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So Many Good Movies!

George Wolf George Wolf So Many Good Movies!Minari - Photo via IMDb
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Look how many movies you have to choose from this weekend! And all but one is worth your time! They’re streaming, they’re in theaters, they’re both at the same time. This week sees a clear Oscar contender and several other likely awards candidates, a stupidly funny comedy, some intriguing new horror, and that one really bad movie. Here’s the low down:

Judas and the Black Messiah

In theaters and on HBO Max

by Hope Madden

Daniel Kaluuya’s range is simply unreal. From the vulnerable hero of Get Out to the chilling sociopath of Widows, he’s prepared us for quite a gamut of characters. I’m not sure he’s prepared us for his Chairman, though.

Kaluuya plays Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party circa 1969, in Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah. A feeling of mortality permeates his performance, and with it a melancholy sense of urgency. His quiet moments swell with tenderness and turmoil, and his speeches burn through the screen. We’ve seen some great performances this year, but we’d give Kaluuya the Oscar right now.

That’s a lot to live up to, but the balance of King’s cast meets the task. LaKeith Stanfield, as police informant Bill O’Neal, strikes the right balance between cowardice and regret. He doesn’t try to make us pity O’Neal and the deal he’s struck with the devil, but he gives the character an energy that suggests more emotional and psychological layers than what’s found on the page.

As FBI Agent Roy Mitchell, Jesse Plemons is as solid as ever, delivering lines with enough genuineness that Mitchell doesn’t become an outright villain until he, along with O’Neal, have gone too far to pretend they’re anything else.

Their performances draw support from an understated Dominique Fishback as a firmly but not blindly committed comrade—Hampton’s girlfriend Deborah Johnson. Meanwhile, Dominique Thorne has badassedness to burn as part of a deep ensemble that impresses in most every turn.  

The film never feels like a biopic. The rendering is far more crime thriller, and had this been a simple fictional account of a mole in a political organization, King’s film would have been riveting. Performances alone would have elevated the genre beats.

The real star may be King’s script, co-written with Will Berson and Keith and Kenneth Lucas. There’s no placating. There’s no playing to the masses. King doesn’t water down Hampton’s message of unifying the poor or throwing off the oppression of a police state. In fact, this is a film that means to show the difference between revolution and the “candy coated façade of gradual reform.”

Grade: A

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

On Amazon Prime

by George Wolf

Remember that opening of Napoleon Dynamite, where Napoleon was tossing a green plastic Army man on a string out of the school bus window? If you didn’t think that was funny, it was an early sign you were gonna have a bad time.

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar opens with its own litmus test, as a kid on a bicycle is delivering papers while singing “Guilty” along with the Streisand and Gibb in his headphones.

If that makes you laugh, stick around, you’ll laugh some more.

Things have been better for the always perky, cullotte-loving Barb and Star (co-writers Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig). They’ve lost their husbands, their spot in weekly “talking club,” and their jobs at the hottest furniture store in Soft Rock, Nebraska (not a real place, but it should be).

Vista Del Mar, Florida promises a place to “find their shimmer,” with mid-lifers in tube tops, a 24-hour CVS and a parade of guys in Tommy Bahama. Plus, it’s the home of the annual Seafood Jam (“where the crowd’s on the older side!”).

After a Disney-on-Viagra greeting at the hotel, it isn’t long before the BFFs’ rock solid bond is threatened by the handsome Edgar (Jamie Dornan) and the chance to rent a banana boat.

Will the girls’ friendship survive all the fibs and sneaking around? And how long can Edgar hide his part in the nefarious plan by an evil genius (also Kristen Wiig) to kill everyone on the island with poisonous mosquitoes?

I’m sorry, what was that second thing?

Just know director Josh Greenbaum keeps a loose grip on a film that’s ridiculous at every turn but still full of good-natured, garish fun and just about as many laugh out loud moments as dry patches. Even though Barb and Star are new to us, they feel like characters the two stars have been privately honing for years, and it’s the chemistry of Mumolo and Wiig (who also co-wrote Bridesmaids) that allows a bit about the name “Trish” to continue beyond all limits of good sense until you give in to the hilarity.

You’ll also recognize plenty of faces in the supporting cast, highlighted by Mark Jonathan Davis doing his Richard Cheese lounge singer persona and Damon Wayans, Jr. as a spy with a bad habit of spilling his personal info (“dammit!”).

Expect some goofy outtakes over the credits, and waves of silliness that just won’t rest until your frown is turned upside down! It may not be dynamite, but Barb and Star brings enough laughs to make spending time with them a pleasure.

Just don’t call it guilty.

Grade: B-

Saint Maud

On Epix

by Hope Madden

Never waste your pain.

What a peculiarly Catholic sentiment. Like old school, self-flagellating, “suffering cleanses” kind of Catholic: the agony and the ecstasy. It’s in the eyes of the martyrs. This is how you see God.

This is what Maud wants.

Writer/director Rose Glass knows that Catholicism is one of the most common elements in horror. You see it in the way she shoots down an old staircase in an alley, or up at the high windows of a lovely manor.

There’s been a glut of uninspired, superficial drivel. But there are also great movies: The Devils (1971), The Omen (1976), and the Godfather of them all, The Exorcist (1973). Saint Maud stakes its claim in this unholy ground with a singular vision of loneliness, purpose and martyrdom.

Maud (an astonishing Morfydd Clark) has some undefined blood and shame in her recent past. But she survived it, and she knows God saved her for a reason. She’s still working out what that reason is when she meets Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a former choreographer now crumbling beneath lymphoma.

Maud cannot save Amanda’s body, but because of just the right signs from Amanda, she is determined to save her soul.

Ehle’s performance strikes a perfect image of casual cruelty, her scenes with the clearly delicate Maud a dance of curiosity and unkindness. Ehle’s onscreen chemistry with Clark suggests the bored, almost regretful thrill of manipulation.

Clark’s searching, desperate performance is chilling. Glass routinely frames her in ways to evoke the images of saints and martyrs, giving the film an eerie beauty, one that haunts rather than comforts. The conversations and pathos are so authentic that suddenly the behavior of one mad obsessive feels less lurid and more tragic.

As a horror film, Saint Maud is a slow burn. Glass and crew repay you for your patience, though, with a smart film that believes in its audience. Her film treads the earth between mental illness and religious fervor, but its sights are on the horror of the broken hearted and lonesome.

Grade: A-

Minari

In theaters and streaming via A24

by Hope Madden

Yes, I am a sucker for films containing devastatingly adorable little kids. Sue me.

Minari fits that bill. Writer/director Lee Isaac Chung essentially recreates the story of his own family’s struggles to become farmers when he was 6. The character based on the filmmaker is played by Alan S. Kim (that little face!), and though Minari is not told exclusively from his perspective, his presence—and the innocence and chaos that represents—suits the effort.

Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han) were having problems before making the move to a tiny plot of Arkansas farmland. As Jacob struggles to turn their fortunes around, he brings his mother-in-law to live with them to make his wife happy.

Lucky for us all Grandma (Youn Yuh-jung, a treat) is a stitch.

The dynamic within the family is sweetly authentic, and the levity never overtakes a scene. There’s a tenderness here that, along with moments of joy, elevates the seriousness and even desperation of the family’s situation.

Chung’s cinematic style quietly beguiles. There is enormous struggle in nearly every scene, but it’s told with gentleness and grace. It’s the rhythm to a song made up of so much more. Chung’s skill as a storyteller is immense, but he couldn’t have created such nuance without such a game cast.

Yeun proves again the depths of his talent. If you missed his menacingly perfect turn in 2018’s Burning, you should definitely watch that right away. To the same degree that his character there was conniving and calculating, Minari’s Jacob is earnest and warm. You ache for him to succeed, and not just as a farmer.

Likewise, Han hits no false note as an involuntary Arkansan. It would have been so easy to oversell the bitterness or disappointment—as it would have been for Yuh-jung to have gone bigger with her “crazy granny” character. But broad strokes are nowhere to be found in this delicate drama.

Plus Alan Kim is just so damn cute.

Minari offers a close look—optimistic, but not sentimental—at the American Dream. If you feel like that’s been done to death, that just means you haven’t seen this movie yet.

Grade: A-

The World to Come

In theaters

by Hope Madden

Valentine’s Day approaches. If you’re looking for a swoon-worthy way to spend it, and you’re willing to risk a public screening, The World to Come may be the date you want to make.

Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and Dyer (Casey Affleck) share a colorless if efficient bond. It may have been slightly more than that a year ago, before their toddler passed. Now Dyer keeps a ledger of expenses and of crop yields while, at his request, his wife writes down what other facts may be forgotten each season.

Facts. Nothing more.

When Abigail meets new neighbor Tallie (Vanessa Kirby, having one hell of a year), facts lose their appeal.

The World to Come is directed with lilting melancholy by Mona Fastvold. She works from a script by Ron Hansen (co-written with Ben Shepard from his short story). The writing boasts the same time stamp and peculiarly observational style as Hansen’s 2007 treasure, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Fastvold’s measured approach and the understated delivery from both Waterson and Affleck suit the writing, but they also require patience from the viewer.

This restraint is punctuated by the barely stifled rage of Christopher Abbott (nice to see you) as Tallie’s husband Finney. His energy stands in fierce conflict with the reserve shown by his neighbors, with only Tallie’s unfettered nature to balance things.

Fastvold films Kirby as if she glows from within, a beautiful depiction of both the promise of love and the light she brings to Abigail’s life. Waterston allows Abigail to blossom in that light, and the warmth the two share is sincere and lovely.

Affleck impresses, again, with a performance of resigned grief that sneaks up on you, but it is Waterston who owns the film. At first unsure but willing to wonder, her Abigail embraces the full burst of emotion that she’d never known, and then must wrangle the sizes of the emotions that follow. It’s a fierce performance—maybe Waterson’s best.

Fastvold’s film calls to mind Céline Sciamma’s 2019 masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire. (Indie horror buffs will also be reminded of 2018’s The Wind, for different reasons.) The World to Come measures suffering—particularly that done quietly and expectedly by women—against what pleasures can be stolen in this world.

Grade: A-

Land

In theaters

by George Wolf

After directing one short film and ten episodes of her House of Cards TV series, Robin Wright makes an assured feature debut with Land, mining one shattered life for graceful insight into healing.

Wright also delivers a touching and understated performance as Edee, a woman who clings to grief as her closest connection to the husband and child she has lost, and who can no longer bear any expectations that she will “get better.”

Moving alone to a remote cabin in the Wyoming wilderness, Edee ignores advice to at least keep a vehicle at her disposal and settles in, wanting nothing else to do with anything or anyone.

No surprise, but Wyoming winters are harsh for the inexperienced. Eventually, it is only the aid of a passing hunter named Miguel (Demián Bichir, also terrific) that saves Edee’s life.

Miguel is carrying emotional scars as well, and the two strike a deal. He will teach her the survival skills she needs, and when the lessons are done, she will never see him again.

The screenplay from Jesse Chatham and Erin Dignam may not blaze any thematic trails, but it does resist following the roads most expected. Of course Edee begins to feel a human connection again, but this point isn’t exploited for a cheap and easy narrative out.

The performances from Wright and Bichir make you care about pain even when you haven’t glimpsed it, giving director Wright a solid emotional base to lean on while deftly unveiling the different lives Edee and Miguel used to lead.

Edee’s memories of her family are brought to the screen with a tenderness from Wright that is both touching and well-played. Woven through the beautifully framed and intimidating Wyoming landscapes are wonderful sketches of visual storytelling.

Yes, we’ve heard Land‘s lessons before, but Wright’s feature debut behind the camera impresses through her fine instincts for subtle over showy, paring those lessons down to an essence as timeless as the majestic skyline.

Grade: B+

The Mauritanian

In theaters

by George Wolf

In the face of the highest of ideals, America is capable of horrible things. According to his own writings, Mohamedou Ould Salahi believed in those ideals, until he was held without charge in Guantanamo Bay for over 14 years.

Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald and a cast full of veteran talent tell the story of The Mauritanian with impressive craftsmanship, a proud conscience and a narrative cluttered with good intentions.

Not long after 9/11, Salahi (Tahar Rahim from A Prophet and The Past) was apprehended with suspicions of being a Bin Ladin confidant and the “Al-Qaeda Forrest Gump.” His was to be the first death penalty prosecution of The Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld response, until human rights attorney Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) took up Salahi’s case pro bono.

The script, adapted from Salahi’s book by M.B. Traven, Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani, picks the emotional teams early. Salahi is a sympathetic character, and quickly charms Hollander’s assistant Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley) while Hollander herself remains unmoved, committed only to the rule of law.

This commitment serves her well, especially against Marine lawyer Stu Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), who has a personal and professional stake in seeing Salahi put to death.

Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play, One Day in September) breaks from the pack of similarly-themed films with a tone that shifts between self-congratulations and tearful apology. The “rough justice” abuse Salahi suffers is clearly barbaric but still feels sanitized, and part of a larger question the film eschews in favor of heavy hearted hindsight.

But there isn’t a false note in this cast. Even when their character arcs may feel predetermined, every player – from principals to supporting – delivers enough heart and humanity to keep the lessons of Salahi’s ordeal resonating.

Landing at a time when the conscience of the country is literally being voted on, The Mauritanian is a committed if somewhat unwieldy reminder of the stakes.

Grade: B-

Sator

by Hope Madden

There are a lot of films that can be considered a passion project. Sator fits the category, that passion coming from writer/director/producer/cinematographer/composer Jordan Graham.

Graham essentially did everything besides act, and it gives the film a specific vision that’s clearly undiluted by collaboration. That is in the film’s win column, but it’s also a bit of a loss.

Graham’s vision is one of isolation, dysfunction, paranoia, and mental illness—or it’s about the presence of a supernatural being with bad intentions concerning Adam (Gabriel Nicholson) and his family.

The sound design here is as impressive as the way Graham guides us visually. The filmmaker shifts slowly between different aspect ratios, as well as from black and white to color and back. The movement is so gradual as to almost hypnotize.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the background Nani (June Peterson)—Adam’s grandmother—talks on and on. The voice is pre-recorded, and she’s talking about, and sometimes talking for, a presence.

Graham slides in an out of the audio, which often mismatches the visual although all of it blends into a dreamlike horror. The film resembles a nightmare, but it may also simply resemble a form of mental illness that is itself a bit of a nightmare.

Graham’s slow burn unveils trauma as it wallows in its aftermath, and the thick fog of delusion hangs everywhere. But films like this sometimes paint themselves into a corner because there are no real answers, and the audience investment needs to be repaid somehow.

Here’s where Sator comes up slightly short. Though the sudden punctuation of violence startles you from the dream of the film and provides a reasonable and horrific cap to the picture, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the whole adventure took too long. Act two feels too often like a slog, and the entirely unresolved images peppered here and there wind up feeling less like spooky ambiguity and more like points of frustration.

It’s not nearly enough to sink this Herculean effort. Graham’s film possesses an artistry that can’t be denied, and it succeeds more than it fails.

Grade: B-

Paradise Cove

by Hope Madden

What’s that network that plays movies round the clock with titles like Cheerleader Murderer and Sultry Stepmom or Deadly Realtor? Because Paradise Cove is three F-bombs and an on-the-nose title away from fitting right in.

Martin Guigui directs Sherry Klein’s script. Either he did not read it first, or he did read it and simply didn’t understand it. I can think of no third option to explain this mess.

Knox (Todd Grinnell, henceforth to be known as “Cardboard Paul Rudd”) and Tracey (Mena Suvari) move into the beachfront Malibu property Knox’s mom left him after she died in a fire onsite. It needs a lot of work, but Knox is a contractor, and he’s certain that he sees a 6-million-dollar view.

With a little help from Griff (Eddie Goines) and a blind eye from the zoning department, maybe he and Tracey can flip this, build a home of their dreams far from Malibu, and start that family they’re already using fertility treatments to conceive.

But there’s this homeless woman (Kristin Bauer van Straten) who lives under their deck. Unfortunately, it appears that folks from Malibu stick up for other folks from Malibu—no matter how dangerous, homeless or insane—and outsiders aren’t welcome. It’s like Maine with Botox.

The script manages to provide opportunities for a genre-specific tension. Knox knows this woman can get inside their house, but an event keeps him from telling his wife. This single event should, if handled properly, create anxiety around whether or not she’s in the house while it develops conflict within the main character.

Instead, Guigui treats every scene as if no other scene has taken place. It doesn’t help that all of this tension non-building is in service of Knox’s character arc.

Is Knox that wholesome Midwesterner we first meet, the one so willing to hand $5 to the homeless vet out his car window? (FYI: The homeless are not treated with much respect by this film. )

Or is he something more, the product of a sketchy background, able to hold his innocent wife’s hormone treatment over her head whenever she thinks she might smell a rat?

Who knows? He’s being played by Cardboard Paul Rudd, who’s better suited to the role of Handsome Carpool Dad.

Grade: D

Follow George and Hope on twitter @maddwolf and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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