Confess, Fletch ***1/2
Viola Davis in The Woman King
See feature review
. Available Sept. 16 in theaters and via VOD.
Do Revenge ***
In hindsight, the cutthroat world of teen social circles—exemplified in genre hits like Heathers
and Mean Girls
—seems like such an obvious fit for an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train
that it’s astonishing nobody thought of it before now. Technically, the script by Celeste Ballard and director Jennifer Kaytin Robinson isn’t a direct adaptation, though it follows a plot hatched at a Miam prep school by humiliated queen bee Drea (Camila Mendes) and new, quirky classmate Eleanor (Maya Hawke) to take down the individuals who, respectively, made the other’s life miserable. To the filmmakers’ credit, they’re not out to make one of those teen movies overly enamored of its own hip lingo and awareness of contemporary high-school anthropology, though they do get some great material out of the need to appear progressive. They mostly want to make a somewhat acidic teen comedy, built on performances that represent familiar types while still becoming full characters, and they do so with some fairly solid jokes. It’s less effective when Do Revenge seems almost obliged to introduce romantic interests for Drea and Eleanor, almost exclusively for the purpose of having someone to be disappointed in them when their plotting goes (inevitably) awry. Fortunately, it finds a satisfying dark-comedy formula in the intoxicating effect of adolescent popularity, and the psyche-crushing wounds inflicted at that age for the pettiest of reasons. Available Sept. 16 via Netflix.
God’s Country ***
Like fellow Sundance 2022 entry Master
, it’s a story about a Black woman in academia and how that role is tied into larger-scale societal racism; this one covers some of the same ground better, while also finding a few new frustrations. Thandiwe Newton plays Cassandra Guidry, a professor in a small Mountain West university town who finds herself locked into an escalating battle of wills with two local hunters (Joris Jarsky and Jefferson White) who insist on using her remote property as access for hunting. Co-writer/director Julian Higgins gives Cassandra a dense backstory—including her complicated relationship with her recently-deceased mother, and her pre-academic life in her native New Orleans—that certainly helps inform the way she responds to perceived disrespect and injustice. Newton instills her performance with roiling anger that tiptoes just along the edge of where we recognize her indignation as righteous, and wonder whether she’s tipping over that edge, while Higgins builds tension with the way he sometimes holds back on allowing us to see what Cassandra does. This is also a narrative that ultimately tries to dig into multiple different angles on the way people in authority fail in their responsibilities, which makes it feel a bit over-stuffed, and the climactic single shot doesn’t entirely work at rounding out Cassandra’s character arc. It’s a good thing that the rest of that arc provides so much meaty material. Available Sept. 16 in theaters.
It’s understandable if the emotional part of this story is where director Isabel Castro’s heart is, but structural messiness makes it a little harder to connect with those emotions. The primary subject is Doris Muñoz, the first-generation American citizen daughter of undocumented Mexican immigrants, whose career as a talent manager for Latinx musical artists hits a snag when loses her first and most successful client, pop star Cuco; subsequently, Doris reaches out to Dallas-based Jacks Haupt, also a first-generation American citizen, who could be the Next Big Thing that Doris is looking for. Castro has a terrific eye for making images more than purely functional, adding to the glow of an American Dream story. She also finds terrific individual moments, like Doris breaking down over the pressure of supporting so many people financially, and Jacks dealing with an uncomfortable phone call with her parents. Unfortunately, Castro leaves some significant questions unanswered: After three years, was Cuco still her only client? What’s the professional relationship between Doris and the agency to which she refers Jacks? Why doesn’t Jacks have the information about financial compensation that her mom asks about? It’s also not easy to catch up to Jacks’ story after the first half’s focus on Doris, and Jacks also disappears from the back half as Castro concentrates on efforts by Doris’ parents to get green cards, allowing them to visit Doris’ deported older brother. The characters’ bumpy journey makes it easy to root for them, while the bumpy storytelling makes it harder to know exactly what we’re rooting for. Available Sept. 16 via Disney+.
See How They Run **1/2
There are occasions when a movie’s meta-narrative attempts to assure you it’s hip to the tropes of its genre just makes you more irritated that it can’t really transcend those tropes—and here is just such an example. In 1953 London, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap
is in the early months of its historic run, with a Hollywood movie version already being discussed—until the murder of the planned movie’s director (Adrien Brody) creates a real-life mystery to be solved by deadpan Scotland Yard Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and his earnest young partner, Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan). The interaction between the two investigators provides the strongest moments, with Ronan’s gung-ho manner landing particularly well. But when push comes to shove, this is basically a conventional whodunnit, mixing real-life figures like Richard Attenborough (Harris Dickinson) and producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith) into its cast of suspects. At a certain point, such a movie has to be either more clever about its actual mystery, or more clever about deconstructing the expectations built into a mystery—and See How They Run
mostly just kind of pokes around on both counts, with two few genuine laughs and too little investment in the motivations of the killer. Self-aware voice-over and callbacks to previous references can’t simply be an end in themselves. Available Sept. 16 in theaters.
The Silent Twins ***
Anyone who saw director Agnieszka Smoczynska’s crazy 2015 mermaid thriller The Lure
knows she has a gift for surreal imagery; here, she manages to anchor it to a tragic real-life story. Working from an adaptation by Andrea Siegel of Marjorie Wallace’s non-fiction book, Smoczynska explores the lives of June and Jennifer Gibbons, twin sisters of Barbados immigrants living in Wales in the 1970s as young girls (Leah Mondesir-Simmonds and Eva-Arianna Baxter) and into the early 1980s as teenagers (Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance), choosing to communicate verbally almost exclusively with one another. The narrative tracks the inability of the U.K. schooling system to deal with their unique psychology, which Siegel and Smoczynska do very little to explain as connected to their outsider status as the only Black children in their town. They do, however, dig deep into the worlds of imagination they create, often represented through stop-motion animation of the girls’ own stories. And The Silent Twins
is at its best when juxtaposing the worlds in their heads with the real world, notably in a scene where Jennifer’s romantic perception of her first sexual experience collides with what’s actually going on. The performances by both pairs of actors captures a relationship that’s intimate, at times volatile, and tangled up with the versions of themselves that are as much imagined as real. Available Sept. 16 in theaters.
The Woman King ***
Crowd-pleasers come in all shapes and sizes, and despite the historical-sociological roots in director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s period piece, it’s 100 percent built for a cheering audience. In 1823 West Africa, tribal rivalries are contributing to the European slave trade, with the Dahomey kingdom fighting against an alliance of opposition. But they and their new king Ghezo (John Boyega) have a secret weapon: an army of woman warriors called the Agojie, led by the general Nanisca (Viola Davis). The main narrative arc belongs to new Agojie recruit Nawi (a terrific Thuso Mbedu), whose initiation into the warrior sisterhood is unnecessarily complicated by a possible connection with a half-Dahomey Brazilian man (Jordan Bolger), while Nanisca faces some half-hearted palace intrigue fomented by one of Ghezo’s wives. Fortunately, those less compelling subplots don’t distract much from the far more interesting relationships Nawi builds, both with Nawi and with her more direct mentor, Izogie (Lashana Lynch), which generate some wonderful connections to the characters. Prince-Bythewood does a solid job of staging her action, but the battles aren’t really there to be spectacular. They’re there to emphasize how absolutely badass Davis’s Nanisca is, and to wrestle pure movie satisfaction out of seeing the African warriors dismantle their opposition. Is it detail-perfect history? Hell if I know, nor do I care when the entertainment value is this high. Available Sept. 16 in theaters.