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.
The 24th / VOD
An indie film with the story structure and production values of an old-school Hollywood film, The 24th is rich in texture and emotion. If the story beats seem familiar, the telling is so impassioned that they land with the intensity of the new.
In 1917, a Black Army battalion eager to head to France to fight in World War I, have been sent instead to Camp Logan outside Houston, Texas, a move that enrages the camp’s white troops and local police force.
For many of the 24th’s men, including the Sorbonne-educated Boston (co-writer Trai Byers), this will be their first experience of Jim Crow racism, which first manifests as verbal insult and then builds to shockingly public brutality. An idealist, Boston finds himself at odds not just with the locals but with his fellow soldiers, who wonder if he’s black enough, brave enough, and most of all, angry enough to confront the long-running, very real war they’ve been dropped in to, right here in Texas.
Writer-director Kevin Willmott (co-writer of Spike Lee’s Black KKKlansman), and Byers have written a film that reverberates with heady themes but which always feels personal. The ensemble, which includes an award-worthy Mykelti Williamson, as well as Bashir Salahuddin, Lorenzo Yearby and Aja Naomi King, are all given distinct moments to reveal their character’s heart, tortured though it may be.
The final section, which finds the men being confronted by what appears to be an invading mob of white police, is chaotic, terrifying, and morally complex, and leads to a sequence involving soldier’s names written on little slips of paper that took my breath way. Willmott is a filmmaker of prodigious gifts, and The 24th a movie for this moment, and beyond. (Chuck Wilson)
Tesla / VOD
A biopic you wouldn’t want to use as a research tool for a homework assignment, Tesla, which features Ethan Hawke as Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison’s rival in the art of harnessing electricity, among other, madder notions, is playful about time and facts but serious about its hero’s intention to do no less than reinvent the world.
Writer-director Michael Almereyda (Marjorie Prime, Experimenter) is faithful to Tesla’s race-to-market competition with Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) over the commercial applications of electricity but a marvelous scene in which two meet at the 1893 World’s Fair, arguably the best scene in the movie, turns out to have credibility issues.
“This meeting never happened,” declares Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson) in voice-over. The daughter of billionaire J.P. Morgan, Anne is our guide to all things Tesla, true and invented. She occasionally speaks to the camera and Googles Tesla facts on a MacBook while still dressed in period dress.
Not every modernist flourish works. Tesla’s pop song performance late in the film did not thrill me but much like its subject, this is a film that’s always trying to make us see things in new ways. At one point, Tesla is standing beneath the vast Colorado night skies — created with a gorgeous on-set backdrop — in an attempt to synchronize electricity (the Tesla coil) a process which Anne describes as (quoting poet John Ashbery), “like getting the ocean to sit for a portrait.”
Tesla’s thought patterns are a lot like that or so Hawke’s movingly interior performance suggests. After a time, Tesla seems to be having too many thoughts, or thinking more deeply than one man can handle. He imagines a beam that will protect us from war. All the details are there, in his mind, he says. One believes him, but wishes for him a reprieve from such never ending visions of the future. Genius can be exhausting from the inside. (Chuck Wilson)
River City Drumbeat / VOD
Your feet are sure to bob and tap while watching River City Drumbeat the rhythm-filled and inspiring new documentary about a Louisville, Kentucky music program that’s been transforming the lives of the city’s young people for 30 years. Filmmakers Marlon Johnson and Anne Flatté catch the group in a year of flux, as founder Edward “Nardie” White prepares to pass leadership over to 34-year-old Albert, whom he’s known since Albert was eight and troubled and just joining drum corp.
Newcomers make their own drums and begin a journey that can last all through their childhood and take them on to college, as its doing for three seniors profiled in the film. They are full of light and hope but are also deeply cognizant of the sacrifices their families and community have made for them to be in this moment. A must-see film for parents, kids, teachers, and all those who love music, this doc is balm for the news-battered spirit. (Chuck Wilson)
You Can’t Kill David Arquette / VOD
“I’m a carny at heart,” admits actor David Arquette as he tries to explain his strange desire to make a name for himself in the wrestling world. In his infamous first effort, 20 years ago, the Scream star barged into the world he’d loved all his life as a kind of celebrity hoax and ended up with a championship title, much to the fury of diehard fans.
In this slightly overlong but undeniably compelling documentary, directors David Darg and Price James follow Arquette’s year-long effort to earn another shot at wrestling respectability, this time as a trained fighter. Appropriately, there are many bizarre turns, as when the actor ventures to Mexico to train with the Lucha libre wrestlers, who are dubious at first but eventually reward Arquette with an official mask, an honor that makes the actor nearly weep with pride. Viewers may get a little choked up, too. As his family’s collective work has shown, an Arquette is always hard to resist. (Chuck Wilson)
Get Duked! / Amazon Prime
Ninian Doff didn’t have to go this hard–but he did. For his directorial debut, Get Duked!, the British native comes out swinging with not only one of the best movies of the year, but one of the best hangout movies of all time. With a stacked cast of newcomers, a script crackling with one-liners and a magnificently creative visual style, Get Duked! more than earns high marks.
Set in the Scottish Highlands, the movie starts out meandering by design. Doff takes the time to introduce his leads as a new kind of “lost generation,” neglected by their schools and families, and literally lost on a disciplinary trip called The Duke of Edinburgh Challenge. The challenge is to hike from the mountains to the coast by sunset, which sounds like a waste of time for Dean (Rian Gordon), Duncan (Lewis Gribben), Ian (Samuel Bottomley) and Dj Beetroot (Viraj Juneja), a rapper whose music is so bad it makes “Boats and Hoes” from Step Brothers sound like Kendrick Lamar. Along the way, the quartet smoke weed, shoot music videos and see if an electric fence is actually electric. You know, teenage boy stuff. But they soon discover they have bigger problems to deal with: they’re being hunted by The Duke himself, who wears a skin covered mask and wishes to kill off all teenagers.
Get Duked! is The Most Dangerous Game with notes of Attack the Block and hints of Edgar Wright and Taika Waititi. Mimicking the aesthetics of music videos, Snapchat filters and hallucinogenic rabbit poop (don’t ask), the film bursts with energy and social commentary, particularly in the way the teenagers are labeled as “terrorists” by the police for no reason. The highlands biggest threat until now has been a bread thief, so the cops (Kate Dickie and Kevin Gutherie) are quick to enter the crime scene, even if it means running headfirst into a mix of guns, blood, stupidity and rabbit poop (again, don’t ask). The result makes you laugh and feel alive, eagerly awaiting the next twist or turn or rap song on the soundtrack. Moreover, it makes you want to see what Doff does next. (Asher Luberto)
Fatima / VOD
Religion has been a hot topic of late, increased, like so many other things, by the coronavirus pandemic. You may not be pining for a deep dive into Catholicism, but the new film Fatima is here to do just that. Based on the true story of three children in Fatima, Portugal, who met with the Virgin Mary in 1917, the film lays out how religion can be rewarding through its three miracle-performing youngsters. While the events have been debated (with some even questioning the witnesses), the movie doesn’t doubt its trio for a second, making it a cinematic bible class instead of a realistic movie.
Written by director Marco Pontecorvo as well as Barbara Nicolosi and Valerio D’Annunzio, Fatima lacks the balance that would make it feel real to the audience. The narrative is told in flashbacks during a 1980’s interview between professor Nichols (Harvey Keitel) and the only one of the trio to make it to adulthood, Lucia Dos Santos (Sonia Braga). We see the young Lucia (Stephania Gil), along with her cousins Jacinta (Alejandra Howard) and Francisco (Jorge Lamelas), meeting with the angel Mary in the family garden. After these meetings, villagers expect their sick loved ones to be healed by the chosen kids, which doesn’t always happen, causing tensions to rise in town. The faith shown by Lucia is the driving message throughout Fatima, but in upholding this moral, it fails the story.
There’s no depth to these characters, who talk in spiritual truisms and hokey one-liners that border on self-parody. Seriously, the only thing these people talk about is ‘God this’, and ‘God that,’ when most religious folk spend their day discussing work, family and how things are going. In every scene, Lucia is either praying or preaching the gospel to victims of World War 1. She prays for peace, love and mercy, lessons we can all use right now, but sermon as narrative is ultimately had to believe in. (Asher Luberto)