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Including reviews of The Little Things, The Dig, Palmer, Jiu Jitsu and Penguin Bloom.
NOW critics pick what’s new to streaming and VOD for the weekend of January 29. Plus: Everything new to VOD and streaming platforms.
Set in 1990 – just before cell phones and forensics would have resolved its dumb, brooding story in minutes instead of hours – The Little Things spins out its threadbare procedural narrative as though it were exquisite serial-killer noir. Denzel Washington plays Joe “Deke” Deacon, a Bakersfield sheriff’s deputy who used to be an ace detective in Los Angeles. While visiting L.A. on routine business, he learns of a woman who appears to be the latest victim of a murderer Deke was hunting five years earlier, leading Deke to join forces with the hotshot (Rami Malek) currently on the case. Washington is rock-solid as Deke, playing him as a broken man grasping at straws in search of redemption. But nothing else in the movie is up to his standard; not writer/director Hancock’s dull script, which depends on mind games that just aren’t that interesting, nor his pedestrian approach to telling his story. By the time it introduces a bug-eyed Jared Leto as Deke’s prime suspect, The Little Things has already lost all hope of being interesting. And that’s before a climactic flurry of twists that’s meant to make us question everything we’ve seen… but only leave us wondering why these actors thought this movie was a good use of their time. 128 min. Read full review here. Available as a premium rental on digital and on demand. NN (Norman Wilner)
Not very much happens in The Dig, a period drama about an archaeological excavation in Suffolk just before the start of the Second World War. There is a dig, obviously, undertaken by Basil Brown (Ralph -Fiennes) at the behest of Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), a widowed mother convinced that the ancient mounds on her land are hiding something of historical value. Over the course of a summer, Basil and Edith come to understand each other very well. And as The Dig opens up to include additional characters, among them Edith’s cousin (Johnny Flynn) and a pair of unhappily married archaeologists (Ben Chaplin, Lily James), it folds in their separate stories as well. It’s a film about strangers becoming a community, and -Moira Buffini’s script – adapted from John Preston’s 2007 novel – builds a subtle metaphor about a nation banding together to go to war. It’s not a challenging film, but it comes together beautifully: a modest work, but one that carries surprising power. 112 min. Read full review here. Now streaming on Netflix Canada. NNNN (NW)
You likely aren’t expecting much from Jiu Jitsu, a low-budget actioner about a bunch of people fighting an alien in the jungles of Myanmar. Maybe a fun Nicolas Cage performance (he’s one of the people!), or some energetic action staging (director/co-writer Logothetis is associated with the revived Kickboxer franchise). Whatever you want, you’re not going to get it. A sloppy riff on Predator and Mortal Kombat with none of those films’ invention or energy, Jiu Jitsu spins its rote story in as unsatisfying a manner as possible. Every six years, a comet passes the Earth and extraterrestrial marauder Brax arrives for battle. But there’s a problem: our current champion (Alain Moussi) fled their last encounter and now has amnesia, meaning his comrades – among them Frank Grillo, Tony Jaa, JuJu Chan Szeto and a mildly engaged Cage – have to get him back into fighting shape and confront Brax before Brax can end the world. Moussi is wooden, Grillo and Jaa are woefully under-used, the villain is just a stuntman in a cheap suit, and Logothetis overcomplicates everything with digital camera tricks that render the action utterly incoherent. I like a dopey action movie as much as anyone, but this one’s just exhausting. 104 min. Available on digital and on demand. N (NW)
Apple TV+ and veteran producer/director Stevens aim for Sundance glory with Palmer, an intimate character study about an ex-con (Justin Timberlake) who comes home to his small Louisiana town in hope of a fresh start, and finds himself becoming an unlikely father figure to gender-fluid Sam (Ryder Allen), whose mother (Juno Temple) has skipped town Well-meaning and mopey, Palmer lays out its story points and fulfills them as if it’s ticking its way down a checklist, mapping out its protagonist’s journey from surly, withdrawn loner to working-class hero by contrasting his good heart with the limitations of everyone around him. (His one ally is Sam’s sympathetic schoolteacher, played by Alisha Wainwright with endless patience.) Timberlake is engaging in the lead, undercutting Palmer’s decency with hints of a violent temper, but it’s frustrating to realize, as the movie goes along, that Stevens choose to make the least interesting version of this story. Every directorial choice is the safest one; every plot point of Cheryl Guerriero’s script follows the path of least resistance. Which is fine, I guess, if that’s all you want from a movie. I was hoping for something a little more substantial. 110 min. Now streaming on Apple TV+. NNN (NW)
Inspirational biopic starring Naomi Watts is strictly for the birds.
After active Aussie Sam Bloom (Naomi Watts) falls from a faulty roof railing and breaks her back while vacationing with her family in Thailand, she sinks into a depression. The appearance of an injured magpie – whom the family calls Penguin because of its black and white colouring – helps her recovery. Yes, Penguin Bloom – based on a real-life story – is every bit as maudlin as that premise sounds. It’s got all the complexity of a children’s fable – fitting, since it’s partly narrated by one of Sam’s three sons, who feels responsible for causing the accident.
That son never comes into focus, but then again, neither does anyone else except Sam. Her photographer husband Cameron (The Walking Dead’s Andrew Lincoln) is merely patient and loving; her mother Jan (Jacki Weaver), is overly protective and might have a drinking problem. The kids are sad when their parents are fighting, happy when they’re jumping on a trampoline. Rachel House jolts the film to life as a no-nonsense kayak instructor. It’s up to Watts to carry the picture, and she does with her usual intensity and intelligence, although at times she seems embarrassed to be speaking some of the cringeworthy dialogue, especially as the life-affirming epiphanies pile up near the end. It’s refreshing to see Watts, Lincoln and Weaver speak in their own Aussie accents for once. So that’s something. 95 min. Now streaming on Netflix. NN (Glenn Sumi)
Tara Basro, Ario Bayu, Marissa Anita; directed by Joko Anwar
Nicolas Cage, Frank Grillo, Tony Jaa; directed by Dimitri Logothetis
Sarah Rich, Marc Menchaca, Dakota Lustick; directed by Sarah Priozek
Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, Jared Leto; directed by John Lee Hancock
Jacque Gray, Ernie Lively, Heather Beers; directed by Bryce Clark
Islam Mubark, Moatsem Rashid, Mustafa Shehata; directed by Amjad Abu Alala
Everything coming to streaming platforms this month:
Donnie Darko may not have been a box-office hit, but its instant cult status enabled Richard Kelly to do whatever the hell he wanted for his second feature. And when the writer/director delivered Southland Tales five years later, it was immediately clear that’s exactly what had happened. Set in the post-apocalyptic world of 2008 Los Angeles, the movie plays like Robert Altman on crystal meth, with characters played by Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Seann William Scott wandering through a disintegrating landscape, hallucinating visions of the end of everything. (Unless they’re not hallucinating at all, which is an even more unnerving possibility.) Audiences and critics at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival rejected the film as an incomprehensible mess, leading Kelly to recut and reshape Southland Tales for its theatrical release, deleting about 15 minutes of footage and adding new material that was supposed to explain its Bizarro reality… but just made things more cluttered and incomprehensible. (If you’ve seen his expanded cut of Donnie Darko, you know he’s his own worst enemy when it comes to clarifying his wobbly, dreamlike narratives.)
Kelly’s never stopped trying to salvage the reputation of Southland Tales, which he considers his best work, and his fans have spent a decade and a half hoping the Cannes cut would eventually resurface. Well, here you go: Arrow’s two-disc Blu-ray includes the version of Southland Tales that so infuriated those festivalgoers, and… yep, it’s better. It’s still not great – the core of the film is still a roiling miasma of half-developed plot threads and mismatched performances, flailing around trying to achieve coherence – but now it’s possible to see what Kelly was going for in the first place.
Southland Tales is suffused with a creeping cosmic dread: something is terribly wrong with the world, but no one can quite understand what it is or how to fix it. The theatrical cut reorganizes the story in a way that mutes that gathering sense of doom; the Cannes cut offers a pure, more potent delivery. And for that alone, this reissue – which also offers a new 2K restoration of the theatrical cut, remastered DTS-HD audio and a new documentary, along with the audio commentary and featurettes from the previous Sony release – is a welcome addition to any fan’s library.