You’ll want to wrap your tentacles around this feel-good, feel-sad nature documentary. James Reid and Pippa Ehrlich’s My Octopus Teacher (B) centers on diver Craig Foster who swims for a year with an octopus that lives in a kelp forest off the coast of South Africa. Through visiting her den and tracking her movements every day, he creates a symbiotic bond that rejuvenates his faith in his own human world. The octopus is a tad more interesting than the guy, and the human drama seems a little tacked on to add extra resonance. But the underwater camera work is spectacular, from camouflaging to evade pyjama sharks to feasting eyes on predatory seafood banquets. Much of the detail is nothing short of miraculous. It’s immersive and occasionally rousing and an unexpected find suitable for families.
Someone is slowly going mad, and it starts to feel like an audience having its patience tried. Writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s snow-tinged four-hander psychological drama I’m Thinking of Ending Things (C) is one of those slow simmer stories in which most of what happens doesn’t make much sense until the final act, and not even completely then. Jessie Buckley plays the ponderous protagonist who visits with her increasingly unusual boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) to the home of his eccentric parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) where events unfold with confounding absurdity. Kaufman’s dense dialogue, insider pop culture and art references, time jumps, creepy camerawork and riffs on a bleak outlook are consistently watchable, but it keeps feeling like it’s going to add up to more or that it’s riddles will finally reveal themselves. All four primary actors are delightful even with obtuse and impenetrable characters. It’s a singular, sometimes hallucinogenic work from an idiosyncratic creator but ultimately doesn’t completely reward those who prattle through its labyrinth.
Two master actors chew the Sistine scenery in the often insightful, sometimes humorous The Two Popes (B), directed by Fernando Meirelles. Anthony Hopkins plays Pope Benedict, making the stunning decision of recanting his papacy, and Jonathan Pryce portrays the future Pope Francis, visiting Vatican City and Benedict’s summer home in a moment of crisis for the church. Both actors are at the top of their game reflecting two very different world views. The film works best in depicting the two men discussing conflicting interpretations of church teachings in the world and debating nuances of God’s authority (a veritable tennis match of lobbing insightful dialogue back and forth like a tennis match) and is less effective in addressing topical issues of church scandals or even delving into some mysterious flashbacks. The film has some fun with behind the scenes glimpses of the men following World Cup matches and other personal moments humanizing their lives while wrestling with Big Issues. It’s an ultimately hopeful look at the good that men can do when balancing theological duties with a perspective beyond the insular workings of the church.
You may want to cover your eyes and frankly shut down all of your senses for Sandra Bullock’s overhyped dystopian suspense film playing exclusively on Netflix. Susanne Bier’s Bird Box (C) follows Bullock’s heroine who, along with a pair of precious children, embarks on an adventure through the woods and down a river blindfolded to avoid supernatural entities which cause people who lock eyes with them to take their own lives. Bullock and co-star Trevante Rhodes acquit themselves pretty well in the acting department, while a supporting cast including John Malkovich overplay wildly underwritten roles. The action and effects are quite average, and the end result is not worth all the fuss. It’s mostly a wobbly endeavor and a far cry from the similarly themed A Quiet Place, one of 2018’s best movies.
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.
Ava DuVernay’s stirring documentary 13th (A) explores the history of racial inequality in the United States, focusing on post-slavery laws and media representation followed by an examination of the rise of a mass incarceration system which has shackled African-Americans both physically and metaphorically throughout the history of our culture. Interviews with eyewitnesses and experts such as Angela Davis and Van Jones are balanced with policymakers such as Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist to paint a fairly bipartisan glimpse at the mistakes of generations of presidential administrations, regional legislators and corporations in poorly serving the interests of minority communities. Peppering the compelling history lesson is poignant music of recent decades (Public Enemy and Common, to name a few) and stark sequences of multimedia to demonstrate the way Black America has been boxed in despite a constitutional amendment granting freedom. Particularly illuminating and powerful, since DuVernay is also a narrative filmmaker, are her references to the 1915 film Birth of a Nation, which actually originated the use of burning crosses as a terrorist tool of the KKK. Her gripping film makes a clear-eyed and essential argument that African-Americans have lived a different and parallel lives to those of privilege, and its take-down of the prison industrial complex will be illuminating to viewers. This may indeed be DuVernay’s seminal work as she is in complete command of a myriad of complex issues and delivers a piercing thesis. This is must-see moviemaking.
The entire feature is now available to view for free in full on YouTube:
Usually the mere thought of a new entry into the mockumentary series pioneered by writer/director Christopher Guest brings a sly smile to the face. Alas the funny auteur’s Mascots (D+), a direct-to-Netflix take on furries who get fans in a frenzy, doesn’t get animated nearly enough. Perhaps after exploring theatre, dog shows, movie awards and folk music, the format is getting stale. The overall ensemble lacks energy, and the story has a paucity of punch. The lack of central protagonists or and major plot momentum lead to a ho-hum competition devoid of drama. Jane Lynch and Ed Begley Jr. get some of the best moments; but like all the others, their character arches aren’t sustained. Favorites Parker Posey and Jennifer Coolidge are wasted. Guest even uncorks his own cherished on-screen character from Waiting for Guffman and doesn’t give him anything to do. Most of the actors are simply lucky their faces are covered for much of the film’s duration.