The Artist’s Wife **1/2
Shane Paul McGhie and Richard Jenkins in The Last Shift
“Spouse of a great man” dramas are kind of their own sub-genre—most recently in 2018’s Glenn Close/Jonathan Pryce vehicle The Wife
—and co-writer/director Tom Dolby finds himself falling into some familiar patterns here. The titular subject is Claire Smythson (Lena Olin), wife of celebrated painter Richard Smythson (Bruce Dern), who is preparing for a new exhibition after a long period of inactivity. But just as the exhibition approaches, Richard receives a diagnosis that he’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, forcing Claire to ponder what awaits her. That pondering takes the form of an attempt to reconcile Richard and his estranged daughter, Angela (Juliet Rylance), as well as re-starting her own long-abandoned artistic efforts, and Olin offers a solid portrait of a woman considering where she finds herself after years spent in her mercurial husband’s shadow. But too many of the story beats feel thoroughly predictable from an early point—including a possible spark of romance for Claire with another man—without really enlightening who she is or wants to be. There’s nothing exactly wrong with The Artist’s Wife
as a character study, except that it never makes a case for itself as anything we haven’t seen a dozen times before. Available Sept. 25 via SLFSatHome.org.
A high-level professional assassin (Jessica Chastain) faces a life-and-death challenge. Available Sept. 25 in theaters.
See feature review
. Available Sept. 25 in theaters. (PG-13)
The Last Shift **1/2
It’s kind of heartbreaking how precariously close writer/director Andrew Cohn comes to upending a certain trite light-dramedy premise, only to serve up something that’s neither fish nor fowl. That’s even a fitting metaphor considering that the setting is Oscar’s Chicken & Fish, a local fast-food franchise in small-town Michigan where Stanley (Richard Jenkins) has worked for 38 years. During his last week at Oscar’s before moving to Florida to care for his elderly mother, Stanley is charged with training Jevon (Shane Paul McGhie), a Black youth on probation for a vandalism charge. That would usually be the cue for an ebony-and-ivory tale of characters learning Very Important Lessons in American race relations from one another; think Green Book, except with less driving and more drive-thru. But Cohn, a documentary veteran making his first fiction feature, wants to poke at some more uncomfortable areas of privilege and racism—which might have worked, if Jenkins weren’t playing Stanley as borderline developmentally disabled, perhaps even literally so. As potentially provocative as this premise might be, holding Stanley accountable for his attitudes and his choices becomes a lot harder if you’re left thinking he might have an excuse. Available Sept. 25 in theaters.
Oliver Sacks: His Own Life ***1/2
Biographical documentaries rarely come with this kind of a built-in emotional hook: The active participation of the subject, fully aware of the imminent end of his life. That’s the context for Ric Burns’ profile of Dr. Oliver Sacks, the celebrated British-born clinical neurologist (whose books included the source material for 1990’s Awakenings
), as he reflects on his life and career in early 2015, having received a diagnosis of terminal metastatic cancer. Burns takes on his subject then literally from cradle to grave, exploring the factors that most shaped him—including his brother’s mental illness, and life as a closeted gay man—and the rocky personal road towards becoming a best-selling author. What emerges most vividly is that place of overlap between Sacks the doctor and Sacks the writer—a deeply humane conviction that his patients aren’t just diseases to be cured, but people with narratives worth understanding, and that those narratives need not always define them as “less than.” It’s true that relating Sacks’ own history at times interferes with letting him speak in the present in all his idiosyncrasy; an anecdote about the way in which he once employed Jell-O brings down the house. Still, this remains a lovely monument to all that Sacks contributed to a science built not just on statistics, but on stories. Available Sept. 25 via SLFSatHome.org.
Secret Society of Second-Born Royals **
See feature review
. Available Sept. 25 via Disney+.
Sure, horror films can work with a minimum of screenwriting effort, but this feels like a mess even holding the bar really low. It’s the tale of a British school bus carrying five teens—Nolan (Jack Kane), Bess (Sophie Jane Oliver), Karl (Zander Emlano), Queenie (Molly Dew) and Reg (Zak Sutcliffe)—forced to take a detour thanks to a fallen tree, leading the passengers into a life-or-death night. That night begins with a ridiculous initial conflict that seems to exist only to provide the obligatory “here’s why nobody has cell phones” explanation, before diving directly into monster movie territory. But though this feels like an attempt to cross The Breakfast Club
with Stranger Things
—including an electronic score that should inspire a copyright-infringement lawsuit from the latter—there’s not nearly enough time spent giving our protagonists personalities beyond their single trait as The Angry One, The Smart One, The Funny One, etc. And that goes double for the creature, a pointlessly vague monstrosity where a lot of time is spent on irrelevant origin flashbacks. Director Alessio Liguori does some fun things with his sound design, and pushes the tension-building in every scene. There’s just not a lot he can do with no reason to care about either the people, or the thing that’s trying to kill them. Available Sept. 25 in theaters.
We Are Many ***
Director Amir Amirani takes on the Iraq War and the organized opposition to it from two somewhat unusual perspectives: first, by focusing on British and other European anti-war activists more than those in America, and second, by focusing on protests that failed utterly to achieve their stated goal. Those protests were the worldwide marches and rallies on February 15, 2003, with millions of people gathering to oppose the increasingly likely prospect that the United States and her allies would attack Iraq, under likely false pretenses. The details of those pretenses should be fairly familiar by now, and Amirani spends too much time building outrage that his viewers almost certainly already feel. The material addressing the protests themselves proves far more effective, both in conveying the emotional response the participants still feel a decade later, and in acknowledging the ways that the movement failed to capitalize on any momentum. The upshot here is in arguing that those 2003 protests later provided the germ for the 2011 “Arab spring” uprisings, and for avoiding war with Syria in 2013. It’s ultimately a strong case for taking the long view that the results of any given protest are less important than showing, repeatedly, that people are willing to take action. Available Sept. 25 via SLFSatHome.org.