stand might be ignoring his texts for more reasons than just his suffocating neediness.

Cute, right? No. Sure, Ghosted has some occasionally cute elements — I think Evans and de Armas get maybe one good line delivery each; Amy Sedaris plays Cole’s mother and is fun. But otherwise the movie has the smooth oily feel of processed cheesefood but without the satisfying tang. It’s the kind of bland nothing that comes to mind when streaming network executives talk about “content.” It makes me sad for movies and worried about Ana de Armas, who has suffered through Blonde and Deep Water and The Gray Man and now this and really deserves better work. C Available on Apple TV.

We Have a Ghost (PG-13)

Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Anthony Mackie.

And David Harbor as the titular ghost, called Ernest, in this odd mash of comedy, whodunit, serious family drama and supernatural caper. I feel like any two of those might have worked in this tale of a family — teenage Kevin (Winston), his parents Frank (Mackie) and Melanie (Erica Ash) and older brother Fulton (Niles Fitch), who move into an obviously haunted house. Kevin is the first to see Ernest, who appears to him as a moaning ghoul. Perhaps it’s the combover or the bowling shirt, but Kevin just shoots a video of Ernest and laughs. Eventually, the two become buddies, even though Ernest can’t talk or remember anything about his life. When Frank finds out, he is also not particularly scared but he does see a viral video and possible money-making opportunity.

There’s Frank’s whole scheme using Ernest as his shot at the big time, there’s Frank and Kevin’s shaky relationship and the mystery of how Ernest came to be. But the movie also goes into Kevin’s burgeoning whatever with neighbor teen Joy (Isabella Russo), the search of discredited scientist Dr. Leslie Monroe (Tig Notaro) for proof of ghosts and the hucksterism of “medium” Judy Romano (Jennifer Coolidge). Parts of this are promising with bits of decent performances but none of the pieces ever really fit together. C+ Available on Netflix.

At the Sofaplex 23/04/13

Boston Strangler (R)

Keira Knightley, Carrie Coon.

Two female newspaper reporters investigate the strangling deaths of several women in 1960s Boston in this movie that feels as much about being a working mom as it does about true crime investigation. To that second element, the movie leaves open a lot of questions about whether the man eventually arrested for what Wikipedia says are 13 murders actually committed them — or committed all of them. I think the Wikipedia rabbit hole you may choose to follow after watching the movie is probably more informative about the crimes. The movie itself is more about how crime was reported in the early 1960s and the struggle of women in newspapers to break out of the lifestyle beats. Jean Cole (Coon) and Loretta McLaughlin (Knightley), both real-life journalists, have to deal with sexism in the newsroom and from the police as well as the demands of husbands and children at home. Watching them balance these demands and watching them dig into this story that has put them on the front page makes for an enjoyable bit of drama. B Available on Hulu.

Tetris (R)

Taron Egerton, Toby Jones.

The story of how a software developer and Nintendo got the licensing agreement for the game Tetris is the surprisingly tension-filled focus of this fun little tale. Henk Rogers (Egerton) stumbles on Tetris when he’s at the Consumer Electronics Convention and buys the licensing rights for the game in video game consoles and arcades in Japan. Or so he thinks. He plans to make a deal with Nintendo to produce the game, which he instantly realizes is an addictive hit, for them. But then he learns that Robert Stein (Jones), the man who had bought the rights to license the game from the Soviet tech agency where its creator worked, maybe hadn’t actually purchased the rights he thought he had. Or maybe the Soviet director who agreed to let creator Alexey Pajtinov (Nikita Efremov) sign the licensing agreement didn’t entirely understand what they were signing. Either way, here at the end of the 1980s, the motivations of the various Soviet officials involved might not be as clear. This little slice of 1980s nostalgia is a surprisingly fun, well-paced business story that pulls in the video games wars, the British Maxwell family and the fall of the USSR. B Available on Apple TV+.

Murder Mystery 2 (PG-13)

Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler.

Sandler and Anisiton return as married couple Nick and Audrey, who, after their European adventure, have quit their jobs to become professional private investigators. It’s not going great, exactly, but they’re chipping away at it, with Audrey pushing Nick to get a certification that she thinks will help their business. They’re in need of a getaway, though, and jump at the offer by a friend from the first movie, the Maharajah (Adeel Akhtar), to come to his wedding to Claudette (Mélanie Laurent), all expenses paid, on the fancy island he recently purchased. At first, all is grand, with iPhone wedding favors and closets pre-filled with the right attire and a welcoming cheese platter. But then, as so often happens around Nick and Audrey, someone is murdered and the Maharajah is kidnapped. Even after serious investigator Miller (Mark Strong), who happens to be the author of the book Nick and Audrey have been studying from, shows up, Nick and Audrey are still entangled in the investigation that leads them on another mayhem-filled tour of Europe.

I watched this movie exactly as I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to — namely, with half my attention while doing something else. This movie is built for this. A shot where we see the cheese knife in Nick and Audrey’s room lingers a considerable amount of time, like “here’s a thing you need to pay attention to — no, go ahead, finishing writing that check, we’ll keep the camera here until you can look up.” Everything about Murder Mystery 2 is relaxed and affable. Sandler and Aniston have good chemistry with each other. Most of the comedy is enjoyably silly — the lack of sharp edges anywhere here would probably be taxing in a theater, but at your house, where you can be half-heartedly scanning the emails you’ve ignored or folding laundry or intermittently snoozing, it’s fine. B Available on Netflix.

At the Sofaplex 23/03/02

Babylon (R)

Margot Robie, Brad Pitt.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle gives you three hours and nine minutes of 1920s and 1930s Hollywood, as the business adapted to sound and the movie industry machine chewed through the people involved. Here, we focus on Nellie LaRoy (Robie), a young woman who cons her way into a Hollywood party from which she lucks her way into a movie and briefly becomes a silent star sensation; Manny Torres (Diego Calva), who is working the party as a kind of general fix-it guy (help this elephant get up the hill to the house, help these goons dispose of an overdosing starlet); Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), an established star who takes on Manny as his assistant; Sideny Palmer (Jovan Adepo), a trumpet player who finds stardom and a financial windfall in front of the camera but doesn’t get any relief from the persistent racism he deals with as a Black artist, and to a lesser extent Elinor St. Jean (Jean Smart), a gossip columnist who even in the 1920s knows that movie fame is fleeting.

A lot of names — Olivia Wilde, Max Minghella, Jeff Garlin, Spike Jonze, Flea — show up for cameos and as do actors playing historical types (Irving Thalberg, William Randolph Hearst). It’s, uhm, cute, in the same way I found the Citizen Kane cosplay of Mank cute and amusing in a “photo book about 1930s Oscars” kind of way. Even better are process-y scenes that demonstrate, with some equally cute exaggeration, how these early movies were made — and some of the ways that pre-code films were a lot racier than the movies that were on screens a decade later. An extended sequence of Nellie and director Ruth Adler (Olivia Hamilton) trying to film a scene of a talkie while the cast and crew swelter in the heat (air conditioning would be too loud) and have to deal with the sensitivities of the microphones is particularly fun. There is also a nice bit of storytelling in who made it through the transition — not Nellie and her Harley Quinn accent, for example.


But this movie is so much elaborate scene-setting, so much “The Magic of the Movies!” and so much Hollywood doing a guided tour up its own rear that it is, at times, completely intolerable. And, from Singin’ in the Rain (which is a touchstone for this movie) to the most recent Downton Abbey movie, I feel like I’ve seen a lot of this stuff before. And it’s more than three hours. Three. Hours.

Babylon is nominated for Oscars in categories for costume design, original score and production design and while I can understand those nominations, I don’t think it would be my pick in any of those categories. C+ (but a strong B for the “Nellie shoots in sound” scene.) Available for purchase and on Paramount+.

Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths (R)

Daniel Giménez Cacho, Griselda Siciliana.

Early in Bardo, co-written and directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, we watch as Lucia (Siciliana) delivers her and husband Silverio’s (Giménez Cacho) son, Mateo. Moments after his birth, doctors tell her Mateo says he doesn’t want to be out in a world as messed up as this and so they put him back, er, in. This pretty well sets the scene for the movie we’re watching, where Silverio jumps around in time and where the truth of a situation is often rendered lyrically more than realistically. Silverio, a journalist turned filmmaker, started his career in Mexico, where he and his family are from, but moved to Los Angeles with his wife and kids when they were young. He wrestles with the U.S./Mexico of it all — from the Mexican American War to the present relationship between the countries and what it means for the people who move between the two. He also has a conversation about Mexican-ness with Cortés and occasionally finds himself in the desert with migrants. He also wanders through his own life, suddenly child-sized when he talks to his father, and talking with his children Lorenzo (Iker Solano) and Camila (Ximena Lamadrid) while thoughts of Mateo are never far from his mind.

It can all read as sort of self-indulgent at times — a criticism the movie itself makes of itself in its foldy self-referential way — but the movie is so good-humored and genuine about what it’s doing and how it knows you know it knows what it’s doing that I was, you know, never mad at it. It’s weird and mournful but also joyful — and, here’s where the Oscar nomination comes in, absolutely visually stunning. A nominee in the cinematography category, Bardo makes good use of its frequently very lovely settings but also of the dreamlike way it’s shot and the way scenes morph into other scenes in the way your dream might take you from a memory to a fear to a recent conversation. I see how this movie could annoy someone — its lead is, after all, a Great Man Looking at His Life — and maybe I just got lucky and saw this movie at the moment I was most open to this kind of twisty, floaty ride but: A Available on Netflix.

Empire of Light (R)

Olivia Colman, Michael Ward.

Olivia Colman can act the heck out of anything, is my main takeaway from Empire of Light, a sssslooooow movie (that is actually only an hour and 55 minutes) about a woman and her unlikely relationship in 1980s Thatcher U.K.

Hilary (Colman) works at the Empire, a movie theater, in a town on the English coast that instantly made me think of the Morrissey song. Though we don’t learn the full details for a while, we know that she has struggled with mental health issues and that the medication she is now taking has left her feeling flat. It’s not that she’s unhappy — taking dance lessons, making small talk with coworkers, engaging in a deeply unsexy affair with the theater’s manager (played by Colin Firth) — but there just isn’t a spark in her. And then arrives Stephen (Ward), a young man who didn’t get into university and whose Jamaican heritage makes life difficult in a time when racism and nationalism seems to be on the rise in England. Stephen and Hilary take an immediate shine to each other despite the age disparity. Their friendly coworker-ship soon turns into something more, but both of them are struggling with issues greater than a sunny romance.

Empire of Light is Oscar nominated for Cinematography and I fully get why — it’s a beautiful-looking film, from the fading glory of the Empire, a movie palace that once had multiple floors and a rooftop cafe, to the lights and grays and shadows of the city. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Colman was, like, 8 or 9 on the list of nominated actresses. Elements of this movie are very compelling. But the movie as a whole needed a jolt of energy. B

Available on HBO Max or for rent or purchase.

To Leslie (R)

Andrea Riseborough, Marc Maron.

Leslie (Riseborough, nominated for actress in a leading role*) goes to see her 19-or-20-year-old son James (Owen Teague) after being evicted from the motel where she had been living. He quickly kicks her out after she refuses to stay sober and steals money from his roommate, sending her back to their hometown, where his grandmother and her boyfriend (the parents of his unmentioned father, I think) put her up. Nancy (Allison Janney) and Dutch (Stephen Root) are minorly supportive but also harbor deep grudges toward Leslie and she’s soon kicked out of their house too. She floats around her hometown, eventually getting caught hanging out near a motel run by Sweeney (Maron) and Royal (Andre Royo). Sweeney takes pity on Leslie and offers her a job cleaning the motel along with a room to stay in, which begins a fraught and shaky friendship.

Riseborough gives an interesting and highly watchable performance as a woman who can’t quite get out her own way — she won more than $100,000 in a lottery years ago but squandered it partying — and is battling a serious alcohol addiction. Is it a strong enough performance to carry the weight of the * for which this small movie is known? The asterisk is the story surrounding Riseborough’s Oscar nomination, the campaign for which was a grassroots affair by famous fans and, according to a New York Times explainer from Feb. 8, her manager. The Academy got involved in the uproar after nominations were announced and, whatever rules may have been bent, her nomination stands. It will probably always bear the stain of being the nomination that denied Viola Davis for The Woman King or Danielle Deadwyler for Till an Oscar nod. And while both of those are better performances than Riseborough’s work here, they are also better than nominee Ana de Armas in the icksome Blonde, so really it’s not all Riseborough’s fault.

On its own merits, To Leslie is a solid movie worth a watch. B+ Available for rent or purchase.

At the Sofaplex 23/02/23

Aftersun (R)

Paul Mescal, Frankie Corio.

Dad Calum (Mescal, nominated for actor in a leading role) and tween-ish daughter Sophie (Corio) vacation while, a few decades in the future, adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall), now married with a child, remembers the visit in this bittersweet drama. Primarily, Aftersun just gives us father and daughter hanging out in a sunny, slightly shabby resort. He appears to not be her primary parent, so there is some catching up and attempting to reconnect. Sophie seems to be finding her way into this world where she enjoys being goofy with her dad and playing video games with a kid her own age but also seems nervously entranced by the older kids she plays pool with. Corio excellently captures kid confidence with teen uncertainty at the fringes and makes Sophie into a recognizable 11-year-old. We see the vacation mostly from her perspective. It’s only gradually that we see that Calum is having some kind of slow-motion breakdown while trying to keep up the facade of a happy visit. Aftersun, directed and written by Charlotte Wells, has great performances all around and is an enjoyable movie even if its sweetness is delivered with a degree of sadness. A Available for rent or purchase.

At the Sofaplex 23/02/09

Shotgun Wedding (R)

Jennifer Lopez, Josh Duhamel.

Though she’s solidly in a supporting role, this movie gives a lot of the goofiness to Jennifer Coolidge, who plays Carol, mom to groom Tom (Duhamel).

Tom and Darcy (Lopez) have dragged their loved ones to a beach resort in the Philippines for the elaborate Insta-worthy wedding of Tom’s dreams. But standard wedding-movie difficulties — Darcy’s dad’s (Cheech Marin) preference for Darcy’s ex (Lenny Kravitz) over Tom, Carol’s insistence that Darcy wear her lump-of-whipped-cream-like wedding dress — have the couple bickering, leading to a fight right before they walk down the aisle that ends with Darcy throwing her engagement ring at Tom. Darcy stomps off to enjoy some Champagne and chips but Tom soon runs after her to tell her that all of their wedding guests have just been taken hostage by pirates. As the bad guys negotiate with Darcy’s wealthy dad for ransom money, Darcy and Tom work together — while also fighting about their relationship woes — to try to rescue their guests.

Shotgun Wedding is a perfectly OK lightweight, something-on-while-you-pay-bills watch, but with the talent involved it should have been better. There is a general liveliness that’s missing and the comedy all felt like sort of warmed over middling sitcom shtick. C Available on Amazon Prime Video.

You People (R)

Eddie Murphy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Black-ish creator Kenya Barris directed and co-wrote (with Jonah Hill) this movie that is a little bit rom-com and a little bit social comedy with strong middling sitcom vibes.

Ezra (Hill), unhappy finance worker and in-his-element podcaster, does a meet-cute with stylist/movie costume designer Amira (Lauren London). They almost instantly take a shine to each other and are soon being cuddly together despite the difficulties friends (Ezra’s podcast partner Mo, played by comedian Sam Jay) and family (Amira’s brother Omar, played by Travis Bennett) predict that this Jewish man and Black woman will have as a couple. The difficulties start when Ezra meets Amira’s unimpressed parents, Akbar (Murphy) and Fatima (Nia Long), and when Amira meets Ezra’s culturally tone-deaf parents, Shelley (Louis-Dreyfus) and Arnold (David Duchovny).

A sitcom with this premise could have more room to be nuanced and specific in its observations; as a movie, a lot about the stuff happening here — the blending of families and cultures and the parental impulses toward acceptance or judgment — is shorthanded into broad caricature. What saves this movie from complete unlikability are the small moments between characters. Louis-Dreyfus brings something of a real person to her scenes, London and Hill have cute chemistry, Jay and Hill have a low-energy comedy bit “yes and” charm. I don’t know that I’m in a hurry to sit through this movie again, but in small bites, it rises above its basic setup. C Available on Netflix.

At the Sofaplex 23/02/02

All Quiet on the Western Front (R)

A group of very eager, very naive school boys sign up to join the German army a few years into World War I in this most recent, German-language adaptation of the novel by Erich Maria Remarque. Paul (Felix Kammerer) and his buddies sport goofy grins as they listen to a local official charge them up, all fatherland this and manhood that. When Paul finds another man’s name on the uniform he’s handed, he accepts the army official’s story that it probably just didn’t fit that guy — even though we’ve seen, in one of the movie’s best sequences, that uniform go being worn by a young German soldier when he’s sent over the top of the trench to the laundry where his blood is cleaned out and the factory where bullet holes are patched up.

It’s telling to watch all the older soldiers just sort of “yep” with their eyes as these eager new soldiers get to the Western front, cheering and ready to shoot their French enemies. After about 24 hours — of mud, of shelling, of collecting the dog tags of freshly killed comrades — Paul seems to let go of his childhood ideas of military glory and adventure.

We catch up with him 18 months later as he and the friends he has left are just surviving in roughly the same spot where they’ve been dug in for years. Intercut with this are scenes of German officials (including one played by Daniel Brühl) trying to negotiate an armistice over the objections of the military.

This movie — nominated for Oscars for Best Picture as well as extremely well-deserved cinematography and score nods, International Feature Film, Makeup & Hairstyling, Adapted Screenplay, Visual Effects, Sound and Production Design — really does wow with its visuals. The trench warfare is an impressive blend of absolute horror and surprising beauty, particularly in the long shots of the forests and fields around the battlefield. The score is impressive too — there’s a kind of machine-like quality that helps underline the idea of the soldiers as just raw materials for industrial-scale killing.

I think the movie’s greatest strength — that it takes the time to show us the nature and the small details surrounding these men at war — can also be a weakness in that it leads the movie to underline and repeat itself on the futility of what’s happening. At two hours and 27 minutes, this movie could have afforded to slice some scenes and still get its message across. B+ Available on Netflix, where you can watch it in German with subtitles or with English dubbing.

Triangle of Sadness (R)

Woody Harrelson, Harris Dickinson.

Director and writer Ruben Ostlund, also known for The Square and Force Majeure, presents this satire of wealth, class and status with just a bit of gender roles and colonialism thrown in. It’s a lot. It’s a whole college freshmen discussion about “the system.” It can charm in moments but also wear on you. And there’s an extended puke and poo situation that is — well “on the nose” feels like a very “ew” way to describe it.

The movie takes a while to get going as we see models Carl (Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean) and their relationship, which is at least 50 percent about building their social media presence. They go on a cruise — influencer perks — where all of their fellow guests are fabulously wealthy, sorta nuts and some kind of a caricature, such as the polite British couple named Winston (Oliver Ford Davies) and Clementine (Amanda Walker) who used to manufacture land mines but now focus on hand grenades. The crew, managed by Paula (Vicki Berlin), has been told to smile through all the insanity in hope of a big tip. But perhaps they should have “no, ma’am-ed” a request by Vera (Sunnyi Melles), wife of Russian fertilizer magnate Dimitry (Zlatko Buric), for all of the crew members, including the kitchen staff preparing the raw seafood, to go for a swim.

At one point, the ship’s oft-drunk captain (Harrelson) and Dimitry trade quotes about communism — the captain presenting himself as sort of a half-hearted Marxist and Dimitry as a capitalist. It’s cute, they have a chummy conversation as the guests puke and the ship is cast about on the waves; it’s also, you know, “yeah, OK, movie.”

And that for me was the movie — cute moments, some fun performances and a whole lot of “OK, calm down.” I get how this can be a better-than-OK viewing experience (except for the puking) but for me this wouldn’t have added up to Best Picture, Best Director and Original Screenplay Oscar nominations. BAvailable for rent or purchase.

At the Sofaplex 23/01/26

Encanto at the Hollywood Bowl (TV-G)

Stephanie Beatriz, Lin-Manuel Miranda.

I know, I know, do you really need to hear the Encanto songs again? Yes! This filmed concert of the songs of Encanto as presented at the Hollywood Bowl is a delightful celebration featuring the original vocal talents from the animated movie as well as some beautiful staging with sets, light projections and dancers as everything from townsfolk to animals. It’s fun, a nice introduction for kids who have seen more movies than live theater and a nice reminder that the Encanto songbook is stuffed with dancy gems. AAvailable on Disney+.

Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical (PG)

Lashana Lynch, Emma Thompson.

Roald Dahl works through more childhood terrors — a bleak school, a sadistic headmistress, awful parents — in this charming if occasionally PG-ily violent and mean musical starring Alisha Weir as the titular heroine. Matilda is smart, a lover of stories and only occasionally naughty with vengeful acts against her negligent parents (Stephen Graham, Andrea Riseborough). When she is sent to a grim day school run by tyrannical, joy-hating headmistress Agatha Trunchbull (Thompson, having the most fun), Matilda can’t stand for the bullying of her fellow students and begins a revolution against Trunchbull, which even extends to the kind Miss Honey (Lynch), Matilda’s teacher. Miss Honey has her own difficult past with Trunchbull but tries to teach her children with respect and kindness nevertheless, cheering them on, if quietly at first, in their rebellion.

I think because of the cruelty of Trunchbull and the indifference and abuse by Matilda’s parents, I’d peg this one at somewhere in the 11-year-old-and-up viewership range. For kids old enough not to be scared, the story involves some lovely set pieces with songs (“When I Grow Up” is nicely done) and a sweet tale about the vindication of a bookish girl. And, as mentioned, Thompson, a sort of fairy tale witch-as-dictator, seems to be having an absolute ball. B+ Available on Netflix

At the Sofaplex 23/01/12

Strange World (PG)

Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid.

This Disney animated feature introduces us to Searcher Clade (voice of Gyllenhaal), who, when he was a kid, was forced, like it or not, to join his famous father, Jaeger Clade (voice of Quaid), on his explorations to find a path beyond the mountains that surround (and keep cut off) their city-state. On one exploration, Searcher discovered pando, the electrified fruit that becomes a source of power to their previously horse-and-buggy world. Jaeger was uninterested and plunged alone through the mountains.

Twenty five years later, Searcher is a successful pando farmer and himself the father of teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White). Searcher farms, his wife/Ethan’s mom Meridian (voice of Gabrielle Union) flies a crop duster and Ethan dreams of a life doing something else — maybe exploring like the grandfather he never knew.

Searcher wants nothing to do with exploration, but when president (and former expedition member in his dad’s explorations) Callisto (voice of Lucy Liu) shows up on Searcher’s farm, it looks like he might have to hit the trail once again. Across the land pando plants have been dying and Callisto needs to find out why to save everyone’s modern way of life. They discover that pando isn’t separate plants but one big plant and decide to follow a hole deep in the earth to find the source of the plant and see if they can figure out what’s killing it.

Naturally, Ethan stows away on the subterranean ship making the journey and Meridian shows up to tell Searcher that Ethan is there, putting the whole family on the trip into the mysterious deep and the Strange World they find there.

Where and what is this Strange World? I kind of feel like if you’ve been through middle school biology you’ll know pretty quickly, thus making the wait for the reveal feel extremely draggy (and the very straightforward “here’s what’s been happening” explanation is oddly deflating of the cool concept).

I get now why this movie, which spent like a minute in theaters around Thanksgiving, had such odd, vague marketing. To explain the story feels like you are tangling yourself up in details and characters and themes. Strange World has some beautiful visuals, moments of action and an interesting central quest but it also has a lot of talking about characters’ feelings and motivations and parent-child relationships. Like, a lot of talking. Those text-heavy scenes, often between adult characters, slow down the action and make the movie feel less kid-compelling. By its nature, the setting of the movie doesn’t lend itself to lots of high-personality new creatures and characters (we get one, basically, which, as a character in the movie calls out, feels like it’s primarily there for merchandising purposes), leaving only the humans. Sure, I thought to myself, this is a lovely reminder to me, a grown parent, to listen to my kids and their dreams and ambitions without imposing my ideas about what their dreams should be. But what are my kids going to do during the moments that inspire these thoughts? In my experience, that’s when they go to the bathroom or start searching for another screen to watch until the action starts up again. B- Available on Disney+ and through VOD.

At the Sofaplex 22/12/15

Lady Chatterley’s Lover (R)

Emma Corrin, Jack O’Connell.

In this adaptation of a book that I feel like I should have read but probably won’t ever, dissatisfied Lady Chatterley, a.k.a. Connie Reid (Corrin), starts an affair with Oliver (O’Connell) the groundskeeper at her husband’s, Lord Clifford Chatterley (Matthew Duckett), big family estate. The pair got married during what sounds like a brief mid-World War I romance, after which Clifford returns to the front. After the war, he comes home paralyzed from the waist down and drags Connie from London out to the family’s country home. She seems initially interested in making the best of things, but Clifford is not interested in finding new ways to, uhm, show affection. He is, however, interested in having an heir — so long as Connie doesn’t catch feelings for the guy she chooses to hang out with for just long enough to get pregnant. Connie is actually appalled by this idea and increasingly annoyed by Clifford himself — first with his dumb literary friends as he tries to be a writer and then by the businessmen who appear when he decides to take over the running of the local mine. By the time we get to the “workers should be grateful for whatever crumbs we brush their way”-type discussion, we’re well out of sympathy for Clifford and just fine with Connie pursuing her affair with the kindhearted Oliver, who made it to lieutenant in the war but just wants the peace and quiet of groundskeeping.

This movie is very pretty and filled with lots of scenes that I think are supposed to be steamy and romantic of the pretty Corrin and the very pretty O’Connell in various states of undress. But the movie, which takes nearly 50 minutes of its more than two-hour run time to get to the Lover part of things, feels like it is running at .75 speed. We get a lot — A Lot — of scenes of people walking through fields at less than a brisk pace or just staring off into the middle distance or looking after someone who is leaving the shot. It’s maybe supposed to help build tension but mostly it made me want to fast-forward.

Joely Richardson shows up as a character who seems mainly like she’s supposed to deliver information but she does help to highlight some of the more interesting aspects of the movie. There is this whole post-war labor-management tension that runs through the story as well as some nods to the idea that, after the calamity of the war, maybe some prewar societal conventions are just less important to some people (Oliver seems to represent, to a degree, the idea that after the battlefield people might be less willing to just “know their place”). But the movie doesn’t do much more than present these ideas — you know, between long walks. B- Available on Netflix.

Descendant (PG)

This documentary from Higher Ground Productions (the Obamas’ production company) looks at the current residents of Africatown, a neighborhood near Mobile, Alabama. The community was founded by people who had been enslaved and transported to Alabama from Africa shortly before the start of the Civil War. The trip, which was an illegal smuggling operation some 50 years after the international slave trade had been outlawed in the U.S., ended with the people being offloaded from the ship, the Clotilda, which was then burned to hide the crime. After the Civil War, many of the Clotilda survivors and their families moved to Africatown, which is still home to many of their descendants. The documentary follows both the rediscovery of the Clotilda and the attempts by community members to memorialize their families’ histories and place them in the larger context of the calamity of slavery in the U.S.

The movie serves as a nice companion piece to Zora Neale Hurston’s book Barracoon, which was published in 2018. It features her 1927 interviews with Cudjoe Lewis, one of the last living survivors of the Clotilda. The movie focuses not only on the stories of the Clotilda survivors but also the way land grabs and indifferent zoning have led to Africatown’s being surrounded by industry and to the hollowing out of the area’s main street. As much as its story contains an important slice of American history, the community is shown as a vibrant, energetic and hopeful part of the present. A Available on Netflix.

Sr. (R)

Robert Downey Jr. makes a documentary about his father, the filmmaker Robert Downey Sr., who died in 2021. The movie features interviews with Sr. starting in about 2019 — and while Jr. put together his film, Sr. worked on his own cut. He also dealt with worsening health due to Parkinson’s disease, a situation that pushed Jr. to learn and discuss as much as he could with his father while they could still be together. While giving us the professional life of Downey Sr. (an idiosyncratic filmmaker in the 1960s through the mid aughts),the movie also tells an intergenerational story of a son (Jr.) attempting to embrace the good and make peace with the bad from his childhood while also raising his own children. The movie reminded me a bit of Dick Johnson Is Dead, another documentary about a filmmaker coming to terms with a father’s mortality. Sr. is incredibly sweet with Robert Downey Jr. being shockingly vulnerable and honest as he examines the relationship with a father he clearly loves and admires. A Available on Netflix.

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