BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

Directing: C
Acting: B+
Writing: C
Cinematography: B
Editing: C+

I suppose I’ll start with the good things I have to say about Bohemian Rhapsody. There really aren’t that many.

Perhaps most notable is that in spite of the well publicized troubles during production, or maybe because of them, this movie exceeds expectations — particularly from certain points of view. It opening moments in particular are fantastic: the 20th Century FOX logo with fanfare retooled to sound like Queen riffs; an opening shot of Freddie Mercury (a well cast Rami Malik) sitting up in bed and then coughing, indicating instantly where this story is ultimately going.

I hesitate to say it’s all downhill from there, but I will say it’s a steady decline, at least in light of how wildly contrived nearly every moment in this movie is. What passes for an “audition” when Mercury suddenly bursts into song at the other band members who have just lost their lead singer, as they load a van after a gig? Come on.

That said, one can argue both ways as to the effectiveness of “mainstreaming” and “straight-washing” Freddie Mercury’s tragic gay story, and in fact I did just that with the friend with whom I saw the movie. And there are certainly fair points, about there being older audiences who should see this movie — people with revisionist memories of a band they loved but with a lead singer whose sexuality they either ignored or denied. Bohemian Rhapsody makes it perfectly clear that Freddie Mercury was gay, and that he died of AIDS, and it has only empathy for him as such, as do his band mates as portrayed here. These are not insignificant things.

But here’s the sticking point for me. A movie having those noble characteristics does not alone make it good. Freddie Mercury’s sickness itself is presented in a hokey, even dopey manner. When he coughs into a white kerchief and then sees droplets of blood on it, all I could think was, Did he have “the consumption”? This isn’t Moulin Rouge! — or at least it’s not supposed to be.

Its potential for reaching audiences that might otherwise have steered away from it notwithstanding, the sanitizing of nearly every aspect of this story is difficult for me to get past. It falls into tropes of “gay storytelling” that are seriously dated, such as the idea that an audience can stomach seeing a straight couple in bed but not a gay one.

Now, to be fair, the fact of Mercury’s gayness itself is unsubtle here, and not only does he have more than one same-sex kiss, he even gets a poignantly sweet scene with the man who would later become his lifelong partner (Jim Hutton, played by Aaron McCuster). This is kind of the exception that proves the rule in this film, where so much of the story is packed into 134 minutes — a typical problem of biopics — that every part of it is glossed over, and thus denied any real depth.

It’s also nice to see Mercury’s Parsi-Indian heritage get so much play in this story; how many people even knew that about him? He isn’t shown here to have a whole lot of pride in it, though, and according to this account he willfully ignored, if not actively denied it, often rather disrespecting his parents in the process.

Mercury is portrayed here as wildly insecure in every matter except his vocal ability (he pointedly tells us his unusually large mouth allows for greater range), and one is left to wonder how accurate that really was. The same could not quite be said of his band mates, who get a fair amount of focus as a three-person unit, if not so much as individuals. Even though Mercury’s two failed solo albums are indication enough that he owed his existence to Queen as much as the band owed its existence to him, Bohemian Rhapsody resists the idea that this should be “The Freddie Mercury Story,” even though that remains effectively what it is.

So go the limitations of an”authorized biography” — the living members of the band being intimately involved in narrative choices in the telling of their story, obscuring whatever warts there were with the makeup of Hollywood movie making. Almost none of the verbal exchanges in this movie come across as authentic. But, by all accounts, audiences are loving Bohemian Rhapsody far more than critics are, and although I totally understand why, from my critical position I find myself caught in the middle. Here is what is basically a bad movie, which has a certain usefulness. On a certain, sociopolitical level, it works. From a strictly cinematic level, this is just another forgettably bland movie about a beloved rock band which transparently sidesteps the most compelling truths of their story.

bohemian rhapsody.jpg

Overall: C+

SUSPIRIA

Directing: C
Acting: B+
Writing: C-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: C+
Special Effects: B

Spoiler alert: I don’t know what the fuck is going on in Suspiria, and I’m not convinced you will either. Or if you do, maybe you can get back to me and fill me in? Because I am at a loss.

More specifically: what, exactly, are all the witches led by Madame Blanc (a truly fantastic Tilda Swinton, the only great thing about this movie) preparing to do with this new talented dancer arriving at a 1970s Berlin ballet school, Susie (Dakota Johnson)? This is the central conceit through most of this far too long, 152-minute film, culminating in a bloody climax bewildering in its excess, and I could not tell you what was supposed to have happened to Susie in the process. Is she possessed by one of the “three mothers” in the end? Was she actually one of them all along? Susie possesses a curious confidence throughout this story, no matter how truly bizarre and incomprehensible things get.

Swinton, by the way, plays multiple parts. In addition to Madame Blanc, she is also plays the one significant male part, a German psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Josef Klemperer. If this is some abstract feminist statement, it is neutralized a bit by the fact that both the director (Call Me By Your Name’s Luca Guadagnino, whose previous film, A Bigger Splash, also starred both Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton — and was much better than this) and the script writer (David Kajganich, also of A Bigger Splash) are men. The original, Italian 1977 version of Suspiria was at least co-written by a woman; in this largely incoherent remake — still set in the seventies — one is left to wonder whether a woman director and/or writer would have made the same choices. By the end, it seems to indulge in blood and gore just for the sake of blood and gore.

To put it more succinctly: at the beginning of this Suspiria, I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. Then Susie arrives at this ballet school, and a comprehensible story seems to be taking form. And by the end . . . I didn’t know what the fuck was going on.

With that in mind, what else can I tell you about it, really? There is a sequence relatively early on in which a spell put on Susie during a rehearsal performance is translated into an instantaneous curse on one of her classmates (Elena Fokina), forcing her into mimicked dance moves to such an exaggerated degree that her limbs are twisted to the point of breaking countless bones in her body. It is effectively horrifying, and the one moment in the film that makes it feel like things are going somewhere.

Later — much, much later; this movie is way too long — the dance troupe puts on a fantastically choreographed performance, shot with equal parts beauty and tension, itself a sequence that could have had far greater impact if it had not occurred far past the point of losing interest in whatever the hell is going on. It’s directly after this great dance, swirling around Dakota Johnson as its star, when witchy rivalries come to a head, more ritualistic, dark dances of the sort that would certainly horrify your conservative aunt take place, and virtually everyone onscreen gets drenched in blood. It’s perhaps what Stephen King’s Carrie would have presided over had she gone on to become a Satanic cult leader.

Suspiria is the sort of movie that prides itself on being simultaneously impenetrable and obtuse, far more enamored with itself as “art” than as storytelling. I can see Film Theory students gleefully intellectualizing its countless contradictions, debating its themes, whatever the hell they are. Some say this movie exists in a theoretical region where any viewer can ascribe any label they like to it, and perhaps that is true. So I’ll take my own stab at it: this is a movie with literally nothing to say.

That is, not even as an example of the horror genre. Sure it has its disturbing moments, but I generally avoid horror films because I don’t like being startled or scared. The very opening sequence, the only scene in which we see Chloë Grace Moretz as the running-hysterical ballet student Susie has come to replace, seems designed to set us up for that very expectation: the horrors she runs from are what we are in for. This movie is more interesting in being confusing, to the point of nullifying any potential horrors.

I would have been better off just taking a nap.

  Maybe just find this dance on YouTube in a month.

Maybe just find this dance on YouTube in a month.

Overall: C+

FREE SOLO

Directing: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B

Spoiler alert! Rock climber Alex Honnold is still alive. If you have any issues with heights, I’m not sure that will make viewing the documentary about his free solo climbing El Capitan, a 3,000-foot ascent, any less stressful. I spent a lot of time watching this movie thinking this guy was genuinely insane.

Although in one scene Honnold gets an MRI whose greatest insight is that it takes a lot more than it does most people to scare him, co-directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi don’t delve a whole lot into the psychology behind Honnold’s motivations. Given his inability to get scared by much, the idea that he’s a “thrill seeker” isn’t quite right. It might be more accurate to say he has an obsessive personality. He notes on camera that multiple ex-girlfriends have theorized he must have one mental disorder or another.

And what of the film crew itself? Many of these are people who regard themselves as friends of Alex Honnold, who are also professional rock climbers, and are waited with baited breath — not to mention previously placed cameras on the rock face — to capture this unprecedented achievement. There is some footage of these individuals contemplating the very real possibility that not only could they see their friend plummet to his death, but they would also be filming it. I did find myself wondering, if Honnold had died in this attempt, would they still have made this film? What would they have done with all this footage? Who would even come to see something so tragic, and preventably so?

Predictably the actual free solo climb itself comes rather late in the 100-minute run time of this film, and it’s edited down to maybe five minutes, the climactic sequence the entire film builds p to. And indeed, there is a huge difference between all the practice runs Honnold and his friends do with secured ropes, and the free solo run. For those few minutes, my heart was in my throat. The same was the case for much of the film crew, who are turned into characters in this story themselves. One camera man, stationed behind a camera on the ground looking up at Honnold, has to turn away and refuses to watch, multiple times. I likewise covered my eyes more than once.

Here is one example where video drones prove to be a tremendously effective and economical device. The cinematography in Free Solo is more evocative than anything, edited between the aforementioned ground cameras, the drone, and other climbers holding strategic positions along Honnold’s predetermined climbing route.

Somewhat curiously, Alex Honnold finds the rare steady girlfriend during the filming, and the added romance in his life throws him off his game a tad, getting injured twice in the space of a month. It’s almost like it’s added to goose the drama, although it does feel authentic. And it adds yet another layer to what’s at stake when it comes to the risks Honnold makes, a stark contrast to when he really has to be only concerned with himself on solo climbs with no emotional attachments to the ground below.

Is Free Solo something I would call enjoyable, though? Honestly I found it more stressful than anything, although once Honnold’s insanely lofty goal is met, there is a palpable sense of emotion and maybe even catharsis. Seeing this movie in a movie theatre is certainly a double-edged sword. It might completely freak you out, but to get the full effect of the stress you must see it on the big screen! This film is perhaps made more for those interested in extreme sports than your average movie-goer.

  Hangin’ in there.

Hangin’ in there.

Overall: B

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN

Directing: B
Acting: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B-

I have no particular criticism of The Man and the Gun, except maybe this, something it seems few people want to say: Robert Redford, now 82, is basically coasting. And he’s coasting on . . . well, being Robert Redford. He’s got a pleasant, quiet demeanor in all of his roles of recent years (Pete’s Dragon, A Walk In the Woods, All Is Lost) and doesn’t deviate much from that, always feeling more like “old Robert Redford” plunked into a story rather than allowing himself to get lost in truly distinct characters.

He seems to be a great guy, though, and in Redford’s case that seems to count for a lot. And here we get back to his coasting. Perhaps he realizes that’s been the case, as this reportedly is to be his last role before retiring from acting. He’s been at it for 58 years. He’s had a good run.

As very late-career roles go, The Old Man and the Gun is a perfectly acceptable one. It’s a fairly quiet story, with its share of charms, far from flashy, even shot in the style of its early-eighties setting. This is the story of Forrest Tucker, a lifelong criminal who spent his last lawbreaking years with a string of Texas bank robberies. To a much lesser extent, it’s also the story of his two frequent accomplices, played with welcome presence by Danny Glover and Tom Waits.

Forrest also meets a quasi-love interest, right in the opening sequence of the film, during his getaway from the bank heist underway when director and co-writer David Lowery first introduces him to us. This is the solitary lady whose kids have grown and gone, and now she lives on her large tract of land with tree horses, named Jewel — played by Sissy Spacek, by far the best performance in the movie. And even she is pretty even-keeled, but Spacek has a knack for a sort of comforting warmth. Her Jewel barely has any kind of internal struggles, yet she feels like the most fully realized character here. Even with her characteristic southern drawl, Spacek is very believable as completely different people.

As Forrest barely keeps his criminal antics a secret from Jewel, there’s a cop on his heels, John Hunt (Casey Affleck). Forrest sees John on local TV announcing his dedication to catching him, and decides to engaged in a bit of subtle trickery with him, a playful bit of cat and mouse.

There is a level of fun and charm to all this, albeit with a definitive lack of depth or insight into any of these characters. Lowery presents this story with a sensibility that says, “Isn’t this a great story,” and little else. The cast is competent with limited material.

There’s something to it being intended as a man’s final role, on the other hand. Redford is hardly going out with a bang here, but neither is he quite going out with a whimper. Not exactly a triumph and not exactly a failure, The Man and the Gun is executed with a quiet confidence. It has nothing in particular to prove, and neither does Robert Redford. They don’t have to, really. This is an old man having the kind of fun an old man can have — without straining himself. It’s tempting to say the same of Forrest Tucker himself, except that he clearly over-extends himself. But instead of showing anything that might require much in the way of action, The Old Man and the Gun just edits it out, and we catch up with its characters just as the are recovering.

This is a movie that is generally pleasant, with a fair share of charms, and no interest in getting intellectual about the proceedings, which it could have done well with. Lowery, and Redford, could have had something clear to say about the aging of a man who never truly matures, but they couldn’t be bothered. But who says every story has to be a challenge, anyway? Sometimes a person just wants to have a last bit of harmless fun.

  Would you believe me if I said I was a geezer who robs banks?

Would you believe me if I said I was a geezer who robs banks?

Overall: B

BEAUTIFUL BOY

Directing: B-
Acting: B+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B
Editing: B-

It might come across to some as being somewhere on the spectrum between disingenuous and self-righteous for me, a white guy, to declare Beautiful Boy the epitome of white privilege, but I can’t deny that I thought a lot about it while watching this movie.

I’ll be clear about this first off: the story of father and son David Sheff and Nic Sheff (Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet, respectively) dealing with Nic’s persistent drug addiction is a worthy one. It even hits close to home, given that I do have a family member with a history of drug addiction, as many of us do — another family member even loaned me Nic’s memoir, Tweak, one of the two books on which this movie is based; the other is the book of the same title as the movie, written by David. I long planned to read it, and may yet, but still haven’t.

But there is also no denying what informs the very existence of those books, and by extension this movie: the expectation of empathy and a lack of judgment. And where does this expectation come from? This story is about an upper-middle-class, white family.

Late in Beautiful Boy, there is a scene with David and his wife Karen (Maura Tierney), attending an Al-Anon meeting, or something akin to it. They sit in silent resignation about Nic, as they listen to another woman deliver a monologue about having recently lost a loved one to an overdose. This is a clear example of David and Karen knowing empathy in the most tragic of ways, but here’s the thing: Where’s that woman’s movie? There’s a sort of sad irony to having seen Beautiful Boy right after seeing The Hate U Give, which pointedly addresses how institutionalized racism pushes black communities denied resources into drug dealing and addiction, and then blames them and denies them the empathy that Beautiful Boy assumes is a given for its characters. And even in The Hate U Give, the protagonist is a well-educated, stellar young woman who happens to witness the shooting of her best friend by a white cop. It’s far from the kind of “honest examination” of drug addiction that Beautiful Boy purports itself to be.

And strangely, Beautiful Boy doesn’t even bother to show us how the hell Nic got into drugs in the first place. What were the circumstances? Are we to suppose this kid, who had every conceivable advantage, tried every drug under the sun, and ultimately became addicted to crystal meth, simply by random chance? Presumably the memoir reveals that. This movie, on the other hand, tells the story of Nic’s relentlessly vicious cycle, getting clean and relapsing, over and over again, until his loving parents — including the mother who lives in another city, played by the unfortunately under-used Amy Ryan — are forced to accept that they are powerless to save their son from his own self-destruction.

To their credit, the performances are solid all around. I’m not sure that alone means you need to see this movie, however. I don’t regret seeing it, myself, and I suppose it has a usefulness as an indicator that other families in similar situations are not alone. (Again, I get back to this, though: that relatability is aimed squarely at white audiences, this movie’s couple of black characters in very bit parts notwithstanding.) It paints a woefully incomplete picture, with its ending title cards referring to the epidemic of meth addiction in this country. The vast majority of the people having this problem do not look like this family — hell, even the vast majority of white people with this problem don’t — and it says something that it’s this family’s story that was declared worth sharing. I’m all for feeling compassion for the Sheff family, and their story is a compelling one that leaves you wishing them the best. The attention they get is still at the expense of many others who are no less deserving.

  So should we talk about the subtext here?

So should we talk about the subtext here?

Overall: B-

THE HATE U GIVE

Directing: B+
Acting: B
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

The Hate U Give is perhaps a good example of what happens when white people shut up, get out of the way, and let people of color tell their own stories. Based on the novel of the same name by a black woman (Angie Thomas), directed by a black man (George Tillman Jr.), and featuring an overwhelmingly black ensemble cast, it has much to relate regarding black experience, and much for non-black people to learn about it.

Now, is any of it particularly new? In a way, yes: the novel is written for a young adult audience, and the film is age-appropriate for adolescents as well. Or, at least, adolescents who must learn hard truths about the world they live in. “We live in a complicated world,” says one character, a black cop who openly admits that he himself is more likely to tell a white suspect to put his hands up before shooting, and more likely to shoot a black suspects.

How polarizing is this movie, I wonder? Perhaps plenty, depending on the people reacting to it. It’s telling the critics are giving it praise — a “must-see” score of 82 at MetaCritic.com — with a decidedly mixed user rating of 5.4. There are plenty of overrated movies, sure, but when the subject matter is race relations, detractors predictably come out of the woodwork for the sole purpose of lowering the averages of viewer ratings. Half the time they’re people who haven’t even bothered to watch the movie or consider what it has to say.

These are no longer the days of Do the Right Thing, however. The Hate U Give isn’t going to be causing any firestorms, no fights breaking out in theatres, arguably largely due to the general desensitization and the commodification of many of the issues here. Are there legitimate reasons to criticize this movie? Sure there are. The aforementioned people of color telling their own stories gets slightly muddled by a white screenwriter, Audrey Wells. That’s not as big a deal with a black director, though, and besides — Wells died of cancer this very month, the day before the movie opened, so there is clearly not much use in pressing this as an issue.

That said, honestly, the dialogue in The Hate U Give can veer into overused platitudes: “It’s the same story, just a different name.” On the other hand, this movie’s target audience is not likely to be old enough to see such statements that way. Maybe our youth actually needs to be hearing these things, and in particular, getting a sense of how the experiences of black families differ from the average white one. It’s great to see the inclusion of a line like “If you don’t see color then you don’t see me,” because for too long white people have insisted on their own moral superiority by claiming not to “see color,” without realizing it has the opposite effect of what they intend.

To the credit of everyone involved, The Hate U Give has far more nuance, and sophistication of storytelling, than most young adult fiction does. One does wonder how many white people will see it just to pat themselves on the back for having done so, otherwise allowing the detractors to continue varying versions of the same cycle the story presents: black people insisting they’re being mistreated (with ample evidence); white people refusing the acknowledge the obvious.

I keep getting back to the target audience, though. If the Parkland shooting survivors have taught us anything this year, it’s that kids as a group have long been vastly underestimated. It’s the grown-ups who can’t be relied on or trusted. Why not tell this story that has been told tragically, over and over, through the eyes of a 16-year old? Specifically, a 16-year-old black girl?

Amandla Stenberg is well cast as that girl, Starr Carter, who is the single witness to the police shooting of her childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith). Her perspective is a unique one, at least among those usually shared in stories like this: she is caught between identities, code switching in her day to day transitions between her home life — itself an unusually positive portrayal of a peaceful, loving, tight-knit family — and her life at a mostly white private school. And when she is witness to the shooting, she must contend with a kind of pressure no 16-year-old should ever be burdened with.

So, if you suspected The Hate U Give (a reference to a Tupac Shakur lyric’s acronym for “thug”) is a bit heavier than you tend to want in your movie-going experience, you’re probably right. This is more of a thinker than entertainment, although it still works as simply compelling storytelling. The editing and the acting could use a little finessing at times, it runs a little long, and there’s a definite element of preaching to the choir. But if anyone wants to ask, “What’s the point, then?” — I would push back against that. There are many points, actually, not least of which is the worthiness of supporting decent films that feature diverse casts, of which this year in particular has yielded several strong examples. It’s heartening to see this happening in Hollywood, where people seem slowly but surely waking up to the idea that specific stories can appeal to nonspecific audiences.

“Appeal” is a sort of tricky descriptor in the case of The Hate U Give. The story is unappealing, but needed. It’s not quite as terribly sad as you might expect, at least. I grabbed a big wad of napkins with the expectation of crying a lot more than I did. (I only needed one of them.) The large cast is certainly appealing. And George Tillman Jr. uses that cast to illustrate unalienable truths about black existence in America, as opposed to weighing us down with the heaviness. There are even several moments of welcome levity. Some moments are contrived and oversimplified, but mostly in ways that frankly matter less to younger audiences, so really, who cares?

I can’t say I found The Hate U Give particularly illuminating, given that I’ve simply been paying attention to the way things work in this country, but that hardly makes it useless. Until something changes, it’s just as important not to forget these things, or that how easy it can be to forget them, when you have the privilege. Granted, anyone who chafes at the mention of “privilege” will just reject this movie outright anyway. There remains a utility in efforts to be mindful of different experiences, among the rest of us.

  A brief period of tenderness and relaxation before things change for these kids forever — and too many kids like them.

A brief period of tenderness and relaxation before things change for these kids forever — and too many kids like them.

Overall: B+

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE

Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B
Music: A-

Here is yet another film that isn’t quite the one you expect based on the trailer — Bad Times at the El Royale isn’t quite as good as it looks in that window dressing. On the other hand, it’s not quite as bad as the mixed reviews would suggest, either. At least, not if you can appreciate what it has to offer, and it has a lot.

It as a lot to offer those who appreciate the cinematic, and clever storytelling — if a bit overlong: this movie did not need to run 141 minutes. It sure is pretty to look at, though, each set piece a carefully laid out diorama of consciously detailed lines and colors. Bad Times at the El Royale might be worth seeing just for its production design.

Hell, it might be worth seeing just for Chris Hemsworth. He plays a very bad man indeed here, albeit one not particularly well fleshed out — although that could be said of any one of this ensemble cast, really. Character dimension in this case is kind of beside the point. They way these people’s thinly drawn stories fit together as they all converge into this one hotel might be called “Tarantino Lite.” The same could be said of the violence, which — and in a way it deserves credit for this — is shocking in consistently fun ways. More than once I jumped out of my seat, and laughed almost as quickly.

But let’s get back to Chris Hemsworth. He doesn’t even show up until maybe halfway through the film. It’s worth the wait, just for his V-cut abs. If you thought Chris Hemsworth was hot before, just wait until you see this. I don’t think there’s a single scene here where his shirt isn’t hanging open. In one scene, he dances toward the camera with his arms outstretched, and all I could think was, Holy shit. If he’s the cult leader, I might happily join. Anyway, I’m getting distracted.

To be fair, Bad Times at the El Royale Hotel is much more than the meat on display. The plot is too labyrinthine to explain adequately here, and watching it unfold is really the fun of this movie — so long as you have the patience for its measured pacing, particularly in the beginning. An early sequence in which the four main hotel patrons arrive in the lobby (played by Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, John Hamm and Dakota Johnson) lasts quite some time. It’s probably not until halfway through the sequence before the concierge (Lewis Pullman) even appears.

There’s a nice little gimmick to this hotel: it has two branches, each on either side of the state line between California and Nevada. The line runs right through the center of the fantastically designed lobby, which has a separate and distinct look on either side. The place lost its gambling license a year ago, which explains why only four people are checking in on this particular day. It’s quite the coincidence that all four show up within minutes of each other but whatever. There is also, it turns out, a corridor that runs along the back of each of these rooms, with a two-way mirror through which “management” can look on undetected. We never find out quite enough about how or why this came to be, but provides plenty of fodder for many of this movie’s fun twists.

I found myself plenty engaged in this story despite its shortcomings. Things keep happening that are impossible to see coming, even if each person not being what they appear to be is itself predictable. Writer-director Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods) is clearly plenty pleased with himself here, maybe a tad too much so. This movie isn’t going to work for everybody — but it works for me, even if it does have a certain potential it doesn’t quite realize. The storytelling skims close to thrilling, and then takes certain turns that seem a bit like an easy out.

But the great stuff in it — it’s really great. And not just the production design. This is not at all a musical, but since Cynthia Erivo plays a lounge singer, she spends a lot of time practicing, and we are treated to a surprising lot of songs through her spectacular voice. It’s another thing that makes this movie worth seeing. Chris Hemsworth’s abs, Cynthia Erivo’s voice. A sprinkling of deliciously dark humor. A unique tone. This movie has its flaws, but it also very much stands apart, in a host of memorable ways.

  Just waiting around for Chris Hemsworth’s abs to show up.

Just waiting around for Chris Hemsworth’s abs to show up.

Overall: B

FIRST MAN

Directing: B+
Acting: A-
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+
Special Effects: A

So is First Man the Apollo 13 of our time? Not exactly: presumably if this had been called Apollo 11, the focus would have been exclusively on the Apollo 11 mission that first landed man on the moon. That might have made an even better movie, to be honest.

Instead, director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) broadens the scope, detailing in 141 minutes the seven years leading up to Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) becoming that “first man” of the title, and focusing on him as an individual, both as an astronaut and as a family man.

The degree to which a focus was needed on either side of Armstrong is easily the most debatable aspect of First Man. It’s like two movies, intercut with each other. The stuff showing Armstrong engaging training, and in test and practice missions, are steeped in impressive detail and undeniably gripping, but also very dispassionate in presentation. As is the man himself, which informs the stuff showing him at home with a housewife (Clarie Foy, doing an excellent job with the usually thankless role of the “worried wife”) and two kids.

This is an entire family dealing with the loss of a two-year-old daughter, which Chazelle uses as the plot point to amp up the emotion that exists almost entirely within the family-at-home sequences. It’s also the one point of crossover between these scenes and those of Armstrong’s work as an astronaut, culminating in an emotionally climactic moment during his moon walk, which seems to strain believability, but apparently — spoiler alert at this link! — is more plausible than one might assume.

Ryan Gosling’s performance is excellent, understated in a way that will likely get him Oscar recognition but not flashy enough to get him a win (especially if competing with Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born). This is a guy who is emotionally repressed, after all — a character trait that hinders him at home but proves critically useful for his focus at work.

In hindsight, the special effects are perhaps the most impressive part of First Man — employed so skillfully that you don’t even register that you’re seeing effects shots most of the time. It’s easy not to notice, given how astonishingly analog the technology was at the time, accomplishing things not done routinely even now, fifty years later. That famously “giant leap for mankind” was clearly not as wide a leap as was assumed back then: this was an event that had the world imagining humanity spending time in space as a matter of course within that amount of time.

As Armstrong states in the film, “A lot of things have to go right” before they can successfully land on the moon. A lot of things went wrong — many of them terribly, tragically wrong — for them to get to that point. That is really the story being told here, and for the most part, it is gripping. The jury will likely always be out on the necessity of the emotional, family element, transparently played up here as part of typical Hollywood movie-making practice.

Personally, I was pretty much down with it all. First Man sheds light on a lot of detail never quite presented in the same way in popular entertainment. It also employs a whole lot of thoroughly unnecessary hand-held cinematography, something we don’t need so much when we’re just, say, watching two neighborhood housewives conversing on the street. A shaky camera inside a cockpit, on the other hand, is very effective — the opening sequence in which Armstrong nearly floats out into space on an early test mission is incredible. And interspersed with this excessively shaky camera work are brief shots all throughout the film which are stunning in both their beauty and their matter-of-factness.

First Man does seem to want to have it both ways, to succeed on that matter-of-factness while also emotionally manipulating us with his wife and young children. The sequences of Armstrong the astronaut are nearly clinical in their precision, somewhat reminiscent of the detached storytelling of Paul Greengrass’s United 93. And that movie was criticized for its lack of any real emotional hook, and I for one an glad First Man made the effort to have a heart, however overwrought it might be at times.

  Ryan Gosling gets the job done.

Ryan Gosling gets the job done.

Overall: B+

THE SISTERS BROTHERS

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

How many American Westerns have been made? Hundreds, surely — probably thousands. It’s a genre that became the first example of American mythology in motion pictures, pre-dating the likes of Star Wars, which dominated the culture in the late 20th century, and superhero movies, which dominate the culture in the early 21st. The Western, which used to be churned out at breakneck speed, waned in cultural significance decades ago. If you want to make one now, and have people pay attention, it really has to stand apart, particularly from the countless Westerns that preceded it.

And so we get to The Sisters Brothers, which is a Western merely as a backdrop. You could more accurately call it a period piece, a costume drama set in Oregon and Northern California in the 1850s. The costumes happen to be those of the American Old West, not exactly cowboy, although they certainly get around on horses. There are no Native American characters in this story. This is about early gold rush prospectors, paid killers, and paid-killers-turned-prospectors. Even those are backdrop details, as this is most specifically about the relationship between two brothers, Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), who share the last name of “Sisters.”

They’re excellent at what they do. The Sisters Brothers opens with a wide shot, kept static and wide as the viewer witnesses an ambush on a house in a wide field at night, bright flashes of gunfire seen at random spots on the screen, barely illuminating their immediate area for split seconds. The Sisters Brothers are two against many, contracted to kill only one of the men in this house, and they win.

They also don’t exactly have other careers to fall back on. They have only each other. They are incredibly close, they get under each other’s skin — but in subtle, believable ways that make it easy to believe these two are brothers. They share a tragic past within their family that set them on this path.

Here is another film with frustratingly misleading marketing. The trailers make The Sisters Brothers look way more “fun” than it actually is, featuring self-conciously cool, snappy editing that does nothing to represent the film itself, which is something far deeper, far more contemplative. Particularly for a Western, this is much more a work of art than of action. Gun fights are messy. Horrible accidents happen.

If nothing else, The Sisters Brothers ultimately demonstrates how truly random one’s life trajectory can be. Where these characters wind up in the end is nowhere near any typical Western of yesteryear would take them. There is neither catharsis nor blowout, no particular epiphanies or breakthroughs.

There are certainly fascinating detours. Eli and Charlie have set out to meet up with a tracker named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has in turn captured a prospector, Hermann (Riz Ahmed) who has come up with a chemical formula that can be used to illuminate gold in a stream at night. Director and co-writer Jacques Audiard, here making his first English language feature film, has a knack for sprinkling details indicative of larger themes rarely made explicit in his storytelling. After Hermann demonstrates how he prospects with these chemicals, we briefly see the stream the following morning, littered with dead fish. Where might this stream be carrying that crap?

There are several unforgettable images from this film. A horse escaped from a burning barn, itself set aflame. In one truly horrifying scene, we see a spider crawl right into the mouth of a man sleeping by a fire. At first this seems like it’s just a random detail, but like the butterfly that changes the weather around the world, these are details that matter, setting off subtle differences in each event that follows. And really, it is a random detail. It is also important to the story.

As well constructed as this film undeniably is, I struggle to think who it’s for, exactly. It has moments of dark beauty, one or two moments of subtly dark humor, a few chaotic gun fights. There’s a pretty high body count, many of the deaths senseless, or at best the result of people knowingly yet foolishly trying to get in the Sisters Brothers’ way.

And then, in the end, after being robbed of a climax they only thought they were headed for, The Sisters Brothers ends on a surprising note of sweetness, featuring a brief appearance by Carol Kane. Rutger Hauer appears as the Commodore, the brothers’ employer, and even more briefly: only twice, at different points in the movie, from a distance. He doesn’t even having any lines. The focus is always squarely on the brothers, even during the first half when Hermann and John are intercut as a sort of “B story.”

There’s a lot to consider in The Sisters Brothers, although considering it all is not necessary to appreciate the film. Suffice it to say that the four leads all give solid performances, each of them uniquely nuanced. Any movie set in the American West made in the 21st century must indeed have something unique to offer, and this one is certainly a far cry from brainless entertainment. Honestly if that’s what you’re looking for, this will bore you. I found myself appreciating how it meanders with a purpose, and found its conclusion oddly satisfying considering how surprisingly subdued it is in the end.

  There’s a lot more going on here than you might think.

There’s a lot more going on here than you might think.

Overall: B+

COLETTE

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B

Apparently Colette was the Madonna of early 20th-century France. Courting controversy, offering massively popular salacious entertainment, flirting with bisexuality and playing against gender norms. The sad irony is that Colette’s literary output in the first decade of the 1900s was still far more tolerated in France than it would have been in America fifty years later.

We really need more movies like Colette, detailing women around the world who were way ahead of their time, and moved along the evolution of their cultures. Even by today’s standards, it’s rare to see a period costume drama so feminist in nature — time and again, we’ve seen historical films that either ignored the women in favor of the men in control, or dwell on how shitty women had it.

Colette isn’t quite that kind of movie. Keira Knightley plays the title role as a woman in a truly progressive relationship by just about most standards, a husband, Willy (Dominic West), who admits it would be hypocritical to forbid his wife her own romantic flings when he himself sleeps around. But, as one of several women Colette becomes involved with notes, “He keeps you on a long leash — but it’s still a leash.”

In essence, Colette is still the story of a woman breaking free of the constraints of the man in her life. She is also the real-life French writer, the most celebrated female novelist of that country, whose first four novels were actually published under her husband’s name. Willy is already an established writer who has people ghost writing for him, and once he marries Colette, in his mind it seems natural that she should contribute. In at least one instance he literally locks her in a room until she produces some pages.

Willy isn’t exactly depicted as malicious here. He’s just increasingly clueless, a guy who fancies himself forward-thinking by virtue of the permissions he grants his wife, but who still says Colette publishing under her own name is a ridiculous idea because women writers don’t sell.

It takes a while for Colette’s story to coalesce. Having no knowledge of the historical, real-life writer, I spent some of the first 20 minutes or so of this movie wondering exactly where this story was going. But, these scenes do provide some vital information about Colette’s background, particularly her childhood home in the country with an amputee veteran father (Robert Pugh) and stern but tender mother (Fiona Shaw).

And then, a little while after starting their married life, Colette begins writing for Willy. This ultimately proves a precarious scenario, with Willy occasionally paranoid about word getting out about her being the actual author of these wildly popular novels written under his name. In the meantime, Colette’s romantic exploits allow for some luminous actors in supporting roles: Eleanor Tomlinson as Georgie, who plays Colette and Willy against each other; Denise Gough as the wonderfully androgynous Missy, who proves to be Colette’s most enduring relationship.

Colette must go through a series of subtle outside influences — including that of her own mother — before it dawns on her what kind of hold her husband really has over her. It gets back to that “long leash” still being a leash: he holds her back, and this is the story of how a woman in the 1900s found her way on her own terms. It seems we’ve gotten an unusually wide variety of stories of such women this year, and honestly there can never be too many. We’ve had decades — hell, millennia — of the heroic man in our stories. Women getting their turn is long overdue, and Colette sits quite comfortably among them.

  Behind every two-faced man is a straightforward woman: Colette.

Behind every two-faced man is a straightforward woman: Colette.

Overall: B+