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Five in Theaters

Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman in Mike Mills’s C’mon C’mon (2021)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, one of the most anticipated films of this busy season, will open in a handful of theaters in New York and Los Angeles on November 26 before going wide on Christmas Day. As you’ve likely seen, though, a good number of early reviews are out, and they are very, very strong. We’ll take a closer look at the overall assessment when more critics have had their say, but for now, let’s note that Justin Chang writes in the Los Angeles Times that this coming-of-age comedy set in the San Fernando Valley in 1973 “feels more concrete, more achingly, tangibly real, than just about any American movie this year.”

Here are a few brief notes on five films in theaters this week:

  • We took a first look at Mike Mills’s C’mon C’mon back in October. Joaquin Phoenix plays a New York–based radio journalist whose sister (Gaby Hoffmann) asks him to come out to Los Angeles to look after her son (Woody Norman) while she attends to her bipolar ex in Oakland. For the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, this is “a film of an extraordinary amplitude; it’s both poised and frenetic, contemplative and active, heartily sentimental and astringently contentious, intensively intimate and expansively world-embracing, exactingly composed and wildly spontaneous. What’s more, it brings not only its characters but its cast of actors into the cinematic maelstrom of inner life, and thus offers an extraordinary showcase for their artistry.” Mills “might have crafted a less eccentric nephew,” suggests Mike D’Angelo at the A.V. Club, but he “deserves credit for shepherding Joaquin Phoenix’s least showy, most relaxed performance in many years.” For Matthew Eng at Reverse Shot, “the most valuable player here is Hoffmann, a standout in the ensembles of Obvious Child (2014) and Transparent (2014–2019) and one of the most authentic actors working today.”

  • In the verdant mountains of Mexico, poppies are harvested and mothers hide their daughters from predatory cartels in Prayers for the Stolen, Mexico’s entry in the race for the best international feature Oscar. Documentarian Tatiana Huezo’s first dramatic feature “swings back and forth from scenes of pastoral bliss to brutality, generating a narrative that, while unfocused, is nevertheless anchored by the tender and wounded performances by its adolescent cast,” writes Beatrice Loayza in the New York Times. Huezo “isn’t interested in the gory details of cartel brutality, only what it feels like to live in the shadow of terror,” writes Keith Watson for Slant. If Tempestad, her 2016 documentary on the drug war, “accomplished that with the delicate expressionism of a tone poem, Prayers for the Stolen is more direct but no less subtle.”

  • After its premiere in Venice, where Jane Campion won a Silver Lion for best director, The Power of the Dog ran through the entire fall festival circuit. Now it’s finally arrived in theaters, two weeks before Netflix begins streaming it. “‘What kind of man would I be, if I did not help my mother?’ intones the opening voiceover, which, like much else in the movie, passes by our defenses under a familiar guise only to settle deep into our bones,” writes Nicolas Rapold for Sight & Sound. The question is posed by Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), an effete teen who, like his mother (Kirsten Dunst), is cruelly bullied by Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) on a Montana ranch in 1925. “Tenderness may not be the first thing you see in a Campion film, but it is fundamentally what she’s painting with,” writes Jordan Kisner in her profile of the director for the New York Times Magazine. “This is especially true in The Power of the Dog, where tenderness and brutality amplify each other painfully . . . Campion’s gift is showing the chaotic mix of wounding and care in human activity, and how the terrifying moment of being opened to both possibilities is an experience of the sublime.”

  • In Procession, director Robert Greene and drama therapist Monica Phinne guide six men in Kansas City as they make short films about the sexual abuse they suffered as boys at the hands of local priests. “Asking actors to interrogate their process of preparing for roles, as Greene did in Fake It So Real, Actress, and Kate Plays Christine, underscores the risk of personal exposure in art-making,” writes Chuck Bowen at Slant. “But asking sufferers of unfathomable pain to conjure their deepest traumas isn’t only risky and potentially tasteless, it’s dangerous—possibly opening psychic wounds. Such a concept cuts to the heart of Greene’s ongoing obsession with acting as a bridge between multiple realities and personalities.” Procession is “an unrelentingly gripping and often disturbing film that dares to visualize (with taste and restraint) some of the vilest behavior our species is capable of,” writes Matt Zoller Seitz at Greene, a sharp and engaging interviewee, discusses the project with Jay Kuehner (Notebook), Erik Luers (Reverse Shot), and Marshall Shaffer (Slant).

  • In the first chapter of Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, a history teacher runs errands in Bucharest while, over the phone, she tries to get the amateur sex video starring herself and her husband yanked offline. The second chapter is a “short dictionary of anecdotes, signs, and wonders,” a rapid-fire rundown of twentieth-century atrocities. In the third and final chapter, the teacher is put on trial by her students’ parents. “In his productive didacticism, in his equating of sexual intolerance and moral outrage with historical forces of violent oppression, Jude positions himself as an heir to Yugoslav director Dušan Makavejev and puts into stark relief how few filmmakers bother to take risks anymore,” writes Michael Koresky at Reverse Shot. “There is no American filmmaker I can think of who tackles our modern-day culture wars and their historical roots with anything approaching Jude’s honesty, wit, or intellectual rigor,” writes A. O. Scott in the New York Times. “He’s hardly neutral, but he allows all the arguments to unfold in good faith, in a way that shows the vulnerability of his own worldly, liberal, anti-nationalist position.”

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