In-House Reviews #101: Maestro, May December, Eileen, Rustin & More!

Aaron Neuwirth has new reviews for Maestro, May December, Eileen, Rustin, Fallen Leaves, and Good Burger 2.

Now we’re in the later part of fall and the middle of award season, which speaks to most of the new film reviews for this week. This set of write-ups includes a musician biopic, a darkly comedic melodrama, a psychological drama, a Finnish comedy-drama, and a Nickelodeon nostalgia sequel. The following features reviews for Maestro, May December, Eileen, Rustin, Fallen Leaves, and Good Burger 2.

Maestro: 8 out of 10

The Setup: The complex love story of Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) and Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), a story that spans over 30 years, from the time they met in 1946 at a party and continuing through two engagements, a 25-year marriage, and three children.

Review: I won’t pretend to be an expert on Leonard Bernstein, but calling him ridiculously talented feels like an understatement. Wisely, Cooper’s work as director, co-writer, producer, and star (and caterer, grip, best boy, driver, etc.) understands that it’s perhaps not in his best interest to focus on the music. Instead, exploring his relationship with Felicia (both he and Mulligan are terrific, by the way) means leaning into areas that made Bernstein a complex figure. Rather than providing the highlights and spelling out the themes, here’s a film that made me question what Cooper was trying to say about this man and his life. I say that in a good way, as it feels like a challenge laid before me that will be a benefit when reflecting on this film over time.

On top of that, thanks to the music by Bernstein and the excellent cinematography by Matthew Libatique (who seems to be owning uncharted territory for him), if there was a way to show Cooper had plenty more to offer as a filmmaker following A Star Is Born, well it’s clearly offered up here. There’s also the matter of the makeup deployed to show these characters later in life, which plays very well in context. And if the commitment to the look wasn’t enough, Cooper’s efforts to learn how to conduct and emulate the famed composer pays off in a bravura sequence set in the London Symphony Orchestra. Bravo.

Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters. Available to stream on Netflix starting December 20, 2023

May December: 8 out of 10

The Setup: Twenty years after their notorious tabloid romance, a married couple (Julianne Moore and Charles Melton) buckle under pressure when a Hollywood actress (Natalie Portman) meets them to do research for a film about their past.

Review: Loosely inspired by the story of sex offender Mary Kay Letourneau, director Todd Haynes offers up the “what if” take on how a story about an older woman and a much younger man starting an affair together would pay off if they stayed together, even after being found out. Naturally, this can’t be approached with dead-eyed seriousness, given that premise, so Haynes wisely aims for a more melodramatic angle. Doing his best to channel Pedro Almodóvar, the bombastic opening credits sequence should clue the viewer in on the wicked comedic streak running through this film to better speak to how characters can agreeably approach this matter. Does that mean Haynes’ regular Moore may be playing things a bit too arch sometimes? Perhaps, but it’s really Portman’s show, who delivers some of her best work here. With some unusual psychological games at play, having Haynes deploying plenty of ways to be entertained allows these characters to really click.

Where To Watch: Streaming on Netflix starting December 1, 2023.

Eileen: 7 out of 10

The Setup: In 1964 Massachusetts, a young secretary, Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie), becomes enchanted by Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), the alluring new counselor at the prison where she works. Their budding friendship soon takes a twisted turn when Rebecca reveals a dark secret.

Review: Speaking of trippy melodrama and arch characters, Eileen premiered way back in January at the Sundance Film Festival, and alerted audiences of its own cerebral games at play. Having seen it now, I understand why it would leave an impression. There’s a slow burn taking place, with director William Oldroyd luring the audience in for something, but what? A tricky performance by Hathaway does a lot of good in revealing little despite attention clearly revolving around her whenever she appears. Not unlike Last Night in Soho, McKenzie once again plays the wounded bird who cannot help but get caught up in some sort of dangerous element lurking around the corner. Does the film manage to pay it all off accordingly? Not entirely. As a low-budget psychodrama, however, it taps into enough to engross.

Where To Watch: In select theaters on December 1, 2023, expanding wide on December 8.

Rustin: 5 out of 10

The Setup: Architect of 1963’s momentous March on Washington, Bayard Rustin (Colman Domingo) challenged authority and never apologized for who he was, but was forgotten despite making history. This story spotlights the man who dared to imagine a different world and inspired a movement in the face of racism and homophobia.

Review: Domingo can be such a compelling force to watch on screen (he made several seasons of Fear the Walking Dead tolerable) that it’s a shame to see him leading such a by-the-numbers biopic about a notable figure from the civil rights movement. Even George C. Wolfe, who I felt brought a lot of directorial life to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, seems to have flattened out the story being presented here. There are areas for this film to shine, given the many dialogue-heavy scenes that find respectable figures challenging each other about the best ways to help a movement. Still, the plotting is so obviously structured, and the presentation never elevates the performances to a higher level. Still, there’s a nice jazzy score here from Brandford Marsalis, and I’m not opposed to a film offering performances from Glynn Turman, CCH Pounder, Audra McDonald, and Jeffrey Wright, even if there’s also Chris Rock’s fake mustache and wig, and Aml Ameen as a not-so-convincing MLK Jr. So, it has some power to work with.

Where To Watch: Now streaming on Netflix.

Fallen Leaves: 8 out of 10

The Setup: In modern-day Helsinki, two lonely souls (Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen) in search of love meet by chance in a karaoke bar. However, their path to happiness is beset by obstacles – from lost phone numbers to mistaken addresses, alcoholism, and a charming stray dog.

Review: This fits in the realm of quirky indie romance-type stories but operates outside the clichés that can make even those films feel less remarkable. Writer/director Aki Kaurismäki has made another minimalist feature, but it still has enough on its mind that’s less focused on artistic tricks and more about what can be gained from observing the moments his characters exist in. As a result, bits of humor and drama emerge from the naturalism of the situations presented. We get a bit of an understanding of the working-class Finnish lifestyle, and more importantly, we realize why our two lead characters have reasons to exist together. Somehow making it more pleasant is the notion of withdrawn people finding connection and forging ahead against the random odds of life.

Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters.

Good Burger 2: 5 out of 10

The Setup: After his latest invention fails, Dexter Reed (Kenan Thompson) is welcomed back by Ed (Kel Mitchell) to his old job at Good Burger, which is once again put in jeopardy when Dex devises a plan to get back on his feet.

Review: It’s not high praise, but this was more fun than I expected. 1997’s Good Burger is one of those films that serves as a sweet spot for some in my generation, and I get it. It’s a sweet enough, non-mean-spirited farce. The announcement of this sequel may have made me roll my eyes, but it is similarly harmless when all is said and done. In fact, if anything, the script is a bit sharper than the first, as there are some ideas on its mind concerning automation and employment conditions. It doesn’t delve too deeply into these things, nor does it need to, but director Phil Traill at least fills the 90-minute runtime with some worthwhile toppings, compared to the previous film that had little to do beyond stretching a variety show sketch into a full-length feature. Plus, I genuinely enjoy seeing Thompson and Mitchell together. Are there also a slew of cameos ranging from celebrities to ‘people who are popular with the kids today’? Yes, lots of those, but there’s enough charm here to elicit more of a smile than a need to flip over this patty and head elsewhere. Decent burger.

Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Paramount+.

***

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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