THE LITTLE THINGS: 3 STARS
“The Little Things,” a Los Angeles-set crime drama now available in select theatres and on PVOD, features a trio of Oscar winners in a dark story that shows the soft underbelly of the glamour capitol.
Set in 1990, pre-DNA testing, this is a story of old-fashioned police work. Wits, stakeouts, payphones, and bleary eyes are their tools; obsession and black coffee fuel them.
Oscar winner number one Denzel Washington is Joe Deacon, a deputy sheriff in small town California, whose job as a big city detective is long in the rearview mirror. When he joins strait-laced LAPD detective Sgt. Jim Baxter (Oscar winner number two, Rami Malek) on the hunt for a serial murderer, they focus on Albert Sparma (Oscar winner number three, Jared Leto) an off-kilter character they suspect is the killer. Turns out, their case reverberates with echoes from Deacon’s troubled past.
“The Little Things” sets up an interesting mystery. The SoCal setting resonates with an eerie Golden State Killer sun-dappled vibe and there are enough cryptic clues to keep you — and Deacon and Baxter– guessing. Washington and Malek play an odd couple, brought together by their shared obsessions, and Leto is suitably sideways to lend an aura of menace to his character. But, taken as a whole, the elements feel let down by the climax of the story. No spoilers here, but Baxter’s behaviour in the minutes leading up to the film’s resolution don’t feel authentic, as though they are not driven by the character and what he would do in the situation. Instead, the ending feels informed simply by the need to wrap up the story in a dramatic way.
It’s too bad because most of what comes before is quite good. Deep characterizations, worthy of the trio’s Oscar wins, help set the scene. Writer and director John Lee Hancock avoids the visual clichés of most Los Angeles sets dramas; there’s palm trees, but no Hollywood highlights, just rundown motel rooms and Skid Row streets. It all adds up, until Baxter’s inexplicable decisions (AGAIN, NO SPOILERS HERE) take the viewer out of the story.
As Deacon says several times in “The Little Things,” life and, in this case, storytelling are all about the little things — the details that come together to tell the tale. Hancock gets most of the little things right, but not all.
THE DIG: 3 ½ STARS
Like the archeological excavation that lies at the center of “The Dig,” a new drama starring Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes now streaming on Netflix, the movie is slow and steady, but reveals much if you’re patient.
Based on the 1939 unearthing of a ship burial site containing a bounty of Anglo-Saxon artifacts in Sutton Hoo, near Suffolk, England, “The Dig” stars Mulligan as Edith Pretty, a wealthy widow who hires amateur archeologist Basil Brown (Fiennes) to excavate ancient burial mounds on her property. Autodidact Brown’s discovery of a treasure trove of priceless artifacts attracts the attention of the toffs at the British Museum, who insist on taking control of the dig. As the second World War looms and Pretty’s health worsens, the job takes on a personal and professional urgency.
Unsurprisingly, “The Dig” spends a great deal of time at the excavation but, as the riches of the job reveal themselves, the interpersonal dynamics of the characters take centre stage.
As the salt-of-the-earth Mr. Brown, Fiennes is a stoic figure who provides much of the film’s heart and soul. Early on, in an effective but clumsy metaphor, he is revealed to be the film’s real treasure after he is accidentally buried, swallowed up by the dig, and unearthed by his frantic co-workers. His presence is the film’s catalyst for a study of class and respect born of hard work and study. He even becomes a father figure for Pretty’s son Robert (Archie Barnes), and plays him with an appealing mix of decency and stubbornness.
Mulligan’s chaste, but deeply felt relationship with Mr. Brown, is nicely played, but as the ensemble cast grows to include the British Museum folks, the snobby Charles Phillips (Ken Stott), John Brailsford (Eamon Farren), Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin), his young wife Peggy (Lily James) and Pretty’s cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn), she takes a backseat as an illicit romance blossoms. She is, predictably, very good, but as her health declines so does her dominance of the story.
“The Dig” confronts big issues, but maintains an intimate feel. It’s not a story of archeology, although James is shown lovingly dusting dirt encrusted artifacts. The portrayal of class and impending war never overshadow the more relatable topics of legacy and teamwork. It’s a quiet movie, one filled with longing looks where much is left unsaid, but nothing is ambiguous.
PENGUIN BLOOM: 3 ½ STARS
For the second time in less than ten years, Naomi Watts is playing a woman injured while in Thailand. In “The Impossible” she was nominated for an Academy Award for playing a woman whose luxurious Thai holiday is turned to tragedy by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that claimed 230,000 lives.
Now she stars in “Penguin Bloom,” the based-on-a-true story of a woman paralyzed after a fall during a Thai family vacation, now playing on Netflix.
“Penguin Bloom” has considerably less action than “The Impossible,” but both are about a family’s ability to pull together in times of crisis
Watts is Samantha Bloom, a once active mother and athlete, now confined to a wheelchair after a fall left the lower two-thirds of her body paralyzed. Back home in New South Wales, she has trouble adjusting to her new normal, despite support from her immediate family, husband Cameron (“The Walking Dead’s” Andrew Lincoln), Jan (Jacki Weaver) and kids, Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston), who asked for his mother to sightsee with him that fateful day and now feels responsible for her injury, Oli (Abe Clifford-Barr), and Rueben (Felix Cameron).
When Noah brings an injured magpie home, nicknamed Penguin because of her black and white colouring, Samantha doesn’t want the bird in the house. Soon, however, Penguin becomes a guardian angel of sorts, giving Sam companionship and inspiration. If the bird can heal herself, Sam reasons, so can I.
“Penguin Bloom” is a story of healing written in broad strokes. It is an unabashed, feel-good movie that feels a bit too on-the-nose from time to time — “It must be weird to have wings, but not be able to fly,” they say about Penguin with the dual meaning is not lost on anyone – however, warmth and nice performances ultimately win the day.
Weaver is a pleasure, as always, and the younger kids bring a spark of adolescent realism to the events, but the movie belongs to Watts, who effectively portrays the mix of anger, frustration, and tenderness that make her character compelling. Young actor Murray-Johnston as Noah brings a heartbreaking mix of kindness and regret to his debut performance as he struggles with his feelings of responsibility.
“Walking Dead” fans will be disappointed that Lincoln is given little to do, but it is a relief to see him play a role that doesn’t require him to be covered in viscera.
“Penguin Bloom’s” story of struggle and survival, both human and avian, is predictable. Just as Penguin learns to take to the skies through trial and error, the film takes some wrong steps, but ultimately makes your spirit soar.
JIU JITSU: 1½ STARS
The fact that former U.S. president Donald Trump handed out pardons like candy at Halloween on his last days in office, but neglected to pardon “Jiu Jitsu” — the new Nicolas Cage sci-fi fantasy film, now on VOD — for its crimes against cinema is astounding. This movie is equally as bad as anything Roger Stone could have done and yet Stone gets a pass and “Jiu Jitsu” doesn’t. Incredible.
The bland yet still confounding plot sees an ancient band of jiu-jitsu warriors come together every six years to save the planet from a vicious alien with world domination on its mind. When the warriors’ leader, the muscle-bound uber-soldier Jake (Alain Moussi) loses his memory and is captured by army intelligence, the mysterious Kueng (Tony Jaa) comes to the rescue and begins the process of helping him rediscover who he was before the amnesia.
Jake’s old team, ace fighters Harrigan (Frank Grillo), Carmen (JuJu Chan) Forbes (Marrese Crump), and mentor/paper hat maker Wylie (Cage), must get Jake back to form to fight off the extraterrestrial and existential threat.
Nicolas Cage can usually be counted on to spice up even the dowdiest of B-movies but here, even his gonzo stylings add little to this leaden and dreary undertaking. You don’t expect much from a movie like “Jiu Jitsu,” just some fun action, some cheesy dialogue, and a cool alien. Instead, we’re given loads of long, unremarkable fight scenes with obvious body doubles, kitschy dialogue that positively drips with queso, and an ET look-a-like in an ill-fitting Halloween costume.
“Jiu Jitsu” feels like warmed-over “Predator” with high kicks and samurai swords in a botched video game style.