Black Beauty **1/2
Mackenzie Foy in Black Beauty
On the one hand, writer/director Ashley Avis’s adaptation of Anna Sewell’s novel is reasonably faithful in transplanting the story from Victorian England to present-day America; on the other hand, why? On a New York horse farm, trainer Jon Manly (Iain Glen) finds a challenge in breaking a newly-arrived rescued wild mustang (voiced by Kate Winslet)—until the arrival of Manly’s orphaned niece, Jo (Mackenzie Foy). What follows is, at least for the first half, a reasonably charming girl-and-her-horse drama, albeit one where Avis seems to be trying to win a bet for how many magic-hour lens flares she can incorporate. Eventually, however, Beauty and Jo are separated, with Winslet calmly narrating various misadventures. The purpose of the first-person animal narration in the book was to build a sense of compassion for work animals, at a time when they were often mistreated. But this Black Beauty
doesn’t really want to lean into that idea, focusing more on a bit of romance for Jo and all those pretty pictures. If the intention was to build up the desire to see Beauty and Jo reunited, the movie never quite gets there, although it’s a perfectly fine diversion along the way. Available Nov. 27 via Disney+.
The Croods: A New Age **1/2
I’m not saying it’s necessary for an animated feature to have a message of some kind, but it’s disorienting when the message it’s playing with seems to be pivoting between innocuous and daring. This follow-up to the 2013 feature finds the prehistoric Crood clan—including Grug (Nicolas Cage), Ugga (Catherine Keener), Eep (Emma Stone) and Eep’s new boyfriend Guy (Ryan Reynolds)—discovering a more evolved family in the treehouse-dwelling Bettermans: papa Phil (Peter Dinklage), mama Hope (Leslie Mann) and teenage daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran). Conflict ensues, both from Grug’s desire to maintain the kind of life he’s comfortable with, and with a possible romantic triangle involving Eep, Guy and Dawn, all sprinkled between colorful action sequences involving hybrid creatures like kangadillos and wolf spiders. The voice performances are uniformly solid, but it’s hard to figure whether the script really wants to dig into the idea that human “progress” causes too much disruption to the natural world, or simply offer a warm hug that life is better when people set aside their differences and work together. The result is a lively distraction that feints at biting off more than it can chew, then doesn’t even find much worth chewing at all. Available Nov. 25 in theaters.
Fear not, this isn’t another earnest cradle-to-grave biopic melodrama about a famous pop star; it is, unfortunately, an example of an equally annoying biopic sub-genre, the “how [famous creative work] came to be made” story. Director/co-writer Gabriel Range stays focused on a narrow window in the life of David Bowie (Johnny Flynn), covering a trip to America in 1971 that’s supposed to energize his career, except that half-assed paperwork by his record company leaves him in the care of one of his label’s lower-echelon publicists, Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), and unable to do actual shows. That provides the framework for what is often a buddy road movie, with Oberman as a kind of <em>Broadway Danny Rose</em>-style hapless but enthusiastic supporter of an artist who keeps sabotaging Oberman’s efforts. Unfortunately, that idea is often sabotaged itself by Flynn’s deeply annoying performance, and by the backstory in which Bowie lives in fear of falling victim to a family history of mental illness, like his beloved brother (Derek Moran). It’s all intended to serve as an origin story for Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character, except that the movie is only really interesting when it’s just a story about a weird would-be rock star and the only guy who seems to believe that he deserves to be one. Available Nov. 25 in theaters and on VOD.
See feature review
. Available Nov. 26 via HBO Max.
Three Summers **1/2
A triptych narrative like this faces enough potential struggles, but by the end of writer/director Sandra Kogut’s Brazilian drama, I really had no idea what the upshot of her character study was. Episodes set in December of 2015, 2016 and 2017 follow Madá (Regina Casé), a housekeeper for a wealthy family with plans to open her own business—until she gets caught up in her employer’s shady business dealings. For a while during the second act, it looks as though Three Summers
is aiming for an economic comedy of manners, as Madá and her fellow house staff members start figuring out ways to exploit their employers’ assets for income: taking people out on their boat, renting out the house as a location for filming a commercial, etc. It’s light-hearted enough most of the time that it’s hard to discern much anger over the working-class people affected by a white-collar crime, with Casé turning in an energetic performance capturing Madá’s resourcefulness and the twist of a Southern Hemisphere Christmas season. But by the time we get to a monologue by Madá relating a tragedy from her life, the pieces don’t feel like they’re adding up to anything. It’s disorienting feeling we could just as easily continue to a fourth summer. Available Nov. 27 via SLFSatHome.org.
Uncle Frank **1/2
Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis and Peter Macdissi in Uncle Frank
Alan Ball’s best-known work—American Beauty
, Six Feet Under
and True Blood
—isn’t exactly celebrated for its subtlety, so it's no surprise that his drama plays with big emotions, even when it might have been fine to dial things back a touch. Set in the early 1970s, it follows a South Carolina native named Beth (Sophia Lillis) for her freshman year to NYU, where her black-sheep Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany) is a professor. But Beth learns that the reason Frank is a black sheep is that he’s gay, and when Frank’s father/Beth’s grandfather (Stephen Root) passes away, they take a road trip back home together with Frank’s boyfriend Wally (Peter Macdissi). It feels initially like the relationship between Beth and Frank—and how it might shape a young progressive-in-training—will be the centerpiece, which makes it kind of a bummer when Beth’s character disappears for most of the film’s second half, as Ball focuses on a traumatic event that shaped Frank’s life. That gives Ball an excuse to amp up the melodrama, even as the smaller relationship moments prove much more engaging. To Ball’s credit, he allows for some optimism that doesn’t ignore the pain of growing up closeted in a conservative family, but it’s a bumpier journey than it needed to be. Available Nov. 25 via Amazon Prime.
This isn’t the first time a documentary has made musician Frank Zappa its central subject—2016’s Eat That Question
crafted a compelling portrait based on Zappa’s interviews and public statements—but this one finds a different point of view by focusing on the scope of Zappa’s musical output. Directed by actor Alex Winter, Zappa does include plenty of biographical material, taking advantage of his access to family archives to present home movies and other artifacts of Zappa’s life before achieving recognition with the Mothers of Invention. Yet Winter is most fascinated by the combination of eclecticism and perfectionism that made Zappa such a unique artist, mixing blues and jazz into this “popular” music even as he composed orchestral works. Even the 1980s events that brought Zappa most into the wider public arena—the novelty hit “Valley Girl” with his daughter Moon, and his role as spokesperson against rating labels on records—are folded into the bigger picture of the ferocious integrity with which he pursued his work. Winter gives as much time to the music as he does to talking heads, such that when he closes with an extended sequence involving one of Zappa’s final compositions, for the Germany-based Ensemble Modern, it feels like a terrific summation of everything that was singular about him as an artist. Available Nov. 27 via SLFSatHome.org and ParkCityFilm.org.