A much more subtle breakout than Moonlight for writer/ director Barry Jenkins, his adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk (B) tells the story of an African-American woman (newcomer KiKi Layne) who seeks to clear the name of her wrongly convicted husband (Stephan James) and prove his innocence before the birth of their child in 1970s New York. Jenkins fashions the central couple as Adam and Eve style innocents against a blistering backdrop of racism in the housing and justice system, humanizing their personal struggles while commenting on the universality of the Black Experience alluded to in the film’s title. Both romantic leads are stunning and emotive but often are overloaded vessels for the filmmaker’s myriad parade of topical issues. Despite the artisan lens Jenkins places on the adaptation, the central story comes across as a bit dramatically inert and doesn’t side-wind its way into consistent focus. The film is most successful when showcasing the solidarity of the central family, and Regina King and Colman Domingo are outstanding as the protagonist’s courageous parents. Jenkins collaborators such as composer Nicholas Britell and cinematographer James Laxton lend their greatness to the film; it’s a technically exquisite work. While it’s impossible not to be moved by the humanity of Jenkins’s characters, he could have reached further to crystallize storytelling and to more urgently serve these characters who rarely get their cinematic due.
If you’ve self-selected as curious about Bryan Singer’s Queen rock and roll biopic Bohemian Rhapsody (B), you will undoubtedly find yourself floating around in ecstasy at how the troubled production turned out. A star is reborn onscreen and his Gaga is radio ready as Rami Malek fully inhabits the role of flamboyant lead singer Freddie Mercury. This “behind the music” style melodrama is too often color by numbers, but Malek – a power ballad powerhouse in every frame – helps the film transcend the limitations of the form and, well, break free. The story dispenses with a series of greatest hits moments such as band origin story, early studio time, world tours and setbacks and is equally enjoyable in moments of grandeur and intimacy. Told with a lack of sentimentality and with pleasurable details and detours, the film strips down myths and legends and aptly showcases how some of the best songs surfaced. It’s fun to see how some of the zanier tunes emerged and how on trend this unconventional band was during its brief life as a quartet of outcasts. There are a few music tracks such as “Who Wants to Live Forever?” and “Another One Bites the Dust” which take on added poignancy given Mercury’s struggles with relationships and fading health. By the time the film culminates in a reenactment of the band’s famous Live Aid reunion performance, the audience is bought in completely. The ensemble is solid with no extraordinary standouts except Malek who transforms body and voice and should emerge an awards season champion. Malek’s Freddie is certainly somebody to love in a surprisingly deft crowd pleaser.
There’s a fascinating film sub-genre of true stories so outlandish you can scarcely believe they really happened – Argo, BlacKkKlansman, Catch Me If You Can, to name a few – and then there’s the real tale of author Lee Israel, whose potent mix of career desperation, misanthropism and alcoholism signals exactly why she got involved in a larger-than-life game of cat and mouse. As magnificently portrayed by Melissa McCarthy in Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? (B+), with a sharp and sassy script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty based on Israel’s memoirs, the protagonist is laid off, late on rent and veterinary bills, divorced from reality and falls into a con of counterfeiting personal letters by novelists and playwrights to sell to collectors so she can fund her desperate lifestyle in early ’90s New York City. This is a film that quite clearly depicts life on the margins and how a pile-up of poor decisions and bad luck can foist someone into a sticky spot. Like dramatic-mask Jerry Lewis or Robin Williams, McCarthy demonstrates the reverse clown effect, depicting the the mentally anguished machinations and nuances behind a crowd pleaser (in this case Lee Israel is a famed autobiography writer whose style falls out of favor). McCarthy is joined for career-best performances by Richard E. Grant, a boozy buddy who discovers a sly synergy with a similarly broken spirit. Grant is glorious and adds to the glow of McCarthy’s superb acting. Jane Curtain is also wonderful in a small part as Israel’s beleaguered agent. This highly observant film, with its taut balance of dark themes, could teeter at any time into oblivion of heartache and histrionics but maintains an oddly indomitable optimism. Credit goes to Heller’s command of the material, a real and raw script and marvelous performers, who together manage to fashion the experience into a bit of a love letter to the Big Apple, albeit one that’s a bit rotten to the core. The movie will reward the well-read with its droll references to Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, Kate Hepburn and Fanny Brice as well as viewers who simply come to witness McCarthy and Grant display roles of a lifetime. Different from a Barfly, Ironweed or Leaving Las Vegas, the film isn’t so concerned about its subjects’ alcoholism as an isolated character trait; it’s a full portrait of how people get by. Unlike the doctored documents Israel concocts to escape from reality, the film’s indelible characters are the genuine article.
The showdown between masked man Michael Myers and scream queen Laurie Strode has the epic makings of another Thrilla in Manila, and the roar of the hype can be cut with a knife and underscored with creepy synthesizers. David Gordon Green’s 2018 film Halloween (B) is a direct sequel to John Carpenter’s original same-named 1978 horror film, ignoring previous follow-ups, plot twists, remakes, reveals and reruns to simply pit boogeyman versus basket case all these years later. Think of nearly all that came after the original film including another 1981 direct sequel with Skywalker-level familial revelations as a long Bobby Ewing fever dream that showered the studios with lots of money for forty years. Jamie Lee Curtis’s paranoid protagonist has evolved from teen babysitter victim to gun-toting survivalist with an armored home and bunker suitable for either Y2K programming issues or cold-blooded intruders. Green paces the film nicely with a framing device of podcasters visiting the heartland scene of the crime and lightly explores the post-trauma domestic dramas inflicted on Laurie, especially with her distressed daughter played well by Judy Greer. Curtis gets a nice showpiece, and she’s a joy returning to the role that birthed her star. The gore and mayhem almost seem old-fashioned compared to more industrial strength torture porn of late, so it’s a horror film to be enjoyed and absorbed my multi-generational masses. There are ample slashes, shocks and scares plus some amusing characters in the ensemble but nothing extraordinarily breakthrough. It’s not quite a scary as expected, but the biggest trick and treat is it’s an entertaining throwback.
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.
Damien Chazelle, Hollywood’s celebrated enfant terrible who burst onto the scene like a supernova with Whiplash and La La Land, delivers exactly the opposite of his expected output with a brooding and tortuously technical biopic about Neil Armstrong, and it’s no wonder the sky-high critical and box office promises of First Man (C-) have remained unusually earthbound. Ryan Gosling’s interior performance as an Armstrong who is near-paralyzed by human interaction after suffering personal tragedy may be imbued with a north star of accuracy, but it’s just not what people go to inspiring movies about heroes to see, and all the sullen solemnity eclipses any attempts at showcasing the highs and lows of the early space program. Claire Foy’s similarly macabre take on his long-suffering spouse doesn’t help either in penetrating the pioneering spirit behind this dark side of the moon. The film lingers on highly technical elements of several space missions so long that by the time the Eagle lands, the viewer is just appreciative to get on with it. Perhaps the most annoying element of the film is its score by Chazelle’s jazzy frequent collaborator Justin Hurwitz, whose music sounds lost between a ghoulish fun-house and an Italian café for much of the film’s prodigious duration. A few supporting cast members such as Corey Stoll get some nice bits, but it doesn’t look fun sharing orbit with a sad sack protagonist. The film isn’t clear what it’s trying to say or even if Armstrong enjoyed his day in the sun on the moon. Adrift in storytelling and pacing, this linear lunar biopic shines brightly for just a few moments but remains largely a waning gibbous.
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.