After a season of publicity junkets that could charitably be dubbed Cast Behaving Badly, the question lingers if the movie itself is actually any good. It’s not. Olivia Wilde’s psychological thriller Don’t Worry Darling (D) contains two virtues: lovely Midcentury Modern Americana imagery and a sometimes interesting performance by the talented Florence Pugh. The plucky actress does her damnedest emoting fiercely in the surreal Ibsen-by-way-of Twilight Zone dollhouse she inhabits, but when it’s not a bore, it’s a chore. The story is maddeningly stale, and no amount of twists can redeem it. Harry Styles and Chris Pine are one-note in their dashing stock performances. Wilde can neither pull the audience into suspense nor intrigue; the story is simply dud on arrival. Luckily this cast has a good future ahead.
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.
To big screen or not big screen? That is the question for an upcoming slate of intriguing movies expected to premiere across the fall.
On September 3, Christopher Nolan’s oft-delayed sci-fi epic Tenet is expected to touch down in select cities. The reception to this anticipated film and how well multiplexes follow safety procedures could determine the path forward for other major films in 2020.
So what’s expected in multiplexes in upcoming months? Here are seven films likely to play big:
- Ammonite, slated for September 11, brings together Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan for a romantic drama between a paleontologist and a tourist along the Southern English coastline. These frequent Oscar nominees are getting Titanic-level love story buzz.
- Wonder Woman 1984, directed by Patty Jenkins, is now scheduled for October 2. Expect Gal Gadot to soar in this sequel as the popular DC Comics heroine. This time she battles Kristin Wiig as her adversary in this ‘80s-set adventure.
- Black Widow, the next big-screen Marvel movie starring Scarlett Johansson, is slated for November6. This fierce protagonist must deal with her history as a spy and the broken relationships left in her wake long before she became an Avenger.
- West Side Story, slated for December 18, is Steven Spielberg’s epic retelling of the classic musical of a star-crossed love between a couple from rival gangs The Sharks and The Jets starring Baby Driver’s Ansol Elgort and newcomer Rachel Zegler. Expect a diverse cast and amazing choreography on the rough and tumble streets of New York.
- Dune, also slated for December 18, is a remake of the science fiction epic about spice trade warriors on a desert planet and is getting buzz for revolutionary effects and a leading man performance by art-film darling Timothée Chalamet. Denis Villeneuve directs.
- Respect is the much-anticipated biopic of legendary R&B superstar Aretha Franklin starring Jennifer Hudson. Co-starring Forest Whitaker and Marlon Wayans, this music-filled drama is scheduled for limited release on December 25.
- The French Dispatch is eccentric director Wes Anderson’s multi-character historic comedy set at an outpost of an American newspaper in a fictional 20th-century French city with Benicio del Toro, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton among an eclectic ensemble. The release date, even for this Oscar-bait film, is still in flux.
This is one of the great romances. Writer/director Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) (A+) is a French historical drama tracing the contours and the canvas of an enduring love. Set in France in the late 18th century, this masterwork obeys the conventions of period romances with its windswept coast and Gothic homestead but upends the typical narrative rules in tracing a truly scorching and revolutionary tale. Noémie Merlant plays the commissioned painter and Adèle Haenel her aristocratic subject, and both actresses are spellbinding in their passion for detail and commitment to superb tandem acting. Merlant’s character is told her subject is unwilling to be sketched and thus must be painted in secret, and thus begins an observation period with flourishes of the forbidden. Sciamma creates indelible characters in a ravishing work and weaves an intoxicating chronicle. This feisty and fiercely feminist film rewards those who are patient for character studies and relish movies with the heart of a classic text. This is one of the great sleeper films of 2019 and one adventurous cinema lovers should seek out and see.
This is the movie for the “no labels” generation. Keith Behrman’s Giant Little Ones (B+) eschews many typical coming of age conventions to chronicle a few weeks in the life of a teenage protagonist (Josh Wiggins, a thoughtful performer and dead ringer for a young Matt Damon) caught between a variety of impulses in the aftermath of a frisky birthday party. Marquee stars Maria Bello and Kyle MacLachlan are outstanding in supporting roles as the hero’s estranged parents in this contemplative Canadian production with lots of questions and few answers tied in easy bows. Darren Mann as the stoic swim team captain, Taylor Hickson as his distant sister and Niamh Wilson as a lovely female friend who may or may not be transgender are among the compelling characters whose story arcs don’t always travel in obvious directions. A brisk story and surprisingly tender dialogue give this drama additional distinction. It’s a sleeper film worth discovering buoyed by relatable characters and an optimistic outlook.
Wielding an encouraging epistle or a poison pen whittled down to the quick, caustic cinematic commentator Pauline Kael was America’s first and most influential metacritic. Two decades after the loss of this iconoclast, Rob Garver’s What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (B+) showcases this writer’s startling ability to convince readers to see movies in a new way including ushering in new wave foreign films and distinct new voices ranging from Scorsese to Spielberg. Famous for panning The Sound of Music or embracing films on the fringe, Kael was a noted contrarian and often a misanthrope who charmed and alarmed the chattering class and forged loyal acolytes in the critical press. The film is a roast meets requiem of interviews from those who loved her (Quentin Tarantino, for one) and those who felt damaged by her cutting rebukes (David Lean, for instance). There is little film or voice footage available to weave into the story, but Garver digs deep to conjure Kael’s singular spirit. There are also wonderful sequences from many of Kael’s favorite motion pictures. This is a film about visceral love for the movies and for joy in writing about the movies. It’s no wonder I loved it.
Fear of failure and unwarranted confidence can both be blinding. The ‘90s Silicon Valley dreamers in Matt Maude and Sarah Kerruish’s cautionary and ultimately redemptive documentary General Magic (B+) are enjoyable subjects inventing technologies well before their time. While the denizens of the titular start-up saw their promising platform go up in smoke, they learned lessons they apply to some of the most prolific tech companies of our era and contributed to the vision of the modern smartphone. The film is a compelling and compassionate look at innovation and redemption.
The World War I film 1917 (B+), directed by Sam Mendes and photographed by Roger Deakins, relies on an enormously effective and immersive magic trick of appearing like one continuous camera take, achieved with a mix of practical action and digital sleight of hand. It’s an incredible adventure spectacular even though the parade of set pieces and escalating stunts feel a bit too convenient at times. George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman are very empathetic as lance corporals in the British Army tasked with getting a message to a fellow battalion to thwart a German trap. The film’s you-are-there aesthetic is nothing short of masterful even though it shortchanges character development and deeper themes in service of its technical priorities. Still, the action sequences are visceral and propulsive, as if the journey of Apocalypse Now were given the lilt and momentum of Run Lola Run. Mendes marshals splendid elements ranging from majestic music to earthy atmosphere and gorgeous shots of Northern France in various stages of terror. Go for the war movie, stay for the action ride.
Josh and Benny Safdie’s new verité thriller should come with a warning label that it will most assuredly produce anxiety in its audience. It is both a blessing and a curse that these sibling writer/directors fill every mise-en-scène of the paranoid action drama Uncut Gems (B) with such realistic and resounding cinematic finesse. This potboiler of a film constantly raises the stakes and develops a preternaturally tense atmosphere not to be underestimated by the faint of heart. The brothers’ mastery of charged objects nearly out-Malteses every falcon frame. Adam Sandler is incredible in the meaty antihero role at the film’s center, and the plot basically traces his diamond district hustler character through the constant ups and downs of being over leveraged. It’s not necessarily a cautionary tale since the main character was pretty corrupted from the very beginning, but it’s fascinating to see the compounding effects of his actions as he juggles bribes, bets and bids into a nearly untenable position. The central character so dominates the movie that there’s really little oxygen for others in the ensemble, so it’s difficult to want much more than a speedy resolution for all of them. It’s amazing filmmaking buoyed by a pulpy performance, but you may like it best once it’s over.
One of the best examples of investigative journalism at Fox News was actually the investigation of the journalist organization itself, as chronicled in Jay Roach’s ripped-from-the-headlines sexual harassment drama Bombshell (B). Charlize Theron brilliantly channels alpha anchor Megyn Kelly, who follows the disturbing trail of manipulative behavior by the news network’s top brass (a terrifying John Lithgow in pancaked prosthetics as the late Roger Ailes). The film is consistently engrossing even though often surface level. Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie are also effective in their roles as news purveyors who find themselves the news subjects (I wish the central trio were on screen together!), and Kate McKinnon is solid as an unexpected ally. The parade of real-life lookalikes gets a bit distracting as central characters are given short shrift (look, it’s someone playing Geraldo!), but the film will go down in history for showcasing a fascinating formula for how a #MeToo movement could take hold even in the most insular of places.
Filled with autumnal beauty, radiant performances, fierce dialogue and timeless themes, writer/director Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (A) breaks through the barriers of the work’s familiarity to speak an empowering message to modern moviegoers about truly heeding one’s instincts. This is the eighth adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s coming-of-age novel written more than a century and a half ago, and Gerwig finds extraordinary resonance in the story for contemporary times. She re-invents the piece a bit with a non-linear format and even a meta interplay with the book’s author, and the playfulness with chronology helps the work echo even further with delight. A quartet of curious and talented sisters led by protagonist Jo March, played by Saoirse Ronan, experience the highs and lows of growing up and discovering their individual female powers in a changing America during the aftermath of the Civil War. A luminous Ronan anchors the film, with Florence Pugh, Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen each adding depth and appeal to the ensemble. Pugh in particular gets to shine. Laura Dern is splendid as the vulnerable mother holding down the family fort while father is away fighting, and Timothée Chalamet is a charismatic and ideal match for the sisters who are weighing the joys and costs of male companionship in both flash forwards and flashbacks. It’s telling how high quality every aspect of the film is that one can almost forget Meryl Streep is also in the movie and incidentally excellent as the misanthropic aunt. The film is sumptuous and idyllic in its depiction of the March family’s story and snappy in its defiant points of view. There is real and ribald sibling rivalry, sensational depiction of true sisterly bonds, genuine glass ceilings to smash and sheer delight to behold in every picturesque frame. Gerwig has made an essential version of this tale with a feminist vantage point which is inclusive and insightful. Her warm film is highly recommended to anyone looking to forge a path against the odds.
Two master actors chew the Sistine scenery in the often insightful, sometimes humorous The Two Popes (B), directed by Fernando Meirelles. Anthony Hopkins plays Pope Benedict, making the stunning decision of recanting his papacy, and Jonathan Pryce portrays the future Pope Francis, visiting Vatican City and Benedict’s summer home in a moment of crisis for the church. Both actors are at the top of their game reflecting two very different world views. The film works best in depicting the two men discussing conflicting interpretations of church teachings in the world and debating nuances of God’s authority (a veritable tennis match of lobbing insightful dialogue back and forth like a tennis match) and is less effective in addressing topical issues of church scandals or even delving into some mysterious flashbacks. The film has some fun with behind the scenes glimpses of the men following World Cup matches and other personal moments humanizing their lives while wrestling with Big Issues. It’s an ultimately hopeful look at the good that men can do when balancing theological duties with a perspective beyond the insular workings of the church.