Thanksgiving may have only just passed, but we’re already knee-deep into both awards season and holiday movie season. A lot of big movies have been released in November, and I’m running through some of the month’s new streaming releases below: four Netflix films, including an exciting western, the streamer’s biggest action movie to date, and Lin-Manuel Miranda and Rebecca Hall’s directorial debuts, plus Amazon’s wonderful biopic “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.” Read my reviews of those movies below.
“THE HARDER THEY FALL” (Netflix)
The western film genre has a long tradition of whitewashing the time period it depicts, essentially erasing Black people (from whom the term “cowboy” was derived in the first place) from that part of history. Over time, several Black westerns have been made that attempt to reframe the discussion—even John Ford, the director of the movie (1939’s “Stagecoach”) that defined the western genre for decades to come, for better and for worse, made “Sergeant Rutledge” in 1960—but it is still a genre dominated by white heroes, with minorities reduced to playing either background characters or one-dimensional villains. So it’s exciting to see a western with an all-Black cast, even if said western is too conventional to be much memorable otherwise. Jonathan Majors stars as Nat Love, who watched his parents be murdered by outlaw Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) as a child, and is now an outlaw himself, seeking vengeance on Buck and his gang. Music producer-turned-director Jeymes Samuel’s feature film debut is stuffed with heists and shoot-outs, but also pauses to let his broad cast of wonderful actors chew on the scenery. It’s stylish and fun, even when the story falters somewhat. And the decision to name the characters after real-life Black historical figures who they don’t resemble at all is a puzzling one. For example, Love’s lover Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz) is a singer who owns a chain of saloons, but the real Mary Fields was the first female African American mail carrier in the United States. Beetz is wonderful, but to me, the latter story is the more interesting one. It’s an attempt to bring figures shoved into the shadows of history back into the spotlight that feels like its erases some of their real accomplishments. Maybe I just need to have more faith that viewers will google their inspirations after the credits roll. In any case, thanks to a charismatic cast that also includes Regina King, Lakeith Stanfield, Delroy Lindo, Danielle Deadwyler, and RJ Cyler, “The Harder They Fall” is an entertaining ride across the American West. I sincerely hope this isn’t the last western we see for a while. Runtime: 139 minutes. Rated R.
“THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN” (Prime Video)
“The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” is, in many respects, a by-the-books biopic. And yet, I was utterly beguiled from start to finish. Director Will Sharpe’s film stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Louis Wain, an eccentric English artist who rose to prominence in the late 1800s thanks to his portraits of cats at a time when cats were not traditionally kept as pets. When the film opens, Wain is struggling to support his mother and five sisters when he meets and falls in love with their new governess, Emily Richardson (Claire Foy), whose intelligence and off-beat personality matches his. Their happy time together is followed by tragedy, and Wain’s art style transforms to match it; at the end of his life, alone and overcome with grief, his cat portraits take on a psychedelic nature that mirrors what others see as his deteriorating mindset. Sharpe’s film is imbued with whimsical visuals and a sense of humor that distracts from its more traditional trappings, and Cumberbatch and Foy’s performances elevate it further. No one plays awkward intellectuals better than Cumberbatch, and he’s in top form here, perfectly playing Wain’s aloofness from others, his confusion over his burgeoning affection for Emily, and the depression he falls in to after seemingly everything he loves is taken away from him. Foy is a wonderful match for him. The film also beautifully portrays how art mirrors life, and the struggle to create in times of trouble. While his relationship with Emily is the largest and most important chunk of the film, we also get a good sense of Wain’s relationship with his sisters, particularly oldest sister Caroline (Andrea Riseborough) and editor William Ingram (Toby Jones). “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” is a delight, romantic and moving, sad and inspiring, and one of the biggest surprises for me of the season (not to mention the numerous adorable cats that pop up throughout the film). Runtime: 111 minutes. Rated PG-13.
“RED NOTICE” (Netflix)
I knew that director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s name sounded familiar as the credits rolled on his latest movie, “Red Notice,” and it wasn’t much of a surprise to look him up and realize that this is the third action movie he’s made with star Dwayne Johnston (the previous two being the action buddy comedy “Central Intelligence,” the other being the outrageous “Die Hard” knock-off “Skyscraper”). “Red Notice” feels like the perfect combination of the comedic banter, nonsense plot, and over-the-top action set-pieces that comprise their previous collaborations, which, depending on your opinion of those movies, is either great or awful. Johnson stars as John Hartley, an FBI profiler sent to help Interpol agent Das (Ritu Arya) track down a renowned art thief (Nolan Booth, played by Ryan Reynolds) who may potentially be preparing to steal one of three jeweled eggs Marcus Antonius gifted to Cleopatra; as a prologue states, one egg is being displayed in a museum, one resides in a private collection, and the third’s whereabouts are unknown. After a double-cross by an even more elusive art thief known as The Bishop (Gal Gadot) lands Hartley in jail with Booth, the pair must overcome their animosity to stop the Bishop from gathering all three eggs and help Hartley clear his name. Gadot’s mischievous con woman is a bit of a departure from her most well-known role as Wonder Woman, but Johnson and Reynolds are essentially playing the same characters they play over and over again: Johnson the tough, no-nonsense hero and straight man to Reynolds, the wise-cracking dork who frankly comes off as way to dumb and useless to be one of Interpol’s most wanted men in the world. Gathering up a group of mostly likeable actors and allowing them to go wild with their established screen personas doesn’t automatically generate good chemistry, and the three of them together don’t exhibit much heat, but Johnson and Reynolds have their moments. “Red Notice” is also a very ugly movie at times, even though the globe-trotting adventure takes us everywhere from lavish costume parties to the jungles of Argentina; many of the action scenes are frantically edited with a lot of nauseatingly quick cuts as opposed to letting the full scope of the combat scenes play out. But even if it’s a throwaway, “Red Notice” is not unwatchable. Its story (which contains an awful third-act twist) is ridiculous, but the combination of throwback 90s adventure and heist movie is just entertaining enough. Do I want the sequel that the ending sets up, and that we will inevitably receive as this is on track to become the most-watched movie in Netflix history? No, but it’s easy to see the appeal that “Red Notice” appears to have for so many viewers. Runtime: 118 minutes. Rated PG-13.
Rebecca Hall’s exquisite directorial debut is based on the 1929 novel by Nella Larsen, which centers around two light-skinned Black women: Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga). Irene is married to a Black man (Brian, played by André Holland), lives in Harlem, and has two young boys; she only occasionally passes for white to get into certain spaces. This is how she, while dining at a hotel in New York City, is reunited with her childhood friend Clare, who now lives in Chicago. Clare, however, passes for white all the time; her wealthy white husband John (Alexander Skarsgård), who expresses his hatred for Black people when he meets Irene while she is still passing, has no idea as to her true origins. Despite their tense first meeting, the two women eventually reconnect, and the vivacious Clare, who expresses how much she misses Black culture, which she must always hide in her day-to-day life, charms Irene’s husband and sons. Irene, meanwhile, becomes increasingly paranoid, growing to resent Clare’s new influence on her life. She also exhibits an uneasiness around issues of race, disagreeing with Brian’s attempts to be frank with their children about racial brutality. Whereas Clare wants to engage with it, Irene want to move away from it. Both Thompson and Negga’s performances are extraordinary, their hushed tones and knowing stares conveying all the emotions that for their well-being they must almost always hide, whether they are passing or not. Hall’s screenplay and direction are intimate, delicately confronting tough issues without completely blowing them up. The few (and frequently cramped) locations the film is set in, and the 4:3 aspect ratio, further emphasize the story’s smallness, and make the issues circling the characters increasingly harder to avoid. Eduard Grau’s black-and-white cinematography is among the best I’ve seen in a contemporary film. He emphasizes white (almost blindingly so) and lighter greys in the scenes set in white-dominated spaces, most notably the film’s opening. But when Irene returns home to Harlem, dark shadows take precedence, and while her lightness was prevalent before, her Blackness is accentuated now. With “Passing,” Hall shows a ton of promise as a director. In terms both technical and creative, “Passing” is a meticulously-crafted film and a stunning debut. Runtime: 98 minutes. Rated PG-13.
“TICK, TICK…BOOM!” (Netflix)
The title of Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical musical, originally conceived and stage as a rock monologue, refers to a sound Larson keeps hearing—not a literal sound, but a sort of ticking in his head that represents his mounting anxiety as he feels the pressure to finish is first big musical before he turns 30, reasoning that all the greats had their first hits before they entered their third decade of existence, so therefore he must as well. Larson sadly passed away suddenly at the age of 35, on the night of the first preview of his musical “Rent.” He never lived to see its transfer to Broadway, its enduring success, the way it changed the kinds of songs we hear and stories we see in musical theater, and the influence it had on the next generation of creators, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, who makes his directorial debut with this film adaptation of Larson’s first successful show, from a screenplay by Tony-winning playwright Steven Levenson (coincidentally, even “Tick, Tick…Boom!” rose in the public’s esteem long after Larson’s passing, being staged off-Broadway in 2001). “Tick, Tick…Boom!” finds Larson (played by Andrew Garfield) reflecting on the creation and failure of his futuristic rock musical “Superbia,” which was never fully produced despite receiving awards, grants, and a few staged performances. The pressure to create, his brain always at least partially writing lyrics, turns Larson almost insufferable, without ever getting to the heart of why he creates. He neglects his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp), who just received a job offer away from New York City and wants him to come with her. He neglects his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) a former aspiring actor who gave up performing after finding financial success and stability in advertising, but who has some heart-breaking news for Jonathan. The film flips between Larson’s monologues during his one-man performance of “Tick, Tick…Boom!” reflecting back on this time in his life, and the semi-fictionalized events of the story as they unfold. It’s a solid, if not especially noteworthy, directorial debut for Miranda, whose passion for the show and for Larson, and whose own experiences writing for musical theatre, often shine through. Garfield is great at playing such a manic genius, even when he feels like too much—he can effortlessly turn on the darting eyes, fast-talking, and jumpy mannerisms—but he is also able to slow down and reflect when needed. It’s when Larson really takes the time to connect with those around him that he is the most sympathetic, and a scene in which he reckons with the failure of a show he’s spent years working on, and the knowledge that he may have to spend years more writing the next thing, and the next thing, still working at a diner, still barely getting by, is the closest to profound the story comes to getting. But Broadway fans and theatre kids young and old will love the catchy numbers (it’s especially fun picking out all the cameos from Broadway stars during the performance of “Sunday,” set inside the Moondance Diner, and the workshop scene) and the story’s love letter to the creative process. And having just lost composer Stephen Sondheim, the few scenes involving him (played by Bradley Whitford) are especially moving. Sondheim’s kindness and support of up-and-coming talent is beautifully apparent here. Sondheim inspired Larson who inspired Miranda who is inspiring a new generation of talent as I write this, and “Tick, Tick…Boom!” while not a great movie, does at least perfectly encompass the cycle of inspiration and creation. The supporting cast also includes Vanessa Hudgens and Joshua Henry as Larson’s friends and performers Karessa and Jonathan, Judith Light as Larson’s agent Rosa, and Jonathan Marc Sherman as Playwright Horizon’s Head of Musical Theatre Ira Weitzman. Runtime: 115 minutes. Rated PG-13.