It may have never begun, but 2020’s Summer movie season has officially ended. I may not have seen Tenet as of yet, but I can’t say I’ve struggled to find things to write about. This week’s reviews include a drama about a missing little girl, a look at mental illness, a witty romantic comedy, an apartment-based thriller, a madcap comedy-drama about some unlikely bonding, and a classic Jackie Chan flick. The following features reviews for Still Here, Paper Spiders, The Broken Hearts Gallery, 1BR, Give Me Liberty, and a retro look back at The Legend of Drunken Master.
Paper Spiders: 8 out of 10
The Setup: A high school senior (Stefania LaVie Owen) on the verge of graduation, must deal with her recently-widowed mother (Lili Taylor), who is showing increasing signs of paranoid delusions.
Review: I feel like that setup is going to make this movie sound pretty intense. Paper Spider does arrive at moments where frustration and anxiety boil over into some harrowing moments, but there is a mix of tones going on here. At best, the blending of lighter, even comedic elements that feel more akin to a YA movie is handled well in preserving a particular atmosphere for the film as a whole. At worst, there’s a bit too much whiplash (sometimes predictably), threatening to push the movie over and edge.
Understandably, this is by design. Director Inon Shampanier based the film around experiences of his wife and co-writer Natalie Shampanier, whose mother was a victim of persecutory personality disorder. As a film, Paper Spiders does well in establishing the positive relationship Taylor’s Dawn and Owen’s Melanie have before things take a turn for the worse.
At the same time, following Melanie’s storyline means getting the perspective of someone without the tools to deal with a very serious issue. This allows the viewer to feel as helpless as she does, amid various forms of high school drama, keeping the film familiar and accessible to a broader audience. Still, it is Taylor who dives into her role, defining a sense of sadness and confusion for a character who simply can’t recognize the problems she is having with her reality.
The fortunate thing is the approach to the material. There’s a way to have this film serve as a pure PSA, complete with an unrealistic happy ending. Paper Spiders goes to further extremes, and while it may lean towards the melodramatic, there’s a sense of messiness allowing for more authenticity than one may find in less assured dramas. Particularly when it comes to handling mental illness, I appreciated the level of nuance most likely stemming from the Shampaniers drawing from their real-life experiences.
This makes for a worthwhile feature that is well-performed and worthy of the ending it finds for the tangled web of a mental journey the characters go through. Things may be tough to overcome, but Paper Spiders is a winner.
Where To Watch: Paper Spiders was the opening night film at the Dances With Film Festival. It does not have a release date as of yet.
The Setup: A New York journalist is assigned the story of a young, black girl who has gone missing. He puts in the effort to chase leads in an attempt to find her, while the girl’s father balances his own search with his emotional state and distrust of the police who have offered little help. As the situation gains attention, the cops take a harder look at the situation, bringing out their issues in handling suspects.
Review: Within this mess of a story is one key performance that is so strong I feel bad that Vlad Feier and Peter Gutter’s screenplay felt the need to minimalize it with other subplots. Maurice McRae is the father to the missing girl, and the film opens with his anxiety-ridden stream of consciousness, followed by his daily attempts to hang fliers and ask around about his daughter. This is an excellent performance. McRae is very strong, and I can only hope he can bring that energy to future films that are ideally more worthy.
I’m not saying Johnny Whitworth’s performance as a successful white journalist is terrible, but the film’s use of him as a gateway into certain parts of New York felt dated in a way that took me out of the film. Regardless of the film’s disclaimer of being ‘based on true events,’ that angle is played out. The film, fortunately, features him less than one may expect, but that’s only because of another misguided angle.
Particularly when looking at 2020, having Jeremy Holm and Danny Johnson fill major roles as police officers who try to bring insight to why police can go too far with their use of force is poorly timed, to say the least. I couldn’t wait for these characters to go away for a while, allowing me to get back to what was working best – the family drama surrounding this crisis.
It’s a shame the film falls apart in the second half, complete with a very rushed final 20 minutes, batting away all chances to feel much of an impact once the story finds a way to resolve itself.
The Setup: After her latest breakup, a young woman in New York, with a knack for hoarding souvenirs from past relationships, decides to start a gallery where people can leave trinkets from past relationships. She builds this gallery in a pop-up space owned by a man who may just be the right next step.
Review: This movie is the sort of comfortable watch many can enjoy as far as being a rom-com with a fair amount of wit to go with it. While the familiar beats are all present, this film has more than enough personality to work as a vibrant example of how to take a familiar premise and add what’s needed to make it worthwhile.
Sure, the romantic angle concerning Geraldine Viswanathan’s Lucy is enough to set the film on a path of whether or not she’ll end up with Dacre Montgomery’s Nick, despite being hung up on Utkarsh Ambudkar’s Max. That said, a lot of work has gone into creating a fun hangout vibe, whether it’s when Lucy, Nick, and Arturo Castro’s Marcos are putting together the gallery, or when Lucy hangs out with her best friends and roommates Amanda (Molly Gordon) and Nadine (Phillipa Soo).
All of these characters are given personalities, however thin they may be, but that should only matter so much. Like any genre film, these roles are designed to fit a particular set of people living in a heightened universe. With that in mind, the stakes never need to be all that high, regardless of simple plot details like Nick’s pending bank loan, or what’s going on in the love lives of these various people.
Additionally, the actual gallery is a neat concept from a visual perspective. As this is a film that recognizes the benefit of having a unique set, it only helps to see it go further in establishing itself as a modern romantic comedy that has more than generic production design to add to its story. The notion of a film showing how the power of art can heal emotional wounds also doesn’t go overlooked, which adds to the value of a film doing more than just the standard formula.
This is all a long way of saying The Broken Hearts Gallery is a fun and funny film. The actors all share relaxed chemistry with one another, and director/writer Natalie Krinsky adds enough flair to make the movie stand out in its own way. That’s a gallery worth checking out.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters, starting September 11, 2020.
The Setup: Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom) lucks into finding a nice, one-bedroom apartment in a decent part of Los Angeles. It’s a well-maintained complex, and the neighbors mostly seem friendly, but all is not as it seems. Soon enough, Sarah finds herself as a part of something she would have never expected.
Review: I feel it wouldn’t be appropriate to reveal too much of what is going on in 1BR (short for one-bedroom). As I merely found this film as one of the “popular new films” on Netflix, I expected some kind of thriller, but I can’t say I knew where this one was going after the 30-minute mark.
Suffice it to say that 1BR becomes more brutal than I would have expected, which is primarily due to casting someone as unknowing as Bloom. With only a few credits, being placed as the lead in a horror film means being ready to take on difficult emotional tasks, and credit goes to having someone so seemingly innocent step up to what this film deals out.
With a set of odd performances led by Taylor Nichols and Giles Matthey, enough is going on in this film to make for a feature channeling a Rosemary’s Baby-like conspiracy. That’s not revealing anything, aside from the idea that people and spaces are more than what they seem. That said, at 90 minutes, there’s only so far 1BR chooses to take this premise.
Perhaps there’s something to admire about an extended look at a certain kind of lifestyle we are witness to, but David Marmour’s debut feature still ends up feeling like a stronger calling card than a complete thought. Even with an exciting tease at the end, this is a film making me glad the rent wasn’t too high.
Where To Watch: Now Available on Netflix.
The Setup: A medical transport driver risks his job to shuttle a group of rowdy seniors and a Russian boxer to a funeral, dragging other clients, including a young woman with ALS, along for the ride.
Review: What a ride this movie is! Kirill Mikhanovsky’s Give Me Liberty is the kind of film that would be frustrating if it wasn’t so fun, and yet, with a cast mostly made up of non-professional actors, the movie somehow covers a lot of ground on a wild, eventful day.
Right away, anyone can see just how much of a mensch Chris Galust’s Vic is. Whatever led him to his job, he has so much patience for the passengers he finds himself obligated to shuttle all over town. Following a setup showing what kind of life he is living and the words of wisdom he’s receiving, we’re off to the races with a series of events taking us on an off a shuttle.
One wouldn’t think so much humor could come out of this scenario. Still, between the machinations of the scheming Dima (Maxim Stoyanov) and the down-to-earth sensibilities of Tracy (Lauren “Lolo” Spencer), the young woman with ALS, the events and commentary on the situation make for a delightful feature. And that’s just the first hour.
While there’s a bit of a comedown in building towards a greater story, the film picks up more speed once Vic and Tracy meet up again later on in the evening. The film then becomes more resonant in the way it incorporates ideas concerning social justice, balancing the immigrant-heavy story found in the first half.
That we see events registering as thrilling towards the film’s finale is well-balanced by the warmth coming from the characters, and other relatable elements that simply speak to a day that’s been exacerbated by road closures, unscheduled stops, and the choice to be helpful.
Where To Watch: Available to rent on Amazon Prime Video and other streaming platforms.
The Setup: A young martial artist is unwittingly caught between respecting his pacifist father’s wishes or stopping a group of foreigners from stealing precious artifacts, using a style of fighting called drunken boxing.
Review: Sometimes you have to ask yourself, “Is this the best Jackie Chan film?” For over 40 years, Chan has pushed himself to serious limits for our entertainment. That his achievements have both been rewarded with an honorary Academy Award and co-opted, in some ways, by Tom Cruise, only add to the kind of spectacle Chan has been able to deliver for audiences by having his body at risk so often (it doesn’t hurt that Chan is seemingly well-liked by all). That said, what is the film that truly stands strongest for him?
I’m not sure if it is, in fact, 1994’s The Legend of Drunken Master (aka Drunken Master II), but it would easily be in the conversation, and likely features Chan’s best pure martial arts-based fights. Regardless, this film is one of many examples of how talented the man is, with less of a focus on the environment he’s fighting in specifically (though there are some unique locations), and more of a mind towards watching Chan take on a variety of opponents, succeeding through his use of drunken boxing, among other fighting styles.
Yes, Police Story may be Chan’s best set piece-related movie (and shout-out to Shanghai Knights claiming that honor, as far as his Hollywood films), but Drunken Master II skillfully balances Chan’s sense of humor with some fierce fights that find him contending with axes, swords, bladed staffs, and objects found in a steel factory, including hot coals (he crawled over them twice for our entertainment!). Sure, there’s a story to connect it all together, but it’s not as much an essential focus as it is a way to watch this man barrel his way through so many opponents and other obstacles.
This was, at one time, Chan’s final period film set in China, and you can see the effort he wanted to put in going all out with a sequel to the film that helped heighten his popularity. Fortunately, while I’ve only seen the cut of the film released through Miramax, it’s the least re-edited of all the movie “Harvey Scissorhands” put out in America. As a result, you have a film that combines lots of different fighting styles, pits Chan against a variety of opponents (sometimes a few, sometimes a lot more), and is never less than thrilling when it comes to the elaborate choreography.
Whether or not this is the best Jackie Chan film, it’s one any martial arts action fan should see.
Where To Watch: Available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.