THE TENDER BAR. It continues to surprise me that George Clooney, of all celebrities, should be a contentious figure. I suppose it speaks to our continually escalating culture of galvanization: He's too political for a mere actor; he's not political enough for such a prominent public figure; he's a liquor mogul who shouldn't be making movies, etc. All this in spite of a formidable history, at least as an actor, of remarkable critical and popular successes. His is a career founded on perseverance that's seen Clooney consistently seek out material of depth and significance, and artistic collaborators with inarguable technical skills and distinct points of view. Most criticism has little to do with the guy's work and a lot to do with his personal and public life. And so little of it holds any water for me.
The more cogent point, or at least an argument worth considering, is that his work behind the camera may not quite measure up to his star turns in front of it. Having seen most but not all the movies of Clooney the writer/director/producer, they represent a mixed bag. In the fullness of time, we may be able to understand the body of work as a representation of the creator's mind. Experiencing them as they arrive, though, it can be hard to assign central themes or motifs to the work, or even any aesthetic signifiers or maker's marks.
Without undertaking an excavation of the whole catalog — an exercise for which I suspect no one reading this has time — it seems safe to say that Clooney's more authorial work possesses a sort of skeptical humanism: faith in the good inherent in individuals, tempered with concern for the corrupting influence of institutions, group-think and greed.
The Tender Bar, adapted by William Monahan from J.R. Moehringer's popular memoir, decreases the scope of some of Clooney's previous subjects, basically telling us one boy's story of growing up on Long Island with a struggling mother, a dysfunctionally functional extended family, an absentee father and a dream of becoming a writer. JR (played in childhood by Daniel Ranieri and in young adulthood by Tye Sheridan), loves his mom, as well as her bickering parents, her cacophonous sisters and their offspring, and knows enough to understand how hard it is for her to frequently have to return to her childhood home when some aspect of her life falls apart. And so, aided by his secretly well-read bartender uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck), he fully intends to service her dream of his attending Yale University and becoming a lawyer. Of course, there's a lot of growing up to do along the way, which becomes the stuff of The Tender Bar.
There is an undeniable warmth, an aesthetic nostalgia that glows golden in the movie's recreation of the '70s and '80s, down to an insistence on heavy smoking and drinking — that we don't see more fall-out from everybody's habitual behavior might be an act of creative generosity toward the characters or irresponsible — but the story has a modern and timeless heart. It's about growing up and identifying those aspects of oneself that will become the core of identity, about synthesizing and sifting through all the information and inputs, constructive and otherwise, to come up with some notion of self. If slightly lightweight or superficial, The Tender Bar comes primarily from a place of compassion. R. 106M. AMAZON PRIME.
THE LOST DAUGHTER. Leda (Olivia Colman), an author, translator and professor with two unseen adult daughters, is on a working vacation in a quiet seaside town in Greece. Each day she sets out for the beach to write, swim and, ostensibly, sit with silence. Early in her sojourn, though, the stillness is punctured by a large, boisterous, monied Greek-American family who spend a significant part of each summer in a nearby villa and, to Leda's distress, on the beach. By both happenstance and design, she becomes embroiled in some of the family's dramas, particularly those of Nina (Dakota Johnson), whose relationship to her young daughter sets off a flood of memories and guilt within Leda.
Gradually, in flashback (with Jessie Buckley playing the younger Leda), we begin to learn about the events that have, in their way, led to the older protagonist being alone in her thoughts on a beach and getting deeper into her entanglement with a potentially dangerous family.
There is tremendous nuance to the storytelling — how much of this is attributable to the source novella by Elena Ferrante, I couldn't say — that would seem to belie the relative inexperience of first-time writer/director Maggie Gyllenhaal. Credit must of course be given the superlative cast, particularly Colman and Johnson, who continuously create an often wordless push-pull of confidence and distrust. But it is Gyllenhaal's ability to capture atmosphere within the frame — to give visual life to anxiety, unease and guilt — that allows those performances to truly enliven the story.
This is frequently uncomfortable, even heartbreaking stuff, but complex and substantial enough to invite revisiting. R. 121M. NETFLIX.
John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.
THE 355. Jessica Chastain, Fan Bingbing, Lupita Nyong'o, Penélope Cruz and Diane Kruger play a team of spies with Sebastian Stan as a Bond Boy. PG13. 124M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
AMERICAN UNDERDOG. Biopic about quarterback Kurt Warner starring Zachary Levi. PG. 112M. BROADWAY.
BELLE. Anime about a country girl who finds stardom in a virtual world. PG. 121M. BROADWAY.
THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Expat journalists get the Wes Anderson treatment, with Tilda Swinton, Benicio Del Toro and Adrien Brody. R. 103M. MINOR.
THE KING'S MAN. Ralph Fiennes and Gemma Arterton star in a retro action spy prequel. R. 131M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
LICORICE PIZZA. Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson's tale of coming of age and first love in 1970s California. Starring Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman. R. 133M. BROADWAY.
MATRIX RESURRECTIONS. Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss return hopefully to give me whatever pill will take me the hell out of here. R. 148M. BROADWAY, MINOR.
NIGHTMARE ALLEY. King of horror-fantasy Guillermo del Toro creates a carnival experience we will all be afraid of, with Bradley Cooper, Toni Collette and Cate Blanchett. MINOR.
RED ROCKET. A hot mess of a former porn actor returns to his unwelcoming hometown in Texas for more messiness. R. 128M. MINOR.
SCREAM. The horror franchise picks up 25 years later like a Friends reunion but stabbier. With Courtney Cox, Neve Campbell and David Arquette. R. 120M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
SING 2. The animated animal musical returns with the voices of Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon. PG. 112M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME. See what happens when you take your mask off? Starring Tom Holland and Zendaya. PG13. 148M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.