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.
George C. Wolfe’s film adaptation of playwright August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (B) takes viewers into the tinderbox of a fraught musical recording session in 1920’s Chicago in which a nearly all-Black cast showcases the drive for seizing power and making a mark when the odds aren’t stacked in one’s favor. It’s a largely talky film with a few brassy moments of blues music, but the main attraction here is a two-part powerhouse performance by Viola Davis as a demanding show woman and the late Chadwick Boseman as a cocksure trumpeter who clashes with most of the gathering band. In the film’s relatively brief running time, Wolfe chronicles some of the bandmates’ philosophies and back stories including some traumatic tales. The film comes alive gorgeously in its lead actors’ monologues. Davis fully inhabits her diva with fierce finesse; and although they don’t share as many scenes as expected, Boseman commands the screen like he never has before. The film is a riff on race in a minor key but fascinating and filled with majestic prose. Wolfe’s handsome and absorbing production is a solid glimpse into Wilson’s way of subverting expectations.
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.
Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis crafts a remarkable psychological suspense thriller in Swallow (B) about a working class woman (Haley Bennett) who marries the heir to a major company (Austin Stowell) and experiences extreme isolation keeping up their home. The protagonist develops a disorder in which she consumes inanimate objects as a way to gain control over unresolved emotions. Although the terror is largely an internal trauma, Bennett does an incredible job drawing empathy in the role. The film, shot in brilliant hues with engaging set pieces, is fascinating and works on a variety of layers including as feminist parable. It’s an unusual sleeper film that’s sure to spark conversations.
Ron Howard’s literary adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy (C) is death by a thousand paper cuts, a rebel yell of a tale when it should be a reflective requiem. Gabriel Basso is likable as the man from Appalachia, now a Yale law student, pulled back into the melodrama of his roots, dominated by a hard knocks grandma (Glenn Close) and drug addicted mom (Amy Adams). The film never finds its focus, teetering between flashbacks and montages of flashbacks in a package that generally feels a bit condescending to its Rust Belt subjects. Much of the movie is shrill and involves lots of arguments, a veritable poor man’s Prince of Tides without the gorgeous coast and French manicures. There are moments of grandeur, largely in Close’s performance, a bit of a white Madea in pancaked prosthetics whose skilled acting chops still come raging through. Adams isn’t well served by the material despite her commitment to a hot mess of a role. The criminally underused Freida Pinto is a delight in a bit part as the protagonist’s girlfriend. Howard largely misses the mark in attempts at humanizing his subjects or drawing viewers in to a particular narrative path. Twice removed from the memoir origins, Howard’s Hollywood-splaining of rural life rarely finds its footing.
Hot on the trail of a potentially cheating spouse, a woman turns to the philandering father whose extramarital affair broke up her own family, Clarice Starling/Hannibal Lecter style, in an absolute confection of a new melancholy comedy. Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks (A-) hits all the right notes with a crackling central daughter-father dynamic between Rashida Jones and Bill Murray within a film that poses the question: who is that stranger who is also called your parent or spouse? Coppola lenses a glamorous Manhattan out of fairy tale dreams, a little too perfect at times actually, as the backdrop for a vodka stinger of a comic caper with just enough witty detours to fully reveal its characters. Jones is dynamite as the plaintive female protagonist, a lobster mildly boiling in the water of writer’s block and an uncertain marriage (her mysterious husband is nicely played by Marlon Wayans). Murray has rarely been better as a flirtatious iconoclast who may just have the capability to mildly reconcile with the daughter whose family he shattered due to his own infidelity. His propensity to sing and whistle his way through life and to lay himself bare through his hot takes regarding the ways of men and women is the engaging stuff of a classic character. Coppola lends a joyous, non-judgmental eye to her broken subjects and threads her marvelous themes about the nature of humanity with absolute pleasure and droll dialogue. The result is a charming observational piece demonstrating a director at the top of her game. It’s a delight.
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.
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.
Writer/director Atom Egoyan continues his lifelong exploration of themes of isolation and alienation via two vivid characters in a new memory story. Restaurant inspector Jim (an exacting and austere David Thewlis) and his daughter Veronica (intriguing Laysla De Oliveira), a music teacher, attempt to unravel their complex histories and intertwined secrets in Guest of Honour (C), but the most effective elements are often undermined by head-scratching detours. A weak framing device with a miscast Luke Wilson as a priest does no favors for Egoyan’s meditation on perception and penance, memory and forgiveness. The father-daughter puzzle is complicated by infidelity and a hoax with high schoolers leading to jail time. The film’s most original element is its glimpse at Jim’s culinary certification profession and how he wields his minor power in crafty ways. Thewlis is solid in the role, but the story sometimes descends into mawkish melodrama. It’s disappointing with the talent involved that the stakes aren’t higher.
Hollywood has a history of journeying down Vietnam’s rivers and through its jungles to heal the heartbreak shrouded in the ruins of war. Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (B) starts innocently enough with a quartet of affable modern-day African-American veterans reuniting in a Ho Chi Minh City hotel to embark on a search for the buried bones and bullion left behind by a fallen platoon leader, played in flashbacks by Chadwick Boseman. This memory film’s twisty heist plot is also a bit of a Western, as in a commentary on Western Civilization, always urgent even if occasionally overreaching or delving into myriad detours of flourish. Delroy Lindo gives a forceful, hot-headed performance as the primary old timer, the MAGA hat wearing Paul, who like his comrades, also plays himself at an earlier age without the magic of de-aging special effects. Lindo gives an astonishing muttering monologue after a critical series of action sequences that’s career best. He’s like a land mine one step away from self-actualization, and he’s fascinating to watch in his masterclass of acting. Lee’s crisscrossing techniques through history gracefully bridge past transgressions to a tableaux of modern topics ranging from imperialism to contemporary class and racial politics. The movie comes most alive in its celebrations of brotherhood and fatherhood; Jonathan Majors is memorable and moving as Paul’s estranged college son. Terence Blanchard’s music is stirring accompaniment to action and ache, with occasional soothing echoes of Marvin Gaye. After his brilliant BlacKKKlansman, Lee’s follow-up is a bit more narratively sprawling but thematically daring. The thoughtful director’s change of venue from American soil enables no less a promised land of issues to travel and unravel.
A new HBO film throws the book at a public school scandal but takes a little while to get to its thesis. Cory Finley’s Bad Education (B-) tells the true 2002 story of a corrupt Long Island village school superintendent responsible for the sector’s largest embezzlement in U.S. history. In this central role, Hugh Jackman plays against type: an exquisitely controlled performance of a vain, dark and diabolical heart. Viewers are left wanting more insight into what drives this man, additional details about his relationship with his financial enabler (played with relish by Allison Janney in an all too brief role) and any contours about what drives a teenage journalist protagonist (impenetrable performance by Geraldine Viswanathan) who unearths the malfeasance. Finley’s compositions of bureaucratic bungling and many droll line readings are delightful, as is the jolting, percussive score by Michael Abels. But if there were an open-ended essay pop quiz every few minutes about what makes this film more distinctive than others in the genre, creative answers would be difficult to conjure. It’s an engrossing and watchable drama nonetheless, worth watching for Jackman’s performance alone. It’s now available on HBO streaming services.