As the summer blockbusters continue to crowd their way into theaters, there are plenty of smaller, streaming releases very much worth everyone’s time. This set of reviews includes a darkly comedic psychological thriller, a showbiz satire, a wild stop-motion horror adventure, a basketball drama, an Afrofuturist story, and a comedic biopic. The following features reviews for Spiderhead, Official Competition, Mad God, Hustle, Neptune Frost, and The Phantom of the Open.
The Setup: Two inmates (Miles Teller and Jurnee Smollett) form a connection while grappling with their pasts in a state-of-the-art penitentiary run by a brilliant visionary (Chris Hemsworth) who experiments on his subjects with mind-altering drugs.
Review: It’s fun to note that in the time it’s taken to prep, film, and release Top Gun: Maverick, director Joseph Kosinski has managed to make a whole other movie that is being released a month after his mega-blockbuster. As it stands, Spiderhead feels like a pallet cleanser. Fitting for Netflix and the pandemic era, this movie (based on a short story from The New Yorker) relies on one primary location, with a few rooms and a small cast. Following Kosinski’s much larger efforts, it is neat to see him team up with the Deadpool/Zombieland writers (Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) for something more offbeat. Fortunately, even if it doesn’t quite go all the way, it’s still entertaining.
The concept melds a variety of sci-fi stories ranging from The Prisoner to Lost. It’s enough to make the parameters seem relatively simple, as we observe a very turned-up Hemsworth commit to playing a bro scientist with nefarious goals in mind. Sure, there are mysteries to uncover and trippy sequences involving the effects of the drugs on the various inmates, but the film is most alive when it focuses on Hemsworth, who once again shows how comfortable he can be going big, regardless of whether or not he’s carrying a hammer and an Asgardian accent.
With that in mind, Teller (trying to play down his muscle gain from Top Gun) is also in the zone, reliably playing an everyman who made some unfortunate bad choices. Smollett gets too little to work with to stand out, but she shares good chemistry with her co-lead. Sadly, the movie suffers when trying to balance the nature of the experiment with its treatment of the other characters. This is particularly the case with the women who are relegated to punchlines a couple of times too many.
Still, thanks to a quick pace, some clever moments, and a playlist from Hemsworth’s phone that could be described as “Best of Yacht Rock,” there’s energy held throughout Spiderhead that allows the film to play like a decent enough b-movie thriller. Delivering at a much-reduced scale, that still allows Kosinski to be one of the more recent directors I’ve consistently enjoyed work from.
Where To Watch: Available to stream on Netflix starting June 17, 2022.
The Setup: A wealthy businessman hires a neurotic director (Penelope Cruz) to produce his crowning achievement, a brilliant art film. In turn, she brings on an ego-obsessed movie star (Antonio Banderas) and a revered stage actor/teacher (Oscar Martinez) to star in the film, knowing their personalities and methods will clash.
Review: There is a particularly cruel/hilarious moment in this film that finds Cruz’s Lola Cuevas torturing her two actors by way of making them observe her destroy something precious of theirs. When asked what the meaning of this was, it’s not as though there’s an answer that can accurately make up for what they view as a loss. That’s part of the point of what co-writers/directors Gaston Duprat and Mariano Cohn are going for. For all the efforts these performers and filmmakers can put into something when it comes to show business, it can amount to very little, depending on how one views it.
Official Competition is a very funny satire that only comes up short by going on a bit longer than it needs to and laying on some of its ideas pretty thick. With that said, there’s so much fun to be found in the dynamics shared between the film’s three lead characters. Everyone has come in with a great understanding of their role.
Banderas is in fine form as a sellout A-list celebrity who believes he can knock out a role just by reading the words with conviction. Martinez is the performer more geared toward the arthouse, and while the film may side with him more, he’s not beyond a level of silliness either. A scene where he rehearses an award speech that involves him rejecting the award is pretty humorous.
Cruz is given the chance to go very big as the acclaimed but unpredictable director with all kinds of wacky ideas to get her actors where she wants them as far as their performances go. With her big red wig and very direct manner, it’s nice to see the dramatic performer cut loose in a film like this.
While not a film full of twists and turns, there are enough sharp jabs at the industry to leave several bruises while chuckling at how things play out. Not hurting are the moments of sincerity and subversion, showing that not everyone is not what they seem, only to turn things around and show the acidic nature of entertainment culture.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters starting June 17, 2022.
The Setup: A corroded diving bell descends amidst a ruined city, and a figure known as The Assassin emerges from it to explore a labyrinth of bizarre landscapes inhabited by freakish denizens.
Review: Made over a period of 30 years, director Phil Tippett has finally delivered his magnum opus – a stop-motion animated horror film depicting the collapse of civilization in a beautifully grotesque manner. Tippett is well known in the visual effects community, though audiences everywhere have seen his hands at work in the original Star Wars trilogy, Jurassic Park, and RoboCop, among many other features. Seeing his passion project in a completed form now brings new thoughts on just how deep the rabbit hole that is his imagination goes.
Speaking of, the depths that Mad God descends to are nightmarish to the point of disgust, and yet there’s nothing quite like what is witnessed. Trying to determine a plot may seem simple enough until the film takes a brutal turn a third of the way through. From then on, all bets are off, as the viewer is unsure what to expect. By the end, understanding what this journey was all about will lead to various interpretations. Is having a throughline important, though?
With so much creativity on display, relying on a blend of incredibly elaborate stop-motion visuals, animation, and even live-action performers, Mad God really serves as an experience that’s just as fit for a big-screen viewing as the various blockbusters that arrive in theaters. The awe-inspiring terror of some of these creature designs are true sights to behold. The unsettling nature of how things progress makes the film’s achievement far more memorable.
Showering Mad God with praise and vague descriptions of what’s going on in this insane and disturbing film may only go so far, but without giving in to intense detail, it’s just worth knowing the unique space this movie occupies and what an opportunity it is to now be able to see it. It’s bleak yet wonderful.
Where To Watch: Mad God will be available to stream on Shudder and playing in select theaters starting June 16, 2022.
The Setup: Disillusioned pro basketball scout, Stanley Beren (Adam Sandler), is excited, for the first time in a very long while, when he serendipitously discovers Spanish amateur baller, Bo Cruz (Juancho Hernangomez), playing in a park outside Madrid. Fueled with new-found purpose, Stanley makes it his mission to groom Bo for the NBA as he believes they both can make it.
Review: It’s great to see Sandler again take himself off the bench to show what a compelling dramatic actor he can be. Hustle is a film produced under the star’s Happy Madison production company, and while not as intense as Uncut Gems, there’s an interesting balance in seeing the Sandman rely on his inherent comedic sensibilities (toned down) and the care he brings to something he’s passionate about.
Basketball is, indeed, a passion of Sandler’s, and there’s a lot he gets to work with as a scout who hopes to be promoted to a coach. Helping out is the nice ensemble who have also come to play. Queen Latifah may not have much to do as Stanley’s wife, but she and Sandler work well together. Ben Foster brings his typical vigor, but it’s the rookie performer and actual NBA player Hernangomez who holds his own amid the other actors. Yes, the dramatic urgency may not be at an all-time high. Anthony Edwards portraying a one-dimensional rival to Bo is not the most helpful. Still, seeing a newcomer perform well on and off the court has value.
Interestingly, Sandler sought out We the Animals director Jeremiah Zagar to make this film. I appreciated the efforts taken to distance Hustle from more standard basketball dramas. The footage on the court is handled well, but how this film places us in Stanley’s life allows us to see more introspection of these characters. Helping matters more is how Sandler underplays many moments, and the film follows suit.
The story is not revealing all that much as far as innovation, but Hustle features more than confident filmmaking and is another showcase for Sandler to put his skills on display.
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Netflix.
The Setup: A group of escaped coltan miners form an anti-colonialist computer hacker collective in the hilltops of Burundi. They soon attempt a takeover of the authoritarian regime that’s exploiting the region’s natural resources — and its people.
Review: It’s not often that I’m able to see a movie that very quickly gives me the feeling that I’m going to want to watch it again. Not because I have to see certain visuals repeatedly to recreate a specific sort of rush. No, this has more to do with being so fascinated by what’s being presented that I feel more viewings will be beneficial to further absorb what’s going on. Neptune Frost created that sense within me. As I write this, I intend to give it another look. As it stands, writer/co-director Saul Williams (along with Anisia Uzeyman) has unleashed part of his unique way of thinking as a poet into the realm of film, and it’s fascinating.
I look forward to embracing more Afrofuturist stories captured on film in general. It’s one thing to have a mega-blockbuster like Black Panther present a positive and advanced view of African culture in a friendly enough Marvel setting (I’m underselling how effective it is a bit). However, it’s another thing to get these indie films that can rely on limited means and creative voices to really dive into something like a Rwandan village and explore a wild plot involving runaways, miners, and a hacker collective.
On top of all of this, Neptune Frost is a musical. Multiple songs are performed by the players involved, further speaking to the story that unfolds, revealing what’s necessary about this Neptune character (portrayed cleverly by Cheryl Isheja and Elvis Ngabo). The songs bring a vibe to the film that makes for a welcoming experience for those willing to go along with a film as wild and adventurous as this one in terms of what the filmmaking format has to offer.
Once again, I find myself only offering so much as far as what’s going on in Neptune Frost, but commenting on its anti-establishment messaging and general sense of defiance will only go so far in this limited overview. What matters is the hypnotic imagery and the notion of chaos bringing some together for something that can be transformative. Neptune Frost delivers on this, making it all the more enriching for an audience willing to take a unique dive in a new direction.
Where To Watch: Now available in select theaters.
The Setup: Based on a true story, amateur golfer Maurice Flitcroft (Mark Rylance) achieves his late-in-life goal of participating in the British Open Golf Championship, much to the ire of the staid golfing community.
Review: Good for Mark Rylance. Seriously, for an acclaimed theater actor who burst into film relatively late and started knocking out roles in serious dramas, I’m happy to see him be the lead in a very friendly biopic such as this. Phantom of the Open falls into the realm of films like Eddie the Eagle, as far as being minor moments in history that earn an additional look. At the same time, it goes after that Full Monty sort of spirit as far as sheer British likability, given the setup and payoff to what’s taking place.
Most intriguing is how this is based on a true story, with many of the outlandish things taking place having actually occurred. Rylance plays this Maurice Flitcroft character with a level of authenticity that’s expected, but to see him act as a terrible golfer who would wear disguises to keep competing in the British Open is frankly pretty funny. Sure, the film has other quirks as well. Maurice has multiple children, two of which are twins with aspirations to be great disco dancers. These aspects are cute, even if they just serve as additional dressing.
More is supposed to be made of the estrangement taking place between Maurice and his oldest son, but this film doesn’t have the kind of spirit to deepen its drama. Even the “villain” of the film portrayed by Rhys Ifans is more or less won over by the fanciful nature of what’s going on over time. And then there’s Sally Hawkins doing thankless yet effective work as Maurice’s wife, Jean.
That’s really what it comes down to. Phantom of the Open is working to be a sweet story with characters that make you smile. For a movie about the “world’s worst golfer,” that’s all it really needs to be.
Where To Watch: Now available in select theaters.