Weird: The Al Yankovic Story

Roku
The first sign that the Weird Al Yankovic bio-pic was going to be unusual was when it was announced that Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, was cast in the starring role of the titular song spoofer who found fame in the ‘80s with parodies of top pop songs. Radcliffe, who has gone to great lengths to distance himself artistically from his star-making turn as the world’s most beloved child wizard, has marked his career with a string of offbeat, indie films since the last Harry Potter film, but none quite as offbeat as Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. Radcliffe’s casting as one of the most unusual, unique and offbeat entertainers of the late twentieth century set Twitter ablaze back when it was announced, most people agreeing that there was no way the stiff Radcliffe had either the acting chops nor the comedic skills to pull it off. And yet, here we are, and whaddya know…Radcliffe is not only great as Weird Al, but his casting looks to have been just the first brilliant decision made by director Eric Appel, who also produced and co-wrote Weird, along with Al Yankovic himself.

Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is as gloriously silly as Yankovic himself, who plays a small role as, aptly enough, a buttoned-up music exec. The screenplay is inventive and fresh, spoofing the bio-pic genre, taking a page from Weird Al himself, in ways that are not only clever and unpredictable, but side-splittingly hilarious and, yes, really really weird.

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Women Talking

United Artists
CAPSULE REVIEW

Women Talking is the kind of intense, artsy movie that only comes around during Oscar season, but I don’t want to imagine a world without movies like this. Writer/director Sarah Polley (Take This Waltz) gathers together a powerhouse ensemble of actors to, basically, sit in a room and, yes, talk, but it turns out to be the most surprising and hauntingly compelling film of the year.

Rooney Mara (Carol), Claire Foy (The Crown) and Jessie Buckley (The Lost Daughter) star in this film that is set inside an isolated religious community in 2010, but it may as well be 1810 for the way the community eschews all matter of modern conveniences. This Amish-style religion is wholly self-dependent and lives by archaic rules, notably regarding the rights—or lack of—of women. It is a way of life that is wholly and gladly accepted by all members of the sect. But when a series of savage attacks occur within the tight-knit group, all against women and all committed by male members of the group, the senior women of the community gather together to discuss what, if anything, the women should do to protect themselves.

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The Fabelmans

Universal Pictures
Everyone has a story, some just have bigger audiences. If you’re Steven Spielberg, arguably the greatest filmmaker of his generation, your story will not only have a huge audience, but you’ll do much more than just write a memoir–you’ll actually make it into a movie. Which is how we get The Fabelmans, currently in theaters, Spielberg’s dual homage to his parents and the birth of his love of movie-making. If only he could have focused on just one element to pay tribute to instead of both, though, the film could have been much shorter and a whole lot more cohesive.

Spielberg is a master storyteller, so, as he and Tony Kushner developed and wrote the screenplay for the re-imagined re-telling of Spielberg’s boyhood, he naturally had to find a compelling story to tell. He chose to focus mainly on his parents, played by Michelle Williams and Paul Dano, and their topsy-turvy relationship, which was mostly defined by his mother’s idiosyncrasies and eccentricities (which would today be assessed as mental illness) and their family’s nomadic existence, as the family moved several times in a short time, due to his father’s multiple promotions within the rapidly growing computer science industry.

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She Said

Universal Pictures
Origin stories are the hottest thing in movies, but superheroes come in all shapes and sizes. She Said, a new film from director Maria Schrader and screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz, harkens back to the beginning of the #MeToo movement, as it follows two New York Times journalists who doggedly chase allegations of sexual abuse levied against Hollywood power producer Harvey Weinstein.

It’s hard now to remember a time when Harvey Weinstein was anything other than the monstrous face of institutionalized sexual abuse, but, back before there was a tectonic shift in the world’s consciousness of abuse against women, Weinstein was the toast of Hollywood, a power player unlike any other, wielding influence with an iron fist, accumulating great respect and accolades, rising to the top of one of the most powerful industries in the world. To take him down took more than one voice, it took many who were courageous enough to withstand the threats to their careers and their person, and then, even when they garnered such courage, it required someone to believe them. Which is why the story of NYT journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, and the editors who supported them, is perhaps one of the greatest examples of courage, tenacity and integrity of the twenty-first century. And, by telling their story, She Said is a film of equally monumental importance.

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All Quiet on the Western Front

Netflix
CAPSULE REVIEW

It would be so easy to dismiss the new German film, All Quiet on the Western Front—a remake of the 1930 Best Picture winner—as another war film in the mold of Sam Mendes’s 2019 masterpiece, 1917. Like that film, it’s set during World War I, centers on a single soldier’s experience during battle, and is a magnificent achievement of filmmaking and gravity, but, despite the similarities, All Quiet on the Western Front is not 1917–but it is just as good.

The story follows Paul, played by Felix Kammerer in his first film role, and his three friends, young German men who are all excited to join the war effort and fight for their country at the beginning of World War I. Paul’s enthusiasm and naivete about what it means to be a soldier are quickly corrected by the horrors of war, as we watch him navigate through the mud and blood of battle, a sickening and devastating commentary on the lunacy of war.

It is a difficult watch, but the absolutely spectacular cinematography—as good, if not better than Roger Deakins’ Oscar-winning work on 1917—by James Friend keeps your eyes glued to the screen, a simmering and searing canvas of beauty amid the horrific realities of combat.

There are some much-needed moments of relief, as the film’s other storyline tracks the peace negotiations, but the emotional and physical contrasts between the clean, sanitized and civilized circumstances of the military and government leaders gathering to discuss the matter of ending the war makes the devastatingly horrific battle scenes all that much harder to watch—especially knowing that every moment the peace talks linger on, more lives are lost.

All Quiet on the Western Front, epically directed by Edward Berger, is a gorgeous, powerful and haunting treatise on the evils, stupidity and pointlessness of war, and is a must see for anyone who loves the craft of filmmaking and can endure another reminder of humanity’s most tragic flaw.

All Quiet on the Western Front is currently streaming on Netflix.

The Good Nurse

Netflix
CAPSULE REVIEW

It’s interesting to see how two films about real events can be approached so differently. In Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives, stars Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell take a backseat to the true story. However, in director Tobias Lindholm’s film, The Good Nurse, which is also based on a true story, the entire film is built around the performances of Oscar winners Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne, making the film less of a plot-driven endeavor than a character study and acting masterclass. Not that it’s a bad thing at all, as Chastain and Redmayne are incredibly good, which they have to be, considering there’s really not much else to the movie.

Chastain plays ICU nurse Amy Loughren, an overworked and underpaid single mother who puts in long hours at the hospital. She’s thrilled when the hospital brings in a new nurse to help with the workload, and she and the new nurse, Charlie Cullen, played by Redmayne, quickly become friends. Charlie becomes Amy’s confidante and sounding board, as she leans on him to help her get through the long hours and difficult work. What takes the biggest toll on Amy is the fact that working in the ICU means that sometimes patients die, patients that she has gotten to know and become fond of. But when the deaths start to happen more frequently and under more and more mysterious circumstances, Amy starts to connect dots which point to Charlie. Could her trusted friend and colleague be involved in these deaths? As Amy begins to investigate, she discovers there’s much more than meets the eye and Charlie is far from the person he seems to be.

While Chastain is the anchor of the story and delivers a reliably pitch-perfect performance, it is Redmayne’s creepy and understated performances as a possible serial killer that makes your skin crawl. Redmayne finds the sweet spot between psychotic and sympathetic in his portrayal, never touching on cliché or caricature, yet keeping a specific aloofness, just enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

The story itself is so disturbing, unfolding in a slow and steady drip, and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes keeps the visuals dark and murky, reflective of the overall mood and sense of dread that lingers over the narrative. But it is the parallel journey that Amy and the audience travel towards realization and ultimately confrontation about the truth about Charlie that make The Good Nurse a riveting watch, greatly aided by two mammoth performances at its center that make the entire upsetting experience well worth it.

The Good Nurse is currently available to stream on Netflix.

Thirteen Lives

Amazon Studios
CAPSULE REVIEW

Director Ron Howard finds his footing again in this riveting drama about the rescue of 13 members of a Thai soccer team who get trapped for 18 days when rainwater floods the cave they are exploring. If the story sounds familiar, it should, considering the film is based on true events from July, 2018, which garnered international attention and was the subject of the National Geographic documentary, The Rescue, one of the best films of 2021.

Although you may know the story, and you know how it ends, there is no shortage of tension and drama in Thirteen Lives, a riveting examination of human tenacity, courage, determination and survival that is surprisingly low-key and no-frills, despite having two movie stars at the center. Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen play two British cave divers who offer their assistance to the Thai army when they feel that their SEALs, despite their training, may not have the skills that would be needed to attempt such a complicated rescue. Not knowing if the 12 boys and their coach are even still alive, the British divers undertake the treacherous and difficult task of navigating a labyrinth of underground caves, connected by narrow passageways, filled with rushing, murky water, miles long. And even if they do find them alive, the bigger challenge would be how to get them out safely.

The story itself is heart-pounding (and heart-tugging) enough, so Howard allows the actors to stay subtle and nearly fade into the background, never pulling focus for the audience from the dire circumstances of the situation. Perhaps because most audiences already know how it ends, Thirteen Lives is the most compelling in its building up of the story of the rescue itself, from the dizzying logistics to the amount of participation and leadership (or lack thereof) provided by local and federal governments. It would have been so easy for this to have drowned in melodrama (pun intended), but, luckily, Howard avoids the mistakes of oversentimentality that doomed his previous film, Hillbilly Elegy, and delivers a matter-of-fact, expertly made and well-acted film that allows the story to be the star.

Thirteen Lives is currently streaming on Prime Video.

The Banshees of Inisherin

I’ve never been one to love movies that feel like plays. I always feel like there is something missing without the wide vistas, dramatic cinematography, big casts and multiple settings. Most movies that feel like plays, or are actually based on plays, are set in a single room with a few actors and it always felt too enclosed, like the medium wasn’t being used to its full potential. Of course, with COVID restrictions in the past couple years, there have been many more films that were forced to be very insular, small and narrowly-scoped, much to my chagrin.

But, then again, there has been at least one film in each of the past three years that has blown my theory to bits: The Father (2020), Mass (2021), and Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (2022) are all films that are small–in scope, setting and cast size–and yet are absolutely fascinating and intriguing explorations of the human spirit, soul and conscience, more than making up for their lack of physical movement or expansive cinematic movement.

And now comes a film that may finally rid me of my bias altogether, a nearly perfect film that feels incredibly like a play, while still managing to feel like a widescreen, gorgeous, cinematic achievement of the highest degree. And this kind of duality can only come from the mind and talent of writer/director Martin McDonagh, who has found all the beauty in language that many think is theatre’s exclusive domain, while also creating a true cinematic experience that is second to none. The film is called The Banshees of Inisherin, and I suggest you start practicing how to say it, because it’s going to be in the conversation all the way to Oscar night on March 12.

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Tár

Focus Features
There is perhaps no better catnip for actors than playing a tortured artist. However, the danger in it is when the introspection outplays the artistry, and the audience gets lost in the weeds of conceptual pursuit. Such is the case, unfortunately, for writer/director Todd Field’s new drama, Tár.

Field is a filmmaker who takes his time. He’s only directed two films in his career up until now, but they were both acclaimed: In the Bedroom in 2001 (five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture) and Little Children in 2006 (three Oscar nominations, including Best Actress). For his third film, Tár, he wrote a character specifically to be played by arguably the best actress alive, Cate Blanchett, and it is a tour de force of character and performance. But the film itself falls short of expectation, relying far too much on Blanchett and asking the audience to travel on an overly long journey that buries itself in its own agenda.

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Bros

Universal Pictures
Representation does matter, absolutely. So, before I say anything else, I must admit that Bros, a new romantic comedy about an open and proud gay man struggling in the dating world, is a breath of incredibly gay fresh air. It comes on the heels of 2020’s Happiest Season, writer/director Clea Duvall’s holiday comedy about a heretofore closeted lesbian who brings her girlfriend home for Christmas, which was also a hugely groundbreaking and significant step forward in queer storytelling in mainstream Hollywood films. Up until then, queer stories have been largely in the background—if that–in big-budget Hollywood films, as witty sidekicks or tragic figures, succumbing to violence, plagues or suicidal and self-loathing tendencies. So, yes, to have had Happiest Season and Bros, two major, mainstream Hollywood movies, come within two years of each other, which aren’t just significant for centering on gay characters, but for actually being HAPPY stories, is a wonderful thing. It’s a major step forward, and I’m here for all of it.

But you need more than good intentions to make a good movie. And, sadly, Bros is a film that falls way short of its potential, largely due to its own unattainable aspirations and overly inflated desire to jump the queer genre forward by so many steps, it overshoots the mark wildly.

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