The Map of Tiny Perfect Things: Searching for an idyllic day

True, unabashed originality in filmmaking continues to be in shorter supply every year it feels like but ensuring that new twists on familiar premises is key to making a movie feel more like homage than shot-for-shot remake.

In recent memory, the Groundhog Day effect has emerged more often – characters trapped in an endless time loop – and it feels impossible to live up to the Bill Murray classic in a traditional romantic comedy sense.

Recent films like Edge of Tomorrow or last year’s Sundance breakout hit Palm Springs have put genre twists on the endless day theme, but a new independent movie debuting on Amazon Prime works just as well in its John Green-esque teen drama.

The Map of Tiny Perfect Things has the traditional premise – Mark relives the same day over and over again – but when Margaret crashes the monotonous routine of his cyclical adventures, he begins a pursuit of the girl that changed his stagnant world.

Kyle Allen gives Mark a John Cusack-like everyman quality that feels reminiscent of 80s John Hughes movies set to a modern pace. It’s surprisingly difficult to create a character relatable enough to get the audience to imprint themselves on, but Allen is effective at projecting a quiet normalcy that feels warm and genuine in spite of the Ferris Bueller bravado that also comes out in Mark.

Kathryn Newton plays Margaret with the appropriate amount of innocuous seductive charm and mystery befitting of her character’s role as the “manic pixie dream girl” of romantic films like Map where the female lead feels too good to be true to the point of almost becoming a vision that only the protagonist can see, let alone fall for.

Since the film becomes a bottle episode in essence where all of the focus is on Mark and Margaret, chemistry between leads is key. Thankfully, Allen’s affable nature pairs nicely with Newton’s ability to make Margaret feel just out of Mark’s reach at every turn.

Map comes together in large part thanks to the partnership between Lev Grossman’s terrifically witty and smart screenplay placed into the hands of Ian Samuels’ kinetic direction, which gives the film a vibrancy not really found in the teen drama genre.

Cross-cutting between scenes/time also helps Map stand apart from other time-loop movies as the mundane repetition of singular events begin to have a greater sense of urgency when viewed in different context, a point Grossman and Samuels go out of their way to poignantly illustrate for audiences.

For a small indie dramedy, the cinematography is exceptional at bringing out the beauty in the everyday, constantly circling Mark and Margaret as they wander all over town in search of perfect moments.

Long cinematic single-take tracking shots weave their way down hallways, across neighborhoods and through open spaces with ease that keep audiences in the dream-like state of Mark and Margaret’s wanderlust for something to spark their humanity. Samuels smartly rewinds the day visually as if memories are being erased for everyone around Mark, which creates both a signpost moment to signify the passage of time (or lack thereof) and help develop the film’s emotional core.

The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is a sappy, yet warm hug of a film that will entertain and tug at the heartstrings of viewers willing to buy into the teen romance and light melodrama, certainly worth checking out on Amazon Prime.


Judas and the Black Messiah: Revolution in the streets

Chicago in the late 1960s was a boiling pot of water bubbling over with racial and political tension on a near daily basis, making it ripe territory for dramatic cinema.

Aaron Sorkin took his pen to the task with the Oscar-contending Trial of the Chicago 7 on Netflix late last year and now a better, transcendent film will hit theaters and HBO Max on Friday.

A late addition to this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Judas and the Black Messiah approaches the tensions from a different angle as director Shaka King puts his camera lens squarely on the betrayal of a civil rights activist that ultimately led to his murder.

Inspired by real events, the film follows Bill O’Neal, a car thief convinced to avoid jail time by infiltrating the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers and getting in with the group’s leader, Fred Hampton, a target of J. Edgar Hoover who described Hampton as a “black Messiah” that would lead to the downfall of America.

Academy Award nominee Daniel Kaluuya offers a very humanistic, idealistic performance as Hampton, striking deep into the souls of viewers with his piercing eyes and crisp, confident delivery.

If Hampton is to be the titular Black Messiah, than Kaluuya grants him a calm confidence of wisdom without fear that isn’t self-righteousness or indignation, but part of a larger than life persona that was able to rally support behind his cause of revolutionary freedom and draw the ire of Hoover-era FBI agents seeking to take Hampton down.

Though Kaluuya is exceptionally special in the role of Hampton, Judas isn’t his film; it’s LaKeith Stanfield’s.

As O’Neal, Stanfield is an expert at showing the infiltrator playing both sides against the middle until the weight of the world ultimately comes crashing down on him. Stanfield quietly maintains a level of stoicism to O’Neal that’s required to keep the spy-craft under cover, but his ability to show small cracks of insecurity to the audience without being so obvious that other characters would notice makes O’Neal a worthy antagonist to Hampton.

King’s film is littered with an array of terrific supporting performances from Dominique Fishback’s award-worthy turn as Hampton’s fiancé Deborah Johnson to veteran character actor Jesse Plemons pushing the envelope as O’Neal’s FBI handler to Ashton Sanders and Algee Smith playing a pair of young Panthers with scene-stealing confrontations with police.

King cuts corners in the narrative to expedite the drama and accelerate the action with style rather than simply hitting all the bullet-points of the historical record, opting to trust the audience to connect the dots rather than spell things out like a documentary. 

Judas is a film about emotions – both spoken and shown – and has the aura of inevitability to it like the ominous scent of death wafts over scenes as Hampton preaches to the people.

The message is clear and unapologetic, one that Trial of the Chicago Seven approaches with a stroke of a pen. By contrast, Judas forces audiences to see down the barrel of a gun.

The film’s anti-police rhetoric will play in stark reflection to moments over the past year, but this is done as much to remain authentic to the late 1960s power struggle between the Black Panthers and government officials as it is to make commentary on current events.

The only film released in 2021 with a guaranteed shot at 2020 Academy Awards nominations or wins with the extended eligibility timeframe, Judas should be a late contender for a Best Picture nomination and a lock for Kaluuya’s second Oscar nomination, this time in a supporting role.

A strong wave of support for the film could easily propel King into the Best Director and Best Screenplay conversation and less likely push Stanfield into Best Actor and Fishback into Best Supporting Actress contention.

Unquestionably the best film of 2021 so far and the crown jewel of Sundance, Judas and the Black Messiah is a powerful statement of arrival for King as a director combined with enchanting performances from Kaluuya and Stanfield.

It’s a pot-stirring, conversation-starting must see thrill ride from start to finish that will have audiences on the edge of their seats for two hours with one of the boldest directorial debuts in recent memory.

Note: This review was written after screening at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival ahead of its release to the general public on February 12.


Land: Beautiful emptiness out there

Grief and tragedy have long been an overarching theme of independent dramas, especially those that find their way across major film festivals in search of studio buyers.

But they’re also a fantastic way for first-time directors to plant their flag in the sand as an emerging filmmaker or actors to announce their arrival as a behind-the-scenes star.

Golden Globe-winning actress Robin Wright – who directed several episodes of her award winning television drama House of Cards – makes her major motion picture debut with Land, which premiered Sunday evening at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is slated for a theatrical release February 12.

Set primarily in the wilds of rural Wyoming, Land stars Wright as a woman seeking complete solitude for reflection and self-destruction following tragedy. Her desire to shut herself away from the world in spite of lacking any survival skills places her in the path of Miguel, an area hunter who teaches her the ways of the land and helps her begin to find her soul again.

Wright’s journey as Edie begins with a hollow sorrowfulness that permeates through the screen, a bittersweet melancholia dripping out like oozing dark blue blood soaking into the nightscapes. Much of the film is sans dialogue, which gives Wright the opportunity to emote in silence only to break free with cries of despair at pivotal moments.

It’s a much better performance of restraint as an actress than as a director, where Wright feels like she’s holding back when something more is needed to take the film to the next level.

Land feels like a narrative half-step beyond films in its genre, the solo-explorers looking to find themselves again while overcoming obstacles both physical and emotional.

Exceptionally limited in its narrative, Wright’s film makes the absolute most out of its 89-minute running time; a longer feature would have become repetitive or bloated with outside influences that would have taken away from Edie’s journey of self-repair.

Demián Bichir provides warmth as Miguel, whose sense of purpose is unclear for much of the film, but Bichir delivers it honestly and with appropriate trepidation. As the primary figure audiences see in Land outside of Wright’s singular work, Bichir does a terrific job of supporting Wright just enough to give Edie a way forward without taking away any of the spotlight deservedly going to Wright’s efforts.

Land probably should find a second life on the big screen once audiences are able to fully make their way back into the theaters as Bobby Bukowski’s cinematography emphasizes grandiose landscapes of rural Wyoming with soft hues and natural light.

Often, Wright leaves little for the audience to experience beyond the visual – and the haunting score from Ben Sollee and Time for Three – giving Land a thin, cinematic quality that feels underwhelming on a home viewing. The naturalistic look of the film begs for large scale cinema to project the grandiose nature Wright and Bukowski capture.

While Land will make the window of theatrical releases eligible for the 2020 Academy Awards given the pushback in the Oscar timeframe, it will likely remain on the outside looking in with stronger performances in the Lead Actress and Cinematography categories. The one Sundance 2021 film likely to make waves this award season will be Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, which debuted Monday evening and will arrive in theaters and HBO Max February 12.

Land is unlikely to be among the most talked about films to come from this year’s Sundance class and though it will remain in the zeitgeist over the next few months, Land will be a popular pick among audiences desperate for escapism in the short term only to be largely forgotten by the end of the year.

Note: This review was written after screening at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival ahead of its release to the general public on February 12.


Locked Down: Falling apart, forced together

The world-changing impact of the coronavirus pandemic has infiltrated every part of life from business closures to global politics to personal interactions.

Cinema has been forced to retreat online in order to find its sheltering audiences and with it, the eventuality of films directly confronting our shared new way of life has finally materialized.

Director Doug Liman – based on a script from Steven Knight – brought together a team of filmmakers to produce the first of what is likely to be numerous small dramas filmed during and/or about COVID-19 pandemic restrictions with Locked Down.

Premiering on HBO Max January 14, the film stars Oscar winner Anne Hathaway and Academy Award nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor as a couple stuck in their London flat for an undetermined amount of time right after Linda ends her relationship with Paxton.

The first half of Locked Down is an intimate character study with Hathaway and Ejiofor internalizing a lot of the emotions that being confined at home for health and safety purposes can do to a relationship, especially a deteriorating one.

When Liman and Knight take the screenplay in a hard left turn at the end of the first hour, Locked Down becomes less interesting as a feature and more intriguing as a concept of filmmaking, causing the audience to wonder how COVID protocols allowed for scenes to be shot in the first place.

Hathaway shines in a performance that allows her to be as vulnerable as she was in indie drama Rachel Getting Married and as charming as her turn in Ocean’s Eight. Hathaway revels in the ability to master sharp dialogue with a perfect punctuation that seals audiences in the moment and it’s in Linda’s long self-absorbed monologues that Hathaway brings Knight’s screenplay.

Her chemistry – or intentional lack thereof – with Ejiofor’s Paxton works brilliantly throughout the first hour of Locked Down as Liman introspectively comments on how pandemic lockdowns bring people together and tear them apart.

Ejiofor brings a cool distance to Paxton that keeps the audiences at a distance much like how the character pushes everyone away from him, a sort of aimless wallowing that men put on furlough felt as they weren’t sure how to proceed with their lives in the short term, let alone amid the “midlife crisis” outside the world of pandemics.

Liman makes exceptional use of pandemic restrictions to bring in a talented supporting cast filming over Zoom in a way that rings true to the film’s setting and plot, while maximizing creativity as a filmmaker during challenging shooting conditions.

The film makes exceptional use of Ben Stiller and Ben Kingsley in limited scenes as Linda and Paxton’s respective bosses with Kingsley’s heavily religious character providing much needed comedic levity to a largely cold monotone drama.

For a movie conceived during quarantine and shot during September 2020 under strict protocols, Locked Down is a remarkable feat of cinematic achievement for putting together such a visually intimate, yet dynamic feature. Social distancing, mask wearing (or not) and the other little eccentricities of life during a pandemic are present throughout the background of Liman’s film because events during filming were that exact same way, perfectly documenting this unique moment in time with a fictional premise at the foreground.

Perhaps the best cinematic benefit to shooting Locked Down under heavy restrictions is the access Liman and his team were provided to take over everything from fancy London apartments to empty downtown streets to a deserted Harrod’s department store, settings far too impossible to recreate on a set and worse still to clear a shoot.

And yet, the emptiness of public settings in this specific moment in world history is perfectly encapsulated in the second half of Locked Down when Linda and Paxton venture outside their home and into the void left by a deserted city.

While it certainly won’t rise to the level of Malcolm and Marie, Sam Levinson’s upcoming drama for Netflix shot in one location during the pandemic, Locked Down captures the moment of time that the world isn’t out of yet and centers a unique, original tale about the end of relationship and the last flicker of hope that makes it worth checking out on HBO Max while cooped up at home.


Promising Young Woman: The sweetest revenge

Once a year, a film comes along that cuts so deeply against the grain that its ingenuity and craftsmanship push movies forward for years to come.

Amidst the backdrop of pandemic-led movie shortages, the stark contrast between the relatively mundane films of 2020 and writer/director Emerald Fennell’s debut feature, an instant hit when it debuted at last year’s Sundance Film Festival on its way to being the “it movie” for cinephiles’ most anticipated list.

With her debut feature that more than lives up to the hype, Fennell creates a sugarcoated, pop fairyland that masks personal trauma behind the walls of an avenging angel-type loner. 

Through neon lights and hyper-realistic social-media worthy imagery, Promising Young Woman exceeds and shatters the expectations of a revenge thriller to become something much more inventive and daring. 

The film follows Cassandra Thomas, a medical school dropout living at home with her parents unable to fully recover from the trauma of a tragic event in her past. In her search for answers, Cassie spends nights out trying to lure men into her trap to teach them a lesson they won’t forget.

Fennell’s silver-tongued screenplay requires actors who can keep the sharp wit of her comedy balanced with the inner emotional nuance and Oscar-nominated actress Carey Mulligan creates a presence on screen that pulls the best from DeNiro in Taxi Driver and the films of Martin Scorsese.

Promising Young Woman will likely be compared to Joker, which is a derisive analogy for the simple fact that Fennell’s film operates on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, both in tone and character. What makes Cassie such a compelling lead character is how her drive for a sense of justice leaves her short-sighted to the world around her and yet acutely aware of how to twist the knife in on her perceived enemies.

Mulligan delivers a career-best performance as Cassie, the titular “promising young woman” whose life turns to disarray after the loss of her best friend Nina. There’s moments where it feels as though Mulligan is floating outside of Cassie’s body as events melt around her, but at times, a twisted sense of calculation and presence washes over Mulligan’s eyes to create the prologue to epic revenge fantasy.

The ensemble cast who give such depth to Cassie’s jaded world is a masterclass in finding the right performer for singular moments when the film needs it most.

Comedian and Eighth Grade writer/director Bo Burnham steps in front of the camera to challenge Cassie into a conventional normalcy, filling the role of sweetheart boyfriend Ryan with far more complexity than he’ll be given at first glance.

Connie Britton blends a reserved confidence that draws audiences in only to flip on a dime as needed for one pivotal scene, only to find herself overshadowed moments later by an incredible supporting turn from an uncredited Alfred Molina as a lawyer Cassie confronts.

The supporting women of the film provide a terrific counterbalance to Mulligan’s calculated mania, especially Alison Brie’s searingly hypocritical work as a former classmate of Cassie’s.

But it’s the litany of smaller roles given to men like Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Max Greenberg – “that guy” actors known for playing adorable, safe good guys – that work so well in Promising Young Woman as audiences take the stereotypes they’ve built up in their heads for these performers and watch as Fennell and Mulligan help twist them into something much darker.

Promising Young Woman wonderfully sidesteps direct confrontation of sexual assault, something a lesser, more conventional prestige drama would linger on. The physicality and violence inherent in these moments are replaced with more raw, lingering emotions that trigger character development and further the plot, solidifying Fennell’s ability to pen a screenplay that will keep audiences on their toes and wanting to restart the film as soon as it’s over. 

Fennell expertly infuses her film with a vast array of needle-drop moments from Britney Spears’ “Toxic” to Juice Newton’s “Angel of the Morning” to a haunting remix of “It’s Raining Men” that set the tone for a distinctly original story. Combined with Anthony Willis’ haunting score changing the mood as needed to keep the audience guessing, Promising Young Woman boast musical moments that will lodge themselves deep in the minds of ardent fans of the thriller.

Hands down a front-runner at the next Film Independent Spirit Awards, Promising Young Woman enters the end-of-year conversation at just the right time to pick up momentum towards Oscar nominations this April. Fennell’s debut feature is quite likely to earn nominations for Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay, with Best Picture and Best Director honors not out of the question.

Promising Young Woman has some of the best cinematic moments in recent memory and ones that shouldn’t be spoiled, making Mulligan’s awards-worthy performance an absolute must see on demand for ardent cinephiles who enjoy a film that will engage and challenge its audience at every turn.


Soul: Once more, with feeling

Everyone assumes animated films made by Disney – or their Pixar Studios brand – are intended for younger audiences.

The colors are bright, the plotlines are largely wonderous in scale, the content is cheerful and easy to follow from start to finish.

Soul, the third Pixar feature from Oscar-winning director Pete Docter, isn’t for kids by any stretch of the imagination although it’s not at all inappropriate. Children just aren’t the intended audience, or at least, not when they are kids’ age.

Docter adapts his screenplay with One Night in Miami screenwriter Kemp Powers to imagine the essence of what gives humanity its purpose and individuals their personality. It’s an existential, thoughtful feature set in a genre that has the freedom to go anywhere and mold the indescribable into a visual wonderland.

Audiences follow Joe, an aspiring jazz musician stuck teaching middle school band whose soul is transported to “the great beyond” just as he’s about to catch his big break. Through a partnership with a new soul simply called 22, Joe must make his way back to his body in time for the performance of a lifetime.

There’s so much heavy material and references to worldly philosophies that younger viewers aren’t going to appreciate Soul as much as they did Docter’s prior films – Academy Award winners Up in 2009 and Inside Out in 2015. Soul lacks the cinematic balance to keep children engaged with the complex narrative themes despite a humorous script that rewards patient viewers.

But for adults who grew up on Disney’s animated classics, Soul strikes a resonant chord of pairing the childlike wonder of animation and twisting it for a lofty thematic purpose.

Much of the burden to make Soul work falls on the shoulders of Jamie Foxx, who carries Joe through an ever-winding tumult of situations with a kind heart, yet exasperated longing for something more. Foxx gives Joe a soft-spoken quality that renders him almost sheepish but serves the character well as he delivers lines with a sly half-smile that will charm viewers to his side.

The Oscar-winning actor provides the right blend of warm humor with introspective dramatic work and the animators capture a similar presence in constructing Joe’s tall, lanky body for the big screen.

Comedienne Tina Fey is a plucky, dynamic choice to voice 22, almost mimicking Ellen Degeneres’ turn in the Finding Nemo films but with a tad more snark.

However, with the majority of the cast representing the African American community and Soul being the first Pixar film with a Black leading character, Fey doesn’t quite feel like an ideal casting choice.

Soul is a transfixing visual delight, popping through an array of animation styles as Joe and 22 bounce from the real world to “the great before” and places in between. Docter and his team of visual artists flawlessly capture the relentless energy of New York City while still invigorating two-dimensional imagery with character that showcases where Joe comes from in his love of music.

A lock for a Best Animated Feature nomination at this year’s Academy Awards, Soul will be a frontrunner in the category along with the AppleTV+ feature Wolfwalkers and the film’s robust score, penned by Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross as well as jazz pianist Jon Batiste.

Originally slated for a theatrical release for Christmas 2020, the decision by Disney to move Soul to their Disney+ streaming service at no additional cost offers viewers the opportunity to engage with the film on their own time and in a more relaxed, pensive way that benefits the overall viewing experience.

Children won’t appreciate Soul like they might Docter’s previous Pixar films, but when they grow up, they may find this reflective feature to age like a fine wine.


Project Power: Action to tide us over

Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi drama odyssey “Tenet” released internationally this past weekend, a film that was supposed to be the big blockbuster feature to reopen movie theaters across the United States.

Instead, Warner Brothers is slated to release the film on Labor Day weekend after pushing it back several times throughout the summer, leaving a gaping hole in the action-adventure genre that usually dominates June, July and August.

Streaming services have stepped up to the plate, giving audiences films that were supposed to supplement movies like “Top Gun: Maverick” (delayed until Christmas 2020), “Fast and Furious 9” (moved to April 2021) and “Black Widow” (pushed to November 2020).

Now Netflix Original movies like Chris Hemsworth’s “Extraction,” Mark Wahlberg’s “Spenser Confidential” and Charlize Theron’s “The Old Guard” have received prominent, uncontested opportunities to dominate the action conversation and propel the start of new franchises.

The latest in the line of upstart genre fodder, “Project Power,” dropped on the streaming service last week and features Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx and “Inception” star Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a dark, violent superhero origin story set in New Orleans that wouldn’t shine in normal times, but has stayed at the top of viewers’ Netflix queues for the better part of two weeks now.

“Project Power” blends Bradley Cooper’s 2011 film “Limitless” with a variety of dark superhero films to create a fantastic premise for a movie that doesn’t quite live up to its potential for cinematic extravagance with depth of character.

A lone New Orleans police officer and former soldier work with a teenage drug dealer to find the source of a strange new drug on the market in the Bayou that imbues whoever takes it with a different superpower lasting five minutes.

Foxx is solid as ever as the former soldier on a relentless mission, playing anti-hero quite well with an alluring charm and no-nonsense physicality required in blockbuster action fodder. His character’s limited backstory is intentionally vague at the outset, but Foxx languishes in the mundane rather than creating his own character beyond the page.

Likewise, Gordon-Levitt is likeable but largely forgettable as the renegade cop bending the rules to even the playing field with the bad guys. There are a couple of entertaining moments that allow the veteran actor to showcase his acting and fighting skills, but it’s clear co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman don’t have a knack for working with actors.

The film’s best performance by a large margin comes from Dominique Fishback, who takes the largely generic role of teenage lookout/informant and brings a real sense of purpose and emotion to the part, often outclassing her more famous on-screen partners in scenes with a genuine passion for the moment.

A significant portion of the budget was spent on lavish cinematography from Michael Simmonds and high-quality special effect to showcase the powers in the film, but not every sequence lands properly.

Because so much of the film is set at night, there’s a difficulty Joost and Schulman find in presenting the full potential of the powers in a darkened haze and it often gives the abilities an almost laughable blandness.

At other times, the film is quite striking – especially during a mid-film bank heist sequence – and draws audiences back into the middling storyline.

While not game-changing or exceptional in any particular way, “Project Power” is infinitely watchable, which makes it a perfect fit for streaming services filled with casual watchers who will discount its structural and screenplay flaws and simply enjoy the relative chaos.

Until a way is made for audiences to return safely to the theatrical experience in large numbers, more films like this will find their way into the cinematic sphere of relevance.

“Project Power” is like so many other on-demand releases to come out in 2020 that would be massive disappointments in theaters but worth giving a shot to on Netflix, who will gladly capitalize on the additional eyeballs to generate revenue and sequel opportunities.


Boys State: For the people, by the people

Over 1,200 high school boys gather annually in Austin to participate in a seven-day democratic experiment designed to test their mettle.

A mock government program put on nationwide by the American Legion, Boys State challenges these young men to form their own political parties, hold primaries and eventually a statewide race for a variety of offices culminating in a gubernatorial election.

Each iteration of this lesson in political gamesmanship masquerading as a crash course in civics is unique, although the Sundance Film Festival award winning documentary “Boys State” from co-directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss provides an exceptionally compelling look inside the minds of future American leadership with their nearly two-hour feature on the 2018 Texas Boys State program.

McBaine and Moss perfectly set the stage from the outset, highlighting major political leaders including President Bill Clinton, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and commentator Rush Limbaugh as alumni of the program.

“Boys State” is intended to feel like a glimpse into the crystal ball of America’s political future and it’s often revealing to watch aspiring young men hoping to make a difference in their world see what it takes to be successful – balancing bipartisanship with charisma, ideals with the relentless pursuit of a win.

At the film’s core, four major participants emerge representing the elected leadership of both the Federalist and Nationalist political parties created for the program and it’s through these stories that audiences are able to gain an understanding of how the next generation of political leaders will be molded and come to shape America’s identity.

For as much as the film gets in close with the participants and has the feeling of a raw political campaign, “Boys State” is strikingly cinematic with its camerawork, lingering on intense closeups as events unfold in real time and giving the film a scripted fictional vibe that could have some viewers doubting the authenticity of the scenes.

The choice to have the major characters interviewed on a long loveseat works wonders in the film’s latter half as the boys become more comfortable and honest in front of the camera, often sprawling out like relaxed chameleons letting audiences in on their secrets as if it were an episode of television reality game show “Survivor.”

Somewhat surprisingly, a film entitled “Boys State” that follows young men creating their own political agendas and campaigns fails to truly address the masculinity of their decision-making process, especially on the issue of abortion. 

One candidate’s revelation about hiding their pro-choice beliefs to try and garner favor with potential votes is especially compelling as the Boys State program begins to escalate and normalize “dirty tricks” politics.

As filmmakers, the directors attempt to portray this neutrally but it’s often with a tinge of sadness for the lack of bipartisanship and morality.

It’s best summed up by one of the participants, who comments that a rival is a “fantastic politician, but I don’t think that a fantastic politician is a compliment either.”

Like the program itself, “Boys State” makes ardent attempts to be non-partisan in its approach and allow events to unfold naturally, but the subjects it chooses inherently give the feature a liberal tint that conservatives may latch onto to dismiss the film as a whole.

The star of “Boys State” is unassuming, mild-mannered Steven Garza, born in Mission, Texas to an immigrant mother before moving to Houston. Shown early in the film wearing a “Beto for Senate” t-shirt and shyly introducing himself to other participants, his rise to a potential run for governor is the single most compelling storyline within “Boys State” and riveting to watch.

At times, McBaine and Moss’s love for Garza overwhelms the larger narrative of the film and tilts the political balance a tad too far, but by that point, viewers are so invested in the outcome of a mock race that happened two years ago, it hardly matters.

With the humor of “Election” and the heart of “Boyhood,” this verité film is an enthralling look at American politics through the lens of those who will come to shape it for the next 40-50 years. Without question the best documentary to be released thus far in 2020, “Boys State” proves that quality storytelling can be crafted in the genre with substance and soul, making it a must watch on AppleTV.


An American Pickle: No hysterics, just heart and soul

It’s hard not to pigeonhole Seth Rogen as a typecast comedic actor, especially when he’s made countless movies and millions of dollars playing a series of aloof stoner bros on screen.

Thick with phlegm and inhaled smoke, his iconic chuckle almost plays as a refrain in arguments defining his limitations as a performer.

Posters with his chubby smile slapped across the front signal raunchy comedy no matter the plotline and Rogen’s attempts at serious work – including 2015’s “Steve Jobs” or 2011’s “50/50” – give off a feeling of “He’s in that?”

So it’s no surprise that Rogen’s latest feature – “An American Pickle” for the HBO Max streaming service – is billed as a comedy, especially given the “Trading Places” and “Jack and Jill” nature of the film’s plot.

In the 90-minute feature, the Canadian actor plays both Jewish immigrant Herschel Greenbaum and his great-grandson, Ben, who come together after Herschel is discovered in a pickle brine vat 100 years later having not aged a day.

Intentionally or not, this ridiculous premise is where the hilarity is supposed to ensue. Culture shock and generational gaps are supposed to put at odds the two loners who are eerily similar to one another.

But the humor just isn’t there.

At times, “Pickle” goes for a comedic tone with Herschel’s adapting to modern times as a fish out of water being played for laughs. But the core of the film is a surprising sensitivity that will pull on viewers’ heartstrings.

Because so many of the jokes don’t land particularly well, the more somber moments stand out, giving audiences a reflective look at Judaism through the lens of a devout blue-collar Jew and a secular, hipster Brooklynite Jew.

That Rogen is playing both simultaneously is most striking about “Pickle” as Herschel challenges Rogen to flex his acting muscles emotionally while Ben feels more like a sober version of Rogen himself. It certainly feels as if Rogen is trying harder to play Herschel despite the overly comic accent that evokes Sacha Baron Cohen’s controversial “Borat” character.

A good chunk of “Pickle” is devoted to the concept of grief, with Herschel openly mourning the loss of his wife and the son he never met and Ben passively locking away the memory of his parents. This discord drives the conflict between the two characters and creates some genuinely earned, heartfelt moments in an otherwise morally complicated film.

The remainder of the supporting cast is largely unmemorable and tertiary to the plot that many characters are barely offered enough dialogue to be given names, let alone characteristics beyond affluent gay couple or entrepreneurial, industrious college intern.

Filmmaker Brandon Trost – making his solo directorial debut – shows off what he is best at, striking and bold cinematography that envelopes the viewer in the storyline despite its ridiculous premise. 

Early scenes set in the 1920s are shot in 4×3 black and white letterbox, framed to accentuate the cold despair of Eastern Europe and the hard life of American immigrants. Modern Brooklyn, meanwhile, is bright and poetic, sprawling in a cinematic 16×9 widescreen scope as is typical of how comedic films portray New York City.

Originally slated for a theatrical release through Sony Pictures, “An American Pickle” was sold to Warner Brothers for distribution through HBO Max in April, which was probably the best vehicle for the film regardless of the coronavirus pandemic.

Viewers who would be venturing out of their homes to a confined space and paying money might be upset with a “bait-and-switch” dramedy lacking in chuckles but should be more forgiving with a film that feels free despite requiring monthly subscription.

When viewed as a comedy, “An American Pickle” is an abject failure. Through the lens of a Jewish actor at conflict with himself, it’s interesting and engaging insight into the mind of a performer trying to find his true self.


Tread: Mayhem in a small town

Granby, Colorado feels like the sort of small town you’d find in every state across America.

Industrious, hardworking, the kind of place where neighbors know all the scuttlebutt within a few hours and there’s hardly a stranger because everyone is on a first name basis.

The fact that the events depicted in director Paul Solet’s gripping documentary “Tread” could plausibly happen in any small town are frightening, but like a train wreck you can’t look away from, what happened on June 4, 2004 is a mesmerizing display of anarchic chaos viewers will want to see more of just to figure out how one man pulled it off.

At the center of the documentary is Marvin Heemeyer, an Air Force veteran more than capable with a welding iron and the owner of Granby’s muffler shop, which he purchased at auction for a remarkably low sum of money only to find himself in legal battle with government officials and a rival business owner over water and sewer connections, property easements and fines.

It’s clear from the outset where “Tread” is heading; the opening preamble makes clear Heemeyer’s destructive intent with a fortified bulldozer causing chaos and massive property damage throughout the town.

But Solet also reveals how things escalated to that point and Heemeyer’s amazement that he could keep his plot a secret in a notoriously nosy small town.

A series of audio tapes recorded by Heemeyer give the audience a unique perspective into the changing mentality the former military serviceman had as he felt gradually separated from the outside world by political actors out to get him.

Solet perfectly weaves Heemeyer into the documentary’s narrative, overlaying his prerecorded dialogue over reenactments of key moments to give context and allow viewers inside the mind of the man silently being portrayed on screen.

Heemeyer is portrayed by actor Robert Fleet, usually from behind and framed like a specter haunting the film and foreshadowing the carnage of steel to come. The reenactments are largely silent and brilliantly captured by cinematographer Zoran Popovic with a dynamic visual style that bursts off the screen.

Much of the film’s first act centers around city politics as Heemeyer does battle with Granby water commissioners and the town council over his muffler shop and the adjacent land slated to be a concrete batch plant.

For a while, “Tread” makes a compelling case to draw viewers to Heemeyer’s side as the audio tapes explain how his rights were being infringed upon by malicious government officials working in conjunction with the concrete plant.

But though Solet never truly discusses mental illness as a potential reason for Heemeyer’s subsequent actions, the documentary morphs over its second and third act to a more bombastic, dramatic style in keeping with Heemeyer’s increasingly paranoid ramblings.

Reenactments of the buildup are solid throughout, but it’s in the third act as Heemeyer starts the engine and begins his rampage that Solet’s best directorial work really shines. 

Unable to rely on archival news footage or police cameras, “Tread” designs action sequences that replicate the creation of Heemeyer’s destructive bulldozer and its initial assault on property across the small Colorado town.

The film debuted at the 2019 South by Southwest Film Festival   before a limited theatrical run in February 2020. “Tread” launched on Netflix this past week and is certain to be among the streaming service’s more popular documentary titles, seamlessly fitting in the same mold of hit docuseries like “Tiger King” and “Making A Murderer” that follow eccentric men, government conspiracy theories and outlandishly true stories to compel audiences to watch every second over and over again.

An alluring look at a man past his breaking point, small town politics and bizarre, unforgettable crime, “Tread” is a mesmerizing 90-minute thrill ride that pushes the limits of conventional documentary filmmaking – often crossing the line to traditional fictional narrative – in order to keep viewers on the edge of their seats for the mayhem they know is inevitable.


Radioactive: Experimentation in biopic film

It’s unclear exactly why an avant-garde, cinematic biopic of the adult life of famed scientist Marie Curie was needed, but such is the world of film in 2020.

Opting not for the sidesplitting, yet emotional dramedy that powered 2016’s “Hidden Figures,” the demure albeit strange film “Radioactive” from director Marjane Satrapi presents Curie in a traditional light before mixing her journey to multiple Nobel Prizes with flashforward dream states to the conflicted impact of her work.

The result is a tonal mismatch of middling standards that wastes a strong performance from its lead actress and the bold, audacious cinematography that will likely keep some viewers watching the largely frustrating film until its conclusion.

Based on a graphic novel on the life of Madame Curie, “Radioactive” primarily focuses on the scientific work of the first female professor at the Sorbonne over a 20-year-period from the 1890s through the 1910s as she digs into the possibility of new elements, discovering their instability and becoming a French sensation in more ways than one.

As Marie, Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike gives a measured, yet powerful performance that comes across both as cold and abrupt yet endearing in a way that viewers want to rally behind her Marie.

The singularity of her work often overwhelms the performances of others sharing the screen with her, which is probably to be intended in most circumstances but plays a tricky part in the chemistry between Pike’s Marie and Sam Riley’s Pierre.

It’s easy to tell that the standoffishness of their pairing is a decided part of Pike’s approach to the role, but the clinical nature only works for her performance as Riley is more stiff than stoic. In smaller moments when viewers are seeing Pierre through Marie’s eyes, there is a small amount of warmth to be felt towards Riley’s performance, but for the most part, Pike feels as if she’s acting to thin air around her.

Anya Taylor-Joy – beyond exceptional in “Emma” earlier this year – does well in a lackluster smaller role as Curie’s elder daughter Irène, adopting Pike’s mannerisms and demeanor subtly, but with intention. The remainder of the supporting cast is as unexceptional as Satrapi treats them in the film.

“Radioactive” spends more time on the science the Curies discovered together than their personal romance, although how the film approaches Pierre’s impact on Marie after his death is perhaps the eccentricity of the screenplay that works the best and provides for the most interesting moments in the final act.

Screenwriter Jack Thorne plays with the narrative structure by throwing audiences up and down the historical timeline at will, opening with Marie’s final moments and tossing in sequences of her youth in Poland as well as the consequences of her discoveries long after her death seemingly at random.

To find viewers wandering through the remnants of Chernobyl is a puzzling detour that challenges the notion of Marie’s credibility as the heroine of her own tale, with Thorne almost positing her as anti-hero or incapable of seeing the downside of her discovery. “Radioactive” fails to reckon with these charges as much as it probably needs to for Thorne’s argument to be successful with audiences.

There is an impressive visual style to “Radioactive” that’s perhaps a bit too heavy-handed with darkness and shadows in scenes of deep black, but the cinematography of Anthony Dod Mantle has a kinetic edge that reflects Satrapi’s overall vision for her film. 

The film’s strengths – an exceptional Pike, engaging and dynamic visuals and a haunting score – keep “Radioactive” from being a waste of time, although Satrapi’s latest feature isn’t really worth seeking out on Amazon Prime by anyone other than the most curious of ardent cinephiles.


Palm Springs: Hot film at the right time

It’s often said that a movie can feel of the moment, that it came out at exactly the right place and time for audiences to identify with and feel heard.

“Palm Springs,” a small romantic comedy that debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival when things were normal, has a very “of the moment” vibe that no one – not even first-time director Max Barbakow or screenwriter Andy Siara – could have seen coming.

At its core, “Palm Springs” is a film about isolation and how we deal with feelings of empty aloneness even as people seemingly float around us.

In the “new normal” of social distancing and mask wearing for self-protection and the safety of those around us – especially in the heat of summer – there’s an interpersonal disconnect to life in 2020 that “Palm Springs” intimately captures with its quirky take on a familiar narrative.

The film follows Nyles, a carefree loner stuck at another wedding with his cheating girlfriend, when he strikes up a friendship with maid-of-honor Sarah. The next morning, things become complicated when the new friends cannot escape each other, the desert wedding venue or themselves.

“Saturday Night Live” alum Andy Samberg is an affable yet quirky choice for Nyles, shining here in more serious comedic fodder than audiences may be used to seeing from him in comedic film work. The general sense of apathy he brings to the character feels authentic to the plot rather than a forced device to create conflict and Samberg is genuinely entertaining throughout the film even as the tone changes at a whim.

His laissez-faire attitude also serves as a perfect foil for the more aggressive and standoffish Sarah, played by “How I Met Your Mother” actress Cristin Milioti.

While it’s clear that Samberg is the main focus of “Palm Springs,” Milioti frequently steals scenes with her expressive eyes and wry attitude that she flings into snarky lines of dialogue as Sarah challenges and mystifies Nyles.

The hate-to-like-to-love path romantic comedies often take doesn’t hinder the chemistry between Samberg and Milioti as both performers are so in the moment that it pulls the audience in from the outlandishness of the circumstances Nyles and Sarah are in.

Oscar winner and veteran character actor J.K. Simmons gets to flex his comedic and dramatic chops in the film’s primary supporting role as most of the ensemble cast feel like bystanders in Nyles’ and Sarah’s story rather than a true part of the narrative. His Roy leans into the no-nonsense attitude that is prevalent in a great Simmons performance while also providing much needed gravitas throughout and some key emotional depth.

Instead of rebooting the plot of one of Hollywood’s most beloved rom-coms, Barbakow and Siara peel elements of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” to give “Palm Springs” a hot yellow hue while rearranging the timeline in order to give their own perspective on the genre without becoming a rip-off of a classic.

The film moves at a pretty rapid pace, infusing character development within each scene as moments of calm among the chaos. It’s a brisk 90-minute adventure that feels right for keeping the plot from veering too wildly off course, as if it were a singular episode of a longer series audiences were dropped into the middle of.

It’s important that first-time viewers go into “Palm Springs” with as little information as possible, even avoiding trailers if at all possible as the film’s unique hook is better without prior knowledge. Doing this increases the boldness of Siara’s screenplay and the genuine chemistry between Samberg and Milioti as unlikely partners dealing with the plot’s twists and turns.

One of the hottest films to come out of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, “Palm Springs” was acquired by Hulu for a record-breaking $17 million, the highest distribution deal in the history of the festival.

“Palm Springs” has the comedic fun of an irreverent Judd Apatow movie with a smartly penned script, crisp direction and a wildly entertaining narrative that makes it a must-see home viewing on Hulu.