Here are my last lingering reviews of winter releases before we finally move on to the spring! Keep scrolling for short reviews of “The United States vs. Billie Holiday (for which star Andra Day recently won a Golden Globe), “Palmer,” “Flora & Ulysses,” and “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things.”
“PALMER” (Apple TV Plus)
It won’t take you long into “Palmer” to realize exactly what kind of movie it is going to be. And rather than surprising the viewer, it follows those expectations beat for beat. Directed by Fisher Stevens, the drama opens with former football star Eddie Palmer (Justin Timberlake) returning to his hometown after serving 12 years in prison. He moves in with his grandmother Vivian (June Squibb), who occasionally watches her neighbor’s young boy Sam (Ryder Allen) when his drug addict mother (Juno Temple) disappears for long stretches of time. After Vivian passes away suddenly, Eddie is left to watch over Sam, whose mother still has not returned. At first he doesn’t want anything to do with the boy, but begins to bond with him over time. Timberlake’s performance is impressive and surprisingly understated, but Allen is the name you’ll likely walk away from this movie remembering. Sam, who doesn’t conform to gender norms in this small southern town populated by men who seem to pride themselves on masculinity, loves dress up, tea time, and is obsessed with princesses. I don’t think we are given enough reason to believe that Eddie, who is hardened after life has done him dirty, would be so readily accepting and loving toward Sam, but it is nice to watch him go from telling Sam that the things he likes are only for girls, to helping him join a princess fan club. And Sam is accepting of Eddie regardless of his checkered past too. “Palmer” may be overly familiar, but its intentions do at least feel genuine throughout, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll squeeze out a tear at the end. Also starring Alisha Wainwright as Maggie, Sam’s teacher and Eddie’s love interest. Runtime: 100 minutes. Rated R.
“FLORA & ULYSSES” (Disney Plus)
The premise of “Flora & Ulysses” is rather bizarre, but sometimes, the weirdest ideas make for the most charming family films (think Disney Plus’s surprisingly great “Timmy Failure” that came out last year). Of course, it doesn’t hurt that director Lena Khan’s film is based on a book by acclaimed children’s author Kate DiCamillo. The story centers around Flora Buckman (Matilda Lawler), a 10-year-old girl whose creative parents have been struggling—her mother (Alyson Hannigan) is a romance novelist with writer’s block, and her father (Ben Schwartz) is a comic book writer currently working a demoralizing job at an office supply store—and have recently separated. One day, Flora saves a squirrel that gets sucked into her neighbor’s vacuum; she takes him home and names him Ulysses (after the vacuum brand), but soon finds out that he possesses superpowers. The plot of “Flora & Ulysses” is rather thin and meandering, with the ultimate goal seeming to be to get the parents back together and back to feeling creatively fulfilled, but told by way of an animal control officer (Danny Pudi) who has a vendetta against squirrels and is obsessed with capturing Ulysses. But the film makes up for a lot of its shortcomings with a group of incredibly endearing characters brought to life by an enthusiastic cast who breathe a lot of humor and heart into this story that the whole family can appreciate. Schwartz, whose character is sometimes like a big kid who joins Flora and her friend William (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth)—a boy who suffers from hysterical blindness due to stress—on the bulk of their adventures, is really funny, but both he and Hannigan really embody the struggles that go along with the creative process in each of their performances. Lawler and Ainsworth are both incredibly sweet and fun to watch as well. Flora is a bit of a contradictory character—she’s a self-proclaimed cynic, but doesn’t behave as a cynic would, as she is immediately all in on Ulysses being sentient and having superpowers, and appears optimistic that her parents are going to be okay. Also, the CG on Ulysses is…not great. But “Flora & Ulysses” remains, like “Timmy Failure,” a delightful surprise regardless. Runtime: 95 minutes. Rated PG.
“THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY” (Hulu)
Billie Holiday is one of the most important performers of all time, but I’m not sure you’d know it from this film by director Lee Daniels. But it’s hard to look away from “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” in large part due to the stunning lead performance from singer Andra Day in her first acting role. The story traces Holiday’s life and career from the 1940s until her death in 1959 at the age of 44, with a focus on the Federal Bureau of Narcotics—headed by Harry J. Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund)—trying to nail her for drug possession as a way to stop her from singing her controversial song about a lynching, “Strange Fruit.” Day truly is electrifying, and gets at the heart of both Holiday’s strengths and vulnerabilities. Of course she is remarkable when she opens her mouth to sing—and her voice does have a similar tone to Holiday’s—but her performance goes beyond her strength as a singer. When she is sent to jail instead of a rehab facility as she was led to believe, her initial anger gives way to defeat. But when she gets out, she is determined to find a way to keep performing, despite having her cabaret card for New York City taken away. Day is absolutely deserving of all the awards attention she has received so far, and watching this aspect of Holiday’s story unfold and seeing vigorously the government pursued her in the name of halting any civil rights movement is infuriating. But the film focuses on tragedy after tragedy; Holiday was a popular recording artist at the time, but we rarely get a sense of her triumphs. The story’s structure is messy (for instance, a framing device told by way of an interview with Holiday by a radio host played by Leslie Jordan isn’t revisited enough to make it worth spending time on), and Daniels’ direction is tonally and stylistically inconsistent, as the movie wavers between being a romance between Holiday and Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), one of the agents pursuing her, a dramatization of Holiday’s life and career, and a portrayal of the war on drugs. One bright spot besides Day is Natasha Lyonne as Tallulah Bankhead, who had a relationship with Holiday; Lyonne’s smoky voice is perfect for the Hollywood actress. Runtime: 130 minutes. Rated R.
“THE MAP OF TINY PERFECT THINGS” (Amazon Prime Video)
It’s easy to write “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” off as the angsty teen version of last year’s time loop comedy, “Palm Springs,” or even the classic “Groundhog Day.” films And while it is that in a nutshell, “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” differs from most other films in the repeating day sub-genre by leaning more toward drama rather than playing the situation for laughs. Directed by Dan Samuels, the film stars Kyle Allen as Mark, a teenage boy stuck in a time loop that sees him reliving the same day over and over again. It’s apparent from the start that this is what is happening to him, as there is a resigned expectations to his interactions- with his dad (Josh Hamilton), who is unemployed but constantly wants to discuss Mark’s future with him, and his sister Emma (Cleo Fraser), who loses her soccer game every singer day. A humorous montage shows Mark trying (and failing) to pick up a girl at the pool every day, until a girl who has never been part of the daily routine shows up and changes everything. That girl is Margaret (Katheryn Newton), who is also stuck in the time loop and starts hanging out with Mark at his insistence- although she has to leave at the same time every day. There’s a lot that’s familiar about “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things,” but it still succeeds at standing out from similar films, especially when we find out later in the story that this is all really about Margaret, not Mark. The leads are likable, and the circumstances surrounding Margaret’s desire to continue reliving the same day are truly tragic, but their story ends on a hopeful note, as we know that they will be okay because they found each other. Runtime: 98 minutes. Rated PG-13.