Many new films of interest opening this Friday—so many, in fact, that we had to write separately about the week’s revival highlights (see here) and new documentaries (see here). In particular, arriving all at once are three of the year’s best big-screen American dramas, Marriage Story, The Report and Honey Boy, all detailed below.
Several new films did not screen in time to be reviewed, among them
actor-turned-director Elizabeth Banks’ Charlie’s Angels reboot, which is reputed to have a less jokey tenor than the ’70s TV show’s prior big-screen spinoffs. This version has Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott and Ella Balinska as the titular trio. The latest from Bill Condon (Kinsey, Chicago) is The Good Liar, a cat-and-mouse, tongue-in-cheek thriller with Ian McKellan as a senior con man preying on rich widows, and Helen Mirren as his not-so-helpless intended new victim. Early reviews have been a lot more complimentary towards the performers than their material, which is derived from a pulp novel by Nicholas Searle.
On the other hand, James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari got a primarily favorable response on the festival trail over the last couple months. Christian Bale and Matt Damon star as key members of the real-life American team that was tasked with getting staid, practical Ford Motor Co. into the racing-car business—and hopefully showing up the smug Italians who perpetually won at glamorous Le Mans—in the mid-1960s. Also arriving with some critical admiration under its belt is another fact-based drama, The Warrior Queen of Jhansi. The U.K. costume piece from Swati Bhise chronicles an early (mid-1800s) mutiny in India against colonial British occupation. The director’s daughter Devika Bhise plays the titular rebellion leader, while Rupert Everett, Derek Jacobi and Jodhi May (as Queen Victoria) represent “the Crown’s interests.”
We did see The Day Shall Come (opening at Alamo Drafthouse), the new satire in which FBI agents including Anna Kendrick attempt to entrap a hapless, penniless group of Miami black nationalists (led by Marchant Davis) into behaving like terrorists. It’s got a sobering denouement that indicts our government’s over-eagerness to lure people of color into crimes they can be imprisoned for (while largely ignoring real threats, like white supremacists), but all the preceding comedy falls a bit flat. That’s disappointing, given that writer-director Christopher Morris’ prior Four Lion sactually did manage to make terrorism seem a viable topic for parody.
Unless otherwise noted, all films below are also opening at area theaters on Fri/15:
Presumably Divorce Story would have been too much of a box-office repellant, but that’s a more apt title for this latest from writer-director Noah Baumbach, of The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha and so forth. He’s an astringently clever, divisive talent whose films I’ve sometimes liked a lot (particularly the flop Margot at the Wedding), sometimes less so. But there’s no question this is his most smoothly accomplished and accessible work—even those who’ve hated prior Baumbach enterprises are encouraged to give it a go.
Scarlett Johanssen and Adam Driver play Nicole and Charlie, a couple who are in the process of ending their ten-year marriage, something she’s instigated and which he’s unhappy about. But they’ve agreed to the basic terms of an amicable parting, mostly for the sake of only child Henry (Azhy Robertson), whose life they want to disrupt as little as possible. They’re both in show business: He’s a successful, somewhat avant-garde stage director planning his Broadway debut, while she’s a former Hollywood starlet who happily changed her address and career after they met. But now she feels stifled by the marriage, as well as the theater company she’s raised the profile of, yet which he firmly controls. So she’s going back to Los Angeles to shoot a pilot for a TV series, with the understanding that she (and Henry) will soon be back in NYC for continued co-parenting.
Once back in L.A., however, she doesn’t want to leave. And though they’d figured the “amicable” part of parting would stay that way if they kept lawyers out of it, Nicole lets her well-intentioned mother (Julie Hagerty) convince her to consult one. Alarmed, Charlie is soon lawyering up, too. The arrival of characters spectacularly played by Laura Dern and Alan Alda (plus Ray Liotta as yet a third legal rep) turns Marriage Story into a tale of mutually-agreed-upon divorce pushed into all-out war.
These power-suited figures are hilarious. Yet Baumbach and his actors never resort to farce, and always find room for real pain and tenderness. None of these people are monsters—though some may get paid to play the part. There are minor things to quibble about here (notably that Johansson’s character gets the short end of the sympathy stick), but this is a rare American drama with big stars that is incisive, human-scaled, witty and heartfelt without the least whiff of sentimental or melodramatic manipulation. At area theaters.
It’s been a great year for Adam Driver, who provides the most moving moments in Marriage Story and also has a little thing called Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker coming up. He’s just about the whole show in this excellent first directorial feature by producer (the Inconvenient Truth documentaries) and scenarist (several Steven Soderbergh films) Scott Z. Burns.
He plays Daniel J. Jones, the real-life Senate staffer who was asked to lead an investigation into so-called Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (like waterboarding) used by the U.S. after 9/11 on accused terrorists—many of whom were arrested and held without charges, then turned out to have committed no crimes and possess no valuable intel at all. How did our government get sold on the idea that these torture methods would be successful, let alone were necessary? Was it all a colossal boondoggle that ultimately only stained America’s human rights reputation?
Needless to say, what Jones and his team uncover is unflattering enough to trigger angry resistance from the GOP, the CIA, and even his boss Dianne Feinstein (a terrific Annette Bening)—who’s not about to bury the truth, but also pragmatically weighs what it might cost the nation. Even the Obama White House is reluctant to encourage revelations that can only exacerbate partisan strife.
Driver plays a wonk work-obsessed and justice-minded enough to keep pushing when everyone else is pushing back. He’s supported by an excellent cast including Ted Levine, Michael C. Hall, Maura Tierney, Cory Stoll and Tim Blake Nelson. Serious yet ingratiating, talky yet with a thriller’s grip, The Report may not be quite on the level of All the President’s Men. Still, as a dramatization of a red-hot political scandal that’s barely cooled, it’s definitely in the same league, and is certainly one of the best such movies in years. At area theaters.
Shia LaBeouf has gotten a lot of flak in recent years for being, well, bizarre—acting out in public, disorderly conduct, pretentious art projects (including one that got him accused of plagiarism), etc. Plus, I must admit, his acting never did much for me. So it was easy to pigeonhole him as a classic Hollywood ex-child-actor hot mess, minus the significant talent of some similar cases. But his latest performances demonstrated greater range. And Honey Boy is a personal game-changer in many ways, not just because LaBeouf is excellent in it, but because his own screenplay is a fairly brutal fictionalized recap of that child acting stint, with the star himself playing his manipulative, exploitative, immature father. Yet the film (directed by Alma Har’el) is nuanced and complex enough to offer some semblance of forgiveness even as it depicts a parental relationship that might well be termed abusive.
We first meet Otis Lort as an adult (Lucas Hedges), filming a big, dumb action fantasy that looks a whole lot like one of the Transformers films LaBeouf has made. But the majority of Honey Boy takes place some years earlier, when our protagonist is a 12-year-old boy (Noah Jupe) shooting sitcoms, commercials and TV movies under the supposed guardianship of father James (LaBeouf). The latter is himself a failed entertainer—one of those would-be comedy types who’s unfunny because you can smell the underlying hostility—who’s no longer with Otis’ mother. This paid-parental-chaperone gig is, in fact, a sort of favor to him: He needs the money, and in theory it’s a chance for dad and son to bond despite the broken marriage. But we immediately suss that James is a terrible caretaker who in fact requires more caretaking (as well as a paycheck) from his son than vice versa. He’s also quite blunt about resenting an offspring already more successful than he’ll ever be.
This is a pretty horrible dynamic, Honey Boy pulls no punches as it shows things degenerate even further, as dad goes off the rails and Otis seeks comfort in the questionably-suitable friendship of a teen (FKA Twigs) who lives in the same semi-skeevy motel complex—and who may already be a sex worker. Few things are more painful to witness than a child being irresponsibly exposed to the worst adult behavior. But that precisely describes a great deal of this movie, which is basically a dramatized record of personal trauma. It is greatly to Har’el and LaBeouf’s credit that their project emerges something other than a voyeuristic dirge, balancing its piercing moments with surprisingly playful and tender ones. It’s not a perfect film, yet it pulls off very tough subject matter in ways both honest and inventive. Embarcadero, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here.
Robert Flaherty’s 1922 Nanook of the North was roughly to documentaries what The Birth of a Nation was to narrative features—kicking wide open a door that had hitherto just been ajar. Even then, it portrayed a way of life (in the Canadian Arctic) that was beginning to die out. Nearly a century later, this Bulgarian-produced feature set in the Far Eastern Russian republic of Sakha finds a very similar existence in its apparent death throes, and names its lead character Nanook to draw the most deliberate possible parallel.
He (Mikhail Aprosimov) and wife Sedna (Feodosia Ivanova) are Yakuts, whose traditions look very much like that of the Inuits, in an equally frozen Far North that’s also Far East. But despite the seeming timelessness of their isolated lives, they are getting older, and the world is changing. Nanook was once a reindeer herder; now he seldom sights even a stray buck in the distance. The ice fishing they largely survive on has become scarce. A sole daughter apparently ran away some time ago, and now works in a distant mining operation.
Milko Lazarov’s feature is shot in a super-wide format, all the better to capture the strikingly spare vistas here. Without much plot (though it does eventually “go somewhere,” both in story and geographic terms), Aga is best experienced as a sort of visual poem commemorating a culture that may soon be reduced to a historical back-chapter. While the phrase “climate change” is never uttered here, it’s clear throughout that the world we see onscreen is one which that phenomenon has placed on the extinction list. Opens Sat/16, Roxie Theater. More info here.