Based on a popular young adult novel and ripped out of today’s headlines, George Tillman Jr.’s The Hate U Give (B+) features the remarkable Amandla Stenberg as a black teenager trapped between two worlds: her family’s historic inner city neighborhood and the posh suburban private school where she tries to fit in which largely white classmates. Russell Hornsby and Regina Hall are among the cast’s spectacular standouts playing the heroine’s parents trying to protect her from emotional and physical harm as she witnesses a controversial police shooting of a childhood friend. Stenberg is an unlikely mouthpiece for the film’s issues and is phenomenal and relatable in the role. Although it’s clear where the film’s point of view lies, the film does a good job bringing lots of perspectives into the fray. Common plays a black cop with one of the most poignant sequences about the complexity of contemporary issues. Tillman keeps the film tense and taut; and although parts could have used some judicious editing, it’s a thoughtful and quite necessary entry into many of the debates the next generation will inherit and perhaps be more successful in solving.
Director Bradley Cooper’s unlikely remake of A Star is Born (B) throws in all the tropes of a good melodrama: it’s a Rose of a Love Story packaged within a gritty and naturalistic ‘70s film aesthetic. It’s also a vanity project seemingly stripped of vanity, and Cooper and leading Lady Gaga pull the heartstrings in one of the most spectacular love affairs since Rocky Balboa met Adrian Pennino. He’s a rockabilly musician fighting the demons of addiction; and she’s a moonlighting waitress and his singer/songwriter salvation with a pop music career on an upward trajectory. Their romance and music soar, for the most part; and when all elements are working in precision, it’s amazing to behold (their first duet as well as a stunning finale are alternately indelible and incredible). There’s just too much predictable not-very-good filler stretching the experience into an unnecessary “Oscar qualifying” length (movies with long running times have more pedigree, so they say, and this feels way longer than its 127 minutes!). The on-screen lead lovebirds also co-wrote the stirring music with help from the likes of Diane Warren, Mark Ronson, Lukas Nelson and Jason Isbell. There’s a long stretch of story without a new song that seems to lack oxygen because of it. Overall, the film is a marvelous star vehicle for the pop icon, who de-glams and leaves it all on the screen. I’m not sure a glimpse of Gaga’s lady was fully necessary; nonetheless the musician proves a revelation of an actress in every frame. Cooper is a bit too Sling Blade in his role with a distracting drawl that doesn’t fully match his character, and Sam Elliott is inexplicably cast as his brother (you know, the kind of sibling who is about 40 years older). Cooper’s directorial debut is intentionally messy around the edges; and there are times it feels he has captured the magic of love on screen. It’s far from original, but like a play with a soul-stirring revival, it’s worth seeing for these stars’ fetching takes on the roles.
This is the gripping “found movie” for a perpetually plugged-in world. In Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching (B+), the protagonist father portrayed wonderfully by John Cho often contemplates sessions further down the web’s wormhole while resisting the notion to simply shut down. Grounding this mystery thriller, Cho’s desktop pop ups the ante – online, engaged and amplified – and embarks on an emotional arch of triumphant connection over isolation. The propulsive plot about the disappearance of his daughter grants viewers a tense window into his soul and mindset, while the film’s action takes place largely in the virtual environment of computer and surveillance screens. It’s the Who Framed Roger Rabbit of social media tropes: humans mixing with fetching FaceTimes, charming chatbots, brilliant browsers and suspenseful streams. Among the emojified denizens and avatars, you almost suspect a cameo from an animated paperclip! Chaganty’s inventive high-tech hub is ideal for clue reveals stashed in the cache: flashbacks by archived selfie confessionals, public actions by viral video and forensic breadcrumbs dotting the underbelly of the social graph. The realistic interfaces are sturdy supporting performers, as is Debra Messing playing nicely against type as a hard-driving detective. While the film’s procedural formula doesn’t always measure up to its creative format, the #SearchingMovie is well worth discovery.
This is one of those declassified historical true stories like Argo that’s stranger than fiction and eerily prescient in its parallels to events of today. Pop cultural and historical provocateur Spike Lee’s brilliant 1970’s-set biopic BlacKkKlansman (A-) is an absorbing and gripping instant classic, the best non-documentary “joint” the writer/director has made in nearly two decades. The film’s success rides largely on John David Washington and Adam Driver, playing real-life undercover cops who mastermind and manifest a fascinating infiltration of white supremacists. Washington is charismatic and determined in his performance as Ron Stallworth, the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department, determined to make a name for himself. Laura Harrier is sensational as a civil rights activist, and Topher Grace is amazing in a career trajectory redefining role as David Duke. The filmmaker is acutely aware of the power of cinema to change perceptions and dots the movie with bygone celluloid images and contemporary references that put his work in a march toward progress in representation. Aside from lensing a few moments that seem superfluous to the central themes, Lee has crafted a tight and taut thriller. He provides powerful point/counterpoint sequences weaving subversive themes and an unexpected premise into great storytelling.
Best known until now as a director of Step Up sequels, a Justin Bieber concert movie and flop flicks about G.I. Joe and Jem and the Holograms, Jon M. Chu seems an unlikely helmer of one of the first nearly all Asian American ensembles since 1993’s Joy Luck Club and one of the most satisfying romantic comedies since 1990’s Pretty Woman or 1992’s Strictly Ballroom, but here’s his film adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians (A-), and it’s bliss. Although not a musical, the film simply sings. Although not entirely a fairy tale, it’s enchanting. Chu’s star is born, a crouching tiger ready to unabashedly entertain, and he draws spectacular chemistry from the luminous Constance Wu and the dashing Henry Golding. She’s a Chinese American professor invited to accompany her humble boyfriend to a wedding in his Singapore homeland where she quickly discovers he’s part of one of the country’s most wealthy families and heir to a fortune. Hilarity and heartbreak are in store abroad. Michelle Yeoh is incredibly fierce portraying the perfectionist matriarch-antagonist as a battle royale unfolds between family duty and the messiness of love. The film is splashy, soapy and sensational; you’ll want to book a trip to the opulent, exotic city it depicts: a place of glistening razzle dazzle dancing and locales, of kaleidoscopic fashion and costumes. The film veers into a few arch moments threatening to tonally derail it, but the committed cast members remain jubilant journeymen. American rapper Awkafina is a hoot as Wu’s sassy sidekick. There are also two popular American songs sung in the film’s native tongue, adding extra glitter and throwback to Chu’s fanciful fantasia. In a year when racial representation on screen has already delivered a stellar superhero film, it’s lovely to have such an enjoyable escapist romcom from the Asian perspective. This is one of the best times I’ve had at the movies this year.
Note: The film opens wide August 15, 2018 after buzz building sneak previews. #CrazyRichAsians #GoldOpen
Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (B+) is so knowing it hurts. The comedian turned writer/director’s darker than expected feature debut is a canny you-are-there coming of age story. It follows a painfully shy middle schooler, magnificently played by Elsie Fisher, who struggles with the everyday challenges of her final days of classes on the precipice of a hopeful metamorphosis before high school arrives. A framing mechanism of the girl’s confident YouTube explainer videos pairs nicely with the awkward foibles of her altogether unremarkable real life. A highlight of her retreat into the social media void is a montage amusingly underscored with Enya’s “Sail Away.” Josh Hamilton, a Gen X staple, helps make an endearing film even more human as her resilient single father, who delivers an encouraging fireside chat that may move some to tears. The astonishing young Fisher’s raw, un-glamorous turn as the protagonist anchors the film; and even when some of her character’s actions are head scratching, her every move is extraordinarily authentic. Burnham presents an assured filmmaking style with some brilliant point of view shots steeped in incredibly poignant milestones: trying to fit in at a pool party, holding “food court” with older kids, sitting through sex ed class and making small talk on a first date. It’s occasionally comic with an unsettling tone; few profound details evade Burnham’s candid camera. This is one of those low plot, high feel movies. It finds its heart as it finds its way.
More dignified than a King Friday XIII proclamation and more vulnerably raw than a question from Daniel Striped Tiger, there’s a new film that eases in like a little red cable car straight into your heart with vast implications worthy of deep contemplation. Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (A) about the life and times of perhaps the greatest communicator to children ever to walk the earth, Fred Rogers, is just the balm movie-going audiences need in these polarized times. A lifelong Republican and ordained Presbyterian minister who pioneered public television with a slow-burn, puppet-laden, multi-ethnic broadcast platform speaking to every kid’s intrinsic self-worth makes for a most unlikely subject of multimedia analysis. The film plunges viewers head-first into Mister Roger’s unusual neighborhood with a mission to move adults in a giving and harmonious spirit evocative of the utopia he created that so enchanted a generation of youth. Fueled by interviews with those who knew him best, rare footage and flashbacks and poignant animated vignettes plumbing the subject’s own frightened boyhood, Neville guides us through what made the man, who passed away nearly a decade and a half ago, born for his creative crusade. Breakthroughs with cast members and with children comprise the most lovely moments; expect to ugly cry with utter joy. Cultural milestones from the Vietnam war to racial integration to the 9/11 disaster all shape formative moments of teaching for Rogers, whose full life was a rather unconventional museum-go-round of a sermon for humanity. The film is a sunny, hopeful reminder to maintain our personal honor, civility and song in the face of life’s most arduous challenges. Give this film a speedy delivery into your soul as soon as you can.
Both writer/director Paul Schrader and his protagonist protestant minister played by Ethan Hawke are revelations in First Reformed (B+), an engrossing drama about a man marked by a mannered and modulated exterior fighting demons right under the surface. Hawke’s performance as a tormented military chaplain turned reverend of an isolated historic church is some of the best work he has ever done, a slow burn of turmoil not unlike the writer’s subject of Taxi Driver. Schrader subverts expectations with subplots about members of the community who become embroiled in end of days level stakes, and the film will be remembered as iconic in his canon, with spare cinematography and rich subtext. Amanda Seyfried as a faithful congregant and Cedric the Entertainer as a megachurch leader devoted to the success of the affiliated country church are both highly effective in supporting roles. It’s a film of quiet rage and intrigue, a true conversation starter about faith and salvation. The movie’s minor frustrations pale in comparison to its overall thoughtful characterizations, unexpected soul and undercurrent of suspense.
Oakland is woke-land for a duo of friends looking to flip the script on clean living and justice in Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting (A-). Daveed Diggs of Hamilton and Rafael Casal parlay rap, poetry and spoken word into a creative indie about two blue collar bros trapped in conflicting narratives after a late-night shooting. The humor is sweet and the drama sobering as the co-stars (also co-writers) address race, identity and gentrification in a brisk and frisky production. The film’s frantic pace, bubblegum colors and lyrical landscapes lure viewers into an eccentric and exquisite singular urban atmosphere. Diggs is superb and rises to the challenge of one iconic sequence in particular that truly tests the charismatic chops he showcased on NYC stages. Casal channels a young De Niro as his fierce foil, balancing rage and tenderness in grand doses. Wonderful actresses Janina Gavankar and Jasmine Cephas-Jones are highlights in the supporting cast, balancing all the testosterone in some clever conversations. A split second or two that are too on-the-nose, including split screens, threaten to make some of the motifs a bit too obvious; but overall, it’s a stunner. Come for the buddy comedy, and stay for the message. Despite the timely topics and hefty themes, it’s optimistic and will become a talked-about touchstone.
Blindspotting review published 4/13/18
Ari Aster’s suspense drama Hereditary (B+) is a stunner, upending many expectations of typical horror movies for something even more raw: delving into the experience of losing loved ones, exploring compartmentalization of pain and unearthing abnormalities lurking in one’s family tree. The film deserves comparisons with The Shining and The Exorcist and showcases a master performance by Toni Collette as the troubled mother of two (Milly Shapiro and Alex Wolff, really effective). Gabriel Byrne is ho-hum as the family dad (someone needed to be the straight man, I suppose), and Ann Dowd is superb as a neighbor in grief. The film is a slow-burn downer of the first order but splendidly cinematic, and it builds to quite a crescendo. The production values, from art direction to music, build a brooding mood. The film relies heavily on Collette to sell some far-fetched sequences of spiritualism and to take her character way out on a limb. She delivers in spades. From the first moments set in miniature dollhouses to an epic denouement, the film gets bigger in its ambitions. Fans of the original Friday the 13th may even find echoes in its origin story. This is recommended for aficionados of great drama, and I hope horror fans will like it too.
A profile in courage, consistency and living life with purpose and passion, Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, RBG (A-), is a stand-up-and-cheer portrait of an unlikely cultural hero. Diminutive and soft-spoken, she is hardly the most obvious person to have captured the cultural zeitgeist or to be the subject of a full-length cinematic treatment, but Ginsburg’s story sneaks up on you like the cadence of pioneering gender equality law cases she argued in a rich history in front of and behind the bench. The filmmakers do an expert job showcasing the sequences of legal cases that mark milestones in RBG’s legacy as well as her recent history of provocative and pointed dissent. We also get to witness intimate family portraits with her beloved fellow lawyer late husband, with grandkids and young people and immersed in her hobby of attending spectacular opera. The film also shows the joy of an unlikely friendship with conservative firebrand Antonin Scalia; if those two could get along, nearly anyone can find common ground. The film relies occasionally on very scarce archival footage and suffers sometimes from lack of access to the moments we may want to witness most (alas, no cameras in room for the big cases). But its fondness for its subject and its illumination of her life and times indeed reign supreme.
More than a salvage effort from a troubled production and much more entertaining than many will expect, Ron Howard’s Solo: A Star Wars Story (B+) is a breezy space western with enjoyable characters and adventures. The good news is that Alden Ehrenreich steps charismatically into the shoes of famed space smuggler Han Solo embroiled in some of his pivotal early adventures. The origins of his friendship with Chewbacca, an inside look into his and Lando’s (a blissful Donald Glover) gamesmanship over possession of the Millennium Falcon and even the notorious Kessel Run are some highlights. There are some surprising ties to other films in the saga plus some unexpected twists and turns that give this origin story a jolt or two. Practical action set pieces, a mysterious romance and dollops of droll humor make this a fun summer movie for hardcore fans and newcomers alike.