Somewhere jammed between “all the feels” and “being very satisfied with itself,” this jazzy riff on purpose is semi scat-tat-tacular. No, it doesn’t explain the meaning of the universe per se, but Pete Docter and Kemp Powers’ cerebral entry in the Pixar pantheon, Soul (B), is often illuminating in its exploration of the ways of the world, its presentation of an iconic Black acting ensemble and its depiction of the magical and musical syncopation of Manhattan life. This animated opus told in a minor key keeps a tight grip on its voice cast, with Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey in prime positions as band teacher Joe and surly spirit 22, respectively. They’re both serviceable in rather ho-hum parts. When Joe experiences a freak accident whisking him into an overly complicated purgatory, he soon returns to NYC to hone his mentorship skills and be reminded of the sensory and interpersonal elements of city life that matter most. The real revelation here is not the complex universe the film paints nor the rote race against time propelling its winsome plot but rather the quality of the earthbound animation, what with the natural lighting and lens flairs adding sparks to bustling urban streets, brotherly barber shops and intimate music dens. Characters honestly get short shrift compared to the artisan craft at work here; and if it all falls a little short of the franchise’s best, it still finds ways to tickle some idiosyncratic ivories.
It’s not a certified fact that Deon Taylor watched too many ‘80s Showtime After Dark films growing up, but judging by his latest directorial product for the big screen, Fatale (D), he leans into a bygone genre crafting a guilty pleasure with more of the guilt than the pleasure. Like Zalman King’s secondhand princely protégé, Taylor summons Dante Spinotti’s glossy L.A. cinematography and Geoff Zanelli’s aggressively on-the-nose score for a convoluted story of adultery and double crosses. This mild orchid of a noir features a flat-out terrible performance by Michael Ealy as a sports industry business mogul and a committed but bonkers piece of acting by Hilary Swank as the titular femme with her share of secrets. It’s not entirely obvious which of this dreadful duo is the protagonist; they’re both pretty significantly flawed and jawdroppingly inconsistent. There’s scant chemistry in the love scenes, little suspense in the thriller moments and nearly zero believability in the way the characters generally behave. Still, the single audible scream one sequence invoked in this moviegoer signaled that some of the proceedings held a hint of intrigue. Overall though, this is definitely not the forbidden film worth seeking out in a pandemic.
Cue the catchy overtures, swirling footlights and confetti cannons because the unhinged and hilarious musical movie event of the year is hoofing its way into the streaming services of Middle America. Down-on-their-luck Broadway stars shake up a small Indiana town as they rally behind a teen who wants to attend the high school dance with her girlfriend in director Ryan Murphy’s joyous musical TheProm (A-). Luminous newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman is the friend of Dorothy at the film’s center whose big-hearted journey down the mellow brick road to the year’s big party involves larger-than-life troubadours who imbue the townsfolk with star quality, bravery, tolerance and a beguiling Bob Fosse tinged talent called “zazz.” Casting for the ensemble is simply inspired, including delicious diva Meryl Streep, foppish godmother James Corden, oblivious blowhard Andrew Rannells and spunky day-drinking chorus girl Nicole Kidman. Murphy deftly balances a tender central tale with acerbic showbiz insider antics for a film entertaining, uplifting and heartbreaking in equal doses. If anything this celebrity goodie bag may be overstuffed with too much, but it’s hard to resist a singing and dancing variety show packed with ample doses of genuine homespun love. The themes of acceptance and reconciliation are a well timed clarion call to the better angels of our national consciousness, and it’s all gift wrapped in glitter for the age of Twitter. The glorious music, clever lyrics and fabulous choreography come together with precision especially in the youthquake euphoria of tunes such as “You Happened,” “Time to Dance,” and “Unruly Heart.” Keegan-Michael Key as the high school principal gets a lovely grace note in an ode to theatre called “We Look to You,” earning the first of many tear-jerking vignettes. For musical lovers, this Prom is a punch bowl of sweet and tart ingredients sure to rouse, stupefy and please.
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.