Then Playing — Respect; Red Rocket; Belfast

Respect (Liesl Tommy, 2021). In her feature directorial debut, Liesl Tommy brings a lot of panache to the familiar form of a music icon’s biopic. Tracing the youth and professional ascendance of Aretha Franklin (played in childhood by Skye Dakota Turner and in adulthood by Jennifer Hudson), Tommy keeps the material just lively enough to glide across the storytelling weighed down by cliché. Because the film relies so much on mining the goodwill of Franklin’s many hits, it often plays like a bigscreen version of a jukebox musical, a trait that sometimes works in its favor and sometimes against it. In the latter case, the songs can feel like a retreat from the humanity of the piece, a distancing from any real attempt to understand Franklin. Hudson in put through a real obstacle course in the lead role, belting and sobbing and physically breaking down and commanding attention through blazing displays of personality. She does it all ably and without finding depth in the performance. There’s a nice supporting by Marc Maron, playing record executive Jerry Wexler with a improvisational deftness of someone accustomed to solving problems to appease complicated talent.

Red Rocket (Sean Baker, 2021). Simon Rex gives an uncommonly dynamic performance as Mikey, a person who comes scuffling back to his Texas hometown after burning out and fading away in an award-winning career as a porn actor. He thinks he’s discovered a way to his unseemly but lucrative former profession when he strikes up a relationship with a teenaged donut shop clerk (Suzanna Son). Director Sean Baker has a gift from crafting compelling drama from the hard circumstance of people crunched under the heavy heel of life, and Red Rocket fits squarely in that mode. He frames his images with care while maintaining a robust energy within the narrative, which makes even the inevitable feel surprisingly. Baker is also uniquely skilled at coaxing great acting from newcomers. Among the total neophytes in the cast, Bree Elrod is the standout, playing Mikey’s estranged wife.

Belfast (Kenneth Branagh, 2021). Kenneth Branagh draws from his own childhood for this family drama, set in the title city at the moment in the late nineteen-sixties when the Troubles escalated fiercely. Belfast is suffused with feeling and yet emotionally inert. No matter how much orchestrated anguish Branagh builds into the film, it remains frozen by its own aching craft and flatfooted artifice. The film provides only the barest sense of the politics behind the region’s turmoil, which might be understandable given the narrative’s framing through the eyes of the youthful protagonist (played by Jude Hill). Except Branagh makes no apparent attempt to bend the events to the frightened or sensationalizing perspectives of childhood. What’s left is empty reminiscence, puffed up by occasional ostentatious embellishments, like bigscreen spectacles watched by the characters appearing in color to contrast with the black-and-white cinematography of the rest of the film. It’s fuss in place of ideas or heart.

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