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.
The novelty is gone but the jokes spring eternal in David Leitch’s sarcastic superhero sequel Deadpool 2 (B-). Ryan Reynolds is again charismatic but keeps company with some pretty average associates in this low-stakes installment. Encounters with some characters in the X-Men and X-Force orbit and stories about time travel, paternal instincts and doing hard time all mutate in a plot both threadbare and overstuffed. It’s vulgar, fun and watchable but a pale follow-up to its predecessor. The comedy is better than the action, and the whole meta enterprise was better the first time around. See if for the in-jokes and knowing nods to sequel-dom.
Review of the first Deadpool here.
A witty, bittersweet dramedy about the coping mechanisms a third-time mom uses to reconnect with her best self when her rich brother underwrites a “nighttime nanny” for her, Jason Reitman’s Tully (A) is a master class in characterization, with star Charlize Theron and writer Diablo Cody delivering at the top of their games. Opposite an equally mesmerizing Mackenzie Davis as the new partner in parenting, Theron gives a gloriously lived-in depiction of motherhood full of acerbic humor and grim pathos. The film defies conventions in a variety of ways and will become a much talked-about entry into this exciting director’s canon, even as some of its best spoilers will give viewers reason to see it early. Reitman does gorgeous work showcasing headstrong characters, and this one is no exception. He also chooses just the right music to underscore his plucky and poignant sequences. Empowering and unexpected, this sleeper indie should be on any film fan’s watch list.
Note: This film was screened at the Atlanta Film Festival and was released wide theatrically in May 2018.
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.