“Cowboys ride through the pain,” says one character in Chloé Zhao’s elegiac drama The Rider (B), the story of an injured young rodeo star coming to grips with the fact that he may never get to saddle up as a hero again. Cast “off the grid” with Lakota Sioux of the Pine Ridge Reservation in the Badlands of South Dakota, this wistful tale rests largely on the shoulders of amateur actors such as Brady Jandreau as the plaintive protagonist. Jandreau is charming and completely believable in a role built largely around his real life and comes to special life in tender moments with family and friends. Zhao’s methodical and observant style and a near-documentary effect lifts this sad, sweet character study into a mythical glimpse at American masculinity especially in struggling communities. She has crafted an exquisite and poetic film of deep emotion and grace.
In the case of impresario P.T. (Anderson, that is) and the greatest sew-man of posh 1950’s London, the peculiar and perversely romantic Phantom Thread (B+) raises sartorial obsession to high art and establishes an arch melodrama out of the romantic embellishments that temper a tempest. Daniel Day-Lewis is the mercurial fashion designer at the film’s center, and it’s another performance for the ages as he charms and disarms every person who dares disturb his perfectly tailored existence. Vicky Krieps is a revelation as the woman drawn in to tame the beast with her own wily techniques. She’s breathtaking in the role, as is Leslie Manville as the couturier’s equally controlling sister. It’s a slow burn of a character study before Anderson’s poison pen careens a plunging plotline into the fore, leaving everyone involved on pins and needles. The production design, including lavish gowns and lush countrysides, is hypnotizing, and Jonny Greenwood’s nourish score hauntingly gorgeous. Anderson’s film is sure to be polarizing, as its central relationship mushroom clouds into droll extremes; but for those seeking an oddball odyssey into human fixations, it’s a stunner.
Steven Spielberg’s The Post (B-) is a movie about newspapers that buries the lede. After a painfully languid first 80 minutes in which the director simply fetishizes his faithful art direction of 1970s D.C., this historical drama culminates in a corker of a close that affirms faith in the free press and reveals an inspiring reluctant heroine. The rousing finish, punctuated with an obligatory back shelf John Williams score, feels somewhat unearned due to a series of lazy first and second act episodes that simply don’t zero in on the trajectory. In fact, there are three sequences so awkwardly written about characters reminiscing while sitting that I almost wondered if the master visual director had forgotten that it’s often more effective to show than tell (Oh, I get it – this is a staged reading of a movie!) In a plot that can be described as The Washington Post editorial team’s quest to publish secret government documents vital to the national interest – The Pentagon Papers – under threat of ruining its publisher’s family business or simply the pre-Watergate prequel to All the President’s Men, it’s a love letter to unfettered journalism and the rise of a strong woman. Tom Hanks as the editor gives a workmanlike performance; but as embodied in the story arch of publisher and guardian of the family business, Meryl Streep’s discovery of her courage is rather thrilling. The movie’s depiction of the printing press itself is a fun part of the ultimate action, filmed fondly like the Titanic or another vessel of a bygone era. But it seems Spielberg is too often a raider of a lost art, relying on old-fashioned and obvious tropes. The film wants above-the-fold grandeur but is relegated to Section B (minus).
A bit more subversive at times than expected while still fun for the family, Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (B) is ostensibly a riff on The Breakfast Club if detention were actually a fantasy forest of video game characters and its ensemble of aimless teens transformed into avatars on a quest for their inner heroism. After a sluggish start, the film gains its footing once the characters start learning life lessons in and around thrilling action sequences involving animal stampedes, helicopter chases, encounters in exotic marketplaces and a subplot involving a stolen jewel. The film makes compelling use of its gaming conceits as characters discover their powers and vulnerabilities and preserve “lives” for the moments that matter. As far as characters go, Dwayne Johnson and Nick Jonas fare best with charisma in spades, and Jack Black sinks his teeth into the role of a female teen diva learning to care about others while adapting to her new male body functions. Kasdan finds the fables behind the fun and makes sure the escapism leaves everyone a wee bit wiser from the journey.
After the original film showcased the fresh sounds and culture of collegiate a capella and the sequel amped up girl power in glorious fashion, Trish Sie’s Pitch Perfect 3 (C-) squanders the goodwill the musical comedy franchise has engendered with a denouement that temporarily turns the franchise into a head-scratching thriller before briefly returning to form for a tepid final bow. The Bellas are missing their fellas (would it have been too much to bankroll a Skylar Astin or Adam DeVine cameo?) and end up on a USO road show with a contrived competition, but thankfully the funny and talented Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson rise above the material. It seems they’d be fun just laughing together in a blank room. The film’s fictional bands don’t feel rooted in reality, the military subplots feel underdeveloped; and, as maestro of the film’s obligatory contest, DJ Khaled is so bad at playing himself that perhaps Christopher Plummer could have stepped in. John Lithgow’s character is a shark jumper in human form, and “Fat Amy” develops so many new superpowers, I half expected her to “Force project” herself through time and space. Of course the joy of these films is largely discovered in the quality of the musical sequences and droll comic lines, and there are enough here for fans to complete the viewing of the trilogy. There are also some occasional inside jokes that land like sweet lozenges amidst the hastily assembled script’s sore wanderlust. The series went from throw down to throwaway fast, but long live any entry into that adds Britney Spears and George Michael covers into its canon.
None of the characters in Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya (C) are going to win top honors in The Nice Capades, but I give the actors credit for their commitment to a biopic that is equally uneven in its tone and its point of view. The faux documentary style largely works in chronicling the real-life tale of a conspiracy to injure a competitor in the figure skating world, but the knowing commentary breaking the third wall mid-action sequences is a misfire. Margot Robbie is gloriously tragic as driven athlete Tonya Harding, and she gets solid, stone cold support from Allison Janney and Sebastian Stan as her abusive mother and husband. The funny bits aren’t darkly comic enough to counterbalance what is largely a tale of domestic and psychological abuse. The parts don’t add up to a cogent enough theme; and once they do, the director spells it out a bit too obviously. It doesn’t pulse with enough love for its protagonist to pierce the ice on the surface and actually melt misconceptions or your heart. And it doesn’t add all that much to the “well, this is what America is now” canon.
Chad Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter 2 (B) doubles down on the surprisingly solid franchise’s signature nonstop action while expanding the backstory and lore of Keanu Reeves’ eponymous character, a retired hit man seeking vengeance. Who would have guessed this wall-to-wall actioner would go full Godfather 2 and serve up a gracious expanded universe? The acting is pretty sloppy, but the fight choreography is to die for. Full-on action in New York City and Rome lead to a nifty cliffhanger and certainly another sequel.
Even when he “phones it in,” Ridley Scott, a film director at the height of his powers, brings compelling dimension and scope to his movies. His latest, All the Money in the World (B-) chronicles the kidnapping, ransom and attempted rescue of the heir to the Getty family, notorious for wealth generated through oil and a legacy from the accumulation of exquisite paintings and antiquities. An exploration of the art of a deal and the heart of a family should lend this crime thriller even more gravitas, but it’s largely a straightforward procedural. The stakes should also feel higher throughout the film, but the story and script give short shrift to its collection of characters. Michelle Williams as mother of a kidnapped teen, Christopher Plummer as the oil magnate himself, Mark Wahlberg as his negotiator and deal maker and Charlie Plummer (no real-life relation to his co-star!) as the teen in turmoil all turn in serviceable performances but far from their collective best. The action is occasionally gripping, and it’s a story that hasn’t been told. But this falls in Scott’s category of solid thrillers with vivid period detail but little amazing to grab you (his American Gangster falls squarely in this breed of his films). It’s notable as both a meditation on the price of wealth and a cinematic master class in how to erase and re-cast an actor’s central performance just weeks before a film’s release (bye bye, Kevin Spacey in the now Christopher Plummer role). All the talent in the world doesn’t always add up to a masterpiece.
Alexander Payne pushes more buttons than audiences may expect in his new human miniaturization movie; it’s par for the course for the midwestern provocateur. This skilled writer/director blends physical pratfalls, witty wordplay, social satire, wicked parody and almost every conceivable flavor of comedy for the deliriously inventive and surprisingly highbrow Downsizing (A-). Matt Damon is in full sad-sack mode as a nebbishy Nebraskan hoping to please his materialistic wife (Kristen Wiig) by signing them up for an experimental planned community in which citizens are shrunk to live in dollhouse-sized McMansions in a sunny country club suburbia called “Leisureland.” Christoph Waltz shines as a wee rogue defying the new community’s evolving rules, and Hong Chau is a revelation as a compact freedom fighter and humanitarian heroine. Both get absolutely delicious dialogue commenting on class issues prevalent in the upstairs and downstairs of even the tiniest of houses. Two of the film’s themes – to look closer and to take good care of the part of the world that you can affect – are developed to staggering impact. A few central plot points are jettisoned or careen off course a bit as the stakes are raised beyond simply the fates of the film’s pint-sized protagonists. There’s so much more to this comedy/drama/sci-fi hybrid than meets the eye, and it is heartily recommended for the intellectually adventurous.
If you’re the kind of person who would love to run off to join the circus with a singing and dancing Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron, you’re in luck with the arrival of Michael Gracey’s The Greatest Showman (B+). This handsomely produced, high gloss musical adaptation of the mid-19th century life of P.T. Barnum (don’t tell them his story was already famously musicalized in 1980’s Tony winner Barnum) is highly enjoyable, especially with a mild suspension of disbelief but not much more than musicals require anyway. It’s a hybrid of Moulin Rouge! and a Disney animated film come to life and has about as much historical accuracy as that studio’s Pocahontas, but by golly, it still paints with all the colors of a win. The music of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, high off twin accolades for La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen, swirls with catchy uplift; and the choreography, while inexplicably reminiscent of a Michael Jackson video, is rousing. There’s not a lot of heavy lifting acting needed from the cast, but everyone including Jackman in the lead, Efron as his apprentice, and even Michelle Williams in the thankless part of best supporting spouse, all do well with their tightrope of tunes and trots. The themes about embracing outcasts and chasing your dreams resonate through and through. Broadway lovers will have this one on heavy rotation for years.
A love that dare not speak its name gets its most magnificent due in an uncommonly affecting and breathtaking new film. Director Luca Guadagnino’s idyllic, romantic coming of age drama Call Me by Your Name (A) transports viewers to 1983 Northern Italy and, despite its foreign film aesthetic and slow burn pacing, presents a truly accessible story of summer love and its lifelong consequences. The character peculiarities and specificity of the time and place breathe a special life force into the proceedings. The likability, charm, intelligence and wit of the movie’s protagonists, the preternaturally talented Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, who has never been better, anchor and uplift the film. And Michael Stuhlbarg gives a final act speech that sums up the movie’s themes of personal acceptance with astonishing flourish. James Ivory deftly adapted this André Aciman novel about a fleeting love that burns bright, and Sufjan Stevens provides much of the film’s memorable music. Guadagnino blends joy and pathos into a true wanderlust of emotions in a film of picturesque physical and emotional splendor. It’s one of the great films of this or any year.
Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, for a sensational three-ring outer space circus featuring amazing planets, phenomenal creatures, stunning acrobatics and very little believable plot or character development. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (B) is basically Rian Johnson’s Galactic Exposition of 2017, in which the visionary sci-fi writer/director assembles an absolute cavalcade of activity while neglecting the delights the preceding film breathed into a trio of new central characters, a bratty villain and a spherical droid. During its bloated running time, Johnson introduces far-fetched new technologies and powers for his ensemble but requires most of them to tread water until what is expected to be the conclusion of this trilogy when J.J. Abrams retakes the reigns. This middle film’s marvels include a pretty casino planet and at least one intergalactic dogfight with pizzazz, lots of cotton candy for the soul. Misfires involve both old and new characters, who behave with perplexing lack of clarity and continuity; some are done no favors through long periods of separation. There’s a gas shortage that rivals the taxation disputes of the prequels in terms of dramatic inertia and at least one moment of sky walking that defies both gravity and belief. Laws of space and time, be damned! Even for this fantasy space opera, this one hits some bizarro notes. For all its fussy audacity, you may leave this funhouse a bit dizzy and more confused than you should feel for the ride.