Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Film Reviews: Omnibus Round-Up of Recent Film Releases, Including the Romantic “The Greatest Hits,” the Violent “Monkey Man” and the Filmed Version of The One-Man Show, “Just for Us”

Looking for some films to see either in theaters or on streaming? Here are some interesting films I’ve seen in the last couple of weeks I recommend. 

The Greatest Hits (c) Searchlight Films

Film: The Greatest Hits 
In Cinemas and Streaming on Hulu 

There is so much to enjoy in the film The Greatest Hits, but I have to bring up the one thing that bothered me throughout: the plot. I certainly love a high concept film, and here we have Harriet (Lucy Boynton), who, when she hears a song that reminds her of dead boyfriend Max (David Corenswet, the newest Superman), she is suddenly transported to that moment. Is she actually time-traveling or is she having psychological breaks with reality? When the film finally answers that question, I was totally frustrated with the logistics, which is always a problem a film that plays with time or multiverses has to face. But this crazy plot does produce a sweet romance between Harriet and David (Justin H. Min of After Yang) who meet at a grief support meeting but may also be involved in each other’s tragic narrative. Director Ned Benson, who gave us the nonlinear romance, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, has a stronger authoritative grip here before the complicated plot soon overwhelms the love story. Still worth a watch. 

Femme (c) Signature Entertainment

Film: Femme 
In Cinemas 

“Femme,” written and directed by Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping, starts out a revenge fantasy before going into the murkier theme of traumatic forgiveness, especially since we get to witness the horrible inciting attack that starts this British indie film. Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) is a locally famous, black drag queen who is beaten one night by a gang of thugs, instigated by Preston (George Mackay), a heavily tattooed young man. Months later, at a gay sauna, Jules runs into Preston, who can only express his shameful gay feeling through violence, and in order to find out more about his attacker, Jules hooks up with Preston (who doesn’t recognize Jules out of drag). What follows is a tense and curious interaction between the two in which Preston slowly thaws to the idea of having a boyfriend while Jules oscillates between sympathizing with Preston’s situation and punishing him for the attack. Where it goes may not be wholly satisfying, but the journey is immensely enhanced by the actors. Mackay, who was the main soldier in 1917, seems to be making the same exciting choices in roles as Harris Dickenson, but it’s Stewart-Jarrett who’s the breakout actor here, and he always keeps you interested, even when his character’s motives are questionable. 

Shirley (c) Netflix

Film: Shirley 
Streaming on Netflix 

Netflix is continuing its series of black civil rights era film, following the Oscar-nominated One Night in Miami, The Trial of the Chicago 7 and last year’s Rustin with Shirley, which is less a biography of the first Black woman to run for president, in 1972, and more a study of politics of the era that not only facilitated the rise of her campaign in a racially divided America but also its ultimate failure. Like Rustin, which benefited from a magnetic performance by Coleman Domingo as Bayard Rustin, Shirley is immensely lifted by Regina King, who plays Shirley Chisholm as a no-nonsense but wholly sympathetic politician. The film starts with Chisholm being the first Black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1968, representing New York. Give this film credit there’s no flashback to her childhood or any other biographical milestones. Shirley starts with her election and every fight she has to confront after that (including being laughably assigned to the House Agriculture Committee her freshman term). From there, writer-director John Ridley (who won an Oscar for his screenplay for 12 Years of Slave) mostly recounts the many political setbacks and triumphs that lead Shirley to run for president. With her husband (Michael Cherrie) as the head of security, a former student (Lucas Hedges) heading the youth vote (this being the first presidential election in which 18-year-olds can vote) and the financial backing of Stanley Townsend (Brian Stokes Mitchell), the film successfully maps out and explains Chisholm’s complicated campaign, including backroom dealing with political enemies. With this kind of investigative storytelling, things tend to become a bit dry or repetitive, but you can always count on King, who anchors the heart of the film with dignity and strength, to keep you invested in her journey. 

Monkey Man (c) Universal Pictures

Film: Monkey Man 
In Cinemas 

Actor Dev Patel has been a Slumdog (Millionaire) and a Lion (for which he was nominated for an Oscar), but now he has morphed into a Monkey Man in his directorial debut. If you only know Patel from his proper British work in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and the Wes Anderson series of Roald Dahl shorts, his role as the nameless, Indian, vigilante boxer seeking revenge will be a revelation. He has created a role for himself that combines John Wick, the Bride from Kill Bill and Doctor Strange into a role he acts with abandon. It’s a violent, brutal affair (with an inventive, Indian twist), but the film gets a chance to slow down with a detour to the land of the Manic Pixie Dream Trans People (you’ll have to see it to believe it). Patel is certainly a charismatic actor, and now he can add action star to his résumé, which is a reason the James Bond people should add him to the next 007 list. 

Housekeeping for Beginners (c) Focus Features

Film: Housekeeping for Beginners 
In Cinemas 

Writer and director Goran Stolevski is a Macedonian native living in Australia. His last film, Of an Age, followed a budding queer romance in Melbourne between a Macedonian refugee and a young local. For his latest film, Stolevski returns to North Macedonia at a safe house for gay people with no place to turn. It is run by Dita (Anamaria Marinca), an older social worker, and her partner, Suada (Alina Serban), who is diagnosed with cancer and makes Dita promise to look after her two daughters after she’s gone. So, in this mostly carefree and chaotic atmosphere, some semblance of order must be maintained for the kids to stay with Dita, who also convinces one of the few male residents, Toni (Vladimir Tintor), to pretend to be the kids’ father. This leads to a lot of compelling complications, especially in the unconventional, found-family household setting. Most of the drama surrounds the older teenage daughter Vanesa (Mia Mustafa), who unfortunately is the least interesting character in the plot. Still, this is a fascinating premise and with a commanding performance by Marinca, it is an immensely watchable and satisfying film. 

Wicked Little Letters (c) Sony Pictures Classics

Film: Wicked Little Letters 
In Cinemas 

What starts out as your typical, post-WWI, small town, British slice-of-life drama turns into something a bit more fun in director Thea Sharrock’s immensely enjoyable and subversively feminist film. The craziest part of this plot is that it’s based on a true story that happened in the small seaside town of Littlehampton. Edith Swan (Olivia Colman) is a deeply religious middle-aged woman, still living with her parents, who starts to receive the titular, anonymous letters in which she is cruelly berated (with much profanity) and threatened. The most likely culprit is her next-door neighbor Rose (Jessie Buckley), who is a boisterous free-spirted Irish woman raising her daughter with her latest boyfriend. Edith believes Rose blames her for child protective services being called against her, which is when the letters start arriving. Rose is arrested, but Gladys Moss (Anjana Vasan), the only woman in the local police department, believes her male cohorts are ignoring some basic, contradictory evidence. With the other women in the community (including scene-stealing turns by Joanna Scanlan and Eileen Atkins), Gladys starts her own investigation into who is behind these missives. The story doesn’t really hold much surprise (the mystery of the letter writer is revealed about 15 minutes after most of the audience had already figured it out), so the biggest joy of this film is seeing Buckley and Colman (both Oscar nominated for playing the younger and older versions of the same character in The Lost Daughter) play off each other. And be ready for a lot of naughty words coming out of many proper British mouths. That’s always fun. 

Just For Us (c) Max

Film: Alex Edelman: Just For Us 
Streaming on Max 

I saw (and reviewed) the stage version of Just For Us when it started Off-Broadway in 2022 and again during its Broadway run in 2023, both of which I loved. So, if you missed either of these iterations (or its many international stops in between), you are in luck because Alex Edelman’s wildly successful one-man show has been filmed and is currently streaming on Max. Everything that worked on stage has smoothly transferred to film by director Alex Timbers. I look forward to what the future holds for young Alex, but for now, enjoy his breakthrough show about how the comedian born Dovid Yoisef Shimon ben Elazar Reuven Alexander Halevi Edelman found himself at a White Nationalist meeting in Queens. It’s a wild ride.

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