We’re hitting the end of August, which means the movies coming out are on a different level than the continuous stream of potential blockbusters. That said, some interesting films here. This set of write-ups includes a sci-fi neo-noir, a VR horror story, an animated musical, a stylized legal thriller, an anthology film of sorts, and a crime thriller. The following features reviews for Reminiscence, Demonic, Vivo, Naked Singularity, Materna, and Crime Story.
The Setup: Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman), a private investigator of the mind, navigates the alluring world of the past when his life is changed by new client Mae (Rebecca Ferguson). A simple case becomes an obsession after she disappears, and he fights to learn the truth about her.
Review: There was a time when crime stories and gangster films were WB’s bread and butter. With the science fiction angle, I can see why the studio would be excited to greenlight a film such as this, presumably on a moderate budget (under $100 mil has strange reads these days). Hugh Jackman may not be the biggest draw when he’s not donning his Wolverine claws. Still, surely his presence (along with a solid supporting cast that also includes Thandiwe Newton, Daniel Wu, and a menacing Cliff Curtis) could be enough to make this Miami-set neo-noir appealing to audiences.
Well, despite ambitious efforts from writer-director Lisa Joy (making her directorial debut, following her work on HBO’s Westworld with co-creator/husband Jonathan Nolan), Reminiscence may be too boilerplate for its own good. From a filmmaking standpoint, there’s excellent production design on display, using a futuristic, water-logged city as the primary setting, throwback costume choices to evoke 40s/50s thrillers, and technology that’s memorable enough without being overly complicated. It’s really more the writing that feels like an issue.
The characters are all archetypes, from the heavy to the hero to the femme fatale. Upon realizing this, I was hoping the story had more avenues to travel down beyond what feels like a given. Unfortunately, while the inclusion of a device that allows Jackman to delve into past memories is a cool touch, there’s just not a lot here beyond the straightforward mystery. Not helping is how thin some of the relationships feel, meaning you have to really buy into some shared connections if you want to be motivated by where all of this is going.
Still, there is a maturity to what’s on display. A few cleverly staged action sequences occur organically and with enough style for me to look forward to what’s next for Joy either on screen or in Westworld. Adults may speak only about what’s happening to them currently, but the lines are delivered with a level of conviction that’s appreciated (though the film could stand to have a bit more fun with itself). Even the climax chooses to avoid a standard shootout in favor of scenes far more grounded and character-focused.
Reminiscence may not push much further than my memories of stronger noirs, but I was okay with a one-time visit to this dark city.
Where To Watch: In theaters and streaming on HBO Max starting August 20, 2021.
The Setup: Using special technology to link her mind with another, a young woman (Carly Pope) unleashes terrifying demons when ruthless supernatural forces at the root of a decades-old rift between mother and daughter are revealed.
Review: In theory, I would have been fired up to see director Neill Blomkamp finally bounce back after his follow-up films to District 9 failed to match his high-level starting point. Making a low-budget horror flick during the pandemic seems like a good way to get some creative juices flowing for the sake of just making something and having fun with that. If anything, a non-established, first-time filmmaker probably could have gotten away with Demonic as far as being a nifty little spooky movie.
Unfortunately, it seems as though many are frequently piling onto Blomkamp. I’m not sure why, as the man delivered unique, original studio films with unconventional casts instead of churning out IP-friendly products with no identity. Still, I can’t say this is a return to form either. Despite working with a clever filmmaking construct – volumetric capture technology – there’s simply not much here to elicit any real feelings, let alone scares.
Conceptually, there’s plenty of stuff that could work. Relying on a setup similar to The Cell, watching a character enter the mind of another (and seeing the visual effect choice that comes with it), only to deal with some kind of demonic force, has an inherently fun ring to it from a horror standpoint. There’s one set-piece involving a character contorting their body in otherworldly ways that should be better than it is. And yet, these aspects and more do not add up to a whole lot.
More than anything, Demonic just doesn’t really know how to assemble all the tricks it has up its sleeves for a more compelling picture. For a film made during the lockdown, I can appreciate the stripped-down nature of it. However, the story plays very linearly and doesn’t take many chances to go wild with the ideas it has in play. I get that Blomkamp has plenty of creativity to share; I just hope he can find a better way to harness it next time.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters on August 20, 2021, and on VOD on August 27, 2021.
The Setup: An idealistic young New York City public defender (John Boyega) burned out by the system, on the brink of disbarment, and seeing signs of the universe collapsing all around him, decides to rob a multi-million drug deal of one of his clients.
Review: It’s hard not to admire how director Chase Palmer throws his audience into Naked Singularity with an assured hand. The film oozes with style, playing as either a movie from someone with years of experience that just decided to throw it all in or as a debut film (which it is) from a director putting in everything but the kitchen sink in case there’s not another chance to. Regardless, while not entirely successful, the film is very watchable, which can go a long way.
A lot of this comes from Boyega, who I continue to believe to be a shining star. His role here may be a cliché of sorts, but, for one thing, an idealistic black lawyer is unique in itself. Plus, he’s a screw-up. Rather than watch a picture of perfection push his way through various situations, we have a guy who (while well-meaning) is in over his head constantly, making for a vulnerable lead that I have a genuine concern for. He is joined by a solid cast, including Olivia Cooke, Bill Skarsgard, and Ed Skrein (playing up his skeevy evilness, as usual).
While based on a 2008 novel, there’s plenty of energy and wild spins on the legal thriller unfolding that this plays less like Grisham for millennials and more like the 90s wave of crime-comedies getting another push. That means finding a balance for all the style on display to make sure we care about more than just one character. So, as a violent, brash, attention-seeking piece of entertainment, there’s a lot to work with until there isn’t.
As things wind toward their conclusion, audiences will have seen heist plots play out, a threatening villain pushed to certain limits, the inclusion of gangsters that are not the kind one would expect, and a romantic angle for good measure. Not all of it works, but, again, it’s pretty watchable.
Where To Watch: Now available in theaters and on VOD.
The Setup: A closely observed psychological portrait of four women, separated by class, politics, race, and religion, whose lives are bound together by an incident on the New York City subway.
Review: While not necessarily a traditional anthology film, it is neat to see another movie melding together multiple unique stories concerning women connected by thematic elements. For example, Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women was a successful attempt at taking three short stories and breathing life into them through her quiet, introspective filmmaking nature. On the other hand, Materna takes a louder, more overt route to accomplish its goals, and the results are a bit mixed.
Indie film regular Kate Lyn Sheil leads the first segment, which is the most ambiguous, as it follows a woman working on some kind of VR job that is balanced with calls from her nagging mother. It’s here where the title begins to make sense, as every segment deals with some kind of situation concerning motherhood. The third segment, for example, is the most involving, as it features Lindsay Burdge as a wealthy, white conservative mother dealing with a son that’s been suspended from school for making bigoted remarks. She’s also squaring off with her liberal brother Gabe (a terrific Rory Culkin), who attempts to be a voice of reason.
The nature of this sort of film means it’s relatively easy to determine the stronger segments from the weaker ones. A Kyrgyz woman (co-screenwriter Assol Abdullina) headlines the final chapter, which involves the story of a lost father and the three generations of women who must deal with this. It’s a story that could easily be fleshed out further and seems the least likely to feel oppressive or thin.
Relying on a subway incident as a connecting piece that keeps getting revisited, I wish there was something more substantial going on here, beyond feeling exhausted by all the ways to present a sequence involving one man (Sturgill Simpson) becoming more threatening to the other passengers. Of course, the film also finds a way to leave us at a critical moment, begging the question of whether or not I really wanted a deeper development from any of this.
Where To Watch: Now available in theaters and streaming on digital and VOD.
The Setup: When ex-mob boss Ben Myers (Richard Dreyfuss) is targeted in a home robbery, he goes on a deadly rampage of vengeance. But with his family caught in the crosshairs, Myers must finally face the consequences of his dark past.
Review: The title alone (which, in fairness, could have been changed along the way) spells out how generic this low-grade thriller is. Even with Oscar winners Dreyfuss and Mira Sorvino on hand to do what’s needed, there’s not a lot in Crime Story beyond an overcomplicated story, messy direction, and an abundance of pregnant pauses to best signal tension.
For what it’s worth, Dreyfuss inhabiting the role of a retired mob boss has the germ of a good idea in play when it comes to seeing this old man push himself to seem intimidating. I only wish director Adam Lipsius found better ways to handle the moments where we really need to see what Dreyfuss’ Myers can do. Twice I found myself scratching my head over what exactly happened to lead to certain levels of violence that occurred.
Meanwhile, Sorvino is flailing in a role that can’t decide whether she’s always in control or struggling to survive. Making good use of your performers is one thing, but I shouldn’t be struggling to keep up with motivations in a film that’s set up to not require too much legwork.
Given how many gritty dramas involving the criminal underworld that I’ve seen lately, it’s tiring when one has nothing of value to really offer. Even in terms of energy, there’s little here to suggest much investment.
Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters and available on VOD.
The Setup: Vivo follows a one-of-kind kinkajou (aka a rainforest “honey bear” voiced by Lin-Manuel Miranda) who spends his days playing music to the crowds in a lively square with his beloved owner Andrés. When tragedy strikes, it’s up to Vivo to deliver a message that Andrés never could: A love letter to his old partner, Marta (Gloria Estefan), written long ago, in the form of a song. To get to Marta, Vivo will need the help of Gabi (Ynairaly Simo) – an energetic tween who bounces to the beat of her own offbeat drum.
Review: While this animated film was apparently first pitched way back in 2010, following the success of his musical, In the Heights (now a movie), it took over a decade to see the release of Vivo. With that in mind, it’s as if this film just came in out of nowhere, in an already busy year for Miranda. That said, he and screenwriter/In the Heights collaborator Quiara Alegria Hudes have assembled a colorful musical that plays well to particular strengths, even while a few flaws end up in the way.
There’s really nothing inherently wrong with this film. It just follows a fairly standard arc that ends up less interesting than when it started, given an overlong diversion to the jungle/swamps of the Florida Everglades. Of course, this allows the film plenty of opportunities to have Vivo and Gabi (winningly voiced by young first-timer Simo) bond and share some fun songs together. The songs, as a whole, are certainly a significant factor in what this film is built on, and while there are only a couple that really stand out, in the moment, it’s a pleasant listen.
I also appreciated the style. The animation feels fitting for a film formerly coming out of Sony Pictures Animation. There’s a use of traditional animation that really helps add another layer to the film. Given the emotional core of Vivo, I liked the way the movie was able to connect to certain characters and have a unique perspective within the realm of an animated film. There’s not too much complexity in what’s taking place, but the balance in styles and not being unwilling to go to certain areas is a benefit.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Netflix.