One more week before the Summer movie season begins, but plenty of notable films on a smaller scale are available. This set of write-ups includes a Judy Bloom adaptation, a historical biopic of a previously unknown figure, Ray Romano’s directorial debut, a serial killer thriller, an offbeat coming-of-age story, an action rom-com, and a Broken Lizard comedy. The following features reviews for Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, Chevalier, Somewhere in Queens, To Catch A Killer, Gringa, Ghosted, and Quasi.
The Setup: When her family moves from the city to the suburbs, 11-year-old Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) navigates new friends, feelings, and the beginning of adolescence.
Review: Having James L. Brooks on as a producer was a good sign from the start. Brooks is a very successful filmmaker with an eye for human stories, and a good fit for doing what’s needed to have Judy Bloom’s famed novels adapted for the big screen. Fortunately, it all worked out, as this is a superb coming-of-age comedy. Director/screenwriter Kelly Fremon Craig (The Edge of Seventeen) was a good pick to lead the way behind the camera, with a wonderful performance from Forston as the titular Margaret. Also well cast are Rachel McAdams and Benny Safdie as the parents, and especially Kathy Bates as Margaret’s grandmother. While the basic plot isn’t presenting anything all that new, it’s the matter-of-fact attitude Bloom’s book and this film have regarding pre-teen girls dealing with changes in their bodies as well as their social lives. Being a 70s film, the additional period detail helps simplify certain aspects while still calling upon the times to fill in certain spots for the sake of comedy or even extra dramatic heft in showing how things were and how some things haven’t changed. This film is, in fact, quite funny, with a good amount of care given to the heavier topics, such as the struggles Margaret has in connecting to religion, given how it’s affected her parents. It’s a winning film all around, easily serving as something its target audience should see and enjoy.
Where To Watch: Opening in theaters on April 28, 2023
The Setup: Inspired by the incredible true story of composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The illegitimate son of an African slave and a French plantation owner, Bologne (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) rises to improbable heights in French society as a celebrated violinist-composer and fencer, complete with an ill-fated love affair and a falling out with Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) and her court.
Review: An underrated aspect of period-set costume dramas is how much fun they can be if they choose to have it. Sure, some can feel stodgy, and the more deeply felt ones work for a particular audience. Chevalier isn’t going as broad as a Baz Luhrmann film, but one suspects that director Stephen Williams and screenwriter Stefani Robinson (Atlanta) are well aware that a 105-minute biopic relying on a limited budget to tell the largely (until now) untold story of a black musical prodigy only has so many ways to leave an impression. Fortunately, the film has Kelvin Harrison Jr., who is putting in his all here, having trained to play the violin and be a capable fencer for months in preparation. Sure, I’d always welcome more fencing, but the way music functions in this film allows plenty of scenes to shine. Better yet, watch the way Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, lets his well-earned ego let him get away with things and get the better of him. The story being told can tend to feel like a highlights reel of a season of TV leading up to the French Revolution. Yet, there’s plenty of skill in these performances, craft in the production and costumes on display, and a real sense of the atmosphere when it comes to witnessing Black excellence at a time when it was not nearly as familiar for the high class.
Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters.
The Setup: Leo (Ray Romano) and Angela Russo (Laurie Metcalf) live a simple life in Queens, surrounded by their overbearing Italian-American family. When their son ‘Sticks’ (Jacob Ward) finds success on his high-school basketball team and a chance at a life beyond what tradition expects, Leo tears the family apart, trying to make it happen.
Review: On the one hand, Somewhere in Queens is a well-observed character comedy dealing with a father’s attempt to change the course of his legacy, met with mixed results from those around him. Then again, it’s also a film where Sebastian Maniscalco comes in as Leo’s brother with a broad accent and attitude to add some bits. I like Maniscalco fine, but his side of it also features the sitcom plotting involving Leo’s son’s girlfriend (Sadie Stanley) and the father’s attempts to keep her around so Sticks can be happy. As a directorial debut, Romano isn’t pushing too hard on the cinematic side of things, even if this movie isn’t exactly looking for the skills of a Bergman to map it all out. With that said, it’s the writing that truly pushes this movie higher in my regard, as I really enjoyed most of the interactions taking place and the journey being taken by characters (mostly family) who love each other but have issues truly liking each other. Plus – it’s very funny when it needs to be, which also goes a long way.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters.
The Setup: Eleanor (Shailene Woodley) is a young police investigator wrestling with the demons of her past when she is recruited by the FBI’s chief investigator (Ben Mendelsohn) to help profile and track the work of a disturbed individual. As the police and FBI launch a nationwide manhunt, they are thwarted at every turn by the individual’s unprecedented behavior. Given her tortured psyche, Eleanor may be the only person who can understand the mind of their assailant and bring him to justice.
Review: Outside of TV, where this subject matter remains quite prevalent, I feel like it’s been a minute since I’ve gotten a quality detective thriller in the vein of a Silence of the Lambs or a Seven. To Catch a Killer is not hitting hard enough to measure up to those modern classics, but it’s certainly more worthwhile than junk like The Snowman. Part of it comes down to the moody style on display. Damián Szifron (director of the Oscar-nominated Wild Tales) starts the movie on an ominous note with a chilling sniper attack. Ones that follow do the job of making sure the threat is clear. In the aftermath, Woodley and Mendelsohn serve effectively in their respective roles. I enjoyed how Woodley’s Eleanor differed from Clarice Starling, her most obvious reference point. Meanwhile, Mendelsohn puts forward an exasperated confidence that was quite worthwhile to see, with a few areas of subversion as well. Even the finale has a way of feeling satisfying, rather than derivative, which was enough to push a familiar yet affecting movie like this onto the side of good enough, which means all the more when considering the similar but worse films from the past topping the charts on various streaming platforms.
Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters.
The Setup: Unpopular Marge Bickford (Jess Gabor) is having a tough time navigating the minefield that is her high school. But Marge’s life is upended when her beloved mother (Judy Greer) unexpectedly dies. Marge decides to hunt down her estranged father (Steve Zahn), a faded ex-soccer star living in rural Mexico as a tequila aficionado and coach to the local women’s fútbol team.
Review: Part of being on board with films thriving off cliched material is finding the parts one can connect with. Gringa gets off to something of a shaky start and progresses down a path with an inevitable finale, and yet I liked what I watched. Much of that comes from the ease with which these actors inhabit their roles. Zahn is brilliant at projecting the image of a lovable screw-up, and seeing that sort of charm on screen again really works. Gabor elevates what she has to work with, and her interplay with Zahn allows the film to stay focused during the scenes that matter most. Naturally, feeling something for a story of two lost people who happen to be father and daughter means being able to register with the themes and the writing on an emotional level. Directors Marny Eng and E.J. Foerster hit against some rough material but did just enough to find the win.
Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters, and available on VOD.
The Setup: Salt-of-the-earth Cole (Chris Evans) falls head over heels for enigmatic Sadie (Ana de Armas) – but then makes the shocking discovery that she’s a secret agent. Before they can decide on a second date, Cole and Sadie are swept away on an international adventure to save the world.
Review: When you continually serve audiences half-baked ideas stretched to unpleasant limits, relying on the comfort of a familiar A-list name to help bolster the film as a notable streaming release, it will rarely get better. Ghosted really does feel like a product being put on display. It has popular stars pushed together by a terrible premise (Evans is basically a stalker, and the film’s attempts to joke about it are never funny), and every effort to do something fun is thwarted by half-hearted direction, poor writing, and a lack of spark between the famous faces (who have already been in two movies together). Director Dexter Fletcher has made some effective biopics with Rocketman and Eddie the Eagle, but he seems utterly adrift in the world of action comedies. Meanwhile, Deadpool/Zombieland writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (along with Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers) make it feel like they’ve scammed their way into getting this kind of stuff through pitch meetings. I could say that Ghosted was amusing-ish for its first hour, but the problem is – there’s another hour after that. Bad jokes, limp action, silly cameos; typically, I rely on Apple to deliver more than halfway decent efforts, but this feels like one of those anonymous Netflix direct-to-streaming movies poisoned the well this time.
Where To Watch: Available to stream on Apple TV+
The Setup: A hapless hunchback (Steve Lemme) yearns for love but finds himself in the middle of a deadly feud between the Pope (Paul Soter) and the King of France (Jay Chandrasekhar) when they each order the misfit to kill the other.
Review: On the whole, I enjoy the Broken Lizard comedy troupe, so I always find myself interested when they have a new project for audiences to enjoy. With that in mind, while I’m well aware their most popular films, Super Troopers and Beerfest, have huge fans (I also think Club Dread is quite good and underrated), I can’t say I’d call any of their efforts genuinely excellent. Troopers may be the most iconic, but there’s something so specific about what the team is going for that I have to think being right on that wavelength really makes a difference. With that in mind, that’s also where my admiration comes from. They aim for something specific amid their combination of crass humor and sincerity. All of this is to say Quasi is not all that different. There are a number of hilarious bits that ultimately put it over the top for me, but it’s also just long enough to feel as though a tighter script could have maximized the potential of this premise. Still, the five-member team all have dual roles, the rest of the cast is game, and for whatever reason, Brian Cox really likes hanging out with these guys (he’s the narrator this time around). It’s enough to get the laughs I wanted for a medieval hunchback comedy.
Where To Watch: Available to stream on Hulu.