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 and theaters 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, we let you know what’s worth the watchtime — 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.
Black Is King / Disney+
Visually stunning, sonically engaging and all around fierce in its celebration of Black culture and its roots in Africa, Beyonce’s Black Is King dropped Friday on Disney+ to the expected stampede of social media commentary and accolades. Like her previous “video album” Lemonade, the film -and the 90 minute work should be considered as a full-bodied, if unconventional film- was created to showcase Bey’s music, but it’s so much more than that.
Inspired by The Lion King themed 2019 recording The Lion King: The Gift (created to complement the live action/CGI-heavy remake in which she voiced Simba’s love interest, Nala) the new film takes on the task of teaching lessons from the film. Self respect, loyalty, and most significantly, connecting with one’s ancestry and culture to understand not only one’s true self but humanity as a whole are all explored in not so subtle ways.
The timeliness of the project -in the wake of a global reckoning against racism, not to mention modern feminism’s rejection of beauty standards (and how the two entertwine) will escape no one, but Bey has been addressing these issues long before they were zeitgeisty.
From its ethereal, earth-mother opening sequence to the Vogue-shoot like procession of incredible looks and backdrops that follow, Black Is King could almost be called “Black is Queen.” The female form is jaw-droppingly displayed here via an array of gorgeous black and brown women, of all sizes, with all hair types- dancing, posing, swimming, being… There are men in it too (hubby Jay-Z, world music artist Lord Afrixana and Wizkid, Kendrick Lamar, Pharrell Williams and Childish Gambino) and the narrative is centered around a male -the young African king Simba- but in a lot of ways this is about honoring the mothers and the sisters who make life possible. After all, in the jungle, it’s the females who serve as hunters, gatherers and nurturers, keeping the pride alive in more ways than one. (Lina Lecaro)
The Go-Go’s / Showtime
The chatter surrounding the release of Alison Ellwood’s documentary The Go-Go’s has been building to fever pitch for months, and one would think that the final product could in no way meet the weight of hype-driven expectation. But much like the band themselves, the movie has smashed through every glass ceiling and naysayer with gleeful abandon and no small amount of care. While it’s slightly odd that the film has landed during a global pandemic, it’s also weirdly appropriate. This is a band that didn’t do anything the easy way but as we find out, rolled with the punches until they couldn’t anymore.
So we start in the early days of the L.A. punk scene (it’s mentioned that Charlotte Caffey was in the Eyes, but the wonderful trivia-nugget that Belinda Carlisle was the original drummer in the Germs is missed out). The early live footage, when they were in their ragged punk beginnings at the Masque/Starwood/Whisky, is by itself reason to watch the film.
What’s interesting is that, as the music gets tighter and more polished, the story gets messier. Tears are shed as we learn of the pain when former members, especially Margot Olavarria and, later, manager Ginger Canzoneri, are ousted. We share the joy as things go well, embarking on chaotic UK tours with the Specials and Madness, and reaching number one on the Billboard album chart. We watch them rise and, as bitterness and jealousy creeps in, we watch them fall.
The weight of that pain is tempered slightly with the knowledge that they eventually returned, although the last decade’s events seem to be rushed slightly here — particularly bassist Kathy Valentine’s second departure and return. Still, this is a wonderful documentary movie which will resonate harder with those looking to reminisce/learn about the L.A. punk scene from which the band emerged. (Brett Callwood)
The Fight / VOD
In their inspiring but painfully topical new documentary, filmmakers Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman and Eli Despres (Weiner) follow five ACLU lawyers as they face-off against the Trump administration’s on the Muslim travel ban, the transgender military ban, a detained immigrant denied her abortion rights, and the U.S. Census citizenship question.
Jumping from case to case, the filmmakers offer an inside view of the ACLU, an organization 100 years old and always at the forefront of society’s wars. Internally, there is sometimes division, as when they defended the rights of the white supremacists who wanted to march on Charlottesville.
The Fight is filled with timely legal battles but it’s the reunions that get you. Parents and children, separated for months by the U.S. government are suddenly cleared to reunite in airports and law offices. The mother throws her arms wide, the child rushes in and the two collapse together, often with little sound, as if they learned long ago that in America, there’s danger in making a joyful noise. (Chuck Wilson)
The Shadow of Violence / limited theaters
Once a promising boxer, now the muscle for Irish gangsters, Douglas “Arm” Armstrong is hulking and handsome, monosyllabic and sad, and in the hands of English musician turned actor Cosmo Jarvis, the heartbreaker of the summer movie season.
Arm’s story is familiar. A local boxing star haunted by a death in the ring, he’s become the enforcer for his kingpin friend Dympna (Barry Keoghan), who is in turn trying to live up to the brutal legacy of his drug-dealing family, the barely literate but much-feared Deavers of rural West Ireland.
Plying Arm with cocaine, Dympha sends him to kill an old man who’s angered the family but Arm can’t do it, an act of mercy that will ultimately incur the Deavers’ wrath. Originally titled Calm with Horses, after a short story by Irish writer Colin Barrett, The Shadow of Violence finds it truest suspense in Arm’s struggle to be a good father to his autistic son. A scene where he takes the boy to a carnival is nerve-wracking because Arm is so clearly ill-equipped to deal his son’s fragility.
First-time director Nick Rowland stages an excellent car chase down hilly country roads, with the camera perched outside Arm’s window in a way that feels both low-budget efficient and visually inventive. As the Deavers family noose tightens around Arm, Rowland and screenwriter Joe Murtagh send him to a fancy country house for a finale that proves to be an emotional tour de force for Jarvis, a 30-year-old actor who seems destined to someday set (real) movie screens ablaze. (Chuck Wilson)
She Dies Tomorrow / VOD
An all-too perfect pandemic film, writer-director Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow is unsettling, to be sure, but also quirky and moving, like a fever dream that leaves you feeling changed in ways you can’t quite articulate. Surrounded by unpacked boxes, Amy (Kate Lynn Sheil) is wandering around her new L.A. home, drinking (at one point with a leaf blower in her hand), having flashbacks to a long relationship, and trancing out to weird flashing lights that probably no one else would see. When her friend Jane (Jane Adams) comes over, Amy announces, “I am going to die tomorrow.”
Jane thinks Amy’s having a breakdown but hours later, finds herself walking into her brother’s dinner party in her pajamas and declaring that she too is going to die in the morning. Gradually, Seimetz expands the narrative, as this thought contagion, as it were, infects Jane’s brother (Chris Messina) and his wife (Katie Aselton) as well as their guests (Jennifer Kim and Tunde Adebimpe).
A film that never arrives at a definitive answer for its characters’ otherworldly dilemma, She Dies Tomorrow, occasionally drifts away on strobe-light reveries but the superb ensemble keeps pulling it back to earth. It’s especially grand to see Adams (Happiness) mining gold from her best part in years. She’s an actress who can scrunch your heart and make your grin in the space of a minute. In real life, here’s hoping all news of doom and gloom is delivered via a herald so messily and beautifully human. (Chuck Wilson)
Retaliation / VOD
More famous of late for his love life than his acting, Orlando Bloom is having a moment. His famous girlfriend is pregnant (congrats) and he’s won acclaim for his fine work in the war movie, The Outpost, the first big hit of our new Video on Demand (VOD) age. And now, a film he shot in 2015 that’s been in film release purgatory since its 2017 festival premiere is suddenly available. Originally titled Romans, as befits its biblical seriousness, but now, to entice the action hungry VOD audience, called Retaliation, this is a turgid, metaphor heavy drama that Bloom’s intensity and restraint holds it together — the ultimate movie star hat trick.
Bloom plays Malky, a demolition worker assigned to tear down the old Catholic Church in his hometown English village. One night, Malky catches sight of his childhood priest (James Smillie), newly returned to town, and is filled with rage. At age 12, the priest raped Malky, who’s spent his life repressing his emotions, much to the dismay of his longtime girlfriend (Janet Montgomery) and the bafflement of his mother (Anne Reid), with whom he lives.
This is not a subtle movie. Screenwriter Geoff Thompson and directors Ludwig and Paul Shammasian appear to have learned everything they know about the effects of child abuse from 20th century melodramas. And so it is that Malky insists on anal sex with his girlfriend just as he occasionally feels the need to pleasure himself with a crazily thick, poorly lubricated wooden stick.
Storytelling so on-point would be laughable if Bloom didn’t underplay each moment so intently. He’s taking Malky and his pain quite seriously and so too much we. The finale of this movie, which might well inspire a sermon or two, is come-out-of-nowhere nutty, but undeniably daring. Don’t let anyone tell you what happens. (Chuck Wilson)
Rebuilding Paradise / VOD
Ron Howard’s documentary about the 2018 fire that killed 85 people and completely destroyed the Sierra Nevada town of Paradise, California is very good but also frustrating.
The filmmaker begins with the intensity of fire and fear. Seamlessly stitching cell phone and audio footage recorded by locals from inside their cars with 911 calls and police cruiser footage, the film’s opening section is harrowing.
Gradually, Howard looks to the days and then the months after the fire to compose a picture of the town in the long, difficult year that followed. The focus quickly settles on a few key players — a policeman and his wife who lost their home, an amazingly resourceful school superintendent, as well as a custodian and his wife, now jammed into a trailer with their kids, and struggling.
There are battles with FEMA and Pacific Gas & Electric which was responsible for starting the blaze, but Howard is more interested in the personal than the political. That fine but the film’s last third is so tied to the tidy narrative Howard has selected — will there be a graduation ceremony on the old school grounds? — that there’s little sense of surprise or insight.
It’s odd too that all the people we come to know well are white even though a Latino father thanks the police officer after the fire, and later, in the town, African Americans can be glimpsed. Where are those stories? Was Paradise really so perfect before the fire? Were there no troubles at all? Was there nothing to improve upon in the next incarnation? This movie never asks. (Chuck Wilson)
The Rental / VOD
Dave Franco’s directorial debut is a taut thriller that may not deliver on any real scares but it does tap into the creepiness that a lot of us have probably felt during an Airbnb stay, complete with questions about the owner or inhabitants of the homes we get to stay in. Though the IFC release is sort of stunted pace-wise, it earns points for character development and moments of suspense once the story picks up steam (via a sexy hot tub tryst).
Two millennial couples (Dan Stevens and Alison Brie; Jeremy Allen White and Sheila Vand) rent a seaside domicile for a weekend getaway to be filled with outdoorsy hikes and music-filled molly trips, only to discover that the home is filled with hidden cameras. When the cameras capture infidelity by two of its guests in the shower, questions abound about the footage – is it the work of a pervy stalker or something even more sinister?
The build-up here is enjoyable but the pay-off is pretty meh. Still, solid acting, a great score, and novel narrative (it was co-written by Franco and Joe Swanberg) make The Rental a decent VOD endeavor that suggests Dave – like his bro James – has a future behind the camera as well as in front of it. (Lina Lecaro)