Heading into the Fourth of July, here are a few smaller releases, and at least some that are well worth your time. This set of reviews includes a period-set romantic-comedy, a medieval take on Die Hard, a satirical drama, a documentary of volcanic proportions, a clever dumb animated comedy, and a buddy action-comedy. The following features reviews for Mr. Malcolm’s List, The Princess, The Forgiven, Fire of Love, Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe, and The Man From Toronto.
Mr. Malcolm’s List: 8 out of 10
The Setup: When she fails to meet an item on his list of requirements for a bride, Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton) is jilted by London’s most eligible bachelor, Mr. Malcolm (Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù). Feeling humiliated and determined to exact revenge, she convinces her friend Selina Dalton (Freida Pinto) to play the role of his ideal match. Soon, Mr. Malcolm wonders whether he’s found the perfect woman…or the perfect hoax.
Review: Even while rubbing up next to every expectation and doing little to subvert them, let alone running longer than needed, I was entirely into Mr. Malcolm’s List. Just last week, I wrote about the string of warm-hearted films I was reviewing. Perhaps this is a reflection of what’s helped to counterbalance the mix of more cynical and darker films, and the state of the world around me. Regardless, this film wears its lighthearted tone and Jane Austen influences on its sleeves, and works exceedingly well as an era-specific, romantic comedy.
The premise is pretty straightforward, but the joy comes from these character interactions. The dynamics shared between these different cast members make this, if anything, a fun hangout movie that happens to be set in a more classical time period. Pinto is an interesting lead, and that comes from the choice to rely on colorblind casting to inform these characters. Much like Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield (another film I found absolutely wonderful), by simply adding a variety of actors of various ethnicities and decent, without making it a commented-on feature of who they are, it’s fun to watch people simply exist and let the way they embody these characters help tell the story.
From a romance perspective, yes, this film ticks many familiar boxes. Playing into the series of misunderstandings, elaborate schemes, and more means relying on the story’s momentum to carry this cast through certain avenues. With that in mind, it’s frankly fun to see how this story plays out based on what we learn about these individuals. Whether it’s the prickly Mr. Malcolm (whom Dirisu takes on as a sub for Mr. Darcy-type challenge), the rascally ways of Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s Lord Cassidy, or the feistiness of Ashton as the jilted ex, this is a film with plenty working in its favor.
Naturally, working from Suzanne Allain’s original novel (she also penned the screenplay), director Emma Holly Jones is afforded all that’s needed when it comes to appropriate production design, costumes, and a fitting score. It may not be as lavish and decadent as 2020’s Emma or have the refined writing of an actual Austen story, but Mr. Malcolm’s List is still a winning effort.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters starting July 1, 2022.
The Princess: 7 out of 10
The Setup: When a strong-willed princess (Joey King) refuses to wed the cruel sociopath (Dominic Cooper) to whom she is betrothed, she is kidnapped and locked in a remote tower of her father’s castle. With her scorned, vindictive suitor intent on taking her father’s throne, the Princess must protect her family and save the kingdom by battling and brutally taking down many armed men.
Review: Granted, there was no real buzz when I turned this film on, but I’m surprised it took me as long as it did to realize The Princess functions as a Die Hard riff, set during medieval times. That’s a fun way to take the classic premise. Helping matters more is how this film entirely delivers on it, without having to rely on cheap gags or self-awareness to justify the blend of action, martial arts, and period drama. It’s a simplistic setup that allows King to assert herself as a capable, young action star. Most importantly – it’s fun.
This film wastes no time. Director Le-Van Kiet, known for martial arts thrillers such as Furie, throws the viewer right into the action by having the Princess (never given a name) wake up at the top of a tower and begin her fight. Not settling for anything less than violent, we see swords, knives, hammers, maces, axes, and more find their sharp or hardened edges and sides being forced into bodies or squashing various enemies. The Princess easily earns its R-rating, and there’s a level of showmanship to the direction that allows viewers to appreciate the action choreography mixed with some clever effects to seamlessly blend takes together. It’s not attempting to be a one-shot style film, but given the space available for these fights, I appreciated the visual approach.
From a story perspective, at just over 90 minutes, The Princess doesn’t get itself bogged down in too much exposition. Brief flashbacks are scattered throughout the film to provide some context, but the balance is handled quite well. There’s never any question about how King’s character is so talented or why she has been put into this situation. Even the characters, as thin as they are, all serve the purpose required, with enough shading from the performers to at least help them all stand out from one another.
20th Century Studios seems to be in an odd predicament where they are making audience-friendly features fit for a Summer movie season, yet they premiere on Hulu instead. The same will be said of the latest Predator film, Prey, next month. Regardless, as far as a straight-up action flick, with plenty of style and fun on its mind, The Princess delivers the goods, with elaborately violent solutions doing plenty for what movies like this can offer.
Where To Watch: Available to stream on Hulu starting July 1, 2022.
The Forgiven: 5 out of 10
The Setup: Speeding through the Moroccan desert to attend an old friend’s lavish weekend party, wealthy Londoners David and Jo Henninger (Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain) are involved in a tragic accident with a local teenage boy. Arriving late at the grand villa, the couple attempts to cover up the incident with the collusion of the local police. But when the boy’s father comes seeking justice, the stage is set for a tension-filled culture clash.
Review: The biggest issue I have with The Forgiven is that it’s not better. Writer/director John Michael McDonagh has excelled at delivering morality plays with a biting edge. This time around, however, the dry responses from his characters only go so far in a story that has everyone pointed in the right direction but still seems to stand many of them in the desert. The benefit is having a more than capable cast putting in the work. Still, as much as I can provide a barely mild recommendation, there’s potential for more here.
Fiennes is as good as he needs to be as a pretentious, wealthy man finally being forced to reckon with his bad deeds. Separating him from the other rich characters and placing him on a journey with Ismael Kanater and Saïd Taghmaoui’s characters does the best for that scenario. Meanwhile, this film largely squanders Chastain and Christopher Abbott, who could be doing much more than flirting with each other while being spoiled at a party. At least Matt Smith and Caleb Landry Jones add a distinct sense of humor as the couple that have thrown this shindig.
There’s a clear desire to comment on how this group of white people is too oblivious when it comes to others, favoring their own needs and wants to inhabit a foreign land at no real expense of their own. That’s all well and good, but while the guilt of Fiennes’ character’s action has consequences, McDonagh’s choice to make this film something of an ensemble piece ends up drowning the movie in an overlong runtime when consolidation would have heightened the tension. It’s not a complete miss, but its meditative offerings don’t quite surpass its saggy nature.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters starting July 1, 2022.
Fire of Love: 8 out of 10
The Setup: Fire of Love tells the story of two French lovers, Katia and Maurice Krafft, who died in a volcanic explosion doing the very thing that brought them together: unraveling the mysteries of our planet while simultaneously capturing the most explosive volcano imagery ever recorded. Along the way, they changed our understanding of the natural world and saved tens of thousands of lives.
Review: As deadly as they’ve proven to be, I find volcanoes fascinating. Here’s a documentary with a unique angle on these ruptures in the Earth’s crust. This portion of the description of Fire of Love certainly caught my attention: “Previously unseen hours of pristine 16-millimeter film and thousands of photographs reveal the birth of modern volcanology.” As stated, this doc delivers a lot of wild footage of what it’s like to be on the frontlines of volcano research. The fact that the two preeminent volcanologists happen to be a loving couple only adds to this unique assemblage of materials.
Fortunately, much like the premise has already noted, the fates of Katia and Maurice are revealed from the outset. While the path to their end is tragic, having that knowledge presented upfront allows the audience to feel settled as more and more is revealed about the Kraffts, their work, and their relationship. The narration by filmmaker Miranda July further adds to the quality of this doc, thanks to her calm demeanor, matching the tone needed to accommodate the spectacle of the volcano footage with the professionalism shown by the couple.
Of course, this film can’t just be lectures on what volcanos are and the ways to their place in the world. It goes deeper than this, as the natural world’s complexity deserves plenty of attention, and this engrossing tale manages to translate its fantastic imagery. Plus, the chemistry shared by Katia and Maurice is quite warm and inviting. Between some of the artsier touches provided by director Sara Dosa, and the choices made in interspersing lava flows and the banter between two professionals in love, there’s a lot to admire in this explosive doc.
Where To Watch: Available in select theaters starting July 6, 2022.
Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe: 7 out of 10
The Setup: When Beavis and Butt-Head wind up at space camp through “creative sentencing” from a juvenile court judge in 1998, they quickly find themselves blasting off on a NASA space mission, only to end up time traveling to the year 2022. As the NSA and U.S. government try to track them down, the clueless teens do their best to adjust to modern life.
Review: The way I see Mike Judge is that he mostly likes his characters, but he really loves his dumb characters. Beavis and Butt-Head are incredibly dumb characters, but Judge can’t help but embrace them for the sake of a silly story that’s able to comment on society and deliver a lot of really dumb humor rooted in innuendos that many can’t help but laugh at. I’m one of those people who can’t help but laugh, and I’m someone who has never watched the original MTV series but gets a lot of joy out of Beavis and Butt-Head Do America. Having moved onto The Universe, it’s nice to see that things haven’t changed too much.
Honestly, while I was looking forward to seeing what these morons would be up to in the modern world, it was still plenty funny watching them act as they do in 1998. The lead-up to their space camp situation was just a fun reminder of the simple pleasures of immature comedy, yet Judge and his team had plenty to work with when it came to placing these two in a time of iPhones and woke culture. With that in mind, credit should be given for writing “dumb comedy” in such as smart way. That’s no easy task, and it’s certainly part of what made some of Judge’s other works, such as Silicon Valley, successful.
For Beavis and Butt-Head, having intelligent takes on the world examined through the lens of simple minds means mild commentary that never wants to go too far and spoil the party. This is less a film about making a statement and more a reminder of what can be accomplished through low-brow humor, regardless of the era. At 86 minutes, it’s not like there’s ever a chance for the film to run out of steam, even if it seems to peak somewhere in the middle. That said, the quest these boys go on, the surprising amount of emotional nuance Judge tries to imbue in Beavis, and the frequent mentions of scoring all provoke a constant positive reaction – smiling. It’s a silly film, and even in being crude, it’s never vulgar, giving it a sense of innocence that many comedies can’t compete with.
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Paramount+.
The Man From Toronto: 3 out of 10
The Setup: A case of mistaken identity forces a bumbling entrepreneur (Kevin Hart) to team up with a notorious assassin (Woody Harrelson) in hopes of staying alive.
Review: It stinks. Okay, there’s more to say than just that, but just note – this movie is terrible. One of its most notable aspects is how Jason Statham was initially cast in the Harrelson role. He dodged a bullet by bowing out. Acquired by Netflix from Sony, I suppose I can’t blame the streaming service for delivering another incredibly dumb, poorly made action-comedy featuring two major stars. That said, it’s a sore spot knowing a film like this will gain far more traction by default by hitting targets on an algorithm rather than having any level of quality associated with it.
The annoying thing is the potential of getting a solid comedic farce out of this premise. It’s a silly enough high concept involving mistaken identities, but the problems arise immediately once we see just how little chemistry Hart and Harrelson have. Hart certainly tries to generate a lot from a little, but he’s out to see as far as this story goes. Harrelson feels like producers just looked at a list of “other bald, white actors” and grabbed him. A real shame, as Harrelson can be a dynamic performer, whether the choice is to make him menacing or comedic. The film attempts to have it both ways but fails to have him match what Hart is doing.
Aside from the mismatched “buddies,” the film also looks awful. Patrick Hughes can be a competent action director, but this is an absolute mess of a movie. The PG-13 rating means the editing is pushed to remove visually understandable sequences to hide the violence. Plus, it feels as if the second the film was sold to Netflix, work just stopped when it came to the visual effects, as they are among the worst I’ve seen from a major studio film in some time (not to be confused with the most egregious use of green screen found in Netflix’s awful Red Notice).
So what’s really here to recommend? With so many options available, simply saying, “There’s a new Hart/Harrelson film topping the charts on Netflix,” is not good enough when it’s such a waste of time. Skip out on this man from Toronto.
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Netflix.