Full of sound and fury, black and white cinematography, German expressionist noir stylings and vampy costumes, Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (C) still manages to be frustratingly austere and beguiling in its lack of a central pulse. The ingredients are all there, including Denzel Washington in the title role and Frances McDormand as his partner in crime, but the film just sits there like a pretty portrait frame not sure what to do with the space within its confines. Consumed by ambition and spurred to action by his wife (McDormand), Washington’s Macbeth murders the king and takes the Scottish throne for himself but is then wracked with guilt and paranoia. I’m not sure this has ever been said about a Shakespeare adaptation, but it should have been longer; the lean “highlights reel” storytelling somehow shortchanges character arcs. Plus the intentionally cramped sets fail to feel like walls closing in but rather convey a limited expanse and low stakes, like everything was filmed on the tiniest artful sound stage. There were two times I almost believed it was actually taking place in Scotland; perhaps it was just supposed to be Coen’s fevered dreamscape. Both Washington and McDormand are done very few favors by their director; what could have been career-best work from master thespians is merely perfunctory. Washington plays the role very weary, although he eeks out enough effective line readings for an Oscar reel. McDormand doesn’t really register here. Truly “out, damned spot” is blink and you’ll miss it. Only Kathryn Hunter as the Witches, Corey Hawkins as Macduff and Alex Hassell as Ross get to shine in supporting parts; the less said about Harry Melling as Malcolm, the better. This adaptation, while it has some lovely and imaginative shots, simply reminds viewers to check out more engaging adaptations by Roman Polanski in 1971 and Justin Kurzel in 2015.
What appears at first akin to a one-act play committed to camera is actually the towering and improbable master class of cinematic acting atop a strong 2021 of dramatic ensembles. Unflinching and unforgettable, debut writer/director Fran Kranz’s Mass (B+) creates a tinderbox of drama out of a quartet of adults coming to grips with the defining tragedy of their lives. It’s almost a horror movie leveraging just performances and dialogue as the charged objects. The plot is simply this: Six years after a high school shooting, a teenage victim’s parents played by Martha Plimpton and Jason Isaacs hold a private meeting with the gunman classmate’s parents portrayed by Ann Dowd and Reed Birney. The subject is difficult and the acting as raw as it gets. Franz leverages the intimacy of a cheery church meeting room as his veritable black box backdrop and sparse blocking to depict the actors congregating, drifting and coming to terms with which character among the living – if any – is to blame. The film’s sparse and mesmerizing technique underscores the importance of civil discourse and empathy, and all four actors are superb in their complex roles. Plimpton and Dowd shine in particular as protective mothers in perpetual grief, both with late-breaking stunners of soliloquies. This is a movie to be fastidiously examined as characters seeking comfort, clarity or catharsis approach a way forward unexpectedly.
Complete with a near tragedy on a Greek island cracking open a rush of parallel memories, fruit metaphors standing in for parents and progeny and a morose but sympathetic female protagonist holding court over a floodgate of weighty emotions, this rich text would be this month’s book club pick if it weren’t already a movie. First-time writer/director Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter (B+) is indeed based on a novel, and the longtime actress is masterful behind the camera to bring a fraught tale to dramatic life on the screen. Olivia Colman in the central role is inspired casting as a professor hoping to enjoy a secluded beachside holiday when an extended family of multigenerational revelers crashes her solace and dusts up some prickly memories, some about a thematic taboo: a mother’s ambivalence about motherhood. Colman is splendid in her characterization and quite convincing even as she carries out a series of unconventional choices. Dakota Johnson is a luminous foil as a confused young mom in the coastal crowd and Jessie Buckley a talented addition as Colman’s character in illuminating flashbacks. The film’s structure adroitly plumbs the consequences of life choices but doesn’t always provide complete clarity or a consistent pace for the central story. Still, it’s a very assured filmmaking debut, a meaningful meditation on topics not often covered in the movies and a sensational spotlight on a talented ensemble. Bookmark this one for those seeking smart drama with subtext.
It’s a pretty platter party with a nostalgic ‘70s San Fernando Valley, California aesthetic and solid soundscape, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s meandering dramedy Licorice Pizza (C) is a bit too charmed with itself to ever figure out exactly what it is. For all practical purposes, it’s a coming of age movie in which neither principal character comes of age. Alana Haim plays an aimless twentysomething who befriends Cooper Hoffman’s fifteen year old child actor and sometimes entrepreneur and ostensibly has a near romantic relationship with him. It’s never clear which of this newcomer duo’s particular points of view the audience is intended to follow the most. Both characters are often sympathetic but after a long running time remain at arm’s length. The plot is an episodic series of escapades with little payoff; and like the oil embargo ripped out of headlines into the otherwise fantastical story, the movie itself actually runs out of gas. Celebrity cameos don’t much help matters with a feral character portrayed by Bradley Cooper at least generating more onscreen momentum than a smarmy bore played by Sean Penn. The bittersweet film ultimately isn’t funny enough, romantic enough or dramatic enough to take its place as a classic along with the likes of American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused. Hopefully other non-critics will find it funnier and sunnier than this writer did.
Stomp the grapes and sneak a conveyor belt bonbon, because a dishy drama about the making of “I Love Lucy” is destined to cast nostalgia in a whole new light. Aaron Sorkin’s backstage drama Being the Ricardos (B+) plumbs what life is like for performers when there’s not a live studio audience providing a laugh track of affirmation. Wielding his signature rapier wit scalpel to slice into sitcom life, the writer/director assembles a crackerjack cast to act out a week in the life of the real-life stars of TV’s “Lucy” with the amped-up quadruple pressures of a potential affair, pregnancy, Communist accusation and of course putting on a show. Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz are unexpectedly magnificent in their respective real-life comedy couple roles, as are J.K. Simmons as William Frawley and Nina Arianda as Vivian Vance (the latter two character actors behind the fictional “Fred” and “Ethel”). Sorkin plays his own cracking words like a maestro with characters savoring sumptuous script solos and dialogue duets which crescendo at just the right moments in the drama. Kidman shines brightest of all, showcasing the obsessions and vulnerability of an actress once discarded who gets a second chance at getting it all right, and it’s all her “Lucy” can do to keep everything afloat. Her character is a steely hero and Kidman’s work fully convincing. The film pulses most in comic and cynical asides, in its jaunty jabs at the entertainment business and its eternal truths about the qualities in loved ones capable of love and distrust in equal dollops.
Three characters grappling with divergent tenets, truths and toxins in their masculinity are central to the game of psychological violence played out on the plains of 1925 Montana in Jane Campion’s outstanding drama The Power of the Dog (A-). This ominous and symbolism-heavy slow burn is sure to satiate cinema lovers as this auteur writer/director plumbs the protective layers of ranch culture, marriage, sexuality and even man’s dominion over nature. Campion exhibits impeccable instincts as she locks in on her exacting characters’ subtleties, breaks ‘em in and then lets the plot’s pot start boiling. In her directorial hands, even braiding a lasso is replete with tension. The story is set in motion as two ranch owners gain newcomers into their prickly pack. Benedict Cumberbatch is towering as the ornery and often cruel alpha male with a bevy of complaints to chap his hide. He’s in complete command of his brash character and creates an extremely memorable performance. Jesse Plemons as his more mild-mannered brother and Kodi Smit-McPhee as a vulnerable and unconventional newcomer to the crew of cowboys each get to inhabit intriguing parts. As the primary portrait of a lady in these times, Kirsten Dunst is also exceptional if surprisingly underdeveloped as the widow and innkeeper thrust into the central family dynamics. Campion is sovereign over subtext and drops clues avid moviegoers will relish. Jonny Greenwood’s score punctuates the proceedings with spirit and suspense, and the cinematography of the American West provides a fitting canvas on which the characters clash. It’s a dramatic delight to watch predatory instincts play out including the savage gnashing of teeth, with a pulpy and palpable sense of saddle wood and sweat in the air as lost boys reckon with the decline of their civilization.
Although it’s a true story set in medieval France during the Hundred Years War, Ridley Scott’s historical drama The Last Duel (B+) explores timeless truths about gender and power. Relative newcomer to film roles Jodie Comer turns in a phenomenal performance as a woman who is viciously assaulted and refuses to stay silent, stepping forward to accuse her attacker, an act of bravery and defiance that puts her life in jeopardy and sets the stage for the titular sanctioned death match. Matt Damon plays her often narcissistic and oblivious husband, Adam Driver a friend turned bitter rival and Ben Affleck an enabling playboy. The film is told in three Rashomon style acts, each from distinct vantage points of the husband, the attacker and the wife; and while each adds more to the mosaic mystery, the final episode of the trio is the most stunning. Scott does a good job balancing the grandeur of the opulent sets and gorgeous costume drama while still presenting the building blocks of information in a way that continues to feel fresh up to and through the film’s promised jousting climax. Some of the characters could have been even more deeply observed rather than simply functioning as allegories, but the ripe and ribald dialogue keeps the plot and its people consistently entertaining. Comer is a revelation in a role reflecting the treatment of women in the present day through a fourteenth-century lens. Scott has crafted a glorious film; quite frankly, this is the type of movie in which he most excels. And the message in the battle will stick with you long after the fight to the finish.
Is mansplaining on the marquee, or is this the ultimate tribute to a flawed father? Either way, there’s a lot to love here in a tale of an unexpected visionary. Will Smith holds court as father and tennis queen-maker Richard Williams in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard (B). Smith’s is a sterling performance in an often very good film focused much more on the man whose unconventional methods of parenting and coaching ushered in a new era of power and athleticism on the women’s professional tennis circuit than on the sisters Venus and Serena who actually played the game. The film chronicles the family straight out of Compton through Florida intensives and a variety of dramatic confrontations prior to the young women becoming global champions. Smith exhibits a full gambit of emotions as a sometimes frustrating and complicated character who prioritizes strength of character and values over the quick win, and his acting opposite powerhouse Aunjanue Ellis as his wife Oracene and with talented newcomer Saniyya Sidney as Venus provides ample dramatic fodder for all involved. Usual tough guy Jon Bernthal as happily square coach Rick Macci also sinks his teeth into the tennis tête-à-tête. The film is a bit of a circuitous journey toward ultimate uplift and eschews many of the greatest hits in the family’s journey. Still it’s a largely family-friendly triumph for representation with strong acting on display.
This is the ultimate “say uncle” to those who believe they can’t be moved by stories about the transformative effects of kids on adults. Cerebral, sweet and contemplative, the drama C’mon C’mon (B+) by writer/director Mike Mills sneaks up on viewers with universal truths. While a soft-spoken radio journalist (Joaquin Phoenix) travels the country to interview kids about life on earth, he also becomes temporary caretaker for his young nephew (Woody Norman) who offers the perfect foil to examine one’s station in life. At first it’s hard to penetrate the psyche or motivations of Phoenix’s numb, mumbling sad sack of a character, but the actor soon finds his way into the head of the wry cynic learning not to simply contemplate and make commentary about the world around him but to actively participate in it. He ultimately gives one of his most nuanced and lived-in performances. Norman is thoroughly convincing in some of the best child acting committed to screen. In depicting the ups and downs of even the most thoughtful children, the wise pint-sized character helps his custodian discover his inner kid but never in treacly or expected ways. It’s a master class of acting between someone on the cusp of 50 and another on the verge of 10. The episodic glimpses into surrogate parenthood are alternately fascinating and frustrating but always revelatory. Mills paints a lovely canvas on black and white with his travelogue alternating grandiose and intimate. Shots of towering NYC skyscrapers, New Orleans parades and parishes and sun-drenched pier-side promenades on the west coast lend atmospheric contrast to these little guys on a parallel coming of age journey. It’s no wonder the film evokes Chaplin’s The Kid or even Kramer vs. Kramer minus the depressing parts; it’s certainly one for the ages. The movie feels vaguely improvised in its observational style and requires a bit of patience at first but will give viewers a multitude of reasons to fall under its circuitously sentimental spell.
Although it’s a handsomely produced adult crime drama in grand Hollywood style, some inconsistent characterizations and abrupt tonal shifts hinder Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci (B) from emerging as the soapy sensation it clearly craves to be. The first hour of the fashion family saga is strongest, centered on a spunky Lady Gaga’s delicious ingenue in a whirlwind romance opposite Adam Driver as the Italian luxury label’s heir apparent, more at home in love than in leadership. Scott’s film soon becomes a different movie focused more intently on the political machinations of the Gucci family business, including mounting tension at work and at home and dramatic stakes of varying proportions, some emotions earned and others not so much. We get a phoned-in performance by Jeremy Irons and a roaring one from Al Pacino as family patriarchs, plus there’s an absolutely unhinged portrayal of the family’s crazed cousin by a virtually unrecognizable Jared Leto. Sometimes it’s hard to decipher if any of these actors feel like they are working in remotely the same universe, and yet mostly the story seems grounded in either Gaga or Driver’s point of view. The empire building is fascinating to behold and most entertaining when Gaga is on screen or when Driver’s cipher of a character discovers his agency. There are also curious choices involving time frames, accents, death scenes and other female performances for which the least said, the better. Still it’s often a crackling affair with much to recommend. Gaga’s performance as catalyst of this catwalk will be the element most remembered from this ambitious and sometimes operatic enterprise.
Although it takes place in a specific part of history a hemisphere away, Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical coming of age drama Belfast (C) manages to churn out sentimentality in a perfectly generic geopolitical bundle. The action is set during “The Troubles,” a time of religious unrest and warfare in Northern Ireland from August 1969 to early 1970, often seen through the lens of child star JudeHill, a wide-eyed and rather unconvincing central protagonist. Branagh struggles with creating narrative momentum or a reliably consistent point of view on a rather limited milieu of cramped houses of a street and alleyway backlot. The film manages to keep the stakes pretty low. Jamie Dornan, Caitríona Balfe, Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench all have strong moments as two generations of the protagonist’s family, but it also feels a bit like assembling a bunch of perfunctory stock characters. The film is a bit of a circuitous journey toward ultimate uplift and eschews many of the greatest hits in the family’s journey. Overall it’s a swing and a miss: surface gloss of history, mostly inert. Even the fact that it’s filmed in naturalistic black and white comes off as lazy shorthand for an under-stuffed memory box. The film zig zags between cloying, sentimental, cutesy, contrived and saccharine – and back again.
This topical directorial debut and central duo of female performances will undoubtedly turn heads. Rebecca Hall’s delicate drama Passing (B) is a puzzle-box of ambiguity shot in 4:3 aspect ratio and overexposed, over saturated monochrome. Unlike some other movies shot in black and white simply to augment prestige factor especially in Oscar season, the cinematography here actually factors in heavily to a story about ideas, ideologies, identity and insecurity and especially framing the interior conflicts boxing these female characters into specific stations in life. In 1920s New York City, a Black woman Irene played by Tessa Thompson finds her world upended when her life becomes intertwined with former childhood friend Clare, portrayed by Ruth Negga, whose fair skin and blond hair helps her maintain a lifestyle “passing” as white. While Irene identifies as African-American and is married to a black doctor played by André Holland, Clare is wed to a wealthy and very racist white man portrayed by Alexander Skarsgård. Hall employs a near stage play environment within her commanding cinematic lens to present mounting tensions between the characters. At times the austere direction keeps viewers at a slight distance or surface level obscuring some underdeveloped sub-themes, but Hall never loses sight of her keen observations as she wields this curious lens on race and class. It’s a slow burn; this film makes Carol look like a potboiler. Thompson and Negga are towering in their nuanced performances, and Hall at the helm has accomplished quite a feat in her audacious first film.