The final week of February is not short on variety. This set of write-ups includes a Billie Holiday biopic, the chronicling of a veteran who turns to crime, an ambitious and visually astounding prison film, a Jewish horror movie, an intriguing ‘courtroom’ comedy-drama, and a musically-themed indie flick. The following features reviews for The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Cherry, Night of the Kings, The Vigil, Stealing School, and The Independents.
The Setup: This story follows acclaimed jazz singer Billie Holiday (Andra Day) during her career as she is targeted by the Federal Department of Narcotics with an undercover sting operation led by black Federal Agent Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), with whom she had a tumultuous affair.
Review: This is one of those biopics where it’s clear the central performance is much better than the story being told around it. What is essentially Andra Day’s breakout film is a misfire due to the familiar issues that continue to plague films directed by Lee Daniels. With that in mind, it is clear Day is putting in all the effort necessary to convey the struggles of Billie Holiday both professionally and personally, given Holiday’s past and present involving many unsavory characters, the bullying powers of the U.S. government, and a few vices that continued to hold her back.
While thankfully not a full-on recap of Holiday’s life, the film doesn’t seem to have a strong understanding of how to rest the focus where it should be. Much of the story is aimed at Holiday’s controversial song, “Strange Fruit,” yet there’s never too much digging done in exploring the meaning of it. Instead, we get a lot of talk around it, including the cartoonishly bad characterization of Garrett Hedlund’s Harry J. Anslinger, the Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who tasks Rhodes’ character to go after Holiday, leading to sequences where Holiday is challenged on whether or not she can perform.
In concept, the idea of standing one’s ground is compelling to portray. Still, Daniels has a knack for throwing in everything at once with mixed results, and that now includes multiple ways of filming scenes to recreate events and provide the idea of archival footage. Even with all that effort, though, the attempt is not matched up to by the screenplay. Rather than sketch out this troublesome time period in Holiday’s life to deliver some sort of arc, the film instead feels rather redundant in the kind of trouble she finds herself in, whether it’s with drugs, the cops, or her lovers.
Yes, recreating moments from history (however dramatized) only allows for so much variety in events, but while the film has individual elements that work, there are too many that don’t and do not help the film add up to a wholly worthwhile experience. Still, some will at least learn a little about what Holliday stood for, which is worth something.
Where To Watch: Available on Hulu on February 26, 2021.
The Setup: An Army medic (Tom Holland) suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder becomes a serial bank robber after an addiction to drugs puts him and his girlfriend (Ciara Bravo) in debt.
Review: Speaking of misguided efforts, while it’s admirable to see Anthony and Joe Russo follow-up their work on some of the biggest films of all time with something much smaller and grittier, it has amounted to a total mess of a movie. The Russo’s may have had a great time getting to know Holland during the Avengers films, but they do little for him here, beyond giving him a chance to be in a grown-up movie, where he can fight, swear, take drugs, and other things for the sake of putting a spotlight on the opioid crisis.
That’s the problem though. I feel like the Russo’s would believe they really showed the tragedy of how veterans suffering from PTSD end up suffering from drug addiction. Sure, it’s a serious issue, and the good intentions of a film wanting to draw attention to this subject are welcome, but that’s not what I took away from Cherry. I was more reminded of something like Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, except that film was about Bay wanting to capitalize on his love for Coen Brother-like entertainment made in his style. Cherry feels like a film that wants to have its share of fun but also plays as a maximalist awards hopeful. I’m not falling for it.
From a technical standpoint, the film assaults the viewer with all the choices and freedom cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel applied, including harsh contrasts, offbeat camera placement, a wide array of color usage, and more. One can’t say the film never looks interesting, and for 140 minutes, that’s certainly necessary, as it can be draining to take in so much of Cherry’s story.
It does have some highlights. Holland and Bravo work well together. While Holland will be the performer getting the most attention, his counterpart makes the most out of what she’s given to deliver the more emotional performance. That’s an important note, given the film’s third act push into heist movie territory, which never feels all that satisfying. For a movie that wants to serve as a character-focused epic, the blockbuster sensibilities do little to help bring this story together in a meaningful way.
Where To Watch: Available in select theaters on February 26, 2021, and globally on Apple TV+ on Friday, March 12, 2021.
The Setup: A young man (Bakary Kone) is sent to La Maca, a prison of the Ivory Coast in the middle of the forest ruled by its prisoners. With the red moon rising, he is designated by the Boss (Steve Tientcheu) to be the new Roman and must tell a story to the other prisoners.
Review: The one thing you won’t miss when being told about Night of the Kings is its dedication to the power of storytelling. It’s a worthy element to make note of, as the film relies heavily on the main character not only serving as an orator but seeing how director Philippe Lacote breaths life into the film through the mix of flashbacks, magical realism, poetry, and interpretive dance as these stories are being told. That should be enough to have anyone venture into the world of this international feature.
As the Ivorian entry for the Oscars, it’s not just this story that’s worth experiencing, but all the aspects of filmmaking. The casting, for example, is a major asset to the film in the way we have defined characters, despite our limited time spent with them. Credit to the ensemble is as justified as it is when it comes to big casts of Hollywood names. The cinematography and editing are easily worth pointing out, as the film brings the viewer down to these prisoners’ level and makes the Roman’s plight quite tense in the midst of his situation.
These may just be some of the elements that speak to the successful nature of the film as a whole, but it’s just one of many ways to dig into the success of this film as a confident piece of work from a filmmaker approaching the material with a fresh understanding of how to let it unfold. More films could benefit from embracing folklore and older ways of informing an audience. As much as combined technologies may serve as interesting breakthroughs visually, one can only wonder what can be accomplished when actually trying to find ambitious ways to dive into narrative.
Night of the Kings may not be seen as a revolutionary effort, but it plants enough seeds to suggest more is still possible. Given the striking nature of what is on display here, at the very least, Lacote has a nice journey ahead of him.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters on February 26, 2021, and on PVOD on March 5, 2021.
The Setup: A man (Dave Davis) providing overnight watch to a deceased member of his former Orthodox Jewish community finds himself opposite a malevolent entity.
Review: I wrote about Saint Maud a few weeks ago and remarked upon how effective I found its use of religion to inform its nature as a horror movie. I particularly focused on how the film wasn’t so much about the specific religion but more the intense nature of faith. The Vigil feels like a movie working in the middle, as it’s reliant on the Jewish faith (something quite refreshing to see) as a means for proper context, but revolves around a man who is the least seasoned in his faith, compared to the others we meet.
None of this takes away from the compelling nature of the feature, which effectively crafts scares around its well-crafted atmosphere and use of Jewish history as a backdrop. Yes, there are some liberal uses of loud noises to get a jolt out of the audience, but there are plenty of elements developed with the intent of lingering over the viewer well after the film has ended. That can mean a lot when it comes to films that are relatively straightforward in delivering their narrative.
With that in mind, there is a sense of specificity that allows this feature to create a specific identity for itself while still reveling in being a mix of a haunted house story and one involving a religious demon. Davis is up to the challenge, as he plays his “caught off guard” nature about as well as he needs to, with some decent enough support from the limited cast, including Menashe Lustig from A24’s Menashe (good for him!).
As far as films focused on evil spirits dealing with Orthodox Jews, enough is going on in The Vigil to keep a viewer intrigued and tense. The spooky nature of this low-lit film does plenty to sustain a mood and prepare anyone for some good bumps in the night, and that’s plenty sufficient.
Where To Watch: Available in select theaters, digital, and VOD on February 26, 2021.
The Setup: A week before her college graduation, April Chen (Celine Tsai), a Chinese-Canadian tech prodigy, is accused of plagiarism by an unrelenting teaching assistant (Jonathan Keltz) and must fight to prove her innocence in a secret trial held before an academic tribunal.
Review: Looking at the times we are in and know there are plenty of films in production incorporating themes of the day, it’s interesting to consider the movies that came from a certain time with ideas regarding various social concerns. The difference now is not the ideas, as they largely stay the same, but the voices who are telling these stories. With that in mind, Li Dong’s feature directorial debut is a terrific exploration of several compelling arguments.
What helps is the compact nature of the story being told and the incorporation of humor. In just under 75 minutes, Stealing School provokes viewers to have a conversation concerning education, race, gender imbalances, privilege, and more. It’s all the more impressive that it comes out of what is essentially a mock trial taking place largely in one room. Thanks to a set of committed performances from the film’s limited cast, enough is going on to properly establish the key players while appropriately mixing up the dynamic thanks to a series of reveals seen throughout.
Tsai and Keltz are especially effective here, with Tsai matching confidence with frustration, among other qualities, in ways that tell a full story about a smart woman trying to get out of a situation pushed onto her by controlling men. Meanwhile, Keltz leans into his antagonistic role with the kind of assurance you want from an actor that needs to cast a certain kind of vanity aside to let the emotions of that character land with a punch. And, again, this movie is aided by the level of humor afforded to it.
The writing is key in landing numerous moments with either a proper punchline or a chance to consider different angles. While the film clearly frames who the viewer is supposed to be rooting for, it is great seeing the skillful ways in which deeper topics can be explored. Answers are given, for the most part, but the build-up to certain reveals manage to play on what a viewer is bringing in with them, while Dong does just enough to subvert some, but not all expectations. It’s a good watch.
Where To Watch: Available on VOD on February 26, 2021.
The Setup: Three struggling singer-songwriters (Rich Price, Greg Naughton, and Brian Chartrand) have a chance-meeting that rekindles each of their fading dreams of making it in the music business.
Review: Taking its time to tour various festivals since premiering back in 2018 sounds pretty fitting for The Independents. This is a low-key indie comedy-drama focused on music that doesn’t ask a lot from the viewer. It’s better that way. For all the familiarity that comes with this story of a few average-ish guys that form a band and work at changing their lives, there’s something quite honest about it all, which blends well with the movie’s hangout vibe.
That comes from the three guys all actually being in a band together (The Sweet Remains), with this film serving as a dramatized origin story. I find that to be a fun approach and can only imagine whether writer/director Greg Naughton had to convince his buddies to go in on this idea with him, or they were roaring to go as far as creating a mythic (aka decidedly human) portrayal of how they got together. Whatever the case, there’s an enjoyable simplicity here given the low-budget, but it doesn’t risk taking things too far either.
The film has an enjoyable attitude that does well to overcome some of its weaker areas (not all the band members are the best actors). Plus, there’s the music. The idea behind the band involves a three-part harmony, a throwback of sorts, and easily fits the film as far as giving it a proper tone. That especially helps when the film wants to lean into some of its humor, ranging from dry to quite broad. Plus, Richard Kind shows up for a couple of scenes and is just wonderfully alive.
As a dramatic feature, I wish the various arcs of these guys hit a bit harder. While the stakes are fairly low, the issues holding them back are only explored so much (Greg’s romantic life is almost entirely kept off-screen, despite being a major factor). Even the pending nature of the guys’ success feels abbreviated, given some little things, such as the title of this film, the name of the band throughout most of the film, and the eventual band name all being different. Still, The Independents has a nice vibe to work with, thanks to the guys’ chemistry and the winning nature of this down-on-their-luck story.
Where To Watch: Available in virtual cinemas starting February 26, 2021.