There’s little to compete for attention at the movies this week, given the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. However, if you’re not just focused on the Oscar nominations, some other new releases are out there. This set of write-ups includes a British espionage tale, a film covering the unsolved death of The Notorious B.I.G., a dark comedy focused on couples, a YA adventure featuring Spider-Man and Rey Nobody Skywalker, and a Goonies tribute by way of Hawaiian culture. The following features reviews for The Courier, City of Lies, Happily, Chaos Walking, and Finding ‘Ohana.
The Setup: Based on the true story of the British businessman, Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), who helped MI6 penetrate the Soviet nuclear program during the Cold War. Wynne and his Russian source, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), provided crucial intelligence that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Review: Sitting somewhere below Bridge of Spies and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Courier is a fine Cold War drama that trades in a deeper look at the politics of the time in favor of Cumberbatch’s character and the personal adventures and struggles he must contend with. Always a strong presence on-screen (one unfortunate accent aside), regardless of the film, I find Cumberbatch fully capable of pulling off a lot, and it is a good feeling to say this film is one of his best efforts.
While The Courier may not have the finesse of a John le Carré adaptation, it still manages to deliver on some old-school spy tactics to present tension through tricky dialogue exchanges and knowing looks. Based on a true story, there are a certain set of limits for how far to take things, but an extended prison sentence feels far more earned thanks to a proper establishment of the stakes. A solid supporting cast that includes Rachel Brosnahan and Jessie Buckley brings more credibility as well, though it is Ninidze who shines as the Russian spy taking on the most weight, emotionally.
Given the businessman nature of Cumberbatch, the film similarly relies on a more anonymous style. Director Dominic Cooke holds off from adding too many stylistic flourishes to better capture the time. Perhaps that holds this film back from ascending to a higher level. However, as the level of danger increases, the film is never less compelling. That’s enough for a spy drama that can elevate itself out of the realm of a Wikipedia summary.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters on March 19, 2021.
The Setup: Almost two decades after the initial investigation, a journalist (Forest Whitaker) teams up with LAPD detective Russell Poole (Johnny Depp) to once again work on the unsolved murders of rappers Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G.
Review: What easily stuck out to me regarding this long-delayed cop drama was that it’s actually pretty good. While there have been reports involving an altercation between Depp and a location manager resulting in a lawsuit that had an effect on the film’s release, now having seen the film and reading of other reports, it’s clear the elements exposing aspects of corruption within the LAPD are clearly what held this film back.
Regardless, yes, there’s actually a lot to like here. For one, Depp has traded in his costumes in favor of more serious and introspective efforts in recent years, which, from an acting perspective, has unfortunately been countered with his ongoing real-life troubles. His work here is low-key and effective. Whitaker is as good as one expects, playing into the role of a concerned reporter wanting to get the truth.
There’s an inherent issue in a story like this, due to it being based on real events, not having an actual ending. That said, while I wish director Brad Furman and writer Christian Contreras did more to either dig into the importance of the East Coast/West Coast feud or take on the importance of just how many unsolved murders of black people occur, compared to others, the story is still compelling enough. Moving back and forth in time, we see how a man got broken down for trying to do his job. It’s good work for a near-disavowed film.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters on March 19, 2021, and on digital and VOD April 9, 2021.
The Setup: Tom (Joel McHale) and Janet (Kerry Bishé) have been happily married for years, but a visit from a mysterious stranger (Stephen Root) leads to a dead body, a lot of questions, and a tense couples’ trip with friends who may not actually be friends at all.
Review: I don’t know what to call it, but lately, there’s an interesting style of comedy that seems to revolve around delivering dialogue as dryly as possible. Yorgos Lanthimos has been doing it with films like The Lobster. It played a fun part in The Art of Self Defense. Now we have Happily, which has too specific a sense of humor to go unnoticed in execution. The film itself is good enough. I like what writer/director BenDavid Grabinski was going for, even if the final results made me feel like I needed more.
As it stands, the setup involving a married couple that has never stopped being completely into each other to the extent that their friends hate them is quite funny. Add to that a macabre sense of humor involving a dead body, and you have the makings of something quite clever. However, even with an ensemble cast that includes Natalie Zea, Paul Scheer, Natalie Morales, and Jon Daly, it’s not quite finding that breakthrough point to bring all of this funny talent together in the best of ways.
That doesn’t mean Happily lacks in humor. There are some good one-liners, clever bits, and a surreal element that is not explored nearly enough. Even if that’s by choice, too much feels left hanging to satisfy completely. So, at its best, Happily explores some interesting territory about relationships while adding on the tension of friendships that are not what they seem. I wish it pulled through all the way to work better, but there’s decent fun to be had.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters, on digital, and on VOD on March 19, 2021.
The Setup: Todd (Tom Holland) lives in a dystopian world with only men, and they can all hear each other’s thoughts in a stream of images, words, and sounds called “Noise.” When Viola (Daisy Ridley) crash-lands on their planet, Todd is pushed to help keep her out of danger.
Review: Well, I was hoping for the best with this one, but, alas, it was not to be. I generally like Doug Liman films. He has a knack for taking on big projects, going wildly over budget or the shooting schedule, ending up in need of reshoots, and then coming out with a solid product anyway (see Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Edge of Tomorrow). Chaos Walking was shot so long ago that Holland was able to make a Spider-Man film, and Ridley was able to make a Star Wars before this finally came out. The results are not awful but still feel like a fun premise squandered.
Presentation-wise, all the good stuff is here. The concept of “Noise” is visually realized quite well, as different characters show different ways of their thoughts coming to life. The production design and general aesthetic go for a western approach, which is fun. You even have Mads Mikkelsen channeling Warren Beatty in McCabe & Mrs. Miller in terms of wardrobe. Sadly, the story just doesn’t know how to support any of this.
Based on the first part of a YA trilogy by A Monster Calls’ Patrick Ness, Chaos Walking features a half-hearted attempt to fill out this world with characters and ideas that serve as a setup for future stories while telling a primary narrative that is never quite engaging enough to match the intense work the actors are putting out there. I don’t know how the reshoot affected any of this, but if the attempt was to either strip the film down to pure action or increase some of the tension between the characters, well, this movie isn’t quite chaos, but it doesn’t walk much of a good line either.
Where To Watch: Now available in theaters.
The Setup: A summer in rural O‘ahu takes an exciting turn for two Brooklyn-raised siblings, Pili (Kea Peahu) and Ioane (Alex Aiono), when a journal pointing to long-lost treasure sets them on an epic adventure with new friends (Owen Vaccaro and Lindsay Watson) and leads them to reconnect with their Hawaiian heritage.
Review: Making a Goonies-inspired adventure film is an interesting way to go. Personally, I’m not the biggest fan of the Richard Donner cult classic (Monster Squad for life!), but it works well enough in the right setting. Finding ‘Ohana actually does a fine job of positioning itself as a solid riff on the film (bonus points for having Data himself, Ke Huy Quan, in the cast) while throwing in a good dose of respect for Hawaiian culture. I just wish it wasn’t so long.
At over two hours, the film certainly takes its time to set up its story, establish all of the characters, and throw in all it can when it comes to the treasure hunt the kids go on. There are even some supernatural elements thrown in for good measure. It’s a lot, and while the film never goes off the rails due to the cast’s charm overall, I do wish the feature was tightened up some to make it even more effective.
With that in mind, the use of various locations (in addition to Hawaii, the film also shot in Thailand and in the Dominican Republic) helps lend a solid sense of atmosphere. We’re a long way from the 80s style of filmmaking, yet Finding ‘Ohana never feels too out of place when it comes to trying to evoke a certain kid-friendly quality that’s not artificial in execution. And, best of all, this movie is genuinely fun throughout. Given the intended audience and the grab at nostalgia, fun goes a long way, and director Jude Weng delivers what’s needed.
Where To Watch: Now available on Netflix.