A great one, two mediocre ones and a future classic.
Barb & Star Go to Vista del Mar
This is the feel good, silly, irreverent beach musical/international spy thriller we needed right now. Playing like a funky update of the glorious 1960s Doris Day picture, The Glass Bottom Boat (of which there’s even a reference to within the film), Barb & Star follows two very mild Southern spinsters (Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo) from Soft Rock, Arkansas who dream of bigger and brighter things. After being ousted from their friend clique as well as their Jennifer’s Convertibles retail jobs, they decide to journey to Vista Del Mar, Florida for a little R&R and of course, end up completely finding themselves and strengthening their friendship. While Barb & Star has that manic, goofy for goofy’s sake, David Wain-esque type of comedy, it also has some genuinely tender moments between Wiig and Mumolo. The supporting cast is filled out by a never funnier Jamie Dornan, Waiting for Guffman/Best in Show player Michael Hitchcock, Vanessa Bayer, Damon Wayans, Jr. and Kristen Wiig again, as the super evil spy villain with a gloriously ridiculous backstory. This is light but never hollow entertainment, overflowing with hilarious little details. I loved it. Grade: B+ ($5.99 rental on Amazon)
City of Lies
Originally intended for a 2018 release, pre-production on this project goes all the way back to 2013. Apparently, due to a lawsuit between star Johnny Depp and the location scout, this was shelved for three years before being made available to rent via streaming networks. Biggie was probably my favorite rap icon of his time period and the mystery surrounding his death has always been interesting to me, so it’s completely mind-boggling to me they could take a story as interesting as this and make it into this dull, drab, paint-by-numbers extended Law & Order: B.I.G. episode. The characters – an old school cop with kooky theories (Depp) and a weathered journalist thirsty for a good story (Forrest Whitaker) — aren’t particularly well developed, and while Whitaker at least seems like he’s trying, Depp is just giving us toned down Hunter S. Thompson meets Donnie Brasco, and it’s less interesting than either of them. Eventually, after a few investigations of predictably terrible cops, attention turns to Suge Knight and it’s like, no fucking duh. There’s a few stuff about this investigation in the movie I didn’t know about, but from what I’ve heard, the book from which it’s based on is much better. This is a poorly paced police procedural, and if you say that five times fast you win a prize. Grade: C ($6.99 rental on Amazon Prime)
Night in Paradise
South Korean writer/director, Park Hoon-jung‘s extremely disappointing follow-up to the somewhat overrated but still thrilling I Saw the Devil (which he wrote but didn’t direct), is a no frills gangster revenge epic about a tough but loveable murderous sociopath, Tae-goo (Uhm Tae-goo, solid in the role) trying to negotiate peace between two crime families that seem more like multi-billion dollar company CEOs than gangsters. Perhaps that’s a political jab or even just how South Korean crime families really are (have no frame of reference for this), but they refer to crime lords as “Directors” much like in business. Anyway, one of the two families has Park Tae-goo’s sister and niece brutally murdered, triggering him to go on a murderous rampage of revenge. It slowly, emphasis on slowly, devolves into a chase movie between the entire South Korean organized crime syndicate and one angry man, driven by a vengeance boner. The action sequences are extremely well staged and shockingly violent, in this reviewer’s opinion, maybe a bit gratuitous, but the dramatic sequences in between are really stagnant. This is not the fault of the actors who do the best they can, especially Jeon Yeo-been as Tae-goo’s would-be love interest, but because the characters are ultimately not developed enough to care about. We’ve seen this story more or less before in countless other South Korean crime epics, most notably The Man From Nowhere and Oldboy doing it astronomically better. If the characters were more interesting and the dialogue was more powerful, the pace might not have seemed so sluggish. As it is, this is just 25% spectacle and 75% droning conversations. Grade: C (Streaming on Netflix)
The best and most innovative piece of work I saw this week was from a first-time feature filmmaker, of course. Based on her short film utilizing a lot of the same cast but this time with a bigger budget and a much appreciated Fred Melamed booster pack, Emma Seligman tells the story of a college-aged Gen Z bi-sexual, Danielle (Rachel Sennott, excellent) who is trying her best to figure out life shit while dealing with the intense pressure of traditional parental figures, in this case secular Jews. Set almost entirely at her Aunt’s Shiva, Danielle has to deal with her nagging parents, relatives who don’t understand why she isn’t a doctor or a lawyer already and her ex-girlfriend (Molly Gordon, even better), clearly thriving more at life than she is. How can this Shiva get any worse? Well, her dad’s co-worker ends up being her current “sugar daddy”. Even more awkward is the discovery both parties have been lying to each other, she isn’t using his money to put herself through law school and he never revealed the fact that he has a wife and child, also at the Shiva. What ensues is a dark comedy/psychological horror film about social anxiety, the consequences of misrepresentation and the crippling fear of parental disappointment. Also, deciding whether or not to binge eat at a depressing family event. I can tell you that’s a lost battle even before it begins. Shiva Baby easily could have been a piece of shit if Danielle was presented as some sort of martyr, but the fact she’s also lying in the situation (although her sugar daddy is way more at fault) makes her incredibly relatable. It’s also refreshing to see a great movie about Jews that isn’t set in Auschwitz, and Shiva Baby feels like a new classic in the Jewish American Cinema cannon. It’s funny, moving, frightening and political, especially in its depiction of millennials praising Gen Z with one hand while exploiting them with the other. There’s a point early on when Danielle’s sugar daddy clutches her after sex and says “You’re the future.” I think that made me throw up in my mouth a little. Grade: A- ($6.99 rental on Amazon Prime)