A gold rush love story; ‘Fraggle Rock’
January’s lackluster slate of new theatrical films is turning us increasingly toward streaming fare and independent releases. A few notable films hit theaters this week — the Christian-themed “Redeeming Love” and the character study/drama “Jockey” — but none are particularly high-profile films.
My favorites include one for kids (Apple TV+ rebooted “Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock”) and one that’s decidedly not for kids (“Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn”).
“Redemptive Love”: Faith-based historical romances don’t get much mention in the mainstream or secular press, despite their tremendous fan base. One of the genre’s most respected and popular authors – Francine Rivers – penned the bestselling novel California Gold Rush on which this brilliant production is based. Its storytelling powers stay in the spotlight and director DJ Caruso crafts a handsome and respectable feature, but the running time here is way too long (2.5 hours) and the film is just too good for its own good. Rivers’ story is a loose take on the biblical tale of Gomer and Hosea, and in her version the main character is the hardened and abused angel (Abigail Cowen), the No. 1 sex worker in a dirty mess of years 1850. Angel is cynical and bitter about having endured a torturous childhood and adult life, none of it explicitly rendered on film but always revealed within the confines of a PG-13 rating.
For some inexplicable reason, Angel catches the eye of the upright and virtuous rancher Michael (Tom Lewis, an actor who poses for fame). Their ensuing courtship is never easy, as Angel’s past comes back to him with a vengeance.
“Love” may be best embraced by the faithful, but it’s well done and has a lot to say about the healing power of love and how we all deserve a second chance. Yet its glossy look too often clashes with and devalues its gritty subject matter, putting a lens of soft, heartwarming focus on what should be a brutal story. All of this might make “Love” more accessible, but it also strips the story of much of its power and, yes, its glory. Details: 2½ out of 4 stars; in theaters January 21.
“Cheeky”: While I admire prolific novelist Nora Roberts for her utterly legible guilty pleasures and for standing up to outraged readers at her casting of ‘liberal’ actress Alyssa Milano to play crime writer Grace in this Netflix original. , that doesn’t stop “Brazen” from being a waste. Milano and co-star Sam Page — playing the cute, bachelor detective next door — work well together, but the story is filled with logic-defying turns, like when Grace forces herself to investigate her sister’s murder. It looks like sis has led a double life as a dominatrix for a nerdy online site, and that’s where the story goes from ridiculous to laughable, even managing to make the leather and lace look uninteresting. “Brazen” isn’t worth more than a laugh or two. And it’s not a comedy. Details: 1½ stars; available on Netflix.
“Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock”: There are no gas jokes (at least in the first three episodes). No awkward places for children’s products. What the reboot of the 1983-1987 Muppets song-laden Fraggle Rock TV series delivers is a steady stream of catchy tunes, well-defined Muppet characters, hilarious situations, incredible puppets, and well-crafted messages about climate change, overcoming your fears and being true to yourself. It’s a delightful experience no matter your age. Details: 3 stars; available January 21 on AppleTV+.
“Jockey”: One actor oddly left out of awards talk this season is Clifton Collins Jr. That’s unacceptable, given that he inhabits the soul and body of his character, a worn-out jockey named Jackson Silva who should be retiring but doesn’t. simply will not. Clint Bentley’s gorgeous and observant feature is more character study than clear drama, and while there are a few plot errors here and there, Collins’ electrifying performance carries that to the finish line. Molly Parker of Netflix’s “Lost in Space” shines in a small but pivotal role as her trainer. Now, if only the awards committees would give this dark horse Best Actor nominee a serious look. Details: 3 stars; opens Jan. 21 in San Francisco, expanding to a wider release next week.
“Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn”: The craziest satire I’ve seen in 2021 was Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude’s big slap in the face of an obnoxious pious critic. It opens with an X-rated explicit sex scene that will likely make some people shun theaters. Those who stick around and enjoy adventurous, edgy, and at times brilliant comedy-drama will be rewarded. The lengthy sex scene is integral to the plot as it’s a sex tape that unfortunately goes viral, sparking outrage with furrowed brows and calls for the firing of schoolteacher Emi (Katia Pascariu) who is there. Jude is a hyperactive filmmaker and sometimes he jumps too high, but damn it if you don’t admire how he operates without a safety net. With all the ongoing book bans, “Bad Luck” couldn’t come at a more opportune time to steer those so eager to pass judgment on someone other than themselves. Details: 3½ stars; opens Jan. 21 at The Roxie, which will also offer the film for streaming. The film will also be screened at the Smith Rafael Film Center.
“Italian Studies”: Vanessa Kirby’s character wanders the streets of Manhattan in a runaway state, unmoored since she doesn’t know who she is for most Adam Leon metaphysical snoozers. It’s only 81 minutes long but feels like an eternity or two. Leon’s impressionistic ways worked best in 2012’s “Gimme the Loot” and “Tramps.” Here, the structure is so loose and rickety that the whole storyline crumbles in on itself. Kirby is a good actor, but “Studies” never gives her enough material to work with as she drifts, meeting new and old acquaintances. There’s just a lot of random walking and talking and no real action, which makes us disconnect from whatever is on screen. Details: 2 stars; available on multiple streaming platforms.
“I’m Syd Stone”: Actor Syd Stone (Travis Nelson) finds his once-promising career stuck in a flood of disposable roles in forgettable movies. When he receives a script that pushes him in new directions, it becomes a moment of truth. Concerned about his image, Stone hides the secret that he is gay, often from himself and his girlfriend. That changes when he meets a nice lawyer (Benjamin Charles Watson) in the hotel restaurant/bar. Originally shot as an episodic series, the six segments were neatly edited into one film by director Denis Thériault. Stone is a caring and touching coming-out story that is interpreted with tenderness by all involved and written and produced with awareness and compassion. Details: 3 stars; available on multiple streaming platforms.
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