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. Theaters remain closed, but the good news is that there’s no shortage of diverse and engaging films to see at home. And as always, our film critics (this week: Chuck Wilson and Asher Luberto) 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.
I Am Woman / VOD
How is Helen Reddy not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? The iconic singer, now 78, charted eight number one singles, including the anthem for National Woman’s Day, “I am Woman,” and was a crucial catalyst for the Feminist Second Wave. Thankfully, Unjo Moon’s biopic preserves her voice while detailing her career and impact on the music industry.
The narrative begins with Reddy’s (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) early days in New York as she struggles to become the singer who would captivate America in the 1970’s. Woman follows her from begging to get paid in a nightclub to charming audiences on television in Los Angeles, where she moves with her husband/manager Jeff Wald (Evan Peters). For a while, Moon is simply checking off female biopic cliches. A sexist boss? Check. A coked-out husband? Check. A script that jumps ahead years at a time? Check. That said, the movie eventually finds a catchy tempo within its classical structure.
I Am Woman is handsomely made, particularly in its period details and cinematography, which uses lens filters to recreate the vivid texture of ’70s Los Angeles. And Hervey strikes just the right chord as Reddy, her performance offering as much insight as the dialogue. Those unfamiliar with Reddy’s life will find plenty to chew on here, while fans will continue to wonder why this strong, invincible, roaring woman isn’t in the Hall of Fame. (Asher Luberto)
Kajillionaire / VOD
Other than Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, most TV and movie narratives about cons and con artists focus on male protagonists. Refreshingly, Kajillionare takes a different route, but it isn’t just for feminism’s sake. Director Miranda July brings her own heist story to the screen, giving audiences a picture of women rarely represented in film.
Meet Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), a grifter who lives in a bubble factory with her mother and father, Theresa (Debra Winger) and Robert (Richard Jenkins), who rob PO boxes for a living. Despite their gift for stealing letters, ties and soap, the family is behind on rent, and they need 1,500 dollars by next Friday. This leads to an insurance scam at LAX, where they run into Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a peppy, well-adjusted woman who is intrigued by the family and joins their scheme. At first, Dolio is suspicious of Melanie. But it’s through Melanie that Dolio is finally able to step outside of her parent’s bubble, to see the world as more than just a place to con. Kajillionare turns on the rhythms of Emilie Mosseri’s score to create a warm, coming of age vibe, while July’s surreal style compliments the confusion of a young woman making sense of the world.
Because of that, it’s hard to nail down what Kajillionare is about. Is it a comment on friendship? Or is it about the steps we take to form our identities? Whatever the case, it’s endlessly imaginable and eternally wistful, alive with characters you might run into at a hipster coffee shop on Sunset Boulevard and bustling with women rarely seen on screen. Dolio is the antithesis of the sexy scammers in Hustlers–she’s shy, clumsy and awkward, a 25-year-old who doesn’t have her shit together. She may not rob a casino, but she’s sure to steal your heart. (Asher Luberto)
Buoyancy / Laemmle Virtual Theater
As I type this review and as you read it — right this very second — there are some 200,000 men and boys being held as “sea slaves” aboard Thai fishing ships that catch the herring that ends up in the canned pet foods that stack so prettily on American supermarket shelves. In the wrenching new film, Buoyancy, Australian writer-director Rodd Rathjen offers a fictionalized account of one boy’s experience on one of those ships.
At 14, Chakra (Sarm Heng) is realizing that the daily grind of working the rice fields alongside his family in Cambodia is all he’ll ever know. Angry, he runs away to find more prosperous work in Thailand but finds himself tricked and sold to a fishing boat captain known as Rom Ran (Thanawut Kasro). A relatively young man who’s spent his life on the sea, Rom Ran finds true joy in exerting a brutal, unforgiving power over his naïve young crew.
One worker who is perceived as weak is thrown into the sea while another who dares confront Rom Ran is killed in a hellishly elaborate ceremony involving other slave trawlers called in for the occasion — death as an occasion to party. Chakra watches the horrors in silence, but he’s clearly taking mental notes and appears to be trying to decide if he can live with doing evil to escape evil. Buoyancy has the tension of a good thriller and the moral resonance of a truth too terrible to be fiction. (Chuck Wilson)
Blackbird / VOD
In the dull dying mother drama, Blackbird, Kate Winslet plays Susan Sarandon’s daughter, a casting choice that makes zero sense, although the film’s producers must have been thrilled to land such an esteemed duo. Sarandon is the formidable Lily, who’s decided to end her life before ALS takes away her strength of body and mind. She’s set a date, and on this final weekend, her daughters (Winslet and Mia Wasikowska) arrive with their respective spouses (and one grandchild) to say goodbye.
First produced as a 2014 Danish film, Blackbird is earnest and predictable, right down to the animosities and secrets that bubble up over the course of the long weekend. The cast, which includes Sam Neil, Rainn Wilson, Lindsay Duncan, and scene-stealers Bex Taylor-Klaus and Anson Boon, work wonders with material that’s literate but never revelatory. Visually, director Roger Michell (Notting Hill) hangs back, with the camera on one side of the room, and the family forever clumped together on the other. In this movie, close-ups, like honest emotion, are hard to come by. (Chuck Wilson)
Oliver Sacks: His Own Life / Kino Marquee and Film Forum Virtual Cinema
As a boy, Oliver Sacks was an amateur chemist who carried a copy of the Periodic Table in his back pocket. Painfully shy, he suffered migraines, like his mother, and later watched in horror as schizophrenia got a grip on his brother Michael. In director Ric Burns first-rate documentary, Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, the deeply empathetic neurologist-writer tells his own story in footage shot shortly before his 2015 death as friends gathered to celebrate the completion of Sacks’ final book, My Own Life.
Despite his brilliant, searching mind, Sacks struggled all his life with terrible self-doubt. After his mother called his homosexuality an “abomination,” Sacks began abusing drugs, taking “milkshakes of speed” in medical school, even while beginning the revolutionary work that would later be documented in the film, Awakenings. In a beautiful sequence, Burns includes archival footage of the real Awakenings patients literally dancing with joy as Sacks’ L-Dopa treatments bring them out of catatonia.
Sacks’ insights into his own psychological journey, which includes a poignant late life romance after decades of celibacy, are wonderfully perceptive, but equally invaluable are those of his colleagues — a brilliant assemblage of artists and scientists who love him dearly. The word “love” isn’t mentioned much in their deep-dive discussions of Sacks’ work but it’s clearly the core theme of the man whose philosophy from beginning to end was: “Treat the person, not the disease.” (Chuck Wilson)
Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe / Disney +
Disney’s Phineas and Ferb The Movie: Candace Against the Universe is equally suited for Saturday morning cartoons or a lazy Sunday afternoon. While this debut film from Bob Bowen is a spin-off of a kids show, don’t discount its moving message on how all of us are special.
After six seasons on the Disney Channel, Candace (voiced by Ashley Tisdale) is still trying to bust her little brothers Phineas and Ferb for building stuff in the backyard, this time in a long-form feature on Disney +. She’s jealous of how much fun they are having on summer break, so when she sees a spaceship in the front yard, she marches over, clenches her fist, starts to yell, and… realizes it’s not her brother’s. Moments later, Phineas (Vincent Martella), Ferb (David Errigo Jr.), their friends Isabella (Alyson Stoner), Buford (Bobby Gaylor) and Baljeet (Maulik Pancholy), and of course Dr. Doofenshmirtz (Dan Povenmire), all set out to save Candace from aliens; Perry, the secret agent platypus, hitches a ride to space as well.
In traditional Phineas and Ferb fashion, the animation is bright and colorful, there are plenty of musical numbers, and the aliens aren’t scary–they actually welcome Candace as “the chosen one,” with spa days to boot! But something isn’t right. There’s a reason the citizens on this strange planet don’t talk, and it isn’t bad writing. The script is a wonder, full of both humor and sweet moments that give Candace, Phineas and Ferb time to bond. Amid its sharp jokes about Siri, Stark Trek and animated shows, it reveals emotional truths on why all of us are special, even a tattletale like Candace. (Asher Luberto)