What To Watch: The Good, The Bad, and The Horny

"Passages" in theaters, "War Pony" and ten more new films on demand.

What To Watch: The Good, The Bad, and The Horny
(l. to r. Ben Whishaw, Adèle Exarchopoulos, and Franz Rogowski in “Passages”)

The big theatrical openings this weekend are both sequels, or, in the case of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem,” the second sequel of a reboot of a successful 1990s film franchise based on an animated TV series based on an independent 1980s comic book. (The other new release is “Meg 2: The Trench,” about a really big shark.) Also opening in selected independent theaters is “Passages” (⭐ ⭐), one of those dramas about a horrible person that movie critics tend to love and often I am one of those critics, but, boy howdy, not this time. The writer-director is Ira Sachs, whose filmography runs from pretty good (“Frankie,” 2019) to very good (“Love Is Strange,” 2014; “Little Men,” 2016), and it seems like he’s trying to make one of Rainer Maria Fassbender’s 1970s melodramas – omnisexual, ornery – for the new century. And certainly Franz Rogowski as the leading louse has the kind of reptilian charisma that might have enraptured R.W., on or off camera. Rogowski plays Tomas, a mercurial Paris-based filmmaker married to the mild-mannered Martin (Ben Whishaw) but involved in a headlong affair with Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos of “Blue is the Warmest Color”), a schoolteacher he meets at a club. “Passages” is sexually raw enough to have earned a rare NC-17 from the MPAA – the film is being distributed without a rating – but that’s not the problem. The problem is that the main character is detestable. Scratch that: Plenty of great films have loathsome lead characters. (I was just rewatching “There Will Be Blood” last night for a case in point.) Tomas is uninterestingly detestable. I get no perverse entertainment, no schadenfreude, no insight into human behavior from the character’s self-serving manipulations of people he professes to love. He’s just a schmuck, and a tediously whiny one at that. But I appear to be in the critical minority on this one, so take the above with whatever size grain of salt you require. And be glad that independent streamer/distributor MUBI is taking a gamble with the film, as it fits the company mission of bringing uncompromising international and American fare to audiences at home and in theaters. For what it’s worth, the sex scenes are the among the film’s best — partly because they’re honestly horny in a way the movies have tiptoed away from in recent decades and partly because they’re the only times Tomas stops talking.

The pickings are much stronger on demand, where a number of the year’s better movies are finally showing up, some for big-ticket premium prices, others at a more affordable tier. Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City (⭐ ⭐ ⭐, my review is here) can now be had as a $19.99 VOD rental at Amazon, Apple TV, YouTube, and elsewhere, as can Nicole Holofcener’s delightful comedy of Manhattan manners You Hurt My Feelings (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2, my review is here). If you’re interested in “Asteroid City,” I would recommend the theatrical experience to achieve the full Wes, but “Feelings” is minimalist and cozy enough to play well even on your phone. Except don’t do that.

(l. to r. Stephanie Hsu, Sherry Cola, Ashley Park, and Sabrina Wu in “Joy Ride”)

Also streaming at the $19.99 price point is “Joy Ride” (⭐ ⭐ 1/2), a raunchy road-trip comedy in the style of “The Hangover” or “Girls’ Trip” with the distinction that the characters and cast (and much of the crew) are Asian American women. This novelty (for mainstream studio fare) extends to the setting – the quartet of friends experiencing misadventures in Beijing, the Chinese countryside, and Seoul – and to the cultural in-jokes about growing up in Asian families. Otherwise, director Adele Lim follows the blueprint: One straight-arrow good girl (Ashley Park), one crazy best friend (Sherry Cola), one nerdy hanger-on (Sabrina Wu), and one glamourpuss (Stephanie Hsu of “Everything Everywhere All At Once”) + drunken/drug-fueled/orgiastic shenanigans ÷ big argument at the 4/5ths mark + sentimental wrap-up with life lessons learned = a lot you’ve seen before but with just enough rude freshness to keep from feeling like a complete retread. Still, you may want to wait until this hits streaming at $3.99 or catch it on a long flight.

“War Pony” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2) came out in theaters last week but is already available as a $4.99 rental on Amazon, Apple TV, YouTube, and elsewhere, and it’s a bleakly empathetic look at life on a Lakota reservation that by the end has offered just enough humanity and hope to feel like its characters have earned them. Two non-actors are in the lead: Jojo Bapteise Whiting (above) as Bill, a lanky, aimless young dude who smokes a lot of weed and is generally considered useless by both of his baby mamas; and Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder), a 12-year-old who seems headed for an early grave from the first time we see him stealing his dad’s meth stash. The co-directors are Gina Cammell and actress Riley Keough – better known to some as Elvis Presley’s granddaughter – and they keep the drama low to the ground, gritty, and honest, with just enough gallows humor to offset the raw depictions of poverty and neglect. The tribal traditions are there but mostly in the background; Bill has to admit with a measure of shame that he doesn’t even speak Lakota. But then we’ll get a funeral cortege of pick-up trucks whose drivers holler defiant war whoops of grief, and Bill’s dealings with the wealthy white owner of a local turkey farm (Sprague Hollander) pay off with what can only be called the revenge of Thanksgiving. Filmed on the traditional homelands of the Oceti Sakowin and Tongva Peoples, “War Pony” feels lived in, and lived hard.

Other notable 2023 theatrical releases newly available for low-budget streaming:

“Are You There, God, It’s Me, Margaret” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2, $5.99 on Amazon, Apple TV, YouTube, and elsewhere), of which I earlier said, “the movie strikes exactly the right balance of anxiety and empathy, seeing the travails of middle-school girlhood from the perspectives of both a freaked-out 12-year-old and an implied adult remembering it from the far side of adolescence. As that 12-year-old, Abby Ryder Fortson is very well cast, able to convey the child Margaret so recently was and the woman she’s starting to become. And as the implicit adult, Margaret’s mother Barbara, Rachel McAdams is just about perfect, because she lets us see what Margaret is slow to see – what we’re all slow to see about our parents – which is that Barbara too is making it up as she goes along, out of a similar mixture of insecurity and guts.

“Blue Jean” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2, $6.99 on Amazon, Apple TV, YouTube, and elsewhere). When it came out in theaters in June, I called it “a strong, keenly felt pressure cooker about the perils of the closet, with Rosy McEwen excellent as the title character, a lesbian gym teacher in 1988 England, when the Thatcher government was passing the notorious Section 28 laws prohibiting the ‘promotion of homosexuality.’… Writer-director Georgia Oakley plays it as an emotional suspense film with an undercurrent of righteous rage that’s only slightly tempered by the warm portrayal of queer sisterhood, and if the lighting and score sometimes make you think you’re watching a monster movie, it’s worth remembering that the monster is Maggie Thatcher.”

“The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future” (⭐ ⭐ 1/2, streaming on Hoopla, for $3.99 on Amazon, Apple TV, YouTube, and elsewhere) Yes, this magical realist eco-fable from Chile does feature cows that sing – and fish and other creatures voicing their musical dismay at man’s despoiling of the earth. The feature debut of director Francisca Alegria has moments of pure magic, as a family’s dead matriarch (Mia Maestro) rises from the polluted river in which she drowned to wordlessly bring her family to reckonings of the heart and the biosphere. There are moments of eerie movie magic here as well as a pervasive didacticism and at least one scene that’s lit like a telenovela. Alegria is one to watch, though, and so is the movie if you’re feeling chancy.

“No Bears” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐, $3.99 on Amazon, Apple TV, and Vudu)

From my 2/10/23 review: “As is his practice of late, Panahi plays himself, a moviemaker technically forbidden by the Iranian government from making movies; this metafictional Panahi installs himself in a small border town and directs a cast and crew shooting a drama a few miles away in Turkey. … Witty and despairing in equal measure, “No Bears” is a fascinating cinematic layer cake of themes, sorrows, and banked fury. It mourns the death of love in a repressive society, it says that bringing a camera to the party is always asking for trouble – that filming itself constitutes a threat to established orders, whether local patriarchies or national theocracies – and it says that none of us are ever, ever wholly innocent.”

“One Fine Morning” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2, $5.99 on Amazon, Apple TV, YouTube, and elsewhere). From that same review column: “The latest bulletin from writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve about the quotidian traumas and comedies of a woman’s life. The movie’s a bouquet offered to lead actress Léa Seydoux as a Paris single mother named Sandra who works as a translator, struggles with helping her father (Pascal Greggory) cope with a degenerative disease, starts an affair with an old friend (Melville Poupaud) who’s inconveniently married, and generally passes through her world at the speed of life.”

“Saint Omer” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐, streaming on Hulu, for $1.99 rent on Amazon, Apple TV, YouTube, and elsewhere A buck ninety-nine to rent one of the year’s toughest and best movies! In my January review, I described it as a courtroom case that “interweaves issues of race, nationality, class, and gender into a gripping and seamless dramatic whole. … While [director Alice] Diop never lets us forget that this is a case of infanticide (and one based on a real case, with a real victim), she slowly widens the film’s scope of inquiry and its measure of sorrow from the personal through the racial and into a nearly existential contemplation of womanhood.”

“The Starling Girl” (⭐ ⭐ 1/2, $5.99 on Amazon, Apple TV, YouTube, and elsewhere) I was mixed on the movie as a whole but singled out “a lead performance from Eliza Scanlen that’s hot to the touch. She plays Jem Starling, the oldest of three daughters in an evangelical Christian clan in rural Kentucky, oblivious to the world outside her county and religion but electric with adolescent longing – toward God and toward Owen Taylor (Lewis Pullman), the pastor’s lanky married son who’s back from missionary work in the Caribbean and who keeps throwing Jem long, ardent looks. … The saving graces of writer-director Laurel Parmet’s debut feature are the detailed portrayal of a community the movies generally caricature and Scanlen’s intuitive, impulsive Jem.”

Classics of the Week

“The Set Up” (1949, ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐), “On Dangerous Ground” (1951, ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2) It’s August, which means that Turner Classic Movies is doing its star-a-day thing, and Monday, August 7, brings us a block of programming devoted to Robert Ryan, one of the hardest, most morally complex actors to ever grace a film noir. At 9:45 p.m. is Robert Wise’s “The Set-Up” (above), arguably the best boxing film of all time (Martin Scorsese might agree, even if he made the other major contender for the title), with Ryan magnificent as an aging pugilist refusing to take a fall. Nicholas Ray’s “On Dangerous Ground” follows at 11:15 p.m.; Ryan plays a sadistic cop who’s mellowed by love for a blind Ida Lupino but not before terrifying us in an interrogation scene where he beats up a perp while crying, “Why do you punks make me do it? Why?” Ryan’s a fascinating figure in post-war cinema – I wrote about his career at length for our shared alma mater’s alumni magazine – and it remains a mystery as to why he didn’t become a star on the order of magnitude of peers Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, and Burt Lancaster. Or maybe it isn’t a mystery: That darkness in the actor seemed inconsolable. Both “The Set-Up” and “On Dangerous Ground” are available for streaming rental on other platforms.)

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