“Some things never change,” or so go the lyrics in one of the songs in the highly anticipated Disney sequel Frozen II. This follow-up arrives six years after the worldwide phenomenon of Frozen took hold of popular culture, with its songs becoming so unavoidable and ubiquitous almost overnight. Frozen II attempts to carve out a place for itself while delivering the charm, catchy music, and core emotional underpinnings that so inflamed people’s imaginations in 2013. With its eye-popping animation, world-building, and character exploration, Frozen II is nominally a slight improvement on its predecessor. But it’s still limited by the burden of expectations.
Arendelle is thriving in the reign of Queen Elsa voiced by Idina Menzel, yet the young leader is plagued by the mysterious sound of a beckoning siren call only she can hear. Coupled with her memory of the king and queen describing for her a strange, enchanted forest in the North where magic reigned supreme, Elsa is compelled to leave her home. Unable to quell her wandering spirit, she heads off to an enchanted forest in the North, joined by her sister Anna Kristen Bell, Anna’s beau Kristoff Jonathan Groff, his reindeer Sven, and the supposedly lovable snowman Olaf Josh Gad. The core adventure is less about the sisterly bonds delved into during the 2013 original, and more about the pressing question of why Elsa is gifted with magical powers, and whether those powers might destroy or save their land.
What works most in this film’s favor is that it doesn’t present itself as a direct copy of the original. Shrewdly, Anna and Elsa are teamed up for a bulk of the story, this enabling their connection to be more believable. Now at least, Anna and Elsa act like sisters, instead of lip service being paid to their relationship. Elsa, too, may still be a figure of some mystery, but Jennifer Lee’s script she co-directed the film with Chris Buck is at its strongest when the icy queen is at the forefront. Anna, though less outlandishly klutzy than in the first film, is placed in a silly subplot with Kristoff, who’s desperate to pop the question but unable to close the deal. It’s not exactly a good thing that this film recalls the first-ever Disney animated sequel, The Rescuers Down Under, wherein the kindly male lead struggles to pop the question to his longtime girlfriend. But the similarities are…unexpected, if not straight-up unwelcome.
Of course, the vagaries of what is expected of a sequel—the same, but more of it—means that there are more songs, including two big numbers for Elsa. “Into the Unknown” has received the “Let It Go” treatment in the marketing campaign, but her other solo number, “Show Yourself”, is the standout. Groff, like Menzel, is a seasoned Broadway vet, hough he ironically never got a show-stopping number in the original film. That has mercifully changed with Frozen II, where his 80s-throwback song “Lost in the Woods” is the best of all the compositions from songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez. It’s one of many pop-culture in-jokes that toe the line between being too referential and just slyly funny enough. To describe the song further would ruin one of the film’s most delightful surprises.
There is also a great deal of Olaf, speaking of humor that tries to land on the right side of being too jokey. If you like the sentient snowman who loves warm hugs, you’re in for a treat—Olaf jockeys with the two sisters as the second lead of the film. The rest of us have to stew in silence through extended comic bits that land with a thud, as when Olaf hurriedly rushes through a plot synopsis of the first film for a captive audience of new characters. Less continues to be more with Olaf, which means his screen time is an aggressive albatross hanging around the rest of the film.
Those aforementioned new characters are plentiful, but it’s fascinating that none of them make much of an impact, nor are they meant to. Sterling K. Brown appears as a long-lost Arendellian Arendellite? We’ll have to wait for the third film to know for sure with a connection to Anna and Elsa’s parents, acquitting himself nicely enough in a mildly thankless role. The same goes for Martha Plimpton and Jason Ritter, both as denizens of the mysterious forest where our heroes spend most of the film. Yet Frozen II is not about the new characters, instead trying to expand upon the creaky mythology of the original. The expansion of said mythology does not improve its creakiness, sadly.
The truest improvement between films comes not in its story, but in its striking presentation. Though Elsa’s powers arrive in full bloom in the enchanted forest, the real power of this movie comes through its gorgeous, often jaw-dropping animation. Much of the film’s antagonism is driven by natural elements like air and water, which are visualized in crisp, detailed fashion that goes well beyond past Disney animated fare, hand-drawn or computer animated. An extended sequence midway through the film, in which Elsa goes on a very important journey of self-discovery, is visually one of the most accomplished sequences of the 80-plus years of Disney animation, period. The way that Disney animators have pushed computer technology to give life to even droplets of water is genuinely gasp-inducing. Whatever else can be said, Frozen II is truly beautiful.
Frozen II has an insurmountable challenge in front of it. When the original arrived in the late fall of 2013, no one would have predicted exactly how massive it became. Its songs became instant anthems, its story tapped into the vibrant spirit of young women around the world, and its characters were quickly welcomed into the collective public’s hearts. Nothing about this movie is going to ruin the original film’s impact, and it’s a more coherent story with a stronger emotional heart. It’s a good movie, a solid follow-up to a slightly less entertaining film. But only when its visuals do the talking does Frozen II really sing.
On the night of her 18th birthday, Mickey Peck Camila Morrone and her PTSD-addled dad James Badge Dale as Henry Peck take a rare trip out of their trailer for a celebratory bite at a local diner. Things start off well enough, but then Mickey makes the mistake of casually mentioning her late mother. Like many drug addicts, Henry is too focused on what he needs right now to handle any talk about the past; perversely, however, he's as sober-minded as it gets when it comes to the future. “The truth is that one day you're going to forget about me,” he says to his daughter as she eats a cheap burger with a plastic tiara on her head. “That's the way it is.” And he might be right. In fact, the most charitable moments of Annabelle Attanasio's small but deeply felt “Mickey and the Bear” make that prediction seem like a prophecy that Henry is eager to fulfill — like something that he wants to come true for Mickey as soon as possible.
Attanasio's debut might initially feel like a million other modern American indies it premiered at SXSW earlier this year, but the film soon matures into a tender coming-of-age drama that sidesteps the usual genre tropes on its way towards exploring some questions that we never grow out of asking ourselves. Questions like “how much of our lives do we owe other people?” and “at what point do you have to give up on someone you love?”
There aren't really any clear answers at the end of the road, but “Mickey and the Bear” is often moving for how sensitively it affirms the need to look for them anyway.
Attanasio, who some TV viewers with good memories and excellent taste might remember as an actress from her role on season two of “The Knick,” sets the scene with natural efficiency. It only takes a few expressive shots to appreciate the fabric of her characters' lives. It's never a good morning when Mickey is awakened by the light coming in through the ceiling window, and not the sounds of her dad playing video games or demanding his breakfast. And it only gets worse when the sheriff rolls up to her front door, and invites her into the squad car by name. At the station, she finds her dad regaling the cops with a joke or a funny war story, and they promise to let him go, so long as Mickey drives home — she tosses him the keys as soon as they're out of sight.
That's all it takes to understand the bond that exists between these two stranded people in Anaconda, Montana, which is a small place that's as big as the world might ever get for them. Mickey — who Morrone embodies with the vulnerability and raw ambivalence of a real teenager — genuinely loves her dad, and feels a natural obligation to take care of read: mother Hank, but she can't shake the feeling that everything good about her life so far exists in spite of him. When she catches her dad between one of his Oxy binges and insists that she's not going anywhere, her words sound as much like a promise as they do a surrender.
Attanasio's well-composed but naturalistic direction never belabors the point, and yet the writing in every scene helps cement the impression that Mickey is always cornered in one way or another. Her douchebag local boyfriend Ben Rosenfield is basically the most eligible bachelor in town, and his favorite topic of conversation is their future life together. Mickey's only friend is three months pregnant, and already locked into the next generation of Anacondan purgatory. Also — and this is underplayed just enough not to rankle — she works at a taxidermy store that houses the titular bear. Even the animals in this town are stuck in place. Mickey has too much potential for the movie around her to fall into miserablism, but it's telling that one of the most hopeful scenes is the typically expressive little moment when she turns 18 and buys a scratch-off lottery ticket.
“Mickey and the Bear” only accomplishes so much in its modest 82 minutes like most films of its kind, it builds to nothing more than a nudge in the right direction, but Attanasio makes you believe in the reality of these characters and the place that binds them together. An intriguing new love interest Calvin Demba threatens to tip things into “Gilmore Girls” territory, but Attanasio defuses the situation in a way that makes the whole film hit that much harder. And while Hank is a character who could easily lapse into histrionics, Dale's volatile performance locks him into the liminal space between a victim and a monster, and Attanasio's camera frames in moments of simple beauty like the scene where he and Mickey slow dance in an empty bar. So much of the movie's tension is mined from a genuine uncertainty over whether or not Mickey should leave, and it's only in the last scenes that Attanasio overplays her hand. It's not that the ending isn't plausible, but just that it too clearly points the way forward for a character who may spend the rest of her life wondering if she went in the right direction. But if “Mickey and the Bear” is most effective as a calling card for both its young director and its even younger star, it never loses sight of the idea that giving up on someone can be the only way to avoid giving up on yourself.
“Mickey and the Bear” is now playing in theaters via Utopia.
There's something wrong with the land in West Virginia, and Mark Ruffalo is on the case. That's the essence of “Dark Waters,” an urgent and respectable dramatization of corporate environmental defense attorney Rob Bilot's saga as he takes on the Dupont corporation for dumping toxic waste. Directed by Todd Haynes as a slow-burn accumulation of speechifying and paranoid research, “Dark Waters” rambles through Bilot's dreary detective work as he exposes an environmental hazard with the potential to impact the entire planet.
A didactic, sometimes listless thriller that drags at just over two hours, “Dark Waters” marks the most conventional directing effort in Haynes' career. Nevertheless, the central concerns of Ruffalo's passion project he also produced ensure a gravitas throughout that grounds the drama in profound concerns. Wearing a frozen scowl as he zips from damaged farmland to his ambivalent Cincinnati law firm, Ruffalo's troubled protagonist stops just shy of breaking the fourth wall and lecturing to the audience as he learns how to take on the Man. At the same time, it's hard not to get caught up in his crusade, and feel the sting whenever it seems like a lost cause.
As legal thrillers go, “Dark Waters” fits snugly into a familiar genre. Tapping into everything from “All the President's Men” and “The Insider” with a touch of “Spotlight” and “Erin Brockovich” for good measure, “Dark Waters” follows Bilot through the evolution of his interests in the case against DuPont, a company that his own firm represents. That central conflict — and Bilot's internal challenges reconciling his country roots with big-city ambitions — injects “Dark Waters” with palpable intrigue, despite the preachiness that bleeds into the material throughout.
Mario Correa's screenplay adapts an article by reporter Nathaniel Rich from The New York Times magazine, and the headline of that 2016 story epitomizes the movie's arc: “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare.” Bilot is on the verge of making partner at his firm and becoming a new father when he hears from Parkersburg farmer Wilbur Tennant Bill Camp, in a frantic turn about his dying cows, and suspicions that the nearby plant was to blame. In Rich’s article, Bilot first hears from Tennant by phone, but “Dark Waters” finds the rumpled figure barging into Bilot’s firm, recalling his family roots in the area. It’s a tight narrative contrivance that underscores the conflict at hand, as Bilot contends with dueling allegiances as his stable world unravels.
Since Bilot’s firm represents a range of corporate clients, his decision to take on DuPont forces continuing showdowns with his boss Tim Robbins, stern and troubled as well as the DuPont suits that consider Bilot and his peers as friendlies. These stagy showdowns are undercut by the lawyer’s eerie visits to Tennant’s farmland, where Haynes’ regular cinematographer Ed Lachman’s inky palette tinges the green landscapes with a shadowy aura bordering on sci-fi; similarly, the movie develops a disquieting atmosphere around Bilot’s lonely hours spent combing through covert documents as he gets closer to the truth of DuPont’s cover-up.
It’s here that “Dark Waters” gets closer to injecting the drama with intimate concerns: When Bilot finally arrives at the essence of his investigation, uncovering the toxic chemical in Teflon products that have infiltrated American households, he’s tasked with explaining the situation to his pregnant wife Anne Hathaway. And while the actress has been saddled with a thankless supporting role, the movie ventures into taut psychological uneasiness as Bilot grapples with the magnitude of his revelations.
While Ruffalo overplays the character’s panic-stricken mindset, Haynes reins it in, pitching the drama into Bilot’s disoriented headspace as his contradictory allegiances collapse into chaos and he finds himself increasingly isolated from the world around him. There’s an undeniable galvanizing effect to the movie’s closing passages, as Bilot tunnels through the backlash and career setbacks to forge a new battle that continues to this day.
Yet “Dark Waters” sticks to a level of naturalistic restraint that often flattens its material into rote dramaturgy rather than intensifying its concerns. Haynes may not be the most obvious match for this sort of well-intentioned agitprop, but nearly 30 years ago, “Poison” tackled the AIDS crisis and homophobia through a riveting allegorical lens. By those standards, “Dark Waters” is strictly by the book, an extension of the concerns recapped in the 2018 Teflon documentary “The Devil We Know” and others.
At the same time, Haynes and Ruffalo have conspired to inject their project with a covert non-fiction component, as end credits reveal multiple characters portrayed by their real-life counterparts, including a grown man disfigured at birth due to toxic waste. It’s a well-intentioned device, but winds up serving as a reminder that the truth is far more upsetting than any fictionalized take.
Still, the movie mines genuine substance from Bilot’s ceaseless determination against daunting odds, a quest that finds the man returning again and again to the courtroom. “You again,” one judge sighs. As a platform for Bilot’s efforts and why they deserve a national profile, the movie has a sincere sense of purpose. It’s a 20-year-old drama that extends into the present, and as environmental concerns continue to escalate, it couldn’t feel more contemporary. While “Dark Waters” chronicles the evolution of an activist, its most effective moment comes with a closing implication that its story has just begun.
Focus Features will open “Dark Waters” in theaters on Friday, November 22.
SundanceTV and AMC's five-part docuseries about the notorious 1986 murder in New York City is choppy and limited, but full of intriguing first-hand accounts.
Damning and repetitious in near-equal measure, AMC and SundanceTV's The Preppy Murder: Death in Central Park is either a tight, straightforward 100-minute documentary about one of New York City's most notorious crimes padded inconsistently over five choppy, TV-shaped pieces airing over three nights or a longer and more ambitious piece that's too rushed to sell its bigger themes. Either way, The Preppy Murder is a decent retelling of a harrowing moment for New York, the media and the justice system, but it could surely be something better.
For those who don't remember the so-called Preppy Murder — oddly I recall the 1989 TV movie starring William Baldwin and Lara Flynn Boyle more vividly than the case — the story goes back to late August of 1986, when the body of 18-year-old Jennifer Levin was found in Central Park. The investigation swiftly turned to Robert Chambers, part of Levin's circle of friends, and Chambers quickly confessed. His claim was that he killed Levin accidentally, saying it was a tragic turn in an episode of rough sex. The media jumped all over the case and its salacious details and the subsequent and protracted trial was one of the decade's biggest.
Adding to the heat of the spotlight was the fact that Levin and Chambers moved as part of a pack of Manhattan's wealthiest and most privileged offspring, both seemingly photogenic spawn of the city's elite, attending the best prep schools and the cliquiest of bars. Think Gossip Girl, if Chuck Bass had progressed from sexual assault and girlfriend pimping to actual murder, which sounds glib but also reflects the sensationalistic nature of a case that predated the rise of pervasive social media by decades.
Oh and remember Linda Fairstein? She was presented as the truth-obfuscating prosecutorial villain in When They See Us and the documentary The Central Park Five, both projects she fittingly avoided active involvement with. Here, she's a frequent on-camera presence as a dogged hero and crusader for truth. It's such a discordant shift in her presentation that, coupled with the similarities of the time frame and the geography, one might think the very clear differences in the cases and how they defined justice and how they were presented in the media would demand some level of exploration or at least acknowledgement. Such context is shockingly and conspicuously absent here.
The Preppy Murder: Death in Central Park was directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, whose credits include the exceptional Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work and The Devil Came on Horseback, and they have assembled a strong core of featured figures from the case, even without Chambers' presence. From the law and order side, they have Fairstein and several of the primary detectives and investigators, led by Mike Sheehan, who passed away soon after filming his segments. Jack Litman, Chambers' defense attorney "credited" with much of the victim-blaming and media-baiting, died in 2010, so a secondary part of Litman's team, Roger Stavis, speaks for the defense. Stern and Sundberg interview Levin's mother and sister, several of her friends and, somewhat in the interest of balance, Chambers' girlfriend at the time, Alex Kapp, though it shouldn't be surprising that very few people are willing to be this devil's advocate. There are also interviews with New York City TV institutions Magee Hickey and Rosanna Scotto, plus several of the other reporters who covered the case.
The result is a solid and thorough recounting of the crime, its aftermath and the trial, one that doesn't lack for emotional punch due to the recollections of those closest to Levin. As is surely appropriate, the victim in this crime gets the opportunity to emerge as more of a fully rounded character, while Chambers remains an enigma that people can mostly only discuss in obvious superficial terms. As was the case in media reports of the time, his , jawline and handsomeness are obsessed over. His upbringing, motivations and actual personality are left mysterious and, as happens so often in this kind of trial-of-the-century recounting, once the trial itself concludes, there's very little air left in the narrative balloon.
There's ample candor from the various talking heads, but maybe not enough self-reflection. There's a point that the directors want to make about the errors made by the media in covering the case and how that maybe changed the landscape and informed how we respond to violence against women today. They're missing much of the ammunition they need to make that case and it's especially telling that none of the writers and reporters are able or willing to express more than a hair of regret about the role they played in the circus. It's hard to make a convincing argument for lessons learned here if you don't have anybody capable of articulating any of those lessons with introspection. Much of that heavy lifting is left to Jessica Doyle, one of Levin's close friends and perhaps the only person in the series speaking with the righteous anger the situation demands. Doyle is so good and so tuned into the contemporary vocabulary on privilege and its dark side that the directors are willing to let her repeat and rephrase herself with frequency that only becomes annoying when she uses phrases like "It was the glorious '80s..." multiple times.
Some of the series' redundancy isn't quite the fault of the filmmakers. Working for basic cable, they've had to structure things around all-too-frequent commercial breaks, but the bridging in and out of those breaks and the duplicate information points to a limited sense of how people actually watch TV in 2019. If you trimmed the cloned information, The Preppy Murder would be nearly 30 minutes shorter and then you could probably cut another half-hour by removing dated and aesthetically pointless reenactments that make the storytelling cheaper and more tawdry than the otherwise serious approach demands.
At a certain point, basically every high-profile crime from the '70s and '80s is going to get a multi-episode documentary series that plays better if you mostly don't remember the incidents in question. Netflix premiered a so-so entry in the genre just last week with The Devil Next Door. SundanceTV had one of the genre's better entries last year at exactly this time with Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle. The Preppy Murder: Death in Central Park fits into one of the most common categories, that of a great story somewhat forgettably told.
Airs November 13, 14 and 15 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on AMC and SundanceTV.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences abruptly moved the 2020 Academy Awards ceremony up to early February, panic set in among those other awards shows that often serve as bellweathers for Oscar's grande finale. Stung by record low ratings for the 2018 telecast, hosted for the second year in a row by Jimmy Kimmel, an Academy Governor told me, “We have to do something.” Thinking they were losing their audience by being the last in a long line of ceremonies, where often we see the same winners and hear variations on the same speeches, AMPAS suddenly withdrew the already announced date of February 23rd, 2020 and instead declared February 9th, 2020—a full two weeks earlier than normal the show will move back to the end of February in 2021 and 2022. That was problematic for BAFTA—perhaps the most prestigious of the pre-Oscar shows. But working with Motion Picture Academy officials, BAFTA moved to February 2nd Super Bowl be damned, just one week ahead of the Academy Awards. Since final Oscar ballots are due only two days later, the impact of BAFTA wins will be smaller than usual but then, they haven't agreed on a Best Picture since 12 Years a Slave in 2013.
The Golden Globes, Critics' Choice, and SAG Awards have not significantly adjusted their broadcast dates with this Academy move, but they are giving nominees little room to breathe, with successive Sunday dates of January 5th, 12th, and 19th, and there are a whole bunch of guild shows in their midst too. SAG had originally planned on January 26th, but that put them directly in The Grammys' line of fire, and anything earlier would be in the heart of the holiday season also a no-no. So crunched is this season, anything later would run smack into the BAFTAs, the Super Bowl, and Oscar territory.
For those precursor awards, gauging their winners' influence on Oscar voters is a tougher call than ever, since, due to the earlier date, the Academy will conduct nomination voting in a very condensed window—January 2nd to 7th—just five days. That means ballots are due only two days after the Globes, and well ahead of Critics' Choice and SAG. Of course, those key precursor groups still may have influence on their nomination choices, because those will be announced before the holidays, when Academy members will likely still be busy cramming in as many screeners as possible before their deadline. A Globe, CCA or SAG nomination could push a screener to the top of that pile, or that list of downloads.
I actually happen to think the nominations that come from these three groups could be more important in such a short season. Oscar voters have little time to get to all these movies as it is, and need help in separating the must-sees from the rest of the pack. Studios have already been slow to get contenders into Academy voters' hands, so there will be a lot of last-minute viewing, and the heavily-advertised endorsement of nominees in the three televised precursor awards ceremonies can't hurt.
In terms of past track records, it can be a mixed bag. Looking at last year, the Globes fared better than any of the others, with a particularly high average mirroring eventual Oscar winners. Keeping in mind that they split drama and comedy/musical into two separate categories, the Globes' two big Motion Picture winners were Green Book comedy/musical and Bohemian Rhapsody drama. The former went on to win three Oscars, including Best Picture, Screenplay, and Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali, just like the Globes, while the latter won four Oscars, including Rami Malek's Best Actor, and a Best Picture nomination. The Favourite's Olivia Colman and Regina King were also big Globes and Oscar winners, as was Alfonso Cuarón for Director and Foreign Film. “Shallow” from A Star Is Born won Best Song, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was Best Animated Film. The Globes inevitably had influence on the Oscars.
However, SAG and Critics' Choice—both usually more reliable in matching Oscar—were a bit off last year with a track record of 50% or less. It is all cyclical because the year before, the Critics' Choice matched Oscar winners 90% of the time, and is often in line with Academy tastes.
Top contenders for the Globes' Motion Picture drama this time around are the Netflix trio of The Irishman, Marriage Story, and The Two Popes, with all three quite realistically landing those nominations. Universal's upcoming Sam Mendes WWI drama 1917 is a good bet, even sight unseen as of this writing. Honey Boy, The Report, Ford v Ferrari, Little Women, Dark Waters, Just Mercy, and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood are all probably near the top of the pack. As for box office behemoth Joker, it is anyone's guess where that one may land with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, but starting with its big win in Venice, it has been very strong with international critics and audiences, so it stands a decent enough chance of an appearance on Globes night. And can Downton Abbey escape its TV roots to land big time in the Globes movie contest?
On the comedy/musical side of things, Quentin Tarantino's much-loved Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood joins Jojo Rabbit, Rocketman, Dolemite Is My Name, Hustlers, Booksmart, and Knives Out. Universal's Cats, derided by some after its first trailer dropped, will get a big push for Globes love from Universal, and could be a factor here as well, but is another unknown quantity. Of course, some of these films are stretching the definition of 'comedy', but as many an awards strategist keeps telling me, if The Martian can do it, anyone can. There are elements of comedy in a lot of the dramas, like The Two Popes and Marriage Story, and conversely, there is a lot of drama in Rocketman, so go figure.
SAG's Outstanding Cast award is often thought of as their version of Oscar's Best Picture, but as last year's results proved, they rarely are in sync with one another. Last year Black Panther took it, while Oscar Best Picture winner Green Book wasn't even nominated. For this year's lineup, look for The Irishman, Marriage Story, Parasite, Bombshell, Knives Out, Little Women, Avengers: Endgame, Ford v Ferrari, 1917, and O nce Upon a Time... in Hollywood as likely possibilities.
The categories to watch at all three shows will be the wildly competitive and star-filled Best Actor and Supporting Actor races. In the Lead Actor contest, Adam Driver, Joaquin Phoenix, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro, Adam Sandler, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas, Christian Bale, Paul Walter Hauser, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Pattinson, Taron Egerton, Michael B. Jordan and more make this a Solomon's Choice if ever there was one. And for Supporting it may be even worse, with Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Tom Hanks, Shia LaBeouf, Jamie Foxx, Willem Dafoe, Tracy Letts, John Lithgow, Timothée Chalamet, and many others vying for very few slots. Will the Globes, SAG, and Critics' Choice help narrow the field and apply some clarity?
All three of these shows also hand out numerous awards in the TV field, with the Globes usually going for the newest and freshest names around, and SAG often lagging behind the Emmys. Critics' Choice is usually throwing in the edgiest names as contenders. However, with the Emmys recently surprisingly awarding new blood like Fleabag, Killing Eve's Jodie Comer, Pose's Billy Porter, When They See Us star Jharrel Jerome and other breakouts, these groups will have their work cut out to remain even half as hip. Of course, getting cool choices didn't exactly help the Emmy ratings this year, and the next ceremony is a long way off, so, unlike the influence on the Oscars, gauging the effect of Globe, SAG, and CCA wins on the Emmys is murky at best. And with the Globes now regularly besting Emmy in the ratings game, does it really matter anyway?
The Good Liar is the latest entry in a slowly expanding subgenre best known as They Don’t Make Movies Like This Anymore dramas. In a time of infinite intellectual property, of franchises and sequels and reboots, The Good Liar is a small oasis in a cinematic desert where once there was more frequent life. This literary adaptation is a nasty little thriller, anchored by two elder-statesmen performers whose presence alone likely willed this film into existence. It’s not without its flaws, but The Good Liar has enough charm and is fresh enough by dint of being so different from what the rest of the multiplex has to offer.
Ian McKellen stars as Roy, a wily old con artist who succeeds in his life by swindling people out of reasonable, but not exorbitant amounts of cash. He and his accountant friend Jim Carter of Downton Abbey mostly truck along by staging raids, promising windfalls based on shady offshore real-estate deals, and not much else. Into Roy’s life enters Betty Helen Mirren, a widow and ex-professor at Oxford who seems like the perfect mark: she’s friendly and lonely, with only a suspicious grandson Russell Tovey hanging around, and with a savings account worth millions.
That there are twists afoot should go without saying; any story that includes a con artist among its main characters is bound to be designed with a few storytelling rugs to be pulled out at the opportune moment. The Good Liar, based on the novel of the same name by Nicholas Searle, is framed both by screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher and director Bill Condon a long way from his Beauty and the Beast remake from 2017 in such a way to en the potential thrills. If there is a disadvantage, it’s not that the surprises in store are predictable – they decidedly aren’t. What is perhaps a bit expected is that there will be surprises, making each sidelong glance or lingering shot seem like a necessary piece in a puzzle that’s yet to be unlocked.
Even in those more telling moments, The Good Liar is boosted by its two lead performances. McKellen, despite being billed second, is arguably the protagonist; so much of the film is told from Roy’s point of view, with Betty being present from the start the two of them having connected via an online dating service as a figure of stability and domesticity in his life. It’s to McKellen’s credit that Roy is ever remotely likable and worthy of empathy and pathos. He’s a soulless type as willing to rob a man blind as he is to callously kill that man in broad daylight just to get away. Mirren – working with McKellen for the first time in a feature film – has an assured chemistry with her male counterpart, and plays the role of a less curious woman well. Perhaps the only issue there is that Helen Mirren is…well, Helen Mirren, an actress of impossible depth, erudition and intelligence, such that playing someone who’s less curious feels like a put-on in its own way.
But…well, to say more would be to begin ruining the story of The Good Liar, including how some of the later twists raise a few too many concerns of implausibility. We’re asked to believe a great deal of Roy before eventually learning that his has been a limited point of view. Again, to delve further is to delve into genuine spoiler territory. Where the story lands is satisfying, even though McKellen’s multi-dimensionality as a performer is such that Roy never is quite so villainous for much of the running time, in spite of being a career thief.
Condon is vastly more at home directing this English thriller than has been the case with a number of his recent efforts. Aside from the sludgy Beauty and the Beast redo, he also directed the Julian Assange drama The Fifth Estate, a film that is best left forgotten after you read this sentence. His sense of pacing and tension works well throughout, aided by McKellen’s modulated performance. Only when Roy begins to genuinely unravel after his well-thought-out plans start spinning away from him does it become clear how much actor and director have been in sync, keeping a firm balance on the story.
The Good Liar is likely going to appeal to an older crowd, or at least the kind of crowd as at home reading a good, pulpy mystery novel as watching another attempt at a franchise or expanded universe. This isn’t a perfect film, but it boasts two of the great legends of modern acting for just about two hours straight. Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren have separately hit greater s, but watching them together in The Good Liar, it’s almost a shame that it took them so long to share the silver screen.