In a film filled with the oft-sung promise of showing “All of Me,” a meandering narrative fails to do justice to a legendary chanteuse. Newcomer actress Andra Day’s breakthrough success in the title role is inversely proportional to the failure of storytelling in Lee Daniels’ The United States Vs. Billie Holiday (D). In the 1940s, Holiday is targeted by the government in an effort to racialize the war on drugs, ultimately aiming to stop her from singing her controversial song about lynching, “Strange Fruit.” This premise is stretched into a misbegotten biopic that rarely finds its focus. Daniels is a director who doesn’t shy away from dark psycho-sexual, violent and drug-induced depravity; but his penchant for wallowing in the worst impulses of his subject’s life and times simply punishes his subject and audience. Trapped in this very bad movie is a “star is born” level performance by Day, a raw and honest portrait brilliantly acted and sung. She brings fearless vocal chops and searing screen presence to the occasion and is met with a zigzagging creative vision that consistently shortchanges her committed work. In breathing life into a short and tragic character, Day stands on the shoulders of giants Diana Ross and Audra McDonald who have portrayed the singer before and compares favorably with a low-key freshness. Regrettably, an unfocused and unpleasant narrative, an often dimly lit parade of loosely connected episodes, and a chaotic tone adds up to a sleepy, sloppy slog that keeps its central character at a distance. Classic jazz music and sometimes lovely production design and costumes mask a truly confused production. The men in the film, Garrett Hedlund as a one-note federal agent and Trevante Rhodes as a complex love interest, are mediocre in underwritten roles. Didn’t we just see other better films about sting operations to thwart racial progress and period pieces about making music against a backdrop of social upheaval? Expect accolades for the new Lady Day and little else about this tedious film.
There’s a compelling story seeking its sweet freedom in Kevin Macdonald’s circuitous Guantánamo Bay detention camp legal drama The Mauritanian (B-), but it takes a frustratingly obtuse approach to its subject. Jodie Foster’s defense attorney character enters the lair of Tahar Rahim’s imprisoned man in shadows as if fava beans and a nice cannibal-endorsed Chianti are on the menu, but the film subverts expectations as the incarcerated man in this case may or may not be guilty of 9/11 terrorist crimes. Rahim is the revelation here, charming and complex in his origin story and flashbacks that comprise the heart of the film, with sequences blocked like home movies compared to more procedural sequences. It’s a treat to see Foster do what she does best, serious and singleminded of purpose as she endeavors to protect the rule of law and the man she’s defending. Less successful are an underused Shaleine Woodley as her bland junior legal colleague and Benedict Cumberbatch as a boring military prosecutor with a Southern accent that seems to just be begging, “Why am I not being played by Dennis Quaid?” The film is dotted with interesting details for courtroom and cover-up fans, but little of it levels up to much of a breakthrough. Still, it’s a solid showcase for Rahim and a welcome return for Foster, which should silence the lambasters.
There’s little arguing about a two-star review for this dramatic showcase of two stars arguing, except maybe that’s too generous. Sam Lewinson’s pretentious meta two-hander Malcolm and Marie (D+) traces a contentious evening between a filmmaker fresh off a feted premiere (a confident and prickly John David Washington) and his somewhat spurned girlfriend/muse (a feisty and sometimes furious Zendaya). The two actors are basically the charged objects of a conversation story largely set during one fraught night in a modern mansion. For its entire running time, this stylish black and white film circles the drain, a trite tempest in a teacup with enough disparate theses to fill a semester of dissertations. None of it lands: not the panel on jealousy, not the discourse about film appreciation, not the seminar on appropriating loved ones into art. It’s a veritable fantasia of unpleasantness, blocked and mannered into a pulverized oblivion, blunting the skills and charms of the talented actors into becoming nearly unwatchable. The fact that Washington and Zendaya have select moments of authentic, acrobatic acting on display simply underscores that most of the film is an obtuse downer not worth the journey.
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.
Known more as a boy band grad who transitioned to soulful superstardom in his own right, Justin Timberlake says bye bye bye to just being a celebrity in occasional cameos and thrusts his thespian chops to a fierce forefront. Palmer (B-) by director Fisher Stevens is decent in every sense of the word, an earnest yet predictable movie about redemption and resiliency featuring JT as an ex-con with a heart of gold and child actor Ryder Allen as the gender-nonconforming boy next door who benefits from a non-judgmental father figure. The genuine goodness of the stoic single man’s burgeoning paternal qualities with the princess-loving preteen is the heart of the story and often quite affecting. Timberlake is in nearly every scene of the movie and endearing in his performance, and yet it’s still hard to connect to his past crimes and circumstances. We don’t really get much of a glimpse into his worst instincts. Allen is a revelation as his fanciful foil. But despite some seeming detours to the dark side, most of the movie sticks to formula. Alisha Wainwright is a standout with a committed performance as a teacher and love interest; but like participants in many of the plot threads, her character remains a bit underdeveloped. Still it’s a largely sunny discovery of a film and, if in case the notion were ever lost, it’s bringin’ sexy sentimentality back.
This is one of those movies in which you really need flashbacks to when the characters may have been much more interesting. Playing loving partners of twenty years in Harry Macqueen’s slog of a road trip through the British countryside, Supernova (C), Colin Firth’s pianist must come to grips with revelations from Stanley Tucci as his lover, an author battling onset dementia. Firth gives the better performance and is often quietly moving. Tucci is adequate but not particularly revelatory in an underwritten role. The sad descent is sensitively handled, and the two actors acquit themselves admirably with tender material. Alas sequences on the road have the allure of one of those calming apps that helps you sleep, and none of the stops – including a mundane family reunion and a charmless rental house – hold much appeal or allure. Aside from the fact that it’s two rather well-known actors who aren’t gay playing gay, there’s really not much to see here that hasn’t been covered in other melodramas. Cosmic metaphors and the theme that even two people living in the tight quarters of a camper van can hold secrets from one another don’t really enliven the proceedings much either. I may have liked the epilogue sequence more than I should have. This movie gets points for tackling a Big Issue from an alternative perspective but ultimately feels lost somewhere between treacly and perfunctory.
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.
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.
George Clooney directs and stars in The Midnight Sky (C+), an often frosty outer space slog with gorgeous visuals, an inert plot-line for most of its duration and a final act that almost rights the ship of all that came before. Clooney’s lone protagonist is a frail Arctic scientist who, along with a nearly mute child stowaway, must contact a crew of astronauts returning home from a Jupiter moon to catastrophe on a future earth. The action of this oddly paced odyssey occurs in fits and starts and is workmanlike, but the bifurcated drama rarely feels as ambitious as intended. A star-studded cast including Felicity Jones and David Oyelowo gets little interesting to do aside from a spontaneous third-act singalong and meteor shower adventure. The special effects provide some lovely spectacles to behold including some technological and lunar marvels and some all-too-human foibles with gravity amidst dueling stories in the North Pole and aboard the spacecraft. Themes about global/interplanetary cooperation were covered more successfully in The Martian, and adult/child survival dystopian stories were better in The Road, but some final moments of poignancy nearly rescue the film from weightlessness.
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.