Independent films can be hard to navigate. They’re made on relatively low budgets, and all relies on the filmmakers craft and virtue. Blockbusters are a different story. They have voluptuous budgets, recognizable stars and who knows how much to spend on marketing. These are fantastic things to have, but more times than not audiences know what they are going to get before the lights dim. It wasn’t breaking news that “Avengers Endgame” was cataclysmic fun, just as it isn’t breaking news that a Michael Bay movie is a cataclysmic cure for insomnia. That’s all to say that with smaller films the outcome is less clear. That’s why we have reviewed three of these “smaller films” in order to steer you in the right direction. So we can save you from two hours of wasted time (twice), and make known to you one of the years finest gems.
All is True (releases May 10th)
Biopic: it’s a boring word. And fittingly, a relatively boring sub-genre. The greatest of which–I’m thinking of “Lawrence of Arabia”– rely not on their immortal subjects as much as they do on the filmmakers present creativity.
As far as filmmakers go, Kenneth Branagh is one of a kind, his curiosity for Shakespeare complimented by his instantly recognizable staging of drama. His new film, though, is curiously lacking. Titled “All is True,” which die-hard Shakespeare fans will recognize as the alternate title for “Henry VIII,” it gives audiences the chance to find life in the mans dying years (good luck). If “Shakespeare in Love” showed us his budding youth, “Shakespeare in Retirement”–as I like to call it– shows us his withering self worth.
His wrinkles indicate where smiles once were–Branagh plays the titular role with enough prosthetics to satisfy Cher. But you won’t find him, or yourself, smiling through his latter years. Instead of writing he spends his time looking out of windows and looking at nature (occasionally at the same time!). Usually scowling at the swaying autumn leaves and the swaying hips of his fruitful daughters. (Judi Dench plays his wife Anne).
Still, many will be delighted to see this domestic drama. To see Shakespeare recite Sonnet 29 as if it were regular dining room chit chat. To see the likes of Ian Mckellen as the Earl of Southampton visit his home in the countryside. To see a stubborn heart bloom like a garden, as a father is reminded the importance of family. Unfortunately, for the rest of us, this will play like sleeping through history class.
Where’s the rich romanticism and charming character that made this author so famous? It would seem as if cinematographer Zac Nicholson is the only one holding up his end of the bargain. Shots of Stratford are as glistening as they are naturalistic. But if Shakespeare has taught us anything, it’s that “All that glitters is not gold.”
The Farewell (releases July 12)
“The Farewell” is simply remarkable, and I’ll explain the simple part in a minute. This coming of age drama, which centers the setbacks of age itself, is the sophomore feature of Chinese-American filmmaker Lula Wang. The time is present day, the place is China and the hero, a nonplussed 20-something named Billi, decides to return to her hometown from Brooklyn in order to care for her dying grandma. She’s played with tenderness by Awkwafina, who trades the excessive exuberance of her breakout role in “Crazy Rich Asians” for sluggish sarcasm. She’s mopey, introverted and occasionally very funny. In other words, she’s all of us in our unsure 20’s.
The movie begins with the words “Based on an actual lie,” which is a clever way to open a true story about a family who decides to hide a cancer diagnoses from grandma. (Apparently this is normal in China. Along with fake weddings, fake funerals and fake yoga). Yet the rest of the film is wonderfully universal. When Ma and Billi do their own form of yoga, smiling and karate chopping their way through the suburban streets, we are told it’s to help them take in oxygen. Little do they know that their budding relationship is a breath of fresh air for all of us.
Who knew that a movie about a Chinese woman by a Chinese woman could be so genuine? Besides everyone. Still, no one could have predicted Wang’s finesse. She blends well-timed comedy, serious heartbreak, and sophisticated observations on Western-thinking verse Eastern-thinking into a familial, if familiar tale that harkens back to the films of Yasujiro Ozu, or more recently to “The Big Sick.” It’s also a simple film. Making it easy for us to see our own relatives in the place of the ones on screen. What Wang does best is show us a foreign culture by putting us into her character’s shoes. So that we might discover “Woah! They fit!”
Tolkien (releases May 10th)
Nobody:Director Dome Karukoski: Let’s make a biopic about the abysmally average life of British writer JRR Tolkien.
This informative journey through the writers formative years is both elegant and dull. As it happens, the author whose tales made the unimaginable imaginable, is no more than your token Englishman. He drinks tea, hangs with the chaps and reads Chaucer. (He’s a rather boring character to spend a couple hours with). And the only thing inviting about him are his ocean blue eyes and conspicuously straight teeth–even more conspicuous when you consider he’s from England. (Nicholas Hoult plays the blue-eyed chap with charm).
Unfortunately, the surprises end there. Don’t expect orcs or plot twists: the story merely follows Tolkien nose deep in studies at Oxford and balls deep in the trenches of WWI. That is, until he meets the lovely Edith Bratt (Lily Collins). She presents the only ring that matters to a young JRR, as well as turns a galumphing college student into an earnest writer.
Still, there’s a laughable irony to the film. It preaches imagination the way a fundamentalist preaches the Ten Commandments, yet holds so little of it. This looks and sounds like every other biopic. And it’s pretentious script of “Downtown Abbey”-like phrases hardly hints at the genius that would go on to write “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit.” So it’s only fitting that the Tolkien estate has distanced itself from the project, and so should you.