Uplifting GBLTQIA+ love stories free of melodramatic or tragic tropes aren’t always easy to find; sometimes you have to go to western South America for a really good one. Omar Zúñiga Hidalgo’s Los Fuertes (aka The Strong Ones) (B+) is a thoughtful and engrossing romantic drama about love that emerges between just the right people at almost exactly the right moment. Samuel González plays a student buying time in Southern Chile before graduate studies in Canada who meets a mysterious fisherman (with a most uncommon side hustle of historical battle reenactments in local fortresses) played by Antonio Altamirano. This is a film of wisely observed episodes in which there’s not a huge sweeping plot, just a swoon-worthy coastal courtship and the onslaught of potential longing and loss. Both ruggedly handsome actors are excellent in portraying men letting down their guards. They commit fully to authenticity on screen. Hidalgo wisely foregoes heavy-handed symbolism or amped-up high stakes and simply captures this love in bloom in sequences of joy, yearning and consequence. The gorgeous scenery and surroundings lend a lived-in quality to the proceedings equally interpreted as epic or fleeting, and the reality of the relationship that plays out is worth exploring.
Note: Check out this site for availability of this and other independent specialty films.
Talk about a son possessed – and often obsessed – with the topics fascinating his famous father! Director Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor (B) follows in the footsteps of his filmmaker dad David Cronenberg, with both men specializing in intellectual tales of psychological trauma played out against the human body as a bloody and phantasmagoric canvas. Expect rage and repercussions. Andrea Riseborough is ostensibly the star of the film although her character is largely inhabiting the mind and body of Christopher Abbott, who gets the real juicy part, in a film that also features Sean Bean and Jennifer Jason Leigh in effective small parts. The plot involves assassinations carried out through a diabolical mind control process, but it’s largely style over substance as memories and intentions collide in some epic suspense showdowns. Wall to wall with hallucinogenic imagery and graphic violence, the film is catnip for fans of thriller and horror genres. The set-up is strong, set pieces superb and stakes high throughout. The film can’t quite bear the weight of both its protagonist and parasite, but it’s boldly audacious nonetheless. The auteurist apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and it’s rotten to the core in the best possible way.
Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman (B-) is a devastating and uneven glimpse at a tragedy befalling an American couple soon after bringing a child into the world. The performances are so stunningly good that it’s a shame there wasn’t a more compelling or urgent through-line to maintain the interest generated in a searing prologue. The film will undoubtedly be remembered for the hook of a prolonged childbirth sequence magnificently filmed in a single take and the central performance by Vanessa Kirby, whose acting is incredible especially as she has to show viewers her interior struggles. Shia LaBeouf is good in an underwritten role as her husband, but the other acting powerhouse here is Ellen Burstyn in the kind of fierce role that begs for its own movie. The film’s autumnal elegance and grace is maintained throughout, but its plot and pacing keeps viewers at a slight distance just when you want to find out more about what’s driving the relationships and maternal instincts. It’s a tough watch, recommended mainly for awards season completists because the female performances are peerless.
First-time director Regina King’s assured film adaptation of stage play One Night in Miami… (B) is a fierce four-hander with magnificent acting by Kinglsey Ben-Adir as Malcolm X, Eli Goree as Muhammad Ali, Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown and Leslie Odom Jr. as Sam Cooke experiencing a fictionalized meeting after a Florida boxing bout circa 1964. King creates safe space for a dramatic moment in time showcasing religious, civil rights, sports and music titans getting real in dialogue about their lots in life and a collective summons to seize their destinies. These kindred spirits’ struggles pulse with resonance in a social justice reckoning culture some five and a half decades later. It’s a handsome production with lovely period detail and art direction. All the actors are superb, with Ben-Adir an empathetic and humane standout (he actually out-Denzels an already iconic screen performance). King brings a sensitive voyeur lens to conversations these Black men have when utterly unfiltered, akin to a style pioneered by Spike Lee in the superior Get on the Bus. The talky technique doesn’t always transcend the audacity of its premise, but it’s ultimately a night of uncanny wake-up calls.
Paul Greengrass delivers a star vehicle for Tom Hanks in full, gallant, paternal nobility mode in the old-fashioned but pleasant enough News of the World (B), a western that could have used a bit more bite. It’s a handsome production gorgeously shot, and the subtext that not too much has changed in the 150 years since it takes place seems to want to rear its thematic head in what turns out to actually be a fairly routine endeavor. Hanks is solid as the military veteran and roving newspaper reader who finds a new calling when he discovers an orphaned girl, and the plucky Helena Zengel is at least competing on the same aisle and shelf with Wilson the Volleyball in the supporting boon companion department. The action sequences when they happen, from a canyon shootout to a brief wagon chase, are rousing enough. Overall though the characters could have been more interesting and the stakes much grander. It seems the higher calling of showcasing Hanks as another cinematic saint takes the edge off a more grandiose frontier of possibilities.
Writer/director Emerald Fennell’s debut film Promising Young Woman (A-) is an absorbing hybrid dark comedy thriller with an unforgettable storyline and a fiercely focused central performance by Carey Mulligan as a one-woman avenging force. As the wronged protagonist, Mulligan shape shifts into a variety of show-stopping personas in stunning episodes to underscore her poignant points, and the themes are never preachy or pedantic. In fact, the satire is so sharp, the movie continually blurs lines between genres and leaves viewers fairly unsure of what’s coming next. The film’s unconventional, entertaining script helps showcase and sell a story which otherwise might have been marginalized into well-meaning long-form essays or flash-in-the-pan hashtags. Fennell’s creative, symmetric, candy-coated aesthetic is countered and complimented by some of the most unhinged and provocative dialogue set to film about toxic male culture. Escaping the main character’s burn book (bit parts include Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Max Greenfield) is Bo Burnham’s character who gives a fleeting glimmer of hope into the male psyche. The filmmaker also employs phenomenal music choices ranging from pop tunes to Broadway anthems to punctuate the proceedings. This will go down as a definitive movie about the ramifications of sexual assault on both victim and perpetrator and will surely speak to a generation to think twice before being complicit in micro-aggressions and beyond. It’s a smart and sneaky surprise and not for the faint of heart.
A meditative and melancholy excursion into an Oregonian outpost circa early 1800s, Kelly Reichardt’s parable of a fur trapper brigade’s sad sack chef, a spry Chinese immigrant on the run, a widowed royal dairy cow and the collective gleam in drifters’ eyes as they embark on a land of milk and honey just might be the American story nobody anticipated this year. Filmed with naturalistic wonder in the great outdoors within the intimate framed contours of a simple cinema square, First Cow (A-) is both a chronicle of renegade relationships featuring superb performances by John Magaro as Cookie and Orion Lee as King-Lu as well as a genuinely crafty and camouflaged story of start-up culture. Not a lot happens in the first hour aside from atmosphere and character development as the central duo of accidental entrepreneurs gathers a notion involving furtive nocturnal extractions from the titular divine bovine whose cream is the secret ingredient of a pastry delicacy received like a Manhattan Cronut in the food desert of the Wild West frontier. The plot sharpens for the second half and rewards patient viewers. Early lessons about the uphill battle of the struggling class versus the capitalist society’s one percenters are abundant to witness as the burgeoning businessmen face the menace of wealthy Toby Jones. But the real traveling medicine show here is a glorious tale of abiding friendship, showcased in mundane tasks and small gestures, each one a grace note from fine actors well directed. Reichardt’s delicate way of grazing through unchartered scenery and lingering on undiscovered details, even from a distance, lends great delight to this immersive story. She crafts an absolute American original, rich with a lived-in quality and sterling originality.
Writer/director Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (A-) is a film of quiet dignity and grace, with ambiguity around the edges which gives the central plot even more immediacy and universality. Sidney Flanigan is stunning as Autumn, a soulful, forlorn teen protagonist. Faced with an unintended pregnancy and a lack of local support, Autumn and her cousin, Skylar (also amazing Talia Ryder) travel across state lines to NYC on a fraught journey of friendship and compassion. Hittman has a tremendous observational lens for capturing the details propelling a few days in the life of these brave girls. Her combination of vérité and character study is absorbing and affecting. Time and again, Hittman gets the story beats right, prompting viewers to hang on every word and feel the characters’ emotions deeply.
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.
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.
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.