The goodwill generated by one of the most manic fish out of water comedies in recent times is greatly diminished in this dead fish of a follow-up. There are few happy returns as Jason Woliner’s Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (D+) sends its intrepid foreign reporter played by Sacha Baron Cohen back to America on a redemption tour to counter the embarrassment his titular character inflicted on his homeland in the original film. The notoriously sexist and anti-Semitic but strangely likable hero is on a mission to broker a relationship with the United States presidential administration by offering his own daughter, played by Maria Bakalova, as a gift to VP Mike Pence. Aside from some pretty ambitious stunts propelling this mockumentary crew very close to high seats of power, the film is gloomily shot and meandering in theme and tone. Sequences that worked so well to make potent points in the first film are squandered this time around: a case in point is a charm school sequence used for a cheap gag instead of a funny or piercing insight. The film stumbles onto two interesting notions: Its filming during the pandemic takes it on an interesting if not fully exploited detour, and the casting of the lively and likable Bakalova as daughter and sidekick allows for a vaguely feminist arch for her suppressed character. Overall though, this glum follow-up in which its main character seems to be going through the motions, often in lame disguises, neither nails its topics nor nails its targets. It’s merely subsequent when it could have been vital as parody — or even just competent.
Spike Lee’s concert movie David Byrne’s American Utopia (A) is an often absurdist, sometimes poignant and always joyfully ebullient work featuring twelve troubadours on a Broadway stage making music seemingly ripped from the soul of the here and now. The idiosyncratic Talking Heads lead singer is part narrator and part conjuror in a cathartic protest film structured loosely on themes about the lingering possibilities of the United States experiment. Byrne gleefully marshals an international group of musical artists including two dancers with a peculiar Punch and Judy vibe in a fife and drumline spectacle replete with timely social justice and voting themes. The work is made all the more magical by the mere fact that it was chronicled weeks before New York City productions shut down for the global pandemic. Lee brilliantly captures what it was like to breathe the same air of musicians and fans in a shared live experience and focuses the eyes and ears on the simple pleasures of the performance’s sparse staging: it’s a kaleidoscope of transparent curtains, fancy footlights and swirling shadows to take viewers into the visceral vortex of putting on a show. Familiar singles such as “Once in a Lifetime” and “Road to Nowhere” are joined by compelling new tunes including a jewel of a song lent to the ensemble by the great Janelle Monae. The film’s daring dozen appears to be marching to its own beat and to a better day for the land of the free. For both strident fans of the lead artist and newcomers to his subversive optimism, Lee’s concert film showcases Byrne in fine form and an America strolling in sensational syncopation to a better day.
Writer/director Aaron Sorkin starts off and ends The Trial of the Chicago 7 (C) capably even as his unremarkable filmmaking style and pacing rarely meet the might of his prose about rabble-rousers caught up in history and a civics lesson with modern undertones. A saccharine Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, one of the founders of the Students for a Democratic Society, and a restrained but potent Sacha Baron Cohen as notorious Yippies leader Abbie Hoffman showcase contrasting styles of social protest in a real-life story set in the six months’ aftermath of riots protesting the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic Convention. Sorkin’s real conspiracy is with his camera as he seems to know very little to do with it aside from a colluding gaze at the star-studded faces of his courtroom pageant. It all feels like it’s leading up to a denouement that doesn’t quite land. Some of the writing has zest, and the acting, especially Frank Langella as the judge and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the lead federal prosecutor, delivers some relish to legal proceedings. Many of the intercutting flashbacks don’t add much to the matters at hand, and much of the ensemble film simply feels stagey. Noble in intentions but marred in talk and treacle, the movie never becomes as Very Important as its auteur intends.
This plucky, picturesque new family movie is both elementary and dear. Millie Bobby Brown is superb in the titular role of teen detective little sister of Sherlock in Harry Bradbeer’s Enola Holmes (B), and much of the Victorian Era young adult adaptation story rises to the level of its protagonist’s wit and intelligence. Bradbeer fills the screen with whimsy and fun visual cues, even as some of the plot of this opulent adventure gets occasionally sluggish. As Enola’s brother and mother, respectively, Henry Cavill and Helena Bonham Carter come off a bit dull, and villains are cartoonish; but Brown brims with charm and enthusiasm, stealing all scenes. Under the magnifying glass, the film delivers a satisfying yarn and provides a potent mystery in its own right, with tinges of feminism and clever wordplay buoying its every move. This is a good first installment of what will undoubtedly be a fun series of films,
It’s fitting this curiosity is screening in sparsely attended auditoriums during a pandemic, and yet its appealing cast and quirky dialogue manage to light up and fill up a room. A ragtag romance lined with lost and found objects, Natalie Krinsky’s The Broken Hearts Gallery (B-) is an optimistic and often ebullient experience with an offbeat and affable ensemble. Even when the film strikes some strange tonal shifts and as some of the jokes don’t completely land, the charismatic live wire quirky lead performance by Geraldine Viswanathan as a Manhattan art gallery assistant who also happens to be an emotional hoarder is a joy to behold. Her character’s pop-up space for the items love has left behind leads her to a Meet Cute with the charming Dacre Montgomery; and, along with her twentysomething friends, she endeavors to open herself to a relationship while encountering most of the usual romcom conventions. Krisnsky lovingly lenses NYC in this fetching fairy tale with an enthusiastic supporting cast including Broadway’s Bernadette Peters and Phillipa Soo in fun roles. Despite some admitted dad jokes and eye-rolling detours amidst the otherwise droll dialogue, the movie keeps picking itself up again. It’s ultimately a pleasant and likable endeavor, and the souvenir from viewing it should be a smile.
Someone is slowly going mad, and it starts to feel like an audience having its patience tried. Writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s snow-tinged four-hander psychological drama I’m Thinking of Ending Things (C) is one of those slow simmer stories in which most of what happens doesn’t make much sense until the final act, and not even completely then. Jessie Buckley plays the ponderous protagonist who visits with her increasingly unusual boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) to the home of his eccentric parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) where events unfold with confounding absurdity. Kaufman’s dense dialogue, insider pop culture and art references, time jumps, creepy camerawork and riffs on a bleak outlook are consistently watchable, but it keeps feeling like it’s going to add up to more or that it’s riddles will finally reveal themselves. All four primary actors are delightful even with obtuse and impenetrable characters. It’s a singular, sometimes hallucinogenic work from an idiosyncratic creator but ultimately doesn’t completely reward those who prattle through its labyrinth.
Two young Black women activists grow in grassroots glory in Ashley O’Shay’s timely and prescient documentary Unapologetic (A). Confronting injustice and unrest in Chicago’s Westside and exploring the rise of resistance from prominent provocateurs in the Black, queer, feminist community, the skilled director presents with urgency and sensitivity a you-are-there multi-year story about a duo of powerhouse change agents. This fascinating film focuses on youth organizer and Ph.D. candidate Janaé Bonsu and rap-tivist Bella BAHHS, two sterling Everywomen who summon powers of the strong female role models who paved the way for them to tackle on their own terms tough issues such as police violence and intergenerational incarceration. Intersecting with events ripped out of today’s headlines, this real-life chronicle is revelatory in both moments of creative protests as well as simple solidarity over intimate family cookouts and photo albums. The microcosms presented in the documentary demonstrate the cradle of a social justice movement which has truly come of age this year. Ultimately it’s a tribute to the Black women who have been the bedrock of their families and communities, and its debut at film festivals is a landmark moment to cherish and celebrate.
Niki Caro’s live-action remake of Mulan (B-) doesn’t really sing. Literally she doesn’t sing, but she sure does swing. The movie’s sometimes successful blend of swordsmanship, bow’s eye war sequences, wuxia-style fight choreography and awkwardly imprinted progressive values juxtaposed against Chinese tradition all serve to stack this new take on the Disney classic. The simple story of a young Chinese maiden played by Yifei Liu who disguises herself as a male warrior in order to save her father (Tzi Ma) is overbaked with a notion of Qi, the film’s version of The Force, plus added villains including a Frozen-style female antagonist to buttress the girl power quotient (yes, this director really likes symmetry). The Mouse House’s remakes of late have been artistically cynical and still commercially successful, and thankfully this film largely benefits from pretty solid production values. The resplendent colors and widescreen vistas help paint in a somewhat hollow story with sometimes stilted dialogue. The earthbound action sequences are commendable, but an oft-appearing airborne spirit looks more like a pride kite. Liu in the lead role is noble and imminently watchable, and she does honor to the role.
Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield (B) is the anti-Masterpiece Theater take on the autobiographical Charles Dickens classic, and it’s a delightful ode to harnessing one’s creative impulses. It’s not as breezy a bildungsroman as last year’s Little Women remix, but it has significant whimsical charms. The director, a noted acerbic satirist, tells the story with a sunny disposition and multi-ethnic casting and condenses the novel’s hundreds of pages into a tidy two hours. It’s nearly all there: the house made of an upturned boat, the kite fashioned of prose pages, the scene-stealing lapdog personified by its ventriloquist owner and much more in a brisk build. Dev Patel embodies the Victorian Everyman with relish, even though the story feels a bit like it is happening to him rather than him having much discernible dominion over his destiny. Hugh Laurie and Tilda Swinton stand out in the vividly painted ensemble of eccentrics festooned with fabulous costumes and stunning locales. Dickens was notoriously paid by the installment, so it’s fitting that Iannucci dramatizes his story in almost serialized form with title cards marking each episode. Despite its storied pedigree, this adaptation is a bonbon of coming of age reality bites.
A generation of future physicists will one day point to Christopher Nolan’s labyrinthine leviathan of a movie Tenet (A) as inspiration for scientific study. An international espionage thriller with the director’s signature flourish of temporal mystery, this movie is epic and and presents puzzles within riddles in a plot near impossible to diagram. Although some viewers may find the film’s story points and tone impenetrable and running time interminable, it’s a glorious dish of the director’s genius. Plus there’s nonstop action including at least three “I don’t know how they did that” stunt sequences involving planes, automobiles, recreational watercraft, a fire truck and a plutonium mountain. The acting ensemble is consistently engaging including a wonderful John David Washington as a low-key charmer in the titular protagonist role of a CIA agent and Kenneth Branagh in a career-best part as a diabolical arms dealer. Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Pattinson and Aaron Taylor-Johnson all add delightful performances after continued art house ascent into big league blockbuster territory. Ludwig Göransson also provides a gripping and persistent score and the effects and globetrotting set pieces are terrific. This spy spectacle indeed implores viewers to see it safely on a big screen.
One flew over the vulture’s nest of scavenged characters, themes and effects in the long shelved X-Men universe spinoff exhumed for theatrical release during uncertain times, Josh Boone’s The New Mutants (C-). In a clinical facility, a quintet of teens are observed by Alice Braga’s one-woman headmaster/clinician and must battle metaphorical and literal demons while coming of age and discovering disturbing superpowers. Some characters get some standout moments with Maisie Williams and Anya-Taylor Joy getting the best showpiece sequences. Protagonist Blu Hunt and the male characters barely register. What feels perfectly perfunctory and average for much of its running time actually gets quite silly for a while before introducing a beastly spiritual cousin to Gozer of Ghostbusters at its denouement. Tonally discordant and thematically jumbled, this film made in 2017 is a self-fulfilling prophecy of its own lack of urgency.
Nearly three decades after their last time trek, they’re on a mission to prove they’re dad bod-acious, but their bid for bogus bonafides exhumes a most triumphantly tepid detour. Dean Parisot’s Bill and Ted Face the Music (C) is best when it just gives in to absurdist metaphysical humor, and there are indeed a few brief flashes of the franchise’s blissfully harmless DNA scattered and smothered through a nonsensical screenplay. Most of the time, however, the story just goes through the motions with an overly sprawling ensemble of underdeveloped characters. A story lurks somewhere in this sequel about reconciling romances, discovering the music that pulses through generations and aligning a madcap world, but the plotting is listless and the episodic pacing maddening. The cheap effects that worked in the past two films now just seem like sloppy filmmaking. There’s a nice bit of sonic history with a rock ‘n’ roll supergroup involving the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Louis Armstrong, but mostly the movie assembles lots of disparate elements – from charmless wives and daughters to an ill-tempered emo robot – and doesn’t know what to do with any of them. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter are reasonably spry and great sports in multiple multiverse roles, but it all seems like it was more fun to make than to watch.