76 Days ***1/2
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Mads Mikkelsen in Another Round
It’s almost too urgent and harrowing an experience to watch this chronicle of hospital workers during the pandemic lockdown period in Wuhan, China earlier this year, but it’s also vital as a study of what’s likely going on in hospitals across our own country right now. Embedded with the staff at Wuhan’s Red Cross Hospital, the filmmakers take us from the dizzying early days of patients literally banging on the doors trying to get care, through the experience of caring for patients whose families are unable to be with one. At times there’s an almost absurdist sensibility to what we see, especially as hospital staff have to deal repeatedly with an elderly patient in the early stages of dementia wandering the halls. But while the interstitial segments occasionally venture outside to see what’s going on in an eerily quiet city, or the experience of specific patients like a couple forced to isolate from their newborn baby, this is mostly a tale about the challenges facing front-line medical workers like head ICU nurse Yang Li dealing with exhausting shifts and trying to keep a brave (unseen) face by writing cheery messages on one another’s PPE. The sheer numbers of the dead somehow seem more sadly devastating when represented by a table full of cell phones that need to be returned to bereaved relatives. Available Dec. 4 via SLFSatHome.org.
All My Life **1/2
It always feels churlish to bag on a romantic tear-jerker on any other criteria besides “is it romantic” and “does it jerk tears.” But this fact-based drama—adapted by director Marc Meyers (My Friend Dahmer
) and rookie screenwriter Todd Rosenberg—feels lacking in any connective tissue between those two components. Our protagonists are Jenn (Jessica Rothe) and Sol (Harry Shum Jr.), two attractive young people who fall in love, plan to get married, then find their plans complicated when Sol is diagnosed with liver cancer. The movie wastes no time having them fall hard for each other, and there are some charming moments in the courtship. But as appealing as their romance might be, the narratie structure makes it unclear what exactly the central story is. Is it the attempt by Jenn and Sol’s friends to raise money for their dream wedding? Is it Jenn learning an important lesson in seizing the day, despite a fuzzily-sketched personality which doesn’t make it clear she actually needs to learn that lesson? The light-hearted banter between all the characters fills in some empty spaces, and it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t deliver the raw emotions. But while emotions can be served raw, other parts of a movie need to be a little less half-baked. Available Dec. 4 in theaters.
Another Round ***1/2
Play this a slightly different way, and Thomas Vinterberg’s latest film easily could have been a high-concept comedy: Four co-worker teachers at a Copenhagen secondary school—Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Nikoaj (Magnus Millang) and Peter (Lars Ranthe)—decide to test a researcher’s theory that people are happier and more productive with a slightly-inebriated blood alcohol level all day long. Not surprisingly, the second act focuses largely on the experiment initially going spectacularly well, as the foursome all find themselves feeling better about their personal and professional lives, and Vinterberg has plenty of fun with those scenes. But he shows his deft hand as the inevitable downward spiral isn’t played simply as a “hey kids, don’t become an alcoholic” public service announcement. Another Round conveys how much fun it feels like at the time to hide from the things that are making you feel like crap—in this case, the middle-aged realities of men surrounded during their work days by (mostly) happy-go-lucky teenagers—with Mikkelsen’s performance the standout in capturing a sense of lost purposes. The final scene becomes a terrific, surprising kicker in the way it shows how appealing it is to re-capture adolescent irresponsibility once it’s impossible—or dangerous—to do so. Available Dec. 4 via SLFSatHome.org.
Black Bear ***
The two short films that make up Lawrence Michael Levine’s diptych narrative mostly work as a whole, while just missing out on the chance to exploit two different ways of telling a similar story. At the outset, we meet filmmaker Allison (Aubrey Plaza) as she comes to stay at a rural retreat run by musician Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant girlfriend Blair (Sarah Gadon). A tense triangle ensues, before the narrative shifts and finds Allison, Gabe and Blair as completely different people on the set of an independent film. The first chapter is a terrific showcase for the three leads, hinging on the nit-picking arguments between Gabe and Blair, and Allison’s pot-stirring personality making the tensions worse. Then, for a little while, it feels like the second half is going to transform a tale of relationship insecurities from tragedy into farce, with the suggestion of infidelity used as a cruel artistic motivation amidst copious spilled coffee and some explosive diarrhea. It’s odd, though, that the second half eventually turns just as serious as the first, albeit from a different angle, making it harder to understand what Levine is saying by changing the metaphor for jealousy from a green-eyed monster into a hulking ursine knocking over garbage cans. Available Dec. 4 via SLFSatHome.org.
Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan **
Even the most potentially fascinating documentary subject needs to have their life wrangled into shape by some disciplined filmmaking, and it’s hard watching director Julien Temple let this profile of Shane MacGowan—best known as frontman of the 1980s Celtic punk outfit The Pogues—ramble on. Because it’s one thing for a biography to take us all the way back to childhood, as this one does, and another for it to spend so much time getting to the stuff that made the subject worth profiling that you might forget why you came. Temple relies mostly on MacGowan’s own words—collected from a wide range of interviews, often punctuated with his guttural, wheezy cough-laugh—set to a mix of archival footage, dramatized re-creations and (particularly to represent the craziest substance-abuse-fueled stories) animation. There’s no question that there’s interesting material here, especially as it deals with the interplay between MacGowan’s Irish nationalism, his artistic inspirations and his struggles with drugs and alcohol. It simply feels like there’s no attempt to pare down what appears here in 129 minutes to the essentials of MacGowan’s character, often falling into redundancy. Just because your subject often doesn’t know when enough is enough, it doesn’t mean the movie about him needs to have the same problem. Available Dec. 4 via SLFSatHome.org.
Dear Santa ***
Dana Nachman’s Pick of the Litter found a charming, low-key documentary subject in people who volunteer to train service animals; her latest feature provides similarly uplifting profiles of selfless, decent folks. In this case, they’re volunteers in the U.S. Postal Service’s century-old “Operation Santa” program, which finds “elves” who can fulfill the wishes in letters to Santa from particularly needy individuals. Nachman takes a straight-faced approach to the reality that Santa Claus exists and the subjects here are his helpers, so it’s a safe watch for viewers of any age. And while the film bounces between several individual subplots—from families affected by the devastating 2018 fire in Paradise, Calif., to a Brooklyn grade school adopting gift recipients—the focus remains on the idea that Santa comes to life through a spirit of giving. As tear-jerking feel-good material, it’s almost too easy, and doesn’t try to probe particularly deeply at the circumstances of those who need a helping hand. But at a time when it’s easy to feel despair about our fellow humans, it’s unquestionably nice to spend time with people who spend this much time making the world a slightly better place. Available Dec. 4 in theaters and on VOD.
Jillian Bell in Godmothered
I’m not saying it’s not possible to make another variation on the formula for Elf
that works; I am
saying that in order for that formula to work, you need to try a lot harder than this one does. Jillian Bell plays Eleanor, a young novitiate in the vocation of fairy godmothering who sets out to save the future of her kind by seeking out Mackenzie (Isla Fisher), who once sent a letter as a 10-year-old girl wishing for a happily-ever-after but is now a cynical single mother. The script does virtually no legwork at explaining its fantasy world—why is Eleanor the only pre-menopausal fairy godmother, and where did she come from?—which makes it a lot harder to become immersed in what’s going on. And while Bell is a capable comic actor, director Sharon Maguire (Bridget Jones’s Diary
) does nothing to make Eleanor’s relentless cheerfulness feel like anything but a low-resolution copy of Buddy the Elf or Giselle. By the time the morals to the story bounce between the grim view of the world perpetuated by the media, and the need for a new definition of true love, all that’s left is a muddled puddle of earnestness waiting for its climactic round of applause. Available Dec. 4 via Disney+.
What is it like to be a government official in a time of turmoil, and when it feels like you have no power to enact most of the change you’d like to see? Director David Osit profiles Musa Hadid, mayor of the Palestinian city of Ramallah, as he begins his second term just as the Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem inspires new tensions in the occupied land. We see little of Hadid outside his professional duties—just a few token moments of him at home with his family—so it’s not always easy to get to know our central character as a person. It’s still fascinating watching him cope with the unusual responsibilities of his job: trying to advance infrastructure projects when everything requires approval of the Israeli government; seeming utterly disinterested in a branding campaign for the city when there are so many bigger fish to fry; struggling to convey a violent clash to the public because he hasn’t mastered how to live-stream on Facebook. Osit’s cinematography captures beautiful scenes that complicate the picture Americans might have in their heads of occupied Palestine, conveying not just the turmoil, but the everyday normalcy that all citizens want, and Hadid simply can’t always provide. Available Dec. 4 via SLFSatHome.org.
See feature review
. Available Dec. 4 in theaters.
The Prom **1/2
Meryl Streep and James Corden in The Prom.
On the plus side, Ryan Murphy intuitively understands musical theater in a way that makes him an ideal choice to turn a stage musical into a movie; on the other side, there’s the tendency for too-much-ness in Murphy’s work that can make it a lot to digest in one two-hour sitting. Based on the 2018 Broadway production, it opens with an Indiana high school deciding to shut down its planned prom rather than let lesbian Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) attend as part of a same-sex couple. When a quartet of down-on-their-luck Broadway actors—Dee Dee (Meryl Streep), Barry (James Corden), Angie (Nicole Kidman) and Trent (Andrew Rannells)—hear about the incident, they decide to raise their personal profile by intervening on Emma’s behalf. The broadly satirical opening is when the material is at its best, with the songs by Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar (The Wedding Singer
musical) skewering both narcissistic celebrity do-gooders—particularly Streep in superb diva form—and small-town small-mindedness. But the more earnest the narrative gets in its “can’t we all just get along” message, and its both-sides-ing of self-absorbed artists and bigots who make gay teens hate themselves, the more Murphy’s bombast grows wearying. You can agree with everything The Prom is trying to say, and still wish Murphy would stop shouting it at you. Available Dec. 4 in theaters; Dec. 11 via Netflix.