Nearly three decades ago, Robert Altman’s poison pen dark comedy The Player decimated the notion of authentic Hollywood endings in which characters get what they deserve. Building on this grand meta tradition, writer/director Cord Jefferson’s subversive comedy American Fiction (B+) confronts the relationship between contemporary Black authors, their fraught notions of cultural representation in modern culture and the preposterous prism of white guilt placing unrealistic limits about how far the writers can go to transcend stereotypes. The high-concept plot in which the sanctimonious hero harbors a criminal alter ego and fictional characters “from the hood” sometimes spring to life from his mind into his writing room largely serves its purpose even if it sometimes leaves its protagonist pretzeled into remaining believable within the story’s constraints. In a brilliant performance of nuance and subtle physicality, Jeffrey Wright portrays an idealistic novelist fed up with establishment industries profiting from “Black entertainment” that relies on tired and offensive tropes. Under a pseudonym, he writes an urban opus of his own to showcase the heights of hypocrisy in the publishing world, and his character grapples with a series of results both profound and outlandish. The best sequence pits Wright and the talented Issa Rae in one-on-one repartee about “selling out” that speaks volumes; tellingly it’s the film’s one discussion about art with the spotlight exclusively on two minorities. Sterling K. Brown and Leslie Uggams are among the standouts in the wonderful ensemble, adding heft to the family drama surrounding the lead character’s literary conundrum. The razor-sharp daggers pointed at material designed to be “Oscar bait” coupled with depiction of critics looking to applaud avant-garde authorship deliver ample episodes of cringeworthy comedy, and it’s all imminently watchable, entertaining and insightful. With Wright as the magnetic anchor for the pointed parody, Jefferson delightfully pulls off one of the most memorable movies of the year.
The premise that a frumpy professor portrayed by Nicolas Cage is inexplicably invading the dreams of people everywhere is an excellent jumping-off point for a film of mostly successful big swings that also functions as a surprising wake-up call about profound societal issues. Cage is effective as a prickly protagonist whose pride gets the best of him when he finds himself an unwitting interloper in others’ consciousness in Kristoffer Borgli’s brainy comedy Dream Scenario (B). A committed Cage gets solid ensemble support from the talented Julianne Nicholson as his profoundly observant wife and from hilarious Michael Cera as cynical consultant to the big man on hippocampus. Borgli creates an uneasy sense of dread throughout the movie dotted with droll observations and fun bits of physical comedy. The story plumbs topics ranging from cancel culture wars to the subversive effects of modern propaganda. Alas third act problems break the film’s stride; it’s like a two-part anthology with most of it a masterpiece followed by a mild misfire of a coda. The movie is best in its quiet moments as we watch Cage embrace the fantasy. There’s a lot to enjoy in entertaining the thought.
Our video series exploring the deeper meaning within major films continues this month with an examination of Killers of the Flower Moon.
Disney’s centennial emerges as its animation division experiences an awkward crossroads. Do animators lean into princesses, swashbucklers or steampunk? Do they focus on hand-drawn or computer generated animation? Tried and true Menkens and Mirandas or other new voices? Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn’s Wish (C+) is evidence of creative inertia, compromise and the wrong kind of recycling as its makers craft measures of vintage atmosphere but draw too heavily on fan service origin stories over forging interesting new paths. Your eyes aren’t deceiving you: that’s actually a mixture of watercolor and CG, a literal tug-of-war for tone in cartoon compositions before you even fixate on the film’s undercooked but byzantine story. It’s all a mallet to the palette. The plot focuses on Asha (voiced by a spirited Ariana DeBose), who makes a passionate plea to the stars after sensing a darkness in her kingdom led by Magnifico (Chris Pine, all snark and bark). The so-so music by Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice (frequent Selena Gomez collaborators) is a nod to contemporary sensibilities but feels overwrought against the frilly imagery; they feel like stand-ins for something more hummable. There are indeed some creative flourishes: the notion that the deepest wishes of a country’s citizenry live inside precious bubbles within a royal repository and must be rescued and returned to their rightful owners feels like the stuff of Pixar pop psychology fusing into Disney proper. Buck and Veerasunthorn have delivered a pleasant enough fairy tale with heart, but it’s not quite emotional or funny enough to score classic status. They don’t even score with funny sidekicks. For all the building blocks assembled in the service of a Disney formula, it rarely reaches its higher yearning.
In a cinematic year filled with logline leftovers based on Air Jordan sneakers, Blackberry devices and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, moviegoers can express guilty pleasure and gratitude for a film adapted from its own Grindhouse mock trailer. Expect to preview coming attractions for a surefire franchise-in-the-making because Eli Roth’s latest scrappy, schlocky and overstuffed horror movie is certain to become a perennial feast: this first Thanksgiving (B-) film with a Final Girl delivers a multi-course cornucopia of clever kills. The movie’s cold open foists viewers into the mayhem and satirical delirium of a Black Friday sale riot that ends in a bargain-hunting bloodbath; a year later, in a related revenge storyline, a sextet of precocious Plymouth Rock teenagers try to avert a mysterious serial killer intent on creating a carving board of the Massachusetts town’s denizens. Nell Verlaque is a bright and nuanced lead actress supported by an ensemble of familiar faces such as Patrick Dempsey (yikes, that terrible Boston accent!) and Gina Gershon (mercifully muted) in supporting roles. The film is exactly as advertised – a Scream-style thriller mystery festooned in harvest season accoutrements, from pitchforks to parades. In the film genre of splatter films set on gory days, this is much more mid-tier slasher à la Happy Birthday to Me than rising to Halloween masterpiece levels. The story contains genuine jump scares, grisly murders of the bloody disgusting variety and ribald belly laughs. The film’s veritable turkey trot of graphic violence is so mercilessly cartoonish, it makes Cocaine Bear look downright avant garde. There’s an inspired moment when the heroine hides from the masked “John Carver” among mannequin heads in a beauty school classroom and employs hairspray as impromptu mace. Roth paces the film with finesse and fury and continually raises the stakes; he never mistakenly confuses his film with high art. Sure some elements are undercooked, but it’s ultimately a cavalcade of communal gasps. Buckle up, pilgrims, for high-camp, high-stakes, horned-up plenty.
Like a triangle of sadness refracted through the lens of a glass onion, “eat the rich”parables have become played out parasites on the multiplex menu. Emerald Fennell’s curious sophomore outing, Saltburn (C+), is a mid-2000s set vodka stinger of a black comedy imploring viewers to examine the motivations of two Mr. Brightsides, the yearning nebbish Oxford scholarship recipient Oliver portrayed by Barry Keoghan and his half-hearted golden boy aristocrat schoolmate Felix played by Jacob Elordi. Pauper and prince become fast friends against the backdrop of a cruel summer of parties and people as playthings amidst the eccentric dynamic of the film’s titular palatial estate, home of much style and little substance. The characters’ motivations remain murky throughout the proceedings, leaving only two definitive takeaways: that the pulpy puzzle box of a production design is often absolutely divine and that Rosalind Pike is camp genius in her role as the rich family’s oblivious mum, Lady Elspeth Catton, whose blithe asides are bliss. In between MGMT and Arcade Fire needle drops and kinky sequences filled with body fluids rivaling Babylon, the story is feckless when it should be reckless in its drift toward a decadent denouement. Both wily leading men display ample charms but to diminishing returns. Fennell’s folly ultimately swirls and almost drowns in tepid bathwater evocative of the similarly plotted and far better thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley. Swim through this film’s sick lullabies and choke on its alibis at your own risk.
A rambling Rorschach Test of psychological perceptions takes the spotlight as characters experience the twisty limits of Method Acting in the peculiar new Todd Haynes dark comedy May December (A-). Natalie Portman plays an actress visiting Savannah, Georgia on an indie film research mission to study a real-life woman played by Julianne Moore and her much younger husband portrayed by Charles Melton the details of their notorious tabloid romance which started when he was underage. The movie presents an escalating series of off-kilter sequences, bombastic music and brazenly theatrical conceits ranging from melodramatic monologues to acting in front of mirrors to speaking about technique to acting classes. Portman’s character finds herself going deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of intrigue and investigation, with increasingly thorny and unnerving results. She gets an iconic moment when she describes what filming an intimate scene in a movie is like and loses herself in the notion that sometimes it’s highly technical and sometimes you don’t want to admit you felt a little chemistry. All three primary actors are fabulous with the women trading secrets and lies and an increasingly similar appearance and relative newcomer Melton providing an object of unusual sympathy. Moore plumbs great depths of her sex offender character loosely based on the true story of Mary Kay Letourneau the audience may think it knows. Haynes has built a career on opulent domestic stories often with subtext of social persecution, and his latest is a brilliant remix of some of his most austere and audacious themes. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it will undoubtedly keep viewers guessing where one person’s scandal starts and another’s art fills in the gaps.
Behold the island of misfit goys stuck together over the 1970 Christmas break at a New England prep school campus in Alexander Payne’s snappy and sentimental The Holdovers (A-). A grumpy instructor brilliantly inhabited by Paul Giamatti, a brainy student troublemaker beautifully portrayed by Dominic Sessa and the school’s head cook, a grieving mother flawlessly played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph are among the sterling ensemble of this seriocomedy about the unlikely bonds formed between surrogate families. Payne is a preeminent chronicler of the American experience, and he finds pockets of marvelous introspection in the seeds of the Me Decade as the cynical denizens who populate his story reflect on loneliness, loss and the lies people sometimes tell themselves to cope. That said, the film is often riotously funny amidst the piercing insights. This is the curmudgeon role for which Giamatti was born to play, as viewers watch the blowhard soften up over time. Sessa and Randolph provide the lead actor magnificent foils at two different generations and are vital contributors to one of the most endearing trios to share the screen of late. The skillful production design and mellow music capture a lovely innocence juxtaposed with the movie’s smartly sketched characters. The story could have used some tightening in a few key passages, and there are times when Randolph’s glorious character gets mildly sidelined and missed; but Payne’s picaresque with indelible characters is one for the history books.
After Baz Luhrmann’s maximalist telling of the life of the king of rock ’n’ roll, there was little choice for someone else showcasing aspects of the Presley legend but to swing the pendulum the other direction for a version of Elvis lore from a different point of view. Unfortunately, writer/director Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla (C) loses something in translation. The actress Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla Presley is the film’s main saving grace, playing the ingenue from ages 14 to 27 and not missing a beat with a tender, affecting and quiet performance. With a nostalgic gaze of loving pinks and lace, it’s clear Coppola is depicting a girl emerging into a world of which she’s never conceived, and there’s something fascinating about the delicate depiction of that optimistic wonderland. But opposite a low-energy, rather charisma-free version of Elvis, played with brooding mystery by Jacob Elordi, the chemistry just isn’t there; and watching the “14-year-old meets 24-year-old” courtship origins followed by abuse and adultery makes for a slow-burn descent into nightmare. It’s not enough of a barn-burner to present a compelling alternative memoir nor plot-driven enough to demand rapt attention. There’s also no Elvis music, with the bands Phoenix and Sons of Raphael adding whatever creative flourishes they can to the soundscape more to dramatize the title heroine’s interior life than to replace the iconic songbook. It’s a noble experiment of tone poem as feature film but doesn’t truly plum much depth out of its central characters or give them much to do once the shock of the age gap is handled. The auteur’s precious snow globe filled with home, hearth and an unconventional relationship is rather inert on its mantle and rarely gets all shook up.
Plan to redeem your game tokens and exchange your skee-ball tickets for weak jump scares and inert performances as the resident animatronic mascot bear and his bandmates at an abandoned fictional family entertainment emporium are prone to murder in Emma Tammi’s horror film Five Nights at Freddy’s (D+). As if the high concept based on cult hit video game lore weren’t enough to fill the film’s running time, the night security guard (Josh Hutcherson), who sometimes brings little sister (Piper Rubio) to work, also uses dream therapy in an attempt to recall the identity of the man who kidnapped his younger brother years ago (hint to the mystery arrives in the form of there being fewer than a half dozen men in the cast). The morose story about multi-generational trauma hardly seems the stuff of an action film aimed at teenagers, but the plot doesn’t seem to be the main attraction here. Few in the ensemble seem adequately phased by the sinister supernatural activities afoot as minor themes about hero complexes and child custody seep into the fright flick’s consciousness. Most notable in the mayhem is the sturdy practical effects work of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to craft the creepy-cute denizens of the plundered pizza palace, but even these vivacious vigilantes aren’t given much to do. Mr. Cupcake, a yeasty beast and patron saint of bygone birthdays, is a particularly spry killer. The plot is rather routine with a PG-13 rating likely to reward starter sets of horror movie fans. Hutcherson makes little impression as the underwritten protagonist, and Tammi never fully leverages the macabre humor of the setting nor the potential terror embodied in the mechanical animals to get much under the surface. For all the imaginative possibilities, the end result of the movie’s prolonged gestation period is a work largely devoid of scares or personality, a gateway horror movie that opens the door to a franchise with potentially more creative possibilities.
Mountains of moral dilemma loom large as the secrets of an isolated family living in the French Alps become the sprawling stuff of courtroom drama in director/co-writer Justine Triet’s gripping masterpiece Anatomy of a Fall (Anatomie d’une chute) (A+). In a magnificent role and meticulous performance, Sandra Hüller stars as a steely novelist trying to prove her innocence in the mysterious circumstances of her husband’s death. Samuel Theis plays her troubled spouse, largely depicted in creative flashbacks; and the talented child actor Milo Machado-Graner portrays their pensive visually impaired son. The boy and his dog were the lone witnesses to the tragedy in the snow-capped terrain. Also very effective in their roles are Swann Arlaud as the protagonist’s wily lawyer and Antoine Reinartz as the hard-charging prosecutor, and the labyrinthine particulars of the complex French judicial system prove surprisingly entertaining and insightful. Triet consistently plays with point of view, with what she shows and what she doesn’t, as she spins the plates of austere human drama and confounds audience expectations about the table stakes and motivations of the film’s unconventional family. The fact the central character is a German who speaks English and attempts to speak French further clouds the issues at hand, creating layers of confusion and complexity around her outlook. Fans of crime thrillers will enjoy the procedural elements of the story, and the voyeuristic camera work and exacting pace leave lots of room for revelations and interpretations about the trappings of matrimony and the motivations of artists. Hüller’s bravura performance in particular anchors the family drama in cerebral shades. There are also some chilling implications for the role of perspective in determining the outcome of justice; and viewers are certain to have hot takes on Hüller’s icy character. This is brilliant, twisty human drama and among the best films of the year.
Who better to deliver both the deliberate and the deadpan than director David Fincher, who finds his match in phenomenal actor Michael Fassbender as the titular assassin of The Killer (B+)? A master of meticulous procedurals, Fincher places his latest antihero at the helm of tidy chapters in successive global cities with a droll voice-over narrating the nuances of what it means to be a hitman. After an intriguing inciting incident, the main man must maneuver through an episodic series of entertaining gauntlets to untangle a violent labyrinth. There’s a consistent tone of the unexpected in both the action and the humor, and although there’s not a lot of straight-up dialogue, there’s a wonderful sequence opposite the splendid Tilda Swinton that crystallizes the film’s themes. The protagonist’s creative techniques are met with marvelous camera work and music. If the noirish film suffers from any fault, it’s a little too cold and consistent (imagine that from Fincher!) but it’s never tedious or boring. In fact this gritty, graceful feature film is as efficient as a bullet in making its mark.