“Mr. Malcolm’s List” is a light, frothy movie that concerns a gentleman who has the wrong idea about dating. Or as it’s known in this 19th century period piece, courtship. Mr. Malcolm is played by Sope Dirisu, with a poise that would make Sidney Poitier proud, and he carries that confidence to his misguided search for the perfect wife in Regency era England. He has an actual list of ten qualities that he wants from a perfect match, including: “Candid, truthful and guileless,” “amiable and even tempered,” having musical talent, and also being able to talk about politics. The wealthy Mr. Malcolm is a hot commodity in the dating pool that he is anxious to get a bride from, but he’s clearly not making it easier.
One woman, Ms. Julia Thistlewaite, experiences the burn from this list—she didn’t meet the politics requirement during an otherwise disastrous date at the opera. And she does not take it well, especially when the local newspaper makes a meme of her disastrous date for all the public to laugh about. To heal her bruised ego, this character played by Zawe Ashton enlists her somewhat naive childhood friend from the country, Ms. Selina Dalton (Freida Pinto) in a classic scheme—Ms. Dalton will pretend to be the different things that Mr. Malcolm is looking for. She'll read large books, pretend to play Chopin on piano (with the help of Ms. Thistlewaite's cousin, Lord Cassidy [Oliver Jackson-Cohen]), and charm Mr. Malcolm with a hoax. And right when he declares his love for this fake version of Ms. Dalton, he’ll learn a lesson about being so picky. Things do not go according to plan.
Many directors talk about casting as being one of the most important parts of the filmmaking process, and director Emma Holly Jones certainly celebrates that here. There is no weak link or uninteresting person in this ensemble; it’s full of compelling, contrasting energies that own the era's dialogue and polite physicality. Pinto is mighty charming in the role that has Ms. Dalton going along for the ride, but maintaining her gut instinct about love; Dirisu is equal parts charming and imperfect as his character reveals his more sensitive side; Ashton is just the right amount of frustrating as the jilted mastermind who threatens to trash everything, including her friendship, with her own vanity; Theo James, as Captain Henry Ossory, looks great with a top hat and mustache while adding another gentle complication to this movie’s strolling, PG-rated romance.
"Mr. Malcolm's List" throws in other side characters who add little flourishes, and will likely make viewers wish this character here or there had more screen-time. I enjoyed the off-hand banter between footman John (Divian Ladwa) and maid Molly (Sianad Gregory), who get to watch the proceedings and make comments while sparking their own connection. Jackson-Cohen has an amusing part as ditzy cousin Lord Cassidy, which includes his serious fear of horses and mispronunciation of Greek philosophers. Naoko Mori oversees much of this as Mrs. Thistlewaite, giving the camera a juicy side-eye or two. And Ashley Park has a good deal of fun with colorful part as socialite Ms. Gertie Covington, in which she barrels into a few scenes and giggles at 100 mph, owning her character’s placement as being twice married and looking for round three.
Did you notice that many of these actors are people of color, playing roles one would not typically see in previous recreations of the Regency era? The film wants you to notice, but in its quietly subversive nature it lets that all speak for itself. "Mr. Malcolm's List" is, through and through, about dignity. Always dignity.
As period piece entertainment, the movie shoots pheasants in a barrel. It’s got all the genre trappings that can fill trailers and sell tickets: horseback riding captured in a wide shot, seductive dances to Schubert, lavish gowns, carriage rides, characters sipping tea, a night at the opera, a tour of a rose garden, a masquerade. And you would be plenty replenished if you drank water every time someone was politely addressed as “Mr.” “Mrs.” or “Ms.” “Mr. Malcolm’s List” loves the purity that comes with a wholesome period piece ("namby-pamby" is the most offensive thing said throughout) and often flourishes with it.
Based on the book by Suzanne Allain, who also wrote the script, “Mr. Malcolm’s List” feels as choreographed as a dance, and that becomes a large part of its welcoming ease across two hours. There’s no great, believable reason that Ms. Dalton and Lord Covington go along with Ms. Thistlewaite’s plan, but it’s much more fun to see it unfold than it is to poke holes into. And while the conflicts come right on time and resolve with mighty tidiness, "Mr. Malcolm's List" is not really about surprise. For centuries, across many hellscapes of dating, people have found the dance itself to be good fun. And for a perfectly fine reason.
Now playing in theaters.
"Fourth of July," about a recovering alcoholic jazz musician who confronts his parents during a holiday get-together, is the kind of indie movie that doesn't get made much anymore, with good reason. The movie represents a comeback attempt of sorts for director/co-writer/costar Louis C.K., whose career was rattled in 2017 when he was accused of (and admitted to) incidents of sexual misconduct, including masturbating and undressing in front of women he worked with. He quickly recovered to do comedy specials and tours and recently won a Grammy for Best Comedy Album, but this tiresome, disorganized movie about a boring man and his loathsome family is onanism of a different kind.
Joe List, who co-wrote the screenplay, stars as Jeff. He lives in New York City, is a couple of years into recovery, has a stable relationship with his girlfriend Beth (Sarah Tollemache, List's real-life partner), and is at a point where he feels confident enough to begin mentoring other people in recovery. But he suffers recurring nightmares about injuring pedestrians with his car, causing them to flee before he can find out who they are or discern how badly they've been hurt. Louis C.K. plays the therapist that Joe tells about his dream. (Make of that what you will.) Jeff doesn't like talking about his family. And he makes a point of refusing to speak of his mother. The subject of his upbringing is a minefield he won't dare enter.
The film takes its sweet time getting to the point where Jeff chases personal catharsis by driving upstate to his hometown in rural Maine to confront his father (Robert Walsh), mother (Paula Plum) and extended family (which include Nick Di Paolo as an uncle and Richard O'Rourke as Jeff's grandfather). They're a gaggle of reactionaries who greet Jeff's arrival with a torrent of casual homophobia and other bigoted sentiments and make the only Black person at the event, the recently widowed Naomi (Tara Pacheco), feel uncomfortable by calling attention to her race and her recent tragedy. Jeff is miserable in their presence, as well he should be, but he still feels obligated to face them and force them to examine their role in damaging his psyche.
But by that point in the film, we may have already given up hope of seeing a story about family told with insight, wit, and originality. C.K. and List spend forever and a day on little vignettes about Jeff's life with Beth (which is bland) and his recovery group, and there are scenes exploring his work as a live musician that don't contribute anything to our understanding of the characters (though it's nice to see live jazz performed onscreen at length, even if the piano fakery is obvious).
Once Jeff gets upstate, the listless self-indulgence continues, with pointlessly fussy cutaway editing (particularly during piano scenes) and expressionistic lighting (green signifies anxiety or something). These and other filmmaking tools (including the widescreen imagery) seem meant to enrich a thin story that clearly meant a great deal to the people who wrote it. But the sum of "Fourth of July" has the same effect on the viewer as being trapped at a party with a nice but dull person who decides to tell you their entire life story without even asking your name.
C.K. attained the peak of his fame as a progressive comedian, but pivoted immediately after the revelations of his misconduct and started pandering to right-wing comedy audiences, blasting "woke" culture (easy money for stand-ups who claim to have been "canceled"). There's a meta layer to the story, no matter how strenuously the director claims he just wants to get back to telling stories.
But if you take C.K.'s mission statement at face value, the film comes off even more poorly. This is the kind of earnest but inept and obliviously indulgent indie flick that a festival's artistic director would program in full awareness of its deficiencies, because they thought the name of someone associated with the project (in this case, the director) will put butts in seats. Even though, lacking such a pedigree, the film would never be seen by anyone outside of the director's family, many of whom would only be pretending to like it.
Now playing in select theaters.
“Minions: The Rise of Gru” takes place in 1976. Had I seen it that year, I would have laughed my six-year-old self silly and demanded to see it again and again. Alas, I’m not six years old anymore. My sense of humor, on the other hand, still hovers around that age. As a result, this latest (and hopefully last) chapter in the Despicable Me Universe (DMU) felt tailor-made for the less mature aspects of my sensibilities. It was as if a checklist had been made to cater to me. Afros and ‘70’s era fashions? Check! Badass women in action? Check! Awful puns and wordplay? You got it! Disco music? I can dig it! Potentially blasphemous, violent nun jokes? Oh baby!
Readers of this site know of my soft spot for the Minions, those yellow, pill-shaped purveyors of trouble who are hopelessly devoted to Gru (Steve Carell). They make me laugh and I’m not even remotely remorseful about that. After their own prequel, “Minions,” and a pit stop for the lackluster present-day sibling rivalry plot of “Despicable Me 3,” Kevin Le Minion and his one and two-eyed pals have returned to the past to support the “eleven and three-quarters” years old version of Gru. They affectionately call him "mini-boss." When he’s not wondering how his employees “got so much denim” for their outfits, Gru is fantasizing about joining The Vicious 6, an Avengers-like conglomerate of villains created by Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin).
We see Wild Knuckles and his crew in action in an exotic, Indiana Jones-style locale. They are there to retrieve a necklace of gems called The Zodiac Stones. Once retrieved, it will give the Vicious 6 an unlimited amount of power on the night of the Chinese New Year. Considering all the groan-inducing needle drops that occur in this series, I expected The Zodiac Stones to be accompanied by that trash classic-slash-astrology lesson “Float On” by the Floaters. Unfortunately, the filmmakers are not that clever. Granted, that song came out in 1977, but “Minions: The Rise of Gru” uses Lipps Inc.’s 1980 banger, “Funkytown” not once, but twice.
After braving death to retrieve the gems, Wild Knuckles is betrayed by team member Belle Bottom (Taraji P. Henson), who cruelly explains that honor among thieves is a myth before dropping him to his presumed death from their plane. With her ever-changing wardrobe and enormous Afro, (which is animated with an impressive amount of texture) Belle looks like Cleopatra Jones. The other four members have equally pun-based names. There’s Stronghold (Danny Trejo), a nunchaku-wielding nun named Nun-Chuck (Lucy Lawless), the Nordic strongman Svengeance (Dolph Lundgren), and a dude with an enormous lobster claw for a hand. His name is Jean-Clawed and he’s voiced by Steven Seagal. Just kidding! He’s voiced by Jean-Claude Van Damme. I told you this movie wasn’t that clever.
Now that the much-older Wild Knuckles is out of the picture, The Vicious 6—I mean Five—are looking for a much younger replacement. Gru applies for the position and receives a response housed in a self-destructing 8-track tape. He enters the record store that secretly houses Belle Bottom’s lair, meeting his future colleague Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) in the process. Nefario gives Gru a 45 of Linda Ronstadt’s cover of “You’re No Good,” the key to entering the secret hideout. Since he’s barely out of junior high, Gru is dismissed, but not before stealing the Zodiac Stones. Belle and her crew pursue him in order to get them back.
Believe it or not, there are two other plot-heavy stories in “Minions: The Rise of Gru.” One concerns the surviving Wild Knuckles’ San Francisco-based quest for revenge, and the other involves the Minions learning kung fu from Master Chow (Michelle Yeoh) in order to save Gru after he’s been kidnapped. Well, those two kind of go together; Gru’s been taken by Wild Knuckles in an attempt to retrieve what’s rightfully his. Unbeknownst to Mr. Knuckles, Otto, the newest, and most talkative of the Minions, has traded the jewelry for a pet rock. As punishment, Gru is subjected to a type of torture I would happily endure: He’s tied to a giant record player that will spin, for 48 hours straight, the greatest disco song ever recorded, the Andrea True Connection’s “More More More.”
“Don’t call my mother for ransom,” Gru begs, “she will probably pay you to keep me.” Gru’s mean ol’ Mom is once again played by Julie Andrews, who characteristically has no use for her son nor his henchmen. The Vicious 6 show up to extract a pound of flesh from her anyway. Seeing the star of “The Sound of Music” get her ass kicked by a nun is my kind of meta! That’s one way to solve a problem like Maria, I tell ya!
As with “Minions,” “Minions: The Rise of Gru” moves at breakneck speed. This time, however, it’s a tad less exhausting and actually works to the film’s advantage. The laughs are well-paced and the viewer isn’t given too much time to reflect on how ridiculous Matthew Fogel’s screenplay is. The animation is striking, from the gorgeously rendered Chinatown of the City by the Bay to the charming look of young Gru. He has the same big, expressive eyes that fill the emotional faces of his “little gurls.” Carell does a fine job of making his Gru voice younger and less pronounced. Henson and the rest of the cast sound like they’re having a blast, and their enthusiasm is infectious.
Even if you can’t stand the Minions (who are once again voiced in “Minionese” by Pierre Coffin), you might find this one tolerable. Especially if you’re old enough to get the 1976 jokes yet feel young enough to find bemusement in all the goofy slapstick. If nothing else, everything gets tied up neatly in a bow, bringing the DMU up-to-date, thereby making any further films unnecessary. That is, unless this one makes a ton of money.
Now playing in theaters.
They’re all beautiful, exquisitely dressed and vapid, the foreigners who’ve traipsed across the Moroccan desert for a weekend of debauchery in “The Forgiven.”
Regardless of their marital status, sexual orientation, or country of origin, these people are awful without exception. There’s not a redeeming one in the bunch, not one you’d want to spend time with—well, maybe Christopher Abbott, because he’s the hardest to pin down, and so his terrible traits aren’t quite so pronounced. He also looks quite dashing in a dinner jacket. It’s that kind of party—at least until they start doing lines of coke on the coffee table.
Writer/director John Michael McDonagh wants us to feel scorn as he satirizes the racism and classism of wealthy Westerners exploiting the Middle East as an exotic destination. They don’t view the locals as human beings, as a deadly accident will reveal, and they don’t have much time for the Moroccans’ feelings or traditions. They’re merely dipping a toe in this world and ignoring the damage they’ve left in their wake. And McDonagh, in adapting Lawrence Osborne’s 2012 novel, uses their blunt dialogue as a cudgel as if their actions alone weren’t sufficient. There may not be much to these people, but they’re constantly declaring their emptiness in the most articulate ways.
“I like it here,” says Abbott as New York financial analyst Tom Day. “It feels like a country where a useless man could be happy.” Or as a celebrated Moroccan novelist played by Imane El Mechrafi puts it: “People disappear here. They just vanish.”
But in Ralph Fiennes’ character, McDonagh presents the possibility for evolution and even redemption. By then, though, it may be too late.
Fiennes’ David and Jessica Chastain’s Jo are a miserably married couple who’ve traveled from London to visit an old friend of theirs: Richard (a sneering Matt Smith), who’s renovating a sprawling villa four hours outside Tangier with his American partner, a day-drunk named Dally (Caleb Landry Jones). We can tell quickly that their marriage is fraying from their bored expressions and the way they low-key bicker when David polishes off a bottle of white wine at the hotel. There’s no spark in this fight: It just feels like habit. (This is a very different husband-and-wife dynamic from the one Fiennes and Chastain shared in “Coriolanus.”) So when they find themselves lost and confused during the long, nighttime drive to Richard’s remote estate—and accidentally run over an impoverished teenager selling fossils on the side of the road, killing him instantly—the trauma is certain to worsen that rift.
But first, David and Jo have a soiree to attend where they have to pretend that everything is fine. Other guests include Abbey Lee as an Aussie party girl who jumps in the pool in her sequined dress; Marie-Josee Croze as a sanctimonious French photographer who makes broad generalizations about Americans; and Alex Jennings as a British lord who arrives late with a posse of pretty, much-younger women in tow.
They are careless people, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald—until the boy’s father shows up from his village to make David care, at least. Ismael Kanater plays Abdellah in a performance that seems bravely quiet and stoic at first, almost stereotypical, but eventually he reveals a simmering sorrow and rage. Abdellah insists that David return with him to his home to help bury the boy, named Driss, as is their custom. David’s immediate reaction reveals his bigotry: “They might be f**king Isis for all I know.” But eventually he relents, with the intention of only being gone overnight and paying this family off—reluctantly—for their trouble.
From here, McDonagh (brother of Martin McDonagh, the writer of “In Bruges” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) alternates between David’s journey toward forgiveness and the drunken antics back at the villa. As the guests trade bitchy bon mots between sips of their cocktails—and Jo enjoys a fun, sexy flirtation with Tom while her husband’s away—David learns from his exposure to this family and begins to accept the error of his ways.
One situation is just as superficial as the other, though. There’s precious little to any of these characters, and so the possibility that they might change at all because of this traumatic series of events feels unearned. Chastain is cool and glamorous as Jo, who had the foresight to bring multiple pairs of designer sunglasses for this weekend jaunt to the middle of nowhere. And having worked with the likes of Aaron Sorkin, Chastain clearly knows her way around this kind of muscular dialogue. But beyond her impeccable appearance and the fact that she used to be a children’s book author, we know nothing about her. There are no stakes when it becomes clear that Jo’s entire life is about to be thrown into flux; it’s more of a passing curiosity, like her dalliance with Tom.
McDonagh’s film is well-crafted throughout but ultimately has nothing fresh or insightful to say about the ugliness of white privilege. It’s like attending a weekend bacchanal and forgetting what happened once Monday morning rolls around, or perhaps not wanting to remember.
Now playing in theaters.
The unfocused biographical doc "Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song" considers the life and influence of the Canadian poet and singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen through the prism of "Hallelujah," his most popular song. Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is, as many readers know, both a spiritual and libidinal cri di coeur, so it's sometimes compelling and often frustrating to see co-directors Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine ("Ballets Russes") treat the song as an emblem of Cohen's long career as a musician.
Geller and Goldfine’s docu-collage of interview and concert footage doesn’t give deep consideration to the conditions that led to “Hallelujah” becoming a late career hit for Cohen. This was decades after the song debuted in 1984 on Various Positions, a (rather good) studio album that was rejected by Columbia Records and barely released in the United States. Cohen’s “Halleluljah” is then presented as a trite symbol of his frustrated creative ambitions, though archival interviews with Cohen do effectively suggest that there’s more to his music—and that song, in particular—than the usual artistic triumph over industrial exploitation narrative.
“Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song” glosses over some of the best evidence to support what is, at heart, a basic story: after laboring for years on the lyrics for “Hallelujah,” and then later struggling with his own personal and creative demons, Cohen’s song helped to spark a late-career revival and mini-creative renaissance, too. It’s great to see so much old concert footage from various periods of Cohen’s career. And audio excerpts from Cohen’s interviews with former Rolling Stone reporter Larry “Ratso” Sloman also give viewers some clues as to why Geller and Goldfine only dig so deep into the meaning of “Hallelujah” and its surprising combination of religious and sexual images. But the concert footage doesn’t play long enough to show us what Cohen looked or sounded like when he performed that song, and Sloman’s talking head interviews mostly speak to the movie’s glib understanding of Cohen’s art.
To their credit, Geller and Goldfine encourage viewers to come to their own conclusions, partly as a means of embracing Cohen’s sometimes ambivalent attitude towards explaining his life and music. There are plenty of good and even recent enough profiles and interviews with Cohen, like David Remnick’s impressive 2016 New Yorker profile. And there’s no shortage of concert movies and tribute albums, including the 1974 documentary “Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire” and the 1991 cover album I’m Your Fan, the latter of which is credited with helping to revive “Hallelujah” thanks to John Cale’s cover.
Sloman takes credit for suggesting Cale for I’m Your Fan, which is fair, but only so interesting. And while Irish singer/songwriter Glen Hansard has a right to say that Cale is a master of stripping songs down to their essential parts, Cohen’s music was never exactly ornate, with the notable exception of the corrosive and free-wheeling Phil Spector-produced album Death of a Ladies’ Man. That record gets conveniently dismissed as an example of a known producer imposing his will and sound on an elusive artist. As opposed to Cohen’s collaboration with New Positions producer John Lissauer, who now understandably feels vindicated about that album and “Hallelujah” in particular.
Still, Death of a Ladies’ Man is different, just as Cohen’s later albums, especially Popular Problems and Old Ideas, are much more than brief footnotes to the “epilogue” of Cohen’s career. There are several such elisions and omissions in “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song,” some more telling than others. You don’t need to know that Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ cover of “Tower of Song,” which directly precedes Cale’s “Hallelujah” on I’m Your Fan, speaks to the many ways that talented artists can try and sometimes fail to add to Cohen’s music. There’s also barely any discussion of the song’s “naughty bits,” as “Shrek” co-director Vicky Jenson puts it when she talks about cutting Rufus Wainright’s “Hallelujah” cover from “Shrek” in favor of Cale’s version. But wait, didn’t Cale himself say that he focused on the “cheeky” verses of Cohen’s song? What’s this movie about again, and why are there so many bits of everything scattered throughout?
Geller and Goldfine don’t really go into the specifics of how Cohen’s verses of “Hallelujah” changed over the years (Sloman estimates that there was something like 150 to 180 verses in total). But they do talk with artists like Jeff Buckley, Cale, Eric Church, and Wainwright about their experiences performing “Hallelujah.” All interpretations are valid, according to Church: “none of ‘em are wrong.” Ok, but what’s right about the different versions of the song, and how has it maintained its greatness over time?
A lot of substantial or just different material might have enriched this documentary’s tidy fall-and-rise story. There’s some exciting, but too brief interview footage with former collaborators like Judy Collins, who says of Cohen’s legendary lady-killer rep: “I know dangerous when I saw it.” It’s also great to hear French fashion photographer Dominique Issermann suggest that she didn’t inspire Cohen, but rather was in the right place at the right time when inspiration struck. These are smart and funny observations, but they’re just grace notes in a sprawling 115-minute-long movie that often toggles between the proverbial forest and its constituent trees.
Now playing in select theaters with a nationwide expansion to follow.
“She refuses death time and time again.”
That’s the basic theme of Hulu’s “The Princess” spoken aloud by its villain, a monstrous figure named Julius (Dominic Cooper). The script here by Ben Lustig and Jake Thornton has a habit of speaking its own themes aloud with blunt dialogue that’s often so on-the-nose that it verges on parody. I couldn’t tell how seriously I was supposed to take the girl power message of the film as bad guys literally say to the title character, a nameless woman played by Joey King, that “You should know your place.” It's a fantasy-action film with a female empowerment angle, which is nice in theory, but feels manipulative here. (I did wonder if there's a more pure version that isn't written by two men and directed by another.) The action here, directed by Le-Van Kiet, is reasonably entertaining, but everything that’s hung on that skeleton feels remarkably thin. Evil dudes face off against an underestimated woman, who kills dozens of them in “The Raid” meets “Game of Thrones” meets “Charlie’s Angels.” Wait, that makes this sound way more fun than it is. Well, it makes it sound as much fun as it should have been.
There’s really not much to say in a traditional “plot” section of a review of “The Princess.” Our heroine wakes up chained to a bed at the top of a tower. In the film’s fun opening scene, she dispatches two soldiers who come to check on her, beginning her descent down the tower, taking out hapless enemies along the way. Through flashback, it’s revealed that the princess was set to wed Julius, whose entire motive was to gain control of a kingdom that had not produced a male heir from its King (Ed Stoppard) and Queen (Alex Reid). When she learned at the altar that she was going to be a silent partner in the reign of a power-hungry sociopath like Julius, she refused, leading to a brutal approach. The King, Queen, and most of the citizens of the Kingdom are being held captive by Julius, his partner Moira (Olga Kurylenko), and their incredibly incompetent soldiers. The Princess will kill most of them.
Kiet makes a drastic structural mistake in “The Princess” by intercutting between his title character’s bloody rampage and flashbacks to how she got there, including training in the martial arts and swordfighting. We don’t need to know how this killing machine became a killing machine. Imagine if “The Raid” kept releasing its momentum with back story. It’s entirely self-defeating. It’s clearly designed to add some depth to admittedly shallow characters, but it doesn’t go far enough in that direction, feeling more like distraction than back story. A script like this needs to either set things up with rich, detailed characters or ignore that altogether and focus only on action. This one gets stuck in the middle.
When “The Princess” does foreground its combat, it can be pretty fun. There’s an excellent sequence down a spiral staircase wherein King takes on dozens of enemies, but the film has a disappointing habit of bursting to life and then retreating. Kiet can’t maintain momentum and Lustig & Thornton’s script just isn’t creative enough to fill in the gaps. The only reason to watch really is for Joey King, an underrated actress who is open to any challenge. If only this film was confident enough to really give her one.
On Hulu today.
There are many burdens on Clara's back, a back already twisted with painful curvature of the spine. Clara is 40 years old and kept in a childlike state of existence by her mother. Years ago, Clara apparently saw the Virgin Mary, and this has given her a local reputation as a healer and a mystic. People living in the remote Costa Rican village make pilgrimages to Clara's house, crowding inside, waiting for a glimpse of her, waiting to kiss her hand. Clara doesn't seem to want to participate in this ritual, but she isn't given much of a choice. Clara's mother (Flor María Vargas Chavez) runs the show, passing around the hat for donations. In such a poor area, every little bit helps. But something is happening to Clara. Clara is waking up to herself, to her individuality, to her body and what it craves. In doing so, she ruptures the connections of her family. Clara stops participating in the status quo, leading to all kinds of unexpected results. This is the loose premise of Nathalie Álvarez Mesén's haunting film "Clara Sola," co-written by Mesén and Maria Camila Arias, with Wendy Chinchilla Araya at its center as Clara.
Clara lives on a small farm with her overbearing and extremely religious mother and her 15-year-old niece Maria (Ana Julia Porras Espinoza). Maria cares for her aunt, but she is also bursting with puberty and obsessed with preparing for her upcoming quinceañera. A young man named Santiago (Daniel Castañeda Rincón) stops by regularly to rent their horse for local tourists (and sneak smooches with Maria). Clara and the horse—a white beauty named Yuca—have a powerful bond: it's the only relationship where Clara gets to assert dominance. She makes a gesture, and Yuca understands and obeys.
Outside of that, Clara is condescended to, and basically led around, watched over, and stifled. Clara has been so totally repressed that there is no plausible outlet for self-expression. Any deviation from the mother's expectation is viewed as rebellious, or "naughty," or Clara just "acting out." Even more upsetting, Clara has been offered a free surgery to correct the curvature of her spine, and her mother refuses it saying, "God gave her to me like this. She will stay like this." One wonders if Clara's "brand" as a mystic healer would be tarnished if she herself had to be healed by modern medicine.
Santiago is the wild card, the Agent of Change in this changeless world. Something in Clara is activated by him, turned on by him, but then again, she's turned on by a lot. A daytime soap opera gets her motor running. Her mother senses Clara's sexuality and goes to great lengths to suppress it (even, awfully, rubbing hot chilis on Clara's fingers to discourage masturbation). The "romance" between Santiago and Maria—forbidden, secret—draws Clara into its web. She peeks around corners at their embraces and caresses. Does she want to change places with Maria? What is this woman feeling? Does she even know?
"Clara Sola," from the first shot to the last, stays very close to Clara's point of view. Clara's consciousness is connected to the natural world, and its animals, greenery, and insects make up her primary and most important relationships. Cinematographer Sophie Winqvist makes this explicit in all kinds of ways, nature as a living breathing entity, but particularly in one extraordinary sequence where Clara escapes the stifling confines of her house at night, and lies at the foot of a gigantic twisted tree, the blue and black shadows making her indistinguishable from the night around her, surrounded by a swarm of green fireflies, blinking languidly through the blue. It's a potent moment, rich with the symbolism of Clara's submerged sexuality, aching to explode, but only allowing itself out in tiny portions, as tiny as those fireflies.
Clara is an original creation, and this is mostly due to Araya's earthy physical performance. Araya had never done a film before (extraordinary, considering the result), but she is a dancer, and she approaches the role primarily in a physical way. It is through the body that Clara's reality is told. Mesén wanted to cast a dancer, and initially envisioned Clara as a younger woman, but Araya was so captivating there was no other choice. Clara's disability affects all of her movements: her walk is sturdy and yet strangely halting at points, her feet buckling out to the sides to compensate, her legs moving to adjust to the spine. The shapes her body makes are, at times, archetypal, grasping fingers and uplifted arms, etc., and yet Araya is always grounded in reality. She shows the strong will inside this cowed and dominated woman. Once she starts to feel her own power, once she starts to understand rebellion is possible, she can't stop. (You can feel the influence of "Carrie" on "Clara Sola," especially with its themes of toxic matriarchy and the terror of sexual maturity.) Araya is riveting and feral, especially in those moments when she starts to break free of her conditioning.
Clara's sense of herself comes into stark clarity through her conversations with Santiago, who probably has no idea (at least at first) what he is unleashing in her. There's a fascinating moment where he asks her what it was like to see the Virgin Mary. Clara has no attachment to that narrative. That narrative was invented by her mother as a way to cope with the shame of having a disabled daughter. Turn her into a magical mystical being, don't allow her to get corrective surgery, God will bless us then. Clara says to Santiago in response to his question: "I can do whatever I feel like." It's a startling statement. She sounds proud, stubborn, sure of herself. Clara has worlds within her, vast spaces where no one can get to her, where she is free. A woman saying "I can do whatever I feel like" is threatening no matter the context, but in this one especially.
This is Mesén's debut feature film, and it's a powerful and intuitive piece of work. Working with mostly non-professional actors, she has created a fraught space of repression and sorrow where Clara—a woman of very few words—can let us know what life is like for her, what she sees, feels, and wants.
Now playing in limited theaters.
The talky, lo-fi science-fiction drama “Rubikon” feels like a teleplay that was produced on a slightly bigger budget. Fans of this type of speculative fiction will probably like “Rubikon” even more knowing that it’s set primarily in one location (an international, corporate-owned space station) and mostly concerns three astronauts, all of whom mistrust each other.
The year is 2056 and oxygen-producing algae cultures hold the key to humanity’s survival. Our three protagonists—Hannah (Julia Franz Richter), Gavin (George Blagden), and Dimitri (Mark Ivanir)—happen to possess that algae, so they must now decide who lives and who dies from the relative safety of their cramped space station, the Rubikon.
“Rubikon” gives sci-fi fans a safe, B-movie-friendly view of an interpersonal drama that breaks out in the middle of a “Star Trek”-inspired and sometimes “The Twilight Zone”-esque three-hander about the end of civilization. This modestly-scaled science-fiction movie now seems quaint; it also tends to be more compelling for its dialogue’s pulpy implications than whatever is actually on-screen. "Rubikon" is a reassuring movie about disquieting times.
Writer/director Leni Lauritsch and co-writer Jessica Lind immediately establish what kind of story they’re telling when they introduce Hannah and Gavin to the Rubikon’s crew members, particularly sullen Dimitri and his touchy son Danilo (Konstantin Frolov). Hannah and Gavin’s presence immediately puts the Russians on edge, because they represent the Nibra Corporation, the space station’s absentee patrons. You might then assume the worst about Hannah and Gavin since, in “Rubikon,” the future is determined by corporations (according to an introductory text crawl). But these two characters are ostensibly not the same kind of privileged: Hannah’s a no-nonsense and sometimes chilly hired hand, with her own ambitions and abandonment issues, and Gavin’s a pouty chemist from a rich, powerful family. That may seem like a distinction without a difference, but read on anyway.
Hannah and Gavin are not really bad people, but Dimitri and Danilo must still learn to trust them before the plot of “Rubikon” can really begin. Until then, Hannah and Gavin talk their way into Rubikon’s postage-stamp-sized microcosm. They either comply or push past Dimitri and his son’s questions, many of which boil down to: whose interests are you serving and why are you really here? Some sudsy and well-executed space drama ensues—an escape pod, a suicide attempt, a drunken card game—and soon pulls everybody together. Until they receive a distress signal from Earth, which forces them to decide what to do about the ship’s algae cultures.
Nobody fully trusts each other in “Rubikon” since they’re all products of environments that either no longer exist, or don’t really matter outside the Rubikon. Hannah and her crew-mates still talk a lot about what really motivates them, as well as how much they know, what they mean to each other, etc. And as they talk, it becomes clear that “Rubikon” only contains exactly what its characters need to articulate their main concerns. A handful of actors in diver-tight space-suits talk at or past each other and struggle with decisions that were always well above their characters’ salaries.
To the impatient, “Rubikon” might seem to be light on plot. For everyone else, the movie is nothing but its plot since Hannah and her peers’ only serve to test and maybe confirm the movie’s main thesis: we are not all the same, even if some of us enjoy more privilege than others, but we are all ultimately in the same cosmic boat. That kind of pseudo-moderate philosophy is hard to accept, especially in a drama where the only things we need to know about Hannah and Gavin is how they interact with each other in scenes that hint at a budding relationship.
“Rubikon” presents itself as a B-movie morality play, one that doesn’t test your understanding of its characters beyond how they relate to the devastated and largely implied world outside the Rubikon. But the confining limits of that kind of story does sometimes facilitate good canned drama, as in any scene where Dimitri and Hannah talk about the health or necessity of, uh, the ship’s algae cultures.
By contrast, Gavin and Hannah’s conversations are often frustrating since he usually challenges her to accept that any given judgment call is more complicated than it seems. He’s not wrong, but he’s also not pointing Hannah (or us) towards anything more complicated than whatever’s already neatly suggested through his dialogue. “Rubikon” never offers viewers deep answers to its bigger questions, but it does pose enough questions to keep things moving while you watch.
Now playing in theaters and available on digital platforms.
Recent years have not been particularly kind to those hardy souls practicing fine art of journalism. The profession as a whole has been jeopardized by numerous economic factors, along with the rise of new platforms that claim to be legitimate news sources but which focus more on opinion, rumor and innuendo. Journalists now find themselves under increasing attack from the authority figures they cover, who stoke public resentment against them by declaring any critical coverage to be “fake news,” in ways ranging from harassment and detainment to assault and even, as with the infamous case of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, murder. “Endangered,” the new documentary from the filmmaking team of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (whose previous efforts have included “Jesus Camp” and “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You”), offers viewers an eye-opening and often enraging glimpse at four journalists attempting to do their jobs circa 2020 and the attacks they endure as a result.
After a nostalgic opening montage about how journalism was widely considered to be a respected line of work as recently as the second half of the 20th century, "Endangered" introduces us to its subjects as a way of showing how radically and recently things have changed. In São Paulo, Brazil, reporter Patrícia Campos Mello reports on fraud inside the election campaign of president Jair Bolsonaro. The hardcore nationalist responds to her work by attacking her publicly via crude sexualized comments, which are then spread and amplified by his followers. Mello then makes the risky move of suing him for slander in order to stop them, to hopefully send a message that such acts cannot stand.
Meanwhile in Mexico City, photojournalist Sashenka Gutierrez covers protests in which women have taken to the street to fight a seemingly constant wave of misogynistic violence. The women find themselves facing off against cops bearing full riot gear and an aggressive attitude that threatens to spill over into brutality at any moment.
Sure, these instances may have occurred outside of America but as the film plainly shows, the sentiment captured in those sequences has become increasingly and depressingly common in these parts as well. In Florida, Miami Herald photographer Carl Juste covers a Black Lives Matter protest following the murder of George Floyd. When the police file false reports regarding their often-violent response to the protesters, his work ends up being used as evidence to disprove them. He's soon followed and harassed by members of the police. Meanwhile, British journalist Oliver Laughland, who follows American politics for The Guardian, covers Trump rallies where his followers have been encouraged to lash out at him and other journalists over so-called “fake news.” When Laughland talks to some of them individually, they inform him that they refuse to buy newspapers that do not reflect their own views and assert that YouTube videos are a much more reliable source of information. It's hardly surprising that the film eventually builds to the events of January 6, and shows the insurrectionists trashing the equipment utilized by reporters to do their jobs.
For those aware of how accusations against the so-called Fourth Estate have been ginned up and fanned by those hoping to disguise their own misdeeds, the film's basic premise—that anti-free press attitudes once solely associated with foreign countries under repressive political regimes are now finding favor in the United States as well—will not come as much of a shock. What is a little startling is how those attitudes are practiced here without the slightest bit of hesitation—in one especially grotesque moment, we see a journalist covering a Black Lives Matter protest lying on the ground and identifying themself as such to a cop, only to get sprayed directly in the eyes. While much within "Endangered" is fairly bleak—and this is not factoring how print journalism is seemingly in a death spiral, especially in regards to all-important local newspapers—there are occasional triumphs as well, such as Mello’s slander suit against Bolsonaro, which ends up having a result she clearly was not expecting.
The only real problem with “Endangered” is that the four stories that Ewing and Grady pursue (not to mention comments from Joel Simon, the then-executive director of the watchdog group Committee to Protect Journalists, who notes the rise in issues against journalists in America in recent years) could have easily been expanded with more detail instead of being consolidated into an 89-minute documentary. However, the filmmakers do an excellent job of intertwining them to the point where the actions in Mexico City and São Paulo are almost interchangeable with what is happening in America. Of course, "Endangered" is unlikely to change the minds of anti-press zealots (not that they'd even be watching it in the first place) but others will hopefully come out of it both shocked and startled to see what is happening to journalists around the world these days. Hopefully viewers will be determined to support their endeavors, perhaps by ordering a subscription to their own local newspapers.
Now playing on HBO Max.
"First Love" is an earnest but unremarkable romance wrapped around an intelligent and sometimes powerful story of the destruction that capitalism inflicts on middle-class American families.
"First Love" is written and directed by A.J. Edwards, a protege of visionary spiritualist Terrence Malick who has made two films in a Malickian vein ("The Better Angels" and "Age Out"), but this third effort is more of a straightforward ensemble drama. Set in the aftermath of the financial collapse of late 2008 during George Bush's second term, it follows one American family, the Albrights, as they try to survive and readjust to drastically reduced economic prospects. The father, Glenn, gets laid off from the financial sector and seems unable to accept that he might never again have a job as prominent as the one that was taken from him. His wife Kay ("Better Angels" costar Diane Kruger, who coproduced here) eventually offers to take a second job and runs headlong into the barrier of her husband's pride.
The dialogue that articulates the Albright's tight situation is often bland and oversimplified, but it's still a (pleasant) shock to see an American feature film dealing with the financial collapse in something other then genre-based metaphors (as, for example, the excellent crime thriller "Killing Them Softly" did).
When Kay goes to the bank to try to get a loan, the bank officer looks at her application and wants to know if her husband is sick, and if not, why he isn't working. "Even a minimum-wage job would look better on the record than things are now," he says.
We later learn that friends and family members have largely abandoned the Albrights in their time of distress. There's a paranoid intimation that people have stopped answering their phone calls because they don't want to hear about their suffering or risk being asked for money. When the priest at their church says, "Where is the pleasure in life that is unmixed with sorrow?" it sounds less like a balm than a cop-out. "This place is a box," Glenn grouses after the family moves into a smaller place.
The big problem with this movie is that it focuses more than half of its running time on a vanilla romance between Glenn and Kay's teenage son Jim (Hero Fiennes Tiffin, son of director Martha Fiennes and nephew of actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes) and his classmate Ann (Sydney Park). The film is at its most Malick-like when focusing on the young couple, but not in a good way. Edwards, cinematographer Jeff Bierman, and editor Alec Styborski serve up lyrical montages and dreamy, silent-with-music imagery as if hoping to capture some of the mysterious magic of the central love stories in Malick's "The New World" and "To the Wonder."
But there's no evident substance or complexity to either character, and the beats are all so familiar as to seem obligatory (including the mandatory breakup midway through, which not even the movie seems able to believe in). It often seems as if the filmmaking is trying to add a ballast. Jim and Ann vacuuming up the film's running time also means that the more grounded and complicated struggles of the parents and their adult relatives and colleagues don't get the treatment that they deserve.
And it doesn't do the movie any favors that the interracial/cross-cultural aspects of the relationship go largely unexplored, save for a brief exchange of Spanish in their first conversation in a school hallway. Nor does the film have much to say about the discrepancy between how the two families live, financial crash or no financial crash, and how the gap between haves and have-nots might be a part of the larger story that's being told.
The untapped potential here is considerable, though the cinematography and performances ensure that the film remains watchable. Kruger and Donovan are particularly effective in closeups where you get to see many different contradictory feelings play across their faces. (Glenn's smiling-through-the-pain expression as he's being laid off is perfect: he's still the model employee, trying to prove that the company was right to have hired him even as they discuss his severance package.) And Diane Venora is smashing in a small role as Kay's distressed and embittered aunt, who raised Kay after her mother abandoned her but now has to be put into a home because she's no longer capable of living by herself. This is a good movie with stirring passages that suffers mainly from a lack of self-knowledge. It concentrates on things we've seen a million times when it could have focused on things that American movies never have the guts to show us.
Now on VOD.