In-House Reviews #107: Problemista, Perfect Days, Ordinary Angels & More!

Aaron Neuwirth has reviews for Problemista, Perfect Days, Ordinary Angels, Lovely, Dark, and Deep, Four Daughters, and the 2024 Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts.

The spice flows as Dune is upon us, but head through this tiny opening to see what else is out there. This set of write-ups includes a surrealist comedy, a minimalist Japan-set drama, a faith-based true story, a psychological horror film, a Tunisian documentary, and a look at some depressing short films. The following features reviews for Problemista, Perfect Days, Ordinary Angels, Lovely, Dark, and Deep, Four Daughters, and the 2024 Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts.

Problemista: 8 out of 10

The Setup: Alejandro (Julio Torres) is an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador, struggling to bring his unusual ideas to life in New York City. As time on his work visa runs out, a job assisting an erratic art-world outcast (Tilda Swinton) becomes his only hope to stay in the country and realize his dream.

Review: This film was an absolute delight. Delayed several months due to the strike, I’ve been sitting on sharing the joy that this film delivers thanks to a clever, funny, and oddly sweet script from writer/director Julio Torres. With a variety of inspirations that range from Michel Gondry to Wes Anderson, and featuring a satirized look at his own immigration experience, this is a film happily wrapped up in multiple plotlines but ultimately boils down to how an aspiring mind forms an authentic friendship with an eccentric mess of an individual. Torres, a former SNL writer and co-creator of the brilliant but short-lived HBO series Los Espookys, is in fine form here, adopting a creative, naïve, and effectively earnest persona. A solid supporting cast (RZA, Isabella Rossellini, Greta Lee, and others) helps round out this world. Still, no one is more impactful than Swinton’s art-obsessed, high-maintenance Elizabeth. It’s a wild and frequently hilarious performance that feels like the result of being an Oscar winner with additional cred from participating in the MCU that allows her to take on these random projects and crush.

Between the two stars, there are plenty of absurdist shenanigans we watch take place (much of the film revolves around securing a safe place for Elizabeth’s voluntarily cryogenically frozen artist husband). Still, the way compassion develops on Torres’ end really adds to what the film is ultimately aiming to accomplish. Yes, the ways this film displays the convoluted world of work visas and immigration status are countered well with Alejandro’s wild dreams and ideas for toys, but as a movie about friendship, there’s even more to enjoy getting wrapped up in.

Where To Watch: In select theaters starting March 1, 2024. Expands wide on March 22.

Perfect Days: 8 out of 10

The Setup: Hirayama (Koji Yakusho) feels content with his life as a toilet cleaner in Tokyo. Outside of his structured routine, he cherishes music on cassette tapes, reads books, and takes photos. Through unexpected encounters, he reflects on finding beauty in the world.

Review: I was curious if Japan made the right choice by picking neither Godzilla Minus One nor The Boy and the Heron to submit as their Best International Feature selection but, instead, a movie by German director Wim Wenders. Fortunately, regardless of how much I appreciate those features, Perfect Days is an excellent film that traffics in minimalist filmmaking, an incredibly introspective yet effective lead performance (one of the bests of the year), and a heavy focus on displaying process, which I’m always a fan of. Rather than elaborate on things by way of forced exposition or plot contrivances, this is very much a deliberately paced film chronicling a simple life that is occasionally given some additional paths to travel down. The depiction of Tokyo from a very grounded perspective really adds to how we understand Hirayama, let alone what city life is generally like. Added touches showing his appreciation of the world around him do plenty to enhance the narrative as well. Taking in the film and its fantastic throwback soundtrack is a pleasant experience in and of itself, but Wenders also knows he’s planting ideas that will take hold of the viewer later, the more they think back to what this was all for. That makes for a great day, indeed.

Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters.

Ordinary Angels: 6 out of 10

The Setup: Set in 1994 in Louisville, Kentucky, a struggling hairdresser (Hilary Swank) finds renewed purpose when she meets a widowed father (Alan Ritchson) working hard to care for his two daughters. With his youngest critically ill and waiting for a liver transplant, the fierce woman single-handedly rallies an entire community to help.

Review: Sometimes, knowing every beat a tear-jerking drama intends to play is not bad. At a time when it’s rare to see straight-up dramas that are not angling to be nominated for awards at the end of the year, seeing a faith-based film that puts a good amount of focus on character and story can really pay off. Between the script by Kelly Fremon Craig and Meg Tilly and the lead performances, it’s nice to see director Jon Gunn pull off a film like this that doesn’t shy away from its religious side but knows how to balance the important elements that make for effective cinema. As stated, Swank, who is very good at taking on a big character but not feeling as though they constantly suck the oxygen out of the room for everyone else, delivers what’s needed. Even better, or at least in relation to what he’s known for (and not being a two-time Oscar winner), Reacher’s Alan Ritchson gives a wonderful sad-dad performance as a man being pushed to his limits, begrudgingly accepting help, and letting emotion swallow him up in the right kind of ways that keeps him well-suited as an actor with the continuing potential to show off more of what he can do. For a movie that offers up all kinds of drama, including deaths, snowstorms, race against time plots, and more, it really is the solid acting and not-too-showy direction that make this ordinary movie work as well as it does.

Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters.

Lovely, Dark and Deep: 6 out of 10

The Setup: A new back-country ranger (Georgina Campbell, Barbarian) travels alone through the dangerous wilderness, hoping to uncover the origins of a tragedy that has haunted her since she was a child.

Review: The tricky thing with a film like this is accepting a premise you know is trying to mislead you or mess with your head. As a psychological horror flick where much of the story revolves around possible trauma and the notion that things are out of place for a reason, it means the horror can only be so effective. At least that’s how I feel about it, as I’m down for being in on a film with a sense of style and good enough work from the actors. However, feeling so clued into what’s happening means it lessens the impact of whatever reveal may occur. So, if I’m waiting for Campbell’s Ranger Lennon to figure out what it means, I can’t say I’m not getting antsy in the process. With that in mind, writer/director Teresa Sutherland deploys some nifty visuals that play with darkness and the outdoor setting effectively enough. I don’t think the story has much more going on than needed, which aids this 87-minute feature as well. That makes for a dark enough film that’s not all that deep, but it’s okay.

Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters and available on VOD.

Four Daughters: 8 out of 10

The Setup: The story of Olfa Hamrouni and her four daughters, unpacking a complex family history through intimate interviews and performance to examine how the Tunisian woman’s two eldest were radicalized by Islamic extremists. This documentary restages pivotal moments in the family’s life by casting professional actresses as the missing daughters, along with acclaimed Egyptian-Tunisian actress Hend Sabri as Olfa. These scenes are interwoven with confessions and reflections from Olfa and her younger daughters.

Review: I was delighted to catch up with this documentary (currently up for an Academy Award), as it presents a challenging story both in presentation and story. The notion of dramatizing events is not new for docs, but the unique circumstances involving this family certainly make it all the more intriguing. The fact that we are witnessing real-life horror taking place, whether it comes from within the family to some degree or, more clearly, from the outside forces based around their nationality, means this film benefits from having more viewers paying attention. Director Kaouther Ben Hania has made a few films that challenge what to expect in a cinematic presentation at this point. The ambition found here certainly makes for a compelling experience filled with rich details concerning resilient yet tortured individuals.

Where To Watch: Now available on VOD and to stream free on Kanopy.

2024 Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts

The Setup: This batch of nominees includes a Holocaust story, a portrait of a man on death row recapping his life, a story about an Iranian girl’s school uniform, a focus on a girl who stays with her grandparents and the summer where something goes wrong, and a war story that’s resolved through the power of carrier pigeons.

Review: While I would typically try to write an entire post on the animated shorts (as well as the live-action ones), I simply don’t have the time to dive deeper. There’s also my other issue – I’m not very impressed with this year’s batch of animated shorts. Yes, there are some impressive entries based on the animation techniques (Our Uniform has a creative way of involving a real-world object within a stop-motion effort), but that can only go so far when the entire feel of this grouping is so dreary. Messaging aside, this pretty sullen selection makes me pine for the days when happier, more colorful entries would make up most of what’s presented.

Fittingly, the theatrical presentation included a non-nominated entry, I’m Hip, from Disney director mainstay John Musker, that satisfied me more than anything else I had just seen. Meanwhile, War Is Over! made me throw up my hands, given its ultimately saccharine tale punctuated by the music of John Lennon in a manner that made me cringe. Given how little representation short films usually get, I’m happy to support them however possible. Still, this set really hurt my expectations, so hopefully, the other shorts have more for me to latch onto.

Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters.

***

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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