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Movie reviews: 'The Lovebirds' mixes affection, funnies, and felonies
This image released by Netflix shows Issa Rae as Leilani, left, and Kumail Nanjiana as Jibran in a scene from "The Lovebirds." (Skip Bolen/Netflix via AP)
THE LOVEBIRDS: 3 ½ STARS
“The Lovebirds,” a new comedy starring Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae debuting on Netflix this week, belongs to a very specific sub-genre of rom com. Like “Date Night” and “Game Night” it’s the story of a rocky romance rescued by one wild night on the town.
Nanjiani and Rae are Jibran and Leilani, a couple we meet on their first date. It’s all sunshine and roses (and some day-drinking) until we cut to four years later. The genial tone of the first date is gone, replaced by endless bickering about how he can’t make up his mind about which restaurant to go to and even “The Amazing Race,” a show he’s never seen. “I don’t need to get hit by a truck to know it would suck,” he says.
On the drive to a dinner party, things come to a head. “I feel like I’m one page of the book,” he says, “but you’re reading a magazine.“ Just as a petty spat leads them to the brink of a break-up they unwittingly become involved in a crime when their car is commandeered by someone claiming to be a cop (Paul Sparks) and then used to brutally run over and kill a bicycle courier.
Afraid the police won’t believe their version of events, the couple leave the scene of the crime, determined to take matters into their own hands and figure out who the bad guy is. Plunged into world that makes their relationship woes look tame by comparison, the couple uncover clues and rekindle their romance. “This is like ‘The Amazing Race,’” she says, “except with dead people.”
“The Lovebirds” is a rom com, or maybe it’s better to call it a rom crime? Either way, it mixes affection, funnies and felonies in one package that rests solely on the shoulders of its two charismatic stars. Their Fred and Ethel style bickering, which supplies much of the film’s enjoyment, doesn’t feel mean-spirited or contrived. Just the banter between two people who may have forgotten what they liked about one another to begin with. Nanjiani and Rae bring the comedic chops to make us laugh and the magnetism to keep us onside when the action ramps up and grows more and more extreme. “We couldn’t figure out our relationship,” he says. “Do you think we can figure out a murder?”
“The Lovebirds” works best when it has an edge, less so (and you knew this was coming) when romance is reborn. The (NOT A SPOILER! IT MAY HAVE VIOLENCE BUT IT IS STILL A ROM COM) conventional ending is a predictable but happy way to put a bow on the story.
THE TRIP TO GREECE: 4 STARS
It would be easy to think that the Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon movies are easy-breezy travelogues with pretty scenery and sumptuous looking food, but they are much more than that. The latest, “The Trip to Greece,” which comes to VOD this week, brings with it all the banter, impressions and eye-catching sights you expect from these movies, but beneath the veneer of laughs lies a story about mortality and legacy.
Ten years after took their first trip together Coogan and Brydon travel from Troy to Ithaca, following in the footsteps of the Odysseus. Under blue skies the pair sparkle, almost as much as the crystal-clear turquoise water that appears in virtually every shot of the movie. From quoting Aristotle’s Poetics and impersonating Dustin Hoffman, to loudly singing 70s Bee Gee tunes and visiting Epidaurus, one of the wonders of the ancient world, they present their patented brand of high-brow and pop cultural references, mixed together in a stew that is as appealing as much of the five star “Top Chef” style food we see them eat on their travels.
“The Trip to Greece” isn’t story-driven as much as it is a snapshot of two people at different places in their lives, brought together by friendship and, amusingly, one-upmanship. The movie works not because we’re waiting breathlessly for a twist or a turn, but because of the chemistry between the two. The stories are fictional—the pair play heightened versions of themselves—but the themes that lie just below their joking—jabs about aging, mortality, neediness and vanity—add depth to what could have been a travel show farce. A subplot about a death in Coogan’s family is unexpectedly touching and never overplayed.
They say “The Trip to Greece” will be the last of these excursions and that’s a shame. Director Michael Winterbottom expertly blends travel, food and heaps of personality into one package that celebrates their friendship while acknowledging that a quick get-a-way can’t solve all your problems at home.
MILITARY WIVES: 3 ½ STARS
There is a certain kind of British feel-good movie that, while predictable, still packs an emotional punch. Movies like “The Full Monty” and “Calendar Girls” are underdog tales, filled with colorful characters and improbable situations, yet, somehow, they rate a fist pump in the air by the time the end credits roll.
“Military Wives,” starring Kristin Scott Thomas and coning this week to VOD, is cut from that same cloth. A story of resilience tempered with large dollops of sentimentality, it’s a heartwarming drama about the healing powers of friendship and music.
Based on the BBC docu-series “The Choir,” the film is set at a small military base outside London. The year is 2011 and Kate (Thomas) has just said goodbye to her husband (Greg Wise) as he left for Afghanistan for the fifth time. It’s more poignant goodbye than usual as it is the first deployment since the death of their son, a soldier who perished while in service.
Meanwhile, Lisa (Sharon Horgan) the base’s welfare officer, in charge of coming up with ways to keep the wives and partners of the soldiers occupied and entertained. At one meeting, however, Kate takes over. “Let’s come up with some exciting activities to do while our service people are away.” The idea of forming a choir is raised and implemented, which only amplifies the differences between the laidback Lisa and hard-driving Kate. “This reminds me of when my parents got divorced,” says one choir member as Lisa and Kate passive-aggressively jab at one another in rehearsal.
The early practices do not yield musical result. They sound “like the incantations of a bunch of witches,” says Lisa, but with time a bond forms between the members, both personally and musically. These women, who live in fear of a bad-news phone call or knock at the door, find strength together and when tragedy strikes the choir becomes more important than ever. “You may not need the choir Lisa,” Kate says, “but those women do.”
Nothing in “Military Wives” will come as a surprise. Beat for beat it echoes the ups-and-downs of “The Full Monty’s” moments of triumph and tragedy. Peter Cattaneo directed both, and while it feels a bit been there, done that, I’d add, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
Predictability is “Military Wives’” biggest sin. But the familiarity is blunted by the performances—Thomas expertly portrays the bubbling anger and heartbreak hidden behind Kate’s smiling façade—inspirational messages of comradery and the way it portrays the women’s strength in the face of grief and loss.
THE ROADS NOT TAKEN: 2 ½ STARS
Sally Potter’s “Roads Not Taken” is a bleak film given life by a resolute performance from Elle Fanning as Molly, a young woman caring for her father, a writer with early onset dementia.
Javier Bardem is Leo, a man who lives in a rundown apartment in Brooklyn. When we meet him, he’s lying in bed, unable to answer calls from his concerned daughter. Molly arrives to find him comatose but alive. Relieved, she spends the day navigating her father’s schedule of doctor’s visits and clothes shopping, made all the more difficult by his worsening condition and the insensitive reaction of almost everyone they come in contact with, including ex-wife Rita (Laura Linney). “He just pretends to not remember things,” she says, “to make me feel guilty.”
Breaking up the day-to-day are flashbacks—or are they hallucinations?—from Leo’s past life. “Where have you been all day dad,” Molly asks as his mind reels backwards through time to a romance with Dolores (Salma Hayek) in rural Mexico and sojourn in Greece where he meets a beautiful young woman who reminds him of his daughter.
As a portrait of a fragmented mind, apparently based loosely on Potter’s experience with her younger, musician brother Nic, “The Roads Not Taken” succeeds because of the performances. The story telling is ragged, jarring as it jumps through time without providing enough connective tissue to hold together.
Fanning, as a person who realizes she must grieve for her father before he is gone, drips compassion. It’s heartfelt work that gives the movie a pulse. “No matter how far away you go,” she says. “No matter what they says, “you are always you.” Bardem, essentially playing three characters, is effective, allowing just enough of Leo’s personality to shine through to make us understand who he once was.
“The Roads Not Taken” is not an easy movie to watch. It brims with empathy for Leo but allows the story’s grief and regret overpower it’s message of steadfast love.
THE LODGE: 3 STARS
“The Lodge,” now on VOD, may be mostly set in the great outdoors it is, nonetheless, a claustrophobic thriller that plays on dark psychological trauma.
Richard Hall (Richard Armitage) is the father of Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh) and the soon-to-be-ex-husband of Laura (Alicia Silverstone). The estranged couple share custody until Richard breaks the news that he has met someone new and wants a divorce so he can marry Grace (Riley Keough). Distraught, Laura kills herself. The kids, traumatized, blame Grace for their mother’s death. In an attempt to bring his kids and fiancée to something close to speaking terms, Richard plans a “family” trip to a remote cabin so they can all get to know one another.
Almost as soon as they arrive Richard is called back to the city for work, leaving Grace, Aiden and Mia alone. “Things are very uncomfortable between us,” Grace says to the kids, “but we’re stuck in a house together.” That growing sense of unease is exacerbated after Aiden and Mia google their soon-to-be-step-mom and discover she is the daughter of religious leader and the only survivor of his cult’s mass suicide.
They are stranded—the car won’t start and the weather has made travelling on foot impossible—as strange things happen in the cabin and Grace begins to spiral. “We need to sacrifice something for the Lord,” she says.
“The Lodge” builds slowly creating eerie unease while peppering in some shocking scenes. Directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala play up the small details to create an uncomfortable atmosphere. The vastness of the icy outdoors playing against the claustrophobia of the cabin provides the backdrop for story ripe with religious imagery and surreal touches.
As the aura of paranoia grows, so do the questions. Is Grace is being tormented by the kids, or is she a victim of a supernatural force—possibly her father—who wishes her harm. Keough is terrific as a woman tormented by the past, unpredictable in the present. It’s hard to know whether she is dangerous or in danger and that pouch and pull is the movie’s strong point.,
“The Lodge” is a bit too ponderous in its early moments but finds its groove in the haunting exploration of Grace’s trauma.