Screening Room: ‘Dean Martin: King of Cool’

If there is a celebrity who defines just how different postwar American culture was from today, it might be Dean Martin. Frequently misremembered as a mere lounge singer who acted in a few movies, Martin defined a certain kind of nightclub cool back when that didn’t mean bottle service.

Tom Donohue’s Dean Martin: King of Cool premiered last week at DOC NYC and is showing now on Turner Classic Movies. My review is at The Playlist:

Donohue’s film is an amiable piece of work about a largely unknowable cipher that traces the biographical outlines of Martin’s life, career, and style in broadly vibrant strokes. It gets closer to the target the deeper it digs underneath that smooth and unflappable entertainer’s carapace. Reaching for the characteristic that defined Martin’s coolness, some interviewees reference the Italian word infischiarsene, which can roughly translate to “not giving a damn”…

Screening Room: ‘The First Wave’

A new documentary from the director of the great Cartel Land depicts the first four months of the pandemic and what it did to one hospital in Queen.

The First Wave is playing as the closing night film for this year’s DOC NYC film festival. My review is at Slant:

Matthew Heineman’s The First Wave is a turbulent and grueling documentary about a time of panic and pathos, and it comes to us about a year and a half after the events that it depicts. To cover the first onslaught of Covid-19 in New York City from March to June 2020, Heineman embedded his crew at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens. The footage they captured reveals not just the haggling over personal protective equipment or availability of beds that dominated national news coverage, but the close-up immediacy of nurses and doctors fighting to save patients from a disease that they didn’t fully understand…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Finch’

In Finch, a somewhat inexplicable science fiction movie about Tom Hanks, a robot, and a dog, the end of the world is just not that big a deal, really.

Finch premieres on Apple TV+ this Friday. The kids might like it. My review is at Slant:

Finch (Tom Hanks) is a man possessed of a tinkerer’s buzzing curiosity, an engineer’s problem-solving dedication, and a jaunty way of handling the fact that he might be the only human left on Earth. It makes a kind of sense, in that he’s holding despair at bay while pursuing a task with single-minded devotion. Once that task is made clear, though, you may start to wonder whether the whole film would have been more enjoyable if Finch had simply gone raving mad rather than hang on to his distinctly Hanksian smiling-through-the-grit determination…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Dune’

Denis Villeneuve’s gorgeous adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction epic Dune has been pushed back from theatrical release almost as frequently as the last Bond. Chances are, it will have a little more staying power, even if Timothée Chalamet’s take on Paul Atreides is not the most memorable acting you will see this year.

Dune opens this week. My review is at Eyes Wide Open:

Herbert’s Paul is one of science fiction’s original Chosen One characters. Like later iterations from Luke to Neo who the character inspired, Paul is a quasi-Christ figure who combines unmatched warrior skill with a certain mystifying Zen insight that sets him apart from and ultimately above the humans who surround him…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Bergman Island’

In Mia Hansen-Love’s Bergman Island, a filmmaker couple plans a vacation to the island of Faro, writing their next movies in Ingmar Bergman’s old house. His shadow looms large while their imaginations start to overtake their quiet domestic squabbles.

Bergman Island opens this Friday. My review is at PopMatters:

The island’s serene vistas of breeze-ruffled trees and the rippling waters of the Baltic Sea suggest a relaxing hideout from the world. But the ghost of its most famous resident, the four-times-married Ingmar Bergman, looms large. As the housekeeper at Bergman’s estate (which has a private cinema stocked with 35mm prints of his work) half-jokes about showing them 1973’s Scenes from a Marriage, the film that “made millions of people divorce” …

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Last Duel’

Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Erik Jager’s nonfiction book The Last Duel is, well, far more than another medieval jousting movie.

The Last Duel opens this Friday. My review is at Slant:

…a film that’s not only set during the Hundred Years’ War and turns on an abstruse question of jurisprudence, but also features multiple Rashomon-esque takes on an inciting event and a blond Ben Affleck chewing scenery with Klaus Kinski-like gusto, might sound doomed to failure. But against all odds, it turns out to be a smartly acted and insightfully written look at how the intersection of power, greed, superstition, and vanity can warp and obscure even the most brutally obvious crime…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Ascension’

Everybody’s hustling in Ascension, an eerie and hard-to-look-away-from documentary about the new China and its headlong rush into a particularly rapacious form of capitalism.

My review is at Slant:

The majority of Ascension is taken up with fly-on-the-wall footage of people at work. Often they’re assembling vast quantities of disposable material, including plastic water bottles and jeans, just a couple steps removed from the landfill. Many of the scenes have a mesmeric quality, helped along by Dan Deacon’s quietly vibrating score. Some, too, suggest that Kingdon could have taken refuge in easy symbolism, a la Godfrey Reggio’s The Qatsi Trilogy, as in the shots of Chinese workers producing Keep America Great patches and creepy sex dolls…

Screening Room: ‘The Power of the Dog’

The newest film from Jane Campion is a somewhat tortured and brooding but still surprising drama set on the high plains where Benedict Cumberbatch makes a surprisingly believable rancher.

The Power of the Dog is playing on the festival circuit right now in what looks like a pretty certain play for the Oscars before being released on Netflix in December. My review is at Slant:

Nobody is where they should be in The Power of the Dog, and everybody seems to be searching for something, somebody, or somewhere else. Set in 1925 Montana, Jane Campion’s adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 book tracks the obsessions, miseries, and passions of a group of people who inhabit a cavernous house in the middle of a vast ranchland and make each other miserable until blood is finally shed. The film looks at times like a stiff-jawed period piece, but it ripples underneath with a prickly modern sensibility…

The trailer is here:

Screening Room: ‘Encounter’

The new thriller Encounter is perhaps not the most original genre movie you are going to see this or any year. But as seems to keep happening, it is more than worth your time for the lead performance from the ever-underestimated Riz Ahmed.

Encounter is slated for release on Amazon in early December. My review from the Toronto International Film Festival ran at Slant:

As alien invasions go, the one that opens Michael Pearce’s Encounter is fairly low-key. Bright meteor-like flashes cut across the night sky. Close-up shots of squirming insects and human bloodstreams infected with clouds of swarming parasites suggest a quietly multiplying bug menace. But what Pearce doesn’t show is made up for in the fervid imagination of his raggedy, impassioned protagonist, Malik (Riz Ahmed), who’s frantically planning to go off the grid to get away from whatever the meteors have delivered to Earth…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Duke’

In 1961, a semi-retired cabbie from the north of England got sick of retirees and war veterans having to pay a tax to watch the BBC. Then he was charged with stealing a Goya portrait from the National Gallery. The Duke is the charming if somewhat thin story about what happened next.

My review ran at Slant:

The Duke starts with Kempton on trail at the Old Bailey and then spools back six months to lay out the fumbling crime and lackadaisical cover-up that led him to court. The planning of the theft itself, involving a ladder and an unlatched bathroom window, is almost incidental to the story and played more for comedy than thrills (in a too-good-to-be-true moment, a shot of the Goya painting being nipped reveals that the inestimably more valuable The Scream was hanging right near it). The screenplay, by Young Marx playwrights Richard Bean and Clive Coleman, is more attentive to the particulars of Kempton’s against-the-grain populism…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Becoming Cousteau’

The new Liz Garbus documentary about Jacques Cousteau just played at the Telluride Film Festival and will likely get at least a brief theatrical run later in the year before showing on National Geographic.

My review is at The Playlist:

A pleasantly beautiful, if sometimes flatly rendered film, “Becoming Cousteau” serves as a solid introduction to now somewhat-forgotten man who not so long ago was one of the world’s most beloved figures. Garbus starts in the 1930s, when Cousteau was a dashing French naval officer who discovered his love of deep-water diving while recovering from the car accident that sidelined his hopes of becoming a pilot. A man of sudden passions, Cousteau was so smitten by the sea that he confided to his journal (the text voiced by Vincent Cassel) that his life would be dedicated to “underwater exploration.” His young wife, Simone Melchior, was herself smitten not just with the open water (her family lineage was lousy with admirals) but also with this passionate, bright-eyed, hawk-nosed lean slip of a man who “smelled like the sea”…

Here is the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Ema’

My review of Ema, opening this week in limited release, is at PopMatters:

A burning, jolting firecracker of a film, Pablo Larraín’s Ema is filled with a surplus of passion that could surprise fans of the filmmaker’s more bottled-up work like Jackie (2016) and Neruda (2016). It does, however, share those films’ hypnotic and sinuous flow of sight and sound, delivered here with a more modernistic punchy antagonism. There is also frequent deployment of a flamethrower, generally a worthy addition to just about any film…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘All the Streets are Silent’

Jeremy Elkin’s new documentary, All the Streets are Silent: The Convergence of Hip Hop and Skateboarding (1987-1997) is playing now in limited release.

My review is at PopMatters:

At the risk of stoking the embers of East and West Coast rivalry, it seems self-evident that when it came to incubating subcultures in the late 20th century, New York has it over Los Angeles every single time. When artists wanted to chill out under the palm trees, maybe take a few meetings, they winged out to the Southland. But no matter how grungy Venice Beach might have been in the 1980s or spookily desolate LA’s downtown looked, the half-abandoned pre-war grid of downtown Manhattan was where culture was born…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Stillwater’

The new movie from Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) takes some inspiration from the Amanda Knox case but goes in different directions, some interesting, others less so.

Stillwater is playing in wide theaters-only release now. My review is at PopMatters:

Oil field roughneck Bill (Matt Damon) relocates from the hardscrabble flatlands of Oklahoma to the graffiti-splattered urban puzzle of Marseilles to help free his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) from prison. It’s not an easy quest, given that Bill does not know anybody and barely communicates in English, much less French…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain’

In Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, documentarian Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) tracks the alt-chef’s rise to fame and his struggle over what to do once he reached the top of the mountain.

Roadrunner opens next week in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

The current theatrical landscape in which celebrity culture mixes with foodie nerdism and extreme travel narratives is impossible to imagine without a boundary-crossing hyphenate enthusiast like Bourdain. What is de rigueur now—chefs with tattoos and potty mouths going to faraway lands or little-known domestic dives to eat off-the-beaten path foods—was more or less invented in 2000. That was the year Bourdain blew up the still-staid manner of writing about cuisine with his bestselling behind-the-scenes part-memoir part-manifesto Kitchen Confidential

Here’s the trailer: