What to Watch This Weekend 2/11/22

An Agatha Christie mystery, a J.Lo romcom, and more

What to Watch This Weekend 2/11/22

The Nut Graf1: “Death on the Nile” (in theaters, ** stars out of ****) is a decent Agatha Christie adaptation that you may want to read in paperback (i.e., watch it on demand) rather than buying the hardcover (i.e., going to the theater). “Marry Me” (in theaters and on Peacock, **1/2 stars out of four) is a gloriously chowderheaded Jennifer Lopez romantic trifle. “The Sky Is Everywhere” (Apple TV+, *** stars out of ****) shows a challenging director dipping her toe in the mainstream.

There’s an unexpected embarrassment of streaming riches this week, including two promising releases that arrived without fanfare and that I’ll get around to next week: A new Steven Soderbergh film, “Kimi,” on HBO Max and something genuinely strange on Netflix called “Bigbug” from “Amelie” director Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

And, yes, “Death on the Nile” is in theaters. Do we need a remake of an adaptation of an Agatha Christie mystery when the 1978 version is right there with Bette Davis and Maggie Smith sniping away at each other and Peter Ustinov hamming everyone off the screen as Hercule Poirot? That’s what the role requires, of course, and actor-director Kenneth Branagh is nothing if not a fastidious sort of ham. This long-on-the-shelf follow-up to 2017’s “Murder on the Orient Express” lacks a blazing star turn like Michelle Pfeiffer’s in the earlier film, but it surrounds Branagh and his baroque mustache with a large and glamorous cast, freshly diversified as is the practice and, in a few cases, somewhat past their sell-by date. (Armie Hammer plays the roguish dandy Simon Doyle, newly married to Gal Gadot’s heiress Linnet Ridgeway, but in the wake of last year’s revelations about the actor’s penchant for cannibalistic sex play, it’s been interesting to watch him virtually erased from the film’s trailers.)

The movie takes place in Egypt, obviously, with swooning aerial shots of the Pyramids and the temples at Abu Simbel, and a luxurious, if deadly, steamboat trip down the Nile. No actual Egyptians were harmed or, really, used in the making of this film: Because it’s Christie, the cast is a motley of Brits and Americans, with one obsessive-compulsive Belgian detective and a random Armenian attorney played by Indian actor Ali Fazal. Annette Bening is wasted in the role of an ill-tempered dowager — what’s she doing in a supporting part, anyway? — but Sophie Okonedo owns her scenes as Salome Otterbourne, a blowzy, imperious blues singer (the character was a romance novelist in the book and the first film). And Emma Mackey has such trembling presence as a jilted jazz-baby fiancée that it took me the whole movie to realize I was looking at the same actress who plays Maeve in Netflix’s “Sex Education.”

Should you trundle out to see the movie in theaters, or can it wait for VOD? I’d say the latter, even given those digitally enhanced panoramas; the cast is game, the setting is luxe, the direction is a little fussy, but the whole thing feels slightly… routine. It’s fine, it’s diverting, and if you haven’t read the book or seen the 1978 version, you may be surprised by whodunnit. Or not. But something’s missing – an energy to build the momentum and take it over the top or, to be more precise, a performance like Pfeiffer’s in “Orient Express.” Godot has genuine presence, but she’s not equipped to rip the proscenium down, and this movie needs a diva.

Longtime readers may know of my sweet tooth for dippy romantic comedies – the dippier and more divorced from reality the better. But it takes a true connoisseur to accept the stark conceptual stupidity of “Marry Me,” the new Jennifer Lopez movie in theaters and on NBC-Universal’s Peacock subscription platform, and still have a good time. Ladies and gentlemen, I am that connoisseur, and maybe you are too if you are able to roll with the following: A pop-music superstar named Kat Valdez (J.Lo, above right) is about to marry her pop-music superstar fiancé (Colombian pop star Maluma, who appears to occupy a precise genetic midpoint between Drake and Justin Timberlake) in a globally-televised concert BUT she sees him kissing her assistant backstage SO she plucks a random stranger out of the crowd and marries him instead BUT the stranger is Charlie Gilbert (Owen Wilson, above left), a hangdog single dad who’s decent and sweet and kind of dull and teaches middle-school math, for pity’s sakes, SO he decides to go along with it until the media furor dies down, which no one with any actual sense would do, BUT he’s a fish out of water in her pop-star life AND she’s a bird out of… sky… in his normal-person world BUT they find themselves oddly hot for each other and, YES, there’s sex (although not a lot of chemistry) and, YES, there are complications that arrive on a timetable of which Mussolini would approve AND… I give up. You win, “Marry Me.” The role of Charlie’s snarky best friend does no favors for Sarah Silverman and Lopez and Wilson don’t appear to belong to the same biological phyla, let alone species, but they’re each ridiculously charming in their separate spheres, and director Kat Coiro does what she can to force the Venn circles to overlap. It matters that Florian Ballhaus (son of the late, great cinematographer Michael Ballhaus) shoots New York City as if it were the inside of a candy store. Because I have a professional reputation to maintain, I can’t in good conscience give this giant block of halvah more than a two-and-a-half star rating. But I ate the whole thing, and I do not regret it.

Grace Kaufman (with Jacques Colimon) in “The Sky Is Everywhere”

“The Sky Is Everywhere” represents something of a lab experiment: What if a director known for her impressionistic, semi-experimental filmmaking style were hired to adapt a Young Adult novel? This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds, since Josephine Decker’s previous movies have probed eerily beneath the skin and emotions of their female protagonists, in 2020’s “Shirley” (with Elizabeth Moss as author Shirley Jackson and Odessa Young as a student acolyte) and in Decker’s 2018 masterpiece “Madeline’s Madeline,” which climbs inside the head of a schizophrenic teenager (Helena Howard). Those two films are widely available on demand – “Madeline’s Madeline” comes with my highest recommendation – and the director’s early shorts and features are getting a retrospective on The Criterion Channel. Not that I’m assigning homework, but an acquaintance with Decker’s oeuvre puts “The Sky Is Everywhere” in a perspective that many viewers coming to it cold will miss, and that’s a shame.

It’s a story about grief and the ways it can bend you into entirely new shapes. The main character is a high school student named Lennie, played with emotional immediacy by the young actress Grace Kaufman. Lennie’s older sister and lodestar, Bailey (Havana Rose Liu), has died suddenly of a heart arrhythmia, and the girl has lost herself to mourning. She lives with a mellow old grandmother (Cherry Jones) and a congenial pothead uncle (Jason Segel, who the movie never figures out what to do with), and she’s joined in grief by Bailey’s 20-something boyfriend Toby (Pico Alexander). So joined, in fact, that their sorrow becomes welded into a sexual attraction that freaks them both out. A more sensible alternative is present in the form of Joe (Jacques Colimon), a fellow musician in the high school orchestra, and while this all sounds like the heartsore shenanigans of your typical Netflix teen romance, “The Sky is Everywhere” is a Josephine Decker movie, so it is weird and intense, intensely empathetic, interested in transmuting feelings into visual poetry.

Decker’s is the cinema of synesthesia, so grief in this movie becomes an actual raincloud over Grandma’s head. Bailey’s life is remembered and recast as an upbeat musical number, while Lennie’s aftermath is a grim reality show where everyone trips over their own feet. Lennie plays the clarinet, and the soundtrack erupts in blurts of Bach, Mozart, Bizet; Lennie and her family live among the redwoods of Northern California, in an area called the Enchanted Forest, and the verdancy feels like it’s blurring off the screen and into the character’s veins. Is it too much? Yes, it’s too much; being an adolescent is too much, losing the person closest to you is too much. No director conveys too-muchness like Decker, and on top of that “The Sky Is Everywhere” is very lucky to have Kaufman in the lead. The role calls for an actor to access primal emotions – to be unafraid of ugly-crying and to risk being a pill while still being relatable – and Kaufman does all this with a transparency that seems like it’s unfolding in real time.

Not all of the movie works. You can feel the seams where the plot of a book aimed at younger readers are patched onto Decker’s defiantly abstract house style. The transitions are often jarring, sometimes intentionally, other times not. The minor characters can play like cartoons; there’s a mean-girl rival (Julia Schlaepfer) who just doesn’t make sense. I can easily imagine viewers coming to “The Sky Is Everywhere” and finding it an unappetizing mish-mosh, and some early reviewers have already cried uncle. But maybe you remember what it was like to be young and overwhelmed by loss and love and the sensorium of life itself. Then it may feel like a Rorschach test.

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