‘Decision to Leave’ would be a crime to miss, ‘Stars at Noon’ doesn’t shine

‘Decision to Leave’ would be a crime to miss, ‘Stars at Noon’ doesn’t shine

Decision to Leave

In select theaters now

Park Chan-wook for his latest film, Decision to Leave

Tang Wei and Park Hae-il in ‘Decision to Leave’

| Credit: Mubi

No matter his paintbox, director Park Chan-wook has a way of making even the most familiar genre stuff feel fresh. What the Seoul-born auteur once did for action thrillers (Oldboy), vampire horror (Thirst), and high melodrama (The Handmaiden), he does again for neo-noir in his sleek, mischievous latest: Behold the jaded detective with a soft, secret center; the dangerously alluring femme fatale; the seemingly perfect crime — and the vortex of triple-crossed mystery that ensues when it all begins to come undone. Park Hae-Il is Haejun, a veteran officer who was summoned to investigate the case involving a middle-aged mountain climber who died at high altitude. It appears that it may have been a suicide or a simple slip. His beautiful young widow Seo-Rae (Lust, Caution‘s Tang Wei), though, seems oddly unaffected, almost cavalier; does she know more than her lonely late-night wanderings and phone records show? Hae-jun isn’t a great sleeper, and soon he’s taking to sleeping under her window at night, his interest quickly surpassing that of the strictly professional. He has a fraught, if not unhappy, marriage.

Park creates a world with surreal cinematic flourishes, breezy dollops full of dark humor, and where alliances are constantly changing. You won’t realize what you don’t know until your last frame, and that’s where the real questions begin. Park’s virtuoso leads tread a thin line to keep it that, but a lot of the movie’s best colors come in the vibrant supporting characters, small, pliable details that are part of everyday life — the awkwardness of forced small talk, the low boiling envy of a colleague’s superior lunch options — which have little to do murder or mayhem. Decision to Leave doesn’t feel like the boldest or most indelible work of Park’s career; his catalog goes too deep, and too wonderfully weird, for that. It’s a wonderful rabbit hole to fall down, if you decide not to leave. Grade: B Leah Greenblatt

Stars at Noon

In select theaters now

Stars at Noon

Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn in ‘Stars at Noon’

| Credit: A24

Beware the Western filmmaker who travels down to Central America with a prestige novel in hand. After making a pair of excellent movies, Pariah and Mudbound director Dee Rees foundered with 2020’s obtuse, overheated The Last Thing He Wanted, set in El Salvador and based on the book of the same name by Joan Didion. Now, Parisian arthouse queen Claire Denis has gone and made her own humid mess of Denis Johnson’s The Stars at Noon — losing the definite article of his title and nearly all narrative sense in the process.

Trish (Maid‘s Margaret Qualley) says she’s a journalist, though she spends most of her days in a dangerously destabilized Nicaragua shotgunning rum and half-languorously, half-frantically attempting to get one of her local “protectors” to help untangle the red tape that keeps her from returning to the States. The soft-handed British businessman she meets at a local hotel bar seems like another opportunity to trade sex for the American dollars she needs to buy a flight home, though Daniel (Joe Alwyn, pensive and neck-beardy) turns out to be something more than an easy mark. She is attracted to him and has no idea of his purpose beyond vague mentions of oil companies or philanthropy.

Absurdly, neither do they, making the two-plus hour of intrigue feel both maddeningly ambiguous and without real stakes. The pair are trapped in a Groundhog-Day roundelay and can’t seem to escape. They revert back to what they love: drinking and having sex. Qualley and Alwyn are admirably naked (literally, one memorable scene involves nude finger painting in bodily fluids), but the story is increasingly lost in dream logic because there is so little consistency in their characters’ behavior and motivations. Actors like John C. Reilly and Benny Safdie drop in to deliver a few inscrutable lines, but it doesn’t help that the action has been moved from the 1980s to an iPhone-and-COVID-mask modern day; there’s an ugly whiff of casual colonialism in the script, and almost none of Denis’ trademark tension and subversive wit. If you are looking for pretty naked people and a vicarious passport, then go for it. Grade: C- — Leah Greenblatt

The Good Fight

Streaming Thursdays on Paramount

The Good Fight

Credit: Elizabeth Fisher/Paramount .

There’s only one month left before the Good Fight series finale, so let’s treasure the impeccably brisk thrills of this week’s episode. Ri’Chard (Andre Braugher) calls everyone to work on a Saturday to help his ailing nephew, who almost got a bone marrow transplant before the donor backed out. The frantic pace of organ-donation and lawsuits makes it feel like a clock episode. It’s a marvel at narrative efficiency that allows for some wacky delights, such as a court case being tried entirely at a child’s birthday party. Braugher is a new addition to the season. He’s mostly played Ri’Chard with maximum braggadocio. He’s more sensitive here, rubbing his gray-fuzz buzz with quiet desperation. He sings! Episode Grade: A Darren Franich

Till

In theaters now

Till Danielle Deadwyler

The abduction, kidnapping, and murder of a 14-year-old Chicago boy named Emmett Till at the hands of two white men in the Jim Crow South became one of the defining moments of the Civil Rights era, a singularly ugly chapter in American history with a still-resonant postscript. Till’s story has been told in many media and refracted over the years by artists from William Faulkner through to Bob Dylan. Till, similar to ABC’s limited series Women of the Movement earlier this year, chooses to approach from a unique if more oblique angle, centering Emmett’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler) and her valiant, often lonely struggle to find any form of justice and accountability for her son.

The result is a film made with unwavering empathy, and embodied with singular grace and ferocity by Deadwyler (Station Eleven, Watchmen), if also one that feels more impactful as an acting showcase and a diligently pitched history lesson than as a fully formed drama on the screen. Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu (Clemency) deliberately swerves from any explicit recreation of the actual event, confining her narrative mostly to the foreboding before and the pained aftermath.

Instead, she paints a sweet but incomplete portrait — Till was so young when his life was cut short, could it really be any other way? — of a dimpled, exuberant kid (Jalyn Hall) and the family who adores him: His widowed mom, Mamie; her own mother (an affecting but underused Whoopi Goldberg); the kindly fiance (Sean Patrick Thomas) she’s set to marry. They have never been separated and Mamie cannot help but repeat her anxious warnings to him as he prepares for his visit to Mississippi. “They have a different set rules for Negroes down here. “

The production and costume design perfectly evoke midcentury style. From Emmett’s cowboy wallpaper to Mamie’s pressed hair, carefully matched jewelry sets and the soundtrack that pulses with harrowing orchestral swells, the production and costume design are evocative of midcentury style. The script is almost faultless, but it lacks a more authentic and textured sense about the Tills beyond their defining tragedy. Deadwyler, an actress mostly known until now for standout supporting turns in larger ensembles like The Harder They Fall, brings a haunted immediacy to Mamie even when the screenplay doesn’t rise to meet her, grief and fury and fierce dignity passing across her face in annihilating waves. Till-Mobley’s decision to let the world know what Mississippi had done to her son — she demanded an opened casket at his funeral — ignited a movement that has since become history. Till bears stirring witness to that, even if it leaves the full measure of her life a mystery. Grade: B — Leah Greenblatt

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