For the past 30 years, there have been a few unspoken rules about big-screen movie releases: 1. January is a dumping ground 2. July 4 weekend is family-friendly blockbuster central 3. December is prime Oscar bait 4. Did I mention January is a dumping ground? But all those rules have since gone the way of VCRs and TiVo because of the global pandemic. (Not that I needed to tell you the reason why.) With the Oscars pushed all the way from February to the end of April, movie studios are still rolling out all its golden hopefuls. If anything, these films — which feature recognizable stars doing dramatic work tailor-made for Best Actor and Best Actress clips — may even get an extra push because they’re fresher in voters’ minds. Mind you, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re worthy of the push. Here’s my take on five notables.
Malcolm & Marie
2 stars (out of 4)
No doubt John David Washington and Zendaya are dynamic stars with ridiculously bright futures. So who wants to watch them bicker in a Hollywood mansion for 105 minutes? That’s what audiences are asked to do in an exhausting and shockingly pretentious black-and-white drama. He’s a director whose career is hot; she’s his actress/muse whose career is not. After returning home from his movie premiere, their egos clash as they engage in a series of bitter arguments. While the couple’s issues — jealousy, industry posturing, gender equality — aren’t minor, all that self-aggrandizing ranting prevents the audience from feeling any sort of empathy for them. Just goes to show you that louder isn’t better. (Netflix, February 5)
The Little Things
2.5 stars (out of 4)
A serial killer is terrorizing L.A, prompting a pair of local detectives to join forces and obsessively track him down. One is a grizzled veteran with a shaky past; the other is a shrewd family man. Now consider that Denzel Washington and Rami Malek play the cops, and Jared Leto is the deranged madman. Sounds like a must-see throwback thriller, no? And yet, something is amiss. Maybe the problem is that the film feels too dated — and not just because it’s set in a pre-Smartphone, pre-DNA-tracing 1990. Detectives who unhealthily fixate on their work is a tired character device, and the mystery itself lacks the flare of, say, Seven and Gone Girl. But say this for the big three stars: They’re never not alluring. (HBO Max, January 29)
3 stars (out of 4)
Justin Timberlake really doesn’t get the credit he deserves re: his acting career. Is this because of the whole boy band/It’s Gonna Be May thing? Hopefully his strong performance in this lovely little slice-of-life gem will change the perception. He’s Eddie Palmer, a football-star-turned-convict who returns to his blue-collar Louisiana hometown after 12 years behind bars. (JT sells it. Really.) Eddie goes about his business until he meets an angelic-faced boy (Ryder Allen, amazing) living near by in a trailer with his troubled mom. The two form a friendship, becoming so close that Palmer seeks a legal guardianship. What makes this redemption story so special is that the kid is a school outcast struggling with his gender identity. Palmer is not only empathetic, he encourages him to be himself. You can’t help but wish them well — and wish to see more of their sweet story.
2.5 stars (out of 4)
Three appealing actors elevate one maudlin true story. The friend in the title refers to an unassuming guy named Dane (Jason Segel). He puts everything on hold to move in with his closest pals (Dakota Johnson and superior Affleck Casey Affleck) when she’s diagnosed with cancer. Dane doesn’t have to, of course — but he sees the toll it’s taking on the couple and their two daughters. Turns out Dane needs them as much as they need him. (Relentless flashbacks of the couple’s turbulent relationship nearly undermine this message.) Segel was born for this kind of every-man role, as he carries the bulk of the film’s emotional weight. But the melodrama is straight from the Nicholas Sparks school of predictable weepies, especially during the reach-for-Kleenex closing moment when Johnson says her big goodbye. (But she still looks radiant, of course). (Premium Video on Demand, now playing)
One Night in Miami
3.5 stars (out of 4)
The feature-length directorial debut from Oscar and Emmy-winning actress Regina King is a self-assured stand-out. Set on February 25 1964 (12 years to the day before I was born!!), the drama imagines what would have happened if boxing legend Muhammed Ali (Eli Goree) — then a cocky upstart known as Cassius Clay — NFL star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), singer Sam Cooke (Hamilton Tony winner Leslie Odom Jr.) and civil rights activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) converged in a hotel room following a big Clay victory. The meet-up among friends sparks thought-provoking dialogue about race in America. Dialogue, in fact, is the main event: With its roots in theater, the film does suffer from stagey-itis in parts and could have used more cinematic scope. But that doesn’t diminish its powerful punch. (Amazon Prime, now playing)
Also published on Medium.