Review: ‘Beauty’ on Netflix, an ‘Out of Sight’ makeover and more

‘Beauty’

The musical drama “Beauty” should have been a smash. Director Andrew Dosunmu is known for his visually stunning images like Mother of George, which offer intense, expressionist alienation. Screenwriter and co-producer Lena Waithe is recognized for her work on the TV series Master of None and The Chi. The film has a gripping premise that slightly fictionalizes the story of the pre-famous Whitney Houston, here dubbed Beauty (Gracie Marie Bradley). The cast includes Niecy Nash as the singer’s compassionate mother, Giancarlo Esposito as her domineering father, and Sharon Stone as the manager who wants her to be paler — meaning “whiter.”

But the film’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere came and went without much fanfare, and now the film is streaming on Netflix with even less fanfare. On the day it streamed, “Beauty” didn’t even have a Wikipedia page. It’s highly unusual that a project with so many big names gets so little attention. And it’s unfortunate, too, because while “Beauty” doesn’t really work, it fails in interesting ways.

Steeped in personal sentiment, Waithe’s version of Houston’s story — in which a phenomenally talented, highly marketable singer secretly has a lesbian affair with her personal assistant — comes from an openly gay black woman who had to rush herself to make it on the show to create business. But Waithe all too often reduces the story to archetypes in a way awkwardly reminiscent of mid-20th-century progressive theater. For example, Beauty’s fighting brothers are called Cain and Abel, and Stone’s character is called “Colonizer.”

Dosunmu has some standout moments from the staging, including a haunting scene where Beauty watches both Judy Garland and Patti LaBelle sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and contemplates what kind of performer she should be. But this semi-true story is ultimately too sketchy to say anything effective about Houston, mainstream success, or concealment. On paper, this film is really something. The screen lacks dimension.

‘Beauty.’ R, for language and drug use. 1 hour 35 minutes. Available on Netflix.

A man in a red cap stands in front of a row of uniformed schoolchildren.

A scene from the documentary “Accepted”.

(Greenwich Entertainment)

‘Accepted’

In November 2018, The New York Times ran a story about TM Landry College Preparatory, an unaccredited private school in Louisiana that had received much positive national press for putting underprivileged teens into Ivy League colleges, which the paper said it did Falsifying transcripts and abusing students. Documentary filmmaker Dan Chen and his crew began interviewing Landry children — along with the school’s charismatic co-founder Mike Landry — before the scandal broke, with the intention of following a handful of seniors to graduation. Instead, his film Accepted took a different path.

The strange circumstances of the production clearly had an impact on what became of “Accepted” – and not always for the better. The story that emerged during filming requires more investigative rigor than a loose collection of interviews and slice-of-life scenes. Still, “Accepted” is remarkably impressive, thanks to the way Chen works his way back to what his document is really about.

The Landry kids whose college dreams were shattered by the Times exposé are not fraudsters. They are bright and vibrant young people who felt they needed an institution like Landry to help them make the kind of connections rich students typically enjoy. Focusing on the collateral damage of the scandal, “Accepted” takes on the whole broken college admissions system and argues that obsession with “elite” universities could be a barrier to a good education.

‘Accepted.’ Not rated. 1 hour 32 minutes. Limited edition, including at the Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; also available as VOD.

A woman and two men in space suits are bathed in red light in the film "Rubicon."

George Blagden, from left, Julia Franz Richter and Mark Ivanir in the film Rubicon.

(Philipp Brozsek / IFC Midnight)

‘Rubicon’

Director Leni Lauritsch’s feature film debut Rubicon is a sci-fi drama that takes a miniscule approach to big problems by taking three characters aboard a space station and letting them finish speaking. Julia Franz Richter plays Hannah, a soldier on an environmentally devastated future Earth where the rich live in sealed bubbles and the armies work for corporations. She and rich boy Gavin (George Blagden) visit a revolving science lab where Dimitri (Mark Ivanir) is experimenting with life-sustaining algae ecosystems. There, all three avoid the toxic cloud below that is wiping out most of the planet’s population.

Aside from a scene where Hannah is spacewalking and watching the lights go out on Earth, “Rubicon” doesn’t have much conventional genre “action”. Lauritsch and her co-writer Jessica Lind – and their very fine cast – instead emphasize the interplay between this well-meaning trio, who all have different ideas about whether they should return home to join the survivors, or stay in space, where their technology is able to keep them alive. The dialogue-heavy scenario robs the film of some suspense, but the conversations are often quite gripping as the three debate what they owe to what’s left of humanity in a society that has long since stopped caring about anyone who doesn’t have a safe place can afford life.

“Rubicon.” Not rated. 1 hour 50 minutes. Limited editions including the Laemmle Glendale; also available as VOD.

‘The passenger’

Nods to John Carpenter’s The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China are found in Spanish comedy horror The Passenger, a stylish first feature film co-directed by Raúl Cerezo and Fernando González Gómez. Written by Luis Sánchez-Polack, the film stars Ramiro Blas as Blasco, a boisterous ride-along driver who tests the nerves of his last three passengers as he drives the women through the countryside while chauvinistically bragging about his past days as a matador and rock star. Then Blasco’s van crashes into a stranger in the dark, and soon the driver and his passengers join forces in their fight against a shape-shifting alien.

The filmmakers are incredibly imaginative. While they shot The Passenger mostly in and around a battered old camper van in the middle of nowhere, their film is still suspenseful and fun, with some good stuttering and gore effects to keep scare fans happy. But the real key to the success of this picture is the character details. Blasco, in particular, is no ordinary horror hero — or victim. He’s a fast-talking eccentric, sometimes irritating and sometimes classy — like someone who stepped out of a Pedro Almodóvar movie and walked into a monster movie.

‘The passenger.’ In Spanish with English subtitles. Not rated. 1 hour 30 minutes. Available on VOD.

“Sniper: The White Raven”

Simple but gripping, revenge thriller Sniper: The White Raven follows the story of a Ukrainian hippie who trains as a deadly hitman after invading Russian forces kill his wife. Director and co-writer Marian Bushan takes his time to establish the idyllic life of eco-conscious, small-town physics teacher Mykola (Pavlo Aldoshyn) before a senseless act of violence turns it upside down. After that, “Sniper” follows a conventional “recruit whipped into shape” plot as Mykola joins the army and learns to live with soldiers – while impressing his superiors with his intelligence and determination. Employing a variety of styles throughout the film, Bushan reveals a talent for dynamic action that his more reserved first half hour belies. He delivers the goods for anyone looking for an intense war film – but he won’t let filming begin until everyone understands what’s at stake.

“Sniper: The White Raven.” In Ukrainian with English subtitles. R, for violence, gory images, language and some sexuality/nudity. 2 hours. In limited theatrical version; also available as VOD.

Also on streaming and VOD

“Endangered” addresses the fragile state of journalism around the world as citizens increasingly receive information from patchy internet sources that denigrate traditional media. Director Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady portray four female reporters (working in Mexico, Brazil and the US) over the course of a year, capturing their growing concern that large sections of the public now trust authoritarians, pundits and conspiracy theorists more than the free press. Available on HBO Max

“The Sword and the Dragon” (aka “Ilya Muromets”) is a classic Soviet-era fantasy film directed by Aleksandr Ptushko in the mid-1950s and then recut and dubbed in markets around the world. The film, newly restored in 4K, looks stunning and feels epic. It tells a twisted tale from Russian folklore about a knight who fights invading armies, traitors, demons and fire-breathing monsters to protect his country and family. Available on VOD.

Now available on DVD and Blu-ray

“Out of Sight” is a career-high for prolific director Steven Soderbergh: a slick adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel about a veteran thief (George Clooney) who flirts with and matches a US Marshal (Jennifer Lopez). The new 4K UHD edition captures the film’s subtle tonal nuances while also including the excellent special features of previous versions – including a fun commentary track by Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Frank. KL Studio classic

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-07-01/beauty-netflix-jennifer-lopez-george-clooney-out-of-sight-college-admissions-scandal Review: ‘Beauty’ on Netflix, an ‘Out of Sight’ makeover and more

Sarah Ridley

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