In Case You Missed It – October 2018

In 2017, the now twenty-two-year-old Timothée Chalamet had about one of the best breakout years for an actor of his age. Not only did he act opposite Christian Bale in the western drama Hostiles, but he had significant roles in not one, but two Best Picture nominees in Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name, the latter of which he was also nominated for Best Actor, making him the third-youngest all-time in that category. Needless to say, he’s been on numerous 25 Under 25 Lists or whatever those click-bait writers like to call it, as expectations are high for him in the coming years. And while I don’t think he reaches quite those same peaks with Beautiful Boy, he is believable nonetheless acting against an equally incomparable Steve Carell. Warning, this is not the feel-good film of the year, far from it, but is a story worth telling regardless. Narratively speaking, it’s a bit repetitive, and Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen doesn’t do a whole lot to complement the actors in any perceivable way, but it remains such a hard-hitting and emotional experience that even the missed opportunities pale in comparison to its strengths.

Based on a true story, Beautiful Boy tells the plight of father and son David (Steve Carell) and Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet), when the latter develops an addiction to crystal meth. Right when Nic should be going off to college and making a life for himself, his priorities are twisted askew to favor the drug at all times, thus robbing him of his identity and aspirations. Upon discovering this, David does all he can to make sure Nic is getting the treatment he needs, sending him to therapy and putting him up at a halfway house if it means putting him back on track and ultimately saving his life. However, Nic continually finds his way around these barriers by any means necessary if it means getting his fix. Having to raise Nic’s younger siblings in the process of all this, David will have to decide if continuing to fight for his son in the face of insurmountable odds is worth sacrificing the emotional and mental well-being of the family living under his roof.

Yeah, there’s no way to sugarcoat this one; this is a hard watch, only worsened by the fact that this kind of story isn’t limited to just the Sheffs. This happens everywhere. But that’s why they call it a cautionary tale, one that ultimately serves more of a purpose than to simply entertain. So that makes the heartache it puts the audience through well worth it. That said, it could have been much better, particularly in the technical department. Now, I know what you’re thinking: this isn’t Transformers, it doesn’t need to be fancy. Yes, true, but, seeing how completely a hands-off approach Van Groeningen has on the material, it could have benefited from more of an identity. Upon seeing the finished product, I couldn’t help but imagine what it would have been like with someone like Jean-Marc Vallée behind the camera, he having done such critical hits as Dallas Buyers Club and Wild. Case in point, in those two films, he was able to accentuate the trials and anguish the characters were going through and in turn amplify the performances of its leads. Beautiful Boy is simply too flat to really enthrall, and could have used a more cathartic ending to make it feel more like a narrative feature. But let it not be said it’s a bad movie, as Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet milk the material for all its worth, truly making you feel for their conflicts. Seeing as the overall quality of the picture ups your chances, I don’t anticipate Oscar nominations in either of their futures, but expect them to at least be in the conversation up until January.

Final Score: 7/10

There’s something about question marks in movie titles that just doesn’t jibe with me. And it could probably be simplified to the fact that the title of something shouldn’t also be a complete sentence. But that doesn’t take away from the quality of the film itself, giving us such classics as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The same can’t be said for movies this century, however, us getting the likes of Dude, Where’s My Car?, Are We There Yet?, Are We Done Yet?, and Did You Hear About the Morgans?. Well, here’s hoping this trend – which it isn’t – gets turned around with Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which appropriately can be forgiven of its choice in punctuation seeing as it bears the same title as the memoir it’s based on. Anyway, stupid stuff aside, it’s pretty solid. If there’s anyone out there still doubting Melissa McCarthy’s acting chops after a string of lamer and lamer comedies including 2018’s Life of the Party and The Happytime Murders, the jig is up, because she’s never been better. Sure, she gets to flex her familiar comedic muscles here too as she embodies a very idiosyncratic person, but she is so good at garnering audience sympathy for a character that is largely antagonistic and fundamentally flawed. And seeing as it’s basically her show to run, the movie thrives as a result.

Taking place in the early 1990s, Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is a drunken has-been, largely ostracized from the writing community due to her coarse disposition and general misanthropy. Struggling to pay the bills and take care of her sick cat, she resorts to selling a personal letter she received from Katharine Hepburn for quick cash. By chance and while researching Fanny Brice for a biography even her publishers aren’t interested in, she comes across a letter written by Brice herself. Unable to get the price she wants for it, Israel spices it up with a postscript. Now finding a niche business opportunity, she proceeds to forge letter after letter under the guise of prominent writers, turning a major profit. Her situation however becomes more and more precarious as she takes on her friend Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), who is always interested in making a quick buck, and some of the purists she is selling to begin to suspect the letters’ authenticity. While finding a second life with her writing, Israel faces potential punitive measures, leaving her to question if this venture of hers has been worth the risk.

This has Oscar nomination written all over it for McCarthy, who will be garnering her second all-time after her breakout turn in 2011’s Bridesmaids. Does she stand a chance to win? Doubtful, but if subsets of the Academy voters get split on the likes of Glenn Close in The Wife and Lady Gaga in A Star is Born, I’d definitely give her dark horse potential. But she’s not the only one who’s going to be getting recognition, as Grant has very good odds at getting a nod himself, the Best Supporting Actor race a bit thinner than it usually is. Again, I don’t think he’s the frontrunner, as I’m pretty sure Mahershala Ali is lined up to win his second in three years with his performance in Green Book, but like Sam Elliott in A Star is Born, his legacy nomination will be sure to keep him in contention as a dark horse as well. Scribes Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty should pick up a Best Adapted Screenplay nod as well; as to their chances to win, I’m not even going to touch that one, the category being so difficult to predict. Lastly, Can You Ever Forgive Me? could make a run for a Best Picture spot, though it stands no chance at winning. Which I may technically agree with, but that doesn’t take away from the film’s engaging delve into one of literary history’s most interesting outcasts.

Final Score: 8/10

Some people go to the movies for a jaunty, undemanding good time, and that’s why bad movies like A Dog’s Purpose exist. Other times though you’ll be morally and intellectually challenged, likely in response to some cultural awakenings, and you end up with something like The Hate U Give, a relatively good movie. In this case, their cause stems from the Black Lives Matter movement, and is based on a young adult novel of the same name by Angie Thomas. And sometimes its weaker moments manifest from the similar trappings of that aforementioned genre, particularly in the form of teen angst, but this happens to be the case of a film’s thematic richness and general earnestness outshining its narrative shortcomings. Not to mention it’s backed up by a capable cast led by perennial young-adult film star Amandla Stenberg – following her roles in The Hunger Games, Everything, Everythingand The Darkest Minds – who are enough to make up for minor contrivances in character and dialogue.

In The Hate U Give, sixteen-year-old Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) is a girl torn between her life in her largely black neighborhood of Garden Heights and her private schooling at the affluent, more white-centric Williamson Prep, and her struggle to keep one from influencing the other. Further complications arise when after absconding from a party gone wrong, she and her friend Khalil (Algee Smith) are stopped by a white police officer, who proceeds to open fire on Khalil after mistaking a hairbrush for a weapon, killing him. The town soon erupts into racial and police protests following the wrongful death of one of their youths, putting Starr, the lone witness, as the center of it all. Struggling to maintain her dual identities and do justice to Khalil, Starr will have to decide for herself who she wants to be if she’s ever able to find her voice and speak out.

This was a rollercoaster of a film for me, for many reasons, plenty of which I’d imagine are just about obvious. Not to go too deep into the sociological and racial themes of this movie – one could practically write a whole dissertation on the thing – it does however feel its length, clocking in at 133 minutes. Granted, it’s taking on very complicated subject matter, much of which demands proper elaboration, but with such an attention to its dynamic setting and cast of characters, it probably could have afforded to drop a subplot or two. Having said that, I’d be interested to read the novelization of this story, as I’m pretty positive it’s pulling most of the weight, there being some imperfections or other in just about every facet of the production, namely in the direction of George Tillman Jr., who I don’t believe has the finesse to really pull off such a sprawling narrative that’s bordering on being an epic. Still, where the film really goes right is in its powerhouse scenes, the ones whereby the whole shebang would either be made or broken. In short, the emotional cruxes of the story hit hard enough to deliver its message home, and the pathos behind its leading cast, particularly Stenberg, are more than up to the task. 2018 has seen quite the few films depicting wrongful shootings of unarmed black men, between this, Blindspotting and Monsters and Men – the latter of which I have not seen – and though while The Hate U Give isn’t the most rock-solid of the bunch, it’s still important filmmaking in its own right and is worth a watch, assuming you’re also up to the task.

Final Score: 7/10

We don’t really get submarine thrillers anymore. If we ever really did, that is. But when we do get ’em, they’re usually pretty good, like The Hunt for Red October or Crimson Tide. Or more recently, Black Sea. Unfortunately, Hunter Killer falls into the other camp, ergo the Phantom camp. And before I name any more submarine movies no one has heard of, let’s just get into the one at hand. Like Red OctoberHunter Killer has a book to back it up, but while I can’t comment much further on that front, it would seem that its translation to the silver screen has hit some more than choppy waters. It has an admittedly intriguing first act, clearly hoping to craft a narrative whereby some contemporary, diplomatic tensions be solved, but as it devolves more and more into a Die Hard-esque action romp where logic and reality are distant relatives, more and more does that narrative become contrived and wishful.

In Hunter Killer, both a US and a Russian sub are mysteriously sunk, leading both nations to question the other’s involvement. Rear Admiral John Fisk (Common) assigns newly appointed Commander Joe Glass (Gerard Butler) to helm the USS Arkansas and investigate the loss of contact. Upon realizing that the explosion that sunk the Russian vessel detonated from the inside, the Americans are able to rescue a few survivors, including Captain Sergei Andropov (Michael Nyqvist). Meanwhile, a Navy SEAL team infiltrates the Russian mainland and, during a covert operation, witnesses the Russian President Nikolai Zakarin (Alexander Diachenko) get usurped by his Defense Minister Dmitri Durov (Mikhail Gorevoy), who aims to start a global war in a play for power. Begrudgingly, the SEALs must rescue their rival and work with the nearby Arkansas as a means of escape to prevent that from happening. Amidst all the confusion, Glass and Andropov, among others, must take a leap of faith and trust their enemies if they are to come together and defeat this greater threat.

I really like submarine movies. There’s something about the close-quarters and treacherous location that lends itself so well to creating natural tension. And the best scenes of Hunter Killer are indeed the ones that take place on the sub. But, then the movie realizes that it’s about thirty years behind the curve and opts to become a big, dumb, balls-out 80s action flick, laying the scenes above the surface with so much jingoistic bravado and cheese that I should have brought nachos to the theater with me. Even so, there is an audience for that, and I doubt anybody will go into it expecting anything else. That said, it is played completely straight and without any sense of self-awareness, making many of its themes come across half-baked and basically naïve. Yeah it has the cast to back it up, and features one of the last high-profile roles for the late, great Michael Nyqvist, but even they seem to realize they’re in a rote, ordinary action-thriller and thus phone it all in. But who can blame them?

Final Score: 3/10

If any of you read my Indie Digests, you might remember a film from a couple months ago by the name of Skate Kitchen, a coming-of-age story about a group of teenage girl skateboarders in New York City who learn what it means to remain friends in the face of external influences, and how I commented that you don’t really see a whole lot of skateboarding movies these days. Well, turns out I spoke too soon, as this month we’re treated to Mid90s, a coming-of-age story about a group of teenage boy skateboarders in Los Angeles who learn what it means to remain friends in the face of external influences. Similar plots aside, these are both pretty great films but also technically distinct, as it would be short-sided to simply refer to this as the male version of that. Coming from veteran comedic actor Jonah Hill in his screenwriting and directorial debut, and heavily inspired by his own upbringing around the same time, Mid90s is quite the finely tuned indie project. Even at only 84 minutes, never does it feel like a scene or plot point was left out or extraneous. In short, it’s so perfectly edited and compact that it doesn’t overstay its welcome but still somehow manages to feel large in scope and deep in theme. Granted, that’s essentially the aim for any narrative feature, but few actually achieve that kind of perfection. Having said that, it’s the quintet of young debuting (for the most part) actors that provide the soul of the film. Seriously, to have this much untrained talent take on so much of the heavily lifting is astonishing. All in all, this is a near perfect movie, and those who may dismiss it as nothing more than an exercise in nostalgia are missing the bigger picture.

Taking place in the Mid 90s, Mid90s centers on thirteen-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic), who aims to gain the respect of his abusive older brother Ian (Lucas Hedges) by befriending those he likens him most to, namely a group of older skateboarders by the names of Ruben (Gio Galicia), Ray (Na-kel Smith), Fuckshit (Olan Prenatt), and Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin). Though the boys largely view Stevie as little more than an ill-experienced, spongy tot, he eventually falls into their greater graces by taking risks and embodying a tough-guy attitude. This also creates a rift in the previously established dynamic of the group, as longtime friends begin to question one another’s ideals. As Stevie begins to realize his brother isn’t the pinnacle of idolization he previously thought, and continues to defy his mother Dabney’s (Katherine Waterston) anxieties toward his behavior, he must further rectify the broken friendships he may have had a hand in fracturing.

Seems like these days there are more actors-turned-directors than plain old directors, and you can go ahead and add Jonah Hill to that growing list of those that succeeded in making the transition. It’s a pretty restrained effort on his part, but where his work really shines is in his writing. It’s incredible just to note how fleshed out all five of these boys are, and that though they all engage in the same activities and talk similarly, they all feel like their own people and distinct from one another, when it could have been so easy to simply slap them with archetypes. And it doesn’t hurt that not a single one of them seems outmatched by the material, and not for a second come off as amateurs, which technically speaking they are. While Suljic shines in the leading role, following his big-budget debut in last month’s The House in the Clock in Its Walls, the biggest surprise comes in the form of Na-kel Smith, who is brilliant in the role of the group’s leader and premier skateboarder. He more than anyone is tasked with conveying a range of emotions, Ray being the most complicated supporting character, and he certainly rises to the challenge with an understated tenacity. If I had to single out just one of these fresh actors to continue their new craft, it’d have to be Smith, who may just be a star in the making. While it likely won’t be for too much longer, Mid90s has found itself in the Top 10 of my favorite movies of the year, and is right there with Eighth Grade for the best coming-of-age offering of 2018.

Final Score: 9/10

I guess when we live in a world where someone as prolific as Gus Van Sant can do a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho and call it art, nothing is sacred in the realm of horror. I bring this up because we’re being treated to a remake of a 1977 Italian film known as Suspiria, which is often cited as being one of the most influential horror movies of all time. Well, technically this isn’t a remake, as it’s being described as an “homage” by the filmmakers, an homage that runs a full 152 minutes when the original was only 98, but hey, whatever. I can’t exactly speak to the matter, having not seen the latter – whoops, didn’t mean to rhyme there – but, taken on its own, this new-look Suspiria is fairly good. Granted, this is not one of those movies that just anyone can wander into and enjoy themselves, and one I wouldn’t even recommend if you weren’t already a film nerd. It’s pretty heady and arthouse-esque, so much so that it often muddles whatever kind of point or themes they were trying to get across. Still, I’m a firm believer that Luca Guadagnino is too good a director to screw this up, his Call Me By Your Name – there’s that one again – being one of my favorite films of last year. The cinematography, the editing, the score, the acting – particularly from Tilda Swinton – all things to be marveled at. And if you’re turned off by it running long, seeing it in a darkened theater with no semblance of time, it certainly doesn’t feel it. Long, that is. Instead, this is one of those slow burns that you’re gonna want to analyze during and after the screening. It could be that I’m a little too stupid to appreciate all the nebulous themes, but for what’s it worth I still enjoyed this bonkers movie.

Set in 1977, Suspiria picks up with American youngster Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) moving to West Berlin to fulfill her dream of studying at the Markos Dance Academy underneath her idol Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). After giving a riveting audition, she is promptly accepted, and when some of her cohorts drop the ball, she is quick to assume the lead protagonist role in the upcoming production. Meanwhile, psychotherapist Dr. Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton) has begun investigating the academy after one of his patients and one of their dancers Patricia (Chloë Grace Moretz) goes missing, shortly after informing Klemperer that the women running the academy is secretly a coven of witches. Catching wind of Klemperer’s inquiries is Susie’s newest friend Sara (Mia Goth), who begins to suspect the same when more and more strange occurrences befall the dancers. As Susie quickly rises through the ranks as Blanc and the other Mothers’ favorite pupil, it’s up to Sara and Klemperer to convince her of the dark dealings going on, and how she might fit into all of them.

Assuming you don’t just gloss over the synopsis section, you might be guessing I’d goofed by including Tilda Swinton’s name twice in there, but nope, she plays both parts. In fact, she plays three, the third coming into the fray in the finale and isn’t worth spoiling here. While Blanc remains the character she’s most recognizable in, it’s her work as Klemperer that really adds a layer of nuance to her work done in the film. Not to mention layer upon layer of makeup, Klemperer being a frail old man. In fact, she went so method that she was even provided prosthetic male genitalia for her to wear underneath her costumes, in addition to the one nude scene the character underwent. While her performance is understated and stunning, I almost wish I would have found out it was her after having seen it, else I not overanalyze it like I did. I realize this makes me a hypocrite for passing on the information, but I couldn’t not comment on it and offer praise for her performance. Aside from that, this is Guadagnino’s movie from start to finish. So often does the camerawork try to lure you in to this world of  madness and intrigue, often executing slow zoom in and zoom outs to the point that it’s almost obvious. Obvious, but effective. As for the horror elements of this film, Suspiria is straight up nuts. They make sure to save the fireworks for the finale, but they do not skimp on the stuff that’s gonna make you squirm in your seat and pluck out your eyeballs. It’s horror to the max in such a way that it instantly reminds me of a movie called Starry Eyes. While most have likely never heard of it, it’s definitely crazy and worth checking out if you can track it down, as is this.

Final Score: 7/10

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