We’re reaching the end of January, and while there’s been another round of delays for theatrical Spring releases from the major studios (James Bond has plenty more time to die), I’m still here to report on the many other films available on various streaming platforms and through other means. With that in mind, this set of write-ups features films about the effects of dementia on a couple, a redemption story for a parolee, an Iranian horror film, a cancer-themed drama, a dystopian look at a war-torn region, and a futuristic cyborg movie. The following features reviews for Supernova, Palmer, The Night, Our Friend, Atlantis, and Outside the Wire. Plus, some bonus thoughts on the documentary short Apollo 11: Quarantine.
The Setup: Partners for 20 years, Sam (Colin Firth) and Tusker (Stanley Tucci) go on a road trip across London to reunite with friends and family. With Tusker diagnosed with early-onset dementia, the two attempt to spend as much time as they can together.
Review: If different actors were starring in these lead roles, I might have had a lesser idea of what to expect from Supernova. This is the sort of premise an indie drama could easily make the most out of as far as pronounced moments giving each actor a clip-ready monologue to play for award voters. Are there great moments in this film focused on the delivery of certain lines by an actor? Sure, but with Firth and Tucci, there’s such a great level of focus and lack of showiness that I still found a sense of relief, even when expecting the film not to be overdone.
I found this relief early on when Sam and Tusker began bickering with each other as if they were an old married couple. That essentially is what they are playing, but it was so natural that I couldn’t help but smile at a proceeding scene at a restaurant when another prank Tusker has clearly done many times comes into play. Supernova is full of these moments, informing the audience how much these two belong together. It’s especially important once the dramatic side of things takes hold.
However, the film once again subverts the typical Oscar-bait side of things with its approach to dementia. It doesn’t play down the sadness of the situation or the impact it will have, but Supernova is presented in such a simple manner that the idea of dealing with some high emotional scene involving various stages of accepting death would completely throw off the trajectory of this film.
Writer/director Harry Macqueen seems to understand the difference between dramas asking the audience to react to something particular and what the characters on screen need to be going through. The journey taken by these two characters is not life-defining; it’s just life. And depending on what is expected, just know actors as reliable as Colin Firth and especially Stanley Tucci, for this film, are well informed on how to deliver.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters January 29, 2021, and on digital February 16, 2021.
The Setup: After 12 years in a state penitentiary, Eddie Palmer (Justin Timberlake) returns to his Louisiana home, hoping to start rebuilding his life while staying with his grandmother (June Squibb). Things get complicated when Palmer finds himself reluctantly caring for a precocious 7-year-old (Ryder Allen), whose mother (Juno Temple) has a tendency to disappear for long periods of time.
Review: While not exactly reimagining how these kinds of stories work, there’s a lot to enjoy in Palmer. Most notably for me was seeing how far Timberlake has come as an actor. While not necessarily his best performance, it’s a good showcase for him as far as seeing the performer back in a leading role. I may not have responded to much of what he was doing in forgotten efforts such as Runner Runner or In Time, but he pulls off what’s needed here as far as dramatic heavy lifting.
There’s also the relationship he forms with young Ryder Allen. As Sam, Allen does plenty to make this kid very likable. His desire to watch a show about princesses and act in ways deemed “different” by many around him fuels much of the journey Palmer goes on as far as trying to get who this kid is. Allen remains a reliable source of humor and heart for the film, but director Fisher Stevens knows how to make this character work when showing acts of bullying to communicate his standing among others (which comes with a resolve to mostly remain his happy self).
Palmer thankfully also finds ways to play standard dramatic moments, such as a courtroom scene, in a manner that’s not overlong or unbelievable. Again, this film isn’t doing much to subvert the expected tropes of this sort of drama, but thanks to some reliable screenplay work, solid performances, and a lack of overcomplexity, it’s a winning effort.
Where To Watch: Available on AppleTV+ on January 29, 2021.
The Setup: Following a night spent with friends, an exhausted LA-based Iranian couple (Shahab Hosseini and Niousha Noor) with a newborn become trapped inside a hotel, where insidious events force them to face the secrets that have come between them during a seemingly endless night.
Review: Granted, I haven’t seen everything, but there’s something I find quite fascinating about what Iranian horror films have to offer. The way they seem to combine domestic drama with things going bump in the night allows for the sort of psychological punishment that can be demanding yet rewarding for a viewer. Under the Shadow went for this, and now Kourosh Ahari’s film goes for it too.
In The Night, while the film continually finds ways to keep the couple and their child in the hotel, we can’t help but want them to escape. While that’s built into the film’s design on both a practical and thematic level, it’s having a solid screenplay that properly establishes this necessity, frustrating as it is, that helps the film be successful.
Of course, Ahari is not above delivering effectively creepy moments. Between the hotel’s design and the nature of the scares that come into play, the film is like a Kafkaesque funhouse of nightmares at times. There’s enough to frighten, but the characters are still caught in what feels like a never-ending cycle with no explanation… until there is.
While this haunted hotel story torments its tired guests, there is a logic revolving around at least one of these characters confronting their hidden truths. The Night may not be as intense as something like Netflix’s His House as far as what is bothering these people, peeling back the layers to learn more manages to provide a strong enough understanding of what’s at the heart of this film while holding onto a level of ambiguity. That’s enough for this one, creepy night.
Where To Watch: Available in select theaters and on digital & VOD January 29, 2021.
The Setup: Life-altering news for a couple (Casey Affleck and Dakota Johnson) leads to unexpected support from their best friend (Jason Segel), who does all he can to help them and their children deal with the circumstances.
Review: Writing these quick-hit reviews means boiling some of these films down to what they are. With Our Friend, a film I did like, regardless of how much of a special film this may be for those involved and who its paying tribute to, it comes down to feeling like a dare for those in need of a tearjerker and wondering how far they’ll go before needing tissues. That’s not inherently bad, but holding the film back is a need for the filmmakers to make this story cleaner than it should be.
I almost feel at odds saying that, as this is a cancer drama that breaks up the story by using a non-linear structure rife with other components, including messy relationships, affairs, sabbaticals, parenthood, and a good dose of humor. And yet, given both an underdefined depiction of Johnson’s Nicole (the one who ends up with cancer) and what feels like a selective dramatization of the true events that occurred, it feels like more could have been done to make the need for tissues feel better earned.
At the same time, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite provides plenty of room for the actors to come together and feel like true friends who can be fun with each other, as well as be real jerks. Affleck is as reliable as one expects, as the film has him in a role entirely in his wheelhouse. Segel as “The Friend” written about in the article this film has been adapted from continues to excel in his journey from goofy comedy guy to something more nuanced (credit where it’s due, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a favorite because of Segel’s strengths). That said, the film almost goes too far in making Segel’s Dane into a saint who can solve all problems.
If there’s a main gripe, it’s that all of the pieces are here to make a decent film even better. It’s not for lack of storytelling on display at two hours, but it still feels as though more could be offered to balance the different ideas out. That said, there’s something to a film that can try to make the most out of gently handling heavy emotional situations. I just wish it felt more profound.
Where To Watch: Now available in theaters and on PVOD.
The Setup: Set in 2025 Eastern Ukraine, a former soldier is having trouble adapting to his new reality but befriends a young volunteer hoping to restore peaceful energy to a war-torn society.
Review: Keeping in mind there’s an ongoing Ukrainian war involving Russia, the setup for Atlantis is quite intriguing. With a depiction of a time after this hostility has ended, we are presented with a series of long takes following Sergiy’s (Andriy Rymaruk) struggle to adjust. A startling opening presents both the burial of the dead and the longing to be back in action, as it’s hard getting used to a normal life of factory work.
Once in tune with how the film is being presented, it’s easier to enjoy the sly commentary going on thanks to director/writer Valentyn Vasyanovych’s presentation of this barren land. No doubt Werner Herzog would smile at what’s on display, reveling in some sort of existential take on the presentation of hope for humanity’s future in an environment such as this.
It helps that Atlantis is an aesthetically stunning picture, using its long takes to establish so much as far what we need to understand from a character perspective, despite the level of desolation on display. That said, a strange sort of love story manages to form as well, helping to stave off a sense of impending doom and instead suggesting the opposite.
With a distinct style that deliberately relies on widescreen photography to get across a point, sometimes to a comedic effect, Atlantis feels like a filmmaker with enough focus and confidence using their abilities to challenge an audience. It’s also a film that manages to make a statement that is less focused on pointing to the opposition, and more reliant on getting out a more universal message, even when it comes to seemingly oppressive areas.
Where To Watch: Now available in select theaters and available in virtual cinemas on January 29, 2021.
The Setup: Set in the near future, a drone pilot (Damson Idris) is sent into a war zone and finds himself paired up with a top-secret android officer (Anthony Mackie) on a mission to stop a nuclear attack.
Review: This was a bit disappointing. Looking at the sheer number of future-set Netflix films that largely rely on a single location, the prospect of a film like this moving around to different settings on occasion and featuring more than a couple of characters made me hope for more. Alas, despite some good work from the actors, and impressive visuals at times, even as a time-passer, Outside the Wire comes up short.
Looking at this as something close to Training Day with a Terminator, Mackie revels in getting to play a near-indestructible cyborg who can still feel pain and crack jokes. Idris broods, but it’s a necessary component. It’s not these guys we need to worry about, though. Instead, the film hinges on various discoveries surrounding ongoing fights in Ukraine (popular area this week). Some initial arguments lay the groundwork for something more interesting, but the film instead boils things down to shootouts, double-crosses, bomb countdowns.
Director Mikael Hafstrom has a decent enough handle on the action, but it is given little weight. What should be more exciting ends up feeling duller than a futuristic war film needs to. This is especially upsetting given the presence of robots and cyborgs. While I wasn’t expecting any rock ‘em sock ‘em metal battles, finding a better use for its central gimmick would have at least helped.
Not helping at all is the fairly simple conclusion to a story with huge stakes that already render the film too abstract to care. Given how things start out, it’s a fairly obvious way to settle matters, but even with that aside, concocting some big ideas, layering on what could be an interesting set of themes, and having nowhere to really go for it is the kind of thing a B-movie could get away with were it to pack in more fun. Instead, this robot movie ends up too clunky for its own good.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Netflix.
Bonus – Apollo 11: Quarantine
The surprise announcement of a documentary short follow-up to director Todd Douglas Miller’s excellent 2019 documentary Apollo 11 was very welcome. Fittingly affixed with the subtitle “Quarantine,” this 23-minute short features additional footage of the Apollo 11 mission, specifically focused on the time Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins spent in quarantine, following their contact with lunar material. As seen in the feature-length doc, following a few title cards for context, the whole experience is composed of the hundreds of hours of footage recorded in 1969 and nothing else. Once again, Miller’s efforts are transfixing. It’s enough to leave you feeling comfortable just observing what’s taking place while also being fascinated at what’s possible when great minds looking at a singular goal can accomplish. As a short focused on a scenario taking place after one of mankind’s great achievements, there’s less inherent drama, but as a nice coda, it’s an excellent sendoff.
NEON will release Apollo 11 exclusively in IMAX on January 29, 2021, and on PVOD on February 5, 2021.