Weird: The Al Yankovic Story
On The Roku Channel now
Roku Weird Al Yankvoic (Daniel Radcliffe) and Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood) star in 'Weird: The Al Yankovic Story.'
What kind of fitting biopic would Weird: The Al Yankovic Story be if it played it straight? Eric Appel's directorial debut essentially plays like a movie-length Funny or Die sketch — which it is, technically (or at least produced under that production umbrella): a giddy cameo-stacked satire propelled by murder, mayhem, Mexican drug lords, and athletic sex with Madonna. This is whole-cloth fantasy, of course, and that's the point: less Walk the Line than Walk Hard, with accordions.
Little Alfred (Richard Aaron Anderson) is just a kid who dreams of making music: other people's, specifically, but with goofier lyrics. He falls hard for polka, goes off to college, and finds his come-to-Jesus moment in a pile of processed lunchmeat; when "My Sharona" becomes "My Bologna" a star is born, literally. Within moments, big Al (Daniel Radcliffe), his hair a curly Bob Ross nimbus and his floral shirts every shade of Trader Joe's, is ruling the charts and christening all the bedrooms and ballrooms of his brand-new mansion with a rising pop tart named Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood, who plays the singer as a blithe gum-snapping sociopath).
Things move pretty fast in Weird — like Behind the Music smash-cut fast. A single pool-party scene hosted by Al's soon-to-be mentor Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson) features Conan O'Brien, Jack Black, and countless other familiar faces playing everyone from Andy Warhol to Alice Cooper. (Is that Abbott Elementary's Quinta Brunson as Oprah later on, and Lin-Manuel Miranda under those doctor's scrubs when things land in the emergency room? It is.) Radcliffe, bless him, commits admirably to the movie's full-tilt concept, conjuring a bizarro-world Al both brash and endearingly sincere (and disconcertingly CrossFit-ripped); he'll throw a man through a plate glass window and drink whiskey like it's water, but still come home to his parents' house for a chips-and-sandwich dinner.
The script, by Appel and the actual Yankovic, who also appears briefly as a skeptical record executive, treats time as a flat circle, folding "Amish Paradise" into the events of 1985 — Coolio's original was actually released a full decade later — and putting Madonna's backup dancers in anachronistic cone bras years before they debuted in the real world. But that's all part of the movie's fast and loose comedy, an alternative-facts fever dream so bent on the certifiably ridiculous that it circles back around somehow to sweetness. You don't need any of it, really, but as far as celebrity hagiographies go, you kind of can't beat it. Grade: B — Leah Greenblatt
On AppleTV+ now
It's easy to forget sometimes that Jennifer Lawrence, an Oscar-winning movie star with two major franchises to her name in the last decade, started her career in indie film. But the spare, contemplative drama Causeway feels in some ways like a return to her breakout role in the 2010 Sundance prize winner Winter's Bone: a movie largely stripped down to the unadorned essence of its material and the internalized pain of its characters.
Lawrence is Lynsey, a soldier sent back to the U.S. from Afghanistan after suffering a traumatic brain injury. She looks intact, but she needs intensive rehab before she can even begin to use the bathroom or drive a car on her own again; by the time she's recovered enough to leave her temporary caregiver (a congenial Jayne Houdyshell) and go back home to New Orleans, it's clear that whatever trauma she's holding onto didn't all come from overseas. Her mom (Linda Emond) is happy enough but vaguely nonplussed to see her; her brother, an addict who seems either far away or long gone, is barely spoken of.
A chance encounter at an auto-body shop with James (Brian Tyree Henry) puts the first small crack in her closed-off exterior; Lynsey remembers playing basketball in high school with his sister, and getting a beer or a Snow-Cone with him feels better than being anywhere else. She also finds a job cleaning pools, though what she most wants, desperately, is to redeploy — an idea her doctors, unsurprisingly, are less than eager to sign off on. So James and Lynsey continue to circle one another, two damaged people offering up small, reluctant morsels of their backstory like bargaining chips (there's a reason why he limps, and no longer speaks to his sister).
Broadway director Lila Neugebauer, making her film debut with a lean script by novelist Ottessa Moshfegh (My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Eileen), Luke Goebel, and Elizabeth Sanders, saturates the movie in measured silences and humid, lived-in atmosphere, letting Lawrence and Henry's low-key performances contract and expand. When things might turn conveniently cinematic, they don't: A drunken night at a wealthy client's "borrowed" pool doesn't end with the manufactured drama of the owners suddenly coming home, for example, but with a foolish, aggrieved argument. This pair doesn't need any help hurting themselves.
That lack of outright incident, the willingness to just sit in itself quietly and observe, is one of Causeway's most admirable qualities, though it can also make the film feel too minor-key; there's a fine line between subtlety and impassivity. And certain details (of Lynsey's diagnosis, or James' personal history) seem glossed over, either for convenience or simply because they haven't been fully considered. Still, it's nice to see actors like these do such subtle, sympathetic work for a gifted young director — and to find an outlet for storytelling that doesn't demand neat redemption, but still allows for grace. Grade: B — Leah Greenblatt
On Netflix now
Ricardo Hubbs/Netflix Randall Park, Tyler Alvarez, Kamaia Fairburn, Melissa Fumero, and Madeleine Arthur in 'Blockbuster'
"Never underestimate nostalgia," notes one character in Blockbuster. "Nothing thrills people more than knowing their memory still works." Netflix's new comedy — about the staff of the last remaining Blockbuster video rental store in present-day Michigan — aims to mine the appeal of simpler times, but it's ultimately hindered by dusty sitcom tropes and flat writing.
Timmy Yoon (Randall Park) loves his job managing a Blockbuster in suburban Michigan. Sure, most of the other stores in the strip mall have shuttered, and more and more customers are turning to streaming, but Timmy believes human interaction will always trump even the most powerful of algorithms. Then Blockbuster liquidates, leaving Timmy on his own to run the final franchise, with no corporate infrastructure or financial support. Not wanting to let down his employees — including Harvard dropout Eliza (Melissa Fumero), aspiring filmmaker Carlos (Tyler Alvarez), naïve nice girl Hannah (Madeline Arthur), and the grandmotherly Connie (Olga Merediz) — Timmy embarks on a season-long effort to keep his store from going under.
Created by Vanessa Ramos (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Blockbuster fails to take advantage of its unique premise, instead settling into well-worn workplace-comedy storylines: Timmy worries he may have to fire one member of his team; Eliza's plans are ruined when everyone must stay late to do inventory; Timmy and his best friend/landlord, Percy (J.B. Smoove), get into a prank war with some local punks; Connie struggles to assemble a complicated promotional display. Take away the dialogue's frequent movie references ("A makeover? Maybe something simple — She's All That style") and the show could take place in any struggling retail outlet — a shoe store, a florist, a Radio Shack, whatever.
The will-they, won't-they dance between Timmy and Eliza — he's had a crush on her since high school; she's trying to make things work with her cheating ex, Aaron (Leonard Robinson) — feels similarly stale. Park and Fumero are both likable performers, but Timmy and Eliza's chemistry comes across as more platonic than romantic, and the story beats about their relationship are predictable — down to the moment Timmy calls his new girlfriend (Stephanie Izsak) by Eliza's name. Though there are a few promising Brooklyn-style running jokes, Blockbuster is a well-meaning disappointment that can't quite justify its own existence. Grade: C —Kristen Baldwin
Something in the Dirt
In theaters now
Aaron Moorhead Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson in 'Something in the Dirt'
Doubling down on COVID-era listlessness and QAnon paranoia, the impressively fidgety, crammed-to-bursting Something in the Dirt ends up with a takeaway that goes a little like: Please let my life make sense. It's an understandable wish in an uncertain moment.
The two burnout bros at the heart of Something, both of them thirtyish failures, could definitely use the validation. (As played by the film's DIY writer-director-producer-editors, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, the characters take on a winning circularity.) They meet in a dilapidated courtyard, the hillside behind them on fire; apocalypse is never far from mind. Levi (Benson) is a partied-out ex-barback with a criminal record. John (Moorhead), seemingly more with it, but only seemingly, is an intense gay Evangelical who charges electric scooters for a living.
When they observe a quartz crystal — an ashtray, really — levitating on its own in one of their disgusting apartments, you at first wonder if it's a hallucination. But the only drug they seem to be on is too much nicotine, and the unexplainable repeats itself (the movie's effects are shoddy in a huggable way). Have they happened upon a miracle? It's time for them to get real and make the documentary that will prove their claim and bring in the windfall they already start counting.
You're not going to understand even a fraction of what follows after their tech-challenged first day: Tangents explode in every direction, touching on charged energy fields and the ancient followers of Pythagoras, to a unique geometric shape they begin to see all over L.A. But even as the flow of the movie approaches incoherence, then rushes headlong past it, a redeeming strain of brotherly camaraderie takes root, even amid constant sniping and bitching. Trapped together in their half-made documentary and general plight, they make a sad but sweet duo.
And that turns Something in the Dirt into something of a success — if a qualified one, to which you have to bring your own patience for near-OCD mania. Benson and Moorhead have been making no-budget features for a decade (they're far more polished than their roles), and their latest venture comes closest to self-critique and sincerity. Childhood home videos figure into the mix. There's a kind of poetry here, both a reflection of their city and of dead-end lives, and even if they can't articulate it perfectly, they're trying. That puts them ahead of most of the pack. Grade: B+ —Joshua Rothkopf