TOP PICK OF THE WEEK
**** In the nastiest scene in The White Tiger, several roosters are decapitated. "The roosters in the coop smell the blood from above," says Balram (Adarsh Gourav). "Yet they do not rebel. The very same thing is done with human beings in this country." That may be true, but Balram—a poor man from a village in India—is determined to fly the coop. The White Tiger is the story of how he becomes a driver for a cruel and callow businessman (Rajkummar Rao) and eventually transcends poverty and notoriety to become a princely entrepreneur. Director Ramin Bahrani (who adapted the film from Aravind Adiga's 2008 novel) has named Goodfellas as an inspiration, which might explain The White Tiger's cynical edge. This is not a Slumdog Millionaire-style saga of instant wealth—it's a brutal tale of a man who decides the best weapon against India's caste system is a broken bottle slashed across the right throat at the right time. Near the film's end, Balram declares that his face could be the face of any man in India, which sounds like an understatement. The White Tiger is a reminder that the world is filled with men like Balram—brilliant, exploited and ripe to be seduced by the gospel of greed. R. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. Netflix.
***1/2 Demonized by generations of filmmakers as the physical manifestation of predatory commercialism and fad-chasing consumerist vapidity, the American mall, with its newfound obsolescence, calls for a more complicated analysis. Should we cheer the extinction of a Main Street-devouring invasive species or mourn the loss of any communal hub? Jasper Mall's elegiac portrait of its titular shopping center's steep decline evades easy answers. By withholding any historical details or regional context, we're forced to walk the small-town Alabama mall alongside the unhurried pace of locals getting their exercise inside the vaguely alien architecture of its long corridors. No matter how artful their shot compositions, documentarians Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb (Lost Weekend; County Fair, Texas) hardly shy away from moments worthy of trending reality TV, but they never lean into the easy joke or sacrifice empathy for spectacle. Our de facto tour guide Mike, the mall's security guard, facility manager and maintenance man, only reveals his Joe Exotic-esque backstory as a former private zookeeper in Australia at the film's midpoint. When the Jewelry Doctor plugs in his electric guitar to drum up business for his struggling retail sales and repair shop, the riffs echoing through the empty concourse feel more joyous than desperate. It's a scene that highlights Jasper Mall's ability to showcase all that is valiantly ridiculous about the fight to keep the shopping center open in a tone that is both warm and dignified. NR. JAY HORTON. Amazon Prime, Google Play, Pluto TV, Vudu, YouTube.
Promising Young Woman
***Carey Mulligan often delivers her best work in unexpected places: snooping quietly through a BBC detective series, overlooked in a Paul Dano family drama, ripping Llewyn Davis a new one. But Promising Young Woman, the debut feature from Killing Eve scribe Emerald Fennell, feels designed to showcase Mulligan. She plays Cassie, a mysteriously reclusive barista who exposes men's sex crimes by night. Across from a cast typically connoting standup dudes (Bo Burnham, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Sam Richardson, Max Greenfield, Adam Brody), Cassie knowingly awaits their heel turns, and Mulligan is as malleable as this tone-shifting movie, seemingly flicking the light in her eyes on and off at will. Distracting though the leaps from gonzo thriller to credible rom-com to edgy character study may be, the ambition of Promising Young Woman is impressive. Perhaps Fennell's shrewdest move is suggesting the film's bad men are actually too guilty to let these more earnest genres take hold of her film. So, thriller it is. And a riveting one throughout, even if the film's taste for neatness and resolution cleaves off a full exploration of Cassie's catharsis and damage. A distinctly #MeToo film, Promising Young Woman knows well (to the point of icy mockery) the tricks men use to justify predatory behavior. And in Mulligan, you couldn't ask for a better actor to grind this ax. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. On Demand.
*** After struggling with fertility issues, Satoko now lives a peaceful life with her devoted husband, Kiyokazu, and their 6-year-old adopted son, Asato. One day, Asato's birth mother Hikari appears, claiming she wants her baby back. But Satoko and Kiyokazu don't recognize her as the shy teenager they met six years ago. Are they the victims of a scam? A sick joke? This is where the nonlinear story switches, jumping back in time to document 14-year-old Hikari's pregnancy and her stay at Baby Baton, a plenary adoption center in Hiroshima. Japan's Academy Awards submission for Best International Feature is an effectively suspenseful drama, luring viewers into the tangled mystery of Hikari's identity. Naomi Kawase, who made history at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival as the youngest-ever winner of the prestigious Caméra d'Or, wrote, directed and edited the film. Her vision is clear-eyed and precise, extracting veritable emotion from each breathtaking landscape shot and poignant performance—even if the result is a bit bloated at 140 minutes long. Much like Japan's excellent 2018 submission Shoplifters, True Mothers is a wistful ode to the infinite forms that family can take, a cogent assertion that there is no one-size-fits-all definition of motherhood. NR. MIA VICINO. Virtual Cinema.
You Will Die at Twenty
*** The first image of You Will Die at Twenty is that of a dead, decomposing camel, splayed in the Sudanese desert. Its carcass serves as a ghastly portent of our protagonist Muzamil's assumed fate: As a baby, the village shaman prophesied that he would die at the tender age of 20. Now, Muzamil is 19 and the threat of imminent death looms over his head like a fog, affecting his behavior, life choices and relationships. The only person who doesn't treat him like a pariah is an eccentric old man on the outskirts of the village, and through him, Muzamil learns that oppressive religion and fate are both escapable. Shot on location in the village where director Amjad Abu Alala's parents are from, this existential coming-of-age drama is the first Sudanese film ever submitted to the Academy Awards for Best International Feature—it's also only the eighth Sudanese film ever made, as the country hasn't had a cinema industry since Omar al-Bashir's military coup in 1989. Considering these parameters, and the fact that the Sudanese Revolution began during filming (the picture is dedicated to the movement's victims), Alala's groundbreaking feature-length debut is even more impressive. NR. MIA VICINO. Virtual Cinema.
My Little Sister
Lisa (Nina Hoss) is a playwright struggling with writer's block. She hasn't been able to write since her twin brother and muse Sven (Lars Eidinger) was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia—he lives in Berlin as an acclaimed theater actor, while she has reluctantly moved to Switzerland at the behest of her husband Martin's career. With Sven's condition worsening and Martin's job offering him a five-year contract, Lisa finds herself torn between living with her family in one country and caring for her brother in another. Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond's German-language cancer drama is Switzerland's official Oscar submission for Best International Feature. Though the formidable actors give compelling performances that elevate the thin script, the biggest problem is that Lisa is so relentlessly stubborn to the point that it's difficult to have much sympathy for her. Hoss is excellent as always in the role, but it's unclear why she can occasionally be so caustically cruel: In one scene, she berates her director friend for rightly refusing to let the weakened Sven exhaust himself to death by playing Hamlet onstage. Despite some genuinely tear-jerking moments, My Little Sister ultimately boils down to a navel-gazing, surface-level study of an insufferable privileged family. NR. MIA VICINO. Virtual Cinema.
Pieces of a Woman
** Pieces of a great film don't necessarily make a great film. While Kornél Mundruczó's haunting saga of a home birth gone bad unleashes a deluge of wondrous performances, it isn't as profound as it wants to be. Vanessa Kirby (The Crown, Mission: Impossible—Fallout) plays Martha Weiss, a woman who descends into the haze of grief after the death of her baby. The birth scene is a master class in artful traumatization—it unfolds in a 24-minute shot that seems to drill every ounce of Martha's agony into your body. Unfortunately, the film's narrative discipline slackens as Martha's anguish deepens. Rather than offer a nuanced portrait of a grieving family, Kata Wéber's screenplay abruptly turns Martha's partner (Shia LaBeouf) into a philandering villain and forces Martha's mother (Ellen Burstyn) to deliver guilt-tripping lines so heavy-handed that even the formidable Burstyn almost breaks beneath their weight. Pieces of a Woman improves when Martha's midwife (Molly Parker) is unjustly tried for manslaughter, but when Kirby and Parker wordlessly forge an emotional connection across the courtroom, they remind you what the film should have been about—two women painfully and intimately united by tragedy. R. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. Netflix.