Dakota Johnson in Persuasion
The knowledge that co-writer/director Christos Nikou worked with Yorgos Lanthimos had me expecting that the darkly comic set-up would remain squarely in that vein, but this odd Greek comedy-drama has other things on its mind, even if they’re not always successfully executed. It’s set at a time when a strange epidemic is causing people to almost-instantaneously develop complete amnesia, to the point where the government has launched a “New Identity Program” for those found without ID and unclaimed by any loved ones. Our unnamed protagonist (Aris Servitalis) is one such new intake in this program, beginning a brand new life with a variety of tasks required by his case workers. The strange nature of those tasks forms a big part of the narrative, mostly involving pushing the subjects beyond their comfort zones, or the notion of a world where a bunch of people are discovering the concept of Titanic
for the first time. Eventually, however, Nikou begins dropping hints about the history of Servitalis’ character, shifting the dynamic to something that’s a thematic cousin of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
, about the possible unintended consequences of living as an emotional blank slate. While that idea is a bit more powerful in theory than in practice here, since Servitalis’ performance remains so opaque for most of the film, it is an intriguing surprise to find a premise that initially seemed built for deadpan humor instead leaning into real pain and sadness. Available July 15 at Megaplex Jordan Commons.
Both Sides of the Blade ***
If I’m right about the subtext of this romantic drama from director Claire Denis, based on co-screenwriter Christine Angot’s novel, it’s one of the boldest gambits I’ve ever seen in a movie of this kind: a story that’s really about how its protagonists are all narcissistically wrapped up in their own petty bullshit. Sara (Juliette Binoche) and Jean (Vincent Lindon) are a middle-aged couple in a seemingly blissful relationship, but it gets complicated by the re-entry into their lives of François (Grégoire Colin), an old friend of Jean’s inviting him into a business opportunity—and also Sara’s ex-lover. Setting the story clearly and obviously during the pandemic, with people all around our protagonists wearing masks, sets the stage early for a sense of ominousness in the world around them, underscored by the threatening music from Tindersticks’ Stuart Staples. But the bigger picture emerges through radio-host Sara’s interviews with people dealing with actual
problems like racism and warfare, and Jean’s lecture to his mixed-race son (Issa Perica) about not using race as an excuse for his problems. Suddenly, Sara’s “torn between two lovers, feelin’ like a fool” emotional outbursts come off as ridiculously self-indulgent, and the coyness with which the filmmakers treat certain details becomes a hint that they really don’t matter. The performances take on a melodramatic tinge that feels perfectly pitched, when the real story is that the problems of these three people don’t amount to a hill of beans, even if they lack the vision to realize it. Available July 15 at Broadway Centre Cinemas.
Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down ***
Julie Cohen and Betsy West (RBG
, My Name is Pauli Murray
) have created a documentary cottage industry out of profiles of strong women; this one actually works best when it acknowledges its subject’s moments of weakness. That subject is Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who survived an assassination attempt in 2011 that left her with a traumatic brain injury, including the language deficit known as aphasia. The footage taken by her husband (and now Arizona senator) Mark Kelly during her rehabilitation is remarkable stuff, capturing all the frustrating moments of getting stuck on a word, while other scenes show how hard she still has to work, 10 years later, to get certain things right. And it’s quite fascinating to watch, as Giffords becomes a public advocate for gun legislation, how naturally she slips back into the mannerisms of public speaking even when the speaking itself is hard. The filmmakers can get clumsy in their earnest choices—it’s kind of cringeworthy when they lean into a needle-drop of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”—and it’s disappointing that we don’t see more of who Giffords was before the shooting, simply as a point of comparison. It is, however, undeniably powerful simply to watch Giffords work her ass off to be the person she is now. Available July 15 at Broadway Centre Cinemas.
Marcel the Shell With Shoes On ****
Marcel the Shell With Shoes On
I’m going to need a little time to decide whether Jenny Slate as Marcel the Shell is one of the greatest animated voice performances of all time, or the
greatest animated voice performance of all time. Those are really the only two options in this feature—adapted by Slate and director Dean Fleischer-Camp from their popular stop-motion YouTube shorts—about the titular sentient shell with tiny sneakers and one googly eye (Slate) occupying an Airbnb with his grandmother Connie (Isabella Rossellini), being interviewed for a documentary by the house’s current inhabitant (Fleischer-Camp, as himself). The film cleverly folds in the real-world success of the YouTube shorts, and even manages to link that phenomenon with the story’s bigger ideas about the need for connection (“An audience isn’t the same as a community,” Marcel observes). That idea permeates Marcel
, giving it a surprising emotional punch even as it’s delivering hilarious jokes built on the shells McGyver-ing their way to survival at their abruptly human-less house, or even Marcel’s propensity for carsickness. Mostly, though, there’s Slate imbuing Marcel with so much personality—not just playful innocence and curiosity, but a bit of a wicked sense of humor, all wrapped up in a profound need to be part of a family—that the character comes completely to life. It’s impressive to see this goofy concept expand successfully beyond three minutes, but considering how completely Slate commits to Marcel’s personhood, it deserves all this and more. Available July 15 in theaters.
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris ***
See feature review
. Available July 15 in theaters.
Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank **
It has become an axiom in the attack on “woke Hollywood” that Mel Brooks’ classic, provocative 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles
“could never be made today.” This weird attempt at an animated remake somehow both disproves and proves that axiom. It transfers the setting from the Old West to feudal Japan—or at least something akin to feudal Japan, populated by cats—where a would-be warlord (Ricky Jervais) looks to clear out a nearby town by assigning as their samurai protector the newly-arrived Hank (Michael Cera), who happens to be a dog. In theory, that would be the metaphorical substitute for the original Blazing Saddles
’ racial satire, except that there was no way this kid-friendly flick would attempt anything more substantial than “why can’t we all just get along.” What’s left is a bunch of scenes and references that are generally analogous to the predecessor—yes, including the infamous fart scene—which, let’s face it, proves that a lot of Brooks’ humor works fine for adolescents. But between the uninspired animation and the odd voice casting choices—particularly Samuel L. Jackson as the counterpart to Gene Wilder’s washed-up, drunken gunfighter, too full of attitude to convey someone in need of redemption—this is something that might provide a temporary distraction for anyone too young to know the source material, and just flat-out distracting for anyone who does know it. Available July 15 in theaters.
There are plenty of examples to show that Jane Austen adaptations can work with a contemporary self-awareness—including Fire Island
already this year—but maybe you need to commit to the bit rather than going only halfway. Dakota Johnson plays Anne Elliott, a young unmarried woman whose attachment to young sailor Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) was discouraged by her family; eight years later, Wentworth re-enters Anne’s life at a time when her family is down on its luck. The primary conceit here finds Johnson perpetually breaking the fourth wall to address the audience or cast a knowing glance in response to another character’s comments or behavior. It’s clearly intended to play like Fleabag
with empire waistlines, except that the melancholy presence Johnson often brings to her roles—and which works perfectly for Anne as Austen wrote her—clashes with the moments where she’s quite above it all, or when the screenplay by Ron Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow attempts to squeeze in some modern phraseology like “Good talk” or leering references to sexuality while remaining properly Restoration-era in all other ways. It’s a damned shame, because the terrific casting—including Henry Golding as the roguish Mr. Eliot, Richard E. Grant as Anne’s narcissistic father and Mia McKenna Bruce as her pouting younger sister—would have made for a quite wonderful traditional interpretation. As it stands, this feels like a high-school guidance counselor dropping a few two-year-old bits of teen patois in a cringeworthy attempt to seem hip with the kids these days. Available July 15 via Netflix.
Where the Crawdads Sing **
“Book club cinema” isn’t a common genre descriptor, but it should be—a designation for literary adaptations, usually period pieces, almost invariably appealing mostly to adult white women. And while there are some extremely effective examples of this kind of movie, like The Bridges of Madison County
and The Notebook
, there’s also a tendency for them to be sluggish plot-delivery systems. Screenwriter Lucy Alibar and director Olivia Newman adapt Delia Owens’ bestseller about Kya Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones), a young woman who lives by herself in the rural North Carolina marshes circa 1969, and becomes the prime suspect in the death of a local ex-football star (Harris Dickinson). The narrative then flashes back over the previous 16 years, including Kya’s troubled childhood with an alcoholic, abusive father (Garret Dillahunt), and first love with a local boy named Tate (Taylor John Smith) that includes a literal whirlwind romance (as in their first kiss takes place inside a whirlwind). Edgar-Jones finds an effective performance space between naïveté and inner strength, but most of this thing just plods along to the next bullet point. Maybe that’s a feature rather than a bug for the target audience, who mostly want to see a story they loved on screen, even if the filmmaking can’t hit that sweet spot that separates good melodrama from mediocre melodrama. Available July 15 in theaters.