Lust for power and world domination. A dangerous thirst for retribution. Coming to grips with one's racial identity. And nothing less than a search for the meaning of life. No doubt about it: winter has arrived for film buffs. As we prepare to venture into Christmas, what's interesting about the weighty subject matter in the current crop of new movies is that it's being explored by big studio releases, not just the prestige titles trying to build buzz as awards season continues to kick into gear.
Speaking of awards, please allow me the opportunity to congratulate the winners of this year's Florida Film Critics Cirle Awards, starting with Kelly Reichardt's soulful Western, “First Cow.” The A24 release grazed into the finer pastures of victory, prevailing against some stiff competition to take Best Picture honors.
The film is already starting to feel like a classic, so it's gratifying so many of my colleagues are in agreement as to its merits. Shout-outs are also in order for Best Actor winner Sir Anthony Hopkins, who delivered a virtuoso performance as the ornery title character in Florian Zeller's “The Father,” and Frances McDormand, who edged out some big-time heavy hitters for Best Actress for her commanding turn in “Nomadland.” Searchlight Pictures' lyrical travelogue also picked up Best Director prize for the gifted Chloé Zhao. The latter two films are scheduled to open commercially early next year.
But the matter at hand this week is the contents of Santa's grab bag. Do the following four films live up to the considerable hype surrounding them? The answer varies depending on who you're talking to, even among myself and MAZ editor Michelle Solomon. But debate is healthy, no? Let's dig in.
“Wonder Woman 1984”: Postponed time and again, enough to give even The Flash whiplash, Patty Jenkins' highly anticipated follow-up to her 2017 box office smash is finally seeing the light of day, both in theaters and on HBO Max. (A controversial decision by Warner Bros. that needs to be addressed separately. In the spirit of the holidays, let's save that discussion for later.) Whereas the previous film revealed the origin of the iconic DC Comics superhero, Jenkins' latest installment plops Diana Prince (Gal Gadot, still a stunner) in the year made infamous by George Orwell.
The Amazon princess, working at the Smithsonian Institute in the nation's capital as an anthropologist and archaeologist (eat your heart out, Indy), meets a newly hired gemologist, the mousy and insecure Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig, shrewdly cast), unaware that their destinies will be intertwined, thanks to self-professed oil maven Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal). Maxie boy, a sleazy TV personality, uses his broad small-screen persona to conceal an ethically compromised hunger for wealth and status, and it all comes down to a seemingly innocuous stone that looks like ossified, amber-hued crystals from Superman's Fortress of Solitude but is actually . . . something else. That Latin inscription on the relic's base hints at something ominous.
So far, so familiar. And yet, despite the plot's shopworn elements, there's a warm, nurturing vibe driving “Wonder Woman 1984.” Jenkins' gift for empathy, recalling as it did in the earlier film the work of “Superman” director Richard Donner, guides her well in the sequel as well. The narrative's relative simplicity allows Jenkins, working from the screenplay she collaborated on with Geoff Johns and Dave Callahan, to focus on Diana's personal life. All these decades later, the ageless beauty still holds out a flame for Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), the World War I pilot she fell for before (spoiler alert from Part 1) he made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of a free world. So, what's Steve doing amid the tacky fashions of the Reagan era? Don't ask me.
My lips are sealed. Suffice it to say the character's mysterious reappearance gives the filmmakers an opportunity to craft a more intimate kind of superhero epic without skimping on the big stuff. (A vertiginous mano-a-mano near the end brings to mind Sam Raimi's “Spider-Man” movies.)
Not everything works, though. Jenkins is clearly having fun with the mid-1980s trappings, but she does go overboard, such as in a shopping mall sequence that channels the kitschy playfulness of the 1970s TV series but overdoses on period details, not unlike Netflix's “Stranger Things.” She also lets her superheroine come across as a wet blanket for long stretches. Yes, we get it, she's the voice of reason, but that doesn't mean she has to remain a humorless nag.
And yet, there's a grace to “Wonder Woman 1984,” a plaintive gentility to this second chapter in Diana's journey of self-discovery. Foreshadowed in a prologue that shows the young Diana learning a painful lesson, the film conveys that the burden of helping keep the world safe doesn't mean a costumed do-gooder doesn't stop learning or growing. That mournful undertow keeps this imperfect, disarming period adventure from slipping into stale spectacle. The goofy grin I had while watching this slice of Christmas cheese didn't leave my face once.
“Promising Young Woman”: As Sonny Chiba said at the end of “Kill Bill: Vol. 1,” “Revenge is never a straight line. It's a forest, and like a forest, it's easy to lose your way.” They're words of wisdom that writer-director Emerald Fennell grapples with in her genre-hopping character study, anchored by a committed Carey Mulligan as a drop-out med student-turned-barista on a secret mission to avenge a grave injustice to someone near and dear.
The resulting mishmash of dark humor and hard-hitting social commentary has polarized audiences ever since the film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival back in January. Me? I admire its chutzpah, polished production values and unflappable sense of purpose, but the whole here amounts to less than the sum of its parts, because Fennell is pulling viewers in several different directions at once.
The beginning, which shows Cassie (Mulligan) targeting boorish young executives at bars and nightclubs, suggests the movie might go the way of avenging angel exploitation, something that brings to mind, say, Abel Ferrara's “Ms. 45” re-envisioned as a black comedy. What is Cassie doing with these preppy jerks? The film leaves that question coyly unanswered far too long. Then Fennell introduces an element of the comically mundane, showing her protagonist sparring with her parents, Stanley (Clancy Brown) and Susan (Jennifer Coolidge), who want their daughter to fly the nest already.
Dark revenge tale? Check. Observant portrait of arrested development? Yep. Add to that winsome rom-com. Cassie crosses paths with a face from the past: Ryan (Bo Burnham, all gangly charm), a former med school classmate. As the two embark on a quirky yet adorably awkward courtship, Fennell unearths more details about the past. But as the story keeps taking increasingly darker turns, the filmmaker loses her grip on the myriad narrative strands she has been juggling. Scenes start to feel like clashing worldviews more than two actual people going to head to head, and Cassie, an intriguing enigma who nevertheless displays recognizable human behavior, starts coming across more and more like a construct of warring impulses than a flesh-and-blood individual.
“Promising Young Woman” ends up being more about Fennell's efforts to upend expectations and pull the rug from under viewer's feet than about the characters, who eventually get lost in the tonal-shift shuffle. The unsettled balance leads to a calculated payoff that hinges on an overly deterministic series of events that feel etched in stone. You end up feeling more than a little manhandled by Fennell's dissection of trauma and male privilege. There's no doubt that Fennell, a showrunner on the series “Killing Eve,” is a talented storyteller, but in her debut feature, she's bitten more off, thematically and storywise, than she can chew. She's made a fascinating misfire, an ambitious near miss that's bound to spark all kinds of stimulating conversations.
“One Night in Miami...”: A motel room in Overtown becomes a pressure cooker for four iconic Black men in this skillfully executed screen adaptation of Kemp Powers' play about the titular get-together. It's Feb. 25, 1964, and Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), not yet rechristened Muhammad Ali, has just dethroned world heavyweight boxing champ Sonny Liston. But the celebrating will have to wait, since the new champ's mentor, human rights activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir, sensational) has other plans. The two close friends are joined by soul and R&B singer Sam Cooke (“Hamilton's” Leslie Odom Jr.) and star NFL fullback Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge).
The film marks the theatrical feature directing debut of actress Regina King (“If Beale Street Could Talk,” HBO's “Watchmen”), and the Oscar winner is able to establish four distinct personalities, alternately supportive and abrasive, while representing specific facets of being Black and male in America during the civil rights era. The filmmaker unobtrusively opens up the play, which was produced by Miami New Drama at the Colony Theatre in 2018, to include scenes outside of Malcolm's motel room, while still retaining the claustrophobia of the original setting.
Cordial chatter between the opinionated men gives way to heated exchanges. At issue is Cassius' decision to join the Nation of Islam at a time when Malcolm is feeling estranged from the religious group. Parallel to the two men's ambivalence is Malcolm's contentions that Sam is selling out by embracing commercial music and Brown could do more for the Black community as a popular sports personality.
While there's no way around the staginess King retains in transporting Powers' potent words to the screen (the playwright also wrote the screenplay), there's an elegant flow to “One Night in Miami...,” as well as attention to fleshing out smaller roles, like the members of Malcolm's Nation of Islam security detail.
In the process, King and Powers have expanded a 90-minute one-act play into a nearly two-hour feature that captures a moment in time, but very much speaks to our Black Lives Matter present.
“One Night in Miami...” is being released just after “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,” an adaptation of August Wilson's stage play examining racism and showbiz rivalries circa 1927, but that Netflix production is marred by a tendency to work overtime to showcase spiffy production values and a solid ensemble cast, headlined by a galvanizing Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman in his final screen performance. But the stars are somewhat undermined by a “hard sell” approach that is so aggressive that the exterior sequences feel like they belong in a different movie altogether. By contrast, “Miami” feels all of a piece, because King shows no interest in showing off. Instead, she stays out of the way to allow her characters to discover that their rigidly held positions are not strictly black and white. She has given them a gripping showcase that revels in exploring those shades of gray.
“Soul”: Powers is pulling double duty this season. He also teamed up with Pixar to co-write and co-direct (with “Up's” Pete Docter) an animated feature featuring the Emeryville, California studio's first African American lead character. Their collaboration has yielded sublime results, at once culturally specific and intrinsically universal. “Soul,” the story of a jazz musician who has settled into a life of unfulfilling stability as a middle school band teacher, is one of Pixar's most imaginative creations and their best movie in well over a decade.
Joe Gardner (the voice of Jamie Foxx) is rocked out of his stupor by an opportunity to audition for the Dorothea Williams Quartet. An actual gig. Doing what he loves. If only he's able to impress a no-nonsense Williams (Angela Bassett). Little does the gifted pianist know that his life is about to take a turn that will send him from this plane of existence into what uncannily feels like a passage to the afterlife. The abrupt transition and early scenes of this metaphysical way station show the presence of Albert Brooks' satire “Defending Your Life,” as well as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's “A Matter of Life and Death” as part of this movie's DNA.
Joe, separated from his earthly body, learns he has ended up, quite by accident, in the Great Before, where nascent souls are given their personality traits before heading off to Earth. Those jolly little blobs that swirl around Joe recall the forest sprites in Hayao Miyazaki's “Princess Mononoke,” only given a most Pixar-esque makeover. Now that he's there, Joe is assigned to help 22 (Tina Fey), a young soul who appears to be struggling to find her voice. No, that's not quite right. She just doesn't care about Earth, so why should she want to leave in the first place?
The odd-couple pairing that ensues shows Docter hitting his comfort zone, as he returns to themes of loss and bonding that he mined in “Monsters, Inc.” “Up” and “Inside Out.” The results are a mellifluous blend of existential quest and scavenger hunt. The difference here is that he is using the Pixar formula to ruminate on the very nature of being, not the other way around. As in “Inside Out,” he has done away with that tired Pixar trope of the hidden villain. Our own fears and insecurities, the very things that prevent us from being the very best version of ourselves. are the real antagonist here.
Joe's arc allows him to revisit his life, leading to a beautifully written conversation with his mother Libba (Phylicia Rashad) that begins at a place of mutual frustration and ends in a newfound understanding. Through it all, Docter and Kemp combine cartoonish flourishes with more photorealistic content, the autumnal hues of New York City a sharp contrast to the comforting blues of the Great Before.
“Soul” is mighty fine any way you look at it, but special mention must be made of the music. Jon Batiste handles the jazz compositions, resulting in flights of fancy that recall Disney's musical anthologies like “Make Mine Music.” Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross take over for the rest, bringing a synth-driven sound to the Great Before scenes that immediately bring to mind EPCOT's Future World. Exceptional work all around.
In its depiction of mortality and familial strife, “Soul” pulls off what the vastly overpraised “Coco,” hemmed in by its watered-down depiction of Mexican culture and adherence to boy's-adventure trappings, could not. It's a giant leap forward for the Pixar folks: an intelligent meditation on what makes us, us, one predominantly geared at grown-ups. This valentine to pursuing your passions wrings tears that feel fully earned. (It reduced this frequent Disney detractor, especially of late, to a puddle.) Docter and Kemp take you on an out-of-body experience of the most gratifying kind. If you plan on seeing just one movie between now and New Year's, this is the one.
Alas, that out-of-body experience will have to take place in the comfort of your home. “Soul” becomes available exclusively on Disney Plus beginning Christmas Day. That same day, “One Night in Miami...” opens locally at the Landmark at Merrick Park in Coral Gables before making its way to Amazon Prime on Jan. 15. “Promising Young Woman” will have 7 p.m. advance showings on Wednesday, Dec. 23, at AMC Aventura, AMC Sunset Place and AMC Pembroke Lake before going wide on the 25th. Also on Christmas, “Wonder Woman 1984” lassoes into theaters, including IMAX and Dolby Cinema engagements, and also begins streaming on HBO Max for the next 31 days.