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 watchtime and what’s not — from indie art house gems to popcorn-perfect blockbusters to new movies garnering buzz– indicating where you can catch them whether it be digital Video on Demand (VOD) or streaming subscription services. Here are some the biggest titles that came out in recent weeks as reviewed by Chuck Wilson, Asher Luberto and Lina Lecaro.
When French astronaut Sarah Loreau (Eva Green) arrives in Russia to join the next crew of the International Space Station, it doesn’t take long for her American commander (Matt Dillon) to accuse her of being a “space tourist.” She’s a woman, after all, and a mother of an eight-year-old to boot, and surely a woman can’t handle both motherhood and the rigors of space science.
Sarah, who reads books and watches movies from an upside down position to prepare herself for the inverted gravity of space, is confident of her skills, but is worried that her daughter, Stella (Zélie Boulant-Lemesle) won’t be able to handle her mom being in space for a year. The two are inseparable, and the closer Sarah gets to launch day, the more agitated mother and daughter become.
This is the finest work of Green’s career but she’s matched by young Boulant-Lemesle, whose laser gaze surely forced Green to dig deeper, much as a questing child will cause an observant mother to surprise herself. The acting duo’s power is such that they manage to rescue the film from a third act plot turn that finds Sarah running off on a mom-errand the night before launch that’s almost too absurd to bear. If she had just asked, Stella would have told her mom to chill and focus on the mission. (Chuck Wilson)
Hillbilly Elegy / Netflix
Set in Middletown, Ohio, Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy is the kind of film you expect Saturday Night Live to spoof in a weekly sketch. This adaption of J.D. Vance’s memoir means well, but Howard’s cliched approach to filmmaking makes it hilarious for all the wrong reasons.
The film is OSCAR BAIT in all caps: it has star actors, lots of makeup and tons of ugly crying. It jumps back and forth between the late 1990’s and 2011, when the now-grown J.D. (Gabriel Basso) is called back to Ohio from New Haven, Con., where he lives with his sexy and sophisticated girlfriend (Freida Pinto), applying for summer internships at big-city law firms. His mother, it seems, has had a heroine overdose. That O.D is one of many melodramatic turns taken by Vannessa Taylor’s screenplay, which lurches from one tragedy to another. There is no subtlety in this portrayal of rust belt America, which relies on exaggerated stereotypes to get its point across. Every side character is either a drug addict or fallen woman. Amy Adams, as J.D.’s mother, is both. Glenn Close, bless her heart, is meme-worthy as Grandma Vance. In one scene, she tells J.D. that, “the Polish bury their dead with their asses sticking up, that way they can park bikes in them.” It’s not supposed to be funny, but it is. (Asher Luberto)
Dance Dreams: The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker /Netflix
When Debbie Allen told performing arts students if they wanted fame, it would cost in sweat, she wasn’t kidding. That iconic role in Fame has become her life’s work via her LA-based Dance Academy (known as DADA). The new Shondaland doc Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, offers a brief chronicle of Allen’s award-winning career, but the focus here is her school’s annual ballet showcase, a giddy and soulful take on The Nutcracker that marks the start of the holiday season every year. Directed by Oliver Bolkenberg, the documentary shows how Allen, her staff and a slew of hopeful dancers go through the audition process then prepare and rehearse for the local dance tradition.
For the past 20 years, DADA has worked to open up the the opportunity for expression and movement that dance provides, providing opportunities for youth of color and helping to inspire talent from all walks of life regardless of financial status. Which makes the personal stories by Allen’s students the most inspiring aspect here. The dance world has not been particularly inclusive in terms body types and backrounds, and most academies are not cheap, so it takes real dedication to excel. Many Hot Chocolate performers have gone on to have successful careers as dancers, but as the film reminds us, learning the kind of discipine and teamwork that dance can provide is valuable no matter what field these young people chose to pursue. (Lina Lecaro)
Jingle Jangle / Netflix
While holiday spirit made the Grinch’s heart shrink, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey will expand the soul of most viewers. Those who take an interest in this Christmas musical will be charmed by its grand production and good intentions, particularly in its message about the merits of friendship.
Once upon a time, a brilliant inventor and toymaker named Jeronicus Jangles made a discovery, bringing a tin toy–a matador named Don Juan Diego–to life. Jeronicus plans to mass produce the toy, but his apprentice, Gustafson (Keegan Michael-Key), steals his prized creation, along with a host of other one-of-a-kind contraptions. 30 years later, Jeronicus (now played by Forest Whitaker) is out of ideas. It isn’t until he meets his granddaughter, Journey (Madelen Mills), that he finds the strength to work again. There’s a lot more in the mix, from a Christmas Day deadline to Gustafson’s plan to steal Jeronicus’ latest invention, Buddy 3000. But Talbert keeps things moving swiftly, elegantly and most excitingly as he punctuates the action with musical numbers written by Philip Lawrence, Davy Nathan and Michael Diskint, choreographed by Ashley Wallen.
The songs alone make Jingle Jangle worth a watch. Like the best Christmas stories, it will be passed down from generation to generation, whether on Netflix or DVD, as something to help families get into the holiday spirit. It’s simply spectacular. (Asher Luberto)
Recon / VOD
Beautifully written novels don’t always translate to the silver screen. A filmmaker can faithfully tell the book’s story but still miss the mark because a good novel’s power so often lies in the writer’s use of language. For Recon, writer-director Robert Port is admirably faithful to the plot and dialogue of Peace, a classic short 2008 novel by Richard Bausch, but the filmmaker struggles to find a visual equivalent for the “sick to his soul” introspection of the book’s main character.
Alexander Ludwig is Corporal Marson, the reluctant leader of a four man unit following an old man (Franco Nero) they don’t quite trust up an Italian mountainside in the closing days of World War II. They’re scouting Germans but the American soldiers are preoccupied by the memory of a local prostitute their commander murdered by the side of the road. Should they report him? Was it a crime or just war as usual? Voiceover and flashbacks make it clear that Marson can’t get the girl out of his head but Port stages her death so poorly at the film’s start that her presence fails to reverberate over the course of the film.
What does work in Recon are the emotionally committed performances of Ludwig, whose character feels far more than he can express, as well as Sam Keeley as Joyner, a brainy bigot an inch away from a nervous breakdown and Chris Brochu as Asch, a charming cynic who covers his fear with non-stop talk. Recon builds to an internal reckoning for Marson that’s frustratingly under-staged, but the fullness of feeling the ensemble brings to each scene makes this a misfire with heart. (Chuck Wilson)
Jungleland / VOD
The boxing drama Jungleland is one long cliché, but Charlie Hunnam and Jack O’Connell (best known for Unbroken), playing brothers named Stanley and Lion, respectively, are so achingly good together — brothers indeed — that you may well forgive the familiarity of it all. Lion is a lightweight boxer and Stanley his manager, but Stanley’s shady side deals have derailed Lion’s promising career so completely that he’s been reduced to bare-knuckle brawling in dingy Massachusetts warehouses.
Sleeping in a condemned building, the brothers are broke and in debt to a loan shark (Jonathan Majors) who agrees to give them a car and cash to make it to a big San Francisco fight a week away. The catch is that must agree to stop in Reno and deliver a frightened young woman named Sky (Jessica Barden) to a famously cruel bad guy (John Cullum). Lion has doubts, but Stanley is insistent.
The trio hit the road, and the shy, mush-mouthed Lion begins to fall for Sky, whose presence sows dissent between the brothers. In the film’s best sequence, the travellers hole up Sky’s Midwest high school where living room furniture arranged for a play becomes the setting for late-night dancing and conversation. Director Max Winkler has a gift for creating intimacy in cold places, and when not pressing too hard on third act melodrama, gives Hunnam and O’Connell the space to break each other’s heart, and ours. (Asher Luberto)
Chick Fight / VOD
Despite the name and premise, Chick Fight has zero common with David Fincher’s 1999 classic Fight Club and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. An earnest attempt at recreating and even seriously nodding to that brutal headtrip of a movie with women would be ridiculous because it was driven by commentary on patently “male” constructs: toxic masculinity, dude on dude oneupmanship, etc. What we have here instead is a screwball comedy set in an all-female fight club, which is an interesting idea if the intentions were a little clearer.
Yes there is a lot of punching going on, but it all comes off much too adorable, especially the violence. Blood is minimal and everyone including our heroine Anna (Malin Akerman, who also produced) and her punky nemesis Olivia (Bella Throne) emerge from their supposedly extreme, anything goes bouts with nary a swollen cheek, just perfectly placed face cuts that somehow only make them look sexier. Female empowerment is referenced here -of course it is- but the film actually feels like it had (very simple) men in mind even more, from the dumb gay jokes to the training sequences featuring Alec Baldwin (always enjoyable, though) as a boozer coming out of retirement to help our girl get her Rocky/Karate Kid moment.
It’s a silly little movie but for streaming at home it fits the light entertainment bill, especially thanks to comedian Dulcé Sloan as Anna’s bestie Charlene, whose one-liners and smart, Black girl magic/badassness is kinda awesome here. We all want a friend who tells it like it is, makes us laugh and has our back, don’t we? We also thought it was nice to see Kevin Connolly again since his Entourage days, until we googled what he’s been up to and read about sexual assault allegations earlier this year. Sigh. Girl Fight will fill up some quarantine TV time just fine but if you want a real feminist fighter story check out watch Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby or even The Next Karate Kid. (Lina Lecaro)
Wolfwalkers / Theatrical, Apple TV
Directors Tom Moore and Ross Stewart, part of the team behind such animated classics as The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, have outdone themselves with Wolfwalkers, a lush fairy tale set in 17th century Ireland. Wolfwalkers is animation at a caliber we haven’t seen since Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke–magical, mystical, lyrical and profoundly beautiful.
This English-language Irish production doesn’t feature quite the cast, budget or visuals of its Japanese counterpart, but it will likely provide a similar sense of wonder. When we first meet Robyn (voiced by Honor Kneafsy), she dreams of being a wolf-hunter just like her father (Sean Bean). But one day, while sneaking out to explore the wooded area beyond the city walls, Robyn discovers that “Wolfwalkers”–human beings who can shape-shift into wolves–are real, and that one of them, Mebh (Eva Whittaker), isn’t some beast you shoot with an arrow. She’s a little girl, which leads Robyn to take a stand for her newfound friend.
The human world of Wolfwalkers is flat and rough, but the forest is where the magic happens. The folkloric score echoes off canopies and streams like a friendly breeze. The wolves move freely, galloping through a maze of pathways they call home. The directors, who seem to literally breathe fantasy, use watercolor schemes in the forest to contrast with the woodblock animation in town, effectively differentiating the regimented lives of the townies and the magical land of the Wolfwalkers. It’s all a feast for the eyes. Miyazaki would be proud. (Asher Luberto)
Run / Hulu
How far will a mother go to keep her child? Lock the doors? Poison the water? Cut off the internet? Each of these scenarios, and more, are carried out by the mother at the center of this sinister, psychological horror-thriller. Played by Sarah Paulson, who has brought her creepy maternal talents to Ratched, American Horror Story and 12 Years a Slave, Diane is the mother of a child with an assortment of special needs: Chloe (Kierra Allen) is paralyzed from the waist down, diabetic and asthmatic–everything but a peanut allergy, it would seem. Yet she’s a bright girl, eager to start a life of her own as soon the University of Washington sends her an acceptance letter.
One night, after taking a handful of pills, she spots a green/white medication called “trigoxin.” As she googles trigoxin, no results appear on screen. Then the lights flicker and the computer shuts off. Mom isn’t drugging her, is she? Turns out, she is. Feeding her daughter dog medications and household neurotoxins, Diane starts upping the dosage, detected only through Chloe’s odd behavior. This simple but high concept premise of the girl stuck at home only works with a heroine like Chloe and the challenges director Aneesh Chaganity has worked into the story. Chloe can’t communicate the details of her experience, whether it be with mom or others, and the torture persists as long as it does because she’s not able to get up and leave.
What do you do when you can’t walk, you’re locked indoors and you have no cellphone? Chagnity’s clever, minimalist script doles out enough questions to keep you guessing. He allows the story to take its time without lagging, leaning into the existential fears that plague a mother whose child is ready to move out. Crisp cinematography by Hillary Spera, taut editing by Nick Johnson and Will Merrick, and quiet sound design create an environment where the creak of a floorboard or the click of a keyboard can set a new scare in motion as the film builds to a whopping, mother-load of a twist. (Asher Luberto)
Freaky / VOD
This fiendish new take on Freaky Friday boasts lead performances that bring to mind Lindsay Lohan and Jaime Lee Curtis in the ’90s remake or Rob Schneider and Rachel McAdams in The Hot Chick, two comedies that were as seeped in schmaltzy cuteness as they were committed to making us actually buy into the body switcheroo storyline. This one tries pretty hard to be un-cute though, serving up gobs of gore including slit throats, vicious stabbings and head bashings. Kathryn Newton is Millie Kessler, a small town teen who encounters the town serial killer aka the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn) which -thanks to an ancient mystical dagger- results in a body swap. Alongside pals Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) and Josh (Misha Osherovich), Vaughn as Millie is real and believable, with a youthful urgency that rings true as she sets out to switch back before the curse becomes permanent.
Though the teen comedy elements are quite charming, if a little cliche, this one intends to be a horror film ala Friday the 13th too, and there’s a hip and homage-y ‘everyone’s-in-on-the-joke’ feel from the get-go- when a bunch of drugs and sex having teens share the story of a homecoming dance murderer. The Blumhouse production is all pretty predictable, but like almost every other role he takes, Vaughn is extremely watchable and endearing here- a kiss scene with Millie’s crush Booker (Uriah Shelton) is especially awkward and sweet. We actually wanted to see and hear more of the actor as a female teenager. Newton has less to do as the quiet and vicious killer, but she pulls off her moments of menace well too, even post-switch when the film takes a decidedly un-freaky, familiar slasher pic turn. (Lina Lecaro)