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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Seaside like Chekhov, housebound like O’Neill and carousel adjacent like Rodgers and Hammerstein, Woody Allen stages a most superficial and unsatisfying drama in a picture perfect 1950s Coney Island in Wonder Wheel (D+), a film that spins in the same rote roulette of themes the writer/director has plumbed for the past few decades. Lazy plot and characters do Allen’s actors no favors in a story that involves infidelity and underworld crime without the slightest of high stakes. Kate Winslet is largely wasted as the put-upon protagonist, and Justin Timberlake and Juno Temple get precious little to work with either. Jim Belushi is simply subpar, regardless of the stock character he embodies. There’s a soliloquy toward the end that almost rescues the affair, but most of the time viewers are aboard simply for Allen’s humdrum amusement. His imitation of life as we know it comes across here as rusty and mechanical.
A triumph of production design with a colorful supporting cast surrounding a bit of a hollow central storyline, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (B) reimagines The Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1960s Cold War Baltimore with Sally Hawkins as a mute janitor at a military science lab who falls for Doug Jones’ captive Amphibious Man. It’s a visually arresting and solidly rendered fairy tale for adults, but the quirky central couple doesn’t get to do much more than display the traits of their tropes in an update of archetypes. Hawkins is effective in the quirky lead role, but the juiciest parts are played by Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer as her wry sidekicks and Michael Shannon as a corrupt colonel with a penchant for popping pills from a grotesque gangrenous hand. His unhinged performance, marked by a myriad of deplorable traits, is one of the film’s most notable delights. Alexandre Desplat’s score, layered with stardust melodies from classic Hollywood, sets the mood gracefully for outcasts in love. Del Toro clearly has a singular vision for his monster romance, but the film suffers from tonal shifts as its final act revolves into a protracted waiting game. Ultimately this beauty is missing a few beats.
A wholesome and uplifting tale of empathy and inclusion, Stephen Chbosky’s Wonder (B+) traces the impact a middle schooler with disfiguring Treacher Collins syndrome has on his family and classmates. The story isn’t especially revolutionary – it’s full of familiar tropes with friends and bullies and overcoming obstacles – but it’s the heartfelt grace and gravitas that Chbosky and his game cast bring to the enterprise that provide the film such incredible lift. Jacob Tremblay anchors the story and provides a lived-in realism piercing through the prosthetics. Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson are bright spots as his encouraging parents. The supporting cast also includes Mandy Patinkin and Daveed Diggs as role model educators. Izabela Vidovic is particularly poignant as the family’s “other sibling” facing her own outsider status as she embarks on college life. Other child actors are uniformly effective. The filmmakers play a game of emotional Rashomon by depicting a particular series of sequences from multiple character POVs, and this is a nice touch to show what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. In light of many cruel events out of today’s headlines, the film delivers sterling instruction of individuals and families and communities to do better. It joins Rudy and Lucas as a triumph of this genre. Pack handkerchiefs for the viewing.