"George & Tammy" is about two lovers who probably shouldn't have been together, never mind over many years. But their union led to numerous hits—duets and solo songs—about the historical relationship between George Jones and Tammy Wynette. He was the hard-drinkin' king, and she was his supportive queen, with an empire built of all the stuff that makes for a good country ballad but not good love.
As this gutting and compelling series depicts it, George Jones and Tammy Wynette collided in the late '60s while he was headed for a self-destructive downturn, and she was on the rise. This real-life "A Star is Born" is covered here with a musical's plotting, in which full-length musical performances chart each development in the relationship and six-year marriage. The whole of it is enlivened by incredible work from Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon, who exchange show-stopping singing moments and come packaged with a strong sense of passion, along with a knowing, exciting taste for sincere kitsch.
This country music saga spans many years, wrangled by director John Hillcoat and showrunner/writer Abe Sylvia into the story of two careers initially intertwined as a business deal. First, it was Tammy Wynette (Chastain) dueting with the revered George Jones (Shannon). But she also cut his hair, creating moments of care that had him even more compelled by the gentle force that is Wynette. For Tammy, this was only the beginning of a career that would require immense resilience and a constant fire within, illustrated here strikingly by Chastain's rich performance.
"George & Tammy" is a musician story that cherishes the songwriting process, though the plot's contrast to country music is always striking. Their lives run a million times faster than the ballads they sing, and for a form of music that thrives on coming on home to a tidy resolving chord, their pairing is a constant dissonance that only briefly has harmony. Sometimes that's a tender time rolling around in bed, or when one of them makes a big sacrifice (like when George leaves his record company early on for her). There's talk early in the series about how one needs to live a song in order to sing it, but George and Tammy experience the real stuff that's in between the verses.
It can be fitfully exhausting to watch this chaos in close-up, but "George & Tammy" gives a lot of reasons to stay tuned. It's a colorful tragedy; the series nails its period details with so many dated hairpieces, country-royalty outfits (including a pink cape for Tammy), and sports cars for George. But to hammer home how this all feels, "George & Tammy" covers everything with a rich haziness—cinematographer Igor Martinovic's visuals love to make much of the frame fuzzy, sometimes with a person blocking much of the view, for only a top corner to reveal a face or figure. It creates a fitful dreaminess and isolation, and the show's constant attention to profile views of its actors makes them larger than life but in such an intimate way. It's all a vital part of how this show about repeated romantic patterns doesn't become redundant despite its emotional dizziness.
Both Chastain and Shannon are incredibly sensitive on-screen forces, however much they have two very different ways of filling a room. They have deep chemistry throughout, whether it's the initial courtship in which George presents himself as a sweeter, more loving man than her current husband (Pat Healy's Don Chapel) or when they're much older, worn down by their story but still sharing some glint in their eyes. And they establish the infatuation that kept them coming back—she was a huge George Jones fan long before meeting him, and he was quickly captivated by not just her voice. When the two are on the stage together, you get why this all happened this way.
Chastain and Shannon have depicted a relationship before, in Jeff Nichols' "Take Shelter," and established themselves with other stories of marriage. But now they have soaring songs to complement their dramatic work, as when we see Chastain belt out the highest notes of Wynette's hit, "Stand By Your Man," even though George's behavior has professionally screwed her over again. And the scene when Shannon's much older Jones records future mega-hit "He Stopped Loving Her Today," with a weary Tammy watching him just beyond the glass of the recording booth, is heartbreaking and gorgeous.
Outside of their careers, the series gives a somber light on the forces in their lives that, in one way or another, gave George & Tammy comfort but controlled them. After giving birth to their child Georgette, Tammy suffers complications from a hysterectomy that has her reliant on painkillers and injections later provided by songwriter, manager, and later-husband George Richey (Steve Zahn in a good Nice Guy turn), which soon becomes another toxic relationship. But George Richey is not an anomaly in this world, and "George & Tammy" illustrates the fraught placement of women in this universe that features multiple men who write ballads with Tammy as a way to control her. The people she's closest to want a piece of her, and her status of being a top-selling singer only puts her more in danger.
Meanwhile, George carries on a violent alcoholism from his abusive father, which sometimes stirs a freak tornado that loved ones like Tammy, or his friend Peanutt (Walton Goggins), are caught in the middle of. With many more inches on him than the real Jones, Shannon fashions the singer as a monster who's as destructive as he is sensitive, and whose dangerous temper only softened when he had a guitar in hand. Shannon is the kind of actor who looks into the darkness and finds a reflection, and this is some of his most revealing, brilliant work yet. Jones' "If the Drinkin' Don't Kill Me, Her Memory Will" doesn't make the cut, but Shannon fills his performance with that kind of pain.
In telling this story, Sylvia's writing can be too cutesy with its exposition, like how George's introduction includes watching him flush money down a toilet. But the series only hits a major snag when it factors in Georgette Jones as a kind of recurring cameo. It's her book that this series is based on—and she gets the first epilogue title card—but "George & Tammy" can't find a way to factor her naturally into this picture without bringing more exposition or general hollow emotions. Her presence only highlights how the series can clumsily handle its biopic details, like the children from all their relationships, or the career moves that made them big over and over again.
"George & Tammy" accomplishes a rare feat for a relationship story that comes with so many pristine ballads—it makes you see the complicated depths of what is so unhealthy. They had on the outside what country fans wanted, and it took an incredible toll on them. You appreciate both of them for their talents and how their bond is a type of cursed partnership that only sometimes looks like love. A country song can't do that with just three or four verses and a chorus; a heartfelt chronicling like "George & Tammy" can.
Whole series screened for review. "George & Tammy" premieres on Showtime on December 4th.
The provocateur label that Lars von Trier has proudly worn his entire career has given way to something more melancholic in “The Kingdom Exodus,” the five-part conclusion of his now-13-part mini-series that premieres on Mubi on Sunday, November 27th. Controversies and allegations have dogged the filmmaker with increasing regularity over the last decade or so, and his health has become an issue after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. So there’s a sense in “Exodus” that this is the work of an artist who knows he may not have many more opportunities to express himself. It’s not an accident that the first episode includes a shot of the young LVT giving one of his to-camera speeches that ended each of the first eight episodes. It's to place his youthful image in the mind's eye because his health forces him behind a curtain, only his feet visible, for the segments this time around. But it’s easy to “see him” in this fascinating return to the farcical/supernatural hybrid that’s really like nothing else that’s been on TV in the last five years.
Of course, it IS like one other TV phenomenon. Von Trier admitted that “The Kingdom” was inspired by “Twin Peaks,” and one has to wonder if “Exodus” would exist without the creative success of “Twin Peaks: The Return” in 2017. In much the same way that David Lynch revisited characters and warped imagery from his landmark series, Von Trier returns to some of the same characters and ideas, once again crafting a truly inspired blend of the surreal and the comedic. The hospital at which every scene of the show takes place is not just a place of ancient supernatural forces that might be rising to finally drag it into the earth but it’s also a place of truly mundane idiocy, a building that’s as weighed down by bureaucracy and stupidity as much as it is the evil that could be buried in its foundation.
What is “The Kingdom” about? Well, that’s where things get difficult. It’s the kind of exaggerated universe wherein a woman can give birth to Udo Kier wrapped into a form that sometimes resembles a traditional medical soap opera, but most of the doctors here are self-obsessed idiots. “Exodus” actually opens with a woman named Karen (Bodil Jørgensen) finishing a viewing of the first series and going to the hospital to see what’s going on there for herself. She finds more questions than answers, including an actual beating heart of the hospital and the giant head of Udo Kier, drowning in its tears. Alexander Skarsgard takes over for his dad in a very funny turn as a lawyer whose office is on the toilet and Willem Dafoe appears as a shapeshifting man who may actually be Satan. It’s a lot. And that’s just scratching the surface.
It’s really quite difficult to do the “plot synopsis” portion of a review of something like “The Kingdom Exodus.” While it’s technically got several competing subplots and dense mythology, the plot doesn’t matter as much as the mood here. It’s a show that has a cumulative power in its moments—whether it’s a weird little comedic beat like the head doctor who complains that his computer solitaire is too easy (not knowing that IT already has its difficulty set at 4-8 years old) or the terrifying image of an aggressively violent doctor popping his eye out with a spoon (only for it to be back to normal the next time we see it). “The Kingdom Exodus” feels at times like its competing tones and subplots are at war with each other—the whiplash of the broad farce of a broken system with the more terrifying Lynchian elements of a woman exploring the spiritual underground of the hospital can be intense—but that’s very intentional. Hospitals are places of extreme emotion where tragedy can exist in a room next door to a miraculous recovery. And Von Trier has often played with broad tonal shifts with dark comedy throughout much of his filmography. The extremes of his tastes just find a perfect setting at Kingdom Hospital.
Fans of Von Trier’s will enjoy picking out the themes of his career reflected again in “The Kingdom Exodus,” which now includes what feels like an increased emphasis on mortality that could be a product of his health and a slightly discomfiting subplot about a doctor (a phenomenal Mikael Persbrandt) accused of impropriety by a colleague (the also-great Tuva Novotny). It’s all handled in a way that can be very funny—the two actors walk right up to a tonally uncomfortable edge in a way that’s impressive—but it might be hard for some viewers to shake memories of the allegations against Von Trier himself by Bjork when the issue is being used for farce here. In the end, it doesn’t feel like Von Trier is apologizing or accusing as much as putting another part of his life into his art. He can't do anything else. Von Trier has always been a personal filmmaker, and this ends up being one of his most confessional and revealing works. He ends each episode with a line about good and evil existing in the same space. In a sense, it feels like a thought that has defined much of his remarkable career and he’s unpacking how that belief impacted his life and work through this ambitious five-hour film.
For the record, Lars von Trier hasn’t retired, and I certainly hope his health remains strong enough that he continues to work. However, if that’s not the case, this would be a fascinating send-off, a return to a work that shaped his career and reputation, maybe not with the wisdom of age as much as the sense that such a thing doesn’t exist.
Available exclusively on MUBI on November 27th.
Florian Zeller’s “The Father” was a searing portrait of a man struggling with dementia. It took us inside his increasingly shaky perception of the world with profound empathy, and Sir Anthony Hopkins’ performance won an Oscar. He returns to Zeller’s disappointing “The Son” for a brief, bracing scene to let us know that the title character in this film is not the troubled teenager but the man who is both father and son. That man is Peter, played here by Hugh Jackman.
That scene, almost a full story in itself, is in sharp contrast to the rest of the film, which is well-intentioned but poorly constructed, counting on sympathy for characters who seem to be living in an alternate universe where teenagers have never struggled with mental illness. It zig-zags for no apparent purpose. There are repeated shots of characters not being present in what is happening because they are thinking about something else and repeated shots of a washing machine running and then still, a useless metaphor.
Peter is a highly successful professional who has important meetings about financial matters in a big office with impressive views of the Manhattan skyline. He is married to Beth (Vanessa Kirby) and they have a baby named Theo. They live in a beautiful apartment with tastefully exposed brick walls. As the movie begins, Beth is soothing Theo to sleep with a lullaby and Peter is smiling at them. They are a perfect, happy family. But then Kate (Laura Dern) rings the doorbell. She is Peter’s first wife and she has bad news about their 17-year-old son Nicholas (Zen McGrath). For the past month, he has not shown up at school.
Nicholas moves in with Peter, Beth, and Theo and starts at a new school. Peter is convinced that things are turning around for Nicholas. They are not.
There is nothing more painful than having a child who is suffering, and perhaps it is understandable that Peter and Kate are in denial about how severe the struggle is for Nicholas. But in 21st-century Manhattan it is unimaginable that wealthy parents would be so clueless, self-involved, and disconnected from the available resources to bungle their response so badly. There are some affecting scenes, especially one where Kate, with Dern heartbreakingly vulnerable, tells Peter she feels that she has failed. And Hopkins, as Peter’s icy father, is intriguingly narcissistic.
The scene is intended to connect to the rest of the story and illuminate Peter’s conflicts and his tendency to view his son as a barometer of his success. But it falls short. The film does occasionally give us a sense of the relentless impact of mental illness on caregivers; how a sick family member, especially a child, crushes the spirit of those who care the most. When he finally loses his temper, though, it is more about his feelings than Nicholas’ and his desperate attempts to essentially order his son to get better are portrayed with more sympathy from Zeller than they deserve from us.
"The Son" also touches on the feral cleverness of some people with mental illness and their skill at finding the right vulnerable places to distract us from seeing what's going on with them or insisting on treatment. Nicholas knows Peter’s contempt for his own father’s neglect makes him especially sensitive to the suggestion that he has not been fully present, or that his leaving Kate for Beth and replacing not only his wife but his child makes it possible to divert his attention from the seriousness of Nicholas’ symptoms. Peter needs to think he is a good father so much—and needs to think that Nicholas thinks that—that he underestimates how desperately ill his son is, lulled by Nicholas’ one-two punch of recrimination and false assurance.
However, most of the power of these moments comes from our strong feelings about the issues, not from what we see, as the screenplay is superficial and manipulative. And there is a final non-twisty twist that is nearly an affront to us and the real-life families facing this pain, thankfully more sensitively portrayed in better movies.
Now playing in theaters.
A handful of filmmakers have paid tribute this year to the transporting, even life-altering potential of the movies. Yet none can dream of rivaling the endlessly imaginative delight that Filipina writer/director Martika Ramirez Escobar has confected with her Sundance-awarded debut feature "Leonor Will Never Die."
Far from her glory days as a screenwriter for violent 1980s action films, Leonor Reyes (Sheila Francisco) now mostly watches bootleg DVDs at home while her frustrated adult son Rudi (Bong Cabrera) plots his plan to migrate abroad. Crying in secret, she yearns for the creative satisfaction of turning words into larger-than-life sagas. At least there she could control the outcome of her characters' decisions with unchallenged God-like power.
Encouraged by the ghost of her late son Ronwaldo (Anthony Falcon), presented as a translucid apparition who can communicate with the living, Leonor unearths her unproduced screenplay for another gory shoot-'em-up titled "The Return of the Kwago." But when an accident involving an old television set puts the once-famous scribe in a coma, her subconscious falls inside the pages of the very story she was revisiting. With a gash on her forehead, Leonor enters the fictional realm she had first conceived decades in the past.
For each of the two planes of reality, Ramirez Escobar and her cinematographer Carlos Mauricio obey distinct sets of aesthetic rules. The aspect ratios fluctuate depending on where we find ourselves, for example. In the "Kwago" universe, the screen shrinks to 4:3 measurements, the use of zooms prevails, and the saturation of the colors convincingly replicates the look of the period as depicted on screen. Furthermore, in these sequences, the actors' voices sound ADRed, as they would in the '80s movies "Leonor" seeks to evoke.
The tone of the performances differs just as much, as the players in the "Kwago" scenes approach their parts with heightened theatricality. The protagonist in this fiction is an avatar for Leonor's son also named Ronwaldo (played by Rocky Salumbides). A working-class muscly hero, he defends the most vulnerable from corrupt politicians and ruthless mafiosos. Here Ramirez Escobar notes the taboo nature of drug use in the Philippines, and the brutal tactics the country's leaders have employed to criminalize suspected users.
Leonor's interactions with this alternative Ronwaldo reveal that she relies on storytelling to make sense of the insurmountable loss of both a loved one and her beloved profession. Trapped inside this limbo while her body lies in a hospital bed, she clings to her former life behind a typewriter. As her spirit roams Ronwaldo's high-octane ordeal or sneaks into a room during an intimate scene, Leonor's hands move spontaneously as if she were still desperately pressing on keys to rewrite the plot. For the heroine, the bombastic fights and overly dramatic lines provide an escape where the good guys often emerge victorious, where there's little ambiguity, and where she doesn't have to face her grieving process.
Francisco's muted turn as Leonor communicates a profound sadness—because the artform she adored took her son from her—without overt explanations but via the awe-struck or tearful facial expressions she runs through while witnessing her screenplay come to life in front of her eyes. By inserting her in "The Return of the Kwago," the director allows her to once again be in charge, dictate others' destinies, and perhaps change hers.
Ramirez Escobar's kooky brand of fantastical whimsy, however, isn't reserved for Leonor's filmic afterlife. The more the dual story progresses, the more we realize that what we have understood to be the real world still functions under the rules of movie magic. As Rudi decides to chase after his mother's disembodied conscience, the layers of both planes of existence begin to overlap in both hilarious and affecting ways. Cinema, as the director portrays it, serves as a vessel for life itself to be questioned and examined. Even tales marked by surreal characteristics can still hold plenty of truth about the human condition.
Unexpected in the most marvelous of manners, "Leonor Will Never Die" is reminiscent of the waking dream qualities of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's oeuvre, Spike Jonze's "Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind," and the Japanese horror-comedy "One Cut of the Dead." With its low-fi pleasures of see-through ghosts and TV screens as portals, the film reaffirms how ingenious the medium can be in the grasp of the right artist. From one segment to the next, the mechanics of this adventure repeatedly astound us.
Near this wildly original movie's conclusion, Ramirez Escobar expands its meta attributes even further, once and for all blurring the lines between make-believe and the making of it behind the scenes. Not only does the audacious director feature a surprisingly joyful musical number, but by not having a conventional conclusion she demonstrates that what cinema immortalizes can never be killed. Through her movies, Leonor is truly made eternal.
Now playing in theaters.
The Fabelmans are a middle-class Jewish family living in various cities in the middle of the 20th century. Steven Spielberg's film about them centers on the conflict between artistic drive and personal responsibility, as well as the mysteries of talent and happiness.
The matriarch, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), is a former concert pianist who became a homemaker and piano teacher. The patriarch, Burt (Paul Dano), is a scientist who works for various tech companies and likes to shoot home movies. One night, Mitzi and Burt take their eight-year-old son Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) to his first theatrical film experience, "The Greatest Show on Earth." It ends with a spectacular train crash that was created with miniatures. Sammy becomes obsessed with the sequence and asks for a train set, which he crashes in an attempt to recreate the scene, infuriating his father, whose takeaway is that Sammy doesn't appreciate nice things. The mother suggests that the boy shoot the trains crashing with his father's movie camera so that he can watch one crash over and over instead of bashing the trains until they fall apart. Sammy is a prodigy, and possibly a genius. Mitzi can tell that from watching the boy's first film, which employs multiple, dynamic angles to capture the crash, and uses editing to build suspense and set up visual jokes.
But this is not just a movie about somebody who's already good at something and gets even better at it. It's about the difficulty of marriage, parenting, and being somebody's child. It's also about the miracle of talent, an idea that's explored not just through the central trio of Sammy, Mitzi, and Burt (who has real talent as a scientist and engineer) but through a secondary character, Burt's best friend Benny Loewy (Seth Rogen), who is around their house so much that he's a part of the family. It's obvious that Mitzi clicks more with Benny than with Burt, who is a good husband and father but is fundamentally unexciting (and, to his shame, knows it) and can be blandly controlling. Benny is hale and hearty, a guy's guy, witty and self-deprecating and energetic. He's as gifted at being a mate and parent as Burt is at science, as Sammy is at filmmaking, and as Mitzi was at performance until she gave it up. Notice how, during a Fabelman family camping trip, Burt drones on to the sisters about how to light a campfire while Benny is in the background, using his burly strength to pull back a sapling that Mitzi has clung to, then releasing it to create an improvised playground ride. He knows what this family really wants and needs.
Where do these gifts come from? It's not just in the genes, the psyche, the conditioning, or the trauma. It's mysterious. It arrives out of nowhere like the shark in "Jaws," the UFOs in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," the miracles and disasters of "War of the Worlds" and the Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park movies, and the eruptions of gore and cruelty in Spielberg's R-rated historical epics. Sammy's Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), a circus performer and storyteller, lays it out for him one night: people who know that they have talent must commit to it, not waste it; but the more fiercely they commit, the more they may neglect their loved ones, or feel as if they are (which can induce guilt). This conflict will wrestle inside an artist forever.
From an early age, Sammy figures out—or perhaps instinctively knows—that a camera can be used not merely to tell stories and make pretty pictures, but win friends; placate or manipulate enemies; woo prospective romantic partners; glamorize and humiliate; show people a better self that they could aspire to become; shield the artist against hurt during painful moments; smooth out or obstruct the truth, and blatantly lie.
Sammy continues to refine his skills through adolescence (which is when a thoughtful and subtle young actor named Gabriel LaBelle takes over). He gets better filmmaking equipment that can do more things. When he makes a Western with a bunch of neighborhood kids, he figures out from looking at the way his mother's high-heeled shoe punctured a dropped piece of sheet music on the living room carpet that he can punch holes in strips of film to make it seem like the boys' toy guns are firing blanks, like in a real movie. When Sammy directs a World War II combat film starring his fellow Eagle Scouts, it wins him a merit badge for photography, in large part because he's not just a technician, but a showman who has carefully studied the construction of the movies he loves (John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" is a big one, and it just happens to be about the tension between reality and myth).
Then Burt moves the family to California. He and his sisters are seemingly the only Jewish kids in a school populated by tall, conventionally good-looking WASPs, some of whom torment Sammy because of his heritage. A fissure opens up in the family, and though it's not anyone's creativity that cracked it open, different manifestations of Fabelman talent pry it further, creating fraught moments in which characters have to decide to reveal an important but hurtful truth or keep it to themselves in the name of domestic tranquility (this film's version of the famous line from Ford's "Valance"—when the legend becomes fact, print the legend).
"The Fabelmans" ends before it can get to the now-legendary story of Spielberg directing Joan Crawford in an episode of "Night Gallery" at age 19 but substitutes a moment just as thrilling: Spielberg's brief meeting with his hero Ford (played in a masterful stroke of casting by David Lynch) who takes nearly as long lighting a cigar as he does speaking to his visitor. Of course, there's a lot more to Spielberg's personal story.
But this is a movie, and movies can't encompass everything, any more than books or plays can. Spielberg and his co-writer Tony Kushner (who worked with Spielberg on "Munich," "Lincoln," and "West Side Story") avoid the fundamental mistake that hobbles so many film biographies (and autobiographies), which is to try to cram every single moment that people might've heard of elsewhere into two-plus hours, making it impossible to linger on any one thing. Kushner and Spielberg (taking his first screenplay credit since "A.I.") refashion the director's life as a work of fiction. That lets them simultaneously tease and nullify a thought that viewers would have had anyhow: How much of this actually happened? And it lets them concentrate on a few milestone moments that have been reimagined for a Hollywood feature aimed at the broadest possible audience, and tie everything back to intertwined questions that any viewer can relate to: How do you define happiness? And is it possible to achieve it without hurting anybody else?
The answer, as it turns out, is no. All of the characters in "The Fabelmans" can be divided into three categories. Some realize they are unhappy and do their best to change their situation. Others remain unhappy because they aren't bold enough (or ruthless enough) to take the necessary steps. And a lucky few don’t worry about it because they’re already happy.
Kushner and Spielberg shape a lot of the story into self-contained scenes with beginnings, middles, and ends, as in a stage play. But of course, Spielberg doesn't shoot anything in a cliched "stagey" way; on the contrary, he once again demonstrates what Orson Welles noticed about him early in his career: that he was the first major director whose visual sense wasn't shaped by the proscenium arch. Much of the film is told in long takes that don't feel show-offy because Spielberg's blocking is always in service of deepening characters and illustrating themes. Just look at that opening scene outside of the movie theater, which ends with young Sammy silhouetted in the middle of the frame: a human dividing line, with his father (who speaks of cinema in terms of photography and persistence of vision) on one side and his mother (who tells him movies are mainly about feelings and dreaming) on the other.
In the end, it all comes back to people figuring out who they are and then deciding whether to fully commit to the course they think will bring them the most happiness. That the movie leaves deep questions unresolved and presents all the related philosophical and aesthetic issues in a playful way (the final shot is a sight gag!) makes the experience quintessential Spielberg. You think he's giving you everything and that it's all right there on the surface. But the longer you sit with it, the more you realize how many gifts it contains.
In theaters now.
The best bits in “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” are the ones you won’t read about in this review (and hopefully won’t hear about before you see the movie). But rest assured that they are plentiful, and they’re scattered generously throughout Rian Johnson’s uproarious if slightly inferior sequel.
The clever details, amusing name-drops, and precisely pointed digs at vapid celebrity culture keep Johnson’s movie zippy when it threatens to drag. In following up his 2019 smash hit “Knives Out,” the writer/director has expanded his storytelling scope in every way. Everything is bigger, flashier, and twistier. The running time is longer, as is the time frame the narrative covers. But that doesn’t necessarily make “Glass Onion” better. A wildly entertaining beginning gives way to a saggy midsection, as Johnson’s mystery doubles back on itself to reveal more details about these characters we thought we’d come to know. The result feels repetitive. The percolating tension that existed within the classy confines of the first “Knives Out” has lessened here against the sprawling, sun-dappled splendor of an over-the-top, private Greek island.
And it would just be tough for Johnson to top his original film, which was so smart and singular—hilarious, but also legitimately suspenseful. His characters felt richer (no pun intended) the first time around, and his ensemble cast had more to do across the board. “Glass Onion” offers some meaty and meaningful performances, particularly from Janelle Monáe, Kate Hudson, and Daniel Craig, once again doing his best Foghorn Leghorn impression as the intrepid detective Benoit Blanc. And several of his high-profile cameos are a giddy delight. But multitalented actors capable of daring, exciting work, such as Leslie Odom Jr. and Kathryn Hahn, frustratingly go to waste in underdeveloped supporting parts.
Still, if you can catch “Glass Onion” in its one-week theatrical run before it streams on Netflix starting December 23, it’s a film that benefits from the collective energy of an enthusiastic audience. Plus, it’ll help you avoid any spoilers that might dribble out over the next month. So: here goes!
Edward Norton plays Miles Bron, a billionaire tech bro who isn’t nearly as brilliant as he thinks. Once a year, he amasses his tight-knit clique—a disparate group of people who smugly refer to themselves as “The Disruptors”—for a lavish, weekend vacation. This time, he’s shipped them all multilayered puzzle boxes (an early indicator of the kind of elaborate production design Rick Heinrichs has in store for us) as a tease for the murder mystery he’s planned at his isolated getaway. His mansion manages to be gaudy yet chicly minimalist at once, an indication that he has no recognizable personal style of his own.
His guests include Hudson’s model-turned-influencer Birdie, who keeps getting into trouble for tweets she doesn’t realize are racist; Hahn’s married mom and no-nonsense politician Claire; Dave Bautista’s brash men’s-rights YouTuber Duke Cody and his scantily clad girlfriend, Whiskey (Madelyn Cline, finding surprising shading); and Odom’s beleaguered scientist, Lionel, who endures urgent faxes from Miles at all hours of the day and night. Also receiving an unexpected invitation is the jovial and fashionable Benoit Blanc, who welcomes the fun of this challenge, as he seems at sea between cases. Once again, it’s truly a joy to watch Craig get goofy.
Their reunion is all warm smiles and hugs until Monáe’s Andi Brand shows up. She was Miles’ partner in building his business empire; now, she’s on the outs with everyone. Her arrival sends an instant charge through the group and sends Blanc’s antennae buzzing. It’s a promising setup.
But as the title (taken from the Beatles song) suggests, there are layers upon layers to unpeel, yet the truth at the center is also crystal clear. As an indictment of the way extreme wealth corrupts, this whole exercise is pretty obvious, and it fits securely within a series of recent satires (“Triangle of Sadness,” “The Menu”) that aim at some easy targets, albeit with copious wit and style.
Monáe’s spectacular performance gives us something substantial to hold onto in this transactional world. The celebrity cameos are a consistent hoot, but Monáe—especially in her interactions with Craig—provides the necessary emotional heft and deeper meaning. Hudson’s performance is also more complex than we might initially expect. She combines an infectious ditziness reminiscent of her glorious mother, Goldie Hawn, with the kind of depth and vulnerability she displayed in her Oscar-nominated supporting work in “Almost Famous.” It’s an enjoyable change of pace to see the normally likable Bautista play such an obnoxious figure. And Craig offers slightly different versions of Blanc, depending on the situation; his technical precision is impressive, as always.
Trying to outsmart this deliriously complicated plot is part of the fun, too, but it also becomes an unwieldy process in time. Still, “Glass Onion” remains dazzling to watch, from the shimmering images from Johnson’s usual cinematographer Steve Yedlin to the truly inspired costume design by Jenny Eagan. One particular outfit Norton wears in a crucial flashback scene provides one of the movie’s biggest laughs.
Ultimately, though, the giant glass onion that rests atop Miles’ mansion becomes an all-too-apt metaphor for the movie as a whole: Sparkling, but empty.
Now playing in theaters for a one-week sneak preview and available on Netflix on December 23rd.
The adage that holds “the personal is the political” has been batted around for decades, and it’s certainly one worth considering in the wake of, say, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent overturning of Roe v. Wade. It’s certainly not a universally accepted sentiment; the late critic Terry Teachout objected strongly to it: “It all goes back to that phrase I hated the first time I heard it—the personal is the political. No, the personal is the personal,” he wrote back in 2004. He was a conservative, after all.
The documentarian Laura Poitras (“Citizenfour,” “Risk”), in collaboration with her subject Nan Goldin, covers a lot of ground about, among other things, the way money affects both the personal and the political, whether you opt to segregate them or not, in this surprising and moving documentary. “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” chronicles Goldin’s life in art, serving up substantial and vivid portions of her photography, which she exhibited in 1985 as the slideshow with music called The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, which made her name. Since then her work has been displayed in prominent and prestigious museums. She did protean work as an AIDS activist in the past, and a close call with a pain medication overdose—not to mention the deaths and addiction spirals of several friends—compelled her to look into a discomfiting fact.
That is, many of the prominent and prestigious museums that displayed Goldin’s work had accepted substantial contributions from the Sackler family. The same Sackler family that got its money by collaborating with Big Pharma (the corporate connections are such that the term has to serve as shorthand here) on creating a worldwide opiate addiction crisis. By, among other things, severely understating the addictive qualities of its wonder drug OxyContin.
So while Goldin never hung up her activism badge (her work, intimate and autobiographical as it is, is in many respects a forceful statement on the societal marginalization of women and LGBTQ persons), she finds herself, with some initial sheepishness, pinning it back on and staging protest events at institutions that have in some way supported her living.
As it happened, she chose an opportune time to do so. Her mini-movement coincided with a lot of journalistic curiosity about the Sacklers' money. Patrick Radden Keefe, who was working on an investigative piece about the Sacklers for the New Yorker, recalls here sheepishly that in his initial contact with Goldin, he was slightly dismissive of her, wishing her luck with her project. But their combined efforts created an amplification. Subsequent civil court cases have required the Sacklers to pay monumental fines (which, it is noted with no small irony near the end, has little to no impact on the remaining personal fortunes of family members) and yes, museums are taking the family’s name off of certain rooms heretofore dedicated to/by them.
But “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is hardly a simplistic cheerleading account. It’s a story of the political and of the social/sociological, about Goldin’s overall life story. How she grew up in the repressive 1950s, and the toll that environment took on her beloved older sister, who upon discovering her sexuality had no understanding person to turn to. The chronicle of her fate shows a determinant force in Goldin’s life and the life of this country. It won’t do to describe it in more detail because the movie has a maximum impact as an unspoiled narrative. The compassion expressed here, and the rich complexity of everything the movie takes in, make this Poitras’ best film.
Now playing in theaters.
Sounds of flesh being ravenously devoured permeate an early scene in “Bones and All.” Sparing us most of the visual horror, director Luca Guadagnino instructs the audience to look away from the grisly feeding. By pointing the camera at photographs of the victim, an elderly woman, on vacation or with her loved ones, he preserves her humanity. Though her corpse now serves as a feast for two famished cannibals, her time alive mattered.
Photographic evidence of a person’s history becomes a strong motif in this beautiful, voracious coming-of-age romance. These printed pictures, sometimes found in a car or tucked away in a drawer, provide a reminder of the many facets—for better and worse—a single individual can contain: the perpetrators were once children, while their prey may in turn leave families behind. In every bite, there’s a disturbingly intimate communion.
Ingesting people across state lines in the 1980s, Maren (Taylor Russell) finds herself on her own after her father runs away when she turns 18, only leaving behind a tape recounting her earliest episodes of cannibalism and her birth certificate. Their father-daughter relationship seems akin to that in the Swedish vampire drama “Let the Right One In.” The parent, aware of her urges, tried to prevent her from further acting on such hunger.
However, Maren, now out in the open world, learns that her desire for human meat is innate, an unexplainable trait she cannot change, only control. “Eaters,” as they refer to themselves, identify one another through their scent. But while some of these outsiders have rules that make eating others like them off-limits, others follow a less scrupulous path.
Working from screenwriter David Kajganich’s adaptation of Camille DeAngelis’ novel, Guadagnino infuses the most gruesome aspects of the journey with an earthy atmosphere where a love story can flourish and not seem jarring. Swoon-worthy landscapes under purple skies—the heartland of America in all its raw, vast, and sparsely populated glory—become the Terrence Malick-friendly playground of conflicted lovers. Through the dexterous lens of cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan, the countryside mesmerizes.
The heartthrob at hand is Lee (Timothée Chalamet), an orange-haired eater who kills without remorse. He comes across Maren while on his way to Kentucky, where the remnants of his previous life remain. As p artners in crime who slowly transition into lovers fueled by youthful impetus, the two disagree on how to go about satisfying their needs.
A formidable Russell, who previously stunned in “Waves,” molds a performance in which Maren moves through her newly discovered horizons with both innocence and guilt. The trepidation of falling in love for the first time intermingles with the moral conundrum of her condition. In turn, her consciousness of the acts Lee rationalizes as inevitable without much thought for the dead so the two can eat creates an ideological divide.
In contrast, an infallibly charming Chalamet doesn’t stretch his emotional range much. He puts forward a familiar rehashing of other cool, but secretly tortured young men who have become a staple in his still nascent collection of roles in prestigious fare.
Then there’s the third key player in this “Nomadland” meets “Raw” trip: Sully (Mark Rylance), an odd eater that shows Maren the ropes at the beginning of her self-discovery as a cannibal. What renders Rylance’s supporting turn exceptional is that one never doubts Sully is a person that truly exists. There’s a lived-in quality in his bizarre mannerisms, his heavily decorated clothing, and other eccentricities. Blood-soaked, he shares with Maren the organic memento he carries around to keep track of those he has consumed.
Guadagnino’s frequent collaborator Michael Stuhlbarg and director David Gordon Green, in a rare acting part, show up for chilling cameos. They help cement “Bones and All” as an amalgamation of the Italian filmmaker’s tales of amorous complications such as “Call Me by Your Name” or “A Bigger Splash” and his genre sensibilities put to the test in “Suspiria.”
Back to the significance of the photos that Lee and Maren encounter as they traverse several states over one summer: while these images reveal information on the people in them, they also lack depth and are limited in what they can tell us. That “Bones and All” opens with shots of paintings depicting landscapes that exist outside of the walls of Maren’s high school illustrates how these renditions are mere interpretations of reality. Likewise, the photos only capture a brief glimpse of a person and not who they are in full beyond the confines of that frame, and of the time it immortalizes. People change.
“Bones and All” plays out as a can’t-look-away, riveting experience for most of its running time. It’s easy to get entranced by its modestly sumptuous imagery, the believable chemistry of the volatile couple, and even the rattling bluntness of the graphic sequences.
But once the pair reaches Maren’s original destination, Minnesota, and a confrontation with a family member ensues, the film loses steam that cannot be regained from the choppy flashbacks that saturate the final act of Guadagnino’s latest. Even the heart-to-heart confessional between the flesh-eating lovebirds, where they agree to try their hand at a peacefully mundane existence, overexplains what was knowingly unspoken.
The takeaway of its metaphor, that there’s always someone out there who can empathize with one’s plight, applies to any of the reasons we may feel ostracized, desperate to leave home, or profoundly alone. Based on those philosophical preoccupations, as well as more obvious wordplay reasons, “Bones and All” could have just as easily shared a title with another fall season release: “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.”
Now playing in theaters.
How we define an activist is at the heart of director J.D. Dillard’s “Devotion.” Adapted from Adam Makos’ book Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice, Dillard's latest film tells a civil rights story centered on Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors), a groundbreaking Black naval pilot and Korean War hero. But Brown isn’t your prototypical changemaker, and “Devotion” isn’t your usual anti-racism film.
Though it also concerns the friendship formed by Brown and white wingman Tom Hudner (Glen Powell, also an executive producer on the picture), the film also subverts previous cinematic pairings between Black folks and white people during segregation: “Green Book,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “The Defiant Ones,” which are steeped in stereotypes and proliferated with magical Negros who have the power to end racism if only their white counterpart could see their humanity. These films, of course, posit the prejudiced white person as a kind of hero, while othering the person it claims to care about. “Devotion” walks the tightropes between discord and harmony, hard lessons and heroic triumphs, and full-throated allyship and useless white guilt with aplomb.
Dillard's film opens in 1948 with Hudner’s arrival at the Naval Air Station Pensacola in Pensacola, Florida. He enters a cacophonous men’s locker room populated by wrathful slurs. These vulgar barbs are not emanating from a mob. They’re coming from one man: Brown. Hudner never sees Brown shouting at himself, as the tears this Black man sheds aren’t for Hudner (though Dillard and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt do show us those tears through an arresting fourth-wall-breaking mirror shot). The calm, naive, all-American Hudner casts a different shadow from the quiet, reclusive, no-nonsense Brown. In terms of temperament, they shouldn’t be friends. Screenwriters Jake Crane and Jonathan Stewart don’t try to force the issue either, which gives “Devotion” uncommon freedom. Instead, this thrilling, pulsating journey is more concerned with the two men forming a bond through shared respect rather than a fantastical misunderstanding of the place and time.
Brown is an aviator with so many unseen wounds; The obscenities he yells at himself spring from a little book where he keeps every slur that’s ever been hurled in his direction. One of the Navy’s first African American aviators, Brown experienced bodily harm and several attempts on his life from his segregationist “comrades” in his early career. We don’t see the violence that Brown endured. Dillard is too smart for such low-hanging fruit. We instead witness the repercussions on Brown’s psyche through Majors’ adept physical performance, a tight bundle of a swaggering gait belying the weight on his broad shoulders and tension wrapped around his face.
“Devotion” chronicles the steady progression Hudner makes toward understanding Brown without infantilizing this proud pilot. Brown, in turn, slowly brings Hudner into his orbit and we’re introduced to Brown’s daughter Pamela and his devoted wife Daisy (Christina Jackson). Dillard juxtaposes this home life—where Brown can leave the pressures and racism, where his entire frame and visage lightens with joy—with the difficult landscape of being the only Black man in a sea of white naval aviators. Jackson is a burst of jubilant air as Daisy, offering the picture some much-needed levity and grace. And in many ways, the bond shared by Daisy and Jesse, more so than desegregation or war, provides the picture with a palpable heartbeat.
But conflict does come: The Korean War sends Brown and Hudner and their squadron to a carrier bound for the Mediterranean Sea. Their deployment requires the pilots to train on the F4U Corsair, an aircraft that worries Brown. The drilling on these planes becomes a tad repetitive mostly because the difficulties, even though Brown feels them, can be too technical for a general audience goer (though I’m sure aviation nuts will love these details).
The aerial dogfights in “Devotion” are simply thrilling. Many people will immediately compare this Korean War flick to “Top Gun: Maverick,” but “Devotion” stands on its own. It’s an immersive experience where the roar within the cockpit thrills; the cinematography by Messerschmidt (“Mank”) firmly establishes us in the dimensions of the skirmishes; the editing by Billy Fox (“Dolemite is My Name”) is tightly wound to gripping ends.
For Dillard, Brown’s fight against racism on the ground continues in the sky, where the pilot finds his greatest freedom. In this picture, there is no visible physical violence against Black folks as a means for civil rights or to be seen as human by Hudner. Brown’s existence is his protest. His plane is his sit-in. A two-and-a-half-hour film that literally flies by, “Devotion” is a graduation of sorts by Dillard, from his compact genre film canvas to a spectacular large-scale onslaught. Dillard manages to balance the several concerns of anti-racism movies with the heroism of Brown without succumbing to maudlin, craven techniques. Even toward the aching end, “Devotion” manages a perfect landing.
Only in theaters today, November 23rd.
All the basic elements of “Strange World,” Disney’s latest sci-fi/fantasy flick, are familiar. There’s a family of adventurers, a dire mission to save the planet from a mysterious ecological crisis, an absent father, three generations of insecure men, and a bunch of under-developed female supporting characters whose placeholder personalities range from strong to loving. It’s “Avatar” meets “Fantastic Voyage,” and it also looks really good on a big screen thanks to Disney’s many, many talented animators. With their help, “Strange World” breezes through a checklist of formulaic plot points and canned emotional revelations with enough style and sensitivity to make it work.
“Strange World” is the latest collaboration of co-directors Don Hall and Qui Nguyen, who previously worked on “Raya and the Last Dragon” with Hall’s co-directors, Paul Briggs and Carlos López Estrada. It’s always hard to know how to praise collaborations of this scale and nature, but Nguyen’s solo writing byline on “Strange World” stands out, and so does his co-director credit (this is his debut feature). Hall’s no slouch either; his name, on recent Disney successes like “Moana,” “Big Hero 6,” and “Winnie the Pooh,” also seems noteworthy.
After “Raya and the Last Dragon,” “Strange World” feels like a lower-stakes, and therefore more comfortable, union of Hall and Nguyen’s talents. These guys have clearly seen and maybe even studied the Disney cartoons that defined the company’s ‘90s animation renaissance. (Seriously, have you seen “Big Hero 6”?). So it’s nice to see that, with “Strange World,” they’ve found a project that brings out the best of their combined talents and doesn’t just feel like it was focus-grouped to death.
“Strange World” zips along with an easy pace that makes up for its lack of dramatic tension. Stubborn explorer Jaeger Clade (Dennis Quaid) abandons his insecure son, Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal). Searcher wants his dad to follow his lead for once, and, in this case, pay attention to a mysterious green plant that he calls Pando, but Jaeger dismisses both Searcher and Pando. Twenty-five years pass in the blink of an intertitle after Searcher leaves his fellow adventurers to find the outer limits of Avalonia, the Clades’ isolated mountain valley home. In that time, Searcher has become Avalonia’s hero, since they’ve adopted Pando as the town’s main power supply. Searcher’s a Pando farmer now and his world mainly revolves around his crops and his family: his loving aviator wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union), his easily-embarrassed teenage son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), and Legend, their three-legged dog.
When the Pando crops are not yielding the electrical charge that they used to, Callisto (Lucy Liu), one of Jaeger’s old explorer buddies, asks a reluctant Searcher to help her find out. And he does, with his wife and son in tow. Together, they descend into a big hole in the ground, where they discover a vibrant, Pandora-like world filled with various creatures, plants, and other sentient fauna that look like they were traced from old biology textbook illustrations. They also quickly stumble upon Jaeger, who now lives among the amoeba forests and acid rivers. He and Searcher play catch up while Searcher chases after Ethan, who’s always a few steps ahead.
As you might expect, the Clade men do not see eye-to-eye, nor do they work well together as a team. Their creators thankfully avoid several clichéd power dynamics, though they tiptoe up to a few of them along the way, like when Jaeger asks Ethan about his love life and mercifully doesn’t bat an eye when he discovers that Ethan likes a boy named Diazo. Searcher’s parents already know and accept their kid for who he is, and their affectionate concerns always err on the right side of heavily telegraphed sentimentality. Their dialogue appears to have been polished and rewritten without also being sandblasted down to bland talking points.
The same is true of the animation and general direction of “Strange World,” which flies from one action and chase scene to the next. Quaid and Gyllenhaal stand out among the strong ensemble voice cast, but the animators make what could have been a paint-by-numbers genre exercise look good enough to gawk at. They commit to a sort of lavishly rendered paperback novel/matte painting surrealism and pack the camera’s frame with flocks of magenta pterodactyls, forests of pastel coral, and oceans of multi-colored tentacle grass.
There’s something to be said for a kid-friendly cartoon whose main appeal isn’t its creators’ out-of-the-box thinking, but rather their crew’s thoughtful execution of otherwise shopworn ideas. That doesn’t seem to happen often enough with Disney’s recent animated movies, which help make “Strange World” feel like an exceptional triumph of execution over ingenuity. You could do a lot worse.
Only in theaters today, November 23rd.