After “Palm Springs,” one of 2020’s best films, you may think that yet another bittersweet romantic comedy set in a temporal anomaly/time loop (think “Groundhog Day”) makes you feel like you’re in an infinitely repeating time loop yourself. But it won’t take long at all for you to realize that on the contrary you are watching an utterly charming, engaging, and yes, original film. It is a delight.
“The Map of Tiny Perfect Things” is about Mark (Kyle Allen) and Margaret (Kathryn Newton of “Freaky”). The similarity of their names is not coincidental. Other than being the only two people stuck repeating the same day over and over, they seem to have little in common. He is aimless and artistic. She is focused and loves math and science.
At first, Mark is caught up in his own concerns, using what he has learned by re-living the same day to amuse himself by making the day as seamless as possible. He knows exactly where he has to be to catch the toast popping out of the toaster or grab the mug knocked off the table before it hits the floor.
And then, one day, or, rather, the millionth repeat of the same day, he sees Margaret. She is not eager to become friends and tells him very little about herself or why she has to leave at the same time every day (the same day, you know what I mean).
They are not sure whether they want to break out of the time loop. They see the advantages of a consequence-less life. A mohawk haircut. A tattoo. A car crash, Breaking a lot of stuff. They see the advantages of a closely observed world, the possibilities. They see the disadvantages of a consequence-less life. They see that even actions that will be erased hours later still make a difference.
I liked the way the movie subtly let us and the characters gradually discover that there are other ways to be stuck, even for characters who are not caught in the time loop. Mark’s best friend Henry (Jermaine Harris) sits on the sofa playing the same video game. Mark’s parents are stuck in their own way. And Margaret, despite her plans for the future is stuck in more than a time loop.
The dialogue is sharp and witty enough you want to lean forward to make sure you don’t miss any of it. Briskly directed and beautifully performed, this is a movie you will want to watch more than once and will never feel like you’re repeating the same experience.
Parents should know that this film has some strong language, the sad death of a parent, family stress, and teen drinking.
Family discussion: Why did Mark and Margaret go into a time loop? If you could pick one day to live over and over, would you? Which day? What would you do first?
If you like this, try: “Time Bandits” (it is as great as Mark says it is), and other time-loop classics like “Groundhog Day,” “The Edge of Tomorrow,” and “Palm Springs.” You will also enjoy some other fantasy romances like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Stranger than Fiction”
I hereby forgive Jamie Dornan for everything “50 Shades”-related, even his terrible rendition of “Maybe I’m Amazed.” He is such a hoot in “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar,” and so clearly enjoying himself that I was utterly charmed.
I’m not sure what else it is fair for me to tell you about “Barb and Star,” though, because I want you to have the fun of discovering it for yourself. In order to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, it may be a bit cryptic. The best I can do is tell you that if you are looking for something amiably goofy and offbeat, ranging from gentle comedy to outright surreality, you will enjoy it.
I’m guessing that screenwriters and stars Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumalo (who also write “Bridesmaids”) created the irrepressibly cheerful characters of Barb and Star as way of goofing around together. Think a female, very midwestern version of the Gil Faizon (Kroll) and George St. Geegland “Oh, Hello” characters created by Nick Kroll and John Mulaney. Like them, Wiig and Mumalo have the greatest affection for their characters, recognizing how silly (and poignant) it is for them to be clueless and yet very sure of themselves in what may seem to us to be very constricted little worlds. We may laugh at them, but if we condescend because they are outside of our own world, we will learn about our own refusal to acknowledge the constrictions we live in, ourselves.
Star (short for Starbera) and Barb (not short for anything, just Barb), are middle-aged ladies, one divorced, one widowed, who “work” together at the Jennifer’s Convertibles, the poshest store in tiny Soft Rock, Nebraska. They also live together in a house that probably has tiles with cute sayings like “Kiss the cook!”
They never get tired of talking to each other. Indeed, they spend all day at Jennifer’s Convertibles sitting on one of the convertible sofas sipping coffee and talking to each other, a constant pleasant twittering. When a couple wants to talk to them about actually buying the sofa, they refuse. Which may be one reason they find out soon after that the chain is folding they are laid off.
They get some severance money and when a friend (Wendi McLendon-Covey) tells them about her wonderful Florida vacation (“Tommy Bahama top to bottom and a 24-hour CVS!”), they decide to go. It feels like a big risk. They are very comfortable knowing everything and everyone where they are. But the stories they tell each other are old stories, so maybe it’s time to make some new ones. And so they pack, including travelers’ checks left over from Barb’s wedding. And culottes (helpfully defined for us as a skirt with a cloth divider kind of like very wide shorts). And off they go, entertaining themselves on the airplane by imagining a friend they’d like to have named Trish.
And that is where they meet Edgar (Dornan), who is supposed to be carrying out a nefarious assignment, but is distracted by uncertainty, a hallucinatory gigantic drink called Buried Treasure, and of course Barb and Star. The rest of the film includes a wild musical number, another musical number, a mouse orchestra, a threesome, a child who looks like the kid from “Up” and sings along to Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb as he delivers newspapers (and more), a nefarious villain with a familiar face, a book called How to Know the Person You Love Loves You Even if They Don’t Act Like It Most of the Time, love advice from a crab, and, yes, Tommy Bahama.
The movie sails happily from the silly to the surreal, from the goofy to the even goofier. Director Josh Greenbaum holds it all together so that even the wildest moments feel part of the same world as the gentle jokes of two middle-aged women on their first plane trip. One reason is that he never condescends to the characters. He genuinely loves them, and so we do, too. Watching it is like having champagne bubbles tickle your nose.
Parents should know that this is a light comedy with some very mature material including brief strong language, crude sexual references and non-explicit situations, drinking and drugs, and peril and violence (mostly comic). A mega-villain plots a massive attack and commits an off-camera murder. There are also references to divorce and to the death of a spouse.
Family discussion: Why are Barb and Star such good friends? What surprised you about them?
If you like this, try: “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday,” “Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion,” “Spy,” and “Lost in Paris”
“Know their names,” Black Lives Matter tells us. The ones we know now we know because of technology. We saw George Floyd telling the cop who had his knee on Floyd’s neck that he could not breathe. iPhones and social media have brought these tragedies into our homes and made it impossible for us to look away.
None of that was around in 1969, when young Black activists named Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were killed by the Chicago police. Hampton was Chairman of the Illinois Black Panthers and Deputy Chairman of the national organization. At age 19 he was identified by the FBI as a radical threat. At age 21, he was killed in his apartment when the police raided it before dawn. Police fired over 100 shots. The Black Panthers fired one.
There were no iPhones to record what happened that night. This movie begins to give Fred Hampton and Mark Clark the visibility they could not get in 1969.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” is the second film in less than a year to show us Fred Hampton. In “The Trial of the Chicago 7” he is played by Kelvin Harrison, Jr., sitting behind Bobby Seale. This film, as the title suggests, is less about Hampton’s vision or activities than the story of William O’Neal, who was hired by the FBI to infiltrate the Black Panthers, and the conflicts he faced in betraying the trust of people he grew to respect.
The men are played by two of the most electrifying performers of our time, Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton and LaKieth Stanfield as O’Neal, though both are substantially older than the real-life characters. Kaluuya (“Get Out,” “The Black Panther”) is a British actor who has the daunting challenge of playing a 1960s Chicagoan known for being a mesmerizing speaker. As a Chicagoan, I can certify his accent as remarkably authentic. And as an audience member I can testify to the magnetism he brings to the role, whether he is addressing a crowd of admiring students, a group of hostile competitors, or Panther members who need guidance. His Hampton understands the power of listening, and of speaking quietly. He knows how to tie what he wants them to do to recognizing the pain of the people he is talking to, and recognizing, too, how much they need to be shown a bigger, brighter version of what is possible and of the power they have to get there. And when it’s time to fire them up, he knows how to preach.
He is even better one on one. In one of the movie’s most powerful scenes, he sits at the kitchen table of a woman (a beautiful performance by Alysia Joy Powell) whose son has been killed. He gently, compassionately listens to her talk about how in her mind he is always seven years old, how he is more than what got him in trouble. In another highlight, he meets with the hostile members of a group called The Crowns that sees the Black Panthers as competition. The FBI has circulated a forged flier supposedly created by the Black Panthers that insults the Crowns. Hampton does not argue. He does not get defensive. He just reflects back to the Crowns the power they have and asks them to think of what they can accomplish together. His scenes with the activist and poet who became the mother of his child, played with tenderness, grace, and dignity by Dominique Fishback, are also beautifully done. He quotes Che Guevara to her, “Words are beautiful but action is supreme.” She responds, “You were using words, so maybe choose them more carefully. And just so you know, you are a poet.”
“I don’t need no mic,” he tells the students. He wants to speak to them intimately, conversation, not oratory. But he uses strong words when he needs to. “That’s the difference between revolution and the candy-coated facade of reform,” he tells them. “Reform is just the masters teaching the slaves to be better slaves.” He says his job is to “heighten the contradictions” because oppressed people cannot always see the shackles.
Hampton often speaks quietly, but some of his rhetoric is incendiary. He speaks of getting AK-47s and bandoliers. He quotes Che Guevara and Mao Tse-Tung. But his programs start with free breakfasts for hungry children and his plans are for a clinic and a school.
Stanfield (“The Photograph,” “Short Term 12”) as O’Neal shows us the anguish of a man caught between the FBI agent who alternately cajoles and threatens him. O’Neal was a teenager when he was arrested for impersonating an officer and stealing cars. Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) invites him to his apartment, buys him a car, and takes him to high-end restaurants. O’Neal says he saw Mitchell as a role model. But he sees himself as an activist, even years later when he was interviewed for the PBS series “Eyes on the Prize.” We see Stanfield re-enacting that interview at the beginning of the film and the footage of the real O’Neal at the end.
The conflict of compromise undercover operatives struggle with has been portrayed in other stories and films, from Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night to Johnny Depp and Al Pacino in Donnie Brasco. Writer/director Shaka King (writing with Will Berson from the original screenplay by Keith and Kenny Lucas) finds sympathy for just about everyone except for J. Edgar Hoover (played by Martin Sheen and a lot of make-up) and the Chicago cops. Even Mitchell, who manipulates O’Neal, shows some disgust at Hoover’s trying to goad him by asking how he would feel if his 8-month-old daughter some day brought home a Black boyfriend.
But O’Neal’s story is less interesting than the story of Hampton himself, what he read, who he was inspired by, and how he inspired others. The script is muddled and confusing in places. But the stirring story and the exceptional performances, and the score from Craig Harris and Mark Isham make this a powerful, important film, well worth seeing and learning from.
Parents should know that this film deals frankly with issues of racism, resistance, betrayal, and police brutality. Characters use strong language. There are sexual references and there is a non-explicit sexual situation. Violence includes guns and characters are injured and killed.
Family discussion: What should we learn about leaders like Fred Hampton when we study American history? Why did the FBI consider him such a significant threat? How should the government treat activists like Hampton?
If you like this, try: the documentaries “The Murder of Fred Hampton,” “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” and “Nationtime.”
Rated R for drug content, language, some sexual material and violence
Peril and some violence including an accidental homicide
Date Released to Theaters:
February 5, 2021
If you could, if it was possible, would you smooth all of life’s rough spots? Would you remove all worry, all fear, all sadness, all pain? Would you want to live in a world of perpetual bliss?
That is the question raised provocatively but very imperfectly in “Bliss,” with Owen Wilson as greg, a gray-spirited low-level worker failing in a soul-killing dead-end job apologizing to customers who call tech support. Our own anxiety levels rise as we see him seemingly not aware of the pressure he is under. The boss wants to see him immediately. But instead of leaving his office, he talks on the phone — to a daughter reminding him of the details of her graduation and to a pharmacy that refuses refill his pain-killer prescription. We learn from this that his marriage is over due to failures on his part, that his promises are not reliable, that he has a drug problem, and that he is in trouble at work. And we see him obsessively drawing pictures of place and a woman he has never seen, like Richard Dreyfuss sculpting mashed potatoes in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
But then it turns out our assumptions and his may be wrong. We find ourselves in a blue-or-red-pill situation, “The Matrix” without the bullet time, or the bullets. After things go even more terribly wrong, Greg finds himself in a bar, where a mysterious woman named Isabel (Salma Hayek) tells him he is “real” in a way the others in the room are not. There may be another reality or, perhaps, just one real reality, which is not the one with the office and the phone calls.
SPOILER ALERT: I am going to have to spoil a few things in order to be able to talk about the movie, so if you do not want any spoilers, stop reading now, watch “Bliss,” and then if you want to know more about what I think about it, you can come back. Isabel does not give Greg the whole story. She just takes him to stay with her at a makeshift shelter in an area where homeless people camp out. It turns out she and Greg are not just part of but responsible for an experiment in re-calibration for people who have found the idyllic life of the future so blissful the only thing they have to complain about is the temperature of the pool water. It just might be that even in a world supposedly free from stress there still remain concerns (about the legitimacy and success of one’s research in absolute terms and in the way it is perceived by others). It may also be that worry and fear are inextricably linked to creativity, imagination, and an innate human inclination to problem solving and some notion of progress.
These are wonderful questions to explore and there are moments of real emotion in the film along with superb design work by Kasra Farahani (“Captain Marvel”). But the script gets tangled up in its own perameters of the world or worlds it creates. The internal logic of the storyline is inconsistent enough to undermine our connection to the characters and to the issues it raises. In case you’re looking around wondering which reality you’re in, my advice is to bet on the one with Bill Nye the Science Guy in it.
Parents should know that this movie includes strong language, peril, and an apparent accidental homicide.
Family discussion: Which reality would you chose and why? What would happen if all trouble, stress, and worry was removed from our lives?
If you like this, try: “The Matrix,” “The Black Box,” “Black Mirror,” and “Passion of Mind”
Reference to tragic death of a child, child abuse, mental illness
Date Released to Theaters:
February 5, 2021
A short story by Kurt Vonnegut was turned into a television film for PBS starring Christopher Walken as a shy man who only came alive when he was assigned a part in a play. Susan Sarandon played a woman who fell in love with him and they ended up happily inhabiting roles that kept their relationship exciting. I thought of that when I watched “The Right One,” about a young writer who is drawn to a man who seems to have a dozen different personalities.
Godfrey (Nick Thune) does not conform to the expectations of Bob (David Koechner), an executive sent to improve productivity at his office. But before Bob can begin to express any concerns, Godfrey completely wins him over through a shared dedication to the 90s garage band Blues Traveler. Bob is utterly disarmed. And we soon see why Godfrey is far and away the most successful salesman in his office by far, so successful that everyone overlooks his strange looks and behavior. Just as he did with Bob, he is able to connect to people, even over the phone, finding some link to make them feel comfortable, understood, and open to buying something. We might think of it as code-switching, shifting frames of reference and modes of speech to fit the audience. But this is an extreme version, so extreme that the “real” Godfrey, if there is one, is invisible.
Sara (Cleopatra Coleman) is struggling with writer’s block. Her brash and outspoken agent, Kelly (Iliza Shlesinger) is pushing her to finish a book she has not even started. At an art gallery opening, Sara sees Godfrey in two different personas, and she is intrigued enough to start writing about a character based on him.
And so, she begins to hang out with him, seeing him as an EDM DJ and dancing the tango him. He avoids her at first, but begins to invite her to join him. He thinks they are starting a friendship. She thinks he is material for her book.
Godfrey’s brother Shad (standout M.J. Kokolis) warns Sara to stay away from him, but she ignores him. Finally, Shad tells her something of Godfrey’s background. And Godfrey finds out what Sara is doing.
The script is cluttered and inconsistent in tone and in the quality of the performances. Thune and Coleman do not have a lot of chemistry. It does not have the heft to support its more emotional beats. But like its main character, it has a rakish, if amateurish charm.
Parents should know that this film has very strong language, crude sexual humor, and references to child abuse and neglect, mental illness, and a tragic death.
Family discussion: Which personality is the “real” Godfrey? If you were going to create different personas, what would they be? Should Sara have told Godfrey what she was doing?
If you like this, try: “Benny and Joon” and Thune’s “Dave Made a Maze”