Zola (18) ****
Stillwater (15) ***
Vivo (U) ***
Out of Death (N/A) *
At a time when movies are routinely based on theme park rides and toy lines, perhaps it’s not surprising that a Twitter thread should be adapted for the big screen. Based on a 148-Tweet thread that went viral in October 2015, Zola is that movie and rises to the challenge of its source material in fascinating ways. Named for the Twitter handle of its protagonist, it’s the story of an outlandish episode in the life of A’Ziah “Zola” King (Taylour Paige), a stripper whose travails begin when she’s befriended by a fellow exotic dancer called Stefani (Riley Keough) and lured to Florida for a job organised by a man Stefani claims is her roommate.
As Zola informs us in one of her many fourth-wall-breaking interjections, it’ll be 48 hours before she’ll learn this man’s name – he’s referred to as “X” in the credits – but, as played by the mercurial Colman Domingo, we understand right away that he’s dangerous. For different reasons the same might be said of Stefani’s along-for-the-ride boyfriend Derrek, a hapless schmuck who knows he looks stupid and doesn’t do much to disprove this assessment beyond revealing some deep-rooted emotional problems (he’s played by Nicholas Braun, better known as “Cousin Greg” in Succession). A passing reference to Michael Mann’s 2006 movie Miami Vice offers another ominous hint that the gig in Florida is really a front for turning tricks and, sure enough, what follows is a kind of a candy coloured horror movie in which the seediness of what’s transpiring is offset by Zola’s emergence as the heroine in her own crazy story.
As such, Zola isn’t as salacious or exploitative as it could have been given the players, the situation and its social media origins. For one thing, director and co-writer Janicza Bravo – making her feature debut – doesn’t try to make it as conceptually pure as its source material. Based in part on a Rolling Stone article about the original posting, it’s actually more conventionally structured than one might expect from a story originating on a platform that thrives on cut-to-the-chase immediacy and hyperbolic, unpredictable, grammatically creative language. Zola coolly replicates this instead with first person narration, direct-to-camera asides and ironic onscreen text, all of which help put us at an artful remove from the world being depicted. But she also replicates Twitter’s weird juxtapositions with camera work and narrative jumps that provide pointed commentary on the exploitation and violence coursing through the situation. Bolstered by funny and ferocious performances from Paige and Keough, Zola does the unexpected: temporarily redeems Twitter.
Stillwater finds Matt Damon on downbeat form as an Oklahoma roughneck trying to prove his daughter’s innocence five years on from being convicted of murdering her girlfriend while studying in Marseilles. Directed by Tom McCarthy, who made the Oscar-winning Spotlight, what follows is an odd mix of social realism and melodrama that might have worked better as a mainstream thriller in the Prisoners/The Secret in the Eyes mould had McCarthy not blatantly announced that he used a miscarriage of justice from a well publicised (and easily Googled) murder case as a jumping off point for a fictional film with its own very different twists and turns. The early docudrama vibe of the resulting film certainly makes it less easy to swallow some of the coincidences and unremarked-upon plot developments that arise when its genre elements eventually kick into gear. Nevertheless, there remains something interesting about Damon’s character, Bill. Everything about him screams Trump supporter, yet watching his reactionary ways gradually challenged as he’s cast adrift in Marseilles and forced to rely on kindness of a local actress (Camille Cottin, from TV’s Call My Agent) makes an intriguing point about the dangers of America isolationism.
If Frozen reminded everyone that animated musicals could still be huge box office, it didn’t exactly kickstart a revival in the form. That may be why the chief selling point of Netflix’s Vivo is Hamilton wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda, who stars here as the eponymous hero, a kinkajou (rainforest mammal) who sing-raps in the now familiar style of Hamilton and In the Heights. Taking some cues too from Pixar’s ability to infuse mismatched buddy movie shenanigans with real pathos, Vivo’s quest is catalysed by a tragedy that requires him to travel to Miami with an oddball kid to honour an elderly musician friend who never got a chance to tell the love of his life (a superstar voiced by Gloria Estefan) how he really felt. Standard seize-the-moment stuff, in other words, but there are a few inspired visual flourishes and the songs are lively enough to keep musical-theatre loving kids entertained.
Despite his prominence in the credits, Bruce Willis barely stars in Out of Death, a sluggish thriller that casts him as a widowed police officer who comes to the aid of a hiker (Jaime King) who’s about to be executed by some corrupt cops. Focussing mainly on said hiker’s ordeal, director Mike Burns tries to disguise how little access he has to Willis by either having a body double skulk around in the background of scenes or by frequently shooting his character from the neck down. But even when he’s got Willis for a close-up, the Die Hard star just seems bored, tired or both. The feeling’s contagious.
Zola and Stillwater are on general release from 6 August, Vivo is on Netflix from 6 August, Out of Death is available now on digital demand
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