NOW critics pick what’s new to streaming and VOD for the weekend of March 5. Plus: Everything new to VOD and streaming platforms.
Coming 2 America
Coming To America was the Black Panther of its time. The blockbuster starring Eddie Murphy as an African prince hiding in Queens fell just behind Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in the competition for 1988’s box office crown. That was unheard for a movie with almost no white people. Murphy and his co-star Arsenio Hall recently revealed that the only white person (Louise Anderson) in the otherwise all-Black cast was imposed upon them by Paramount Studios.
Coming To America was ground-breaking. The sequel, arriving 33 years later, is mostly satisfied with celebrating that achievement. Director Craig Brewer (who previously worked with Murphy on Dolemite Is My Name) and his team roundup most of the original cast, including James Earle Jones, but also invite many more in what feels like a tribute to Black talent spanning generations.
Wesley Snipes gets in on the action as a warlord who chafes at Murphy’s Prince Akeem. Leslie Jones steals the show as a one-night stand who gave birth to Akeem’s male heir (comedian Jermaine Fowler). Tracy Morgan is here as said heir’s uncle. Trevor Noah is a reporter in Prince Akeem’s homeland Zamunda. If Beale Street Could Talk’s Kiki Layne plays the princess who should be queen. There are so many more familiar faces and musical acts in the mix who are best not to spoil.
Everyone’s here to have a good time with friends and cater to fan service, which isn’t the worst way to spend two hours. Murphy and Arsenio Hall still gets laugh under latex as a barbershop quartet. But Coming 2 America also feels like a missed opportunity. Murphy pretty much gave up on the slyly critical comedy he built his legacy on in the 80s. But it would be more comforting to see what Prince Akeem makes of America today, rather than just watching him rest on his laurels. 97 min. Now streaming on Amazon Prime Video Canada. NN (Radheyan Simonpillai)
Biggie: I Got A Story To Tell
New York rap icon Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace is the latest music figure to go to documentary rehab. While previous films – fiction and non-fiction – leaned hard into the East Coast/West Coast rap wars of the 90s, and Wallace’s unsolved 1997 murder, I Got A Story To Tell fleshes out familial, musical and formative influences. Director Malloy opens by establishing Wallace’s love of R&B (producer P. Diddy calls it his “secret weapon” as a songwriter), and his lifelong friend Damien “D-Roc” Butler explaining that Wallace was conscious, but his rap alter ego was not. That polarity is ultimately the subject of this doc.
While Biggie’s lyrics were often dark and uncomfortably personal, there seem to be few recorded interviews matching that candour. And so Malloy leans heavily on accounts of his Jamaican immigrant mother Voletta Wallace, childhood friends and his mentor, jazz musician Donald Harrison. What emerges is a rich and complex portrait of his Brooklyn neighbourhood, an area quite literally on the precipice of a thriving music scene and the crack epidemic of the 80s and 90s. Biggie still remains elusive in some respects, but this doc goes beyond the mythology to show how his trajectory to fame straddled overlapping worlds, and how the specifics of his life informed his singular sound. 97 min. Now streaming on Netflix. NNN (Kevin Ritchie)
Raya And The Last Dragon
(Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada)
In a depopulated dystopia, a band of misfits sets out on a dangerous journey to find the mystical stones that will restore their people and their world. The latest feature from Walt Disney Studios Animation is a rousing quest picture, somehow riffing on both Avengers: Endgame and Mulan, with the former’s plot structure and the latter’s give-and-take relationship between a vulnerable human hero and her magical dragon pal – though in this case the dragon is actually powerful and occasionally people-shaped. Kelly Marie Tran voices Raya, who has a very personal stake in saving the day, with Awkwafina as her eponymous sidekick; they’re joined in their quest by the likes of Benedict Wong and Izaac Wang, and opposed by Sandra Oh and Gemma Chan as mother-daughter warriors who don’t believe those magical artifacts can be trusted with anyone else. It’s all played out on a sumptuous visual canvas, with co-directors Hall (Big Hero 6, Moana) and López Estrada (Blindspotting) orchestrating a series of set pieces that riff on everything from Raiders Of The Lost Ark to Mad Max: Fury Road and screenwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim tempering the excitement with delicate character beats. Kids should love it; adults will find a lot to enjoy as well. I did, anyway. 107 min. Available for purchase Friday (March 5) on Disney+ Premier Access. NNNN (Norman Wilner)
The latest from feature and documentary director Macdonald (The Last King Of Scotland, Whitney) dramatizes the story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, a young electrical engineer questioned by his government after 9/11 over possible connections to terrorism; he was handed over to the Americans, who put him in Guantanamo Bay for 14 years. He was never charged with a crime. Tahar Rahim plays Salahi, with Jodie Foster and Shailene Woodley as the lawyers who fought the U.S. government for more than a decade to secure his release; the film cuts back and forth between their stories, folding in another thread about the gradual disillusionment of Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), the military prosecutor assigned to Salahi’s case.
Macdonald keeps the story moving, and his actors all clearly believe in the project – Foster just won a Golden Globe for her sharp, no-bullshit performance as Nancy Hollander, though Cumberbatch’s Southern accent and military haircut make him look like the world’s most awkward Dennis Quaid cosplayer. But as The Mauritanian rolls along and the years tick by, it becomes clear the movie doesn’t really have anything to say about this particular miscarriage of justice, aside from casually pointing out nothing really changed for the Guantanamo detainees after Barack Obama took office: Salahi was released less than a month before the election of Donald Trump. 124 min. Some subtitles. Now available on digital and on demand. NNN (NW)
There’s not much one can say about Wright’s directorial debut, really. It looks great and it means well, but it just isn’t much of anything. The filmmaker/star plays Edee, a traumatized woman who buys a cabin in Wyoming (actually Alberta) and moves off the grid, determined to cut herself off from any human contact. She has her reasons, but Land is an indie drama, so events conspire to force her to make new connections while inspiring music plays on the soundtrack. This isn’t a bad movie, exactly; it’s just one we’ve seen a dozen times before, with its formula of a self-destructive protagonist who learns to value her own life through encounters with a handful of underdeveloped racialized characters. Wright is never less than interesting on screen – especially in the long, near-silent first act – and Demián Bichir does his damndest to bring his scenes to life as a stranger who comes to Edee’s aid in a storm. But there’s just nothing for anyone to do. Bobby Bukowski’s cinematography is gorgeous, though, so if all you want is a 4K tour of the wilderness outside of Calgary, Land might be worth the rental. 89 min. Available as a premium VOD rental Friday (March 5). NN (NW)
Italian filmmaker Rosi explores the remnants of war – physical and emotional – with a sweeping grandeur in Notturno, shot over three years in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Kurdistan. It’s a movie about liminal space: border regions many have sought to reconfigure (most recently ISIS), but also nighttime and parts of the day when safety is not guaranteed. Rosi mentions locations in an opening text but after that he doesn’t orient viewers as he takes us between disparate vignettes. We see psychiatric patients staging a play, Syrian children drawing pictures of atrocities in art therapy, Kurdish widows praying in a former prison where family members died. There are also images of people going about life. Of a piece with Rosi’s previous films, Notturno is intensely observational and highly aestheticized, with scenes framed like classical paintings that astutely make use of negative space. At its best, the approach demands thoughtful attention from the audience, but it can also veer into artfully self-conscious distraction. Ultimately it’s an ambitious view of war and places we don’t often see; where seemingly nothing is happening and yet so much is swirling beneath the surface – or just out of frame. 100 minutes. Available to rent on Hot Docs and VOD platforms. NNN (KR)
My Salinger Year
Falardeau’s adaptation of Joanna Rakoff’s coming-of-age publishing memoir is entertaining enough, but it never feels like the Monsieur Lazhar director is excited by, or connects to, the material. In the mid-90s, aspiring poet Joanna (Margaret Qualley) gets a job as an assistant to Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), a patrician literary agent whose biggest client is notoriously reclusive author J.D. Salinger. Joanna’s main job is typing up Margaret’s correspondence – the old-school agent is suspicious of computers. But she’s also tasked with sending form letters to the hundreds of fans who still write the Catcher In The Rye author. Meanwhile, Joanna has shacked up in NYC with an egotistical, mansplaining aspiring author named Don (Douglas Booth).
While it’s not nearly as much fun as The Devil Wears Prada, the film does capture what it’s like to be in your 20s and figuring things out. The most intriguing sequences have nothing to do with the main plot but deal with those lonely correspondents who have found solace and connection through their idol’s books. Falardeau has these writers deliver their letters directly to the camera. There’s also a whimsical, enchanting fantasy sequence in which Joanna, swept up in the world of Salinger (whom she hadn’t read until then), dances with her ex at the Waldorf. More of that kind of approach would have got us through the stop-and-start narrative and underwritten characters (Colm Feore’s martini-swilling agent figure, for instance, never gets a payoff). 101 min. Available on VOD to rent or buy on Friday (March 5). NNN (Glenn Sumi)
In & Of Itself
Derek DelGaudio calls himself “a storyteller and conceptual magician,” and that about sums up what he delivers in this feature-length film, taken from his sold-out off-Broadway show. But while his stories (about a Russian roulette player, his queer mother’s coming out and the time of day when dogs can be mistaken for wolves, and vice versa) can often seem contrived, they do offer a unique way to present his magic, which is simply mesmerizing. There are slick sleight-of-hand card tricks, an audience participation bit involving people who seem to receive personalized letters from loved ones and, in the pièce de résistance, a sequence in which DelGaudio goes through the audience and tells dozens of people what identifying card they chose in the lobby before the show began. (Want an idea of how popular this show was? The audience includes celebrities like Bill Gates, Tim Gunn and Marina Abramovic.) While a film can’t recreate the excitement of seeing a live show, director Frank Oz captures the magician up close and, in a few instances, offers excerpts from different performances to illustrate how consistent DelGaudio is in his effects. A suggestive set – reflecting some of the symbols in his stories – and a hypnotic sound design, occasionally overlaid with audience gasps and even cries, enhances the experience. 90 minutes. Now streaming on Crave. NNNN (GS)
Available on VOD
Acasa, My Home
Documentary directed by Radu Ciorniciuc
Hanna Ahlström, Carice Van Houten, Claes Bang; directed by Julius Ševčík
Documentary directed Taghi Amirani
Crazy Samurai: 400 Vs. 1
Tak Sakaguchi, Kento Yamazaki, Akihiko Sai; directed by Yuji Shimomura
Brandy Edmiston, Larry Fessenden, Katie Groshong; directed by Chad Crawford Kinkle
The End Of The Storm
Documentary directed by James Erskine
Documentary directed by Francine Parker
Maria Mercedes Coroy, Margarita Kenefic, Sabrina de la Hoz; directed by Jayro Bustamante
Robin Wright, Demian Bichir, Kim Dickens; directed by Robin Wright
Tahar Rahim, Jodie Foster, Benedict Cumberbatch; directed by Kevin Macdonald
My Salinger Year
Margaret Qualley, Sigourney Weaver, Douglas Booth; directed by Phillippe Falardeau
1942: Unknown Battle
Sergey Zharkov, Ivan Batarev, Oleg Gayanov; directed by Igor Kopylov
Documentary directed by William Greaves
Documentary directed by Gianfranco Rosi
Tyler Posey, Summer Spiro, Donald Sutherland; directed by Johnny Martin
Olivia Cooke, Ben Hardy, Alec Baldwin; directed by Barnaby Thompson
Documentary directed by Elizabeth Lo
Najarra Townsend, Brea Grant, Sarah McGuire; directed by Jill Gevargizian
‘Til Kingdom Come
Documentary directed by Maya Zinshtein
The United States Vs. Billie Holiday
Andra Day, Trevante Rhodes, Garrett Hedlund; directed by Lee Daniels
The World To Come
Katherine Waterston, Vanessa Kirby, Christopher Abbott
Everything coming to streaming platforms this month:
BFF Reel Stories Festival
At first glance, pickings at this “socially conscious” satellite edition of the Barrie Film Festival seem a little slim: Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself and The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show are both streaming on Crave, and Philippe Falardeau’s My Salinger Year and Elizabeth Lo’s Stray just went into general VOD release this morning. But then there’s Mrs Lowry & Son, a period drama featuring exquisite, despairing work from Timothy Spall and Vanessa Redgrave as the Manchester-area painter L.S. Lowry and his housebound, domineering mother; It’s only available from March 12 to 14, but the film’s been circling a Canadian release for over a year now, so watch it while you can.
Through March 14 at barriefilmfestival.ca
Disc of the week
Scare Me (RLJ Entertainment, Blu-ray and DVD)
Yes, Josh Ruben’s clever two-hander – starring the writer/director and The Boys’ Aya Cash as strangers swapping scary stories in a remote cabin on a dark and stormy night – is right there streaming on Shudder. But the Blu-ray release – available an import at Bay Street Video, Sonic Boom and other brick-and-mortar retailers – is a how-we-did-it cornucopia, with a suite of supplemental features unpacking almost every aspect of the production. Ruben and cinematographer Brendan H. Banks discuss how they exploited the concept’s visual limitations in an audio commentary; outtakes show us the moments when things pushed the concept a little too far, or failed to push it far enough. The disc also includes chipper cast interviews, a photo gallery and the first episode of the new Make Cool Shit podcast, which is devoting an entire season to every aspect of Scare Me; best of all, though, is a music video for Feel The Music, Feel The Light, the Phantom Of The Paradise-adjacent song the characters invent out of thin air to entertain Chris Redd’s pizza guy.