Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 2/26/21

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Tom & Jerry (CREDIT: Warner Bros/YouTube Screenshot)

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
The Father (Theaters) – Olivia Colman plays Anthony Hopkins’ father
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run (March 4 on Paramount+) – This is the day CBS All Access rebrands as Paramount+.
Tom & Jerry (Theaters and HBO Max) – Colin Jost in the Wedding of the Century!
The Vigil (Theaters and On Demand)

TV
RuPaul’s Drag Race: Corona Can’t Keep a Good Queen Down (February 26 on VH1)
-78th Golden Globe Awards (February 28 on NBC)

Music
-Alice Cooper, Detroit Stories – Loved him on The Muppet Show; glad to see he’s still making music.

‘Night of the Kings’ is a Visually Captivating Piece of Storytelling Emanating From a Prison in Côte d’Ivoire

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Night of the Kings (Courtesy of NEON)

Starring: Koné Bakary, Steve Tientcheu, Rasmané Ouédraogo, Issaka Sawadogo, Denis Lavant

Director: Phillipe Lacôte

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: R for A Bit of Nudity and a Fairly Violent Prison Milieu

Release Date: February 26, 2021 (Theaters)/March 5, 2021 (On Demand)

I recently had the pleasure of watching Night of the Kings, Côte d’Ivoire’s official entry for Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Academy Awards. If you’re familiar with classic international literature, it will probably strike you as it struck me, i.e., as a modern Ivorian version of the Arabian Nights. The setting is the notorious MACA Prison, which is essentially run by the inmates. A new prisoner who is dubbed “Roman” (Koné Bakary) finds himself thrust into the worst of it, as he is forced to tell a story over the course of the night, and if his fellow inmates don’t like what he’s offering, the penalty is death.

Luckily for Roman, he is able to summon his inner Scherherazade without too much fuss. And luckily for us, director Phillipe Lacôte has the requisite visual craftsmanship to match his main character’s imagination. There aren’t too many other movies nowadays that feature a woman dancing in a way that turns an elephant into a hawk, after all. As a lifelong American resident who only gets bits and pieces of African news, I don’t know much about the culture of Côte d’Ivoire, and I imagine that Night of the Kings represents only a very small piece of that culture anyway. But I think it offers a fine opportunity to take your first bite to discover what Ivorian cinema is all about. Much like the MACA inmates, I found it compelling because of the enduring, worldwide appeal of just listening to someone tell a story. On a narrative and thematic level, I’m not entirely sure how to best explain Night of the Kings, but on an emotional level, I can say with confidence that it felt just right and just so.

Night of the Kings is Recommended If You Like: City of God, Framing devices of characters telling a story, Giving a chance to movies from countries you know very little about

Grade: 3.5 of 5 Microbes

‘The Vigil’ Puts a Hasidic Spin on Supernatural Horror

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The Vigil (CREDIT: IFC Midnight)

Starring: Dave Davis, Menashe Lustig, Lynn Cohen, Malky Goldman, Fred Melamed

Director: Keith Thomas

Running Time: 89 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Creepy Creatures Who Have No Concerns About People’s Mental Health

Release Date: February 26, 2021 (Theaters and On Demand)

The Vigil is the sort of movie that tells you exactly as much setup information as you need to know in case you’re not a member of the community where it takes place. I would pitch it as a sort of Orthodox Jewish spin on The Babadook, with a few elements of The Grudge thrown in as well. At the heart of the film is the role of a “shomer,” a person who fulfills the task of looking over the body of a recently deceased person until it’s buried. Typically, this is performed by a family member, but in cases where that’s not an option, there can be shomers hired from outside the family. That’s where Yakov Ronen’s (Dave Davis) story begins when his old rabbi (Menashe Lustig) shows up asking for a favor.

Yakov used to be a member of the Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood, but he’s recently opted for a less rigidly religious existence. But the community isn’t quite done with him, particularly in the form of Rabbi Reb Shulem, who offers him a few hundred bucks to be the shomer until dawn for an old man named Mr. Litvak whose widow (Lynn Cohen) lives alone and supposedly suffers from Alzheimer’s. Yakov could certainly use the cash, though he’s not sure it’s worth it since he’s been trying to cut off all contact with Reb. Ultimately, though, he takes the job, but it ends up being a lot more than he bargained for when evil spirits that had been haunting Mr. Litvak start turning their attention towards Yakov.

As in The Babadook, the supernatural forces in The Vigil also work metaphorically as a manifestation of the main character’s psychological state. The specifics of who or what these spooky beings really are is never specified, but ultimately that’s beside the point. I can imagine that Jewish folkloric creatures like dybbuks and the ghosts of the Holocaust served as inspiration. But what is most important here is the anxiety that Yakov is experiencing as a young man riddled by memories of guilt and trauma who’s also attempting to move forward in his life by learning fairly common but frequently challenging behaviors like learning how to talk to girls. Serving as a shomer on this particular night is like an hours-long panic attack manifesting as his worst nightmares come to life. It’s a gauntlet that could potentially lead to hospitalization or even a descent into Hell, or it could instead make him the strongest Yakov he’s ever been if he manages to somehow get through it. And those of us watching are liable to experience some secondhand catharsis.

The Vigil is Recommended If You Like: The Babadook, Spirits sneaking into technology, Cathartic horror

Grade: 4 out of 5 Shomers

Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 2/19/21

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Superman & Lois (CREDIT: DC/YouTube Screenshot)

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
Nomadland (Theaters and Hulu)

TV
Superman & Lois Series Premiere (February 23 on The CW)
Punky Brewster Revival Series Premiere (February 25 on Peacock) – I’ve never watched the original, but I liked the Peacock Saved by the Bell reboot, so I might check out this one too.

Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 2/12/21

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Kenan (CREDIT: NBC/YouTube Screenshot)

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (On Demand) – A new comedy classic.
Judas and the Black Messiah (Theaters and HBO Max)
Minari (February 12 in Theaters, February 26 On Demand)

TV
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver Season 8 Premiere (February 14 on HBO)
Momma Named Me Sheriff Season 2 Premiere (February 14 on Adult Swim)
Young Rock Series Premiere (February 16 on NBC)
Kenan Series Premiere (February 16 on NBC) – Kenan Thompson is still on SNL, but he’s also got his own sitcom now.

Music
-The Pretty Reckless, Death by Rock and Roll

The Writers of ‘Bridesmaids’ Ramp Up the Delightful Absurdity in ‘Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar’

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Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (CREDIT: Lionsgate/YouTube Screenshot)

Starring: Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo, Jamie Dornan, Damon Wayans Jr., Michael Hitchock, Reyn Doi, Kwame Patterson, Vanessa Bayer, Fortune Feimster, Rose Abdoo, Phyllis Smith, Wendi McClendon-Covey, Richard Cheese

Director: Josh Greenbaum

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Very Playful (and Kind of Explicit) Sexual Dialogue

Release Date: February 12, 2021 (On Demand)

A young boy in a canary yellow hat rides his bike down a picturesque suburban street while delivering newspapers and singing along to “Guilty,” the 1980 Barbra Streisand/Barry Gibb smooth jazz duet. Encountering a robot owl, he heads purposefully underground into a world of intrigue. A super-secret, super-important mission appears to be afoot. And that’s when we meet Barb and Star (Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig, respectively), two fortysomething best friends who appear to have absolutely nothing to do with everything we’ve seen up to this point. Instead, they spend their days gabbing away about whatever absurd notions pop into their heads while sitting on one of the showroom couches at the furniture store where they work. But alas, horror of horrors: the store is closing forever, and Barb and Star have no idea what to do with all their newfound free time! They could hang out at their rigidly regimented friend group gabfest (run by a fantastically tightly wound Vanessa Bayer), but then an opportunity comes knocking in the form of a vacation to the resort town of Vista Del Mar. They’ve never been the type to venture outside their hometowns, but heckfire, what better time than now to throw caution to the wind and spread their wings!

Often when reviewing movies, I like to ask myself, “Does this film make me want to do the thing it says in its title?” So with that in mind, does Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar make me want to go to Vista Del Mar? And the answer is … heck yeah! It’s a beachside town full of bright colors, romance, magic, and Mark Jonathan Davis as his lounge act persona Richard Cheese singing naughty songs in a hotel lobby, after all. And if I could spend my stay there right alongside Barb and Star and their versatile culottes, oh wow, would I be in hog heaven. The world has made no effort to stop them from being who they really are, and their conversations reflect that, as Wiig and Mumolo bring an astounding improvisatory yes-and energy to every single one of their interactions.

There’s also so many more elements in this movie that I haven’t mentioned yet, mostly because I don’t want to mention them, as this is the most satisfyingly unpredictable comedy I have seen in quite some time. Wiig and Mumolo co-wrote the screenplay, and it feels like a passion project of two best friends daring each other to indulge in their most outré excesses. Playing straight(-ish) man to their whirligig of whimsy is Jamie Dornan, who seems to have found his perfect niche as a lovelorn hopeless romantic agent of espionage. Also of note: Wiig pulls double duty as a supervillian best left unremarked upon, Damon Wayans Jr. shows up for a running gag of very silly inadvertent secret-revealing, and Barb and Star’s conversations about a hypothetical woman named “Trish” eventually pay off handsomely. In conclusion, this is one of those funny flicks that delights me immediately and endlessly, but I’m not quite sure how to fully put into words why it makes me feel that way (the last few paragraphs notwithstanding). But I hope to continually revisit it and think about it much more in the coming years and then explain it as best I can when the proper time comes along.

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar is Recommended If You Like: Zoolander, Hot Rod, AM Radio hits of the 70s

Grade: 4 out of 5 Seafood Jams

‘The Mauritanian’ Gives Guantánamo Bay Detainee Mohamedou Ould Salahi the Legal Thriller Treatment

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The Mauritanian (CREDIT: STX Films)

Starring: Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zachary Levi, Saamer Usmani

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Running Time: 129 Minutes

Rating: R, Mainly for a Scene of Intense Torture

Release Date: February 12, 2021

In the 2000s and early 2010s, films that grappled with 9/11 and its aftermath tended to be combat thrillers, reaching an apotheosis in terms of cultural impact with 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty. Now the focus has turned toward the War on Terror’s legal repercussions. 2019’s The Report took a deep dive into the massive amount of paperwork detailing the CIA’s use of post-9/11 torture, and now The Mauritanian comes along to narrow its attention on the particular case of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, who was detained at Guantánamo Bay withou charge for more than a decade. His story has been told before via the likes of 60 Minutes and Salahi’s own memoir, but even if you come in to this movie completely cold (as I more or less did), it’s immediately obvious that we are witnessing a miscarriage of justice.

There’s essentially zero doubt at any point in The Mauritanian about Salahi’s innocence. We’re not exactly told this outright, but we might as well be. With the guarded way that Tahar Rahim plays Salahi, there is a sense that he might be susceptible to being tricked into thinking that he has abetted terrorist activity. But these are merely survival tactics, as he mostly keeps his head down and says what is demanded of him when he absolutely has to so as to stay alive and sane enough to get by. The main source of the movie’s tension then is how much our patience is tested: just how long – in real time and movie time – will Salahi be detained? Because if you know anything about Guantánamo Bay, you know it’s probably going to take a while. Luckily, he has a couple of competent lawyers on his case in the form of Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) and Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley), and with Foster giving off Hall of Fame-level tenacity vibes, we can feel confident that there will be a happy ending eventually.

Salahi’s story is undoubtedly compelling, but in terms of how it works as cinema, it’s not an automatic slam dunk. It mostly avoids indulging in the shoutiest excesses of miscarriage-of-justice legal procedurals, but it perhaps swings too far in the opposite direction, opting for a low-key approach that’s content to mostly just hum along. Then there are the torture scenes, which is something I would happily never see re-created on screen ever again. That’s not to say that it’s always absolutely wrong to portray torture; the ethics of doing so are certainly debatable. But aesthetically, it tends to be jarring and unnecessary, very much so in this case. Still, despite my misgivings, I’m glad that movies like The Mauritanian exist. The value they offer by getting these stories out to a wide audience generally outweigh my trepidations.

The Mauritanian is Recommended If You Like: The due process of law, Un-redacting the redactions

Grade: 3 out of 5 Forced Confessions

‘The Map of Tiny Perfect Things’ is Here to Fulfill the Time Loop Movie Quota

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The Map of Tiny Perfect Things (CREDIT: Dan Anderson/Amazon Studios)

Starring: Kyle Allen, Kathryn Newton, Jermaine Harris, Josh Hamilton, Jorja Fox, Cleo Fraser, Anna Mikami, Al Madrigal

Director: Ian Samuels

Running Time: 99 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Random, Mostly Harmless Teenage Shenanigans

Release Date: February 12, 2021 (Amazon Prime Video)

Oh wow, another time loop movie already? Is Hollyweird required to release at least one of these per year? (Or does it just feel that way because it seems like all the days in the real world are just reruns?) This time around, the romantic story takes special prominence, as was also the case in the loopy likes of Groundhog Day, Palm Springs, and even Happy Death Day. As with Palm Springs, the main guy and gal in The Map of Tiny Perfect Things are both re-doing the same day, and it’s that commonality from whence their sparks fly (at least initially). And I mean, hey, why not! That’s a pretty significant similarity. If you’re living through a time loop, it’s hard to fully relate to anyone else unless they’re also living through that loop.

When we first meet Mark (Kyle Allen) and Margaret (Kathryn Newton), they appear to be at least dozens – if not hundreds (or thousands) – of loops deep. And quite frankly, they’re totally OVER it all. That’s not to say they’re in Despair Mode, but rather that they have a roll-with-the-punches attitude of teenagers privileged enough to not yet be crushed by the weight of adult responsibilities. In a typical time loop movie, breaking out of the loop requires (or is at least accompanied by) discovering how to be a better person. As for Mark and Margaret, sure, they learn some lessons, but that aspect feels more or less beside the point. Instead, they spend their time experiencing all the titular “tiny perfect things” (like the sunset or a cute lost dog reappearing) that occur in their town on this particular day, because what the heck else are they going to do with all this infinity?

Eventually, we do get an explanation about why this loop started and how it shall end, and your chances of finding it emotionally satisfying will probably depend on whether or not you’re a teenager or if you can at least tap into your inner teen. But before we get there, Tiny Perfect Things is more interested in the minutiae of making the most minute changes while repeating a process over and over. There’s a runner in which Mark explains everything that’s going on to his friend Henry (Jermaine Harris) while Henry plays video games. It’s in these moments when the movie is at its most comfortable, as it posits: what if life were like a video game in which you keep making it to the same point and try something different each time to survive or successfully complete a task? Depending on your inclination, the result would either be mind-numbing or endlessly fascinating (or perhaps both).

The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is Recommended If You Like: Twitch video game streaming, AB testing, Discovering postmodernism for the first time

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Lost Dogs

‘Minari’ Features One of the Greatest Cinematic Grandmother-Grandson Stories of All Time

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Minari (CREDIT: Josh Ethan Johnson/A24)

Starring: Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho, Youn Yuh-jung, Will Patton

Director: Lee Isaac Chung

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Some Hilariously Surprising Potty Humor

Release Date: February 12, 2021 (Theaters)/February 26, 2021 (On Demand)

Minari is the heartwarming tale of a boy and his kooky grandma, who at first don’t get along very well. She’s not your typical grandma, and he only wants her around if she’ll bake cookies and offer hugs freely. But alas, she has zero culinary skills and would much rather dish out zingers than physical affection. I suppose I should also mention the tension between the boys’ parents, but I’d really prefer to focus my review pretty much exclusively on the grandma stuff. The title “Minari” refers to a wort plant native to East Asia, but if I had been in charge of naming this movie, I would have christened it “Mountain Water,” which is what the soda-guzzling grandma calls her beloved Mountain Dew. And that’s very important information, because the most memorable scene involves a new way of, shall we say, “doing the Dew.”

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Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 2/5/21

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Malcolm & Marie (CREDIT: Netflix)

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
Bliss (February 5 on Amazon) – Owen Wilson and Salma Hayek are living in a simulation
A Glitch in the Matrix (Theaters and On Demand) – The latest documentary from Rodney Ascher is living in a simulation.
Malcolm & Marie (Streaming on Netflix) – As played by John David and Zendaya.

TV
The Snoopy Show (February 5 on Apple TV+)
-Puppy Bowl XVII (February 7 on Animal Planet)
-Super Bowl LV (February 7 on CBS)

Music
-John Carpenter, Lost Themes III: Alive After Death
-Foo Fighters, Medicine at Midnight
-Hayley Williams, FLOWERS for VASES / descansos

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