Thursday, December 31, 2020
Almost everyone who has written about Sylvie's Love has mentioned director Douglas Sirk. Sirk's career has become synonymous with lush 1950s melodramas such as All That Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life, and Magnificent Obsession. The luscious colors of those melodramatic movies tended to ease the pain experienced by characters who sometimes found themselves shackled by convention. Those familiar with Hollywood of the 1950s will have no trouble understanding the references to Sirk when they watch Sylvie's Love. If Sirk had been black and if Hollywood were a more equitable place during the 1950s, he might have made Sylvie's Love, the story of star-crossed lovers played by Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha with direction by Eugene Ashe. Thompson portrays Sylvie, a young woman who works at her father's Harlem record store. There, she meets jazz saxophonist Robert (Asomugha). The two obviously are meant for each other, which, in the world of this and so many other movies, means they can't be together -- at least for most of the movie. Social pressures arise. Sylvie's mother operates a finishing school for young Black women. She believes her daughter should fulfill her promise and marry Lacy Parker (Alano Miller), her fiancee who's on military duty in Korea. Lacy guarantees a life of bourgeois comfort; Robert may be the next Coltrane, but he offers the instability of a musician's life. It's hardly surprising that it takes a full 115 minutes to iron out the complications, including the fact that Sylvie does marry Lacy, even while pregnant with Robert's child. Cinematographer Declan Quinn, production designer Mayne Berke, and costume designer Phoenix Mellow make substantial contributions and Thompson makes a glamorous yet plausible romantic lead with Asomugha bringing cool reserve to the role of Robert. Bottom line: Ashe and his team have made a movie about passion, love and the binding stricture of convention that's ... well .... notable for making the style of yesterday feel fresh.I'm Your Woman
Rachel Brosnahan, of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel fame, stars in I'm Your Woman, a convoluted neo-noir from director Julia Hart, who wrote the screenplay with her husband Jordan Horowitz. Brosnahan plays Jean, a woman who's married to a thief (Bill Heck). Tired of playing the bored housewife, Jean's life receives a jolt when her husband Eddie shows up with a baby, supposed compensation for the fact that Jean hasn't been able to have a child of her own. It takes a while to learn how Eddie obtained this baby, an infant who Jean names Harry. The movie takes its time offering an explanation for baby Harry's arrival and just about every other question it raises, putting Jean in the center of a dangerous drama that she doesn't understand. When Eddie fails to return from a job, Cal (Arinze Kene) shows up and takes her to a supposed safe house. She asks questions but gets no answers. Patience is required if you're going to follow I'm Your Woman to its conclusion as Jean makes the transition from a helpless wife and clueless mother to a woman who attempts to control her own fate. I imagine that some viewers will simply give up, having decided that Jean's journey isn't worth all the uncertainty. Supporting performances by Marsha Stephanie Blake and Frankie Faison add weight, though, and, by the end, everything has been explained and nothing makes total sense. Still, I stuck with I'm Your Woman which offers surprising twists as its story unfolds around a character who seems to know less about what's going on than anyone in the movie -- other than the audience. That’s not always a bad place to be.Hunter Hunter
At some point, nearly everyone has entertained a fantasy about living off the grid in an isolated cabin in the woods. For me, that's a 30-second fantasy. I know myself well enough to know that it wouldn't take more than a couple of hours for me to get sick of the natural world and for it to tire of me. But the family in Hunter Hunter is living their wilderness dream, supporting themselves with the little money they're able to earn by selling the furs of animals they trap. A survivalist dad (Devon Sawa) takes his daughter (Summer H. Howell) on instructional hunts and Mom (Camille Sullivan) cooks the meager fare that keeps the family alive. She wouldn't mind a move back to town. One day, Dad discovers something grisly in one of his traps. A killer wolf may be on the prowl. You can bet that not everyone will make it out of the woods alive. Director Shawn Linden introduces a wounded man (Nick Stahl) into the story, someone we presume will threaten the already teetering lives of these woodsy folks. I was up for a movie that shared my wariness about immersion in the natural world, but Hunter Hunter eventually turns into a helping of horror with an ending that sears itself into memory. No fair saying more, but know this: Linden creates a credible backwoods drama and he delivers a message about who might be the forest's most dangerous predator. I can't say I endorse the movie's ending, which lands a punch that's gory and wince-inducing enough to put you off your feed for several hours after viewing.
Thursday, December 24, 2020
Imagine being on the verge of achieving something you've dreamed about your whole life. Jazz pianist Joe Gardner (voice by Jamie Foxx) finds himself in exactly that position in Soul, the latest animated feature from Pixar.
Wednesday, December 23, 2020
Director Andrei Konchalovsky's Dear Comrades! takes its cue from an event that may be unfamiliar to most American audiences. In 1962, 26 striking workers in the city of Novocherkassk were killed by Soviet Soldiers. The workers were upset that they were facing lower wages at a time when prices were rising and goods were scarce.
Tuesday, December 22, 2020
A 35-year-old woman gets drunk at a club and goes home with a stranger. What, we ask? Another movie about a confused single woman who stumbles toward late-picture self-realization? Or worse, a looming romcom?
Monday, December 21, 2020
When it comes to picking the 10 best movies of the year, I’m more wary than usual. Aside from the customary fear that I’ll forget something obvious, I have to confess that, at times, I had difficulty keeping up with all the screening opportunities.
Like everyone else who writes about movies, I’ve also had to think about the possible demise (or at least severe diminishment) of the theatrical experience. I’ve often bristled at the fare that pops up in the nation’s multiplexes but never thought of them as points of literal rather than cultural contagion.
Vaccination looms, but few of us think the post-Covid world will be a precise mirror of the pre-Covid world.
As you peruse the list, you'll notice a preference for what might be termed "thematic heaviness," but, hey, I didn't make the movies: I only reviewed them.
So, I offer 10 movies with an admission that I not might have seen every movie relevant to the task.
1. On the Rocks
Director Sophia Coppola brought a light but knowing touch to a comedy that teamed Bill Murray and Rashida Jones as a New York father and daughter. Jones's character suspects that her husband (Marlon Wayans) might be cheating on her. Murray's character is all too eager to prove her right. The result: A first-class piece of escapism that, for me, became a perfect antidote to bouts of Covid-induced blues. And, yes, in a different year, I might not have put On the Rocks at the top of my list but Coppola reminded me of how much I miss escapism that doesn't make you hate yourself for enjoying it.
When Americans think about the end of World War II, we often are reminded of a country buoyed by the elation of victory, a precursor to the boom years that would follow. The experience in Russia was different. Partly because much of the war was fought on Russian soil, the country's devastation was greater than anything America experienced. Beanpole gives us a stark picture of just how bad things were. Director Kantemir Balagov steeps his movie in the deprivations of post-war Leningrad as he tells the story of two women who fought together in the war. A shattering blow of a movie, Beanpole reminds us that the price of war doesn't stop just because the guns have gone silent.
Director Kelly Reichardt brings a restrained sense of naturalism to a mud-caked work in which you practically can smell the characters. Without italicizing anything, Reichardt deals with prejudice and class differences in the Pacific Northwest of the 1800s. Put aside expectations, Reichardt and her two principal actors (Orion Lee and John Magaro) take the movie where it needs to go.
This out-sized hunk of cinema places its main character against a backdrop of sweeping political and social upheaval. Luca Marinelli gives one of the year's most robust performances as a writer cut in the Jack London mold. That's because this Italian import from director Pietro Marcello relocates a 1909 semi-autobiographical novel by London to Italy -- and makes it work.
Director Miranda July's movie resembles other movies about con artists save for the fact that the stakes are low and the con artists are anything but super-slick. Visiting the world of down-and-out Los Angeles, July obtains fine performances from Debra Winger, Richard Jenkins, Evan Rachel Wood, and Gina Rodriguez. Purposefully strange, Kajillionaire nonetheless is rooted in a young woman's need for love and acceptance.
Director Spike Lee more than does justice to Byrne's stage production, a musical brimming with irresistible polyrhythmic energy. Lee and Byrne create what is essentially a concert film -- but one with topical spin and winking humor. If you can sit still while watching this one, you need a pulse check.
Many of British director Ken Loach has a knack for capturing social and economic realities, often in telling slices of contemporary life. In this outing, Loach introduces us to Ricky (Kris Hitchen), a husband and father who's trying to make ends meet by working as a driver for a delivery service. What better time to think about those who struggle to survive and the toll it takes on their families?
Director Armando Iannucci and a terrific cast convinced me that one can never get enough of Charles Dickens on screen. In Personal History, Iannucci employs a winking sense of humor and a multiracial cast to wonderful effect. Credit Dev Patel with freshening the main character. Iannucci (In the Loop, Veep, and The Death of Stalin) adds a tasty variety of supporting performances with notable contributions from Peter Capaldi as Mr. Micawber, Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood), and a delightful Hugh Laurie as Mr. Dick.
Rob Rich and his wife Fox were imprisoned for a botched 1997 bank robbery. Director Garrett Bradley's moving documentary takes us deep into Fox's post-prison attempts to obtain her husband's release. Rich was sentenced to an unreasonably long 60 years. Fox commands the screen as a wife and mother of fierce determination. Not a documentary about guilt or innocence, Time instead takes a deep, often poetic dive into the injustices found in the American judicial system, leaving us to ponder the meaning of the words "fair" and "equitable."
Friday, December 18, 2020
Thursday, December 10, 2020
Garish and bubbly, The Prom makes no attempt to disguise its message, something on the order of the now-familiar yard sign that says, "We believe love is love."
Writer/director John Patrick Shanley's new movie -- Wild Mountain Thyme -- takes place in Ireland where Emily Blunt and Jamie Dornan star as a couple of farmers who've known each other all their lives.
Wednesday, December 9, 2020
Friday, December 4, 2020
In Nomadland, director Chloe Zhao mixes real wanderers and actors in ways that illuminate the lives of people who’ve permanently hit the road. The stock market may be breaking records, but a variety of people have checked out of the economy, some because they have no options and some by choice.
Thursday, December 3, 2020
If Another Round, the latest film from director Thomas Vinterberg, is any indication, Denmark might be badly in need of a national 12-step program. As the title suggests, Another Round takes on the subject of excessive drinking, tying it to the sagging ego of its main character, a high school teacher convincingly played by Mads Mikkelsen.
Wednesday, December 2, 2020
Sometimes a movie can be so inward-looking it threatens to vanish inside its own navel. That may be the case with Luxor, a movie about a physician who has been emotionally scarred by serving in a Syrian war zone.