While the MCU returns to multiplexes this week, with a new Ant-Man sure to catch the attention of many, there are plenty of smaller offerings out there to keep an eye out for as well. This set of write-ups includes a surreal comedy, a con artist flick, an indie-flavored rom-com, a more traditional rom-com, and two Oscar-nominated documentaries. The following features reviews for Linoleum, Sharper, Somebody I Used to Know, At Midnight, All That Breathes, and A House Made of Splinters.
Linoleum: 7 out of 10
The Setup: Cameron Edwin (Jim Gaffigan), the host of a failing children’s science TV show, has always had aspirations of being an astronaut. After a mysterious space-race-era satellite coincidentally falls from space and lands in his backyard, his midlife crisis manifests in a plan to rebuild the machine into his dream rocket. As his relationship with his wife (Rhea Seehorn) and daughter (Katelyn Nacon) start to strain, surreal events begin unfolding around him. He slowly starts to piece these events together to ultimately reveal that there’s more to his life story than he once thought.
Review: With one foot firmly rooted in the indie sci-fi comedies of the 2000s, Linoleum makes a good case for director Colin West to show off what sort of offbeat ideas he’s managed to develop into rocket fuel for a feature film. Taking its time to delve into what it’s actually trying to say, as we watch things unfold, there’s plenty of time to admire what’s being offered by this game cast. Gaffigan leads the pack in what must be his best performance yet as an actor. Hitting the right beats to play on the curious wavelength of this film, there’s no simple way to quickly summarize why he, and, in turn, much of the film, works as well as it does, but the case is clearly being made. While perhaps a bit slower-paced than needed, there’s still quite the assurance in the filmmaking, from the score to various framing choices. It all allows for this story to build to a proper emotional climax that truly allows this film to lift off.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters starting February 24, 2023
Sharper: 7 out of 10
The Setup: Motivations are suspect, and expectations are turned upside down as a con artist takes on Manhattan billionaires.
Review: I’m all for a clever con artist picture, and here’s a film that attempts to do something a little different. With an ensemble cast, the choice is made to tell this story in multiple parts, each focusing on the perspective of one of several characters played by actors, including Julianne Moore, Sebastian Stan, Justice Smith, Briana Middleton, and John Lithgow. Given the pattern, it eventually becomes clear that plenty of twists are in store for these characters. Being able to jump a couple steps ahead didn’t stop me from enjoying this film, as there’s enough energy coming from the cast and how presentational director Benjamin Caron attempts to make the film. This isn’t the next coming of The Grifters, but as a solid drama featuring a few matchstick men, I had a lot of fun seeing where this journey would take me.
Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters. Available to stream on Apple TV+ starting February 17, 2023.
Somebody I Used to Know: 6 out of 10
The Setup: Workaholic TV producer Ally (Alison Brie) faces a major professional setback which sends her running to the comforts of her hometown. She spends a whirlwind evening reminiscing with her first love Sean (Jay Ellis) and starts questioning everything about the person she’s become. Things only get more confusing when she discovers Sean is getting married to Cassidy (Kiersey Clemons) whose confidence and creative convictions remind Ally of who she used to be.
Review: There’s something humorous about a romantic comedy that isn’t exactly straying too far out of the lines when it comes to the plot, yet because it’s set in Portland, Oregon, as opposed to LA, New York, or Chicago, it suddenly has indie charm. That’s not to say co-writer/director Dave Franco and co-writer/star Brie have little else to offer with Somebody I Used to Know, but at the same time, Clemons’ character does literally name-check My Best Friend’s Wedding, which does feel like a key influence here. With that said, few films have relied on the plot of that 90s Julie Roberts hit, and this modern take gets what works about that sort of story. Not strictly making Brie’s character a heroic lead means things can get complicated in a way that’s at least interesting cinematically. On top of that, a supporting cast that includes Danny Pudi, Haley Joel Osment, Olga Merediz, Julie Hagerty, Amy Sedaris, and Sam Richardson, among others, helps establish the breezy nature of this low-key rom-com. Whatever Franco is up to with these small directorial efforts, it’s working.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
At Midnight: 5 out of 10
The Setup: Alejandro (Diego Boneta) is a hotel manager. Sophie (Monica Barbaro) is a movie star. He’s focused on opening his own hotel. She’s trying to focus on shooting her new superhero film. But she catches her co-star and boyfriend (Anders Holm) cheating. Fate strikes when the shoot brings them all to Alejandro’s hotel in Mexico. Despite their radically different lives, Alejandro and Sophie begin to secretly meet at midnight.
Review: Comparatively, as a rom-com, At Midnight is the sort of film that could use a strong push to do anything that could allow for more ambition or subversion. While the opening credits suggest something of a throwback to the golden age of Hollywood in terms of style, director Jonah Feingold and all of the writers involved were bent on adding just enough attitude and language to act as though there’s something edgy about what’s taking place. There really isn’t. This is a pretty typical story of romance that is interrupted by status and misinterpretations, causing problems at the wrong time while the characters happen to swear more. The fact that Barbaro’s character is a movie star allows for some riffing on Hollywood culture, but it rarely approaches anything clever. If anything, there’s a bit of social commentary that feels like it’s rooted a bit too much in the past. All of that in mind, the setting, cast chemistry, and easygoing nature of the story allow the lightheartedness to break through just enough for the film’s sweetness to achieve what it’s largely going for.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Paramount+.
All That Breathes: 8 out of 10
The Setup: In one of the world’s most populated cities, cows, rats, monkeys, frogs, and hogs jostle cheek-by-jowl with people. Here, two brothers fall in love with a bird — the black kite. From their makeshift bird hospital in their tiny basement, the “kite brothers” care for thousands of these mesmeric creatures that drop daily from New Delhi’s smog-choked skies. As environmental toxicity and civil unrest escalate, the relationship between this Muslim family and the neglected kite forms a poetic chronicle of the city’s collapsing ecology and rising social tensions.
Review: I very much appreciate director Shaunak Sen’s choice to simply show us the lives of these two brothers. Rather than intrude with talking heads or continual contextual updates, All That Breathes gets so much out of merely showing these two guys spending their time caring for birds. In doing this, so much of the area these brothers are a part of is made clear through their travels, the look of the world around them, and what sort of situations they find themselves in when contending with how to help these birds and what’s going on with the larger ecosystem around them. There’s even more to unpack with this documentary, but the way viewers can take on what’s going on without feeling as though they are being preached to is a credit to solid filmmaking on display. Plus, just seeing the work that goes into the help being provided for these birds is never less than fascinating.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on HBO Max.
A House Made of Splinters: 7 out of 10
The Setup: As the war in Eastern Ukraine takes a heavy toll on poor families living near the frontline, a small group of strong-willed social workers work tirelessly in a special kind of orphanage to create an almost magical safe space for kids to live in while the state decide the future fate of the child and family.
Review: Much like All That Breathes, this Oscar-nominated documentary from Danish filmmaker Simon Lereng Wilmont eschews some of the standard documentary conventions in favor of an observational approach, allowing the viewer to share in the moment. In this case, those moments move back and forth between the young children who have learned far more about their situation than they deserve to be aware of and the social workers who have been pushed beyond the normal limits. Given the setting, there’s an interesting level of intimacy at play, as the camera guides us through various events ranging from depressing to inspiring. Keeping the war in mind, there’s clearly a somberness always available to consider, yet the efforts to keep spirits up means hope still has a way to transcend what amounts to a bleak situation.
Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters.