OK, so things don’t really vanish anymore: even the most limited film release will (most likely, eventually) find its way onto some streaming service or into some DVD bargain bin assuming that those still exist by the time this sentence finishes. In other words, while the title of In Review Online’s monthly feature devoted to current domestic and international arthouse releases in theaters will hopefully bring attention to a deeply underrated (even by us) Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, it isn’t a perfect title. Nevertheless, it’s always a good idea to catch-up with films before some… other things happen.
The Outside Story
Depending on how one chooses to view the situation, the release of writer-director Casimir Nozkowski’s The Outside Story could come at either the most fortuitous or ironic of times. In telling the story of unmotivated documentary filmmaker Charles Young (Brian Tyree Henry), a man who would rather spend his days squirreled away in his apartment ordering take-out and surfing the web, Nozkowski asks us to feel sympathy for someone who fully rejects a Covid-free New York City, where the bustling streets are filled with mask-less individuals living life to its fullest. As restrictions have begun to loosen across America due to millions of administered vaccinations, real-life people are finally able to again experience the freedoms that the fictional Charles has so judiciously avoided simply because he is comfortable, and so viewers will be forgiven for any knee-jerk reactions that regard him as something of an insufferable gripe. Forced to spend a day in the outdoors he loathes due to accidentally locking his keys in his apartment, Charles discovers that, whoa, the city is pretty cool, and so are the people that make up its population, including a ten-year-old piano prodigy (Olivia Edward) with an abhorrent mother, a recently-widowed neighbor (Lynda Gravatt) who wants to join the online dating scene, and a police officer (Sunita Mani) whose rough exterior hides a heart of gold. It turns out the food scene is pretty fantastic, too, because, would you look at that, it’s New York City.
A character study so thin that a soft breeze through Central Park could blow it over, The Outside Story forces Charles out of his comfort zone so that he can learn to appreciate his recent ex-girlfriend, Isha (Sonequa Martin-Green), a carefree individual who also cheated on him and who the film weirdly paints as a victim, bending over backward to defend her actions because, well, Charles is boring. It’s a peculiar choice, but whatever. For such a lightweight film, Nozkowski lays on the metaphors molasses-thick, making Charles an editor of “In Memoriam” segments for the TCM Network, his specialty being celebrities who have yet to die. You see, Charles is alive, but he’s not really living. (Insert mind blown emoji.) But despite these myriad faults, which also include a forced and unearned happy ending, The Outside Story is a pleasant enough viewing experience on the strength of Henry, finally given the opportunity to take center stage and prove his mettle as a future leading man. A charming and charismatic actor with effortless presence, he shares an easy rapport with all of his co-stars, and the episodic structure of the story at least ensures that if any special guest star or plot thread is too dull, we won’t have to spend much time with it anyway. Of course, if one actually wants to experience The Outside Story, they will have to stay indoors, and frankly, the alternative is far more appealing, as the film makes crystal clear. Talk about ironic.
Writer: Steven Warner
Giants Being Lonely
Set amidst the waning adolescence of two baseball players, Grear Patterson’s feature debut Giants Being Lonely emulates its teenage protagonists in the worst way — it seems to have no real grasp of its identity. The film ostensibly follows three characters, Bobby, Adam, and Caroline, as they try to figure out who they are while navigating high school. With only the barest hint of a plot until its final five minutes, Giants Being Lonely makes a valiant effort to survive on atmosphere alone, and this is indeed its strongest point. There are occasional hints of some greater potential in the film’s visuals, with Patterson’s hazy aesthetics casting a melancholy tone in even the brightest of summer days. But despite occasional camera intrustions, which are most obvious in uncomfortable, sometimes nonsensical close-ups, the film remains visually stunning — Patterson devotes a not-insignificant amount of his 80-minute runtime to characters simply wandering, from one place to another, one experience to the next, often dwarfed by their surroundings, never quite at ease in any environment. This results in some excellent nature compositions and a feeling of nostalgia-in-process, the impression that these halcyon days are being experienced and memorialized at the same time.
The unfortunate problem, then, is that Giants Being Lonely does a brilliant job of conjuring an atmosphere and not much else. Nearly every other decision that Patterson, who both directed and wrote the movie, makes is nothing short of baffling. As written, two of his leads are a pair of barely distinguishable baseball players, and, for some reason, he exacerbates this indiscernibility between them by casting actual brothers. Meanwhile, his third lead is a neglected love interest whose entire personality can mostly be summed up as “girl.” These blank-canvas characters might have been better served by different actors, but Patterson’s cast of amateurs simply aren’t up to the task of elevating the already-weak source material they have to work with; whether they struggled to make do with a meager script, or if the script was slashed to keep them from having to talk too much is unclear. And while their awkwardness does at times give the impression of authenticity, it’s so entirely devoid of charisma that it becomes painful to watch. Add to all that Giants Being Lonely’s completely incongruous ending, and you’re left with a film that has some promise, but which ultimately suffers the same identity crisis as its characters, and will probably leave audiences feeling just as confused.
Writer: Molly Adams
Micro-budget mockumentary YouthMin takes on, appropriately enough, youth ministries, those teen-targeted groups found in churches and religious organizations across America that hope to instill faith within today’s impressionable youngsters. Frankly, it’s hard to believe that such potentially fertile comedic ground hasn’t been mined before, although perhaps outright mocking religious factions limits audience potential in a nation that is roughly two-thirds Christian-identifying, nearly half of whom are of the evangelical variety. And let’s be real — if anyone is unable or unwilling to take a joke, it’s the faith-minded moviegoers who turned such deplorable fare as God’s Not Dead into a box office behemoth.
What proves most surprising about YouthMin, then, is that it stealthily avoids the low-hanging fruit that tends to afflict both this specific genre and the subject matter itself, even as the opening scenes hint at something rancid. Youth Pastor David Bauer (co-director Jeff Ryan) is a thirty-something man-child with a look fixed somewhere in the late-’90s skater boi era, but goofier: he boasts a pathetic soul-patch and overgrown, greasy hair parted down the middle, while a backward baseball cap and a wardrobe of jeans and comical religious t-shirts signal his particular brand of cool. His group of teen charges is small, and his interactions reek of someone desperately clinging to their youth in an effort to stay hip. Pastor Dave’s world gets thrown for a loop, though, when he is assigned a new co-leader, the unmarried and pregnant Rachel (Tori Hines). She arrives just in time for the group’s annual trip to Bible camp, where they will compete for the award of Best Youth Group, a title that has so far eluded Pastor Dave’s grasp.
It’s easy to imagine such material taking the most obvious route and going south quickly, but Ryan and co-director Arielle Cimino, along with screenwriter Christopher O’Connell, have wisely taken a page from the book of Christopher Guest and play the material mostly straight, understanding that the humor and absurdity arise not out of caricature, but from simply presenting the reality of these individuals, in their truest, oddest form. But that actually makes the film sound more mean-spirited than it is, as YouthMin holds genuine affection for its motley crew of misfits and never once uses faith as a cheap punchline. In the ultimate irony, the film is probably one of the more nuanced portrayals of Western religion to grace screens in ages. It’s only when the filmmakers give in to the occasional sitcom shenanigans, such as a Three’s Company-type misunderstanding involving the sexuality of one of the teens, that the movie loses its footing. One also wishes that the half-dozen campers presented here — all comically played by actors and actresses in their late-20s — were fleshed out a bit more, but there is no denying that they nevertheless make for an appealing, chemistry-rich crew. Still, while YouthMin isn’t going to go down in history as the Best in Show of religious mockumentaries, it’s ultimately a sincere and sweet film that elicits far more effortless smiles than one might expect.
Writer: Steven Warner
Craft beer gets a bad rap in popular culture. Seen as the domain of mustachioed hipsters and consumers who base their bar choice on vibes, it’s easy to forget that the current craft beer trend has its roots in American DIY-homebrew culture and in the garages, sheds, and laundry rooms of everyday people across the states. Christo Brock’s documentary Brewmance attempts a return to the foundations of craft beer, building its way up from the bare-bones science behind brewing all the way to the squabbling between major players and the tension of industry award shows. It’s an ambitious scope to say the least, and Brock frames his efforts through the journey of Liberation Brewing Co. and its troubled road to opening, documenting everything from the company’s construction process and legal issues to their role in the local brewing community of Long Beach, California.
With a relatively slim runtime of only 100 minutes, Brewmance packs a lot of punch. In its whistle-stop tour of an entire industry, Brock touches on America’s processed food revolution, the actual science and process behind brewing, the micro-communities that have sprung up across the country around the craft, and even the anti-establishment potential of home-brewing. Brewmance barely has time to catch its breath as it flits between different characters of the home-brewing world, and the film seems to divide itself into two halves — the first, a rapid-fire introduction to the basics, and the second, a more leisurely look at the journey of Liberation Brewing Co. and its founders. As a primer for beginners, the documentary cannot be faulted, but for anyone more familiar with the world of craft beer, the whole affair might scan as just a bit too basic. But it’s in Brewmance’s second half that Brock seems to really find his footing, and the film’s early establishment of craft-brewing as an inherently collaborative and even somewhat utopian craft helps the emotional beats of its late going truly land. The flip side of this topical sweep is that the film sacrifices depth, and this can become especially frustrating as it gives short shrift to the more interesting nuances of the subject matter. But as Brock at last weaves together all his various threads, Brewmance takes the final form of a documentary that is ultimately better than the sum of its part.
Writer: Molly Adams
New high-concept comedy Golden Arm is, put simply, the female version of Over the Top. That the film is purposely comical seems almost redundant, as the 1986 Sylvester Stallone cheese-fest is quite possibly one of the funniest films ever made, intentional or not. Indeed, that particular ‘80s high might be impossible to reach, but what Golden Arm does have going for it is a healthy dose of heart, courtesy of leads Mary Holland and Betsy Sodaro, and a shot of female empowerment running through its veins that thankfully feels like more than just empty posturing. Holland and Sodaro play Melanie and Danny respectively, two former best friends who hit the road to Oklahoma City for the National Ladies Arm Wrestling Championship. Danny is a truck driver and ace arm wrestler who, following a wrist injury, recruits the recently divorced Melanie to compete in her place to take down the low-down and dirty Bone Crusher (Olivia Stambouliah). Melanie is the type of naturally meek woman, entirely lacking in courage and self-esteem, but who here finds herself in the extreme sport; Danny, meanwhile, is loud and abrasive, but has a kind soul, because of course she does.
Golden Arm traffics in all of the expected clichés for a film like this, but with a knowing wink and a welcome female perspective, courtesy of director Maureen Bharoocha and writers Ann Marie Allison and Jenna Milly. The gender of the participants is never once used as a punchline or even a joke, but is handled matter-of-factly — these are ass-kicking women who don’t need a man to prove their strength or worth. In fact, the only men who even pop up are rendered subservient to the women, treated as lackeys or eye candy, including Melanie’s eventual love interest, Greg (Eugene Cordero). Melanie and Danny are a classic odd pair, with Holland imbuing a surprising amount of warmth to a stock character, while Sodaro channels Anne Ramsay in both look and vocal inflections with a performance that will undoubtedly annoy as many as it tickles. It’s perhaps easiest to understand the film’s shape as the type of big, throwaway Hollywood production that in another world would star Melissa McCarthy and Rose Bryne, but there’s something about the film’s modest goals and charms that makes it more inviting than that; it’s what something like Thunder Force could be if it grew up. Bonus points to Bharoocha for staging a visual reference to The Natural late in the movie that works nicely in its own right, but also functions as a slick callback to an earlier gag, and double that bonus for any film that references Unfaithful’s sex scenes for a good joke or two. Ultimately, Golden Arm is both over the top and not Over the Top, a surprising delight that firmly stands on its own even as it takes inspiration from an all-timer.
Writer: Steven Warner
Murder Bury Win
In building its story around three crowd-funding board game designers, thriller Murder Bury Win makes its indie sensibility resoundingly clear, and keeps its stakes remarkably low. Chris (Mikelen Walker), Adam (Erich Lane), and Barrett (Henry Alexander Kelly) are best friends who think they have stumbled upon a winning game idea, the titular Murder Bury Win, the goal of which is to kill and dispose of a body in the most efficient way possible while avoiding potential setbacks dictated by the board itself. Unsuccessful to say the least, the trio seemingly hit paydirt when they are approached by a mysterious individual (Craig Cackowski) who might just be able to make their dreams come true — but at a price. Soon, the threesome is forced to put its ample knowledge of death and disposal to the test, potentially pushing their friendship to the breaking point in the process.
What would help this setup immensely is if director-writer-producer-editor Michael Lovan had bothered to give our three protagonists any sort of dimension or made them even the least bit likeable, but even that low hurdle isn’t cleared. (Evidently modeling the character of Adam off obnoxious actor extraordinaire Adam DeVine only proves how misguided the intentions are here, and certainly does nothing to engender sympathy.) Murder Bury Win is the kind of film that is far too confident in its own cleverness, little realizing that it’s doing nothing interesting with a scenario that could have been spun into a million different directions, any of them better than what has resulted here. Even at only 90 minutes, the film still feels hopelessly padded, with a second act that drags on for an eternity thanks to the introduction of a needless side character who is clearly supposed to bring both tension and comic relief, but who instead only makes one wish for a stiff, fortifying drink. The ending is especially misguided, an attempt at pathos that comes across as thumpingly moralizing and which is entirely at odds with the dark, “edgy” humor that precedes it. If asked to speak kindly on Murder Bury Win, the technical specs are admittedly on-point, especially for such a low-budget affair. The score by Jonathan Snipes and David Rothbaum is likewise appealing, a jaunty delight beneath the inanity, but implying a good time that never arrives. All told, Murder Bury Win is, unfortunately, a losing game.
Writer: Steven Warner