The Erwin Brothers create faith-based movies filled with inspiration and hope. And while their latest Christian-centric biography based on a chapter in the life of worship musician Jeremy Camp, I Still Believe (C), accomplishes its goal of showcasing a moving real-life romance forged against the odds, it largely misses the mark in terms of originality and craft. KJ Apa and Britt Robertson offer earnest enough acting in their central romance filmed in a Hallmark-worthy glow but are written with such cherubic reverence that they don’t often register completely as real characters. Supporting actors Gary Sinise and Shania Twain are so underused as the leading man’s parents that it feels like they were loaned for just a day or two on set. Only Nathan Parsons as a friend, mentor and near hypoteneuse of a chaste love triangle registers as an actual conflicted human being. For a film ostensibly about overcoming illness with faith-restoring music, the film doesn’t really pulse with much of a flair for either medicine or music. When compared to a performance sequence in A Star is Born or Bohemian Rhapsody, for instance, the big concert numbers appear strangely detached, like the crowds weren’t even filmed in sync with what’s happening on stage. It all means well, of course, and the purity of the romance at the center is really what it’s all about. But for a film that praises risk-taking, it sure plays it safe.
This is one of the great romances. Writer/director Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) (A+) is a French historical drama tracing the contours and the canvas of an enduring love. Set in France in the late 18th century, this masterwork obeys the conventions of period romances with its windswept coast and Gothic homestead but upends the typical narrative rules in tracing a truly scorching and revolutionary tale. Noémie Merlant plays the commissioned painter and Adèle Haenel her aristocratic subject, and both actresses are spellbinding in their passion for detail and commitment to superb tandem acting. Merlant’s character is told her subject is unwilling to be sketched and thus must be painted in secret, and thus begins an observation period with flourishes of the forbidden. Sciamma creates indelible characters in a ravishing work and weaves an intoxicating chronicle. This feisty and fiercely feminist film rewards those who are patient for character studies and relish movies with the heart of a classic text. This is one of the great sleeper films of 2019 and one adventurous cinema lovers should seek out and see.
The World War I film 1917 (B+), directed by Sam Mendes and photographed by Roger Deakins, relies on an enormously effective and immersive magic trick of appearing like one continuous camera take, achieved with a mix of practical action and digital sleight of hand. It’s an incredible adventure spectacular even though the parade of set pieces and escalating stunts feel a bit too convenient at times. George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman are very empathetic as lance corporals in the British Army tasked with getting a message to a fellow battalion to thwart a German trap. The film’s you-are-there aesthetic is nothing short of masterful even though it shortchanges character development and deeper themes in service of its technical priorities. Still, the action sequences are visceral and propulsive, as if the journey of Apocalypse Now were given the lilt and momentum of Run Lola Run. Mendes marshals splendid elements ranging from majestic music to earthy atmosphere and gorgeous shots of Northern France in various stages of terror. Go for the war movie, stay for the action ride.
Josh and Benny Safdie’s new verité thriller should come with a warning label that it will most assuredly produce anxiety in its audience. It is both a blessing and a curse that these sibling writer/directors fill every mise-en-scène of the paranoid action drama Uncut Gems (B) with such realistic and resounding cinematic finesse. This potboiler of a film constantly raises the stakes and develops a preternaturally tense atmosphere not to be underestimated by the faint of heart. The brothers’ mastery of charged objects nearly out-Malteses every falcon frame. Adam Sandler is incredible in the meaty antihero role at the film’s center, and the plot basically traces his diamond district hustler character through the constant ups and downs of being over leveraged. It’s not necessarily a cautionary tale since the main character was pretty corrupted from the very beginning, but it’s fascinating to see the compounding effects of his actions as he juggles bribes, bets and bids into a nearly untenable position. The central character so dominates the movie that there’s really little oxygen for others in the ensemble, so it’s difficult to want much more than a speedy resolution for all of them. It’s amazing filmmaking buoyed by a pulpy performance, but you may like it best once it’s over.
Filled with autumnal beauty, radiant performances, fierce dialogue and timeless themes, writer/director Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (A) breaks through the barriers of the work’s familiarity to speak an empowering message to modern moviegoers about truly heeding one’s instincts. This is the eighth adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s coming-of-age novel written more than a century and a half ago, and Gerwig finds extraordinary resonance in the story for contemporary times. She re-invents the piece a bit with a non-linear format and even a meta interplay with the book’s author, and the playfulness with chronology helps the work echo even further with delight. A quartet of curious and talented sisters led by protagonist Jo March, played by Saoirse Ronan, experience the highs and lows of growing up and discovering their individual female powers in a changing America during the aftermath of the Civil War. A luminous Ronan anchors the film, with Florence Pugh, Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen each adding depth and appeal to the ensemble. Pugh in particular gets to shine. Laura Dern is splendid as the vulnerable mother holding down the family fort while father is away fighting, and Timothée Chalamet is a charismatic and ideal match for the sisters who are weighing the joys and costs of male companionship in both flash forwards and flashbacks. It’s telling how high quality every aspect of the film is that one can almost forget Meryl Streep is also in the movie and incidentally excellent as the misanthropic aunt. The film is sumptuous and idyllic in its depiction of the March family’s story and snappy in its defiant points of view. There is real and ribald sibling rivalry, sensational depiction of true sisterly bonds, genuine glass ceilings to smash and sheer delight to behold in every picturesque frame. Gerwig has made an essential version of this tale with a feminist vantage point which is inclusive and insightful. Her warm film is highly recommended to anyone looking to forge a path against the odds.
Two master actors chew the Sistine scenery in the often insightful, sometimes humorous The Two Popes (B), directed by Fernando Meirelles. Anthony Hopkins plays Pope Benedict, making the stunning decision of recanting his papacy, and Jonathan Pryce portrays the future Pope Francis, visiting Vatican City and Benedict’s summer home in a moment of crisis for the church. Both actors are at the top of their game reflecting two very different world views. The film works best in depicting the two men discussing conflicting interpretations of church teachings in the world and debating nuances of God’s authority (a veritable tennis match of lobbing insightful dialogue back and forth like a tennis match) and is less effective in addressing topical issues of church scandals or even delving into some mysterious flashbacks. The film has some fun with behind the scenes glimpses of the men following World Cup matches and other personal moments humanizing their lives while wrestling with Big Issues. It’s an ultimately hopeful look at the good that men can do when balancing theological duties with a perspective beyond the insular workings of the church.
Waves (B), written and directed with a whirling dervish ferocity by Trey Edward Shults, tells an epic story of a contemporary Floridian family experiencing a variety of trials on a journey to redemption and recovery. While ultimately hopeful, it careens head-first into a Requiem for a Dream level fever pitch for some time before transitioning into a more contemplative second act. The ensemble is uniformly exquisite, led by Sterling K. Brown and Renée Elise Goldsberry as well-meaning parents to Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell, also a wonder as thoughtful teen siblings facing a coming tide of turmoil. Although his film is often lovely to behold, Shults employs too many cinematic tricks with an elliptical structure that weighs down the movie’s thin storyline. At times, despite good intentions, the film feels a bit like an after-school special greatest hits episode. The music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is tense and tantalizing, and the bursts of nighttime and maritime colors are gorgeous, even if occasionally too evocative of the superior Moonlight, set in a similar milieu. The themes about savoring every moment and taking steps to heal emotional wounds are quite resonant, but sometimes the film goes to alarming lengths to administer its balm.
Even though it chronicles the sad tale of the breakdown of a marriage, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (A) is bittersweet bliss. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson give career-best performances as the couple in the story’s center, a director and his actress muse, respectively, who find themselves separated by an emotional gulf and soon a geographic one as his NYC career flourishes and as she moves to L.A. to film a pilot. Their characters’ drift away from each other is less the result of a bombshell than simply desiring different approaches to matrimony and how they live their lives. And although they have become too closed-off from one another to thrive as a functional unit, the complicated mechanics of divorce – and what it all means for the couple’s sole offspring – become the trigger point for high drama. Ray Liotta, Alan Alda and Laura Dern are magnificent as acerbic orbiting attorneys, with Dern in particular delivering mightily as the woman empowering Johannson’s character to strike faster and harder. Baumbach makes his audiences deeply care about the proceedings with endearing and intimate close-ups, flashes of humor and a brilliant take on human relationships. The acting is so good, it feels like a documentary. Tragedy is tough, but this ensemble demands attention. Even Randy Newman’s sometimes spry, sometimes sanguine score is a delight, although it’s pretty much the opposite of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” The film is searing and sensational and will likely be absorbing must-see viewing in your queue. Prepare for the streaming, especially from your eyes.
James Mangold’s ‘60s-set Ford v Ferrari (A) is a triumph, precision tuned with grit and grace and a combination of spectacular acting and “how did they do that?” practical action effects. Matt Damon and Christian Bale punch up everything fueling their winning screen personalities as the real-life racing team tilting at windmills to help America’s iconic automaker gain a shot at victory against Italian racers in the rigorous 24 hours of the Petit Le Mans. Mangold accomplishes a magnificent feat for historical drama by finding surprises around every turn. The film features an excellent ensemble, a cracking screenplay and stunning art direction and should please those who and aren’t typically enamored by car chase sequences. Damon’s character’s genuine swagger and boldness against the odds and Bale’s imaginative ingenuity plus a tender subplot with his family balance the film and anchor its action. Some of the best moments evoke the sheer wonder of boys and their toys as the central duo wrestles – sometimes literally – with the Herculean task they’re undertaking. It’s a tribute to friendship and teamwork and breaking out of conventions. The film is high-concept when it needs to be but possesses enough nuance to temper its ambitions. It’s a sterling entry into the American cinematic canon and deserves to be feted as year-end accolades are awarded.
Months after Jordan Peele’s Us explored the haves and have nots duking it out in a surreal version of contemporary American society, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (A-) elevates class warfare to a whole new milieu via a dark comedic story of the extraordinary denizens of a blissed-out South Korea metropolis. The visionary director introduces viewers to a lower-class family of four rising to roles in a posh home tutoring, cooking for and driving the domicile’s privileged occupants. Is this jaw-dropping story a searing supernatural thriller or a ghost tale, dramatic chess game or upstairs/downstairs allegory? With shifting mixed-genre shenanigans, it’s all these and more. The film is fierce, frisky and funny as it makes salient points about the underbelly of society with inhabitants clawing for a way out of the funk of a bunker mentality. Favorite characters in this twisty treat are the resourceful sister played by Cho Yeo-jeong and the prideful and practical father portrayed by Song Kang-ho. The mansion at the center of the narrative is a fantastical fixture almost as labyrinthine as the pulpy plot points. Aside from some silly pratfalls and a lugubrious epilogue, expect consistent shock and awe from this inventive cinematic import.
This hypnotic, hallucinatory horror-type tall tale is a keeper for sure! Director Robert Eggers casts an absolutely enchanting and unsettling spell in the gothic black and white square aspect ratio wonder The Lighthouse (A-). Set on a mysterious New England island in the 1890s, a career-redefining Robert Pattinson joins a startlingly gifted Willem Dafoe in a cunning and claustrophobic battle for supremacy. These dynamic co-leads are on high alert in the acting department, with some King Lear-level soliloquies and super-trippy visuals. Each of the two “wicks” harbors secrets, and it’s a game of oneupmanship to see who will rule the rock. It’s not always clear where this narrative will take you, but the film pulses with the verve and variety of a pulpy novel. And oh, that gorgeous camera work! Like There Will Be Blood, this is a film sure to shake and spark discussion.
This is the ultimate story of “the other.” Todd Phillips’s Joker (A-) flips the script in what is ostensibly an original origin story about one of Batman’s most notorious villains. Masterfully played by Joaquin Phoenix, the titular antihero fashions a fascinating and occasionally heartbreaking portrait of a desperate and marginalized loner. The bleak period atmosphere of a dystopian 1981 in Gotham City (essentially a struggling New York) evokes the crime, corruption, gang and peep show filled mean streets of vintage Scorsese, but the real action is interior as Phoenix’s sad clown and wannabe stand-up comic falls deeper into delusion and paranoia. The film’s graphic and nihilistic spirit will be tough for some audiences, but it’s an indelible and engrossing experience built on a complex character. Frances Conroy is effective as his ghastly mother, and Robert DeNiro is smartly cast as a late night talk show king of comedy who mocks the lead character via the airwaves. Zazie Beetz is a warm presence as a kindly neighbor and object of either affection or obsession. The swoop of stardust music with sweet tunes such as “Smile” and “That’s Life!” are juxtaposed against a loony, lost landscape. Phoenix gives a signature performance, high praise after the powerful legacy of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger’s takes on the character before him. He’s got the ticks of A Clockwork Orange and the tolls of Taxi Driver mixed with his own blend of American Psycho. He’s also got some of the creepiest dance moves since Buffalo Bill put the motion in the basket. This is gripping, immediate and eminently watchable material, with descents and detours into madness beyond expectations.