Screening Room: ‘The Old Guard’

Based on Greg Rucka’s comic-book series, The Old Guard is a big-budget attempt to start a new action franchise, this one centered around a band of centuries-old mercenaries who are (mostly) immortal.

The Old Guard launches today on Netflix. My review is at Slant:

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action in the way of the modern franchise series—doing so more organically than the Fast and the Furious series but missing the self-aware comedic patter of the Avengers films—The Old Guard is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘How to Build a Girl’

Caitlin Moran’s popular YA novel How to Build a Girl was about a geeky girl from the Midlands who takes a sharp left-turn into hipsterdom when she reinvents herself as a snarky music journalist in the 1990s. (You know, when Happy Mondays were a thing.)

The movie adaptation of How to Build a Girl, starring Booksmart‘s irrepressible Beanie Feldstein, opens this week. My review is at The Playlist:

At first, the gig is all champagne and caviar, despite the eye-rolling putdowns delivered by her editors, a posh band of professional haters who have a hard time taking a girl from the Midlands seriously. After giving herself a makeover (a sequence unimaginatively set to Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl”), Johanna charges into nightclubs sporting fire-engine-red hair, a top hat, and the nom de plume Dolly Wilde, wielding her pen and notebook with more moxie than Lester Bangs…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Empire of the Sun’

My article on Steven Spielberg’s 1987 epic adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun was published at Eyes Wide Open:

Spielberg chose a story with few chases, a rouge’s gallery of foul characters, no uplift, and a healthy dash of surrealism. British speculative fiction novelist J.G. Ballard’s grim autobiographical novel detailed in stark terms the childhood years he spent in a Japanese prison camp in China during World War II. As adapted by cerebral playwright Tom Stoppard, the story is a chilly one, particularly for a filmmaker who had so shamelessly (and skillfully) plucked heartstrings in the likes of E.T...

Screening Room: ‘Capital in the 21st Century’

Six years ago, a 700–ish-page economics tome by a French academic with a Marxian bent became a surprise bestseller. Now, Capital in the 21st Century is a documentary.

My review is at PopMatters:

Justin Pemberton’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century takes the fundamental arguments of Piketty’s book and presents them in an engaging, visually brisk manner that has the gleaming appeal but somewhat narrow one-sidedness of a TED Talk. The author himself lays out his thesis: Modern capitalism has created a concentration of capital that is ultimately unsustainable. He references the “misery” of communist rule to show that despite his being well-versed in Marxist analysis, he is no doctrinaire Red demanding state control of industry. Rather, he is more interested in laying out a modern history of capital to show how pre-modern economic models, replete with tiny cliques of aristocrats distant from the teeming masses, are reestablishing themselves in our time…

Capital in the 21st Century is available through virtual cinemas starting May 1.

Here’s the trailer:

TV Room: ‘The Plot Against America’

In Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America, it’s 1940 and Hitler is rampaging across Europe. Only in America, Franklin Roosevelt is facing serious political competition: fascist sympathizer and popular hero Charles Lindbergh. A Jewish family in Newark, drawn in part from Roth’s childhood, starts realizing they may have to chose between fleeing to Canada or facing pogroms in New Jersey.

My review of HBO’s The Plot Against America, a six-part adaptation by David Simon (The Deuce, The Wire), ran at PopMatters:

in 1940, the idea of a white supremacist president in league with a fascist foreign power was hard for many to contemplate. Even a fully-fledged racist like Woodrow Wilson had not colluded with enemies abroad. And nobody truly imagined the likes of Donald Trump as president until The Simpsons Movie in 2007. It was a different time. The Wire was only in Season 3.

Screening Room: ‘Just Mercy’

Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan in ‘Just Mercy’ (Warner Bros.)

Based on Bryan Stevenson’s book about his crusade against the death penalty, the new movie Just Mercy stars Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as one of the poor defendants railroaded for a murder he didn’t commit (ironically, in the town that inspired Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird).

Just Mercy is playing now. My review is at Eyes Wide Open:

You might not have noticed it, but one of the best-acted recent major-studio dramas was just released into theaters. That is because, despite the presence of bankable stars like Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and Captain Marvel herself, and a riveting true-life story about a bona fide champion of justice, Warner Bros. has shown about as much confidence in the commercial prospects of Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy as Sony did in the bungled blink-and-you-missed-it release of Charlie’s Angels

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Irishman’

the-irishman2a.jpg

In Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Robert De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, a reputed hitman who charts a course through a baroque landscape of postwar American intrigue, crime, and paranoia.

The Irishman is playing in a few theaters now, as well as on Netflix. My article about it is at Eyes Wide Open:

Based on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses, about the decades Sheeran spent as a Zelig-like mob enforcer and assassin,The Irishman is one of the more curious and hard-to-pigeonhole gangster movies that Scorsese has ever done. Pulling back from the music-strobed buzziness of Goodfellas and Casino, and worlds away from the Nouvelle Vague/Cassavetes jitters of Mean Streets, it’s a cool, elegiac, and somewhat detached epic whose three and a half hours float by with a disconcerting calmness…

 

TV Room: ‘Watchmen’

watchmen1
Regina King as Sister Knight in ‘Watchmen’ (HBO)

Damon Lindelof’s wonderfully strange and deeply political Watchmen series is more interested in exploring the further ramifications of Alan Moore’s groundbreaking graphic novel than producing a faithful reenactment. It’s a high-risk move but one that appears so far to be paying off.

My article on Watchmen is at PopMatters:

The first episode, a direly ironic hour, kicks off in Tulsa during the 1921 massacre in which whites rampaged through the black neighborhood of Greenwood. Jumping to an alternate-historical 2019 Tulsa, Oklahoma, in which the racially-mixed police wear masks to protect their identity from a murderous white-supremacist underground called the Seventh Kavalry (for Custer’s unit decimated at Little Big Horn), the episode uses the massacre less as plot point and more as ominous overture…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Goldfinch’

Jeffrey Wright and Oakes Fegley in ‘The Goldfinch’ (Warner Bros. / Amazon Studios)

The long-awaited movie of Donna Tartt’s  The Goldfinch is here in a very messy, trying-too-hard, but at least very well-acted and gorgeous-looking adaptation from John Crowley (Brooklyn).

The Goldfinch premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and opens this week. My review is at Slant:

Streamlined by Peter Straughan from Donna Tartt’s overwrought Pulitzer-winning 2013 novel just enough to make certain developments slightly baffling and a few characters close to redundant, John Crowley’s three-handkerchief film adaptation throws a lot at the viewer, and not all of it makes much sense, except for the painting. Enough of the individual moments pulled by Straughan from the rag-and-bone shop of Tartt’s sprawling mystery narrative make an emotional impact that the story’s structural issues fail to register as much at first…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Official Secrets’

(IFC Films)

In the new thriller from Gavin Hood (Rendition), Keira Knightley plays the real-life whistle-blower who tried to stop the UK from bending to US pressure to cook up intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Based on Marcia and Thomas Mitchell’s book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War, Official Secrets opens this week. My review is at PopMatters:

This is usually a time of drudgery, when sloppy comedies and stupid worn out action franchises waste everyone’s time. So it comes as a nice surprise to watch a corker like Gavin Hood’s unexpectedly jarring and immediate espionage thriller Official Secrets unspool in a close, carefully calibrated way that actually grabs one by the conscience…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette?’

Cate Blanchett stars in Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Maria Semple’s beloved novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, which opens this week.

My review is at The Playlist:

Once upon a time, Bernadette was a rising ingenue in the architecture world, with a knack for quirky science-fiction designs and looking dazzling in old photographs (the bangs and artfully dangled cigarettes help). Her career was then sidetracked by a catastrophe that the movie withholds until far too late in the process. By the time we catch up with her, she has become a fierce recluse. Living in a damp and vine-riddled hilltop Seattle manse that she keeps up like some horticulturally-minded relative of the Addams Family…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’

Lily Colins and Zac Efron in ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ (Netflix)

Taking a break from true-crime documentaries (the Paradise Lost trilogy, among others), Joe Berlinger directed a narrative adaptation of Elizabeth Kendell’s book The Phantom Prince, about her relationship with the serial killer Ted Bundy.

My review of Berlinger’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, running now on Netflix, was published at Eyes Wide Open:

Of all the serial killers who entered the lexicon of American culture over the past half-century, Ted Bundy, who confessed to over two-dozen murders committed in the 1970s and was executed in 1989, remains something of a standout. The likes of the Zodiac Killer, Jeffrey Dahmer, or Dennis Rader (aka the BTK) have shocked for many reasons, most particularly their depravity and ability to elude capture. Bundy, or at least the legend of him, followed a different trajectory…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Transit’

An adaptation by Christian Petzold (Barbara) of Anna Seghars’ novel about refugees fleeing the Nazis somewhat roughly and surreally adapted to modern times, the romantic, disturbing drama Transit opens this week in limited release.

My review is at PopMatters:

It’s a sign of the times, maybe, that when one of the characters says at the start of Christian Petzold’s Transit, “Paris is being sealed off,” the first thought is not of war but of terror…

Screening Room: ‘Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin’

My review of the new documentary Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin was published at PopMatters:

Hard times are coming,” author Ursula K. Le Guin said in her fiery 2014 speech accepting the National Book Foundation award. Her tone was somehow somber, yet also chipper, as though she had already acknowledged the worst and now was girding for battle. She was fixing her bayonet in bright spirits and about to go over the top…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Mary Poppins Returns’

(Walt Disney Studios)

Going back to the well many decades later, Disney delivers a brand-new musical adaptation of P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins books that’s not close to the original but better than it has any right to be.

Mary Poppins Returns opens wide today. My review is at PopMatters:

As the law of diminishing returns for any sequel is one of the immutable laws of the cinematic universe—and all the more so for movie musicals (no matter what those fiendishly wrong fans of Grease 2 might claim)—there was even less chance that Mary Poppins Returns could pull the same rabbit out of one of Poppins’ very fetching hats. Nevertheless, this sequel manages a somewhat impressive feat for the often groan-inducing Disney remake factory: it captures the essence of the original while adding just enough spark to set it apart…

Here’s the trailer: