Leave it to “Weird Al” to skewer the biopic genre at this time of year, but that still leaves other award players and some genre films to take a look at. This set of write-ups includes a musical biopic parody, the dramatization of the takedown of Harvey Weinstein, a character drama, a period-set psychological thriller, a horror movie of a different sort, and a monster flick. The following features reviews for Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, She Said, Causeway, The Wonder, Soft & Quiet, and The Lair.
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story: 7 out of 10
The Setup: The unexaggerated true story about the greatest musician of our time. From a conventional upbringing where playing the accordion was a sin, “Weird Al” Yankovic (Daniel Radcliffe) rebels and makes his dream of changing the words to world-renowned songs come true. An instant success and sex symbol, Al lives an excessive lifestyle and pursues an infamous romance that nearly destroys him.
Review: The absolute key to this film’s success is Radcliffe. The former Boy Who Lived has carved out a nice career for himself as a solid comedic performer (see: Miracle Workers), and his ability to embody Weird Al helps hold this joke-heavy biopic parody together. Yes, it’s fun to see an assortment of cameos from comedic players (ranging from Jack Black to Lin-Manuel Miranda) portraying various real-life figures, musicians, and more. Yes, it’s also amusing to see the film conform to its Roku-level budget by having Evan Rachel Wood’s Madonna and Rainn Wilson’s Dr. Demento always wearing the same costumes to make things simple. Despite a reasonably high joke-to-laugh ratio, I did find the film at its best when it got truly weird (polka parties, Pablo Escobar) rather than the choice to drag out certain bits past their expiration date. ‘Weird’ may not have the sort of scope that was rather brilliantly explored in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (original songs, a great John C. Reilly, and music biopics that have come along since and feel worse by not moving away from formula), but plenty of fun is had at seeing Yankovic and director Eric Appel dive into the Weird story with aplomb and absurdity.
Where To Watch: Now available on The Roku Channel.
She Said: 6 out of 10
The Setup: The story of how New York Times journalists Megan Twohey (Cary Mulligan) and Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) worked to assemble a story that exposes the sexual abuse allegations against powerful producer Harvey Weinstein, which also served as a launching pad for the #MeToo movement, shattering decades of silence around the subject of sexual assault and harassment, particularly in Hollywood and the workplace.
Review: Part of the challenge of turning a story about journalism into something worthwhile is understanding that researching an article, typing it out, and publishing is not inherently cinematic. Films that include All the President’s Men, Spotlight, and The Post benefit from a strong narrative arc concerning actual events and tying into the times from a thematic standpoint, thanks to the efforts of a competent filmmaker. She Said has all of these elements, yet director Maria Schrader doesn’t quite capture it in the best of ways. The screenplay by Rebecca Lenkiewicz doesn’t help, as a lot of time is spent hand-holding the audience in its attempts to convey that Hollywood is not all glitz and glamor. On top of that, while Mulligan excels in her role, the film goes back and forth on Kazan’s confidence as a seasoned journalist. However, once the film finds its footing, there’s a solid drama that pokes through, adding the required tension in getting various victims to go on the record, and some strong interplay between the multiple performers, particularly Andre Braugher as Dean Baquet, the non-nonsense executive editor of The New York Times. I wish the film managed to do more than be a professionally made victory lap for the story of how the dreaded former head of Miramax was taken down, but with this story covered, perhaps others surrounding this time will have more ambitious and exciting ways to dig in.
Where To Watch: In theaters on November 18, 2022.
Causeway: 7 out of 10
The Setup: Lynsey (Jennifer Lawrence), a U.S. soldier, experiences a traumatic brain injury during her tour in Afghanistan, forcing her to return home. She struggles to return to her daily life with her mother but strikes up a new friendship with a local mechanic (Brian Tyree Henry).
Review: There’s a version of this movie that could be summed up as a typical Sundance drama. Causeway is not without a couple of scenes that layer in a handful of melodrama, but that’s not always a flaw, not when the performances feel honest. At its core, this is the story of a damaged person reckoning with why they are no longer the same. Forming a kinship with another, dealing with family, and making it through the day are all things that will help with that process. Having become a movie star since being Oscar-nominated for Winter’s Bone, seeing Lawrence back in a small indie shows what she’s capable of. With that in mind, I was drawn to the film by Brian Tyree Henry, who has been continually great in films, and here’s just another example of a character you’d be happy to hang out with. Their scenes together have a naturalistic sense to them, allowing the film to work as a sturdy, non-flashy drama. Other moments, such as when Lynsey explains how her injury occurred, without the aid of flashbacks or anything elaborate, show what director Lila Neugebauer can offer with straightforward setups powered by the performer. There’s nothing wrong with having a deliberate approach to delivering a story on a cinematic level; Causeway merely excels at avoiding some familiar traps.
Where To Watch: Now available on Apple TV+.
The Wonder: 6 out of 10
The Setup: The Irish Midlands, 1862 — a young girl stops eating but remains miraculously alive and well. English nurse Lib Wright (Florence Pugh) is brought to a tiny village to observe eleven-year-old Anna O’Donnell (Kila Lord Cassidy). Tourists and pilgrims mass to witness the girl who is said to have survived without food for months. Is the village harboring a saint ‘surviving on manna from heaven’, or are there more ominous motives at work?
Review: From the start, director Sebastián Lelio attempts to throw off the viewer. Breaking the fourth wall in stylish ways, The Wonder is a film that is ideally roping its audience into a story that is perhaps simpler than expected. It should be no matter, as the compelling work from Pugh and newcomer Cassidy can provide more than enough intrigue in the movie’s strongest moments. However, I can’t help but feel as though the film missed out on capitalizing more on its moody atmosphere and haunting score. Being able to see more of a threat or stronger notions of doubt, let alone ways the Catholic church has an uneasy control over things, could have opened the film up to more ambitious filmmaker choices. As it stands, there’s enough here to support The Wonder, which ends up at just over 100 minutes, sparing audiences the recent influx of not-too-complex dramas lasting well over two hours. It’s not just that praise for runtime makes things better, but understanding when is enough helps support a film like this to have a stronger overall effect.
Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters. Available to stream on Netflix starting November 16, 2022.
Soft & Quiet: 5 out of 10
The Setup: An elementary school teacher organizes a mixer of like-minded women where an encounter with someone from her past spirals into a volatile chain of events.
Review: I suppose the highest compliment I can give to Soft & Quiet is how the film is so effectively discomforting that I never want to see it again. Of course, I also can’t discount the use of real-time achieved through framing the film as one continuous shot. Director/writer Beth de Araújo deserves plenty of credit for the technical work involved in a movie such as this, which doesn’t rely on pyrotechnics to put these characters in action, but their words and the nature of what makes them all like-minded in the worst of ways. Yes, this is a painfully timely film, and while some may be able to extrapolate what is actually going on with this group of (white) women all bonding and involving themselves in something horrible, the important thing to keep in mind is that we are not supposed to side with any of them. That’s tricky to pull off, as the film is deliberately attacking a viewer’s capacity for empathy in any situation and inviting them to stick around in a scenario that is never welcoming to any decent person. At 90 minutes, it is a long time to spend in a movie full of misery and unseemly actions. It gets its job done, but I’m unsure if this is the harrowing journey I needed.
Where To Watch: Now in select theaters and on VOD.
The Lair: 5 out of 10
The Setup: When Royal Air Force pilot Lt. Kate Sinclair (Charlotte Kirk) is shot down over Afghanistan, she finds refuge in an abandoned underground bunker where deadly man-made biological weapons — half human, half alien — are awakened.
Review: It felt promising to see director Neil Marshall working in lower budget territory, relying on another story surrounding people stuck in a scenario involving underground threats. Not one to back off from the impact of the violence; it’s the kind of simple but effective setup that can allow for a decent genre flick, at the least. Sadly, following a very strong initial twenty minutes, the film expands its scope, introduces more characters, and loses the level of tension put forward from the start. There are still a collection of action-horror scenes that work effectively enough based on Marshall’s skills in this arena, but the rest is less impressive. Kirk (who co-wrote the film) is a serviceable lead, but the performers around her range in delivery. The monster effects are cool at first, but the brutality they are capable of is lessened as the film goes on, taking away from the solid threat established up top. Not without some merit, but a far cry from The Descent.
Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters and available on VOD and digital.