I've reviewed films for more than 20 years. Current movie reviews of new theatrical releases and direct-to-video or streaming films are added weekly to the Silver Screen Capture movie news site. Many capsule critiques originally appeared in expanded form in my syndicated Lights Camera Reaction column.
A filmmaker’s ability to manipulate viewers to root for despicable characters is the grift that keeps on giving. A scorching dark comedy about modern day capitalism wrapped in the trappings of a dark comedic bonbon, J. Blakeson’s I Care a Lot (B) coasts on the chain-vaping, stiletto-spiked, impeccably-bobbed charisma of Rosamund Pike who absolutely demands your attention in a sharklike lead role. Her swaggering character works the system, a veritable wolf of independent living as she gains guardianship over elderly victims and then scams them with abandon. She gets more than she bargained for when a character played by a feisty Dianne Wiest becomes her latest prey, and mean-spirited highjinks ensue. The antihero’s machinations are so clever that the events of the final acts have a hard time measuring up, even though much of the escalating action is indeed quite thrilling. The punchy verve of the storytelling and amusing encounters with icy adversaries such as Chris Messina and Peter Dinklage draw the audience in deeply to the intrigue. Eiza González is also gently effective as Pike’s love interest and partner in crime, in a duo not likely to win any GLAAD Awards (hey, villainesses deserve love too!) The film ultimately swallows a few too many poison pills; but in its essence, it’s a madcap ride tracking the escapades of this brilliantly played scheme queen.
There’s a compelling story seeking its sweet freedom in Kevin Macdonald’s circuitous Guantánamo Bay detention camp legal drama The Mauritanian (B-), but it takes a frustratingly obtuse approach to its subject. Jodie Foster’s defense attorney character enters the lair of Tahar Rahim’s imprisoned man in shadows as if fava beans and a nice cannibal-endorsed Chianti are on the menu, but the film subverts expectations as the incarcerated man in this case may or may not be guilty of 9/11 terrorist crimes. Rahim is the revelation here, charming and complex in his origin story and flashbacks that comprise the heart of the film, with sequences blocked like home movies compared to more procedural sequences. It’s a treat to see Foster do what she does best, serious and singleminded of purpose as she endeavors to protect the rule of law and the man she’s defending. Less successful are an underused Shaleine Woodley as her bland junior legal colleague and Benedict Cumberbatch as a boring military prosecutor with a Southern accent that seems to just be begging, “Why am I not being played by Dennis Quaid?” The film is dotted with interesting details for courtroom and cover-up fans, but little of it levels up to much of a breakthrough. Still, it’s a solid showcase for Rahim and a welcome return for Foster, which should silence the lambasters.
In the tradition of Naked Gun and Austin Powers, Josh Greenbaum’s Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (B) is a delightfully daffy comedy written by and starring Annie Mumolo and Kristin Wiig as the titular characters, two best friends who leave their small town for a beachside vacation and find themselves embroiled in an absurd and often very funny spy plot. The central duo’s comic rhythm is on remarkable display as these sunshiny Midwesterners become up to their culottes in madcap adventures. A spry Jamie Dornan plays a romantic interest, plus Wiig is double cast as a vampy villain. Physical comedy and one-liners abound, and there are lots of esoteric references to please fans of Wiig’s wit. Greenbaum films the movie in lush tropical fever dream colors and with a loose and playful spirit allowing characters to break out into musical production numbers or have conversations with animals. Mostly this is a frothy celebration of female friendship and pretty entertaining for most of its duration. This is a go for broke, go with the flow escapade and a welcome retreat from the message movies of awards season.
Kimchi meets kudzu in the ravishingly gorgeous family story of an immigrant South Korean family making its way in ‘80s Arkansas in Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari (A). Steven Yeun is noble, quiet and towering as the father torn between his family and his farm, and because duty often eclipses being daddy, he consistently disappoints his mate portrayed by Han Ye-Ri, a performance of grit, grace and melancholy. Veteran actress Youn Yuh-jung turns in one of the great cinematic supporting performances as a spry grandma, a highlight of her every scene as she cusses her way through card games, pilfers from the church offering plate and guzzles “mountain water” sodas between moments of selfless love; and Alan Kim may be one of the cutest kids to ever appear on screen as the family’s precocious youngster with a heart murmur and a penchant for proclaiming what’s really on his mind. The latter two provide the comic heart of the movie to punctuate some of the Steinbeckian drama afoot between the parents trying to make ends meet and their marriage work against a backdrop of occasional earth, wind and fire eruptions. Chung captures a semi-autobiographical story with a dreamlike gaze, exploring topics of fortitude and faith with the skills of a master. Who knew the hillbilly elegy promised moviegoers would tap into Asian origins? The film offers a slow burn tale told with deep respect and reverence for its characters, and it doesn’t miss a beat in its rural authenticity or its snapshots of bygone traditions. Its series of small moments swell into a satisfying final act, and the full effect grows on you like the movie’s titular watercress vines, pulling viewers in and adding moving details which are the spice of life.
There’s little arguing about a two-star review for this dramatic showcase of two stars arguing, except maybe that’s too generous. Sam Lewinson’s pretentious meta two-hander Malcolm and Marie (D+) traces a contentious evening between a filmmaker fresh off a feted premiere (a confident and prickly John David Washington) and his somewhat spurned girlfriend/muse (a feisty and sometimes furious Zendaya). The two actors are basically the charged objects of a conversation story largely set during one fraught night in a modern mansion. For its entire running time, this stylish black and white film circles the drain, a trite tempest in a teacup with enough disparate theses to fill a semester of dissertations. None of it lands: not the panel on jealousy, not the discourse about film appreciation, not the seminar on appropriating loved ones into art. It’s a veritable fantasia of unpleasantness, blocked and mannered into a pulverized oblivion, blunting the skills and charms of the talented actors into becoming nearly unwatchable. The fact that Washington and Zendaya have select moments of authentic, acrobatic acting on display simply underscores that most of the film is an obtuse downer not worth the journey.
It’s a metaphorically post-apocalyptic tale, although it doesn’t take place in the future and there’s no thunderdome. The fury on this road is that feeling of running away from and toward something simultaneously, of paying homage to a bygone era while saying hello to what comes next around the bend in an America that has discarded many of a certain age in its working class ranks. Chloé Zhao’s revelatory Nomadland (B+) is a poignant travelogue with a pensive and resourceful protagonist named Fern, played marvelously by Frances McDormand. Fern lives in a converted van and takes odd jobs to support her modest lifestyle, and the film is largely an episodic account of her encounters on the road. Other than a winning David Straitharn in a supporting role, most of the cast is comprised of unknowns on their own voyage in a camper van culture through states like Nevada and South Dakota and scenes both bleak and picturesque. The film is elegiac and lyrical, a very interior movie of feelings and impulses, in which the sun itself in various states of repose in the sky flashes brilliance on the details of small moments. More than a feminist take on Into theWild –a van-gina monologues, if you will – Zhao’s presentation speaks to very specific travails ranging from grieving a loved one to maintaining dignity in menial work. It’s a lovely and melancholy motion picture and rests squarely on McDormand’s superlative performance and her brilliant instincts as she confronts situations in humanity and nature. For those who enjoy thought provoking character journeys, Zhao’s assured work here will carry you away into a tribe and terrain rarely charted.
Folks, move along; there’s nothing to see here! John Lee Hancock’s extremely average homicide thriller The Little Things (C-) pairs Denzel Washington and Rami Malek as investigators of a string of murders, and a beguiling Jared Leto is getting some inexplicable awards buzz for playing a strange guy who may be connected to the killings. Far from his top-shelf performances, Washington does get to milk some anguish and obsession in some moody moments as he chews up the scenery of the urban atmosphere. Malek is both miscast and underwritten as it’s rather unclear what he brings to the table in the search for the serial killer. Leto limps and uses a strange look and affectation to create a memorable supporting performance, but he’s not really much of a character either. The film overall cribs from much better neo-noirs, and if it gets any comparisons to Se7en, it should subtract a few numerals. After a poorly paced procedural, the payoff isn’t really all that interesting either. These three acclaimed actors deserved a much bigger and better thing.
An alternately frenetic and mellow dharma about the haves and have nots of India, Ramin Bahrani’s The White Tiger (B+) follows a mesmerizing Adarsh Gourav as a clever servant driver in his endeavor to out-caste his lowly station. In his breakthrough lead role, Gourav charismatically carries viewers into a journey through religion, rags to riches and even revenge. Early on in this panoramic genre hopper, the film postulates that the only way out of poverty is via crime or politics; and the subsequent juxtaposition of slum dogs in ascent and lap dogs in downward spiral is a whirling wonder to behold. Rajkummer Rao and Priyanka Chopra Jonas are effective foils as the upper class couple considered the masters over the protagonist’s fate. One fateful bon-pyre of the vanities sparks a veritable Vaidikas of incredible surprises. Bahrani impressively nails the execution in this downright Dickensian literary adaptation filled with both destitute denizens and opulent oppressors. The emotional camerawork and pulsating hip hop score effectively follow the complex story archs through a triumph of tonal shifts. A breakout lead, deeply flawed characters, biting comedy, sharp social commentary and gripping moments of intimacy and action help propel this film into a dark date with destiny.
Solemn, thoughtful and prescient in its modern parallels, Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah (B) is a vital history lesson set in 1960s Chicago headlined by Daniel Kaluuya as Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield as car thief turned FBI informant William O’Neal, locked in an all-out battle of wills as political machinery moves to tamp down a social justice revolution. Both Kaluuya and Stanfield give mighty performances, particularly Stanfield who brings poignancy to an unsympathetic character, although the writing keeps both actors strangely at arm’s length from being as vivid or memorable as anticipated. Dominique Fishback brings a welcome emotional arch to the proceedings with her graceful demeanor; and Jesse Plemons and Martin Sheen provide grotesque faces of corruption. King lenses the film gorgeously with strong period detail but doesn’t quite capture the verve to make the movie a standout. After a lull, the final act features some punch for sure. It’s a tragic American saga with profound lessons to impart and is just short of rising to epic stature.
Director Kevin Derek’s melancholy documentary More ThanMiyagi: The Pat Morita Story (B-) traces the titular Japanese-American actor’s journey from origins as a sick child witnessing internment camps to a man who masked his troubled soul with comedy, alcohol and of course an iconic role as cinema’s iconic sensei. Through home movies and sentimental stories told by actor and crew colleagues plus the love of his life and his third wife Evelyn Guerrero-Morita, viewers get a glimpse into a singular and trailblazing pop cultural personality known for his (Garry) Marshall comedies as well as his martial arts. Ralph Macchio, William Zabka, Martin Kove, Henry Winkler and Marion Ross are among those celebrating their friend, even as the film plumbs the depths of the late Oscar nominee’s addictions which weren’t necessarily known by his fans. The film hovers around a variety of themes ranging from overcoming racial stereotypes to finding one’s voice, even if Derek doesn’t always land a clear thesis or consistently effective style. But when waxing (on) poetic about this icon, the filmmakers find greatness in a flawed but formidable man.
Note: Available Feb. 5, 2021 on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, DVD and Blu-ray.
There’s memory and money in laundering as one Korean-American family comes to grips with transitions of their business and domestic life in Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee’s delightful drama Happy Cleaners (B). Yun Jeong and Yeena Sung effectively portray twentysomething siblings Kevin and Hyunny who grapple with entrepreneurial and romantic dreams while under the same roof as their parents (authentically played by Charles Ryu and Hyang-hwa Lim) who try to make ends meet at their Flushing, New York dry cleaners. Family meals provide both forum and balm for much of the conflict around finances and tradition. For these immigrants, there’s no order slip or recipe for creating and maintaining an ordered home of aligned expectations. Characters must learn to reconcile and compromise and occasionally jettison outdated notions. In the film’s details, Kim and Lee demonstrate the pride of characters to make their own way in the world without financial assistance and showcase many of the singular struggles of second generation Americans to find their space. Although full of a low boil of conflict, the film’s tone is largely optimistic and sentimental and the characters endearing. Viewers will likely see themselves in this family’s dynamics.
Known more as a boy band grad who transitioned to soulful superstardom in his own right, Justin Timberlake says bye bye bye to just being a celebrity in occasional cameos and thrusts his thespian chops to a fierce forefront. Palmer (B-) by director Fisher Stevens is decent in every sense of the word, an earnest yet predictable movie about redemption and resiliency featuring JT as an ex-con with a heart of gold and child actor Ryder Allen as the gender-nonconforming boy next door who benefits from a non-judgmental father figure. The genuine goodness of the stoic single man’s burgeoning paternal qualities with the princess-loving preteen is the heart of the story and often quite affecting. Timberlake is in nearly every scene of the movie and endearing in his performance, and yet it’s still hard to connect to his past crimes and circumstances. We don’t really get much of a glimpse into his worst instincts. Allen is a revelation as his fanciful foil. But despite some seeming detours to the dark side, most of the movie sticks to formula. Alisha Wainwright is a standout with a committed performance as a teacher and love interest; but like participants in many of the plot threads, her character remains a bit underdeveloped. Still it’s a largely sunny discovery of a film and, if in case the notion were ever lost, it’s bringin’ sexy sentimentality back.