Federico Ielapi in Pinocchio

Over the past two weeks, barring review-writing and performing general upkeep on the Reader Web site, I've been on vacation. And I can't begin to tell you what a time I've had: Christmas Eve at Rockefeller Center; Christmas Day with Goldie and Kurt in St. Barth's; New Year's Eve at Mar-a-Lago … . You know. The usual.

Seriously, though, I did what many of my fellow stay-cationers likely did during the holidays this year: I watched movies. Lots of movies. A few of them at an actual movie theater.

Our Davenport cineplex debuted Wonder Woman 1984, News of the World, and Promising Young Woman on Christmas Day, all of which I dutifully saw and wrote about. But the venue also premiered an additional title on the 25th – director Matteo Garrone's live-action, Italian-language take on Pinocchio – and hey, I'll admit it: My skipping the film was no accident. If I were asked to name the most egregious piece of cinematic miscasting this millennium, I'd be hard-pressed not to choose Roberto Benigni, then a sprightly 49, as the titular wooden character in Italy's 2002 Pinocchio – a release of staggering awfulness made all the worse by its director/star's graceless, age-inappropriate mugging and clowning. Now, for Garrone's storybook adaptation, I was being asked to accept Benigni as the fatherly puppet-maker Geppetto. What on earth did Carlo Collodi, author of 1883's The Adventures of Pinocchio, ever do to deserve being assaulted by Roberto Benigni? Twice?!

Well, having finally caught up with Garrone's outing, I'm officially eating crow. Not only is this visually ravishing film largely wonderful, but Benigni is, too, giving a performance as Collodi's impoverished wood-carver that's warmer and more tender than any the actor has given us in his previous American releases. Regarding the film itself, though, I will offer a few words of warning.

Roberto Benigni and Federico Ielapi in Pinocchio

Like the 2002 Pinocchio, this one is dubbed from Italian into English, and the dubbing is again frequently lousy. Not only do the words rarely match the movements of the mouths, but the voices themselves oftentimes don't sound at all right for their correlating faces and expressions. (Pinocchio's middle-aged schoolteacher looks like a gravelly baritone yet speaks like one of Terry Jones' washerwomen in Monty Python sketches.) Also, in case you were considering bringing very young children to this PG-13 Pinocchio, you maybe shouldn't. Taking their cues from Collodi rather than Disney, screenwriters Garrone and Massimo Ceccherini don't skimp on the more unnerving aspects of their source material, and while it's always disturbing to see Pinocchio and his pals turn into donkeys, the transformations here are more akin to what happened to poor David Naughton in An American Werewolf in London, elongating limbs and tortured shrieks and all. We can argue later about whether that sight is more upsetting than Pinocchio hanging from a tree with his neck in a noose, or the puppet smacking his Guardian Cricket in the face with a hammer, or the strangled gasps of the four-foot tuna with the human face, or … . Wait, what was I saying?

So yeah: Disney this ain't. What it actually is, if you ignore the distractingly weak dubbing, is a first-rate, exceedingly faithful rendering of Collodi boasting considerable charm, an impressively bleak rustic landscape, and some of the most ingenious practical effects I've seen in years, particularly in regard to makeup. The imaginatively low-rent visuals, especially when Pinocchio comes in contact with the Terrible Dogfish, are delightful, and I adored Maria Pia Timo as the behemoth Snail who leaves a trail of sticky ooze wherever she (very very slowly) goes. Yet beginning with the believably wooden countenance of its title character, one played with lovely curiosity and beautiful big eyes by young Federico Ielapi, the prosthetic and non-prosthetic makeup effects are altogether extraordinary, adding levels of realism you almost never get from CGI, and enabling characters such as Massimo Ceccherini's Fox, Rocco Papaleo's Cat, and Teco Celio's Judge Gorilla to fully communicate their mad fairytale adventures. This Pinocchio is dark and weird and really quite satisfying, and I'm kind of stoked to see it again … after it starts streaming and I'm able to use the “subtitles” option.

Lucas Hedges, Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest, and Candice Bergen in Let Them All Talk

The rest of my end-of-2020 movie viewing, as you'd expect, took place via home screens, and because it appears that we'll all eventually have to, I did break down and subscribe to HBO Max – not for Wonder Woman 1984 et al, but for Let Them All Talk. Sure, the convenience of not leaving your house to watch Gal Gadot in a rather obnoxious superhero epic is nice and all, but no way was I going to let one more week pass without access to a new Steven Soderbergh flick with Meryl Streep and Dianne Wiest. (A boy's gotta have standards, dammit!) Released several weeks ago and notable for being, as Soderbergh has stated, about 70-percent improvised by its cast, this cruise-ship dramedy sends Streep's lauded author across the Atlantic with several guests in tow: her best, albeit estranged, friends from college (Wiest and Candice Bergen); her nephew (Lucas Hedges); and her literary agent (Gemma Chan). A few things happen: Hedges develops a crush on Chan; Bergen quietly fumes over being fictionalized in Streep's recent bestseller. A lot of things don't happen: Most of the movie is devoted to intimate one-on-one conversations or watching characters play board games or walk the decks of their ship. But given an ensemble this polished and witty, even Soderbergh's and credited screenwriter Deborah Eisenberg's nothings play like amusingly off-the-cuff somethings, and the director (who also serves as cinematographer under his regular alias “Peter Andrews”) lights his film in ways that truly put the luxury in this luxury liner. It's completely disposable throwaway entertainment, but Let Them All Talk is likely the only cruise ship any of us will be voyaging on for the foreseeable future, and it was a kick (on the couch) to be surrounded by passengers this appealing.

David Byrne's American Utopia

In truth, I should probably have snagged that HBO Max subscription months ago, because I had somehow forgotten about the service's October debut of David Byrne's American Utopia – director Spike Lee's concert film of Byrne's limited-run Broadway show based on his 2018 album. As a lifelong admirer of both Byrne and Lee, this was really an unconscionable lapse on my part, and the only upside I can see to waiting until last week to watch the movie is that I haven't yet dulled my interest through a dozen weeks of incessant re-watchings. Good God is this thing bliss. For nearly 105 minutes, and with state-of-the-art lighting and sound design supporting them, Byrne and 11 other on-stage vocalists and musicians – all of them wearing sharply tailored gray suits, nearly all of them barefoot – perform from a repertoire ranging from American Utopia to Talking Heads' Speaking in Tongues to Janelle Monáe's The Electric Lady. And for nearly 105 minutes, what emanates from your home screen is pure, unadulterated joy; if you can get through this miraculous scenic and sonic bear hug without tapping your feet, singing along, or trying your best to boogie from a seated position, you're made of stronger stuff than I. Byrne and company rip your heart out on their thunderously percussive, thunderously angry take on Monáe's “Hell You Talmabout.” For the rest of Lee's wildly cinematic ride, though, the mood of David Byrne's American Utopia is as genial and upbeat and inclusive as the greatest house party you've never been invited to. But you have now. Plan on being the very last guest to want to leave.

Sidney Flanigan and Talia Ryder in Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Because we're already hip-deep in awards season for 2020 releases – if hip-deep in critics' awards, which are often more interesting than the Oscars but not as much fun – I also employed my HBO Max access to see writer/director Eliza Hittman's Never Rarely Sometimes Always, which has received several prizes for its screenplay and significant Best Actress wins (from the New York and Boston critics) for leading lady Sidney Flanigan. She absolutely deserves them … for one scene. An intimate character drama that plays as a procedural, the film follows Flanigan's 17-year-old Autumn Callahan as, accompanied by her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder), she travels from Pennsylvania to secure a legal abortion in New York. Hittman's script and direction are fastidious in delineating the particulars of the young women's journey – their furtiveness, their lack of money and lodging, their difficulties in simply finding the clinic – and while the documentary-style realism of the project is laudable, I also found it just a bit dramatically underwhelming. Everything felt like life, but for close to an hour, it felt like unduly reticent and unforthcoming life, and I began to wonder whether Flanigan, in her film debut, was a true naturalistic talent or merely well-directed. As she proves, however, in the movie's centerpiece sequence – a heart-stabbing Q&A with a Planned Parenthood counselor who asks that Autumn respond to her queries using only one of the four words in the film's title – Flanigan is undeniably both. While Never Rarely Sometimes Always left me wishing for more ultimate heft, Flanigan's subtly wrenching performance in that largely unbroken take might constitute the five most exquisitely painful and empathetic minutes of the movie year. And thank heaven for the home-viewing option, because as enjoyable as the cineplex experience can still be these days, it would've sucked if I had been forced to audibly sob and blow snot into my face mask.

Orion Lee and John Magaro in First Cow

With all the HBO Max catching up I have to do (and that's not even counting the hours pissed away with Friends as apartment-cleaning and bill-paying background noise), I haven't spent much time with my other streaming services lately – though I have made an exception for Showtime, which is currently broadcasting First Cow, Kelly Reichardt's period drama that I first watched several weeks ago. And then again last week. And again last night. I might watch it once more before completing this paragraph. Named Best Picture by the New York Film Critics Circle, Reichardt's meditative yet narratively forceful film is mostly set on the Oregon frontier in 1820, where soft-spoken chef Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) and Chinese immigrant and budding entrepreneur King-Lu (Orion Lee) begin a local baked-goods empire by surreptitiously milking their province's only cow without its wealthy owner's knowledge. That's pretty much the movie. Except, this being a Kelly Reichardt, it's not, and the latest determinedly un-showy triumph by the creator of Old Joy and Wendy & Lucy is about as wondrous as any 2020 film I was privileged to see (three times). In its leisurely, exactingly lived-in way, First Cow is a tremendous buddy picture, with Magaro and Lee sharing unimpeachable chemistry resulting in laughs and tears. It's a quietly gripping thriller, our nerves on edge at the possibility of the men's larceny being discovered by the cow's reptilian owner (an unassumingly terrifying Toby Jones). It's a procedural on gracious living in an un-gracious era; it's a chase film in the style of The Fugitive at quarter-speed; it's food porn in all those mouth-watering, honey-dripping “oily cakes” that Cookie and King-Lu make for the delectation of their paying customers. And First Cow is, above all else, a time machine, effectively whisking us back to a two-centuries-ago landscape as foreign as Mars and as familiar as our own backyards. I'll stop now because, truth be told, I don't really want to review Reichardt's movie. I just want to hug Reichardt's movie.

Mads Mikkelsen in Another Round

Even with vacation days at my disposal, there wasn't nearly enough time to catch up on all the available 2020 titles I'd been curious about (damn you, easily accessible Friends episodes!), and my sorry attempts at completion will no doubt carry over into this year and beyond. But before officially bidding 2020 adieu – a word that, in this case, conveniently rhymes with “f--- you” – in next week's article on my favorite movies of the past year, I did catch a trio of recent releases that were easily worth their nominal rental fees.

A Danish comedy by writer/director Thomas Vinterberg, Another Round casts Mads Mikkelsen as a depressed high-school teacher who, along with three of his middle-aged buddies, decides to terminate his professional and personal ennui by becoming an unrepentant day-drinker: no liquor after 8 p.m., and nothing but liquor before. It's easy to imagine the crass, Hollywood-slapstick version of this setup, and I have a feeling that, even as I type, Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg are contacting their agents about securing the U.S. rights. Yet Vinterberg's achievement – one that has already won European Film Awards for Best Picture, Director, and Actor – is as sweetly melancholic as it is morally upsetting, and certainly not blind to the obvious perils in its characters' liquor-induced experiment. (Turns out it's only slightly funny to see your high-school teacher wasted before lunch.) A remarkably nonjudgmental and unexpectedly tenderhearted tale, Another Round is both thoughtful and utterly exuberant, and if you've ever wanted to see Hannibal's Hannibal Lecter move like the trained gymnast and dancer that Mads Mikkelsen is, this is absolutely the entertainment for you. Before the closing credits roll, the man even goes full-on Baryshnikov, leaping and gyrating with startling skill, and ending with an explosive jump into the abyss that's like the finale to Thelma & Louise, but far less suicidal. Maybe.

Christopher Abbott in Possessor

If your father is David Cronenberg and you want to follow in Dad's filmmaking footsteps, you're probably not gonna start crafting delicate little indie dramas or aggressive urban rom-coms. You're more likely to come up with a strange, startling, über-gory piece such as Brandon Cronenberg's Possessor – and huzzah to that! The film, like many of David's, boasts a juicy sci-fi-thriller premise, one that finds quasi-futuristic assassins able to literally enter the brains of unsuspecting bystanders and force them to carry out contract murders. Brandon's 2020 release sends Andrea Riseborough into the head of Christopher Abbott as part of a plot to kill the man's father-in-law (Sean Bean), and while the uniquely visualized situation is both captivating and nerve-shredding, two elements place the film on par with many of those giddily nasty early works by Cronenberg père. One is its commitment to character, and Riseborough and Abbott play their body-swap formula for all of its horrific, devastating worth; Abbott, in particular, performs physically and emotionally wrenching wonders as a man playing tug-of-war with the unwelcome host inhabiting him while never letting you forget that it's actually Riseborough who's ultimately in charge. And the other is its unrepentant commitment to the visceral grisliness of its conceit; when blades and bullets enter flesh, and they do a lot, Brandon Cronenberg makes you all but literally feel the agony through the closest of extreme closeups. (As many of David's movies are, Brandon's is all about penetration, and in all its varieties.) Possessor won't be everyone's cup of tea. In all likelihood, it'll hardly be anyone's. But if, like those adorable spinsters from Arsenic & Old Lace, you prefer your tea with a little strychnine in it … .

The Last Blockbuster

And finally, 'cause it sounded like a hoot, I rented the agreeably lightweight documentary The Last Blockbuster, which is exactly what its title promises: A look inside the very last Blockbuster Video store, one that's still in operation in Bend, Oregon. There's not much to director Taylor Morden's 80-minute doc: a bit of history on the Blockbuster chain's rise and eventual fall; some cheeky reminiscences on the video-stores-in-the-'80s experience; brief talking-head interviews with the likes of Brian Posehn, Ione Sky, Samm Levine, and Adam Brody. (Because video-clerk legend Quentin Tarantino was apparently unavailable or uninterested, we at least have a willing participant – and acceptable replacement – in Kevin Smith.) But watching store manager Sandi Harding valiantly yet cheerfully struggle to keep her Bend venue operational yields plenty of human-scale delight, and as a former movie-theater usher who had the best time at that gig, I adored seeing Sandi surrounded by former employees who all testified that they never had a better boss, or a better job, or better access to unhealthy snacks. The Last Blockbuster is a pretty fun flick. It could make for an outstanding sitcom.

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