Ron Howard’s literary adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy (C) is death by a thousand paper cuts, a rebel yell of a tale when it should be a reflective requiem. Gabriel Basso is likable as the man from Appalachia, now a Yale law student, pulled back into the melodrama of his roots, dominated by a hard knocks grandma (Glenn Close) and drug addicted mom (Amy Adams). The film never finds its focus, teetering between flashbacks and montages of flashbacks in a package that generally feels a bit condescending to its Rust Belt subjects. Much of the movie is shrill and involves lots of arguments, a veritable poor man’s Prince of Tides without the gorgeous coast and French manicures. There are moments of grandeur, largely in Close’s performance, a bit of a white Madea in pancaked prosthetics whose skilled acting chops still come raging through. Adams isn’t well served by the material despite her commitment to a hot mess of a role. The criminally underused Freida Pinto is a delight in a bit part as the protagonist’s girlfriend. Howard largely misses the mark in attempts at humanizing his subjects or drawing viewers in to a particular narrative path. Twice removed from the memoir origins, Howard’s Hollywood-splaining of rural life rarely finds its footing.
Kitty Green’s The Assistant (B+) is a powerful drama about a day in the life of a woman who is on the bottom rung of the corporate ladder working for a largely unseen abusive movie mogul. Green’s muted color palette and simple set pieces help focus all eyes on the master class performance of Julia Garner as the titular worker bee trying to do her job well in a work environment replete with predatory, harassing and enabling supporting characters. Garner is astonishing in the role in a film that captures the zeitgeist of the #metoo movement better than Bombshell did and in a disturbing category occupied by In the Company of Men and Glengarry Glen Ross. There’s not much plot to speak of, and there are many unsolved mysteries, but Green does a wonderful job tapping into the asphyxiation of toxic work culture.
The ambitious Aneesh Cheganty, who directed the elegant and engaging cyber-mystery Searching, loses steam in the sprint of his sophomore effort, Run (C+), a decent PG-13 starter horror movie for tweens but hardly new territory for anyone else who has seen a feature film before. The timing is pretty prescient for a lockdown thriller, but the result here is muted and mixed. Run is greatly enhanced by the presence of glorious newcomer Kiera Allen, an intuitive and expressive actress whose home schooled character is confined to a wheelchair while living with a controlling mom played with campy ferocity by Sarah Paulson. Much of the mystery revolves around this relatable heroine finding out facts while her mother is away for very brief spells, which is a taut and terrifying device until it is not. A fairly mesmerizing first act devolves pretty rapidly thanks to some far-fetched plot devices and surprises you can anticipate without a doubt at each corner. Allen’s character is so ingenious most of the time that it’s a wonder she gets thwarted Coyote and Road Runner style as many times as she does when the screenplay needs to level the playing field. See Ma, Misery or the original Carrie for a far more absorbing take on this type of “crazy lady in the cabin in the woods” material. It’s never a good sign when you say to yourself, “Well, I guess this could be seen in a way as a guilty pleasure.” Cheganty is a talented director undone in this case by a script that doesn’t measure up. He earns his steps for most of the effort but stumbles when it matters most.
Scientific sources indicate director Francis Lee made a movie called Ammonite (C-) with Kate Winslet as a paleontologist who falls in love with an ailing tourist played by Saoirse Ronan on the Southern English coast in the 19th century, but fossil evidence shows little to no chemistry occurred nor did the proceedings leave much of an imprint. The film starts with the classic Meet Cute of Kate’s character urinating on a beach followed by offering her love interest a hunk of baguette, and it honestly doesn’t get much more intriguing than that as the plot progresses. Lee’s Jurassic lark squanders the prodigious talents of his central actresses and surrounds them with a lackluster ensemble including a stoic mom who’s a dead ringer for Senator Mitch McConnell. Winslet’s character is, for the most part, impenetrable; and Ronan doesn’t have much to do at all except shiver and dote. I suppose there’s a theme about examining the cellular level of forbidden romance, but most of the film’s duration is a languid parade of Cretaceous incredulity. It’s filmed in drab tones and doesn’t yield much intrigue or joy. It just may be the most boring dinosaur adjacent movie of recent years. For a much better “repressed women in period costumes falling in love beachside film,” see last year’s brilliant Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Hot on the trail of a potentially cheating spouse, a woman turns to the philandering father whose extramarital affair broke up her own family, Clarice Starling/Hannibal Lecter style, in an absolute confection of a new melancholy comedy. Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks (A-) hits all the right notes with a crackling central daughter-father dynamic between Rashida Jones and Bill Murray within a film that poses the question: who is that stranger who is also called your parent or spouse? Coppola lenses a glamorous Manhattan out of fairy tale dreams, a little too perfect at times actually, as the backdrop for a vodka stinger of a comic caper with just enough witty detours to fully reveal its characters. Jones is dynamite as the plaintive female protagonist, a lobster mildly boiling in the water of writer’s block and an uncertain marriage (her mysterious husband is nicely played by Marlon Wayans). Murray has rarely been better as a flirtatious iconoclast who may just have the capability to mildly reconcile with the daughter whose family he shattered due to his own infidelity. His propensity to sing and whistle his way through life and to lay himself bare through his hot takes regarding the ways of men and women is the engaging stuff of a classic character. Coppola lends a joyous, non-judgmental eye to her broken subjects and threads her marvelous themes about the nature of humanity with absolute pleasure and droll dialogue. The result is a charming observational piece demonstrating a director at the top of her game. It’s a delight.
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.