Like a ghost story or a mystery of memories, a new film with a dementia-plagued protagonist puts viewers smack dab in the middle of his deteriorating mind. Florian Zeller’s handsomely produced and occasionally frustrating The Father (B) takes place primarily in an impeccable flat, and the denizens there are going through rapid melancholy decline and hunkering deeper and deeper behind closed doors. The film depicts a complex Anthony Hopkins who rationalizes the activities and relationships in his life even as his faculties are escaping him. Olivia Colman is moving as the most prominent of the characters surrounding the charming Englishman: a frustrated daughter and caregiver who becomes an engaging foil to the titular subject. Hopkins gives a devastating and forceful performance as a man who feels the rug is consistently pulled out from under him. It’s quite an impressive role and portrayal. The viewers see other characters as he does, sometimes shape-shifting or reacting with confounding responses. It’s a smart drama, well acted; and what it lacks in plot momentum or story immediacy, it makes up in quietly observed intimacy.
Kimchi meets kudzu in the ravishingly gorgeous family story of an immigrant South Korean family making its way in ‘80s Arkansas in Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari (A). Steven Yeun is noble, quiet and towering as the father torn between his family and his farm, and because duty often eclipses being daddy, he consistently disappoints his mate portrayed by Han Ye-Ri, a performance of grit, grace and melancholy. Veteran actress Youn Yuh-jung turns in one of the great cinematic supporting performances as a spry grandma, a highlight of her every scene as she cusses her way through card games, pilfers from the church offering plate and guzzles “mountain water” sodas between moments of selfless love; and Alan Kim may be one of the cutest kids to ever appear on screen as the family’s precocious youngster with a heart murmur and a penchant for proclaiming what’s really on his mind. The latter two provide the comic heart of the movie to punctuate some of the Steinbeckian drama afoot between the parents trying to make ends meet and their marriage work against a backdrop of occasional earth, wind and fire eruptions. Chung captures a semi-autobiographical story with a dreamlike gaze, exploring topics of fortitude and faith with the skills of a master. Who knew the hillbilly elegy promised moviegoers would tap into Asian origins? The film offers a slow burn tale told with deep respect and reverence for its characters, and it doesn’t miss a beat in its rural authenticity or its snapshots of bygone traditions. Its series of small moments swell into a satisfying final act, and the full effect grows on you like the movie’s titular watercress vines, pulling viewers in and adding moving details which are the spice of life.
It’s a metaphorically post-apocalyptic tale, although it doesn’t take place in the future and there’s no thunderdome. The fury on this road is that feeling of running away from and toward something simultaneously, of paying homage to a bygone era while saying hello to what comes next around the bend in an America that has discarded many of a certain age in its working class ranks. Chloé Zhao’s revelatory Nomadland (B+) is a poignant travelogue with a pensive and resourceful protagonist named Fern, played marvelously by Frances McDormand. Fern lives in a converted van and takes odd jobs to support her modest lifestyle, and the film is largely an episodic account of her encounters on the road. Other than a winning David Straitharn in a supporting role, most of the cast is comprised of unknowns on their own voyage in a camper van culture through states like Nevada and South Dakota and scenes both bleak and picturesque. The film is elegiac and lyrical, a very interior movie of feelings and impulses, in which the sun itself in various states of repose in the sky flashes brilliance on the details of small moments. More than a feminist take on Into theWild –a van-gina monologues, if you will – Zhao’s presentation speaks to very specific travails ranging from grieving a loved one to maintaining dignity in menial work. It’s a lovely and melancholy motion picture and rests squarely on McDormand’s superlative performance and her brilliant instincts as she confronts situations in humanity and nature. For those who enjoy thought provoking character journeys, Zhao’s assured work here will carry you away into a tribe and terrain rarely charted.
Solemn, thoughtful and prescient in its modern parallels, Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah (B) is a vital history lesson set in 1960s Chicago headlined by Daniel Kaluuya as Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as car thief turned FBI informant William O’Neal, locked in an all-out battle of wills as political machinery moves to tamp down a social justice revolution. Both Kaluuya and Stanfield give mighty performances, particularly Stanfield who brings poignancy to an unsympathetic character, although the writing keeps both actors strangely at arm’s length from being as vivid or memorable as anticipated. Dominique Fishback brings a welcome emotional arch to the proceedings with her graceful demeanor; and Jesse Plemons and Martin Sheen provide grotesque faces of corruption. King lenses the film gorgeously with strong period detail but doesn’t quite capture the verve to make the movie a standout. After a lull, the final act features some punch for sure. It’s a tragic American saga with profound lessons to impart and is just short of rising to epic stature.
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 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.
Writer/director Aaron Sorkin starts off and ends The Trial of the Chicago 7 (C) capably even as his unremarkable filmmaking style and pacing rarely meet the might of his prose about rabble-rousers caught up in history and a civics lesson with modern undertones. A saccharine Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, one of the founders of the Students for a Democratic Society, and a restrained but potent Sacha Baron Cohen as notorious Yippies leader Abbie Hoffman showcase contrasting styles of social protest in a real-life story set in the six months’ aftermath of riots protesting the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic Convention. Sorkin’s real conspiracy is with his camera as he seems to know very little to do with it aside from a colluding gaze at the star-studded faces of his courtroom pageant. It all feels like it’s leading up to a denouement that doesn’t quite land. Some of the writing has zest, and the acting, especially Frank Langella as the judge and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the lead federal prosecutor, delivers some relish to legal proceedings. Many of the intercutting flashbacks don’t add much to the matters at hand, and much of the ensemble film simply feels stagey. Noble in intentions but marred in talk and treacle, the movie never becomes as Very Important as its auteur intends.