After getting one of my most anticipated films out of the way, I’ll pretty much be in a waiting position until some more heavy hitters start arriving, but that doesn’t mean there are not some worthwhile films hitting streaming services and theaters. This set of write-ups includes a unique space adventure, a very Jewish comedy, a hidden camera comedy, a comedy about The Smiths, and two of the year’s Best International Film nominees. The following features reviews for Voyagers, Shiva Baby, Bad Trip, Shoplifters of the World, Quo Vadis, Aida?, and The Man Who Sold His Skin.
The Setup: With the future of the human race in danger, a group of young men and women, bred for enhanced intelligence and to suppress emotional impulses, embark on an expedition to colonize a distant planet. But when they uncover disturbing secrets about the mission, they defy their training and begin to explore their most primitive natures, plunging the mission into chaos.
Review: This feels like a film that takes on more than it can handle. Ideally, many of the film’s chief issues could be reduced to the simple understanding that young people do dumb things. However, despite a level of restraint on writer/director Neil Burger’s part when it comes to overloading a film like this with elaborate special effects, Voyagers still manages to squander the potential it raises with many intriguing questions by delivering conventional and disappointing answers.
Playing out as a neat high concept, “Lord of the Flies in Space” (with a dash of Gattaca and Equilibrium, among other sci-fi films), there are some clever ideas in place that could allow for exciting developments once the film gets going. Colin Farrell plays a space daddy to a bunch of young people, and he brings the required amount of gravitas to his scenes. Most interesting are his moments shared with Tye Sheridan and Lily-Rose Depp’s characters, who are given a chance to speak to how they feel about merely being born to eventually give birth to their own children, who will then have grandchildren that can actually colonize the far-off planet they are headed to.
The wrinkle in both the mission and the film is the presence of Fionn Whitehead’s Zac, who seems like a bad egg even before he stops taking his emotion suppressing medicine. Yes, the film is playing heavy into its allegory, but we’ve seen this plot many times before, and given the setting, there are not too many interesting places for it to go. As a result, despite the presence of a talented young cast, very few have much to work with in the way of characterization, and the film devolves into a series of arguments and fights over power, which eventually erupts into sequences where violence is the only answer.
Playing with the tight corridors and labyrinthine construction of the spacecraft, Burger deploys his visual tricks to make the most out of the setting with help from cinematographer Enrique Chediak. Trevor Gureckis’ score is similarly effective, yet the seriousness of it all and the obvious choices involving costume color changes only serve to rob the film of a sense of pulpiness. Not that this film needs to be looked at through the same lens as Logan’s Run, but given the lack of narrative ambition, I wanted Voyagers to have something going for it. As it stands, while a respectable attempt, this feels like a one-way space odyssey.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters on April 9, 2021.
The Setup: An aimless college senior, Danielle (Rachel Sennott), struggles to keep up different versions of herself when she runs into her “sugar daddy” (Danny Deferrari) and her childhood best friend/ex (Molly Gordon) at a shiva with her parents.
Review: This feature film debut from writer/director Emma Seligman would already be effective thanks to the use of shiva as the prime location for a comedy, thanks to how specific the humor has to be, but Shiva Baby manages to go a few steps further. The performances are pitch-perfect in the way they capture the anxiety-inducing claustrophobia used to stir up Danielle in her various predicaments while constantly finding ways to draw out plenty of laughs from even the most cringiest of moments. Plus, this film also manages to straddle the line of being a horror film.
Perhaps horror is strong compared to Get Out, as far as one character stuck in one location and realizing fairly quickly that their presence is drawing too much attention. However, Ariel Marx’s score is so deliberate, one can’t help but feel like this enjoyable farce is doing all it can to maximize its nervous tension and deliver on something deeper. At 77-minutes, there’s only so much for the film to explore, but that doesn’t mean it cannot carve out its own identity that places it somewhere between Booksmart and Uncut Gems.
Drawing from her own life experiences, including the community of women she got to know at NYU, the ideas of worried yet supportive parents and the feeling of the unknown that comes out of graduating college for many are mashed against the role of sexuality and what it is to feel empowered. With that in mind, Shiva Baby not only avoids having definitive stances about who Danielle needs to be but makes it clear she’s totally fallible and often unlikable. Screen presence is a different story, and Sennott and Gordon are both able to stand out as needed, even when sparring with the older Jewish character actors Fred Melamed, Polly Draper, and Jackie Hoffman.
Driven by sharp-tongued dialogue, neurotic behavior, as well as bagels and locks, Shiva Baby makes a grim event quite fun.
Where To Watch: Now available in select theaters and on TVOD.
The Setup: Hidden cameras capture two best friends (Eric Andre and Lil Rel Howery) pulling hilarious and inventive pranks on an unsuspecting public while in a plot to find someone in New York.
Review: Originally set to release back in October 2019, someone messed up deciding how to release this film. The eventual plan to have Bad Trip play at SXSW was certainly a good one, as it would have brought down the house, but the whole pandemic scenario ruined that plan, and now this hysterical comedy has just been dropped onto Netflix with not nearly enough fanfare. Yes, I don’t know all the details about how these things work, and I’m sure there are plenty of areas I’m not in that are probably being hit with more ads about this film. Regardless, the fact is – Bad Trip is very funny and a strong example of what this format can offer.
Adding a narrative to connect these various elaborate pranks being pulled by Andre, Howery, and a very game Tiffany Haddish (as Howery’s character’s escaped-con sister, looking to get her revenge) makes for a very inventive approach to filmmaking, largely because of how sneakily good the acting has to be. Given what we witness, the unsuspecting public in the proximity of these setups serves as a key trigger to where so much of the laughter comes from.
A random musical sequence, early on, is given greater scope because of the random expressions from onlookers seeing the mix of choreography and destruction on display. Random bus passengers are privy to expository dialogue that is all the more hilarious because you have Andre and Howery essentially yelling at each other the plot on a bus, in front of strangers, solely to make the plot clear and to get a reaction. They get that reaction, and it’s amusing.
The other component is a sense of heart. This is not related to the story, which is thin, to say the least, but in those random people that happen upon the pranks being pulled. Compared to the Borat films, where Sacha Baron Cohen essentially gave a spotlight to a certain, more disturbing side of America, Bad Trip makes stops along the east coast where people are generally supportive and attempting to be helpful. Random individuals give advice or attempt to break up fights in ways that feel quite promising as far as the kind of people that make up the population, which is refreshing to see.
That said, I’ve barely remarked upon the most insane stunts pulled in this film, but they deliver the sort of anarchic joy some of the best Jackass sketches once offered. That’s enough to make Bad Trip worth a drive to stream.
Where To Watch: Now available on Netflix.
The Setup: Set in the Summer of 1987, four friends spend a night reeling from The Smiths’ sudden breakup, while the local radio station DJ (Joe Manganiello) is held at gunpoint by a fan (Ellar Coltrane) to play their songs all night long.
Review: A decade in the making, with various young cast members attached, who have since gone on to become bigger stars, writer/director Stephen Kijak’s passion project has come to life in a fairly successful way. It’s entertaining enough, well-performed despite the fairly thin characterizations on display, and, of course, very easy to listen to given the 20 Smith songs on the soundtrack.
I can’t say I have a deep affection for The Smiths, but I find their music appealing enough. With that in mind, I’d be curious to know if Smiths fans find what’s presented as deeply engaging material to track the attitudes of the time or simply a fun jukebox musical of sorts. I do like the approach of bringing the “one long night” format to a notable day in music history for many. But it’s hard to say there is all that much to latch onto as far as how The Smiths specifically affected these people, beyond their attitudes about pop music and hair metal.
But, again, this is a likable bunch. They’re all fitting into various archetypes not unseen before in other notable teen movies from the 80s, but that’s part of the point. At least indie breakouts Helena Howard (Madeline’s Madeline) and Coltrane (Boyhood) get a chance to shine as two of the cast’s more distinct members. And Maganiello is always game to subvert his assumed bravado in various ways, so his scenes as a rock & roll DJ play out well considering the storyline he’s involved in, as predictable as it may be.
Shoplifters of the World may only leave a quick impression, but even if the idea is more enjoyable than the execution, there’s a good enough attitude to take away from all of this as a love letter to The Smiths.
Where To Watch: Now available in theaters, on VOD, and on digital.
The Setup: Set in 1995 Bosnia, Aida (Jasna Đuričić) is a translator for the UN in the small town of Srebrenica. When the Serbian army takes over the town, her family is among the thousands of citizens looking for shelter in the UN camp. As an insider to the negotiations, Aida has access to crucial information that she needs to interpret. She will have to make tough decisions to ensure some sort of safety.
Review: Not unlike Judas and the Black Messiah or Son of Saul, this is a harrowing feature that can push through the level of drama and devastating effects of authority by couching its story in genre. While it does serve as a dramatization of a very real period in time, writer/director Jasmila Zbanic very wisely designed Quo Vadis, Aida? as a ticking clock thriller.
Yes, the film puts a lot of chaos, violence, and angering issues involving institutional failures on display, but it serves largely as a (very affecting) backdrop to the primary story involving Aida. In a world where the Academy could choose to recognize more than a handful of International performances every so often, Đuričić could have easily been a contender. Reminding me of Don Cheadle’s performance in Hotel Rwanda, here’s a character that has found themselves in a unique position based on their skills and is doing the best to use that to their advantage.
With that work, we get to see a portrayal of how one contends with the impending massacres that threaten to involve her own family. Watching Aida plead with various generals about securing a space for her loved ones in safe territory while also doing the work that needs to be done to preserve some kind of order is all well and good – except for the understanding that the broader evils on display are going to have an inevitable effect on everyone in this region.
Regardless of what happens to Aida, this is not a happy film, and the powerful work on display will ideally open eyes to people less familiar with the Bosnian War.
Where To Watch: Now available in select virtual cinemas, on Hulu, and on VOD.
The Setup: Sam Ali (Yahya Mahayni), a Syrian immigrant in Lebanon, wants to travel to Europe and live with the love of his life (Dea Liane). To do this, he accepts to have his back tattooed by a popular contemporary artist (Koen De Bouw), turning his own body into a prestigious piece of art. However, Sam will soon realize that his decision might actually mean anything but freedom.
Review: Not that it’s required, but having a change of pace with the International Film nominees as far as the tone is welcome. While Quo Vadis, Aida? is a terrific dramatic thriller, The Man Who Sold His Skin has a tone more in line with Another Round. Set in modern times and relying on a dark sense of humor to go with the dramatic and slightly satirical story on display, this is a film that is an easier watch than the premise may expect. That largely comes from the film allowing Mahayni to breathe life into the lead performance and not just serve as a stagnant piece of art.
As a fairly active protagonist, Mahayni openly expresses his thoughts on being turned into a commodity, let alone how he’s treated by those choosing to view him. I wish there was more urgency in this story, as the lost love plot seems to come and go as far as the level of importance in this story. However, the intrigue rightfully comes from watching Sam navigate a world where he is viewed as an exhibit.
In that regard, there is more to take away from the film as far as seeing it serve as a stylish commentary on the art scene. It manages to avoid some of those obvious contemporary art jokes (no one walks by a piece of garbage, convinced it’s art) in favor of putting up the conversation that revolves around art-based commerce intersecting with immigration and human trafficking. The film is still too lean to deliver an insightful message that extends beyond “be careful what you wish for” and surface-level thoughts on the political situation. However, this is an engaging watch.
The Man Who Sold His Skin is breezier than expected, but it delivers solid filmmaking to go alongside its provocative setup.
Where To Watch: Available in select theaters on April 9, 2021.