Barbuto column: Skip or stream? ‘Proximity,’ ‘Clementine,’ ‘Robert the Bruce,’ ‘Never Have I Ever’
I dearly miss sitting in a dark movie theater surrounded by an audience. With the pandemic pushing pause on that, we’re fortunate to have such robust at-home screening options. Here are four new(ish) offerings available on digital platforms. Skip or stream? Read on and find out.
“Proximity”: The best way to approach the debut feature from writer-director Eric Demeusy’s “Proximity” is as an exercise in nostalgia allowing you to count how many old-school science fiction thrillers it rips off ... err … pays homage. The most obvious inspirations are “E.T.,” “Star Wars” and “Men in Black.” Demeusy strives to be like those movies, right down to the horn-heavy John Williams-esque score and secret government agency stocked with well-dressed men in suits. No surprise, “Proximity” isn’t even in the same galaxy as those classics. But hey, you gotta start somewhere. Demeusy kicks the tires on heady topics like science, religion, existence … but doesn’t do much with them. The story centers on Isaac (Ryan Masson), a NASA scientist abducted by aliens. He returns three days later with psychic superpowers, though no one believes him. To prove he’s legit, Isaac uploads a video he shot of his captors. It goes viral, naturally, and sends Isaac on a quest to prove it’s not a hoax. In addition to Masson’s Isaac, the only three people who matter here are Zed (Christian Prentice), an off-the-grid computer hacker; fellow abductee, Sara (Highdee Kuan); and Carl (Don Scribner), whose 1979 abduction kicks the film into drive. What ensues is an ambitious and imaginative alien feature that moves from Pasadena to Costa Rica to British Columbia, but is overly long and saddled with inexperienced actors stuck with pedestrian dialogue and too much exposition. Veteran character actor Scribner (the cult classic “Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity”) is a bright spot. Ditto for the look of the film. Demeusy puts his award-winning VFX (“Stranger Things,” “Tron: Legacy”) skills to good use despite a tiny budget. The production values are more glossy than gritty but the special effects are surprisingly good. (Not rated; Available to rent on digital platforms.) Grade: C+
“Clementine”: Speaking of film debuts, writer-director Lara Gallagher spins a psychological yarn about a woman reeling from a one-sided break up. And her ex, a woman we know only as “D,” has the nerve to keep their dog, too. An anguished Karen (Otmara Marrero) flees Los Angeles for her former partner’s idyllic lake house in the Pacific Northwest. There, an alluring younger woman (Sydney Sweeney) inserts herself into Karen’s life. What transpires is a moody rumination on love and power dynamics. It’s a slow burn, not much is said and not much happens. The isolated setting, the ringing landline amid the solitude, a gun in a drawer, and the arrival of a handyman (Will Brittain), all add a sense of danger. The fact that you know something could happen at any moment keeps you interested, though that investment is never rewarded. (Not rated, Available at clementine.oscilloscope.net) Grade: B-
“Robert the Bruce”: A biopic about the 14th century Scottish king who heroically won independence for his native land arrives on the 25th anniversary of “Braveheart,” the Mel Gibson Oscar-winner. Angus Macfadyen reprises his “Braveheart” role as Robert. Director Richard Gray works from a script co-written by Eric Belgau and Macfadyen that picks up after the death of William Wallace. The Scottish clans are warring amongst themselves and there’s a bounty on Robert’s head. When Robert is wounded, he’s taken in by a widow (a terrific Anna Hutchison) and her three children. Through them, the script explores the man behind the sword, not the warrior of legend. That’s a compelling angle with some intriguing commentary on the cost of war on families. Except, there is not enough of Robert in a film that bears his name. He barely utters a word in the first act. The script is too cluttered with the business of its minor characters (Patrick Fugit, Zach McGowan), all of whom are one-note and rote. Plus, the ploddingly pace and the snowy setting makes it all seem so cold and distant. It picks up in the final stanzas when … we’ll you’ll just have to see for yourself. (Not rated; Available to rent on digital platforms.) Grade: B-
“Never Have I Ever”: Here’s your next binge. Maitreyi Ramakrishnan delivers a breakout performance as the brainy and spirited Devi, an Indian American teenager tasked with becoming popular, balancing friends, handling an academic rival (Jaren Lewison) and surviving drama at home. Over the course of 10, 30-minute episodes, Devi will clash with her mother (Poorna Jagannathan), get drunk, get grounded and fall head over heels for a cute jock (Darren Barnet). The comedy, inspired by co-creator Mindy Kaling’s Boston upbringing, yields to some coming-of-age tropes, but the charm of its top-notch cast and relatable themes elevate the material. Tennis star John McEnroe narrates, which is a bit of stunt casting that works nicely. Some of the best scenes are the back-and-forth between Devi and her therapist, a never-better Niecy Nash. They talk frankly about boys, parties and the loss of the teen’s father, which Devi can’t confront. Richa Moorjani is a hoot as Devi’s gorgeous cousin, Kamala, a CalTech scholar facing an arranged marriage. Whether you loved or hated high school, “Never Have I Ever” will make you laugh and cry. Even though the series ends on a not-so-surprising cliffhanger, I still can’t wait to see what Devi does next. (Streaming on Netflix.) Grade: B+
Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.