Phone booths, penny arcades and locomotive cabooses may all be things of the past, but the safe space to rhapsodize about bygone icons is the stuff of immortality. Director Lisa Hurwitz deftly turns her attention to the most democratic of U.S. food chains in her sweet and sentimental documentary The Automat (B+), and in creating this nostalgic work, she traces nearly a century of imagination, immigration, wartime, fluctuating finances plus transformations in American tastes and temperaments. Horn & Hardart was the venerable “lemon meringue” phenomenon with the novel approach to quality fast food, home to the slot-machine lunch served in Art Deco cathedrals. In its heyday these restaurants were as universally accessible as the NYC subways and nourished nearly ten percent of Philadelphia’s population; everyone from bums to billionaires shared the same elegant communal tables, with newcomers marveling at the marble, crooning over the chrome, wistfully wondering at the windows how this magic gets made. Hurwitz rounds up an auspicious cast of eyewitnesses to the eatery, lunching with the stars including consummate entertainer Mel Brooks and Starbucks’ enterprising Howard Schultz as well as late greats Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Colin Powell and Carl Reiner. It’s a treat to crack open the multimedia archives and learn from people involved in the heart of house at the business; it would have been additionally insightful to hear from nickel throwers and commissary craftspeople, but presumably many of these company men and women are also lost to history. The director’s bento box of treasures includes a look at the origins of the European technology, the silver dolphin-head coffee spouts, the prescient retail shops and even the TV and movie tie-ins associated with the chain. Her requiem for the brass, the pillars, the cuisine and the chatter earns its place among the Edward Hopper paintings and Audrey Hepburn movies immortalizing the institution. In lionizing the American automat, Hurwitz helps viewers re-live a simpler epoch when meatloaf, cream spinach, strawberry rhubarb or coconut custard pies were just a token away and when a melting pot of consumers could intersect and simply savor timeless moments together.
Primary colors, twisty storylines and strong female characters abound in the directorial DNA as two moms embark on two very different and connected experiences against a searing political backdrop. The love child of a telenovela type story and Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar’s distinct sensibilities at the helm of Parallel Mothers (B+) makes for an engrossing and complex tale about exhuming the past, living in the moment and facing the future. Penélope Cruz is resplendent as the complicated protagonist, with a strong supporting turn by Milena Smit. Exquisite production design, a melodramatic score and a meditative framing device make this one of the director’s most accessible films, some parts sensational and others solemn. His themes about the trauma women carry across generations is prescient, but the puzzle of relationships along the way make it an engrossing journey.
Welcome to the game of poems as Peter Dinklage spryly assumes the titular character of Joe Wright’s unusual romantic comedy musical adaptation of Cyrano (B-). To assess this Sicily-set film’s patchwork charms, one has to separate the generally high quality of the story and production values from the confounding and often distracting music and dance choices. Dinklage is quite charismatic and empathetic as the misfit linguist and warrior, and Haley Bennett is a luminous and appealing Roxane in a classic tale of seemingly unrequited love. Surprisingly for a film so steeped in words, the lyrics of the songs by members of the band the National are pretty consistently banal. Dinklage and co-stars Kelvin Harrison Jr. as dashing Christian and Ben Mendelsohn as diabolical De Guiche display a bit of a “gargling with razor blades” vocal quality. Thankfully Bennett is in lovely voice as the lone member of the ensemble who doesn’t sound like she’s singing in the shower. Like its lead character, the film has a sly and scrappy approach, and there are mercifully a total of three music sequences that work at least on some levels. Expect to be slackjawed at times and bowled over at others as the film struggles mightily with its sense of time and place and its curious sonic structure. It’s a scruffy, uneven mess with occasional madcap moments of blissful romance. The movie is recommended for viewers who would naturally find this kind of lavish, cerebral content alluring and not so much for others.
If the DeLorean is known for time travel and the Aston Martin a harbinger of glamorous espionage, this film’s cherry red Saab is now known as a vessel of truth. Ponderous, profound and poetic, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s drama Drive My Car (B) follows a stoic actor/director played by Hidetoshi Nishijima who grapples with grief in his personal life while directing an unconventional production of the play Uncle Vanya. He begins to surrender control when a young woman (Tōko Miura) is assigned to be his chauffeur, in one of those great Once-style relationships. This Japanese film achieves some additional gravitas due to the austere and revealing landscape of its Hiroshima setting, and its meta glimpse at emotional catharsis means the filmmaker can Chekhov all the boxes of the modern-day art house movie. It’s a delicate balance and a tad glum in parts and honestly sometimes a touch obvious in its musings about the nature of acting and the power of art to heal wounds. But it’s often a fascinating fugue on a variety of themes about loss, as characters alternately try to stick to the text and be moved by it. It’s also a gorgeously filmed travelogue into treacherous human territories with lots of slow-burn discoveries. In addition to the strong lead performances, Masai Okada is also entrancing as a troubled member of the troupe. Ultimately this is an emotionally rewarding road trip into the human condition likely to please cinephiles and completely confound others.
People go searching for wisdom in libraries and monasteries, at forums secretive and scholarly; but according to George Clooney’s coming of age melodrama The Tender Bar (C-), there’s no better smarts than those doled out by pub patrons on Long Island in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Who needs a TED Talk when you can get a good “Charlie talk” administered by your friendly neighborhood ‘tender, portrayed by Ben Affleck? Although sometimes jaunty and sentimental, this is mainly mellow filmmaking of some minor chord memoirs with a Wonder Years style voice-over and perfunctory period radio tunes. The unnecessary narration and unoriginal playlist blast over a trifle of a story about a kid with a single mom (Lily Rabe) and her bartender brother (Affleck) who acts as surrogate father to explain the “male sciences” of growing up, careers and courtship. In the protagonist role, Tye Sheridan doesn’t get much to do, and there are never any stakes elevated to matter much. The whole movie seems to exist as a showcase for Affleck’s wily lived-in performance, which is quite good and often affecting. It’s overall watchable but unremarkable with diminishing returns as the film meanders and progresses.
Full of sound and fury, black and white cinematography, German expressionist noir stylings and vampy costumes, Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (C) still manages to be frustratingly austere and beguiling in its lack of a central pulse. The ingredients are all there, including Denzel Washington in the title role and Frances McDormand as his partner in crime, but the film just sits there like a pretty portrait frame not sure what to do with the space within its confines. Consumed by ambition and spurred to action by his wife (McDormand), Washington’s Macbeth murders the king and takes the Scottish throne for himself but is then wracked with guilt and paranoia. I’m not sure this has ever been said about a Shakespeare adaptation, but it should have been longer; the lean “highlights reel” storytelling somehow shortchanges character arcs. Plus the intentionally cramped sets fail to feel like walls closing in but rather convey a limited expanse and low stakes, like everything was filmed on the tiniest artful sound stage. There were two times I almost believed it was actually taking place in Scotland; perhaps it was just supposed to be Coen’s fevered dreamscape. Both Washington and McDormand are done very few favors by their director; what could have been career-best work from master thespians is merely perfunctory. Washington plays the role very weary, although he eeks out enough effective line readings for an Oscar reel. McDormand doesn’t really register here. Truly “out, damned spot” is blink and you’ll miss it. Only Kathryn Hunter as the Witches, Corey Hawkins as Macduff and Alex Hassell as Ross get to shine in supporting parts; the less said about Harry Melling as Malcolm, the better. This adaptation, while it has some lovely and imaginative shots, simply reminds viewers to check out more engaging adaptations by Roman Polanski in 1971 and Justin Kurzel in 2015.
A wry walk on the wild side buoyed by a ripsaw of a central performance, an antidote to the confines of cancel culture and a gloriously observant excavation of black-market communities not often chronicled, Sean Baker’s Red Rocket (A-) is mondo movie mayhem from the opening shot to the last. Against the backdrop of gulf-side Texas with equal bursts of imposing industrial complexes, day-glo donut shops and pastel pink bungalows, Baker sets the stage for simultaneous drama, comedy and action as penniless adult entertainer and gifted scam artist Mikey Saber (former MTV personality Simon Rex) returns to the modest home of his estranged wife Lexi (a blissful Bree Elrod), and her feisty mother Lil (Brenda Deiss, also a delight). A promised short stay becomes an escalating series of shock and awe escapades incited by Rex’s despicable but sympathetic antihero with at-minimum balls-out abandon. Rex is a chaotic force of nature in the role, and viewers have permission to tag along to his Texploits free of moral obligation to agree with his actions. He resembles a Seussian Thing Three with his madcap mannerisms and grab bags of grift; it’s among the most memorable unhinged performances of the past few years. The reunited family at the film’s center is an absolute delight, backed up by a sterling supporting cast including Suzanna Son as a Lone Star Lolita named Strawberry, Ethan Darbone as “driver to the star” Lonnie and Brittney Rodriguez as illegal pharma liaison June. This is a challenging film with daring subject matter; it’s not for the faint of heart nor for family night at the movies. After his lauded and ambitious The Florida Project, Baker’s devil-may-care whirling dervish of a detour is certain to continue his upward trajectory among filmmakers.
What appears at first akin to a one-act play committed to camera is actually the towering and improbable master class of cinematic acting atop a strong 2021 of dramatic ensembles. Unflinching and unforgettable, debut writer/director Fran Kranz’s Mass (B+) creates a tinderbox of drama out of a quartet of adults coming to grips with the defining tragedy of their lives. It’s almost a horror movie leveraging just performances and dialogue as the charged objects. The plot is simply this: Six years after a high school shooting, a teenage victim’s parents played by Martha Plimpton and Jason Isaacs hold a private meeting with the gunman classmate’s parents portrayed by Ann Dowd and Reed Birney. The subject is difficult and the acting as raw as it gets. Franz leverages the intimacy of a cheery church meeting room as his veritable black box backdrop and sparse blocking to depict the actors congregating, drifting and coming to terms with which character among the living – if any – is to blame. The film’s sparse and mesmerizing technique underscores the importance of civil discourse and empathy, and all four actors are superb in their complex roles. Plimpton and Dowd shine in particular as protective mothers in perpetual grief, both with late-breaking stunners of soliloquies. This is a movie to be fastidiously examined as characters seeking comfort, clarity or catharsis approach a way forward unexpectedly.
Complete with a near tragedy on a Greek island cracking open a rush of parallel memories, fruit metaphors standing in for parents and progeny and a morose but sympathetic female protagonist holding court over a floodgate of weighty emotions, this rich text would be this month’s book club pick if it weren’t already a movie. First-time writer/director Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter (B+) is indeed based on a novel, and the longtime actress is masterful behind the camera to bring a fraught tale to dramatic life on the screen. Olivia Colman in the central role is inspired casting as a professor hoping to enjoy a secluded beachside holiday when an extended family of multigenerational revelers crashes her solace and dusts up some prickly memories, some about a thematic taboo: a mother’s ambivalence about motherhood. Colman is splendid in her characterization and quite convincing even as she carries out a series of unconventional choices. Dakota Johnson is a luminous foil as a confused young mom in the coastal crowd and Jessie Buckley a talented addition as Colman’s character in illuminating flashbacks. The film’s structure adroitly plumbs the consequences of life choices but doesn’t always provide complete clarity or a consistent pace for the central story. Still, it’s a very assured filmmaking debut, a meaningful meditation on topics not often covered in the movies and a sensational spotlight on a talented ensemble. Bookmark this one for those seeking smart drama with subtext.
If a movie consistently protests its own existence, believe it. Lana Wachowski’s Matrix: Resurrections (D+), the misguided fourth installment in the groundbreaking sci-fi action series, presents within its storyline several meta constructs about why a follow-up to the trilogy should occur in the first place. Then the director exhumes the bones of the franchise’s previous efforts and attempts to justify continued tinkering with its themes of technology and identity with extremely mixed results. It all makes for a rather existential take on an already trippy narrative. To find out if his reality is a physical or mental construct, video game programmer Mr. Anderson (a.k.a. Neo, played by Keanu Reeves) must re-enter the film’s alternate universe, now stronger, more secure and far more dangerous than ever before. The film’s action sequences, new characters both human and cyborg, makeup and visual effects are all subpar compared to the previous trilogy of films. The only element of this episode with intrigue is the return of Carrie-Ann Moss in a new form that may or may not be her former character Trinity. Neo and Trinity’s love story overcomes many of the film’s oddities and obstacles and provides the film’s singular flickers of fascination. Otherwise much of the movie is moribund and obligatory, a folly of a follow-up.
It’s a pretty platter party with a nostalgic ‘70s San Fernando Valley, California aesthetic and solid soundscape, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s meandering dramedy Licorice Pizza (C) is a bit too charmed with itself to ever figure out exactly what it is. For all practical purposes, it’s a coming of age movie in which neither principal character comes of age. Alana Haim plays an aimless twentysomething who befriends Cooper Hoffman’s fifteen year old child actor and sometimes entrepreneur and ostensibly has a near romantic relationship with him. It’s never clear which of this newcomer duo’s particular points of view the audience is intended to follow the most. Both characters are often sympathetic but after a long running time remain at arm’s length. The plot is an episodic series of escapades with little payoff; and like the oil embargo ripped out of headlines into the otherwise fantastical story, the movie itself actually runs out of gas. Celebrity cameos don’t much help matters with a feral character portrayed by Bradley Cooper at least generating more onscreen momentum than a smarmy bore played by Sean Penn. The bittersweet film ultimately isn’t funny enough, romantic enough or dramatic enough to take its place as a classic along with the likes of American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused. Hopefully other non-critics will find it funnier and sunnier than this writer did.
Drifters and grifters get director Guillermo del Toro’s macabre treatment in the 2021 remake of Nightmare Alley (B), an impeccably made and sometimes meandering film noir with a crackerjack Cate Blanchett infused final act. Set in early 1940s America, the movie is a showcase for Bradley Cooper as a mysterious nomad who works odd jobs in carnivals and leverages his talents as a cipher and sponge to become a bit of a mentalist to the upper class. Like many films in this genre, the antihero’s past is catching up with him, but the stakes in this case seem oddly low for much of the film’s prodigious duration. Cooper only occasionally captivates opposite a parade of colorful co-stars ranging from Willem Dafoe to Richard Jenkins to the aforementioned Blanchett (herself the most interesting character of all, an icy therapist). The production design is singularly exquisite, in both the roadside attractions and art deco upper crust sequences, and there is much to like when the characters give a glimpse behind their humble magic tricks. It’s a good but not great effort from a visionary who typically has a bit more up his sleeve.