If that last quintet of big-budget turkeys left a bad taste in your mouth, check out these four prestige dramas named after their main characters, and a young adult fantasy lumped in mostly because I didn’t have another place to put it…
Chuck…I count myself as a fan of the “Rocky” franchise like pretty much any other movie lover of the last forty years and most people that also enjoy water, oxygen, and shelter. And yet I had no idea that it was based on a true story, that would be the titular boxer, the affable underdog Chuck Wepner—played by Liev Schreiber in a stark departure from his usual wry villains and stoic tough guys—who took on Muhammad Ali in his prime and actually survived. This true story is too good to spoil but I’ll just say that excellent supporting performances abound from Elizabeth Moss (as Chuck’s fed-up first wife), Jim Gaffigan as his loyal right hand man, Ron Perlman as his weary manager/trainer, and Naomi Watts. But it’s Schreiber that really and truly should be an Oscar-contender for this performance. He manages to take a familiar “type”—the shaggy, down-and-out underdog boxer who goes up against a heavyweight that has been seen in everything from “Cinderella Man” to “The Fighter” to, well, “Rocky”—and reinvest it with the same pathos, humor, and empathy you might feel watching Ray Liotta in “Goodfellas.” Boxing is a self-destructive sport that attracts types bound for a collison course with the worst part of themselves, but that doesn’t make Chuck’s fall from grace any harder to watch (or look away from). This is a guy you’re rooting for, and too many indie films forget to give us that. Grade: A-
Wakefield…Another great performance that might get lost in the Oscar shuffle, but seek out Bryan Cranston’s fine work as a man who accidentally falls asleep in the crawl space above his shed, and begins watching his family live their life without him (he’s believed to be disappeared). Some flashbacks reveal that Wakefield isn’t an entirely sympathetic person, but does he become one by seeing his own life without him in it (a la Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life”) or does he just not want his wife to move on with the man he stole her from years ago? That ambiguous tension lies at the heart of Cranston’s performance as Wakefield faces hard truths about the perception he has of his life—the role he cast for himself as victim isn’t entirely accurate—and just might begin to appreciate it. Grade: A-
Beatriz at Dinner…Yet one more terrific performance (a pair of them really), but this one might actually have a shot at breaking through the competitive Best Actress race. Salma Hayek plays the title character, and it’s honestly a revelation to see her embrace somebody this deep, sad-eyed, and possibly damaged. The culture-clash begins when Beatriz, an alternative medicine healer who performs phenomenal massages and other services for cancer-stricken patients, goes to a wealthy client’s house and her car breaks down, so she’s somewhat “invited” to a dinner party of clueless one-percenters with John Lithgow’s Trump-like real estate tycoon Doug Strutt as the guest of honor. [The movie was made before Trump became President, but—unlike “Get Out” which mostly focuses on white liberals and interracial couples—this film has only grown more relevant.] I don’t want to spoil too much about what happens except to say that both Beatriz and Doug are treated more reasonably than you might expect.
Lithgow is fantastic at not making Strutt a simple villain, giving him a nefarious charm by way of his “directness” and confidence that doesn’t rattle. And even though Beatriz is clearly the movie’s heroine, it’s not afraid to make some of their confrontation look like her fault, as she obliviously talks about alternative medicines, her pet goats (one of which was recently strangled by a neighbor), or “spirits” in the presence of people who clearly don’t agree. But then you start to wonder if maybe you’ve been sucked into Doug and his ass-kissing posse’s orbit, since why shouldn’t Beatriz have just as much right to talk about her cures and animals as the others gleefully talk about avoiding environmental lawsuits by plowing ahead with dubious construction or killing wild animals on a safari? This is a film that only gets better the more you think about it and begin to unravel its symbolism. [The ending will be the subject of a lot of debate, and I would point out that the lighting of the latterns could symbolize the one percent’s upward rise at the expense of others or that they don’t care who they hurt as long as they have a brief minute of fun since it’s remarked on that that area is prone to forest fires.] Grade: A
Megan Leavey…Based on the true story of an American soldier (the underrated Kate Mara, in another strong performance) who bonds with her bomb-sniffing dog in Iraq, and later tries to adopt him. It’s a straightforward story that works surprisingly well. [I bet if I asked if you wanted to see a dog movie about Iraq, you might pause for a second.] Even if it’s a little bit too long, the pacing is brisk, the Iraq scenes never get too repetitive or gory enough to alienate the movie’s target audience, and I can honestly say it brings up questions about PTSD for dogs I’ve never for a second thought about. Grade: B+
Before I Fall…The odd film out is a “Groundhog’s Day” time-loop movie mixed with a dramatic “Mean Girls” but not nearly as fun as either of those films. It’s more than a little somber and it’s ending will likely strike a sour note with its core audience. Although I’ve never seen that solution work for one of these “stuck in the same day” movies, it also seems like a false one for the patented message of a “you must learn how to live the day correctly before you can escape it” film. Grade: C