Lucas Hedges and Meryl Streep in Let Them All Talk
In the Kuala Lumpur, Maylasia airport in February 2017, two young women—Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong—rubbed a highly toxic nerve agent in the face of Kim Jong-nam, the exiled half-brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, resulting in his death. But why did they do it, and who was behind it? Ryan White’s documentary doesn’t leave much doubt as to its position that the women were patsies, duped into believing that they were recording prank videos by operatives working for Kim Jong-un to help him consolidate power, and the film spends a fair amount of time on the defense attorneys trying to save Siti and Doan from the death penalty. A few twists and turns emerge in the courtroom drama, but Assassins wants to convey how easy it is for women like these two—one a would-be actress, the other a sex worker, both desperate for money—to be pulled into such a plot. It would have been much more effective if that had been the focus, or if it were clear what focus White wanted as he also includes a Malaysian journalist covering the case and the bond that forms between the two women. At some point, however wild and improbable a narrative might become, you still need to decide what part of that narrative your movie is actually about. Available Dec. 11 via SLFSatHome.org.
Farewell Amor **1/2
Ekwa Msangi begins with a unique, potentially compelling kind of American immigrant story, but loses much of its potential through an unnecessary fragmenting of the narrative. The inciting incident is a family reunion: Seventeen years after Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) left Angola for work as a cab driver in New York, his wife Esther (Zainab Jah) and 17-year-old daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson) finally join him in America. Msangi backtracks through the narrative at various points to tell the story from all three of their points of view, revealing details like Walter’s long-term relationship with another woman. But where the heart of this tale is in a married couple who barely know one another anymore, Msangi mistakenly operates under the belief that Sylvia’s story of integrating into American life—and her desire to dance conflicting with Esther’s strict Christianity—doesn’t belong in a completely different movie. Every time Sylvia is centered, it distracts from the space between Walter and Esther, and the question of what is lost when someone comes to this country to support a family he then loses connection with. It’s baffling to see Farewell Amor
build its climactic scene around Sylvia having a dance-off with another teen girl. Available Dec. 11 in theaters.
I’m Your Woman ***
See feature review
. Available Dec. 11 in theaters and via Amazon Prime.
Let Them All Talk ***
If you didn’t already know that Deborah Eisenberg was a celebrated veteran short story writer, you might guess from the way her first screenwriting credit operates under a very different set of rules in terms of incident, plot structure and character development. The set-up feels in some ways quite conventional, as novelist Alice Hughes (Meryl Streep) takes a trans-Atlantic cruise to accept a literary award, and invites along two old college friends, Roberta (Candice Bergen) and Susan (Dianne Wiest), as well as her favorite nephew, Tyler (Lucas Hedges). As the relationships begin to unfold, the tone seems to swing with new bits of information. Will this be a farce, with Alice’s agent (Gemma Chan) keeping her presence on the cruise secret as she tries to find out if Alice is writing a sequel to her most popular book, using a smitten Tyler to gather information? Is it a reconciliation drama predicated on Roberta’s anger that said novel was based on her? It’s a story rich with character detail, slickly directed by Steven Soderbergh, and every cast member gets great moments. The challenge is deciding whether those moments add up to anything, or even whether they need to. We’re so trained to expect film narratives to resolve in specific ways, that a short-story-as-feature can feel both fascinating and … incomplete. Available Dec. 10 via HBO Max.
The Midnight Sky ***
George Clooney in The Midnight Sky
George Clooney’s adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s novel Good Morning, Midnight
leans more into genre adventure than existential dread, but it’s pretty solid as genre adventure, even if it’s less profound than it could be. The narrative alternates between two settings in 2049 as a planetary catastrophe has begun: an Arctic research station where terminally-ill astronomer Augustine (Clooney) has chosen to stay behind, he believes alone, until he discovers a young girl who has been left behind; and a deep-space mission to a human-habitable moon of Jupiter (with a crew including Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo and Kyle Chandler) returning home unaware that earth might be lost. The source material plays heavily with how humans deal with despair, and Clooney certainly touches on that idea. But he’s far more interested in an apocalyptic mashup of stuff like Gravity
and The Martian
, focused on people fighting for physical survival in inhospitable realms. As a director, Clooney does a fine job with set pieces involving perilous spacewalks or treks across icy tundra, and as an actor he brings a soulful weariness to bear. That’s mostly good enough for a narrative that never seems particularly interested in what gives people a reason to keep living when reason might suggest that it’s not worth it all. Available Dec. 11 in theaters; Dec. 25 via Netflix.
More of a feature-length recruitment video for Clemson University than an inspirational true story, Reginald Hudlin’s feature feels almost irresponsible in the degree to which it celebrates big-time college football as anything other than the business it is. The subject is Ramon “Ray Ray” McElrathbey (Jay Reeves), a freshman safety on the Clemson football team who finds himself forced to care for his 11-year-old brother, Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson), when their mother is in an addiction-treatment program. Naturally the screenplay throws in a romantic interest for Ray, just to emphasize how chaotic and complicated his life is getting, and director Reginald Hudlin actually does quite an impressive job of emphasizing how much work goes into learning how to be a successful college athlete beyond the demands of academia. The problem comes from the way Ray’s concern for his actual family is conflated with the idea of a Clemson Football “family;” the word is used often enough that I kept expecting a Fast & Furious
movie to break out. The dramatic climax is all about whether the NCAA will permit a waiver of its insanely complicated rules pertaining to student-athlete benefits, so concerned about leaving you with a lump in your throat that every other messy part of the way university athletic programs benefit from these young people is chewed up and blown away. Available Dec. 11 via Disney+.
Through the Night ***
It’s odd to suggest that the only thing wrong with Loira Limbal’s documentary is that there’s too much of it. Her primary subject is a 24-hour childcare operation in New Rochelle, N.Y., operated by Deloris “Nunu” Hogan and her husband, Patrick. Along the way, Limbal pays particular attention to two women who use Nunu’s services—one a night-shift nurse, the other working multiple jobs to make ends meet—and in so doing paints a sad, compelling picture of single mothers at a breaking point. But it’s even stronger at observing the hard work that goes into attending to children, and the dedication that Nunu shows to her calling, even if it might be at the risk of her own well-being. It does feel, however, like even a relatively brisk 75 minutes is more than this story needs, as Limbal tends to hit the same kinds of scenes multiple times, both in terms of Nunu’s talents as a caregiver and the challenges faced by her kids’ parents. As a 45-minute documentary short, this might have been an absolute gut punch of efficiency about the real world facing so many Americans; instead, it’s a potent slice of life that might have benefitted from just a bit more slicing. Available Dec. 11 via SLFSatHome.org.
Wander Darkly **1/2
There are times when you are watching a movie, and you can just smell it building to a Big Reveal that’s gonna irritate the hell out of you. Writer/director Tara Miele dodges the worst-case scenario, but still provides something that feels more interested in being a puzzle-box than in being emotionally potent. Adrienne (Sienna Miller) and Matteo (Diego Luna) are an unmarried Los Angeles couple with a new baby struggling to keep their relationship together. Then they’re both involved in a devastating car accident—from which Adrienne emerges in a disorienting state of not being sure if she’s alive or dead. The ensuing narrative shifts fluidly through time and space as Adrienne tries to process her situation through the history of her relationship with Matteo, so that it often feels like Miele’s attempt at Eternal Sunshine of the Traumatized Brain
. Miller turns in a strong performance in a tricky role, since it’s not clear for most of the running time if she’s a living soul trying to re-embrace a complicated reality, or a dead soul trying to make peace with past mistakes. But, eventually, all must be revealed—and it’s disappointing to find it the most obvious one, with the least interesting things to say about the messiness of loving someone. Available Dec. 11 via VOD.
Wild Mountain Thyme **
John Patrick Shanley is certainly no stranger to an oddball romantic sensibility—as anyone who remembers Joe vs. The Volcano
knows—but there’s something about his screen adaptation of his 2014 play Outside Mullingar
that just doesn’t work when removed from the stage. At its heart, this Ireland-set tale is indeed an oddball romance, with Rosemary Muldoon (Emily Blunt) carrying a long-held torch for Anthony Reilly (Jamie Dornan), the odd fellow who lives on the neighboring farm. There’s a subplot involving the uncertainty of Anthony’s father (a dreadfully miscast Christopher Walken) about whether he wants to leave his son the family land, which Shanley expands here to turn Anthony’s American cousin (Jon Hamm) into a rival. But the narrative hinges on the eventual revelation of why Anthony is so reluctant to accept Rosemary’s love, and that revelation is … odd. It works in the play because the focus is so narrowly and intimately on the character dynamics, and while Blunt and Dornan are both good—especially in the extended, uncomfortable set piece where Rosemary tries to understand what’s going on with Anthony—opening this story up to wide, green Irish vistas feels like exactly the wrong choice for material, particularly a metaphor for feeling broken and unworthy of love that demands a delicate touch. Available Dec. 11 in theaters.
Director Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells
, Song of the Sea
) returns with co-director Ross Stewart to the well of Irish folklore and mythology, for an animated tale so rich with subtext that it practically overflows. In 1650 Kilkenny, Ireland, a young English girl named Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) has come to live with her father (Sean Bean), a hunter tasked by the Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) with clearing the local woods of wolves. But among those wolves are a pair of half-wolf/half-human creatures called wolfwalkers, including a youngster called Mebh (Eva Whittaker), with whom Robyn finds a connection. Superficially, it begins as a variation on a particularly Disney brand of spunky, can’t-hold-me-down heroine, as Robyn chafes against the limitations of age and gender. But the narrative evolves to become a beautiful tale of friendship between lonely young girls, sparked by two exceptional voice performances. And beyond that, there’s a potent metaphor for the collision between occupying English Christianity and native Celtic paganism in its view of human relationship with nature. Top that all off with Moore’s distinctively lovely brand of 2-D animation—including exhilarating moments representing the freedom of running with the wolves—and you’ve got what might very well be the year’s most complete animated film. Available Dec. 11 via AppleTV+.