January is usually a slow time of year, for movies and for me. I spent the last month playing catch up on a lot of television that I missed toward the end of 2019 (and if you need me I’ll be screaming about HBO’s “Watchmen” for the foreseeable future), taking advantage of the fact that there just weren’t many new movies in January that I was interested in. I’ll be back to posting full reviews of films new in theaters very soon, but for now, here’s a recap of a few movies new to streaming that I recently watched.
MISS AMERICANA (NETFLIX)
Pop star Taylor Swift has become increasingly private over the last several years, but this new documentary directed by Lana Wilson provides a peek behind the curtain at what her life and work is really like—and it isn’t always pretty. “Miss Americana”—the title is derived from a song on Swift’s 2019 album “Lover”—is less a document of Swift’s career and her catapulting to stardom, and more a depiction of how she has been personally affected by her fame, especially over the last couple of years. At times it feels like the documentary is trying too hard to combat all the incidents over the years that have, in the eyes of many, given Swift a bad reputation, even when they don’t entirely fit into the narrative (think Swift’s numerous celebrity boyfriends, or her leaked conversations with rapper Kanye West). But the film still feels incredibly authentic, allowing us to watch Swift deal with high points, low points, hard situations, and her creative process. It’s easy to dismiss her work when you have no knowledge of the music industry, but watching her write and workshop songs is fascinating, and a credit to her passion and work ethic. Most of all, we really see Swift grow as a person throughout this film; she began her career just trying to be a nice girl and do what everyone told her to, but realizes now that she wants and needs to use her platform to speak out on issues that are important to her, including harassment and, as we see very prominently in this film, politics. It’s the funny and heart-wrenching story of her reinventing herself and finding her voice, not just as a pop star, but as a person, that sets this film apart from other music documentaries. Runtime: 85 minutes. Rated TV-MA. 4 out of 5 stars.
I LOST MY BODY (NETFLIX)
This film from France is nominated for an Oscar in the Best Animated Feature Film category this year, and rightly so. Directed by Jérémy Clapin, the film tells two connected narratives simultaneously: that of a severed hand trying to make its way through the streets of Paris back to its owner, and the life story of its owner, a young man named Naoufel (voiced by Hakim Faris, with Dev Patel doing the English dubbing). The story—bizarre and morbid though it may be—centers around themes of love and loss; Naoufel loses his parents in a car accident as a child, but falls in love with a young woman named Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois/Alia Shawcat) and spends a lot of time working up the courage to pursue her. There’s the physical loss of his hand as well, which appears to have a conscious and a mind of its own as it experiences moments both horrible and tender. Clapin does an incredible job pacing the story, which is frequently tense but also takes its time to really let the viewer appreciate the emotional weight of each moment. The hand drawn animation is beautifully detailed, and the animation of the hand in particular successfully allows this appendage without a face or a body to emote. It’s a story that may deal with familiar themes, but that does so in the most out of the ordinary way possible. Runtime: 81 minutes. Rated TV-MA. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
TROOP ZERO (AMAZON)
It’s really hard to fault directors Bert and Bertie’s coming-of-age comedy/drama “Troop Zero.” It’s obvious, after all, that its heart is in the right place. Set in 1977 Georgia, the story centers around Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace), a young girl who gets together a group of fellow misfits to form their own Birdie Scouts troop and win a talent contest that will allow them to record their voices on the Voyager Golden Record—which the space-obsessed Christmas believes that her deceased mother will be able to hear. “Troop Zero” is watchable not thanks to its predictable story or mediocre script, but thanks to its cast and the characters they inhabit. Viola Davis is remarkable as Miss Rayleen, who ends up leading the troop. Her character may be rough around the edges, but Davis makes her care for the kids come through. Grace is immensely likeable and funny in the leading role. Allison Janney is also present as rival troop leader Miss Massey, and Jim Gaffigan plays Christmas’ rough but caring dad. Overall, “Troop Zero” doesn’t come off as particularly inspiring and empowering as its message fails to fully stick the landing, but it’s entertaining for what it is. Runtime: 94 minutes. Rated PG. 3 out of 5 stars.