A feel-good odyssey in the milieu of Mark Twain, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s Peanut Butter Falcon (B+) wins over cynics with career-best performances from two young actors and an introduction to another indelible character plus an easygoing and authentic sense of human adventure. After escaping a residential nursing home to pursue his dream of becoming a pro wrestler, a man who has Down syndrome (joyously played by Zack Gottsagen) befriends an outlaw (Shia LaBeouf) who becomes his coach and ally. Dakota Johnson is the counselor on the hunt through North Carolina’s Outer Banks for the coastal castaways. Through boat chases and Baptisms, gun fights and hideaways, the human bonds become increasingly heartfelt. The final reel sputters a bit after already securing the glory of its fabulous fable. Familiar faces abound, including Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church and John Hawkes in supporting roles. The film is sweet without saccharine, and the characters stick to the roof of your soul.
For a movie about looming death, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell (A) is a surprisingly joyous work. Her understated film is a near note-perfect glimpse at family dynamics as ordinary individuals endeavor to unravel the responsibilities of adulthood while confronting cultural dynamics in flux. Aspiring Chinese-American writer Billi, deftly played by Awkwafina, visits her Nai Nai (Mandarin for grandmother), beautifully embodied by Zhao Shuzhen, in Changchun, China for a poignant occasion. Although Nai Nai has a terminal illness, her family chooses to abide by a longstanding tradition to “carry the burden” for the matriarch and engages in a conspiracy to conceal the diagnosis from her. While the spry protagonist initially rejects the notion of deceiving her beloved relative, a series of heartfelt events bring insight and balance to a woman caught between worlds. Wang strikes a magnificent consistency of tone in telling this familial tale of the immigrant family’s return to the homeland, and she draws sincere and sentimental performances from her talented female leads. Although she also displays melancholy dramatic chops to great avail, Awkwafina’s humor is the tender translator at the film’s center. This cinematic family is one to remember and its story one of the delightful sleeper hits of the year.
One of the film industry’s most notorious writer/directors slows his roll into leisurely paced comedy and doesn’t quite succeed until things get violent. He’s clearly better at the Spaghetti Western than The Decline of Western Civilization. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (B-) explores how movie stars are always one step away from their big break, whether because of talent, typecasting or breakout performances or, more commonly, because they join a celebrity entourage or get invited by famous neighbors to a cocktail. It’s no coincidence that two of the biggest stars in the world – Leonardo DiCaprio, portraying a boozy actor in career decline, and Brad Pitt, playing his stuntman and designated driver – steal the show with wile and charm. They deliver a lot of yummy tapas in the movie, but it doesn’t add up to a fully satisfying meal. Pitt is the charismatic one here, with a cadence and style he has honed before in the auteur’s revisionist history universe; quite frankly, he’s really good in his every sequence and has uncanny chemistry with an animal co-star. With a less interesting and underwritten character, DiCaprio lacks intrigue and consistency. He’s ironically at his best in a “movie within the movie” when his character is actually acting. Tarantino is, of course, endlessly fascinated with movie lore, so he includes in his spotty ‘60s pastiche some gorgeously filmed milieus and commentary about the transition of the Golden Age of Hollywood to something much different. He eschews many of his usual flourishes, and without a better style to replace them, they are missed. Subplots with Al Pacino and Margot Robbie build on the film’s themes but don’t ever become center stage in a captivating way. Boy, are there some great set pieces and play sets, including a Hollywood Hills home, two insider Mexican restaurants and a former Western movie backlot inhabited by Charles Manson acolytes. It’s a film full of imaginative notions not fully realized. Like a grindhouse double feature, this feels like a talky two hour character study followed by a thirty minute short in which those characters actually get to do what we’ve been wanting them to do all along.
Nisha Ganatra’s topical dramedy Late Night (B) is a splendid showcase for outstanding performances by Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling, a gifted comedic actress who also wrote the deeply observant screenplay. Thompson portrays a fictional long-running television show host (think Jay Leno by way of Ellen DeGeneres by way of The Devil Wears Prada), and Kaling plays the overeager first female writer to join the venerable late night show’s creaky comedy writing bullpen. Although the fish out of water workplace dynamics are fairly familiar, the fresh feminist take on the art of fully revealing oneself in one’s career makes the film poignant and powerful. Amy Ryan gives a commanding performance as the studio chief, and John Lithgow is effective as Thompson’s supportive spouse. Thompson is the main attraction here, in amazing acerbic form. It’s especially fun as the fiftysomething comedian finds her voice again by doing stand-up in front of a non-studio audience. This high-brow but accessible film has a great message about being authentic and is warm and witty in telling its tale. It’s a nice antidote to summer action fare and deserves to find a wide audience.
Dexter Fletcher is the director who finished filming Bohemian Rhapsody after Its filmmaker was dismissed and further flexes his love of musical storytelling in the Elton John biopic Rocketman (B-), a motion picture whose blissed-out protagonist is rather hard to get to know, even after a whole film about his life has unspooled. Taron Egerton is convincing and charismatic in the lead role, and Jamie Bell is also enjoyable as Bernie Taupin, the musician’s longtime lyricist and friend. The story, told in both the musical style of characters breaking out into song and sequences reenacting live performances, gets glowing support in terms of flamboyant costumes, buoyant choreography and Bryce Dallas Howard in a juicy role as the musician’s mum. Unfortunately the plot is inert, and stock characters like the agent/love interest played by Richard Madden are crocodiles who fail to rock. Many of the jukebox musical numbers come to brilliant life with delightful orchestrations, especially “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting,” “Tiny Dancer” and “Your Song.” However, some favorites from the catalogue are oddly missing or marginalized, and John’s character choices are mainly muddled in a drug and alcohol fog. Much more bittersweet than celebratory, the film is crying out for a drying out, and the ultimate detoxifying denouement is begging for an audience still standing by the end, but sorry seems to be the prevailing word.
Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex (B) takes a page out of the Spielberg Lincoln playbook by telling the story of a pivotal player in American life through the lens of a single subplot that succinctly illuminates an individual’s singular belief system. In this new movie, that person is Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (also chronicled in an awesome recent documentary RBG); and she’s splendidly embodied by Felicity Jones, playing the part with a quiet ferocity. Opposite a game Armie Hammer as her supportive lawyer husband and opposite old-fashioned adversaries played by the likes of Sam Waterston, Jones’s Ginsburg gets a lovely pedestal on which to shine. She’s most rousing in the moments in the margins, like when she notices she’s being fetishized by a make job interviewer or when she realizes her teen daughter has inherited her stubbornness. Her public performances lack some of their intended punch, but it’s hard not to get caught up in the case setting her destiny in action. The filmmakers were shrewd to choose a rather cut and dry example of discrimination on which to base the film’s central narrative; there were certainly pricklier scenarios they could have spotlighted which would have challenged the director and audience more. The storytelling is a bit predictable but still very lovingly rendered, and it’s a thrilling showcase of both actress and subject. In these times, there can hardly be enough films like this.
Although there’s nary a line as memorable as Gran Torino’s “Get off my lawn!” this time around, Clint Eastwood’s The Mule (B+) continues the actor/auteur’s loving curmudgeonly entreaty to the next generation to be kind to people even when the words coming from your mouth fail to express it, to take time for those you love even if you weren’t always great at this gesture in the past, to seek inner peace inside your family over the clarion calls of the outside world and to quit living on your damn cellphone. Eastwood as both director and leading man imparts his brilliant life lessons through an unconventional, deliberately paced tale and brings out lived-in performances from cast mates ranging from Bradley Cooper and Michael Peña as federal agents, Andy Garcia and Ignacio Serricchio as drug-lords and Dianne Wiest as the protagonist’s estranged ex-wife. The plot answers the question about what second career an old-school gardener can take in the internet age, and it’s not greeter at the local discount superstore. Eastwood’s enlistment as an inauspicious 90-year-old drug courier for a ruthless Mexican cartel provides the spry senior with a new job involving seeing the countryside, singing along to favorite radio oldies and procuring ample envelopes of cash, before the runs get increasingly dangerous. Many of Eastwood’s late-career (or is this mid-career?) films contemplate Big Issues, and he and screenwriter Nick Shenk (the man behind the words of Torino as well) do a splendid job balancing tangible tension and action, a marvelously relatable flawed hero and a small dusting of issues related to crime, class and race to be sorted out at your own leisure. Some mild quibbles include the hero’s occasional muttering of self-conscious soliloquy under his breath, inconsistencies about his spectrum of naiveté, some tender moments that get a little too treacly and pacing that could be a good bit tighter. But overall Eastwood’s metaphors are in full bloom, and he’s no passive rider in chronicling the American story. He’s still a major voice making movies that matter.
This is a case of a director already known for playing with too many toys still trying to build a better mousetrap while the perfectly good cheese sitting right before him simply needs a more restrained pairing. Robert Zemeckis’s treacly Welcome to Marwen (D+) dramatizes events about a real-life artist who, after experiencing a traumatic assault rendering him frail and without memory, picks up the pieces through building a miniature city populated with dolls representing the support system and demons he must confront in his healing. Steve Carell’s sincere central performance isn’t well served by the director’s fussy technical gobbledegook and cloying blasts in tone between an unreal real world and a half-baked fantasy story. The filmmaker constantly pays self-homage to many of his other, better works and transports viewers right out of the moment (was a Back to the Future flying time travel device or a backwards Death Becomes Her head entirely necessary in telling this tender tale?). The dolls are unappealing stiffs, waxy and wobbly in the same way Zemeckis’s Polar Express characters’ eyes were moribund. It looked too much like the Team America squad had arrived to teach everybody a manipulative morality play. The first half of the film was so deficient in dialogue and storytelling that it was a pleasant surprise midway for some strangely moving moments to claw through all the claptrap. Singular acting kudos go to Leslie Mann, fun to watch with all her wonder and whimsy in an underwritten role. The story’s occasional snatches of sentiment are undercut by the filmmaker’s balderdash, tossing in hate crimes and opioid addiction subplots just in case there’s anything else of seeming significance he can trot out onto the playroom floor. Simply unable to let the allegorical material speak for itself, gadget happy Zemeckis is still playing in his Roger Rabbit and Forrest Gump met Beowulf world while his ho-Hummell misfire plops into the porcelain pot.
Alfonso Cuarón’s family drama set in a middle class Mexico City neighborhood in the early 1970s, Roma (B), is an elegiac tribute to his family’s real housekeeper who was a steady presence as the family slowly splintered. Told with a sweeping tableaux of intimate and epic moments, photographed in black and white 65 millimeter glory and using rich natural sounds without an underscore to accompany several Spanish language dialects, the film is a roaring technical achievement. Tracking shots of bustling city life, a youth revolt and an ocean vista are among its most stunning. The burden of narrative is carried largely on the shoulders of first-time actress Yaritza Aparicio, and she is marvelously revelatory and relatable. A lot happens and also not very much. There’s a long stretch of cleaning house and talking to the dog. There are multiple sequences of the family children talking but not saying much. But then the protagonist is hoisted into a world of opulent cityscapes, profound joy and grief and even a moment or two of genuine action against the backdrop of rising political unrest and tension. Cuarón beautifully and fully recreates the squalor and splendor of his semi-autobiographical childhood memories with his camera floating through its settings and subjects as if caught up in a dream. The storytelling is spare and lacks dramatic characterizations and fully realized linkages to match the power of the visuals. See it in theatres if you can, but even on Netflix, prepare to behold the panoramas of gorgeous moviemaking.
Best known for one of the showiest portrayals of rage set to cinema (pet rabbits beware Alex’s Fatal Attraction!), Glenn Close gets to take a slow-burn turn as doting spouse with a secret in the sleeper character study film that may finally land her a deserved Academy Award. Björn Runge’s austere drama The Wife (B-), written by Jane Anderson based on Meg Wolitzer’s novel, follows Close as the title character and her novelist husband (Jonathan Pryce) on a fateful trip to Stockholm where he receives a Nobel Prize for Literature and she experiences a wake-up call about why she has enabled an extremely flawed partner. Pryce is an effective blowhard, and Christian Slater is also quite watchable as a snooping biographer. But it is Close who commands every frame she is in and elevates an occasionally bourgeois bore into a banger. A veteran actress conveying deep and abiding emotions, Close may be the unexpected face of the #TimesUp movement in a year full of strong female performances. The film’s quietly observant style is strongest in the pivots – when argument turns to embrace, when adoration descend into disgust. Film buffs will appreciate that Max Irons plays her adult son (Close’s Reversal of Fortune co-star Jeremy Irons is the actor’s dad). Although they are fine actors, Annie Starke and Harry Lloyd as flashback versions of the central couple can’t quite compete with the master class shadows Close and Pryce cast. Not quite as revelatory or rousing as it often intends, the film is unquestionably lifted by Close’s every contribution and her strong choices about pacing and piercing to the heart of a given situation. In more ways than one, her time has come. It’s her world against his.
Steven Caple Jr.’s Creed II (B) – or “Rocky VIII” as some have termed it – has a serious case of history repeating with throwbacks to the notorious Drago-Creed and Balboa-Drago fights behind the Iron Curtain. Despite following the sports series’ rather prescriptive formula, though, this entry injects some pretty heavyweight domestic drama into the mix surrounding the big showdown. Michael B. Jordan takes a little while to get in the swing of things but regains gravitas in an impressive physical and emotional performance. Sylvester Stallone (also credited as a co-writer) is again a delight in his supporting perch. Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad are wonderful as the women who complement and challenge the powerhouse protagonist. While there are some significant lulls, the overall effect is swift and surefooted. In Caple’s capable hands and with some fun cameos to reward longtime fans of the series, this fight film certainly takes flight.
In a year of breakthrough films by African-American directors, of black excellence, panthers and klansmen, of Beale Street scuttlebutt and warrior widows, an unlikely white director has also hopped on the race relations bandwagon, helming a durable and crowd pleasing vehicle that’s worthy of more than a footnote. In fact, there’s something about director Peter Farrelly, best known for gross-out comedies, that yields a consistently bright and triumphant tone for Green Book (A-), elevating a true story to modern classic status. This 60s-set dramedy features Viggo Mortensen as a white nightclub bouncer who takes a job as driver and security for a black piano prodigy played by Mahershala Ali on a multi-state concert tour, guided by the titular journal about how to stay on a straight and narrow path through the segregated Deep South. The central performances are authentic and lived in, with Mortensen chewing the scenery and any food in sight as a portly pugilist with buckets to learn and Ali lending delicate dignity swirled with a worldly virtuoso to a lonely character who finds himself a multiple outcast in his own skin. The buddy comedy elements of the film are fittingly amusing and often revelatory, so it’s heartening when Farrelly resists most hamfisted impulses even when the narrative takes dramatic detours. Combined with lovely music, impeccable art direction and two of the most iconic performances of the year, it’s old-fashioned Hollywood manipulation that’s hard to resist. While film historians may claim one must choose between the likes of a more traditional tale such as Driving Miss Daisy or a gut-punch of modern cinema such as Do the Right Thing to chronicle the racial reconciliation agenda, there’s spotlight aplenty for multiple lenses addressing America’s most complex questions when it bubbles up from the right spirit. Farrelly’s film is more Miss Daisy/Hoke Colburn or Andy Dufresne/Red territory on the moviemaking map, but even a familiar road to redemption filled with such grace notes so gorgeously played is well worth treading.