It's a Five-Film Friday

Oscar hopefuls arrive in theaters while the streaming services fill up with star vehicles.

It's a Five-Film Friday

The Nut Graf: “Finch” (Apple TV+): Nope. “The Harder They Fall” (Netflix): Maybe. “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” (Amazon): Sure, why not? “Spencer” (in theaters): You bet. “The Souvenir: Part II” (in theaters): Yes, but in tandem with Part I.

I admittedly got a little over-busy with screenings this week – after 20 years of reviewing for a newspaper, it’s harder than I thought to downshift – but it’s true that we’re entering Prestige Season, the Oscar hopefuls are lining up, and someone’s got to help you figure out how to spend your time and money. Here’s a quick take on five new movies, three available on demand and two in theaters (for those who feel comfortable going).

Tom Hanks and company in “Finch”

“Finch” arrives on Apple TV+ as a conundrum: It’s one of those “I Am Legend”-style Last Man on Earth dramas, but it stars Tom Hanks, who is generally acknowledged to be the nicest man on Earth. Accordingly, the sight of Mr. Amiable strolling through the post-apocalyptic ruins of St. Louis creates a tonal dissonance that’s never ironed out and that only becomes stranger as the title character builds a robot (voiced by Caleb Landry Jones) to protect his dog. The three then drive across the country, Finch coughing blood all the way. So it’s a buddy movie, too, and a road movie, and by now we’ve hit at least one genre too many. The scenes involving the naïve robot are cutely crowd-pleasing while the glimpses we get of humanity’s remnants are properly disturbing; well before the baffling final scenes, the movie has tied itself in knots. The end-of-the-world flick you’re looking for is “A Boy and His Dog” (1975), which features a young Don Johnson and a telepathic pooch and which is set in the year 2024, so clearly we’re right on schedule. (** stars out of ****)

Regina King, Idris Elba, and LaKeith Stanfield in “The Harder They Fall”

“The Harder They Fall,” a Netflix Original, is a little more successful at fusing genres – in this case the spaghetti western and blaxploitation – but only a little. What it has going for it is a great cast: Idris Elba as Rufus Buck, badass leader of an outlaw gang; Regina King (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) as his hit-lady; LaKeith Stanfield (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) as a gunslinger. Over in the other corner are Jonathan Majors (“Lovecraft Country”) as a vengeance-seeking antihero, Zazie Beetz (“Joker,” “Nine Days”) as his saloon-owning lover, and a crew of colorful supporting actors; running interference between the two groups is a sheriff played by Delroy Lindo (“Da 5 Bloods”). Director/co-writer Jeymes Samuel has a good time playing with his genre cliches, and he’s attuned to both the history of the Black West and the novelty of a Black western. The soundtrack kicks, too. But, as with “Finch,” the tone of “The Harder They Fall” wobbles between witty homage and ugly Tarantinoid overkill, resulting in a movie that looks like it was more fun to make than it is to watch. (**1/2 stars out of ****)

Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain”

“The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” – Weird, weird, weird. But also kind of wonderful. Landing on Amazon Prime Video after a brief theatrical release, this drama about the Victorian-era artist who popularized not only cat paintings but the entire notion of cats as house pets (as opposed to furry mousetraps) hits all the expected stodgy bio-pic notes. There’s just one thing: The hero is clinically insane, and he became more so over the course of his life, his lysergic later paintings now used to illustrate psychiatric treatises on mania and schizophrenia. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Wain as a classic British eccentric who’s just a little more extra than most and Claire Foy is a total sweetie as the only woman in 19th century England who matches Louis for shyness and quirk. Here the use of contrasting tones works exceptionally well, with director/co-writer Will Sharpe keeping things fizzy and fast-paced on the surface while making sure we’re privy to the private anguish of a man who slowly left the real world behind. (*** stars out of ****)

Kristen Stewart in “Spencer”

“Spencer” is opening in theaters with no streaming date set, but it’s worth keeping on your radar since Kristen Stewart will almost certainly and deservedly be Oscar nominated for her performance as Diana, Princess of Wales. Those of you who still think of Stewart as “the girl with the monotone from the teen vampire movies” are blinking in disbelief at that last sentence. Those who have seen some of the 18 films Stewart has made since the final “Twilight” sequel in 2012 know better; along with her former co-star Robert Pattinson, she has become one of the most daring actors of her generation. (“Clouds of Sils Maria,” “Certain Women,” “Personal Shopper,” and “Lizzie” are all good places to start your recalibration.) Writer-director Pablo Lorraín does for Diana what he did for Jacqueline Kennedy in “Jackie” (2016), taking a woman who became public statuary and restoring her to heartbreaking human life. “Spencer” is set over one long, cold Christmas among the royal family, and it’s effectively a horror movie, with Stewart’s Diana crumbling mentally, physically, and emotionally as the brocaded walls close in. The star’s transformation is total; I once wrote that Stewart had a narrow range and I have never been happier to eat my words. (***1/2 stars out of ****)

Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton in “The Souvenir, Part II”

Finally, a word about “The Souvenir, Part II,” which opens in theaters today as that rare thing, an art-house sequel. (I suppose the “Before Sunrise” trilogy counts, too.) The first “Souvenir” (2019) saw director Joanna Hogg fictionalizing her youthful love affair with a charming heroin addict, while the follow-up concerns Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, as before) emerging from the chrysalis of grief into creative maturity as a filmmaker. Hogg’s narrative style is oblique, improvisational, and the directing scenes play like inside baseball – it’s not a movie for the casual channel surfer. (“Did you avoid the temptation to be obvious?,” asks one character of Julie, and that could be Hogg’s mantra.) But this portrait of the artist as a young woman is rich with detail and mystery and satisfaction, and Tilda Swinton is quietly brilliant – the lead actress’s mother playing the main character’s mother and channeling the genteel upper-class tenderness of an earlier generation of mothers. The two parts of “The Souvenir” should be watched back-to-back, I think, and will be once the new film comes to video on demand. I’ll let you know when that happens. (***1/2 stars out of ****)

If you enjoyed this edition of Ty Burr’s Watch List, please feel free to share it with friends.

If you’re not a paying subscriber and would like to sign up for additional reviews and to join the discussions, here’s how:

If you’re already a paying subscriber, I thank you for your generous support.