L.A. Weekly’s Movie Guide is your look at the hottest films available on your TV sets, electronic devices and in select drive-ins throughout Southern California. L.A. theaters remain closed, but there’s no shortage of diverse and engaging films to see at home. And as always, our film critics let you know what’s worth the watch time and what’s not — from indie art house gems to popcorn-perfect blockbusters to new movies garnering buzz. Here are some of the biggest titles that came out in February, as reviewed by Asher Luberto, Chad Byrnes and Lina Lecaro.
I Care a Lot / Netflix
There’s something of a charade going on in the title of I Care a Lot. It’s not that the protagonist of this smart, bleakly comedic film doesn’t care, it’s that she doesn’t care about other people, their problems, or their loved ones. She just cares about their money.
Rosamund Pike stars as Marla Grayson, a caregiver and con-artist who steals money from her patients. In pink lipstick and too-tall-heels, with a convincing smile, she seems nice and innocent, going along with her good-girl routine until she drops the act and bleeds her victims dry. It’s made her a lot of money over the years, but it’s made her a lot of enemies, too. When she picks a fight with the wrong grandma, Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), she winds up in a standoff with the Russian mafia, who aren’t messing around when it comes to enacting revenge.
J Blakeson’s film isn’t all that violent, but it has the attitude and tone of a crime thriller, rendered in turquoise colors. Marla utilizes her ultra-rich presentation of long blonde bangs, dresses and Ray Bans as armor, a disguise, and as a weapon in war. It’s how Marla sets up her operation, drawing her victims in before they can see what’s hiding under the (masc)ara.
Every stylistic choice, from the pitch-perfect production design by Michael Grasley to the lush compositions of cinematographer Doug Emmett, mirror our leading lady and her actions. The synth heavy, arpeggio-laden score assists in the tonal swings that playfully jump from irony to horror to exploitation, as Marla does. She code-switches with ease from warm banter to vicious, glamorous, Beverly Hills gold digger, and Pike makes her a character you wish you could reach out and strangle. Most people would take that as an insult. Marla? She could care less. (Asher Luberto)
French Exit / Vineland Drive-in (opening weekend) & select theaters: tickets.frenchexitmovie.com/tickets/)
There is something oddly charming about characters who live by outdated principles and would probably be better off existing in a bygone era. Think Gene Hackman as the befuddled, cigarette puffing patriarch in The Royal Tenenbaums, or Kevin Kline’s snobbish, part-time gigolo in the criminally unknown, The Extra Man, who mutters absurdities like, “I’m against the education of women. It dulls their senses and affects their performance in the boudoir.”
Obviously, these aren’t model citizens and the filmmakers are fully aware of their shortcomings. But if your goal is to be inspired by your protagonists, the theater of the farcical and absurd is not for you. Now we have French Exit, in which Michelle Pfeiffer plays Frances Price, a wealthy widow who’s squandered the last of her inheritance and impulsively sells her belongings to live in Paris with her cat, Small Frank, and glum, impassive son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges). Pfeiffer breathes life into someone that could’ve been a glorified caricature, embodying the character with a cold bemusement as if the world were a tiresome exhibit she must endure with a cigarette and martini. Directed by Azazel Jacobs and adapted by Patrick DeWitt from his novel, French Exit is unapologetic in its detached tone and portrait of absurd socialites.
In Paris, Francis and Malcolm encounter a cast of equally oddball characters as they drift in and out of an existentialist haze. With its soft focus and bleak narrative, Exit feels like a Camus novel filtered through a satirical lens. Some will take umbrage as she slowly gives her money away in an almost suicidal malaise. It’s almost as if she’s creating an abyss for herself she’ll never crawl out of.
When she first meets her son’s fiancé (Imogen Poots), Frances groans, “Ah, to be young-ish and in love-ish” with a wry languor that’s almost flawless in its detachment. She only seems to care about her son and her cat, who she claims inhabits the soul of her late husband. Unfortunately, the film loses steam by favoring sentiment and awkward moments over screwball comedy; specifically, there’s a scene involving a séance that belongs in a different movie altogether.
In the end, French Exit is a fun albeit frustrating experience. Its struggle to inhabit both drama and satire reminds us of why Wes Anderson and Whit Stillman are so talented. Still, Pfeiffer’s deadpan performance shimmers and her character conveys antiquated cynicism with a unique charisma we don’t see anymore. (Chad Byrnes)
Palmer / Apple+
Director Fisher Stevens’ feature debut Palmer, written by Stevens and Cheryl Guerriero is a lot like its taciturn protagonist, Palmer (Justin Timberlake), in that it’s more concerned with fitting in than being individual. The storytelling is formulaic, deliberately familiar, and prosaic, sometimes frustratingly so.
Palmer is a sad, quiet man who has spent the last decade in prison and returns home to live with his grandma, Vivian (June Squibb). He’s got the ex-con beard and hoodie and thousand-yard-stare, but his life changes when he finds himself babysitting Sam (Ryder Allen), the child of a heroin addict next door. Sam isn’t like the other boys–he plays with barbies– which means Palmer is going to have to teach him a thing or two about being a man.
This cute kid/tough guy dynamic is one we’ve seen a million times before, but the sentimental tropes aren’t given enough life or breath here. It’s nice to see Palmer embrace Sam for who he is, warts and quirks and all, but it takes nearly two-hours to get there, and everything that comes before is as cruel and conventional as Palmer himself. (Asher Luberto)
Crisis / VOD
There’s a chance that a few minutes into Nicholas Jarecki’s Crisis you might experience a sense of déjà vu, particularly from the year 2000. If you think to yourself, “ Hmm, this movie is kind of like Traffic,” don’t worry, you’re not going crazy. This is a direct rip-off of the Steven Soderbergh classic, on an almost embarrassing level. As you might remember, Traffic told several different stories using the illegal drug trade from Mexico as a backdrop. The plot followed several players, from a politician and his drug addicted daughter to a Tijuana cop grappling with a test of morality. The film pioneered cinematic storytelling and garnered three Academy Awards for director Steven Soderbergh, supporting actor Benicio Del Toro and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan.
Crisis takes its structural cues from Traffic, intertwining several stories within a framework about the drug trade (in this case the U.S.’s rising opioid epidemic). Although both movies have a similar composition, tonally at least, they’re miles apart. While Soderbergh seamlessly shifted between narratives by utilizing color schemes and a handheld camera, resulting in a documentary-like slow burn, this film is a hodgepodge of dramatic flourishes and muddled exposition. It aims for rugged authenticity, but comes off as pure melodrama. The three revolving stories include Evangeline Lilly as a recovering opioid addict who hits the streets to find out what happened to her missing son; Gary Oldman as a conflicted university professor hired by a large pharmaceutical company to put his stamp of approval on a questionable painkiller; and Armie Hammer (yes, the guy who’s been making headlines in all the recent gossip columns) as a DEA agent who gets in over his head regarding a drug deal with an Armenian syndicate. These tales ping-pong between each other. Sometimes they pop, other times, they wither in paralysis.
Director Nicholas Jarecki (Arbitrage) has some masterful chops and keeps the pace moving with a fluid rhythm. The acting is effective, especially Oldman (then again he could star in a movie where he sits in a room and drinks beer and it would be engaging). The main problem is the script. The stories simply overwhelm themselves. You forget who did what and why and after a while you just don’t care. Each narrative contains too much exposition, which is dangerous for a movie that has three simultaneous stories. Traffic’s greatest asset was the simplicity of its storytelling. Soderbergh realized that if you exited one story, it had to still be digestible when you returned to it. When Jarecki pulls away from a narrative regarding an Armenian syndicate and plunges you into a debacle regarding pharmaceutical politics, you have to re-calibrate yourself. You might be able to follow these sagas, but you’ll lose some of emotional currency along the way. (Chad Byrnes)
The Map of Tiny Perfect Things / Amazon
Live. Die. Repeat. That’s the premise of all time loop movies -from Groundhog Day to Edge of Tomorrow, Palm Springs to 12 Dates of Christmas– with each commenting on the importance a day makes. The Map of Tiny Perfect Things adds a wrinkle to the formula with its smarmy but charming YA romance.
When we first meet Mark (Kyle Allen), he’s already gone through the Live, Die, Repeat cycle more times than he can count. He knows how the day plays out, anticipating every moment like Andy Samberg on a dance floor, or Bill Murray on a walk through Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. But then he runs into fellow teenager Margaret (Kathryn Newton), who is in the same loop, and together they catalog all the random moments of delight in their town, which may or may not lead to a few surprises.
Against the small-town backdrop and breezy rock soundtrack, Mark and Margaret will reckon with what it means to be stuck in time. How will you live your life when there are no consequences for anything you do? Drive a forklift to school? No detention. Eat shit on a skateboard? No injuries. Embarrass yourself in front of a cute girl? No problem. Director Ian Samuels has some fun with this carefree premise, infusing it with long takes and zippy montages and a few self-reflexive jokes (shoutout Kurt Godel!), but he also takes the time to flesh out Mark and Margaret, who become increasingly frazzled with the monotonous whirl.
The canon of infinite time loop texts is often about finding beauty in the banality, their protagonists learning to appreciate every second of everyday. That’s the lesson Mark and Margaret come to terms with here, as they learn to appreciate the tiny perfect things in life and, eventually, appreciate each other. (Asher Luberto)
To All the Boys: Always and Forever / Netflix
When To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before came out in 2018, it was a pop-culture phenomenon, watched by over 80 million Netflix subscribers worldwide. Audiences fell in love with the adorable and innocent Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) and one of her crushes, Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo), enveloped in the retro-fantasy of the jock who falls for the bookish (yet gorgeous) shy girl at school. But every great rom-com is about making the lovebirds work for their happily ever after ending, so in the sequel, To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You, some variables were thrown in the mix, namely, another boy who tried to swoop Laura Jean off her feet (as if). Now, one year later, the couple face a different kind of variable.
As Lara Jean and Peter approach high school graduation, their plans to go to Stanford together are up in the air- as is their future. After a senior trip to New York City, Lara Jean falls for the campus of NYU, and she’ll have to decide between her boyfriend and her college. As in the previous films, this central conflict doesn’t feel like a conflict at all, since we already know where Lara Dean’s heart lies, making for an empty calorie, candy colored desert. It’s a tasty, risk-free treat that’s a little too sweet at times, but is full of heart and flavor and sprinkles. As for that happy ending? That’s just the icing on the cake. (Asher Luberto)
Our Friend / VOD
Don’t let the presence of everyone’s favorite awkward funny guy Jason Segal fool ya. Our Friend is not a comedy. Based on journalist Matthew Teague’s 2015 essay for Esquire magazine, the film is about a man (Casey Affleck), his wife Nicole (Dakota Johnson) and their best friend Dane (Segel), and how each deals with her battle with terminal cancer. Teague’s loving tribute to the friend who moved in with them and helped them through it all- from taking care of their two daughters to the couple’s relationship conflicts to the mundane household stuff- is heart-warming to watch in film form and each actor brings a lowkey realness to the story that’s extremely likeable. Well, Affleck isn’t really likeable, but his shortcomings seem to be part of the point here. All three of the main characters are in fact, quite imperfect.
Via flashbacks (there are lots of flashbacks in this movie), we learn that Nicole had an infidelity, while Matthew traveled all the time and maybe wasn’t that attentive before the diagnosis. Dane is somewhat of a loser professionally working in a sporting goods store with dreams of doing stand-up. When he drops his entire life to be there for the Teagues, it’s clear he’s not giving up much- except a budding relationship that he doesn’t seem all that into. His offer to stay with and help his besties gives him a sense of purpose. Mostly he just really wants to make things a little less hard for all involved.
Despite, the deterioration and sense of doom and death that darkens and hangs over the family’s situation and Our Friend’s entire narrative, there’s plenty of light here thanks to Johnson and Segel’s effortless chemistry, which they also display with the great young actresses who play Teague’s daughters. Yes, this is a film genre I coined as “mourn porn,” but unlike other movies of its ilk, it never feels manipulative, it feels matter of fact, even when its extremely emotional. We all know what’s coming and like the characters here, we accept it- in the movie and in reality. If you appreciate the time you have to watch these people and their story, a takeaway about your own life and appreciating loved ones is almost certain. (Lina Lecaro)
Malcolm & Marie / Netflix
Had high hopes for this one based on the premise and feel of the previews, but mostly the cast, which everybody knows by now, consists of just two people: Zendaya and John David Washington. Shot in sumptuous black and white, with a sexy and soulful soundtrack periodically punctuating the dialog but more often simply making the whole thing palatable, Malcolm & Marie has received as much praise as it has backlash. It deserves both.
Written and directed by Sam Levinson, who works with Zendaya on HBO’s Euphoria, the COVID-era production details a nightlong argument between a young couple after Malcolm (who is a filmmaker) sees his new movie premiere. There’s some real truth and biting commentary wielded in the wordy dialog here- about filmmaking, about film critiqueing, about relationship dynamics, about baggage, about appreciation, and about the racial divide. And it’s enjoyable to watch these two fine actors dig into it. Until it’s not.
About half-way through, it’s not. This is a toxic relationship and you start to wonder what either gets out of it. Are they both that fucked up? Marie is a former drug addict (and aspiring actress) who inspired Malcolm’s movie, and Malcolm is a narcissist who is probably with this young woman precisely because of her dysfunction. Did he use her story for his movie’s narrative? Maybe. Do we even care midway through? Nope.
The fly on the wall approach and attention to detail in Malcolm & Marie is visually enticing (Zendaya’s sultry 70’s-style maxi dress, the swanky modern pad, the much-discussed mac n’ chese prep). Each actor does a fine job with the mouth-full that’s been written for them too (in a recent interview defending the film, Zendaya said that Levinson’s script was inspired by their conversations and that as producers, the actors had a lot of input, so the slams against a white man writing of Black struggle are somewhat unwarranted). Those involved clearly had fun flexing their chops here, especially since it was made as a creative escape during quarantine. The performances are believable, but that doesn’t make them relatable or likeable. Unless you’re a superfan, with only two people on screen, it doesn’t leave a lot to like, period. (Lina Lecaro)