Movie Reviews: New Releases for Dec. 23-25


click to enlarge Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel in News of the World - UNIVERSAL PICTURES

  • Universal Pictures
  • Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel in News of the World

The Dissident ***
Director Bryan Fogel takes a hot-button international incident—the murder of Saudi-born journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 at the Saudi embassy in Turkey, apparently in retaliation for his criticism of the country’s leadership—and makes it work as a character study, a historical primer on Saudi politics, a love story and a procedural thriller. The character study side provides not just the story of Khashoggi himself and his growing frustrations with the royal family where he was once an insider, but of his friend and fellow expatriate Saudi Omar Abdulaziz Alzahrani, who paints a vivid, terrifying portrait of the perils awaiting those who speak out. There’s also the story of Khashoggi’s then-fiancée Hastice Cengiz, and the reluctant role she takes advocating for justice for Khashoggi. But it’s hardest to shake the details about the planning, carrying out and cleaning up after Khashoggi’s death, all of which was captured in audio transcripts. The details are not for the squeamish, and the brazen inhumanity of the language—including one conspirator jokingly referring to Khashoggi as the “sacrificial animal”—tells you all you need to know about a regime that our nation still clings to out of political expediency. Available Dec. 25 in theaters; Jan. 8 on VOD. (PG-13)

News of the World **1/2
There are few cinematic set-ups as well-worn as the “cynical older person who learns valuable lessons while being forced to care for a child,” and even Tom Hanks’s presence can’t entirely overcome the predictability. He plays Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a Civil War veteran traveling through 1870 Texas earning his living reading news stories from around the world to rapt audiences. On one of his journeys he encounters a girl named Johanna (Helena Zengel) who had been kidnapped and raised by the Kiowa Nation, and he takes on the responsibility of delivering her to relatives. Director/co-writer Paul Greengrass adapts Paulette Jiles’s novel with a fascinating attention to its setting as practically an occupied territory, providing a sense of a place in a state of massive upheaval with no single ruling authority. That context, however, ultimately proves more compelling than the relationship between Kidd and Johanna, which follows a familiar arc on an episodic trek through various adventures and life-threatening dangers. Hanks effectively conveys the requisite weariness of his character, and Greengrass crafts some tense set pieces. It’s just not enough to make it feel like there are enough distinctive emotional stakes on the way to a kinda-inevitable conclusion. Available Dec. 25 in theaters. (PG-13)

Pinocchio *1/2
Nearly 20 years after his disturbingly misguided turn as the little wooden boy in Pinocchio, Roberto Benigni returns to the same story in a version that manages to be just as terrible in a completely different way. Here, he’s the impoverished woodcutter Geppetto, who turns a magical log into a puppet (Federico Ielapi) that comes to life and finds his way into a variety of misadventures. Benigni at least has the good fortune to be able to disappear for most of the running time while Pinocchio encounters various familiar characters—a cricket, a fox and cat, etc.—in animal makeup horrifying enough to make you nostalgic for the look of Cats. And it’s hard to know for sure if the dubbed dialogue makes it more annoying than it otherwise would have been, especially when Pinocchio’s would-be conscience Cricket simply sounds pissy and shrill. Mostly, it’s impossible to know who the audience for this thing is supposed to be; while the Disney version was certainly a scary morality tale, this includes horrifying images like young Pinocchio with his feet burned off, or hung by his neck from a tree. A few effectively fanciful images aren’t nearly enough to make you hope never again to see Benigni’s name associated with this character. Available Dec. 25 in theaters. (PG)

click to enlarge Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman - FOCUS FEATURES

  • Focus Features
  • Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman **
Writer/director Emerald Fennell teases with a concept that she doesn’t ultimately deliver—which isn’t inherently a problem, except that the concept she does deliver feels like it cheats on everything it’s supposed to be about. Carey Mulligan plays Cassie Thomas, once a medical student with the world at her feet—until a traumatic incident involving her best friend changed her life, and sent her on a single-minded quest for vengeance. Sort of. It’s not easy to articulate why this premise ultimately proves so frustrating, especially when Mulligan is so good at conveying the hard edges that Cassie has grown to protect herself. But what it comes down to is this: For a movie that poses at being an edgy apologia for vigilante justice, even as it acknowledges the psychic toll of holding onto anger over injustice, this thing ultimately seems to suggest that The System can work after all. Worse still, Promising Young Woman’s twisty-turny climax feels like a violation of Cassie’s fundamental personality. And worst of all, it doesn’t make a gotdam lick of sense if you think about it for more than half a second. A black comedy that also wants to be dead serious about the issues it raises, it’s a story that feels perpetually dedicated to pulling its punches. Available Dec. 25 in theaters. (R)

Soul ***1/2
See feature review. Available Dec. 25 via Disney+. (PG)

Sylvie’s Love ***
The word “melodrama” is often assumed to be pejorative, but when executed properly, it can really hit the spot. Writer/director Eugene Ashe’s story begins in 1962 New York with a chance meeting on the street between Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) and Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha), before flashing back five years to the summer when aspiring TV producer Sylvie and on-the-rise jazz saxophonist Robert fall in love. Ashe throws up almost too many obstacles to our star-crossed lovers—Sylvia’s already engaged, and her snobby mother thinks a mere musician like Robert is beneath her, and Robert’s band is about to leave for Paris, etc.—as the story stretches over its multi-year time frame. And the unconventional structure almost makes it feel like a mini-series worth of material packed into two hours. Still, Sylvie’s Love manages to fold a lot of ideas about shifting gender roles, pop-culture trends and racial awareness into a narrative that’s fundamentally satisfying, mostly thanks to the chemistry between the two leads. When you can turn a dozen small perfect moments and a dozen small obstacles into a winning story about the ups and downs of love, “melodrama” is just a word. Available Dec. 23 via Amazon Prime. (PG-13)

WW84 **
See feature review. Available Dec. 25 in theaters and via HBO Max. (PG-13)

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