GLORIA BELL

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

Full disclosure: I did not realize until I sat down to write this review that Gloria Bell is director Sebastián Lelio’s English language remake of his own Chilean film from 2013, which got a U.S. run in 2014 and which I did not like. It’s a curious experience to re-read that review I wrote five years ago, describing a film virtually identical to this one but with different actors, and yet — this one, I actually liked.

I’d have to re-watch the original to truly jog my own memory about it, but one key difference seems to be the editing: one of my chief complaints about the original was its scenes that went on for minutes too long. That movie cocked in at an hour and 50 minutes and felt twenty minutes too long; this one is all of eight minutes shorter, and honestly it still could have worked better with maybe ten minutes shaved off — but, it undeniably works better regardless.

A key factor here could be nothing short of experience. I never made the connection until now, that Lelio also directed the very good film about Jewish lesbians, Disobedience (2017), as well as the truly excellent, semi-fantastical about a trans woman, A Fantastic Woman (2017) — which starred a trans woman, and garnered Lelio a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last year. I am literally realizing only as I write this that Sebastián Lelio is a director who commands attention, someone whose films I should see just knowing he is the one making them.

It’s as though Lelio went on to make far better movies as practice before returning to Gloria to make it again, only this time he did a much better job. It would seem that not all critics agree with me — the crtitical consensus remains slightly higher for Gloria than for Gloria Bell (83 versus 80 on MetaCritic), and honestly, even now I find the score oddly high. Why do critics regard these as such bastions of excellent filmmaking?

When it comes to Gloria Bell, I would say it’s an example of very good filmmaking — a great showcase for Julianne Moore at the age of 58, to be sure, but realistically, how many people will mark this as one of her “great performances” in years to come? This is a very good movie that works very well in the context of its time, and that’s basically where it will stay.

As with Gloria before it, Gloria Bell begins with a series of scenes depicting a fairly mundane life of a woman divorced twelve years on, with two grown children with problems of their own who can’t be much bothered to notice her relatively lonely existence.

One thing that sticks out pretty early on, however, is Gloria’s agency as a character. She spends a lot of time going to clubs to go dancing (although, again, I wonder where these clubs packed with middle-aged dancers actually exist), which she loves to do and has zero self-consciousness about it. She repeatedly introduces herself to men, often making the first move. This is a woman not interested in wasting her time.

Soon enough, she catches the eye of a man, Arnold (John Turturro), and they embark on a relationship that basically establishes this film as a romance for the older set. Critics may love this movie, but it’s difficult to see it as a popular choice as a first date movie for young lovers. The trailer to Gloria Bell was edited to make it seem like a funnier movie than it really is; in reality, it has a subtle through line of melancholy to it. I won’t spoil anything, particularly a pretty satisfying move that Gloria makes in the end, but suffice it to say, Arnold does not turn out to be the greatest guy. I spent a lot of time rooting for her to just be rid of him once and for all.

I must mention, beyond all that, how great the cinematography is in this movie — everyone and everything is shot noticeably well, particularly Julianne Moore as the title character, who has never looked better. The movie itself acknowledges this, in a way, when a woman at the bar at the dance club asks her if she’s had work done, because she looks so great — and Gloria says she has not, and thanks the woman for being so complimentary.

Everyone looks great in this movie, though, which includes an impressive list of stars in supporting roles: Brad Garrett as Gloria’s ex-husband and Jeanne Tripplehorn as his current wife; Michael Cera as her son and Holland Taylor as her mother; Rita Wilson as one of her friends, and even Sean Astin in a stint as an evening fling so brief he barely has a couple of lines. One can only assume a lot of these actors were eager to work with the director of Disobedience and A Fantastic Woman; I can’t help but wonder how familiar any of them were with the original Gloria.

I’ll certainly give Sebastián Lelio this much: he’s come a long way in the past half decade, as he’s come back and remade a movie I didn’t really like into one that I rather did. The performances are great all around, and if nothing else, longtime fans of Julianne Moore should very much enjoy it as a mature, thoughtful romance that avoids cliché at every turn.

This might be going quite in the direction you think it is.

This might be going quite in the direction you think it is.

Overall: B+

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK

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

If Beale Street Could Talk is a movie full of beautiful people, perfectly framed and gorgeously lit, navigating increasingly sobering lives, an earnest romance at their center. Based on the book by James Baldwin, whose work I have never read, it’s still unsurprising that Baldwin should present a story so frank about both the emotional nuances of everyday lives, and the stark realities of black lives, here presented in early 1970s Harlem.

Director Barry Jenkins, who adapted the screenplay himself, here presents his follow-up to Moonlight, the best movie of 2016, so this has a lot to stack up against. Moonlight remains Jenkins’s definitive achievement, but If Beale Street Could Talk has plenty of its own to offer. Much of the cinematography is similar (James Laxton shot both films), so virtually every frame is stunning to look at — even when the characters are gazing directly into the camera, which happens a lot.

There is something about the trailer, however, that seems to have been slightly misleading. We’re led to believe this story is primarily about young Tish and Fonny’s respective families reacting to Tish being pregnant. The opening scenes are all focused on Tish breaking the news: first to Fonny through visitation glass at the prison where he’s serving time for a crime he did not commit; then to her mother; then to her father and sister; then to Fonny’s parents and sister.

This family visitation sequence goes on for some time, intercut with flashbacks of Tish and Fonny’s budding romance, after years of friendship since childhood. Fonny’s mother in particular is hardcore religious, all judgment in the name of Jesus. It seems curious that there should be such focus on this woman, played excellently by Aunjanue Ellis, only to have her never appear in the story again. Even Fonny’s father (Michael Beach) appears a couple of times after this, however briefly.

So, at first, If Beale Street Could Talk seems to be about families with clashing viewpoints on the single thing that promises to keep them linked forever — Tish and Fonny’s baby. But then we learn why Fonny is in prison, and although there is complexity in the details, the reason is broadly simple: the racist scapegoating of black people. It’s an interesting time to be seeing a movie whose plot hinges on a false accusation of rape, but we might do well to remember that this happening to black men, thereby absolving white men of responsibility, is not exactly without precedent.

It would be easy to pick apart If Beale Street Could Talk on grounds of supposed political correctness — a moment of domestic between the older parents is basically gleaned over by everyone present; Fonny jokingly refers to the baby as a “midget” that kicked Tish from inside the belly. But it’s important to keep the proceedings in historical context. American culture was in a very different place in a lot of these aspects in the early seventies — except, of course, for systemic racism, which far too many people are happy to ignore while nitpicking at these other issues. One wonders if Barry Jenkins might be making a subtle point about this.

Because If Beale Street is by and large made of subtleties, executed with great finesse. This movie certainly stands apart in terms of the story it’s telling, how it’s being told, and the people it’s about — all things it also has in common with Moonlight. This is a romance of unique sensitivity, and in the context of its setting, it’s striking to see a young woman met with such tenderness by her entire family when faced with the prospect of her being pregnant at nineteen. This tenderness includes both her own father (Colman Domingo) as well as Fonny’s father; Tish gets great emotional support as well from her mother (Regina King) and sister (Teyonah Parris).

Jenkins fills his films with indelible imagery, often deeply affecting, whether it be the one love scene depicted between Tish and Fonny, or a wonderful shot of baby, mother and grandmother moments after a home birth. And without exception, Kiki Layne and Stephan James are lovingly shot as their great performances serve as emotional anchor to the arc of their story. From beginning to end, If Beale Street Could Talk has a tone and effect that could only be described as hypnotic.

This movie is no fantasy, though, and it ends with a sense of resignation rather than anything particularly joyful. Upon deeper reflection, it remains a testament to the power of love and devotion, which comes with it at least some sense of uplift. Here is a powerful story which pointedly demonstrates that even when it comes so naturally, love isn’t easy.

Looking into a bottomless well of romantic notions across a narrow divide.

Looking into a bottomless well of romantic notions across a narrow divide.

Overall: B+

A STAR IS BORN

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

Here’s something I didn’t even think to expect from Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born: to feel so seen — as a gay man, as part of a gay community so long associated with appreciation for megastars in movies bearing this name. Few movies have been remade as many times as this one, and certainly no other comes to mind with the same pedigree of icons featured in its many iterations. Judy Gardland. Barbra Streisand. Lady Gaga.

In Bradley Cooper’s telling of the story, we’re treated with a surprisingly queer element: when Cooper’s middle-aged rock star Jackson Maine first meet’s Lady Gaga’s unknown singer Ally, Ally is the one cisgender woman, also singing with her own voice, performing in a drag bar. Among the many drag queens here who pop up a few times over the course of the film is one whose YouTube channel I’ve long subscribed to: Willam Belli. She gets a couple nice gags in to boot, and was a delightful surprise.

So are the entire first two thirds or so of this A Star Is Born, which are, quite simply, spectacular. Watching Jackson and Ally meet and fall in love, as he nudges her into an overnight stardom that quickly overshadows his fading limelight, is enchanting to a truly unexpected degree. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t seen this story before — this specific story is being told for the fourth time here (some might even argue the fifth, as many felt the “original” A Star Is Born in 1937 ripped off the story of a film called What Price Hollywood from five years prior). Every remake thereafter has been a spectacular showcase for its female lead’s talents: Judy Garland in 1954; Streisand in 1976.

The thing about that 1976 version is . . . it sucked. Streisand’s singing was the only good thing about it. After the first film focused solely on movie stars and their acting careers, then the second turned it into a musical, the ‘76 version turned the characters into rock stars. Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born is everything Frank Pierson’s version should have been but just wasn’t.

Bradley Cooper is offering us something quite rare in 2018, a story with exceedingly broad appeal, a love story with great singing that wide swaths of audiences who otherwise often cannot agree with each other can get behind. And that singing! Lady Gaga has a set of pipes tailor made for this role. The first time you hear her sing, she’s doing so softly to herself, walking down an alleyway after getting off work, as the movie’s title comes onscreen. And I got chills. Oh and by the way? Bradley Cooper’s a shockingly good singer too. Sure, in vocal ability Lady Gaga’s way out of his league — but Cooper more than holds his own. It’s genuinely impressive.

As is his entire performance, which is sure to get an Oscar nomination, and his winning would be no tragedy. I must admit to some healthy skepticism that he could pull off both directing and performing in this movie — and I could find no faults on either front.

So how about the music itself, then? Honestly, if anything comes close to being disappointing, it’s the music — which is a sad irony. To be fair, the music is good. It’s just not great. There is no iconic power ballad like, say, The Bodyguard’s “I Will Always Love You.” Even Gaga’s number that predictably closes the film, while emotionally affecting, is almost curiously understated. Gaga’s stellar voice elevates every track on which she sings, but I struggle to imagine the soundtrack taking off in line with the inevitable popularity of the movie itself.

Another quibble: the final act sags a bit, the tragic arc of these two lovers’ respective rise and fall lacking the crackling chemistry of the beginning of their relationship. Ally’s pop stardom is meant to showcase a sort of vapidness that belies her true talent, but the lyrics featured in her “hit single” are so truly dumb it’s distracting. Sure, some artists might get a minor hit singing “Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?” — but a Grammy nomination? It’s painful to see a songwriter of Lady Gaga’s obvious caliber singing such drek, and strains suspension of disbelief.

But! The things that are great about A Star Is Born are just so great — it makes for a genuine crowd pleaser which, beat for beat, hits all the right notes. You could even call this film subtly subversive. What’s not to love about a flawed man who makes terrible mistakes but through it all has eyes only for this one wide-eyed woman, who in turn progressively overcomes a lack of confidence and ambition to showcase awesome talent? A story almost pointedly lacking in sexism, and featuring a seamlessly organic sensibility of inclusion? Which even treats alcoholism and addiction realistically as a disease to be treated without judgment? This movie is both progressive at its heart and uninterested in drawing attention to that fact, unencumbered by ego. Supporting roles by Sam Elliott as Jackson’s older brother, Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father, and Dave Chapelle as Jackson’s best friend are played without showiness or vanity.

This is the kind of story where you root for everyone, even though you know some won’t get their shit together. To a person, they’re still worth rooting for. Well, except maybe Ally’s manager (Rafi Gavron). He’s kind of a dick.

A Star Is Born in 2018 is a diamond in the rough, a gem of mainstream entertainment in a sea of superhero sewage. It would be impossible to be considered anything close to original, and among the many versions of this film that have existed over the past eight decades, there’s no way it could be considered the best of all of them. (That would indeed be the original 1937 film. Seek it out.) But, it is the best one for those of us living right now. This movie was made for us, and I left the theatre feeling gratitude for it.

Sing me something good . . .

Sing me something good . . .

Overall: A-

PUZZLE

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

You know what? I would have liked Puzzle a lot more if it didn't insist on turning the relationship between the two co-leads into a romance. Why couldn't Agnes (Kelley Macdonald) become an independent woman in the process of partnering with Robert (Irrfan Khan) in competitive puzzling without the two of them winding up in bed together?

--Oh, right. Spoiler alert! I guess I was supposed to say that before revealing that they sleep together. Rest assured that it hardly matters to the broad point of the story. And that's kind of the problem, really -- this turn of events is not integral to the plot. It's the one thing that feels a bit shoehorned in, as though some studio executive had told the script writers, "This needs a love story!"

And the thing is, it basically already has one: Agnes is a decidedly old-school, Catholic church-going housewife, whose husband Louie (David Denman) is a good guy but basically takes her for granted. She's got two loving teenage sons (Austin Abrams and Bubba Weiler) and a busy but increasingly unfulfilling domestic life.

At Agnes's birthday party where she's doing all the work as hostess, one of the gifts she's given is a jigsaw puzzle. As director Marc Turtletaub introduces us to Agnes's family at this party, Puzzle eases gently into her increasingly acute interest in puzzles. As she and Louie discuss their concerns about their sons, she's in bed reading a pamphlet on puzzling strategy. Who even knew there was such a thing?

Interested in more, similar puzzles, Agnes finds out from the gift giver where it was purchased, and she takes the train into New York City -- and at the puzzle store in Manhattan, she finds a flyer for someone "desperate" for a puzzling partner eager to get into a national competition. This is how she meets Robert, an independently wealthy divorcée riding on a patent and now with a lot of time on his hands. He's delighted to witness how quickly Agnes can put puzzles together.

Puzzle would have been a better film had the story left it at that: a middle-aged woman discovering a passion that serves as a route to independence and assertiveness. Even how this affects her relationship with her husband could have been just as effectively examined without it involving this other guy falling in love with her. That aspect of the story makes Puzzle way too much like way too many other movies.

At least no other movies are about competitive puzzling. This movie could have used more about how such competitions go down, rather than focusing on romantic confusion and sexual misguidedness.

Such as it is, though, Puzzle remains a pleasantly understated story with a dash of subtle feminism. Most importantly, the cast is as lovely as they can be, and Kelley Macdonald and Irrfan Khan make a pair with surprising chemistry. Even if the story arc itself fundamentally lacks innovation, it's nice just hanging out with them for a couple of hours.

Kelley Macdonald and Irrfan Khan pretend to think outside the box even though they don't really.

Kelley Macdonald and Irrfan Khan pretend to think outside the box even though they don't really.

Overall: B

CRAZY RICH ASIANS

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

It's astonishing that Crazy Rich Asians is the first American film with an all-Asian principal cast in 25 years. The Joy Luck Club was released in 1993; I was 17 years old, and went to see it with who would later become my sister-in-law, while my brother and his friend saw Dazed and Confused. What's even more jarring is the realization that even having been released that long ago, The Joy Luck Club is a far better film than Crazy Rich Asians.

Of course, even comparing them is unfair: just because they both had all-Asian casts doesn't make any less like comparing apples and oranges. They are two very different movies. Crazy Rich Asians has to carry a weight of cultural context that it neither needs nor desires, but here we are. If we lived in a world where lots of movies by and about people of Asian descent were made, Crazy Rich Asians would just be another throwaway comedy romance, pleasantly enjoyable and easily forgotten.

Instead, it faces acute criticism for the "diversity of Asian experience" lacking in its representation. What the hell do people expect about a movie about crazy rich people, of any ethnicity? Obviously following the stories of the obscenely rich is not going to capture any "diversity of experience." If done right, though, it can still be fun.

Some of the debate, particularly between Asian audiences themselves, can be illuminating. For Americans regularly engaged in conversations about white supremacy, it's a bit of a surprise to hear the phrase "Chinese supremacy," in the context of insisting Crazy Rich Asians is not as progressive as some want to regard it as, even if it is groundbreaking in a lot of ways. I knew nothing about apparent oppression of non-Chinese minorities there, or that South Asians are commonly relegated to service industry work and discriminated against. As someone with a spouse born in India, seeing reference to that caused me to go into this movie looking for that representation in a way I almost certainly wouldn't have otherwise. And? There is one scene in which two friends pull their car up to a huge mansion, and manning the gate are two clearly South Asian men, perhaps Sikh judging by the turbans, and they exist only as a punch line: given no lines, they startle the young women by looking imposingly into their car windows while carrying bayonets. They are, indeed, reduced to caricature.

What a curious thing to notice in a movie featuring not a single white actor with actual lines, the few seen only extras. This is how regarding what it all means that this is a truly rare movie with an all-Asian cast can be misleading. Nevertheless, there is no denying that, of course, representation matters. I felt that watching this movie, just as a gay man: the only thing I have in common with the cousin who refers to himself as "the rainbow sheep of the family" is that we're both gay men, but I still loved his inclusion -- it made me feel, at least on some level, seen.

And so it goes with many Asian audiences at Crazy Rich Asians -- more specifically, no doubt, Chinese audiences. This "crazy rich" family consists of Chinese Singaporeans. However flawed the movie is -- and to be certain, it is far from perfect -- certain people being excited by its very existence is not difficult to understand.

I have also seen the complaint that these Asians aren't particularly crazy, which is frankly a dumb observation to make. Perhaps they are not "crazy + rich Asians" so much as "crazy rich + Asians." A strangely pleasing thing about this movie, and perhaps an accomplishment of director Jon M. Chu (working from a script by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, based on the novel by Kevin Kwan), is how even though Crazy Rich Asians revels in the opulence of its characters, its presentation is never obnoxious or tacky.

It's really just more of a backdrop, for a cast of characters, whose range of dimensions vary widely, as do the performances. Which brings me to one of my own primary issues with the story. The central character is Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), the young woman who has been dating Nick Young (Henry Golding) for a year but has no idea how rich his family is, until they fly first class on their way to a friend's wedding in Singapore. How dumb is this woman? Much later in the story, a Young family elder tells her she's "clearly a very smart woman," and I just thought, Is she? And that is not a criticism of Rachel the person, but rather how she is conjured in the script. She has to be insanely naive in order for this Cinderella story to work.

And that is the story: Rachel is broadsided by Nick's wealth a year into their relationship, and then goes to Singapore to face suspicion and withheld acceptance from Nick's family. Michelle Yeoh is memorable as Eleanor, Nick's mother giving her the cold shoulder. And as much as some might claim the story is so bland it could be switched to any cast of white Americans and be rendered nothing special, that ignores contextualization. There are many details of Chinese culture and tradition, even with a fascinating infusion of Western influences: a lavish wedding party features swing dancing; a scene of trying on high-end dresses features a Chinese version of Madonna's "Material Girl.". There's a lot of blended influences here, resulting in a truly unique point of view. Granted, much of that point of view is being so filthy rich that there's not much sense of the real world, but whatever. Sometimes you take what you can get.

The best anyone can hope for, really, is that Crazy Rich Asians opens some doors, which have all been closed for, insaely, two and a half decades. It's preposterous, and yet largely true, to think such a turn of events depends on the success or failure of this one movie, which is merely a pleasantly diverting romance. It's also occasionally pretty funny, especially any time Awkwafina, who plays Rachel's college roommate and lasting friend, is onscreen. She provides much needed levity amongst the romance and understated if contrived family drama, and the movie would be much worse without her.

So would I recommend it, then? That's the question I struggle with most. Under different circumstances, based on the story alone, I would not regard Crazy Rich Asians as special enough to tell people it needs to be seen. Unfortunately, a lot is riding on this movie, thanks to the predictable shortsightedness of Hollywood dipshits. So: everyone should buy a ticket and see Crazy Rich Asians, so more, better movies featuring underrepresented communities will get made. And after that, I promise I won't ask you to see any more blandly ordinary romances. I mean, unless you're into those. In that case you'll love this movie.

I did find myself having a good time in spite of everything, after all.

Lifestyles of the Crazy Rich: Michelle Yeoh, Henry Golding and Constance Wu put on their game faces as the women pit themselves against each other.

Lifestyles of the Crazy Rich: Michelle Yeoh, Henry Golding and Constance Wu put on their game faces as the women pit themselves against each other.

Overall: B

LOVE, SIMON

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

The first line heard in Love, Simon is "I'm just like you," and, I would argue, that is a misstep. Granted, I'm a middle-aged gay man living in a world contextualized in a far different way than can safely be assumed of any of the young-adult audience this movie is clearly aimed at -- kids who, in all likelihood, don't even realize how radically different the world really is for them. Part of that extraordinary difference is the fact that, although this is a story about a gay teenager struggling with the coming-out process, that target audience includes young adults both gay and straight.

Should I say that my review is aimed more at people at minimum in their thirties, then? It may be a little unorthodox to refer to someone else's review in my own, but Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson wrote a great one, which I related to significantly -- much more so, as it happens, than I did to the movie itself. And yet, I also did not feel quite as disconnected from the film as that review left me expecting I would. Either way, I do find myself wondering how different a review might be from, say, a teen critic writing for their high school newspaper.

The cynic in me, a part of myself I have spent years trying to loosen up, wants to dismiss Love, Simon as a simple, gay fantasy. My own experiences prompt me to ask: In what world would a gay teenager have such an understanding family and such an accepting close circle of friends? Well, here's a novel idea: maybe the real world? Nowhere in Love, Simon is it suggested that all gay kids in 2018 America have the same kind of experience -- only that we do finally live in a world where some of them do, and that does not make their stories any less worth telling. Also: it's not for nothing that the world see even clearly privileged kids with wonderful parents struggle with the uncertainty of coming out.

I don't really subscribe to the criticism that Simon is problematically presented as "straight acting" -- director Greg Berlanti gives no indication that we're to assume all gay kids are like Simon; only that they do exist. This movie still shows us the slightly more stereotypical sort in the one other openly gay kid at Simon's school (Clark Moore, surprisingly subtle, all things considered), who is more effeminate and always at the ready with one-liner retorts. He is also far more self-assured than Simon is. In any case, here we see both ends of the spectrum.

Still, my opening statement still stands: Simon immediately telling us "I'm just like you" serves only to muddle all these points. The set-up is by far the most contrive part of Love, Simon, and comparisons of his family's home to the upper-middle-class home sets of Nancy Meyers movies are apt. I heard that phrase "I'm just like you" and immediately thought, Uh, no you're not. And here my response is quite realistically similar even to that of many kids a third my age -- plenty of kids grow up in families poor enough that their economic problems far overshadow social anxieties, or in families that closer resemble that of the TV show Roseanne (or, to update that to the 21st century, One Day at a Time) than that of Simon.

Simon's little sister (Talitha Bateman, just as adorable as this movie asks for) is an aspiring chef, regularly cooking elaborate meals for the entire family. This is just the most obvious of several things about Simon's family which, if not entirely ringing false, comes across as at least slightly off from realistic. 

And a lot of this set-up in the beginning is presented through countless awkward interactions. I don't do awkward very well: for about the first half-hour, I was squirming in my seat and averting my eyes from the screen more than I do at horror movies.

And then: somehow, Love, Simon coalesces, and proves surprisingly affecting. Suffice it to say that I was touched by it enough to cry several times, and if you're someone who would be interested in this movie to begin with, it would be wise to bring tissues. I may have wept at Simon's parents saying all the right things to him, but it was because I was so happy any gay kid could be so lucky -- it did not have the twinge of bittersweet wistfulness (something I feel regularly about the gay kids who have it better than I did) that I really expected.

Even better, Nick Robinson is well cast as the handsome semi-schlub who is the title character. The casting of his circle of friends barely falls short of feeling self-consciously diverse, but the performances all around make them feel authentic. I have been saying for decades that kids are smarter than adults tend to give them credit for, but I only just discovered they are also more sophisticated than I gave them credit for. The activist kids today working for gun control prove that much, if nothing else. None of that stuff comes into play in Love, Simon, but the real world currently shows us that, like the kids in this movie, kids are on average a lot more worldly than they used to be.

Nick Robinson is 22 years old, by the way -- and here he's playing 17. Funny, back in 2013's lovely The Kings of Summer he was eighteen, playing 15. I guess he's had a young face for a while. This kind of casting is often complained about, but it's only a problem if the actors' age is obvious. Robinson very much looks the part of a high schooler, and he plays one with true depth of understanding.

We are treated with Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel as Simon's doting parents devoid of judgment, and even if they are not likely "just like yours," they certainly fit the parts perfectly in Simon's world. The great thing about Love, Simon is how little noteworthy is its very existence -- another gay story devoid of what used to be obligatory tragedy. Boring is better than tragic, and although Simon's life is not all that exciting, his story is neither tragic or boring. Any story can be compelling if told the right way, and once both Simon and Love, Simon get past their awkward missteps, this story is as compelling as any -- perhaps for different reasons, but for audiences older and younger alike.

love, simon.jpg

Overall: B+

A GHOST STORY

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

 

To give you a sense of what sitting through A Ghost Story is like, you might want to be warned that, a little over 20 minutes into the film, you're going to watch a grieving widow (Rooney Mara), still reeling from the death of her beloved (Casey Affleck), eat an entire pie. Or at least, most of a pie. Her realtor has dropped it off, as people attempting to comfort the bereaved are wont to do. But this scene is done in only two takes, both of them very long. I couldn't tell you how many minutes, except that it is by far the longest shot in the film. It goes on and on. And with no cuts -- writer-director David Lowery reportedly shot it in one take -- we see Rooney Mara stuffing her face, and swallowing, bite after bite.

Apparently critics are divided and Sundance audiences talked a great deal about it; I'm conflicted about it myself. Although it's the longest shot in the film, it's far from the only shot that seems to go on far longer than necessary, and it was during this shot that I was truly pulled out of the movie. I stopped thinking about the characters and couldn't help but think about the production. What was the conversation like?

"You're going to eat an entire pie on camera."

"An entire pie?"

"An entire pie, yes."

I guess I feel better knowing it was only done in one take. I found myself wondering how many takes they did it in while I was watching. Because this movie has a great many scenes, especially in its first half, that go on so long that your mind naturally wanders. This doesn't seem like the greatest reflection of a film, that it takes "cinema as art" so much more seriously than "cinema as entertainment" that it seriously tests patience. Then again, there's something to be said for longer attention spans.

And there is certainly context here: the dead boyfriend exists through the entire film -- and through the vast expanse of time -- as a ghost, and one who is forced to endure the tedium of eternity. This movie is all of 92 minutes long, and its first half feels like an eternity. It presents a very well-constructed portrait of existential questions, none stated explicitly but all very effectively felt.

And then there is the ghost itself, yet another thing that takes a while to get past. Clearly it's a pointed and very deliberate decision to make the ghost a sheet with two eye holes, the most old-school, cliche presentation of a ghost there's ever been. The way he appears thus is relatively clever: the body, covered in a sheet on a slab, suddenly sits up -- and takes the sheet with it. Cut to the ghost standing in a hallway, and for no discernible reason, there are dark eye holes. Is it dumb? Funny? A statement? All of the above?

The ghost is presented with what seems to be a portal through one of the hospital walls, and he makes a decision. He walks home. And there he stays, pining for his love lost, helpless as she, and the world, moves on and he cannot. After a while watching this film it occurred to me that it might well qualify for academic study. Once you get past its challenges -- and that takes some effort -- the story haunts, and lingers in the mind well after the story is over.

A Ghost Story even brings things full circle in a uniquely satisfying way. It still lingers too long on too many shots even as this happens, but at least in its second half, far more compelling events begin to take place, as the ghost, holding onto this location, observes -- and occasionally interferes with -- successive inhabitants of the house.

It could be said that this movie transcends genre. "Drama" is perhaps the best choice, only for lack of a better word. "Horror" could apply, although it's much more of a horror from the ghost's perspective, and even then it's from an angle of existentialism rather than straightforward fear. That said, there were at least two moments in the film that scared the shit out of me.

In any case, eventually, A Ghost Story very much won me over. The challenge is in getting to that point, where the movie even has that ability. The director himself has spoken in interviews about how that pie scene might go on so long that people give up and walk out. I never walk out of movies, but that scene alone had me convinced I was going to pan the movie, especially considering how many other scenes go on too long with literally nothing actually happening. Nothing, of course, except for the ghost standing and observing, ever so slowly becoming aware of his own helplessness.

It'll work for some people and won't work at all for others. It didn't work for me at all, until it very much did.

Overall: B

MAUDIE


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

If you know little about art, like me, then perhaps you have never heard of Maud Lewis, a woman famous for her folk art paintings until he death in Nova Scotia in 1970. You thus also perhaps did not know that Maudie, starring Sally Hawkins as Maud and Ethan Hawke as her husband, Everett Lewis, was based on their story.

It's a story that covers a lot of years, starting from the time Maud left the care of her cold aunt and selfish brother to answer an ad for a live-in housekeeper. She was in her mid-thirties; Everett was forty. He lived in a one-room house outside of town and felt he needed help with housework -- which, eventually, he wound up tending to himself while Maud spent her time painting.

These two had their own clear sets of challenges. Maud lived with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which caused her to hunch over and have some difficulty both walking and holding paint brushes. But not only did she manage, but one would be loathe to say she "suffered" from this condition -- indeed, Maud is a woman who easily appreciates the simplest pleasures of life. She loves a window. When she explains why to the woman who starts commissioning paintings from her (a lovely Kari Matchett), it's almost eye-opening. It makes sense.

Everett, for his part, is almost cripplingly emotionally repressed, if not of below average intelligence. He doesn't quite know how to deal with Maud at first, and is briefly violent. For a woman in the late thirties and forties, Maud proves surprisingly assertive. She finds way to stand her ground. These two never quite seem to know how to talk to each other, but a love grows between them over the years that is very sweet.

Maud paints for pleasure, and at first she starts with charming little illustrations on the walls of her and Everett's tiny little house. Eventually her paintings get noticed, and even start making money. Over time, this is a slight complication in a relationship between two simple people who are living an otherwise very simple life together.

And it all unfolds with a quiet confidence thanks to director Aisling Walsh and writer Sherry White, who tell us this story in an unassuming yet completely absorbing way. And Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke each give stellar performances, which on their own turn Maudie a film that demands attention. We follow them over the course of decades, and yet it never feels rushed -- a rare achievement in film. By the end, after we've seen them spend a life together and then contend with endings, it does turn into a bit of a tear jerker. If you're looking for a good cry, you could do worse than this.

Maud and Everett are two very different people who found each other by chance, one's effortless charm slowly eroding the other's obstinately hardened exterior. You'll fall in love with both of them.

Sally Hawkins shines as MAUDIE.

Overall: A-



[Archive of older A-grade movies on LiveJournal]