A punk rock duo drummer and former addict must reckon with loss of hearing and learns profound lessons about life’s crafty way of altering the rhythm in Darius Marder’s powerful drama The Sound of Metal (B+). The film is a marvelous showcase for the prodigious talent of Riz Ahmed in the lead role, and he is riveting in his painful and touching journey. The ensemble is roundly terrific, from Olivia Cooke as the other half of the protagonist’s band as well as his gypsy love interest, plus Lauren Ridloff and Paul Raci as supportive hard knocks teachers in the deaf community and Mathieu Amalric who makes a superb final act impression. Marder handles the story sensitively without ever devolving into movie of the week level melodrama. The film’s stunning sound design and lived-in performances provide the story with fresh resonance, and not every plot point goes exactly as planned. Expect to be moved by the percussive force of this earnest and engrossing human story and to witness Ahmed at the top of his craft.
George C. Wolfe’s film adaptation of playwright August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (B) takes viewers into the tinderbox of a fraught musical recording session in 1920’s Chicago in which a nearly all-Black cast showcases the drive for seizing power and making a mark when the odds aren’t stacked in one’s favor. It’s a largely talky film with a few brassy moments of blues music, but the main attraction here is a two-part powerhouse performance by Viola Davis as a demanding show woman and the late Chadwick Boseman as a cocksure trumpeter who clashes with most of the gathering band. In the film’s relatively brief running time, Wolfe chronicles some of the bandmates’ philosophies and back stories including some traumatic tales. The film comes alive gorgeously in its lead actors’ monologues. Davis fully inhabits her diva with fierce finesse; and although they don’t share as many scenes as expected, Boseman commands the screen like he never has before. The film is a riff on race in a minor key but fascinating and filled with majestic prose. Wolfe’s handsome and absorbing production is a solid glimpse into Wilson’s way of subverting expectations.
A curio for film buffs likely to prompt profound admiration more than deep connection, David Fincher’s Mank (B) chronicles several critical years of iconoclast writer Herman Mankiewicz in Hollywood’s Golden Age as he confronts political corruption in the studio system and tenders the script to the legendary Citizen Kane. For Fincher, it’s less what the film is about than how it is about it as he films the movie in vintage black and white with monoaural sound and rhythmic language to a rat-a-tat score. No doubt the visual landscape is sumptuous. Gary Oldman is superb in the lead, even though his character’s motivations are at arm’s length and lensed through a saucy gauze. Amanda Seyfried is a hoot as Marion Davies, the chorus girl turned actress and mistress of William Randolph Hearst; honestly the film lights up when she’s on screen. The movie is darkly cynical but not without its charms. The main character has a way of growing on you, even within a patchwork and sometimes dreamlike pastiche structure. It’s a fascinating experiment for movie history aficionados which, like its protagonist, may press the patience of most everyone else.
Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis crafts a remarkable psychological suspense thriller in Swallow (B) about a working class woman (Haley Bennett) who marries the heir to a major company (Austin Stowell) and experiences extreme isolation keeping up their home. The protagonist develops a disorder in which she consumes inanimate objects as a way to gain control over unresolved emotions. Although the terror is largely an internal trauma, Bennett does an incredible job drawing empathy in the role. The film, shot in brilliant hues with engaging set pieces, is fascinating and works on a variety of layers including as feminist parable. It’s an unusual sleeper film that’s sure to spark conversations.
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.