Two Sundance Film Festival favorites debut this week along with Apple TV+’s “Tetris.” So does a Netflix spy series and a surreal art-house flick.
Are they worth watching?
“A Thousand and One”: New York in the ’90s, with its broken-down foster care system and gentrification run amok, plays a critical role in A.V. Rockwell’s award-winning feature debut, a gritty, shattering portrait of a tight bond born out of a desperate act. A fiery ex-con Inez (Teyana Taylor, a force throughout) occupies her time shadowing and then approaching her 6-year-old son Terry, whom she was forced to surrender to the foster care system. That’s a no-no, but it’s easy to figure out that the volatile Inez has never had a break in life, and not a lot of positive feedback, either. True to what many expect of her, she impetuously nabs Terry and then later comes up with a plan to create a new identity for him and a home for them both. They hide out from the law with friends until she makes enough money for a low-rent Harlem apartment. Over the years, her fear of getting found out fades, but never goes away.
Rockwell, who both writes and directs, flings us into the lives of these beaten-down but resilient characters. She doe so by adopting a structure similar to the one found in the Oscar-winning “Moonlight” — dropping us into different phases of Terry’s life. As he grows up, the city that surrounds him changes, struggles and evolves as a political movement aimed to cleaning up neighborhood blight ushers in new white landlords and bustling businesses. All of it leaves little room for those trying to get a step up from poverty.
Rockwell’s “A Thousand and One” sounds like it will break your heart, and often it does. But it isn’t despairing nor does it lack hope, even when it takes a disorienting but well-played turn.
The look of the film and its performances — from Taylor, the three actors playing Terry (Josiah Cross, Aaron Kingsley Adetola and Aven Courtney) and Will Catlett as Inez’s lover Lucky — only enhance the story. “A Thousand and One” says a lot without shouting about what it’s like being caught up in this flawed American system. Details: 3½ stars out of 4; in theaters March 31.
“Rye Lane”: If you’re a filmmaker wanting to punch up a rom-com, give director Raine Allen-Miller and screenwriters Nathan Bryon and Tom Melia a holler. This team drafts up the blueprints for how to renovate cinematic romance. Their sweet, sexy, hilarious and altogether satisfying indie makes the heart swell.
It begins with a meet-not-so-cute setup as the extra-sassy Yas (Vivian Oparah) and the down-in-the-dumps Dom (David Jonsson) mingle at a friend’s over-the-top art installation in South London. Yas overhears Dom wailing too loudly in a toilet stall over his cruel breakup, a setup so this duo can strike up a conversation that will lead to future meetups, strolls through the neighborhood and … oh, you know where this is going. And that’s just fine.
Most of “Rye Lane” consists of these two lovable neurotics weighing in about stalled and possible dreams, blunders and, of course, terrible exes. The conversation can’t help but embellish on the truth
“Rye Lane’s” characters, setting and ebullient energy is a breath of fresh air, and while the back-and-forth between these two reveals much about today’s relationships, none of it gets overstated, being more intent on keeping it breezy and brief. In its short running time, it even manages to tip its hat to “Notting Hill,” and give us a cute Colin Firth cameo. I fell head over heels in love with “Rye Lane” and its leads, and suspect you’ll be swooning as well. Details: 3½ stars; drops March 31 on Hulu.
“Tetris”: Director Jon S. Baird’s (mostly true) adventures of videogame entrepreneur Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton), who came up with a bold scheme to land legit (and lucrative) contract rights to Russian inventor Alexey Pajitnov’s (Nikita Yefremov) addictive “Tetris” game is as enjoyable as Ben Affleck’s “Argo.” Affleck’s film is better-crafted, maybe, but Baird, Egerton and screenwriter Noah Pink do get their game on by juicing up the story and embracing the 1989 look. The soundtrack is killer too.
“Tetris” follows Rogers as he realizes there’s a pot of gold hidden under “Tetris” with the Game Boy console looming on the horizon. Many Soviet power brokers and spies are circumspect of Western motives and some have plans of their own. Meantime, an extra-shady media mogul Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) and his uppity, kind of clueless, son (Anthony Boyle) join in along with game contract closer Robert Stein (Toby Stephens), out to claim the rights.
All converge in the USSR just as Gorbachev is poised to call it quits. “Tetris” is rather irresistible from beginning to hopped-up end. It’s almost as fun to watch as it is to play the game. Almost. Details: 3 stars; in select theaters and on Apple TV+ March 31.
“Enys Men”: Mark Jenkin’s esoteric head scratcher gifts the arthouse crowd with a what-the-heck-did-that-all-mean workout, a heavily metaphorical cinematic brain twister that demands re-watches so you can extract more cohesion and meaning from it. For that reason, it will be hated and loved.
On face value, the follow-up to Jenkin’s raved-about 2019 “Bait” tells a clear-cut survival story about an isolated wildlife volunteer (Mary Woodvine) losing her marbles on a remote Cornish island where she engages in the same daily rituals, even reading from “A Blueprint for Survival” (that’s a clue!).
Devoid of much dialogue and absent of defined characters, “Enys Men” plays out like a cross between “The Wicker Man” and the Robert-Redford-on-a-sinking-boat-movie “All Is Lost.” An abundance of unsettling events happen on this island in 1973: ominous lichen, I-see-dead-seamen flashes, a grand stone that’s mobile, and a strange young woman wandering about.
The surrealness drew me in and Jenkin’s effort is specific and deliberate in its tone, mood and visual style. But it’s elusive to any genre convention.
“Enys Men,” which means Stone Island in Cornish, is ripe and ready for dissection afterwards. Surrender to it, and you’re in for a unique puzzle that touches on madness, feminism, isolationism, the natural world and probably so much more than I caught in the first viewing. Details: 3½ stars; in theaters March 31.
“The Night Agent”: As solid and worthwhile as it is, there’s an even better Netflix series buried within this 10-episode adaptation of Matthew Quirk’s 2019 espionage novel. Six episodes really would have made it better.
Still, all the elements coalesce into a solid conspiracy movie/series throwback involving two lethal killers, a bombing in a subway, a mole within the White House and a newbie FBI agent who’s in over his head. As fall guy agent Peter Sutherland, Gabriel Basso makes an effective, thoroughly likable guy caught in a multi-pronged scheme that also ensnarls a failed startup CEO (Luciane Buchanan), a chief of staff for the prez (Hong Chau), the vice president’s rebellious college-age daughter (Sarah Desjardins) and two Secret Service agents (Fola Evans-Akingbola and D.B. Woodside).
Bring in two bloodlusting assassins (Eve Harlow and Phoenix Raei) and you have a textbook potboiler throwback. But it didn’t need to be 10 episodes. A tighter framework would have turned up the heat and made it less of a slow burner. But Chau and Basso make it worthwhile. Details: 2½ stars, now on Netflix.
Contact Randy Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org.