We’re a week into March, the “Malcolm & Marie” discourse has long since faded away, but I’m finally back with a round of mini reviews for movies released on streaming services in February (and also some from January, because it’s been that kind of year).
“MALCOLM & MARIE” (Netflix)
I have to say, there is a lot that I admire about the production of “Malcolm & Marie.” Having had to stop production on their show “Euphoria” after the lockdown due to the COVID-19 protocols, Sam Levinson came up with a project to write and direct for star Zendaya. The crew was tiny, with less than 15 people allowed on set at the same time; Zendaya and her costar, John David Washington, did their own hair and makeup and selected their costumes. They filmed in a private home, quarantining during filming as well as before and after shooting. Therefore, it is fascinating to look at “Malcolm & Marie,” a relationship drama shot on 35 mm film in black and white, as a product of the weirdness that was 2020 in movies. The film itself, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Set over the course of one night, the movie opens with Malcolm (Washington), a director, and his girlfriend, Marie (Zendaya), returning home after the premiere of his new movie. The tension between them is immediately evident: while Malcolm practically runs around the room, playing music and exuberantly shouting about how well he thought the premiere went, Marie quietly steps outside and lights a cigarette. Their first fight comes not too much later; Marie is upset that Malcolm didn’t thank her in his speech at the premiere, believing that he based the main character of his movie on her. The remainder of the film follows a cycle of arguments and reconciliations. I’ve seen a lot of people say they don’t understand why Marie doesn’t just leave Malcolm, who verbally abuses her in the nastiest way possible, but that would be the easiest, and most unrealistic, scenario. As we learn in the film, Malcolm met Marie when she was only 20 years old, and a drug addict. He’s seen her at her worst, and was there for her. Despite their differences, that isn’t an easy thing to move on from; it’s evident throughout the film that despite the words they fling at each other like weapons, they really do love each other and need each other. But while there are a few scenes in the film that really resonate, overall it feels like an overly pretentious exercise that falls flat. Zendaya is great at portraying both Marie’s strength in confronting Malcolm, but also her vulnerabilities; when she informs him at the start of the film that her problem is that he didn’t acknowledge her in his speech, she cuts an imposing figure in her sparkling evening gown, nonchalantly holding a cigarette, but when she asks him later on in evening why he didn’t cast her in his film, she both looks and sounds quite small. Washington’s performance, on the other hand, rarely feels genuine. No other scene demonstrates this more than one early on, when he sits down to eat the mac and cheese Marie made for him in a huff; he chomps down in an exaggerated manner as he glances up at where she went every so often, shouting at her from across the house. The film looks beautiful, but there are chunks of dialogue that are too wordy and don’t feel like a conversation a couple who exists off the screen in the real world would have. I know that there are valid points to be made, particularly in a scene after Malcolm reads a review of his movie written by a white critic, saying that because he is Black everyone will try to turn his film into a political statement rather than taking it as it is. Knowing that Levinson, who is white, wrote the screenplay makes these scenes about the Black characters’ experience feel a little off; at the same time, I don’t think Zendaya and Washington would have signed on to not only star in the film, but produce it, had they felt that it inaccurately reflected their experience. “Malcolm & Marie” has more than proved since its release that it is divisive among critics and audiences. I didn’t like it, but as a product of the pandemic, and as a story that has some relevancy to the current state of Hollywood, it’s a fascinating project. Runtime: 106 minutes. Rated R.
“PENGUIN BLOOM” (Netflix)
Director Glendyn Ivin’s “Penguin Bloom” is based on the true story of the Bloom family. While on vacation in Thailand with her husband Cameron (Andrew Lincoln) and three children, Sam Bloom (Naomi Watts) breaks her vertebrae in a freak accident, resulting in her being paralyzing from her chest down. When she returns home to Australia, Sam—who engaged in a lot of physical activities like surfing before her accident—struggles to adjust to her new life in a wheelchair, and her depression at what she lost starts to affect her family as well. When her sons bring home an injured magpie they name Penguin, Sam is resistant to the bird at first, but soon begins to bond with it—and experience a desire to try new things. The parallels between Sam and her condition and the injured bird are obvious and a little silly. As charming as the magpie’s antics are, when the title cards at the end of the film inform us of all Sam has accomplished in the vein of kayaking and surfing championships, I can’t help but feel like that was the more interesting story here. But while the story is predictable, it is sweet, and does a good job showing not just how Sam’s injury affects her, but also the rest of her family. Cameron and Sam’s mother (Jacki Weaver) and sister (Leeanna Walsman) struggle to connect with Sam and get her out of the house, while her oldest son Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston) feels guilty because he was the one who asked his mom to go up to the roof with him where she fell. The material is also elevated by Watts and Lincoln’s understated performances, and an appearance by the great Rachel House as the kayaking instructor who helps Sam overcome some of her fears. “Penguin Bloom” may be predictably emotional, but it manages to largely avoid feeling manipulative thanks to its small scale setting. Beautiful cinematography by Sam Chiplin that particularly portrays the tranquility of the water is also a plus. Runtime: 95 minutes. Rated TV-14.
“EARWIG AND THE WITCH” (HBO Max)
If Studio Ghibli’s 1989 classic “Kiki’s Delivery Service” had never existed, maybe we would look on the studio’s latest movie, “Earwig and the Witch,” a bit more favorably. As it stands, the first 3D animated movie from the legendary animation studio is watchable, but largely devoid of the magic needed to make it memorable. The film, directed by Gorō Miyazaki, opens in England, where a witch leaves her baby, named Earwig, at an orphanage. Renamed Erica by the orphanage’s matron, 10 years later, the child (voiced in the English dub by Taylor Paige Henderson) has the run of the place, to the point where she doesn’t even want to get adopted. But she does, by a strange couple: Mandrake (Richard Grant) and a witch called Bella Yaga (Vanessa Marshall). It’s at their home, where she is tasked with working for Bella Yaga, that Erica begins to learn magic, and uncover the secret of her past. There are moments in the film where we can see some of the usual Studio Ghibli style, in the environments and the character designs. But the 3D style used is mostly ugly, existing somewhere between not being cartoony enough and not being real enough. Even if the animation looked better, however, it wouldn’t improve the film much. Neither the characters nor the story are developed enough; by the time things start to get interesting, the movie abruptly ends, leaving us with a project that definitely needs a sequel it will probably never get. The moments of magic and wonder that should be prevalent in this sort of film are few and far between; there’s never really any lesson learned, or overarching theme, leaving us to wonder just what exactly the point of this whole exercise was. It’s doubly disappointing because the story is based on a book by Diana Wynne Jones, whose novel “Howl’s Moving Castle” was turned into a stunning film by Studio Ghibli in 2004 (and it happens to be my personal favorite film from the studio). Overall, “Earwig and the Witch” is a harmless but disappointing movie that will likely neither please existing Studio Ghibli fans, nor garner any new ones. Runtime: 82 minutes. Rated PG.
“TO ALL THE BOYS: ALWAYS AND FOREVER” (Netflix)
“Always and Forever” is the third and final installment in the “To All the Boys” trilogy, and while it still doesn’t come close to matching the charm of the first movie, it’s an improvement of its predecessor and a fitting conclusion to the story of Lara Jean (Lana Condor) and Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo). As they begin their senior year of high school, Lara Jean and her boyfriend Peter are planning to attend Stanford University together. But when Peter gets in and Lara Jean does not, their perfect college plans are thrown into turmoil—especially when Lara Jean starts to think she’d really like to attend school in New York City, on the opposite end of the country. Michael Fimognari, who also directed the trilogy’s second installment, “P.S. I Still Love You,” returns to direct this film. Each turn of the story is predictable, but the genuine affection between Lara Jean and Peter continues to make it sweet and enjoyable. And while their relationship is the center of the film, there is more to the story, as we spend some time with Lara Jean as she reckons with her future and her past (her father, played again by John Corbett, is marrying his girlfriend, played by Sarayu Blue). Anna Cathcart continues to be a fun presence in the cast as Lara Jean’s younger sister Kitty, while Janel Parrish has a big of a bigger role in this movie than she did in the previous one as older sister Margot. With a sentimental ending that looks back on the entire series as it looks ahead to Lara Jean and Peter’s futures (weird that we never get a John Ambrose shout out though), it reminds us that the first film remains not only the best film in this trilogy, but one of the best teen rom-coms in recent memory—but if we got more stories about Lara Jean in college, I wouldn’t mind. Runtime: 109 minutes. Rated TV-14.
Also new to streaming on HBO Max from the end of February until March 28 is the new live-action/animated “Tom and Jerry” movie. Read my full review here. And one of my favorite films of 2020, “Nomadland,” is now streaming on Hulu. Read my review here.