Each Friday, our critics provide a few quick-hit reviews of the titles that have them giddy and groaning — or, to put it another way, the Musts & Misses of the week.
Available now (Peacock)
Isabella Vosmikova/Peacock Emmy Rossum as Angelyne in 'Angelyne'
Sometime around 1981, billboards featuring a busty blonde sporting a bouffant hairdo and not much else began popping up around Los Angeles. Featuring one word — "Angelyne" — and a phone number, the ads sparked breathless local media reports and what was then still called watercooler talk: Who is this Angelyne, and what is she selling? She pioneered the concept of "famous for being famous," all the while keeping details of her life very close to her ample chest.
"Inspired by" the 2017 Hollywood Reporter article that managed to reveal her true identity, Peacock's Angelyne, starring a fully committed Emmy Rossum, uses flashbacks to weave together facts with slippery strands of memory, blending real events with literal flights of fancy. We meet key figures from Angelyne's life — including Cory Hunt (Philip Ettinger), the pliable frontman of a punk band she commandeered in the late '70s; Wendy (Molly Ephraim), the daughter of printing magnate Harold Wallach (Martin Freeman), who financed Angelyne's billboards in the '80s; and Rick Krause (Hamish Linklater), the vehemently devoted president of Angelyne's fan club — and not surprisingly, some of them have a very different version of events than the one Angelyne puts forth.
Unlike many recent true-life adaptations, this series has no interest in recontextualizing its subject through a modern-day lens, presenting her as a martyr to problematic social mores, or even exposing the truth behind the public image. None of Angelyne's answers are absolute because that would be missing the point — she is a masterpiece of open-ended questions, and Rossum presents her as such.
Much has been made about the actress' physical transformation — five hours in makeup, 3-pound fake breasts, blue contacts that wreaked havoc on her tear ducts — and yes, she looks the part. But none of that would really matter if we didn't get a sense of the human underneath. There's an endearing level of protectiveness in Rossum's performance, and indeed the entire production. Angelyne is funny, but she's never the butt of the joke. Grade: B+ —Kristen Baldwin
In theaters now
Ben Blackall / Focus Features 'Downton Abbey: A New Era': Everything old is comfortably New
Cue the violins and air out the linens; put a small, celebratory bird in Dame Maggie Smith's hat. Downton Abbey is back. Even the subtitle, A New Era, with its hints of sea change and scary modernity, turns out to be reassuringly on brand — births, deaths, disinheritance, at least one forbidden or long-hidden romance. If it all feels a little like a genteel theme park by now, it's also a comfort: plus ça change, there's always Downton.
The breaking news this time is that the Dowager Countess (Smith) has suddenly come into possession of a villa in the South of France thanks to a long-ago paramour, and an improbably handsome producer named Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) would like to use the sprawling Crawley family estate to shoot his next "moving picture." Will the Crawleys cross the Channel? And will they say yes to cinema? Oui, oui. Writer-creator Julian Fellowes' plot points tend to come in on little cat feet dipped in tar; no turn is too subtle to see from ten paces back, and no problem unsolvable after a hard think or a cup of tea.
That is exactly what the people with their "What is a Weekend?" mugs came for, though, and director Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn, Woman in Gold) is a gentle, benign supervisor of it all, shooting every scene in glimmering golden light and letting each player have their sweet tidy turn at the story wheel. A New Era is strictly high-toned formula, from its God's-eye opening over spire-tipped turrets and green-velvet lawns, to its soft-focus finish. Still, it feels like home. Grade: B — Leah Greenblatt
In theaters now
A24 Jessie Buckley in 'Men'
It is a truth universally acknowledged that nobody wants to hear about your dreams unless they're in them — even when they manifest in a movie as gorgeously, meticulously made as Men, the latest enigma-wrapped riddle from the mind of director Alex Garland. Men is the third film the former novelist turned screenwriter has full command over, after Ex Machina and Annihilation; here, he also has the fierce gifts of Jessie Buckley (Chernobyl, The Lost Daughter ) as the freshly widowed Harper, still reeling from the apparent suicide of her semi-estranged husband (I May Destroy You's Paapa Essiedu).
Upended by guilt and grief, she books two weeks at a house in the English countryside that quickly turns into a Dada nightmare — a bucolic village seemingly populated by a thousand freaky iterations of one man (veteran British character actor Rory Kinnear). There he is as a nude disturbed stalker, a tetchy schoolboy, a vicar, a barman, the local constable. Garland torques the film's feverish atmosphere for maximum impact, the low hum of panic building to a hornet's-nest swarm. But it's hard to parse what exactly the larger message is meant to be beyond a broad treatise on toxic masculinity, or some murkier metaphor for for all the ways a brain can skitter and schism in the wake of bereavement. More disappointing, maybe, is how much the story takes away Buckley's agency as it goes — her defiant, sharply defined presence in the first hour giving way to the bog-standard helplessness of every woman trapped in a horror movie. Men's eerie, encompassing mood lingers; the rest is a mystery. Grade: B– — LG
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, "Memento Mori"
Streaming May 26 (Paramount+)
The newest Trek spinoff finds its groove in a stellar starship duel that hurls the whole crew into cosmic danger. A seemingly typical errand of mercy turns violent when a mysterious attacker leaves the Enterprise flying blind and depleted. "Memento Mori" conjures the high-tension space-battle energy of The Wrath of Khan, so it's appropriate that the episode focuses heavily on La'an (Christina Chong), the Chief of Security descended from Khan himself.
But the episode is also a successful showcase for the entire Strange New Worlds ensemble, tracking different dramas through triage surgery in the Medical Bay and an explosive ticking-clock in the engine room. All the while, Captain Pike (Anson Mount) bravely tries to keep calm on the bridge. I was a bit skeptical of the show's early episodes, which came on strong with "classic" Make Star Trek Great Again affectations. But despite some excessive flashbacks, "Memento Mori" is a real-deal delight, balancing edge-of-your-seat survival thrills with a generous focus on the characters' individual struggles. Watch in awe as Ortegas (Melissa Navia) becomes a legendary Trek pilot, and good heavens, please, watch out for the giant gas cloud of death. Grade: A- — Darren Franich
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