Film reviews: new from August 17 to 19

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  • Idris Elba in The beast

The beast **

Look, I’m all for giving emotional subtext to a movie being stalked by a giant lion, but at some point you have to say more about being a movie being stalked by a giant lion. . Idris Elba plays Nate Samuels, an American doctor who takes his two teenage daughters (Iyana Halley and Leah Jeffries) to visit an old friend (Sharlto Copley) at a South African nature reserve shortly after the girls’ mother dies. Unfortunately, its timing is a bit off, as it coincides with a rogue lion indiscriminately attacking every human in sight. There is a bit of Jaws and a bit of Cujo in The beast‘s DNA, as director Baltasar Kormákur tries to optimize the tension with characters trapped in a vehicle. But while there are some solid sequences built around the “where is the monster” uncertainty, this is ultimately a 93-minute film that spends way too much time on Nate angsting over his failures as a husband and father, and the daughters muttering recriminations, while the script sets up at least one Chekhovian gun that he never fires afterwards. The obvious analogy between Nate and the lion as grieving fathers is somehow both underexplored and silly that it exists, and Elba’s intense confidence as an actor seems misplaced in a character that should be defined by being out of his element. And at the risk of spoiling things, it’s clear that screenwriter Ryan Engle didn’t really know how to satisfactorily solve a story where we’re also supposed to be at least sympathetic towards the marauding animal. Available August 19 in theaters. (R)

Look both ways **
It is not the fault of anyone involved in the making of Look both ways that it inevitably lands differently in the post-overthrow world of Roe v. Wade than might have been envisioned when it was created, but here we are. It’s an alternate-reality tale that revolves around Natalie Bennett’s (Lili Reinhart) pregnancy test on the night of her college graduation, with a path leading her to her long-planned career as an animator, and the other leading her to motherhood. It’s a bit sketchy right off the bat that Natalie testing positive so immediately pivots from “I have a five-year plan” to “que será, será” without once considering an abortion, but that’s not isn’t inherently a problem that it’s not this movie. But as we follow Natalie on her two multi-year journeys – with editing choices that aren’t always the easiest to follow – it becomes clear that the narrative outcome is that life always throws curve balls at you, but anything can always function for the best if you just attach yourself and figure things out. Which is fine if you’re a college-educated white girl from a clearly well-to-do family and now feel pretty deaf about the life-altering impact of an unplanned pregnancy. Reinhart is a winning presence at center, but the speed bumps in Natalie’s life barely register as consequential. “Everything will be fine” might sound like an uplifting message, but in this case, it feels cruel. Available August 17 via Netflix. (TV-14)

My old school ***
There’s a whole subgenre of documentaries that focus on uncovered secrets about people who might misrepresent themselves…the impostor, Misha and the Wolves, etc. – and this one continues to show that it is a rich source of interesting cinema. Director Jono McLeod explores a story set in early 1990s Glasgow, where new pupil Brandon Lee arrives as a “fifth year” (read: high school) student at posh Bearsden Academy – only for him to eventually be revealed that he is not who he claims to be. The true-story nature of “Brandon” unfolds slowly over 100 minutes, with several of his classmates sharing contemporary thoughts on a distance of 30 years, and actor Alan Cumming lip-syncing an audio interview with Brandon (who chose not to appear on camera). This decision has a thematic purpose beyond Brandon’s own reasons for choosing voice-only participation, and the reveals are weird enough that I’m skipping the details for those not already familiar with the story. McLeod isn’t entirely dependent on these revelations, however, thanks to the entertaining commentary provided by the now-adult classmates. Their perspectives are shaped by their status within the high school hierarchy as teenagers, and their perspective on it now, adding another layer of fascination to a narrative of what those formative years can look like when you are old enough to know better. Available August 19 at Broadway Center Cinemas. (NR)

Orphan: first murder **
See feature review. Available August 19 via VOD and Paramount+. (R)

spin me ***
If there’s a common thread running through writer/director Jeff Baena’s work — at its best and at its worst — it’s that shit is going to get weird at some point. Baena once again wrote with her horse girl collaborator Alison Brie, who plays Amber, a restaurant manager in Bakersfield, Calif., in an Olive Garden-esque chain. Her boring life gets a boost when she’s invited to Italy for a company retreat with several other managers and ends up catching the attention of the company’s CEO (Alessandro Nivola). If you’re familiar with Baena’s work, you can guess it won’t be a personal romantic awakening tale in the Tuscan sun, not with a cast of eccentric supporting cast like Molly Shannon, Tim Heidecker, Gabe Woods , Fred Armisen and Baena’s partner. Place Aubrey. The weird shenanigans take over for any idea that this is a character study of Amber coming out of her shell, allowing Brie to enjoy herself as the wholesome center around which everything else revolves. And it’s more enjoyable when the third act goes completely crazy with Amber trying to figure out if the program has a dark ulterior motive. There are always irregularities in Baena’s joints, but I’d be happy to ride with the comedy of someone trying to angrily drive away in a minivan, only to find that a not particularly tight turning radius somewhat dampens the effect. Available August 19 in theaters, on VOD and via AMC+. (R)

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