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Thursday, December 8, 2022

Movie Reviews: New Releases for Dec. 9

Emancipation, Empire of Light, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, White Noise and more

Posted By on December 8, 2022, 9:13 AM

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click to enlarge Will Smith and Ben Foster in Emancipation - APPLETV+
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  • Will Smith and Ben Foster in Emancipation
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed ***1/2
Director Laura Poitras takes a unique two-pronged approach to profiling the life of artist/activist Nan Goldin; it isn’t until the end until it’s clear how effectively those prongs work in harmony. In part, it’s a somewhat conventional bio-doc, tracing back to Goldin’s dysfunctional-family childhood and through her interaction with the 1970s/1980s queer communities of Boston and New York that shaped the nature of her anthropological photographic art. But Poitras also focuses on Goldin’s work beginning in 2018 leading public protest actions against art institutions like the Met and the Guggenheim that helped legitimize the Purdue Pharma/oxycontin-peddling Sackler family. The biographical background definitely benefits from Goldin’s own impressive storehouse of contemporary photos, emphasizing without a need for talking heads what a unique historical document Goldin created of the LGBTQ community of her time. That background evolves into Goldin’s connection with the era of ACTUP and artists like David Wojnarowicz challenging the artistic establishment with pointed criticism of governmental, religious and social institutions responding to the AIDS crisis, drawing a clear line to Goldin’s sense of how best to strike at the Sacklers. The tragic story of Goldin’s older sister—and her parents’ “alternate history” of that tragedy—adds even more punch to the portrait of a woman dedicated to never allowing the world to pretend that certain things haven’t happened, or continue to happen. Available Dec. 9 at Broadway Centre Cinemas. (NR)

Emancipation **
Narratives about American slavery now inevitably face a tension between the horrors that existed in reality and the purpose to which such cinematic depictions are put—and director Antione Fuqua’s odd mix of earnest drama, blaxploitation action and war movie just can’t get the balance right. The “inspired by a true story” narrative follows Peter (Will Smith), an enslaved man in 1863 Louisiana separated from his wife (Charmaine Bingwa) and children to work for the Confederate Army. But once Peter learns that Lincoln has freed the slaves, he flees into the Louisiana swamp, pursued by tracker Jim Fassel (Ben Foster) as he attempts to reach freedom in Union-controlled Baton Rouge and ultimately reunite with his family. The lengthy middle section is structured mostly as a chase picture, with Foster’s icy intensity put to good use as the relentless Javert-esque Fassel and Smith’s Peter doggedly applying his wits to avoiding capture (and maybe also fight an alligator). It’s often effective stuff, but veers so close to a straight-ahead adventure that it feels weird when Fuqua and the great cinematographer Robert Richardson drain all the color from the images—aside from the occasional spot of blood or burst of flame—to emphasize that this is a serious movie about serious issues like the twisting of Scripture to justify slavery. Then, the final half-hour turns into a climax of Civil War carnage, likely intended to celebrate the actions of Black Union soldiers, but ultimately far less viscerally compelling than what came before. Smith gives his performance his jaw-clenching, steely-eyed all, but his character is too one-note for a movie that’s playing several different notes at the same time. Available Dec. 9 in theaters and via AppleTV+. (R)

click to enlarge Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman in Empire of Light - FOCUS FEATURES
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  • Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman in Empire of Light
Empire of Light *1/2
Amazingly enough, we ended up with not one but two 2022 movies set in 1980 that are about white people learning that racism exists. But as frustrating as Armageddon Time was in that regard, it wasn’t nearly as insufferable as writer/director Sam Mendes’ period piece. At the English seaside in late 1980, Hilary (Olivia Colman) is working at an old-time movie palace, having recently spent time in a mental hospital. Among her co-workers is newly-hired usher Stephen (Micheal Ward), a young Black man, with whom Hilary begins a romantic relationship. Because the time frame coincides with the rise of the National Front in England, you can be sure that there will be racist violence, and Hilary trying to make sense of it all. The problem, essentially is that Empire of Light is all about Hilary, with only the most cursory nods to exploring Stephen’s home life or his goals. And it’s desperately awkward when the focus is on Hilary’s sad existence, ranging from furtive sex with her married boss (Colin Firth) to a progressively deteriorating mental state when she goes off her meds. As gifted an actor as Colman is, her role is a thankless one, built around her showy, dramatic breakdowns; Hilary is too fragile for it to matter whether she figures out how to be a good ally. Throw in some ill-advised “magic of the movies” stuff, and no matter how gloriously cinematographer Roger Deakins crafts his images, you’ve got something where the white person who really needs to learn something is the filmmaker. Available Dec. 9 in theaters. (R)

Memories of My Father **1/2
There’s no rule that requires a filmmaker to adapt every part of a book, and Fernando Trueba might have been better served with a more narrowly-tailored adaptation of the memoir by Héctor Abad Faciolince about his father, Colombian physician/teacher/activist Héctor Abad Gómez. The narrative opens in 1983, with the 24-year-old younger Héctor—called Quiquín (Juan Pablo Urrega)—returning to Medellín on the occasion of the senior Héctor’s (Javier Cámara) mandatory retirement from his university faculty position, in part due to his politically-provocative public health advocacy. From there, the story flashes back to 1971, and a 12-year-old Quiquín (Nicolás Reyes Cano) learning life lessons from his father’s willingness to follow his conscience rather than convention. That coming-of-age material is unusually strong, emphasizing an adolescent’s realization that the father he worships is both a generous humanitarian and an atheist, and that there’s no contradiction inherent in that idea. But then the story swings back to 1983 and the elder Abad’s ongoing high profile as a rabble-rouser in the politically unstable country, and even Trueba’s decision to shoot the 1980s-set material in black-and-white doesn’t make it more interesting, especially when the overly-dramatized emotions are juxtaposed with how a similar tragic episode is handled with more restraint in the 1971 section. The full life of Héctor Abad is certainly worth respect, which isn’t the same thing as saying it’s all worth turning into a movie. Available Dec. 9 in theaters. (NR)

Nanny ***
It’s rare that a film’s aesthetics are so striking that I start to overlook tangled thematic material, but writer/director Nikyatu Jusu composes a remarkably assured feature that’s almost too dense with possible interpretations. Senegalese immigrant Aisha (Anna Diop) begins a job caring for Rose (Rose Decker), the daughter of a wealthy Manhattan couple (Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector), trying to save up money to bring her own young son to the U.S. But she’s being plagued by dark visions connected to African mythology, beginning as nightmares but soon bleeding over into her waking life. Jusu has a lot on her plate from a narrative standpoint, tackling abuses of the immigrant working class, gender power dynamics across cultures, white appropriation of violence faced by Black people, and the ongoing The Help dynamic where people of color raise white children at the expense of their own. Honing in on any single idea for emotional impact isn’t easy, but it’s very easy to appreciate how dynamic Jusu is behind the camera, from building suspense in the supernatural interludes, to designing distinctive color palettes for Aisha’s personal and professional lives, to orchestrating a rich and unsettling sound design. Monaghan’s Karen-esque alpha-working-mom comes on a bit too strong, but otherwise Jusu finds something subtly insinuating, giving me reason to re-watch for how all those threads form one tapestry of resilience. Available Dec. 9 at Broadway Centre Cinemas; Dec. 16 via Amazon Prime Video. (R)

White Noise ****
See feature review. Available Dec. 9 in theaters. (R)

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