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October 2020

When We Were Kings

Patti Perret/Amazon Studios

One Night in Miami . . . (2020)

As a set-up, it’s almost too good to be true: After Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) won the heavyweight boxing title over Sonny Liston in Miami in February 1964, his afterparty was with singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), American football superstar Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and revolutionary Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). The movie is an almost-real-time exploration of an hour they (may or may not have) spent together in Malcolm’s hotel room before going out to the diner where the well-known picture of the four of them was taken. The screenplay is very obviously based on a stage play (both by Kemp Powers), but director Regina King uses her camera and the space available to show us an entire world.

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Notting Uphill Battle

Des Willie/The BFI London Film Festival

Mangrove (2020)

“Mangrove” is a beautifully made film directed by an experienced auteur who has finally gotten the perfect marriage of his interests and material, and which also speaks directly to the zeitgeist. It is a deeply unusual experience for something so well made to also be so right for the current moment. But everything Steve McQueen has made has built to telling the true story of the Mangrove Nine, and my god, he does it justice.

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Away From Him

The BFI London Film Festival

Supernova (2020)

It’s always interesting to see how art speaks of unspeakable things. “Supernova” handles its particular difficulty – in this case, dementia – in the most basic and facile way: by making everything as easy as possible. Tusker’s (Stanley Tucci) only obvious symptoms are the occasional failure of memory. He does not have outbursts of violence or inappropriate behavior. His hygiene is perfect, his clothes are clean and appropriately on his body. His complaints about England are that of any grumbling old codger and not the explosive, frightened frustrations of an immigrant far from home. He doesn’t get disorientated, and when he does, his husband, Sam (Colin Firth), finds him easily. They are an arty middle-class couple – Sam a semi-retired pianist and Tusker a successful novelist – who have a family that love them and a large circle of friends. But it’s the circle of friends the truest tell that something’s a little off. All the well-fed middle-class people at the party are not just all straight, but all English. A gay, half-immigrant couple at the center of English society as welcome participants instead of outcasts on the margins? You are having a laugh.

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Fucked by Police

The BFI London Film Festival

Ultraviolence (2020)

There is not much more contemptible in documentary filmmakers than using the pain of others for their own aggrandizement. Ken Fero’s “Ultraviolence,” which is being marketed as an expose of deaths in British police custody from 1995 to 2006, does exactly and only this. Presumably it has been pushed to market these days in the wake of the global Black Lives Matter movement and the recent high-profile murders carried out by police in the United States. Do not be fooled – it is nothing of the sort. It’s merely a testament to the ego of the director, who felt entitled to cobble this travesty together because he went to the same school as one of the men whose memory he cannibalizes.

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Hunting Like the Wolf

The BFI London Film Festival

Wolfwalkers (2020)

“Wolfwalkers” is “Avatar” for little girls: The colonized teach the colonizer how to appreciate the natural world so the colonizer can be the savior the colonized need. If that wasn’t bad enough, most of the smaller plot points are derivative from other animated movies – for example, the pet falcon is called Merlin, presumably as a shout-out to “The Sword in the Stone.” Even the wild red hair is a straight lift from “Brave.” But what isn’t forgivable is the movie’s sexism. While directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart were making this film, who cooked their dinners? This is an important question because the film expresses significant contempt for the daily chores of cleaning, washing and cooking young Robyn (voiced by Honor Kneafsey) must do instead of playing hunter in the woods. She doesn’t do those chores for her father Mr. Goodfellow (voiced by Sean Bean), but only when forced to by the Lord Protector (voiced by Simon McBurney). Robyn’s mother is absent, presumably dead, and the Goodfellows are part of the colonizing English force in the Kilkenny of 1650. But it’s an animated movie! There are cool-looking creatures in a gorgeous woodland to befriend!

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But Where Are You Tomorrow?


Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (2020)

Brothers-directors Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross decided to document the final 24 hours of a Las Vegas dive bar by simply (apparently) by parking their film crew in the middle of it and watching what unfurled around them. When they realized one of the regulars, a former actor named Michael Martin, was actually reading Eugene O’Neill, they must have wept with joy. Of course, there’s every chance that was staged, as every interaction with a pontificating drunk is for effect. Of course people aware of a camera will alter their behavior, but the heightened emotions could just be down to the all-day drinking, too. For the most part, it doesn’t really matter. Simply hanging out with them like this gives a sense of this place and these people that a larger scale or an ordinary day would not quite have achieved. For once, the effect of a slightly blurred reality absolutely works.

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Nymphal Leper

Christian Schulz/IFC Films

Undine (2020)

There is a crucial scene about halfway through “Undine” that makes it obvious this is a movie made by men. In this scene, Undine (Paula Beer) is working on a new presentation she must give while her boyfriend Christoph (Franz Rogowski) sleeps. He wakes up, pulls the duvet around himself, and asks to hear her work. She tries to fob him off, but he insists, and as she begins her speech – she is a historian of Berlin, who gives lectures to tourists and other interested parties about the architecture of the city and what it represents – he gives her his entire attention. It is meltingly attractive, how entranced by Undine Christoph is. There is not a woman in the world who would prevaricate over a good and decent man who feels this strongly about her and demonstrates it by taking an interest in her work. And yet. It’s the movie’s major mistake.

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The Taunting of Hill House

Thatcher Keats/Neon

Shirley (2020)

Where are the children? In real life, Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) had four: Laurie, Jannie, Sally and Barry. Your reviewer did not need to look up their names because, in addition to being a pre-eminent horror writer of the last century, Jackson also invented the parenting memoir. Her “Life Among the Savages” paved the way for “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies,” “With Six You Get Eggroll,” “Cheaper by the Dozen” and every mommy blog and family YouTube channel that has followed. And yet, in this movie writer Sarah Gubbins and director Josephine Decker have vanished them completely. What is the point?

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The Family That Preys Together

Matt Kennedy/Focus Features

Kajillionaire (2020)

Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger) thought naming their daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) after a homeless man who won the lottery would result in her inheriting. Instead, they live in the disused office of a Los Angeles bubble factory. Bubbles spill through a crack in the ceiling at set times a day; they must be caught in buckets and the wall toweled dry, but the inconvenience is why the rent is so cheap. The family is behind, of course. Instead of working regular jobs, they are low-grade grifters and petty thieves. Well, Robert and Theresa come up with the ideas, and Old Dolio carries them out. She steals from the post office, doing an elaborate dance to avoid the security cameras. She tries to swap a gift certificate for a cash refund, or maybe that rock on the desk. She agrees to take a parenting class on someone’s behalf for $20. They are such a codependent family Old Dolio thinks it’s growth to be the one to propose a lost luggage scam that will clear their back rent. On the plane, they sit separately, which puts Robert next to Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a chatty physician’s assistant delighted to find real-life intrigue. Suddenly, what seemed to be “not unreasonable” is no longer the case.

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Home Sick

The BFI London Film Festival

Mogul Mowgli (2020)

Timing is everything, in music and in life. If you come in a little too late or off the beat, you miss your chance and spoil everything. No one knows this better than Zed (Riz Ahmed), an exceptional rapper who is finally about to get his big break, opening for a major artist on an American tour. But his girlfriend Bina (Aiysha Hart) sneers about him rapping constantly about where he’s from when he hasn’t seen his parents in two years. So Zed reconsiders. And as they say, he who hesitates is lost.

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