Paul Greengrass’ News of the World is inadvertently topical

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“We’re all hurting. These are difficult times,” says Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) to a packed crowd in News of the World. The year is 1870, not 2020, but the words ring accidentally true for us. Captain Kidd is a remorseful Confederate veteran who now makes his living by traveling from town to town, reading newspapers to the gathered folk. This was when news was still valued, though at one point Captain Kidd runs afoul of a man who seems to lord it over his town and its news; the local paper is full of accounts of the man’s glory. This, too, is relevant to us, though perhaps not so accidentally. The movie is about atoning for one’s past through usefulness to the larger community. As Captain Kidd opines, his is not a rich man’s occupation. …


Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is bleak satirical gold

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The gut tension starts early in Emerald Fennell’s debut feature Promising Young Woman. Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is by herself at night at a bar, seemingly so blitzed she can barely sit up. Some nearby horndogs take notice, and one of them heads over to her. What follows, as the guy compels the scarcely sentient Cassie to go back to his place for a drink, trades one form of stress for another, a more deeply unsettling one. Cassie is nowhere near as drunk or oblivious as she seems, and her M.O. is quickly established: She purposely attracts predatory dudes, then confronts them with their own piggishness. One of the insights that writer-director Fennell has is that all these guys, two minutes after trying to take advantage of an inebriated woman, still want to portray themselves as not that bad. …


Patty Jenkins’ WW84 is part fool, part sage, all fun

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Kristen Wiig is raring to give a classic large-scale performance in Wonder Woman 1984. Her character, the terminally awkward gemologist Barbara Minerva, sits with rage born of neglect. Barbara gets a chance at real power, and it turns her into a monster, literally: she further elaborates that she wishes she were an apex predator, and she becomes Cheetah, a cat-like villain. But why a cheetah? At least in Batman Returns, Catwoman had a cat and was saved by a bunch more. Barbara likes leopard print, so … okay, we’ll go with it. Anyway, Wiig would have an easier time of it in a movie that foregrounded her more, but the script brushes Barbara off as much as her colleagues do. …


The Godfather, Coda asks us to give a problematic film a second chance

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The movie formerly known as The Godfather Part III (1990) has always been substantially different from its two classic predecessors. Unlike them, it is informed by the deepest pain; it asks what you do after your child dies. And it has no answer, then and now, under its new title The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone. As has been his wont the last few years, director Francis Ford Coppola has tinkered with the film, moving some scenes and trimming others; it’s shorter but doesn’t feel shorter — the pacing is still a bit stiff, the dialogue often stilted. Ironically, the subtitle is not literal; Coppola fades to black on the ruined face of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), sparing us his unintentionally comical literal downfall. …


David Fincher’s Mank offers no insight into the writer of a classic

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David Fincher’s Mank is a real Christmas-tree ball — shiny as hell and just as empty. The most human thing about it is that it derives from a screenplay by Fincher’s late father Jack, although the son may have inadvertently shown up the father by mounting on a large scale a story that has been written to fit in a shot glass. And like a shot, the script is clear, bitter and numbing. It’s talky and weaves politics into its portrait of ‘30s-’40s Hollywood; it’s acrid and unsentimental, and could have made a fine comedy. But it doesn’t warrant the treatment it gets from Fincher, who, it seems, knows only one way to deal with a given story: throw tons of technique and grim-faced style at it. …


Robert Altman’s Popeye at 40

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Reading a detailed book about the troubled production of Robert Altman’s Popeye might be more entertaining than watching the movie. All the ingredients are there, but the result is an alternately overcooked and undercooked stew with no dominant flavor — you taste everything and you taste nothing.

Jules Feiffer’s script has been said to match the ramshackle seaside tone of the original E.C. Segar comic strip, titled Thimble Theatre until Popeye showed up ten years into its run and took over. The movie, though, seems inspired more by the Fleischer Brothers cartoons of the ’30s; there’s a lot of slapstick and cartoon effects. It’s also abominably cluttered and headache-inducing. Altman, famous for his ensemble casts and overlapping plots, may have thought he could work the same magic in the story’s setting of Sweethaven. But, despite the surplus of characters, there are really only two stars, Robin Williams as Popeye and Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl; most everyone else is just noisy wallpaper. …


Two Drew Barrymores give The Stand In a unique complexity

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For about an hour, I was mystified by my response to The Stand In. Was this not supposed to be a wacky identity-swap comedy? Instead I could feel my stress level rising, and the movie certainly doesn’t look like a comedy — as lighted by cinematographer Eric Moynier, it has the burgundy tone of a somber legal drama. But then the movie’s scheme clicked into place. Please don’t go by the trailer or the poster: Despite some funny bits, The Stand In is more of a drama about those who make comedies, somewhat like Judd Apatow’s Funny People. If you go into it knowing this, it’ll take you far less time to plug into it. …


Tara Miele’s Wander Darkly shows a woman grappling with reality

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The drifting, emotionally allusive Wander Darkly is for sure the work of a woman (writer/director Tara Miele). It feels its way through a difficult, nonlinear narrative having to do with life after a car accident for young couple Adrienne (Sienna Miller) and Matteo (Diego Luna), whose relationship had gotten brittle with mistrust and miscommunication even before the event that wrenched them apart. But are they really apart? At one point, a hollow-feeling Adrienne is watching Night of the Living Dead; she notes that she now identifies with the zombies. A more germane black-and-white horror film in the public domain for Adrienne to watch might be Carnival of Souls.


Chick Fight isn’t the wild and twisted comedy it needs to be

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A movie about a secret fight club for women to work out their rage probably shouldn’t be as bland as Chick Fight. The scenes in which the women punch, kick, head-butt and choke out their fellow women express a kind of ironic liberation that the by-the-numbers script (by Joseph Downey) doesn’t really explore. Chick Fight has a raft of female producers or executive producers (including two of its stars, Malin Akerman and Bella Thorne), but is written and directed by men. Some would see no problem with this, as telling stories requires some degree of imagination and trying to see through the eyes of those unlike you. But we also miss what female creatives might have brought to this story. …


Alex Winter’s Zappa shows the man behind the music and politics

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Some artists — especially artists like Frank Zappa — must hear Thomas Carlyle in their heads from time to time. Pinching a bit from the scriptures, Carlyle wrote, “Produce! Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, produce it in God’s name! ’Tis the utmost thou hast in thee; out with it then. Up, up! Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called To-day, for the Night cometh wherein no man can work.”

Zappa, who lost his tussle with prostate cancer just shy of his 53rd birthday in 1993, produced as though Carlyle were screaming those words in his ear all the time. At the end of Alex Winter’s new documentary Zappa, we’re told that Zappa put out 62 albums during his life, and his estate has found enough stuff in his sprawling archives to release another fifty-plus. Winter draws from tons of never-seen footage, letting the voluble Zappa tell as much of his story (mainly to contemporaneous interviewers) as possible. At just a hair over two hours (plus several minutes of Kickstarter-lengthened end credits), Zappa feels epic though not too chunky for the newcomer. We get a sense of Zappa the man, composer, performer, and activist against record labeling. When Zappa visited Prague in 1990 as a guest of Czech president Václav Havel, he was received, says engineer Dave Dondorf, as “a king of freedom.” …

About

Rob Gonsalves

I see movies and write about ’em. Old, new, makes no difference.

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