The main film of this week will test whether audiences are ready for a Blue Beetle. Meanwhile, on the smaller side of things, there’s some interesting stuff coming in this August. This set of write-ups two sci-fi comedies, a Netflix action flick, a time travel drama, a music biopic, and a uniquely staged murder mystery. The following features reviews for Landscape With Invisible Hand, Jules, Heart of Stone, Aporia, Dreamin’ Wild, and Medusa Deluxe.
The Setup: Two teens (Asante Blackk and Kylie Rogers) hatch a risky plan to save their families when an occupying alien species leaves most of the planet impoverished and unemployed.
Review: Having watched this film back during the Sundance Film Festival, what has continued to stand out for me are the alien designs in this film. As it stands, Landscape With Invisible Hand is a pretty clever sci-fi comedy from director/writer Cory Finley (who gave us the excellent 2017 film Thoroughbreds, as well as the very solid Bad Education). I have not read the M.T. Anderson novel this film is based on, but the premise is neat. In a world where aliens (the Vuvv) have already arrived and taken over, making the work of humans largely obsolete, all that’s left are various ways to scrape by using tourism and live-streaming to entertain the aliens.
That leaves us with Adam (Blackk), the artistic high schooler, and his mother (Tifanny Haddish delivering a solid dramatic and occasionally comedic performance) finding ways to keep them afloat. There’s a sense of humor to go along with the sort of fantastical crisis on display, complete with wild turns of events to help keep things interesting. The film loses some steam toward the end, but there’s far too much to like to turn away from what this film has to offer, and observing the way the Vuvv communicate alone, is worth checking out.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters starting August 18, 2023.
The Setup: A man’s (Ben Kingsley) quiet life gets upended when a UFO crashes in his backyard in rural Pennsylvania. As he befriends the mysterious extraterrestrial, things get complicated when two neighbors (Harriet Sansom Harris and Jane Curtin) discover it, and the government quickly closes in.
Review: I’ll be honest – at first glance, this film appeared too cute for its own good and didn’t interest me. However, I’m so happy I ended up watching Jules, as its low-key display of a comedic story focused on an older man and an alien really knew how to deliver a level of sweetness fit for any number of indie films designed to warm the heart a bit. Rather than play into more cynical ideas, Jules falls more in line with well-meaning little movies such as Safety Not Guaranteed or Brian and Charles.
There are some threats along the way, but the film is far more focused on Kingsley’s relationships. His interactions with his daughter (Succession’s Zöe Winters), his neighbors, and most importantly, Jules (Jade Quon, in a completely silent performance), the alien, allow the Oscar winner to dive in with a performance that’s more subtle than I’ve seen from him in some time. It’s a worthwhile close encounter.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters.
The Setup: Rachel Stone (Gal Gadot) is an intelligence operative, the only woman who stands between her powerful global peacekeeping organization and those threatening to steal its most valuable and dangerous asset, an advanced A.I.-based piece of technology.
Review: Here we are with another presumably costly Netflix action film that pales compared to what’s offered by the likes of onscreen endeavors featuring Ethan Hunt or James Bond. I will say this though, compared to Red Notice or The Grey Man, which matched the charisma of its stars with the opportunity to be some of the worst-looking $200 million blockbusters one could look at, Heart of Stone at least reads coherently.
No, the action is not death-defying, and the plot is nothing ultimately that interesting, but it feels like director Tom Harper had fun with the ideas presented by writers Greg Rucka (The Old Guard) and Allison Schroeder. At the very least, a mid-film twist keeps things engaging. With this in mind, Gadot, who also produced, may have a new franchise in mind with this film, but she’s also the weak link in this cast. With better direction, there may be new sides for Stone to work with in a possible future. As it stands, the film doesn’t sink, but it doesn’t quite soar either.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Netflix.
The Setup: Since losing her husband (Edi Gathegi) in a drunken driving accident, Sophie (Judy Greer) struggles to manage crippling grief, a full-time job, and the demands of parenting her devastated teenage daughter (Faithe Herman). When a former physicist (Payman Maadi) reveals that he’s been building a time-bending machine that could restore her former life, Sophie soon faces an impossible choice and unforeseeable consequences.
Review: As a science fiction film dealing with time travel, the approach may beg for further inspection. However, this is not a movie willing to dig deeper into its implications. As a relationship drama, however, there’s a lot to admire in the key performances on display, particularly from Greer, who is given a chance to lead this story and reckon with a number of emotional states related to the evolving understanding of her changing reality. The question of morality is also notable, given the unique approach to time travel seen here, but writer/director Jared Moshe feels content in keeping the human aspects at the forefront. This means the film has little to offer that would dare to push this film off course. Perhaps that can be frustrating to some bent on seeing an intense genre feature, but its modest goals still allow other parts to click.
Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters.
The Setup: Brothers Donnie (Casey Affleck) and Joe Emerson (Walton Goggins) find newfound musical success after their 1979 debut album “Dreamin’ Wild” is rediscovered three decades later.
Review: I like how much of a nice movie this is. Dreamin’ Wild is notably rated PG, which feels very rare for an independent music biopic, but it very much speaks to the sort of stakes director/writer Bill Pohlad (Love & Mercy) was after. This is not a scandalous story. No, Dreamin’ Wild focuses on what happens when a pair of musician brothers find a late second chance to see success in something they had so much passion for as kids. Noah Jupe and Jack Dylan Grazer step in as the younger versions of the brothers, with the film using a flashback structure to fill out the story, and it puts a pretty solid display up regarding what passion can do to someone. Strong performances from all involved, including Zooey Deschanel, Beau Bridges, and Chris Messina, allow this film to feel generally agreeable, even if it meanders a bit during its journey to finding closure. Also, the music is pretty good!
Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters.
The Setup: A murder mystery set in a competitive hairdressing contest. Extravagance and excess collide, as the death of a contestant sows seeds of division in a community whose passion for hair verges on obsession.
Review: While I bristle at the notion of declaring a film to be a future cult classic, it’s hard to argue with Medusa Deluxe rightfully earning that sort of regard. This is a low-budget, independent British film with so much style and attitude on its mind. Writer/director Thomas Hardiman clearly had a ball developing this feature, which involves an elaborate hairstyling competition, an ambitious approach to a whodunit, and plenty of reasons to admire the carefully thought-out production design. This is especially noteworthy, considering how a good chunk of the film’s middle section is displayed all in one long continuous take.
All of that, and it still relies largely on letting Black voices have a say in this genre, where the lighting, music, and tone are just as important as the murder these characters are dealing with. Medusa Deluxe is a bold, innovative, and bizarre work of cinema. It’s also quite involving for those happy to enjoy a bit of midnight madness stemming from the dizzyingly effective use of dark humor.
Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters and available on VOD.