After taking a week off for Passover, and to recharge a bit, there’s streaming fun to come with a new batch of reviews. To recap: movies are largely postponed from original theatrical release dates, and going to the movies is not really an option. Things will be different for a while, but there’s still room for new reviews. Thanks to some films made digitally available either by studios or various streaming services, I have assembled some brief takes on new movies either currently available for streaming or arriving soon, along with one retro pick for the week. The following features reviews for Tigertail, Bad Therapy, Bacurau, Coffee & Kareem, We Summon the Darkness, and The Straight Story.
Tigertail: 7 out of 10
The Setup: Writer/director Alan Yang adapts his father’s life story into a drama concerning a Taiwanese factory worker who leaves a romance he found at home for an opportunity in America, leading to struggles in connecting with family. This story unfolds from multiple points in time.
Review: Having found success as a writer, director, and producer in television, most notably on the Netflix series Master of None, which he co-created with writing partner Aziz Ansari, it was only a matter of time before Alan Yang would take the opportunity to develop a story based around his own family’s history. Seeing just the title and Yang’s association, I was ready for whatever, as there’s been a lot to like about his work when it comes to his visual sensibilities, let alone how relatable he’s made stories balancing drama and humor (see Forever), as well as tales focused on the lives of immigrants (see Little America). Tigertail feels like an accomplished enough result that gives star Tzi Ma a chance to shine, while still doing enough to show this is Yang’s first feature.
Familiar to audiences as a go-to Asian father character, Ma really succeeds in taking the presence he brings with him and allowing that to feel more layered with this film. He plays the oldest version of Pin-Jui, the person we see grow from a child to an adult father, and everything we learn establishes him as a tragic figure. No, that doesn’t make him a perfect person, but the fact that we must reckon with choices he has made to get to a certain point in his life makes it clear as to why Yang would want to tell this story (based on the life of his own father). It’s just a shame the other characters do not receive the same level of depth, most notably Angela (Christine Ko), Pin-Jui’s daughter. We get enough to understand some basic stuff concerning their relationship, but only so much comes away from the other characters in Pin-Jui’s life, which is deliberate, but also limiting.
Fortunately, Yang has a keen eye as far as how to portray the various time periods factoring into this story. In a move that is the most successful, Yang chooses to show the past as if it were shot on 16mm film, with enough atmosphere to evoke In the Mood for Love, or any number of Wong Kar-Wai films and others like it, let alone 60s Asian cinema. The present time period is shot as a clean digital presentation, with emphasis on cooler tones that become brighter as the film moves forward. It’s enough to feel striking, and the choices go well with the music cues, further emphasizing the struggles of the characters.
While there’s some unevenness in the overall story, the film is very watchable, with Yang showing how much potential he has in his feature filmmaking career, given a firmer handle on his scripts and characters. That said, far be it from me to best analyze just how successful someone is in telling the story of their own family, let alone an immigrant story which likely has many relatable elements for those who have similarly moved from a homeland to somewhere new and foreign to them. As it stands, Tigertail is effective in enough ways to favorable show off its stripes.
Where To Watch: Currently streaming on Netflix.
Bad Therapy: 5 out of 10
The Setup: A couple is convinced to seek out Judy Small, a marriage counselor who can ideally help work things out. The problem is, Judy has issues of her own, which may result in sabotage of the marriage, rather than a fix.
Review: Based on the novel Judy Small by Nancy Doyne, who adapted her book for this screenplay, Bad Therapy is the result of seeing someone turn a psychological thriller into a comedic riff session for various LA-living comedians and character actors. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but there comes the point when the film reveals its hand, and I could only imagine what it would be like having some of these same actors taking things more seriously. It’s not unlike Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor, where (and I know I’m somewhat in the minority) that film had trouble functioning as both a neo-noir thriller and a breezy comedy to watch and sip wine to.
Like Favor (though less stylish), Bad Therapy does handle the breeziness decently enough to make it not really matter. Alicia Silverstone and Rob Corddry have fun in their respective roles as a couple where the issues seem relatable, without feeling tilted to either side until the film delves a bit deeper. Michaela Watkins has the tougher task as Judy, who needs to play into having a level of authority, while also seeming unconventional in her methods. Adding the hiccups concerning just how legitimate she is as a professional only helps in subverting what to expect from all of this.
Director William Teitler does what’s necessary to keep things moving. Still, the only real joy from this film comes from watching the leads interact with various familiar faces, including Haley Joel Osment, Aisha Tyler, David Paymer, John Ross Bowie, and others. It’s the sort of film where having a chance to lock in a solid comedian or TV actor is enough to create whole scenes and hold onto a level of entertainment, before getting things back in motion in terms of where the plot is headed. Does this make for the most compelling story, given the complexity of characters hoping to get an exact version of something, and going through dangerous means to accomplish this? Not necessarily, but it’s fun enough to watch for a light comedic farce.
Where To Watch: Available for rental on VOD, starting April 17, 2020.
Bacurau: 7 out of 10
The Setup: A true genre mash-up working as a Brazilian sci-fi western, as well as a darkly comedic thriller. The death of a grandmother brings a woman to her matriarchal village, which has apparently been erased from the map and is suffering from a lack of water. Thanks to some mysterious outsiders, there are deadlier problems to deal with.
Review: Where do I even begin with this film? It’s honestly a good thing I have less of a deadline to put together these reviews, as the more time I’ve had to think on Bacurau, the more I can appreciate what it’s going for. This is a movie with a very specific tone and deliberate pacing, making it one that’s far more in line with the bizarre sociopolitical commentaries coming out of films from the 70s. It’s not quite a grindhouse sort of film, but I’ve seen few operating on the level that this one does with such an acute awareness of how to truly evoke that time.
Writer/directors Kleber Mendonca Filho and Juliano Dornelles have done whatever research was required to develop a unique location that matches up to what one would expect from a film concerning a third world country, only to add on additional genre layers to really mix things up. That in mind, a good portion of the film is simply spent following Teresa (Barbara Colen) as she familiarizes herself with the locals, including Sonia Braga’s Domingas, the most outspoken member of the community. Bacurau clearly has plenty on its mind as far as playing up the idea of a town not cared about by others to the point of deliberately removing it from the maps and finding other ways to upset the ecosystem.
Without going too far into it, the way Udo Kier and the actors surrounding him factor into this story is a wild turn of events that allows the film to ramp up in tension, as well as provide an outlet for some kind of payoff. It also shows what kinds of craziness Filho and Dornelles are capable of when they really want to lean into something. How well this will all work for an audience is tricky to say, but it’s easy to see this as a cult favorite in the making, with midnight audiences responding to all the eccentricities.
Where To Watch: Currently available for rental via Virtual Theatrical Release.
Coffee & Kareem: 4 out of 10
The Setup: A foul-mouthed 12-year-old’s plan to hire a criminal to scare off his mom’s new boyfriend, a police officer, goes wrong, forcing the kid and the cop to go on the run to both avoid the Detroit criminals after them and stop a drug kingpin.
Review: Less than a year after Stuber (which I liked well enough), director Michael Dowse tries his hand at another mismatched buddy comedy to poorer results. While the premise isn’t going for anything too novel, aside from matching an adult male with an excessively vulgar kid, the execution hardly aspires any chuckles either. Ed Helms is cast as a very Ed Helms-type of character, and Terrence Little Gardenhigh does what he can to hold his own against the adults, but is undone by the choices made for his role.
As if there was still a need to satirize the buddy cop comedy genre, the main choice throughout this film is to basically find whatever opportunity possible to neutralize the white cop, whether its when he’s dealing with his superiors, the kid, other criminals, or random people. In doing so, much of the humor derives from humor based around stereotypes, racial situations, and other aspects that come off as either outdated or poorly handled. It’s more frustrating than anything, as the potential is there to make something like this work.
The stranger choice is letting much of the supporting cast show they’re willing to play along, but bench them for much of the movie. Taraji P. Henson is the best example. She’s Kareem’s mother and seems game to play into the tone of the film, but is absent for much of it. The same can be said for David Alan Grier. It’s only Betty Gilpin who gets a chance to really take off with an over-the-top character, but that aspect of the film’s groove doesn’t kick in until the final third.
As an action-comedy, the laughs are too infrequent, the bad attempts are cringe-worthy and not in an “Ed Helms from The Office” good way. The action is poor enough to make Stuber suddenly look even more impressive by default. Much like the play on words found in the title, I just sat and watched thinking, “That’s it?”
Where To Watch: Currently streaming on Netflix.
We Summon The Darkness: 6 out of 10
The Setup: Three friends head out on a road trip to a heavy-metal show. They meet up with three guys, and all head back to one of the girls’ country home for an after-party. With news of ritualistic murders already out there, it would appear this night may take a turn for the worse.
Review: This is a tricky film to get into because much of the entertainment comes from a surprising reveal (or double reveal) that arrives fairly early on, all things considered. A good chunk of the 90-minute runtime is devoted to setting up the characters and letting the audience just sort of hang out. However, once things really kick into gear, there’s a clear understanding of why things are the way they are. So, while there’s no reason to get fully into where things go, it’s good to acknowledge the successes of the film.
For a horror film using the satanic panic sub-genre as both a reference point and something due for a level of subversion, director Marc Meyers does what he can with a low budget to make the ideas register. There may only be one key location, with a few stops along the way, but it allows a level of creativity to keep things moving, once they kick into gear. Helping with that is the cast.
Keean Johnson, Logan Miller, and Amy Forsyth do what’s needed as the characters required to play things mostly straight. Alexandra Daddario has the most to do, however, adding some off-the-wall antics to assist in the film’s energy level, once the mayhem begins. That said, the commentary writer Alan Trezza is going after is trying to tackle a few different ideas at once, which is admirable, but difficult to fully nail. So again, it is thanks to this cast that the film can walk the line between being a proper thriller and a darkly humorous piece of entertainment bumping close to being a satire.
Additionally, while not in it much, Johnny Knoxville has a small but effective role that would be easily worth exploring more, given the chance. It’s the sort of offbeat casting choice that naturally lends itself to closer inspection, but Knoxville has the right presence to make you wish the film had stronger ideas on where to go with all of its intentions.
Given limited resources to balance out some inspired performances, We Summon the Darkness is clever enough to work and entertain while making it clear there are enough ideas to make for a stronger feature given the opportunity to craft something on a larger scale. As it stands, if you can’t make it to the concert, this is a fun show.
Where To Watch: Currently available for rental on VOD.
Retro Pick: The Straight Story: 10 out of 10
Review: David Lynch is a filmmaker I’ve slowly come to appreciate more over time, but I have most certainly responded to his serious, grounded films. The Elephant Man remains one of the saddest movies I’ve ever seen, and I really like Blue Velvet. I admire the weirdness he goes for, but The Straight Story is an appropriate title for a film so simple yet powerful. Fittingly, it’s also the film Lynch considers to be his own weirdest project, as it is a G-rated Disney film about a man who takes a long drive to see his brother, albeit by using a lawnmower.
Watching it for the first time, it’s easy to see why it gained such a high critical appraisal. Regardless of the story’s simplicity, the film goes beyond finding value in its sentiment towards Richard Farnsworth’s character and America’s heartland in general. It works as a curious odyssey that finds Alvin Straight meeting with various figures and offering up either advice, anecdotes, or best wishes. It’s about characters who care about hearing what others have to say, let alone want to put their best foot forward when given the opportunity.
Not to go too far off track, but Lynch was recently in the news for his thoughts that the world will become a better place once it gets past this current pandemic. Whether or not I share that optimism, watching this film, it’s no surprise to me that Lynch would feel this way. As out there as he may get with Twin Peaks or Mulholland Drive, there is clearly something in the eccentric filmmaker that speaks to the sort of warmth he sees in people. It’s perhaps why he knows how to paint evil so clearly when he tackles those elements in his film and why the good characters stand out the way they do.
With The Straight Story, there’s no room for evil. There’s a man who’s lived a life, knows where he stands and wants to deal with unfinished business. Others have concern for him, including his mentally challenged daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek), but the determination we see shows us a man that understands what it is to have a fix on doing what he believes is necessary. Having us watch Alvin go through all he does, while never being less than kind in the process, is what makes it special. Farnsworth’s ability to relate that to the viewer sells this, and Lynch knows precisely how to put this old man in the spotlight for anyone to clearly see. That the film is also inviting and exceedingly well-made only helps things along to make it as great as it is.
Where To Watch: Currently streaming on Disney+.