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What to Watch:The Indomitable Mr. Fox
A new documentary on the actor hits VOD; plus, reviews of "Hypnotic," "Blackberry," "The Starling Girl," and more.
A piece I wrote this week for the Washington Post on the 65th anniversary of “Vertigo” – it’s here if you’d like to give it a read – seems to have brought in a bunch of new subscribers. Welcome! Don’t mind the dog, he’s friendly. What we usually do at the Watch List on a Friday is alert readers to interesting movies, mostly new but sometimes old, that are premiering in theaters or arriving on one VOD platform or another. And today’s no different. (I should also point out that if you’d prefer to get one email a week from me rather than two or three, a weekly recap comes out Friday afternoons, and you can sign up for that one alone by toggling off every notification on your account page except the one that says “Weekly Digest.”)
The most notable on-demand premiere this week is “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2) on Apple TV+, a documentary that with Robert Downey Jr.’s “Sr.” forms a curious sub-genre: The intimate, sometimes agonizing celebrity home movie. Fox, the star of the “Back to the Future” films and TV’s “Family Ties,” started experiencing symptoms of early-onset Parkinson’s disease in 1991, when he was in his late 20s, and he went public seven years later; the doc, directed by Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”) opens with the memory of the hungover young actor staring at his shaking pinky and wondering why it didn’t seem to belong to him any longer.
Fox narrates “Still” from a camera position of front and center, his body and shoulders swaying with the Parkinson’s symptoms known as dyskinesia but unapologetically and engagingly himself – the breezy chutzpah that made him such a likable (and commercial) 1980s pop supernova has been tempered into something harder and more mordantly witty. The title echoes in several directions at once: Fox can no longer be physically still – the disease finally forced his retirement from acting in 2021 – yet he’s still here, and he’s still Michael J. Fox.
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Actually, his real middle name is Andrew; being told at the start of his career that there was another actor named Michael Fox, he balked at the sound of “Michael – A Fox” and chose the J. in honor of character actor Michael J. Pollard. “Still” is full of first-person nuggets like that, and while it shines a spotlight on Fox’s struggles with Parkinson’s, depression, and alcoholism – he’s been sober since the early 1990s – and shows the strength and tough love he gets from wife Tracy Pollan and their children, the movie also functions as a useful reminder of what sudden superstardom looks like from the inside – what adoration on a global scale means and does to someone unprepared for it, and the symbiotic feelings of worthlessness and invincibility it can impart. Of seeing his face on every magazine in 1984, Fox recalls “None of them was a representation of my real self – whatever that was.”
That’s a line that echoes across the history of fame – it calls to mind Cary Grant’s admission that he spent a lifetime shuttling between his persona (Cary Grant) and his real self (Archie Leach), “unsure of each, suspecting each” – but in an era in which we’re all granted the chance at becoming instantly, stupidly famous at the touch of a cellphone, it needs saying more loudly than ever. “Still” is a gratifyingly candid film about a man who knows he’s experienced all the luck that life can throw at him, good and terrible, and if this is hardly the future Marty McFly envisioned for himself, it’s the one Michael J. Fox got. Maybe that’s why we go to movies in the first place – to hope for a different outcome than the one we know we’re going to get. Watching this movie, you remember that funny, needling, nervy little guy up on the screen, and you realize you’re rooting for him. Still.
“Air,” the story of the birth of the Air Jordan sneaker that doubles as the latest Matt Damon-Ben Affleck reunion, arrives today on Amazon Prime after a successful theatrical run. As I wrote last month, the movie’s “ridiculously entertaining – the first bona fide crowd-pleaser of 2023,” and you should watch it if you haven’t already, although it plays better with a crowd than alone at home. Still, it’s a better bet than the Affleck vehicle skulking into theaters today, an action/thriller/sci-fi bit of haggis called “Hypnotic” (⭐ 1/2). Directed by Robert Rodriguez, whose star has fallen from the days of “Spy Kids” and “Sin City,” it starts with Affleck’s jut-jawed cop crossing paths with a mysterious bank robber (William Fichtner) who has the ability to control minds, and then it gets goofier and more baroque from there. I actually have a sweet tooth for junky, ambitious B-movies that pile on the implausibilities: “Serenity,” the Matthew McConaughey bomb from 2019 and the Nicolas Cage film “Knowing” (2009) I mentioned earlier this week are good examples of titles that drag you through the most back-breaking plot contortions imaginable and then say that everything you just saw was wrong. You can get a high from that sort of craziness, even when the movie’s falling apart around your ears. “Hypnotic” is that kind of preposterous, but, sadly, it’s not entertainingly preposterous, and Affleck trudges through the proceedings like he knows it, barely lifting his eyes and delivering his lines in a gritted monotone. It’s like he’s trying to mind-control the audience into forgetting he’s even in the movie. I suggest you take him up on the offer.
Also in theaters today: “Blackberry” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2), the latest and most openly comic entry in the recent spate of business-deal dramas that includes “Air” and Apple TV+’s “Tetris.” They’re stories about the building of brands – this is what we have come to – and so the titles don’t really need to be anything but the brand. In the case of “Blackberry,” the story follows the brand’s rise and fall, which was fast enough to cause nosebleeds in both directions. The comedy arises from the clash between two classic archetypes of modern venture capitalism, the inventor and the businessman. The nerd and the deal maker. The dreamer and the asshole. Jay Baruchel (above left) plays the first half of the equation, Mike Lazaridis, the Waterloo, Canada-based engineer who, with partner Doug Fregin (director Matt Johnson, very funny as the Woz in this story) came up with a handheld device in 1999 that combined email and telephone; he dubbed it the Blackberry. Glenn Howerton (above right) is Jim Balsillie, the raging alpha-male MBA who sees dollar signs in the invention, muscles his way into the company, sells the Blackberry to Bell Atlantic to run on its servers, and positions it in popular culture as the addictive, must-have gizmo for Wall Street whizzes and other performative machers – the “Crackberry.”
At the company’s peak, Blackberry had 45 percent of the US cellphone market and 85 million users worldwide. Then, in 2007, Apple introduced the iPhone, which replaced a physical keypad with a touchscreen, and suddenly everything else looked very 20th century. As one freaked-out Blackberry marketing executive says to Balsillie, “We’re going to go from the number one phone in the world to ‘that phone that people had before they bought an iPhone.’” Which proved to be astonishingly correct.
I watched “Blackberry” with a friend who’s had a career in the higher echelons of the business world, and he reveled in the way the movie simultaneously dramatizes and howls with laughter at both the deals and the personalities making the deals – the negotiations that are equal parts projections, bravado, and bullshit; the fact that nobody knows anything except the person who actually built the thing; the knowledge that you’re only as good as your last quarter. If the movie has a hidden message, it’s to stay true to the personality you were born with. In this telling, Jim Balsillie is an absolute bastard and prospers as an absolute bastard; Doug Fregin remains a stoner brainiac hippie and ends up one of the richest men on the planet. Blackberry inventor and CEO Mike Lazirides is the exception that proves the rule – the wonk who tries to reinvent himself as a suit and fails miserably at the charade. He’s the closest this sharp, slippery film comes to something like tragedy.
I wish I could say I liked “The Starling Girl” (in theaters, ⭐ ⭐ 1/2) better than I do, because it’s well made and features a lead performance from Eliza Scanlen (above) that’s hot to the touch. She plays Jem Starling, the oldest of three daughters in an evangelical Christian clan in rural Kentucky, oblivious to the world outside her county and religion but electric with adolescent longing – toward God and toward Owen Taylor (Lewis Pullman), the pastor’s lanky married son who’s back from missionary work in the Caribbean and keeps throwing Jem long, ardent looks. Jem’s mistake is that she thinks that means he sees her. The ensuing affair plays out exactly as you’d expect, but the saving graces of writer-director Laurel Parmet’s debut feature are the detailed portrayal of a community the movies generally caricature and Scanlen’s intuitive, impulsive Jem. The Australian actress – another one of the country’s acting changelings – was the doomed Beth in Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women”and a far more mercurial teenage rebelgrrl in the little-known “Babyteeth” (2020, ⭐ ⭐ ⭐, streaming on Hulu, for rent on Amazon and Apple TV, recommended); Scanlen plays Jem as a headstrong young woman certain the emotions streaming through her body are a gift from God, and she’s not entirely wrong — it’s just a different God than the one the pastor’s selling. “The Starling Girl” draws the hypocrisies of this loving, deeply repressive environment with nuance and compassion, and if the storyline felt fresher, the movie would be something to celebrate. Scanlen and Laurel Parmet are talents to watch, though.
If none of these float your boat, here’s a quick What To Watch for each of the major streaming services:
Hulu: “Her Smell” (2019, ⭐ ⭐ ⭐) – A towering Elisabeth Moss performance in a rough, mesmerizing portrait of a Courtney Love-style rock star. Not an easy watch but a memorable one.
Amazon Prime: “Lover’s Rock” (2020, ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐) — The best of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” series of features (search for it on the service under that name) is a beautifully nostalgic recreation of a rent party in 1980s London and all the silly games people play, with a reggae soundtrack for the ages. My top film of 2020.
Netflix: “Galaxy Quest” (1999, ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2) – Delicious “Star Trek” parody with Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Sam Rockwell, and Tony Shalhoub all keeping tongues perfectly in cheek.
HBO Max “Lean on Pete” (2017, ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2) – A boy and his horse, but it’s not a kid’s movie. Rather it’s a moving, sometimes harrowing tale of rural underclass America and a young man trying to find his way.
Criterion Channel: “The Naked Spur” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐, 1953, for rent on Amazon, Apple TV, YouTube) – Arguably the finest of the westerns James Stewart made with director Anthony Mann (The Criterion Channel is showing the other four), this darkened the beloved actor’s image with newly mature gravitas.
I hope this gives you something to liven up your weekend! Don’t hesitate to weigh in with thoughts.
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