I've reviewed films for more than 30 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.
Although it’s a handsomely produced adult crime drama in grand Hollywood style, some abrupt tonal shifts and inconsistent characters hinder Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci (B) from emerging as the soapy sensation it clearly craves to be. The first hour of the fashion family saga is strongest, centered on a spunky Lady Gaga’s delicious ingenue in a whirlwind romance opposite Adam Driver as the Italian luxury label’s heir apparent, more at home in love than in leadership. Scott’s film soon cocoons into a different movie focused more intently on the political machinations of the Gucci family business, including mounting tension at work and at home and dramatic stakes of varying proportions, some emotions earned and others not so much. We get a phoned-in performance by Jeremy Irons and a roaring one from Al Pacino as family patriarchs, plus there’s an absolutely unhinged portrayal of the family’s crazed cousin by a virtually unrecognizable Jared Leto. Sometimes it’s hard to decipher if any of these actors feel like they are working in remotely the same universe, and yet mostly the story remains grounded in either Gaga or Driver’s point of view. The empire building is fascinating to behold and most entertaining when either Gaga is on screen or when Driver’s cipher of a character discovers his agency. Dotting the drama are curious choices involving timeframes, accents, death scenes and other female performances for which the least said, the better. Still, it’s often a crackling affair with much to recommend. Gaga’s performance alone as catalyst of this catwalk will be the element most remembered from this ambitious and sometimes operatic enterprise.
Imagine being quite average in a pantheon of magical creations; yes, I’m referring to both the central character of Disney’s latest animated film as well as the movie itself. A Colombian girl faces the frustration of being the only member of her family without superpowers in Encanto (C) co-directed by Jared Bush, Byron Howard and Charise Castro Smith. Stephanie Beatriz is the tentative voice of protagonist Mirabel; and to her defense, she does ultimately get sturdier showcase after a spotty first act (even her “I want” number at the film’s opening is virtually indecipherable and atonal). The breakneck animation quality and the drudgery of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s very subpar catalogue of B-sides don’t help matters as the plucky misfit pieces together a mystery causing a fission in her family’s fantastical abode. As the frosty Ambuela Alma, María Cecilia Botero also gets a thankless role basically blaming the heroine for any problems afoot; it’s quite tedious for a good while and punctuated with more awkward Latin folk hip hop. Neither John Leguizamo nor any member of the sprawling cast really stands out or fares much better in the overly complex story. Then there are finally some decent emotional moments as the film reaches its crescendo, not really enough to recommend a watch. This middling film of pixel dust and pratfalls borrows elements from much better films and is far from top-shelf Disney.
Is mansplaining on the marquee, or is this the ultimate tribute to a flawed father? Either way, there’s a lot to love here in a tale of an unexpected visionary. Will Smith holds court as father and tennis queen-maker Richard Williams in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard (B). Smith’s is a sterling performance in an often very good film focused much more on the man whose unconventional methods of parenting and coaching ushered in a new era of power and athleticism on the women’s professional tennis circuit than on the sisters Venus and Serena who actually played the game. The film chronicles the family straight out of Compton through Florida intensives and a variety of dramatic confrontations prior to the young women becoming global champions. Smith exhibits a full gambit of emotions as a sometimes frustrating and complicated character who prioritizes strength of character and values over the quick win, and his acting opposite powerhouse Aunjanue Ellis as his wife Oracene and with talented newcomer Saniyya Sidney as Venus provides ample dramatic fodder for all involved. Usual tough guy Jon Bernthal as happily square coach Rick Macci also sinks his teeth into the tennis tête-à-tête. The film is a bit of a circuitous journey toward ultimate uplift and eschews many of the greatest hits in the family’s journey. Still it’s a largely family-friendly triumph for representation with strong acting on display.
This topical directorial debut and central duo of female performances will undoubtedly turn heads. Rebecca Hall’s delicate drama Passing (B) is a puzzle-box of ambiguity shot in 4:3 aspect ratio and overexposed, over saturated monochrome. Unlike some other movies shot in black and white simply to augment prestige factor especially in Oscar season, the cinematography here actually factors in heavily to a story about ideas, ideologies, identity and insecurity and especially framing the interior conflicts boxing these female characters into specific stations in life. In 1920s New York City, a Black woman Irene played by Tessa Thompson finds her world upended when her life becomes intertwined with former childhood friend Clare, portrayed by Ruth Negga, whose fair skin and blond hair helps her maintain a lifestyle “passing” as white. While Irene identifies as African-American and is married to a black doctor played by André Holland, Clare is wed to a wealthy and very racist white man portrayed by Alexander Skarsgård. Hall employs a near stage play environment within her commanding cinematic lens to present mounting tensions between the characters. At times the austere direction keeps viewers at a slight distance or surface level obscuring some underdeveloped sub-themes, but Hall rarely wavers in keen observations as she wields this curious lens on race and class. It’s a slow burn; this film makes Carol or Howard’s End look like potboilers. Thompson and Negga are towering in their nuanced performances, and Hall at the helm has accomplished quite a feat in her audacious first film.
Those seeking truth in advertising will find very few ghosts here of note, but this sequel is quite definitely a bust. Director Jason Reitman continues the film series of groundbreaking ‘80s special effects centric comedies helmed by his dad Ivan in the tonally muddled Ghostbusters: Afterlife (C), and this next generation entry is a spectral slog. Only the committed performances of young protagonists Mckenna Grace as Phoebe (the late Egon Spengler’s precocious granddaughter) and Logan Kim as her witty classmate Podcast plus a brief fantasia of animated mini-marshmallow men enliven the lethargic story. The film’s action moves from Manhattan to Middle America with teens who plug and play with the old wraith-warring artifacts in a momentum-free plot. Reitman builds very little atmosphere specifics, introduces few compelling apparitions and simply never finds his comedic stride despite game attempts by Paul Rudd and others. It doesn’t help that a good third of the film is a complete retread of the “Gozer” narrative from the original film. There is neither enough of a nostalgia trip nor an entertaining adventure in its own right to warrant a recommendation.
There aren’t too many motion pictures chronicling the lives of songwriters who are creating new work in the musical theatre idiom, although All That Jazz and De Lovely are two notable examples, but the autobiographical show about rejection, healing and the creative process authored by Rent creator Jonathan Larson is intriguing fodder for a feature film. Under the first-time directorial helm of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tick…Tick…Boom! (B) casts Andrew Garfield as Larson on the verge of age 30, living in 1990 New York, waiting tables and hoping desperately the workshop of his futuristic musical Superbia will put him on the proverbial map and somehow rescue him from the punishing grind. Garfield’s characterization is wild-eyed and eccentric, like a mad scientist with dulcet voice at the keyboard; despite spending a full movie with him, the character still feels a bit at arm’s length. The show-within-a-show structure complicates matters a bit too; and Miranda’s scrapbook meets memory play presentation of it all overstuffs a little too much peripheral detail into the mix to prove his savant-like knowledge of the composer’s career. But there are large parts of the film that really resonate, especially fantasy sequences such as a tuxedo and tap style number introducing high-class living, a diner transforming into performance art and an 11 o’clock duet blending criss-crossing female voices like a cosmic moment in time. Amidst a whole bunch of Broadway cameos, Robin de Jesus and Laura Benanti shine in sterling supporting moments. Alexandra Shipp is a powerhouse and Vanessa Hudgins a delight in underdeveloped and bifurcated roles. Garfield largely succeeds in carrying most of the momentum on his shoulders and acquits himself nicely with some soaring final act ballads. It all feels a bit like a less urgent prequel to Rent, what with the starving artists, bohemian living and battle against AIDS tropes, but theatre lovers and those working to create their own opus will find much here with which to relate. Even when the behind the music motifs seem strangely surface, watching Garfield’s Larson is still a wunderkind to behold.
Although it joins Eyes Wide Shut and Die Hard in the “I guess it’s a Christmas movie” pantheon, Pablo Larraín’s biographical psychological drama Spencer (A-), about the Yuletide weekend in which Princess Diana chooses to split from the royal family, is a melancholy masterpiece. Kristen Stewart is luminous in the lead role, brilliantly humanizing a public figure we think we all know and plumbing the depths of her spiral into despondency. Larraín’s frenzied fever dream frames its troubled protagonist with such a splendid mise-en-scène of mounting formal and claustrophobic environments, a viewer could well believe it’s a slo-mo horror film as much as a tragedy. But this powderkeg princess diaries is mostly a cautionary tale of the effect of lovelessness and blind adherence to tradition. Several supporting performers stand out: Timothy Spall is a hoot as Equerry Major Alistair Gregory, with a constant puss on his face as he tries to reign in our heroine to do her duty, and Sally Hawkins is a delight in a small role as a confidante and royal dresser who whispers into her wanderlust. The film is often quietly observant, which makes the moments of rage and revelations pulse all the more. For every nightmarish sequence around the corners of her lonely world, there are also tender moments depicting the fun and games Diana furtively plays with her sons. This is heartbreaking filmmaking with a light at its center about what could have been. Stewart will be recognized for her fierce performance, and the remarkable filmmaking too should be revered.
This is where too-on-the-nose nostalgia and a passion project short on passion collide. Although it takes place in a specific part of history a hemisphere away, Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical coming of age drama Belfast (C) unsuccessfully jockeys to be a timeless old-school Hollywood movie. The action is set during “The Troubles,” a time of religious unrest and warfare in Northern Ireland from August 1969 to early 1970, often seen through the lens of child star Jude Hill, a wide-eyed and rather unconvincing central protagonist. Branagh struggles with creating narrative momentum or a reliably consistent point of view on a rather limited milieu of cramped houses of a street and alleyway backlot. The film zig zags between cloying, sentimental, cutesy, contrived and saccharine – and back again. Even the fact that it’s filmed in naturalistic black and white comes off as lazy shorthand for an under-stuffed memory box. Jamie Dornan, Caitríona Balfe, Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench all have strong moments as two generations of the protagonist’s family, but it also feels a bit like assembling a bunch of perfunctory stock characters. Overall it’s a swing and a miss: surface gloss of history, largely inert.
After a Marvel villain famously destroyed half the world population, director Chloé Zhao actually raises the stakes in her cerebral and engrossing entry into the MCU, the epic action ensemble Eternals (A-). The “let’s get the gang together” type story centers on a group of ten superpower-wielding immortals who must come out of hiding to join forces and stop an eminent attack on earth, and Zhao impressively gains empathy for so many central characters while commanding one of the widest canvasses of space and time and history to depict the cosmic drama. A-listers Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek are very good but not the center of gravity here. Lots of up-and-comers make the movie. Gemma Chan is wonderfully winning as the professorial heroine, and Kumail Nanjiani is wryly funny as a hero in hiding in the Bollywood film industry (his character continues to knowingly chronicle his quest documentary-style). Richard Madden is dashing, and Lia McHugh effective as mythic characters. Although long in running time, Zhao leverages her ensemble and set pieces for some spectacular world building; and the action, while more sporadic than some fans may wish, is also consistently delightful. This is a thinking person’s superhero movie with real characters and respectable tension; it’s quite a bit more talky than most in this franchise. Picturesque and powerful, this film and its auteur are forces with which to be reckoned.
The latest lark by a gifted director is modern artifice without much of a meaning. Wes Anderson’s wry and literate anthology The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun (C) contains within its whimsical sampler a trilogy of short stories written for a fictional bygone publication in an imaginary French town, and the movie proves to be a fleet-footed but flat shadow box of the auteur’s hallmark conventions. The story of a “tortured artist” featuring Benicio del Toro is by far the strongest entry; a take on “journalistic neutrality” less so; and a meandering morsel on “delicious irony” fails to satisfy. The director continues his tradition of focusing on madcap minutiae and summons a game and familiar journeyman cast to mostly pose in oddball characterizations without actually being characters. Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton and others make the most of their brief moments but are criminally underused in serving Anderson’s vague vision. If this were his first film, folks would marvel at the invention of his break-the-fourth-wall antics and artifice, but this installment’s wacky world building is perfunctory, like he’s as apathetic a self-caricature as his make-believe town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. This much exacting care about how things look should result in looking like he cares about the story or people in the film. Insufferable when it should be droll and narratively inert when it should be propulsive, Anderson focuses on the tableau, texture and terminology without peeling back the layers.
Its source novel may be more than a half century old, but under the direction of a true visionary, this text certainly has some substantial spice left in it. Welcome to sci-fi succession as director Denis Villeneuve unleashes a new Dune (titled onscreen as Dune: Part One) (A), and it’s a big-screen epic of biblical proportions. The futuristic plot centers on political intrigue surrounding a rare natural resource on a desert planet and a protagonist who, despite featherweight appearance, may indeed be a messianic super-being with the capacity to unite warring factions of the universe. There are also cool hummingbird style flying crafts, body force field shields and relentless sand worms; and the director smartly doles out exposition in small doses and varieties to not overtax the intellect. Timothée Chalamet is the aforementioned nebbish who rises to the occasion in both his acting and action; he is quite magnetic in the lead role. But dare he alone be an inadequate draw for the action hungry, there’s a charming trio of more traditional movie stars – Jason Mamoa, Oscar Isaac and Josh Brolin – present and accounted for in space scuffles of their own, and these guys bring great energy to their sequences. Rebecca Ferguson is also a highlight as the hero’s mother who teaches him the ways of a mythical magic. Absorbing from the get-go, the film overcomes some pacing awkwardness as it judiciously chronicles the first half of the book, but its journey is a thrill to watch in every frame. The cinematography and effects are marvelous and fully transport viewers to this otherworld. There are rousing battles and intriguing revelations around every bend of the breathtaking planetary landscapes. If all this sounds like Star Wars, it kinda is (or maybe it’s the other way around?) although this space opera is even more solemn and doesn’t usually aim much at luring in the youngsters. Quite simply, it’s stunning and smart and will be a treat for folks seeking a fully realized adventure.
It’s a mob against the masked man in this not especially terrifying continuation of a retconned timeline horror mythology. After his successful 2018 reboot, David Gordon Green further builds his boogeyman opus with the second of a proposed trilogy, Halloween Kills (C-), but this follow-up proves to be a rather routine slasher film despite being competently made. There’s a bit of a big chill in the air as reuniting survivors of violent attacks by serial killer Michael Myers form a vigilante squad to thwart him once and for all, or at least until the next planned sequel, while the largely sidelined Jamie Lee Curtis character Laurie Strode recovers in a hospital after a failed attempt at offing Myers. Judy Greer and Andi Matichak get little to do as the descendants of the Strode bloodline. Will Patton as a sheriff deputy and Anthony Michael Hall as one of the kids Laurie used to babysit also get few contributions aside from Hall’s frequent exclamation that, “Evil dies tonight!” The brute force body count and candied cornucopia of creative slayings should thrill hardcore fans of horror films, but the musings that the Town of Haddonfield is now basically cursed by fear that turns neighbors against one another, Purge style, doesn’t really stick. The only mild inspiration is that Michael’s childhood home is now occupied by a gay couple (Scott MacArthur and Michael McDonald) who view the domicile for its camp value; if only the irony were carried through in other vignettes, there might have been more cleverness amidst the carnage. This installment basically confirms a tradition of inferior sequels, treads water for most of its duration and portends a “Shape” of things to come.