Screening Room: ‘The Old Guard’

Based on Greg Rucka’s comic-book series, The Old Guard is a big-budget attempt to start a new action franchise, this one centered around a band of centuries-old mercenaries who are (mostly) immortal.

The Old Guard launches today on Netflix. My review is at Slant:

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action in the way of the modern franchise series—doing so more organically than the Fast and the Furious series but missing the self-aware comedic patter of the Avengers films—The Old Guard is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: Docs to Watch Out For

Last week’s online edition of the AFI DOCS film festival featured premieres of several documentaries that will be worth keeping your eyes peeled for later in the year when they hit broader release. I reviewed two of them for The Playlist.

  • 9to5: The Story of a Movement (pictured above): “Even in our supposedly more enlightened times, when people hear the word ‘labor,’ they are likely to conjure up a predictable set of mental images: Burly white guys in hard hats…”
  • White Noise: “A queasily riveting documentary that puts the audience far closer than comfort to some of the worst people in the world…”

Screening Room: ‘Irresistible’

In Jon Stewart’s new political comedy, two high-powered political consultants turn a tiny mayoral race in Wisconsin into an absurd battle for national attention.

Irresistible opens this week in VOD. My review is at Slant:

The film doesn’t focus its ire on Trump, conservatives, and the like, but rather on the cable news and consultant infrastructure that was accelerating America’s collapsing democratic polity long before anybody in a red baseball cap screamed “Lock her up!” and will continue to do so after Trump leaves the White House. This makes sense from Stewart, who went after Glenn Beck back in 2010 not through white-hot invective, but by holding a rally dedicated to polite, level-headed disagreement. These are desperate times, but if Stewart wants to tack toward a more Frank Capra vein, that’s just fine. We already have one Adam McKay…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Wasp Network’

Wasp Network

In the 1990s, the Castro regime sent several operatives to infiltrate the Cuban-American emigre community in Miami. Olivier Assayas’ Wasp Network is a fictionalization of that somewhat forgotten sidenote of the post-Cold War years.

Wasp Network is available on Netflix today. My review is at Slant:

Based on Fernando Morais’s 2011 book The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, the film starts out as a crisply paced, lavishly photographed, and character-based study of what the members of the so-called “Cuban Five” spy ring did and how they did it. Unfortunately, it spreads its attentions so wide and at times without consequence that the import of the events it depicts starts to get lost…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Babyteeth’

Babyteeth

Shannon Murphy’s stylized melodrama captures a terminally ill teenager raging against the dying of the light.

Babyteeth opens this week. My review is at Slant:

Babyteeth neatly threads the needle between tragedy and comedy. The film follows Milla (Eliza Scanlen), a teenage cancer patient who’s mostly given up on life when Moses (Toby Wallace), a slightly older drug dealer, bumps into her on a train platform. For her, it’s deep crushing love at first swoon and a reason to keep getting up in the morning. For him, it’s having an adoring fan to goof around with—especially when he discovers that her father, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), is a psychiatrist who happens to have lots of pharmaceuticals lying around…

Screening Room: Human Rights Watch Film Festival

The 2020 edition of the always worthwhile Human Rights Watch Film Festival is going virtual this year, like everything else. It’s a shorter than normal list of documentaries, but still contains some sharp and unforgettable work.

The movies range from Coded Bias (pictured above), which studies the ways white male coders can embed prejudice in seemingly impartial algorithms, to Welcome to Chechnya, a harrowing nonfiction thriller about the activists fighting to get LGBTQ people out of Chechnya before they are tortured and killed, to Radio Silence, a taut story about a Mexico City journalist being hounded by a government that cares more about investigating her than actual criminals.

My coverage of the festival is at PopMatters:

In a time when specialty movie events have been ever more narrowly targeted (festivals devoted to food, puppetry, and so on down the rabbit hole of monomania), the HRWFF went large. It served as a global snapshot of how humanity was faring in the fight to uphold basic standards of freedom and decency for its people. The unsurprising answer tends to be a variant on: Not well…

Screening Room: ‘The Vast of Night’

The Vast of Night is playing now in some drive-in theaters, and streams on Amazon this Friday. My review is at The Playlist:

A head-snapper of a debut from Andrew Patterson, “The Vast of Night” is one of those eerie indies that uses the trappings of genre (alien invasion in this case) as a launchpad into its own brand of American weird. Located somewhere to the left of a lost “X-Files” episode set in the UFO-haunted 1950s, it unspools over the course of one night in a flyspeck New Mexico border town. Mysterious events are afoot and nobody seems aware of it at first except for two meddling teenagers…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Painter and the Thief’

A shapeshifter of a documentary, The Painter and the Thief follows the surprising aftermath of a gallery break-in. After losing two of her paintings in the theft, the artist connects with one of the men who stole them and begins painting him.

The Painter and the Thief opens Friday. My review is at The Playlist:

“The Painter and the Thief” is best not watched by more than one person at the time. After all, it is opening during the pandemic as a ‘Virtual Cinema’ release. This means that if it is watched by multiple individuals, they will most likely be in close and extended confinement. That confinement could become uncomfortable very fast after seeing the movie, which will elicit responses ranging from “That’s incredible” to “What was she thinking?” Director Benjamin Ree (‘Magnus’) has trained his camera on a colorfully chimeric story that will shift in meaning depending on the viewer…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Trip to Greece’

A decade after The Trip introduced the concept of a couple comics japing around as they touristed and ate delicate foods, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have returned for the fourth and last entry in this surprisingly durable series.

The Trip to Greece opens this Friday. My review is at The Playlist:

There are many viewers who, upon hearing that “The Trip to Greece” is very much like the three previous entries in Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s comic culinary road trip flicks, will be not disappointed but absolutely delighted. Given the current state of uncertainty and the likelihood that social-distancing will dramatically impact the ability of studios to produce new movies, new incarnations of the familiar and beloved are treasured. Many would be delighted to hear that the pair had scampered off to tour France, Israel, Japan, and maybe even Iceland before the shelter-in-place orders came down…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘How to Build a Girl’

Caitlin Moran’s popular YA novel How to Build a Girl was about a geeky girl from the Midlands who takes a sharp left-turn into hipsterdom when she reinvents herself as a snarky music journalist in the 1990s. (You know, when Happy Mondays were a thing.)

The movie adaptation of How to Build a Girl, starring Booksmart‘s irrepressible Beanie Feldstein, opens this week. My review is at The Playlist:

At first, the gig is all champagne and caviar, despite the eye-rolling putdowns delivered by her editors, a posh band of professional haters who have a hard time taking a girl from the Midlands seriously. After giving herself a makeover (a sequence unimaginatively set to Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl”), Johanna charges into nightclubs sporting fire-engine-red hair, a top hat, and the nom de plume Dolly Wilde, wielding her pen and notebook with more moxie than Lester Bangs…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Spaceship Earth’

Spaceship Earth Doc

The new documentary Spaceship Earth opens digitally (like everything else has to now) tomorrow. My review is at The Playlist:

Matching jumpsuits. Soaring white geodesic Fuller domes. Desert setting. Beaming smiles from people who appear not unfamiliar with things like EST seminars and primal scream therapy. Grainy film footage. The sense of embarking on a mission that is technically Earth-bound but holds within it the potential for cosmic transcendence. In other words, the story that lies at the core of Matt Wolf’s documentary “Spaceship Earth” bears more than a passing resemblance to the Dharma Initiative in “Lost”…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Capital in the 21st Century’

Six years ago, a 700–ish-page economics tome by a French academic with a Marxian bent became a surprise bestseller. Now, Capital in the 21st Century is a documentary.

My review is at PopMatters:

Justin Pemberton’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century takes the fundamental arguments of Piketty’s book and presents them in an engaging, visually brisk manner that has the gleaming appeal but somewhat narrow one-sidedness of a TED Talk. The author himself lays out his thesis: Modern capitalism has created a concentration of capital that is ultimately unsustainable. He references the “misery” of communist rule to show that despite his being well-versed in Marxist analysis, he is no doctrinaire Red demanding state control of industry. Rather, he is more interested in laying out a modern history of capital to show how pre-modern economic models, replete with tiny cliques of aristocrats distant from the teeming masses, are reestablishing themselves in our time…

Capital in the 21st Century is available through virtual cinemas starting May 1.

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: Still a Big World Out There

I reviewed two great new documentaries for Eyes Wide Open:

Good documentaries tell you a story; the great ones open your eyes. But even the most mediocre nonfiction movies serve a purpose: They provide a snapshot in time for what people in a particular place were doing, thinking, and planning. Or, to use another metaphor, they open a window into lives different than our own…

Screening Room: ‘Slay the Dragon’

The new documentary Slay the Dragon is a timely reminder of the importance of decennial elections because years like this one are when census results can be leveraged by gerrymandering politicians to redraw districts in anti-democratic ways.

My review of Slay the Dragon, which opens On Demand today, ran at PopMatters:

Directors Chris Durrance and Barak Goodman are pursuing two goals with Slay the Dragon. One is a portrait of modern resistance to gerrymandering. The other and perhaps more pertinent is to provide a short modern history of gerrymandering itself. They do this in large part by going to one of the best sources: David Daley’s pungently hard-nosed 2016 expose: Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count. Daley is one of the many experts corralled by the directors to lay out this history…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Blow the Man Down’

My review of the new movie Blow the Man Down — which starts this Friday on Amazon — ran at Slant Magazine:

Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s Blow the Man Down starts on a literally self-aware note. The opening sequence shows the fishermen of a coastal Maine hamlet not just hard at work netting, spiking, and chopping up their catch, but also singing a rousing rendition of the 19th-century sailors’ song that gives the film its title. Full-throated and haunting, the piece is sung right to the camera as though it were a music video for some Americana band. But even though what follows is shot through with a keen understanding of genre necessities and an impatience for wasting more time on them than is necessary, the film never veers into wink-wink self-consciousness that its opening might have suggested…

Here’s the trailer: