By Juan-Carlos Selznick
Women Talking—A major critic claims that Sarah Polley’s Oscar-winning screenplay “improves” the esteemed Miriam Toews novel on which it is based. Writer-director Polley and her engagingly devoted cast do generate an incisive and moving portrayal of the women in an isolated religious colony making common cause against the endemic sexual abuse within their community. The ensemble features fine performances by Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, Kate Hallett, Sheila McCarthy, Jessie Buckley, Ben Whishaw, and, in two key moments, Frances McDormand. Polley and company maintain a gentle humanism alongside the feminist complexities of the story. Now streaming via Amazon Prime and other online services.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed—This documentary portrait of the avant-garde photographer Nan Goldin is exceptionally rich in meaning and impact. It’s an extraordinarily intimate portrait of the woman, her career and her work that also presents urgent and nuanced reflections on an array of contemporary issues—sexuality and gender, drug culture, capitalism and art, with special attention to Goldin’s active role in the campaign against Big Pharma in general and the profiteering Sackler family in particular. Director Laura Poitras, a prolific documentarian (Citizenfour, etc.), makes Goldin an active presence in this fascinating meditation on things both public and private. HBO Max and other streaming services.
Empire of Light—An old-style movie palace in an English seaside town is the setting for this gently detailed drama about the burgeoning relationship between a troubled and lonely woman and a younger man. Hilary (Olivia Colman) is the veteran manager of the Empire Cinema and Stephen (Michael Ward) is the young Jamaican newly employed at the theater. The quiet emergence of an increasingly strong bond between two rather isolated people is set against the racial and cultural turmoil of Britain circa 1980, and writer-director Sam Mendes (1917, Revolutionary Road) uses the multi-leveled interior of the grand old movie house to quietly operatic effect. Characters played by Colin Firth and Toby Jones have key roles, both in Hilary’s life and in the day-to-day operation of the Empire. HBO Max and other streaming services.
Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game—This sprightly little indie production is a delightful blend of docudrama, romantic-comedy and love letter to the game of pinball. It’s the story of Roger Sharpe, the mustachioed freelance writer and pinball devotee who mounted a successful campaign to get New York City to rescind its laws against public pinball games in the 1970s. Mike Faist plays the Sharpe of the ’70s, and Dennis Boutsikaris plays the present-day Sharpe, with the latter sometimes making comments in the younger man’s scenes. Crystal Reed plays the young woman with whom the ’70s Sharpe has a mutually serendipitous romance. The team of Austin Bragg and Meredith Bragg wrote and directed. Apple TV and other streaming services.
Babylon—A lavish 3-plus hours of movie-making extravagance adds up to not very much in this elaborately stylized account of Hollywood on the cusp of its Golden Years (1920s and early ’30s, roughly). The characters played by Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie are ostensibly based on actual stars of the era, but characters and big scenes alike come off as stampeded fantasies based on the skimpiest of historical facts. Billed as “a tale of outsized ambition and outrageous excess,” it comes across instead as facilely ambitious and excessively lightweight. Paramount+ and other streaming services.
Please Baby, Please—In Amanda Kramer’s campy, gender-bending farce, a flimsy pair of newlyweds played by Andrea Riseborough and Harry Melling fall under the spell of a leather-clad, gender-fluid street gang. There’s an inverted travesty of West Side Story running through it, with DIY musical performances included, and Kramer’s perverse direction and brainy screenplay are suitably challenging. Riseborough’s full-tilt performance here is much more impressive than the one that got her an Oscar nomination in To Leslie. Mubi and other streaming services.