A female heist flick, a new Coen brothers movie, and an understated Swedish troll drama are among the metro Phoenix movie openings for Friday, November 16. Openings were accurate at the time of publication and are subject to change. For showtimes and more film and television coverage, check out the Phoenix New Times film page.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs — The Coen brothers' new Western anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was born from their penchant for disorder. In six vignette tales of mischief and wonder, hopelessness abounds while daft characters reign. But this time, unlike in Burn After Reading or The Big Lebowski, as the Coens wended round through interminable turns, and people died or didn't die, I found myself struggling to care, anxious for things to wrap up. Maybe all these dutifully meaningless stories would have been easier to swallow spaced out into standalone episodes like the directors had originally planned. In typical Coen fashion, most people in the movie meet ironic or wry deaths, but this time the Coens seem to be actively eschewing any deeper emotional connection between the audience and the characters. They opt for a lighter brush even when the dramatic stakes are already right there in the picture, just waiting for a bold stroke to bring them out. Take the tale of "All Gold Canyon," which stars Tom Waits as an old prospector who meticulously searches for a gold pocket. Something happens to rupture the peace, and the prospector bellows at the camera, "You didn't hit nothin' important," saliva rocketing from his lips, his hair and face a manic mess. That's the most memorable few seconds of the film because it comes closest to real depth of emotion. But the Coens quickly move on, the prospector never to be heard from again. The best I can say about Buster Scruggs is that it seems as though the Coens picked their favorite actors and wrote them a part specifically tailored to their abilities. Not Rated. (April Wolfe)
Bodied — For the first hour, I understand the rapturous feedback — standing ovations and everything! — that Bodied won when it played the Toronto and Fantastic Fest film festivals a year ago. Right from the jump, we're treated to a hilarious depiction of battle-rap culture that's both intensely verbose and hysterically absurd. We first see our protagonist, grad student Adam Merkin (American Vandal's Calum Worthy), at a grimy rap battle, trying — and failing — to teach his pedantic girlfriend (Rory Uphold) how to overlook the misogyny, violence, and homophobia these rappers spew and appreciate it for the wordy, witty spectacle it is. Since he's writing a thesis paper on the use of the N-word in battle rap, he goes to a master, Behn Grymm (Jackie Long), for research. For some reason, Grymm ropes Merkin into an impromptu rap battle (Merkin's opponent's name: Billy Pistolz) and, after discovering how good he is at incisive wordplay, gets immediately hooked on the competitions. Lord only knew there was so much to make fun of in rap culture, which Bodied does with proudly redonkulous fervor. It's such fun watching this profane silliness unfold that it pissed me off when Bodied took a sharp turn in the second half. While the movie does address white people's thorny relationship with rap and cultural appropriation, it demonstrates how delicate satirizing that can be when it gets kind of serious near the end — a long, long end — and suggests that being the best at battle rap can also mean being the worst. Rated R. (Craig D. Lindsey)
Border (Gräns) — Ali Abbasi's understated troll drama Border looks at first like it's going to be a ... wait, sorry, let's hold up. Can we reflect on the fact that critics can now write the words "understated troll drama" without so much as batting an eye? We've had sensitive zombie romances, gentle cannibal dramas, moody vampire coming-of-age pictures. Once upon a time, an unassuming, intimate story exploring the inner life of a mythical, cave-dwelling creature from Scandinavian folklore might have seemed genuinely innovative. To its credit, Border keeps the fantastical stuff to a minimum at first. All we know of our protagonist Tina (a very good Eva Melander) at first is that she is a quiet, somber Swedish customs guard working a border crossing and also, as it happens, has rough skin, heavy brow, and wide-set eyes. She can literally smell fear, anger, or shame. In the woods outside her home, she communes with animals, cavorting with deer and a moose. Nobody says "troll" at first, and the film initially keeps us in a gray area as to how exactly its world works. Things gain some clarity when Vore (Eero Milonoff) walks through customs. He's got Tina's features, but he's also confident and cool. He tells her she's not alone: There are more trolls out there like them, in scattered little communities. Charismatic, and even a little cruel, Vore captivates Tina, and allows her to explore her true nature — or what he tells her is her true nature. While the film does take some twists and turns — some fairly contrived — it mostly drills down and explores her emotional conundrum without drawing symbolic conclusions about the world we live in. Rated R. (Bilge Ebiri)
The Front Runner — For those of us who lived through the debacle of the Gary Hart sex scandal, when the favorite to become the Democrats' 1988 Presidential nominee imploded after revelations of an extramarital affair, the wildest thing about Jason Reitman's riveting anatomy-of-a-firestorm drama The Front Runner may well be its reminder of how short the whole thing lasted. "A lot can happen in three weeks," an opening crawl informs us. But really, the controversy itself unfolded over the course of about one week during the spring of 1987. For those whose memories don't reach that far: U.S. Senator Hart (Hugh Jackman) was the charismatic flameout from the 1984 Democratic primaries, an alt-Kennedy from Colorado widely favored to both clinch the 1988 nomination and win the presidency. But murmurings about adultery and a troubled marriage had dogged him, and as his campaign took off, the candidate, frustrated at questions about infidelity, brazenly invited the press to follow him around. Within days, the Miami Herald had a story up about Hart's dalliances with a woman named Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), and all hell broke loose. But this is less a film about Gary Hart — who, as played by Jackman, remains something of an enigma — than one about the operatives and volunteers and journalists swirling around his candidacy. Reitman effectively captures the weird cadences of the scandal as it unfolded: the hectic efforts by the Herald and others to unravel Hart's misdeeds, as well as the campaign's efforts to stonewall and then manage the crisis. It makes for an intriguing combination of tones and rhythms — urgency running up against paralysis — that speaks to the twisted dynamism of our political process, then and now. Rated R. (Ebiri)
Green Book — It's been a hot minute since we've had a cute racism movie like Green Book. These are usually a period piece set in a time (the '50s or '60s) and a place (the South!) when black people or some other systematically oppressed minority are treated like shit by white people. And right in the middle of it, amid all this racial tension, a friendship, a bond or — dare I say it! — a romance blossoms between two people of different skin tones. This unexpected union proves that — oh damn! — people aren't that different after all. I assume they aren't made often because, for starters, racism isn't cute. It's ugly, brutal, pathetic, and sadly, still around. Most of these movies offered (predominantly white) audiences the comforting sense that racism is a thing of the past. The white person who doesn't have a problem with the coloreds in Green Book is Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), also known as Tony Lip, an Italian-American nightclub bouncer breaking up fights and busting heads in the Bronx, circa 1962. The African-American classical pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) hires him to drive through the Jim Crow South, as Shirley boldly gives performances for uppity Southern white folk. Sure, it's kind of entertaining to see the studly, studious Mortensen slap on a few pounds and go way out with the fuggeddaboutit talk as he tries to shoot the shit with Ali's pedantic, closeted virtuoso. It's the first time I've ever seen him ham it up. But the leads mostly are saddled with literal, middle-of-the-road material. Bottom line: If you think Green Book is not going to end with these two locked in a warm embrace, you're crazy! Rated PG-13. (Lindsey)
Studio 54 — For a breath, about halfway through, Matt Tyrnauer's documentary Studio 54 actually suggests the experience of a visit to its subject, that Kubla Khan of discotheques. The footage of the mob eager to get in is epochal but also familiar. Less so is what follows: Someone back then had the good sense to film what happened next for those chosen to ascend to disco nirvana. A camera pushes into the Studio's storied West 54th street doors, revealing a curiously empty lobby, grand and drab at once, a purely functional, unceremoniously lit reminder of the building's recent dormancy and long history (it was the CBS studio home of Captain Kangaroo). As the camera glides through, a speaker rhapsodizes in voiceover about stillness, anticipation, the thump of the party raging through the next set of doors, the most exclusive boogie wonderland of them all. Then the doors open, and Studio 54 gets back to being what it mostly is, a scrapbook celebration rather than an urgent immersion. Footage of Studio life — the lavish lights, the heaving mass of beautiful people — plays here mostly in chaotic montage. We get chopped-up testimonials from Studio stalwarts, B-roll glimpses of the promised land gathered by TV news crews and many assemblages of still photos, with an emphasis on celebrities and/or breasts. Studio co-founder Ian Schrager, today an impresario of boutique hotels, is on hand to talk us through the good times, squirm a bit about the bad and speak lovingly of his Studio partner and eventual co-defendant, the late Steve Rubell. Helped along by news clips, the filmmakers do better with the crash-and-burn business story than with the actuality of the Studio experience. Not Rated. (Alan Scherstuhl)
Widows (critic's pick) — Yes, Steve McQueen's Widows is a heist film, set in Chicago, with a group of four women plotting and planning their way to a sweep of millions of dollars that would ultimately free each of them from bills, debt and neighborhood violence. Yes, it's a kind of modernized and muted take on F. Gary Gray's crowd-pleasing Set It Off (1996). Female characters with wildly disparate backgrounds and personalities must band together to attain the one thing they all lack: freedom. But make no mistake. This thoughtful, textured story — though brutal at times — stands as one of the clearest depictions of turmoil, racism and nepotism in local politics that's ever been drawn onscreen. A botched heist kills the husbands of Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and Amanda (Carrie Coon). Each has a problem beyond the loss of their spouses: Linda's husband stole all her money; Alice's ex beat the shit out of her; Amanda is raising a 4-month-old infant. And Veronica, well, even though her real job is leading the Chicago teachers' union, the heist leaves her with a debt — her husband (Liam Neeson) stole money from a gang. McQueen, working off a Gillian Flynn script, allows every character just enough depth, exactly the right amount of screen time, to demonstrate why they deserve the money. That remains the case as the story gets more complex — more connected to real life — than is typical for the heist genre. Davis, of course, is a powerhouse, but the ensemble of women actors here, each flinty in her own way, play off each other with such spark that it sent a shiver down my arms when they gathered together. Rated R. (Wolfe)
Other openings — Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the sequel to the Harry Potter spinoff; Instant Family, a Mark Wahlberg-Rose Byrne film about a couple navigating the foster care system; Long Dumb Road, about two unlikely travel companions on a road trip through the Southwest; A Private War, a biopic about the late war correspondent Marie Colvin; and Prospect, a sci-fi flick about a father and daughter who encounter trouble when they travel to an alien moon.
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