A heart-wrenching family drama and a Maria Callas documentary are among the metro Phoenix movie openings for Friday, November 9. 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.
Boy Erased (critic's pick) — Joel Edgerton's Boy Erased centers on a school committed to the opposite of education, a school of cruel ignorance and unlearning, a sort of reverse Hogwarts committed to tearing away each student's singular essence and disgorging into the world muggle after muggle. Based on Garrard Conley's memoir, the film finds a young man coming out as gay to his evangelical parents and then getting packed off to what their set calls "gay conversion therapy," a term so specious and detestable it should never be afforded the dignity of appearing without scare quotes. Both book and movie stand as vital exposes of abusive zealotry, of the Dickensian charlatans and tormentors running programs that purport to straighten out LGBTQ kids, but also of the parents and church communities willing to overlook those kids' mistreatment. Boy Erased plays out as something like reportage. It documents with an incisive drabness the group sessions, garbled sermons and general shoddiness of Love in Action, the program that 19-year-old Jared (Lucas Hedges) gets enrolled in by his parents, played by Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. Director Edgerton resists the impulse toward satire. Instead, he holds to Jared's perceptions, showing us how a thoughtful young man slowly learns that the adults in charge of his life know less about the world than he does. The dramatic through line is Jared's growing certainty that the only real sin he sees is Love in Action itself. There's not much for him to do in many scenes, though, other than to observe and look increasingly uncertain. When Jared finally erupts, Hedges nimbly navigates the character's hurt, fear, and burgeoning pride — his relief at having at last found his voice. Rated R. Alan Scherstuhl
Burning (beo-ning) — Maybe it says more about my own mindset of late than anything else, but I spent much of Korean director Lee Chang-dong's Burning — a look at obsession, class, and romantic torment based loosely on Haruki Murakami's short story "Barn Burning," itself inspired by the William Faulkner story of the same name — thinking that the tale was eventually going to turn apocalyptic. Donald Trump blares on TV sets, the North Korean border is often in view, ominous flocks of birds keep blasting through the background and the slow, rolling tension among the characters feels like it's headed toward an outsize release. Burning opens with a meet-cute (or rather, re-meet-cute) between sturdy, shy day laborer Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) and lovely, lively Haemi (Jun Jong-seo), who grew up in the same small town but haven't seen each other in years. Before long, they're holding hands and making love, and he's agreeing to cat-sit in her absurdly tiny apartment while she goes on a trip to Africa. When Haemi returns from her trip to Africa with hunky, wealthy playboy Ben (Steven Yeun) in tow, Jongsu is devastated — though he doesn't exactly show it; he looks out at the world with tired, bewildered eyes, his responses frustratingly muted, and Yoo Ah-in's performance is a heartbreaking marvel of lovesick strain. Lee Chang-dong's dexterity with the telling minutiae of human interactions ensures that Burning makes for an emotionally gripping film, though the finale, while it doesn't actually resolve anything, felt to me more convenient than convincing. Not unlike Taxi Driver, Burning pulls us into the inner world of a relatable central character, then pulls the rug out from under us. Not Rated. Bilge Ebiri
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The Girl in the Spider's Web — The funniest moment in The Girl in the Spider's Web comes when Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy) briefly wears a pink hat. She's trying to get away from her pursuers at a crowded airport, and she lets them see her wearing the hat. Then, once they're looking for a girl in a pink hat, she takes it off and gives it to someone else. What's comic isn't so much that black-clad uber-goth avenging angel Lisbeth would ever deign to wear pink; it's that anybody in this film would. A wide shot of the crowd at the airport reveals a sea of dour grays, browns, blues and blacks. And, yes, one tiny pink hat. If only the rest of the movie was as inspired. By and large, this latest entry in Lisbeth's adventures — after Noomi Rapace achieved stardom with three films in Sweden, and Rooney Mara headlined an American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — offers a drab genre piece that's more like an attempt to establish a James Bond-like franchise for Lisbeth than a compelling exploration of the character. Everything has been watered down: the intensity of the hero, the sense of sexual danger, the violence. Here, played by Foy with dutiful glumness, Lisbeth is recruited by a programmer who has designed a program called Firefall that can remotely access any country's nuclear arsenal. Our girl finds herself doing battle with a ruthless international gang of criminals called the Spiders. The movie also rallies at the end, but when you've got such an interesting character, it's a waste to make her just do the same damn thing Matt Damon does whenever he's looking for a payout. Rated R. Bilge Ebiri
Maria by Callas — The frustrating doc Maria by Callas reduces Greek-American opera diva Maria Callas to a misunderstood celebrity who devoted herself to a calling and a lover that never gave as much to her as she did to them. Director Tom Volf makes his rickety case for Callas as a tragic figure by cherry-picking quotes from a variety of her interviews and documents, focusing primarily on paparazzi footage, private letters, and Callas' unpublished memoirs. Clips of Callas singing some of her most famous arias are purported to speak to her disappointment with bad reviews and persistent gossip about her affair with shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. Volf claims in the film's press notes that the melancholic "Vissi d'arte" aria from La Traviata, its refrain translating to "I lived for art, I lived for love," actually "summarizes [Callas'] whole existence." Volf unconvincingly presents Callas — a commanding performer who also famously had a Patti LuPone-sized ego — as a passive martyr. Volf supports his interpretation of Callas' personality with sound bites from her understandably guarded televised appearances, all of which devolve into terse discussions about her years-long romance with Onassis. In these clips, Callas talks about how she had to choose between a career as a singer and a more traditional life as a wife (she repeatedly says that she could not successfully be both). Volf's refusal to address key choices that Callas made to shape her own career and fight her insecurities suggests that he'd prefer to imagine Callas as a victim of fate — and bronchitis, fame, Onassis, etc. — instead of a strong-willed, but human prima donna. Rated PG. Simon Abrams
Other openings — Dr. Seuss' The Grinch, a new version of a holiday classic; In Search of Greatness, a documentary about athletic excellence; Indian Horse, a drama about a Canadian First Nations boy who grows up to be a hockey star; Jane and Emma, which tells the story of the unlikely friendship between a Mormon convert and the wife of Joseph Smith; Liz and the Blue Bird, an animated Japanese movie about two high school friends; and Overlord, a war/action/horror film about World War II soldiers who discover secret Nazi experiments after they are dropped behind enemy lines.