TOP PICK OF THE WEEK
**** Filmmaker Chloé Zhao's work has always sought to uplift voices that have been pushed to the margins. Her previous features, The Rider (2017) and Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), both focused on Native American reservation culture, and she now sets her sights on documenting the lives of older Americans who travel in campers across the country in search of employment. The result is an awe-inspiring, dexterous hybrid of impromptu documentary and scripted drama, of nature and nurture, of ethos and pathos. Nomadland is anchored by multi-Oscar winner Frances McDormand, here playing Fern, a widow who lost her job at a gypsum plant in Empire, Nev., two years after the Great Recession officially came to an end. With nothing left to lose, Fern decides to sell her belongings, buy a van and hit the road in search of work. Along the way, she meets a litany of real-life nomads, most playing semi-fictionalized versions of themselves. These characters ground the film in a sober reality, reminding us it's possible to live and thrive in a community outside of traditional society. Though the story is technically manipulated for narrative purposes, it never once feels manipulative, emotionally or otherwise. It feels human. It is human. And it's the best film of the year. R. MIA VICINO. Hulu.
The White Tiger
**** 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.
*** What if gal pals Romy and Michele partied at a pastel-painted hotel in Vista Del Mar, Fla., instead of their high school reunion? What if Austin Powers was written by and starred Bridesmaids screenwriters Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo? And what if these two distinctly separate ideas combined into one whimsically absurd feel-good comedy? Barb and Star are middle-aged best friends who do everything together. So when they both lose their mundane jobs and their uptight friend group (led by a hilarious Vanessa Bayer), the pair decide to take a rejuvenating Florida vacation. Of course, they fall for the same ridiculously handsome stranger (Jamie Dornan), but little do they know he's a secret agent working under the sinister Dr. Lady (also played by Wiig), tasked with unleashing a deadly swarm of genetically modified mosquitoes against the denizens of Vista Del Mar. What follows is a whirlwind of friendship, romance, espionage and random musical numbers—in a standout solo performance, Dornan gets to shed his steely, stiff star persona and get loosy-goosy in the sand, singing about the agony of love. Though Barb & Star hits some overly familiar beats, it maintains enough originality for several laugh-out-loud moments. It's about time we got more risk-taking studio comedies like this one. PG-13. MIA VICINO. Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu.
*** 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.
Malcolm & Marie
*** Malcolm (John David Washington) makes movies, Marie (Zendaya) is his lover/muse and they make mincemeat of each other in this slick anti-romance directed by Sam Levinson. Last summer, Levinson filmed Washington and Zendaya raging at each other inside a glass-walled house in Carmel, Calif., betting their charisma would infuse its sterile interior with life. That wager bloomed into Malcolm & Marie, which begins with the couple returning home after the premiere of Malcolm's new movie about addiction. The audience was enraptured, but Malcolm failed to thank Marie in a speech (his film is partly based on her life). She retaliates with scorching mind games that torment and delight her pompous paramour, making you wonder whether their relationship is a toxic mess or an idyllic union between two people who crave conflict. Levinson lets the camera dance through Malcolm and Marie's home, capturing their tantrums with gloriously vivid black-and-white cinematography. He goes heavy on style and light on soulfulness, but who cares? The pleasure of watching godly thespians play characters who make war over everything from film to cigarettes to mac 'n' cheese is too savory to ignore. Levinson will never stand as tall as the cinematic giants he namechecks (Malcolm is a big William Wyler fan), but he has made a beautiful-looking movie about two very entertaining assholes. R. BENNETT CAMPBELL FERGUSON. Netflix.
*** Hospice requires a special kind of caretaker. After all, the patient's destination is set; they just need a shepherd for a difficult journey. Rose Glass' new A24 horror movie is unreliably narrated by a young caretaker who elevates shepherd status to a calling. Maud (Morfydd Clark) excels at managing meds and stretching atrophying legs, but she also believes she can save the soul of her dying patient (Jennifer Ehle). Clark carries this frosty death march, seldom masking Maud's earnest pursuit of "goodness" behind performative zealotry. With a dose of First Reformed and a dash of Black Swan, Saint Maud trades in stiff-lipped body horror where the real suffering is miles beneath the skin, but rest assured, the skin still takes a beating. Though the script is too withdrawn to maximize Maud's recited prayers or the bland side characters in her life, Glass proves herself an immediate visual and tonal talent. Honestly, the whole English town of Coney Island appears to need palliative care, rotting in a scheme of yellows and browns that contrast with the vibrant gothicism of Maud's inner vision. It's neither the most nuanced nor involving example of religious fervor as movie horror, but Saint Maud delivers—souls and all. R. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Amazon Prime, Philo, Sling TV.
The Queen of Black Magic
** Of all the wonderfully nonsensical horror premises, "Let's vacation in the haunted orphanage where Dad grew up" is a particularly silly one on its face. This Shudder original from Indonesian horror luminary Kimo Stamboel (Headshot) reimagines 1981's The Queen of Black Magic as more about class betrayal than its predecessor's elaborate folklore. And for about half the runtime, the visiting family's audacity, disguised as ignorance, toward the impoverished orphanage stewards sows interesting seeds. There's a relative innocence to their bourgeois vanity: cute kids, luxury cars, well-fitted shirts, a few too many wishes for the internet to work in the jungle. Plus, the genuine sweetness of child actor Muzakki Ramdhan (as little brother Haqi) infuses the orphanage specter's revenge with some genuine terror. Somehow, though, The Queen of Black Magic willfully eludes its core themes of culpability on the part of father Hanif (Ario Bayu) by adding dizzying heaps of third-act plot. While Stamboel's visions of voodoo hell are occasionally arresting, his film is too wary of its own questions about families' protective instincts being shrouded in self-interest. Sympathy for the devil spills into sympathy for pretty much everybody, and the half-measure bloodbath proves more interested in showing guts than having them. NR. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Shudder.