‘The Rental’ Has Rented Some Space in My Brain

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The Rental (CREDIT: IFC Films)

Starring: Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss

Director: Dave Franco

Running Time: 88 Minutes

Rating: R

Release Date: July 24, 2020 (On Demand and Select Theaters)

While watching The Rental (in which Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, and Jeremy Allen White play a couple of couples who rent a big ol’ house for a weekend getaway), I had a thought that I anticipate is going to stick around in my movie-watching approach for quite a while: at what point do I stop thinking of the cast members as the actors and start thinking of them as the characters they’re playing?

In this case, that question most saliently applies to Brie, whose career I’ve followed closely and who I’ve watched give countless interviews. As for the others, I’m not too familiar with Vand, I’ve only seen bits and pieces of White, and Stevens is always so twisted right off the bat that I don’t need to ask. So back to how I would answer that question in Ali Brie’s case, and it happens about forty minutes in, as she really starts to doubt the trustworthiness of  her husband (as played by Stevens), and I start to realize we’re not going to see her patented bubbliness anytime soon. (Not to mention she appears to be happily married in real life, and her husband even directed this movie!)

But then this question is much, much trickier as it applies to Toby Huss, who I tend to generally think of as a lovable, avuncular mentor-type. He plays the guy who coordinates the house rental, and there are implications that he might be racist or otherwise non-avuncular. But that could all be a misunderstanding! So, I’m left wondering, am I willing to give Toby the benefit of a doubt because he’s usually such a cool dude? Or does he actually deserve the benefit of the doubt? The freaky-deaky ending doesn’t give us enough time to sort that all out. How dare you make me doubt Toby Huss’ thoughtfulness, Dave Franco!

I give The Rental a Good Review on the High-End Pacific Coast Version of Yelp.

I Have My Doubts That Anyone Thought ‘The Secret: Dare to Dream’ Into Existence

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The Secret: Dare to Dream (CREDIT: Lionsgate)

Starring: Katie Holmes, Josh Lucas, Jerry O’Connell, Celia Weston, Sarah Hoffmeister, Aidan Brennan, Chloe Lee, Katrina Begin

Director: Andy Tennant

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: PG for Life in Debt

Release Date: July 31, 2020 (Premium Video on Demand)

If I follow the advice of Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 best-selling self-help book The Secret, then it shouldn’t be too difficult for me to write a great movie review. All I have to do is think about it and it will surely come to be if I want hard enough. But I’m not sure I want to write a great review about The Secret: Dare to Dream, the thoroughly blah adaptation of Byrne’s book. I’d much rather visualize myself watching any other movie and writing a review about that instead. What does The Secret have to say about how to power yourself through a less-than-inviting obligation? Based on Dare to Dream, I have no idea. But I can tell you for sure that this wasn’t the movie I visualized when I heard they were making another fictional narrative out of an advice book.

There’s one scene early in the film in which a pizza delivery arrives after everyone else imagines it. (It turns out that someone they know sent it as a surprise.) But other than that moment, I don’t see how this adaptation demonstrates the principle of its source material. That’s not necessarily a problem. Even if it fails in that regard, it can still be entertaining. But alas, it fails in that regard as well, as it is a rather mundane story about a down-on-their-luck family who experience a little bit of luck after a stranger (who maybe isn’t a stranger) suddenly arrives in their lives.

That family would be the widowed Miranda (Katie Holmes) and her three kids, who find themselves wondering what the deal is with wandering handyman Bray, who is played by Voice of Home Depot Josh Lucas. Bray carries with him some Very Important Documents that almost definitely have something to do with Miranda’s dead husband. He was planning on showing them to her as soon as they met, but he decides instead to hang around for a bit and fix up her house after a hurricane tears through it. He also stays because he just has a … feeling. You know, one of those “the universe is trying to tell me something” feelings. That contrivance lasts long enough for Miranda to realize that she isn’t in love enough with her boss (Jerry O’Connell) to marry him, even though he’s a swell guy who looks after her and the kids. Then when the truth comes out about why Bray is really there, Miranda feels betrayed, which I guess makes sense, but it also comes off as overwrought and perfunctory. Even more perfunctory is the moment when she sees the whole picture and decides to give Bray another chance.

To make a movie actually come into being, it really does require a lot of believing that it can actually happen. Considering that The Secret: Dare to Dream is based on that very principle, it’s a little sad to see that the result is so thoroughly right-down-the-middle.

The Secret: Dare to Dream is Recommended If You Like: Pretending you’re watching another movie so hard that it actually happens

Grade: 1.5 out of 5 Banalities

Documentary Review Time: The ACLU Keeps Bringing ‘The Fight’ to the Trump Administration

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Dale Ho in “The Fight” (CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures)

Starring: The ACLU

Directors: Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, and Eli Despres

Running Time: 96 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Legal Stress

Release Date: July 31, 2020 (Theaters and On Demand)

Documentary feature film productions typically shoot many more hours of footage than they could possibly include in the final product. With that in mind, organization is an incalculably important virtue during the editing process. I always greatly appreciate it when a (non-abstract) documentary concretely guides where my attention should go. Thus, The Fight is the beneficiary of my filmgoing gratitude, as it cleanly divides its narrative into four sections, each covering one lawsuit brought against the federal government with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union in the wake of the election of one Donald J. Trump. The cases and their primary issues are as follows: Garza v. Hargan, abortion rights; Stone v. Trump, transgender military ban; Department of Commerce v. New York, the census citizenship question; and Ms. L. v. ICE, separated families at the border.

In a country as famously litigious as the United States, it makes sense to expect that there would be plenty of legal challenges whenever a new administration takes office. That is exponentially true in the case of Trump, who promised to make any sense of political decorum a permanent thing of the past. As an organization dedicated to protecting legally guaranteed rights, the ACLU set itself in ready-position in 2017. But really, that was already their default status – this historical moment merely amplified that.

As is often the case in these multi-part documentary narratives, one character emerges as the most compelling among the rest. This time, it’s the constantly agitated but charming Dale Ho, who takes the lead in the census case. He finds himself uncomfortably thrust into the moment as he prepares to argue in front of the Supreme Court for the first time in his life. All of the lawyers we meet in The Fight focus on keeping their arguments soundly intellectual, but that cannot stop them from having intense physiological reactions to what they’re stepping into, and that’s especially true in Dale’s case.

The title of this film implies an eternal battle that has been going on before Trump’s election and that will likely continue after he leaves office. There are a few victories here and there, but it is made perfectly clear that they could very well be minor and short-lived in the grand scheme of things. If The Fight has one underlying message that synthesizes everything else it has to say, it is that we must be continuously prepared for these battles. The title could have been “The Struggle,” which is my go-to word for something that requires persistence. But instead we have something that’s just as eternal, but more pugilistic. That feels like the right call. These cases are wading through forces that affect and disrupt wide swaths of society. It’s rough out there, and it’s important to be reminded of that.

The Fight is Recommended If You Like: Recent Left-Leaning Political Documentaries

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Lawsuits

‘Amulet’ Joins the Long Line of Creepy Cinematic Abodes

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Amulet (CREDIT: Rob Baker Ashton/Magnet Releasing)

Starring: Carla Juri, Alec Secareanu, Imelda Staunton, Angeliki Papoulia, Anah Ruddin

Director: Romola Garai

Running Time: 99 Minutes

Rating: R for Freaky and Disturbing Images

Release Date: July 24, 2020 (Theaters and On Demand)

It’s nice when people open their houses up to someone who doesn’t have anywhere else to stay. But it’s not so nice when there’s something demonic lurking within that house. Not to mention all the structural problems that often go hand-in-hand with supernatural occupancy. Maybe the guest can summon some exorcism skills, but when the pipes are leaking and the walls are cracking, it can be tough to get in a good night’s sleep. This is the predicament that the homeless Tomaz (Alec Secareanu) finds himself in in Amulet, Romola Garai’s feature directorial debut. He’s given an offer he’s not in much of a place to refuse: to stay at the home of Magda (Carla Juri), a young woman who seems entirely cut off from the rest of the world as she cares for her dying mother.

As Amulet starts up, it strikes me as a slow-burn horror in the vein of It Comes at Night, where it’s not clear that we’ll ever fully see what’s causing all the commotion. I also detect notes of The Innkeepers, in terms of a general feeling of spookiness instead of any fully present monsters. If anything, it seems for a while that the scariest figure could be a stern nun played by Imelda Staunton. (And by Imelda Staunton standards, she’s actually fairly nice.)

But then a bat shows up in a toilet. I thought it was a pig at first. But no, it’s very much a bloodsucking mammal, and it’s in a foul mood. And that description would also accurately describe Magda’s mom and the whole house itself (not so much the mammal part for the latter). In the final act, Amulet ruthlessly turns macabre and baroque right quick. It’s a little overwhelming and presumably would have been even more so if I had seen it in a theater instead of at my home. Thie go-for-broke set design would almost certainly be more enveloping on a bigger screen, but its boldness is at least still impressive no matter what the scale. And that’s important, because that is pretty much where Amulet pulls all of its eggs in the basket when everything is said and done.

Amulet is Recommended If You Like: Vampire bats

Grade: 3 out of 5 Home Repairs

‘Radioactive’ is a Curie-ous Biopic

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Radioactive (CREDIT: Amazon Studios)

Starring: Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Anya Taylor-Joy, Aneurin Barnard

Director: Marjane Satrapi

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Little Love and Some Death

Release Date: July 24, 2020 (Amazon Prime Video)

Is there anyone who has been more iconic in the annals of both science and romance as Marie Curie? Her research has had far-reaching effects on human society, she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (and the first person of any gender to win a second Nobel), and she was married to a fellow scientist who by all accounts greatly respected and encouraged her work. Considering all that, a biopic about her ought to be pretty wondrous, and that does seem to be what the Marjane Satrapi-directed Radioactive is after. As Marie, Rosamund Pike delivers an appropriately ethereal and almost supernatural performance. But like many true life cinematic stories that cover a wide range of time, the film struggles to focus on its strongest elements.

The Curie love story is sweet as Marie and Pierre (Sam Riley) find their way to each other via their own peculiarities. Their courtship is marked by lines like, “How do I look at you? Like a fermenting brain?” She initially holds him at arm’s length, worried that he will expect her to be the sort of wife who gives up her own pursuits for the sake of marriage. Of course, dramatic irony and the historical record assures us that isn’t the case, and it is lovely to see how the mutual respect of these two played such a big part in influencing the future of the whole planet.

Alas, the Curies’ marriage lasted barely more than a decade, as Pierre died in an accident at the age of 46. That leaves a pretty good chunk of movie left, during which Marie and Pierre’s elder daughter Irene (Anya Taylor-Joy), yet another scientist in the family, ascends to fill the role of her mother’s on-screen partner. During this back half, we get plenty of foreshadowing of the deadly fate that awaits Marie due to her years of exposure to radiation. Satrapi and screenwriter Jack Thorne could have played up this element a bit more to achieve more of a horror bent. It probably wasn’t what they were aiming for, but it would’ve made the film more distinct.

Beyond all that, the most effective element of Radioactive is the handful of flash-forwards we get to demonstrate the influence of Marie’s work: a doctor employing an experimental treatment on a young boy with cancer, the bombing of Hiroshima, a nuclear test explosion in Nevada, and a visit to the Chernobyl disaster. I wish there had been more of these moments, as they’re where the message really hits home the hardest. If the movie were structured more thoroughly around them, it could have made for a fully affecting film instead of an intermittently affecting one.

Radioactive is Recommended If You Like: Science, Feminism, Colleague Spouses

Grade: 3 out of 5 Radiums

In ‘The Old Guard,’ Immortality is a Burden and a Blessing

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THE OLD GUARD – Charlize Theron as ÓAndy” (CREDIT: Aimee Spinks/Netflix)

Starring: Charlize Theron, Kiki Layne, Matthias Schoenarts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling, Van Veronica Ngo, Anamaria Marinca

Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood

Running Time: 125 Minutes

Rating: R

Release Date: July 10, 2020 (Netflix)

I’m trying something out with some of my recent movie reviews in which I ask myself, “Does this movie make me want to do what the movie is about?” So therefore I ask of you, The Old Guard, “Do you make me to be immortal?” To which I answer, “No, you do not.” But in the interest of fairness, I must acknowledge that Charlize Theron and her crew aren’t quite immortal, so really I should be asking, “Do I want to live for thousands of years and then become suddenly, unpredictably vulnerable to death?” To which I would then respond, “Not particularly.” But I don’t really suppose that The Old Guard is advocating for immortality or near-immortality. If anything, it wants us to ask ourselves, “Will I take advantage of my gifts to transcend myself and make the world a better place?” And my answer in that case is, “Of course!” It takes a while to get that point, though.

I give The Old Guard 3 Bullet Wounds out of 5 Millennia.

This Is a ‘Palm Springs’ Review… This Is a ‘Palm Springs’ Review… This Is a ‘Palm Springs’ Review…

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Palm Springs (CREDIT: NEON/Hulu)

Starring: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendes, Tyler Hoechlin, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Dale Dickey

Director: Max Barbakow

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: R

Release Date: July 10, 2020 (Hulu and Drive-In Theaters)

Time loop movies are surprisingly robust. You might think Groundhog Day has perfected the formula, but then all these newbies arrive in its wake, and they’re all, at the very least, not half bad. Case in point: the pretty dang good Palm Springs, which finds Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti stuck at a wedding. So I have decided to review Palm Springs by comparing it to all the other Groundhog Day-style time loop movies I’ve seen:

Palm Springs isn’t as transcendent as Groundhog Day, but it has a deeper conversation with eternity.
Palm Springs doesn’t have the sinister undertones of Source Code, although there is a random appearance from a certain extinct species that makes me think that maybe you could theorize about something like that lurking beneath the surface.
Palm Springs is more rooted in theoretical science than sci-fi when compared to Edge of Tomorrow, though it doesn’t flaunt it.
Palm Springs is a whole heck of a lot more fun than Before I Fall.
Palm Springs doesn’t have as much time for death montages as Happy Death Day. But both of them have plenty of time for fun and are thus the most kindred of spirits within this subgenre. The former takes place at a wedding and the latter at a college, and college friends are often invited to weddings, after all.
Palm Springs is not a sequel, unlike Happy Death Day 2 U. Perhaps one day Palm Springs will get a sequel, though I doubt it. But if it ever does, I’ll watch it.

I give Palm Springs 4 out of 4 out of 4 out of 4 out of 4 out of 4 Dinosaurs

Original Streaming Movie Catch-Up: Some Positive Thoughts About ‘Cam’

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Cam (CREDIT: Netflix)

Starring: Madeline Brewer, Patch Darragh, Melora Walters, Devin Druid, Imani Hakim

Director: Daniel Goldhaber

Running Time: 95 Minutes

Release Date: November 16, 2018 (Netflix)

Cam is a very sex-positive movie.

That might sound like an obvious thing to say. ESPECIALLY if you’re familiar with the synopsis. Madeline Brewer (the star of the film) plays Alice, who works as a webcam model. That is to say, she puts on live shows on the Internet of herself performing in a sexual manner. But then her feed is commandeered by someone (or something) that looks exactly like her, and she has to do her darndest to recover it.

There’s no tsk-tsking about Alice’s chosen profession, even during moments when you think there might be. Sure, there are a few bozos who overstep boundaries, but that’s more than counteracted plenty of support. For example, when the truth about Alice is revealed to her mom, you’re primed for her reaction to be, “You have brought great shame to this family.” But instead, she recognizes an increased confidence in her daughter as she slips into her online persona and basically says to her, “I’m so proud of you.” There’s actually a bit of miscommunication in that moment, but it’s nevertheless nice to have that boost when you’re in the fight of your life against a ghost (or whatever the doppelgänger is).

Human beings are sexual creatures. Supernatural entities that steal our identities can’t stop that. But it sure is scary when they try to.

I give Cam 400 Tokens.

‘John Lewis: Good Trouble’ Has a Compelling Subject, But It Needs to Go Deeper

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John Lewis: Good Trouble (CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures)

Starring: Congressman John Lewis

Director: Dawn Porter

Running Time: 96 Minutes

Rating: PG for Reminders of Real-Life Prejudice

Release Date: July 3, 2020 (Theaters and On Demand)

If you want to demonstrate how the American civil rights movement that reached its apotheosis in the 1960s continues to this day, you could do much worse than making a documentary about John Lewis. This man marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, and he’s gone on to represent Georgia in Congress for over 30 years. Over the course of his life, he’s been present for important change that has already happened, and he continues to fight for important change that still needs to happen. Just showing footage of where he’s been and where he’s headed ought to be galvanizing, especially in a time of a great national reckoning with race. But John Lewis: Good Trouble never fully captures the fighting spirit of its subject.

The trouble with Good Trouble, particularly for any viewers who are generally tuned into the trends of cinema and current events, is that the topics it touches upon are covered more thoroughly in other recent documentaries. If you want a historical outline of what has led to so much of America’s racial prejudice, check out Ava DuVernary’s 13th. Or if  you want to be on top of voter suppression, Slay the Dragon is essential viewing. Good Trouble, on the other hand, works mostly as a reminder that these problems exist. It’s nice to know that Lewis is still around in these battles, kicking up the sort of stir that the title refers to, but the inspiration can go only so far if you already knew that about him.

There is one interesting episode that covers the 1986 Congressional election. In the Democratic primary, Lewis squared off against Julian Bond, a close friend and fellow African-American activist. It was a bitterly fought contest in which Lewis implied that Bond used cocaine and emerged victorious thanks to his strong performance among white voters. The strain among these two clear allies must have been significant and surely dramatic enough to devote more than the few minutes that Good Trouble allows it. The fact that the film so quickly switches back to focusing on Lewis’ accomplishments doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s meant to cover up any faults so much as it comes off as cinematic carelessness. Even the most righteous among us have complicated stories; Good Trouble struggles to make that clear.

John Lewis: Good Trouble is Recommended If You Like: Biographical inspiration, but don’t mind some repetition

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Marches

Dear ‘Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga’: I Feel the Joy!

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EUROVISION SONG CONTEST: The Story of Fire Saga (CREDIT: John Wilson/Netflix)

Starring: Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams, Pierce Brosnan, Dan Stevens, Melissanthi Mahut, Demi Lovato, Graham Norton

Director: David Dobkin

Running Time: 203 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for “Full Nude Sculptures”

Release Date: June 26, 2020 (Netflix)

I have decided to judge the success (or lack thereof) of Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga by whether or not it made me want to watch the actual Eurovision competition.

So, did Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga make me want to watch the actual Eurovision competition?

Yes! Very much so!

And that’s significant because previously my interest was in the “Hmm, maybe” vicinity. So that’s got to be an increase of about 50 percent.

I get the sense that a lot of the real-life Eurovision entrants are like Will Ferrell characters, particularly the sincere variety that includes the Icelandic dreamer Lars Erickssong. Or at least I hope that’s the case! Every time I’ve ever heard people talk about Eurovision, they make it sound like the singers are genuine heart-fueled dreamers. So while watching The Story of Fire Saga, I realized, “Oh right, of course, the appeal is obvious.”

Contests like Eurovision can also be counted upon to reveal up-and-coming talented individuals who make you go, “Why am I only now just hearing about you?” That happened for me in Eurovision the movie in the form of Melissanthi Mahut, who plays Greek hopeful Mita. I predict and pray for big things for her in the coming years.

I give Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga 3 Knives out of 4 Elves.

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