Tag Archives: Movies (2020)

The worst films of 2020

If 2020 forced viewers to come up with ways to fill hours of idleness, The Queen’s Gambit and The Crown sufficed. So did a number of flicks under the aegis of Disney+, Amazon, or Netflix. Yet having the time didn’t make me profligate about spending it, especially after one of the five films below left me so blasted that I stumbled for the gin before realizing five hours remained before happy hour. The likes of The Trial of the Chicago 7 proved such an enervating experience that it reminded me I had a soul to crush.

As usual I thought putative prestige films deserved the skewering more than the obvious turkey.

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Kate Winslet makes ‘Ammonite’ worth watching

A actor who in youth showed no fear or self-consciousness inhabiting women whose will is a manifestation of their intelligence, Kate Winslet promises to fascinate as she approaches her third decade in film. Ammonite is unworthy of her. This film about British paleontologist Mary Anning and her romance with the younger future geologist Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) has problems with familiar beats and too close a similarity to writer-director Francis Lee’s last film God’s Own Country; but Winslet fills the role of Anning with such concentrated fury and attention to her work that she imbues the film with interest if not quite suspense. After a few years’ lull and a thoroughly uninteresting performance in Steve Jobs, it’s good to see Winslet back. We’re only now beginning to realize this actor’s depths. Continue reading

The best films of 2020: we made it

From the severe (Vitalina Varela) to the joyous (Lovers Rock), these four films kept surprising me. I wish Beanpole had shown up on more lists. At any rate I’m grateful to have survived 2020 to have watched them.

Click on hyperlinks for full reviews.

4. Vitalina Varela (dir. Pedro Costa).

“No casual Pedro Costa fans exist. Those who watch the Portuguese director’s films know they demand much. They can expect a supple use of chiaroscuro that subsumes narrative: Caravaggio as a post-modern. In Colossal Youth (2006) and Horse Money (2014), Costa returns to the fates of Cape Verdean immigrants, products of imperialism and the detritus of capitalism. He’s one of the working directors to love Black bodies without eroticizing or exoticizing them. Severe, even less tethered than its predecessors to the rudiments of a storyline, Vitalina Varela tests the patience but rewards the imagination.”

3. First Cow (dir. Kelly Reichardt).

“In [Kelly] Reichardt’s hybrid of Au Hazard, Baltazar and McCabe and Mrs. Miller set in the Oregon Territory, the ebbing of the beaver trade and unconfirmed whispers about gold prove too fleeting as prospects for Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) and Chinese emigré King-Lu (Orion Lee) cook cakes made in part from its milk. Putting aside, if one can, the fidelity of the production design to a primordial world of pine and mud, First Cow works because Reichardt’s (Certain Women, Meek’s Cutoff) manipulation of silences, eye for depth of field, and attention to homosocial nuances fuse with the script’s fableist underpinnings. This is a story, based on frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond’s 2004 novel The Half Life, about friendship and food, and it’s Reichardt’s best film.”

2. Beanpole (dir. Kantemir Balagov).

“Grim and unyielding, Beanpole unfurls like few war movies I’ve scene. This Oscar nominee for Best International Film shows how a shellshocked vet of the Battle of Leningrad, Ilya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), nicknamed Beanpole, adjusts to a civilian life as inchoate, absurd, and full of peril as what she saw in combat. In his second film, Kantemir Balagov (Closeness) proves he knows what he’s doing. Eschewing exposition, replete with long takes in which immersion brings the audience no closer to understanding what happens scene to scene, Beanpole demands patience.”

1. Lovers Rock (dir. Steve McQueen).

At least three entries in Steve McQueen’s short film sequence Small Axe surpass anything in the British director’s oeuvre. These glimpses into West Indian life in England during the last three decades of the twentieth century don’t just depict systemic racism in the court system and police form; they illustrate how Black men and women eke out lives doing what they can until they realize the corners they’ve been backed into. Lovers Rock my favorite of the series, relies less on dialogue and “acting” than on music and performance. Taking its cue from Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” played during a kitchen sequence involving goat curry, the film follows Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), best friend Patti (Shaniqua Okwok), and others who converge at a house party. Like a crasher delighted to be allowed to stay, McQueen lets the music overwhelm his revelers. “He’s the Greatest Dancer” sounds urgent again, “Kung Fu Fighting” a soundtrack to communal pleasure, the Revolutionaries’ “Kunta Kinte” an impromptu and most welcome anthem. The party isn’t an escape from reality; the party is woven into the reality of these people getting by in Thatcher’s England; dancing is part of their reality, my reality. Finally, Lovers Rock shows how even in the most welcome of spaces women can’t escape being targets. I’m a music critic by trade, so Steve McQueen is my people. He gets it.

Radio days: ‘The Vast of Night’

To suggest a character’s relation to their environment, directors like Max Ophuls and Robert Altman used the tracking shot with a surveyor’s accuracy. Simultaneously intimate and suffused with a twice-told tales distance, The Vast of Night is an impressive debut for Andrew Patterson. The film is a rare thing: a period piece suffused with dread, not nostalgia. Even rarer, it uses allusions to 1950s UFO films for a seriousness expected from a Spielberg but without his sense of grandeur. As well as co-writing (under the name James Montague) a solid script with peppery rapid-fire dialogue, Montague shows a confident hand behind the camera. Imagine Ophuls directing a Twilight Zone episode in 1960. Continue reading

‘Miss Juneteenth’ a lovely, modest depiction of mother love

Few things pall like adolescent glory. Old timers remember it. Younger people wonder why the fuss. For Turquoise Jones, winner of Ft. Worth’s Miss Juneteenth pageant in 2004, life made other plans. An employee at a suburban BBQ joint, she hopes her daughter Kai will follow in her footsteps. Channing Godfrey Peoples’ charming debut traces how the contest strains the relationship between her and Turquoise. A lot goes on in a film that on first glance looks like all surface: Miss Juneteenth is about being a Black woman approaching middle age, work, community, and the sanctity of tradition. For Nicole Beharie and Alexis Chikaeze, who play Turquoise and Kai, respectively, their performances are small miracles of warmth.

To hope your child has it better is to burden them too. “She my dream now,” Turquoise says, and though Kai wants to win as much as her mother she’s still a teen, a passive figure while she endures inspirational homilies and tries on dresses she can’t afford. The boyfriend Kai’s acquired  (Jaime Matthis) and the dance troupe she’d like to join are to Turquoise detractions.. To supplement her income, Turquoise works as a mortician for a funeral parlor, whose owner has a romantic interest in her. Meanwhile husband Ronnie (Kendrick Sampson), from whom she’s separated, is still part of her life. “You just make bad-ass man choices,” she hears in some form or another.

Leisurely to a fault, Miss Juneteenth presents these characters with a minimum of fuss, perhaps too minimal; it’s an eighty-minute film pulled and yanked into an hour and forty minutes. But Peoples gets small town politics: to step away from annoyances is impossible when they live close by. Lori Hayes brings precision and intensity as Turquoise’s sanctimonious mom, a reformed alcoholic who discovers God with the usual zealotry of the newly converted. These characters have their reasons; when we see Ronnie and Turquoise together, we understand the initial attraction and what still binds them.

Named after the emancipation day of Texan slaves almost three years after Lincoln’s proclamation, Miss Juneteenth makes quiet political points. Their community is segregated, miles from Ft. Worth’s White wealth. The White woman who owns the dress shop gives Turquoise the kind of cold scrutiny that might’ve compelled her to toss her out fifty years ago (Turquoise has to have her seventeen-year-old dress refitted for Kai). The pageantry matters because something has to. In the film’s most eloquent passage, Peoples and cinematographer Daniel Patterson catch Turquoise in long shot, sitting and smoking on her front stoop, the winning crown from long ago on her head. Then the camera approaches her until her rue, exhaustion, and determination dominate the screen. When the film ends, and the memory of Kai performing Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” at the pageant flickers back into view, its rhythms and lyrics invest what has unfolded with an earned grace.

GRADE:  B+

‘Pieces of a Woman’ an uneven study of grief, numbness

The first third of Pieces of a Woman consists of one of the most harrowing depictions of childbirth I’ve seen. The gradations — smiling anxiety shading to the grim determination to get the deed done before the onset of sheer terror — have a visual correspondence; director Kornél Mundruczó’s camera, his long shots imbued with wariness, follows with sensual abandon Martha Weiss (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean Carson (Shia LaBeouf) around the bedroom where they have decided to have a natural birth overseen by a midwife Eva (Molly Parker). When the process takes longer than necessary, the camera pans, taking in Vanessa’s curves and the fear in Sean’s face partially shrouded by an unkempt beard. Continue reading

Muddying the waters: ‘Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’

Like The Naked Gun series, the Borat films seem review-proof. Sacha Baron Cohen’s schtick — playing the boobish Kazakh who coaxes out the polite, casual racism and misogynism of Americans — seems a mid ’00s phenomenon as tied to its era as Dubya jokes, 50 Cent singles, and Blackberries. The United States visited by Borat for the first time since 2006 remains more than unchanged: it has intensified its relationship with stupidity. Funnier and flabbier than its predecessor, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is less a film than a succession of sketches held together by the glee with which these rural Americans reveal themselves and by an unbecoming sentimentality. Continue reading

‘Promising Young Woman’ shows a Monte Cristo of #MeToo

Malice becomes Carey Mulligan; it makes her light on her feet. In Promising Young Woman, she plays Cassie, a coffee shop barista who fakes getting wasted on weekends, waits for guys to attempt to rape her, and, after threatening them, writes their names in a notebook whose entries keep expanding. She’s up to the challenges in tyro Emerald Fennell’s script and direction; the film, though, can’t settle on a tonal approach. Unfolding as high (and black) comedy, it gets soppier in its last third as if Fennell couldn’t contain the forces that turn Cassie into the Monte Cristo of #MeToo. Continue reading

Enjoy the silence: ‘Sound of Metal’

From a pre-title sequence at a concert to an establishing shot inside a trailer, Sound of Metal understands how the adrenalized rush of performance must yield to normality. A recovering addict, Ruben (Riz Ahmed) had trouble with this transition. But from its opening minutes director Darius Marder disorients the audience. Making breakfast for girlfriend and bandmate Lou (Olivia Cooke) is almost creepily normal. Eventually Ruben, drummer for metal duo Blackgammon, realizes the toll that years of loud music has exacted on his hearing. Working from a script by Marder and Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines), Sound of Metal depicts, often pedantically, the spiritual wear on an aging man who thought he had figured stuff out and now must drastically change his life. Continue reading

‘The Father’ relies on stagebound gimmickry

Treated as a Great Actor by audiences and his peers, Hopkins is actually a hambone like mentor Richard Burton, at his most commanding when he leavens the bluster with chuckled asides. Playing the eponymous character in Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his own play gives the eighty-two-year-old actor the chance to flaunt every trick. In a too cute bit of meta gymnastics, Hopkins is Anthony, an opera buff cared for by his increasingly harried daughter Anne (Olivia Colman). A missing watch — stolen, Anthony insists — becomes a leitmotif. She will leave for Paris with her lover, she tells him in the film’s opening minutes, a development that stirs Anthony’s largeness of spiri: “You mean a man?” Later he will observe, “She’s not very bright.” Continue reading

‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ a valentine to an artist, a farewell to an actor

Viola Davis has never played a scene like the one between her Ma Rainey and girlfriend. Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). Encircling Dussie in her arms, Ma sings “Those Dogs of Mine” in a moist bullfrog croak as hot as the perspiration agleam on their bodies. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has a few moments like this, compensating for the inevitable awkwardness of transferring August Wilson’s 1982 play, part of his decalogue Pittsburgh Cycle, to the screen. George C. Wolfe (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) loves actors, it’s clear. He loves the stage too. The affection for stage wobbles his film but not fatally. From Sidney Lumet’s Long Day’s Journey into Night to Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street, directors have embraced stage conventions because when the material is so powerful who the hell cares about opening it up? Continue reading

‘French Exit’ too dependent on star turns

With great pain, I announce that Michelle Pfeiffer is one of the reasons why French Exit is such a stiff; I could feel it dying and stiffening with each minute. How is this possible? For a generation of moviegoers born after, say, 1960, few American actresses inspire such good will: I want Pfeiffer to have another commercial hit and an Oscar nomination. But this misbegotten adaptation of Patrick de Witt’s waspish little novel, directed by ‎Azazel Jacobs (responsible for another slog called The Lovers), lacks the fizz that Whit Stillman or Greta Gerwig would’ve have instilled.  The Few things grate more than failed archness. French Exit is so self-infatuated that I wanted to kick its shins.

“To get out of New York is the thing, honey,” Frances Price (Pfeiffer) tells son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) upon learning she’s broke. It seems Frances spends her life getting him out of situations over which she’s lost control: the film opens with her springing him from boarding school, after all. Responding delightedly to best friend Joan (Susan Coyne)’s request to occupy her empty Paris apartment, Frances sells her assets and crosses the Atlantic, Malcolm and cat Small Frank in tow. On the boat Malcolm hooks up with soothsayer Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald, the best part about the film), an event that proves propitious once they’ve settled in the City of Lights.

I should note that before the film sputters to life in Paris it spends thirty-one excruciating minutes greasing exposition with poorly delivered witticisms. “My plan was to die before the money ran out, but I kept, and keep, not dying,” Frances says to a financial advisor, but the way Pfeiffer delivers the line, clutching an ever-present cigarette, she could be a Saturday Night Live actor impersonating a vapid Upper East Sider. Using the visual language of television lets the whimsy congeal on screen: seances in which Frances’ dead husband Frank possesses, according to Madeleine, their bored cat; the treatment of a detective of color (Isaach De Bankolé); the arrival of Malcolm’s former fiancee’s new boyfriend (Daniel di Tomasso); Frances setting a centerpiece aflame when les serveurs aim their Parisian hauteur at them.

If the performances had salvaged the material, French Exit wouldn’t feel like an anchor tied around one’s ankles, but, even making allowances for the mother-son tension the novel and script explain, Hedges and Pfeiffer have little chemistry; the former in particular bears the mummified expression of an actor thinking of his next project. Here’s hoping Pfeiffer doesn’t delay.