Despite a slow August that could have used more releases, this mid-week in September is packed with new releases. The Woman King may be the major new release, but there’s also Ti West’s X prequel, Pearl, and the David Bowie doc, Moonage Daydream. There are also all of these other releases from this week, and some I haven’t even gotten to yet. This set of reviews includes two murder mystery comedies, a neo-western, an indie sequel, a Chinese sci-fi film, and a crime drama/horror flick. The following features reviews for See How They Run, Confess, Fletch, God’s Country, Clerks III, Moon Man, and Saloum.
The Setup: In the West End of 1950s London, plans for a movie version of a smash-hit play come to an abrupt halt after a pivotal crew member is murdered. When world-weary Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and eager rookie Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan) take on the case, the two find themselves thrown into a puzzling whodunit within the glamorously sordid theater underground, investigating the mysterious homicide at their own peril.
Review: There’s a version of this film that is a slam dunk. A period murder mystery with a strong cast featuring a couple of Americans (one with a dodgy accent), and some Brits, among other European stars, that takes plenty of delight in its easygoing attitude. The problem is, See How They Run feels far too responsive to the modern filmmakers who have seemingly inspired its town and look. That’s not to say Wes Anderson and Rian Johnson are the only filmmakers who can deliver offbeat capers, but with recent examples of films that show how much better this can be done, seeing such a slight effort does stand out.
Director Tom George and writer Mark Chappell certainly have good intentions in mind. I even appreciate how the film is set in an alternate universe where a young Richard Attenborough (wonderfully played by Harris Dickinson) is somehow caught up in all of this. However, there’s a certain way to make the proceedings feel snappier and zanier than they are. With an ensemble effort, one hopes for screwball energy to keep pushing things along. Instead, we move from one character to the next, and only the occasional spark, no matter how many split screens, flashbacks, or continued witty narration from Adrien Brody’s sleazy Hollywood director.
Part of the issues, surprisingly, stems from Rockwell. Usually a ball of charisma, here he plays somewhat against type as a more lethargic, often drunk inspector. It’s a choice that could work, but it doesn’t play all that well with the film we are watching. Fairing much better is Ronan’s peppy constable. She’s perhaps the one person in this film who entirely gets the mode she is supposed to be in and provides the story with many fun moments.
There’s still enough here to recommend, as the period aesthetic, occasional clever bits, and attempts at humor push it over the top. Also, the climax seems to finally nail the focus of a film like this in the right way, with an interesting solution to the mystery and several characters all in one location to bounce off each other properly. I wish the film had more going for it, but as it stands, there’s a mildly decent romp here.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters.
The Setup: Jon Hamm stars as the roguishly charming and endlessly troublesome Fletch, who becomes the prime suspect in a murder case while searching for a stolen art collection. The only way to prove his innocence? Find out which of the long list of suspects is the culprit–from the eccentric art dealer and a missing playboy to a crazy neighbor and Fletch’s Italian girlfriend. Crime, in fact, has never been this disorganized.
Review: The road to a new Fletch film seems about as complicated as the story presented in one of these mysteries. It’s also a mystery as to why it took so long to make another film about a sarcastic reporter who becomes involved in murder plots. Regardless, despite a lousy trailer and seemingly being dropped somewhat anonymously for audiences to find, the movie is actually quite good. Hamm proves to be a terrific Fletch, mixing a bit of what Chevy Chase famously brought to the role and what’s described in the Gregory Macdonald novels, in a story that may lack higher stakes but is still quite enjoyable.
Honestly, despite being a mystery, it feels as though director Greg Mottola is far less concerned with treating it like the case of the century and more focused on building a rapport between Hamm and all of those he encounters. There’s a laid-back appeal to both Hamm and his take on Fletch, and it shows in the way the actor conducts himself, humorously condescends, and proves how smart he can be while still finding ways to mock those around him.
That doesn’t mean the film is short on wackier moments. While there may not be a ton of disguises being donned by the Lakers fan/reporter, we have many inspired scenes that allow Hamm and the cast to have a lot of fun. The constant interactions between Fletch and detectives played by Roy Wood Jr. and Ayden Mayeri are great. Annie Mumolo has a scene in her kitchen with Fletch, full of bits, and it’s one of the funniest scenes I’ve seen this year. Plus, John Slattery gets to have a few scenes with Hamm, making us wish this Mad Men reunion could have been another whole film.
Diving into the actual plotting means exploring some broad moments involving Marcia Gay Harden and Kyle MacLachlan (a germophobe who also dances to EDM), but it’s not quite the movie one wants if there’s a hope of seeing Fletch escape too much danger. The film is far more satisfied at being a breezy step back into the life of this oddball guy who happens to be good at getting a story. Welcome back, Fletch.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters and on demand.
The Setup: When a college professor in the remote mountains of the American West confronts two hunters she catches trespassing on her property, she’s drawn into an escalating battle of wills with catastrophic consequences. Based on the short story “Winter Light” by James Lee Burke.
Review: The thing about the complications of life is that there’s never just one. God’s Country has the basic sketch of a simple drama concerning a territorial dispute, but it is very much about how the life of one person is affected by an assortment of things when it comes to gender, race, social standing, and other areas where privilege certainly plays a role. Attempting to find a balance within the film’s structure as far as addressing each of these ideas is sometimes a challenge for director Julian Higgins. However, thanks to a powerful performance from Thandiwe Newton, this slow burn of a film proves to be quite effective and even tense when the time calls for it.
Playing as a neo-western makes it all the more interesting. While the short story focused on an older white man, positioning Newton as the film’s lead certainly allows the film to speak to several different ideas while serving as a unique take on the modern American West. Territory is often a main dispute in the westerns of old, and here’s a film playing into that from an interesting standpoint. At the same time, we have a woman whose backstory slowly reveals a new understanding of what it means to head to the country, away from the problems of the past and back east.
In settling into this genre, God’s Country finds ways to build an exciting level of tension. Oftentimes the camera holds onto scenes much longer than expected. A narrow focus in certain scenes, along with many wide takes in others, plays into the power dynamics of certain characters. Nature itself is captured beautifully, which makes the ugliness of the people in the world register all the better.
When taking things indoors, the film finds time to allow Newton’s Sandra to express her concerns about things her colleagues (mostly white men) are not seeing. It’s here where the film can at first seem as though it’s heading in a different direction, but all of Sandra’s stresses have a way of connecting. Through all of this, Newton is entirely in control of the emotional levels of this character. As the film carefully builds towards its conclusions, there are questions to be had about choices being made. Nevertheless, thanks to the performer’s strength, there’s enough to go on that will warrant useful discussion.
Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters.
The Setup: After suffering a massive heart attack, Randal (Jeff Anderson) enlists friends and fellow clerks Dante (Brian O’Halloran), Elias (Trevor Fehrman), and Jay (Jason Mewes) & Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) to help him make a movie about life at the Quick Stop.
Review: At the core of this third entry in the unexpected Clerks trilogy, writer Kevin Smith has crafted what could have been a funny and emotional finale for a set of characters he created decades ago. Unfortunately, this is also coming from director Kevin Smith at his current stage. As one who generally enjoys the positive geek energy Smith puts into the universe, I can’t say I’ve found much to admire from him as a filmmaker in an era that has brought us Yoga Hosers, Tusk and Jay and Silent Bob Reboot. It’s one thing to have heart, but this film does not have the energy of the director that made the hilarious and touching Clerks II.
Honestly, it’s not fun to say this is amateur hour for Smith. The man wants to address very real concerns in his life, to the point of referencing his own heart attack. I get it. One of Smith’s key inspirations as a filmmaker was Richard Linklater’s Slacker, and now the fan-favorite filmmaker has crafted his version of the Before Trilogy. Sadly, it only goes so far when jokes don’t land, and actors feel either stretched to their limits when it comes to dramatic stakes or improperly handled as far as getting them there.
There are some inspired bits. Obviously, Star Wars comes into play, and it’s about as funny as I would hope. Plus, Anderson constantly has quips to deploy, and many of them land pretty well. Bit players like Amy Sedaris and Justin Long also pop up in hilarious fashion (less the case during a montage scene that features a barrage of cameos shot seemingly under the worst lighting available).
With all that in mind, while Smith has worked with many of these actors throughout his career, Jason Mewes has somehow emerged as the performer who is most comfortable on camera. Jay (and Silent Bob) are well-deployed throughout this film, constantly eliciting laughs like it was nothing. I may not have been a fan of their sequel, but placing them back in the form of a dirty Greek chorus goes a long way.
On the downside, however, by ‘fridging” a major character (an upsetting choice in itself), there are emotional stakes the film needs to be able to reach, and I just can’t go along with how this film chooses to deal with that. There are also less inspired ideas, such as Elias deciding to turn over to Satanism and having a new ridiculous costume every day. Even the choice to take a reverential route by turning the film in on itself and letting Randal essentially recreate Clerks feels more amusing (and respectable in terms of getting all of the old actors back) than well-executed.
Credit where it’s due, there are genuine laughs and an intriguing enough evolution by the time the film reaches its conclusion (along with 4 or 5 references to the Clerks animated series, which very much amused me). However, given what went into making this film, maybe the shutters really should have stayed down.
Where To Watch: Available as a limited Fathom Event.
The Setup: After being left unexpectedly on the moon, an asteroid destroys the earth, leaving Dugu Yue (Shen Teng) as seemingly the last person in existence.
Review: I tend to pay attention when China delivers one of its hit sci-fi films, as they constantly feel like challenges and approximations to what Hollywood could deliver in the realm of ridiculous premises held together by sturdy direction and an overqualified cast. Moon Man is more of a broad comedy than an earnest disaster flick (it’s adapted from a comic), but it is no less effective because of the commitment to the premise and the genuine joy that comes from seeing this silly story brought to its fullest potential.
Now, given the basic outline of the film, Moon Man may sound a lot more dire than it actually is. In reality, this plays a lot more like China’s The Martian, as we watch a man struggle with isolation in various wacky ways. Mild spoilers (the reveal comes pretty early), but the fact that Dugu Yue ends up not being the only human being left alive allows for a unique relationship to unfold over time. The same can be said about another development taking place on the moon between Dogu Yue and something else. In any case, the film remains fairly lighthearted for the most part.
When some dramatic stakes enter the fray, the film has fortunately done the work to make them matter. Yes, the comedy still holds for a good portion of the film’s final hour, but I was particularly impressed by how far the film goes to recognize the value of having someone in the position of our lead character. The fact that Moon Man can get as far as it does with its goofy visual effects also speaks well to how endearing this whole endeavor is.
Is this film any more grounded than another sci-fi blockbuster from China, Wandering Earth? No, but even while playing at a far more jovial side of what a space adventure can offer, Moon Man does more than its share of labor to keep entertaining and beyond.
Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters.
The Setup: Shot down after fleeing a coup and extracting a drug lord from Guinea-Bissau, three legendary mercenaries known as the Bangui Hyenas must stash their stolen gold bounty, lay low long enough to repair and refuel their plane, and escape back to Dakar, Senegal. When they take refuge at a holiday camp in the coastal region of Saloum, they do their best to blend in with their fellow guests. However, when the past catches up to one of the mercenaries, his decisions have devastating consequences, threatening to unleash hell on them all.
Review: I always find that switching up the genre of a film midway through the runtime is one of the more rock & roll things a filmmaker can do. Saloum isn’t exactly hiding how more trouble than anticipated may be afoot, given the high-energy direction from Congolese filmmaker Jean Luc Herbulot and the ominous opening shots of the movie. With that said, expecting the unexpected is still key to a film that moves from stylish crime flick to revenge picture, and into supernatural horror territory, without missing a beat.
Making it all the more fascinating is the addition of a historical context. No, this is not a film that requires the viewer to study up before or after, but the time and setting bleed into the film’s themes. We are ostensibly watching a movie about bad guys doing what they can in an attempt to get rich. However, adding backstories involving children and the sins of the past speak to ideas that would line up nicely with Beasts of no Nation.
How does this add up to the wild ride of a film that Saloum is? Well, we meet several characters who all appear to be hiding something. We’re aware of who the Hyenas are from the start, but what about all who live in this camp? Never settling for its 84-minute runtime, this is a film that introduces a deaf-mute character for the sake of adding in sign language, not as a way to depict representation, but as a manner of upping the tension (as she knows the truth about the Hyenas and will rat them out if they don’t help her). By the time the film’s most major reveal occurs, it’s off to the races as far as letting something truly abnormal take over the proceedings.
Evil forces are eventually released in some manner, and while this is a lower-budgeted film, the realization of what’s out there is impressively threatening. Just as impressive is how Saloum still manages to effectively work as a serious crime drama and a bloody genre picture. Bolstered by all the things one wants in any terrifically made picture, Saloum shows us something that happened once upon a time in Africa and doesn’t hold back.
Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters and available to stream on Shudder.