Transplanting a British miniseries to modern day Chicago centering on a quarter of women completing a heist started by their late husbands, Steve McQueen’s mystery/drama Widows (A) is juicy, layered, intense and phenomenal. Buoyed by an excellent Viola Davis as the central protagonist (her late husband is inspired casting: Liam Neeson) and boasting an across the board fabulous ensemble, the film roars with thrilling intensity while always keeping the characters grounded in reality. McQueen organically laces into his vigilante milieu themes of racial and gender inequality and empowerment, cycles of crime and violence and the tenuous ecosystem of gangland and political turf. The film is ultimately a fugue on who’s playing one another in an elaborate urban powder-keg, with subtle shifts and surprises keeping viewers on the edge of their seats. Despite topicality, it’s extremely entertaining. Kudos to Elizabeth Debicki, who shape shifts in a complex emotional role as an abused woman discovering her power, and Daniel Kaluuya who plays against type as a cold-blooded criminal. Robert Duvall and Colin Ferrell are also superb as a father-son political dynasty brokering alliances in a corrupt neighborhood. The film is not for the faint of heart and doesn’t pull back from showing the evil that men do. Expect to see Viola Davis honored for characteristically superb work – she’s daring, direct and dramatically controlled – and it would be wonderful if McQueen’s thoughtful female-led thriller catches fire at the box office and awards season.
Note: This film will be available in wide release theatrically November 16, 2018.
A much more subtle breakout than Moonlightfor 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.
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.
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.
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.
Tinseltown’s swaggering hero Burt Reynolds passed away today, and one of this famously mustached actor’s final movies is Adam Rifkin’s The Last Movie Star (C-), now available on demand after a spring premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. This autumnal Tennessee-set tribute to a faded star – the ornery type who routinely uses words such as schmuck, putz and tuchas – co-opts some of the screen legend’s real-life highs and lows as he commences a requiem for his glory days. Lured to a small-time movie retrospective where organizers plan to fete him with lifetime achievement status, Reynolds’ aging protagonist ends up by happenchance accompanying a miscreant ingenue (Ariel Winter) on an uneven misadventure down memory lane. Reynolds is by far the film’s main attraction, channeling an effectively wry melancholy in increasingly emotive sequences, plus he also gets to confront his younger selves through wizardry of digital insertion into archival footage aboard a boat in Deliverance and passenger-side with “The Bandit.” Winter’s off-kilter acting improves as the film progresses; the same cannot be said about other supporting cast members Clark Duke, Ellar Coltrane or Chevy Chase. Any movie with a Cheerwine bottle as a plot device can’t be all bad, and it’s Reynolds himself who’s bringing forth the fizzy vintage. Rifkin is clearly out of his depth and stumbles intermittently with attempts at broad humor and overreaching melodrama, but his leading man delivers a third act rally. The stuntman turned journeyman actor earns additional credibility and respect in a “life mirrors art” Hollywood ending.
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.
A hit at Sundance, the film was the opening night presentation at the Atlanta Film Festival. It premiered everywhere July 20, 2018 and is now available for purchase or rental.