Have you heard? A popular new film genuinely nails how fiercely parents will fight for the safety of their offspring. And the fact that the ultimate fight is staged in near-silence brings great power and resonance to the proceedings. John Krasinski directs, co-writes and stars in A Quiet Place (A), a taut and surprisingly tender thriller following a family who must live life in silence while hiding from creatures that hunt by sound. In career best performances, he and Emily Blunt are astonishingly effective as the protective parents, and the child actors are good too in a world they make very believable. There’s an urgency and economy to every sequence, whether horrific or heartfelt, and a lean logic to the film’s dystopian, supernatural milieu. It’s a rare mainstream movie of undeniable craft and nonstop upping of the ante, especially with the built-in limits about how sound is muted or conserved for much of the film’s breakneck duration. The filmmakers get very creative with ways for the characters to communicate, from sign language to subtitles to knowing glances. There are also psychological underpinnings that elevate the movie to master status. It’s a great cinematic offering with scares and heart whether you generally like horror films or not.
Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon (B) is quietly revolutionary as a first mainstream teen coming of age movie featuring a gay protagonist, but the struggle with identity extends beyond its titular character to a somewhat milquetoast story and screenplay topped with a dollop of vanilla tone. The film is largely fun and occasionally quite moving, and its buoyant charm lies primarily on the shoulders of Nick Robinson, extremely likable and in almost every frame of the film as Simon. There’s a bit of mystery about the email pen pal at the center of the plot, but mostly the story centers on Simon and his group of friends coming to grips with teen romantic entanglements. Some characters are drawn too large and others underdeveloped in a movie that wants to be John Hughes-ian but rarely yields to its inner mania. It’s all a glorious first step for Hollywood movies but could have been made more memorable in the hands of a more creative filmmaker. Much like Philadelphia received some flack for sugarcoating its story in the first mainstream trailblazer to address the AIDS crisis, Berlanti’s film stays mostly in a safe lane to showcase coming out in the modern age. Expect the film to spark some changes of heart even as it clings to a pretty by the book formula.
Welcome to candyland for moviegoers who won’t be sorry for taking a risk on a new film that blends clue upon clue with sly takes on the game of life. Although it lingers a beat longer than it should, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s Game Night (B+) arrives on the top of the leader board for the genre of comedy mysteries. Along with clever plotting and lots of genuine laughs, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams make a delightful romantic duo as a highly competitive and witty couple with overarching anxiety blocking their ability to conceive. When Bateman’s larger than life brother (a funny Kyle Chandler) crashes a weekly charades party with a real-life murder mystery, the stakes just get higher and higher. Jesse Plemons is hilarious as a mopey cop next door who keeps being left out of the festivities. Billy Magnussen and Lamorne Morris are also a riot as supporting players in the shenanigans. Except for a few off-color jokes, it’s largely good old-fashioned fun. Roll the dice and check it out.
Writer/director Alex Garland’s Annihilation (B) is largely an incredibly absorbing sci-fi thriller about an army of women who venture behind a quarantined force field to resolve the enigma of the atmospheric abnormality going on inside. Natalie Portman is solid as the former military biology professor with a secret who discovers many of the chilling mutations and mysteries within “the shimmer.” The story is often hypnotic and the effects impressive, but the movie runs into some final act troubles. Some of the key characters are also underwritten, and there are myriad missed opportunities to more clearly articulate the film’s thesis, involving our cellular imprint toward self-destruction. The film is still smarter than your standard issue adventure, and like Christopher Nolan’s similarly ambitious Interstellar also overextends its reach.
Writer/director Ryan Coogler’s entry into the Marvel franchise, Black Panther (B+), is a regal rouser with a superhero who also presides as monarch of a fictional secret African nation. Chadwick Boseman is dashing as the lead in the globetrotting film set largely in his high-tech palace city, but (like Thor) he’s often upstaged by a moody, Machiavellian villain, played with swagger by Coogler muse Michael B. Jordan. A supporting cast including Lupita Nyong’o, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker brings pluck to the proceedings, but the best actors in the bunch are Winston Duke as a reluctant warrior and Letitia Wright as the king’s Q-like kid sis. The film takes a while to accelerate into the throne room barn burner it becomes, but once it generates steam, there’s a deliciously delirious set of showdowns in Korean crime dens, atop waterfall cliffs, in battle meadows and aboard Tron-like light rail tunnels. It’s a vibrant adventure and a morally urgent political parable that delivers on a variety of levels.
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.
The coming of age musical fantasy Saturday Church (B), written and directed by Damon Cardasis, is a balm for modern times as well as a bit of a love offering, with tender and affecting performances set to soaring music punctuating a meaningful meditation on what makes a family. Luka Kain is magnetic as the teenage protagonist exploring his sexual and gender identity against the backdrop of a home befallen by tragedy and mixed signals. Margot Bingham is superb as his absentee but well-meaning mom, and Regina Taylor plays effectively against type as a judgmental guardian aunt, but it’s the gender fluid ensemble providing their own brand of sassy youth fellowship at the real-life NYC haven of the film’s title who are acolytes for the movie’s inclusive glory. MJ Rodriguez is the film’s heart as the teen protagonist’s big-sisterly companion, and Marquis Rodriguez is a winning delight as a friend and love interest. Interior monologues become bursts into songs (it’s hard not to think of some of it as a mini-Rent without the artsy angst); and although many of the sequences overreach, the film is a minor miracle, unflinching in its depiction of runaways and discarded outcasts who cannot always live up to the “Conditions of Love” described in one of the standout songs of Nathan Larson’s score. The film felt like it was evolving into the Billy Elliot of drag, what with our hero finding new ways to express himself, but stops short of striking a penultimate pose. It’s a generous, entertaining and important film.
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.
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.