Two young Black women activists grow in grassroots glory in Ashley O’Shay’s timely and prescient documentary Unapologetic (A). Confronting injustice and unrest in Chicago’s Westside and exploring the rise of resistance from prominent provocateurs in the Black, queer, feminist community, the skilled director presents with urgency and sensitivity a you-are-there multi-year story about a duo of powerhouse change agents. This fascinating film focuses on youth organizer and Ph.D. candidate Janaé Bonsu and rap-tivist Bella BAHHS, two sterling Everywomen who summon powers of the strong female role models who paved the way for them to tackle on their own terms tough issues such as police violence and intergenerational incarceration. Intersecting with events ripped out of today’s headlines, this real-life chronicle is revelatory in both moments of creative protests as well as simple solidarity over intimate family cookouts and photo albums. The microcosms presented in the documentary demonstrate the cradle of a social justice movement which has truly come of age this year. Ultimately it’s a tribute to the Black women who have been the bedrock of their families and communities, and its debut at film festivals is a landmark moment to cherish and celebrate.
Niki Caro’s live-action remake of Mulan (B-) doesn’t really sing. Literally she doesn’t sing, but she sure does swing. The movie’s sometimes successful blend of swordsmanship, bow’s eye war sequences, wuxia-style fight choreography and awkwardly imprinted progressive values juxtaposed against Chinese tradition all serve to stack this new take on the Disney classic. The simple story of a young Chinese maiden played by Yifei Liu who disguises herself as a male warrior in order to save her father (Tzi Ma) is overbaked with a notion of Qi, the film’s version of The Force, plus added villains including a Frozen-style female antagonist to buttress the girl power quotient (yes, this director really likes symmetry). The Mouse House’s remakes of late have been artistically cynical and still commercially successful, and thankfully this film largely benefits from pretty solid production values. The resplendent colors and widescreen vistas help paint in a somewhat hollow story with sometimes stilted dialogue. The earthbound action sequences are commendable, but an oft-appearing airborne spirit looks more like a pride kite. Liu in the lead role is noble and imminently watchable, and she does honor to the role.
Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield (B) is the anti-Masterpiece Theater take on the autobiographical Charles Dickens classic, and it’s a delightful ode to harnessing one’s creative impulses. It’s not as breezy a bildungsroman as last year’s Little Women remix, but it has significant whimsical charms. The director, a noted acerbic satirist, tells the story with a sunny disposition and multi-ethnic casting and condenses the novel’s hundreds of pages into a tidy two hours. It’s nearly all there: the house made of an upturned boat, the kite fashioned of prose pages, the scene-stealing lapdog personified by its ventriloquist owner and much more in a brisk build. Dev Patel embodies the Victorian Everyman with relish, even though the story feels a bit like it is happening to him rather than him having much discernible dominion over his destiny. Hugh Laurie and Tilda Swinton stand out in the vividly painted ensemble of eccentrics festooned with fabulous costumes and stunning locales. Dickens was notoriously paid by the installment, so it’s fitting that Iannucci dramatizes his story in almost serialized form with title cards marking each episode. Despite its storied pedigree, this adaptation is a bonbon of coming of age reality bites.
A generation of future physicists will one day point to Christopher Nolan’s labyrinthine leviathan of a movie Tenet (A) as inspiration for scientific study. An international espionage thriller with the director’s signature flourish of temporal mystery, this movie is epic and and presents puzzles within riddles in a plot near impossible to diagram. Although some viewers may find the film’s story points and tone impenetrable and running time interminable, it’s a glorious dish of the director’s genius. Plus there’s nonstop action including at least three “I don’t know how they did that” stunt sequences involving planes, automobiles, recreational watercraft, a fire truck and a plutonium mountain. The acting ensemble is consistently engaging including a wonderful John David Washington as a low-key charmer in the titular protagonist role of a CIA agent and Kenneth Branagh in a career-best part as a diabolical arms dealer. Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Pattinson and Aaron Taylor-Johnson all add delightful performances after continued art house ascent into big league blockbuster territory. Ludwig Göransson also provides a gripping and persistent score and the effects and globetrotting set pieces are terrific. This spy spectacle indeed implores viewers to see it safely on a big screen.
One flew over the vulture’s nest of scavenged characters, themes and effects in the long shelved X-Men universe spinoff exhumed for theatrical release during uncertain times, Josh Boone’s The New Mutants (C-). In a clinical facility, a quintet of teens are observed by Alice Braga’s one-woman headmaster/clinician and must battle metaphorical and literal demons while coming of age and discovering disturbing superpowers. Some characters get some standout moments with Maisie Williams and Anya-Taylor Joy getting the best showpiece sequences. Protagonist Blu Hunt and the male characters barely register. What feels perfectly perfunctory and average for much of its running time actually gets quite silly for a while before introducing a beastly spiritual cousin to Gozer of Ghostbusters at its denouement. Tonally discordant and thematically jumbled, this film made in 2017 is a self-fulfilling prophecy of its own lack of urgency.
Nearly three decades after their last time trek, they’re on a mission to prove they’re dad bod-acious, but their bid for bogus bonafides exhumes a most triumphantly tepid detour. Dean Parisot’s Bill and Ted Face the Music (C) is best when it just gives in to absurdist metaphysical humor, and there are indeed a few brief flashes of the franchise’s blissfully harmless DNA scattered and smothered through a nonsensical screenplay. Most of the time, however, the story just goes through the motions with an overly sprawling ensemble of underdeveloped characters. A story lurks somewhere in this sequel about reconciling romances, discovering the music that pulses through generations and aligning a madcap world, but the plotting is listless and the episodic pacing maddening. The cheap effects that worked in the past two films now just seem like sloppy filmmaking. There’s a nice bit of sonic history with a rock ‘n’ roll supergroup involving the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Louis Armstrong, but mostly the movie assembles lots of disparate elements – from charmless wives and daughters to an ill-tempered emo robot – and doesn’t know what to do with any of them. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter are reasonably spry and great sports in multiple multiverse roles, but it all seems like it was more fun to make than to watch.
Sometimes we search for meaning in art where there is actually very little to mine, and often we give a story more patience than it deserves. Giuseppe Capotondi’s neo-noirish drama The Burnt Orange Heresy (C+) features some idiosyncratic performances and a stylish milieu but doesn’t successfully integrate its intriguing elements before culminating in a corker of an ending. Claes Bang plays a charismatic art critic who along with a new companion (Elizabeth Debicki) met while lecturing in Italy, is hired by an eccentric collector (Mick Jagger) to pull off a mission to swipe a painting from a reclusive artist (Donald Sutherland). Clunky, unrealistic dialogue diminishes a Hitchcockian/Highsmithian plot set on lovely Lake Como, and alas character intensions are rather impressionistic for far too long. Bang and Debicki are engaging and make the most of awkwardly written roles. Jagger sinks his teeth into what amounts to an extended cameo, and Sutherland doesn’t bring much to the party. Ultimately this bendy indie doesn’t quite hit its mark.
This movie is quite observant about what it means to be an American teen, down to the chapter and verse. Director Karen Maine’s Yes, God, Yes (B) is a sensitive coming of age dramedy about reconciling church teachings and teenage urges with a breakout performance by Natalia Dyer of the sci-fi TV show Stranger Things. Dyer is the main attraction, astute and engaging and in nearly every sequence, as her innocent and precocious character traverses a ’90s landscape of AOL chat rooms, the emergence of cellphone culture, a punishing parochial school and an even more confusing Christian retreat. These secular land mines all threaten to thwart her steadfast beliefs. Timothy Simons is solid as an authoritarian adult, and the teen ensemble is largely believable even as they navigate provincial points of view. The dramatic stakes aren’t extremely high, and the laughs aren’t as plentiful as, say, Booksmart, but the film is a righteous glimpse into adolescence geared to viewers ready for its adult themes. These types of films often glide on a combination of heart and nostalgia, and Christina Aguilera and Mandy Moore tunes punctuate this enjoyable journey into wary womanhood.
An old axiom proclaims a feature film shouldn’t be less interesting than its makers sitting around discussing that very movie, but the reverse holds true for documentaries. Serviceable when it should be sensational, Don Hahn’s film about the life and word craft of Disney legend Howard Ashman, Howard (B-), strings very few pieces of found footage and plaintiff narration to memorialize a man who deserved a much more special tribute. After all, this lyricist and storyteller helped reinvent the wit and whimsy of an iconic animation studio while secretly harboring AIDS in the height of that epidemic. The film plumbs Ashman’s roots in theatre with glimpses into his stage musicals about man-eating plants and pageant queens before his breakthrough trilogy of animated mermaids, genies and a beauty who fell for a beast. His successes were largely posthumous, so there wasn’t as much AV evidence as is often the case of what it was like to know and work with him, and the eyewitnesses don’t really have the way with words that Howard did. The film does little more than sprinkle some pixie dust on a Wikipedia entry before it finally generates some tender moments toward the end. There’s also a nice bit in the recording studio with Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury voicing “Be Our Guest,” but it otherwise seems like Ursula the sea witch stole the soaring magic right out of the Disney vaults. While sometimes an interesting glimpse into a feisty and fabulous artist, this so-so documentary feels like it’s showing viewers just part of his world.
Danny Wolf’s Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies (B) is revealing in all the right ways. Tracing the history of celluloid flesh from silent films to contemporary cinema, this fairly clinical documentary includes talking heads and feisty film footage to explore the mores of over a century in titillating taste when it comes to the sexy silhouettes of popular culture. The recent #MeToo movement puts the doc’s topic in a fresh lens as Wolf looks at a variety of genres, from pin-up fantasies to arty independents to erotic thrillers. Amidst all the privates on parade, the film nearly finds a thesis. Almost more interesting than the bare essentials at the forefront of this film is its examination of the industry codes and ratings associated with art at various time periods. There’s a nice gender balance in the interviews, from idiosyncratic directors Peter Bogdanovich and Joe Dante to Amy Heckerling and Martha Coolidge. Other industry commentators are a bit of a mixed bag. The subject matter doesn’t necessarily deserve the girth of its running time, and some of the extended sequences may feel a bit, well, gratuitous. At times the documentary is a movie buff’s paradise when it’s not feeling like a peepshow with a purpose.
It’s a merry, merry multiverse for a trio trapped in a time loop in Max Barbakow’s Palm Springs (B+). This comedy with shades of Groundhog Day triples the number of people caught in the act of living the same day over and over with Andy Samberg and Christin Milioti as two charming strangers who meet at a wedding and J.K. Simmons as a grizzled guest also swept up in the space time continuum. The story eschews some of the tedium of repeating the actual day verbatim and instead follows its progressive romance from mundane to memorable. The first-time director has crafted a jovial and thoughtful lark with enjoyable takes on the physics of love and life. The ensemble is roundly delightful on the unusual journey. Stick around for a mid-credits epilogue.
For those who believe “there can be only one” in immortals movies (thanks, Highlander!), a new super-heroic quintet has arrived to demonstrate that long-living mercenaries come in multiples. These world-weary soldiers of particular fortune with powers including regenerative healing abilities get spectacular spotlight in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard (B+), a successful new action/fantasy film chronicling an unlikely revenge mission. Charlize Theron is in glorious badass mode with KiKi Layne in fine form as her paramilitary protégé. The sterling ensemble including Mattias Schoenaerts and Chiwetel Ejiofor is all up for the task. The fight choreography is superb in a series of riveting action sequences. Surprising is how moving the quieter scenes are depicting the deep bonds between these destiny-bound misfits including suffering throughout the ages. The film teaches some tough lessons of faith and fortitude. The graphic novel-inspired storyline and contemporary Dustin O’Halloran/Hauschka score are propulsive. Credit Prince-Bythewood for commandeering an energetic globetrotting enterprise with hope for a new action franchise springing eternal.